Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sketching out some thoughts about my next unit

Been thinking a lot about my next unit, which involves the novels 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. It seems like the two novels present golden opportunities to examine some of the critical issues facing us today. And like I did last year, I'm thinking of using this unit to introduce students to individual blogging. Not sure if it's my tendency to stick with what I am familiar with or if there is something intrinsic about this unit that lends itself to such endeavors. What is it about a pair of books - both over 50 years old - that would steer me to naturally pair them with use of the latest 21st Century digital learning tools?

Ok, I admit that I am focusing my planning around a digital tool (a blog) rather than deeper deeper critical thinking skills, but it's a start...

Both novels were written as warnings. Warnings about the dangers that the authors envisioned for our societies. In both novels, questions concerning individual privacy, government power, use of propaganda, and social interactions are all raised. Orwell's 1984 focuses on the dangers of a totalitarian, omnipotent government that seeks to control every aspect of its citizens' lives, even their thoughts. Fahrenheit 451, on the other hand, takes a little more indirect approach in its attack on the perils of government power. Bradbury's warning seems to be more focused on what happens when the citizenry loses its desire - and ability - to think for themselves.

For this unit, I'm interested in places I can find common ground. I've taught both novels before, and usually as a tandem: students have a choice of either novel, and we use a Literature Circles model for classroom discussions. Students are grouped according to their novel choice. This year, things are a bit different. The English 10 classes now have an honors option element. The class is still heterogeneously grouped, but students can opt to demonstrate more breadth and depth of understanding to earn an honors distinction on their transcripts. As a result, the students taking the honors option are required to read both novels, while the other students only need to select one. A different challenge for me, but one that I think has helped prod me to focus on tightening the connections.

Then I got to thinking of what I'd like students - both honors and non-honors - to get out of this unit at the end. I, of course, want them to be awed by the powerful style in which Orwell tells his disturbing story, and I want them to appreciate the symbolism and figurative language Bradbury uses in his tale. That's typical high school English class fare, which is fine, but I need to push them (and me) to frame these issues and ideas in our world. I narrowed down their messages to four common threads, or issues:

  1. The threats to individual privacy

  2. The dangers of governmental power

  3. The power of information, propaganda, and language distortion

  4. The potential for mindless entertainment to stifle individual thinking (this one is more tilted towards Fahrenheit 451, than 1984, but...)
All four of those common threads/issues seemed to open a doorway between the societies in the novels and ours today. Aren't we still grappling with these issues almost every day? Or if we are not - as maybe is the case with the students - then maybe we should be, right? These ideas will serve as a focus for when the students start reading and researching relevant issues in our world today. The blog, as mentioned before, will help them achieve that purpose.

I'm still fine-tuning the details, but it's beginning to come into clearer focus...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Learning, laptops, and promises

There's something magical about a laptop computer. The ubiquitous image of a small powerful computer embodies the vision of 21st century portable computing. And the news has been dotted with stories of laptops in schools, an image that has been both positively and negatively portrayed. There's also the wonderful efforts to put inexpensive laptops in the hands of students in undeveloped countries around the world.

We need to be careful as we broaden our use and reliance on technology. For me, the only thing worse than not having access to adequate technological tools is having access to technological tools that are unreliable or malfunctioning. That's kind of what I was saying in my last post - you know, it was there buried beneath all that the griping and teeth-gnashing. Anyway, the frustration came when the technology didn't deliver on its promise to completely transform our world and radically change learning as we know it. Admittedly, I share some blame for this problem. Maybe it wasn't a promise made by the technology, but an unrealistic expectation I had for it. Either way, the only way to get teachers embracing these powerful digital tools is make them work and keep them working: troubleshoot the glitches, fix the occasional broken keyboard, and keep the network up and running.

It's also time for me to make better on my promises earlier this year to do more in my own classroom. I am fortunate enough to have access to 25 laptops. Now it's time to grow beyond posting comments on the class blog and get the students collaborating with one another, or better yet, with another class somewhere.

Here's one thing I've done so far to keep moving forward. The students in my essay writing class each have blogs, and they are working on an end of semester research paper. Their blogs are serving as a center for their research, something they are having difficulty embracing. This week I told them to find at least three good sources and use it as a jumping off point to write a blog entry about it - summarize relevant information from the source, synthesize the ideas with their own, and ask questions that could lead to further research. Here's a model blog post I wrote to show them some of the basics. In hindsight, I should have spent more time discussing and analyzing the characteristics of a good blog entry, such as embedding the hyperlink and connecting their ideas to what they read.

Well, that's what I have the laptops for, right?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Examining my anxiety over the frustrating excitement of learning new things

I can't say I'm not disappointed with myself. Yet, I am having trouble putting my finger on it. What's most disturbing is feeling like I'm not moving forward, or worse, I'm actually regressing. Am I doing enough? Am I trying to do too much? Is it possible to be both?

Looking back, I have begun to narrow down the source of my angst. (disclaimer: I turned 40 this summer, so forgive this angst, or even the use of the word here) Last school year was eye opening for me. A year ago at this time, my biggest revelation was discovering the use of a classroom blog in which the students posted responses to prompts in the comments section. From there, my learning grew exponentially as I dove further into the use of blogs, wikis, and all those other web 2.0 applications that I conveniently lump together. A big part of that learning was my own personal blog. The excitement I felt last year in my own professional growth was like nothing I had ever experienced. To summarize, I discovered THE shift. THE shift.

And now, here it is December 2007, and I'm back on the blog, posting similar prompts for students to respond to about The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Somehow it feels like I should be beyond that. That the kids would be enthusiastically posting to their own blogs, swapping thoughts, synthesizing ideas they'd gleaned from one another.

Coming into this school year, I thought I was ready for it to continue to bloom. David Warlick facilitated a workshop during the two days before school started. However, that's where the cracks began to show. My excitement evolved into apprehension. In a school filled with teachers who consider themselves technically proficient, hardly any of them knew what an RSS feed was and many consider a blog to be an Internet taboo, akin to those "dangerous" chat rooms of the 1990s. As a result, Warlick's presentation was lost on too many of them who do not have the time to "do all that stuff." I can understand those teachers' frustration, but because I am in a different place.

Embracing these web 2.0 tools is - and should - not be an alternative to some tried and true teaching method, like Literature Circles would be to traditional classroom discussions. We're talking about a new model for learning, one of collaboration and providing new venues for writing. (I know this is no revelation, but my brain takes a while to kick in after I grapple with something for a little while) I know how important "that stuff" is, yet there is still inside me a nagging sense that I don't do enough. Despite having a classroom full of laptops, I still struggle to create meaningful lessons and learning for my students. It would almost be better if I didn't know what I do know. It's that frustration - with myself - that has been the biggest struggle so far.

Here's what I'm talking about. After we read A Separate Peace, I asked the students to create a multi-media presentation on what it means to grow up. In the past, this might have been a poster or a collage followed by a 2-3 minute presentation to the class explaining it. Not this year. This year it was creating a multi-media presentation with Microsoft Movie Maker. Finding powerful photos at Flickr or through Creative Commons. Selecting a song. Putting it all together and saving it as a Windows media file. Of course it took longer than if we spent a few days cutting pictures out of a magazine. If they were going to find pictures on the Internet, they had to include the source. So I set up a wiki page for students to compile and share their work. And then between the movie maker software and the laptops, I had to add almost another week to the whole thing. And still not everyone finished on time. Frustrating.

Why was it so frustrating? Was it because it took longer than I wanted expected? Was it because the students didn't gush with enthusiasm over using the wiki? Was it because it didn't solve all those problems that typically vex every thing we do in the classroom - student apathy, procrastination, struggles to understand, difficulties planning time?

