A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Category: On Technology and the Classroom

Bill Bilichick shows innovation isn’t always an upgrade

While I am conscious that, on principle, seeing others suffer should not bring me joy, it is difficult at times not to find solace in the suffering of those who are notably privileged. If they’re having problems with that too, the thought runs, at least I know it’s a universal experience.

Such is my thinking today in learning that Bill Belichick has given up using a tablet on the sidelines of NFL football games. An Associated Press story explains that Belichick has found the devices “just too undependable,” and observes how “Belichick was caught on camera slamming down a sideline tablet following a Bills touchdown.”The slam is a beaut: he’s not going full ballistic, but he causes the most damage possible, letting the tablet land on its corner. If it didn’t break the manufacturer of the case should use this clip in an ad campaign.

From my own experience in the classroom, I could have written the rest of the AP story. Belichick curses the undependability, swearing to go back to his old ways (in this case case, paper and printer); the tech folks defend the system, explaining they’re doing the best they can to improve its reliability; somewhere, a colleague declares he really likes the technology and it’s working great for him.

It would make sense that the NFL, which drips money, would utilize communications devices almost on par with the Navy’s, so when they can’t make this stuff work the way they want, I feel a whole lot better about the class periods I’ve wasted waiting for half of my students’ laptops to log on to the school’s wireless network.

But mostly, I think Belichick is exactly right on this. He is no luddite: he was open to the technology and its possibilities and he’s clearly using anything that will give him an advantage. But this innovation was not effective, so he’s dumping it (literally).

Each technology has to be evaluated against what it is replacing. If we have something that is working for us–say, occasionally asking students to write essays on paper, with pens, or maybe a landline with  no cell phone–then we shouldn’t feel pressured to move past it. Not every innovation is an upgrade.

Is “flipping” a classroom all teachers have to do?

Over at Edutopia blogger and teacher Brian Sztabnik writes about some experiences he has had “flipping” his classroom:

A reading transformation can occur in your school much like it has in my classroom, replacing fear and dread with excitement and self-expression. Students will read if they choose the books. They will write with voice and clarity if they have the ability to express their thoughts. They can change from reluctant to inspired readers if it happens on their own terms. All you have to do is flip the experience, turning the practice of reading on its head by making them the creators of their own learning.

The article is optimistic and energetic, which is good; my trouble is that I do find myself reacting to the article and many I have read like it with a bit of skepticism. Perhaps my skepticism rears up as soon as I hear the words “all you have to do”; if all I had to do could be written in a blog post, why is my district spending millions of dollars killing me with acronyms?

Obnoxious attempts at humor aside, I have a couple immediate reactions to Sztabnik’s article, which of course means I’m slightly contrarian at first, but look deeper, I have positive things to say as well–honest!

Choice and Challenge

The student quote says, “when none of it makes sense.” That captures my biggest problem with the choice many teachers trumpet as the answer to everything. When the most common reason students don’t want to read the classics is they can’t read the classics–aren’t we concerned? I had students read the Brown v. the Board of Education decision the other day–it’s about four pages long and the first page is an outline (syllabus) of the rest of it. It’s hard, yes, but not astronomically difficult; it’s boring, okay, but it’s not that long. Yet I hand it to students and if I don’t have a highly detailed response assignment built in, they shut down and don’t read it. That is, I was not able to hand it to them and say, “Let’s read this and then talk about it.” I had to have an assignment tied to it. I could have them read a hip hop song’s lyrics instead, but am I not trying to educate students so that they can read a Supreme Court decision, particularly the most important decision of the 20th century?

The Lecture Flip: Watching at Home

“Students watch online lectures at home.” My first thought is, they do? And what else is going on while they watch that lecture? And then I wonder if those who propose this have ever engaged in that kind of learning, because I personally hate watching online lectures. They are so insanely boring they make me crazy, and when you have the ability to tune out without being rude or skip ahead, well . . . guess what I do? Every time I watch an online lecture, even dynamic ones, I usually find myself wishing they’d written it down so I could move through it faster. I’m no defender of lecturing a lot in class, so if putting them online makes it so students don’t have to endure hearing junk they didn’t really need to hear anyway, great, but the idea of having people watch them at other times strikes me as wishful thinking. If I as a teacher have something important to say to students, an online video would be the last way I’d say it.

