Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Interview with Emily-Anne Rigal (Part Two)

In part one of this interview, Emily-Anne Rigal talked about her project, collaboration and communication. In part two she shares some of her thoughts on education.

Do you think school is valuable? Why or why not?

Understanding certain subjects, like learning how to write well, highly influential historical events, and some science, are valuable, but the amount of “do exactly what you are told” learning is harmful, not helpful. I strongly disagree with the way certain teachers reward students who, in my opinion, don’t think for themselves, while penalizing students that question the information presented and form their own opinions.

What are your thoughts on working in groups versus doing work individually? Do you like one or the other?

Both are equally important. As we spoke about earlier, collaboration leads to greater success. Therefore, developing the skills necessary for group work is important. At the same time, one can’t depend on others with everything, so being proactive and having the self-discipline to work individually is also important.

What makes a good teacher good?

The teachers I admire most are the ones who focus on a student’s individual strengths, as opposed to trying (often unsuccessfully) to mold a student into their idea of a “good student.” We all have our own talents; so, working for and not against a student’s natural abilities makes a good teacher good.

Do you feel that googling facts in real-time can replace having them committed to memory in advance?

YES. (Bold, caps, underlined, highlighted).

I know people like you always have a half dozen projects in your mind that haven't made it into the public sphere yet-- what projects are you looking to start planning in the near future?

For a while now, it has been a dream of mine to give a TED talk, so I am working on taking the necessary steps to accomplish that. My mind rarely goes a day without thinking up (or coming across) information that I would love to share in a TED talk - my iPhone notepad is overflowing with all my notes! I am also excited about a project I have begun working on with my friend Jessica Lawrence called “The Remarkable Effect.” We will be taking concepts from Seth Godin’s “Linchpin” and re-purposing them into fun, short webisodes. The project will launch on Kickstarter in a couple weeks.

What are your long-term goals?

To never become jaded.

Check out the previous interviews in the series:

Pearce Delphin (Part One) Pearce Delphin (Part Two)

17-year-old deontological libertarian from Australia

Todd Oh 17-year-old App developer from South Korea

Lane Sutton 14-year-old entrepreneur

Anna Hoffstrom (Part One) Anna Hoffstrom (Part Two)
18-year-old Autodidact and Unschooler from Finland/Maine

Priyanka 11 year old Texan living in Singapore

Yaqsan Aspiring Omani lawyer going to school at Exeter

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Interview with Emily-Anne Rigal (Part One)

I am really excited about the latest interview in the student interview series. Emily-Anne Rigal, aka "Schmiddlebopper" is the kind of High School student that makes me regret not attacking life with gusto as a 17-year-old. She is socially conscious, an adept galvanizer and a natural with social media. The term "Digital Native" has become cliche when discussing tech and education, but if the phrase has any meaning, Schmiddlebopper embodies it. I encourage you to check out her digital spaces and see what she has been doing. I'm so glad to have her voice represented in the conversation.

How old are you and where are you from?

I am seventeen years old and live in Williamsburg, Virginia.

You have already started so many interesting projects; which ones are you most proud of and why?

I am most proud of WeStopHate because it has been entirely my own doing, from the creation to execution, so I feel closest to it – WeStopHate is like my baby! I am also incredibly proud of “Schmiddlebopper,” my online persona. I have been creating YouTube videos and blogging on social media since my freshman year of high school under the username “Schmiddlebopper.” I interact online with my “Boppers” every day (through twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, etc) and they inspire me to continue posting.

Tell me about and what it is like getting media attention at your age?

WeStopHate is a nonprofit program I started in March 2010 to raise “teen-esteem” (self-esteem in teens) through online videos and social media. Ultimately, WeStopHate combats bullying because we believe that teens that are happy with themselves are not going to put others down. Currently, WeStopHate is the 28th Most Subscribed YouTube Nonprofit Channel, having received nearly 400,000 video views. MTV, Seventeen Magazine, and many other local and national media outlets have featured WeStopHate. The media attention has been a positive experience because it allows me the opportunity to share my work with other young people. My hope is that learning about WeStopHate will inspire more teens to take action about the causes they care about.

How important is it to be a good collaborator when taking on these challenges?

Collaboration is essential because it enables growth and expansion, while also bringing more value to the project and experience overall. WeStopHate would certainly not be what it is today without the help of my friends, mentors, and volunteers because each person who contributed to the project brought with them their own unique skill set and strengths. An obvious example is WeStopHate’s use of user-generated content because vast majority of our videos are created by teen YouTubers. Had we not collaborated with these teens, the fundamental aspect of WeStopHate (teens helping teens by giving them a platform to share their story with other teens) would not exist.

How do you communicate with friends (before and) after school . . . IM, text, social media? Does the connection to your friends ever stop?

We communicate constantly (morning, day, and night) because we use our phones throughout the school day, even though it’s technically not allowed. Since we have smart phones with social media applications, we stay connected not only through texting, but also through Facebook and Twitter, as most of us update regularly throughout the day. Connection rarely stops unless someone consciously puts away their phone and computer.

Your website is an incredible space. In education terms, you have an amazing "e-portfolio." Do you think these types of spaces are more important than resumes? Do you think they demonstrate learning better than multiple-choice tests or essays?

Being a self-proclaimed SMM (a term I coined meaning “social media maniac”), I definitely have a bias answer, but yes, demonstrating online competence is important and useful for getting ahead. Employers and/or potential clients often Google the people they are considering, so having an online presence (assuming it accurately portrays who you are and the message you would like convey) will likely leave them with a good impression regardless of one’s field. I believe people who are actively engaged online with their audience or experts in their field have a stronger sense of what is going on in their area of interest. This type of knowledge far outweighs that of irrelevant (and often memorization-required) multiple choice tests and essays. It's not easy for a girl that's filled with imagination and curiosity to sit and listen to dull history lessons.