If we add it up, we doubled the time set aside for the project - from one to two weeks. We probably added more frustration and anxiety to the students as they struggled with the technology and the complexities of the assignment. I'm not saying that a little bit of anxiety is a bad thing. And I'll admit, we got much better products than cluttered posters destined to stick to the classroom walls before unceremoniously falling to the floor one by one. Am I not giving myself enough credit? It's taken me a few months to figure out that I have work harder to fight through this frustration and not let it generate even more frustration, which leads to inertia.

Is that the problem? Because I have seen the awesome potential of these web 2.0 tools, am I expecting too much? I have to remain realistic and understand that these new ideas about collaboration and writing are not magic potions to cure what ails education. Sure they can help if they are put in the right hands for the right reasons. Is it that easy? Am I going too slow?

That shift. It's made things a lot more complicated. Frustrating and exciting, too. But still complicated.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Coming out of my hole

Ok, so school started almost a month ago. That's not really an excuse anymore. And I just finished grading a batch of essays from my new essay writing class. So much for that as a handy excuse. And I'm no busier than most other professionals who take their jobs seriously.

So why haven't I posted anything since June 18? First I needed a break, then I felt overwhelmed, then I didn't know where to start again. It just kept getting harder and harder to resume. I've even ignored my bloglines blogroll, which swelled to 3267 unread entries as of 10:50 pm Tuesday, thereby neglecting all those wonderful professionals who helped me grow so tremendously last year. (And Patrick, I'm apologize for never completing your meme.) It's almost like there's too much now for me to get started on.

Then how do I get started again? In the spirit of trying to ease back into this thing, let me start listing some of what it is I'm doing this year. I can't promise much insight, but it's a start...

I have continued to use my English 10 blog in class and started with it right away. This year, we received a laptop cart and 25 laptops, so I put the students to work the first week reading about Liverpool's failed experiment with laptops and this thoughtful response. Then I asked the students to weigh in on what they thought we should do in F14. I even helped prod the teacher I share the class with to do the same.

I set up a blog for my writing the essay class and began posting assignments, including one that required they post a comment. Each time I update my blog or think of how to incorporate it into my lessons, I think about that great thread from last year about vampires and student blogging. As part of the writing the essay blog, I also set up a feed to the page for all bookmarks with a wte tag. They show up on the blog and are geared for the students.

I use a SmartBoard almost everyday. As part of the online writing grant, our school purchased 100 accounts in the MyAccess writing program, where students submit their writing to be scored via a computer. We'll see how that goes.

I still use my Google calendar like it's my job. I just like everything Google.

Because of time constraints, I scrapped a plan to start a class wiki to compile literary information on the short stories we are reading - conflicts, symbolism, characterization, themes etc... It's not worth forcing it unless I can adequately support the students with instruction.

I hope to get back more fully into the conversation again. I miss it.

Monday, June 18, 2007

It may be over, but it doesn't end

School years are about traditions, either breaking them or honoring them. Tomorrow night the class of 2007 graduates on the steps of town hall, overlooking the town Green. It's a special tradition that helps link school and community. Another annual rite is the year-end reflective essay intended to detail our personal thoughts on how we believe we achieved our goals and/or grew professionally. This year's version, like the last seven, covered several of the same topics - evaluating my overall effectiveness in class, grappling with authentic assessments, learning new things.

Learning new things.

When I got to that point in the essay - as I'm typing it out with Microsoft Word - I stopped to think just how much I had learned this school year. First of all, my goals did not include anything even in the same neighborhood as using 21st Century tools. I hadn't a clue what they were in September. But there I was in front of my computer screen, sifting through a public record of my professional growth from October on. How could I jam all that into a reflective essay that I didn't want to be much more than three or so pages? Should I just repeat some of the public thinking that occurred in this space? Maybe this is one tradition that needs to evolve or - dare I say - shift?

The idea of writing a reflective essay seemed a bit contrived. Haven't I been reflecting here for the last seven months? Afterall, it was this blog that helped me discover the potential and possibilities for blogging and using wikis in the classroom. It was here that I connected with some outstanding educational leaders who assisted in my professional growth. And it is here that there is a record of that learning journey.

We talk about teachers modeling learning for their students. Well here it is. And I want my students to experience that same feeling of finding and learning something new and valuable. I know blogs can play a part in that. I caught a glimpse of it this year. So did the students. In fact, the students, much like me, were also asked to write a reflective say about what they learned using the blogs. They did a wonderful job, and you can read all about it here. I, too, hope to be able to say more on this experience, maybe as I get closer to fully synthesizing it in my brain and I begin to apply it to next year's instructional planning. The next logical step for me is setting up a collaborative venture with some other teachers out there. Maybe this could be the start of a new tradition in the high school. I intend to use this space to help me think out loud as I plan for next year. Whenever that is.

Anyway, graduation night is tomorrow and our last day is Wednesday. Because of the finals schedule, I haven't had kids since last Friday. This week is about getting my grades in and putting some things in order at work. One thing I've neglected is this blog, which does bother me. It's not like there's nothing to share. My brain is just a little fried.

So thanks to everyone who has helped me this year. I think I'm ready to graduate into year two of web 2.0 teaching.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

It's still above the water

Can't say I've gone completely under yet, but I did take quite a break from blogging, at least here. However, I've spent the last two weeks immersed (drowning?) in my student blogging experiment. Much of my time has been spent reading student postings via Google Reader and leaving comments to them. Meanwhile, my bloglines blogroll, which was malfunctioning the last few weeks, is chock full of unread postings. Today there were 756. I'm still afraid to clear it for fear that I will miss some nugget of learning previously undisclosed and containing the answers to all my web 2.0 questions. I need to get over that.

Normally at this time of the year, I'd be drowning in last minute essays and stuffing paper into my briefcase to carry home, ignore, and then lug back to school. At least with the blogging, my briefcase isn't as full.
However, that's not the reason I'm sitting in front of a laptop trying to piece together a blog entry. The real reason is that I've felt yet another noticeable shift. I have witnessed students talking to one another - sometimes naturally, sometimes a bit contrived, but talking nonetheless, on their blogs. I'd like to see more, but it's amazing when I consider where I was just 9 months ago. This end of the year blog experiment has provided me some wonderful insight and fodder for next year. There are two weeks left in this year, and students will spend a bulk of that completing their final portfolio project. In past years, I've kept class writing assignments in a folder in class and divided them into formal and informal writing assignments, essentially those typed and assigned long term, and those completed in class or impromptu. This year, much of the student's work can also be found online - as comments on the English 10 blog, as pieces of a wiki entries, and lately as their own blog postings about 1984 or Fahrenheit 451. Thanks to Google, I've also been able to share highlights of some of the more interesting entries.

Eventually, I should probably sift through their work and render some kind of timeless and essential learnings, which I can then pass on to the rest of the edublogosphere. Don't know if I quite have it in my right now, but I'm going to start with a list of "What did I do & What should I do next?"

What did I do?

  • Introduced students to blogs
  • Showed students how to comment on a blog
  • Walked students through setting up a blog on blogger
  • Taught a lesson on blog safety, using the blogs
  • Assigned students topics to write about
  • Commented on individual blogs
  • Assigned students to comment on each other's blogs
  • Showed students how to label their blog postings
  • Asked students to link to each other's blogs as part of one posting
What should I do next?
  • Everything from the above list, but do it during the first quarter
  • Spend more time giving an overview of what a blog is earlier in the year
  • Research if Blogger or another service (Edublogs?) offers better options for classroom blogs, complete with more oversight capabilities etc...
  • Require students to revise some of their entries with specific requirements in mind
  • Teach more lessons on creating blog posts and comments to one another
  • Emphasize tagging or labeling and introduce more possibilities there
  • Get students reading blogs from outside the building
  • Remain up to date and vigilant in terms of new issues that will invariably arise
  • Connect with another class somewhere else in the world

That last point is my ultimate goal for next year. If we are serious about 21st Century skills, then we need to embrace the kind of teaching and collaboration that will bring it to our students. It would be great to hook up with another teacher and connect our students, commenting on one another's blogs, collaborating on a joint wiki project, sharing drafts of writing.

