Thursday, February 14, 2013

Teach21 Sumer Conference in NYC

This is an unsolicited advert for the Teach21 Conference at The School at Columbia.  I have not been paid for my testimonial.  

For a third year in a row the cohort of tech-savvy proponents of progressive pedagogy from The School at Columbia are offering a stupendous professional development institute.  The institute is organized into single and multi-day workshops that span the range of disciplines and ages.  The focus is not wholly on technology in the classroom, rather the organizing principle is as the name suggests, 21st Century teaching.  Technology is at the heart of the institute, but its multitudinous limbs and organs include: collaboration, essay writing, fitness, assessment design, social networking, co-teaching, design, cultural awareness, and something called "algebraic thinking"-- which sounds scary.   I cannot imagine a day spent thinking algebraically, but the workshops I have attended continue to positively shape my work.  

Two two-day workshops stick in my mind; I most remember the GoogleDocs workshop from 2011 and the Personal Essay workshop from 2012.  Here is why they stick, and I hope you are ready for this revelation: time.  I was allowed (given even!) the time to sit in a room with two Google certified experts and learn all about the Google Apps and then more even more time to explore and create.  My Googlexpertise expanded exponentially (I think I'm using that word correctly) in those two days and a year later I went back to grow my writing chops.  Eve Becker walked us through a speed version of her unit on personal essay writing. With Eve, I was forced to take time to draft and shape my own personal essays.  She insisted that we dig deeply and then write honestly.  As is typical when I'm challenged, I resisted.  I couldn't figure out why I was so cranky though.  After much internal Sturm und Drang, I realized I was just scared to write -- that is when I started writing.  I saw the position of my own students who may be resistant or cranky when offered a challenge and that empathy and the skills Eve presented are going to be a lifelong lesson. This two-day workshop was the kind of whirlwind where you spin, spin, and end up dizzy but in better shape rather than battered.  

Highlights of these weeklong institutes are the daily keynote speakers.  Sitting in a cozy library with three dozen teachers listening to Howard Gardner chat amiably for an hour about his writing process will continue to be my "happy place" during stressy times.  The invited speakers are as varied as the workshops offered and last summer we heard chef Bill Telepan proselytize the power of produce in children's diets.  Not a topic any of us would have argued against, I assure you.   

All of these wonderful things are ready for you at Teach21.  I plan to go back this summer for workshops on conferring with students, co-teaching, and a refresher on GoogleApps.  I hope you'll consider coming along.  Follow them on Twitter for updates and info:  

[Ah!  I forgot about the food!  Breakfast and lunch are included every day and they are well done.] 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Technology Kerfuffle

This week, my Math 7 class is once again using Explain Everything to create presentations as a portion of their test grade on area and perimeter. As the name suggests, I am using it primarily as a platform for them to explain their strategies and ideas surrounding the one problem they had to solve for their math test. I thought they would be excited to get back on the iPads, but some are quite vocal about how much they don't like this app. In particular, 'ghost' writing that they had previously deleted keeps showing up on their slides. So there's that. I am also wondering if the time it takes for them to create their EE presentations is worth it (3 days). If I had them just go to the board and explain to the class their strategies and work for finding their answers, I would achieve the same end goal and it would take less time. So at the moment, I am feeling very frustrated and discouraged by technology use in my math classroom. I think it is important to continually evaluate the merit of technology, so I understand that being frustrated can be a good thing. Being behind a week or two in my curriculum due to the time it has taken to use the technology is clearly fueling my frustration. It reminds me that good old fashioned methods of presentation don't have to take a back seat.

On the flip side, my Science 6 students will begin their research projects/Voicethreads after vacation. This will be the first time using the technology for most, if not all, of the students. It is a fun project and allows yet another opportunity to work on some important skills: research, time management, communication, word processing (for their scripts), and application of the topics we learned during our animal behavior unit. Most importantly, the use of this technology has proven to be an easier way for students to provide feedback to one another. This wasn't the case when we made brochures as the end product.

I guess the lesson here for me is to remember that technology doesn't have to replace what IS working in my classroom. I need to remember not to jump on board of the technology wagon just because.......

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Help Me Abe

"It is a pleasure to be able to quote lines to fit any occasion..." ~Abraham Lincoln

I'm sure that if Abe were around today, he would say something profound about technology.  Bear with me as I manage without him.  
This week in Math 6 we began our Stock Market Game (SMG) project by logging into the simulation and taking a look at the website.  There is some information that the groups need to record (their login and password, etc), and normally they write this on the back of a notebook or on the back of a classmate's hand.  Either way, by the second week of the simulation they lose the information.  Technology to the rescue.  This year, the kids - these 6th graders - realized that they could start up a Google Doc, share it with their team, and use it as a dumping ground for such data.  Wow!  Not a single student (nor the teacher) thought of this last year.  But this year it was a "Duh, Zee.  Hello.  OBvioussss" moment.  As much as liked my new idea of them using a tiny and cute SMG notebook, I have to admit the Google Doc method is superior.  

