Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Some snow, a stomach bug and lots of television

February vacation was no fun. Spent most of the time with a stubborn little stomach bug that left me lethargic and unmotivated. That meant I watched too much TV and little else. A little Connecticut "snowstorm" extended vacation one day, which was nice.

But I was back in F14 this week, ready for another go at it.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Don't blog with students

Just came across this post on blogging with students - as in don't blog with students. This has hit a chord with me as I've struggled to make sense of the countless Web 2.0 teaching tools available. The biggest challenged I've faced is sorting through everything I'm absorbing and deciding what could best be used in my classroom next week, or next month.

Maybe I was missing something. And Kimberly Moritz put it into a little clearer perspective for me. She says, "Blog for you, for your own learning. Read what everyone out there has to say about education, about students, about NCLB, about techie stuff, about learning. Worry about your own growth first. Look for ideas you can use in your classroom. Learn. When you learn and grow, your students benefit."

That sounds awfully close to what I've been mulling around in my head, but struggled to put into words. Thanks, Kimberly. The process of blogging, in this case reading John Pederson who blogged about Kimberly, has helped me clarify my own thinking.

Digressing from and considering wikis - again

Craig Ullman's article on wikis in Educators' eZine is a good description and definition of what wikis are. However, that's not why you should read the article. It's his point that wikis represent one of our greatest educational values - individualism. At its heart, isn't that the most important skill we teach students in school? Being an individual? So how do we make that translate into skills students can bring to society?

As a digital tool, wikis provide everyone with equal power to write, edit, revise, even vandalize. It's this concept that's also made sites like Wikipedia a bane for educators. What are we supposed to do with this, now that our students have access to all this unreliable information? I've heard educators ask themselves and each other a variation of that question numerous times. I guess the answer is to teach them. It's no longer relevant to send our students off in search of a research paper and sit back and wait for them to come back with the usual suspect of sources. We, as teachers, need to be more involved in the process. How do we find information? What tools are at our disposal to sort through and filter what's out there? How do we determine what to use? What responsibility do I have as a reader/researcher? Those are tough questions, and for an industry (education) where many teachers are still just dealing with the fact that students can cut and paste from the internet to plagiarize an essay, this has to seem like an about face in what we've taught in the past. I guess it is.

Another good point Ullman makes is that wikis provide an opportunity to assess the whole class, rather than just the individual, a concept that many in education avoid - "In any case, the choice between assessing the individual or assessing the group does not have to be an either/or. We can, and should, look at both levels; we can, and should, think more about how we can leverage the knowledge and interests of each individual student to create a better result for the whole group." This might be where the answer to connecting individualism to the real world. I don't think it means holding each individual group member equally accountable for a group project product. However, the skill our students need to know is how to work in a team, collaborative setting, to create a final product.

There is value in group products in the classroom. However, we mustn't lose sight of the individual in all this. Again, it is no longer relevant to simply assign a group project with an all or nothing stake at the end. Finding ways to "leverage the knowledge and interests of each individual student" is a daunting task. It speaks to the heart of differentiating instruction, both in process and outcome. That means we still need to know our students, what their strengths are, how they learn, and what they are interested in. Web 2.0 tools aren't going to do that for us, but rather provide us better ways to do our job, or to allow for student creativity, or even to encourage previously marginalized students.

So there. Where have I ended up? Where I always seem to. There are no absolutes (except that one, I guess). Like everything we do in education, there is no panacea. Although we are in the middle of a shift, we can't ignore good teaching, and we need to be willing to embrace the technologies of our student's world, not just ours.

powered by performancing firefox

Monday, February 19, 2007

Still more interesting videos

Karen Janowski of the UK has posted a video created by Kristin Hokanson and presented at a Pennsylvania Educational Technology Conference . It was inspired by Karl Fisch's Did You Know? video, which apparently has become viral. Karen is worth adding to your RSS feed if you haven't already. Earlier, she posted a humorous video that takes an amusing look at professional development a long time ago. It might even be worth showing those teachers who are resisting the use of computers, if for nothing else but to share a laugh with them.

Another one making the rounds is a parable that considers what would happen if the animals had a school. It comes compliments of, a parent's advocacy site.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

So who uses these things besides us?

