Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Using tools.

On Friday, history teacher and SecMAC graduate Caroline Speer talked about how it's a good thing that rote knowledge -- that is, memorizing information -- is gone, replaced by whipping out a phone and Googling your query. It breaks my heart that an educator, especially a humanities teacher, is not merely not fighting this change, but encouraging it.

I suppose I'm old-fashioned, as you all know, when it comes to this subject. But honestly, moments like this make me question whether or not I should be a teacher. I love teaching; I love my subject; I truly want to propagate an understanding of and passion for literature and literacy. I believe in its power to change lives. But I feel like the world doesn't want me to teach the way I was taught, the way I love teaching, the way I believe is right. I will never, ever be comfortable with e-readers and audiobooks replacing physical books. I don't want to teach students that it's okay not to remember information since they can always look it up later. As a teacher, I have a responsibility to prepare students for success in the world they'll enter; what if I don't like a lot about that world? I don't want to prepare them not to remember, or not to know how to write by hand (let alone not value handwriting and the feel of paper and the smell of ink), or not to love the scent of paper bound with glue and fabric-covered boards.

Technology is a wonderful tool, I grant you. However, it should not be the only tool we use, as is becoming the case. The modern world is enamored with its own creation, to the point of letting it replace what did not need replacing, and what might in fact damage the future of education by being lost: human interaction. That is what frightens me so about technology: its advancement has put us on the path to forgetting that, as George Williams (math teacher and SecMAC graduate) put it on Friday, "Education is about making human beings," not just for college and career preparation, and not just to boost a school's statistics about how much technology it uses.

When I was growing up, my father loved to use the term "well-rounded": he wanted us to grow up to be well-rounded people. Of course, he meant that I should like playing sports just as much as reading, which was not going to happen; not that I don't like being active, but--oh well, I'm getting off-topic. I do agree with him on this: we should teach our students to be well-rounded. Yes, by all means, teach them to use laptops and Tablets, teach them how to find articles online and the miracle that is JSTOR, but also teach them the joy of writing a letter by hand. Teach them how to search for books in a library and how to use the index of a source to find more books. Teach them how to hold a conversation, not just type one, so that they'll know how to talk without being able to delete the things about which they've changed their minds. Teach them how to use a calculator, but also teach them how to do some math in their heads or on paper, so if their calculator breaks or they left their phone at home, they can figure out the tip at a restaurant. Make sure they learn what happened in 1066, 1492, 1775, 1969, because having that knowledge deep inside them will mean that when reading a book or listening to a lecture or watching a movie set around that time, they will understand what it means because they know the context.

We're so much like the revolutions that have come before us. In the early eighteenth century, the world was discovering the microscope, and therefore the human body; it made them cling to reason and technology, too. That was the period of mind-body dualism. In the nineteenth century, the wake of the industrial revolution had made a world much more interested in steel and steam than the backs upon which it was built; it, too, forgot humanity in its rush for progress. I don't think it's much of a stretch to compare ourselves to them.

Friday, 3 August 2012

The Doctor and Professor X do Shakespeare, with a special guest.

When I began reading HuffEnglish, the blog of English teacher Dana Huff, I was a little wary at first: lots of Diigo links, and a post about being "connected." Y'all know me; I immediately though, "Really, lady? Thanks for that. Bye." However, at the bottom of every post, she has a, "You also might like..." list of three other entries she's written that might interest the reader. At the bottom of one Diigo links post was a review of my second-favorite novel (Ahab's Wife, for those of you who are curious), a post about "Why Fiction Matters," and another about "Indie Writing." SOLD, madam.

Allow me to take a moment to discuss what she brings up in "Why Fiction Matters," a post from December 2010. She writes in response to another blog, actually, one that proposes we stop reading fiction in schools that we may "encourage boys to read" and "help students improve nonfiction reading skills." The author of that entry claimed to have been writing in irony, but nevertheless, the point is one worth considering. Why is it important to teach fiction?

According to Huff, Hemingway, and myself, it is because fiction "shows us who we are," as individuals and as human beings. It is not just important to teach fiction; it is essential. But it must be taught the right way. Huff argues for backward design as the solution to getting boys more engaged in reading. She says that in order to make it matter, we have to give them an essential question for which to read. I think she may be onto something, though I'd hope that along the way, the students discover something more than the answer to one question alone.

Her blog is an intriguing mingling of techno-joy and more settled writing about the material we teach. For those of you who have fallen for this brave new world of technology, you should like her; even I will keep reading.

I stole these from Dana Huff. It made my morning.

I believe in blackboards.