The writing flip: Writing at home

“Students blog about the experience at home.” I have students with computer issues all the time. You would think they all have the ability to do our work outside of school, but for a good number of my students their phones are the only way they connect to the Internet. If we had a guideline at school that said, “Any students without computer access at home should make sure they schedule a study hall so they can use the school’s computers” that would maybe work. On the positive side (see, I do more than just criticize!) Sztabnik’s method does something I think schools should do more of: admit that many of our students have better computing technology than the schools can provide and then challenge them to use it for educational purposes. We ask students to buy their notebooks, while not their computers? If you could balance that with ensuring that we don’t leave students on the wrong side of the digital divide, I’d be interested in the idea.

Freedom of expression

“No longer must they be told what to write and how.” I like blogs and use them when I teach summer school, but what Sztabnik is doing here is really just recycling reading journals or notebooks with a different technology, isn’t it? Now, I find reading journals to be an effective teaching method and a crucial part of my pedagogy, so I’m not criticizing the method at all. Plus, I like the ability to comment quickly with a computer when I read blogs, and I also like the ability to have students read each others’ work (See for example what I did on my wiki this summer, where I highlighted students’ articles that others should read, and then had a feed planted in the class page where students could click on them).

So there are things I like about Sztabnik’s method and much of it resembles things I’ve actually done in the classroom. I think the big things that I don’t like are 1) worshiping at the altar of choice as if that solves everything, particularly when that choice means students will avoid the difficult tasks we educators should be teaching them how to do, and 2) recycling old ideas and acting like they’re new. I don’t suggest that Sztabnik is trying to act like a hero who thought of the great elixir–he really isn’t–but there is this tendency, as many teachers know, of folks to set up all educational methods of the past as a straw man who gets knocked down easily in the introduction to an article about the new method, and the new method is frequently just an old method in new clothes. For example, have you heard that we’re starting to call learning targets objectives again?

Those are a few thoughts I have today. Thanks for reading.

Oops, Someone has let me onto a digital citzenship panel

After working with TIE on Digital Citizenship a few years ago, creating the My FootprintSD website, I have been invited to be part of a short panel discussion about the topic. They forwarded me a few of the questions that they’ll be asking and I’ve enjoyed thinking about them.

What messages about courtesy are students getting from adults and the world around them? How does this translate to the digital world?

This is a question I admit to liking a lot, because it is part of my overall conviction about what we’re seeing students put online. Are we disturbed by students putting inappropriate pictures of themselves online or that they’re doing the inappropriate things? Students say mean things to and about each other all the time. Is it shocking to see them use digital tools to continue the trend? I overheard a student call her dad today with some bad (but not terrible) news and though I was standing 10 feet away I could hear him cuss on the other end of the connection. If this is how children learn to act, is it any wonder that they use these methods with their chosen media?

Then there is the question about whether parents are actively teaching manners and courtesy to their children. I do not know–I am no sociologist and have not read any good studies on the topic–but little children can learn as easily today as they could in generations previous, so I would hypothesize that if they’re not being used, they’re not being taught.
What is it about technology that makes it so friends are suddenly bullying friends?

I keep thinking about a scene in Lord of the Flies where Jack has finally rallied a group of boys together to make a tribe beneath him, and he promises triumphantly that tomorrow they will eat meat. One boy asks him with trepidation how they will start a fire (as they do not possess Piggy’s glasses) and Jack blushes. The thing is, no one sees him blush, because he now wears paint over his face, and the barrier of paint eliminates the embarassment he would have otherwise felt. He is dangerously emboldened with that layer between him and the world, just as our children and comment-trolls are emboldened by the layer between them and their listeners.

I also asked my students about this question, and here is what they said:

  • It is easy not to think before you speak and do something you’ll regret. People need time to cool off when angry and with technology they can grab hold of the fire in the moment.
  • It’s easier to be mean to someone when that someone isn’t there to get mad back.
  • You can’t get punched in the face in response.
  • You can’t tell if someone is joking or not.
  • With technology you have time to think of a come back.
  • People think that they can say whatever they want and they’re invulnerable to what the other person might do or say.
  • It is easy to confront someone who can do nothing but send a message back.
  • Kids don’t think they’ll get in trouble.

