I really enjoyed Tom Woodward’s recent post “There Are No Shortcuts at Bionic Teaching,” but I left a comment that really didn’t say all I was thinking.
Tom mentions using fun fonts to make boring content exciting (and has particular ire for Comic Sans). I have been known to use fun fonts, but I hope I graduated from using them to disguise boring content many years ago. One of the main issues I had with a recent word processing assignment I did for one of my grad school classes is that it was intended only to see if I could do a variety of different tasks in Word rather than make something attractive, interesting, and substantial in Word. The resulting document looked like an aesthetic mess to me because I had to single space, double space, triple space; use three different fonts; prove I could bold, italicize, and underline text; and manipulate images for different effects. I didn’t wind up with a document I could use for anything later. In fact, I was embarrassed by how it looked (I was following the directions to the letter). The content was not an important part of the assignment. I wound up riffing on what I was currently doing with Beowulf in my classes and putting a bunch of Beowulf-related pictures in the document. I suppose I proved I can use Word to manipulate images and text, but I don’t think the assignment proved I can use it well to create a document that has substantial content and an attractive design.
That said, I don’t use Comic Sans because I teach high school, and I consider it an elementary font, but I don’t have any particular hatred for it. Still, I think Tom’s larger idea is that some of us create documents that are crammed full of proof that we can manipulate images and text, but that contain little substantial content. In the interest of full disclosure, though I labored over this decision, you can download a PDF of the document I created here, but I removed my required heading because I think it’s the polite thing to do. I also removed the file name from the footer because even though my files cannot be accessed except by my teachers and me, I don’t want to give folks who are interested the encouragement to try to break into my files. By the way, inserting the file name in the footer of only the last page was the only new thing I learned in doing this assignment. How useful a skill is it? I don’t know. We’ll have to see.
Tom also skewers using technology to make a boring assignment interesting. Too many teachers fall prey to this trap with Power Point. I have seen more Power Point presentations that make me want to tear my eyes out! I would much rather listen to someone talk without visuals at all than view a poorly designed Power Point. I think this guy captures Death by Power Point really well:
And this guy shows how you can use it effectively to enhance a presentation:
I liked what Tom said about “digital native/digital immigrant” terminology. I have yet to meet more than a handful of students who know as much or more about technology than I do, and that’s not boasting — it’s an observation. Granted, I think I know a bit more than the average teacher, but everything I know I taught myself by playing around with it. I haven’t worked with too many students who are willing to play around with a bit of code or a piece of software to see what happens. To my discredit, I admit sometimes (a lot of times), I take the easy way out of showing them instead of letting them struggle with it a bit. How much better would they learn if I asked them to teach themselves a bit? Likewise, teachers labeling themselves digital immigrants can be a way of giving themselves a pass on being ignorant about technology. I’m not saying teachers all need to be Vicki Davis (though she’s wonderful and it would be great if more of us were on her level), but I think we’re past the point at which it’s OK to be a complete luddite.
As an addendum to Tom’s admonition about “faking it,” as he did, I can say only that when you genuinely like and understand something the students like, and connection is genuine, it’s wonderful. I don’t pretend to be up on everything my students listen to, but the ones who like classic rock know I’m a pretty good resource, and if they have a question, they ask me. That’s genuine interest. I can talk about my passions, and Tom is right — that’s what students are interested in seeing — not that I like what they like or that I’ve latched on to the latest trend in education. I can remember vividly the occasions when I saw my teachers’ passions shared and finding what they had to say intriguing even if I didn’t necessarily share that passion. A good case in point was a recent class of my own that was derailed by a passionate discussion between a visiting teacher and me about why it is important that “Han shot first.” Truly, the students couldn’t have cared less about the issue (we are going to study Star Wars in that class beginning next week — it’s my Hero elective class), and most of them haven’t even seen the movie (!!!), but they remarked later on how interesting the discussion was. I felt like a failure after letting my class go off on such a long tangent (we discussed The Iliad very little that day), but perhaps it will be valuable in some other way down the road. At any rate, they saw two individuals talk about an issue they both knew a lot about and felt really strongly about, and I think their interest in studying the movie is piqued. And I suppose we were both certainly really ourselves in front of the students.
If you want to a see a teacher who is passionate about what he does and uses technology effectively not only to create handouts that are informative and attractive but also to have his students create thoughtful presentations with Power Point, you need to check out my friend Joe Scotese’s site. He blows me away. To me, Joe is a perfect of example of avoiding the shortcuts Tom discusses in his post. At any rate, Tom’s post resonated with me so strongly that all I could really do was agree at the time. After spending a couple of days thinking about it, I decided that for all the reasons I have discussed, Tom’s shortcuts shortchange our students, and they don’t make us good teachers or help our students learn.