Sunday, January 28, 2007

The art and the science

I have been wondering what to do regarding my district's recent spate of network difficulties, all of which have seriously impacted my ability to serve the teachers I work with. Also, as I read the recent feeds that came into my Bloglines account, I started realizing that, in line with my previous post on gathering a quorum into the School 2.0 fray, the medium may not be the message.

A few years ago, my wife was finishing up one of her multitude of Master's degree's (I've lost track) and the class was taught by a professor who happened to be the superintendent of a major Abbott District in New Jersey. For those who are not familiar with Abbott Districts in New Jersey, they are the districts that have "evidence of substantive failure of thorough and efficient education; including 'failure to achieve what the DOE considers passing levels of performance on the High School Proficiency Test (HSPT);'"

My wife regaled me with stories, and as a teacher of public school in New Jersey these stories are folklorish, of technology that the staff had access to but could not utilize either through lack of training or lack of appropriate infrastructure.

At The Thinking Stick, Jeff Utecht, a teacher in Shanghai, has appropriately placed the emphasis on the educator, regardless of the medium he or she uses:

I don’t care if you have 20 computers in a classroom or 20 pencils. They can not do or change education without the instructor understanding what can be done with the tool they have been given. We do not ask students to use a pencil to read with, because we know that’s not what a pencil does. Educators understand what a pencil can and can not do. We have used it, tested it, and found its limits. We understand that it works best on paper, can be used in art, and is a great tool if you are drafting something as it is easy to erase. It is not a great tool if you are looking to keep a document for an extended period of time as the graphite easily rubs off, fades, and smudges over time. We use a different tool for those types of documents…a pen. The computer is the same. It is a new tool. You can give one to every child in your school, but if the instructor does not know what the tool can and can not do, how can you ensure that the tool will be used, used properly, and used to it’s fullest extent?

The same dilemma that befalls the Abbott District can befall any other district that fails to prepare its staff for the power of the new media available. What lies ahead is only as powerful as prepare ourselves for. But just as we prepared ourselves for the coming of the internet in teaching, and the coming of Web 2.0, we can easily prepare ourselves for what lies ahead immediately. Succinctly, Utecht phrases it as such:

It’s just hardware, it will not change education, it will not make our students smarter, it will not make our lives easier unless we are willing to take a long deep look into our systems and change the way we do things. We are talking about a pedagogical shift in the way learning happens, in the way classrooms are set up, and the way we view our students in this new digital world.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Welcome back to 101

One of the first meaningful teaching experiences I remember is the day my building principal informed me that he'd be spending the next two weeks in my classroom teaching a unit that I would create with his assistance. The unit, he said, would show me the kind of teacher I could be, and when we were finished, I wouldn't teach the same way anymore.

The unit we created was classic Roger Taylor stuff: video clips from public television and Hollywood, documentary footage from Peter Gabriel's, and a bevy of sources that we could inundate the students with to surround them with information. Our goal was that if we attempted to match student curiosity with a resource that matched it, we could nail down passion and send it marching furiously toward a meaningful educational experience.

The end result was a group of students that cared enough about our topic to raise over $500 for Burmese democracy.

He was right, the building principal. One of the things he kept throwing at me was the the idea, and he accredited it to John Dewey, that our role as educators is to successfully democratize our students. When piecing together the unit, I remember thinking that connecting the study of Aun Sun Suu Kyi to the Constitution was going to be a daunting task. After guiding the students through even a brief overview of the Bill of Rights and the cursory examination of Locke's ideas on Natural Rights, the plight of this Burmese woman, coupled with documentary footage of Myanmar's abusive policies towards political freedom and primary source documents about the plight of the Burmese people, I began to see where our role as educators lies.

I picked this up from Wes Fryer's Blog:

“Education” is the process by which people become responsibly mature members of their communities. Or put another way, “education” is the process by which a community points the learning of its members towards its conception of “the good.” It is not some thing an individual “gets,” but an activity in which a community engages in order to preserve and improve itself by developing the knowledge, skills, abilities, and character of its members. In a democratic society, education is “the work of the people.” (Hildreth, p.40.)
Our responsibility, more than all else, is to successfully democratize the youth of the specific community we work in. How we do that, through our delivery and our design, determines the likelihood of success or failure of that participant in said community.

