Monday, December 31, 2007

Good New and the Bad News Is . . .

It's the close of the year and the close of the Winter Break. So it was time to pull out my bag and mark papers. I had plenty. But I figured the time-consuming ones, the ones that would really take some thought, were going to be my honors students' research paper outlines. I sighed as I thought about how I had work but I had given all of my students a work-free holiday. Poor me. As I went through my freshman papers, my Brit lit projects, and some other homework sheets from my honors students, the task ahead was looming. Or was it. Turns out I must have left the pile at school and will have to wait for another day. The good and the bad news is I can't grade them today. Enjoy what's left of the holiday. Happy New Year!
Image: remix from a Microsoft graphic.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Blogging: More Than a Nifty Strategy?

Last month's National Council of Teachers of English Convention in New York City boasted a session on blogging, podcasting, or wikis, just about every hour. I attended several hoping to cull a few new tips or tricks, or even better, hear some discussion on how and why teachers were using blogs and other Web 2.0 applications. Ultimately, I wanted to know what others are finding their students are learning from this sort of practice.

From research done at our school, we know that writing proficiency improves from students' blogging. And we have some hunches about why. We figure modeling and the writer's confidence and compositional structuring that develops from models have much to do with the improvement of writers over time. But what else?
The sessions on Web 2.0 were lacking in reflective pedagogy. I don't expect to hear all the answers. (Do we ever have them?) But I'd like to hear some questions and inquiry. What I heard instead were cutesy, superficial "and then we have the students' post them (projects, writings, pictures, recordings) to the Web without any consideration as to why or what happens differently when we do this.

I'm not an alarmist--rather I think we are missing an important (teachable and teaching) moment that is actually replete in positive implications for our practice. Maybe that's what concerns me most. What I was hearing was blogs and wikis being regarded as just another "thing you could do," and I think they are more than that. My experience is that teaching/learning, i.e. meaning-making and sharing of meaning in the classroom is significantly changed by the power of collaborative, public posting of ideas and products of learning on the Web.

More research is needed. More discussion is needed. More reflection is needed. For a presentation at U of PR, Cayey I wrote a one-page sheet of some questions with which to start.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Most People Exist, Some Virsist

Oscar Wilde once said, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” We'll now you can have a Second Life. But I'm not sure that's living.

Recently I've seen a promo on television for a program that examines "the effects on people who persist in virtual reality." I've seen the promo twice and can't recall whether it's a news report or special documentary. I get hung up on the phrase "persist in virtual reality." Does VR take persistance?

Well, maybe. Although I can spend clock-spinning time warps flying about in Second Life, I've yet to lose track of major slices of my first life (and I've heard some people have.) Maybe my RAM isn't hyper enough, but my avatar eventually starts freezing up and the program crashes. So persistence is part of it.

Besides being in Second Life is a sort of Oz. "People come and go so quickly here." I wouldn't call it a place to persist.

I just think "persista" is not "exist," and neither is what you do in VR. How about virsist! Persist, exist, virsist--Wilde had it right. Save some time for living.

Image: Avatar in Second Life.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Being Happy with Writing

So I'm reflecting this week on the influence Jimmy Britton and Nancy Martin have had on my teaching practice. Later this week I'm headed for New York City for the National Council of Teachers of English Convention and plan to participate in a round table discussion that celebrates New York University such luminaries in the English Education department as Britton and Martin. I had the opportunity to have Jimmy Britton and Nancy Martin as tutors during the Oxford Study Abroad Program for English Education.

As tutors neither never lectured in this program; they had you over for Scotch on the rocks and talked with you. Conversation as learning, learning as conversation.

I remember showing Nancy a handmade book project I put together in response to our group's having seen an RSC production of Romeo and Juliet. It was something I called, "Risk: Mercutio's View of Verona." It was a response that explored the portrayal of Mercutio as a victim of the feud, reading the interpretation of the actor's take as a gay, lighthearted friend of Romeo and his poignant end, essentially that of a victim of a societal events he criticized, participated in but from from which the pundit was marginalized. To accomplish this I layered contemporary graphics clipped from London event flyers and newspapers with lines from Mercutio. It was as esoteric as it was powerful. I was not sure what Nancy thought about the work, in fact, I don't remember her ever passing judgment. As she was looking it over, I wondered whether she "got it." She was in her 70s and the work dealt with plague, intimacy, fantasy, and political injustices in some very esoteric and aesthetic manners. I was unsure, that is, until she finally noticed a part that I knew was weak. She noted, "This page doesn't really fit with the others, does it?" I thought, "Wow! Nancy gets text. Any text. Full stop."

Not to miss the chance in this tutorial, I asked her what she—the one who had already spent more than half-a-century researching the topic—thought was the most important thing about writing. She scoffed at the question, at first. "Charles, oh, I can't answer that." After a pause she reflected that "maybe it is that the most important thing is the writer is happy with what he or she has written." She went on to say of course there are times when we aren't completely satisfied, we know we can do better, but for now at least, it's all right.

Not bad advice for a blogger, I think. Blogging, regularly does not allow the sort of revision process of "sleep on it" or "see how it sounds in a week." Although I must admit a good amount of backspacing, cutting-and-pasting, and on-screen rewrites, blogging means getting thoughts down and hitting the publish key without much of a gestation period.

Perhaps I was just fooling myself with those polished drafts of yore. Writing is never final, right? A blog post connotes a tentative, idea-floating aspect—a fly in amber, in a sediment of chronological posts.

Being happy, having something good enough for now, must be all right.

Image: Nancy Martin and me

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Only As Good As Your Last Workshop

Participating in the Three Rivers Educational Technology Conference, held this week in Cranberry, Pennsylvania, I rediscovered that idea that I blogged about a few posts ago. One of the obstacles for teachers to using technology is knowing about it. It's not a high hurdle. Often you just need a name of a website or piece of free downloadable software. Or maybe to watch a colleague present a how-to and watch click-click-drag-save-file.

But it's a race of a thousand and one of these low hurdles. Learning the user-friendly technology is easy, finding it is the trick.

Bit by bit over the past year, I've gained IT knowledge from other teachers through blogs and conference presentations. It's pizza by the slice. How to podcast, how to screencast, how to photostory, how to scrapblog, how to convert file types, how to create a wiki. One slice at a time.

Yesterday I went to two sessions, one on Photo Story, a free video packaging system and Moviemaker, yet another way to create video presentations in digital form. Two days ago blank slate, tomorrow's potential expert. Just add awareness.

Image created by ceyo at the National Gallery of Art (USA)'s KidZone Collage Machine .

