These Are Also “Today’s Students”

I wrote yesterday about a teacher’s blog post framed as being about “Today’s students” and offering advice about technology in schools, based on the experiences of these particular students.

These were some of wealthiest children in the country.

Today, an article came across Twitter about the lengths a district near me is going to provide the most basic access to technology to low-income students.

These are also “today’s students” and they do not have the privilege of being indifferent about technology.

It is not ok to render them invisible when talking about children very very different from them.

Who Counts as “Today’s Students”?

I was intrigued at first by the tweets.  MiddleWeb distributes great information about teaching in the middle years:

So I clicked through.  @CherylTeaches asks great and important questions about when we do and don’t use tech in schools, but her experiences didn’t resonate with what I hear from many teachers.

She wrote about how, when given choices in schools, her students often choose something other than technology.  She goes on to wonder if “we”, meaning the profession for whom she’s writing, overestimate the extent to which students find technology engaging.

She sounds like a terrific teacher and and I want to be as  clear as I can be that this post is not about her as a teacher or disagreement with anything that she said about tech in schools.

It’s just that I am so troubled by the language that we use to evade talking about social class and education.

The tweet promises news about “today’s digital students’.  The author writes about “today’s students” and then writes sensitively about what she sees in her students.

We don’t learn until the biographical statement at the end that this teacher currently works in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.  Her students live in a community in which the per capita (not household) income is  $104,920 .  Bloomfield Hills ranks within the top five wealthiest communities in America. 

I began my teaching career in in Appalachia, in Jackson County, Kentucky.  When I was teaching there, it was one of the poorest school districts in the country. Today, the per capita income for the county is $10,711. 36.50% of children under 18 live below the poverty level.

I’m trying to imagine any circumstances in which a teacher in Jackson County Kentucky could write a piece for a major, excellent education group like MiddleWeb that was framed as being about the experiences of “Today’s students”.    I’m trying to imagine this teacher then offering advice about how teachers in other places might think about using technology, based on her experiences with some of the poorest children in the country.

It would never happen.

Teachers working with the wealthiest families in the country no doubt bring their full energies to the challenges of working in such communities.  It is great when they listen to their students on reflect on how to best serve those children.

But in these times of growing and serious digital divides in which high and low income children use computers in very different ways,  offering advice to teachers about “today’s students” based on the children of the wealthiest people in the country –who have out-of-school access to any tech device they might wish to have — is troubling at best.

Classism, Parenting, and Digital Devices

Much of my teaching involves new forms of digital media for communication, connection, and creativity.  This work is grounded solidly in my commitments to ensuring that all children learn the cultural forms that will enable them to fully participate in public life as advocates, learners, and citizens.    As a culture, and as educators, we still have an enormous amount to learn about the rapid changes in digital culture, and at least some of what we have to learn is about how to bridge growing digital divides between low-income children (who, in school, are most likely to be using computers for skill and drill practice or testing) and more privileged peers (who are more likely to use computers for creation and self-directed pursuit of informal learning around personal interests).

A few weeks ago, a social justice organization that I respect greatly posted a link to an awful essay on children and digital media.  I hate to even include the link here because “clicks” count in generating audience for yet more of this sort of nonsense.  Chris Rowan, the author of the essay, misses the very basic lesson of Statistics 101 and continually conflates things happening together as technology *causing* everything from autism (which she labels a mental illness)  to violence to obesity.  The studies she cites (while claiming to be doing a literature review, which would have required that she actually critique, not just list the studies)  are almost laughably flawed.  She claims in comments that children who use technology won’t develop social relationships.  Elsewhere on her website (where she sells $1000s worth books and workshops to cure the problems she claims are created by technology) she laments that teachers no longer teach hours of handwriting a week, as this is the only way that children will become literate.

Yet this social justice organization posted this link on Facebook, noting that the article that “has important implications for teachers and parents”.  And on Facebook, 234 followers of this social justice organization “liked” the post and 135 shared the article with their Facebook friends.  “Great to know”, they wrote.  “Food for Thought” wrote others.

Commenters insisted that instead of using technology, children should be outside playing free, as if one precludes the other.

As if all children live in neighborhoods where it’s safe to run free, or that parents are free to usher their children around to play dates in the wild.

They insist that instead of watching TV or playing with tablets (two very different experiences that they didn’t bother to distinguish), they should be spending time on parents’ laps reading.    As if one precludes the other.

As if all parents have time to snuggle with their children over books for hours each day,  and all children might happily play with retro-wooden toys while their parents cook organic dinners from scratch.