I am asked all of the time by parents and interested friends whether or not the tests that NCLB has mandated will accurately assess the students of today. I juxtapose that with the recent spate of articles concerning the "21st Century Student" --are the right questions being asked? What are our new literacy skills?

Are we about grammar skills and math problems? Are we about lists of outcomes to be covered? If so, no wonder kids have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning to crawl through our doors. If we are about hundreds of discrete skills that have absolutely nothing to do with their daily lives; if we attempt to fill their heads with facts they just might need some day, it is no wonder we are losing the attention, the concerns, the hearts of our students.

Classrooms need to be about passion.

Classrooms need to be about inquiry.

Classrooms need to be about connections and the stories these bring into our lives.

Clarence Fischer
asked these questions recently, and I had to include them here. Can we look at ourselves and legitimately answer them?

When that building principal came to my room for 14 straight days to teach the unit, I took notes. The reason why the students grabbed onto the lessons and remembered the unit had nothing to do with the fact that there was this woman halfway around the world suffering. While that might seem noble to believe, the real reason is that he and I used our resources to make it real. At the time, we used media that brought her plight into their living room, so to speak.

What we present must be able to be acted upon. If we are teaching history, or math, what says we cannot take it into their living room?

It's Not You, It's Me.

As teachers, in order for us to incorporate an activity into our teaching schema, we have to know first that it is going to be seamless, that it is going to engage the learner, and that it is going to be sound pedagogically.

So where does blogging fit?

I came across this the other day as I was reading Will Richardson's post on using blogging to teach reading and literacy:

"There’s no doubt that my own reading skills and habits have changed drastically since I started consuming so much more online content. And the biggest difference is that I am more of an active reader online than when reading in print. And for me, the biggest reason my reading has changed is because of blogging. I now read with an intent to write, and my writing (or blogging) is an attempt to synthesize and connect ideas, not simply summarize or paraphrase what I’ve been reading (if I even get to that.)"
The question to classroom teachers should not be whether or not they want to blog, but rather one that is inherently more complex. It could be something along the lines of asking them to delve into a blog on their own time. That can be simply by reading a few relevant to their interests. The next step is to ask them to begin commenting. I am of the mindset that very few people are ready to jump in with both feet, but most do not mind dipping a toe if it means they will not get burned.

What they will find, I almost guarantee, is that the cathartic nature of writing comes through. What Richardson states in the quote above is exactly an outpouring of realization. How often do we react spontaneously and rip off a letter to the editor about a newspaper article or magazine piece you have read? I'll gamble that it is not too often. However, the steps to respond to a written piece are simplified online. To respond to a blog, you just click "comment." As I read I am writing my responses. As I write, I am looking for support on the various blogs and feeds I connect to. This is synthesis at its finest.

I would love to jump into blogging with my staff; however, I am realistic. It is time intensive, and most people cannot fit that piece of reflection into their day. The results, I am finding, are unabashedly positive for me.

Writing has become for me what it once was in my angst-ridden high school days. It is giving me time to tie things together that I cannot until they are directly in front of me. It's like when you are explaining a problem to another person who you hope will help you solve it, but as you near the end of your explanation the solution presents itself. The very nature of talking yourself through a concept illuminates the solution. Blogging is just that process. By the time I finish writing, the once disparate and various ideas begin to connect to one another, merge and become new platforms from which to think yet again.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Unleash the Hounds!

For the past two days I have been in class with Gina working with her students on developing their wikispaces for the Harlem Renaissance Project. Working with students in this manner is akin to swimming with sharks for a lot of us: we were in their zone of IM, web creation, and video, and we had to figure out how to work within the chaos.

Gina and I are analyzing as we go here as we give the students full access to the wiki. The most pressing issues are that the students are so unused to such freedom and openness in design that when they get to the space, they began stepping all over each other and their page design suffered. That is as much our eagerness as their wonderment. Our first group of students was a real test case in that we just unleashed them onto the space with little direction. This was a conscious decision our part just to see what happened.

