Thursday, July 31, 2008

A Wordle of Web Tools

Here's a Wordle image of the Web tools we are exploring at PBwiki Summer Camp. Click image to expand.

How Cool is That!

Pardon my youthful burst of enthusiasm but I'm at PBwiki Summer Camp for Educators. Blame it on the fact that as a kid I never when to real summer camp. Maybe it was a fear of mountain lions. Maybe a fear of three-legged races.

This is Week Two of PBwiki's six-week event and I haven't had the need for mosquito netting. You see, it's all virtual. About 1,000 teachers interested in wikis and learning how they can be jazzed for the classroom are logging on and collaborating in what is turning out to be an awesome learning experience. There is weekly homework though that comes with this camp. Think of it as "arts and crafts" or more like "survival training." Hey, there's extra credit, too.

Always up for trying out the next Web 2.0 gizmo to engage my students ever-demanding attention spans, I'm wowed at the list of mostly free resources available to teachers. Well, today I'm jazzed about a new application at Animoto makes mini-movies with rockin' appeal. All I had to do is create an account, upload some images (in the public domain or my own), select from some great music available on the site, and Animoto takes it from there. About 10 minutes later they send me a link and embed code for this >>

Now, how cool is that!

Almost as cool as the educational possibilities . . .(stay tuned).

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Loading Content . . . Reflection Optional

What Nicholas Carr is afraid that what happened to time will happen to knowledge. In his July/August Atlantic Monthly essay "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" he points to how before the clock, time had a human element. We told time by means of sun and moon, seasons and harvest, births and deaths, and in general natural and human events. He points out that Socrates, decried the writing down of ideas, said without the contemplation of discourse, wisdom would be lost. Partially true, but look at what we gain by storing the accumulated wealth of words.

Carr notes that the Internet is mostly designed to browse, not to read, and that our very ability or desire to read long texts, to become immersed in say the world of a novel is fading with each click of the mouse. More troubling, while at the same time somewhat amusing, is Carr's mention of Google's stated mission "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." It seeks to create a search engine that "understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want."

Futurists have predicted that nanochips encyclopedic volumes of information will someday connected to our brains. The assumption is that we'll all be better off with every bit of information. What I find worthy of concern is Google's Sergey Brin and Larry Page's belief that "certainly if you had all the world's information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you'd be better off." Carr notes:

In Google's world, the world we enter when we go online, there's little place
for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for
insight but a bug to be fixed.
Information is a resource, but it's not knowledge and it's not intelligent, artificial or otherwise. So much meaning can come, from ambiguity, fuzziness, subtlety, and nuance, recollected with clarity. As a reader and teacher of literary texts, whether fiction or non, I believe the most rewarding parts come from the spaces where all the dots don't line up, where there is room for multiple interpretation and that kind of knowing that can only survive in a human consciousness.
I do find it troubling that we are encouraged to browse rather than digest information. I see it in my students approach to literary texts—they scan and skim for the headlines, and when a novel doesn't work that way, and most of them don't, my students give up, and go to Sparknotes—online no less—to get the gist of the text. Like Prospero, "this swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning, make the prize light." I know my students will spend much more time with computers than books, despite the equally revolutionariness of both inventions. Still, I'd like them to relish the reward of thought and enlightenment that comes from deep reading.
Carr points out that:

The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable
not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author's words but for the
intellectual vibrations those words set off within our minds. In the quiet
spaces opened up the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other
act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our
own inferences and analogies, forster our own ideas.
Yes, reading and thinking are changing with technology. I share Carr's concern for the loss of reflection and in fact the ability of reflection in my students. The Internet itself doesn't foster thought the way books do. And books don't foster reflection the way a teacher can. With Plato's writing we got to know Socrates and settled with less rhetoric, with Gutenberg we quit illuminated manuscripts in lieu of plain type. As Google perfects its search engines, knowledge is more accessible, wisdom remains rare.

I'm no Socrates, the Internet is not a book—but as teachers we must endeavor to foster reflection's power. Reflection is perhaps the best kind of intelligence and furthest from artificial. It's what develops and changes our thinking whether we are speaking in groups, reading books, or surfing the Web.

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Essences of Teaching: No. 3 -- Share, Spread, Show

Third in a Series of Three

(Review Part 1, Part 2)

And thirdly, great teachers, share what their doing—the pitfalls and panaceas—with others. The best teachers serve as resource not only for the students in their classrooms to other teachers down the hall, and beyond. They build bridges of collaboration and reflection, of experience and experimentation, and strategies and support. Teachers who share ideas, concerns, plans and materials redouble their own ability to create meaningful lessons for their classes.

Great teachers spread the word of their students' work (and their own expertise) by showcasing it with their administrators, parents, and community as their audience. It's important personally and professionally to let the world know what we accomplish with our students—how we strive and thrive in the classroom. Having stakeholders see us at our best can take the edge off when we risk a plan that doesn't turn out was well as we had hoped. Somewhere along the line, teachers as a profession became shy about telling others about the excellent work they do. Today we can't afford to be reclusive.

