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.