Sunday, November 27, 2011

Technology's Imprint on Story Telling--Lesson 3: Perspective

Stumbling on reviews and summaries of Scott Kirsner's book Inventing the Movies, I found an uncanny distinction made on perspective.  Suggesting that not everyone is always ready for technology to hurtle forward, Kirsner categorizes people into three groups:

a. innovators: people who view technology as an opportunity
b. preservationists: see technology as a threat to how business is currently (and comfortably) done -- the status quo is defended as heels are dug into the earth...they are a resistant lot
c. side-line sitters: those willing to wait things out to see how everything goes -- the status quo is fine for now

Kirsner could have been writing about education--status quo retards innovation so often that it becomes a pattern.  Even words as specific as "hostility" and "indifference" are used to describe what meets innovation head on--the result is "frustration."  Educators are frustrated that they are being asked to change again; educators are frustrated that they cannot try the innovation...yet.

Kirsner points out that most big business entities respond to big ideas in this same way--why should we try something new if the current standard works just fine?  Those in favor of the staus quo might disagree that they are afraid of change or technology--some may even champion it to a certain degree--but they would rather not undermine current best practice...because it works, and more specifically, it is what we know.

Those in education might see the point--I am writing a summary of Kirner's point of view of technology and film, yet this speaks so profoundly to technology and is uncanny.

Casual movie goers may not know the name or work of Harold Lloyd.  Also, it is far less likely that our students would have heard of Lloyd over Chaplin.

Yet I find it valuable to mention Lloyd because of his ability to take technology and change our perspective--literally.  Before sound, stunning achievements built with the simple tools available at the time separated artist from employee (Lon Chaney's work as a pioneer in makeup; Buster Keaton's camera work and stunts) yet it is easy to forget that these innovations persevered over a culture of staus quo thinkers.

And so I ask myself, is that what we always are--a culture of status quo thinkers?  Is it natural for human beings to want to remain anchored to the status quo?

Yet, life is change.  Technology changes so much so often around us, that perhaps we do find comfort in picking one thing, and sticking with it because we understand how it works in our classrooms and schools.  Some might even argue that the greatest innovation still in place is the pencil and paper--what the hell do we need a typewriter, word processor, iPad for anyway?

The willingness of allowing one's perspective to change is part of the beauty of the genius I see in actor Harold Lloyd. 

Lloyd used camera angles so well that what he did was regarded as one of Hollywood's best kept secrets.  Audiences, directors, actors were so used to seeing film and camera work done one way, that to comprehend what Lloyd did was out of the vision of preservationists and side-line sitters.

In several films Lloyd crafted scenes where the hero would be scaling a building, out on a ledge, dangling from girder--ten, twenty, thirty stories above the busy city streets.

Yet, the actors were never more than a few feet from placing their feet safely down.

Lloyd understood that if he positioned a camera in just the right way that he could frame the actor, the wall or ledge, and the streets and traffic below.  He could frame it so that the roof just below the actor's feet would never be shot or seen.

He built, tore down, and rebuilt his sets on the rooftops of progressively taller buildings thereby creating the illusion that the actor was actually scaling a building.

Considered real by audiences, legend has it that women fainted in their seats during a Lloyd film.

Understanding that the status quo was once innovation, only innovators can produce greatness.

Personally and professionally I am in the frame of mind of innovator--I am not saying I am one, but I am in that frame of mind.  I am willing to read, and see, and try.  Technology hurtles forward, and as educators, we will always work with innovators, preservationists, and side-line sitters--it is just a healthy part of being human.  It is a checks and balances system--not every new idea is an improvement, not every established system remains effective forever.  Yet change presses down upon us as does greatness.

Change is a part of being the very least it is a part of education.  Rightly so.

Greatness is a part of being the very least that is how educators are judged by the public.  Rightly so.

One of my personal/professional causes currently is encouraging more educators to use Twitter.  So far, it is subtle and non-threatening--I ask colleagues if they use it and try to share an example of how I use it which I think might be of interest to them.  It hasn't really stuck on anyone so far.

I'm trying to be a part of the positive change of perspective on technology in the classroom in general, but for right now, Twitter is the innovation I'm waving high over my head.

But not for long.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Technology's Imprint on Story Telling: Lesson 2 - The Crossroads of Sound

A lesson I used in my 6th grade theater class which I am revising for my 8th grade writing class is centered on the crossroads Charlie Chaplin faced when sound forever altered our experiences at the movies.

The genius of Charlie Chaplin is as obvious and well-documented a truth as any in the history of entertainment.  One need only spend five minutes in front of a Chaplin film to be charmed by his talent.

