Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The new fear - blogging anonymously

The Houston Chronicle recently published an interesting article recently on teachers using blogs to get their voices heard, which, according to the article, is basically to anonymously vent their frustration about their jobs. Essentially what we have is a typical journalistic dispatch detailing the latest, scariest new technology. In this case, it's teachers blogging. Little did I know that we teacher/bloggers are encountering a whole new world of potential pitfalls as we use our sites to discuss our poorly-run schools and to lash out at our students - all anonymously of course.

The blogs of two of my favorite and very un-anonymous bloggers, Bud Hunt and Victoria Davis, were both mentioned as examples of teachers hiding behind pseudonyms. In fact, the reporter authoritatively announces, "[i]n the Cyber world, these chatty, often frustrated, teachers pour their thoughts out under screen names like 'Bud the Teacher,' 'Hip Teacher' and 'Cool Cat Teacher.'" Yikes. Bud, always thoughtful and insightful, has posted his thoughts about the issue, including some of his correspondence with the reporter. I agree with Bud about blogging anonymously. It's too easy to be irresponsible, which can undermine all the great ideas that bloggers like Bud bring to the blogosphere.

What gets me about articles like this is how easy it is to spread misinformation, which also subtly undermines what we do. (disclaimer: I do not purport to be on the same level as folks like Bud and Victoria, but I didn't want to use a third person pronoun. Too distant sounding) The general tone seems to be that with these new technologies comes a need for great alarm and pause. I point to a throwaway paragraph near the end: "Most Houston-area districts have remained silent on the issue of what teachers may post on their blogs, although the Katy school district issued a stern warning to employees last fall after some expressed concern about educators and students chatting online." First of all, I would hope that if any school begins to draft guidelines on blogging they consult Bud's excellent wiki resource on the topic. And second, I hope they will learn the difference between "chatting online" and blogging.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Hernando de Soto update

My daughter took her history test today. She said she felt confident about how she did. She was able to study right before the test.

I couldn't resist, so I asked her: "What important facts did you write down about your explorer? It was de Soto right?"

"I said when he was born, where he died, what he explored..."

"What about those other facts you found as part of your homework?" I asked, trying to play the part of the father full of fatherly interest, with no regards to any past blog postings or ongoing professional conundrums.

"Oh yeah," she finally replied. "I said he brought knowledge about Florida back to Europe."

Maybe Wikipedia is good for something.

What should we be assessing?

With a heads up from David Warlick, I just posted some thoughts to Rob Darrow's blog. He's a librarian who will be attending the 21st Century Literacies Impact Conference at U.C. Berkley, co-sponsored by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills. He poses an interesting question for us edubloggers: "What is an assessment example in a school or school system that supports 21st century learning?"

That's a hard one. That didn't stop me from taking a shot.

As I was trying to write something halfway intelligent, I got to thinking about how difficult it is going to be to encourage 21st Century learning skills and find the proper, most appropriate ways to assess them if teachers are unwilling themselves to discover ways of using these same digital tools and strategies. How do we as teachers keep up ourselves? And I don't mean those of us on my bloglines or reading this now, but the others in the faculty room who are just now adjusting to e-mail. This is by no means a groundbreaking discovery, but it's part of my learning process.

Check it out yourself and post a comment on his blog. Or mine.

Monday, January 29, 2007

The Wikipedia battlefront comes home

A little skirmish in the Wikipedia war was fought at home tonight. My 9-year-old daughter used Wikipedia to research her homework. Does that make me a bad parent?

First the background. In the last two weeks, both my children have come home from school with an assignment to find X amount of facts about X topic. For my 6-year-old, CJ, it was five facts about bears. For CJ, I called up MSN Encarta for him through the school's website and helped him navigate the text, images, and sound clips of bears. It was simple and painless.

Today, my daughter, Alla, came home with the assignment to find three facts about the explorer Hernando de Soto, including something "important" about his expeditions. Alla, being older than CJ, got on the computer and typed in "hernando desoto" into Google (that's him above, right). She clicked around and found his dates, (c. 1500 - May 21, 1524) Two of the pages provided little else - either too complex or lacking any more substantive information suitable for a 4th grader. I sensed her difficulty, so I sat down with her and we began scrolling through the results screen. She sees a link for Wikipedia.