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Time Flies in the Real World

This last month I've done little else in the moments spared from school prep than work on presentations at a variety of conferences, including a few halcyon days in the United States' most southern commonweatlth at the invitation of the University of Puerto Rico. In working on the workshops I've learned even more about technology, education, and art. The conferences have had the respective foci of Web 2.0, writing, and art museums.
I'm more sure that I'm not an expert on these topics than I am sure how I've come to be regarded as one. It seems I am just one step ahead or to the side of someone else. As I mentioned in my last post, their is a subtle difference between the novice and the veteran.
At the four conferences in which I've participated in the past month, I have been awe of the collective knowledge that abounds in a variety of fields and how instructional technology can bridge so many gaps. While at the Carnegie Museum of Art, we were making connections from scrapbooks to Scrapblog, in Pittsburgh's South Hills, we were sharing knowledge from practice, in Cayey y Ponce we were bridging art and technology, and in Pittsburgh's North Hills, blogs and writing research. With blogs at the center of the sessions, the diverse and overlapping themes of collaboration, knowledge-sharing, excitement at what's possible and potential with the Web 2.0 paradigm became abundant.
The irony is of course with all of this real world activity, my presence in the virtual waned. I guess that's not a bad thing. It's an ebb and flow.
Avoiding the risk of making another surf metaphor, I'm going to wrap up this reflection with a recollection of the opening of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." It's not the plot or characters that I'm thinking of, but the occasion that allows Marlow that space to spin his yarn--the men are sitting aboard a merchant ship on the Thames in London "waiting the flood." Nothing else to do, but wait and tell of one's adventures.
Moving between the virtual and the real life of a blog is something like that perhaps. While sailing amid the high tide there's little time sit and talk about it. Maybe as the flood ebbs.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Novice to Expert in a Few Clicks

It's my understanding--not my experience-- that in terms of snowboarding, the difference between a novice and an expert is two weeks. That may not be true--and I'm sure for those who are "extreme" it is not. We all know the when it comes to making a PowerPoint slideshow the difference is 15 minutes (just to make one) and 15 hours (to make a really good one).

So what does it take to be a Teacher 2.0, a poweruser of Web 2.0 tools in the classroom?

Well, at the BOSSAC 2007 In-service Day, I witnessed 30 teachers go from novice to expert in under 5 hours. Where the were only two teachers who could define seven out of twenty-five Web 2.0 terms at the start of the day, everyone was creating their own blogs, wikis, and podcasts by day's end. It was great witness.

Two perceptions (of many) I took away from the day. One: how easy Web 2.0 technology really is, even for digital immigrants like our "shift happens" generation. And two: how powerful just a few Quick Starts can be to making that shift happen for the willing. I have no doubt that that Monday won't make a difference that shows up in the classrooms of our region. Here's my challenge to those of you who were part of the workshop and learned something new: Pass it along to at least one other teacher.

Now that you know, pay it forward.

For those of you who weren't at the workshop but are interested in learning about a few ways to use contemporary Web tools in your classrooms, find the handouts and Quick Starts at under Media for Educators. Soon you, too, will be "catching some air."

Image credit: Smith, Jonathan. "Snowboard Air." Dziner. 10 Jan 2007

Saturday, October 6, 2007

eLearning: Not for the Faint at Heart

This month I am participating as session presenter in four conferences on Web 2.0. Every presentation is a bit different than the other. Prepping for diverse audiences on the same general topic has its own challenges and rewards. The challenge is obvious, but the reward is what interests me.

As I work on my presentations--to be "an expert in the room"--I find out how little I know about a vast subject. There are so many wonderful meanings and applications of Web 2.0. Everyday there are new blogs, widgets, wikis, videos, podcasts ad infinitum. As I prepare to mention some "old standbys" I notice new tools on the horizon. It can be overwhelming to consider.

Likewise it is exciting. By sussing out the answers I need for the next presentation, I find new ways to use the Web. The "teacher-as-expert-training" in me panics over not having all four corners of the World Wide Web pinned down. The digital immigrant in me is thrilled to know a few more tools in the lexicon of educational media literacy.

The best advice I can give for those who attend my presentations and have the same feelings of trepidation of swimming in an ocean of information and technology that becomes fathoms deeper and leagues broader every minute is to embrace the concept of "perpetual beta." Yes, the world is changing--it has changed, it will continue to change. Most likely we teachers will never again "know it all." We may not even ever "know as much" about some of the emerging media as our students already do. That's okay.

As digital immigrants, we may never loose our BG (Before Google) accents, but if keep at improving our understanding of the IT lexicon and rethink our pedagogies that have served us well, we can offer our students one of the best models: that of a genuine learner.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

How to Endure: Work Around or Break Through

If teaching in world of "perpetual beta" isn't enough, as I reach the midpoint of my career (inshallah) with "sixteen years down, sixteen to go" my sciatic nerve, damaged in an accident years ago, is acting up. I'm moving slower, having to ask for help to move boxes, not able to make the mad-dash to the copy machine as I used to. As one of my doctors told me a couple of years ago, "Welcome to middle age, Mr. Youngs."

Far from burnout (I hope, I would know), it is daunting to think of the road ahead. It's a thought I've started the year with and so I was struck by a comment made by author Philip Roth, speaking with consummate interviewer Terry Gross on her show Fresh Air, which was aired yesterday. Referring to the character of his new book Exit Ghost, Roth notes that he has come to a point in his life when he has to figure out how to endure.

How to endure. Hmmm. I am a different teacher than I was when I started. Sure I have more tricks in my bag, multiple intelligences, authentic assessment, process drama, narrative inquiry, web technology. But because of the oxymoronic constant change, I'm not sure if I am any better equipped. What will I be --have to be, get to be--in another sixteen years?

No matter how much I learn about teaching--so much is changing! Do I teach the old stuff to give context or the new stuff to be relevant? Finding time to teach into the future while still teaching the background, the classics, the histories, the foundations can be very frustrating. And finding ways to explain it to parents, administrators, colleagues, and students is another great challenge.

Now, don't get me wrong: I believe the alternative--i.e. to stop trying new things and keeping up with the kids and the world--is a nonstarter. Call the engraver and put no hopeful verse on my tombstone.

But how to endure? I can remember in my first year of teaching my principal, Ralph Packard, said "have a hobby." In many ways I've tried to wrap my hobbies into my teaching. Perhaps this blog is a hobby. (I'm an amateur, I don't get paid, It's at my whim, right?)

I've always been a teacher with bundles to and from school. I don't know whether I am more in admiration, disbelief, or frightened by my colleagues who can walk in and out of the school parking lot with nothing in their hands. If the paper load weren't enough, there's the artifacts, the foods, the music, the art, the books that I use to teach literature. Tomorrow I am going to have to make few trips with all the India stuff I'm going to be using in our wrap up of reading Siddhartha.

As I age as a teacher, I suppose I am going to have to lighten my load. Maybe find tricks that don't require a bag.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007


Today a freshman student told me texting isn't language. Well, it sounds oddly like Orwell's Newspeak but I disagreed. Sure, it's language, a specific register for a specific purpose. He was a freshman, what do they know, right?Here's a recent article on the topic of texting and its effects on English that features the comments of William Kist, author of New Literacies in Action: Teaching and Learning in Multiple Media. Texting, too, is at the ominous heart of this PSA from the AdCouncil's prevention series on Online Sexual Exploitation: "Acronyms," perhaps playing on adult fears of the texting phenomenon.

Out of the loop? For texting dictionaries see Lingo2Word and a quick reference sheet is at Some opportunities to talk about what language is and how technology and media are changing it once again. Remember the invention of the book?

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project report Teens and Technology, almost half of teens have a cell phone and a third of teens text.

With things wordsome, I turn to Google to find out if Geoffrey Numberg has weighed in. Sure enough he's interviewed, along with Naomi Baron on NPR's On The Media in a piece called "Generation Text" recorded in October 2004. These two experts offer a lively debate for consideration.

The whole is not long and worth reading (or listening to). Here's a excerpt:

NAOMI BARON: We know that children learn to talk because there are some people -- we call them adults or older kids -- who already know the system, and the younger kids pick up an awful lot of what we model for them. My question is not "Can you have a range of different registers -some informal, some formal, some texting, some essays that you turn in for class" -- but "Are we modeling those more formal forms of writing that we used to?" And I don't think we are so much any more.