Two kids were talking in my period 4 class today. One of the students had created his own wiki on wikispaces and was using the laptop to show two other members of his group his work: a wiki page for his band.
"Why not just put it on Myspace?" a female student asked him.
"I have one there, too" he said as he continued to scroll through his pages of pictures.
At this point, I was close enough to chime in and jumped at the chance to generate more enthusiasm for embracing these flat world tools, ignoring the fact that they were off task.
"The wiki can be a useful resource for your band, maybe not with all the visual elements of a Myspace, but it's great for sharing information and collaborating with others, especially if more than one person is adding ..." By this time I've exhausted the 15-year-old limit for syllables in a row from an adult, and I see her eyes losing interest.
"It's just kind of funny," she said. "I mean who else is doing this besides us?"

Who else is doing this besides us? What's she talking about? I know who else is doing it. Here is one of my new favorites: Mrs. Caldwell in Alabama who provides comments to students on their drafts with her wiki. What a great use of the tools.

But then again, I know this, but she doesn't. None of my students probably do. It got me thinking about how these tools - wikis especially, but also blogs - are being used in the real world, outside the classroom. An afternoon of mulling her comment triggered in me where I first glimpsed the potential for wikis and blogs in the classroom. It was a New York Times Magazine article from Dec. 3, 2006 (not freely available online, but archived her for subscribers) that described how if American intelligence agencies had effectively used such collaborative tools in 2001, we could have averted 9/11. Pretty heady stuff.

Then I came across this in InformationWeek on the use of wikis by corporations. The article makes the case for wikis as an effective project management tool in the business world. There is an interesting anecdote about how the LA Times put up a wiki soon after the Iraq War with an editorial on it. As a way to spur discussion of the war, the paper asked readers to revise the editorial as they saw fit. However, vandals flooded the page with so much profanity and pornography that the paper took it down in three days. The moral of the story? "Perhaps the Times expected too much; perhaps it misjudged the juvenile capacity of some Web users. But the real problem with the wikitorial was that the Times sent a wiki to do a blog's job.
Wikis are structurally capable of handling conversation, but it is not their forte; instead, wikis excel at collaboration. They are intended to maintain a series of unique documents as their content evolves and to provide an organic means of organizing that information."

Maybe that's where I am now. My frustrations about the wiki stem from its apparent inability to effectively extend the discussion beyond the classroom walls, which is something better handled by a blog. Although I certainly have seen the discussion move beyond the classroom, it has fallen a bit short of my - too lofty? - expectations. It may be time for me to shift a bit. I need to view this wiki as a tool for collaboration and organizing the information students are inputting. That will be where its greatest power will emerge. I have more work to do.

And finally, if I'm going to respond to my students who rightfully want to know who else is doing this, then I have to take advantage of its possibilities. Encourage and promote collaboration through my assignments and class expectations. It sounds so simple. Is it? Who else is doing this?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

My latest poll results

With my Literature Circles wiki project entering it's second week, I'm still not sure if all my students have fully embraced it like I have. Besides an occasional lull in homework rates, I now have some hard data to reinforce these impressions, courtesy of a customizable Polldaddy widget I just discovered.

Polldaddy let me create a simple multiple choice poll. I then embedded it on the front of the wiki page and asked: What are your thoughts about this wiki project?

First of all, only 27 votes were cast, although it's only been up for about two days. It's set to expire Feb. 16. Of those 27 votes, 14 registered a favorable impression of the wiki; 11 registered unfavorable. The rest were in some way undecided. Full and complete results can be seen here. What's a little more telling is that there are about 60 students taking part in this project. I guess it's still higher than most presidential elections.

