teaching teachers technology

Say that ten times fast. In the fall I’m teaching a graduate course that’s intended to prepare students for using technology in the high school English classroom. I’ve taught it before, but it’s always been quite a stretch. I know the tech. I understand pedagogy in higher education, and I can discuss the relationship between new media and English Studies. However, I know virtually nothing about secondary education. It’s not my field, and it’s just one more thing I don’t have time for. Thankfully, this semester I’ll be team-teaching with my colleague, Karen Stearns (who recently defended her dissertation at Syracuse–congrats Karen!). English Education is her speciality, and she has a real passion and interest in technology. I think we’ll make a good team.

That said, I will admit to struggling with the definition and purpose of English Education. Fortunately, it is not my field and so I usually limit myself to stuggling with the definition and purpose of Professional Writing. But thinking about this course has put me in this frame of mind (as has the Lanham book).

It seems to me that one of the questions of English Education is whether one prepares prospective teachers for institutions as they currently are or as they might be, should be, or will be. Arguments to do the former give you the following:

  • high schools teach New Critical approaches so we should focus on that
  • high schools drill grammar for test prep so we should do that
  • few high schools have much technology, so technology is a secondary concern

I could keep going, but you get the idea. Essentially, preparation for high schools as they currently are is an argument for the status quo. Obviously it is also an ideological argument. I have no idea what "high schools" are like. I’m not sure how such claims are established or verified. To me, they are more political arguments than anything else.

On the other hand, preparing students for an imagined, predicted, or idealized institution has its problems as well. Clearly students need to be successful in the real material contexts they will face as teachers; they also have to negotiate the ideological terrain of institutional politics.

It would strike me that students need a critical understanding of the ideological function of education. They need to recognize how schools hail and manage subjects, how literacy instruction serves class interests, and so on. They need to understand, despite popular narratives, that schools are not instruments of revolutionary social change; they are tools of managed social growth.

In this context, they can learn New Criticism and grammar and classroom management strategies as elements of how institutions serve their ideological function.

They can also learn rhetorical strategies for negotiating these institutional spaces. From my perspective, there is a clear division between pedagogy and the ideological capture of teaching within schools. Let me note that I do not see the former as more free or as revolutionary or subversive. It is simply a matter that I see pedagogy as a material event, an activity involving bodies, information, and technologies, while the latter is the (partial) apprehension of that event against an ideological (lesson) plan(e).

Unfortunately, this is what makes English Education (from my perspective) such an immense curricular challenge. Not only do you need to understand the materiality of language, its rhetoricity, its cultural history, its ideological valences, and so on. One also must address pedagogy: a theory of cognition, of consciousness, and learning.

Of course, such matters have long been the concern of rhetoric, even if others disciplines have come along to claim various slices as their focus. Rhetoric and pedagogy are quite inseparable. And it gives us these lessons (among others) via Lanham.

  1. Lanham teaches us the value of toggling between looking through and looking at.The type of education I’ve been advocating here is the "looking at" variety. One must understand the audiences and rhetorical-cum-ideological purposes of teaching, along with the strategies and figures used to acheive these purposes.
  2. Curriculum is an attention structure that can be designed for multiple rhetorical purposes. Perhaps high schools do teach close reading and descriptive grammar. However, one can also teach students to look at these structures, to give a voice to the disdain and suspicion they rightly feel for their education.
  3. High schools are obviously starting to feel the heat of technology. Educators and politicians have reacted by squeezing their grip more tightly. Brilliant. No really, that’s exactly what they should do…because preaching technological abstinence will work far better than telling kids not to have sex, try drugs, or listen to that god-awful racket they call music! But it doesn’t really matter if the high schools our students end up in have technology or not. It doesn’t matter if the students are on the wrong end of the digital divide at home. Regardless of local technological conditions, our economy and politics, our entire culture, are going digital. I would suggest that secondary teachers face an ethical imperative to address this fact. But then again, I would suggest the same of postsecondary teachers.