Are you a trusted adult for students? What adult qualities engender trust among students?

I cannot claim too much wisdom about how to be a trusted adult, but I do think it is crucial to be friendly and caring toward my students. I can particularly communicate that by being cheerful. If a student walked in and took a surprise 30 second video of me in my classroom, would that video show a man who is enjoying being here?
How would you define a positive digital footprint and why is this so important?

In our Digital Citizenship project of a few years back I used this idea of a positive or negative digital footprint, but as I have thought about answering this question, I think the metaphor is limited. It seems it would be better to frame the idea as the digital footprint of a wise or foolish person. A fool exposes himself to identity theft; a wise man guards his important financial and personal records. A fool falls prey to a $3 billion online pornography industry; a wise man keeps his eyes from temptation. A fool uses digital tools to abuse friends; a wise man uses digital tools to encourage others and foster friendship. And on and on it goes.

Thanks for reading.

An unexpected mission: Newspaper adviser

I didn’t mean to become who I am. Not that anyone else means it particularly, but sometimes you come across a person who seems to have figured out their future at the end of kindergarten. Take Dr. Jack Bacon, a NASA engineer who spoke at the TIE Conference this year: in elementary school he carried a lunch box with a picture of a rocket blasting to a space station. Now, he carries his headset in that same lunch box when he heads to work–for the team that created the international space station.

Not meaning to become who I am does not mean I am disappointed with the results, however. Early dreams of playing baseball, talking on the radio, and coaching died away as I grew up and learned more about those jobs and my own life.  They were good dreams, but they are not as important as I thought they would be.

As I grew new dreams emerged–like noble fatherhood, for example. It’s not something a young man dreams about, but it is something a young dad can envision. Yet there are also things that pop up in life that one never expects, things you pick up along the way not because you dream it, but because it just happens.

I happened to pick up the label technology expert, a label achieved by knowing a few things about blogs and wikis that my colleagues did not know. I don’t particularly like computers, but communicating is awfully cool and these were tools of communication, so I’d thrown myself at them–immersing myself in their workings, over-committing my time and energy to their development, eventually growing tired of it all and settling into a normalized use of them as tools. The formula was strangely familiar to the ones I applied to my childhood dreams: baseball was fun so I obsessed over it until baseball was life; eventually I realized it wasn’t.

Earlier this year another little surprise emerged. The colleague who puts together the school newspaper took a job elsewhere and I was asked if I was interested. I was presumably asked because I like to write and because it was thought I might enjoy the software side of things (they use InDesign, which I’ve never touched). At no point had I pictured myself as the newspaper guy. The thought never occurred to me. Yet the more I thought about it, the more I liked it, and now I am the newspaper guy.

Within days I’d wasted entire planning periods cooking up ideas with a colleague, threatening to destroy myself by repeating the same ol’ plot of total immersion, enthusiastic overcommitment, exhaustion, and pull back. Realizing that I want to break that formulaic story, that I want to focus my energy, and that I want to prevent extraneous ideas from drawing me into good but non-essential activities, I spent a bit of time considering what my mission, or objective, will be for the newspaper. Not only is my hope that a mission statement will keep me focused, but that it will help me to communicate to others what we are trying to do and why.

So far, this is what that mission looks like.

As an adviser, I am convinced that the newspaper’s main goal is to provide students an audience for their work. When I say work I mean it in a broad sense, wanting it to include many forms of communication, be it reporting-style writing to short stories to poetry, to photography and art work. Perhaps it can include work I have not fathomed or considered. For me, the genre or type of work is far less important than the audience. I want to seize upon the opportunity to create audience, because there are forms of work at which students are engaged where audience is a fundamental necessity. One writes that others may read and snaps a photograph that others may see. A classroom, unfortunately yet understandably, struggles to capture audience, even as within its walls these audience-dependent forms are taught. The newspaper thus compliments the school’s endeavors by providing opportunity for some students to be heard.