"Go there," she said.

I pause, thinking of how much I've heard about Wikipedia recently. At Branford High School, vandals wrote up a fake description of the school, complete with courses on drug use, silly student groups, and comments from clueless parents. At Middlebury College, officials have banned the use of Wikipedia in research. Others in higher education, like Ken Smith, believe educators should be encouraging students to explore how knowledge works, rather than declaring some sources off limits. Victoria Davis found herself in Wikipedia - literally - and hints that maybe we as educators shouldn't keep ignoring Wikipedia, warts and all.

So where does that leave me with my daughter, who is eager to complete her homework before dinner? As far as she's concerned, Wikipedia has been around forever, which is not that far from the truth. Where else is she going to get those three facts about de Soto, including something important about his expeditions? So in we clicked.

Of course the site is well-laid out. I showed her the table of contents and asked her which headings would probably have the information she seeks. She pointed out the one about his expedition to Florida. And there it was under the heading "After Effects" - four paragraphs describing the impact of his 16th Century journey to Florida. Being more comfortably literate, I told her to read the first sentences in each of the middle three paragraphs. Voila, she finds out that the records of his expedition helped contribute geographic knowledge of Florida to those back in Europe. It's that simple.

But is it painless? Does this simply reinforce that Wikipedia is a wholly trusted resource, no questions asked? Did I do all I was supposed to do? We looked at the site together and I showed her a strategy to read for specific information. From her earlier research, she had enough previous knowledge to at least recognize if there were glaring inaccuracies. She used the Wikipedia information as just one of two sources for her assignment. It was a much more careful process than the one I followed with the MSN Encarta entry with CJ.

No one said it is supposed to be easy.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

A little old school

Just put finishing thoughts on what I'm doing this week, starting Monday. How did I do it? Well first I took out my planning sheets (1) which I carry around with in my briefcase. They are a productivity tool that allows me to save and easily retrieve data to show an overview of the unit I'm currently working on. It usually begins as a few rough details (note the sparse squares to the right) and eventually becomes day-to-day lessons. I have found that the best recording device to use is a pencil (2) - in this case one swiped from my daughter's desk. It wasn't fully functional when I grabbed it, so I needed to use a plug-in device to sharpen the point. Finally, I'm able to store all my planning sheets, as well as any files I choose to attach to them, inside my binder (3). The binder can be closed to hold everything efficiently together.

Eventually I'm able to link this work to another handy tool, especially my English 10 at BHS. My 10th graders are going to read several non-fiction articles about juvenile crime and using them as a resource to write a persuasive letter on the topic.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

In with the new and stick with the old

Handed out the books today to start my Literature Circle/Wiki project. Although this is my 2nd venture into a classwide wiki project, I'm still relying on the tried and true in many respects. I'm still giving kids a choice of which books to read for this unit - Black Boy, The Color of Water, and Frankenstein. I've offered choices like this for six years. I still make up a reading calendar using PowerPoint (which all of a sudden feels so limiting as a productivity tool) and converted it to a PDF file. I still put them in their groups and gave them time to work out a reading schedule for themselves. At the end of class, they put their signed reading schedule agreement in a folder, which I deposited into a cupboard in the classroom. This will serve as their space to gather their daily lesson materials.

I also handed out the books, and despite what many people believe, there is still some excitement when it comes to getting a new book in class. Maybe not every kid feels it, but it's out there.