GEOFFREY NUNBERG: The more you write, the better you write. The best way to learn to write is not to learn the rules or take courses. Just sit down and write. To that extent, I think you could argue that the kids who are now doing text messaging and email and, and IMs and so on and so forth, will wind up writing at least as well as and possibly better than their parents or than any generation in history.

Numberg goes on to say that he finds this generation of teens using writing to communicate where previous generations did not. So it's not a matter of different but more.

Insomuch as teens are going to do what teens are going to do when it comes to socializing, the best angle for teachers of English to take is "can't beat 'em, join 'em." Work with the language they love in comparison and contrast to lovely language. Teach the registers of appropriate use. When is texting best? How can texting create better note-taking in class? What sort of poetry evolves? What phonetic tricks do we use when we text? 4XMPL

Finally, in regard to the above excerpt, I agree with both linguists. Baron's right when she says we don't present enough models of good formal writing (how many research papers have students read, besides their own attempts? yet we insist they get it right with one try a year). The more one reads, the better one writes. I can always pick out the avid readers by marking teens' essays. And Numberg's point is generally agreed upon--the more one writes, the better one writes.

Baron adds, "Those habits are easily broken if somebody cares to break them." Teens will text, we must teach.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Productive Tension

One of the many elements of Dorothy Heathcote's Mantle of the Expert approach that can inspire all sorts of lessons, not just those which utilize drama-for-learning methods, is her concept of productive tension.

Heathcote identifies levels of engagement in process drama activities in the classroom, that might be worth considering for learning activities in general. The levels are


Productive obsession--how often do our lesson plans engage our students to this level?

This idea of productive obsession reminds me of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's ideas of flow pronounced in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. In his Introduction this concept is described:

The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in
consciousness. This happens when psychic energy--or attention--is invested
in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. "Flow"
is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously
ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.
It seems much of school is managing to bring students to the level of attention and sometimes interest. Surely, the power of educational drama is a great means by which to deepen students' engagement.
But we can't always be in a drama process. The challenge is to devise lessons that are so relevant to students that the levels of involvement, concern, and commitment are reached and then the level of productive obsession hoped for.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Battery Recharge #2: A Li'l PD

Personally, this has been one of the toughest summers for relaxing. Not to bore you with the number of homestead projects (painting, gardening, fixing, fixing, fixing, and a guerrilla war on some surreptitious carpenter ants) or the number of academic ones (lecture presentations, editing textbooks, and curriculum writing), let's just say I'm not getting much of a tan.

Still when I had the chance to work for three days in "A Seminar with Dorothy Heathcote" at The Ohio State University's Department of Teaching and Learning, I backed my bags and headed for Columbus and some professional development in the realms of process drama and "mantle of the expert." Dorothy Heathcote, internationally renowned for pioneering work in educational applications of drama, is indefatigable as she is inspirational. Three days running at on hot August days at OSU, after a week at my alma mater NYU, she was raring to go as the forty of us students were ready for our naps.

I've been using process drama for the past 14 years and have always wanted to know more from the grand dam herself. Indeed it was a very worthwhile trip . . . and will take some time to make sense of the whirlwind of ideas and stories and structures shared.

Before I sift through my notes and recordings, I want to simply pause to reflect on how different the worlds of dramacraft and I.T. are. One as ancient as the first story, one momently emerging. Yet, imagine the mashups that could come about in putting the two together!--as students can not only capture their dramatic expression in media but also share them in a vast forum. Moving from the very private integral audience of process drama outward to product. Indeed their are possibilities, but I am wary of the price to be paid of moving in that direction necessarily. Some things are better--indeed precious--when left unpublished. Process drama might be one of them.

This leads me to weigh other processes, such as the writing process, and in fact, the learning process. Sometimes publishing process means a tombstone or albatross.

P.S. When I titled this, I meant PD as in professional development. But I suppose "process drama" works, too. PD on pd.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Recharging the Batteries #1: Mali's Viral Slam

It's midsummer. A time by which I hope some of the stress of the previous school year has melted in the Western Pennsylvanian humidity of July. A time when I start to shift through all of those piles of "to file." A time when I begin go to a mall and not wince at the sight of teens. A time when I start preparing for next year with some enthusiasm.

Today, I got a boost as I watched slam poetry bard Taylor Mali on YouTube on "What Teachers Make." Almost anyone who's been a teacher more than a year has run into one of dozens of sophomoric spams about how teachers "make a difference." So true perhaps, but so cliche. Yet, Mali's take on the topic entitled, "What Teachers Make, or Objection Overruled, or If things don't work out, you can always go to law school," refreshes the defense.

If Mali's answers are much the same as other similar "make a difference" poems, his ramp up to the answer provides a good context having a lawyer ask the question, and the clever: "I decide to bite my tongue instead of his." Granted, at points Mali's language and gesture may offend some people, but it is these that give the verse (and his delivery) versimilitude and freshness, if not an echo of a few union meeting diatribes. Bottom line: it got to me.

It added to my annual recharging of batteries, and thinking it might do the same for you, I've included the links here. Again, warning: it has content that might be objectionable to some. It's slam poetry after all.
According to Mali, 'turns out that many of those spams I've seen in the past few years are likely to have been the work of plagiarists at the school copier. (Teachers would do that? Nah!) Suffice it to say the original is best and delivered most believably and powerfully by its author. Take a look at what is another viral video for pedagogs. At least if it gets spammed, it will be the genuine article.

The full text of the poem is available at YouTube page, or, better by far (i.e. worth the visit), at

Monday, July 9, 2007

Is YouTube the Next Google?

In Patricia Deuble's article Second Life: Do You Need One? (Part 1) in June 2007 issue of T.H.E. Journal, she describes her own process of frustration and discovery in figuring out how Linden Lab's online role-playing game worked. Listing what was helpful, she notes a tutorial on YouTube.

There's a growing list of SL video tutorials, plus the Top 10 Second Life Tutorial Videos on YouTube, which helped to explain inventory and how to make gestures, for example. Inventory is anything you collect in SL that you can put on your avatar, use to build, or give away.
This first made me realize that, until now, I would not have thought to suss around YouTube for a tutorial on anything, despite the fact that I have watched tutorial videos from YouTube when they were placed in the context of a site on a particular topic, including the YouTube tutorials on YouTube.

I guess I'm a slow learner.

So then I thought: as more people (and instituions and companies and schools) pick up camcorders and turn on webcams to create informative and educational content for YouTube (and other competing video websites) I imagine the phrase "YouTube it!" following "Google it!" Of course, Google has a video search section of its own, but not cultural clout that YouTube seems to currently enjoy.

Of course, with this development will need come the apparatus to teach students to evaluate, cite, and document their web video sources. Ah, yeah, that will take the fun out of it.

Friday, July 6, 2007

Summer Stock

Almost a month since the school bells rang for the last time before summer vacation, it is just about now that I can begin to relax. It's also given me some time to do some remodeling on my class website and reflect on what I've learned about blogging in the classroom this year. Er, maybe I should say, "outside of the classroom."

I believe I've learned more about my students' experience with blogging from my experience here at ifbeesarefew. Knowing this I would highly recommend to any teacher who is planning on creating a blog for his or her classes to also create their own blog or at least participate regularly in a blog.

Here's what I've learned:

Getting started is difficult--almost every time. Posting is scary, partly because, if you make a mistake everyone can see it, and partly because its possible that no may read what you are writing.

Writing develops thinking. As the great British teacher and research of writing Nancy Martin always contended, I think as I write. If I have no idea as to what to write a post on, all I have to do is sit down and start writing. Before I know it I have a post.

