Monday, December 22, 2008

A little more pushing, a little bit of progress

Despite some skepticism and pre-Christmas pessimism, I have to admit I am a little energized by our school's new attempt to use a wiki. It's a step we needed to take.

The purpose of the wiki is to gather some of the professional "voices" in the building as we move our curriculum and our instruction into the 21st Century. Right now, we're using it to share ideas and build consensus on the definition of several different student learning behaviors. We use these learning behaviors as points of focus for learning walks by the administration and leadership team. Conversations about how to define these behaviors have been a valuable part of our professional discussion recently. Now part of that conversation can be done with the help of a collaborative wiki.

In this case, we needed to use the technology for the sake of using the technology. Only then will we begin to see just what potential the technology holds and how we can best use it. If, along the way, we extend the conversation beyond our regular meetings, then that's gravy.

What makes a wiki such an appealing tool is that it can help promote such a conversation in a different venue. But more important, the process becomes part of the product. That can be powerful. That needs to be explored.

We'll see.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Colorado school turns the homework model upside down

Here is a novel idea worth thinking about. Several math teachers at a Colorado high school have turned the homework-schoolwork model inside out. Instead of using class time to introduce content (my translation: lecturing or providing direct instruction) and then sending students home to solve problems or grapple with that content, they've decided to flip it. Class lectures and other such materials are now available online or burned on a DVD for students to take home. During class time, the students solve problems and work more directly with the teachers. The TV news folks, of course, portray this shift in educational thinking as a renegade high school doing away with homework.

Anyway, it sounds like something that can easily be done in math or maybe science. But what about English? If I flipped the model like that, what would it look like? Kids could listen to discussion of a novel or hear background about the author at home, while we spend time in class reading and making connections to what we read? I don't know if it has quite the same effectiveness. According to the state of Connecticut, my focus should be (in my words) to teach important literacy skills such as making connections to what they read, identifying the craft of the author writing, and even to "appreciate" texts from a variety of cultures. What I do inside F14 must be with those standards in mind. What is it, then, that we need to flip?

We need to find ways to extend and inspire the conversation outside of class so students can understand the richness of exploring a text and making deep personal connections to it. Just exactly how should that be done? If I had the answer to that, I'd open up my own consulting business and charge people for the answer. (By the way, the teachers mentioned in the video do run an educational consulting company. A feature on the 11 o'clock news can't be bad for business.)

Until then, there are ways we can try. I've experimented with having students post comments on a class blog, write blogs themselves and link to one another, create wiki pages and read one another's work. Right now, I'm starting with Google docs, asking two students to collaborate on gathering quoted evidence from The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Down the road, I'm thinking of asking students to use Google chat to have a dialogue outside of class with a classmate about a piece of literature or issue we're discussing and hand in a transcript of that chat session to me.

What else can we do? What have you done?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Show me the Money!

Been thinking about money lately. Not because the economy has dominated the news for the last six months. And not because I won the lottery, that's for sure.

I've been reading a wonderful blog with a great title - Get Rich Slowly. Although the blog is not written for educators or to explore the digital possibilities of web 2.0 applications, it is one of my favorite regular reads. The blog is devoted to "sensible personal finance," preaching patience as a core belief. That appeals to me, whether we're talking about money or my own professional practice in the classroom. It's also a good reminder for these down times when I feel more frustrated than excited.

Get Rich Slowly is well-written, relevant, and thought-provoking - everything a blog should be. While I enjoy it for it's own sake, the teacher part of me wonders what part of the author's educational experiences prepared him for what he's doing with this blog?

Blog author J.D. describes the blog this way: "You will not find any get-rich-quick schemes here. Nor will you find multi-level marketing fads or hot stock tips. I am not pitching any product or book. Instead, you’ll find daily information about personal finance and related topics... Please note that I am not a financial professional. I’m just an average guy who found himself deep in debt. When it finally became too overwhelming, I began reading personal finance books, hoping to find answers. I wanted swift solutions to my problems. My research revealed that few people get rich quickly, but almost anyone can get rich slowly by patiently following some simple rules."

We can all stand to embrace such a philosophy. First of all, it must be obvious that if more people in this country adopted such a frugal, long view philosophy, then we might not be in the mess we are right now. As classroom teachers trying to make sense of the radically changing educational landscape, we need also to remind ourselves of the sound thinking espoused in Get Rich Slowly. If we want to get "rich," we need to take a long view and be satisfied with incremental steps towards our ultimate goal.

