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Teachers Get By With a Little Help From Our Friends -- and Critics!
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Each week, an educator takes a stand or shares an Aha! moment in the classroom in Education World's Voice of Experience column. This week, educator Ted Nellen reflects on a decision he made to publish his student-scholars' work on the Web. In doing so, he opened himself up to education critics -- but that was just the response Nellen wanted! Those critics became some of his scholars' best teachers.


Why on Earth would teachers want to use the technology that has been dumped in the back of our classrooms? For me, the answer to that question is simple and obvious. We need to show the critics of education what we do and how messy it is!

Teaching is a solitary profession, one of a few such professions in our socially minded society. Many critics of education have no clue what we do in our classrooms. We step into our classrooms and close the doors. Rarely do we have visitors. Essentially, we conduct our lessons in private. The work of our student-scholars is evaluated publicly once or twice a year, using what we call "high stakes tests." Based on that limited data, our critics have a field day at our expense.

I'm tired of it -- and I ain't going to take it anymore!

As a teacher, I know that education is messy and requires time to happen. Critics of schools, who are impatient for results, do not understand this. So, in the early 1990s, I came upon a plan -- a plan to share my classes with the world. That way, critics might have a first-hand experience and, perhaps, come to understand the process and practice of education from a teacher's point of view -- not just from their limited and skewed experiences as students.

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I was lucky. The invention of the World Wide Web happened to coincide with my desire to share my student-scholars' work with the world. I was going to publish my scholars' work online -- on their own Web pages. That way, critics of schools could roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. They could see -- and get involved with -- the process of education. The WWW would let them do something about their frustrations. And it would help them better understand just how hard it is to do what we teachers do.

It wasn't difficult to get the critics involved. Immediately after my first scholars published their work, I had my first critics! One of those critics, a businessman, e-mailed his displeasure with what I was doing and with my scholars' work. I had to agree with him. I shared with him how for weeks I had been extolling my scholars to edit their work. The students' response seemed to be "Mr. Nellen, why does it matter? No one is going to see this or care."

That first critic told me that I was hurting education more than helping it by enabling my students to publish their work online. Then he spent an entire weekend going through each of my 65 student-scholars' pages with his red pen. Needless to say, the impact he had on my scholars on Monday morning was just what I wanted: My scholars were duly upset -- and they began to pay attention!

The businessman-critic worked with some of my scholars for the next two weeks. During that time, he came to understand what teachers go through each day. He was exhausted. He was amazed at how hard it was for him to work with just a few scholars while I had 65 of them. I told him I was lucky to have only 65; many of my colleagues had 150 students. He wondered how teachers do it. I told him we got by "with a little help from our friends."

The WWW has become a great friend to me. It has become a great tool for making my scholars' work public. It has also been a great tool for inviting the critics of education into my classroom. There, they might share in the process -- and feel the joy -- of teaching.

Ted Nellen is a former high school English teacher. Today, he is a cybrarian, educational consultant, staff developer, and adjunct professor at New School University, Fordham University, and Marlboro College. He is also a guide for Connected University and a teacher and staff developer at Alternative, Adult & Continuing Education Schools & Programs in New York City.