Once sound lodged itself into the film industry, Chaplin's ability to adapt and change in the midst of film's rapidly changing technology is nothing short of astonishing.  It is what separates the artists from those who "merely" work in an art whether that be film, music, writing, dance, et al.

As a story teller, Chaplin understood visual and physical artistic nuance so well, that he could tell a narrative with length and breadth and scope and humor.  Born into silent film, his persona, The Tramp, worked brilliantly in silent film.  Asking my students to speculate the challenges a writer, an artist, or any performer would have to tackle in the face of such drastic technological change has been one of my favorite exercises in my career.

After showing my students several different scenes with the silent Tramp (one of my favorites pits Chaplin stuck in a lion's cage) I ask them:

a) how would The Tramp be the same/different with sound?
b) would the artist have been able to create the The Tramp if sound existed all along?
c) using The Tramp, in what ways can show how the limited/silent technology of the time inspired the artist to create the persona and consistently build stories around him?
d) can we locate similar crossroads in recent history?
e) my 8th grade students might be a little young but the history behind Napster and the struggles of the music industry certainly apply here.
f) Hollywood would also step in and offer that they too are struggling to adapt--with film streaming to all of our devices, are we seeing a slow death of the movie theater?  or will there always be a place for the large Hollywood movie theater?  (was there always a place for The Tramp?)
g) How do we know which changes will forever alter how we do business or create, and are there ever any changes, especially in technology, that writers, artists, business people, educators, parents, young people...can ever afford to ignore?

When technology changes it provides new opportunities for performers, but it also poses great personal questions for artists who have built a career (and a financial fortune) within the scope of a very specific set of rules.  When technology changes, the rules and possibilities are altered.

While we can study and discuss how Chaplin did adapt and grow to certain degree, that is not the purpose of my lesson--I want to illustrate the crossroads, and I want my students to think about it.  I want them to write about what Chaplin must have faced, and speaking to a more immediate concern I want them to speculate about the world around us.

How is technology altering the rules and possibilities of writing, story telling, and art today?

Certainly, the introduction and growing comfort with self-publishing (especially e-books) is apropos to the lesson at hand.  Even publishers, such as Penguin's Book Country, are trying to adapt to the changing climate of story telling...all due to technology.  At Book Country aspiring authors can self-publish online through Penguin.

On a more successful and teen-friendly level, the discovery and rise of performer Justin Bieber on YouTube certainly provides a fresh example of how technology is laying everything at our feet that Chaplin faced--when technology changes, the rules and possibilities are altered.

Technology's Imprint on Story Telling-- Lesson 1: Early Silent Film

Having taught a theater course to 6th grade students for over ten years, I learned a lot about the relationship between technology and the evolution of story telling.  I watched a lot of film as I dug for mentor "texts" and in the process constantly observed "something else" to include in the lesson.  Judging by the quality and depth of responses in their writer's notebooks, the unit called Technology's Imprint grew in scope and quality and became a favorite of many students--especially because they could clearly see themselves in the throes of the constant evolution and influence of technology.

An early relationship I tried to capture was the importance of the freshness of any technology when first developed.  For my purposes with early silent film, no one had acted for the screen before or had been an audience for it.  That simply relationship was new--think of the first time we sent a text message to someone, or used Skype--there is something to remember in humanity's trill with discovery.

Human Beings have a great passion and need and thirst for new experiences. I try to connect the feelings our kids had the first time they played XBox (can we mention here that computer games are developing epic stories which the player takes the central role in?)  See, the more you look, the more you see "something else" to include in the lesson.

But, back to the beginning...

I learned that starting with Thomas Edison's and Edwin Porter's Great Train Robbery from 1903 provided many great starting points of inquiry and discussion:

a) it was only 10 minutes long
b) only one stationary camera angle or perspective existed, yet the film was shot in several locations/settings
c) it was silent yet there is music on most copies today
d) for weeks my students would have studied "sound and movement" as the genesis for all acting, yet here a challenge presented it self to actors--tell the story with just movement.  This affected acting styles greatly and we were set to trace the changes actors and directors made the more they worked with this technology--for instance, early film such as GTR made little room for anything but meoldrama in its performances.
e) the speed of the action was controlled my frames per second or how fast a cameraman turned the crank on the camera (did any of those cameramen even get recognized with an Oscar, even post humously?  I wonder if that can even be traced anymore--the skillful work of a particular cameraman?)
f) the wonderfully odd choices to hand-paint (with dye) segments of individual frames in the GTR--you'll see gun fire appear yellow and read, a little girls cloak appear purple--some had experimented with dipping entire scenes into dyes to help control the mood of the audience, much in the same way a lighting directors works with a live stage production.
g) the image of the bandit firing his gun into the camera/audience must have thrilled audiences much in the same way that 3D thrills people today.  It is interesting to note that Martin Scorsese paid homage to this film and moment at the end of Goodfellas--Joe Pesci pointing and firing his gun at the the camera, at us.  Before I knew anything about GTR, I saw Goodfellas in a theater, and was completely unnerved by that final scene.
h) crosscutting: the idea that the audience can understand that two consecutive scenes shot in different locations with different characters could be happening at the same time.
i) distributed with a note saying the famous shot of the bandit firing his gun at the camera/audience could appeareither at the beginning or at the end of the film, or both.