The idea of getting rich and teaching students share many parallels. In the classroom, my ultimate goal is for students to learn the literacy skills necessary to be successful in a changing and increasingly diverse global community. But it's not like I'm ever going to show up for school one day and declare mission accomplished. It just does not work that way. That can also be said for getting rich. To me, it's more about adopting a philosophy than reaching a concrete goal.

With a little tweaking of the 12 key beliefs that form the core of the Get Rich Slow philosophy, I can inform my own teaching and professional growth. In the interest of brevity, here are some highlights of the key beliefs as they apply to enriching our craft by incorporating relevant 21st Century skills and using powerful web 2.0 technology in our classrooms.

Small amounts matter.
Don’t be frustrated if the teacher next to you seems like a tech genius and you are still getting comfortable with a computer. Try out a new tool with a small lesson or a part of an assignment. You have to start somewhere, and saying you could never do it like Mr. Tech Wizard is a lame excuse.
Do what works for you.
Each person is different. What works for one person may not work for another. There’s no one right way to teach 21st Century skills or use technology efficiently as part of the learning process. Be willing to experiment until you find methods that are suited to your class.
The perfect is the enemy of the good.
Here's one area where too many teachers get stuck. Too many people are reluctant to start because they don’t know what the best first step is. The best first step is the one you take. Don’t worry about getting things exactly right.
Failure is okay.
Just don't give up. 'Nuff said.
Do it now.
It’s easy to put things off. But the sooner your start moving toward your goals, the easier they are too reach.
Food for thought...

Saturday, November 08, 2008

My beliefs, our cellphone and the 21st century (of course)

As teachers, we all know how important it is for us to encourage students to try new things, but what happens when it gets turned around on you? Or even worse, you find you too may have to think hard about something? Right now, I am in that territory.

So I got my students involved in the "This I Believe" project through NPR. It's a novel idea and one that was brought to my attention by Anne, who is a teacher in Karl Fisch's school in Colorado. For several years now, she's been assigning the essay to her students, posting them on a class wiki to foster collaboration, and then submitting them to NPR. This year, she's expanded it to other teachers in the world and right now, there's a whole slew of interested educators.

As part of this project, my 21st Century Journalism students are paired with a school in New Jersey. And that means it's time for me to push this thing forward, even if the students resist a little. New things and change are always tough for anyone, adults or children. Of course, pondering the logistics of this latest project, I also find myself grappling with what it is I believe in. That's a hard one.

But we had an interesting discussion in class the other day. It somehow meandered to the ubiquity of the many tiny digital devices and gadgets that make our modern life everything from more convenient and easy to much more busy and complicated. Those same devices popping up in my classroom everyday also help illuminate another width of the divide that exists between education and the world of those we educate. I can see the irony and contradictions that exist in our world and how tend to ignore it, rather than embrace it.

Even before we started carrying cell phones and plugging into ipods, the adult world was full of these type of contradictions. How many times have you heard teachers complain about students not paying attention in their class, only to see those same teachers sitting in a professional development workshop chatting away or grading papers. Today, I'm sure you wouldn't be hard pressed to find a teacher's cell going off in class on one day, and the next day that same teacher confiscating a student's phone. To me, that's just one more instance where the classroom becomes an artificial environment that does little to replicate the real challenges and obstacles we encounter in the real world.

What's the message we send to kids today? What can we do about it?

For me, the best thing I can do right now is write my own "This I Believe" essay along with the students. I'm not exactly sure how it's going to turn out or where it will end up, but I'll soon find out.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Keeping track of those connections

Several of the students in my 21st Century journalism class have asked about how to find and reach a larger audience with their blogs. Right now, they've been mostly confined to our classroom. I'm the audience. However, that model's no different than just typing away on a word processor and handing in a sheet of paper.

The next four things I need to teach and encourage in class:

  1. They've got to register their blogs with a blog tracking service such as
  2. They have incorporate hyperlinks to other blogs they read as part of their writing.
  3. They have to keep reading other blogs to help spur ideas and thoughts for their own blogs so they can link back to those blogs when they write. See number two above.
  4. They have to leave comments on other people's blogs and get themselves involved in the discussion generated by someone's posting.
You know, the more I think about it, I can't just think of this as a prescribed step-by-step process. Yea, I can show them how to sign up for technorati and then subscribe to the feed for their blog links. It's going to take a broader approach and one that does more to provide a broader understanding of what a blog is, how to read one, what it's purpose is. I've touched on this before. In a way, it's like teaching a short story unit. You might start off with Edgar Allan Poe's theory of a short story, then you might read different examples that illustrate plot, irony, or symbolism.

