May 01, 2001 6 min read
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BREAKING DOWN THE DIGITAL WALLS: Learning to Teach in a Post- Modem World, by R.W. Burniske and Lowell Monke. (State University of New York Press, 284 pages, $19.95.) In 1994, Burniske, then a humanities teacher at an international school in Malaysia, and Monke, a math and computer science teacher in Iowa, launched a collaborative series of Internet projects from opposite sides of the world. These were the heady days when the Web was still new in schools, and the two—friends from an earlier teaching post—wanted their students to use it on a global scale.

While the projects Burniske and Monke cooked up together were not always successful, they led to a series of remarkable online dialogues between the teachers. Those dialogues laid the groundwork for this book, which is essentially a joint meditation—the authors write alternate chapters—on the promise and limitations of teaching with the Internet. In the end, the limitations come out slightly ahead.

Of the two teachers, Burniske, now a researcher in the Computer Writing and Research Laboratory at the University of Texas, is clearly the more sanguine. In Malaysia, the government controlled both the media and the school curriculum. He had hoped, he writes, that the Internet would provide a way to “open my classroom to the world, rather than letting Malaysian officials and high school administrators dictate the parameters.” And it did, at least initially. During a project on the South African elections of 1994, his students solicited and received uncensored reports from that country on the dramatic events unfolding there. It gave the kids the opportunity, Burniske notes, “to participate vicariously in a historic moment.”

Unfortunately, none of the other projects matched the success of the first. Some of the participating schools would simply drop out with no explanation, never to be heard from again. And the typical online exchanges, he found, were often superficial. The computer fostered more reflex than reflection.

Monke, who is now an assistant professor of education at Wittenberg University in Ohio, had the opposite problem. His students were drowning in a flood tide of information generated by the American culture. Like Burniske, he had hoped his students would use their computer link-ups to exchange ideas with distant peers around the world. But he soon saw that the kids were much more interested in other computer applications.

Over time, Monke also began to question the very premise underlying all of his Internet-based projects—namely, that they would promote cross-cultural conversation. He discovered that most youngsters online, whether in the United States, Sweden, or Uganda, hold very similar ideas. “Students who have access to the Net,” he writes, “share a common technoculture that subsumes whatever local culture may exist.” This point really hit home during a project on utopias. When students from various countries were asked to describe their notions of an ideal society, everyone, Monke was shocked to see, imagined the same perfect world.

As it turned out, a number of the teenagers attending Monke’s school had immigrated to the United States from places like Bosnia, Russia, and Mexico. While he had been preoccupied with getting his students to communicate with foreigners via the Internet, they were missing out on face-to-face interactions with youngsters in the ESL classroom just down the hall, kids whose lives had been very different from their own. The irony was not lost on him.

As pessimistic as the authors often sound about teaching with the Internet, the overall message of the book is not, as Monke puts it, “a plea to get rid of computers.” Still, theirs is a cautionary tale. They want teachers to understand that computers and the Internet can undermine intellectual life just as easily as they can support it.

REAL LIVES: Art Teachers and the Cultures of School, by Tom Anderson. (Heinemann, 121 pages, $14.) In this enlightening little volume, Anderson, a professor of art education at Florida State University, sketches the daily activities of six art teachers from around the country, detailing the rewards and frustrations of their jobs. High on their list of frustrations, as it turns out, is the way people tend to dismiss their work with the refrain, “It’s only art.” This popular view is unfortunate, Anderson writes, because art, if it’s taught well, can be a transformative subject for students—particularly those who are bored with school. When it comes to art, one of the teachers tells the author, the ability to draw or paint isn’t nearly as important as the ability “to see.” And developing that skill, the teacher adds, “is going to change your outlook in life.”

Helping students learn to see is one of the rewards of the job, Anderson’s subjects agree, but it’s also a great challenge, too. It often means teaching kids initially awkward techniques and unfamiliar “right brain” ways of looking at the world. “I find that students who are taught basic drawing skills, basic art skills, no matter how rote they may seem to others, can step out from that and learn all the content in the world,” explains Gayle Buyukas, a jewelry- and graphic-design teacher at a Portland, Oregon, high school.

Like many teachers, these six do their share of griping about the education bureaucracy and the new standards and assessments. Initially concerned with the core academic subjects, standards-setters in many states have now tackled art education, too. But getting art teachers to comply with these new guidelines may not be easy, if those profiled here are any indication. As a teacher from Minnesota notes: “The lesson will be less effective if it doesn’t come from the energy and desire of the instructor, from their heart and soul. You can’t legislate that.”

THE FIRST R: How Children Learn Race and Racism, by Debra Van Ausdale and Joe R. Feagin. (Rowman and Littlefield, 240 pages, $23.95.) For almost a year, Syracuse University sociologist Van Ausdale observed children at an unnamed, ethnically diverse preschool to gauge their attitudes about race. The popular notion is that young children are racially innocent, but Van Ausdale saw preschoolers as young as 3 and 4 years old display what she considered frighteningly racist attitudes. She heard white children, for example, use the word “nigger” and once overheard a white girl tell a black child that she didn’t want an “African” taking care of her doll. Black children also showed signs of racial awareness. "[But] no child of color,” Van Ausdale and fellow sociologist Feagin write, “ever used racist epithets to control white children.” Their conclusion: White youngsters absorb notions of racial superiority at an early age from the surrounding culture.

This is a tantalizing thesis, and perhaps even true, but the evidence the authors present here is not entirely convincing. Part of the problem is that they focus solely on the occasional racial incident without ever zeroing in on the full nature of the children’s relationships at school.

We don’t know, for example, how often black and white children play happily together as equals. Despite such flaws, this is a provocative book that should serve as a wake-up call to those educators who think young children are racially colorblind.

—David Ruenzel


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