As I taught this unit, I loved asking the students to draw parallels to today.  What new technologies do we see altering the way we are told stories or altering the way in which our story-tellers work?
The answers to this question evolve every year--we could discuss everything from computer animation and the importance now for actors to be able to do voice work well, to the infusion of reality TV which by all accounts takes jobs away from professional actors yet opens the door for more types of "acting" or storytelling.  Shows like The Biggest Loser, Survivor, The Amazing Race, and the granddaddy of them all American Idol are popular because they are stories and are marketed as that--real stories.  How thrilling to follow the story of someone just like us...which, by the way, is nothing new.  Shakespeare knew enough when he wrote Romeo and Juliet--capitalizing for the first time on the notion that a play could be about someone other than a King or Queen or great military or political hero from history--my gosh, give the people the story of a teenage girl and boy in love and see what happens.  We can identify this in the work of many great story tellers: Charles Dickens, John Dos Passos, Carson McCullers, John Steinbeck, etc.

But I am digressing, in this series of blog posts I aim to share with you the many angles and discussions you can have on story telling simply by looking at how technology influenced it, and still does today...the iPad? the smartphone, the Kindle, the Nook, anyone?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Paper Mache Death Star

The same, enormous, financial oversight can be found in both teams behind the Kindle Fire and the Nook Tablet.  Neither "tablet" allows for (easy) blogging.

How the hell can you create an updated e-reader without giving people the ability to write?  Readers are writers.

Both, at their core, are in the e-reader family--born from the Kindle and the Nook.  It strikes me that most on those corporate teams must not be readers.

Serious readers read more than books and magazines--they read blogs, and they read blogs about books.  They also, and more importantly, write blogs...about books.

About books.  Readers are writers--did I mention that?

Why wouldn't you encourage people to blog on your e-reader?  The whole genesis of the e-reader was for people to read books on your device--which is nothing more than a clever tractor beam into gently encouraging people to buy books from you.  Ok, that is fine--but it strikes me that no one understood that readers are writers.

Log onto GoodReads once.

If you allow people to write, blog, create documents easily you will sell more Fires, or "Tablets" or Widgets.  Right now, we can not do that.  I can use the Android market to download an App like Blogger, but not from your devices.

Your new devices collectively strike me as a paper mache Death Star.

Allow people to write and create on your device and they will buy YOUR books, Amazon (or Barnes and Noble).  Amazon, you tried to corner the market with your Amazon Prime offers but completely missed an easy access point in the market.

It wouldn't have taken much.

Allow Blogger, and Tumblr, and WordPress ( to have an app on your network.  Allow users to create written documents.  You are not that far off from raising the eyebrows of the education market.

But right now all we can do on your unit is buy your books and play Angry Birds and watch movies.  That's great, except that your are catering to an unproductive segment of our lives.  The time when we sit to relax and escape in a book or a lazy game or movie.  How about the other, dominant segments of our day when we are productive, creative, and entrepreneurial members of society?

People write to make money.  There are scores of us out there.  Not to mention the fact that readers are writers.

You tried to be clever and offered a limited Android market of Apps so that it is controlled by you and dollars funneled to you directly.

You completely missed a market of millions of people.  There are millions of blogs out there.  Millions.

People of all ages blog--right now, the 25-45 crowd blogs more than any other demographic.  Yet, here is a million dollar tip for you.  In the very near future, the 18-24 crowd will catch them as more schools turn to digital writing.  Imagine getting your units into schools, colleges, universities as a primary tool?

Imagine textbook companies having an exclusive contract with you.  Right now a half dozen textbook companies fight it out like pirates whenever a school district is going to replace its books.  Imagine what kind of financial boon you could create for yourself if you partnered with a textbook publisher.

They publish books, you know.  To schools where people read...and write.  And people read and write at home, at work, on the train...people do read and write.

And your devices almost let us do that.  Almost.

So it is back to buying more iPads for our school.  And back to considering a second iPad for my house, rather than something else.

Do the research--and make the adjustment.  You'll sell more Widgets.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Simple Truth about Writing

In response to the article Writing Lessons by Jay Mathews of the Washington Post:

I teach 8th grade, and at times I can’t help but think about myself when I was in 8th grade.  This is natural for most people; we tend to lean on our experiences as a student when we deal with the ups and downs of our own kids.

