May 21, 2013
TECHNOS QUARTERLY Summer 1995 Vol. 4 No. 2
The Internet May Be the Safest Haven
By Les Radke
The debate over censorship and electronic communication is misguided, according to this author. The real debate should be over how we can expand horizonsnot limit them out of misplaced concern.
As a teacher in an inner-city school in Richmond, California, I'm delighted that so many people are concerned about the problems I face in my daily work. I'm more than pleased at how concerned influential people are with ensuring that my students inhabit an educational environment that will help them prepare for a productive life. Consider the following efforts being made on county, state, and ideological levels.
Orange County, California, is a county concerned with morality. A recent issue of the Orange County Register included the following report on proposed federal legislation:
In one corner are politicians who vow to keep the information highway from becoming a red-light district to make it a haven safe for children. They hope to arm themselves with the Communications Decency Act of 1995, a bill that makes it a crime to transmit obscene or harassing text or images through any electronic media If the government doesn't act, it would be an open invitation to hard-core pornography, said [U.S. Senator Jim] Exon, D-Neb, the bill's sponsor [See The Proposed Communications Decency Act of 1995 Sidebar].
The state of California is concerned about taxes that could drive out of the state those businesses interested in hiring my students when they graduate from high school. To avert this loss, Governor Wilson, who wishes to take his vision to a national level, has proposed cutting taxes, an action which would reduce state funds for education and gut California's educational system even further. If taxes are cut, there will be no money for poor schools to connect to the Internet.
And if political and economic censorship weren't enough, we have Clifford Stoll's new book, Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Superhighway (Doubleday), proclaiming the social argument that teachers, not cyberspace, make a difference in the life of students. He says the millions that would be spent on computers and connections to the Internet would be better spent on teachers. (Since the teachers in the Richmond Unified School District took a nine percent pay cut four years ago, I have no objection to more money being spent on teachers.) At the Berkeley Mac Users Group Macfest in March, Stoll added that rather than e-mailing pen pals in different countries, children should visit the parks, become involved in their own communities, and not replace real friendships with friendships in virtual environments. He also stated that people who get the most out of computers are people who follow the rules. People who have the most problems with computers don't follow all of the rules; they are creative people. Cliff Stoll, it should be noted, has been surfing the Net since the 1973 ARPA Net days.
At a later session of this same Macfest conference, Nora Ponce, a 17-year-old Richmond High student, had this response:
My neighborhood doesn't have parks or roses to smell, just trash and drugs. Walking home from school or the library, I've been mugged and harassed on the streetsI don't know how many times. Our school library is only open three days a week and doesn't have very much in it, and it's outdated. I found one book for a report I have to do on bandits in Mexico; from the World Wide Web I got 64 responses. It's safer ftp-ing materials from my home with the terminal my school gave me. When I program my MOO environment, I can see things come alive on the computer.
The World in Which We Live
Richmond High School is typical of any inner-city school in the country. We do have a principal and a core of teachers who are committed to restructuring the educational process. But our school is home to students who are shaped by the social decay of the community-joblessness, homelessness, child abuse, drug abuse, poor nutrition, and few resources outside of churches and a couple of neighborhood houses, all of which lack funds to develop any sort of self-esteem in our students.
Every year our students are subject to drive-by shootings, and every year we give excused absences to large numbers of students to attend the funerals of their schoolmates, friends, and relatives.
The December 1, 1994, issue of Rolling Stone magazine included an article on gang violence in the Richmond community. In Hyper Violence, Lewis Cole includes this telling quote from a surgeon at Oakland's Children's Hospital: There's a severe crisis. I had a patient with a stab wound. It turned out he had two outstanding felony warrants on line, one for armed robbery, the other for drug trafficking. [He] was an 11-year-old. I've seen 8-year-olds shot because of gang activity. And the ages are going down. The present homicide rate in Richmond is 59 per 100,000these are predominantly public school youth.
I had to take care of my child the last few daysI have an excuse for missing school, one of my 16-year-old students told me last week. Every day in the United States, 40 teenage youths give birth to their third child. By grade 12, more than 60 percent of surveyed American students indicated that they had engaged in sexual intercourse.
The lack of jobs for graduates means that students have no incentive to finish school. The drop-out rate in Richmond, at 28 percent, mirrors that of the United States. Among Latino youth it's 48 percent; among African-American youth it's 39 percent.
And the problems of these students engulf the classroom. Students dismake fun ofthe teachers as well as each other. Respect for adult authority is almost nonexistent, and adult role models are replaced by gang discipline and gang support. No wonder. We place a literal handful of students in four-year colleges. Jobs are scarce, and many of the summer jobs depend on programs that are federally funded and are constantly in danger of being cut.