Ownership leads to quality. The same fear creates the positive results of ownership. When I blog I really care what I write, and my writing is generally better because of this care.

Readership (and comments) encourage a blogger. When I get a comment, note a jump in my counter, or see a new city pop up in my visitor map, I get excited to think others are reading. Having an audience matters also shapes my "voice." Again, the "care" factor kicks in. For a variety of reasons an audience matters full-stop.

Writing models are powerful tools. I use others' posts as models. I have learned more about how to write, lead in, quote, document, give analysis, and develop ideas in my blog posts thanks largely to great models of others' blogs.

Ease allows for length and length for depth. Although most blogs require brevity, as a teacher, I know I encourage my students to write more than they would on their own. And there is something about filling up a blog post dialogue box that seems easy (as I say, once one gets started) than filling up a regular word-document. The conversational nature of blogging also seems to call forth "voice" more than conventional word-processing. So as my students wax on, they deepen their thinking/writing.

Brevity calls for precision and economy. For me, length is not a problem, once I get started. And so the challenge is to be concise and precise. Again, a valuable writing skill for my students.

As I said, I've learned about my students by learning about myself. My hunch is that the above attributes and experiences that are true for me are true for my students as well. They confirm a value I as a teacher see in having my students blog--if only for the sake of improving their writing and thinking skills, let alone practice in media literacy and civic responsibility.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Deja Vu on Blogging

As soon as I posted the previous entry about my students' comments on blogging, I checked out Karl Fisch's Fishbowl blog and found it remarkable how similar his students' and teachers' experiences are to those at my school. Good to know. And thanks to his team putting together this video, we can see and hear all the good things the folks in Colorado have been doing. There are two versions--a long and a short--here's the short. Enjoy!

Students Surveyed Said

My end-of-the-year survey of my seniors about their experiences with blogging for class are in. Many of the comments are perennial: "I liked seeing what others thought" and "The hardest thing was remembering to do it."

This year, because of the size of the course roster being nearly 100, I also received the comment that it was "overwhelming to read so many," not that it was mandatory to do so. But I felt that, too; so for next year I'm brainstorming new configurations. May be there could be several blogs on various approaches to literature.

Just about everyone, whether they liked or disliked it, felt they had gained something from the blog. "It helped me spellcheck and re-edit my writing," "It's public so people are more careful about what they say," "Reading different opinions," and "Gaining confidence in voicing our opinions."

One student felt that it was a way for students to copy other students ideas. I was wondering about this myself. What could be viewed as copying could also be modeling. I have learned more about blogging in three months by blogging than I have in three years administering the blog, simply by reading other blogs, coming up with entries on my own, and reading comments. Modeling from blogger to blogger can be a myopic inbreeding at times, but I have faith in the evolutionary urge to develop beyond what is familiar, comfortable territory. Sure we all look around and adopt styles and ideas from each other. Then something happens by accident or by intention, and with a jolt, we move the bus forward.

What was new this year in the survey responses was the answer to the question on whether they had heard of blogs before working with the class blog. Whereas last year it was a mixed response tending toward "no," this year was a resounding "yes."

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Press on Our Classroom Blogging

We were delighted to receive some local press coverage for our work with blogs at our school. And I'm not using the editorial or royal "we" here--down the hall from my classroom Mike Bellini and Nicole Roth have been blogging with their students as well. While I've been having my English 12 Honors students blog, Mike has been working with English 9-1 classes, and Nikki has been working with English 9-2 students. The article appears in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Most notable are some of Nikki's findings in her doctoral work on the effects of blogging on her students' writing proficiency. Yes, bloggers seemed to not only write more, but better. The article made for a nice ending of the school year.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Today, I'm thinking style. Not the "Devil Wears Prada" sort, but blogstyle. As a teacher of writing's Avram Pilch's "Web Writing Rules to Live By" caught my attention. Here are his rules (although some really need his explication to provide the full benefit):

1.Conserve Your Words
2.Write to Empower, Not to Impress
3. Follow a consistent Web Writing Style Guide
4. Avoid Unnecessary Intro Text
5. Avoid Redundant Adjectives
6. Watch Out for Wimpy Words
7. Replace Wordy Phrases with Single Words
8. Replace Prepositional Phrases With Adjectives
9. Don't Turn Verbs Into Nouns
10. Use Precise Language

These are good rules to pass on to my students for their blogging as well as for their other compositions.
Image credit: "Prada Eyeware Models." Go Optic. 30 May 2007

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Really Simple

I've seen several RSS explanations in the past months (and I have to admit sometimes I still am confused about how to create subscriptions). I guess it is so easy to do that I think it should have more steps to learn. Mark Wagner at The Infinite Thinking Machine has just posted one of the simplest intros to Really Simple Syndication for teachers.

And now the Google has iGoogle with widgets with which I can subscribe to everything right down to my own podcasts (just to make sure they are getting through the blogosphere), RSS makes even more sense. Before I'd forget to go look in my "favorites" folder. Now they just appear everytime I open my homepage to iGoogle. Now that's really simple.

So as a teacher I have my students subscribe to daily homework updates I send as podcasts through Gcast. They think it is really cool that when they synch their iPods afterschool, they don't have to do anything but listen. Er, well listen, and then DO their homework.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Always Have a Backup Plan

Always have a backup plan. I was about to say "what teacher doesn't," but I find that many of my colleagues simply don't. The fall back plan is "study hall." After reading Karl Fisch's blog on "Customer Service," I am imagining what if the computer techs just said, "too bad." (Although I have had two recent out-sourced service reps from Verizon DSL ("Eric" from India, and "Chris" from the Phillipines) give really bad service--one said it was my problem and the other said there was no problem! Anyway, throwing up our hands and saying "study hall" or "talk amongst yourselves quietly" is rather the same.

Still, in my last post I mentioned I was to by in San Francisco at this time. Last-minute change of plans. Trip postponed till September. So this week I am working on another blog for the Carnegie Museum of Art and students at my school. We are going to be taking visits to CMA over the next year and blogging about our experiences. And as I was flipping between blog accounts on another server, I accidently deleted not just a blog, but my entire account and all blogs on it! I couldn't believe it. I was numb to the realization. All of the HTML code!--gone!

Then I realized that although the year's English 12 Honors blog was history, the CMA blog was actually under another account, and this morning, by a stroke of good luck, copied the code of the English 12 Honors page to another account for next year's class. I was able to retrieve it and set up my previous account. The year's work is now only on hard copies, and the students' most recent work is lost, but at least we can get up an running for the last two weeks of school. I could say "chuck it," but my blog's not out-sourced yet, and there'll be no "study hall."

Monday, May 14, 2007

Blogosphere, San Francisco Calling

I'm looking forward to visiting San Francisco to present a session on Weblog Literacy to a conference of teachers later this week. After being in the blogosphere it's nice to put one's feet on terra firma and talk with teachers about blogging, share challenges and inspirations.

Sort of like the experience politicians must feel inside the beltway and losing track of reality, being in the blogosphere and surfing the Net one can get a rarified view of technology in education and loose track of what's really happening in classrooms across the country. To only read the tech-savvy blogger-educators can leave one with the impression that everyone else is way ahead of the game.

As far behind in learning about how to integrate Web 2.0 tools into my own teaching in comparison to others in my blogroll, I feel I am even more arears to getting colleagues and students and parents up to speed. It's easy to feel overwhelmed at how much there is to learn, and then to think about how what I'm trying to learn today is already being usurped by the "what's next." It will be good to find out what educators in silicone valley are thinking, tooling, and teaching.