Sometimes a colleague may ask the group in the faculty lunchroom, “which of these 8th graders were you most like?”  I used to have fun with that question, but I now have an answer for the entirety of the rest of my teaching career: none.

I was like none.

If we include technology (email, chat, texting, et al.), the students I teach today write more than I ever did at their age.  Recent research by the National Assessment of Education Progress indicates that while most students have mastered the basics of writing, they can not write well.

The research by the NEAP specifically states that few students are able to produce meaningful writing which engages a reader with any precise, engaging, or coherent prose.

Today, young people compose writing with their thumbs at a blinding rate of speed and a highly skilled aptitude on an area of screen the size of a few postage stamps.  When I was in 8th grade, I either held a pencil or I used a typewriter.

Today's students truncate words to their benefit, and sometimes for humor.  They use symbol and code to communicate efficiently.  When I truncated words I had to learn how to use white-out and then retype over the dried white-out.

My high school typing instructor, Brother Joe Mulholland, seeing my students use their thumbs to type, would have shuddered in his white cassock.  Don't kids know what pica and elite are anymore?  Don't they know the five-paragraph essay?

I was, indeed, like none.

Since social networking saturated the free-time of young people in the mid-2000s, our students have
written more collectively than young people ever did in the history of mankind.  When I typed at home, there as no immediate audience.

Today, when students write on their personal devices they do so to an active and immediate audience.
Yet, few, adolescent or adult, call this act writing.

There is a disconnect between what our students are writing online and what they are able to produce on paper.  The NEAP data explicitly states that when students are asked to write on paper most produce rudimentary and uninteresting ideas.  Their writing satisfies only the basic skills most associate with their adolescent writing experience—grammar and structure.  It underscores what our nation demands, believes, and emphasizes: when classroom instruction is hammering the kids on grammar and structure, great teaching is occurring.

Because that is what most people remember from their own experiences.

Furthermore, mom and dad are less likely to raise a stink with the current English teacher if they see an abundance of errors noted on their child’s essay.  They see evidence of correction, it likely resembles their childhood experience; therefore, it must be right.

Today’s student has been thrust into a society where strong writing is implicit in order to work towards a successful and abundant life.  To borrow from Troy Hicks, adolescents are natives to digital writing and adults are the immigrants.  While young people may not exactly be native to digital writing they are certainly "tech comfy."  They were and are being born into this nano-age.  Yet, we are the ones teaching.

The digital immigrants are in charge. 

If we do not act, we will miss out on a tremendous opportunity to help our young people develop an already critical skill on which new premiums and new criticisms have been placed.

There does not need to be a disconnect between the writing for technology and writing as a basic and necessary social and professional skill.  Part of the lag in our nation's writing is that professional development programs generated by districts or county intermediate units rarely invite teachers to see themselves as writers--until they meet the National Writing Project.

It took me 15 professional years to find the NWP.  I'd always dabbled as a writer, but it took me 15 professional years to see myself as a writer.

Student teachers and student observers come into my English classroom from all of our local universities without any sense of themselves as a writer.  I've asked them.  And I've asked them if they have ever had any instruction through the National Writing Project--I have yet to meet one.  I know many are out there--I've met parents of my students just this year who are also Fellows in the NWP.

They came to be Fellows only after 10 or more years of establishing a teaching career.

It isn't their fault.  After all, they are (we are) teaching what we have been taught, following the wishes of our community and administrative leaders, and we are also drawing back on our own experiences in the classroom as students.

What's worse, having secured a teaching position, many English teachers typically receive little instruction in how to teach writing—and by that I do mean to stress and repeat that the ability to correct grammar and usage does not in and of itself lead to any instruction on writing.

Additionally, few teachers outside of our English departments receive any instruction on writing at all, let alone receive encouragement to be a writer and see themselves as a writer.

The simple truth is, in many schools, writing is generally assigned to the students by teachers who do not see themselves as writers because they do not write themselves. As such, writing is not a shared experience.  Writing is not produced for authentic audiences and for authentic purposes.

With a wealth of research and technology around us, many are still using the traditional techniques used on them.  We are back in typing class, fingers curled, typing to no one together.  Students are cringing at their returned papers; the red slashes symbols of their failure and editors.

We've made ourselves judges of writing.  Subsequently, the students are trying to please to gain the prize of an A...or a 6 on a rubric. Their voices stripped down to following state guidelines, conventions, and a teacher's taste, they produce writing which is technically acceptable but says nothing.

When we write with our students and share our imperfect drafts we elevate the significance of the very act of the process of writing.  We move away from judge and closer to mentor.  And this act of the mentor in the classroom writing alongside of them—this elevation of the act of writing in a student's eyes—should not exist just inside the English teacher’s classroom.