However, the 21st Century twist was that I also distributed a laptop to each of the groups (admittedly, there was a little more excitement when I pulled those out) and walked them through the wiki page setup process. They could follow along on the Smartboard, where I had the page projected. Once they created, the pages, I set up links to them all. Now the real challenge starts. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Enthusiasm meets reality for a much needed chat

A necessary conversation today with Kathy, a colleague at BHS who co-teaches one section of English 10 with me. She has spent the last month trying to keep me aligned as I hop around to every new web 2.0 toy I discover. She's got some patience, and I respect her opinion immensely. Well, she looked over my ever-in-revision wiki assignment and suggested that students unfamiliar with this type of work environment might find some of my assumptions about how they will actually do this project a bit difficult to follow. I need people like Kathy to keep me grounded and focused on this question: "What is it I want the students to know and to be able to do?" I modified some of my expectations, again trying not to let the digital dog wag the tail of learning. Believe it or not, with all this talk about 21st Century Skills and digital natives versus digital immigrants, these last two wiki projects are likely the first time my students have encountered such digital tools. That puts me, Kathy, and the students all in the same boat, different seat.

Based on Kathy's input, I decided to put together a PowerPoint slide to briefly explain how to use the page. The tutorials on wikispaces are wonderful, but this was more site-specific. I uploaded the PowerPoint presentation to Slideshare and embedded it in the wiki. Check it out here.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Still digesting the latest feed on NCLB

Found this in my aggregator today from Dan Meyer, a high school math teacher who makes an impassioned, insightful defense of the educational bogeyman of our time - No Child Left Behind.

I'll admit I haven't had time to fully digest all of his 2,366-word post - that may have to come later. What I'll say is it is a letter to his colleagues about how we spend far too much time complaining about the federal mandates of this law, and too little time working on becoming better teachers. He says, "The accountability measures of NCLB have mobilized the mediocre..." As a result, our loud protests and complaints about NCLB have emboldened mediocre teachers, effectively giving them a convenient whipping boy for why their lessons are stale, their students bored, and their classes dead zones.

The guy can write. Aside from making some strong arguments, Dan writes with an honest, often witty voice that's more Stephen Colbert than Stephen Hawking. It's not too often I read math teachers writing things like:

But teacher to teacher, let’s be honest. Learning is difficult. Learning
runs a tractor through gray matter, plowing beds for neurons to connect. It was
easy for most of us but it isn’t easy for most of our students. It’s typified by
confusion, questions, and frustration.

No, our measure as teachers is defined by how engaging, lucid, and relevant
we can be during the difficult lessons, by how effectively we prepare all our
students for their futures and for mandatory assessment, all while maintaining a
brisk pace through a wide breadth of material. Nothing less. Know this: our
worth as teachers didn’t change on January 8, 2002; our burden of proof just
became greater.

The guy makes sense, too. But rather than use this post to rehash his ideas or put my own twist on them, why don't you read his post and decide for yourself. Then post a comment, either at his site or mine. What do you think? What implications does this law - and our response to it as educators - have for our efforts at embedding 21st Century skills into our teaching and learning?

Sunday, January 21, 2007

A blog in its infancy

It's easy to get caught up in the simplicity of the digital age and lose sight of the underlying complexity it can present. Blogging is no exception. It took me 10 minutes to set up this blog. When I did that, I imagined that I would all of a sudden have a perfect forum to reflect and interact with thousands of like-minded teacher types in our newly flat world. After all, I'm an English teacher, the writing should come easy for me. Not so.

In the short three months since setting up blog shop, I don't know if I began to understand why the difficulty. This weekend I learned a little. On the one hand, the anniversaries of some well-read edubloggers, notably Bud the Teacher and Nancy McKeand. Nancy reflected on her past two years by saying that "it seems like just yesterday that I was trying to figure it all out, trying to believe that I had something to say." Maybe that's where I am now, trying to believe that I have something to say?

Enter Will Richardson, who provided another piece regarding the connection between blogging and reading. He says:

And for me, the biggest reason my reading has changed is because of blogging. I
now read with an intent to write, and my writing (or blogging) is an attempt to
synthesize and connect ideas, not simply summarize or paraphrase what I’ve been
reading (if I even get to that.) I have many memories when I was teaching my
Honors xpository Comp kids of their frustrations not with the writing…they all
could do that pretty well…but the reading and the connecting. They found it so
hard to take information from disparate sources and connect them some way into a
coherent few paragraphs. And I would argue it was because, like so many other things we ask them to do in school, it was a contrived exercise. Pick a topic (abortion) create a thesis (keep it legal), find support, blah, blah, blah.

