Teaching as a Gen Xer “in the age of iEverything”

I liked the perspective offered in this article by @AllisonState and shared via the Washington Post, Parenting as a Gen Xer: We’re the first generation of parents in the age of iEverything.

It struck me that I, and many of my colleagues, could write a companion piece about teaching as a Gen Xer. I’m a child of Chutes and Ladders, Pong, Cabbage Patch Kids, un-ironic mullets, 8-tracks, Radio Shack, Pop Rocks, VHS, Burgertime, early-cable channels, perms, and microwaves. I grew up borrowing books from libraries, renting videos for the weekend, buying stamps at the post office, waiting a whole week for the next episode of Little House on the Prairie, and making mixtapes for camp friends. I remember when Battleship put out a digital version. I used aerosol deodorant and threw out batteries with household garbage. Appliances begat electronics begat digital devices, and remote controls multiplied. I had a record player, a Boombox, a Walkman, a Discman, an early MP3 player, and an iPod. I had a car phone, a flip phone, a Palm Pilot, the first iMac, a smart phone, and eventually a few iPhones.

Yet somehow I, and personal computing, evolved to the point that with one button, we can take a video of ourselves, share it with another individual, and spawn yet another public-shaming meme (Starbucks Drake Hands). I spend much of my time imploring children and grown-ups to use technology academically, respectfully, and responsibly especially as everything they do online is ultimately public, permanent, and traceable. (I also recognize that a substantial part of my day is dedicated to reminding kids to wash their hands with soap after using the bathroom, so I joke that I teach students to be hygienic online and offline.)

Like my students, I have to physically put away my phone or laptop to force myself to pay attention during meetings. And I’m guilty of checking-in on Foursquare at my synagogue during Rosh Hashana services (one more thing to atone for…) But unlike my students, I only used the Snapchat app once, I don’t download songs or movies illegally, I avoid playing violent video games, I won’t forward chain mails, and I never wear headphones in the subway.

Anyway, I started thinking about my own adoption of various skills that are now either the norm or already outdated… [cue theme music from Facts of Life]

My first foray into coding was in a 6th grade enrichment class. I wrote 10 PRINT “Karen” / 20 GOTO 10 / 30 RUN. The column of Karens down the screen was awesome. I wish I hadn’t waited almost 10 more years to take another programming course. Also in middle school, the “conference call” button on the telephone was occasionally used to goad someone into admitting who they hated or liked while a third person listened. This is not unlike video-messaging someone in a seemingly private manner and finding out later it was forwarded to the world (yes, another allusion to Starbucks Drake Hands). Linda Tripp and her recorded conversations with Monica Lewinsky further re-confirmed my conspiracy theories about there being absolutely no privacy in the world.

Nowadays, people still talk about why or when to teach typing to children considering most of their writings will be in a digital format. Back in an 11th grade elective class, I wore a field hockey uniform while sitting in a typing class for 45 minutes a week. I learned how to be a pretty decent typist without ever needing to look down (much) at the keyboard. Two years later, I brought a Smith Corona to Bryn Mawr College my freshman year in 1991. Now I wonder why more people don’t use Speech to Text apps to save their wrists.

I learned about listservs and other niche networks in 1992 when I followed my main crush into the world of DOS and message boards and usernames and monochromatic, text-based, online communications in order to read his semi-private and pretentious musings to the group. I judged, and the attraction waned. I learned, too, an early lesson about how online communications without additional vocal or visual cues are hard for me. Also, I evolved into someone who never shares super personal details in a public forum (clearly what I view as personal is subjective).

My awareness of intranets and fileservers and networks increased in 1993 when someone in the computer lab showed me how to navigate server and folder structures to see gross images being shared by a guy at Haverford. I didn’t believe it at first, so they insisted on proving it. I wish I could unsee what I saw. I was all verklempt because it occurred to me one could possibly trace the path of data from my computer terminal to the computer where the images were stored. It seemed so foolish to store and share and be literally linked to that kind of information. It still does, and I avoid having anything on my drives or in the cloud that could be incriminating on either my personal or professional devices and accounts.

The actual Internet was discussed as a topic and shown to my classmates in 1994 in my Intro to Pascal course. My professor explained the HTTP acronym and the difference between http://whitehouse.org and http://whitehouse.com — the former contained information about Bubba, Hillary, and Socks and the latter was a portal to an adult site. I know tons of people in the EdTech world, and I’ve learned the expression TTP (time to porn) to quantify how quickly a tool/app/site is used in an unsavory manner.

In 1995, I learned about subject-specific software like Geometer’s Sketchpad. I used GSP when I taught pre-Algebra at The Dalton School from 1997-2000, and I maintain that it is one of the best pieces of educational software out there. You actual learn math by using the program. It’s awesome. In 1997 at Bank Street Graduate School of Education, the term “webquest” was introduced as a way to curate an online learning experience for students in the days before librarians and media specialists instead taught people how to research effectively with Boolean searches, databases, and, later, with Google. It’s funny to read the history of web search engines and remember the likes of HotBot and AltaVista and all the pre-Google search engines. I googled that link, btw.

