Jun 29, 2009

Student Activism

As the world continues to watch chaos unfold in Iran, it’s important to understand our own duty as American citizens towards activism. A free and democratic society is one where differences are settled with debate and not a battlefield. Chronically at the forefront of public debate are the student activists, who wield their positions with passionate rhetoric, winning the hearts and minds of fellow citizens as they go. If you feel like taking part in this oldest and dearest of American traditions, here are a few tips that will help you along the way (regardless of where you may stand on the political spectrum):

The first thing you should do is inform yourself. One of the greatest tools at your disposal will be the ability to articulate and argue your point of view. If you can’t establish your voice as credible, your cause will be lost in a flood of misunderstanding and counter-arguments. Research not only your own perspective, but that of the opposition as well- anticipate how you will need to persuade others to join your fight.

Next, recruit and organize. Use everything you can think of- social networking sites, school common grounds, even the opinion letters section of your school newspaper could help turn a like-minded individual into a fellow activist. Make sure to utilize the press every step of the way. Any journalists who cover your efforts will basically give you free advertising. Try to keep them on your side- even though the press is supposed to be totally objective, a carefully placed word or phrase could easily either demonize or glorify your cause .

As you look deeper into how you can have a bigger impact, align yourself with larger-organizations that are fighting for the same thing. With activism, there is always power in numbers.

Be visible, and be clear. Don’t leave any room for confusion when demonstrating. Although your arguments may be complex, try to keep things as concise as possible so those casually observing will have no doubt what you are fighting for. It could be helpful to print out a short (roughly a page) pamphlet that explains your position to those who may want to know more.

Know your rights. Free speech and freedom of assembly are some of the most closely held rights that we as Americans enjoy. Read up on what you can and can’t do so you’ll know when your rights are infringed upon.

Finally, and most importantly, keep it peaceful. Passions will run high, but one of the quickest ways to draw condemnation is through demonstrations that involve something other than words. Any violence or vandalism will likely cause more harm than good by giving your opponents ammunition to use against you.

Once you have a plan and supporters, exercise those rights and fight for what you believe in. There’s no more satisfaction than that which comes from doing it yourself, so be the change you want to see.

Jun 23, 2009

Stay Sharp During The Summer

Bountiful summer is upon us. For students, that means plenty of sun, heat, and free time now that the school year is gone. And even though the days are longer and the weather is warm, the extended vacation will inevitably draw us indoors. Television and videogames can sing a siren song to anyone without a whole lot to do and a whole bunch of time to do it. The key, of course, is to stay active! But if summer school and college prep classes aren’t exactly your cup of tea, here are a few summer activities that can be both engaging and beneficial.

Amusement parks are a real blast, but for something a little more cerebral, try a museum or science center. Few students visit these types of places outside of a school field trip, and it can be liberating to wander at your own will, as opposed to being stuck in the rigid “go there, look here” format of a class-time outing. Find something that interests you, like a painting gallery, observatory, or zoo, and then bring your friends.

Reading and writing ability can take a plunge during the summer months, so hit the local library or bookstore and pick out a few titles that peak your interest. If all you can think about is reaching for the X-Box controller, try some fiction from your favorite videogame. Journaling is another great way to keep these essential skills sharp. Make a commitment to sit down and write every day. Even if you just spend five or ten minutes scribbling down a couple lines, you’ll be exercising critical brain functions that would otherwise be shutdown until September.

Try to create as much as you can. Summer is the perfect time to try something new, like drawing or playing guitar. You could join an art class that is laid back and lets you go at your own pace, or you could start a band to rock out with your newfound musical talent. Remember to keep it as fun as possible- you’re supposed to enjoy yourself for these three months.

Don’t shy away from volunteering- there are plenty of opportunities to donate your time towards something you’d enjoy. If you like hiking, volunteer with the local parks service. If you like Basketball, try coaching a team at the local youth center. Not only will you be serving the community, you’ll be adding some extra spice to your college application.

At the very least, get out and do all those fun summer activities. Go to the beach, or have a water gun fight, or eat ice cream in the park. There will be plenty of time to play videogames when it’s below freezing and there’s a foot of snow on the ground!

