A Teacher's Writes

by Geoffrey Sheehy

Category: For Graduate School

Just in time observation for teachers’ just in time learning

I’m adding a new category for my postings, one which I’ve stolen from John Williams, a radio host I thoroughly enjoyed when I lived outside Chicago. It’s called “When I am king” – because I periodically have those silly ideas and plans I’d institute if I were principal, mayor, or even king.

Today’s thought: If I were principal.

I’d have a person on staff full-time to be a tutor, much like we have in my school. Here, there is a special room called the Academic Resource Center (ARC), and it is staffed by intelligent, friendly tutors who help students with their homework. Since we’re such a big school, we have one tutor for each core subject area. What I’d do is take a tutor like this and have him or her be a tutor and an on-call substitute teacher.

But the substitute part would not be for emergencies when a sub was not available. This person would have an openly published schedule (on line) and a teacher in the building could claim a slot for the tutor to cover her class. The “covering” is not so a classroom teacher can run to the store or the dentist, it’s for observing other teachers and collaborating when it otherwise would not be possible.

For example, say I hear that Mrs. Smith is doing that great activity where she has students playing games and at the same time learning all their vocabulary terms. The easiest way to learn it myself is to go to her room and watch her do it, so I check the tutor/sub’s schedule, see that she’s open third block and schedule her to cover my class. I email my plans to the tutor/sub, and when the time comes, head to Mrs. Smith’s class and watch her, feeling confident that my class is in good hands, since it is being covered by a competent professional who is familiar with the students. When I’m finished, I fill out a report that takes less than five minutes to write but verifies that the time was used well.

My school attempted something like this last year and the year before, where small groups of teachers rotated for observations – the school hired subs, allowing each of us to watch one teacher and be watched by one teacher. The idea was decent, but the result didn’t always pan out, possibly because of differing ideas about the purpose for the observation. I think one way to improve it, though, would be to have this flexible person available anytime – a person who would be ready to fill in when that “just-in-time learning” moment arises.

Perhaps some of it depends on how good the sub is, but if you could have this guy, who wouldn’t want to participate? When I’m king, I’ll be able to hire him, after all.

Thanks for reading.

The diffusion of wikis – a question no one asked me

Sometimes I feel the obligation to answer the questions that no one is asking. It’s very generous on my part, I realize. It also allows me to address topics in writing where I can be the authority, since no one else is talking about such nonsense.

Today’s question: If tools like wikis are so astoundingly amazing, why has their rate of adoption by educators been so slow?

Now, the first issue one might take up with this question is the concept of it being slow. Slow according to whom? To this objection I have no legitimate answer. All I can say is that it sometimes feels slow to me, which is natural since with this technology, as I mapped out recently, I fall into the innovator category of adopters. Thus, I’m driving 95 miles an hour and wondering why all these cars look like they’re standing still – even though they’re actually moving 55 mph.

Also, I have attempted to aid the diffusion of wikis – another concept I’ve addressed at too much length here – and in those attempts I have encountered enough difficulties and seen enough of people’s response to wikis that I claim at least a wee legitimacy to my initial question and the use of the word “slow.”

Still, maybe the slow concept is an overstatement and I should rephrase the question. Instead, I might say it this way: What do we innovators need to do differently if the innovation of wikis is to move from the bottom of the S-curve of typical innovations’ diffusion up the steep side of the curve?

S-curve of Innovation Adoption

As an answer, I suggest there are three issues interested parties must address, all of which arise from my current reading of Everett Rogers’s Diffusion of Innovation.

The first issue is that characteristics of wikis and other ICT, personal computer technology make adoption difficult. Specifically, trialability is difficult because the complexity of the technology is rather high (and, as Rogers asserts, an innovation’s trialability is positively correlated with its rate of adoption). It may not be NASA, but it is complex to the people looking to adopt it, and that is what counts. Wikis are astoundingly easy for a person once the related tools become familiar, but they are not so simple for the uninitiated. We who present one hour sessions at conferences and then wonder why wikis have not “taken off” in education should be more cognizant of this concept.