When colleagues outside of the English classrooms suggest that they can’t teach writing in their classes, they say so out of fear.  Without the proper knowledge of knowing how to root out errors they believe, indirectly, that writing serves little purpose in their classes beyond providing an answer to a specific question. Some may not feel qualified.  Some may defend themselves and suggest that they already assign some writing.

What an ugly word when it comes to writing—assign.

What an ugly perception of our role—rooting out errors. 

We are to blame for that stifling language and perception.

We can begin to resuscitate writing by changing the way we all see writing: teaching writing is teaching thinking.  

Some of the seminal research in this area has been widely documented and tested.  In A Writer Teaches Writing, Donald Murrary observes the common and easily made mistakes by well-intentioned educators:
Meaning is not thought up and then written down.  The act of writing is an act of thought. [Teachers] give writing assignments based on the assumption that  writing begins after thinking is concluded, and they respond to those assignments as if the etiquette of language were more important than the thinking represented by language. (3) 
We are also to blame, as Tom Romano suggests, for the dinner party commentary we are all doomed to experience: “You’re an English teacher?  Oh—I should mind my grammar.”

We are, indeed, to blame for that language and that perception.  That is our legacy as English teachers as it currently stands. I have 17 years in the profession and that is a legacy I am not comfortable with.

We can all learn from and apply the research and inquiry by the NWP, the NCTE, the NEAP, and separate research, observation, and studies published by education pioneers: Don Murray, Ralph Fletcher, Nancy Atwell, Peter Elbow, Tom Romano, Lucy Calkins, Randy Bomer, Katie Wood Ray and many others.

We are too good, too talented, and there is too much accessible information available for us (especially through technology) not to rethink what we do when it comes to teaching writing. 

Teachers involved with the NWP are some of the most supportive and humble people I know.   Through this program, the opportunity is there for us to change the game.  When teachers are writers then they are using writing as active thinkers.  When our kids see writing as an opportunity to think and develop their unique voices, this changes the game.

It would be absurd to send your child to a piano teacher who does not play—even socially.  It is a waste of your dollar to sign your child up for batting lessons, soccer lessons, or dance lessons from someone who does not understand the first-hand struggle of improving in those pursuits.  One of the beauties about writing (and there are many) is it does not wear out your joints, it does not cause you to have a bad back—you can do it until you die.

The only thing stopping us is us…and time.  I’m proposing that we make that time in our profession.

Once teachers believe that they are writers and do it, the writing produced from our students will grow and improve.  Until that happens writing will not improve in our schools—we are doomed to repeat what we already do and know--the things we are already comfortable with because they were done to us.

Furthermore, unless it is important to us then this change will never get done.

At the rehearsal dinner for a close friend, his father lifted his glass high in a toast to the room and then looked at his son and offered his advice for all to hear: “Love is not what you say, it is what you do.”

Similarly, writing is not what we say, it is what we do.  Or should do.

We have to be the model of the change we desire--nothing is simpler, nothing is truer.

If you currently do not write regularly now, then write.  Take the journey again.  Write in a journal in the morning before school.  Write during class with your students.  Explore your own thoughts or confusion regarding a particular general, artist, or current event.  Write about math.  Write about science.  What about life.  Write not to be judged, but to model the process of creating precise, engaging, and coherent prose which our students can not produce.

If we are not a part of the solution then we are a part of the recurring problem; therefore, we must write.  

In the article on the student by the NAEP, The neglected “R”: The need for a writing revolution, part of the recommendation is for students to write every day in an environment fostered by teachers who have been offered support and professional development in order to “see themselves as writers—to experience the power and satisfaction of writing as a means of learning and self-expression.”

This is your staff development.  Ask for it; demand it.  We must do it first so that we can experience the age when all teachers in all subjects write and use writing with their students.

We must lead that evolution.  We can’t teach what we don’t know.  And if we do not write then we do not know writing.

We must write.

If you have not taken part in a NWP summer workshop then find one in your area and take one.  Build a professional library of writing texts in your home or school and set your mind to the fact that if you teach, then you should also write.

We must lead the evolution.  Writing is one of the few remaining common filters of thinking, discovery, and being human.  As Randy Bomer wrote in Time for Meaning:
Once I have identified myself as a writer, even if writing still scares me to death, I have located writing not as some school activity that is outside me, but as a part of my life, for better or worse, and that gives me the hope of being alive to change and growth. (22)
We can not continue to pass on the opportunity to use something so profound and powerful. Whether it is writing about scientific inquiry, or mathematical induction, or your thoughts on an upcoming family decision, writing shows us our humanity. 

Write.  Decades of research, study, and observation cannot implement itself.


