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.