My Magic Trick for Engaging Students in a Media-Rich World

By February 8, 2012 Guest Posts

A guest blog written by one of our 2008 Gold Star recipients, Brian Winkel.  He currently teaches at Cedar Falls High School in the English/Journalism Department.

In the 20 years since I began teaching journalism and English, the tools of the trade have undergone science fiction-like technological innovations. In 1993, there were no digital cameras, cell phones or iPods. There was no Internet and desktop publishing was in its infancy. In all of my newspaper classes all the way up to 2003, I still taught students to shoot with film and develop in darkrooms. Before printing each edition of our weekly newspaper, we still pasted up with scissors, tape and light tables. In my literature classes, overhead projectors and 16mm films and Dukane slides made their regular appearances. Of course, things have changed and at an exponential pace. Just this week, I learned that two Iowa school districts are launching K-12 schools that will be 100 percent Internet-based, and right here in the Cedar Valley, a number of schools have left their printed curricula for the innovations of Apple’s new iPad tablets.

But it’s not just the tools of the trade that have changed. The millennial kids of today run with new logic boards in their DNA. They are used to collaborating on digital networks, expect to receive instant feedback from independently chosen stimuli, and think that unless they have at least two tasks going simultaneously, they are underachieving. They weren’t even born when I first started teaching.

And I think students do deserve the very best digital tools available for building their skills. No one will ever accuse me or most other teachers of sitting on our hands when it comes to advocating for the latest hardware, software and camera equipment to prepare students for tomorrow’s communication jobs, but one thing in the middle of all of this has never changed, and I’m confident it never will. It’s the main inspiration that draws me to work with each increasingly techno-dependent class of kids: it’s the absolute endorphin rush of racing side by side with my students toward real world outcomes using their increasingly well-honed skills.

When I first started teaching, I advised one bi-monthly newspaper. Now I have kids running a weekly paper and a weekly-updated website and a weekly 10-minute broadcast show and individual bi-monthly podcasts on a wide variety of topics, (here’s a few made by students Austin SchaubAustin Hansen, and Christina Brammer) and a blog for the Cedar Falls Patch website and a 200-page color yearbook that over half of all the students at Cedar Falls High School are willing to pay $45 to own annually. In my American literature classes, I have my kids study texts like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and then write their own persuasive pieces modeling his techniques as they publish their personal letters in the high school paper. The stakes have got to be real, and the deadlines have got to be frequent.

Yes, kids want to use the latest digital tools, but the challenge is not keeping up with those developments. It’s giving them a real forum for shining. They want to publish. They want to create for real critics. They want to perform. They want to take real measurements of their local creeks. They want to interview community members on topics that interest them. They want to put their math skills to work on real widgets. Every time they get a chance for this is a lesson they’ll never forget.

Of course, sometimes there will be mistakes. Just like the thrill of a playing a close basketball game, sometimes the other team sinks the last shot, but no one forgets that moment, and everyone is hoping for the chance of redemption to arrive ASAP. It takes administrators, parents and community members to accept that the path to success may be bumpy and embarrassing in a public showcase, but the peaks will be so much better than report cards.

Personally, when it comes to technology, I’m still somewhat of a Luddite. I’ve never owned and rarely even held a cell phone. I don’t have a Facebook account, and I’ve never tweeted, but all of that is really beside the point. Technology is only a tool. I don’t think today’s kids are obsessed with gadgets. They, like me, are obsessed with the outcomes they can get from these tools, and I’d argue that that’s the way it’s always been.