Bottom line regarding this class I’ll be teaching. It’s nice to teach students the tools of new media production. It feels practical, but it really isn’t. The tools will be totally different in three years. Learning the tools might do three things, in increasing order of importance:

  • Provide a starting point to keep running and staying current if they choose;
  • Give students the confidence with technology to learn on their own down the road;
  • Help students recognize that new media really does mean thinking about and practicing communication in a significantly different way than print culture that will affect nearly every profession

Of course this last one is crucial for a generation of teachers who will lead us from a discipline founded in print to one mixed with emerging technology.

7 thoughts on “teaching teachers technology

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  1. Alex, I agree with all that you say here and share your interest in the dilemma of what should we teach as you present it. That’s why we make a good team. Thank you for affirming that.
    And I believe w/you that teaching students the tools of new media construction is essential because we need to change the conversation here on campus in order to support our teacher candidates in interrupting the conversation out in the schools.
    We’ve got to problematize what Ted Sizer(a guy who traces the plight of Horace, a h.s. Eng. teacher, through 3 highly influential books starting with “Horace’s Compromise” in the mid-80’s) calls the “what is” in schools, a place “where nothing happens.”
    I say bring it on…yesterday. KES
    P.S. It’s very interesting to me that your post is in many ways a complement to the discussion I take up in my dissertation, “On the Edge: English Teachers Revising a Profession.”

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  2. Thanks Karen. BTW, I had a recent spat of trackback spam, so I had to stop comments and trackbacks from appearing automatically.
    I am a little familiar with Sizer’s work. There’s an excerpt of his in Reading Culture (a composition reader) that I’ve used in the past. The whole idea of “essential schools”is a compelling one, if only for the way it illuminates the status quo in contrast.
    I would add that Horace’s Compromise is also our compromise in higher education. Our students come to us with this expectation of a student-teacher relationship: “I don’t demand anything from you and you don’t demand anything of me.”
    The problem with this in college is that the structure of postsecondary education makes it essential that students take primary responsibility for their own education. As we know, the learning that takes place in the presence of faculty is just the tip of the iceberg (or at least it should be).
    However, students increasingly have this expectation of having their hands held through the educational process. I must be getting old b/c I’m starting to have thoughts like “when I was in college, blah blah blah.” But my experience was quite different. Faculty would say “Read these books. They relate to the lectures. We won’t discuss them much in class, but you will be tested on them.” Or they might say, “Here’s a paper assignment. We won’t discuss it. I won’t remind you about it. I won’t tell you how to write it. I won’t be looking at any drafts or giving you any feedback. Just write it.”
    Now I’m not saying that these are the best pedagogical practices, but they do communicate the point that education falls into the lap of the student.
    To the contrary, the contemporary college responds by educating the “whole student,” by creating an institutional presence in every possible aspect of student life and learning.
    It may seem obvious that teaching means telling someone how to do something or what something means, but we know that learning often means figuring out how to do something, unraveling the meaning of something on your own.
    This is certainly the case with learning new media. I’ve done this for 10 years. Some guided instruction, of the variety you get following steps in a how-to text, is moderately useful. It helps you get confidence and introduces you to the basic features/functions. It gets you 10-20% of the way. The rest is just sitting and playing with an application. As a teacher, I can be there to help folks when they get stuck or really frustrated, but otherwise, they must figure out how to do this for themselves. That’s not me being lazy. To the contrary, it often takes tremendous restraint. My first impluse is often to snatch the mouse out a student’s hand and solve a problem myself. (And sometimes I still do that after a certain point, but it’s far from ideal.)