As I reflect on this venture, I can't say I'm discouraged. I still think it is a valuable tool. Maybe I'm just not using it as effectively as I can. Like I tell the students, there is a learning curve to this. First we get used to posting information on it, then we experiment with the different levels of collaboration possible, and then we can use it as a steppingstone for furthering our own creativity and thinking. One step at a time. My job is to provide students the right tools, opportunity, and encouragement. Keep doing that and the rest should come, right?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

How it can and how it should

Too many things percolating right now. Too often it is easy to view what I am discovering about Web 2.0 and teaching through the perspective of "Hey, look at what you can do..." Instead, I believe we need to frame it more with the perspective of "Hey, here is what you should do..." Where is that cutoff point of can and should? We need to purposefully and repeatedly ask ourselves how we can improve learning inside our classrooms with any - or all - of these new tools. For me, it has so far limited itself to using a blog to encourage more authentic student writing, maintaining a wiki to compile and share student ideas, and even incorporating an online calendar for my planning. Outside the classroom, I've experimented even more, little by little feeling comfortable enough to bring these collaborative, flat world tools into F14 at Branford High School. Will it be something like Skype or RSS feeds or social bookmarking? Or - more likely - will it be utilizing something I don't even know exists? Just forty eight hours ago, that was polldaddy, by the way.

More questions. When a majority of our colleagues get around to discovering the potential of the Web 2.0, what will they find? What is it out there that's truly something we should do? And if we should do it, then what do we need to do as a profession to make sure that it gets done?

I began by creating a blog and having the students post their homework to it in the comments section. In the process of doing that, I began reading more blogs and discovered the accessibility of other tools, specifically wikis, which next showed up in F14. Those two were easy. They have essentially replaced other word processing tools and mixed in some peer collaboration and the context of easily published writing.

This has been a sizable leap, but not seismic like it may seem for other teachers in my building. At the beginning of this school year the extent of my digital literacy was using PowerPoint and posting most of my materials on my website. Few other teachers regularly maintained a website. What I did, for the most part, seemed adequate for my classroom needs. My site consisted mainly of links to my materials, in the form of Word or PDF documents. There was usually a calendar posted regularly, a page of interesting/helpful links, and a resource page for my Literature Circles materials. Occasionally, I'd get an e-mail from a teacher in another state or country, who had stumbled across my site, thanking me expressing appreciation for ideas and supporting materials. To do that, required taking my classroom document from Word or wherever and posting it to the web page through a clunky process involving Microsoft Front Page and an ftp transfer. Other teachers in the building were generally impressed, but intimidated. "I don't know if I could do all that," they'd say, "I just want to have something simple for my class." (I look back now and shake my head, considering how much further along so many other teachers are, especially, for example, those listed to the right on my blogroll.) The problem is, they never took that first step that I did back in 2000. It takes time and has to be built slowly. I just read a post by Dana Huff, and she shares some of the same sentiments about technophobia that leave our profession moving at such a glacial pace when it comes to embracing new concepts and tools and keeping her teaching fresh. She says:

"I know how my classroom has transformed through my use of the SMART board, blogs, and wikis. I know it could transform others. I also know not everyone is patient enough to really learn how to use all of this technology, and that fact makes me sad."
Citing an article in Teacher Magazine (registration required), Dana also writes that teachers who stay fresh are "curious" and "self-propelled." What always vexed me was making my site more interactive for the students, as a place they could visit and need in the course of their work. And right there is the heart of what I think makes many of these new Web 2.0 applications so enticing. I was curious and self-propelled; thus, I've begun to see how it can done, but haven't reached the stage of knowing exactly how it should be done. I think I'm at the point, where as I peruse my ever growing blogroll, I know how important it becomes to have a line between "hey, that's cool" and "hey, let's use that in school." Before I begin making too much headway in my own building, I need more tangible results that will seem attainable for other educators. Clay Burrell, who has been innovated in spearheading great flat world collaboration from his classroom in South Korea, has faced a similar dilemma in bringing colleagues on board.

I've seen plenty of things that are cool. I'm now focusing on what's school.

Who's using whom?

Recently, that "Web 2.0... Machine is Us/ing Us" video has popped up all over my blogroll recently. It even made it's way here. Well Tom Hoffman wasn't too impressed with it and astutely observed that "This is a video, it isn't XML, and you can't separate its form from its content, and it should be quite clear that its popularity is due to its form rather than its content. If you re-worked this as a textual post, its incoherence would be obvious, and it would be ignored." Well, here's the transcript, courtesy of Tanya Witherspoon at the National Writing Project. See for yourself.

