Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Glogster for School

Glogster is a nifty program that allows users to make "interactive posters" they can then post in wikis, blogs or other places on the web. This is a great tool for getting students to express themselves in class projects.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009


Here's a nifty website I came across recently. DocStoc allows you to upload documents you've created. You can not only store your stuff there, you can embed your documents in webpages you create in message boards, wikis, or...oh...say...blogs so others can view or download them.

You have the option of making your documents public or private, and you can search through their public files for documents you might want to use yourself. This is an ideal place for teachers and students alike to publish their works online for class.

Here's an example of how they're embedded using a rubric I created:

Senior Research Paper Rubric -

Monday, October 5, 2009

Welcome fellow Wilkes grad students!

I've had a blog here for sometime, though I haven't been terribly active in recent months. It's quite possible that this class will help jump start my bloggy enthusiasm.

In any event, here it is for class: my content area is English, and I normally teach grades nine and twelve, though at the moment I am the CFF coach for the high school. I won't be back in my regular classroom until the second semester in January, but I am looking forward to it.

As far as posting an image goes, I'll give you this:

This is a book that was suggested to me a few months ago by a fellow English teacher. It explains how the NCLB act has been very effective in wiping out the joy of reading for most students and gives ways on how to reverse that trend. I heartily recommend it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Twitter proves the revolution WILL be televised...kinda

School is out for most of the country right now, so sadly there is not much possibility of using this widespread, but Cultures and Social Studies teachers who have never had the inclination to use Twitter should take note of the role that social networking device is having in the uprisings in Iran.

Twitter is being used not only to allow the outside world to witness first hand what is going on there when other means of traditional communication are severed, but also to interact with the rest of the world in a way that's unprecedented in any previous civil unrest.

As noted by NYU Professor Clay Shirky on the Huffington Post:

I'm always a little reticent to draw lessons from things still unfolding, but it seems pretty clear that ... this is it. The big one. This is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media. I've been thinking a lot about the Chicago demonstrations of 1968 where they chanted 'the whole world is watching.' Really, that wasn't true then. But this time it's true ... and people throughout the world are not only listening but responding. They're engaging with individual participants, they're passing on their messages to their friends, and they're even providing detailed instructions to enable web proxies allowing Internet access that the authorities can't immediately censor. That kind of participation is really extraordinary.

Traditional media operates as source of information not as a means of coordination. It can't do more than make us sympathize. Twitter makes us empathize. It makes us part of it. Even if it's just retweeting, you're aiding the goal that dissidents have always sought: the awareness that the ouside world is paying attention.

Teachers who are Twitter savvy can give their students an incredible look at a major world event in a way that no classroom teacher has ever been able to do before unless they were actually teaching in the middle of it.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

If you want me to take you seriously, get with the program

I find that as I'm getting older I have less patience for teachers who simply refuse to get with the program when it comes to altering the way they teach to accommodate the sweeping changes in the way students learn. We are constantly told that those of us who have gone through our paces, learned new ways of instruction and have done our best to become adepts with the new skills sets and technology need to be more understanding and let the older teachers ease into this gradually. Sometimes we're even told not to worry about it because some of them only have seven or eight years left before they retire.

By way of analogy, there was an episode of the TV show Scrubs where the main character JD was being mentored by an elderly, well-beloved doctor played by Dick VanDyke. VanDyke's character was charming and warm, but he still practiced medicine using techniques that were decades old. This lead to an incident where a patient almost died, and JD had to report him. The chief of medicine had to let VanDyke go because he refused to keep up to date, and patients were being harmed because of it. I feel that teachers are in the same position.

How many other careers allow for practitioners to disregard methods that improve productivity simply because they don't want to change? In most jobs I can think of, such individuals would be out on their asses, and often there's a lot less at stake than we have in education.

Perhaps I get so annoyed because I still have kids in school, and it is beyond aggravating to think that they may not get the most out of their education because we coddle some people who don't want to keep up-to-date on their profession.

For as long as I've been a teacher, I've heard time and again how many in the business are frustrated because so much of the public doesn't see teaching as a "profession." They want to be put in the same category as doctors, lawyers, psychologists and the like. The problem is that in all those fields, the respect doesn't just come from what those professionals have done in the past, it deals with what they are doing to stay abreast in the present. If teachers want to be treated like professionals, then they have to act like them.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

A little perspective

When you feel the urge to long for the good ol' days, think about this video and realize just how fast the world is changing for our kids.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Teachable Moment Jon Stewart Gave Us

The recent hullabaloo about the week long brouhaha between John Stewart and Jim Cramer on The Daily Show started me thinking, and not just about how I could work the words "hullabaloo" and "brouhaha" into a single sentence.