For our next group, we required that they plan their attack before they go the machines, and it worked very well. One thing I tend to forget as I attempt to use the read/write web with students are the conventions that work so well in a traditional setting. Things like pre-writing, planning, brainstorming and peer editing are equally, if not more important, with something like the creation of a wiki. So many more people will have access to the material than the students are used to (see writingthecity), so creating something of impeccable quality becomes paramount. Not to say it wasn't before, but what Gina and I have seen in just one day in terms of student concern over the appearance of their work was striking.

As the students in the second and third sections of the class migrated from their planning tables to their machines, we saw that they had decided to sit together using neighboring machines. This was a distinct difference from the first section, which sat with groups scattered around the lab. Delegation occurred, with stress (from the students) on the roles and responsibilities of each of the group members. And although there is an IM-like feature built into, the students found that speaking to one another in close proximity worked infinitely better. When they are working remotely, they thought, the IM would help.

It's a work in progress, for both the students and Gina and I. The advantages that the students see are that they are free to roam and create within what to them are transparent parameters. In actuality, we have more control than we need over the space.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Am I going too?

I was pointed in the direction of Christian Long's "Future of Learning Manifesto" and its subsequent additions and expansions by visitors and commenter to his blog. One part of it really stands tall for me and lends itself to my work:

10. Nobody Knows the Answer. Get Comfy with the Questions.

One of the most difficult things to do in life is to cede control of a situation for fear of ceding control of our classrooms. A common theme coming across the waves is that in order for us to provide a relevant assessment and a "school 2.0" environment, we have to provide environments that are not controlled in the traditional sense that educators have come to know it. (See also remote access "Chaos Theory")

And I get it on both sides of the equation. On the traditional side, in order to do what the "Manifesto" points us to do, entire curriculums would need to be re-written, staffs retrained, and students empowered in a way that they have not been before. In my personal situation, the logistics behind doing that are overwhelming. I can't imagine viewing the directive from the standpoint of someone who has been in the classroom for 20 years or more. This would be just another pendulum swing in the world of educational reform and theory. They have seen it before in the way of phonics v. whole language, or inquiry-based learning and PBL's v. standards-driven curriculum. and any other of a host of attempts to change the environment in a classroom. How does that teacher become convinced? How does that teacher see value in giving up control in favor of becoming the driver of creative questions? And also, what if the students, they feel, are not capable of asking meaningful questions, or lack a solid enough foundation in basic terminology or facts to conduct relevat research?

What is happening in terms of the read/write web and collaboration is intense and unbelievably mercurial in nature. To be tied down to one method for too long is missing out on 4 or 5 others that pop up to supersede it (see v. diigo v. Google Notebook--diigo for me). And therein lies the key. There are more questions than answers now. Which is best of research?(digging on Grokker right now) What method can I use to find primary source material on a topic? How can I find relevant, credible resources out of the plethora of hits I get back on Google? When I saw Long's #10 on the list, I sighed because I knew this was the way to go. Get cozy with the "I don't know, let's play around and see," approach. That's where we get the skeptics; Create a possible task and give them tools that make doing it unbelievably easy.

Malcolm Gladwell spoke about the ideas and actions that lead to a radical shift in social policy, design, and consumer power. That is what we are looking at here. Is it podcasts? Blogs? Wikis? Pink or red iPods? No.

What it will be is something that makes accessing information for classroom teachers accessible and safe, something that makes them fearless and confident in front of a roomful of connected students, and something that lets them be comfortable with "I don't know."