Bomer, Randy. Time for meaning: crafting literate lives in middle and high school. BoyntonCook, 1995. Print.

Gallagher, Kelly. Teaching Adolescent Writers. Stenhouse Pub, 2006. Print. 

Hicks, Troy. The Digital Writing Workshop. Heinemann Educational Books, 2009. Print. 

Murray, Donald. A writer teaches writing. Houghton Mifflin College Div, 1985. Print.


Romano, Tom. Clearing the way: working with teenage writers. BoyntonCook, 1987. Print.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Nook of the Market

An open letter to Apple, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and anyone making tablets,

Your projects miss the mark for educators; they are close...but they miss the mark.  For one, Apple, your iPad is priced out of most classrooms. I own one, and I have visions of what this type of hardware can do for education, but right now it is akin to the invention of paper.  Very expensive.  And blank.

Barnes and Noble, I bought a Nook Color along with a N2A cards to allow for it to easily jump into  mode, and now you are releasing a Nook Tablet.  You actually did very well under our education tests, but your screen is very difficult to work with; it is "sticky" and unresponsive too often.  I will also add that the fact that you are still a brick and mortar business shows.  We called you.  And someone answered and agreed to come to our school to show us what the Nook Tablet could do for teachers and students.  You had a specialist who dealt with the Nook, and you had someone with knowledge of education--they could cite local schools using Nooks and how they were being used.

We asked if you could show us if the Nook Tablet could allow for student creation--could we create and write on a Nook with Wikispaces, Google Docs, Blogger, and Moodle...could this device be used to create digital writing?  (We already knew part of the answer because we tested you.)  And you answered honestly, you didn't know, but you listened, and promised you would ask someone else for us, and then you set up an appointment at our school.  You are coming to us.  And, in the end, your product may not be able to do what we need it to do, you earned big points for your effort on the phone with me.  I will be a more conscious consumer of B&N products in the future, especially considering our experience with Amazon.

R.I.P Borders brick and mortar stores.  You are sorely missed already.  We called Amazon to ask a few questions about the Kindle Fire and got someone on the phone who read to us from a script--he anticipated every question with a response so highly polished that some came no where near providing an answer to specific question we asked.  We asked if Amazon had someone in education we could speak with--no.  We asked if we could speak to someone who had specific knowledge of the Fire as it could relate to use in schools--no.  We asked if someone could come out to our school with a Kindle Fire to show us what it could do for our students--no.  We asked if we could write with Wikispaces, Google Docs, Blogger, and Moodle--you told us we could browse the web.  You told us we could buy a Fire and just return it after 30 days.  You were not helpful.

A change is coming in education--technology is bearing down on us and as many have noted in their own language, the schools standing today no longer serve the needs of the young people we are putting in them.

Apple, you went after the education market many years ago and you seized control of a nice chunk of it.  You have a chance to own it...but you are letting others leverage themselves.  Look at the mad scramble to create an android tablet which could compete for consumer dollars against the iPad.  No one has really done it yet, but there is a way in if you don't take care of business.

Imagine the money you could save education if a tablet were in every student and teacher's hands--and that is what we all read from, wrote on, shared with.

Imagine the shift in how dollars are they are spent on textbook purchases, rebinding, and replacing.

Imagine the ePad--an iPad for education where students can use all of the tools needed to create and share podcats, video, blogs, documents, multi-media projects and still use the web and an in-house school email client.

Imagine that the ePad allowed for the download of texts and supplemental readings from other books, magazines, newspapers in our content areas.

Imagine that schools could spend money on training its teachers how to best prepare young people for the digital evolution in our smart phones.

Can you imagine that many teachers still fear the technology?  Can you imagine that these computers (our smart phones) are banned in some schools and that they are seen as a distraction to education?

Can you imagine leading the evolution...truly leading it?

Can you imagine making this tool affordable for all schools?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Tweeting is not a lollipop tree

Teachers have a responsibility to keep up on their subject area and professional practice--that much is a time-honored truth.  If a tool existed to make that responsibility more time and cost efficient, I'd like to think  that many educators would jump on the opportunity.  Yet, I'm finding Twitter far far underutilized by established educators.  My gut feeling is that some educators look at Twitter as just a social networking toy--candy for the brain--a way to pass the time under a lollipop tree--and would just be silly, wouldn't it?

Yesterday, I used Twitter to follow Michigan State's  Educational Technology Conference.  I did this from the parking lot of West Chester University about three hours before coaching in our football game.

At the same time I shared a text exchange with a friend and colleague about what I was learning from #coeetc11 and then he went on to follow it on Twitter as well--while waiting for his car at a Toyota dealership.

We were, in a very new and very real sense, collaborating and learning in a new professional conference experience.