As any reader of Shakespeare's King Lear would know, the court jester, the clown, is often the only one who is able to speak the truth, and he does so by throwing a very thin veil of humor over the more serious subjects he's addressing. While Stewart and the audience yukked it up at Cramer and CNBC's expense, he drove home a very troublesome problem that is endemic not just to CNBC, but to modern multi-media journalism as a whole. Most TV and web journalists these days are simply taking information that is handed to them and distributing it without vetting it in the least possible ways. Stewart's point in a nutshell is that Cramer and his ilk would simply talk to the heads of the big companies and report back what was told to them without doing any real digging to see if there's more to the story. Had CNBC's employees practiced due diligence, they would have seen through the problems that companies like Bear Stearns was having, and Jim Cramer wouldn't have had to sit there sweating and shaking as Stewart ran the clip of him forcefully recommending to his audience not to jump off that inevitable train wreck.

But investigative reporting takes time, effort, and most of all sharp, talented investigators. I have no problem believing that many of the young people going into communications and journalism degrees in college are sharp and talented, I worry that they really don't understand the time and effort pieces of the equation.

To me it seems that much of this problem with reporting began with the adventing of blogging. I LOVE blogging, and I truly feel that it has liberated the would-be writers of the world to a degree that hasn't been matched since the creation of the printing press. Blogging gives instant, unlimited publishing ability to virtually everyone completely free of cost to them. I once read a blog that was written by a homeless man typing at a computer terminal in a public library. He got more hits than my hometown newspaper has subscribers.

But while the egalitarian in me pumps my fist in the air at thought of this unrestricted access, I do chafe at what gets put into blogs and is called "news." Many of the most popular ones are really gossip purveyors or distributors of press releases, accented by snarky commentary by the...ahem...reporters. The brass ring for these type of information outlets isn't the renown of their peers for their investigative tenacity; it's who can break the story and get the most eyes on the screen. The instantaneous nature of the web has worked against using traditional leg work, and has trained the up-and-coming would-be reporters out there to grab whatever is tossed at them and run with it.

Sadly, many digital natives have grown up thinking this is the norm, and as a result even some of the brightest potential journalists feel that all that is required to be a reporter is to sit and wait for news to come to them or simply make stuff up. I taught high school journalism and was the advisor for the school newspaper for over a decade. In the last couple of years I was involved, it was increasingly difficult to get sign up for the elective. Oh, many were interested, but that interest would evaporate after I would talk with them about what they hoped to accomplish on staff, and they would reply that they would love to do editorials. When they found out that only the editor-in-chief, always a senior who'd pay'd his or her dues for three years on staff as a reporter, got to do regular op/ed peices. They'd then say they would like to do reviews of music, movies, video games, or TV shows. I would tell them that those would be an aspect of the course, but they would be mainly required to do some hard news (well, hard for a high school with a population of about 700). They would have to interview administrators, teachers, students, community members, and business owners. They would have to attend school board meetings. They would have to research NCAA regulations and some school law.

Then they would smile, nod, and go sign up for photography down in the art wing.

They saw real journalism as a chore, not as an important part of a healthy democracy.

If there is a teachable moment in the video of Jon Stewart looking down at the notes on his desk and calmly, but authoritatively telling his producer, "Run tape 210! Run tape 213!" while Jim Cramer squirmed and looked like he was doing his best to hold onto the contents of his bowels, it's that students need to know more than simply how to embed a video in a blog, how to edit a wiki page, and how to format a press release so that it appears that you wrote it yourself. It's not a matter of teaching them to use the technology tools out there. They are going to blog and tweet and post videos to Youtube no matter what we do in school. It's our job to help them realize how to use those tools responsibly.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Lost Generation Video

This video may be a year or so old, but I only just saw it today. I thought it praiseworthy for both message and delivery.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Find Your OWN Relevance in Technology

