Children Will Listen: On Voldemort and Bin Ladin

When I heard the news on Facebook–“Osama Bin Ladin is dead”–I turned to Twitter while traditional media lagged behind the story. For over an hour, I waited for the President’s statement, reading tweet reactions and listening to a live stream from CBS. The tweets were raw–ranging from Hemmingway-esque bursts of “AP Confirmed: Bin Ladin is dead” to tweets dealing with the complex emotional reactions we were all having. Was it wrong to cheer the death of a man so focused on destroying innocent lives–who had taken so many American lives on 9/11 and was largely responsible for so many deaths of our soldiers? What was that feeling? Relief? Catharsis? Justice?

The experts and pundits chattered on in the background, dissecting the President’s yet-unmade speech, and speculating on what the news might mean. I knew what it meant to me.

I was a student teacher in 2001, hundreds of miles away from New York City in the Midwestern city of Evansville. September was test-time for my sophomore students and while they were sequestered in classrooms in a wing of the building that would not be disturbed by other students changing classes, my supervising teacher and I were shuffled off to the teacher work-room. I was grading my way through a pile of quizzes when another teacher came into the room and told us to turn on the television. A plane had hit one of the buildings in New York City.

I imagined a Cessna, a tiny bird, wildly off course–an unconscious pilot, a horrible accident, no doubt. When the image appeared on the screen, I felt my stomach harden. At that moment, live, we saw the second plane strike and knew our country was at war.

The rest of the day–spent on lockdown–is a blur. I remember students laughing at the idea of a plane flying into a building, stunned by their lack of understanding and compassion. I now understand they had no frame of reference, no way to comprehend the way the world had shifted under them. I saw and understood in a way they would come to know how the world would not be the same for them or for me anymore. On campus at the University of Evansville, our student newspaper lamented: “This wasn’t supposed to happen. We were supposed to see a world without our country at war.” We, on the cusp of our adult, professional lives knew it would be years and many more lives lost before our country would ever feel safe again. There was a profound sense among us that when those planes struck, our innocence died and was buried in the rubble.

Last night, too, was full of what some called “inappropriate” reactions to the announcement of Bin Ladin’s demise. The crowd gathered outside the White House chanting “USA” and celebrating as though we had won an Olympic victory. In scanning the faces of the crowd, I was struck with how young they were. If I, at 30, had lived one-third of my life with the War on Terror and I felt sober relief at the news, how must it feel to someone in their late teens or early twenties who had known war and the specter of Osama Bin Ladin for half of their lives or more. These young people have been steeped in the rhetoric of war and America’s righteous vengeance. They know the names of the enemies and who to fear. The whole story has been told and calcified into legend. Washington crossing the Delaware? Just as remote and iconic as the crumbling Twin Towers and President Bush with his bullhorn.

For the youngest Americans–the children who watched the adults around them react to 9/11 and the many years of being told who and what to fear–Osama Bin Ladin was a character in a story, not a real human being. He was the bogeyman, a symbol of evil, an unknown danger lurking somewhere in a country far away, the ultimate bad-guy from the cartoons. He had no humanity anymore–both because his actions were so heinous and because the man himself became a folk tale. On Twitter, I read: “Sure hope it wasn’t just one of [Bin Ladin’s] horcruxes.” For our students, and those young people celebrating and chanting, perhaps the Voldemort/Bin Ladin connection isn’t too far off. How else do we expect them to react to the news that the most evil villain of their childhood has been killed at last?

Young people celebrate outside the White House.

As we move forward and step into our classrooms to have more conversations about war, terror, good, evil, justice, and humanity, we must be careful how to speak and react with our students as the story takes shape. Stephen Sondheim knew the power of stories and warned through song in his musical Into the Woods: “Children Will Listen.” All we have are stories and the adult leaders we want will be shaped by what they see and hear as children.

“Children Will Listen” by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine:

Careful the things you say,
Children will listen.
Careful the things you do,
Children will see.
And learn.