As I have discussed before, I am lucky enough to have a new classroom set of laptops for next year. If I do nothing more than plop my students in front of those laptops and ask them to write their papers in Word or whip up a PowerPoint, then I am not doing my job. In fact, with this 1:1 computer opportunity, I have a much greater responsibility to bring those flat world possibilities into F14. What would be worse than if the students left my class thinking that school computers are only good for nothing more than old fashioned writing tasks and finding ways to bypass filters to access their Myspace accounts?

I know I'll have more at some point, but it just can't be right now. Stay tuned.

Photo credit: Head Above Water by Finiky on Flickr

Monday, May 14, 2007

First days of student blogging

The first few days of blogging have had their ups and downs. The biggest problem I've encountered are the technical issues, and ideally I wish I had more time to help students learn the ins and outs of the blogger interface. That just takes time. I've already made a note for next year.

Another big surprise came when several students found comments on their postings from some of the edubloggers who are readers here. It prompted valuable discussion in class. Honestly, there was some concern by students who did not know who was responding to their ideas and for what purpose. It was also intriguing to many of them that there are actually people out there who read these things. Again, I am forced to consider all this brand new stuff from the eyes of my students (that's a good thing, by the way). For many students, discovering comments from strangers makes them leery. And maybe it should. Most of what they've heard about blogging and the Internet comes from news reports warning of online predators or detailing various dangers. There is a learning curve here, and the students are not as familiar with the etiquette and rules of blogging that I am. And why should they? That's my job: to teach them and to help them be responsible in how they do it.

That was also today's lesson, which resulted in a draft of blogging guidelines. Thank you to Stephen, by the way, for the lesson idea. A big part of the lesson was reviewing the importance of keeping personal information off their blogs. And finally, I suggested to them that when (maybe even if, considering timing at the end of the year) we leave comments on other blogs, that it would be important to provide more information about how they came across the site and for what purpose they are posting. As I've said, it's a learning curve, and for right now I think they would feel more comfortable if any comments left on their blogs explained who was posting and for what purpose. They have a right to know that.

Although we must focus on the positives and potential of this technology, we must not discount the potential pitfalls. I'm right there with my students, learning too.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Off the ground and running - kind of

Today I brought my period 6 class into the computer lab and walked them through the process of creating a blog. Tomorrow, the same for periods 1 and 4. After that? We'll see.

As I have said before, I'm undertaking this new venture as an experiment, a twist on a Literature Circle unit with the novels Fahrenheit 451 and 1984. I want to see how it works on a class wide scale, what kinds of issues can arise, and what kind of adjustments I may need to make in the way I teach writing. There was a poignant reminder during today's lesson. First the students all set up their blogs pretty easily. No shock there. Yet, after doing that, their next question was: Now what? What am I supposed to write? That's where we as teachers come in. And I need to keep reminding myself that just because the technology allows anyone to instantly create a blog, it takes something a lot more to make the content desirable and worthwhile. For me right now, sudent blogging can be another format for them to compose their traditional school writing assignments. I hope it can become much richer, and to that end I'll mix in a generous portion of reading and commenting on their classmates' work, and I think I'm off to solid start.

I encourage anyone to check out what my students are writing - I linked them all through Google reader here and here and here. And if you think there might be an opportunity to collaborate in some way, please let me know. Maybe it could be as simple as directing your own students to my students' blogs and having them post comments. It's the end of the school year, but never too late to utilize the potential of this web 2.0 tool.

I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A burning dilemma

It's happening again. A compelling idea from a text we're reading in class has tracked me down and found me at work, where I am preparing to start my students blogging more.

The idea escaped from the pages of Fahrenheit 451. There's a memorable episode in Ray Bradbury's classic science fiction novel when the main character, Guy Montag, comes home and discovers his wife has overdosed on sleeping pills. It seems his wife, like many of the population portrayed in Bradbury's dystopian novel, is completely engrossed by the talking walls in her bedroom, which are described as interactive tele-screens which allow viewers to interact with the creators of the "television" programs. It is this reliance on and addiction to such technology that dehumanizes Montag's wife and makes her susceptible to the book-burning tendencies of the government in the novel. It consumes her life.

So let me get this straight. In essence, Bradbury describes a world in which the viewer can alter the message, which in the novel's case is a form of entertainment television. Technology that allows people to become part of a digitally-connected cybercommunity in which they interact and influence one another's ideas... Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451 in 1953.

Do I mention this because of how eerily similar the technology predicted by Bradbury is to some of our current web 2.0 applications? Did Bradbury warn us against what we have come to know and extol as the read/write web? MySpace, Skype, PDAs? I'll be honest, I am not as well versed and knowledgeable in the subtleties of today's latest technology to be able to provide a smartly-drawn answer, but there is a tinge of irony in the fact that Fahrenheit 451 is one of the books I am teaching as I prepare to do a little more experimenting and implementing with student blogging. As one of my colleagues pointed out the other day, it's possible I could have all my sophomores in the same room communicating with each other from in front of a tele-screen and no one is saying a word. Face to face human social interaction replaced by a computer screen.

There's a dilemma in there somewhere.

It's worth mentioning and it can't be discounted as I continue to explore my role in implementing new technologies and tools into my classroom. Allow me to back up a bit and reflect on how it all fits together. First, I've decided, in light of my ongoing reflections over the last months and my pending online writing grant, that I will sign up each and every one of my sophomores with a blog. Simple as that.

We are beginning the aforementioned unit, one in which they can choose to read 1984 or Fahrenheit 451. Unfortunately, the way the end of the year schedule goes, there is less than a month in which to complete this unit. That's not much time, especially if you pile on top of that the fact that I am unveiling a brand spanking new web 2.0 venture. The students, who are used to simply posting comments on prompts I give them, will now be required to post and record their own ongoing thoughts related to their novels.

So what do I hope my experiment will look like inside F14? Here are some random, think aloud type ideas for how I want/need/hope to proceed:

  • First, walk each student through the set up process for a blog using blogger. It's the one I use and am familiar with. An added bonus is that the students can use their Google sign in, which many of them may already have if they have a g-mail address.
  • The first posting they will be required to do will be: reflect on the beginning of your novel. How is it fit the definition of a dystopian society we discussed in class? I know, it sounds more like online journaling at this point, but it's a start.
  • Some future topics could include posting a significant passage. Finding a link to a current event and posting it up with a brief summary. Giving advice to a character. Asking the author some questions about his novel.
  • I'm thinking that a majority of the writing and posting will need to take place in school. In fact, the process will likely eat up a good chunk of class time from now until the end of the year. As a result, I need to embed into my blogging assignments some of the reacting-responding-connecting-evaluating skills I strive for in the classroom. Dilemma alert.
  • It may seem like a bit of a chore to the students at times. Oh well. What isn't?
  • I will link all their blogs on my English 10 homework blog so they will be able to easily access and read each other's writing.
  • Some of the classroom activities will involve actively commenting on each other's work, whether it's through the use of sentence starters or other guidelines to spur appropriate commenting.
  • Their culminating activity will involve gathering and compiling their writing into a final product of some sort, along the lines of a portfolio to showcase their work.
  • The bottom line is that this venture is made with the future in mind. There's an opportunity to experiment and implement, which means the next time I do it I'm that much more familiar and comfortable with the pitfalls and benefits.