A closely related issued is that if how-to knowledge of the wikis is not gained in time, rejection of the innovation is likely. When we say to a learner, “Head over to this site and try it” without providing hands-on, in-person guidance, rejection is what happens – I’m convinced. I know so many colleagues who have been introduced to wikis and then given a URL and a link to a video to help them figure it out later. That’s no good anymore. Videos and URL’s are fine way to help innovators like me (and maybe you), but not the folks that fall under other adopter categories. We innovators should remember this and quit trying to lure the early and late majorities with innovator and early innovator techniques. This is not how we teach our students, and it’s not how we should be teaching each other; if we don’t change our ways or adapt somehow, we will continue to create rejectors.

Lastly, we’re also creating a unique situation for the adoption of the innovation, the wiki. The usual innovation-decision process goes from

  • Knowledge to
  • Persuasion, to
  • Decision, to
  • Implementation, to
  • Confirmation.

But for many the above mentioned decision has already occurred – to reject. Maybe they rejected blogs after not envisioning potential applications. Maybe they rejected wikis when they couldn’t make sense of the software. Maybe they rejected anything Web2.0 after a bad experience at a conference, in-service, or on an online recertification course. Whatever the scenario, we now have to persuade the one-time rejectors not by reconstructing the decision stage only, but by

  1. convincing them to return to the beginning of the process and then
  2. re-creating the original knowledge of the tool, being careful not to neglect a nurturing introduction to the how-to knowledge of it.

I am my own audience here, the one that needs to ask the question no one asked me. The diffusion of wikis is something for which I hold an interest. I teach a summer class on wikis, blogs, and web tools; I am attempting to use a wiki as a collaborative tool with the colleagues in my department; I have been slated to present a session about wikis for a technology conference (that one was canceled due to low interest). But I think if I am interested in actually progressing that development, it will take more effort from me than the quick creation of a Jing movie.

Knowing that in advance – a knowledge that removes surprises and the risk of disillusionment – I am willing to make the effort.

Thanks for reading.

When I push two innovations in one, it is important to know my adopters

Reading Everett Rogers’s Diffusion of Innovation is an interesting process. So much of what he says is basically obvious that it is tempting to skim through it and miss the insight or the application to appropriate situations. For example, as I read about the typical adopter categories relating to innovations, I found myself wondering about the fruit of attempting to combat them or even address them. When I refer to this concern, I am mostly considering the knowledge repository / wiki I am constructing and launching for my department, but I am also broadening it to include any item or idea I might be attempting to diffuse through the educational ranks.

Innovation Adopter Categories

With whatever innovation of a particular moment, I find myself reacting against the categories of adopters with a bit of a fatalistic streak – the categories exist, why should I change anything simply because I know about them? Will it matter whether I do anything? Won’t the bell curve of typical adoption patterns exist despite my efforts? Why fight the waves when the waves always win? The innovators are already in (that’s me), the early adopters will come when they come, followed someday by the early and late majorities and, eventually, even the laggards. It feels predetermined, and if that’s the case, throwing all my energy into catering to the “late majorities,” for example, is simply wasting energy. It’s pedaling the bicycle when you’re going down a hill so fast that the pedaling is not accomplishing anything.

But the pessimism of this thinking comes when I’m considering only the technical innovation my project advances – the wiki – and the frustration that accompanies diffusing such a tool through the ranks. When it comes to wikis (and blogs and the rest of the broadly labeled Web 2.0 world) I am generally indifferent towards the need to advance the innovation – an indifference that doesn’t sit well with many of my blogging companions, but an indifference nonetheless. I dare say a teacher can teach students effectively for this technologically advancing world without touching a blog or a wiki. Granted, I’m using these tools, but I don’t say everyone else has to as well.

Anyway, in terms only of this project and knowledge repository I’m building, my indifference is fueled by the reality of my goals, which are not to advance a wiki through teachers’ practice, but to increase collaboration among teachers, with the wiki as a suitable tool for achieving that goal.

With that as the reality, I should be extra attuned to these adopter categories that Rogers describes, because if the wiki does not diffuse, then neither will my collaboration innovation. When it comes to the wiki, the late majority in particular will carry enough weight to derail this project; thus it is crucial to keep those adopters’ characteristics in mind and cater to them as best as I can – with both innovations.

