This is an open letter to the ninth graders in Mrs. Moritz’s and Mrs. Smith’s classes that participated in the A Whole New Mind project.
I had a chance to sit in on fifth period’s debrief session of the video conference with Daniel Pink yesterday and I wanted to share with all of you a couple of comments I made, and then also attempt to push your thinking a little bit more. The fifth period students were pretty hard on themselves (and the rest of you), critiquing how everyone did and suggesting a variety of ways that it could have gone better. Now, I think critique is great, and I definitely think we should always look for ways to improve (more on that below), but I think some of you are being too hard on yourselves.
Overall, you guys did a great job. Due to the constraints of the situation (110 students, remote live video conference which makes a "conversation" a little more difficult – particularly with 110 students, less than two hours to discuss, wanting to give the author a chance to share his experiences, etc.), it wasn’t possible to have a typical fishbowl discussion. Perhaps that was the adults’ fault for not conveying that more clearly ahead of time, but at best this was going to be a hybrid author-lecture/question-and-answer/live-blog/some-fishbowl-discussion kind of thing – and I think you guys pulled it off really, really well. Here’s the typical feedback I heard from people around the world: "How old are these kids? Ninth graders? You’re kidding. Wow. We’ve gotta try this." Seriously, that’s what they said. So, sure, critique yourselves and we’ll all try to do better next time. But, for the moment, pat yourselves on the back and bask in the glow. You helped create something that has never been done before. Really, take 30 seconds right now and bask. OK, done? Let’s move on.
Now, don’t let the rest of this take away from the above, but I want to push your thinking a little bit. As I watched the recording and read through the live blog last night, and thought about all the discussions I’ve observed during this project, there were a few things I noticed that I wanted to follow-up on. One of the things we talk about often is the fact that the discussion doesn’t have to end when the class period is over. And I’ve certainly seen some discussion after the fact, both face-to-face and a little bit on the blogs, but I’m not sure I’ve seen the kind of extension that I think you’re all capable of.
Let me give one example. In yesterday’s discussion the topic of the Pledge of Allegiance came up. Now, I don’t want to get you sidetracked again on this topic, but as I read through the live blog I noticed that quite a few of you made arguments based on historical references that maybe aren’t completely accurate, for example "our country was built on it" or "founding fathers." This is a perfect example of something you can follow up on. Do some research and learn more about the Pledge of Allegiance. (I could link, but I want you to do the research.) For example, it was written by Francis Bellamy, a Christian Socialist in 1892, and the words "under God" weren’t added until 1954, and at least according to some sources he took out the word "equality" because too many people would object to equality being applied to women and African Americans. Now, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to change your views of the importance or necessity of the pledge, but you might want to revise and refine your thinking and your arguments.
I don’t want this post to be about the Pledge. (If you want to continue that conversation, and I hope you do, I would suggest posting on your class blogs.) But my concern is that you seem too willing to stop at "I think" or "I believe," in this case often based on inaccurate historical information, and not follow-up with some more thoughtful research and discussion. You have the tools, the access to information, and the intelligence to go further and deeper with this, so why aren’t you?
Moving on from the Pledge, a second area I’m going to ask you to think about is personal responsibility. For me, this came up in at least two topics yesterday: grades and media bias. Some of the discussion yesterday (and also during earlier fishbowl discussions of AWNM) regarding grades seemed to center around the idea that students wouldn’t do anything if it wasn’t for grades. That may or may not be true, but I’d like you to think more critically about that and what it implies. Among other things it implies that the only reason you’re at school is to get good grades and that if you don’t have the incentive (whip? carrot?) of grades then you would just be lazy teenagers and do nothing. Where’s the personal responsibility in that? Where’s the intrinsic motivation and desire to learn? Do you really think that accurately describes teenagers (or humans in general), or do you think we can aspire to be more than that? Is the point of coming to AHS to get grades, or is it something else? And if it is something else, then what role do – or should – grades play in that? I think these are all topics you should be thinking about and continuing the conversation about, not just dropping after the live blogging ends. Do some research, have some discussions (comment here or create a post on your class blogs), think about your own responsibility for your own learning – but don’t just accept the conventional wisdom and the assumption that this is just the way it is. If after much thought and discussion you do think that conventional wisdom is correct in this case, great, but at least you've really delved into it. If not, if there is a better way, let’s create it.
Media bias was another interesting topic that came up yesterday, mostly in the context of either "negative" news or in relation to the Pledge discussion and being proud of our country. This is another excellent topic that I think you guys should research further – there’s certainly plenty of information available on this topic – so go for it. For example, I heard this story a while back that basically states that research indicates that newspaper bias doesn’t really correlate with the ownership’s or the reporters’ views, but with the political views of their readers. In other words, they’re giving us what we want. (This is just one study, so by all means go find some more.) But, again, where’s the personal responsibility in all this? If you think the media is either biased or always presenting "negative" stories, what is your role in this? When I was growing up (yes, in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s), we had four TV stations – ABC, NBC, CBS and our local educational station - and they went off the air at midnight and didn't come back on until 6:00 am. We had one newspaper. And while we did have quite a few radio stations (probably 20 or so), everyone except public radio was just reading the news from the wire services. Today, you have an amazing array of sources (including access to those wire services) – you can pretty much choose where your news comes from, how many different sources – and diverse viewpoints – you want to pay attention to, and you can even participate and give feedback. So get involved! If you think certain media outlets are biased, then build your own aggregated newspaper/tv/radio station that you think gives you a more varied and balanced perspective. And give positive feedback to those that you think are doing it well, and thoughtful critique to those that you think are doing it poorly. But I think we all need to stop blaming the media, some monolithic "them," and take some action because we do have both choice and responsibility here.
I’ve rambled (ranted?) enough, but I want to make sure I’m being clear here. I’m not saying you did a bad job (see paragraphs two and three at the top). Nor am I saying that any of you are "wrong" about your positions on the topics I mentioned above. The point I am arduously (good SAT prep word - come on, double-click on arduously to see what it means if you don’t know) trying to make here is that you have the ability to take your thinking further, to continue the discussions and conversations, to push your own (and your classmates’, and your teachers’) thinking and not settle for the results that happened in a class-length-bound, physical-proximity-restricted time and space. You have access to tools and resources never before dreamed of in the history of humankind – what are you going to learn today?