We experimented with one of the links together as we have been searching and experimenting with ways to create a backchannel in our school given the resources available to us.  Our professional development this year is a shared goal--digital writing.  Low and behold...we found one yesterday on Twitter.

Participants at the MSU conference tweeted statements, advice ("Use advance search through google to find images that are licensed under creative commons")...and links to the various things they were learning:

Free Group Text Messaging Service for Schools

Dance Mat Typing

Digital Writing examples posted by Troy Hicks


"An awesome list of tech tools to use" for any elementary or middle school teacher

American memory at the Library of Congress

Online pinboard

CSI The Experience (interactive exhibit)

Online educational comic generator

Short video about the cloud

Short video about copyright

Copyright, Fair Use, and Creative Commons Resources

Live Binders

Keynote speaker Dr. Troy Hicks who writes and presents a lot on the teaching of digital writing offered yesterday that "Kids are very tech comfy, not always tech savvy."  I am finding this the more I present different aspects of technology to my 8th grade students.  Actually, my colleague must have been just a little disheartened (but my oh my what we learned) a few weeks ago when he told me my students would, should, will be able to remember how to create and upload and share podcasts.  They learned about it and did it during their Digital Literacy course just last year.  Guess what...quite a few didn't remember.  Quite a few acted and reacted in quite the same way as when we ask if they remember learning about adjectives last year...or last month: "no."

It is up to us to keep up to date on our subject area and our practice--Twitter is a enormously powerful for teachers to become better teachers.  And is far too underutilized.  We need to make ourselves tech saavy and fall to being quick to judge.  Read Twitter's front page banner headline:

"Follow your interests: instant updates from your friends, industry experts, favorite celebrities, and what's happening around the world."

On the surface, from that statement alone, it is easy to just see Twitter as a way to follow the social implosion of Charlie Sheen.  If you are a teacher and do not use Twitter, take a step back and read between the lines.  Follow what is happening around the world in history...with writing...with special education... or in whatever you want it to be.  Like a lot of things in life, Twitter can be what you want it to be.

After all, the first three words are Follow your interests.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

From Digital Toy to Digital Tool

Students know how to chat, text, interact socially online.  What they don't always know how to do is use those skills beyond the social element.

As my classes have experimented with Google Reader and RSS, podcasting, keeping an online portfolio on a wiki, and digital photography to tell a story, I have learned just how much our students don't know about technology.

They want it, they adapt to it quickly, but as far as being able to understand what to do with it--they are still adolescent brains in the midst of adolescence.   The possibilities presented by technology as they relate to our capabilities as lifelong learners and citizens are lost on my students--but that is ok to a certain degree...they are thirteen.  Any thirteen-year-old needs guidance and patience from the adults in their life.
I took my student's enthusiasm for interacting socially in a digital forum and used it to our benefit last week; I shared a Google Document with my students.  On the surface it was nothing more than notes for the class.  It was already projected up on the Smart Board as they entered the computer lab.

I asked them to sit at a computer, log into their school Google account, and open the Document I shared with them--they saw it for what it was, notes on grammar.  The notes included definitions and examples of participles, participial phrases, absolutes, & absolute phrases (this is a writing class and I want to send kudos to Harry R. Noden for his book Image Grammar).  I also included some practice on the Document.

Insert any blank stare you've ever seen when handing out a grammar worksheet; that was the approximate level of enthusiasm greeting me from behind those computer monitors...

...however, the coolest part of reviewing this worksheet with them through Google Docs was the comment stream alongside of the worksheet.  I encouraged them to open it and to start chatting with each other about anything...keep it clean and appropriate for school though!

The comment stream on Google Docs functions as a live chat room.  Students are able to type into it live, while we are learning...they can each see it on their own screens and it is also seem up on the large screen--it functions as a sort of backchannel.  Their name comes up, so you know who typed what, and as long as you have it up as well, on your teacher account, then you can see a history of the chat should you need that in the event that a student took it a little too far.

At first the comment stream was filled with a lot of "hello" and "whazzup!" --students even got sillier with it as they PLAYED with it, but I made the decision that that was alright.  A part of my lesson was to teach them social responsibility and using technology appropriately.

I gave them time to explore this new toy in the classroom.  Eventually we got back to work and they were able to make suggestions when I asked for possible participles to begin a sentence, and they were able to type in suggested phrases to complete sample sentences--all live, all scrolling across all our screens.

It allowed me to immediately point out those which were correct and those which needed an adjustment--and then the greatest thing happened.  A student typed, "I'm confused."

And the student who typed this is generally shy in class.  She comes to me at the end of class to ask questions, but rarely puts herself out there and raises her hand.

Today, digitally, she did.