As much as I’d like to have it behind me forever, it is a pity that I need to complete this project (which is technically a grad school capstone internship) in one semester, because it presses the time frame for the innovation decision process into too fine a space. My one semester time frame is too quick for a late majority adopter to mull over the wiki and the knowledge repository long enough to adopt. These individuals need to see the product modeled and used by the early and early majority adopters. That’s a crucial element for them, and I’ll do well to remember this in a month or two when I evaluate the project: possibly the majority of my department won’t be ready to use it yet.

In fact, there likely will be only about three people in my department ready to use the wiki eagerly and comfortably by the end of the semester, when the project part of this knowledge repository ends. Amusingly, I have known this all along and can name the three people to whom I’ve catered my work and lobbied directly as I built it. I knew them to be the early adopters (with a pair of crucial opinion leaders) and I figured I had to have them on board for the project to succeed (and by succeed, I mean diffuse).

Early adopters are a more integrated part of the local social system than are innovators . . . This adopter category, more than any other, has the greatest degree of opinion leadership in most systems. Potential adopters look to early adopters for advice and information about the innovation. The early adopter is considered by many as ‘the individual to check with’ before using a new idea. (p. 264)

I should add that another key for me for the two or three early adopters will be to convince them to use the wiki in the ways I intend, by filling out the reflections as much as possible – the reflections attached to each activity and lesson plan that build its context and allow another person to catch a glimpse of what the intentions and possibilities of that activity or lesson are. No one wants to do it, but when they do not, the tools become isolated and less relevant. I anticipate struggling with this as the early and late majorities come to use the wiki – another solid reason to keep these categories of adopters firmly in mind.

Concerning those majorities, I can also name key members of the “early majority” I have subtly wooed, but to be honest I have known I’ll be counting on the early adopters to draw these folks into the effort. I’m too far in my own world to mean much to these folks; to them, I’m the guy who’s off in his own planet going “clickity-clickity” too fast to make sense to anyone else.

The early majority may deliberate for some time before completely adopting a new idea. Their innovation-decision period is relatively longer than that of the innovator and the early adopter. (p. 265)

And that’s not even mentioning what the late majority thinks of me. We all get along great, but to them I represent something totally different than themselves. These folks didn’t sign up for the training sessions I have offered, even with the extra pay offered, but if the early adopters and early majority began to use the knowledge repository often, this late majority might even be ready for some training a year from now.

Adoption may be . . . for the late majority . . . the result of increasing network pressures from peers . . . and the late majority do not adopt until most others in their system have done so. (p. 265)

In a secondary manner, I should view the adopter categories as important in how the wiki and knowledge management tool can aid the rate of diffusion for future worthy innovations. This wiki might be a perfect place for a few of the adoption processes that Rogers defines to occur, in particular the observability, which is a crucial characteristic for an innovation to be adopted at a useful rate, and yet is astoundingly difficult to achieve in an educational setting.

The observability of an innovation, as perceived by members of a social system, is positively related to its rate of adoption. (p. 244)

Thus, the wiki and the reflections that will hopefully go there should create at least something close to observable actions.

Without the observation, how would the late majority in particular learn enough to adopt an innovation? Where is the hands on clarity they need? Hopefully in areas of educational innovations, the wiki I’m creating can help as teachers share the contexts, benefits, and pitfalls of their lessons even as they post the lesson itself into the repository – but really it can only help if we can overcome the big obstacles of the adoption and diffusion of the collaborative tool itself – the wiki.

Thus, despite my own best efforts to ignore the wiki and not care about whether people want to adopt it, I am stuck having to work hard to make sure it is adopted within my department. Alas, the cyclical situation and the ever present responsibility to care.

Thanks for reading.

I’m an innovator, Who are you?

My mom has always loved those personality tests – those deals where you answer long questionnaires and then see your whole life revealed in four common categories. I recognize the validity and value of them, so I don’t knock them; though because it’s my mother who had the enthusiasm for them, and because she was so into them, I tend to tease them a bit. It didn’t help that I can never remember the names of the four types and she and one of her best friends speak of them to each other in short-hand, they know them so well.

There was a stretch when she and her friend were visiting us here on the Great Plains and while we were hanging out, I’d be saying something that gave my personality trait a classic category; they’d exchange knowing glances before saying, “he’s definitely a IRQT.” Or whatever it was they’d say. It was like an educated version of IM speak, which, by the way, I’ve noticed students have begun to use in normal conversation. Usually when I hear it they’re stating the shorthand because the real version is not appropriate for school, but at times I’ll hear someone affirm a joke with a verbal “LOL” instead of actually laughing out loud. Does anyone else see a problem with this? They’re admitting outright that they’re not laughing out loud when they write that! The gig is up! Your secret has been revealed!