That's where I am now, looking for resources on types of blogs, and examples to illustrate different components. Where should I go? Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Content, digital tools, and glimpses outside the classroom

Although I haven't kept up with this blog as much as I have in the past, I'm still here in F14 - or whatever room I happen to have a key to - plugging away at this thing called 21st Century learning. In the nearly two years since I started this blog, my thinking has evolved, and my practice in the classroom has grown more refined, yet my time spent reflecting on it in this space has dropped precipitously.

The teaching challenge is still there for me - how can I embed digital and web 2.0 tools into my students' learning?

Well, let's see...

This year I've had the good fortune of teaching a class called 21st Century Journalism, which has allowed me the freedom to try different approaches with the students. There's no set content requirements. Instead I've turned things around, focusing on the digital tools that may help students find content rather than using classroom content (the assigned reading books for example) to experiment with digital tools. So while my English 10 classes read a series of short stories and created a wiki resource about them, my 21st Century journalism students signed up for a Google reader account and have begun reading blogs tailored to their interest. As I watch them work, I continue to think about the challenges they face when they encounter a broad variety of digital content.

It's a challenge that Bud the Teacher seems to working with on a recent project about generating research questions for a class studying digital literacy. Having kids explore the issues and contexts of digital literacy would be a valuable activity, if for nothing else to help them make the connections between what they already do online with other valuable productivity tools available. Right now, I think there's a disconnect in kids about that. They may spend several hours on facebook or myspace, but never consider the other applications and implications of the technology they use. I guess that's a teacher's job, to help forge those connections and help trigger that learning.

At the moment, where I'm at is using blogs in the class for students to practice the skills of reading and writing. The more I think about Bud's project, it seems to make sense to include a reflective piece, maybe even borrowing some guiding questions from his project. Do we read websites differently than we do books? Does literacy only mean reading and writing? Or, has the meaning of literacy expanded to include how we understand digital content?

As I ponder those questions and how best to integrate them in class, here are some examples of where so far student blogging has reached outside classroom.

One of the students has begun reading about some local issues, but I've been trying to encourage her to expand her reach and read more about statewide and regional stories. I directed her to a blog by a Connecticut attorney, and she mentioned it in one of her posts. Within a few days, he had left her a comment and, in turn, gave her kudos on his own blog. It was awesome to see the reaction of all the students in the class when they huddled around her computer to read the blog entry where she was mentioned. Sometimes it's the small things that have the biggest impact - even though they all laughed because of the name of her blog.

Another student has begun reading numerous different blogs and now maintains two of them, one for the class and the other a little less schoolish. However, there are times when her personal interests and school do mix. She discovered the postsecret blog and absolutely loved it. She decided to bring that idea to the school. And guess what? That's what she did. Read about it here.

I hope the students keep going, and they don't stop here. There's just too much more to learn.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Irony in the 21st Century classroom

Here's another taste of an authentic 21st Century English classroom, sprinkled with a healthy dose of the latest and greatest technology, and finished off with a hint of irony to keep it real.

It started when I figured out a way to incorporate text messaging into the lesson - something I've been trying to attain for over a year. Anne posted about how she used Polleverywhere to set up an in-class poll that took text message votes. What I did was ask the kids which of the five stories we read in class they liked the best. Simple enough. Just five minutes at the beginning of class to try out the service, get a quick feel from the kids what they thought, and then use that to plan the next step.

It went smoothly, and I recommend Polleverywhere to everyone who's willing to experiment. It's free and easy to use. (Go ahead and respond via text to the one on this page and you'll see what I mean) What I did in class was project the live poll on the SmartBoard, and the kids got a kick watching it move with every vote.

Several of the kids were genuinely enthusiastic about whipping out their cell phones and sending a text. A few kids thought it was a joke, and I think they were legitimately amazed that a text message and a lesson could ever find common ground. That's great. One student even suggested that I do this again, but set it up so kids could text in a discussion question or idea as we walk into class. I plan to take him up on his idea at some time.