With that goal in mind, one of my first and biggest priorities is to work out a way for the print edition of the newspaper to be distributed to the student-body free of charge. Currently it is sold for 50 cents a copy, and as beautiful and well assembled as it is, it is read by a shockingly small audience, consisting, to my unofficial observation, mostly of staff members, who each receive a free copy of it. Even if this would require us to resume printing on newspaper print, I think it would be worthwhile (currently the paper is printed on fairly nice paper stock, in color). In college our student-newspaper came out every Friday about mid-morning, free of charge, and everybody I knew grabbed a copy of it and had it mostly read by Friday night. If we can nurture an effect like that here, we will have created a relevant compliment to education.

For students on my staff, when it exists (and I’ll need to recruit one), this will be their mission as well–to gain an audience. Yet for them, the goals they will be setting to pursue the mission will be different. They will not be worried about the printing costs or the budget as much as about their content and presentation (at least at first–if the staff grew large I could disperse business responsibilities as well). In that way, the second mission of the newspaper enters.

The staff of the newspaper will seek to provide for the school’s community relevant and interesting content. Like the work mentioned previously, the content is broadly defined to mean anything that can be conveyed in a printed format for an audience to consume. Relevant ends up being the crucial term here.

Relevant means timely, for example. Printing an article about how the football season ended up is not relevant if printed weeks after the season ended.

Similarly, relevant also meets a need. If the audience for the most part is fully aware of something, like what the plays will be this coming year, there is no need to re-publish it in the newspaper. The readers of the paper do not need to read such an article, because they already know what it says. It’s a newspaper, but such items are not new; if the paper wants to print such things, it should fight for the chance to break those stories, so the audience has a need to read the paper.

Relevant also encompasses perspective. This is a school newspaper, which means the readers are concerned with students’ perspectives and concerns. Students have a unique angle to provide on events and can cover things from state elections to school events to American Idol competitions with viewpoints that their audience wants to hear.

Personally I am bubbling with ideas for the paper. To compliment both missions, I would like to create an online version of the paper. The purpose of the online edition would not be to republish online that which is already printed, but to publish exclusive content that we otherwise could not bring to the audience in a relevant manner. Activities and breaking news are primarily what I have in mind: 250-word summaries of sporting events published within 24 hours of their completion; previews of upcoming matches including interviews with coaches and players; activities’ announcements and current events (like, “Hey, in three days the construction company is going to close off the parking for the next year and a half”). Such content, because relevant, will bring readers, and for me, the adviser and teacher, providing that audience is the point.

Fittingly, I say to you as always, thanks for reading.

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Newspaper on Flickr by: jamesjyu

Duty: A virtue without glitter

When it comes to conferences, some topics glitter. At the TIE Conference I recently attended in Sioux Falls, the session on homework packed its small space to standing room only. And why shouldn’t it? The title was amorphous enough to pique curiosity and the topic universally difficult enough to draw a needy bunch. So full was it that I opted not to squeeze in, choosing instead to prepare for my own presentation that immediately followed it.

My own session did not glitter. It was on digital citizenship and in it I was sharing a resource that a colleague and I had created for TIE, called My Footprint. Though an important topic, digital citizenship is not the kind of thing we want to teach. Classify it next to messages about drinking and driving, suicide, and organizing notebooks: we’ll teach these things because we are convinced they are important, but what we really want is for someone else to teach these things to our students. It’s a glitter free environment.

Teaching such things seems instead to fall under the label of duty. It is our duty as teachers to make sure our students know these things. Ultimately the duty is a parental duty, of course, but we have a role even when the parents are doing their duty. We are the airbag meant to compliment the seat belt, and like the airbag, we are not intended to replace the seat belt; also like the airbag, many consumers insist on relying solely upon us, often to their own demise.

This idea of duty has been on my mind a lot lately. I am reading Mornings on Horseback, David McCullough’s biography of Theodore Roosevelt’s formative years. Much of the beginning of the book focuses upon Theodore Roosevelt Sr., the President’s father, and it is clear our 26th President was raised in an atmosphere where duty was inculcated and taken very seriously. Roosevelt Sr.’s own mother-in-law once said of him, “Thee is a good young man. I really think if anyone ever tried to do their duty, he does.”

Like many ideas, once I became attuned to this, it became the thing I saw wherever I turned. Reading late in my hotel room the night before my presentation, I was struck by part of Jeremiah’s prophecy to the sons of Josiah:

Do you think you are a king
because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him. (Jer. 22:15-16 RSV)

Shallum had enjoyed the wealth of kingship but not the responsibility. He missed the duty that accompanies such a post.

