Thursday, March 24, 2011

Blogging for Middle Schoolers and Teens

My friend Maria of Natural Math and I are teaching a class on blogging for our local coop.  Today we visited a number of blogs by teenagers or younger that have won awards, gotten some important local or national coverage, and/or have helped their authors achieve their goals or have an impact on the world.  I thought I would list them for others who are looking for some inspiration for what young people are doing with their blogs.

I've divided them into several categories:

Personal/Diary-Like Blogs
These are blogs that basically deal with the life, interests, events, and musings of it author.  Here are two example that were nominated for national awards:
Castles, Quills, and Cameras:  This is written by an 8th grade homeschool students.  In addition to her interest in writing, other key passions she has are books (Quills) and movies (Cameras).  Castles contains everything else:  her schoolwork, her spiritual beliefs, and other random events or thoughts.
Oh Clementine:  (Warning--this blog does have some mild profanity, so don't visit if that offends you or is against your family's rules):  Clementine is a quirky, highly right-brained 16 year old Canadian high schooler who loves dinosaurs, video games, music, and neon.  She is passionate about her politics, which are liberal, but is not loving her high school education.

These examples illustrate some important points about writing interesting and successful personal blogs.  The main thing is, you have to have something interesting and valuable to say.  It helps to be humorous and  to provide helpful information, to be honest about yourself and your weaknesses or failures as well as your successes, and to include content or thoughts that are relevant to the experience or interests of your readers.

Project or Cause Blogs
These are blogs that done to chronicle some other larger project, fundraising, educational, or social or environmental cause.  Here are two by younger populations:
Team PyroTech:  Team PyroTech is a local team of high schoolers competing in the FIRST FRC national robotics competition.  While the primary emphasis of the project is the construct and program large robots to perform the tasks required by the contest, the teams get extra points for having exemplary supporting media, such as videos, websites, and blogs.
Wyatt Workman: Now, this one is just adorable.  A seven-year-old boy living in California who is concerned about the oceans decided to make a claymation film, publish a book, and sell his clay figures at an art show, with all the proceeds going to an environmental nonprofit.  His blog has updates about the media coverage of his work (he's been interviewed on television and national newspapers) and the funds he has raised (over $3,000 at last report).

Project or cause blogs generally support some larger effort, but are a great way to get media exposure or to get the word out to a larger audience than the ones who may be directly involved with the project.

Food Blogs
Food is one of the most popular topics for blogging, and that is true for teenagers as well as adults.  These two have both been nominated for national awards and mentioned in local media:
Foodie at 15 (Now 18):  Nick started sharing his recipe, cooking tips, impressions of great restaurants, and other food items when he was 15.  Now he is 18 and finishing up his senior year before heading to the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, where he plans to get the business acumen to go with his fantastic cooking and eventually open his own restaurant.  If you read his post on his ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe, where he shares not only his personal experience with such cookies, his researching and adapting of the recipes of other famous chefs, his explanation of the science behind the changes he made, and the recipe itself, I'm sure you'll have no doubts that he will do exactly that.
17 (now 18) and Baking: Elissa, who is now a college student, doesn't plan a career in food, but is instead pursuing a journalism degree.  With the degree of professionalism her blog shows, she also seems assured of a bright future.  Her writing is good, her photographs of the food are GORGEOUS, and the recipes are luscious!

Personal Passion and/or Expertise Blogs
These two are example about how becoming an expert in a field that you love can really pay off:
Laura's Life:  When she was in second grade, Laura decided that she wanted to read all the Newbery Award winning books before she was in middle school.  Well, she did, and posted reviews of all of them on her blog.  Now she is working her way through the Fuse#8 Top 100 Children's Novels, as well as participating in Mock Newbery each year.  With hundreds of reviews on her site already, Laura is known by authors and people like the head of the ALA, and receives many free books now to review.  Oh, and she's only 10 years old.  Pretty amazing...
Style Rookie:  This is the queen of the successful teen blogs.  Tavi started blogging about fashion when she was 11, and has since been featured in the New York Times, Pop Magazine, French Vogue, and a number of other media.  This has led to her getting invited to front row seats at New York Fashion Week and the opportunity to write a Fashion Week article for Harper's Bazaar.  She also has designers sending her all kind of clothes and accessories.  Now 14 and in high school, Tavi is still going strong, sometimes getting 50,000 hits per day on her blog.

