Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Who Owns You, Baby?

I had no idea that winning a teaching award goes hand in hand with getting lots of free stuff. For each state teacher, The Smarter Kids Foundation provides a huge technology package, including a SmartBoard, a projector, a wireless slate, a student response system, software licenses, and two days of intense training. I got a free car to drive for a year from Toyota West Virginia—a silver 2007 Prius. I was awarded a big check from Mountain State BlueCross BlueShield, which has done wonders for defraying some of the expenses I didn’t know I’d encounter (makeup, an evening gown, a costume for the parade at Space Camp). I have received free food at local restaurants, fancy shoelaces, cookies, books, flash drives, trinkets, flowers, gift cards, and a ton of other stuff. With each of these, however, comes the implication of some kind of connection.

I also did not expect to be approached by individuals and organizations seeking endorsements. At first, I said yes to anything that seemed worthwhile—and much of what’s out there is designed to be beneficial to kids and to teachers. How can I not review a book on alternative teaching strategies, particularly when they’re strategies that I know are effective? How can I not endorse a program that encourages community wide reading? How can I not participate in a public presentation to support our local library? How can I not accept this shiny new technological gadget on behalf of a major company when there are no obvious strings attached? Hey…Wait a minute…

After a while, I realized that I had to think critically about the offers I accepted, do more research, and decide whether the philosophies of the companies seeking an endorsement from me (from ME?) really did jibe with my philosophy as a professional educator and as a person. Now I’m a little less likely to agree to back products and services just because I can. Funny, these are the skills I ask kids to use every day, yet somehow I wasn’t using them myself. (It’s a wonder I didn’t spend that entire BlueCross BlueShield check at Hot Topic.) Still, I remembered my own instructions, eventually, and now I’m more selective about whose agenda I support.

Last week, then, I had the opportunity to do a presentation at a state convention to endorse an organization I really do believe in. In April, all the Teachers of the Year were welcomed at the Smithsonian Institution for an Educator’s Day. On that day, we divided into small groups to visit individual museums, view and use some of the available resources, and discuss our own classroom applications. Later, we attended a presentation and training session and were all given the opportunity to become Smithsonian Teacher Ambassadors. While I am all for the Smithsonian’s mission of the “increase and diffusion of knowledge,” I wasn’t sure that I was ready to sign on for anything else. Then I checked out the educator website. Wow.

At the Smithsonian Educator website, teachers can find appropriate teaching resources for any activity imaginable. We can interact with other teachers, artifacts, and information. We can print PDF files of Smithsonian in Your Classroom publications, plan field trips, and schedule professional development (at a Smithsonian site or in a virtual setting). The most impressive thing, however, for me and for the teachers I’ve shared this with, is the fact that we can search the resources by state content standard, grade level, and subject area. There is a section of the site for parents. There is also a section for students, which means, for me, an easy way to direct them to an alternative to other, less reputable sites. And although I feel like a walking, talking (and, now, typing) infomercial, I guess I’ve learned a lesson of sorts.

It’s the beauty of the irony again, the idea that I always have to apply those things I so actively teach. I have to be able to recognize the pitfalls of being a consumer, no matter how—or what—I consume. Just because a product is sold to me doesn’t mean I have to buy it, even if it’s wrapped in a pretty package. Not only does this make me a better thinker, it gives more meaning to the things I do choose, and that’s valuable education.

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