Standing before colleagues to discuss digital citizenship, this sense of duty struck me as a crucial piece to the puzzle I was trying to assemble. Here my students thrive in a rich western nation with all the power the world’s consumer economies can provide, and they seem to lack a sense of duty or responsibility that should accompany such riches. They are in too many ways like Shallum, thinking they are kings because they compete in pocket-technology. Yet what are they doing with this power, with this wealth?

The burden of teaching digital citizenship grew heavier the moment I made the connection between Shallum and my students, but it’s breadth made it unwiedly. This was more than digital citizenship, it was citizenship. Call it global citizenship, or call it something else, there is a sense of duty I longed to convey to my students that they obviously lacked. The reality was that if they needed a special lesson to teach them not to use Twitter to bully others, something more than digital citizenship was missing.

Yet when I grew fully honest, I admitted it was a sense of duty I too lacked. What am I doing with this power, with this wealth? Am I dealing in my own cedar and considering it a sign of something I think I have earned?

For me, when I begin to think I have earned something or deserve something, that is when I know I have gone off track, that an entitlement attitude has infected my thinking.  How to get on track is another question, one which I continue to explore. One place I have begun is where Josiah had succeeded:

He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well. (Jer. 22.16 RSV)

I am not in the place of a king, to judge such causes, but this Internet connection I am enjoying is indication enough that I have the power to assist the poor and needy.

Thus I began my cogitation upon duty, an unglittery virtue I have seemingly forgotten, but one which I definitely need to reconsider.

Thanks for reading.

Why I post on Fridays and other almost related details

Back in college after dinner my friends and I would stop at the computer lab for a little while on the way back to the dorm and browse the web. I’d check on the Red Sox and my high school’s sports scores, basically finishing in ten to fifteen minutes. I had not even begun to realize the time one can waste online, but it was just 1996, so my nascent distractability is understandable. My favorite day was Friday, because that’s when Dave Barry’s column was published online at the Miami Herald. Back home I’d read Barry in my Sunday paper, but this cool tool called the Internet sped up the delivery by two days, and I heartily approved.

I mention that because I have found that Friday is my favorite day to post new articles, despite the knowledge that it negatively effects readership stats for this blog. Likely because many readers of A Teacher’s Writes are teachers, articles posted on Fridays get buried in RSS readers over the weekend and do not generate nearly as much traffic as those posted on Tuesday. This fact could be part of why I like posting on Friday–it undercuts the idea that what I am doing is for some sort of substantial audience (ultimately, there aren’t that many of you). Plus, and probably more importantly, it makes me feel like Dave Barry, the first writer I aspired to be like.

To be honest, I am fretting over a long post I’m crafting and am delaying posting it, because it might not be that good. I fear I’ll end up like Stephen Emms in the UK Guardian, who explains that he thinks Tolstoy blew the ending of Anna Karenina. He obviously believes he was correct in his estimation, but his position was so totally blown apart by Alan Jacobs at The New Atlantis that it looked childish:

Emms does not come out and say that he thinks that Tolstoy shares the judgment of Vronsky’s mother — surely he knows better. But I take it that he wants Tolstoy to somehow refute that judgment. But that’s not necessary: it is self-refuting. And Emms would better understand what Tolstoy is up to here if he had noticed the book’s epigraph: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.” That is, “vengeance is mine — it is not yours.” Vronsky’s mother has raised her son to be utterly self-regarding, and cares nothing for the life — Anna’s life — that her son’s self-regard has destroyed. (Vronsky himself is actually not nearly as bad as his mother: he genuinely loves Anna, insofar as it is possible for someone like him to love.) The foulness of her easy contempt is palpably evident — for those with eyes to see.

This is why I was scared to raise my hand in a literature class for my first three years of undergraduate study. I did not want to be where Stephen Emms finds himself here. While Emms might not mind it and might be confident in his position, in his place I would be horrified and scared to write anything more about literature for another year. Though I am a confident person, I know myself and the landscape out there well enough to realize there are many people much smarter than me commenting on the things about which I like to comment and about which I have opinions.

