Harlan Institute Inspired Class Featured on Front Page of New York Times

May 12th, 2011

Last week I featured Erin Olson’s (who is a member of our Teacher Advisory Network) class in Sioux City, Iowa. Erin’s class was inspired by playing FantasySCOTUS, and learning about Snyder v. Phelps, and launched a counter-protest to the Westboro Baptists who were protesting at a local military funeral. Today we are thrilled to note that Erin’s class is featured in an article in the New York Times about using twitter and social media in the class. It will be on the front page!

Now, Erin Olson, an English teacher in Sioux Rapids, Iowa, is among a small but growing cadre of educators trying to exploit Twitter-like technology to enhance classroom discussion. On Friday, as some of her 11th graders read aloud from a poem called “To the Lady,” which ponders why bystanders do not intervene to stop injustice, others kept up a running commentary on their laptops. The poet “says that people cried out and tried but nothing was done,” one student typed. Another offered, “She is giving raw proof … that we are slaves to our society.” Instead of being a distraction — an electronic version of note-passing — the chatter echoed and fed into the main discourse, said Mrs. Olson, who monitored the stream and tried to absorb it into the lesson. She and others say that social media, once barricaded outside the school door, can entice students who rarely raise a hand to express themselves through a medium they find as natural as breathing. “When we have class discussions, I don’t really feel the need to speak up or anything,” said one of her students, Justin Lansink, 17. “When you type something down, it’s a lot easier to say what I feel.”

Harlan Institute, and FantasySCOTUS, get an indirect plug when the article discusses her class’s study of Snyder v. Phelps.

Earlier in the week, students at the school had staged a rally to support American troops in response to picketing they had seen on the news by the fringe Westboro Baptist Church of Kansas at a funeral for an Iowa soldier killed in Afghanistan. Mrs. Olson asked her students to connect “the argument” of the poem and the video with their own rally. As the discussion swirled in class, one student typed on the backchannel: “We tend to have the attitude that someone else will do it. But what happens when everyone thinks the same as you?” “It only takes one individual to change,” another student typed. “If you want something to change you have to be willing to be that voice.” “It really shows the impact one change can make,” a third student wrote. “I agree with Katie!” someone added. “This class has given us a voice!”

Erin is a trailblazer in the classroom, and we are thrilled to work with her at the Harlan Institute. I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by such wonderful eduactors.