Only connect... It sounds so simple that even the state of Connecticut requires it as part of its battery of standardized tests in 10th grade to assess student reading and writing. Will concludes that "Teachers should be reading and writing online (blogging)" in order to effectively teach their students the necessary digital literacy skills of the 21st Century . That makes sense, but that doesn't make it easy. Even today, late Sunday, as I stand ready to start a new Literature Circles unit, I recognize those problems of today's schooling he points out. I've spent a lot of time setting up a series of lessons and class time so my sophomores can choose one of three novels, read it, and take part in regular small group discussions. And oh yeah, they'll write a paper at the end, and I'll expect that they will draw on all those insightful reflections and observations from their discussions. Maybe by imposing a regular wiki writing requirement, I can begin to encourage use of these elusive 21st Century skills.

Either way, if I'm going to prepare these students for this century, I have to go along with them.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Poised and ready poolside, wiki and blog in hand

It may not be summer yet, but I feel like I'm standing at the edge of a pool, a big pool, waiting to build up more nerve to jump in. I'm getting there.

My sophomores responded well to the blogging the first time around. I'll keep incorporating that into my instructional repetoire, expanding it as we grow more and more comfortable. I'm doing my planning and scheduling with Google calendar, and posting documents on Google documents and spreadsheets, which I then link back to my website. I'm taking a second plunge with a wiki. Maybe this time the expectations are a little scaled back. Instead of forcing the wiki into my unit, I realize I need to let the learning drive the use technology. It's really quite basic. First, what do I want the kids to do and learn? Next, how can I can use these new tools to stimulate that and make it easier?

My wiki project will start next week. The most difficult part of putting something like this together is getting past the initial feeling of awe when playing around with different toys, and moving down to the ground-level thinking necessary to make it happen in a classroom. There's some admitted nervousness. The last attempt to "wiki" was not as successful as I'd hoped. Looking back, I probably had unrealistic expectations that once we began the kids would just morph into these spirited, tech-savvy bunch, eager to use their new digital tools to soak up the learning. It wasn't really like that.

I have to say I got myself a bit overwhelmed as I discovered the different toys available for me to play with as a teacher. But just because it's cool for me, doesn't mean my sophomores are going to be just as smitten by the newness of it. I mean these are kids who freak out when I move the tables around in the room.

For now, I'm happy to dip my feet into the swimming pool of web 2.0. I'm getting wet. I'm not drowning. I'm looking forward to a nice swim when I get used to the water.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Is this wiki ready to rumble?

Putting the finishing touches on the wiki project.

It's going to serve more as additional support our next unit, rather than be a truly collaborative venture. Students are selecting between three titles - Black Boy, The Color of Water, and Frankenstein. Once in their Literature Circle groups, they are required to set up a reading schedule, organize small-group discussions, and generate questions, responses, and connections to the novel. Standard fare for the Miller's English @ BHS experience circa 2005. The 21st century twist now is that each group will be responsible for maintaining a record of their discussions, their questions, their comments to one another, their thoughts on their reading. All of this will be put on the class wiki. In the past, much of the notes, passages, role sheets and other materials were kept in a folder as a reference. It really turned into a folder with lots of different kinds of paper in it. I hope the wiki will encourage further collaboration and help open the students' eyes to the work and ideas of their classmates.

I'll keep you posted.

Disclaimer: My rubric for the project was borrowed heavily from the one at the flatclassroom project. If you haven't checked out that wiki or Vicki Davis' Cool Cat Teacher blog, do it.

Product plug: I decided to use Wikispaces instead of PBwiki. Although I like how PBwiki lets you set up a simple password to allow editing, I think wikispaces offers much more variety and ease of use in its interface. Embedding html and pictures is a lot simpler and more understandable with wikispaces.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

I'll take the survey, but I'm not quitting my job

Starting to feel like a real-life edublogger. I just took this blogging survey at Dangerously Irrelevant. If you haven't heard of it already, it's a completely unscientific survey for all edubloggers, the results of which will be published Jan. 17 at that site. But hurry, only those who take the survey by Jan. 14 will be included in the results.