I had a computer in college, an Atari St with no hard drive, but up until my first teaching gig all I could really do of practical value was word processing. This put me in a precarious position when went up for the interview. They told me halfway through it that the position was actually half a day English and half a day computer applications. They then asked if I felt I could handle it. I smiled, waived my hand in front of me and said “of course” with an air of confident authority that I wish I could recapture when I play poker. They bought it, and I was hired within a couple of days. It was halfway through the year, so I was to take over immediately after winter break. I borrowed one of the school’s computers and the text for the classes for the week and a half, and did my best to learn enough to enable me to stay at least three or four days ahead of the kids for the rest of school year.
When I came in, they were just wrapping up MS Word, and were about to head into Excel. I was okay with Word though I didn’t see myself using mail merge all that often, so this class was like a lead weight around my neck for the first couple of weeks, and I was dreading Excel. I’d heard of spreadsheets before, but I’d never used them and really didn’t know what they did. But then I started reading about inputting formulas and automating calculations, and I started playing around with them. Suddenly, I had a wild, just-so-crazy-it-might-work idea. I’ll bet I could set up formulas in a spreadsheet to automate the calculation of grades, I thought. I’ll bet this would work even for weighted grades! Two hours later I had a grading spreadsheet put together that with minor tweaks here and there, I used for the next few years.
That instant when I realized spreadsheets could make my life simpler was a defining moment for me. Up until then, a computer was simply a glorified typewriter, and teaching kids how to use them was to me the Jetsons equivalent of teaching Peterson Handwriting. Now, however, the door was open for me to find other ways that these things could enhance my life. Once that happened, I wanted to share the joy with everyone I met. I became as annoying a booster of technology as the kid who just discovered Pink Floyd is about talking up “Dark Side of the Moon.”
That’s a leap I think a lot of teachers who are reticent to incorporate technology into their teaching haven’t yet made. They know they’re supposed to use it. They’ve read the articles and blogs. They’ve heard the guest lecturers espouse the wonders of technology. They’ve seen every frickin’ version of the “Did You Know?” video at faculty meetings, but I don’t think many of them have made that connection between “This stuff is good for you” and “Hey! This makes thing easier for me, too!” They’re reciting the lines without conviction because they’re just not feeling it. Kids aren’t stupid, and any teacher worth his salt knows they can spot a lack of sincerity within seconds. To them, that’s a worse sin than lack of knowledge. They’ll forgive you if you don’t know how to do something with a computer, but they’ll rip you to shreds if they think you’re forcing them to do something you yourself don’t find any value in.
So find a way to make it valuable to you.
There are so many things you can do with the tech that will help you both personally and professionally that you are bound to have that epiphany of utility sooner or later.
For instance, if you've been reading any news or blogs about 21st century tools in the classroom, you know about Google Docs and how they can help with student collaboration, but have you thought about how you can use them for yourself? Many times I’ve been working on a document, be it text based, a spread sheet or a simple PowerPoint, and didn’t quite get finished. I’d plan on working on it from home, but I’d invariably forget the disc/thumb drive, and either have to trudge back to school or wait until the next day. Now I do most of my own work in Google Docs and I don’t have to worry about it. It’s available at home before I even get there.
More, it’s great for other mundane work that is a nightmare to organize at school. It’s budget time here, and I just finished talking to the English department chair. She’s utterly flustered because she has to collect budget spread sheets from all the language arts teachers, check for duplicated items that can be eliminated, the put the requests into a single spreadsheet to send to central office. Everyone emailed her their requests, and she’s looked at them both at school and at home, so now she has multiple copies twelve separate spreadsheets she’s trying to put in some semblance of order. I suggest that next year She use a Google Docs spreadsheet and have everyone add their requests onto a single document. Then all she need do is go through and prioritize items and eliminate any unneeded duplications that the teachers haven’t already caught. She could cut down the process that takes her over a week presently to maybe a day. It was the first time I’ve seen her genuinely interested in anything technologically oriented.
How about those teachers who are taking grad courses? When doing your research, rather than jotting stuff down in a notebook or on note cards, why not try Evernote? Heck, throw your favorite recipes and the serial numbers to your dvd-r, camcorder and lawnmower in there too so you don’t have to go looking for them.
If you’re more into squishy feel-good stuff, why not download Photo Story and make a cute little video of your Lhasa Apso set to Cat Stevens’ “I Love My Dog”? When you see how easy that is, it might help you sell creating a Photo Story project with your students a little easier.

Curriki- Open Source Curriculum for All to Enjoy

I found (curriculum wiki) via Joyce Valenza's Twitter Page and shot it out to about a half dozen other teachers almost immediately. This is an open source wiki dedicated to providing free lessons, units, even whole courses to anybody who wants to use them. The lessons and units seem fairly thorough, but it's not quite as complete as I'd like it to be...yet.