Our final project for my Teaching With Technology course asked us to make a "This I Believe" podcast; here it is, for your listening pleasure! Enjoy.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Little Boxes

Friday revolved around organization, a skill that's always been a sticky spot for me. My entire family suffers from pretty severe ADHD: Inattentive Type -- the condition formerly known as ADD. Therefore, learning to keep everything in my life where I can find it, rather than shoving it all into a closet of miscellany, leaning against the door to jam it shut, and hoping for the best--that's been essential, and a constant challenge.

You can imagine, then, what a nightmare cyberspace is for me: so much room wide open, invisible, intangible, with only bookmarks to make any sense of it.

 Basically, that.

That's why I leapt on Pinterest: because suddenly, I have icons and little descriptions to remind me why I saved this link. Marvelous. It also suggests ways to organize the rest of my life: household management tips, vocabulary handouts, DIY toiletries...an A-type personality's fantasy. I'll probably keep using that for my personal life. For research projects, though, I can certainly see the benefits of Diigo, and will definitely try to make use of it in my classroom.

Evernote is a whole 'nother kettle of fish.

I use it like a binder. Of fish. No, of documents, but accessible from anywhere. It's clearer and more aesthetically pleasing than Diigo, although it does have some limitations. For what I need it, though, it's perfect. I make these beautiful schedules/to-do lists, like this one (which all of you might find useful:

None of the other tools we discussed will let me do this, and I love it. I'd love to hear about what you all found most useful, too!

P.S. Apparently Macs have Podcast Capture and Podcast Publisher apps? Anyone tried them?

Books, forever and always.

After reading James Gee's article on the merits of video games, I was impressed with his--no. I'm sorry. That's utter balderdash. I was just as skeptical as you'd expect me to be. As for Jane McGonigal's TED Talk: missie, your fictional counterpart would be appalled.

Sure, yes, let's keep open minds. Perhaps there are video games out there with genuine benefits and legitimate claims to educational influence. Perhaps I'm a brackish-tempered curmudgeon. But let's face it: all this championing of gaming is nothing more than an anxious scramble to justify the two generations we have now lost to it. I will never accept that something designed to have no connection to the real world, something that lacks analytical depth or value, something that sucks up hours, days of one's life and leaves one with nothing to show for it, stands any chance as an enrichment tool. Just...no. I refuse.

"But Sas, you're being hypocritical! You spend just as long hidden away with a book as I did hidden away with a game!" my game-devoted younger brother indignantly exclaims. True, I grant you. But I maintain that books give at least as much back as they take in. You learn about yourself, as well as about the world and time during which the book was written. You acquire more vocabulary and improve your writing skills. You can explore other cultures and places. They hone concentration and focus in a way that nothing else does. They sharpen memory. People with higher literacy levels are also three times more likely to be above the poverty level than those who don't read well. They deepen language-learning.

Video games might offer a tiny fraction of a few of those things, but you are removing yourself from the entire world. They are not connected to any reality, not even the author's, because too many people contributed for it to reveal anything about one person. They leech, with very little repayment for your attention.

Friday, 27 July 2012

For those who respect the English language.

From the Hellmouth.

I apologize for my disappearance, compatriots; I live in the mouth of hell (not in a fun, Joss Whedon-scripted sense),
 and the ever-present disease that oozes from that abyss holds me -- and my work -- hostage. I do want to take some time out from battling those demons to address our class from last Friday, though. But not how you think.

Yes, it's very imaginative that our guest used Angry Birds to engage his students in math class. Yes, I respect him for pushing the boundaries. No, I am not going to focus this week's post on any of that.

I'd much rather talk about the windows of opportunity that were flung open by Weebly. Seriously? Making an attractive, fluid website is that easy? No way.

Why am I so excited about making websites, you ask? After all, I'm Miss Quill Pen, Chalkboards Forever, Death to Technology. All true, I grant you. However, I accept that the future is here, Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century

has tazered Felicity: An American Girl,

and I need to find my place in this. Let's preserve at least some aesthetics, though.

Are any of you familiar with Edline? It's"the first truly integrated website communication platform for K-12 school districts and their learning communities," according to their website, and it certainly has its merits, despite its frequent glitches. Bottom line, though, it's ugly. It is the taupe=walled office cubicle of websites, an ultra-utilitarian administrator's approach to the digital age. It looks old and boring, no matter how efficient it might be. I would love to design my own answer to that on Weebly. Beautiful fonts, color schemes, layouts. Salient photos, videos, and links. A page that includes regularly updates assignment prompts and a copy of the syllabus. A page of resources (MLA Citation Guide; the OED; etc.). A page of pertinent miscellany: news articles, podcasts, memes (check out possible examples in the follow-up post), comic strips, all that. Maybe the welcome page would feature a word of the day, which students would correctly use in class for extra credit.