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Two Quick Points

Internet Time Blog :: Mark Oehlert on the Future Look of Learning

  • Two interesting concepts here that I can thank the good folks at Think:Lab for bringing to my attention.
  • First, is the nanocast: a short quick podcast that relies on pointed, concise questions and zero scripting. Jay Cross at the Internet Time Blog has switched his format entirely to shorter versions of longer podcasts, which he claims do not hold his attention. Who doesn't have a problem with attention span these days? Nanocasting delivers nano-sized points on a specific topic. The benefit, as I see it, is for pulling in an audience with the promise that you don't need to keep them for a long time. As I write this, I am already thinking of doing this with the teachers that I work with as a post-lesson wrap up after they have completed their projects and have taken student feedback into consideration.
  • Secondly, I listened to Cross interview Mark Oehlert on one of his nanocasts entitled: The Future Look of Learning, and I have to confess, I was both energized and slightly awestruck at some of the possiblities that Mark mentioned. As we search out more and more uses for Web 2.0 in education, the quest will probably become more competitive, not between those of us using the technology, but between those who are delivering it. The key word now is customization. What Web 2.0 is allowing us to do more than we have ever seen is to customize our environments to what we would like to see. Think widgets, think your personalized Google homepage or whatever aggregator you are using. The competition to make those type of platforms customizable for schools will be fierce. Once we really begin to overcome our fears of "what is out there," schools will likely embrace the idea of off-site hosting and "software" that is personalized. Oehlert and Cross mention that learning styles will be met much more successfully because we will be able to create a series of application that appeals to a visual learner by giving that student a series of applications and feeds that provide resources that are specific not only to the topic that the student is learning, but also to how that student will best learn it. I am psyched.
  • Trepidation here lies within the fact that deciding what is best for those whom I work with will be difficult. What I am grappling with all the time is this very fact of what is best for me. Recommending to someone else is barely in the cards yet.

BTW, I apologize for the bullets, but this post was the result of a failed experiment with Diigo's "blog this" feature was does not currently support Blogger. End of January, they say.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Vocabulary We will be using

Now that I have been reading what is an ever expanding blogroll for over two weeks now, I think the time is nigh that I start trying to make some personal sense out of what I have been ingesting.

At the Thinking Stick, Jeff Utecht talks about what the meaning of School 2.0 is, and how it is not enough that we are just digitizing. What the next step for most schools in America is to grab hold of the interconnectivity that their students, the natives, have already taken hold of.

School 2.0 needs to be about creating knowledge, analyzing information, and evaluating both. It’s about understanding a world in which connections and communicating with others is at the foundation of how we learn, that through creating our own knowledge not from what a teacher tells us, but rather from what we read, listen to, and watch ourselves is far more powerful. A teacher is a guide, much like the guide we had in Vietnam. Arrange the boat for the trip, but allow us to experience the trip, answer questions when we have them, and stay out of the way when we want to experience something ourselves. We could have easily called our guide a history teacher showing us the “Hilton Hotel” where POWs were held, allowing us to experience a silk factory, and filling in the gaps that we couldn’t or didn’t know. We did the learning, he did the guiding.

The folks over at Think:Lab in a post dated earlier in the week spoke about the premises that underlie School 2.0 date back to the progressivism of John Dewey. Without a doubt we are not touching on new theory here, but rather using the read/write technology in lieu of a woodshop or any other pragmatic tool used in Dewey's time. This is what we should take from the terminology: that the influx of technology means little without the useful, practical application of it in contexts that best fit the direction that the learner needs to go in. The guide spoken of in the post above did just that. Provide the framework, manage the tools, answer the questions as they arise, and be prepared for whatever bumps come up.

For years now we’ve talked about being the “Guide on the Side” in the classroom, and that’s what we need to be. Of course it’s hard to do that when you have to fill an 80 minute block. In School 2.0 a ‘tour’ might take 80 minutes it might take 10 minutes. It might be 10 minutes of background knowledge and then 80 minutes of exploration and creation of knowledge. Teachers need time to plan out the route, book the trip, and make sure the experience is available. We need to rethink schools and think about just how messy learning is.

Most of us, at some point in our teacher training, were given the phrase that Utecht uses "the Guide on the Side," and we chuckled at the rhyme, and maybe even took it to heart. However, the true meaning of School 2.0 lies in that very phrase. My aim as an educator has taken an abrubt turn in recent weeks due to the changing demographics of the American and global workforces.

Utecht talks about a definition of School 2.0:

What is School 2.0? It’s a school that defines learning and knowledge not by seat time, or hours spent on a project, but by what is experienced, created, and communicated.

Everything that has come across my nose in the past few months points to a future dependent upon creativity in problem solving, in collaborative efforts, and in the ability to see solutions to questions that haven't arisen yet. What better way to prepare student for that than to introduce him or her to the beautifully unsettling world at large through the use of available technologies? I will let you know as soon as I find it...