So there are some samples of outstanding blogs by teenagers or younger.  Have I missed any other teen or younger blogs that really stand out?  Add them to the comments below.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The iY Generation

I have just stumbled onto a new book about our current middle schoolers, high schoolers, and college students, which is called Generation iY:  Our Last Chance to Save Their Future by Tim Elmore.  I haven't read the book, so I can't speak directly to its value; however, the reviews of the book do raise some issues that I have been discussing recently with my fellow parents of tweens/teens.

Elmore argues that the students born after 1990--which is basically our "traditional" college, high school, and middle school population--differ significantly from the young people who have been labeled the Millennials, or Generation Y, because they have grown up in the era of I--Internet, iPods, iPhones, and iTunes.  This, claims Elmore, has led this population to focus on "I" (in a narcissistic way), and to be extremely advanced in dealing with technology, online social networks, and technology-mediated relationships, while not being very good in dealing with actual people or real life situation.

According to Elmore, who claims to have communicated with 50,000 students and educational staff and parents per year in writing the book, leads to young people who are:
  • Overwhelmed--So much is going on in their lives that 94% of colleges students agree with that description of themselves, with 44% saying they are so overwhelmed that they can barely function;
  • Over--connected--So attached to their cell phones and computers that they are connected full time, and almost consider these devices as "appendages" to their bodies;
  • Over-protected--Parents have tried so hard to meet their children's needs that it is a rude awakening when they enter a world that largely doesn't care what they think, need, or want;
  • Overserved--Longitudinal studies say this is the most self-obsessed generation in modern history.
On the other hand, the technological connection and media savvy of this group of people can make them much more socially aware and active than previous generations.  And so Elmore dubs them a "Generation of Paradox":  social, yet isolated; sheltered, yet pressured; self-absorbed, yet generous.

Elmore contends that the solution is for adults to assist with the human abilities that this technology focus has atrophied, particularly in regards to the spiritual, emotional, and relationship arenas.  He also states that adults who teach such students need to incorporate four qualities in their educational activities (qualities that I think are pretty much lacking in public education):
  • Experiential education
  • Participatory education
  • Image-rich education
  • Connected education
He also believes that today's students are increasingly right-brained, while traditional education continues to teach in a left-brained dominant way.

As I said, I haven't read the book, so all of the above is basically hearsay.  And I think it actually applies more to college student than to middle schoolers.  Nonetheless, I think it raises interesting questions about the impact that growing up in such a technologically-connected world does to our children's experience and expectations, especially in regards to education.  I think it is a discussion that is worth us having--with our children's teachers, our fellow parents, our children, and ourselves.

Friday, March 18, 2011

How NOT to Respond to Reports Critical of Wake County School Board

In case you missed the latest in the agony and the ecstasy that is the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS), here are this week's headlines for the leading educational stories in the local paper, the News and Observer:
3/12/11 (School Board Member) Goldman's child sent to out-of-zone school, soon followed by
3/15/11 (WCPSS Superintendent) Tata to look into transfer
(Short version: Board Member Goldman's middle school daughter was one of only 15 students out of the 140,000+ students in the system to receive a little-used administrative procedure to transfer out of her usual school choices that requires merely an oral request, rather than the more extensive paperwork necessary for traditional transfer requests.)

3/15/11 Play nice, audit tells board
(Short version: An outside audit conducted by Superintendent Tata's educational training organization concluded that the WCPSS school board's public fighting, disrespect for fellow board members, and even name calling was damaging the school system's image with the public and overshadowing all the good work the schools were doing. You can read the entire 52 page audit on the WPCSS website using this link.)

