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.