Teacher takes classroom discussion, debate online

Jennifer Pust

Santa Monica High School English teacher Jennifer Pust enjoys moderating spirited discussions among students about everything from zero tolerance weapons policies to the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The debates, which could rage over topics as small as store receipts that waste paper, are all posted on an internet bulletin board.

It’s one way Pust is attempting to harness the love her teenage students have for technology – and using it to help them learn.

But figuring out how to fit texting, e-mail and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter into a curriculum configured around rigid state standards isn’t easy.

“I see experts confirming the ocean I swim against on a daily basis,” Pust said during a seminar sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation and held in Santa Monica, Calif. last month. The seminr was hosted by The Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media.

Pust was among the researchers, educators and journalists who discussed way youth use technology, and swapped tips and stories about how educators are trying to effectively incorporate it into schools and curriculum.

Like teens nationwide, tech savvy students at Santa Monica High School build poems on Twitter, or play the Scrabble-like game “Words With Friends,’’ on their cell phones during breaks in class —with the person sitting right next to them.

Yet it is their peers who don’t use their devices this way that are the ones Pust worries about.

“I haven’t figured out how to leverage the technology that kids bring to class,” she said at the seminar.

It’s not for lack of trying. In an interview, Pust shared an assignment sheet she gave students detailing a current events project slated for a discussion board on Turnitin.com, a plagiarism-detection site that also includes tools to help teach students how to cite sources and quotes.

The assignment required students to respond once a week to a current event posted by their peers and admonished them to briefly summarize the author’s viewpoint — as well as their views on the issue.

In one series of posts, students discussed a October, 2009 New York Times article headlined “It’s a Fork, It’s a Spoon, It’s a…Weapon?” about zero tolerance weapons policies that led young kids to be suspended for bringing cutlery to school.

“With more and more of these types of situations being caused by zero tolerance weapons policies, the question needs to be asked, are these policies truly necessary and are they doing more good than bad?” asked student Jack Cramer, an 11th grader who posted the article and started the discussion.

The debate sparked commentary from a wide range of students, Pust said, including non-native English speakers and a special needs student.

After conducting the online sessions in the 2009-2010 school year, Pust returned to discussing current events the old fashioned way this year—in class—and was surprised at the difference in participation rates.

“I tried studying current events in a more traditional way this year, and had virtually NO conversation about it at all,” Pust said in an e-mail. “Students submitted their articles and shared what they found, but didn’t really delve into any topics in a way that made it meaningful.”

She said that she plans to return to an online forum—where some students are more comfortable expressing their thinking than they are in face-to-face encounters—next year.

Pust added that she also plans to spend some time this summer figuring out how to incorporate technologies her students refuse to be separated from—particularly cell phones—in the coming school year.

The veteran educator has ideas that range from using phones to look up facts and comparing search results to viewing videos or finding background materials that could then be plugged into the computer and overhead projector at the front of the classroom and shared.

One thing she doesn’t yet have is a clear road map for how to get there.

“I don’t want this technology use to be just another gimmick, but to really infuse it into my instruction,” she said.

POSTED BY ON June 6, 2011