The biggie, however, was this one:
3/17/11 Schools lost Wake's trust, report says
(Short version: The WCPSS accrediting agency, AdvancED, is giving the school board one year to clean up its act or risk the system losing accreditation. AdvancED accused the Republican majority of alienating much of its constituency by giving inadequate notice of major action and ignoring data when making major policy decisions. Because the system's governance had created "a climate of uncertainty, suspicion, and mistrust throughout the community," AdvancED gave WCPSS its second toughest rating, Accreditation Warning," which means that it is a serious problem that must be addressed within a year in order to remain accredited. You can read the entire 15 page report on the WCPSS website using this link.)

That story broke, by the way, two days after Superintendent Tata presented his budget cuts for the 2011-2012 school year, and on the same day as Tata was meeting with officials of the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which is investigating WCPSS' elimination of its diversity policy.

My two-bit response to all this good news is:

After a year in which school board meetings have become a zoo, with many citizens regularly protesting and even getting arrested, while the board members insult each other in front of the public, AND the NAACP is bringing lawsuits and administrative actions against the system, AND our school system has been publicly criticized from such national figures as the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former president Bill Clinton, and even Steven Colbert, AND just plain old residents such as myself are writing blog posts like Wake School Board Majority Should Be Ashamed....yes, I think it is reasonable to say that there are some serious governance issues here.

However, how are the Republicans responding to these critiques? Well, good old Apex Representative and NC House Majority Leader Paul Stam (sponsor of the bill to give tax credits to families who pull their children out of school in order to send them to private school or homeschools, which I wrote about in this blog post) is one of several Republicans who have introduced a bill to effectively bypass the well-established tradition among ALL of American education of outside accreditation, and instead create a state-run accrediting agency. The bill would also PROHIBIT any North Carolina higher education institutions (colleges, universities, or community colleges) from considering whether or not a candidate's high school is accredited when making admission, scholarship, or loan decisions. (You can read the full text of the bill, HR 342: High School Accreditation, through this link.)

I'm sorry, but I think this is the same "heads in the sand" thinking that I criticized the WCPSS board in my post Why Wake County Board Should Continue Accreditation with AdvancED. I know it sounds naive to say this, but if there is anything that should be above politics, it should be our children's future. A community will come to pieces if it can't trust the people responsible for their children's education. That is the point of OUTSIDE, NON-POLITICAL, UNBIASED accreditation agencies like AdvancED. They aren't Republicans, pushing more charter schools and lower budgets, etc., and they aren't Democrats, pushing more early intervention and social programs for disadvantage populations, etc. They come in without an agenda, and say, Are the policies fair? Are children being treated equally? Are people--teachers, administrators, support staff, and even BOARD MEMBERS--do their jobs right at the level of quality that the public deserves to expect? They also have a regional and national perspective, and can comment on how a system is doing vis-a-vis their peers in the state, area, and country.

A state agency will be immediately suspect of bias. Even if it can avoid a partisan bias, which seems difficult, given the increasing involvement of the NC legislature in educational issues, it will certainly seem to have a bias to continue accreditation of NC schools to maintain the state's reputation. I mean, isn't that why it is being created? What purpose would it serve but to provide NC schools with some alternative accreditation if AdvancED pulls their, as they are threatening to do in Wake and Burke county (coincidentally enough, most, if not all, of the co-sponsors of the bill come from those two counties).

Also, this view point is very provincial. Outside this state, college specify requirements of accreditation from regional accrediting organizations, so it would not help with the thousands of NC graduates who want to attend higher ed institutions outside of North Carolina. However, it would probably diminish the national reputation of North Carolina colleges and universities, not to mention setting a bad precedent of the legislature messing around in the UNC admissions policies. ( And I thought the Republicans were supposed to be the party of less government interference....)

Wake County can not continue to ignore the big rifts in our community over school issues. But things seem to be getting better since Superintendent Tata came on board. The Board has been acting more professionally. They actually managed to go on a weekend retreat and come back with something constructive. The WCPSS has been open about these critical reports and have posted them on their websites. I think the general mood is hopeful that some healing and compromises can take place. However, that is only possible if people feel that they have been listened to and respected, even if there are disagreements and ultimately their positions don't win. And it only works if people feel like they can trust their school system.

In my opinion, HR 342 would only make things worse, not better.