Thursday, December 31, 2009

PLN 2009: Looking Back at My Personal/Professional Learning Network

As the Year 2009 comes to a close, I'm thinking about how wide my Personal/Professional Learning Network is compared to its reach in previous years.  It's  grown much larger than 1984 student teaching files in manilla folders and much more digital than a decade ago as we began 21st Century learning, just getting the hang of email before the Web 2.0 wave.  Still the ideas of colleagues, experts, and students are the lynchpins of my PLN.
I've included incoming and outgoing directions of the learning-teaching dynamic.  Of course, I learn as much by teaching, if not more than anything else. For Auld Lang Syne, my friends.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

$4 Billion Race

I've read several articles in recent weeks about the $4 billion that the U.S. government is planning to spend on the department of education's "Race to the Top" program. Looking up from the magazine articles or the online reports, I see my administrators scurrying off to meetings on this very topic. Talk is about funding, hustling, standards, performance pay, incentives, and how this is all going to look.

To this country boy it already doesn't look good.

I've never known throwing money at people to bring out the best in them. I'm all for a fair wage for an honest day's work. As an English teacher I coach students through about 2,000 pages of essays and research papers a year. Helping students read critically and write effectively, I figure I do my fair share. But it's not just about English teachers. What all teachers do day-in-day-out is vital to our collective, democratic future. It's important work to be valued and compensated handsomely, but not to be pimped and whored with pay incentives and extortion of headlines of "failed schools."

Some fifty years ago, my uncle, a farmer, had a cheeky motto: "You can buy better, but you can't pay any more." He had it printed on yardsticks and we all got a chuckle out of the nonsense. Nowadays, I'm beginning to see the joke, but I'm not laughing.

This is what I mean: I am passionate about my students, their future, and the discipline we share. But those are the reasons I teach. I'm not some salesperson who will teach longer, faster, more to reach a quota. I already work 80 hours a week on my craft. In the past year I've garnered top honors in my state for my teaching and National Board certification without pecuniary incentive or end-of-the-year bonus. Throwing money at me won't provide me with more time and motivation, especially as more of what is being asked is to be devoid-of-passion standards that have little to do with my students, their future, and the discipline. Rather so called "initiatives" will work to sap it from all authentic meaning and purpose with bubble test items: What is the best meaning of the word "craft" in this paragraph? A boat, B writing, C art, D work.

Throwing money at educators, won't bring out the best in them or in their students. We've seen what money has done to the standard of living in our culture; we've seen what a concern for "how it looks" has done for "what it is" and "how it feels," sacrificing style for substance, standards for understanding. Now we are asking teachers, some of our most optimistic and idealistic citizens--those workers who have been shown to be the least motivated by pay incentives--to go for the buck a.k.a. to race for the top. Ostensibly, to be the best. It doesn't make sense. We know from experience in every sector--but most notably of late the financial sector where dollar signs reign--we know, the most idealistic will be maligned, the lesser will fall for the bribe, and the least of these will cheat for it.

Placing more pressure, attention, and importance on poor measurements of students is a miscarriage of pedagogical planning. The tests show more about social, economic, and cultural advantage and disadvantage than about intelligence, and less about purposeful learning or teacher value-added effect. Moreover, the tests are skewed to favor certain verbal and math skills and are mute on others.

Much knowledge and skills so important to our students future defy being boxed in on such tests. Would not only the students that are born to excel in these vital disciplines be discouraged from pursuing and developing their given talents, but also the teachers who teach these subject be denied the incentives? What might happen to our country's lead in creativity, innovation, sports, arts, entertainment industries--none of which are tested by standardized tests? (Could that be a reason they are so good?)

These questions about varying disciplines point to the problem of teaching teams and collaboration among professionals. Merit pay promises to make competitors of us all. Why should one teacher share the strategies that are going to give her an edge on the year-end bonus even if it means greater learning for all students? It's taken the decades of my experience to see teachers become less territorial and open to team-planning; this "race" is poised to undermine such joint efforts posthaste and take us back a generation.

A parent of one of my students recently asked me what can we do? I'm not sure there's much to be done so long as lobbyists for the testing companies loiter in our capitol buildings, so long as the politicians long for a simplistic message, so long as citizens are fooled to by test results, and so long as universites do not stem the tide with better research and measures that can offer the alternatives. The last of these is probably our best hope. We need policy makers to reverse the trend. But in my more fearful moments, I worry that many policy makers are in fact hoping that we teach less not more to our students. It's insidious.

I'm not under the illusion that there's much I can do about this save quit teaching, and little that will solve. So I'll keep teaching to the test as nominal as possible, stay in the race so to speak, but try to do as much as possible to teach around the test in effort to serve students' futures. I don't have $4 billion to reward schools that help students innovate, create, and solve, let alone the billion that will be spent on misinformation about "racing to the top." Nor am I under the illusion that that those schools, teachers, and students that will be acclaimed as the top will be substantially better than the ones below--they'll only get paid off for spending so much time prepping for a test. A short term gain for a loss of a generation of learning.