Here's where the dilemma returns. Practically speaking, I need to spend class time teaching students the use of these valuable digital tools. I know that, ideally, these kinds of digital conversations and connections should occur more often out of the classroom than inside. After all, I know that the underlying purpose of all these technologies is to break down the classroom walls and provide our students with richer, extended opportunities to share ideas, beyond just what we offer between the bells of a school day. That's where I want to be, and that's where I hope I'm going.

It's either one of those delightful little ironies of life, or something a bit more sinister and foreboding. I wonder what Ray Bradbury would think?

photo credit: Frozen Fire / Fuego Congelado by Don_Gato on Flickr

Saturday, May 05, 2007

The teacher workshop: reflections and FAQ

If there's nothing else I've discovered this year during my web 2.0 journey it's that we, as teachers, have to be just as willing to learn as we expect our students to be. How can we promote 21st Century learning if we don't model it? What I've seemed to discover is that there's limitless possibilities on how these digital tools can be used. We need to experiment and implement.

Like most things in education, it needs to be done deliberately. My recent professional development venture went over well. I spent about an hour with 20 or so teachers; first we viewed Karl Fisch's Did You Know video and then discussed some possibilities for student writing using web 2.0 tools. At first, the conversation in the room was a little defensive and a tad negative. During and after the video, there was the typical teacher fear factor of "Oh no, more scare tactics about how things are changing so fast" and even a few "Oh my gosh, I'm so far behind when it comes to computers." Both I expected. However, what surprised me was that many teachers thought the video had a nationalistic bent, as if its purpose was to lament America's fall from premier position in the world, and how we need to regain it in the face of the surging populations of China and India. Some of my students made similar comments when I showed it to them.

The mood began to change when they saw my homework blog, where my sophomores had posted responses to Fisch's video. Using the SMARTBoard, I scrolled down through the student responses in the comments section (maybe some teachers were surprised to see so much writing) and read the teachers what Fisch had posted to my students in response. It was a powerful moment. Many teachers caught a glimpse of some of the possibilities out there.

That's when the workshop got more interesting and the teachers more enthused. I focused on my homework blog, where my sophomores were in the midst of posting comments about A Midsummer Night's Dream. I know it's not an ideal use of the blogging technology, but as I've come to realize it is a great entry point for newbie teachers. So I showed them what the students were writing. It prompted an interesting discussion on technology and student writing, and more important it got me thinking about how this might play out, or the best way to handle it in a 21st Century classroom.

After some initial discussion on the logistics, some interesting conversation emerged during the workshop. It went something like this:

What about grammatical and spelling mistakes? The kids still make them, just like they do on old fashioned paper. However, I haven't seen too much "text-speak" in their writing, using u for you and other common abbreviations. The reality is that the students know everyone is reading (theoretically). Just like any student writing, there are endless possibilities for mini-lessons. What's great is that the student writing is easy to access for use in a future lesson, whether it's cutting and pasting it into another form or simply sending the students back to the postings with a task that requires them to re-read, revise or re-think what they or their classmates wrote.
What about commenting on student work? As far as I know, there's not a way to do it like we are used to the old-fashioned way, the way many teachers envision it: taking out the red pen. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe it will open some of the teachers up to looking at the student's writing more holistically at first, instead of instinctively tracking down errors. Maybe it will encourage students to write more, eliminating the fear that whatever they do will just come back marked up and looking like Sonny Corleone at a Long Island tollbooth.
But how can we as teachers provide constructive feedback so they can learn and improve? I agree that having students post comments on a blog limits what the teacher can do when you compare it to traditional in-class essay writing. For me, it has meant I've looked at the comment writing as more of a place to "deposit" homework. It is by no means the only place students write. In fact, it has forced me to constantly rethink what I ask the students to do so that they are reinforced that what they write is not simply being checked off and ignored. I take their ideas and incorporate them into class discussions. I've projected their words onto the SMARTBoard as part of class lessons. From a teacher's perspective, I think I've done a better job at that most basic of pedagogical requirements: making learning relevant to the students and connecting new knowledge to prior knowledge. There's limitless possibilities in how the technology is useful in this area. Konrad Glogowski, for example, offers an innovative way to "comment on" and assess his students' work on their blogs. What he describes is more like conversations with the student writers as a way to encourage their growth. Isn't that where we should be striving as teachers?
Aren't the questions supposed to be asked in bold face? Sorry. I just got carried away.
How do students revise their writing? They can't change their comments. However, there's nothing says they can't take their comments and use them as part of another, longer, more formal writing assignment. This is where the limit of using the comment section lies. And this is where more discussion and experimentation needs to take place in the classroom. Discussions about providing students the means in the class to set up their own blog, link to one another, post regularly as part of class. Use the comment section to respond directly to a student's writing. This might address some of the feedback issues raised in an earlier post. Again, there's limitless possibilities on how to move in this direction.
But how do we tackle the larger issue of using blogging to improve student writing? That's the big question. And that's where many edubloggers spent a lot of time discussing and exploring. It takes time. It takes initiative. Ideally, it should not be done in isolation.
So what's next? That's an important question. Ideally, I'd like to get my students set up with their own blogs. With individual student blogs, some of the questions regarding individual teacher feedback and collaboration can be addressed. It's not easy and it requires some planning ahead thinking. We as teachers need to be experts (of sorts) using this technology or else we run the risk that what we do in the classroom will be nothing more than playing around with cool stuff. Ms. Sigman and Clay Burrell have recently address this issue. (Thank you Clay, for directing me to Ms. Sigman's new blog). In a recent post, Ms. Sigman says "In other words we can teach in a very techno-rich environment, but unless we put the tools in their [the students'] hands and teach them not only how to use them but how to learn the skills themselves what we teach in class will be irrelevant to their lives." I agree. It can't be in isolation and the purpose of blogging, or using wikis, or any other web 2.0 application can't simply be to just use it. Otherwise, we run the risk of making the use of some of these powerful applications seem like nothing more than things that are used only in a classroom, like writing a five-paragraph essay. The skills behind them have to extend beyond the classroom. As with anything in education, that growth and that learning starts with the teachers. It's no secret that we have to be willing to grow and learn along with our students. Here's where I think I'm echoing the general sentiment of what I've been reading these last several months. Patrick Higgins, in discussing virtual schools, says it quite succinctly but right on the nose: "Teaching will be different, and this will happen very soon. Teaching will require that we are risk-takers, savvy, and cavalier. Teaching will be different, or it will be irrelevant."

We need to let that motivate us, not scare us.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A full day and I need some help

Tomorrow promises to be a full day of heavy thinking and not because I'm getting in a stack of papers. As mentioned earlier, I'm taking on that hour-long workshop after school to introduce some colleagues to the potential of web 2.0. I'm ok there.

However, I'm also scheduled to participate in a release day with two other teachers to begin putting the finishing touches on our school's honor's option for our heterogeneously-grouped 10th grade classes. We've already laid out the skeleton (dates, general overview, some specific content areas) on a wiki I set up in the fall. Now it's down to the details so it can implemented equally by the five sophomore English teachers (me included!). Basically we need to illustrate on Thursday what this thing will look like in the classroom. That's where the call for help comes in.

Philosophically, I believe that offering an honors option will best serve all our students in the non-tracked classes. Too often I think we have neglected the higher achieving students in these classes, typically because they stand out among their peers. We need to do more to challenge them, just as if they were in an honors course. Forget the growing pressure from parents and colleges to pad transcripts with AP and honors courses, I'm talking about pedagogically-sound instruction that reaches as many students as possible. However, just what an honors curriculum should look like is a matter of debate. Can a student receive rigorous instruction and challenging assignments in a class that also contains some lower achieving students? Do the socializing benefits of heterogeneity outweigh the inequity that can arise in such settings? Technology must be part of the equation, but exactly how?

