It seems to the outside eye that this community, like a lot of communities that are affluent and ambitious, parents are incredibly involved in their kids. You came from a very different place, and I was wondering what you've noticed.
Yeah, I taught in a high school in North Carolina, outside of Chapel Hill, and in my first year of teaching, on back-to-school night, I made sure that I was in a suit, and I had copies of everything to hand out. I had 120 students, and through the course of the evening three parents showed up, and I was sitting in an empty room for the most of the night. In this community, with a class of 25 students, I'll easily have 45 parents in that room, and the only reason I don't have 50 is because the other parents are visiting other classes of siblings that are in the high school at the same time. It's an extremely supportive community. ...
What about the pressure to get into college? How intense is it here at Chatham High School?
There's a fair amount of it. I know that, as a teacher of AP [advanced placement] classes, that a number of my students are on the track to get into the best school that they can, and it's not uncommon for my students to apply to six or eight or 10 different schools. If you talk to teachers here, you'll find that some will write more than 100 letters of recommendation, and if you count the copies of it, you could have some teachers doing 175, 200 letters of recommendation. It makes for a very busy winter.
So it's something that is out there, but I don't think that's any different than anywhere else in the country. This is a larger generation of students, and the schools are getting much more selective because they can be. That sort of competition for college has permeated down into the school, so the students know that they not only have to get good grades, but they have to differentiate themselves from everyone else that's applying to the school. ...
We were here all day today, and almost every class we saw looked nothing like the classes I remember from high school. I think there was only one class we saw where there was a teacher standing in the front of the room writing on something with the kids listening. Is that just this place? Is it new? What does it represent?
It's new, and it's at this place, and it's at others as well. It's something that's just starting, and it's the idea that with a teacher in front of a classroom telling children things, it doesn't go anywhere. Nothing happens with that. If the students aren't active and doing something, they're not going to be learning. Part of this is based in constructivist learning. There's more research on this that shows that when students are doing things -- when they're building things, when they're working with stuff, when they're active -- they'll learn. ...
And does any of this have to do with changes in the students themselves, the ways they pay attention and focus?
It could be, or it's a two-step process where we're changing and they're changing at the same time. ... If you sat down with an elementary school teacher, they would probably say that it is a reaction to that, because they would probably notice the behavioral management sooner than we would. ...
It's the material that we use to teach. The way I think of it is that our relationship with information is changing. The last time this happened, speech and memory were replaced with automated text, and because of that, the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation happened. So if our relationship with information is changing, then we have to figure out what it is we have to prepare the kids for, and recalling information might be just a remnant of the industrial age where they just have to remember a bunch of stuff.
Remembering information isn't as important; accessing it is important. And then, since there's so much information out there, it's judging the information that applies to your particular situation. What types of information do you need, and how can you trust it? How did you know what's valid?
You're a history teacher; how do you teach history?
I teach history based on the idea that people are moving through time, so I initially try to catch students by saying that you're part of a process that other people have gone through; ... that it's not something that's different than them.
My next step after that is to give them some basic content knowledge. I'm not jettisoning that entirely. I want them to have a working knowledge of American history and of European history; that there is a certain basic level of information that they need to know to be a competent citizen.
But beyond that, and perhaps even more importantly, I have to teach them skills. So I see my role as a social studies teacher to teach them how to judge information, to see whether it applies to their situation and whether it's something that is valid.
So in terms of this third piece, ... what does that mean? Are they actually sitting in your class online and you're talking about the validity of those sources?
No, we'll work it into homework assignments. Homework assignments have now changed. It's not simply reading a section of the textbook and answering the questions at the end of that section. That process has been in place for decades, and everyone knows how that process works: You read the question, then you look through the text to find the highlighted blue word that fits with the answer, copy the sentence around it, and your homework is done. That doesn't really do anything for the students.
Our homework would be to look at two different sources of information, or better yet, look at a primary document. It might involve reading a first draft of the Declaration of Independence and looking [at] how it was changed. We can have a homework assignment where the students will listen to a phone call that JFK made to Eisenhower at the beginning of the Cuban missile crisis. Instead of saying, "Read the synopsis of the Cuban missile crisis," listen to Kennedy explain it to Eisenhower and see if you understand it and see if you can relate with Eisenhower's reaction to it. Would you have the same reaction? What sort of issues does this raise?
