December 9, 2008

A Letter to School Board Member Norton

One of the most interesting races for me this past election season was that of the four seats available for the San Francisco Board of Education. The voter’s guide put out by the city included profiles of each candidate, and of the fifteen running for office, only seven of them had a website. Six of them were essentially static, electronic versions of standard campaign brochures. The last was that of Rachel Norton, whose site consisted of a frequently-updated blog with comments enabled—and which the candidate actually responded to. Aside from being evidence for a passion in the field, what set this candidate apart from the others for me was her interest in using the web as a way to facilitate two-way communication with her constituents. As the incoming presidential administration has also shown, this is a great way to promote transparency and civic engagement.

After long, drawn-out recounts in what turned out to be a very close race, Norton ultimately won the fourth seat on the board. I’ve always had a lot of reverence for education—something I have my parents to thank for—and apparently I was excited enough about both Norton’s election and some of the recent work of Henry Jenkins that I actually wrote my very first letter to a public official this morning:

Hi Rachel, Congratulations on getting elected! I just wanted to let you know about something that's been on my mind lately regarding education. I'm not sure to what extent the Board of Education deals with this sort of thing, but it has to do with what's called "new media literacies". There's a foundation for it here that has more information about it: http://newmedialiteracies.org/ There's a video on the front page that explains what it's about, but I thought you might be particularly interested in it given your recent participation in this "new media landscape". I'm not sure whether it sounds too radical or not—I don't have any kids so I don't know what the current state of education is. As an example, I was disheartened to hear that Wikipedia is shunned in most classrooms across the nation, when it could instead be embraced as an opportunity to contribute to a global community of individuals who are passionate about knowledge and encouraged to question where it comes from and what its point of view is. What I'm thinking about isn't the same as "bringing technology into the classroom"—an idea I've always personally disliked—but rather encouraging kids to actively participate in society by creating things that help people. For me, the latter has always provided a much more interesting context for learning than, e.g., writing a paper that will only be read by my teacher. All this is clearly a far cry away from raising standardized test scores, though, so I'm not sure how well it fits into the Board of Education's agenda, but I hope these thoughts are helpful in some way. - Atul

© Atul Varma 2017