Back to my topic – the personality tests. I continue to read Everett Rogers’s Diffusion of Innovations and the chapter I read this morning on “Innovativeness and Adopter Categories” intrigues me in the same way the Myers-Briggs personality tests intrigued my mom and her friend, especially when I think of the people with whom I associate in the blogosphere and in educational technology circles. If you’re reading this, see if you can find yourself in the two paragraphs I’m going to share here. My own blurbs and editorial commentary are inserted, but I have edited little out of the original paragraphs :

Innovators: Venturesome

Venturesomeness is almost an obsession with innovators. This interest in new ideas leads them out of a local circle of peer networks and into more cosmopolite social relationships.

Like, maybe to the Internet and an online community of practice? I’m not sure I’d call this cosmopolite, but the behavioral pattern strikes me as true.

Communication patterns and friendships among a clique of innovators are common, even though the geographical distance between the innovators may be considerable.

For me, this is revealed especially by my close communication with my district’s full time technology staff developers, despite their being in a different building than me, and my seeing them only once a month.

Being an innovator has several prerequisites. . . . The ability to understand and apply complex technical knowledge is . . . needed.

I’d like to think this is true, but for me it goes too far. For others I know, however, I’d apply this.

The innovator must be able to cope with a high degree of uncertainty about an innovation at the time of adoption.

The salient value of the innovator is venturesomeness, due to a desire for the rash, the daring, and the risky. The innovator must also be willing to accept an occasional setback when a new idea proves unsuccessful, as inevitably happens.

Will it work? Who cares? We’ll give it a go and throw out what fails spectacularly. Anyone who has attempted any use of Twitter in the classroom automatically qualifies for this. If this doesn’t apply to you, I do wonder if maybe it applies to the person who introduced you to blogs?

While an innovator may not be respected by the other members of a local system,

Okay, my colleagues are too kind not to respect me. But they definitely think I’m in my own little world over there.

the innovator plays an important role in the diffusion process: That of launching the new idea in the system by importing the innovation from outside the system’s boundaries. Thus, the innovator plays a gatekeeping role in the flow of new ideas into a system.

I love the gatekeeper idea, because I think it’s an awful metaphor for what Rogers just described. He just pointed out that we let practically every idea through the gate and only later toss out the seedy intruders. Metaphorically, innovators are the worst gatekeepers possible. We’re more like the inquisitors on the outside of the gate, and the Early Adopters are the gatekeepers. But, I understand what Rogers is trying to say, so I won’t harp on this one too much.

Kind of fun to play the “Where are you?” game in those paragraphs, isn’t it? I want to share more about the next category on the bell curve – the early adopters – which I suspect is where many of the new blog writers and readers are, but I want to save some of that for another post I’ve got written down in my notebook and plan on typing later.

Thanks for reading.

Managing knowledge better than London’s chechaquo builds a fire

And here I sit, thinking about knowledge management again. In a sense, I wouldn’t mind getting onto another topic, but it’s not the topic that is driving me nuts so much as the all-consuming power of earning a degree, working while maintaining some semblance of professionalism, and being a father all at one time. And then there’s those websites I’ve become the “master” of. Oh boy, the things I get myself into. I may be trying to help my department better manage its collective knowledge, but I’m not setting any solid precedents in managing my own life. Last night I stayed up so late working on a project that the little bit of sickness I’d apparently fended off until now bit my throat. Now, seriously – was that project worth it?

We are not indestructible; we are frail creatures, and I find too many parallels between my own decisions and those of Jack London’s prospector in “To Build a Fire“:

Fifty degrees below zero meant eighty-odd degrees of frost. Such fact impressed him as being cold and uncomfortable, and that was all. It did not lead him to meditate upon his frailty as a creature of temperature, and upon man’s frailty in general, able only to live within certain narrow limits of heat and cold; and from there on it did not lead him to the conjectural field of immortality and man’s place in the universe.