The ones who don't make it will be maligned but what will be worse is the learning lost in teaching to the test that they failed. It's a lose-lose proposition. With $4 billion on this Race to the Top, my uncle's adage sadly takes on new meaning.

"You can buy better, but you can't pay any more."

Monday, November 30, 2009

Learning: The Burn-out Antidote

I happened to find uplifting the comments of a public school teacher, Louise Abrams, writing in a letter to the editor of The New York Times, November 3, 2009.

Her brief letter bears reading again and again, but I'd like to quote two of her sentences here:

The interdependent relationship between teaching and learning is a priceless labor of love and a joy that must be experienced to be believed.

Show me a teacher who actively pursues through love the art of learning, and I’ll show you a teacher who will never burn out of the teaching profession.

In the first quote Abrams is referring to the dynamic of 21st century learning and how we teachers can find relish in the sometimes unsettling realization that we can learn from our students especially when it comes to technology, and that they have much to learn from us especially when it comes to technology.

The second quote reminds me of my college methods supervisor, Hilda A. Kring, doubting that there was such a thing as teacher as well as their students can never, ever burnout. Of course there are many mitigating factors--supplies, funds, bureaucracies, misunderstandings, societal ills--but some of our best teachers come from schools where supplies and funds are low or bureaucracies and other ills run rampant. Or said another way, perhaps a burnt out teacher is one that has ceased to learn.

Image created at

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Darnedest Thing About Multitasking

Kids say the darnedest things. They say they can multitask. For a decade, as they grew up in the digital age, we adults thought "kids these days!" and believed them. I believed them, too. In fact, I envied them.

But then I read Brain Rules, by John J. Medina, a molecular biologist, who points to research that shows our brains and our students' brains don't work on two things as at a one. Like the computers we created in our own image, we are binary thinkers. We sequence. We this then that.

So multitasking is a myth. Stephen Henshaw, Chair/Professor of Psychology at University of California, Berkley, correctly names the activity of processing more than one media at a time as quicktasking. His comments are part of a new video feature at Common Sense Media. While quicktasking may be useful at times, constantly moving from one thing-task-idea to the next leaves our students without the skills of concentration and focus.

Two tips offered by Common Sense Media include:

  • Limit distractions, turn off the electronics
  • Encourage more reading

What makes this multitasking myth more insidious is the fact that it seems as if it's not a problem. Kids (and adults) think they are doing just fine. The National Academy of Sciences finds that heavy media multitasking students lack focus, understanding, and retention while trying to attend to two or more activities at one time. Time seemingly gained by doing or learning two things at once is actually lost if they are not able to be recalled later.

A study at Stanford University, showed that multitaskers were the worst at multitasking. By frequently multitasking, students are not only suffering when it comes to focusing on one thing, but are less able to focus on anything whether there's one, two, or more things. They scan but do not internalize information presented, perhaps because they treat all information with equal attention and do not focus, prioritize, or otherwise sort it out.

As much as I love to revel in our media world and the creativity it invites, I'd shudder to think that my students live a life without getting lost in a book for an hour or two or sit and write a journal or a poem without interruption. Beyond these romanticist ideals, as a teacher, I am concerned that our students are not able to "turn it on" when focus could mean the most. It is not an enviable situation. Focus, concentration, and retention are benefits too important to be winked at.

The darnedest thing is our students don't know what they are missing.

Image credit: Reformatted from"Multi-tasking." By Atonal. 27 Nov. 2007. Flickr/cc.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Ready to Explore

One of my longtime laments is that most film documentaries are too long for classroom use. Fifteen minutes is a maximum usefulness of a video that I'm trying to fit into a 40 minute period, and I tend to get excited by a good 30-minute film. So when introduced to Explore with a variety of high-quality films designed "to champion the selfless acts of others, " I was pleased to find varying lengths of clips from 2 minutes to 48.

These films, found at, are developed under the leadership of Charles Annenberg Weingarten with the support of the Annenberg Foundation. I have long been a fan of Anneberg Media's American Passages, Literary Visions, and Voices and Visions online features for Americna literature at
My first impression of the site's concept--films deal with particular individuals in specific nonprofit pursuits around the globe--was that this site was going to be too esoteric for classroom use, but I was mistaken. Although each short film does feature an individual, this approach presents an engaging human element to the topic. The focus is not on the individual so much as the individual's passion. His or her passion sheds light on some cultural, political, and ecological aspect of our world.
The documentaries are arranged by geographical region. As a teacher of world literatures I am especially drawn to the 2-to-8-minute short features that enrich my students' study of a culture. They can be viewed from the site or streamed through a class website or wiki and launch to a full screen view. Unfortunately, they cannot be downloaded for more remote use, and I don't see any mention of DVD options.
Several of documentaries have printed transcripts of the interviews with experts that can be downloaded and there are online viewable files of dramatic and instructive scenes from the documentaries.
I use shorts on Indian Dance with Bhagavad Gita, on Blue Mosque with poetry of Rumi, and Caligraphy Master with Chinese Philosophers. And I'm signed up to get updates when new films are added. On my wish list: Mexico, Norway, Greece, Iraq, Japan, Peru.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Idealistic, Content, Disheartened? (Or Burnt Out?)