Some thoughts on the survey. First, I have to give credit to Adventures in Edublogging where I first heard of the survey. Second, I had real difficulty with the first question of the survey. It asked if I could make a living blogging, would I. The problem is, my blogging is all about what I do for a living. Without those 80 teenagers who show up in my class every day, I would have little to share. How else could I explore the use of blogging to promote student thinking? Or struggle with the best way to fully understand and grow comfortable with using a wiki to support student writing? Without a job, could I undertake a professional challenge to create an honors option component of a heterogeneously grouped English class? Using a wiki, no less.

So just in case anyone is thinking of putting together an attractive offer. The answer is: No thanks. I'll stick with my day job.

Do you blog male or female?

If you want to know what the gender of your blog is, check out the gender genie from bookblog. Saw this over at Adventures in Educational Blogging (a female blog, by the way).

I punched in my last post - 303 words - and, after picking up on certain words in the post (see right), it determined that I was more male than female.
Phew. My wife will be relieved.

It's never too late for New Year's resolutions

New Year's is a time for resolutions, so here goes...

  • First, I resolve to continue blogging. And to continue soaking up as much as possible about the challenges and opportunities that exist for a newbie edublogger like myself. I already know a great resource - Bud the Teacher's wiki. It's got links to teachers using wikis and blogs, sample letters to parents, examples of acceptable use policies, and even vignettes with hypothetical scenarios relating to issues about blogging in education. It all comes courtesy of Bud the Teacher.
  • Next, I resolve to find more time to read as much of The Fischbowl as I can. Even if it means missing a few minutes of 24. Karl at Arapahoe High School has put together collection of blogs that blows my mind - classroom blogs, teacher cohorts, his own powerful insight. I've only scratched the surface of what's there. Just not enough time.
  • In class, I resolve to find time to incorporate more grammar instruction. I already have some great resources - Graycie has been posting grammar lessons on a regular basis, while The Reflective Teacher has an awesome post that explains how a sentence is a movie.
  • I also resolve to try another classroom wiki. My first venture, in which students paired off to write an analysis of a poem, was average at best. The next time I use a wiki, I want it to be as good as the one done by this class which was dicussing Life of Pi.
  • Finally, I resolve to continue learning from all my colleagues who are experimenting and finding creative ways to teach today's students. As I find them, I will link them to the right. If you haven't already, check out what's already there.

Did I miss any? What are your resolutions?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

What's another eight minutes? Check these videos out...

Shift happens. Don't know if everyone has seen these video presentations, but you should. The folks at The Fischbowl have put together a series of presentations about the world we are heading for. They've been making their way around the edublogosphere since the summer, but I first saw them on Beyond School only yesterday. I guess it's never too late.

If you only have time for one, view Did you know... (Windows Media file). It makes a compelling case for why schools need to change and the challenges facing us, and our students.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Coming clean about Wikipedia

Some interesting thoughts about Wikipedia on Cool Cat Teacher blog. No sense in repeating the thread, but Victoria raises some relevant points about this ever-growing online knowledge source. She says:

3) Whether or not educators like Wikipedia, perhaps its flaws are because so many educators do not like wikipedia and have thus ignored it.

I ask you to join and become an editor who cares about adding fact to the subjects you care about. -- Start by watching the edublog page! (But do not add yourself, only add others that you believe you have enough proof that they are notable.)

What should we as educators do? Ignore it? Embrace it? Fight it?

I, too, am reserving judgement on Wikipedia, but I do like her point that one way to improve it is by becoming more of an active part. Here's my own Wikipedia story, told maybe to get it off my chest or just to share with whoever reads this...