Give it time. As more people become aware of it and start utilizing it, it will no doubt become a major resource.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Fighting Inertia in Teaching 21st Century Skills

In President Obama's first speech to the nation, he stated categorically that the United States' educational system is in crucial need of reform. He's not the first politician to say that. He's not even the first President to say that, but for the first time in my adult life, I didn't roll my eyes as I heard it. The reason is that he didn't say "our teachers aren't teaching" and pummel us with "higher accountablility" like every other politician does. He said we will be restructuring the way things are taught from the ground up.It's too early to really tell yet, but I get the distinct impression that he gets it. He really gets it. The world has changed so radically that new teaching methods and criteria are needed in education. The problem is that this is going to be an uphill battle on par with getting universal health care.

A big part of the problem is that for all the talk about 21st Century skills, by and large policy makers just don’t understand them themselves. The federal government wants higher standards to make the United States competitive, but in order to facilitate improvement, they require non-stop standardized testing that flies completely in the face of that goal. Politicians want results, and high test scores are closest thing to a tangible trophy they can get their hands on. Parents and community members often share this perspective as well.

In addition, we are fighting inertia. Countless times I’ve heard variations of “we’ve always done it this way, so that’s the way we should always do it” come from teachers who have been teaching for fifteen years or more. I’ve even heard “why mess with what’s working?” when the evidence has shown that what’s being done is NOT working. What they really mean is it appears to be working for the students who are highly self-motivated. The remainder is left in the dust, and that remainder is growing too rapidly to discount.

Certainly there are teachers who simply don’t want to make the effort to alter lesson plans that are so old they were printed on a mimeograph machine, but I believe a good number are simply frightened of appearing ignorant in front of peers and students. When you’ve been considered the local expert in your field for years, it’s very difficult to admit you don’t know how to do something. I think the most crucial thing we can do to truly initiate change is to get society in general and educational policy makers in specific to realize that education does not end with a bubble filled in on a standardized test.

One of my favorite sections from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” says it beautifully:
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
You can never get to the horizon, no matter how far you travel or how fast you go. The margins of knowledge are also likewise out of reach, and it is the exploration and journey of education that are crucial. That is what needs to be reinforced.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The web gives hesitant students a forum

Years ago, author Neil Gaiman introduced me to a French term that's stuck with me ever since—"L'espirit de l'escalier," meaning "the spirit of the stairway" or "stairway wit." It's the notion that we often come up with the best comeback or reply to an argument or discussion long after we've left. In other words, when we're heading down the stairs after everything is said and done. Who hasn't experienced this? Heck, they made an entire episode out of it on Seinfeld.

I remember feeling that way quite often in high school. There'd be a class discussion, and I contribute far less that I could have because I would be slow to form my thoughts into a coherent answer, while the class know-it-all would have her hand up in the air before the teacher finished his question. If often felt like I was on Family Feud, and my reflexes weren't good enough to hit the buzzer first. If I felt that way, I'm certain that many others who might take several minutes or even hours to formulate a solid answer did as well.

Actually, make that "do as well." This happens in today's classrooms too. Many, many times a "class" discussion is still really three or four eager beavers and the teacher with a captive audience of twelve to eighteen others. It might as well be a panel discussion most of the time. Last year I decided to try it a different way.

In previous years, my senior English would read a poem out loud in class, then I would fish for student commentary on the meaning, the symbolism, the purpose and the like. What I added was an online discussion board. I visit discussion boards daily in my downtime, and thought it would be a great way to extend the lessons beyond the classroom. I created a board on the small Moodle site I'd set up for myself and a few other teachers. I then broke it into smaller forums, one for each period of time we would look at, and I would initiate a thread about each of the works we would cover.

I made it mandatory that the students had to post commentary about each of the works, and that that they reply to at least five other students. All comments had to be school appropriate and on task to receive credit. As I was teaching English, I made correct grammar and mechanics a part of the grade- no txt-spk. The initial post had to be done prior to the in-class lecture/discussion about the work in order for credit to be earned.