At the end of high school, what don't they have that students had 10, 15, 20 years ago?
I don't know. I don't think they have any less. There are numbers of studies and people's own memory of this -- if you ask someone a year or two out of high school, "What do you remember from U.S. history?," they don't. And we see these surveys show up in the newspapers over and over again, that some percentage of the American public don't know which side won the Civil War. Because of that, I feel some comfort that we're not doing anything less in terms of content knowledge. I can't see that they're leaving with less.
Is technology a big part of these kids' lives?
Yes, undoubtedly. From the cell phones that they carry around constantly, ... text-messaging and calling each other, to the iPods. If you just look at people up and down the halls, an iPod is just something they all have; it's the universal accessory. If you were to ask how many have MySpace accounts and Facebook accounts, I don't know what the percentage would be, but I would imagine it would be very high. They live in a very media-rich environment, so for them, technology is a major part of their life.
Do you think that to teach here, you have to be sophisticated about technology?
I think so. It depends on the subject matter that you're teaching and the way that you're teaching it. Certainly you don't have to have technology integrated into everything that you're doing to be a successful teacher. There are several here that don't use a lot of technology and really, really hold the students because of their classroom presence, because of their knowledge and because of their experience in teaching.
However, for teachers who are just starting, I think that they are getting on a conveyor belt that's already moving, and those new teachers really have to start already with a different level of technology integration. And the reason that they have to do that is because the kids now expect it. ... It's not so much that they expect the lively bells and whistles. They want to have their notes, and they don't want to have to take their notes home. They'll expect if a teacher does a PowerPoint presentation, they'll be able to get it whenever they need to get it.
They like to have the extra five or six hours to hand something in. If a teacher is not using technology, they have to hand it in by the end of the school day. Sometimes if teachers use technology, they can hand it in at 11:59:59 p.m., and that gives them that extra range, which they use.
When you're hiring new teachers, would you say this is one of the paramount considerations?
It's not a paramount consideration, but it is something that we definitely ask about. If we're hiring new teachers and we talk to them about their education training, I've found more often than not that the schools of education are not stressing technology. They'll talk about it, but they talk about it only in terms of PowerPoint presentations or a WebQuest, which is a certain type of lesson plan where you lead students through a couple of Web sites.
They don't have any sort of collaboration. They're not stressing students communicating with each other online or participating in forums. They don't talk about social bookmarking, where students would bookmark certain sites and exchange them with each other. There's very little collaboration. So when I'm in the interviewing process I'll ask about those things and try to see what level of sophistication they have or what familiarity they have with it.
Technology helps you teach more effectively; there's no question about it. ... Technology helps out on the administrative side and on the classroom side. On the administrative side, I can use formative data that I would never have the chance to use before. If I give students a multiple-choice quiz online, I can quickly find out how many students got which question wrong, making what choice wrong. So if I find them answering question 5 wrong by choosing choice C, I know that that particular fact is something I have to revisit.
If you're grading essays and you're grading them by hand, ... there's only so much you can write on that paper. If I'm typing, I can add a lot more in my responses. Not only that, if I'm writing extended comments on a student's essays, I can actually put links in those comments. I can point out to a student that they're making a grammatical mistake, and as the student reads that paper that's returned to them, they can link to a Web site that will show them a diagram of a sentence and show them why that grammatical mistake is important. So in that respect it's a lot more effective.
In the classroom itself, just having a data projector in the ceiling means that you can show them almost anything that you want. We can talk about the Renaissance and put up Renaissance paintings and make them larger, put them together with architecture slides and see the similarities and differences.
If we're doing the 1920s, I can have the jazz music of the 1920s, original recordings with the little skips and the jerks and the static from that recording playing as they walk in the room, and you can't create that mood any other way. ...
I'm struck by how, listening to you, it sounds like a completely different universe than 90 percent of teachers out there today. ... How do you regard the mass of teachers who still teach in traditional ways?