Right now, it's an experiment in planning stages. I have been unable to find too many examples of schools who offer a similar challenge. The details we work out tomorrow, putting the policies and procedures in place for next year, are going to help determine just how successful this can be. We need to be ready for the difficulties that will arise, and be careful not to overtax the teachers in the course to the detriment of other students. It's a vexing challenge. But one I am willing to undertake.

That being said, I'd love to hear from some others in the edublogosphere about this issue and move this discussion beyond my building. The outline for English 10 is all spelled out here for anyone (hint, hint) to peruse. Suggestions for going forward? Thoughts on our approach? ...

Nailing down the professional day

This week is the one-hour workshop I volunteered way back when to present to my department. Now it seems like I have to move beyond the "here are some things I can do" stage to the "here's what I am going to do."

First, I have lots of good feedback on my original intentions, which Brian suggested may be too much to undertake in one hour. Point well taken. Essentially, I want the teachers in the department who are still unaware of the possibilities of web 2.0 tools to glimpse what is possible without being too overwhelmed. It has to be practical for the classroom, without being forced down anyone's throats. If the teachers leave Thursday's session wanting to experiment more, than I've achieved my objective.

Another thing came up as well when I posted Karl Fisch's Did You Know? video to my students and asked for their reactions. I, too, plan to show the video to the teachers to kick off a discussion of what we as educators are facing in the future. Then, I want to hand out some excerpts of what my students said in response to my posting on the English 10 blog. Two birds with one stone: modeling one possible classroom use of a blog and presenting valuable content to the participants. As one of my students wrote "The only thing is that as of right now, it seems as though people are being taught how to use the technology that we have, but the problem is that the technology keeps on getting even more improved so people have to keep on learning more and new things about new developments in technology. The only thing that I believe that we can do is just stay on top of what is going on in the world with the technology being used and fully understand and be capable of using it when we have to use it."

"...stay on top of what's going on in the world ... and be capable of using it when we have to use it..." He's absolutely right because there will be times when we have to use it, and if now's not the time, I don't know when it will be. For English teachers, playing around with a blog is the most accessible entry point into the read/write web. I can show a few good examples of classroom blogs to show different ways they are used. The more technical stuff, the pedagogy behind blogging, can come later when teachers have a better sense of exactly what a blog is.

I think that will be enough.

However, I'll keep on deck a Google Earth Lit trip file for Night, which shows Elie Wiesel's journey into the Holocaust. It's a great visual and - just as important - presents another easy entry point into the classroom.

I'll keep you posted.

Monday, April 23, 2007

I have had a most rare vision

Near the end of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the brilliantly foolish Nick Bottom awakes and finds himself all alone in the woods. Still in the midst of a dream, he calls out for his mates and hears no response. Then it hits him. Something strange and unusual has happened; he has had a "most rare vision."

That's where we were in class today in: "Bottom's Dream."

Most of the period we looked at Bottom's delightfully bumbling soliloquy, another of Shakespeare's little gems tucked away at the end of Act IV, scene 1. In past years, I've spent little time looking at these lines and, instead, glossed over them, maybe mentioning the reference to I Corinthians 2:9 that Bottom screws up so wonderfully. However, today, when the kids walked into F14, they were assigned a bit of updating. Put Bottom's speech into language they could better understand. (I never use the word translate when discussing Shakespeare because it is, of course, still English; it would only need translating to say French or Sanskrit). Since Bottom is having a tough time coming up with the right words, maybe the students could relate. It turned into a nice, simple lesson.

I think every now and then I have to be reminded to slow down, spend some time on shorter pieces of text. Look closely at the writing. In this case, it's a master writer presenting a purposely garbled rendering of his ideas. It takes a little time to muddle through and appreciate. This isn't Shakespeare's crowning moment in the play, like some of the longer poetic speeches by Titania or Oberon. It's worth the time we spent on it today, though. With a deeper understanding of Bottom's take, we can better appreciate Theseus's more rational explanation at the opening of Act V. Once we get that out of the way, we can sit back and enjoy the play-within-a-play that Bottom and his mates perform for Theseus.

Just as important, the assignment allowed the students to get beyond Bottom's initial confusion, which I think is easily understood by any one who's ever woken from a powerful dream. The students wrote in their own words how Bottom wants his buddy Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream, otherwise no one will believe it. One student said it the best during our discussion when she said that something like Bottom's adventures with fairy queen Titania is so unbelievable that the only way for it to make sense to us (dare I say "mortals"?) is if it is put forth as fiction or literature.

Absolutely. Even Bottom knows that.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Secrets of success meme

A great thing about blogging and using other web 2.0 technology is the opportunity it offers to connect with people beyond my typical orbit. It happened again this week; Patrick tagged me to participate in my first meme. As a result, I also discovered that he and I have two more things in common: we both attended Syracuse University and have both been tagged for the first time. Anyway, the meme (which as far as I can tell, originated here) is:

"List the top 5 to 10 things that you do almost every day that help you to be
successful. They can be anything at all, but they have to be things that you do
at least 4 or 5 times every week. Anything less than that may be a hobby that
helps you out, but we are after the real day in and day out habits that help you
to be successful."
This is no easy task, and although I am delighted to be included, I still wonder who is to say that I even qualify as a success. And reflecting on what I've consciously done to make that so-called success happen poses even more of a challenge. Where to begin to look for signs of success? Case in point: when I began blogging here, I had the intention of using it as a way to explore reflections and thoughts on teaching with a focus on Literature Circles and like teaching methods. In some ways, I think I may have envisioned my undertaking much like the reflective journals I kept during my teacher prep program. Of course it has become something else entirely. But a success, or more broadly does it make me a successful teacher? Through blogging, I've learned quite a bit about teaching and the use of technology, which possibly could become part of a success equation. However, blogging is only a small part of my life. How about what I do in the classroom? Is that a success? Again, that's not an entire picture of me.

As I thought more about it, it struck me: why do I have to equate success with specific actions or tasks completed, like blogging or teaching? If I rely on such a performance-based criteria, then do I logically have to start thinking about whether there will be a time when I achieve a certain level proficiency that I can retire or be elected to some kind of hall of fame? That doesn't quite work. Looking at success in that vein, gives it more of a competitive flavor, or one that is measured by someone else's yardstick. This is what Patrick seems to be saying when wrote: "External definitions of success place such undue stress on us, but are often what derail us as we move through life."

So I haven't blogged in a while. I also haven't organized my classes in Literature Circle groups lately either. I value both those actions, but I also do not mean to imply that they are somehow the most important or telling criteria for which to judge overall success. I'm not exactly sure if there is a strictly defined set of criteria for success. Instead, this meme gave me an opportunity to simply reflect on what it is I do and how it is that I conduct my life. On some of my things listed there is a blurred line between habits and state of mind, but I think both are important to consider. So without any further rambling, the things I do (in no particular order) on a regular basis are:
  1. make time for what I enjoy to do
  2. think about how my actions, reactions, even impressions given out, are viewed by other people
  3. ask questions of and talk to my colleagues about what they do
  4. use my lunch break to laugh about nothing in particular with people who's company I enjoy
  5. consciously think about how my students see their world, or at least the tiny part of their world of which I'm a part
  6. get up early and have a cup of coffee and a relaxing few moments before starting my day (maybe this is more of a routine, but it is an important part of my day)
  7. spend time to consider the "big picture" and how what I do and what I am asked to do is part of that
  8. sit down for dinner with my family and not start eating until everyone (there's four of us) is at the table
Now that I've shared, I guess I need to tag some other fellow bloggers. Here goes...
Brian Grenier (who has been generous with advice and input on issues with which I'm grappling)
Nancy McKeand
Stephen Lazar
Tamara Eden

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The Slowskis

Feeling a little bit slow and behind lately, which got me thinking...