One of the first things I found that surprised me was that students generally went above and beyond the minimal requirements. Posts needed to be at least 75 words in length, and many went upwards of 100. They only needed five replies to others, but it was most common to see them reply to ten, or even twenty other posts. More than a few told me it was more fun to write to a message board that sit with pencil and paper.
In addition to getting more verbiage out of them, the quality was up. Kids I honestly thought weren't paying attention were shooting off some extremely well-thought out and eloquent thoughts on works as complex as Macbeth and abstract as the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. Sometimes they were actually more on target than the posts of the kids who would have had their hand permanently raised in the classroom.
But the thing I think surprised me the most was that when we did have that physical classroom discussion, the number of students who volunteered to participate doubled and tripled. Apparently, the cyber-discussions acted as prep for the physical ones.
It wasn't a fluke in my classroom either. As CFF coach I've suggested this approach to a couple of other teachers. Two that stand out are the Senior Honors English class and a health class. The Honors class was essentially a clone of my own experience, while the health class used the boards as a way to have students chime in on current events in the health field. Both teachers reported the same sort of results I did, particularly in that the quiet kids have more to say than one might otherwise think, and they are willing to share it.
If you meet them in their preferred medium.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Great New Video About Education

This is actually a commercial for an online university, but what it says about education holds true at ALL levels.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The future ain't what it used to be

Let's see, at this very moment I have on my person a four gig thumb drive, a one gig thumb drive, a laser pointer (all conveniently hung from a lanyard around my neck to drive home my geekitude to all who see me), and a Blackberry in my pocket that goes off every five minutes when I get new email (how the heck did I get on the Crocs mailing list anyways?). I'm practically in constant contact with my son who's away at college. When the phone isn't beeping for email, it's playing a song telling me he's texting (the theme from Dr. Horrible if you must know).

I have a portable, external hard drive (160 gigs) hooked to my laptop. I have every CD I own ripped and downloaded to it, along with all my school files, personal files and assorted junk-of-my-life. I don't read the newspaper anymore; I get almost all my news online from both large news organizations and small. I subscribe to a number of blogs which I read via the Google sidebar on my screen. Throughout the day, I shoot little messages to my Twitter account via my computer or my Blackberry.

As I'm typing away in my office, I'm often halted by a Skype message, either text or video, from one of my teachers who needs a quick question answered that doesn't require me running down to his room. On rare occasions, I get Skyped from a CFF coach from a different district, the intermediary unit, or even my daughter who teaches down in Annapolis.

When I go home, I seldom turn on the television anymore, at least not right away. I check my personal emails, post a couple of messages on my favorite discussion board, and do a little moderation on the various websites I maintain for people. Sometimes my wife Dolores and I will watch a Netflix movie via their instant service. I can choose a movie online through their website and it's beamed directly to my TV. More and more, I find myself texting or working on something on my computer while I'm watching a movie or TV. Oddly, I don't find myself missing what's going on on-screen (unless it's one of the interminably long segments of Heroes that's in Japanese with subtitles).

All of this makes me one of the rarities among people of my age- I would be considered a digital native. Most folks my age (I'm a pirate who looked at forty a couple of years ago) would fall into the category of digital immigrants according to Marc Prensky, who coined both terms to describe why so many adults just don't get the younger generation's lack of enthusiasm for traditional teaching methodology and are thus called lazy and inattentive. Because of my familiarity and comfort with technology, I was asked to step away from the classroom for a year or two and become my school's Classrooms For the Future coach. My new position is to help teachers in the building incorporate new technological methods of instruction to meet the needs of students in the 21st century.

Thus far this has been a real eye-opener fore me. Despite my background, until very recently I taught the same way I was taught way back in the day when Carter Country was a hit TV show. I had my classes arranged in tidy little rows, and I lectured and gave notes most of the time. I will grant you I am an absolutely fascinating lecturer, but even so, over the last few years I've noticed that lessons that once had the kids leaning forward in their seats to capture my every word are now falling on more and more deaf ears.

I haven't lost my fire as far as I know, but students today don't want to be talked to non-stop for forty minutes at a time six times a day. They are also digital natives, many, perhaps even most, more so than me. If I can't sit still and focus on simply one task anymore, why would expect that they can? Students today need to be engaged.

So I've rededicated my blogging for the foreseeable future towards the idea of education in the 21st century and how I can become a better teacher as well as help inform others who have a stake in not just education, but the future of our country. As I heard another CFF coach say recently, if we are teaching the kids for the world today, we're already twenty years behind.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Did You Know? updated

I've posted versions of this before, but here's an itteration I hadn't seen before, so I thought it was time to show it again.

Somewhat unnerving if you are at all concerned for the future of this country.