Children may not obey,
But children will listen.
Children will look to you
For which way to turn,
To learn what to be.

Careful before you say,
“Listen to me.”
Children will listen.

Careful the wish you make,
Wishes are children.
Careful the path they take-
Wishes come true,
Not free.

Careful the spell you cast,
Not just on children.
Sometimes the spell may last
Past what you see
And turn against you…

Careful the tale you tell.
That is the spell.
Children will listen…

Guide them then step away
Children will glisten.
Temper with what is true
And children will turn
If just to be free.

Careful before you say,
“Listen to me.”
Children will listen.
Children will listen.
Children will listen.

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How I Became a Twit(ter-er)

As little as six months ago, that’s how I referred to people on Twitter: twits.

When Lindsay Lohan, Snooki, and Lady Gaga have Twitter accounts and their every move is big news on Access Hollywood, that’s not something that gets me too excited. I don’t want to keep up with celebrity gossip and Facebook already kept me in touch with family, friends, and coworkers. I didn’t see the need for one more digital plate to spin, another digital identity or virtual self I’d have to maintain like a self-cloning Neopet.  But here I am, an enthusiastic proponent of social media in education. I consider myself to be open minded about technology and social media, but I am a late-bloomer when it comes to blogging and Twitter.

During an Edutopia tweetup while I was in San Francisco for the annual ASCD conference, I met Steve Anderson (aka @web20classroom) whom I had first “met” through #edchat. I’m definitely a newcomer (about 3 months) and he asked me point blank: Why? What was it that enticed me to start tweeting? What happened between month 4 and month 3? His questions made me pause. The change had happened so gradually, I hadn’t really paid attention. Around the same time, another educator I follow on Twitter, Justin Tarte (@justintarte) shared a link from his blog, “Why Educators Should be Using Twitter.” Somewhere down in the comments, a person wrote a scathing post condemning social media and calling into question the motives one might have for participating in social media. After both of these experiences, I decided to give some serious thought to my transition, to share my reasons for joining the Twitter bandwagon, and to dispel some of the myths and misconceptions that may play a role in shaping the attitudes of educators, administrators, and parents who haven’t been drawn in to the social media community just yet. This isn’t a “you-should-join-’cause-Twitter-is-so-awesome” blog post. There are plenty of those around.

This is my story and I think others may see themselves in my experience.

In the Beginning

If I’m honest, my Twitter journey started about two years ago. I’d already created a Facebook account and made peace with the privacy/oversharing demons. I liked sharing interesting articles I read with my Facebook friends, but my posts usually didn’t generate any conversation or feedback. I wondered if maybe I was just annoying people. I read something in one of the blogs in my RSS feed that linked to a tweet. I wanted to read more.  Being an adventurous person, I thought I’d see what Twitter was all about. I made an account, looked for a few famous people, read disjointed conversations, and felt utterly bored and confused.

You could say I found Twitter to be confusing and overwhelming at first.

WTH was up w/@thisandthat #Blahblahblah RT #BeiberFever? What’s a bit.ly? So many acronyms and symbols! What did it all mean?

For once I felt out of my element with technology. These “twits” were speaking a different language and I didn’t belong with the cool kids speaking their secret code. I had no followers, except for AT&T who assigned someone to follow me after I complained about cell phone reception in my neighborhood. (Gee, didn’t I feel special.) I’m a huge fan of jazz musician Jamie Cullum so it was a natural choice to follow his tweets and get information about upcoming tour dates. I didn’t know anyone personally who used Twitter, so friends and family were off my list. I didn’t really want to use Twitter with friends and family, though. I had Facebook for that and I felt safer using Facebook to limit my contacts and guard my identity. After a day or two, I put a privacy fence around my tweets and promptly forgot my password.