Now I fervently hope I am not a man “without imagination,” but I am awfully thick-headed and prideful at times about my choices, and, as I have proved again, I often act without thought, quickly and alertly like London’s prospector, and also like him, without taking the time to consider significances. Maybe I’m not defined by this nature, but if I do not stop it may become a dominant, though inadvertent, characteristic. One must work to attain and sustain simplicity and focus.

Did I say I was thinking about knowledge management? I’m convinced this is part of the theme. What if a department’s collective personality is like mine? They take on various projects and work extremely hard, but rarely stop to consider what was done and whether the things that were done were the best things to be done. Stopping and considering falls into the world of knowledge management, and I have a hope that if teachers use the KM wiki I’ve set up, the contributor will benefit from the sharing of resources in significant ways. Those ways won’t be the same as the consumer of the lesson plan or activity in question, but they could be valuable moments of reflection and consideration.

Take this example scenario: An activity I do with my students – say these stories my juniors just wrote following our reading of Jack London – strikes me as worthwhile and I figure other teachers might like to know about it. I head to the KM repository/wiki to add it to the growing supply.

To add it, I click “New Page” on the wiki and then when prompted, select a template available on the wiki that is made specially for sharing activities. It prompts me to design the page in a certain way, to answer a series of questions about the activity so another teacher can decide whether the context is repeatable for her classroom. The lesson and activity description, while necessary for teachers to know, is actually only a fraction of what is shared. When confronted with the template, I can erase any categories I do not wish to use, but the existence of the template encourages me to attempt at least short answers to most of the categories:

  • Quick Description
  • Goals
  • Original Context
  • Time
  • Good Parts
  • You Should Know (essentially, bad parts)
  • Rundown (this is where the actual plan part goes)
  • Materials

I post the lesson, tag it with relevant terms, like “American Literature,” “Creative Writing,” or “Stories,” save it, and stick a link on the front page so folks know I’ve added something new.

My claim is that the process in which I engaged benefits me, even if I don’t bother to look around the wiki to see what others have contributed. By answering the questions about the context, I have had to articulate what the good parts and bad parts of the activity were, as well as revisit in my own terms what my goals were in creating that activity.

By the way, when I say goals, I do NOT mean those horrid lists of state standards. At this level of sharing, those communicate nothing necessary between veteran teachers. When I look at another teacher’s goals, I want to see what they were thinking when they made the lesson: “To write an essay that was so easy we could focus on the writing instead of the thinking” or “To cap the unit with something half fun since I’d just slaughtered them with the unit test.” In seeing those kinds of goals, I am taken as close as I can be taken to the point of creation, so I can see the motives behind decisions that were made about the lesson. If my goals are then different, it is easier for me to make adjustments when I choose to make the lesson my own.

That imitation of presence and capture of classroom experience is very much what I aspire to create – though I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it. I say in my welcome message to the wiki that when I worked as a furniture delivery guy, I learned half of my skills by watching people who were better at the job than me. The other half I learned by breaking things and then not doing it again. Teachers get to break things, but they don’t get to watch each other, so by working in the education industry, I’ve lost a crucial area of learning.

That’s a big deal, and I think it’s crucial to recover it somehow. If we’re to learn anything, to pick up any innovations that might be diffusing through our culture, as Everet Rogers might say, we’ll need to experience more of that modeled practice. Rogers asserts that “diffusion is fundamentally a social process” and that

the heart of the diffusion process consists of interpersonal network exchanges and social modeling between those individuals who have already adopted an innovation and those who are then influenced to do so. (34)

That “innovation” could be something as simple as a way of announcing assignments to students so no one misses anything, or it could be a neat activity or lesson that got students motivated. Without the modeling though, we as teachers lose a key piece of the communication exchange that leads to diffusion, or learning.

Oh, the perils of the “system” in our school system. But, then again, as this little blip I caught from Megan Husted points out, perhaps the rest of the world is breaking down to the teachers’ sorry levels where modeling is not present:

That we’ve transferred a lot of office business to e-mail — well, who cares?

I didn’t, until I thought back to my own early days in an office, at Vintage Books, eight years ago. The phones trilled continuously, and you could hear the springs in an assistant’s chair as she popped up to announce who was on Line 2. All the noise seemed to add energy and urgency to the day.

And I can’t imagine how a young employee learning the ropes can acquire what she needs to know, as speedily, without the advantage of eavesdropping on her boss’s phone conversations.