Well, if you think about education in general, that is something that I am really concerned about, because if teachers are preparing students for an industrial age, they're doing a great disservice to the students. And I don't know how they manage their classrooms, because if you think about the media environment that an average American teenager lives in, to walk into a classroom that doesn't have any of that media must be like walking into a desert. To have the least media-rich time of their day to be the time when they're supposed to be engaged and involved with learning seems to be almost a crime, because you have these tools out there and they could be used easily.
For a teacher who has been teaching 25, 30 years to hear me speak and to have these funny names that all these things are called, it must be foreign to them. ... They're still of an age where they think that any of this technology is something they have to go through a manual to learn.
There's no Game Boy for Dummies book, because the kids know that all you have to do is push the buttons and remember the sequence ... and eventually it will work. For these teachers, they have to be given the comfort that you can learn this, it's not that difficult, and that it will add to the experience of the students in your classroom.
I say that's a concern, ... that kids are losing a reflective nature, that they might not have the sense that they can spend a long time with a thought or that they can appreciate a work of art that takes a long time to appreciate -- a symphony, for instance, ... or a novel. They might not be able to do that because they're expecting a payoff faster, because if they go on the Internet they get the payoff faster; if they watch television they get the payoff faster. So this is something that's foreign to them, and that's an essential human experience. But that's not something I can solve, so I'm not concerned about it.
Is there anything you would have taught 11 years ago that today would be tough for these students, that their minds just don't work that way?
Perhaps. ... There's a Civil War lesson which has a letter that a soldier writes to his wife before going off to the first battle of Bull Run, and it has sentiments in it where he is expressing to his wife his love for her, but that his love for country is something that's greater. There are chances today that might be tougher to teach, because a student doesn't have that strong attachment to another person in a day with a media environment where they hear about so many other things.
I wonder if they think of life as a little bit more cheap, that they can't really have a sense that human beings have a really strong, noble spirit, because they might get more pessimistic seeing so much dysfunction constantly.
You're talking about cynicism.
Yeah, cynicism. That's a strong way to say it, exactly, that these students have been exposed to so much social dysfunction that they have a higher-developed sense of cynicism, which 40 years ago they might not have had because they were living in a somewhat sanitized environment.
It's good, but it has to be something that they buy into. If they have a desire in reaching a goal, if they want to see something, they will have a very tight focus, and they will achieve their goal. ... In the classroom, that's something that you have to craft, and it's something that you have to have them buy into. And usually that's with an assignment or with a lesson plan that has some of their input.
For instance, you would have a lesson plan where a student proposes a bill to Congress. If you have them pick the subject, they have an immediate buy into it. If you then put on the other side of it that when you're done [with] this project, we're actually going to send it to Congress, ... that's another thing that's going to draw them into doing that lesson plan and doing that project and doing it well.
That's also true with essays. If you somehow put their essays or put their writing into a public environment, they're going to have a much different approach to it and you can get that attention span; you can get that focus. If your lesson plan doesn't have that, then you're doomed, because they do have a short attention span. But they can also have a very tight focus if you somehow capture it.
Does it frustrate you ever?
At times. At times in the classroom, if there is something that you are going to take a little bit of time to develop, it adds an extra level of stress to it, because you have to have all your ducks in a row when they walk in the room. ... That might be something that teachers have always had to deal with. I wonder if today that time is a little bit shorter and the pressure is a little bit greater.
Do you feel like you have to entertain them?
That's an argument that teachers have among themselves all the time. Some teachers feel that the responsibility to be an entertainer is different than the responsibility of being a teacher. If you look at the budget that Nintendo spends on research and development, it's much, much larger than the amount of money that we spend on researching education. But essentially, we have the same job: We have to capture the attention of students.
We almost have to be entertainers. If you look at the advertising world and the media world that they live in -- they consume so much media -- we have to differentiate ourselves from that. We have to cut through that cloud of information around them, cut through that media and capture their attention. We can lament the fact that we have to be entertainers, but we can't ignore that we have to do it.
This school, from what we've observed, has pretty much embraced your point of view on this, ... in terms of putting technology in the classroom. Is that true, and what are the reasons and the motivations for that?
