Jonathan Alter exemplifies the sorry state of today’s journalism

As a teacher of Mass Media, I take great interest in current events – and pay particular attention to how they are presented. Admittedly, it’s getting easier to teach students what not to do using examples from the writers of today. While I don’t like teaching things in this manner, necessarily, it can be a very effective way of doing things. As an aside, I much prefer to use pieces like The Hard Road, written by Thomas French, and Final Salute, written by Jim Sheeler.

Which brings me to Jonathan Alter’s latest piece for Newsweek. A Case of Senioritis, Gates tackles education’s two-headed monster is, quite possibly, the definition of a puff piece. Actually, it’s a shameless plug for everything Bill Gates, and Mr. Alter should be ashamed, to say the least. Because of the money Gates wields, his voice is heard – especially when those like Alter are willing to forget the principles of Journalism as they were taught.

To be fair, Alter does mention that Gates previously spent $2 billion to break up larger schools into smaller ones, reducing class size at the same time. He did mention that Gates has now come to the realization that class size has little to do with the issue – that it’s the quality of that person who’s leading the class that matters, but the topic of attack du jour is now seniority and seniority pay.

Alter refers to this as the two-headed monster of education in his piece. According to Alter, “After exhaustive study, the Gates Foundation and other experts have learned that the only in-school factor that fully correlates is quality teaching, which seniority hardly guarantees. It’s a moral issue. Who can defend a system where top teachers are laid off in a budget crunch for no other reason than that they’re young?” These statements are based upon the oversimplified idea that all young teachers are the “top teachers” and that those with experience are not. And this is just preposterous. In terms that are certainly more blunt, this is actually offensive – and both Gates, and more specifically, Alter – should be held accountable for propagating this idea so freely.

I’ve said it many times before – there are lazy teachers and teachers who just aren’t that good or passionate about what they’re doing at every level – first year teachers and 30th year teachers can be equally as ineffective – and for very different reasons. They can also both be exceptional – and it’d be nice if both Gates and Alter would recognize this for once.

Alter, in his tribute to all things Gates,  takes some pot shots at the “jaundiced” Diane Ravitch as well. He does so without giving her the opportunity to defend herself or contradict the statements that Mr. Gates has to say. A little one-sided, wouldn’t you say? Well, I would. And I’m living for the day that people like Alter and Gates and Davis Guggenheim, of Waiting for Superman notoriety, actually take the time to sit down and allow someone to refute their faulty ideas. They don’t have the guts to sit down with Ms. Ravitch, though. They’d rather just sit down with Alter and the likes of Oprah – people who are going to advance their cause sans logical questioning.

Perhaps the most appalling part of Alter’s piece, however, is allowing Gates to get away with the following: “In most states, pay and promotion of teachers are connected 100 percent to seniority. This is contrary to everything the world’s second-richest man believes about business: ‘Is there any other part of the economy where someone says, ‘Hey, how long have you been mowing lawns? … I want to pay you more for that reason alone.’ Gates favors a system where pay and promotion are determined not just by improvement in student test scores (an idea savaged by teachers’ unions) but by peer surveys, student feedback (surprisingly predictive of success in the classroom), video reviews, and evaluation by superiors. In this approach, seniority could be a factor, but not the only factor.”

As a teacher, I am greatly offended at this comment that Gates said and Alter printed. I mean absolutely no offense whatsoever to the landscapers of this world – they work extremely hard – but this analogy simply makes no sense. It’s a classic example of somebody giving a faulty analogy and using faulty logic. Actually, let’s ask Mr. Alter if we could simply change the quote to the following: “Hey, how long have you been writing articles?…I want to pay you more for that reason alone.”

Or, for that matter, let’s continue to compare things in an inaccurate manner in such a manner: “Mr. Alter, you’ve been writing for X number of years, and you just wrote a piece that demonstrates absolutely none of the journalistic principals the industry was founded upon. Because of this, and the fact that Newsweek is hurting for money big time, we’ve decided to let you go and we’re bringing a new young buck because he is young and therefore must be better than you.”

Faulty logic. And it runs amok in Alter’s article. Actually, I think I’ll just stick to French and Sheeler – I’d rather my students aspire to be better than Mr. Alter, his position be damned.

I love to read… (or, please don’t take my books away for the sake of pushing the iPad on me)

You know, I truly love reading. I always have – my grandparents started me early, and I have a vivid memory of reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit in about 3rd grade. I was captivated by the characters – and scared by them as well. I’ve learned, I’ve traveled, I’ve been brought to tears, I’ve been inspired, I’ve been scared, and I’ve escaped — all through the power of words and the ability of some incredible writers to take me to a different place.

I try to impart this love of reading on my students each and every day. I think it’s important that we impress upon our students that we can find whatever we want on the pages of books that are at our disposal at all times. But I’m worried about where we are heading with technology. I’m all for using available tech in order to reach a reluctant reader. I’m just not sure that we need to believe that this is the absolute future, so to speak. I’ve heard constantly that the iPad will streamline reading in classrooms – that it will save money and that it will be the vehicle for all to read. I’m just not so sure about this. And I would also like to make it clear that I have no problems using them as a supplement, just not a replacement.