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  3. Yes, all true Alex. My whole career as a public schoolteacher and college/university part-timer and then full-timer has been about this ownership thing…and it’s been a rough road.
    Students are socialized to see learning one way–and I am intellectually “built” to see it another.
    In an interesting conversation w/my brother the other night he talked about what World Vision (http://www.worldvision.org) has learned from 50 years of research into humanitarian aid programs around the world. That is that when you give people things “you” don’t transform “their” lives. Only when you listen to what they need and try to help them achieve it is there real change.
    World Vision still provides disaster relief of course but primarily they are now a development organization.
    He was comparing this research with the argument I make in the dissertation about students’ owning learning and what that looks like in the classrooms I visited and in the teachers’ philosophies/practices I profile.
    What you say here about the demands learning new technologies places on students is true of my experience in 307. A number of students found the course onerous and “confusing” because they were responsibile for the kind of play you describe. They could not learn to use new technologies like they could “study” for a test or write a paper.
    They complained of spending “hours” trying to do this or that and no matter how much I affirmed the appropriateness of their experience, the necessity of it even, they saw it as somehow, I think, my fault that this kind of learning is not linear and not learning someone else can “tell” you how to do beyond a certain point.
    What comes to mind when I read your post is the British U system which may be much changed since my experience of it but certainly at its most competitive sites has always been about the student’s taking ownership over his/her own learning.
    I think our system has become increasingly paternalistic–as you suggest–and students infantilized in the process. Seems that college today is all about managing students not educating them and there is a whole bureaucracy that has grown up — a bloated bureaucracy — responsible for doing just that. None of that existed when I was in college in the 60’s.
    The rise of “student services” is quite a fascinating development in higher ed. That one now gets a Ph.D. in it is even more interesting to me. What can I say!? KES

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  4. “However, students increasingly have this expectation of having their hands held through the educational process.”
    24-hour email — wonderful hand-holding technology, isn’t it? I find it useful to think about how limited the usage of computers were circa the early 1990’s in that regard. I think it’s a major factor underlying the shift.
    And, Karen, couldn’t agree more with each of your observations. To think, the British system produced the likes of James Britton, Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton — I often have doubts that American higher education in its current configurations — and grad education, particularly, with all of its specializations — would ever produce the likes of them.

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  5. Your initial concerns about this course for preservice HS teachers
    reminded me of an event that took place in a two week workshop
    (for HS teachers and their students) that I ran at Michigan
    Technological U. for 6 years. (some of the materials, planning, and
    processes might still be available online at http://www.hu.mtu.edu/ecac
    (Electronic Communication Across the Curriculum).
    I asked some really motivated, experienced, and talented teachers
    from rural Michigan if they wanted to focus our work on the current trends
    and (test-driven) needs in their schools. They
    rejected the idea out of hand! First, they claimed that all
    teachers would learn that material whether they wanted to
    or not. They wanted to experiment with media development in
    the context or real (rhetorical) learning experiences. So I think
    your inclinations are right on. I would suggest, if it is at all
    possible, to involve appropriate aged students (either virtually or f2f)
    in the learning of technologies and the development of
    lessons, activities, or curricula during the class. It changes
    everything about the experience for the training teachers and
    is a curiously appropriate way of integrating a version of
    usability testing into a teacher’s planning process.

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  6. Thanks Dicke, including HS students would be an interesting component. My colleague, Karen Stearns, has had her students in the undergrad version of this course take some field trips to see this in action. In the grad version we’ll be teaching in the fall, we often have a mix of preservice teachers seeking MATs with provisionally certified HS teachers seekingt the Master’s necessary for full certification in NY. That means we might be able to draw on the students our students are teaching.
    I’m not sure if that’s the best idea or if it would be better to find some other external group.
    Either way, seeing how actual HS students respond to what we are doing would be an educational experience for us all I think.

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  7. This sounds like quite a challenge, one that, as a fellow educator, I have to admit I don’t envy! I absolutely do agree with you that English Education is a huge curriculum challenge. I’m not a big fan of maintaining the status quo myself, not with the way the world has changed so drastically between technology and globalization.

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