So the rest of the class is spent doing a "Take A Stand" activity to discuss upcoming themes in the novel A Separate Peace. To do so, I was using the SmartBoard, projecting a Google presentation of the discussion questions which was embedded in my classroom wiki. What's more 21st Century than that? After the discussion, which covered topics such as jealousy, friendship, and honesty, the kids spent the last 10 minutes of class writing about one of the ideas from the discussion they felt the strongest about.

So where's the irony? Well, during the writing portion of the lesson, I confiscated a kid's cell phone because he was texting during class.


Saturday, March 01, 2008

Meme: Passion Quilt

Patrick tagged me with this meme a few days ago. And I'll be honest. It was pretty difficult to come up with something visually appealing that captures what I am passionate about for kids to learn. I'll be honest, there are days I don't even know if I'm passionate about anything. Could it be a sympton of the state's standardized tests which are looming on the horizon next week? Could be...

What I came up with, however, is something I'd like all students - and people - to be passionate about: the world, their vision of the world, and their role in creating that vision.

As for the meme, here are the rules:
Post a picture or make/take/create your own that captures what YOU are most passionate about for kids to learn about…and give your picture a short title.
Title your blog post “Meme: Passion Quilt” and link back to this blog entry.
Include links to 5 folks in your professional learning network
I’ll tag the next five people:


photo credits:

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Just how much do our kids know? Do we even know?

Last year in class, we were talking about A Midsummer Night's Dream and I showed my students a few clips of some high school and college productions of Shakespeare's play that I had found on YouTube. I had downloaded them and saved them on a thumb drive because our school blocks YouTube.

The kids got a kick out of seeing the humor and emotion from the scenes, something that is difficult to convey with a high school English class reading of the bard. One of the kids asked where I got the clips, and I told them I found them on YouTube.

"You go on YouTube?" one of them asked, apparently flabbergasted.

Although a little surprised that the student would think me technologically behind the times, I brushed it off as another example of the adolescent mindset - the world revolves around teenagers and adults are merely taking up space. However, I am again thinking of this exchange after seeing the results of a student technology survey by Barry that I saw, thanks to a post by Patrick. Essentially, the results seemed to reinforce some ideas I had been having an inkling about in the last several months: our students - for all the talk of digital immigrants, 21st century skills, and the wired generation - are not as digitally literate as we may think they are. Or probably more accurately, not enough has been done in schools to show students the power and potential of the Internet as a real learning tool.

Here is a highlight from Barry's survey:

Barry surveyed the students in his school. He asked them if they do any of the following on a regular basis.
Read a blog (21%)
Post comments to a blog (13%)
Write a blog (7%)
Post to a wiki ( 1%)
Listen to a Podcast (9%)
Create a podcast (2%)
Download Music (70%)
Upload music (33%)
Download photos or
video (35%)
Upload photos or video (38%)
Create videos, but don't upload
them (11%)
Text message (71%)
Send photos or videos I take with my phone (29%)

Conclusion: They text and download music. They entertain themselves with technology. I'm not sure how much content they are creating beyond their messages. Certainly the vast majority of high school students do not know how to use the Office suite for full academic potential, cite sources correctly, or access scholarly sources."

What makes this relevant is that we, as educators, assume that when we use computer technology in the class - whether it's via a spiffy PowerPoint presentation or assignments on a classroom blog - that we will suddenly flip the "on" switch for student learning. Maybe it's because that many of these web 2.0 applications come with such promise that we mistakenly assume too much.

This kind of disconnect - between student engagement and teacher technology use - can be especially sharp for teachers just getting their feet wet in the use of web 2.0 applications. The question I have for teachers, is assuming that Barry's results a generally true, what are the implications for the classroom? What do we need to do as teachers to make sure we are utilizing the proper tools and promoting the important skills? What do we have to do bridge that student technology gap? The gap between viewing and using technology as an entertainment tool and utilizing it as a learning tool? Maybe the first step is for teachers to take that same survey and see what the results would be.One final thought. I was surprised when my student had not considered any educational potential in something like YouTube. How many of the teachers in your building are likewise unaware of such educational potential? What do we need to do to fix that?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Liveblogging - something else to try

Here's another great idea and innovative use of blogs in a classroom - liveblogging. Two teachers in Colorado - Mrs. Moritz and Mrs. Smith - are reading A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink and are facilitating several liveblogging discussions in their classes of the ideas raised in the novel. Check out some examples of the discussions (in the comments) here and here and here. In addition to reading the book, taking part in online and live classroom discussions, students are also writing a persuasive essay and using a classroom wiki to do some of the writing. Both teachers work at Arapahoe High School in Colorado, home of Karl Fisch. As usual, Karl provides an excellent overview of the project and their efforts. That deserved mention here and in my bookmarks.