Check out the previous interviews in the series:

Pearce Delphin (Part One) Pearce Delphin (Part Two)

17-year-old deontological libertarian from Australia

Todd Oh 17-year-old App developer from South Korea

Lane Sutton 14-year-old entrepreneur

Anna Hoffstrom (Part One) Anna Hoffstrom (Part Two)
18-year-old Autodidact and Unschooler from Finland/Maine

Priyanka 11 year old Texan living in Singapore

Yaqsan Aspiring Omani lawyer going to school at Exeter

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Being Unhelpful

The best thing I did this week as a teacher was be unhelpful. Most teachers by nature are people who like to help, who like to share. Sometimes those instincts can be a burden because we create dependencies. We want our students to be self-sufficient, but sometimes we help them do things they can and should be doing on their own.

This week I was faced with the challenge of helping a 5-year-old spell something I wasn't sure he could spell. Due to a torrential downpour, we didn't come out to the lab. We stayed in the classroom so I had them work with pencil and paper to design inventions. One student invented the "Fast Food A Matic" which is a machine that makes any kind of food really fast. He didn't know how to spell the name, so he asked me. My natural urge was to begin spelling it for him, but part of the art of teaching is knowing how to suppress that urge.

I told him he had to do it himself by sounding it out and doing his best. He kept trying to get me to help him spell it after every single letter, but each time I refused to help. Being unhelpful is usually a lot more work than being helpful, but it's worth it. Finally he was able to work it through on his own and here is what he came up with:

Great job for a 5-year-old. So glad I could be unhelpful this week.

Here is the picture of the invention too:

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Lone Voice in the Chanting Mob

I haven't had a lot of success explaining Twitter's value to people who don't understand it. Part of the problem in explaining it is that the tool is fundamentally about customizing your community, so the value is so different for everyone because our communities are so different. Some people use Twitter as a virtual water-cooler where they can make comments under their virtual breath to acquaintances, attempt #Hashtag humor or live-tweet an awards show or sporting event. Other people use it to connect with customers, or to share pictures, music, videos or other types of content they create. Some people use it to broadcast their wisdom or lack thereof; others use it to engage in discussion with people about politics, economics, technology or food. Some people use it as a platform for citizen-journalism. There are also vibrant communities of educators sharing, discussing and supporting each other.

I frequently swim in these educational circles because education is one of the most interesting topics of conversation to me personally. I have met many educators who, regardless of their opinions are passionate and care deeply about kids and the future of our world. I have learned quite a bit about what tools other people are using with kids and it has made my classroom stronger. However, I have also noticed a sort of infection that spreads throughout communities like these. It is called groupthink.

If you are unfamiliar with the idea of groupthink, I highly recommend checking out some of the writings of Cass Sunstein, specifically his thoughts on "Cyberbalkanization." Basically groupthink is the reason spending too much time with like-minded people is corrosive to critical thinking. When we are surrounded by people who are all begging the same question, we make leaps of logic and we don't even realize they are leaps. Groupthink drives us deeper into our own beliefs and insulates us from challenge. Once our opinions are calcified thanks to the never-ending confirmation bias cycle of sharing posts, clips and tweets we begin to see the Devil's Advocates as a lunatic fringe, when in fact just the opposite is happening. A recent example would be the "Birthers" reactions to our President's birth certificate. Proof is assumed to be trumped-up, falsified and malicious.

Leaders of like-minded communities are especially dangerous because as with any mob, the only way to distinguish yourself is to be more extreme in your views than the others. If you look around at any balkanized mob of like-minded people in social media, you will see this phenomenon. Education circles are no different. There are many people who are outside of the classroom who get paid in both fame and money to lecture people about why lecturing is bad. Groupthink brainwashes people into abandoning critical thinking and blindly supporting feel-good philosophies like "Why hard work is bad for kids" or "The only real learning is forgetting" or "Why laziness is more productive" or some other carnival barkeresque pablum. These celeb EduBloggers follow a simple formula: When a group is already predisposed to want to believe something, keep feeding them a slightly more extreme version of that belief and you'll be asked to keynote the next "EduWebotron 3.0" conference.

"Have you read his post about why reading with your eyes open is actually stifling creativity?"

"Yes, so counter-intuitive, but if everyone retweets it it must be true! I hope he live-tweets the blackboard burning like he did in West Palm Beach last year!"

Sometimes following the conversation in an insulated community is like watching the hammers marching in lockstep during Pink Floyds' The Wall.

So what's the solution?

Well, one easy way to help is to make the choice to be the Devil's Advocate in the majority of your conversations. You're going to help the group become stronger by testing assumptions and defining terms than by validating someone's ideas about using wikis because you like that person and you like wikis. Everyone wants to be liked. I do, you do, we all do. It's hard to stand up and be the lone voice in the chanting mob, but if you are the lone voice, that is proof enough that the group needs to hear what you have to say.

Another way to fight groupthink is to make sure you don't just follow people who are in your industry. No matter what your career is, there are many voices and many perspectives that you need to understand to do your job properly. If you teach 9th grade Literature, you should not just follow other 9th grade literature teachers. You should not just follow other literature teachers, or just follow teachers for that matter.

You should follow authors. You should follow readers. You should engage them, debate them, learn from them. Follow publishing companies. Follow journalists who cover books. Follow book stores. Follow librarians. Follow Grammarians. Follow linguists. Follow people who design e-readers. Follow people who hate books.

Diversify your streams of information. Don't let like-minded groups drive you to become their median member or worse, their radical leader.