Today, I read a very different report.  The Cooney Center, which does actual  credible research on how children use media, finds that lower income children are significantly more likely to use educational media on digital devices than wealthier peers.   Barbara Ray, the author of this  essay, asks, appropriately I believe,  whether the very broad backlash against “screen time” as evidenced in the Facebook comments around Rowan’s essay is part of elite parents’ snobbish views of television (and now other screens) and their judgments of  low-income parents.

We have an enormous amount to learn about these new shifts in digital technologies.

All of those socially-just readers who “liked” and shared Chris Rowan’s essay seem to simply assume that their ways of parenting are inherently superior, and that poor parents trying to find ways to provide their children with educational opportunities within the geographic and and economic constraints of their lives are misguided.

Even though those socially-just readers missed completely the lack of evidence, the faulty logic, and the self-interest  running through the entire Rowan essay.


Update:   More refuting the “research” in this essay, pointing out what others (but not the social justice organization) saw just by looking at the actual studies.

The Question Is, Can you Walk With Me?

I’ve long been interested in the intersections of class and technology, as I’m intrigued by the potential in new media for voice, connections, and creativity.

I was thus delighted to read about the Youth Converts Culture project in which students and teachers in rural Alabama explored ways to  “bridge the gap between technology and humanity”.  Because it’s now possible in ways unimaginable only a short time ago, they explain in their own voices:

The project website can be found here.

A Wasted Analysis of Poor Kids and Digital Divides

The New York Times has published yet another infuriating piece on poor kids.

Yesterday’s article Wasting Time is New Divide in Digital Era is is almost breathtakingly sloppy.

After the “sky is falling” headline, the article reports that kids from “poorer” families waste “considerably more time” on media than kids from more well-off homes. Without missing a beat — or presenting a shred of evidence –the author, Matt Richtel, declared this time  is “wasted time”.  And then in an amazing leap, he concludes that  class differences in media use are “a reflection of the ability of parents to monitor and limit how children use technology”.

The sole source cited for this conclusion about parenting is the white principal of a middle school in Oakland.  Prominent on the home page of the website of this school is a link to the school’s Accelerated Reader quizzes.   Accelerated Reader is a “read and answer multiple choice questions for points” computer platform has been widely criticized by literacy experts and others as a shallow program that may actually discourage good reading habits in children.  In other words,  it may well be a waste of money and classroom time.

But I digress.

Readers of the NYT article have to get through several more paragraphs before learning that “considerably more time” is the difference between 10 hours a day and 11.5 hours a day.  You’d have to read even deeper into the article to find out that in the (unnamed) Kaiser study that is the basis for the article, data collectors “double dipped”.   In other words, if  a kid was listening to music while surfing the web after dinner, she was credited with two, not one hour of media time.

So imagine:  A child in a low-income home sharing a bedroom with at least one sibling who slips on earbuds to drown out distracting noise, or another using the home’s one computer as others are watching TV in the same room, or a child who didn’t spend after-school time being driven from soccer to lacrosse practice and instead spent that time watching television — each of these would count as evidence of poor children falling behind their privileged peers because they are “wasting more time” in using more media.

Yet the sloppiness runs even deeper.

Richtel never supports his key assumption that any time on social networking sites, watching videos, or playing games is inherently “wasted”.

He includes an ominous quote from danah boyd about  all of this, but never mentions that boyd was co-lead of one of the major anthropological studies of the social connections and informal learning happening in kids’ uses of new media.   He seems not to have bothered to Google any of the intriguing new studies that go beyond “hours spent”  to look at what kids are actually doing with media, including emerging work on how media is shaping kids civic and political engagement, and on the complex informal learning often happening in gaming.

Make no mistake: there are serious digital divides: Poor kids have less access to broadband at home and at school.  In schools, access to the most basic tools depends entirely on the wealth of the district (or the fundraising savvy of parents).  Most seriously, perhaps, poor kids are not being taught the new media literacies required for full participation in contemporary life.

The Kaiser study on kids’ engagement in media is important.

But it is not a study of the relative merits of childrearing in poor and middle-class homes.

And it is not a study of what poor kids are doing on line –full color photo of the  ethnic, hapless, self-described “Facebook freak” notwithstanding.

Several of the hundreds of people who commented on the article (many of them bashing poor parents)  made an excellent point: everyone who commented on a New York Times article was essentially wasting time in front of a computer.

And as I write on this social media site, I’m streaming radio in the background and have my Iphone next to me, waiting for a text.  I read the article on-line while similarly multi-tasking.

According to Richtel, this is obvious evidence that I’ve “wasted” at least three hours of time.

Of course I did.  My parents didn’t go to college so could not have educated me to do otherwise.