This simple event is the proof to me that the younger the kids, the more their baseline thinking has changed.  They don't have to think of how to incorporate technology.  They just use it.  

The pencil replaced the goose quill and ink.  The goose quill and ink replaced....something.  The computer has not replaced the pencil, but the writing is on the...smartboard?
So as I marveled at how much things have changed I realized that to them nothing has changed - it just is.

Monday, February 4, 2013

On Tactility and Technology

"I'm going to EduCon. It's like Comic-Con, but--you know--with teachers."

This was my favorite retort when anyone asked me what conference I was going to again?  Although the reference was lost on most, I did like the conjured-up image of teachers with capes wafting behind them, eyes masked as they whisked off to tackle the next issue that has arisen in their classrooms.

It's an appropriate metaphor: we are superhero-like in our powers to both impart information, coddle fragile egos, engage many different learning styles, organize student work, grade grade grade, and of course: work 8 hours without a food, water or bathroom break.  On the shuttle back to the airport on Sunday, it turned out my fellow passenger was another EduCon attendee, and so we did what attendees do when at EduCon: we had an invigorating discussion about education.  When I pointed out to him that these conversations were the theme of the weekend-- more than technology or  innovation or creative design thinking-- he, a veteran of the conferences, replied that of course it was. People who go to EduCon are the people that want to change, to better to invent.

When thinking about how to post about EduCon, it is this idea that I keep returning to: the people at EduCon. The big thinkers.  Which reminded me how important connections and relationships are when learning.  This has been the hardest part of my embracing technology. I see my husband unfulfilled by the TV screen that is his graduate classes and remember back to the great personalities that collided and meshed and argued and laughed in my own graduate classes.  I'm still in touch with many of my fellow students because we bonded through those lively debates and pre and post class chatter. I don't get the sense that my husband will cherish the relationships he's sort of formed through his online classes.

And I think of my middle school students and how tactile they are. I have a Newton's cradle and a stress ball in my classroom and both were destroyed within a month. Not because my students are overly destructive, but because they show an engagement and excitement about those toys that I wish they'd show toward my grammar lessons. So on day one of the conference, after taking a rather bone-jarring fall on the icy pavement as I was returning from lunch, my frustration was quickly met with delight as my next session had a description that included: 

It’s time educators break down the walls, promote mindful disorder, leverage ALL of the environment for learning, and guarantee our young people access to contemporary materials for learning and creating new knowledge. This session will cause you to question all that you have come to believe schooling is as we collectively imagine what learning can become.
Oh, yes.  I was ready.  And this group delivered.  Immediately we logged on to, a bare-bones site that is as beautifully stark as google, making it probably the easiest web tool I've included in my classroom. Essentially, you open a closed chat room, and everyone can easily contribute to  it within a limited character length--I'm looking at you fellow verbose English teachers.  It's easy to setup, easy to explain, easy to navigate, and it disappears within hours or a week--you choose. Did I mention it was easy?

Throughout our 90 minute session, I was continually drawn to the ideas being posted and linked to at todaysmeet.  Mini-conversations about related topics punctuated the main topic of the day: how to create a school, from scratch, without a template.  With Legos.  Yes, we began by creating with Legos, then touring our Lego metaphors, then-- my favorite part-- changing each other's Lego designs as we walked around on a second tour. It was an eye-opening experiment that likely caused us to be more disorderly than mindful, but I found myself so much more engaged and full of ideas than in the sessions where I stared at someone talking and tried to listen and take notes for a sustained period of time. The tactile experiment engaged my brain, and todaysmeet gave me the connection I needed to develop what I was thinking.

To me, technology needs to reinvent, not substitute. To do it the old way, but slap some technology into a dusty lesson plan seems clunky and out-of-touch. Why a smartboard to replace a whiteboard that's replaced a chalkboard? Why not think of a new way to work with information than a board? Which brings me to my second take-away from the conference: failure.

The opening night's panel, an eclectic group of people that included google's "Senior Education Evangelist," eventually got to that light and easy topic so crucial to success: failure. You know, the thing we teachers tell students it is safe to do, yet never allow ourselves to really practice it? Yes, putting a lot of effort behind something that just.doesn'  To me, if we are going to use technology in our classrooms, we have to fail at it. A lot. As we're responsible for educating tomorrow's leaders and workers and givers and takers; it's a hard pill to swallow. But most teachers agree that this Industrial Revolution-inspired classroom setup is outdated, and no amount of one-to-one laptop programs or stacks of iPads is going to fix it.  If we are going to really change things, we need to find a way to use the ever-growing technology at our fingertips both to enhance our current lessons, but also to break away from safe planning and fail until we find success.

At 8pm I arrived at the airport, opened my email and found over 50 emails that need imminent attention. I'm ready.

Hi All,  It's my turn to post -- actually last week was my week, but I had no idea what I wanted to write about.  There are so many notions -- and they balloon all the time.  That's exactly the blessing/curse of electronic technology.  I am the neo-ist of neophytes in this stuff, so I wanted to find something on point, and useful to others who are further along in tech-evolution than I.  Here goes. . .

I've put four links below to stories from the news (3 of them) and to a "brain science" training program I saw advertised on TV.