Totally better than video games, right?

And in closing, because Buffy is a brilliant show:

Sunday, 15 July 2012

My first faculty meeting.

I've never really been a "group person." Big parties, team sports, group activities in class, Girl Scouts...never really my thing. I never found I could really trust the people with whom I was expected to work, despite the countless trust exercises we were force-fed on orientations or camping trips; either they didn't do their share of the work, or their ideas were stupid, or they just wanted to goof off, or they were too competitive. I prefer working in pairs or alone.

You can imagine, then, how wary I was of pulling together with five other aspiring Humanities teachers on Friday, all trying to determine the best course of action for turning the news of Mayor Bloomberg's soda ban into a lesson plan. Let's face it: you don't become a teacher because you're not strong-minded or opinionated and don't have ideas about how to implementing those opinions. Faculty meetings are a prospect that makes me rather nervous; how could we all possibly come to an agreement that pleased us all?

I'll admit we did have some moments of tense frustration. I'll own that. But on the whole, we were fine. We all brought our own concepts to the table, and all really liked certain possibilities for projects and time frames. When we were trying to narrow it down to one definitive option, that's when we got most anxious; eventually, though, someone had the game-changing idea of not settling.

We all liked the base. We knew we wanted this project to help our students develop their analytical and evaluative skills, that they might form an opinion about a current event. We knew we wanted it to develop their oral language and persuasive writing skills, that they might be able to articulate that opinion. And we knew we wanted it to develop their research skills, that they could properly support it. We also knew that this project should teach them how to use wiki pages or blogs as tools, not merely toys: forums for evaluation and discussion, rather than just places to play or whine.

There was also a framework for how we might accomplish those goals. We'd start out by telling our students to "Go find," meaning they'd each need to go dig up one article that somehow related to the soda ban and then post it on a blog or wiki page we could all access. Together, we would then evaluate what makes them credible or not, to practice evaluating sources. From there, we would move into the meat of the project: a brainstorming activity for developing interview questions, informed by the articles they'd all found. "Interview questions? Interviewing whom?" you might ask, and right you are. Well, this is an ideal world in which we could easily get whomever we wanted to agree to an interview via Skype or, if we preferred a panel discussion, a Google+ Hangout. So, we might get a street vendor, an FDA representative, an intern from Mayor Bloomberg's office, a random consumer...whomever would be a relevant subject. They could be interviewed by the entire class at once, or they could divide into groups and each interview one subject; whatever the teacher preferred. (See how we started leaving choice open? Too much conflict was brewing for us not to do so.) After the interview(s), teachers would model a Letter to the Editor or op-ed in class, and then let the students write their own, either as homework or in class, depending on the decided time frame. These pieces would also be posted as blog entries or wiki pages. Finally, students would respond to these letters, possibly from the viewpoints of the interviewees. For a shorter project, though, a teacher might decide to cut out the interviews and have the op-eds be based on the cumulative class research alone, which would be accessible via the wiki page.

Deciding on a framework, rather than a concrete, nailed-down assignment, made me feel much more comfortable. Talking together opened up new possibilities, which I still felt free to explore without getting too far away from what other English classes in my school might be doing. If this is what faculty meetings are like, I'll be happy.

I was equally apprehensive about and equally surprised by the second half of class: podcasting. Truth be told, I barely knew what a podcast was. Something to do with audio? Kind of like a radio show, right? Wouldn't this be more of a distraction than anything else, when used in class? Yes, it was fun, and Meg and I spent a relishable hour coming up with our practice podcast (listen below!!). However, it also made me consider things that had never occurred to me before. For instance, using Google Voice for homework: students call in, leave their name, and read aloud the sonnet they just composed for homework (or something), and you listen at your leisure and grade them. I love that idea, just like I love the idea of them using a blog or wiki page to post reading responses so they can access each other's ideas outside of class as well as during.