One of my favorite commericals are those Comcast spots featuring the Slowskis, a pair of turtles struggling to survive in today's super fast world. Some of the spots are pretty funny. Sometimes I know just how those two turtles feel.

[By the way, I have no connection to Comcast except I subscribe to their cable channels and pay too much a month for it. In fact, I use DSL.]

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Spring cleaning

Looks like I can't avoid it. I need to do some spring cleaning...

This week is April vacation. There are no papers to grade - they come in the Friday we get back. I need to plan some of the upcoming lessons, but don't expect that to take too much time. Three weeks away is the mini-workshop I'm planning for the department. Still plenty of time. More on that later.

Looks like I have a perfect opportunity to get my digital house in order. Several months ago I began my blogging experiment. I call it an experiment because it was undertaken with a specific purpose in mind: to expand my knowledge and learning about web 2.0 teaching and productivity tools. At this point, I consider it a success.

However, in that time, as I've come across dozens of nifty tools, I've also found that the resources connected to my learning are scattered to the winds. Much like a typical high school curriculum, little logic or reason binds these valuable ideas together in any meaningful way.

Let me see, first there's that wiki I set up which has a sizeable collection of resources, links, and information, including a few scattered recollections of what I've taught this year. Some of what's there is merely experimental, like incorporating a live feed into the page. Other stuff is under some broad headings. Despite its current random appearance, I'm thinking this may be the best place for a central clearinghouse, only because it provides the most potential for an organized structure. That being said, I need to rethink it's focus so the organization comes a little simpler.

Next, is my Google notebook with a smattering of interesting tidbits I've picked up along the way. Probably best if I simply go through it and move anything valuable over to the wiki. I have my account to keep track of interesting, worthwile sites I come across. Maybe I should incorporate an RSS feed of my findings right into the wiki? This is probably the easiest fix. And I have to remember, I began experimenting with Google notebook with an eye on requiring it as part of a yet-to-be-thought-up future research project for my students.

Ok, then there's my bloglines account. I love trolling through my blogrolls on a regular basis, but what has happened is I've clipped some of the feeds I've found carried meaningful entries worth referring back to in the future. They are in my clippings file which I haven't completely figured out the best use for. I've also marked some entries as "keep new." Now they sit in my blogroll, available whenever I skim the latest feeds. It looks like, they are needed now. Maybe I'll spend the time coming up with a summary of important ideas, and then categorize them on the wiki with links back to the original posts?

Well, that's a start. It just seems kind of overwhelming. Worthwhile, but overwhelming.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

I didn't know if I knew...

Yesterday, my dad and I were chatting on the phone and he asked me if I had checked my e-mail. I hadn't, but called it up while we talked. It seems he had sent me an e-mail with an interesting link. He often sends me e-mails, usually jokes or links to the latest news from my hometown, but yesterday's e-mail contained a video he had received from a friend, and he was passing it along to about a dozen of his regular e-mail cohorts. It took about 10 seconds to log in and call it up while we talked. This was no joke, he said, but something he thought I'd find quite interesting.

It was Karl Fisch's Did You Know? video.

The fact that it came from my dad, who just turned 70 and retired as a teacher in 1999, gave the video a different kind of impact. My dad was, in effect, asking me: Did I know? How great is that? Karl has blogged about the video and how it has become viral. This was a perfect example of that. And thanks to Karl's ubiquitous video, my dad and I had a nice conversation about the changing world we live in, one in which it is still possible to be shocked and surprised about where technology has taken us. [As an aside, the video was linked here, a place I am unfamiliar with.]

I told my dad that I had seen the video before, and I even gave him the background on how it came about, which is something I only know because I started regularly reading The Fischbowl along with about four dozen other edublogs in the last three months. He was interested.

During our talk, I also told him about my most recent posting on the English 10 homework blog, where I asked my students to view the video and reflect on it. So I sent him the link to that post and asked him to read what my 10th graders thought when I asked them, Did you know? I could feel myself getting excited as I recounted the story of the video and explained how I had begun experimenting and implementing many different web 2.0 tools. So he read their thoughts and sent me back an e-mail commenting on the perceptive insights he encountered. The only thing that would have made this flat world tale more tidy, would have been if he posted his comments on the blog, triggering a conversation with one of my students. Still, the entire episode is energizing and another example of the many different sides our flat world can have.

On a personal side, my first year of teaching started the September after he retired. Like me, he too switched careers and took up teaching around age 30. He's retained a strong interest in my career, but yesterday's exchange was the first time he and I have shared such a solid connection related to actually hands-on teaching. Chalk it up to another positive from our ever-growing technology.

I thought I knew before, but now I guess I know even better.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Watching my students think this all through

Over at the English 10 homework blog, I posted Karl Fisch's Did you know? video. It was a break from the regular posts relating to A Midsummer Night's Dream. Here's what I asked the students:

After viewing this video, consider this: Web technology is transforming how we communicate, and it is opening up countless opportunities for the collaboration, discussion, and sharing of ideas... the potential is almost limitless. Such social networking has powerful potential and will be a major part of the world that you will be living and working in. We need to be ready to survive and thrive in that world. How can educators, like me, better prepare you for such a future? What kinds of skills will you need to be successful in a rapidly changing world like this?
Here's a sampling of what I got - and am still getting:

"It doesn't take skill to press a button to park your car. In my opinion, thats how everything will be in the future;You press a button, and it works.I think we should take environmental classes for the future. We should learn how to save fuel, prevent pollution, and save energy. That is how we can protect and advance our future. That is our best preparation."
"Sometimes it takes a video like this one to clearly put things into perspective, and realize there are billions of people out there who are more advanced than we are. I think that the best thing educators can do is encourage people to open their eyes, and motivate tomorrow’s leaders to want to make a difference. And motivate people to want to learn, and be more tolerant of other cultures."

"Although I think the world is changing so fast that it may be difficult to keep up, I also think that things such as doing blog postings, like these, help for us to learn how to communicate with others, and learn from others without actually seeing and talking to them. It is important for us to learn how to learn without someone saying and feeding us information."

"No one really knows what the new technologies are going to be in the future, I think we are just going that have to wait and see, and then learn about them when the time comes. I feel that maybe if technology gets more advance then people are going to get lazy, but also there may be people that can learn from it and get smarter, because that is what it should be used for."

"How can you teach kids about something that hasn’t happened yet or hasn't even been created yet? Technology has been developing fast but some things are self-learnable. Like Ipods and cell phones, we never had to have a class in school to learn how to use them."
I'm not really sure what I expected from student responses. But one thing that struck me is the nonchalance at which they approached the ever changing world. Should they be more concerned about what those changes will mean 10, 20 years from now? Or maybe they're living in a world so conditioned to continual change, one in which during their short lives they've already witnessed what to them are significant shifts. They can probably remember when not everyone had a cell phone or an Ipod. To me, a digital immigrant, I'm overwhelmed at the numbers that say China has more honors students than we have students. These new digital tools are exciting, especially for someone who was a junior in high school the year the computer mouse was first introduced. While I want to embrace them and look for ways to change what I've been doing, the students are possibly in a better place. They don't have as many comfortable habits to break. Maybe I should have asked the question differently, turned it back on the students. Instead of what we educators can do to get you ready, how about what are you, the student, going to do to be ready?

Are they ready? Am I ready?

Good news: I've been given the chance to experiment

Some good news across my e-mail inbox this afternoon. Branford High School is one of 13 districts in the state chosen for a computer assisted writing and testing grant. It was also announced here.