What's also awesome that as part of the liveblogging, these teachers brought in the author and other professionals into the conversation with the students.

Never heard of Pink's novel before. Now I want to read it.

This is just another example of the numerous ways to "play with" a valuable learning tool by constantly stretching its limits and applying it in other ways. Years ago, when I first began experimenting with Literature Circles I began requiring students to use Post-it notes to mark the text as they read. Even something as simple as that expanded with some creativity from myself and my colleagues - students swapped Post-its and responded to one another; students recorded their best Post-its on a harvesting sheet as a way for me to monitor their thinking; students categorized their Post-its as a class discussion activity.

Sometimes I feel like there's too many awesome ideas and innovative web 2.0 learning applications out there. Add liveblogging to that growing list.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Three questions to ask anyone thinking about using blogs in a classroom

My first electronic writing implement was an electric Smith Corona typewriter. I took typing in high school and, thankfully, I could quickly transcribe my rough draft (scribbled on line paper in which I skipped every other line) onto the final draft. That's how I started writing. As computers became more prevalent, I followed much the same process, eventually learning to write my first draft directly on the screen, saving it, and coming back for revisions. My years as a daily newspaper reporter honed my skills at deadline writing.

So here I am looking back at that as I think about about Thursday's two-hour professional development session on using blogs and wikis in the classroom. Whether I wrote on my Smith Corona or tapped away on a PC, my writing was still confined in the same way. Print it and hand it in. My teachers didn't spend anytime teaching me how to type or how to press ctrl-s to save (in the pre-mouse days). Today, students still write and still "hand it in." Thursday's PD session, I hope, will help spread the word to other teachers that we have many more options these days, more than they might know.

Teachers might come in to the session with a vague idea that some kind of new technology is available to broaden students' writing experiences. And like the promise of all new technological advancements, this one has come with some promises to improve student writing and reading. It's also possible that teachers may come into Thursday with nary an inkling about just how a blog fits into an English - or any other - classroom.

Here are the questions I need to ask of any teacher who wants to use blogs as part of their classroom repertoire.

What do you expect to get out of using a blog? First of all, it's not going to cure the ills of the English classroom. That is, students aren't likely to start magically devouring the written word as if recovering from a lifetime of literary starvation. Throwing their words up into the realm of the blogosphere is probably not going to make them instantly better writers. However, it's reasonable to expect that using a blog can be another tool to promote student reading and writing. And a quite powerful one at that. It doesn't have to be the cure-all, for it to simply be of help. Think about it. A blog offers a student a venue for "publishing" work in the real world; a tool for a reader to respond to what is read; a way for a writer to link to others with his or her writing. Exploit those characteristics. Beyond posting their own writing, use blogs to require students to read others. To leave comments on others. To write posts in response to what they've read and hyperlink to that source. To read comments you leave them about their work. Teach them all those things and more.

How do you want students to use these digital tools? We still must tease out the important concepts and skills embedded in anything we ask the kids to do. Whether it's on a blog, a wiki, or ripped from an electric typewriter, good writing is good writing. One of the biggest realizations I made last year was that just because it's on the internet and requires some up to date technology, doesn't mean students are going to embrace it. For most adolescents, it's probably still a lot cooler to log onto Facebook or Myspace than it is to respond to the ideas of 1984 through a classroom blog. Don't compete with those sites, but rather use a blog or wiki to meaningfully engage your students in their work. They'll respond to that. Exploit the characteristics of a blog for those purposes. (See previous paragraph)

How are you, as a teacher, going to use them? This is quite possibly the trickiest of the three questions. If students are expected to use them, then so are we. Be ready when they have technical questions. They might ask: How do I change the settings for who can leave a comment? How can I import a picture? What's the proper way to hyperlink to something I've read? Make sure you know the answer. The best way to figure it out is to experiment yourself. Look to see what other teachers are doing and borrow their ideas. Tweak it to make it your own. Then try something else.
The thing is, when I handed my papers in way back when in my high school days, that was the end. I waited for the teacher to "correct" it before I got any return on my investment of time and thinking. There are some many more valuable opportunities these days for student writers. It's up to us to take full advantage.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Baseball, blogs, and teachers, in no particular order of importance

I know today is Super Bowl Sunday, but baseball is on my mind. That and a two-hour teacher professional development I'm scheduled to give next week. As I sit here thinking about how to do it, I keep thinking of my son, CJ, and his love for America's pastime. He's always liked to play, but lately he's shown a growing interest in the history of the sport.