As I worked to clarify what we were doing and what the differences were between participles and absolutes, other students chimed in with similar comments or affirmations of understanding, "I get it now!"

Many students still raised their hands, but this new feature of the class very quickly went from toy to tool in a matter of moments.

What I did like about the tool element is that students still had fun with creating phrases.  For example, when we were working with absolutes I put up the prompt _____________________, the stranger knocked on the door.  Some of the (edgy) memorable responses offered to complete the sentence drew some laughs and gasps (excitement) from the class: Knife dripping; Bowels percolating; and Animal carcass draped over his shoulder.

This isn't an everyday tool (yet).  I have been working to try and find a way to backchannel in my regular classroom by allowing students to use devices which they may already own and I even have a few grant requests in to a couple of places for some classroom iPads, Nooks, Kindles, Google Chrome Books, or tablets.

Moving towards a class which is digitally friendly and immersed is a slow process--you can't do it all at once.  But I am glad I took a chance with the comment stream on Google Docs and plan to put this tool to work for us more often.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

This I Believe

Students are submitting essays and podcasts today to our classroom wiki for This I Believe. We will be submitting both to the This I Believe website in the hopes that some may be selected for publishing.

The following is my This I Believe essay which I wrote alongside of my students:

I believe in the two million pennies in my mother’s pocket. She conjures love and karma with them.

The secret has been that my mother reaches her hand into her pocket and shares every penny—whatever anyone needs, the pennies are theirs--and while raising me as a single mother she worked job after job after job to fight to secure every last penny she could.

We lived in the same row house in Philadelphia in which she was raised, and we shared meals, daily, with the aunts and uncles and cousins who also lived on that same street.

In fact, we shared in so many meals together with family that it was a small treat to eat some meals, just the two of us, at our modest kitchen table.

My mom stored some pennies in a petite white and blue porcelain jar on a windowsill. Standing on my toes, I used to peer inside when she wasn’t around to see how many pennies might be in there.

Working a regular job during the week and part-time jobs on some weekends didn’t leave a lot of time for herself. Instead, with that time, she chose to offer me the world on just a penny.

She took me to my first art classes at the Fleischer School of Art, reached into her pocket and offered me pastels, charcoal, colored pencils, paint, and paper—again and again and again. My enthusiasm wandered and I stopped taking the lessons...yet a love of art was born in me.

She slid a guitar out of that pocket, and acquired an instructor for me--whom I impatiently quit.

She showed me a newspaper ad for ice hockey and then poured enough from her pocket onto the counter to equip me—picking me up right after her shift at work was done twice a week, we’d drive an hour to and from Philadelphia just so I could skate for the first time.

I’d never skated before--yet she used what she had to make it happen...and patiently watched me shuffle around the ice in my equipment, leaning on my stick to keep me upright, and continued to nudge and drive me along until I could skate, could play, could compete.

Alone, I’d stand by the door each night we had hockey, already dressed in my hockey gear except for skates, gloves and helmet, and wedged myself into the passenger seat and often acted like a child—I complained that she was late, and we were going to be late.

It was a dark winter in 1979, a gas crisis crippled America—every penny counted for everyone. Yet she continued to count every last one for me and others.

Mom placed me and a cousin safely in her pocket of pennies and carried us to Disney World later that spring for nothing less than magic and love—she has been there many times since, upwards of 7 or 8 trips. While I haven’t been back with her, I like remembering that I was there with her during her first trip when she simply fell under its charming spell and has never awakened from it since.

Mom has tugged years of diapers from that pocket of two million pennies for that same Disney World cousin’s infant—single mom sharing pennies with another single mom.

Mom donates to the SPCA, to Susan G. Komen, and many other organization, yet still is happiest working for pennies. Don’t get me wrong, she’s held lucrative jobs, but she laughs and smiles answering phones one day a week at the salon my cousin works at as a stylist; she beamed this past weekend when she shared that she made fifteen dollars teaching childrens Zumba at the YMCA.

While I take great lessons from my mother’s infinite generosity and making the most out of what she has, I also take note that there is karma—just this month she has won her fourth trip from Regis & Kelly; that’s over $20,000 in trips in just over three years.

Some marvel at her luck, and some want to know her precise secret. After all, she watches the show, takes notes, enters the contest...there has to be some secret, right? Others even wonder why the show’s producers haven’t blacklisted her from ever winning another trip from them.

There is only one secret to her life--and it is also the answer to all questions: two million pennies in one pocket. The symbol of, and I’ll say it again, her infinite generosity.

$20,000 is a lot of pennies, but I know I have seen all two million of those pennies go from her pocket into the hands of others.

You’d think two million pennies in one pocket would be really heavy for her.

But they aren’t--empty pockets weigh heavier.