Details are still coming in, but the focus revolves around piloting online writing evaluation and feedback software. I helped write Branford's grant application, which means I should have at my disposal - hopefully soon - a set of classroom laptops, a laptop cart, and funding access to other related technological goodies. It's truly a special opportunity for my students, and me, to further experiment with and implement in the classroom the use of numerous web 2.0 tools.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Stepping out, putting my money where my blog is

Ok. So I finally, after weeks of agonizing and reflecting, I took the step. For five months, I've used this forum to write about my discovery of web 2.0 technologies, about what vast potential exists, and about what I can and should be doing next. Well, next is now.

Today I walked into the principal's office and volunteered to present a one-hour after school presentation to the English department on some of these digital tools available to us. Our contract requires we participate in 10 hours of after school professional development, and we were scheduled for round four of our year-long initiative to continually review varied in-class literacy strategies. We've been down that road before and some of my colleagues were growing leery.

The workshop is not for another two weeks, which includes a week of April vacation, but I have begun to brew up some ideas about how to go about it. For months I've been making note of the excellent resources popping up all over the place. Patrick Higgins has a great web 2.0 resource wiki. Brian at Bump on the Blog likewise has a great resource wiki and it seems has even found some success inspiring novice teachers to "implement and experiment." That's encouraging.

I'm going to start pretty basic. For one thing, I don't want to overwhelm anyone in the short hour I have. And second, I'd like this session to lead to further professional development, rather than be an eye-rolling session that shouts out the latest and greatest tech toys. My goal has always been that we teachers need to use these tools to enhance professional growth and to better focus our instruction in a manner that best helps our students learn. One of my biggest fears is that teachers will immediately ask the question: when am I supposed to find time to do this, between grading papers, planning units, dealing with parents, etc...? There's never enough time. This isn't about time for something new, it's about something new to help us better use our time.

With that being said, I have a rough agenda sketched out for the afternoon, but am open to any feedback:

Am I on the right track? I tend to think many of the teachers who will attend the session have little experience incorporating digital tools into the classroom beyond using e-mail. I chose Google Earth and Sketchup up because it seems to be an accessible entry point to the true power of the Internet. The same for blogger. On the one hand it looks so elementary, but on the other hand it will mostly be new information to many of them.

What is the best entry point for teachers like that? Should I take another tact? Like maybe get everyone in front of a computer and sign them up for a blogger account? It comes back again to that nagging fear: will I somehow turn teachers off from implementing and experimenting with what I truly believe are vital educational tools? I hope not.

photo credit: First Step by roujo on Flickr

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

This just in: New 'trend' detected in classrooms

My principal just sent around an interesting article from the Sacramento Bee (free registration required to read) about a teacher, Dylan Holcomb, who is using, among other tools, Google Earth and blogs to enhance his students' learning in English class. It is worth reading, and it strikes me as one of the few news pieces which portrays these web 2.0 tools in a positive, innovative light, rather than as a warning siren of a murky online community, ripe with lurking predators.

I'm wondering, though, is there a bit of a disconnect between the innovators like Dylan and those whose charge it is to lead our school districts into the 21st Century? The article quotes one superintendent who, with a wonderful sense of ironic understatement, categorically declares: "There is definitely a trend in the educational community at large of using the Internet in the classroom." Yes. That's one way to say it. However, is that really what we're talking about here? If we want Boards of Education to fund our efforts in the classroom, we have to spread the word that 21st Century skills means more than just installing a digital projector in every classroom. Otherwise, it just becomes a different way to show a movie.

The bottom line is that the only way for such changes to become truly embedded in the educational system is for teachers, like Dylan, to take on leadership roles. The article states that he taught a packed workshop for his district's teachers, showing them digital tools, including everything "from sites to help generate surveys to free podcasts by professors at UC Berkeley and Massachusetts Institute of Technology." Numerous examples abound about teachers leading the change, including most recently by Dana, who presented to her faculty how to incorporate the use of wikis in the classroom.

I'd like to tell you all about how I, too, have been a guiding force at my school, spreading the message of the web 2.0 shift to the masses. I'd like to. I just can't. And I can't because I still haven't completely grown comfortable fully utilizing these tools in my classroom. Maybe I'm slower or less confident than some other teachers, or maybe I fear too much the overwhelmed effect too many teachers get from sitting in on professional development about the latest "new" thing. The most I can talk about are several meaningful discussions with a handful of other teachers who feel the same way I do, and who have begun to experiment with what I consider the first steps - blogs and wikis.
I'd like to start to do more. I'd like to take the lead of educators like Dylan and Dana (not to mention the rest of the all-stars in my Bloglines blogroll) and share this potential for meaningful change. Stay tuned.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Lover's advice and baby step blogging

Just got finished reading some of the comments on the English 10 blog, where we are currently sharing some ideas about Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. In this latest assignment, the students wrote advice letters to one of the four lovers in the play - Lysander, Hermia, Helena, or Demetrius. They wrote some great stuff. I can't imagine that if they had written these assignments on paper and handed them in, they'd be as thoughtful or would they have made some of the deep personal connections to the characters that I enjoyed reading on the blog. It makes a difference that they know their classmates are reading each other. The assignment does not rise to the level of a formal essay, so posting them as comments on a blog are perfect. For now.

My next professional step is to begin planning for more embedded and regular blogging in my classroom. The comments on my blog posting are fine, but as I'm coming to discover, another effective way to improve student writing is through the use of regular blogging. I plan to try. My bloglines roll is full of worthy edubloggers to emulate and continue learning from.

Meanwhile, I'm still inching my students along this journey with me. Last week, Bill at Shakespeare Teacher noticed our work. And it got me thinking, what a great opportunity to remind my students about the potential of these web 2.0 tools that we have only just begun to use. These are baby steps, based on what I see other educators doing, but necessary ones. As part of any web 2.0 curriculum, there should be emphasis that what we write and post online can be read - in fact it is being read - by people all over the world. My students this year have only just begun discovering this. Bill's post is a nice reminder of how, even as a 10th grade high school English class, our voices can be heard beyond F14.

Monday, March 19, 2007

I see their knavery: starting A Midsummer Night's Dream...

So we began our unit on A Midsummer Night's Dream. I decided, this year, to begin by giving the students a summary of the first half of the play - in my words - as their first taste of the thing. They read it and I told them that they probably would be confused, especially seeing several of those names poached from Greek mythology - Theseus, Hippolyta, Demetrius, Hermia, Lysander, even Helena. In past years, I've given them this summary and asked them to write a paper in which they came up with their own creative ending to the complicated love mess. That usually produced some fun writing. As I decided earlier, I'm going to ask students to post their endings as comments on the class blog.

Today, instead, was about introducing the play. This means undertaking what I call advance ops: jotting down notes on background, engaging in general discussion about the play and Shakespeare (the kids get a kick out of the fact that I visited Stratford-upon-Avon during my honeymoon. One memorable comment from the front row: "Wow, I'm surprised your wife still wanted to marry you." But it was said with a smile), and a light walk through of the plot and characters. As expected, the strongest responses from the students came when we went over Nick Bottom, who gets saddled with the head of an ass. For sophomores, just hearing that word is enough to draw some laughter. And why not? It's funny, and I think Shakespeare would agree. It led to quite a lively and energetic discussion, a prelude to what I hope is a lively and energetic experience with the play.

To help frame my instruction, I gave the students the three essential questions of the unit:

  1. How do we act when we are in love? Why?
  2. Which emotions “from the heart” are the strongest? Which reveal our true selves?
  3. How effectively does Shakespeare use humor to make his ideas known about human behavior?

What surprised me about our discussion was the idea about emotions "from the heart." To me, that is one of the most important concepts about Midsummer. Shakespeare creates these characters - especially the lovers - and puts them in situations in which their emotions are exposed. They fluctuate between love, hate, and jealousy with relative ease. Albeit they are under the influence of a magic spell, we can still relate to their inconstancy. This can be a key entry point for teenagers, who live in a world of shifting and mysterious emotions.