How can anyone get a grasp of an industry’s pertinent relationships or decision-making time frames, let alone the fragility of a particular office’s egos, if there are so few chances to hear these people talking to the outside world? The office phone call, properly overheard, is really the cheapest, easiest way to transmit institutional knowledge. (Thanks to Alan Jacob’s Tumblr for the find.)

Perhaps the world’s new struggle is why there’s so much research in this field of knowledge management. The world too needs an idea for replacing the traditional modeling experience. Perhaps the explosion of the wiki is part of that trend. Probably not, I suppose, but I do hope this little KM wiki will be a piece that at least makes up slightly for the lack of modeling. And in the process, it may benefit the teacher who models.

Sometimes when I do calm down from all the ridiculous projects I take on, I project beyond grad school and think of how I want to structure my life: peaceful, well-rested time with my wife and girls, time to read something I like, non-academic writing, occasional exercise, and even some recreational photography. That’s a vision I can get excited about, and as I try to help my department, I hope my colleagues and I can catch a vision of something better for ourselves, something where we are working together, more calmly, and better.

But if we’re going to do that, we’ve got to be smarter than London’s prospector. I’d rather not end up like him.

Then the man drowsed off into what seemed to him the most comfortable and satisfying sleep he had ever known. The dog sat facing him and waiting. The brief day drew to a close in a long, slow twilight. There were no signs of a fire to be made, and, besides, never in the dog’s experience had it known a man to sit like that in the snow and make no fire. As the twilight drew on, its eager yearning for the fire mastered it, and with a great lifting and shifting of forefeet, it whined softly, then flattened its ears down in anticipation of being chidden by the man. But the man remained silent. Later, the dog whined loudly. And still later it crept close to the man and caught the scent of death. This made the animal bristle and back away. A little longer it delayed, howling under the stars that leaped and danced and shone brightly in the cold sky. Then it turned and trotted up the trail in the direction of the camp it knew, where were the other food-providers and fire-providers.

Copyright Mr. Sheehy at A Teacher’s Writes

The Challenge: Breaking learning into pieces while maintaining students’ responsibility for meaning

Reading through the beginning of Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice, I ran across a scenario that has interesting application to teaching – especially the teaching of writing. So often I as an instructor of writing struggle with true scaffolding – giving students enough direction that they do not flounder, but little enough support that they develop and use the skills necessary – those skills I’m trying to teach. It’s a classic element of teaching, I realize, one that even parents experience as they attempt to help their children with homework but not do their homework for them.

The comparison to the parents’ balanced tension does not quite describe how it works for me, but it begins to get there. Writing is hard and capturing exactly what a topic sentence or adequate thesis statement looks like is not easy. I try many methods and do a lot of modeling and sharing of examples. Eventually, and I do this especially for essays, I begin to map out what I want the writing to look like. First, I’ll say I want five paragraphs; then, I’ll say how many quotes from the book I want in each paragraph; then I’ll ask to see topic sentences written out ahead of time so I can help them craft them into something that will make a claim and not summarize the plot. And then I go further, breaking the process into pieces as best I can until students can do the steps I suggest. My worry, then, is that I will chop it up so much that the students will not recognize the whole after I’ve spent so much time breaking it.

Enter Wenger. He mentions a claims company where he conducted some research and lays out a snapshot of life as an employee there so he can have a framework and example to which he can refer throughout his book. One element of the work there for workers was a claims worksheet, which prescribed the claims process

to the point where knowing what to do next does not require any interpretation of the worksheet’s underlying purpose.

The effect for workers was that

the form removed from the execution of the procedure the need to assume responsibility for its meaning. (p. 39 – italics added)

It’s not hard to see how this might apply to teaching. When I as a teacher create a form, whether it be a worksheet or an activity or procedure for a piece of a project, I begin from the whole, which I, as the expert in my content, understand. It is therefore exceedingly simple for me to see the application and purpose of the broken piece and then to glue the various pieces back together to make them whole again.

Students, however, approach the knowledge from the other direction. They see my broken pieces and 1) have to understand that isolated bit, and 2) in their own mind have to construct the whole from other isolated bits I offer them. For them, working with the pieces is not a process of reconstruction. They often have to approach those pieces before I have shown them the whole – or at least before they comprehend the whole. It’s original construction, but harder – the puzzle without the box top situation.

