Friday, April 25, 2008

Late to the Jargon Party

Okay, okay. So I know Marc Prensky’s “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” hit the world in 2001, but I just read it. I’d heard the buzz words of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants,” but I didn’t really know what they meant. I think Prensky’s considers his audience Baby Boomers; I’m thirty-five, so I’m not really an immigrant or a native. I guess I’m first generation!

I’m not devoted to Prensky’s theories, especially since by his designations, I’m teaching “legacy content,” namely reading, writing, and logical thinking, for which Digital Natives don’t have a natural taste. Lucky English teachers, eh? He suggests that those of us teaching “legacy content” need to employ “future content,” which involves technology. I didn’t find that earth shattering. However, when Prensky writes: “Today’s teachers have to learn to communicate in the language and style of their students. This doesn’t mean changing the meaning of what is important, or of good thinking skills. But it does mean going faster, less step-by step, more in parallel, with more random access, among other things,” it caught my attention. Elsewhere, Prensky writes: “Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to ‘serious’ work.” Prensky’s list rings true to me, and I’m trying to give it more thought.

Over the summer when I can get some distance from the daily mental burdens of grading and classroom management, I like to ruminate about how I teach. (I’ve always joked that my summer lesson planning always goes so well because my imaginary students love everything!) I see Prensky’s list as a challenge, and I’m going to brainstorm how I can make some “style” changes to better communicate with my sometimes restless natives:

  • Going Faster and Less Step-by-Step—My gut instinct is “No way!” If I go faster, I’ll sacrifice depth and cause confusion. However, if I think about going faster by going less step-by-step, I realize that I already try to do this. I don’t try to hold every student to the same step in a process at the same time (at least not every day). I try to design units with multiple tasks that students can move through as they get to them. Like a water park where three different slides dump into the same pool, most students end up in the same place even if they took various steps to get there.
  • Going More in Parallel and Multi-Tasking—This concept goes in place when I remove the step-by-step process. So okay, maybe all the vocabulary words for a chapter don’t need to be written out before we begin that chapter. See? I’m flexible! I really need summer to plan for this kind of teaching because it requires me to have lots of things prepared ahead of time. Essentially, when I begin a unit, I need to have all the steps already prepared because students will hit various steps at various times. (Although I do build in what I think of as anchor points, places where we convene together, say for a mini-lesson from me or for a test.) I also find it challenging to figure out what to do with the students who finish first, maybe a full day before other students. Do I “reward” them with extra work? Let them play solitaire while the principal walks by? Start the next unit and accumulate a week off for the end of the year?
  • Going with more Random Access—I recognize Prensky’s validity on this point. My students do not think as sequentially as I do when they look for information. It’s probably impossible to organize a unit this way this first time I teach a new prep, but once I’ve made it to the end of a unit, I have a fair idea of when students have questions and what resources they’ll need. Instead of providing students with a packet of directions at the beginning of a unit, I’m going to use my web site enrichment for my classes to make FAQ-style directions. (Hard copy directions can be re-organized like this, too.) This fulfills the “just in time” learning for natives who like to find what they need in the instant they need it, as opposed to being given a complete packet and told to flip through it for their answers.
  • Using more Networking—I know my students like to work together, but I don’t always want to see collaboration. It frustrates me when I give short answer questions and three kids write identical responses; in fact, I watch them pass around one kid’s notebook as each kid copies it. The trick here is designing lesson elements where students collaborate on problem-solving but then separate again for written assessment. I know it’s as old as the hills, but I love Think, Pair, Share. If I ask students to write before they collaborate, I can cut down on the copying. Maybe I’ll try to get them working together without seeking a written product at the end of the session…
  • Using more Instant Gratification and Rewards—This concept makes me a little queasy because it feels like I’m catering to a baser appetite (Am I longing for the old country, Prensky?). I teach critical thought through close reading and careful writing. My “legacy content” and I are the anti-instant gratification. Does passing out Jolly Ranchers really help? Sigh. Alright. I have created some computer-based games (using these great game shells) and use some web-based tools for rote grammar/punctuation and MLA/plagiarism practice. These online drills help me differentiate and give students instant feedback. I try to return written work as quickly as I can. I’m thinking about using student email more to give frequent positive feedback during the week (although I’ve heard that email to today’s student is already passé.) I’m still crazy enough to want students to find reading the fiction and poetry we cover its own reward.

Quite obviously, I need to give each of these elements much more thought. I don’t think Prensky has all the answers, but I did think his list gave me a lot to think about this summer.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

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