Saturday, April 10, 2010

What Is Propaganda?

Last night I attended a dramatic production of my all-time favorite novel, My Name is Asher Lev. In his book, author Chaim Potok tells the story of a young Hasidic Jew trying to reconcile his artistic genius with the expectations of a strict Jewish community. He is cast out of his Jewish community and at one point in the story tries to respond by taking steps away from his Jewish roots. He feels that is what he must do to become a true artist. But his friend and mentor Jacob Kahn pulls him back in with these words: “Listen to me, Asher Lev. As an artist you are responsible to no one and nothing, except to yourself and to the truth as you see it. Do you understand? An artist is responsible to his art. Anything else is propaganda. Anything else is what the Communists in Russia call art.” Kahn recognizes that Asher is, at his core, a Jew. Not only that, but he is a devout Jew. Though the Jewish community has cast him out he must not abandon his Judaism for an artistic image. Rather he must embrace this part of himself and allow it to infuse every inch of his paintings.

I love this story on so many levels. I love the understanding of art that is presented throughout. The quote above is telling. Since the dawn of the 20th century we have created a world infiltrated with so much propaganda. Even as I teach about the media and have my students create their own mock propaganda I often wonder where the line is between propaganda and art.

I think the best example of this dichotomy at work exists in the Jewish concentration camp called Theresienstadt. This camp was set up as the "model" camp where the Red Cross and other foreign agencies could come in to "investigate." Of course there were no killings at this camp (though most of its prisoners were sent off to Auschwitz after the inspections were over). Artists were employed by the S.S. to paint pictures and murals that would beautify the setting. This was propaganda. These same men and woman would steal away with paper and supplies to create their own images. This was art. Those paintings are grotesque and dark, encapsulating what is really going on within this "model" camp. Art does not have to be beautiful, but it does have to be true. It has to be a representation of what the artist believes is reality.

As Jacob Kahn was mentoring a young boy to become an artist he was showing him how to remain true to himself in a world of so much opposition. In a world that told him he could not be an artist and a Jew, the tension is real and honest. That is what I love about the book and about Chaim Potok's writings.

I believe that true artists are rare. Most of us create for something outside ourselves. The times and pressures of our society have forced us to funnel even our creative energy into the vast capitalist machine where time is money and money is paramount.

Which leaves me wondering - with all of this emphasis on design and creation in schools, are we stymieing the true artists? When we set up authentic problems we are asking them to design for a business or an organization. Isn't there value in teaching our students to write or draw or simply for themselves? Don't we need to teach self-expression first and foremost? Sometimes self-expression is best cultivated in the midst of opposition (just look at the Beatles). Now that we are embracing creativity are we enabling "artists" become shallow and utilitarian?

Do I add fuel to the propaganda machine?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Propaganda and Digital Video

I have an excellent video clip that I show to my classes about the "duck and cover" drills during the Cold War. It's totally and utterly absurd - the ridiculous lengths that people went to as they tried to brainwash the general public about the Red infiltration at every corner. I love getting my students to laugh at our parents' generation. I like getting them to picture their parents as kids, hiding under their desks hoping that cheap plywood will save them from instant incineration when Russia launches The Big One.

Could there be anything more entertaining than letting 30+ high-schoolers loose with flip video cameras to create their own Cold War propaganda? I submit there is not. I'm even feeling fairly confident about doing this in my crazy fourth block class. In fact, with the characters in that class I can foresee that propaganda videos would be truly entertaining.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Debate Wiki

Today I introduced my debate team to our new wiki Since next years' topic will encompass military deployment in six different countries my idea starting off is to have a page for each country. Here I will post articles, questions, comments and thoughts. Next week in debate practice we will have a quiz game based on this information. I think this will be a fun way to help students learn the background knowledge needed for next year's policy debate topic.

I told the kids today that the knowledge they gain from using a Wiki to learn together will far outlast the crazy cases and strategies that advanced teams have. Knowledge of the topic is the starting point. Too many of my novices are trying out advanced techniques before mastering the foundations. Hopefully we can get back to the basics before next year's competition starts.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

FDR, the Father of Podcasting

FDR became president at time when the nation was crippled. It had spent the previous two years suffering in the hands of a disconnected President and a laissez-faire administration. FDR changed all that. One of the first things he did was to look around him, figure out what resources he had as his disposal and how to use those resources to connect with the American people.

He did this with the Fireside Chat. These "chats" were 5-10 minute speeches broadcast on the radio. Their aim was twofold. First, they were to educate the American people about conditions in the nation. Second, they were to raise morale, foster unity and give hope. Hope was the theme that ran through each of these. It was all about the idea that America would rebuild itself again.

This was how I explained the Fireside Chat to my Academic US History students. Each group was assigned a topic related to the Great Depression and New Deal. Their research was conducted from online research databases and they crafted speeches which I proofed and approved.

My biggest fear however was using the Audacity application. I was afraid that I would have to spend a lot of time introducing students to the application and showing them how to use it. I was afraid that it would malfunction, that it would not properly convert to Mp3, or that a host of other problems would arise. I was not even sure where the microphones were kept!