What does this have to do with web 2.0 tools in the classroom?

Last year, I gave a professional development class to fellow teachers about web 2.0 and using blogs and other collaborative tools to help instruction. The hour-long session, which focused on the blog I use in my English 10 class, went over well. It lasted longer than an hour, which means teachers stayed well beyond the 3:30 pm requirement to talk about the topic. Many teachers expressed interest in doing something similar.

Unfortunately, few actually followed through as far as I can tell.

Anyone who is reading this probably knows the same - or more likely more - about the most effective use of these read/write tools in the classroom. Or at least, if you are reading this blog, you have a fundamental grasp of the medium. It seems to me that understanding the blog as a medium, as opposed to, say, a newspaper article or non fiction book, is crucial to effectively employing it in a classroom. That idea has to be a basic step in anything I do with teachers.

Often, the word blog conjures up images of partisan political hitmen spreading gossip and innuendo about their opponents. And a wiki, well, that's equal to wikipedia, that hell-spawned repository of false information that's clawing at the very fabric of our culture.

If teachers are going to use blogs and wikis in classes, then those impressions need to be modified. And the place to start is helping teachers understand just what a blog is. How it comes to be. I can worry about the specifics of what to teach them, but for now I'm thinking through the pedagogical foundation of why and how it needs to be taught.

That's where my son, age 7, comes in. We've been reading books together lately on the history of baseball. He has taken a real liking to it and enjoys thumbing through some of the coffee table size books that contain numerous pictures and some lengthy descriptions of old time players and teams. He can read and occasionally reads the text to me. However, there were several times he'd come to a page and look at the picture and ask me: "Who's that daddy?" or "What are they doing?" I would point out to him that there is a caption underneath that explained the picture. Read it, I told him, and he could learn about the photo. He didn't really know to do that. Simple lesson.

It took him a while, and he's still learning. Then it got me thinking. All the books he's read up to now had pictures, but not captions. He regularly reads story books, where any pictures natually complement, or illustrate, the story. A book of baseball history, on the other hand, is non fiction. Both the pictures and the text work together to provide information, and often the photos (with the help of the captions) help tell some piece of the story. To get the most out of the big books we thumb through, he needed to better understand how to read a nonfiction text, figure out the characteristics of that medium. Of course to him, he was simply learning about all the great ballplayers of the past - Ted Williams, Christy Mathewson, and Walter "Big Train" Johnson, which happen to be two of his favorites. (Me, I also like the guy pictured at the top of this space.)

Anyway, that's what I'm thinking about as I work to try and help my colleagues discover the benefits of using things such as blogs and wikis in class. The first step is differentiating what a blog is from what a website is. Based on anecdotal evidence from conversations I've had with teachers, I'm under the impression that posting student writing on a blog is viewed the same way as the idea of creating a class website was 10 years ago. It's a finite undertaking, with a final, concrete product put together at a specific point in the process. That's not a blog. Blogs are more dynamic. They change as the content gets added. They grow as more information and/or ideas are added, both from the writer and readers. Hyperlinks help enhance the reading and writing process. Both teachers and students can - and must - participate in that process of creating content or writing on a blog. There's a not so subtle difference there that is fundamental to understanding the best way to use a blog in a classroom.

Of course that means that reading and comprehensions skills play a prominent role. Anyone reading this blog, for example, would need to know something about me when making a determination about my credibility. That can only be gleaned by reading old posts, viewing information I choose to share on the site. But if I write that Babe Ruth is the greatest player of all time, followed distantly by Ted Williams and then Willie Mays, well you'd have to determine how much to value that in comparison to, say, a columnist from the Sporting News who may hold a contrary view.

But the extension of that idea in a class is that the technology that makes a blog a blog, is what makes it so useful in a class. The same for a wiki. Instantly posting ideas and writing. Leaving comments. Having an easy to access menu of drafts for a piece of writing. Accessibility from almost anywhere. But before you use it in a classroom, you need to better understand it.

This week will be another step in hopefully spreading that word in my school.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Looking for some help from Big Brother

I'm standing in my classroom today, observing my sophomores in their groups discussing 1984 or Fahrenheit 451. Part one of each book was due today. Off to the corner, leaning on a lectern, I spent half the class scanning the room, listening to snippets of conversations...