Comparing my practice to some of the pioneers out here in the blogosphere, or even Californians on the ground may miss the point. As my uncle who used to take me and my belongings to college once told me on one of those sojourns said, "You'll always be better than somebody and somebody else will always be better than you."

Maybe that's where the paradigm of collaboration begins, and the spirit of competition peters out. Reading and writing blogs and web pages with colleagues and mentors, as well as with students, has enriched my teaching practice in a few short months and years--a grand self-paced professional development, it's like grad school, only without the federal loans and without the Act 48 (PA re-ceritification credits). As I figure out what I have to offer my students and my colleagues, I find benefits of what they offer in return.

Image credit: 14 May 2007 San Francisco, CA, USA. Google Maps

Saturday, May 5, 2007

While My Students are On There

Blogging like the Web itself is a visual as well as a textual medium. So as when I have my students responding to Sherman Alexie's film Smoke Signals in our class blog, I have them visit the National Museum of American Indian online art exhibition called "Indian Humor."

On the site they find out more American Indian art, identity, and humor. The site showcases the winsome wit and wisdom that comes from oppression and disenfranchisement, just as Alexie does so well, in his poetry and film, uses humor to explore and express what it means to be an American Indian in the United States today.

Not quite a webquest, the assignment works with the media and provides plenty of inspiration for students to express ideas related to Smoke Signals, humor, and identity. I figure as long as I have my students sitting in front of a computer, accessing the Internet, they might as well take full advantage.

Breaking Blogger's Block

As I thought about this blog entry, I realized I had some blogger's block akin to "writer's block." I've had a couple of ideas rambling about in my mind this week but nothing really came forth as the "must blog" about item. I have spent my last couple of drive times to and from work catching up on podcasts from The teachers there often discuss their collaboration on the elgg In these talks, they've presents a few worthwhile ideas on prompting student writing and blogging. So I thought I'd pass along some these today.

Unlike the blog I host with my literature students where the blogspace is devoted to discussing the texts we're studying, the Youth Voices elgg seems to be set up with the purpose of getting students to write about a variety of topics, whatever interests them. And they've come up with some great prompts or ideas of how to spur student writing that could lead to opening up discussions and collaborative posting in the blog. For instance, Paul Allison, often the moderator of TTT writes in response to the question "What do we want students to blog about in school?:
"One of the ideas we are working on with students in these
high school and middle school elggs is '20 Questions: 10 Self and 10 World'.
This is an idea that we’ve adapted from
James A. Beane's from notions of
the integrated, democratic curriculum."
That sounds like a super prompt to get students involved and talking about what matters to them and their world. And from the sound of things on TTT it is yeilding some worthwhile results.
Another interesting idea I heard in a recent podcast is the idea of assigning letters of the alphabet to students to inspire their writing. The challenge for each student is to write about something that begins with a given letter. This was part of a digital storytelling project presented on a TTT podcast by Kevin Hodgson. For one project he and his sixth-grade students decided to tell stories that were each based on the alphabet scheme. Further, he considers assembling them in a variety of ways from alpha order to arrangements of words. Clever stuff.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

How To Podcast and Screencast

Inspired to find out more about podcasting from a podcast posted by from January (post TT 35 1_10_07) that was on the topic , I attended the (no relation) conference held in Cranberry, PA in March. (How's that for the DNA replication and network of Web 2.0!)

Anyway, as frustrated as I was in finding the how-tos to podcast, I am delighted to find at how easy it is to podcast. Many thanks to Christopher Coole, a seventh grade math teacher from Franklin Regional School District (PA) who led the workshop I attended. Each week I'm discovering ways to do incorporate podcasts into my classroom and website. Granted I needed to buy a digital recorder. With the free download of iTunes and Audacity, and a free membership to Gcast. I've been on my way--recording assignment updates on the fly. My students are amazed that they can stay in the know on by syncing their iPods at home. Sure editing longer pieces can be more time consuming to do--a weekend project, but again, once they are in the can, I can refer students to them and save the chops. Students can listen to other class periods' Socratic Circle discussions.

I feel a bit like NPR's Lost and Found Sound team, noticing audible events to record for podcast. Not to have my recorder with me has become like being out for a walk, noticing an incredible sunset and being without a camera. Suddenly I'll be in the midst of what would make an interesting recording, only to discover didn't think to bring my recorder along--who knew there'd be great sounds here! To fill the void on how-to podcast, for the uninitiated I've published on my web site a five-page Quick Start Guide to Podcasting for Educators details the steps I've learned. Certainily there are other ways of going about it (and differences for Apple users). I only know what I know today and happy to share that. There will be a new way tomorrow. And ways exist to enhance the process with purchasable software, but this will suffice if you just want to give it a go on the cheap.

Screencasts, real-time presentations of audio and video capture of a computer screen, are ridiculously easy to make with free software from Microsoft--Microsoft Encoder--if you have a microphone. The Encoder wizard will teach you the rest. This weekend I tried my hand at a couple and couldn't believe the plug-n-play ease of the application. I see my summer projects lining up for next year's tutorials on Internet research, among other things. I posted a couple screencast tutorials to my website for students. One is on how to add links and images to our class blog. My students can get the tutorial when they need it and watch it as many times as they need.

The application of such technology to accommodate the myriad and sundry needs and paces of student learning will be far reaching indeed. In the blog roll I'm reading of oodles of innovations educators are developing. I invite all comers to comment on how you are using podcasts and screencasts to add to this post.

Publishing Le Blogue, La Raison d'Etre

A colleague with whom I've been working on student blogs, Nicole Roth, recently finished her doctoral research on blogging and its effects on high school writing. Her study indicates that despite an initial drop in proficiency that we guess might be accounted for by the newness of the experience, a learning curve of how-to use blog technology, or perhaps a hesitancy to write for a real audience after writing for "just to get it done" across so many years of schooling, soon the students were surpassing their peers whether they were writing in long-hand or via word processors. So our hunches about students writing more and writing for publication--and instant publication at that--leading to greater proficiency are confirmed. More on that and Nicole's study in a future blog.

What got me thinking about this was something I heard in a screencast from Elizabeth Perry's blog. Elizabeth Perry is a fellow educator, blogger, author, artist, and last but not least fellow Pittsburgher. In her screencast she eloquently describes the process of how she came to blog her daily sketches in the Carnegie Museum of Art in the aesthetically-tuned museum drawing project. It's worth some time spent in mulling over her work. Lovely drawings. For those folks who know the museum, will be the recognition that she has caught the familiar, natural order of the place in her sketches. Perry comments on a motivation of her blogging that I think is integral to why it might works so well. She reflects:

"Once I started, the public and shared nature of that process made me want to keep going. The response has been encouraging."

I find myself connecting with this sentiment with regard to my own and my students' blogging experiences. I've blogged now for a month and I feel a sense of small, quiet accomplishment every time I put my two cents in. My sense is that this feeling comes not from the reflection inherent in writing, and the thinking at the point of utterance, but also because it is not just for myself. I don't know if will always be so. But I know it is good for today. My first motivation to blog was to find out if I could hack it. There I was asking students to do something I had not attempted, other than what comments I had offered in our class blog. Whether or not I have an audience or am rattling on in an empty room seems to matter not. My keypad needs the exercise. Wait! someone lurked in from London this week! There's the adrenaline rush and I'm good for another 7 days.