... Well, one of the reasons is a recognition of the fact that this world is changing. If the business world is operating with technology, ... education has to change, too. You wouldn't expect it not to change. One of the reasons is that in this district there's a recognition of that. We have a very progressive district. People are very much concerned about providing the education to students that is the most relevant education. There is an above-average group of people here who are really geared toward providing students with the best, most current type of education that's possible.
There are other faculties where you won't find that. We as a faculty are reworking our process of doing midterm exams, and we've actually gotten rid of midterms and [are] replacing them with ... performance-based assessments. And we as a faculty decided to do that, and the administration and the district were comfortable with letting us do that. ...
Cheating is something that we talk about a lot, and it is something that we're concerned about, and it's mainly because of technology. There's no doubt that cheating is easier now. Since students have access to information, they have access to other essays; they have tons of sites out there willing to give them materials to cheat. Then they can do it.
The question is how we react to that. And we can either react and say, OK, this is something that we have to fight against; we have to make sure that they sit down and write an essay that they haven't had any background on, where they're not cheating at all.
The other way to react to it is accept it as a reality and say that that's how the outside world works. If a student is going to talk with a bunch of other students and network with them to exchange information to produce a paper, isn't that a skill that we want them to take to the workplace? If I can find someone who is working in advertising and who knows how to push a product, and they can collect information from other sources and borrow and steal and put it together and reshape it, isn't that a skill that I want them to have?
Are you saying cheating is OK?
I'm not saying that cheating is OK. I'm saying that cheating is something you have to look at closer to say, what is cheating and what's not cheating? Copying another student's answer on a multiple-choice test is cheating. The way to deal with that is not to put a book between them and say, "Don't look at that other student's test." The way to deal with that is to replace the multiple-choice test and say that you're going to do something else that you can look at other people's projects, but the way I assess what you're doing is going to take into account that you're going to look at what other people are doing. Your work still has to be original, but to get inspiration from other people and to craft your work in response to theirs or alongside theirs is not something that's necessarily a problem.
What about something like SparkNotes, a kid saying, "I don't have time to read the book"?
I think that's a real problem. I don't know the way to solve that problem entirely. One way is to make sure that your project, your assignment, your lesson, doesn't require the basic information that you would get from SparkNotes. ... You take it as a given they're going to take stuff from SparkNotes and from other sources like that. With that in mind, then you craft an assignment where you make that process immaterial, where it doesn't count.
It's a noble idea, but it seems unrealistic. To ask a teacher to craft an assignment that makes SparkNotes immaterial means they need to know what's in SparkNotes, ... and that just doesn't seem possible for most teachers.
I imagine they have a sense of what SparkNotes is. I'm not in the process of teaching a novel, so I wouldn't run against that sort of problem. I would run against the problem of students stealing essays that they would use in history class, where you'd have a question that is something that kids have been writing for years and years and years. So I wouldn't ask a type of U.S. history question that they've been asking for years and years and years. I wouldn't ask a question like that because I know the questions; they're out there. So I have to come up with something that's a little bit different, or something that requires a different process, where you're not writing a research paper.
The way I deal with cheating in a history class is to get rid of things like a term paper, like a research paper, where they go out, gather a bunch of encyclopedic information and then reproduce that in a report. That almost begs to be cheated. There's no life in that; there's no purpose in that. ...
The better way to do it is to take something and say you have to do something more with it. For instance, don't report to me the basic events of the Cold War; prove to me that the USA was responsible for the beginning of the Cold War. And then I'd have another group of students prove to me that the USSR is responsible for the beginning of the Cold War, and then I would have them attack each other's sources. ... Then you have a dialogue back and forth, and there's no cheating involved with that.
How do you feel about Wikipedia, and do your students use it?
Everybody uses Wikipedia, and I use it all the time. ... The problem I have is with students using that as a source, to say that I will cite this in my essay that this is a source that's reputable. Sometimes with students, to show them the power of Wikipedia and the fact that it can be edited, because they don't really realize that, I'll set up an assignment that involves some arcane piece of history and then create a Wikipedia article that refers to it and have the students go out and use that Wikipedia article, because I know they're looking for it.
