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:

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Kid(robot) Again

Earlier this month I had an afternoon snack meeting with hip-to-the-groove educational publisher Defined Mind in Soho. Fun meeting, if you like to talk about what's new in vocabulary instruction and brainstorming on a "next" project of that ilk. After business and some good eats, and not wanting to miss anything on my all too rare visit to NYC, I was introduced to Kidrobot, located half a block down Prince street.

For me, it was a futuristic time travel to a new culture at warp speed. My first realization was that I was about oldest, WASPishest guy in the place--about twenty years senior to anyone else in the little shop that was buzzing with a dozen or so customers that fit Asian or African-American profiles. The culture's in-crowd schematic is not laid out for bookish forty-somethings from Western Pennsylvania. It took me about ten minutes to shake down the blind box concept, deduce what was in -- or might be in -- the boxes, find the prices by matching labeled characters in the clear acrylic display cases, get over sticker shock of what a tiny vinyl collectible toy retails for, and reconcile myself to the fact "I had to have a one!" er, a couple of the figures.
For those who get it, I walked away thirty dollars lighter with three items to show for it: a Kubrick Star Wars Luke Skywaker, Munny (white with crown and ice cream cone)zipper pull, a ToFu figure, and, of course, a Smorkin Labbit.

Like any traveler to a strange land, I had to snap a photo of the New York shop. If not for this photo I would have missed the old stationery and office supply sign from an generation that would have been hard-pressed to imagine dropping cash on vinyl figures inspired by a Hong Kong-Japan-New York collision of industrial design, urban graffiti, anime, and hip-hop. And the graffiti on the right side, well, that's a given. For my time spent at Kidrobot, it felt great to be alive. Like being a kid again.

I left before checking out the clothing fashion side of the store. Always save something for next time.