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When I tried Showing my Students a Video, Alarms went off

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After watching and listening to a recent Education Nation interview NBC's Andrea Mitchell did with Pasi Sahlberg, Finland's Minister of Education, I am even more astounded by the low regard we show for the teaching profession and the lack of trust we have in educators in this country. Finland, we are told, leads the world in science and math education, while as a nation, the U.S. trails far behind. (A side note is due here, because I have always felt that if we compared our heavily-resourced schools in upscale suburban neighborhoods with those of other nations, we would hold our own). Nevertheless, Salhberg attributes much of Finland's success to the high esteem in which his country holds its teachers. They are highly paid, trained at government expense, unionized, and given lots of freedom and autonomy -- not driven by standardized testing.

Here in the United States, on the other hand, there is an unprecedented assault on the teaching profession, much of it emanating directly from the U.S. Department of Education through its Race To The Top initiative. Corporate media and the powerhouse education foundations have also joined in. Then there's recent films like Waiting For Superman and programs like Education Nation which continue to blame teachers and their unions for all of the problems faced by public education. Rarely are teachers included in the current high-level discussions about how to improve schooling. In short, we not only trail Finland and most of the developed nations in math and science scores, but we lag in respect and autonomy for teachers as well. Teachers are increasingly being reduced to status of delivery clerks of a pre-packaged curriculum. They are losing much of their power over their own teaching. The net result is that the restrictions being placed on teacher freedom and autonomy are crippling the quest for scientific learning and other areas of literacy and knowledge.

A recent experience teaching inside a Chicago Public School building really drove this point home for me. During the summer, I occasionally teach a graduate-level certification course for aspiring middle-school teachers. This past summer, the class was held off my university's campus and inside a CPS building to make it more accessible to students coming from all areas of the city. When teaching this class, I use Internet sites and videos to show my students images of good middle-grade teaching. So imagine my shock the first day of class when I logged into the school's Internet system, put in the password, and clicked on YouTube to project a classroom video clip.

Suddenly, what sounded like an air raid siren screamed from my speakers and a flashing image appeared on my screen informing me that I was trying to enter forbidden territory. Yes, in Chicago and in many other public school districts, big areas of the Internet are off limits -- not just for students, but for teachers as well.

So before my next class, I had to go to my local wireless phone store and purchase at my own expense a plug-in device that comes with a month-to-month contract for around $40 a month, just to override the CPS virtual barbed-wire fence and to teach my course properly.

Now if I had been a CPS teacher in that building, with kids in my class instead of adult learners, I would have only had to ask the students for help. I recently found out that many students have learned on their own and to their credit, various ways of bypassing the system-imposed blockade. But that would also mean risking my job if an administrator discovered me or my students doing research on forbidden sites, such as the New York Time's science page. YouTube is verboten as are social networking sites like Facebook. (Isn't it ironic -- in one district, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, students could not visit websites about breast cancer to do research because the word "breast" triggers the Internet alarm).

Even more ironic is it that Facebook founder and Waiting for Superman enthusiast Mark Zuckerberg can donate $110 million to finance Newark's public school reform, while we teachers and our students are barred from accessing Facebook on school computers and using it as a teaching/learning tool.

While to some, it may be understandable that school boards or administrators might try and restrict student access to the Internet in schools for fear that they will seek out porn or other inappropriate websites with the board being held liable by angry parents. But why in the world would anyone want to limit access to teachers?

For some reason, this all got me thinking about the U.S. Dept. of Education's latest anti-bullying campaign. President Obama and Hillary Clinton have each produced "It Gets Better" videos, offering hope to those, such as LGBT students, who are often the targets of bullying and school violence.

But in order to show those videos, it will be left to classroom teachers who want to take part in the campaign and brave enough to divert for a while from the required high-stakes test prep curriculum, and smart enough to find a way to override the classroom Internet ban.

My best advice to them -- ask your students how to get on YouTube and then join the struggle to demand dignity and respect for our profession.