So here's what I'm thinking.  Technology promises all sorts of marvels, and it delivers many of them, but how do we insure that we are using them wisely, not being led down the garden path, and not outright being hoodwinked by charlatans?  Not a new dilemma or new question.  However, there is a bit of the emperor's new clothes psychology at work.  I feel it all the time, and even though I'm a bit of a curmudgeon about this stuff, I'm entranced by how much more information I have access to as a consumer, and the effect that has had on my thinking, learning and teaching.

One quick example -- just the app for Zite on my iPad has brought me so many clippings about poetry and literature that I wouldn't have found in HOURS of looking on my own.  Conversely, had I spent the relatively short amount of time doing traditional research, I wouldn't have found the diversity of clips and topics that have come my way.  It's almost miraculous in one way.

So, the articles below...

Virtual school?  Gives me the absolute creeps!  When I am part of a kid's learning experience, when she gets the idea or has that moment, we share it together, and the affirmation that a teacher is there to be proud of that kid is the kind of HUMAN element to education that makes it meaningful learning.  The vast majority of us work in jobs/professions because of a significant relationship with a mentor.  So far that still means a teacher.  As for charter schools, the jury is coming in decidedly against them.  Take a look at the Times piece.

Next, for profit school.  Bad idea.  Even though the vast majority of higher education establishments bring in more receipts than they spend (between income from endowments, donations or other sources of funding -- like athletics) profit is not the first motive, and not a driver in the equation.  That is a critical element of keeping their focus on students rather than shareholders.  In essence, the students are the shareholders.

Our state is on the precipice of a very dangerous cliff -- the elimination of revenue sharing.  Many schools will be crippled by this awful idea.  I hope all of us will find a way to get involved in that conversation.  In your town, through letter writing, or in direct action, our voices in behalf of quality, in person mentoring for the next generation of citizens, really must be a priority.

Lastly, Lumosity.   What a curious idea.  I saw it advertised on TV and thought -- "How cool -- brain training!"  Well, it is pretty cool, and you can have three days for free, then you have to subscribe.  But the idea that such a service is out there is a tiny little piece of the potential for computers to serve our interests in enhancement ways rather than replace segments of our culture.  This site seemed to me a thoughtful and stimulating intersection of computer technology, brain science and popular culture.

See you around, Jim

Come learn with me (and a couple hundred other people)

Earlier this week I became aware of a unique learning opportunity.  It's a MOOC - Massive Open Online Course - taught by Mitch Resnick of the MIT Media Lab.  It's called Learning Creative Learning and the full description, schedule, and sign up can be found here.  Here is Mitch Resnick's video about the course:

MOOCs are slowly gaining popularity around the education circuits as a way to "crowdsource" teaching and learning.  This one looks good - the topic, the panelist line up, and the experience.  I think taking an online course is an important experience to have as we look to the future.  I think our students will be taking online courses sometime during their school years - high school and college.  I think we need to not only prepare them for it but also have an understanding for how the teaching and learning online is different.  It is also possible that some of us will be teaching online courses in the future and, as we all know, it is hard to teach something that you have had no experience with.

So, check it out, see what you think.  If you think you have some time, sign up.  There's nothing to lose, just lots to gain!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

My first adventure into Explain Everything went really well! I turned the old poster board project into an Explain Everything project and it was so much more powerful. The students did a great job- and I was able to take a back seat and let them navigate through the ap (thanks to the work they had already done in math class!!). I created a rubric for the project that can be used for any type of digital project.
Check it out and use it if you can!

Explain Everything rubric

Content is minimal OR there are several factual errors.
Includes essential information about the topic but there are 1-2 factual errors.
Includes essential knowledge about the topic. Subject knowledge appears to be good.
Covers topic in-depth with details and examples. Subject knowledge is excellent.
Use of font, color, graphics, effects etc. but these often distract from the presentation content.
Makes use of font, color, graphics, effects, etc. but occasionally these detract from the presentation content.
Makes good use of font, color, graphics, effects, etc. to enhance to presentation.
Makes excellent use of font, color, graphics, effects, etc. to enhance the presentation.
There is no clear plan for the organization of information.
Some information is logically sequenced.
Most information is organized in a clear, logical way.
Information is organized in a clear, logical way.
Project is lacking several key elements and has inaccuracies that make it a poor study guide.
Project is missing more than two key elements. It would make an incomplete study guide.
Project includes most material needed to gain a comfortable understanding of the material but is lacking one or two key elements. It is an adequate study guide.
Project includes all material needed to gain a comfortable understanding of the topic. It is a highly effective study guide.
The workload was not divided. Group often is not effective in delegating tasks and/or sharing responsibility.
The workload was divided, but one person in the group is viewed as not doing his/her fair share of the work. Group delegates tasks and shares responsibility effectively some of the time.
The workload is divided and shared fairly by all team members, though workloads may vary from person to person. Group delegates tasks and shares responsibility effectively most of the time.
The workload is divided and shared equally by all team members. Group delegates tasks and shares responsibility effectively all of the time.