As it turned out the only thing I had to fear was fear itself. All of the kids had used Audacity. Microphones and headsets are stored in an unlocked cupboard in each computer lab. They were recording, saving and exporting to the Global folder before I even realized what happened.

As it turns out I booked too many days in the computer lab. My students are wrapping up their projects well ahead of schedule and giving us time for a rare "movie day." I think I'm looking forward to "Cinderella Man" just as much as they are!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Debate is life, the rest is just prep time

That is the slogan on a bumper sticker that my freshman have stuck onto their evidence tubs.

As we begin to wind down competition for this year, I'm already thinking about prepping for next year. More specifically what I can do to get my debaters researching effectively right now? Before they begin writing their cases for next year, I would like them to have a good background knowledge of the issues related to next year's topic.

The topic is as follows:

Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially reduce its military and/or police presence in one or more of the following: South Korea, Japan, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Iraq, Turkey

I am trying to think of how I can use blogs or a wiki to promote research. For instance, should I have each team keep a blog and update it once or twice weekly with news related to one of those six countries? Should I give each team a country to blog about?

The other option would be to use a Wiki. Every week I would create a new wiki page with links to articles. The kids would be responsible for reading the articles and writing summaries about them in the Wiki. I would also create other pages with broad topics that they need to research. Of course this does not ensure 100% participation, but since PBWorks records who has made edits I would have a pretty good idea of who is doing the prep work (therefore first in line for the Wake Forest tourney in September!)

I feel like blogging would be the most straightforward, however a wiki would encourage more interaction between the students on the team and it would leave us with one portal of information about the topic. Since most of my kids are younger, I'm not necessarily confident in their ability to find good scholarly articles on their own. I know some of the best resources for information on foreign policy. Therefore, a wiki might allow for more scaffolding. The older kids on the team can also be responsible for creating pages and research topics for the younger ones to pursue.

Fortunately I have a little time to think about it. Right now I just have to get us through Metrofinals, and States!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Big Brother is watching...and he is your school technology specialist

Recently I've been much more attuned to news story regarding technology in schools. The big one this week involved a suburban Philadelphia school district accused of spying on students through the webcam on school-issued laptops.

Ironically, I happened to be in Philly when this story came out. Perhaps even more ironically I happened to be in a rival suburban Philadelphia high school, hanging out with a lot of opinionated educators and lawyers (otherwise known as debate people). Needless to say, the story was popular topic of conversation in the judges lounge.

One of those engaged in the discussion was a former D.C. prosecutor. He railed against the privacy issues and clear violation of the 4th amendment rights. Many have equated the spying to a 1984-esque scenario. Is big brother watching over the students' shoulders? In fact, the student in question was eating a Mike-and-Ike, a harmless piece of candy that was mistaken for drugs on the computer webcam.

While I believe that the Lower Merion School district was clearly wrong in their actions, it does bring important questions to the forefront. As our lives become more integrated with technology the barriers between school and private life seem to blur. What rights do schools (or companies for that matter) have regarding their electronics issued to students and workers?

The privacy and security issues raise a host of questions regarding implications for child pornography. Many students have had the laptops open in their rooms and are enraged that they could have been spied upon. The blogosphere is reacting strongly. Americans are outraged.

But I can't help wondering how this news would have been received in other parts of the world. For instance, I've heard weird stories from people who've traveled to China. One businessman stayed in a hotel and happened to remark to his traveling partner that he was cold. Shortly thereafter he heard a knock on the door - it was a concierge with blankets.

People that work for the state department have said they are told to expect to be spied upon when in China. The social scientist in me is fascinated by this.

Privacy is truly an entrenched American value. The abridgment of that makes you a pariah in our society. And frankly, I'm thankful. I hope that our technological abilities never outpace our commitment to preserving the underpinnings of democracy.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Snowmeggedon: Wiki Style

I will honestly admit that I was overjoyed on Wednesday to look out my bedroom window and see...well...nothing. I was overjoyed to turn on the TV (thank goodness I still had power) and find that George Mason was closed. I enjoyed sitting on my couch, listening to the 40 mile per hour wind gusts, finishing the TLA course, and updating our class wikis. This was much easier than writing our wiki articles together in the classroom. I could rest assured that anything I missed would be added to later on, anything that was irrelevant would be removed, and I could temporarily suspend my type-A tendencies and rely on my classmates to fact-check everything I posted.

Snowmeggedon has been a lovely week. While many find it overwhelmingly monotonous to be confined at home, I have been thoroughly enjoying the experience. I've been immensely productive, yet much less stressed in the midst of that productivity. I've been seriously thinking that if I could only teach from the comfort of my "reading room", or from an inconspicuous corner in Panera Bread, well, that would be the life.

With the advent of online learning that future may not be far off. For now I'm beginning to think about the potential value of wikis in high school education - especially after losing a week of instructional time. In all likelihood it will be another 100 years before Virginia again has the kind of winter than makes distance learning imperative. In the meantime, I'm toying with the idea of implementing a Wiki-based review for AP US History. For the past two years I have been trying to find effective strategies for AP review but have not been completely satisfied. I am mulling over some thoughts about setting up a Wiki before spring break and giving students a calendar of responsibilities in much the same way as we've had in ITS class. In this manner review can begin to happen outside of class long before it starts in class.

Happy shoveling.