Among School Children

"How can we know the dancer from the dance?"  W.B. Yeats

I have spent this week back with "school children" again after being away from K-12 for some years. Well, "school children" doesn't sound quite right, though it worked for Yeats' poem that I borrowed for this post's title.

These were high school rising juniors in a program sponsored by NJ SEEDS. SEEDS is an academic enrichment and leadership development program for high-achieving, low-income youth. NJ SEEDS is a privately funded, state-wide nonprofit organization. Their mission is to prepare qualified students for placement at top schools and to empower students to live lives of leadership, professional accomplishment, and service to the community.

They start with 7th grade students who take classes on Saturdays and over the summer. They receive placement assistance for 9th grade in some of the best high schools in the country. They also have a Young Scholars Program open to eligible 4th grade students. Their College Preparatory Program is open to eligible 8th grade students, and they also take Saturday and summer classes and get college admissions guidance.

Back in 2006, when I was at NJIT, I was part of the initial "Media Matters" summer leadership program for rising juniors. This week the students are in residence at Seton Hall University for the 2009 program.

Though media still matters, media has changed quite a bit in the past 3 years, and so have the students. The students are in residence from Sunday through Saturday. I was presenting four morning sessions to the entire group on topics in media. The 1.0 "lectures" are their common experience, but the interesting part is when they split into two groups and get to the write of read/write and produce some media. They are "taught" (well, given the chance to teach themselves) how to do a podcast, edit audio and video and use some free online tools to deliver a product.

As of now, I don't know what that final product will be. My part is over for now and the students will present their product Saturday when parents come to campus. Back in 2006 & 2007 when I first worked with SEEDS, we had students create a website in the standard HTML way, but this year they are more likely to use a Facebook page than learn Dreamweaver.

This week several people linked to a CNET article that was written by one of CNET's "Gen Y" interns. (Personally, I prefer the term "NetGen" to Gen Y or Millennials because I feel that what changes this generation is the Internet, and I would probably narrow this group to those born after 1990.) The CNET article, "Generation Y: We're just not that into Twitter" by Sharon Vaknin recognizes that Twitter as a place where "people expose the most minute details of their lives" seems a natural for Gen Y. But recent surveys (from Pace University and the Participatory Media Network) shows that only 22 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds use Twitter. That same group has an incredible 99% participation on some social network.

I'm with the NetGen on this one. Twitter, to me, seems more of a feature that could be part of a larger site. It is like the status update in Facebook. Maybe there is some advantage to having it stand alone without the "distractions" of photos and the many Facebook applications (many of which I find annoying anyway), but I don't want my features alone. I prefer a suite.

Vaknin concludes that Gen Y wants more "self-branding" features than Twitter offers. Look at the attention two of Facebook's newest features. The "Like" feature had 4.1 million users marking items by others as liked 7.1 million times in the first 24 hours of the feature going live. (16.3 million users liked 46.2 million items in the first week 39.6 million users liked 226.8 million items in the first month.) The Facebook personal URL launch had 200,000 user names taken in the first three minutes; 500,000 user names went in first 15 minutes 1 million user names were gone in the first hour. Self-branding?

Does that surprise you more than a NYT article saying that Gen Y thinks Catcher in the Rye is dated? You mean kids today can't identify with a teen from 1951? I love Catcher but it is not a life kids can really imagine living - and would any parent want their child to be a Holden? Catcher is a historical novel.

Over the past four days, I asked the students whether they agreed with a series of descriptions of what their generation is supposed to believe. These are the ones that they agreed described them.
- The Internet is better than TV.
- Reality TV (including news) is not real.
- We would rather watch or listen to it, rather than read it.

- Multi-tasking is a way of life.
- Typing is preferred to handwriting.
- Staying connected is essential.
- We have zero tolerance for delays.
- We expect services and tools to have at least a free version, if not just be free.
- We would rather pull information than have it pushed at us.
- We rely on technology, especially the web, to do schoolwork and for entertainment.

- We value words, but connect better with & prefer to use visuals when possible.
- What peers say (word of mouth, online reviews) mean more than "expert" reviews.
– We are “agnostic” about many products. It doesn't make that big difference if it's a Windows computer or Mac, Dell or HP, IE or Firefox... (However, they do have their favorites: iPods over others, Google rather than competitors - no one seemed to know that Bing or Wolfram Alpha even existed.)

William Butler Yeats "Among School Children" (excerpt)

I walk through the long schoolroom questioning;
A kind old nun in a white hood replies;
The children learn to cipher and to sing,
To study reading-books and histories,
To cut and sew, be neat in everything
In the best modern way - the children's eyes
In momentary wonder stare upon
A sixty-year-old smiling public man.

The final line of the Yeats poem - "How can we know the dancer from the dance?" - asks whether or not it is possible to make that kind of distinction. That poem quickly moves from the classroom to other matters, but it was a question I asked this week going back to Marshall McLuhan's often-quoted "The medium is the message."  Can we separate medium and message? Is the Net and the user becoming more integrated? Should we even want to separate the dancer and the dance, the student and the content, the teacher and the teaching?

If you're curious, you can watch a video about the SEEDS program.


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