I'll put an article up at 8:00 and have them do a homework assignment, and then around 9:30 or 10:00 at night I'll change the article. You'll see the students who did it later in the evening come up with an entirely different answer. Then the next day in class I'll bring them up and say, "OK, let's see what your answers are," and show them I can tell what time you did your homework by what your answer is, and then introduce the idea that Wikipedia is something that changes all the time.
How about your own kids? Your kids are younger. When you look at the education they're getting, is it relevant?
In some ways I'm troubled by it, but it's something that I accept as just a matter of course, that this is the time period that we live in, that there is not going to be a real division between one age and the next.
My children spent a lot of time with handwriting. My opinion, which I have to keep sort of quiet, is that you might as well teach them horseback riding. It's a skill they're not going to need. No one is writing now; we do jot things down, but it's not something that we have to know.
My sons have an assignment where they have to copy 20 words two times each, and they despise it because it's pure drudgery. To me it seems almost like torture. I don't know what they're getting out of that. I know it works on spelling, but I wonder if that sort of spelling skill is something that they will really need.
You don't think spelling is important?
I think spelling is important, but I don't think it is something that should be the main focus, to say, OK, we're going to take a good part of our elementary school education and spend a lot of time having kids recite over and over again a batch of letters in a certain order.
Because there is more stuff that they have to do. There's a tool that they can use to check their spelling, and they should be able to use that tool. So their spelling skills should be developed enough that the tool will solve the problem for them.
Talk about what your boys need to keep them focused. I think you said that one of your boys does better when the television set is on when he does his homework?
Well, this is with my second-grader, who has trouble with these assignments where he's doing work that I see sort of as drudgery. It's tough to get him to focus on doing that work, so sometimes, as an experiment, if you put him in front of the television or have a radio playing or some other environment out there, that seemed to work for a while, to say if there's something around him that's moving or noise or images, that's something that will make it easier for him to concentrate.
I'm concerned about the fact that my children's childhood has so much fast-moving images in it and splashes of color. If you look at the cartoons that are shown to them, ... the vast majority of the stuff that's accessible to them has a lot of movement in it, color, quick cuts and quick changes from one thing to the other. I wonder if that has influenced them to make them think that way, that they can jump from one thing to another, and if there isn't that sort of activity, then they feel that they need it.
Now, I don't know if I can make up for that by providing activities or doing things with them that involve us solving a problem, and that problem might be building a railroad set that doesn't fall apart or making a giant castle with Legos and that sort of stuff. But I wonder about being able to take them to a symphony or take them to a ballet and say, "OK, sit down and listen to this and watch this, and see if you notice stuff in it." Are you going to enjoy it, or am I going to run 10, 15 minutes into it, and they'll be entirely bored?
Let's talk about these fears about the Internet, this other side of the Internet that lets kids go to violence, go to porn. Do you think that kids are using the Internet inappropriately?
Yeah, we know that they're using it in inappropriate ways. I have concern for the stuff that's accessible on the Internet. I think it was Ben Franklin who said, with the printing press, we can change the nation. But now everybody has a printing press, and they have film editing, and they have sound editing right in their basement.
A lot of the concern about our culture today, and the seedy side of our culture and the hatred and the intolerance and the obscenity that's in our culture, has always been there, but it's been quiet. It's been down the end of the street, it's been in someone's basement, and no one has seen it. What's happened is now it's out, available for everybody, and now we as a culture have to decide how we're going to react to that. And one of the things that I think of as a teacher is that we have to become educated in how that works. As a teacher, I have to be able to know what that environment is like in order to help my children and my students navigate in that world.
So for you, as a teacher and a parent, what does it mean concretely? Do you go to porn sites and check them out, or go to YouTube?
No, absolutely not. But when you're talking about the stuff that they're accessing and you're dealing with searching for information and you hear the conversation from students, it's a modeling thing. ... I'll show them, for instance, that there's a site where -- I think it's called College Confidential -- where a number of students get together, and they talk about their chances to get into certain colleges and what they're putting in their essays and their applications and so forth, and some will complain about teachers and so forth. I'll show the students how it is that admissions committees at universities and colleges are looking through that stuff to make the connection, to let them know that whatever they do on the Internet is out there, and everyone can see it.