While our student body is 88 percent non-white, the staff is overwhelmingly white. In fact, 86 percent of public school teachers in California are white, while most students in inner-city schools are non-white. The teachers have their own problemssalaries are dropping or not keeping up with inflation; supplies and books are scarce. And the cultural divide between students and teachers is great.
After I returned from a sabbatical a few years ago, a student asked me, Are you a new teacher? Embarrassed, I wondered aloud why she would say that. Because you don't yell at us like a lot of the other teachers. And she was rightfor most of our teachers, the love of teaching becomes replaced by the drudgery of surviving another day.
Les Radke's students are a diverse group. They or their parents come from such countries as Nicaragua, Mexico, Vietnam, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and the Philippines.
Where are the Role Models?
Adult role models are lacking. Fathers are often absent from their families. Many parents leave the country for Mexico or Central America for long periods of time, giving students the choice of disrupting their education or trying to survive on their own. This is not the problem of self-esteem Doonesbury cartoons make light of in discussing California. This is a lack of self-esteem tied to the struggle to survive.
When these students intersect with the world of technology, it's sometimes enough to drive them to virtual reality. The next time you attend a computer event, or walk around a research facility, be conscious of the number of African-American women or Hispanic or Native-American role models my students would see if they were there. An Asian teacher once told me, I don't watch football because there are so few Asian women quarterbacks. This is perhaps not a bad reaction for someone who dreams of having a career in football but, finding no role models in the sport, chooses not to pursue that dream. But it would be an unhealthy reaction for my students who dream of having a career in technology.
Three years ago, I took my students to a Sun World computer exhibit. We arrived
in a standard yellow school bus. The students were Hispanic, Asian, and African-American.
We had passes to the show from a representative of Visual Technology, an exhibitor.
When the security guard saw this motley crew from Richmond High School and
their teacher, we were promptly told we couldn't go in. When the exhibitor
said our tickets were legitimate, we were reluctantly allowed in. After half
an hour, a security guard called me to his booth for the following exchange:
Please call your students together. They're disrupting the show.
I don't see them doing anything. What are they doing?
That's the point. Vendors think they're regular attendees.
The vendors supporting me told me all the vendors had actually taken a vote to exclude students from the exhibit. They had, however, voted to allow students to attend. An official of the Sun User's Group apologized and the following year again offered us tickets to the event. But my students voted not to attend any exhibits outside of Silicon Valley, even though I urged them to go.
One of the officials told me the problem was that they were high school students, not that they were non-white. If so, students need another venue through which to learn about future technology.
The Internet Alternative
As students go through their lives dealing with violence, decreasing opportunities for jobs, sexual and physical abuse, hunger, lead poisoning, racism, a lack of role models, death, and overwhelmed teachers, they look for alternatives.
No place has more alternatives than the Internet. Our school has a principal who has supported the creative use of technology. We've wired all the rooms in the main building of the school with a 10Base-T connection to our Unix lab. We have a dedicated group of former students and other friends who support us by donating equipment and time in our lab. We have four Sun servers controlled by students. This was done with minimal support from our district, which was nationally known for going bankrupt several years ago.
The students have helped the rooms go on line with the Internet. Because students who understand technology, and the social uses and misuses of it, will help control the shape of the information supercanal, these students are taking control of their future.
Part of this control has been assumed by the more interested students who manage our Web server and MOO server, as well as the computer room itself. MOO, the virtual reality environment allowing people to communicate with each other, allows this poor community access to people all around the world and a shot at equal treatment.
For teachers, having a machine that is a host on the Internet, as opposed to an infrequent and unreliable phone connection, means having a reliable tool to expand their classroom activities. Even the technophobes are drawn in and begin e-mailing to friends, subscribing to lesson plans or hobby groups, and talking to teachers in other parts of the school.
We've now been on the Internet as a full node for one and a half years. The students now tell the teachers how to block unwelcome messages. We have a use policy forbidding swearing or harassing others on the Internet.
But our focus needs to be on providing tools to the students to expand their horizons, not to develop tools and policies to limit them. I agree with the representative from Russia who attended the fall telecommunications conference of the International Society for Technology and Education. He said, We tried censorship for 70 years, and it helped no one. I'm opposed to limiting people's access to information.
Click here to access The Proposed Communications Decency Act of 1995 Sidebar that accompanied this article.
Les Radke is a Regional Occupation Program (vocational education) teacher at Richmond High School (RHS) in Richmond, California, where for the past 20 years he has emphasized integration of technology into the curriculum. Most of his students are low-income, academically at-risk, and minority. Radke's classes have become a hands-on laboratory for training computer professionalsa significant number of his students have gotten jobs in industry as system managers. Former students on Radke's advisory committee, now computer professionals, have provided advice and technology donations to keep RHS's program up-to-date. Radke takes yearly trips to Russia, where he taught in the public schools for a year. Backpacking in the Wind River Range is one of his other high-tech loves. He checks his e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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