As a teacher wanting to fix and address this, it’s not as simple as determining to show students the box’s top before tossing out pieces. How to capture that whole in a meaningful way is a challenge that keeps me grasping. It’s why I’ve created things like The Essay Goblet and An Analogy for a Research Paper – things that work, sort of, but not really. I don’t know that I’ve ever hit upon that beautiful and simple box-top explanation that makes the assemblage of various pieces a simple process. Instead, I usually try 6,000 ways of painting the big picture, hoping one of these attempts will makes sense to someone.

One key, it seems from reading Wenger, is never to stop painting that picture. Without some sort of over-arching picture of the whole, students may end up knowing well how to write a topic sentence in an outline but have no idea how to write an essay.

Copyright Mr. Sheehy at A Teacher’s Writes


Reading about innovation, I learned how to beat scurvy

I’m stuck at my desk this afternoon trying to log hours on my final project for grad school, and I’m getting so sleepy that I find myself wondering if I could somehow think hard enough about my project that the thinking would carry over into my sleep. Could I log that time? Would it count if some innovative idea occurred to me when I awoke? What if the idea did not occur – could I still credit myself the time for having tried? Or not tried, as the case truly is?

Oh, well. I’ll close the book I’m reading and move to a bit of attempted constructive thinking. My adviser for the project recommended Everett Rogers’s Diffusion of Innovations, and my own research into communities of practice has forced me to the source, Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice. I flipped through the beginning of both books, and while I feel an obligation to knock off most of Wenger, it is only an obligation. I have read so much about communities of practice and seen Wenger cited so many times that I feel as though I have a fairly solid understanding of his thesis and theory. When it comes to reading it, I suppose I am really no better than Fitzgerald’s Dexter Green, who

talked about books and about music. He knew very little about either. But he was beginning to be master of his own time now, and he had a rather priggish notion that he–the young and already fabulously successful Dexter Green–should know more about such things. (from Winter Dreams)

I obviously hope not to sink anywhere near such superficial levels (if I do, someone had better comment and put me in my place), but I am admittedly reading Wenger so I can cite him myself instead of taking other people’s word for it. He is someone it seems I am supposed to know about, and that is my motivation for examining him.

Rogers, however, amuses me and interests me, and reading Diffusion appears to be a nice way to pass the obligatory hours that have spread out before me. While it begins with those annoyingly broad definitions of terms with which we are all familiar (I realize this is a necessary process, but I have trouble focusing when I’m reading new definitions of familiar terms), it has already woven a few fantastic case studies and examples into the text. If I lose my stamina before the end of this book, I may flip through and at least read all the examples and stories, even if only for amusement’s sake.

Why not? Now I’ve got two dinner conversation tales ready to go when the occasion arises. My favorite is about the control of scurvy in the British Navy. Here, in 1601, a British captain conducted an experiment to determine whether citrus would prevent scurvy. He had three boats and on one of them, the sailors drank three teaspoons of lemon juice every day. Before the boats reached India, he’d had to have the healthy citrus eaters man the other ships to compensate for all the sailors who’d died of scurvy. Apparently he didn’t have any reputation or pull, because his experiment changed nothing.

150 years later another man conducted a similar experiment, feeding an experimental group of sick scurvy patients oranges or lemons. Soon the experimental group had healed and was stuck on medical duty caring for still-dying, non-citrus eating sailors. This time, however, the story got sadder – they ran out of fruit after six days. (As a side note, I would think it would have been pretty difficult protecting the fruit supply somewhere around day three.) Even here, however, no wide citrus-adoption occurred and sailors had to wait until 1795 before the British Navy made citrus a standard policy and ended the source of our wonderful phrase, “Scurvy Nave.”

Rogers obviously values stories – as his choice of engaging material and the frequency of their inclusion proves. I’m on page 11 and I’m already commending him for writing an engaging book and for considering the reader.

That might be overly high praise to come from a guy who had to start writing about the book to keep awake, but that’s more because I spent the first part of the afternoon watching our girls’ basketball team in the state quarterfinals, and all that spectator-engagement made me sleepy.

Editor’s note: Getting ready to go home after finishing this article, I discovered an orange in my bag. I chose to eat it.