Or I'll teach them about information literacy. There's Web sites out there that are designed to capture students. They're put out by white supremacist groups, by intolerant groups who want to put forth a message, and they're looking to capture eighth- and ninth-graders doing social studies reports. It looks like a Web site that is perfectly legitimate. It has a setup; it has images and pictures and quotes on the home page that make it look like it's perfect for a student doing an eighth-grade assignment. But as you read through it, you can see that it's planted there by a group that has an agenda. So my job as a teacher is to show students, how can you test that site? How can you find out who is hosting that site and what their ultimate agenda is?
Do you think your students have healthy suspicion of the Internet, or are they too trusting?
When they walk in my classroom, they're trusting, but hopefully when they walk out they have a higher level of suspicion. It's not uncommon for students to see a Web site and just use it. ... They have a sense that if it's on a Web site, then it's just as if it's on paper.
Actually, I would start that lesson by dealing with debunking textbooks. In the War of 1812 there's a statistic about impressments, in which British naval captains took Americans off boats and sort of kidnapped them. You can line up eight U.S. history textbooks, and they'll have eight different numbers for the number of impressed sailors. If we can't rely on these books, what makes you think you can rely on the Web sites? Hopefully they'll walk out with a much heightened level of suspicion.
I don't know how well you know your students, but their social networking and their whole concept of privacy has just transformed. Do students keep that pretty separate?
It's something that they keep separate from me, and that might just be my style as a teacher or my personality in the room. I do notice it, their sense of privacy, when it comes to exchanging papers and exchanging grades. For this particular group of students and in this high school, it's not uncommon for them to. It doesn't make a big difference to them. So I don't know if that's part of the age or part of this community in particular.
We're sitting in a library full of books. Do you think this library will be empty of books in the next five, 10 years?
Yes, but that doesn't mean that the books as books will disappear. The idea of a body of information put together in a book is not going to be dead, but it's going to live on in a different way. There are projects now ... where they're trying to go through the process of scanning every book that was ever written; they're trying to recreate the famous library of Alexandria, and they can at this point now access these books anywhere, at anytime. For about $10,000 or $15,000 they can build a van with a satellite dish on the top of it, drive it through a town in Uganda, have a child sit down at a laptop and search for any book that they want and print it out, bind it, for the cost of a dollar, and that child can walk away with that book. The books will still be there, but they'll be just in a different format.
The kid that's going to be successful is going to be suspicious. When he's exposed to something, he's going to think twice about it and say, OK, what's the message behind this? What in the colors, what in the images, what in the text am I trying to figure out? What is being given to me? Does it apply to my situation? How can I best use it? What else do I know? Or better yet, what other avenues are there for me to access other stuff I need to know that I can combine with this and use for something else?
A successful student would be one that's not afraid to try things at different places, [who] will use different tools that are out there and be willing to try them. When a teacher mentions, "Hey, there's something you can do like social bookmarking," they'll say, "OK, let me figure out where that is; I'll start an account at this free service and try it on my machine and try to experiment with it."
They'll communicate a lot more. The successful student would be comfortable communicating with their peers and with their teacher much more often with e-mail and with instant messaging and with forums and that sort of stuff, and being able to communicate clearly. The effective student would have a sense of the person who receives their information. Now, that was a skill that you needed when you were writing essays 30, 40 years ago, but the student today would probably have to have a heightened skill set with that, because there's so much more communication, and they have to do it more often and more clearly.
What's that kid going to be doing in 20 years?
We don't know. If you listen to the Department of Education, they'll say that seven of the top 10 jobs in the year 2010 didn't exist in 2004. So we're preparing our kids for industries that don't exist yet, and we're preparing for kids to use technologies that haven't been invented yet. That's one of the reasons I talk about the difference between learning content and learning skills, and why there is much more of a need to teach skills, because if we can teach a student how to learn, then they can adapt to these things as they're changing. If we're going to teach them just content that is static, they're not going to have the flexibility that we're going to need. And if you talk about the global marketplace, we're in deep trouble if we don't know how to do that.
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