I started teaching robotics and programming in 2000. My students explored simple machines, engineered structures, and made their creations “smart” with sensors, motors, and infrared communications. It was an early Makerspace. I figured out how to locate information online for my professional development, scouring really early versions of websites for project ideas and lesson plans. Thanks mainly to George Orio (my former Director of Technology at Sacred Heart), Steve Farnsworth and Denise Daley (my awesome ex-colleagues), and Michael Tempel (of the Logo Foundation), I also found and met with others in the New York City area who were teaching similar topics and/or also working in the field of educational technology. This was my first Professional Learning Network (PLN), and to this day I’m deeply grateful to the New York Consortium of Independent School Technologists (NYCIST) community. I am deeply committed to their motto: The knowledge is in the group. I teach others how to craft their PLN, though I now define the term as a Personalized Learning Network.

Eventually, I started to recognize that not everyone felt comfortable tinkering with new tools. The more I learned, the more I learned. I felt like the keeper of knowledge at my schools — recently I quipped, “like Jeff Bridges’s character in The Giver“. Also, I had friends who were early-adopters who inspired me to be a relatively early adopter. Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Flickr, Instagram… For better or worse, I started to get used to sharing things: Photos, locations, thoughts, projects, travels, ideas, jokes.

I ended up meeting people through these online worlds. Some of them I also met in person. I met great people who were funny, generous, sincere, respectful. I also met folks who were over-sharers, hatemongers, liars, lurkers, stalkers, trolls, and worse. I joined and left many communities, and I began to use social media more selfishly. By that I mean I shared stuff but stopped really trying to actively see what anyone else was putting out there. If people responded to my posts, I’d engage, but I rarely initiated a dialogue. This is kinda what I do today as well. There’s just too much to keep track of, and I “follow” too many people to actually notice all the great nuggets of information. Also, these nuggets are almost drowned out by the noise of everyone’s logorrhea. Twitter originally began as a place for people to answer the question, What are you doing now? it evolved into a clearinghouse for information, news, marketing, dating, commerce. I love that it’s also another tool teachers figured out a way to use academically and professionally. Consider the history of #edchat hashtag

About five years ago, I was bullied online and impersonated by an unfortunate guy and his friends. It was a life-changing experience for me. I talk about certain aspects of what happened with students and teachers to let them know the actions I took, including contacting websites and arming myself using their terms of service about hateful speech and misrepresentations. While much of the offensive and publicly posted material was removed by the websites, it was deeply upsetting and frightening at the time.

Now, I consciously curate my public presence to avoid ever being blindsided again. I also share and teach differently as a result. I try to model for others how to co-exist online and share responsibly, but sharing anything makes you more public and thus more vulnerable. I talk about “public versus less public” rather than “public versus private” these days. I also encourage students and teachers alike to build and craft online portfolios of their work, partly to keep track of their learning and partly to stake their claim online. Then they can say, “This is me. That can’t be me, because this is me.”

I also tell people that being more public keeps me from making bad choices online. While I can’t control what others post, I can control what I post. I never want to have a difficult conversation with my boss, my best friend, or my mom about something I shared irresponsibly online. I’m not perfect, and I’ve certainly deleted at least two tweets in the last few years that seemed funny in the moment. Also, I’m fully aware that those deleted tweets may very well exist in someone else’s screen capture or cached files. This troubles me.

I feel lucky I had a childhood that didn’t include Facebook, since I’m glad to be using it as a grownup rather than a kid. Though as I see what my adult contacts post online, it only reinforces that the only thing worse than kids behaving badly online is grownups behaving badly online.

Anyway, here’s an excerpt from Allison’s piece:

It struck me recently, after one of my quiet carpool rides, that my generation of parents – we of the soon-to-be or recently 40 year old Gen X variety, the former latchkey children of the Cold War and an MTV that actually played videos, former Atari-owners who were raised by the the Cosby Show and John Hughes, graduated high school with the kids from 90210, then lumbered through our 20s with Rachel, Ross, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe, and Joey and flip phones – is perhaps the last to straddle a life experience both with and without the Internet and all its social media marvels. After all, I didn’t even learn to use e-mail until I was 19 and a sophomore in college in 1993, and only for a slightly cringe-worthy reason: a cute boy at another college asked me to e-mail him.

My generation, it seems, had the last of the truly low-tech childhoods, and now we are among the first of the truly high-tech parents.

My mother, a Baby Boomer, gripes regularly that my friends and I “put everything on The Facebook,” and though she and my grandparents both have accounts, they don’t really use them. My parents still receive a paper newspaper, still read books in hardback, and only relatively recently became comfortable with texting. My children show them how to use their iPhones, and I set up their iTunes accounts for them.

On the flip side, the Internet seems intuitive to my children, who can make PowerPoint presentations as good as any professional, use Google when they are stuck on their math homework, and spend as many hours as I will let them watching YouTube videos of other people playing Minecraft, an activity I just cannot understand no matter how hard I try.

I am very much standing in the middle between my parents and my children when it comes to technology, one foot dipped in the waters of Instagram and Twitter and the other still stuck in the luddite mud of “In my day, we passed paper notes in class, sent real letters to penpals, and talked to each other’s faces!” When it comes to parenting, I find this middle place extremely uncomfortable, because I know what childhood and adolescence were like before the Internet, and my parenting models all came from that era.

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