For the next lesson, I plan to start with the Act I, scene ii, when the mechanicals first meet to plan their rehearsals. I got this idea from the excellent resource book Shakespeare Set Free, which apparently is useful not just for Midsummer. Todd is using it for Macbeth. Anyway, in an essay in the book, Michael Tolaydo suggests starting a Shakespeare play in the classroom with a large group scene, especially one that contains language more approachable to the students. "This approach," Tolaydo writes in "Three-Dimensional Shakespeare," "generates and puts into play the necessary tools and skills to examine those more difficult and complex portions of the play, while it supplies students with self-esteem and confidence in their own ideas and opinions." (28) I've never taught it this way, but I am eager to try it out. This scene fits the bill Tolaydo describes, and to me is one of the most humorous scenes in the entire play. Bottom's insistence on playing all the parts and his repeated malapropisms set the stage for what's coming, his impending ass-head and the incompetence of the play performance at the end. I hope I can keep the kids with me that long.

photo credit: Bottom with the Faires in a costume sketch from Charles Kean's scrapbook for a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Shelfmark ART Vol. d48. from the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Spreading the word, looking for suggestions

Ok, here I go again...

It seems I'm not the only one grappling with how to start taking some of those next steps and spread the word about the best uses of these web 2.0 tools we all blog about. Dan, a math teacher in California, volunteered himself to research and suggest an educational application to bring to his district that will be easy to use for teachers of all digital proficiency abilities and interest levels. It seems some of those in his department suggested the school invest in some PD time on how to update HTML files and upload them to the school server. To do this, they also suggested buying more server space and some publishing software. That's when Dan rightly stepped in. And now he's taking a day off to put together some web 2.0 solutions. He's looking for some input. The best I could do was suggest he consider some of the ideas about blogging that have been bandied about recently. Based on what I've read of his blog in the last several months, Dan will surely come up with something that is both well thought out AND well-written. Check back to see.

Along a similar vein, Eric is in search of the killer EdApp, and he's gotten quite a bit of feedback from some people who know what they're doing. A lot more than I do, that's for sure. I also like the wiki resource that Patrick Higgins has put together for a workshop along these same lines. I'm glad guys like that are on the job.

All of this has kept me thinking about how these next steps are going to be taken. Finding that killer EdApp is a laudable goal, but I wonder if is reasonable to think there is just one. One of the defining characteristics of web 2.0 is the inter-connectivity between users, a dynamic consumption of information, and the remixing of data from different sources.

That seems to imply that even if there was a killer app, the very nature of our changing digital world is that the tasks and tools that it would provide could and should be reused and remixed as user needs change and evolve. Thus, today's killer app is tomorrows piece of the larger puzzle. I think that's how we need to approach our task of making such instructional tools more widespread in our classrooms. My immediate goal is to bring to F14 a more authentic writing model for my students, and it's looking more and more like it needs to start with some form of class wide blogging.

I'll get on that as soon as I get my Midsummer unit ready and under control.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Starting to think about where to begin with a batch of digitally challenged teachers

I'm not exactly where this all started, but I've been hashing out the subtleties of using blogs and blogging in the classroom. There's been some good conversation about just what is the best use of blogs by students as part of a class. Clay has smartly drawn a fine distinction in the pedagogy of using blogs in class, separating them into two different types, for two different purposes. Others have pointed to earlier portfolio assessment models as a place to look for further ideas for refinement. Check out Clay's post and ensuing comments) Essentially, it comes down to what we, as teachers, believe will best serve our students. All this talk has prompted me to look back on my short journey of discovery this year. If we are going to ask - expect - demand - other teachers to embrace this new technology and use it to promote 21st century skills, where is the best place to start with a batch of digitally illiterate teachers? Or even those with basic digital skills who are still unaware of the full educational potential of web 2.0. I can't imagine that my path would be the most effective model in which to bring others along.

Let me step back in time a few months...

When school started in August, a fellow English teacher told me about the blog she's starting this year to post a daily record of class assignments and lesson plans, like a resource for herself and her students. It serves the purpose of providing her students a place to get the work they miss if they're absent, and serve as a repository of her lesson plans throughout the year. Cool, I thought. But I have my web page for that.

Then come October, a colleague of mine shows me a blog he set up for his AP Calculus class. On it, he had posted questions and asked students to respond. It was a model he found engaging and new, an assessment he said his students shared. I was familiar with blogs and understood the general idea of what they were, specifically what made them different from web pages, for example. What a great idea, I thought. I could do that, too.

I set up an account in Blogger and created a site for my English 10 class. On the blog, I posted a few open-ended questions related to our readings. I played around with the comments section, figuring out what was required to allow commenting, either from students our others. I spent some time talking to another colleague, a special education teacher who co-teaches one of my English 10 sections with me. I decided to try it out while reading The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds. I put up a prompt, brought the kids to the computer lab, paired them up, and showed them how to comment. That was the first assignment.

That was October and November. Meanwhile, I set up my own personal blog and began reading some others I came across. I discovered Bloglines and began compiling feeds. I discovered wikis and experimented with a few collaborative writing projects. I continued to blog about it as best I could. It's through the blogging where I've benefited from the knowledge of others farther along this path than me. I've listened to them hash out ideas, or present new uses for the emerging social networking technology.

Which brings me back to the original intent of this post. As we bring others along, where is the best place to start? What is the one or two most important web 2.0 tools or concepts a newbie should be taught? For example, there's no sense teaching someone how to set up a Bloglines account if they have little concept of what kinds of blogs or other feeds are available. The social bookmarking and networking tools are wonderful, but require a deeper understanding of the types of information and ideas out there.

Eric maintains an excellent wiki where he organizes his technology resources under the following categories: one-to-one; one-to-many; many-to-many. Blogs are under one-to-many. I like that categorization. Maybe the best way to spread the word is to use those categories, and start by showing other teachers the potential of one-to-many. I'd love to know how such efforts - these drops of change in otherwise stagnant pools - have gone in other schools, where the ripples of change have begun to spread.

To me, it makes the most sense to show a newbie how to set up a blog. And by extension, the easiest and simplest use of a blog is posting content-based prompts to which students respond. It's simple, straightforward, and most closely matches an instructional model that digitally illiterate teachers are familiar with. We, as teacher-leaders, must understand any distinctions between different types of student blogging. The potential I saw in blogging when I first asked students to post comments to my prompts was powerful. For the first time, they had the opportunity to read each other's ideas. Although it was not truly embedded in that form, it did provide me that glimpse of the power of web 2.0 that has led me here.

photo credit: Disperse by CentralJake on Flickr.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Props to the best web 2.0 tools for educators

A few weeks back, Steve put out the word asking edublog folks to tell him what their three favorite free web 2.0 tools were. Here he posts the top 10, with leading the way.

Some random thoughts on the list...

My three favorites made it - Bloglines, Google (do I really need to link that?), and Wikispaces. (He actually lists wikispaces and pbwiki which are both great wiki tools.) In fact, I just finished reading my students' posts on the class wiki with Bloglines. It's simple. I set up an RSS feed to pick up all page changes. When I click on a new feed coming into my Bloglines feeds, I get the newest addition on the page in green and the deletions in red. Google reader does not provide the same type of feed.

Flickr came in at number three. So far I've uploaded only a handful of photos there. Only one I made public. Essentially, I've discovered that I'm not the greatest photographer, despite that class I took in high school in which we all used a twin lens reflex camera. Let me play around some more before I have enough confidence. Also, a little faux pas this week reminded me that I'm still learning the rules about photo sharing and the like. Also, check out the thread started with the fifth comment here. Oops.