I tend to agree that seeing the so-called script of the video is close to incoherent. And I'll admit, that I still don't think I truly understand what exactly the video is showing me. However, I'm not willing to go as far as Tom and pooh-pooh it. The fact that it's form - as a video presentation - is responsible for its greatest impact doesn't make it less valid. Instead, the video allows us to understand a complex subject in a simpler way. Tom knows a little more about the subject than I do, but we can't lose sight of the fact that if we want educators on board with Web 2.0 tools, then we need to find ways to spread the word.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Where am I supposed to sit in the 21st Century classroom?

If you walked past F14 today, you would have seen me sitting in the middle of the room, hunched over several sheets of paper. All around me, kids were talking to each other. And that's just how I planned it.

My classroom has looked like that for several years. But now, things have begun to change. Or shift. What does that mean for me? Where do I sit in this new digital classroom? And what am I supposed to do?

Today I sat right in the center for most of the class, but nobody talked to me. It was a Literature Circle discussion day. Translation: students come in having read the first part of their novels (each group broke up their novel into four parts) and spends most of the class in small groups, sharing ideas about the book. I sit in the middle, trying to listen to pieces of as many conversations as possible. Snippets of discussions. Pieces of ideas. All the while, I'm jotting down feedback on an assessment sheet. A few minutes before the bell rings, I distribute the marked up sheets to the student groups. For me, it's kind of a hands-off approach to the lesson. I rarely interject myself into a group's conversation. Too often I find that if I float around the room, my arrival at a group usually means a quick shuffling of papers and comments like, " anyway, as we were discussing [insert any out of context reference to a character or literary term meant to sound intelligent] what are your thoughts..." Then it all conveniently tails off as I continue past. Or another dreaded interaction: "Hey, Miller, what does this mean?" Once that happens, I become the crutch. What do students need to think for if they can just ask the teacher for the answers?

From the center, there is no opportunity to show off for me or wait for me to show up. Am I able to hear every snippet of their conversation? No. Do I need to? I don't know. I guess the answer depends on what my role as a teacher is. Is it to guide students to certain pre-determined points in the curriculum (ie the use of similes and figurative language in The House on Mango Street). If so, then I do need to hear almost everything students have to say. After all, if they're discussing Esperanza's feelings of shame about her surroundings, rather than examining the unique use of similes, it's my job to get them back on track. But I don't think that's my role. Who is supposed to decide what the students know and learn?

But toss in something brand new in the form of our 21st century collaborative tools - wikis, blogs, social networking - and I think I'm still confused. Where should I sit? Right now, I'm at my computer, reading some of the ideas posted by my English 10 students on the Literature Circles wiki. Again, I'm trying to keep a respectful distance and let the students do the talking. Just like when we were all in room F14 together this morning, the students are sharing ideas, putting their thoughts out there, and asking questions. Is one more pedagogically sound than the other?

Dozens of edubloggers with a lot more experience and knowledge than me have weighed in on the future of our schools. Will Richardson, in a typical insightful, big picture way, says, "We need to unlearn the premise that we know more than our kids, because in many cases, they can now be our teachers as well. We need to unlearn the idea that learning itself is an event. In this day and age, it is a continual process." Some, like Daniel Kinnaman question whether the need for a traditional classroom is still valid, while Scott Mcleod has pointed to the need to seriously rethink the physical school setting. There is a telling exchange of comments on a post by Clay Burrell that seems to hit on some of the same issues I'm confronting. Stephen Lazer wonders if moving towards a full digital connected model worth it because the "physical space of school is in some cases the only time my students get to exist for themselves (and therefore, get to try out being their selves)." Clay's take is that maybe it's not just about swapping one kind of school setting for another, but rather a rethinking of broader social and community relationships. "Community centers? Public parks? There are many non-schoolbuilding sites that could create getaways from home for learning purposes that are much more real and relevant than a classroom with a bell."

I don't know if I'm there yet. For now, I'll keep showing up at F14. So will the kids. We'll see where it goes from there.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Make room for another inspiring video

As I test the Web 2.0 waters with my wiki project, it is inspiring to see other teachers maximizing the digital tools for full immersion to make learning truly work. It's a little intimidating, too.