I can remember as a kid I would spend all day making art projects. I had piles of drawings, pastings, cutouts, paintings--you name it, if it could be made with construction paper, markers, paste, crayons, pencils, cotton, pipe cleaners, ad infinitum, it was in my pile. I created one or several art pieces a day. Yet, I still remember having the realization one day at age 4 that I was wasting my time because no one was going to see the pile. I gave up the practice and tossed most of it away. And although I continued to dabble with graphics on through the rest of my life, and copped an job at an ad agency because of it, and have a strong appreciation for art, as a boy I never imagined an audience. I stopped for lack of a public. So maybe would not have become an artist. After all, artists claim they create for themselves, right?
And I at 4 concluded an audience was my art's raison d'etre and mostly ceased to create. For this post, I pulled out a drawing from kindergarten. (Note my teacher Mrs. Pullings' encouragement at the bottom.) Like a chronically ill patient that manages to live to see the cure, it's a survivor to the day of personal, global publication. What if I could have published my pile in 1968! Who knows? Maybe my art would have continued. Ah, well, not meant to be.

Yet, I consider the empowering nature of Internet publishing to our students and how it contributes to the depth of literary analysis, synthesis, and composition as they make their own voices known on our class blogs (By the way, the reason there is no hyperlink to the class blogs is that for the time being anyway, they are closed-forums, for security concerns, and therefore I am unable to share). But rest assured, for all their groaning about "having to blog," my students are gaining in their writing and thinking because of the practice and even more so because of the publishing, not to me, but to each other. They have a public that matters to them and I have the wisdom of a 4 year-old boy telling me so.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

We Have Poetry

April has been a cruel month. First, we suffered seasonally low temperatures, nor'easters, and then chilling killings in Blacksburg, Pittsburgh, and Houston. Two bomb threats brought troops of police and dogs and weapon detectors to our school's campus and set everyone on edge. It's not been the time for exploring new technologies.

Rather, we struggled all week to have a poetry workshop to celebrate National Poetry Month. About 40 students worked throughout the week with local coffeehouse bard Brad Yoder, crafting poems and riffs, mixing spoken word with tunes, music with lyrics. And on Friday, April 20, Brad led a Poetry Cafe in our school's media center. Students came from several classes throughout the day to enjoy drinks and snacks provided by our lit mag staff and participate in a poetry-slam-music jam event of words and music. Featured were our school's very own talented song and wordsmiths.

After the past couple of weeks of insane events, coming together in the heart of the campus--the media center is positioned centrally among eight classroom buildings--and enjoying songs of love, friends, hometowns, school life, teen life, and life in general, seemed to be a great antidote to the craziness in the world. It seemed a good break from "breaking news."
Planned a year in advance, our Poetry Cafe had nothing to do with this month's incidents. It simply came at the right time to create sanctuary amidst what T.S. Eliot called the "cruelest month." The power of poetry, whether spoken or sung, remains one constant to give us context for thought, feeling, and experience.
In an NPR Fresh Air interview following 9/11, then poet laureate Billy Collins noted that "poetry stands up very well" in times of grief and searching. (How many times have reporters asked an unanswerable "why?" to the events of this past week, how many times have we heard weak, babbling attempts to describe the senseless.) In times of tragedy, we have a need for poetry. Collins notes:

"I found it interesting, in a time of national crisis. We don't turn to the novel. You know, we don't say, "well, we should all go see a movie--that would kinda make us feel better."

Poetry, despite its reputation as "the sort of poor little match girl of literature, . . . stands up very well" at times such as these. In the interview, Collins reminds us that poetry is a place for the grief to go. How many times have poems added meaning, laughter, solace, a sense of our humanity, and a sense out of our humanity!
Imagine if our media could give us this this sort of poetic expression and sense--not some sophomoric or banal treatment, but something truly representatively human. Well, perhaps they can't. Nor shouldn't. Media and technology more often than not fail to make us more human. Lately, they have seemed only able to add to our fears and loathing rather than ease our stresses. Despite all of the outlets hears only one note.
Does Web 2.o offer with its read/write functionality offer more promise? Will its collaborative, open structure to allow content to be sent and received more democratically lend itself to the poetry of being human. We'll see.
In the meantime, and the mean times, we have poetry.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

As Much As We Can Carry

At my school, we've had another security threat and all lockers are to be emptied and locked in 24 hours. Book bags, gym bags and so forth will not be allowed on campus, and so students will be coming to class in two days with only the books they can reasonably carry with them about campus all day. Some students won't come period and those that do won't have much with them. Many may have nothing in hand.

Determined and duly instructed to have "a scheduled day of school," I monitor and adjust--finding links to online texts for homework reading and posting pdf files of handouts and worksheets that students can pull from home. I find myself paradoxically plugging in technology when the personal immediacy may be too much to ask, yet a way to keep things human.

Thus done, I pause for a moment and am reminded of last summer, when I was flying home from Istanbul on the weekend of the British air travel scare. As I was standing in line with all of my bags, planning to carry some valuable and fragile treasures from my stay onto the plane, all passengers to the United States or Britain were informed that we'd be allowed nothing but our passports in hand. I found myself in the queue scrambling my pottery, icons, carpets, books in a hodge-podge of dirty laundry. Madly I wrapped objects d'art in a weeks' worth of underwear. All cameras, books, magazines, koosh pillow--any item that might have comforted me on the 18 hours of travel ahead had to be sent through baggage. Stripped of everything but a passport and boarding pass, I gathered myself onto the plane that would take me to Paris and then onto another bound for New York. After the news reports, the surprise at the check-in, the extra searches, and the wonder at what could happen next, all I could carry was my wits at their end.
I've learned over the years that no matter what happens, the school bells ring and the kids come in, the school bells ring, and kids go on their way. What happens in between in the little time we have together is fleeting, itself likely to be forgotten. Teens always have on their minds myriad, sundry things at any given moment, least of which might be my lesson at hand. Still, I hope in the time we have together in the next couple of days, we learn some things about literature surely, but more than that, I hope we remember lessons of resiliency, resolve, and respect as we cope with the distractions, frustrations, and uncertainty, to say nothing of anything worse. I expect we have a chance to realize that every day it takes courage to get on with each other in school and in the wider world. We just usually don't think about it. Thank goodness we teachers and students are not accustomed to searching, wanding, and sniffing for harm, slantways checking each other for something off.

Nor are we used to looking to each other for calm, assurance, and protection with quite so much necessity. Yet, even on the ordinary days, there we are, trusting each other, restlessly working, negotiating, arguing, mending, and figuring out the past, present, and future together. It's not for the feint at heart even on a good day. In the days of the immediate future it may likely be a full measure tougher. We just might need as much courage as we can carry.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Knowing Ourselves

But cruel are the times when we are traitors and do not know ourselves, when we hold rumor from what we fear, yet know not what we fear, but float upon a wild and violent sea, each way and none.

--Shakespeare, Macbeth 4.2.18-22

Last week high school where I teach had a security threat–a Friday, the 13th thing. Having followed the graffiti-delivered threat and subsequent rumors grinding from the mill for some time now, at the end of the day Thursday, school officials announced the threat in a letter to parents. The administration would take precautions of securing the buildings and so forth, but school would be held as scheduled. Well done, indeed.

On Friday, what learning could be had was got without incident, other than two-thirds of the students were not in class.

A retired detective and school security director once told me that there are three responses to danger given to human beings: fight, flee, or freeze. I suspect these all come from another F word: fear. I’m not sure what accounts for all the fear nowadays. In the years following 9/11 it’s easy to scapegoat the government and the media for a climate of fear, and of course these estates have much to do with American perception, but I think we must look at the motes in our own eyes as well. According to a Harris Poll, teens today are somewhat more afraid and 49% think a terrorist event is likely to occur near them than teens were in November 2001 (42%).