In that light, I think I’ll send along a few items on this Friday from people extremely bright and good at what they do.  Recommended Friday reading, if you will.

Item the first

The first is a poem from Luci Shaw. Published in Image Journal, it is called “Psalm for the January Thaw,” and I love it for its detail and because I have never experienced thaw as much as I do where I currently live, a place where the snow never stacks up but always seems to melt a week after it falls.

Blessed be God for thaw, for the clear drops
that fall, one by one, like clocks ticking, from
the icicles along the eaves. For shift and shrinkage,
including the soggy gray mess on the deck
like an abandoned mattress that has
lost its inner spring. For the gurgle
of gutters, for snow melting underfoot when I
step off the porch. For slush. For the glisten
on the sidewalk that only wets the foot sole
and doesn’t send me slithering. Everything
is alert to this melting, the slow flow of it,
the declaration of intent, the liquidation.

Read the rest.

Item the second

I talk less and less about technology here, a result of my decreasing use of it in the classroom, and a result of a changing position regarding what students need to learn from me about technology. I am beginning to think it less important that I teach students how to use technology than that I should teach them how not to use it. I do not want to teach them that it is bad, but it seems more important that I teach them how to resist it, how to concentrate without it, and how to communicate with words considered carefully before clicking away. Mark Bauerlein is not a name admired by educational technology experts, but I welcome his prediction  about teachers using non-digital technologies to great effect in the classroom (as I welcome Alan Jacobs’s comments about it).

Item the third

I recently picked up from the library a handful of wonderful books. Among them was the first volume of Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World. Written to speak to children and to speak through story, Bauer covers it all, from the first nomadic peoples to the modern world. Last weekend I read with my daughters about the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, which I was intrigued to learn were built by King Nebuchadnezzar II, and the Great Pyramid of Giza, which I learned was likely to have been originally tipped in gold and white-washed so it would gleam in the sunlight. Books are cool, stories are amazing, and I am seriously ready to retire before 35 so I can attend home school with my children.

Item the fourth

In a more comic strain, I leave you with Ree Drummond, aka the Pioneer Woman, and a tale about . . . well, I won’t tell you what it’s about. I’ll simply direct you to this post and recommend that you scroll down to #5 in the list of items she discusses. That top picture, by the way, is of her basset hound, Charlie.

As always, thanks for reading. And now, let us enjoy the weekend.

After weeks of preparation, Ninehub turns to blogging

I signed up for a Ninehub Moodle account last spring, thrilled that someone was willing to host a free Moodle class online. I was so thoroughly impressed with Moodle when I used it that I began to concoct plans for turning all the professional development work I lead in the district into distance courses.

Then the whole Ninehub thing seemed to crash over the summer and I couldn’t get back to any of my stuff, which I hadn’t had time to back up yet (I hadn’t done that much so it wasn’t the end of the world). I’ve contacted the administrators but still have received no reason to hope that I’ll be able to access the class I created, and at this point, really, why would I want to access it?

Either way, here’s what I find amusing. I received an email today from Ninehub inviting me to use their new educational blogging service, called Eduperience. I’m naturally tempted by anything of the kind, since I’ve quit using Edublogs in the classroom (too slow, too unreliable, and too full of obnoxious and misleading advertisements), but the email invite sounds like it came from that guy who found my only remaining relative in Zimbabwe–the one with $150,000 for me if I’ll advance him $20,000 for lawyer fees:

After weeks of preparation, we are ready to introduce Eduperience.com – an easy blogging tools for teachers and students. . . . We always obsessed to provide useful tools for educators, therefore If you have any comments or anything we can improve, please let us know.

As impressed as I was by weeks of preparation, I followed the link, and my favorite part of the site is where they ask me this:

eduperience check out

For today, I have seen enough, but I’m not sure I’m ready to check out, thanks.

Years ago I would have thrown caution to the wind and signed a class up for blogs here, desperate for anything that would work for blogging in the classroom, even if the providers don’t know a thing about the English language. With a lot of help from unreliable blog providers and scant computer resources for students, however, I’ve moved past that stage, and my taste for risk is going down. I don’t have the energy to devote to ventures that can’t figure out capital letters or transitive verbs. It may be a snooty response, but I’m an English teacher. If I don’t have high standards here, who will?