Check out this video about how Brian Crosby's 4th grade class used Skype to bring a homebound classmate with leukemia into the classroom. It's worth the five minutes. What's better is that Brian's kids narrate the whole thing. Awesome.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Another look at Web 2.0

Earlier I posted about an informative video detailing what Web 2.0 is and what it means. Here's another view: This wonderful graphic comes from Harold Jarche via Steve Dembo. By the way, Steve did an informal poll asking fellow bloggers what their top three Web 2.0 sites. Which one came out on top? You'll have to read his post to find out.

For the record, the three that I find the most useful (as of right now) for what I do as a teacher:

-Wikispaces - free premium site for educators. Great interface, awesome tech support, and easy to incorporate various applications and elements. Don't believe me? See for yourself.
-Google - I can't just pick one, but for direct impact on teaching it's Google calendar, which has student due dates and my planning calendar. I think I've mentioned these guys in the past.
-Bloglines - Just beginning to appreciate it for the way it allows me to read numerous blogs (see blogroll to the right). Plus, I just began using it to easily keep track of what my students are posting in the wiki project (see #1).

Like Frankenstein's monster, the wiki is coming to life

Now we're about a week into the Literature Circles wiki project, and, although things have gotten off to a slow start, today was my first glimpse at the potential impact of what we're doing. Last week, students had to post on their group's wiki page a response related to an ongoing theme in one of the books - Frankenstein, Black Boy and The Color of Water. For the most part, the responses were very similar to what we were doing on the class blog in a previous unit.

By tomorrow, they are assigned to post a response on another group's wiki page, which means on the page of a group not in their class period. Here's a glimpse of what I'm seeing tonight as I monitor it all on Bloglines, waiting for 24 to start.

Verbatim from the page of one group reading Frankenstein:
"Through reading Dominiques response to what she feels is an appropiate theme so far to the book, I can relate to the ideas she is getting. I also feel as if Dr. Franenstien is too consumed in his to relate to the outside world. He spends so much time in the solittude of his "passion", that he seperates from the simple pleasures that he once enjoyed. Dom did a great job of including the actual text from the book as well as an explanation of hgow she feels it relates to what she is trying to say."

Verbatim from the page of a group reading The Color of Water:
"Your right Richard does believe almost any thing anybody says and most of the time he reacts to it, but i think that is some what not his fault just because of his brutal life style. Also I think thats crazy that he is an acholic and he's sooo young , WOW i can't wait to read the rest of the book ;)"

Verbatim from the page of a group reading Black Boy:
"I agree with Garrett. I think that the theme is about Richard not understanding racism, regardless that they are in the 1900's and racism still occurs. I disagree Garrett that the theme is also family. Yes, family has alot to do with it but, I don’t think that’s what the book is trying to say. It’s about a boy who doesn’t know what’s right from wrong. If I had to pick a second theme it would be money and hunger. Richard in my view doesn’t care much about his family. He wants to live on his own. Hunger and money are big factors because that’s what you need to have in order to survive. I think he would be better of living on his own because he’s not learning anything by getting beaten by his family for everything he does wrong. He would just do it again, just to to get caught this time."

There's still a long way to go. Some kids are still not following through with their homework assignments. Some kids are still struggling to convert ideas into words. Some kids are still apprehensive about it all.

I was too.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Still shifting, trying to keep pace

Karl Fisch knows something about informative videos that provoke thought about Web 2.0 applications and their impact on the changing educational landscape. Here is one he came across at a digital ethnography workshop. The video, created by Michael Wesch of Kansas State University, explores the changing nature of text, from a linear, pre-digital view, to one showcasing the vast capabilities of hyper and digital text, which is forcing a shift in the way we think about and use the Internet. In other words, it details what Web 2.0 is.