"...but how can the "thought police" know what their thinking..."

"...and he never thought about his job before and Clarisse made him think about what he was doing for the first time..."

"...I think it means that the government wants to control everything and..."

As I listen, I also try to watch the different groups scattered around the room. Who has their head down? Who doesn't have a book? Who seems to be doing the most talking in their group? What are they writing down? Is it the homework that was due at the beginning of class? Should I walk over their and gently remind them to keep talking? Is everyone listening to each other?

During my numerous scans, I happened to catch the poster displayed prominently - and dare I say ironically? - above the laptop cart - "Big Brother is Watching You." Oh yeah, he is watching. Today, during 4th and 6th periods, he was me. I just wish I had ubiquitous two-way telescreens and mysterious thought police at my disposal. Until then, I'll just have to rely on my own eyes and ears to assess their daily efforts, and I'll continue to scribble down notes to myself, do my best to assess their efforts at discussion, and record letter grades in my planner. It's the best I can do.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

A funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century classroom

As I plod along into the 21st century, there are two little creatures on either side of me. On one side, one creature - I'll call him "Thing 20" - keeps tugging at my sleeve, while "Thing 21" rolls his eyes and shakes his head. Just hurry up, he seems to be saying in an exasperated tone. 20, it seems, spends all his time asking questions about where we're going. Why, why, why? he constantly asks. Both 20 and 21 annoy me in their own way.

Anyway, right now, the students in my Writing the Essay class are the only ones who have set up blogs to supplement their in class learning. It's not like my other students are left scrawling on the backs of shovels with chalk. My sophomores put together multi-media presentations and used a wiki to compile their research and my public speaking class recorded podcasts. Not too shabby.

It's just that, with my Writing the Essay students beginning to use their blogs more (of course as the semester winds down, rather than gears up), I am again struck by all the small bits of teaching and learning that cannot be neglected as I meander my way to the 21st century classroom. Along the same vein, I have been struck once again by the inseparable nature of reading and writing. The class lagged at times this year, and I'm convinced it's because I didn't do enough to stimulate their thinking with reading. It happens so naturally in a typical English class, I must have assumed it would here too.

It began when I assigned them to select a topic and then use their blogs to keep track of their research, posting hyperlinks to their sources and reflecting on their findings. Of course I assumed too much and I think I lost sight of what has become a roadmap for my trek towards the 21st century school house. It dates back to a post by Will Richardson a year ago, where he talks about the idea of blogging as a means to achieve a synthesis of ideas. That's what I wanted - and still want - my kids to do. All the time. Richardson says, "if you’re reading and writing regularly about something that you are truly passionate about, that synthesis becomes almost second nature. You are always making connections and writing your own narrative." In a recent Clay Burrell post, he hits on another component of writing and, by extension blogging, when he puts out the call for collaboration with his upcoming writing class. As usual, Clay reminds me of the great potential for these digital learning tools and a comment on his post reminded me of Richardson's words. Sean writes, "Students must write for keeps. In addition, for the writing course, form must follow function… Because writing is an iterative, intrinsically valuable practice, I believe a writing class does best when it rewards reflection on the process, a dialectical engagement with all texts." Again the reading and writing link is vital. That's where the blog must come in.

So back to my Writing the Essay students. I asked them to start doing it. Simple as that. But not really.

And slowly, they have kind have begun to, a little. Well, not exactly. But what do I expect? How much time did I spend to analyze and evaluate the genre of blogging? It's like I asked them to write a short story without reading a bunch of examples and even studying Poe's theory of composition. But, in the last week or so, as they have begun reading more, their blogging has improved. I'd still like them to more fully explore the potential of hyperlinking their ideas to broaden their connections, and to develop more creative titles for their blogs, and to write with a more purposeful self-reflection, and to ... you get the point. I'm still trying and we'll see how it works out with less than two weeks left in the semester.

And to get back to Richardson's ideas about synthesis, it's apparent that time is needed to steer students to quality blog selections, both so they can see the style in action, but also as a way to stimulate their own thinking. Synthesis like this must evolve, more than it happens. And therein lies the rub. Today's education is about product (results) than it is about process. And like the students in my Writing the Essay class, I'm just getting started.

I feel a little better. I can tell "Thing 20" to back off a little bit and let "Thing 21" know that I'm getting there. Be patient.