In this age, it's key to success of our profession to invite others into our classrooms and to show them what school is like nowadays. (My, how different from a decade ago!) Explain how we meet the challenges in creative, effective ways, and how we foster meaning and achievement for our students. Some teachers would argue that this is showing off. Well, yes it is, but as the old saying goes, "quality doesn't sell itself." Teachers must share their stories as well as their scholarship with other stakeholders besides their students.

Showing others our good work despite myriad challenges of low funding, lacking prestige, rising numbers of learning disabilities, and infrequent moral support from media, is good for everybody's sake. Students gain security and motivation knowing they're in the care of pros. Parents can rest assured their students will be equipped for tomorrow. And teachers can enjoy receiving some credit for their labors. Everyone benefits when teachers show the many, many ways we are effectively meeting students differentiated needs.

Now as the back-to-school season starts, is time to reflect, and shape ways to tell our stories, lay claim to our scholarship for the love of learning, and share the good news about teaching and learning in today's schools with everyone who will listen and then some.

Monday, July 14, 2008

The Essences of Teaching: No. 2 Scholarship, or "Teacher, School Thyself"

Part Two in a Series of Three

(Review Part 1)

To be a great storyteller, a bard must learn his tale, and make some of it up as he goes along. Storytellers are always on the alert for another great story to add to their repertoires. Likewise, great teachers are always ready to learn something new. Indeed, they seek it. To truly succeed at their profession, teachers must be life-long scholars.

Pre-service teachers know this, or learn quickly that this is the case. I can recall an occasion when planning an upcoming unit with a student-teacher, she blanched "I don't know anything about the medieval period."
"Wonderful, but you will. Now! is the time to learn, " I replied.
"Teacher, school thyself" is a motto that means you'll never be limited, never get rusty.

Great teachers are avid readers, adventurers, and students themselves. This is true for their whole career, if they are lucky, because it means life is full of discovery. Scholars look for and are drawn to experts. If one doesn't know the taxonomy of art criticism, she seeks a curator; if another needs the decade's influenza statistics, he calls the health department. Master teachers collaborate with teams of colleagues who, like them, are hot for discoveries. Working together across the disciplines can mean new insights for teachers and students alike.

Teachers-as-scholars are travelers, pilgrims, inventors, dabblers, and doers. For instance, an American literature or social studies teacher might visit Lexington and Concord, the stomping grounds of Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Stowe, as well as the beginnings of the American Revolutionary War, all a stone's throw from Salem and Boston and more stories and lessons from history. Or a science teacher might embark on a trek through the rain forest of Peru. Such exploratory teachers find professional development closer to home as well in conferences, classes, tours, events, concerts, dramas, and mini-expeditions to keep their spark for learning (and teaching) alive. Volunteer work not only serves the community, but also informs teachers of local issues, additional skills, and networks of experts to invite into their classrooms.

As scholars, teachers delight in educational challenges, whether its an additional degree or certification, or just for their kind of fun—the joy of knowledge for knowledge's sake. Yet, of course, we all know that this knowledge is for their students' sakes as well. Students love teachers who know how to learn. Such teacher-learners model the adventure of learning, and share knowledge in depth and breath from first-hand study. Next, sharing, spreading, and showing . . .

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Essence of Teaching, er, the S's of Teaching: No. 1 - Story

Part One in a Series of Three

First is storytelling. Teachers are natural-born storytellers. Whether its anticipatory bellringer to catch the attention of sometimes reluctant learners or a personal anecdote to illuminate a point, teachers are telling stories. Of course some of us are reading or English teachers and "story" is in the job description. Our collegial cousins, the social studies instructors have "his-story-ical" accounts to retell. Yet, teachers in science, technology, and art, too, are storytellers of matter, microchips, and media.
Stories shape understanding.
As a first grade teacher plants seeds in half-pint milk cartons and the class watches the marigolds bloom by Mother's Day, a story of nature and nurture is demonstrated. As a geometry teacher gives a makeup exam, a story of second-chances it taught. As a coach rallies her team for the championship, a narrative of hard work, results, and love of the game is told.
Stories help teachers and students make meaning of the curriculum, ideas, and life. If you've never thought of it this way, then consider the stories you tell and how they tell you and your subject to your students. Next, scholarship . . .

Monday, July 7, 2008

Teaching Tips Blog is a blog in the traditional sense. That is it is a resource that lists other resources. With archives dating back to last month, this is tight contemporary resource that's quick to scan.

While it seems supported by advertising from institutions of higher learning and offers a search tool to find programs for education and professional development, the love-at-first-sight part is the blog that contains posts like "100 Best Resources and Guides for ESL Teachers," "100 Unbelievably Useful Reference Sites You’ve Never Heard Of," and "50 Must-Read Up and Coming Blogs by Teachers." The last of which included "If Bees Are Few" and so, I figured I'd post for some cross-pollenization.

The "Must-Read" list links to blogs from teachers across the spectrum of rants, to rationalizations, to reality-checks. Good stuff.

And I thought the pile of books in my home office was enough summer reading, already!