Looking for a Place to Belong

In the second half of 2010, I moved from the Midwest to the East Coast, severing myself from the only professional community I had known. I missed the teacher-leader and agent-of-change conversations I’d had in graduate school and my school’s program to develop teacher-coaches. I knew there had to be others out there who felt the way I did and could challenge me or teach me and help me stay sharp. I polished up my digital resume and joined Linked In. I wanted more professional conversation and hoped Linked In would be the place where I would find it. I attempted to contribute to professional conversations in the many available groups, but often days or weeks would go by without anyone saying anything–or I would simply be redirected to a magic-bullet educational product for sale. ASCDEdge proved equally limiting, but at least there were plenty of thought-provoking blog posts for me to browse.

NaNoWriMo and Blogging: Getting Warmer

In November I participated in my first NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. The moderator encouraged participants like me to follow NaNoWriMo’s word sprints on Twitter. It felt nice to be connected to a group of writers who were all working hard on their writing like me, but the word sprints were broadcast posts. They didn’t invite conversation, they were commands. At this point, my impression of Twitter was like a platform in the mall where anyone could step up on a box and shout an announcement into the room. I read the tweets but didn’t post any replies.

At the same time I was working on my book, I started thinking about writing a blog. There had been so much conversation in the news about education and reform. I was sick to death of teacher cliches and misinformation and wanted to do something about it. I decided to start a blog (now defunct) based on a daily Google search using the term “teachers should.” I used a pseudonym and posted three times before I gave up. Who was I to write such self-serving fluff? Who would want to read it? Why did I care so much? I’d already tried (and failed) to have these types of conversations on Facebook and Linked In, so what was left?

I shifted tactics and started creating a personal website that would be a companion to my Linked In profile. I was dabbling more, playing with technology and Web 2.0 tools. I started looking for advice and test-driving different options for blogs. Before long I had “discovered” social bookmarking and was working up quite a list of useful classroom tools. That’s when I came across Edublogger, Richard Byrne (@rmbyrne), and Pernille Ripp (@4thGrdTeach). I subscribed to their blogs and started down the rabbit hole. The more I read, the more links I followed, the more blogs I added to the RSS reader. It was exactly what I had been looking for–smart people, great ideas, and a chance for me to learn something new. I dusted off my Twitter account, changed my handle, and added a picture.

I started seeing tips for educators to “follow” and before long I stumbled across Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby) and my first #edchat. Before adding the hashtag, I had been tweeting into the ether. I knew what I was thinking, but I wasn’t part of the conversation. I watched the #edchat tweets roll in, saw the same names and faces sharing, questioning, linking, RT-ing (whatever THAT was). The mystifying code began to give way and I started following the conversation. I lurked for a while and decided to formally attend the next scheduled discussion. I stopped broadcasting and started engaging others in conversation. That decision has made all the difference.

In the last three months, because of the men and women I have met through Twitter I have:

  1. Started this blog.
  2. Commented on blogs to extend conversation.
  3. Challenged my philosophy of education.
  4. Participated in a webcast.
  5. Attended an #ntcamp as a virtual participant. Many thanks to Burlington High School’s principal, Patrick Larkin (@bhsprincipal) for the Ustream window into learning. (Who knew backchannel tweeting and collaborating on a Google Doc would rank as one of the most valuable professional development moments in my career thus far?)
  6. Attempted Voicethread, Voki, Diigo, Evernote, Skype, and Prezi (among others).
  7. Engaged thoughtful people in conversation across disciplines, age groups, and backgrounds. (@lookforsun and @delta_dc)
  8. Been humbled to have my ideas shared and discussed.
  9. Connected to thinkers and writers I admire.
  10. Actively participated in shaping my professional footprint.

It’s not a stretch to say that Twitter has been my “gateway drug” to new educational technologies and ideas. It has forced me to define my professional beliefs and encouraged me to be part of a community of thinkers, writers, and innovators. (I’m glad they let me hang out–and I’m proud to be a Twit.)

Thanks again to Steve Anderson (@web20classroom) for challenging me to reflect and to Audrey Watters (@audreywatters) who encouraged me to write.