During the planning of a unit on The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, I begun to further explore the use of the marigold flower as a dominant symbol in the play. After a little research online, I ended up - of course - at Wikipedia. Despite one of the more succinct and user-friendly descriptions, what I noticed from the Wikipedia entry was that it lacked vital information: when marigolds predominatly bloom and how they are hearty flowers that thrive in many different garden conditions. In context of the play, where the flowers symbolize the main character and her exposure to the "radioactive" dysfunctional family environment caused by her mother, I thought this was a crucial piece to know. It also seemed to be lacking the definition provided on Wikipedia. So I edited it in there. There were already several sources cited in the definition, which I too checked out during my research. However, in my revision, I also referenced another web site that included this additional information. My final edit amounted to a handful of sentences interspersed in the existing definition.

Then I directed students to the definition and asked them how the marigolds could serve as a symbol in the play. Not sure why, but I never told them my behind the scenes role. Was I afraid they'd see how easy it was to do, if they didn't already know? Did I think it would - rightly or not - taint their consideration of the source? Was there a tinge of guilt in what I did?

It still has me thinking. Is the role of an educator, to manipulate information or knowledge sources for a particular benefit? Or was I doing nothing different than if I prepared a handout with notes about the flower, which included the information I deemed important?

Still not sure if I've answered all the questions in my mind.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Open thoughts on my next Lit Circles unit...

Been thinking about how I want to proceed with my next unit, which I'm calling "Alienation & Isolation." Right now it consists of students choosing from one of three novels - Frankenstein, The Color of Water, and Black Boy. The introductory portion is complete, which we'll do before midterms start in mid-January.

Now I want to take a page from Beyond School and do a unit think-aloud. My thoughts are leading me towards again experimenting with a classroom wiki as part of the student writing. It's still sketchy and rough, but as always, I'd love to hear some feedback, comments, suggestions. So here goes...

It begins as an extension of the active reading introductory portion: Each student will choose which title they would like to read, and I'm going to encourage those who are thinking about taking honors English in 11th grade to strongly consider tackling Frankenstein as a way to better acclimate them to a difficult text, which they will face in honors next year. (Sophomore English at Branford High School is completely heterogeneous, but we are developing an honors option for next year.) Despite their obvious differences, the three titles do share thematic elements, most notably a central character who struggles to forge an identity in an often hostile world. In the case of both Black Boy and The Color of Water, that hostility is mostly the result of racial divisions and prejudice. Those two titles are memoirs which relate the life stories of the two author/main characters - James from Color of Water and Richard from Black Boy - who often feel marginalized, or even in extreme cases, like a monster in their world, an outsider in an unaccepting society. That, too, is a dominant theme of Frankenstein. However, there is much more to Frankenstein, and that's not to say the students who chose that will not be able to explore those issues.

The day to day lessons will be organized according to a Literature Circle model. It's the assessment piece that I'm hung up on. As a way to showcase and share their learning, I would like the students to collaborate on a wiki that explores our central theme - Alienation & Isolation. A possibility for guiding or essential questions could be What do humans need to feel connected to their world? How does society help forge our identity? How do individuals figure out who they are?

To build on the skills from a previous wiki writing project, the students could address the themes of alienation and acceptance as they see them in their novels. Each Literature Circle group could be responsible for maintaining a wiki page with information from their in-class discussions, quotes from the novel, and other textual references. It should probably be organized in some manner, possibly under dual headings of alienation and isolation. Students would be responsible for tracing those themes throughout the novel, how they progress and eventually are resolved. Embedded in this would be an analysis of human nature and what the author's ideas are relating to alienation and isolation on the human soul.

Next, each group would research a particular modern day social issue that relates to one or more of the big ideas raised in the novel and represents an issue in today's society. I may suggest possibilities for further research - institutional racism, affirmative action, poverty, cloning, embryonic research... Information on these topics could be incorporated into the wiki on the novel.

I'm starting to feel myself getting hazier and hazier with my ideas. As a relative newcomer to the world of wikis and blogs, I want to experiement with the latest technology, but I don't want to use it for the sake of using it.
I'm stuck.
Maybe this would be a place to assign a good old-fashioned essay? Maybe the wiki is an excellent tool in this case for merely extending their daily discussions - with less imposed structure from me - rather than as a summative assessment of the unit? The wiki would serve as a solid resource for students as they write their papers.
I think I'm going to stop now and mull it over in between grading.