First of all, they are pretty darn expensive. Yeah, yeah, yeah – I know – so is a class set of Elements of Literature — and let me go on record as saying I’m also not a fan of using the anthologies (first and foremost because I think they lead to laziness on the part of the teacher). But there’s a lot more involved in that brilliant piece of technology that starts at $499 per. Are we getting class sets or are we getting one per student? Are we letting the students take them home or are they to remain in the room? To me, this is the crux. Schools will argue for class sets – that this is all that’s needed – that this is the way to save. But lost in this argument is the idea of instructional time. Now my students will need to be provided the time to read in class – valuable instructional time that’s now been taken away. Valuable time where learning is fostered is now lost to what will be nothing more than a gimmick to many, leading to even more laziness. Beyond this, let’s take a look at support for the technology. Who’s going to take care of these? The way I see it, we’d be lucky to get three years out of each – maybe a little longer if we’re very diligent with their upkeep and care. I’ve seen this to be the case with most laptop carts we’ve had in our district. Try as we may, we’re still dealing with students who aren’t always the most careful when handling technology, no matter how thorough the teacher is in promoting their care.

And while I’m sure that some schools have seen success in their use, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that this is always going to be the case. Seton Hill University unrolled a promotion this year in which every single incoming freshman received both an iPad and a 13″ MacBook pro. Don’t get me wrong, it’s enticing, and most incoming freshmen probably don’t realize that these weren’t truly just given to them. I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to speak to some former students attending Seton Hill, but came across an article entitled Reacting to the iPads that was recently published in the Setonian Online. Read it and you’ll see some mixed reviews. The possibilities are certainly endless, but you’ll see students who aren’t necessarily using them for their intended purpose: “I really like the iPad, I just don’t see the necessity of it. I love technology, so I’m definitely not complaining, but I don’t use it much for school work,” freshman Laura Homison said. (Bonus point opportunity to the first of my Mass Media or Yearbook students who happens to read this and brings that quote in rewritten the proper way according to AP style…)

Now let’s be fair. For every Laura Homison, there’s probably another student who is using the iPad “properly.” But I also think there’s something to be said in the following taken from the article: Most textbooks for the iPad also lack tools for highlighting and annotating text. I know, I know, I’m not letting my students write in the books we have for their use. But at the college level, when students are paying for each book, this is an advantage that comes along with each purchase.

In my teaching career of 13 years I’ve noticed a sharp rise in the amount of students who are reading for pleasure and I think that this is partly due to the Harry Potter series as well as the Twilight series, despise them as I may. I have to give them their due, however, as they have both persuaded many reluctant readers to find something else to read after they’ve finished them – the gateway to more reading, if you will. Pretty hard to begrudge them for this, no matter how sick I am of sorcerers, werewolves, and vampires.

And I’m a tech kind of guy, so please don’t take this as me being against the use of technology in the classroom, I’m just not much for the use of this technology as a replacement for hard copies of books. There’s something to be said about having that tangible copy of The Book Thief in hand. Being a collector of books, there’s something to be said to see them accumulate, knowing you’ve accomplished something as you put each newly finished book in its proper place on the shelf. As I’ve moved around through the years I can tell you without a doubt how cumbersome my book collection has become to both pack and unpack. But I can also tell you how much I have looked forward to unpacking the books from their boxes and getting them organized in their new home.

I think it’s important that we model a love of reading for our students. It’s important for them to see us as readers and to also see that we pursue lifelong learning through reading – in whatever type of genre that may be. And it’s important that your librarian is as militant in her love of books as ours is at Greensburg Salem. If you don’t have a Carrie Vottero in your school’s library, you’re missing out. Truly.

As for my favorites, well, I’m asked this a lot. In the picture below can be seen the books I most frequently recommend, with the exception of the aforementioned The Book Thief, which is currently on loan to a student. Each of these books has helped to form who I am, has gotten me to where I am today. (From left to right: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Le Petit Prince, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (graphic novel form), The Hunger Games, Native Son, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Fountainhead, Atlas Shrugged, The Catcher in the Rye, On the Road, High Fidelity, The Big Sleep, Road to Perdition, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Steppenwolf)

I once attended a conference for teachers of Journalism and had the opportunity to hear Thomas French, formerly of the St. Petersburg Times, speak. He provided us with a handout that summed up what writing was to him. At first, coming from a comics writer, I discounted it as not possibly being serious enough. The more I thought of it, though, the more I realized the idiocy of this thought process. At the simplest level, Dennis O’Neill, in his forward to The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics, nails what he expects of a text when he reads anything. It’s something that’s stuck with me ever since and I’ll leave you with it. If you’ve gotten to this point in the post, you deserve the reward of something great, as opposed to my rambling on and on…

“Here’s what I’d like you to do for me: Make me laugh.  Make me cry.  Tell me my place in the world.  Lift me out of my skin and place me in another.  Show me places I have never visited and carry me to the ends of time and space.  Give my demons names and help me to comfort them.  Demonstrate for me possibilities I’ve never thought of and present me with heroes who will give me courage and hope.  Ease my sorrows and increase my joy.  Teach me compassion.  Entertain and enchant and enlighten me. Tell me a story.”