Jun 16, 2009

Can You Design A Better Course Than Your Teacher?

America has a long-standing tradition of industrialization. We tend to standardize and implement on an ever-increasing scale with just about everything we involve ourselves in, from agriculture to automobiles. The same can be said for education. Parallels can be drawn to a batch-processing assembly line where lecture-driven classes turn out 25 students per classroom, per teacher, per 50 minute session.

Despite American efforts towards an industrialized system of education, graduation rates have stalled over the last 30 years. But if industrialization increases productivity exponentially, why do we see this stall?

One answer could be that the system in place simply does not work when brought to bear on the problems surrounding modern education. Industrialization is easy when one is creating a product. Shaping minds, however, is not quite as simple. An ever-increasing class size and a decreasing teacher-to-student ratio are both difficult barriers to circumvent. Kids feel as though they are stuck in a system that is simply putting them through the paces and pushing them towards a purpose-less graduation.

Myk Garn, Director of Educational Technology at the Southern Regional Educational Board, believes one solution lies with a form of individualized instruction coming not from teachers, but rather from the students themselves. “The more you standardize a process, the more it must also be individualized. The idea is mass-customization for effectiveness,” he explains. “What we know is that teachers are at the end of their ability to individualize instruction at some point around 25-30 students. But many smart minds believe students, using technology, which is inherently a 1:1 medium, guided by a teacher, can realistically individualize instruction themselves. We need to try this because if we want to make a significant difference in the success rate of students, we have to do something significantly different.”

Myk’s vision puts students at the helm, guiding the curriculum in a model that is student-driven as opposed to student-centered. It is the student, Myk proposes, that should be able to direct their own learning, passing on knowledge to their peers in ways that they see fit.

The tools to do just that are already in place. Modern technology gives the student the ability to create their very own learning objects and modules, driving the methodology towards higher efficacy in radical new ways.

This, of course, raises many questions. Where will the teacher fit into this equation? How will the students be guided so that accomplishment and achievement can be recognized and measured? What will this new model look like in the real world? Will students be better or worse equipped for the workforce?

With new possibilities comes new hurtles, but the most important question remains: can you design a better course than your teacher?

Jun 1, 2009

Public Speaking Tips

Public speaking can really hurt, but a disinterested audience will make it even worse. Boring topics, monotonous tones, and a seemingly endless stream of words can put people to sleep quicker than a blunt blow to the head. Make sure you aren’t a public speaking offender by following a few simple tips.

In a speech, there are two very important considerations. The first is the audience. How big of an audience will you speak too? What kind of people are they? What are you trying to tell them? Remember that everything you say can be construed differently depending on things like your audience’s background, beliefs, and age. Create a speech for those who will hear it. The second very important consideration is the time you're allotted to speak. How will you fit in everything you want to tell them without going on too long (or, possibly, not long enough)? How will each piece of the speech flow together to create one cohesive message?

These are all things you should work out as you practice your speech. Tailor the tone and word choice to your audience, and get a feel for how it flows. Connecting each piece of information is of the utmost importance. A speech that flows well will keep an audience’s attention, while one that does not will confuse and discourage other from listening. Finally, practice the speech aloud, timing yourself as you go. Good timing and practice will allow you to engage the audience with eye contact and hand gestures. People are more likely to pay attention if they feel like you are talking to them and not reading off a script.

Once you have the words down, consider infusing your speech with some multimedia. Double-check the compatibility of the venue at which you will be speaking and plan accordingly. Just about every speech can benefit from the addition of a slideshow, song, or short movie. One cool idea is to provide pre-burned CD’s to your audience (if it is small enough and laptop-equipped) containing some pictures that illustrate your words. The audience can open these as you direct or at their leisure, and will engage them in a fashion that is more effective then throwing the same pictures on a large screen at the front of the room. This way, the audience will feel like they are part of the speech as opposed to merely observers of it.

Once you are comfortable, get up on the stage and let it go! Try to speak as organically and normal as possible, even though you may have practiced each word a hundred times. Be wary of speaking too quickly- presenters will often speed up their speech if they are nervous. Before you know it, you’ll be done and the audience will be cheering!