Personally, I’m more worried about the worry. My seniors were in 7th Grade when the World Trade Center was felled. What have we been teaching, have they been learning, since? It seems for all American’s flag waving nationalism and bumper sticker self-righteousness when it comes down to there is a lot of us that is likely to flee or freeze when faced with an actual danger.

Freedom is not for the feint at heart. How much a land of the free and home of the brave are we if we shrink from a scrawled message on a bathroom wall. I agree with our opening the school Friday to all who would attend.

It reminds me of taking a airplane trip in November 2001, my first since 9/11. Perhaps it took a little courage, but by far it was the most encouraging thing I could do at the time. The way to fight terrorism–whether from abroad or from home or from school–is to face it. To shrink from it is to "hold rumor from what we fear and know not what we fear," and thus, to let terrorism win and leave us to "float upon a wild and violent sea, each way and none."

I don’t blame my students who stayed home on Friday the 13th–some were scared, some had parents who were nervous, and some saw a chance to play hooky–I do fret, though, about what lessons about fear we teach each other and ourselves by not showing up. In my experience, when matched against freedom, knowledge, and love, fear, ignorance, and hate lose in the end.

As a world literature teacher, I strive to teach about courage and freedom and to provide knowledge and love of other cultures. But to quote another line from the scene noted above, "I remember now I am of this earthly world where to do harm is often laudable and to do good sometime accounted dangerous folly." It can be difficult nowadays to separate news stories from one’s own life, especially if you are a student living in one place most of your life and finding out about the world largely from others. I understand that.

I think, also, that in order for courage and freedom of a society to have meaning they need start with the individual. Sometimes it may seem as if we are deciding between our survival as an individual and survival of a civilization. Yet, could it be that they are one.

Image credit: Microsoft Office XP Standard for Students and Teachers. Media Content. Microsoft Corporation, 2001.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Booby Traps Are Low Tech

My last post garnered a request to talk about how I booby trap my day with joy. As I mentioned, I took this on the advice of Bob Berner, a prof in the Special Education department at Slippery Rock University who presented on "The Seven Secrets of Effective Teaching" to a group of fledgling teachers sixteen years ago, myself among them.

Dr. Berner told us that he learned the idea from a retiring teacher of fifty years in the classroom. He asked her, "How'd ya do it?" "Booby traps," the vet replied.

I must confess some of mine are by most standards cliche and corny. Some are not. Personally, you go with what works. I suppose it's my low-tech Thoreauvian answer to this high-tech teaching world. Basically the "boobies" are rewards and "get-to's" (as opposed to "have-to's," though I've come to understand that it helps to think of the "have-to's" as "get-to's," too!) And they change over time. They're "traps" only in the sense that you put them in your way, so you can't miss them. Bam! a positive moment, an instant reward, in a sometimes tiring professional day.

Nowadays, I start with my thirty-minute commute: booby trapped with "Awakened Mind" or "Creative Mind" recordings by Jeffrey D. Thompson. Great for waking up and focusing the spirit. And now there's the morning cup of java to be followed up with one in my second period prep. That much usually gets me through to lunch, along with an occasional pep-talk of "have fun, I'm teaching after all."

I remember, during my first few years of teaching, taking my lunch alone in my office--a bookroom actually--and enjoying the view of a mid-sized tree. Watching that tree everyday, through the seasons, for a couple of years, got me through. Yep, it was just being a tree, but in its simplicity and constancy, I had found another booby trap of joy to sustain me.

Of course there's the afternoon of a schoolday, and the multi-multi is multiplying, when a teacher really needs to be booby-trapped. I've got a few items on my desk that serve as triggers of restoration of powers: a glass paperweight with Emerson's "Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm," a mini-book Seize the Day! Enjoy the Moment! by Helen Exley (corny, I know), and a photograph of my mother-as-first-year-teacher, standing in the back row far left, and pictured here with her first charges in a one-room schoolhouse.

The paper weight is a quick fix. The mini-book is for a mid-afternoon boost. And the photograph, well, that's a cure-all. As I look at the faces and think of the ones I see in my class, I notice the strident poise and positive expression of my mother and reflect on what is was for her in 1937 to teach grades one-to-eight at once. The faces of the students get to me, too. I guess I have a "Dead Poet Society Moment" and I'm trapped. No way out but in. And up.

P.S. Oh, did I mention the box of chocolate Nips in my bottom-right--hey, I'm not telling where! My custodian likes 'em, too.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

This Lane Open for Multi-Multi

As Curriculum Facilitator for the English Language Arts department of 19 faculty, there come times when several colleagues need me as badly as the students. The line begins to form and some in the queue don't have eight items or less and I wish I had a "this lane closed" and could say "tell the next customer I'm closed."

My job is "multi-multi," a term I learned from NYU's Marlene Barron years ago and was reminded of when I heard her speak at the American Montessori Conference in New York last month. To hear Marlene talk itself is multi-multi. She's very postmodern in that way, interweaving references, allusions, contexts, circumlocutions. As best I can follow, it has to do with simultaneity, and doing (and thinking) many different things many different ways all at once. Sort of living a life with ADD as a normative state rather than a maladay. It's they way we--or at least our students--think.

Today I found myself reading an email from an art museum education specialist, while writing an unrelated one, while creating a PO for a field trip, while checking the school newspaper's budget, while directing a student-teacher on logistics for a poet-in-residence program two weeks out, while answering a student's question on Beckett, and researching software that captures video and insert it into a PowerPoint. I really needed that sign. Lane closed.

It's amazing what one can get done in a minute or two that way. It keeps me young, while making me old. Multi-multi.

Can I balance these moments with ones of quiet reflection. As I thought about entering a blog entry tonight, I almost hit "sign out" from Blogger.

My friends and family wonder "who has time to blog?" I shrug it off and wonder myself. But I do believe in the positive return on investment on reflection.

Reading others' blogs inspires my practice; creating my own posts helps me put it all in perspective, and pass on an idea or two.

Likewise, no matter how multi-multi my day becomes I find a minute or two to open a little book on my desk of favorite inspiring quotes and favorite poems. Bob Berner, of Slippery Rock U, quoting a teacher of 50 years in his research, taught me to "booby trap your day with positives." It works. And I can keep my lane open to all comers.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Please Stand Back