Friday, January 12, 2007

Skype quick calls

Short tutorial on how to dial someone in Skype and how to set yourself up for a video chat.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Tech Committee and the ups and downs.

Now that I have committed myself to trying to move forward into what we are calling School 2.0, there are varying levels of excitement, fear, and anticipation that I feel quite often and in no certain order. Most of the fear is centered around not being able to give the staff I work with the confidence in moving in the direction of 2.0; lately I have had several discussions on team building with some of my colleagues in a similar situation. Moving people out of their comfort zones, particularly in a manner where their students are the natives, is unsettling to me. However, when I look at the student products, and the student engagement in work that uses their native technological skills, I can't help but be enthused. It's that emotion, enthusiasm, that has to be pervasive.

Tomorrow, we are convening our first gathering of the district's Technology Committee, and our charge is to create a method of assessing student progress in regards to technology. New Jersey is mandating that all 8th grade students be assessed on their technological aptitude. What exists in each district, especially ours, is usually an antiquated, state-mandated plan, that has gathered dust on a shelf somewhere while the district tried to keep pace with increasing state funding cuts.

What we would like to do is analyze several other plans from districts that "get it." I have gathered several technology plans from schools throughout the state and hope to find some common themes that we can adopt. Themes like collaboration, global connection, local support and investment, 1:1 technology, and adaptation to changing student aptitudes need to be included in such a report.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The fires begin to burn.

Today things took a rosier turn for me in that one of the teachers I am working with began to construct her wiki and did a fantastic job on the opening page. Check it out here if you like.

After the ups and downs of yesterday, it was good to be back in the classrooms today working on setting students up with Lecture123 accounts so they can view their Russian lessons in realtime. I hope they use it to help them study; I know their parents are going to be excited to see it.

In other news, the excitement from Cupertino was too much to bear. If not for the foreboding pricetag, I would be even nuttier over the iPhone, but $500 is a lot to shell out for a phone that is going to depend on Cingular's network. Personally, I will wait it out with my Treo, which does much of what the iPhone does, and then move on when my contract is up. It might be a long 16-months, though.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Head meets wall. Wall is illuminating in defeat

Today I decided, after much frustration, that I must find a way to bridge the two places that I am residing in together somehow.

On one hand is this world where all is cutting-edge and new and I can't keep pace with the ideas and applications I am finding for the read/write technology and interconnectivity as I run through Web 2.0. On the other are the buildings I work in that when faced with these same ideas see them much differently, albeit from a the realistic perspective of a classroom teacher or an administrator.

I attended two faculty meetings today, as well as a smaller team meeting in my district today. The morning faculty meeting was a brief question and answer session followed by a discussion of Wallis and Steptoe's article in Time Magazine concerning the 21st Century student. Several of the discussions I was part of centered on a rather defensive stance in that without the classrooms of the 60's, 70's, and 80's, the advancements of the 90's and 00's would not have occurred. I understand that, and I wanted to rebut in some fashion, but some little voice silenced me, and for good measure I tell myself now.

Later in the morning, I met with a group of 7th Grade teachers during their regulary daily meeting. I am trying to present the staff with easier ways to manage their information and also give their students lots of options for producing work. What it turned into was my subconcious doing two things: lashing out at my frustration for the morning's article discussion, and trying to show them too much stuff that I thought was cool and fun. I threw Diigo and at them, tried to shove videocasting in their faces, and illustrated how a wiki works. With all them, except for diigo and, I was met with odd looks as if to say "whoa, buddy."

I left that room wondering how badly I set myself back in terms of working with them in the future. Sadly, the day took an ever sharper downturn when I attended the High School faculty meeting in the afternoon. Our high school is beginning a major construction project slated to last the better part of of 4 years. During this time, teacher access to technology will be severely limited by temporary infrastructure. Today we got the skinny on the phases, and when technology was brought up, groans from across the crowd rose up. Essentially, the status of the use of technology in the high school is going to stagnate for the next four years, unless I decide to do something major.

And here is where the bridge idea comes in. The two places I inhabit intellectually must come together, and upon further reflection today, I think they can. Getting teachers to embrace technology depends on one thing: success. Success with using technology breeds confidence to continue using it and try other types. The greatest aspect of the surge of read/write technologies available on the web is the remote nature of them. Students do not need a mobile lab or constant access to a lab in order to access the documents that they need, nor do they need to be in proximity to one another to collaborate.