Maybe this technology stuff isn't all bad.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Soda on Trial

When I was in tenth grade, my famously brilliant and infamously brutal history teacher assigned us a rather unique final project in lieu of a paper at the end of each semester. In the fall, we each had to choose a side in the trial of Mansur Al-Hallaj, the tenth-century Sufi mystic and revolutionary writer executed for heresy; in the spring, we did the same for Martin Luther. We had to call expert witnesses from outside the class and everything. Normally, I dislike group projects, as it's easy for all the work to fall to one person; in this situation, every student was accountable, and because we'd each chosen our sides, we couldn't complain that we weren't interested or didn't agree with the assigned position. Each of us had a historical role (for example, for the trial of Martin Luther, I was Philip Melanchthon, his lead attorney) and had to do thorough research appropriate to that role, giving us a deeper, more meaningful and impassioned understanding of the material than if we'd just taken a test or written a paper. It made the text leap up through us, thereby making it matter. Our grade was based on our research, our drive, and our zeal, not just whether or not we'd memorized some facts.

In case you hadn't noticed yet, I'm all about zeal. My students will be passionate, by golly, or just think me mad. (Or, you know, both. Both's fine.) I look for projects that elegantly marry passion with effectiveness, and Mayor Bloomberg's recent banning of super-sized sodas and other sugary drinks has certainly gotten people up in arms. What could be a more appropriate task, then, than a trial?

I would split my students in half, letting them choose whether they wanted to argue for the soda ban or against it. Within each group, they would have to take on characters and get inside their heads by researching not just the case itself, but their own characters. That would build an appreciation for character development, as well as a broader, fuller understanding of the topic itself. By having each student focus and expand on something particular to him or her, the class will be able to cover more information and includes scaffolding (webbing, if you will): they do preliminary discussion to form a base for their defense or critique, gather their information, then bring it in to the group, then discuss what else they need, then gather more, then come back, and so on. No one would be left out, no one would be able to slack, and each student would be constructing their self-efficacy by being aware of their indispensability to the group.

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Smoke screens.

"Knowledge comes from crafted bindings and pages, Buffy, not ones and zeroes."

I don't like technology. Not just a slight aversion based on unfamiliarity; we're talking about deep-rooted loathing. Seriously, my friends and family all make fun of me for being such a zealous Luddite. In fact, I named my blog after a cherished fantasy of mine: to start a school on a lighthouse island. All the faculty and students would live there together, or perhaps just on the mainland, and I would also tend the lighthouse. In addition to a core curriculum like any other school, with rigorous and passionate instruction in math, history, languages, a wide range of literatures, and the sciences, we would also teach our students how to whittle and identify plants and sail and garden. It would be an education that connected students to the world around them, both socially and geologically, as much as I feel the digital age has removed us from it. Despite what my loved ones think, though, this abhorrence of a computer-obsessed world isn't just an eccentric affectation by a woman infatuated with earlier times.

We think of technology as magic: infallible. But it's not, is it? After all, how many of us have gotten in a fight with our darn computer not printing, or freezing up right in the middle of that paper, or not connecting to the Internet at the exact wrong moment even though the router's right there? We put all of our trust in something that could so easily break down at any minute, and does.

Not only that, it's separating us from each other. More and more, people aren't communicating anymore, not really. Instead, we're settling for connection, and that just barely. It's more the illusion of connection. So what happens if we bring that into the classroom?

In our first class, we talked about an article by Bill Sheskey, "Creating Learning Connections With Today's Tech-Savvy Student," in which he described a project that took the power out of the hands of the teacher and put it into the hands of the students. Don't get me wrong; I'm all for engaging students in their own education. But if we're putting education online in such a fundamental way, aren't we contributing to the death of the classroom? More and more, people are going back to school online; a great fear of mine is that in time, the physical classroom will be as obsolete as printed books or wax-sealed letters (two of my greatest passions). Where does it stop? I know that we need to reach out to students on a level they understand, a level that feels natural to them, but how far do we go before we're digging our own graves, or at best just pandering? I want future generations to love the smell of books, to love sitting down in the tangible presence of real human beings and sharing ideas, to respect and value and understand organic conversation that can't be deleted or drafted. Am I modeling that sort of behavior if I'm encouraging them to put everything online? Can they really not get just as much benefit from demonstrating things in front of other people, in person, not in cyberspace?

Perhaps not, come to that. In his article, Sheskey mentions that in 2006 -- that's six years ago now, mind -- "two-thirds of infants and toddlers watch a screen an average of two hours per day." By this time, who knows if they can develop perspective without seeing something on a screen. Because that's the difference, after all; the interactive aspect, the personal control, the self-determination, the intra-classroom constructive criticism, those could all happen without a camera or a computer. Why is it so important for them to see this work on a screen?

Perhaps technology can be equated with magic: powerful. Evolving. In the wrong hands, disastrous. In the right hands, though, maybe...maybe we can teach students that they don't have to choose between the old world, the world I love, and the new world that belongs to them. Maybe they can have both. I'm looking forward (kind of) to learning how to do that.