I remember when I was a grad student in England, standing on the Britrail platform in Reading, waiting for the next train back to Oxford, when an official announced the imminent arrival of a high-speed train:
"The next train arriving at Platform 2 is a high-speed train. It will not be stopping at this station. Please stand back."
What a rush to see this train arriving seemingly at first coming toward the station at a pace no different than any other until it reached the platform--blur, wind,
--and then it was gone in a few seconds just as beningly.
The events of this week have reminded me of that instant. I was fortunate enough to attend the Teachers Teaching Teachers 2007 Conference in Cranberry, Pennsylvania and to discover new ways to use podcasting in the classroom (more about that in future posts) and seeing the store of educational content(including audios, videos, handouts, images), available freely from iTunes. (That was the rush.) The rub is all this will have to be done at home (at least for awhile) and copied onto players and CDs since my school doesn't have iTunes software. That's the "Please Stand Back."
Right now, it's a point of discussion at my school as to how much of the information highway should be accessible. We have a filtering system designed to keep oooh content (offensive, objectionable, obscene) away from students and staff. Daily, the most frequent screenshot on my computer at my desk tends to be the filter "access denied" screen as I either try to show students to sites valuable to literary research or to my own queries in preparation for lessons(educational blogs, professorial websites, images, videos,
Indeed, we don't want anything from cyberbullying to stalking occuring online at school not to mention elsewhere. But like dolphins in the tuna, good content is prohibited everyday from getting to teachers and students that is not only appropriate for the classroom, but free, interesting, and relevant. An addition to my afterwork hours of planning and prep. Of course, we want to protect our children from harm, but to ignore potential and necessary good that will come from technology and its instruction is also something of which I'd like not to be culpable. Preparing our students to succeed in a global economy that will have a digital infrastructure must needs begin here.
So, we are "standing back" today to ponder the best policy, we might not be going backward literally, yet to stand still can mean so. The high-speed train of technology is a blur. In the meantime, I along with colleagues and students wait for the local and work out the kinks of blogging, podcasting, and the "next." No doubt, it will take some perseverance, and courage to get on board and stay on track, but the destination is tomorrow.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Textual Literacy and Catching the Tsunami

Okay, so President Bush actually spoke truth when
in one of his malapropisms he mentioned the Internets plural. I recently learned that when it comes to the Internet, there are at least two. Mike Welsch, a cultural anthropologist professor at Kansas State University, gives a video introduction to Web 2.0 that really touches on the technological tsunami that already is above our heads.

Yes, my last post was in a "fischbowl" and now I'm treading water in a tsunami! That about sums up the situation of educators, students, our world ad nauseum with the Web.

And I'm going under.....when you consider the fact that the links I have on this blog, let alone the blog itself, cannot be read by any of my colleagues or students at the school where I teach because it has a web filter that blocks all sites that host discussions.

I'm reminded of an ancient parable about two frogs: puddle frog and ocean frog. When the ocean frog visits the puddle frog, he is shown all around the puddle. The puddle frog concludes his pridefilled tour of his abode with a polite question: "What's it like where you live." To this the ocean frog pauses, reflects, and replies, "I couldn't tell you."

It seems that the tsunami is washing us away and yet we are afraid to get our feet wet. School systems are used to linear, hierarchial structures. Teaching the institution to change while teaching in it is where we find ourselves today. If we can, indeed teach the instituion, we might become what's next. Otherwise we are Smith Corona. Remember the topnotch typewriter company? Well, you don't see many Smith Corona keypads today, do you? They didn't catch the wave.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

How We Read Is Determined by What

Or, Should English Language Art Teachers Widen the Net They Cast for Texts Students Ought to be Taught How to Read?

I've been swimming in The Fischbowl. On this turn of Littleton, Colorado's school administrator Karl Fisch's blog The Fishbowl, chock full of thought-provoking ideas and links for educators, I found myself in the deep waters of Terry Sales blog, particularly Sale's take on a Locus magazine column by Cory Doctorow, "You Do Like Reading Off a Computer Screen."

The article makes good reading and points out how technology has had a more-than-we-might-think impact on the arts, in particular literature.

In response to Doctorow's ideas, Sale, an English Language Arts teacher, ponders whether we should be teaching traditional literature texts or teaching reading in its wide arrayof textual forms, i.e. not just novels, short stories, poems, and plays, but the mutlitudinous variety of things we and our students read everyday. Sale notes that our curriculums mostly center on books,

"Traditionally, we require our students to read and pretend
to appreciate stories and novels. Yet the novel, along with being an
“invention,” as Doctorow suggests, is an art form. We don’t require all students
to take art appreciation classes, or study music theory, or attend the ballet.
But aren’t those forms as viable and important as literature? I tout novels as
explorations of the human condition and windows into other eras and cultures…but
don’t paintings and operas and films do that too? Is reading The Kite
any more enlightening than watching Babel? And if the goal
is an understanding of universal human nature, how does an hour of reading a
novel compare with an hour of reading off a computer that’s connected to Google, [or] YouTube . . . ?"

I think he is suggesting that our ELA emphasis should be on reading--all reading, of everything. (I can feel the cringes: "Isn't the load of the English teacher too much already? We can't do it all!" and "What we teach is much more than a skill--it's a body of knowledge on the human condition." Yes, well, as they say shift happens.

Much of that shift has to do with what and how we read different things differently. Doctorow touches on the idea that form in which the message is sent has a great effect on how it is received. He points out:

The cognitive style of the novel is different from the cognitive style of
the legend. The cognitive style of the computer is different from the cognitive
style of the novel.

This fact coupled with the question the end of the above excerpt from Sale's blog, is what interests me as a teacher-student of the every-increasing myriad texts we are presented with in our culture. I find myself reveling and reviling in the mix, let alone wondering what my students are doing with it and how I can help them. I suppose it depends on where an English teacher finds himself or herself on the spectrum of teaching literary skills and of teaching literary concepts and of teaching literary content (i.e. for the purposes of this discussion, I'll define ((albeit vaguely)) as the expression of the human condition).

As I mention in my earlier post, visiting the New York Kid Robot store was like stepping into a new culture. It's the same feeling I got this morning when I followed a link to Sakai and tried to figure out what an organization that touts itself as a "collaboration and learning environment for education" really is, how it works, and how I might use it in my classrooms.

I wonder if all reading skills are transferable. How is reading a novel like reading a culture? Instead of teaching the organization of a novel, perhaps we should be teaching our students how to figure out the organization of a novel.

And what about the novel? In a hundred years hence will novelists be considered as quaint as poets seem today, as Kurt Vonnegut suggested a few years ago in an NPR interview? He sees that newer technologies for storytelling such as film and Internet are better at keeping people's attention.

Will showing students the organization of a novel help them with ablog as much as a film? What if films start following the scheme of a blog rather than a film? I guess, that might be a video game, right? Okay, what if linear plot doesn't matter at all. Will it change the way we view the human condition? Perhaps will we construct a view of the human condition that is more aligned to it.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Animal School Allegory

I just caught the five-minute video Animal School from Raising Small Souls. Combined with beautiful nature photography and music is a simple but meaningful allegory on the vast variety of students that teachers like myself encounter on a daily basis, and how our curriculum, federal and state mandates, and testing fail to acknowledge and nurture the unique contribution and talents (and challenges) inherent to each student.

When I reflect on my teaching, I try to reflect on my learning--how it looks and what if feels like to me as a student. In the story, the curriculum is made up of a four-discipline curriculum: flying, running, climbing and swimming. Of course, not every animal can do all of these with A+ quality. The curriculum is cookie-cutter, factory, standardized. We see that some students are forced to repeat what they are not good at to the detriment of where their talents lie. For me, in high school my talents definitely did not lie in mathematics despite my love for the subject. By my sophomore year, my love of doing geometry proofs belied my ability to do them correctly. I was thankful for consumer math the next year, could not advance to Chemistry II nor physics as an upperclassman, but instead discovered talents in graphic arts and theater that continue to be valuable to me today. Each student has his own journey. Had I been forced to take math and sciences I would not only have failed them and lowered my QPA but also would not have had the time in my schedule to discover my artistic and theatrical talents and create art that I still enjoy in my home today, that led to a successful career path in advertising, public relations, teaching, and publishing, and that continues to enrich me in recreation.

I could have be kangaroo if I were a student today. Fortunately, I grew up with the reforms of the 1960s not the 2000s. As I try to equip my students for their futures, I borrow on my past.

If you cannot view a video on your computer, click here for the text.

Image Citation: