Around the Bend

By now I’m sure you have of course seen the hilarious videos of people bending their new iPhone 6+. Here’s one. Here’s another. As a result of these reports, insane amounts of memes have been popping up making fun of the incident, and numerous companies have taken to social media to use the incident as their own personal marketing campaign by humorously stating that their products don’t bend. All out of good humor, right?

Wrong, and I’m going to go as far as saying that it sheds enormous amounts of light on why we have so much trouble with bullying in this country.

Let’s start with an obvious statement: the only real reason that Apple is catching so much flak for their bending phones is because they’re Apple and are the best at what they do. When high profile individuals or companies screw up, the first thing we do as Americans tends to involve bashing them or talking about their mishaps in a negative way. We take to social media, talk about it with our friends, and try to earn imaginary internet points by making memes out of their misadventures. We don’t think about the connotations that our ongoing crusade against a highly successful individual or company might have. When high profile students screw up – either academically successful ones or frequent targets of bullies, their peers do the same thing. I wonder where they learn this?

Here’s another important point that is common with bullying incidents as well: the act of bullying very quickly out scales and overshadows the reason negativity was initiated in the first place. Negativity is not a bad thing when used appropriately, however humans suck at this. With bullying, frequently the negativity towards an individual is an attempt by society to correct the actions of said individual. This is not only important but it’s a good thing. The problem comes when society begins to earn more out of the act of bullying than from correcting the behavior. That’s why these videos and memes are made: because people get more from doing the bullying than from Apple just correcting their phone problems. In high school, students earn social status by fitting in and bullying another student. They earn Facebook likes, up votes, and conversation by posting funny images. Where do they learn this? You guessed it, by watching the 1.5 million+ views of the “iPhone Bend Test” that offers no actual benefit to the world other than bullying an organization for a manufacturing defect. You know what would be a great video? If someone researched why this phone material bent and others did not, instead of jumping on the bandwagon and racking up imaginary points by beating the dead horse. Too bad I couldn’t find one within 15 pages of searching.

Finally, I’d like to present the most important point of all regarding the act of bullying, which is that students simply have no idea the consequences of what they put online. There are two reasons for that: the first is that a teenager does not understand the word “consequence”. To young people, consequences are bad things that happen to them if they break the rules. Social media has introduced a new kind of consequence that nobody understands: societal consequences. These are the impacts of our actions on our peers and surrounding communities, often completely beyond our control. The second reason is that social media is a brand new machine. There hardly exists science behind the user interactivity on social media, let alone the social and emotional impacts of our digital lives on our real lives. We don’t know enough about the effects of our social media use on ourselves and others, so we just continue to use it in anyway that personally benefits us and hope it all works it.

Apple’s new phone has a manufacturing defect that causes it to bend. That’s about the beginning and end of the billions of retweets, likes, up votes, and reblogs this issue has received over the last few weeks. The phone is a week old – Apple will eventually fix the phone, likely within a month. Unfortunately, we simply cannot fix the reinforcement of a disturbing trend in our social media use: that it’s more beneficial to bully an individual or organization by being negative than it is to be positive online.  I’ve been teaching for five years: I’ve seen five students commit suicide over social media bullying. That’s five families destroyed, three grade levels of students irreversibly changed, and one community that doesn’t seem to learn its lesson.

EDIT: Here’s a perfect example of an innocent video causing consequences eventually resulting in people taking it too far. When people walk into a store and vandalize property just to prove it can bend, that’s a crime. I wonder where the bullies who cross the line between fun and crime learn that it’s ok? This guy’s tweet, seemingly innocent, is a perfect representation of why we need to seriously consider our social media use trends:

The Teaching Moment That Never Was

People’s Climate hosted the largest climate march in history this past weekend, and to many, it went unnoticed. To give you a sense of how this march stacked up against the greatest political rallies in history, this blog post by The Energy Collective breaks it down wonderfully. The verdict: this weekend’s march stacks up fairly evenly against some of the largest protests our country has ever organized. So where was the publicity? How come every single science classroom in America did not participate somehow in this march, be it actually attending or simply discussing? Occupy Wall Street got more publicity than this march, despite it being at least 10 times smaller. The protests in Ferguson got more publicity than this march, despite being microscopic in comparison. Not to diminish the causes of these two protests, specifically the Ferguson one since equality is a vital goal for humanity to achieve, but climate change effects literally the entire planet whether or not humans live on it, regardless of color or social status, and yet if you turned on the news this weekend or last week, information about this march was seldom found. What gives?


Perhaps it was because this march was conducted in a peaceful and respectable manner, perhaps because nobody was arrested or tear gassed, or perhaps because some people don’t “believe” in climate change, one of the larger political demonstrations in our nation’s history has almost snuck by unnoticed. Almost. The media and our society has seemingly no place for respectable and sensible demonstrations. If you google the climate march, this New York Post “article” which could only be stomached if it was extraordinary satire highlights the backlash against these types of protests. According to some people, the march was full of hypocrisy since the protesters left *gasp* some trash on the streets of NYC. “This doesn’t seem green to me” seems to be the feeling amongst many people against this sort of demonstration.

Warning, Incoming Science

I’m a science teacher, so I’d like to remedy some of the negativity towards this march by providing some facts, which any person housing any sort of negativity towards this cause is unlikely to be able to reason with, but bear with me. First, “being green” is not synonymous with what we have to do to combat climate change, although it is still an important way of living. That’s the catch though – it is a way of living. Some aspects of this lifestyle involve climate change remedy through reducing carbon footprint, but it’s negligent to think that you must “go green” to do your part against climate change. The easiest way to combat climate change is to look at the three most impactful practices you have on the environment: your electricity use, your automobile use, and your agricultural product choices. The latter piece I know relatively little about, so I won’t go on about how to choose carbon-efficient agricultural products, but these three are statistically the most relevant for reducing each human’s carbon footprint. For the first two, we are already on our way to drastic improvement in these areas. Between Obama’s 55 MPG target for vehicles in by 2025 and the proliferation of alternate energy sources, we are quickly becoming more efficient. I actually think the future looks bright here, since we’ve only really been trying for 10 years. Notice how where you throw your trash has nothing significant to do with climate change, hence the hypocrisy of the above Post article.

As a science teacher, I also hear a lot of students say, “I don’t believe in climate change”. It’s important to understand that this comes directly from their parents. The funny thing about science is that it doesn’t care what you believe. There is no religious faith on the planet that has any sort of projection of the effects of climate change, and thus there’s no possibility of someone rationally saying “I don’t believe in climate change.” It’s science. So is the fact that humans can cause it. We haven’t always been responsible for climate change, as Earth naturally rotates between warming and cooling periods, but we are responsible for the currently observed warming trend in our climate that has no indication of slowing down. Some people don’t like to present their “views” on climate change because they’re scared people will “disagree” with those “views”. Our public needs to get it through their heads: there is no opinion on whether or not climate change is real. It is happening and we are causing it. Climate change “skeptics” don’t exist, because you can’t be skeptical of scientific fact. In fact, 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are causing our current trend of global warming. We need to stop arguing if this is real and start figuring out how to fix it.

The Teaching Moment

What gets lost in the ridiculous “debate” surrounding global warming is the incredible effect it’s having on the next generation of young people. In the book I am reading, Creating Innovators, Tony Wagner studies the inventions of today’s young people and reveals that a whole lot of these have to do with energy efficiency and environmental innovations. We shouldn’t lose the fact that young people also flock to these sorts of demonstrations as a way of self expression and generational identity: look no further than the Vietnam War and the generation it inspired. If we are indeed on the cusp of a new generation of climate-conscious individuals, we cannot lose the impact of these special events as a method of continuing this emergence. After all, this world is that of those who grow up in it, and if they are the ones who are being inspired to fix the problems of their previous generations, then who are we to tell them otherwise?





Does Dress Code Actually Matter?

There’s an article every year about dress codes at schools, mainly because when schools start, it’s still warm. People can wear next to no material during the summer and still call it clothing. Here’s one from Yahoo about Tottenville High School. I figured I’d clear the air about student attire from my perspective, noting that I of course do not speak for every teacher.

I’m Not Sure What’s Even Considered Clothing Anymore

A lot of people are talking about “crop tops” being a thing right now. Here’s one from Forever 21 showing one of these…shirts? I don’t know what it is, but I see girls walk into my class wearing slightly less revealing versions of the same textile, usually with a garment over it, and I generally tell them the same thing: “I’m going to laugh when you’re shivering in ten minutes.” Seriously, this is like a bathing suit and it’s freezing in my school on a daily basis. Ok, here’s another one featuring the nobler house of Hogwarts, which is slightly more tasteful. At least you can call this a shirt.

Then we have the holes in the pants. I’m not sure how in the world some of those holes got there, but see comment above: it’s a lot funnier when you watch these people shiver. I’m also perplexed as to the origins of the shorts that are pulled up way too far but are still way too short. Here’s what women’s shorts look like at American Apparel. First of all, they look stupid. Even on the models they look stupid, and they’re not looking better on any high schooler running around a hallway. Second, it’s not like solves the “short shorts” problem that they were invented for. They’re still too short in most cases, adding six inches to the top half of the shorts does not solve this problem.

Get Over Yourself, It’s Not Sexist

I am blessed to work with children who aren’t this insane, and I think most people at GHS are down to earth about the dress code thing. The only reason girls are seemingly targeted by these dress code reforms is      because girls come into school looking ridiculous far more often than boys do. There’s no secret agenda conditioning people to think that female “fashion” makes us more uncomfortable than male “fashion”, but when a girl walks into class with her butt cheeks hanging out of her pants, this is not fashion. Students tend to argue that their clothing is their self expression, which I am totally behind, but this is also not expression. In fact, I have no idea where the girls get the idea that wearing less clothing is going to make them more attractive to boys, however that is neither self expression nor is it the school’s fault. The school’s job is to preserve an environment that facilitates learning, and I can’t remember when a pair of butt cheeks was anything other than distracting to the other students in my classroom.

Teenagers and Self Expression

While underdressing is a problem at many schools, school communities aren’t necessarily accepting of overdressing either. For example, I wear a suit every day to school. Most people first knew me as the suit guy before they started mistakenly calling me Mike, only finally to be corrected and told it was Matt. I wear a suit every day because I believe teaching is the most important job in the world, and I certainly plan on dressing as if I believe it. Every year my students ask me why I wear a suit every day, without fail. I’ve delivered this answer to probably over 1,000 students in my time teaching, but I’ve delivered it to maybe two teachers. That’s because most teachers prefer to comment negatively or positively about it, and don’t actually care why. This is a distinct and vital difference: students ask why you’re wearing specific clothing, while adults simply comment on it. Perhaps this is the underlying issue. Students think there’s a reason why a person wears the clothing they wear and are curious about it, while adults see it as outer skin that either looks good or doesn’t.

What Really Matters About Clothing

For teenagers, it’s all about self expression. We fail to use this expression as a teaching tool because nobody thinks of clothing that way. In science, our goal is to foster critical thinking by asking students to cite evidence to defend their conclusions. In history, we foster critical thinking by having students use textual evidence to support or answer their researchable questions. Nobody asks students to defend their clothing choice. Maybe we should stop telling students what to wear and ask them why they’re wearing it instead. If they provide a valid defense of their choice, let them express themselves further. If they cannot provide a defense, then they should be required to wear more appropriate clothing. This is a good idea because if clothing truly is self expression for students then the material alone is a horribly weak form of representation. The idea behind what the student wears, however, is far more valuable.

The Worst New York Times Headline Ever

The perhaps inappropriately headlined “So Bill Gates Has This Idea For A History Class…” article by Andrew Sorkin at the New York Times has caused a lot of stir this week. Allow me to share some of the comments on the article proper:

History is yesterday’s news.

Microsoft’s Bill Gates initiative brought to a school near you on Apple’s iPad.

Mr. Sorkin turns to the noted non-educator and education reformer Joel Klein to vouch for Mr. Gates.  

Gates can’t even design an easily usable computer interface, why should we care about his theories on education?

A lot of the comments dismissive of this initiative highlight the professionalism of teachers, the work involved in becoming an effective teacher, the years of thought that have gone into crafting the history curricula in current use.

I’m not sure anyone above actually read the article, which is indefensibly sluggish and improperly headlined for no reason, but that’s no excuse for these type of comments. After you get past the first page, which is about Bill Gates magically gaining inspiration for a new high school history course while running on his treadmill and deciding he wanted to rewrite history (hehe), this article becomes a lot more interesting. See what really happened was that Gates just liked the work of the teacher responsible for this method of teaching history, David Christian, so he reached out and met with him. It’s easy to do this sort of thing when you’re a billionaire, but let me tell you, I’m a teacher in a fairly unique position and I don’t frequently meet with billionaires interested in taking my course and spreading it nationally. This act alone should be nothing but commended as an ambitious and interesting endeavor.

Exceedingly interesting is the fact that this course has been successfully deployed to 1,200 high schools. This is another thing that’s easier to do when you’re a billionaire. The 4MM and counting TED Talk doesn’t hurt, but nominations for that sort of thing can be bought. The vivid digital backend of this course is also powerful – beyond anything CollegeBoard and the AP has to offer, of note – and this too can be bought. In fact, everything important about the spread of this initiative pretty much has to be bought, except the idea itself. Unfortunately for future investors, monetizing something like this is next to impossible and unfortunately for society, that spells bad news for future initiatives.

Bill Gates and David Christian, courtesy of the New York Times

Bill Gates and David Christian, courtesy of the New York Times

Which is why we talk about Bill Gates. This man has donated absolutely insane sums of money for nothing more than trying to make a difference in the world. People criticize his foundation for its $200M involvement with Common Core, which is outrageous. Common Core is a well intentioned and poorly executed idea, that someone had to foot the bill for. Diane Ravitch is quoted in this article criticizing this course asking “Should it be labeled ‘Bill Gates’ History?” Because Gates’ history would look a lot different from somebody else’s that’s not worth $50-60 billion.” Maybe we could learn a lot by studying someone’s history who is worth that much, like how to give away several large fortunes for the benefit of others. In fact, who cares if this is some sort of “vanity project”? If it makes history more interesting for students then it’s money well spent. I find criticism of this man borderline manic at this point. Stop citing an alternate agenda, stop linking him to Microsoft (he hasn’t been CEO since 2000, and his heart has been in the Foundation ever since), and enough bashing the projects his foundation has invested in. The man has donated $30B through his Foundation alone. There are no appropriate words for him aside from “thank you”. His critics should find something equally as productive to do with their time and, if they had as much of it, their money.

But seriously, New York Times, that headline…horribly mislabeled as “Billionaire decides he will write a history course for fun”.

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