Find the solutions, give them to staff in situations that are well designed and ready-made to succeed, and keep it simple.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Introduction, of sorts

I am what you could call a "migrating blogger." Over the last few years, I have been bouncing from blogspace to blogspace much like my two-year moves from train-set to kitchen to golf clubs to play-doh, etc. Where the problem lies is that one does not seem to fit all of the varied topics I like to weigh in on.

This space will be reserved for the topic of educational technology and all things related to creating an environment that fosters the preparation of the 21st Century Student. Links to the other areas will be furnished to the right, but for the most part, I will try to keep my linkrolls in sync with the topic at hand.

I look forward to getting some interesting traffic through this space as I move forward. Thank you and I hope to hear from you soon.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

The Harlem Renaissance

Gina, a Language Arts teacher at our Middle School approached me about infusing some technology into one of her favorite units to do with her students: The Harlem Renaissance. Her classroom is set up as a fantastic learning environment where students truly take charge of their learning. In past years, she has created guidelines for this project only to see them amended continually as the students work their way through the project.

The Challenge: I asked Gina what she would like to see happen here; the project had always been a success in the past. Her response was that she always felt that offering the students opportunities for different outcomes was essential to the project's success. The real problem was going to be figuring out what core elements each group was to be responsible for in their project, and what they could expand on and individualize. We really did not want to see thirty-five powerpoints. The project breaks the students into heterogeneous groups each assigned to a particular subject within the Harlem Renaissance: Art, Music, Literature, or History. The preliminary requirements are that each group must present their information to the class in some way and during that presentation they must somehow assess the class on the material that they present. How would we enable them to have technological options when presenting?

The Solution: Looking at some of the work that educators around the country are doing with spaces like this one, it became apparent to me that creating a repository for all the information they find on their particular topic would be ideal. That way, any one of the other groups could have access to it at any point throughout the unit. Gina was fully on board with this for several reasons. One, it satisfied the requirement that they do research and produce some work that qualified as writing. Secondly, in creating a wiki, the information was out there for other teachers on her team to use in their classrooms for cross-curricular work.

As for their presentations, we planned on showing them the following strategies: Photostory to create a digital story using art or portraits from the time period; digital audio downloaded from various sources of either jazz musicians from the period, or better yet, from authors reading their poetry; podcasting their experience using Audacity and making it available for other classes or grades within the school.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Project for Modern Living

In working with our Modern Living teacher, Debbie, we are trying to create within the students a vested interest in the obesity epidemic in America. Debbie has been doing a project for several years that draws attention to this problem and has updated the project to reflect changes that have taken place in the USDA's Food Pyramid, and attitude shifts in the mainstream.

The Challenge: Debbie's class is split into two parts for a large part of the class period, with one group in the kitchen and another group working on the written project. She is limited to three PC's in her classroom, a VCR player with no monitor, and limited access to the mobile laptop cart or computer lab. Our challenge is to design a project that is more differentiated during the gathering and research process, and one that offers varied outcome possibilities using technology.

The Solutions: We took what was an eight-part project and consolidated it into three sections that build from one to the next. The first section asks the students to gather information through identification of terms and explanation of concepts, while the second leads them into application and analysis of the food pyramid and how their diet and lifestyle compare to government recommendations. The final section engages the students in an evaluation of the changes that need to be made in their lives regarding diet and exercise and compels them to design a plan complete with menus, and exercise plans.

Methods and Strategies: In order to further differentiate the project, Debbie is going to vary her delivery and content through the use of learning stations. The stations are designed to include media in the form of DVD's from PBS ("The Diet Wars," and "Fat,), a list of websites compiled using Diigo that Debbie will annotate and comment on before passing along to the students to give them some guidance as they peruse, as well as other types of instruction that are non-traditional. For example, we are efforting to pull in several guest speakers from the fields of diet and nutrition and physical training. We hope this will show that the students that there is stock placed in this topics by their community at large.

Outcome: As this is a work in progress, it is yet to be deteremined.