For me, videos like this are helping me wrap my brain around exactly what is happening in our digital world and what it means for my students inside my classroom. What's especially enticing to me is that these Web 2.0 innovations are forcing us to rethink the relationship between one another, between ideas. Folks like Karl and Will Richardson and Wesley Fryer are far ahead of the curve. Here's where I stand. In the last three months, I have been introduced to Web 2.0, unlike many of my colleagues. It's moving now from outside observer to novice user and apprentice. The journey has begun. My students, too, are forced to go along for the ride, first when we began posting homework on the blog to my Literature Circles wiki project. What's next? If I truly want to embed these concepts of flat world collaboration and information sharing in the curriculum, I need to rethink my approach to the content in the class. A similar shift happened a few years back when I began experimenting with a more integrated Literature Circles approach in the classroom, which essentially required that I cede some control of what happens - what to read, what to focus on in discussions, what to write about - to the students. It still needs to happen. In today's classrooms, we can no longer have a stubbornly defined image of what we require students to create. I'm not just talking big picture either, but rather what we expect daily or weekly or monthly. How else can we teach students to be ready to embrace and question what the future will mean to their world if we don't model that same approach in our classrooms?

The students are easy. It's our colleagues that pose a bigger challenge. The first thing I think I'll do is show them that video.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Say it ain't so Google

Check out this short video presentation about the power of Google. No, not the power of various Googleware applications that I use regularly, but more of a Big Brother take on the search engine giant. The video sounds some serious warnings about the ubiquity of Google. The two producers, doctoral students at a German university, claim that Google may be cooperating with the CIA to compiling a vast dossier of data on everyone, including possibly our genetic maps. Gulp.

But I guess I'd have to see more facts - something the movie provides little of - before I grow too suspicious of Google. I love Google. Maybe I'm just a modern day edublogging Winston Smith in the clutches of the information-gobbling Google...

So how do I love thee, Google? Let me list some ways: I use your calendar to keep track of my lesson plans and to maintain a documents & spreadsheets to post some of our school's school wide rubrics and other materials. I use your handy notebook to make notes to myself about things I read on the web. I play with your Earth a lot. I even have some of your Adsense ads at the bottom of this page.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Thinking back to my former life

A little taste of deja vu courtesy of Ray Schroeder's post about the decreased use of newspapers in the classroom, which comes courtesy of Reuters. I mixed in my own sour grapes, by the way...

Flashback ten years: It's Year Five as a daily newspaper reporter, most recently at The New Haven (CT) Register. And it's a sorry state of affairs. In between stories about the weather (either too much or too little of it) and stray animals, I occasionally get a chance to write something interesting. But wait, the Lotto jackpot hits $50 million and off I run to the convenience stores to interview would-be winners. Tomorrow I'm assigned to write a feature about line dancing at the senior center.

Back to 2007: It's Year Eight as a teacher, exclusively at Branford (CT) High School. Every day I walk past a stack of Registers piled in the school's mail room, waiting to dirty up the fingers of any takers. So I'm not shocked when I read in the Reuter's article that local papers have fallen behind because they haven't adequately kept pace with the world on which they report, in this case by failing to utilize their online versions for use in the classroom. It seems to me that's why I fled the business in the first place.

Wiki kinks, homework rates, & learning curves

My sophomores got their first real taste of the wiki this week, and the results were mixed. First of all, I changed things up on them and required that they post their homework on the wiki, instead of the classroom blog, where we've done it since November. That didn't happen so much. About 15% of the students actually did the homework. Gulp. Now what?

I took a deep breath. This isn't the first time kids have skipped homework or failed to keep up with the reading. We as teachers can't expect the new technology or tools to replace our own pedagogy. I have always viewed homework as somewhat of a reflection of how I approach my instruction and overall planning. If the students find value in it, they'll do it. It's up to me to give their work value by responding to it, giving them opportunities to share it in class, and by showing them how and why it fits into the learning. That's where the wiki can help.

An interesting hesitation the kids had, they told me, was their unease at just putting their homework thoughts on their group's wiki page, especially if someone else had already posted. It was like they were infringing on someone else's space. There was no heading or anything for them to easily identify the spot where it should go. I didn't put one there. And the more I think about it, I think it works out better to leave it a little open-ended. I want them in control of their own space and where their thoughts fit into it.

Once we went over the ins and outs of the wiki, many of them felt a little more comfortable. I showed them around the site. It's a learning curve, I told them. Their response? - "So do we get to work on the laptops today?"