"I don't know whether I believe in teacher burn out," my college supervisor Hilda A. Kring, Ph.D. said to me more than twenty years ago. She called herself a "realistic idealist" when it came to most matters, including the topic at hand. One of her proteges, I would say the same of myself, and as for her comment, ditto.

A recent comment by a reader prompted my consideration about this idea of "burnout." He suggested that I get out of teacher if I'm burnt out. Agreed, but I'm still not sure about the idea of burnout. (And if you're wondering, I don't think I am nor in denial.)

While I was thinking about this, I see a recent study by the Public Agenda has released a report on a related topic: Teaching for a Living: How Teachers See the Profession Today. The study sheds light on what makes teachers feel valued and less likely to quit. It mentions things like:
  • offering career paths in education,

  • ensuring technology is available to aid instruction,

  • and increasing teacher salaries to levels of other professional jobs such as lawyers and doctors.
More interesting to me, the study separates the 890 teachers surveyed into three groups: contended, disheartened, and idealists. When I heard the three monikers, I instantly thought this made sense. Don't we fall into one of the three categories?
Well, in the study 40% fell into the disheartened category, 37% contented, and 23% idealist.
I've already tipped my hand. You know I fall in to the minority--which brings me back to my wondering if there is burnout. Maybe there is such a thing--and dishearteneds are the best ones to ask about it, 77% of those studied who have been teaching for more than 10 years. But this realistic idealist can't see it.
Although I'm "way older" than most idealists teachers recorded in the study (77% of idealists identified by the study are Gen. Y'ers with fewer than 10 years in the classroom), I'll find a path for my career (36% of idealist teachers said this would be in education but outside of the classroom for them), a way to get the tech, and take whatever raise my union can muster.

Friday, October 30, 2009


Let's be honest. Kids aren't going to remember what we teach them. Not the content at least and not most of it any way.

Think of how little we remember as adults of our school days? How many of high school lessons come to mind? If you're like me, not many. Over the years, over the lessons, the lectures, the seminars, the books--ideas atop of ideas--it's impossible to sift through the layers of learning. Yet, I bet there are at least 10 days you remember.

My memorable lessons of high school:

  1. When my 9th Grade English teacher caught me watching the snow fall and just said "pretty, huh."

  2. My typing teacher assessing my practice: "There is no pattern to your errors."

  3. Parallel parking in driver's ed, successfully, after a night of practicing in the driveway.

  4. My French teacher singing "Edelweiss" a cappella (in French) and teaching us to do so, too.

  5. Running so close to the side of the track that I knocked the stopwatch out of my coach's hand, and his not getting angry.

  6. The compliment "You have a natural sense of rhythm and movement" from my senior English teacher after I presented a dance interpretation (my first and only one) at a drama club assembly.

  7. The day the principal approved of our starting a student newspaper, after his hesitancy and hedging.

  8. My journalism teacher's allowing me to decide whether to print a damning editorial against an administrator at the risk of her job because "it was all true." (And trusting me not to.)

  9. When my graphic arts teacher suggested I should put my first woodcut in a show.

  10. All of the modern novels my 10th Grade English teacher had me read and that would change my life.
These might seem like small and random moments. Indeed, they are, but in each there's a teacher trusting, reaching, boosting, sharing, or simply being honest with me. I don't remember all my teachers taught me. I remember who they were.

Likewise, your students might not remember Fermat's last theorem, the Battle of Hastings, or the subjunctive tense. But they'll remember you.

Image credit: "Love, Teach, Imagine." By Denise Carbonell. 9 Dec. 2007. Flickr.

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Gift the Guest Artist

This month we celebrated National Writing Day at our school with a special guest, an alumna, Kristin Bair O'Keeffe, who had just given birth to her first novel, Thirsty. It was a great time for our students and aspiring writers.

It took me back to times when writers visited the high school I attended as a youth. I recall hanging on their every word as they described the writing life. Once, I read James Weldon Johnson's "The Creation" from God's Trombones. It's a poem, the cadence of which sings from the Negro Spiritual. I let the rhythm carry me as I read, but I did not fall in to parody. I didn't realize this, though, until the visiting artist (whose name I can't recall) told me so.

That one moment of critique has stayed with me ever since. I consider the praise and its inherent admonition whenever I practice a recitation of poetry before my students. Having a guest artist is such a priceless gift to students. Now how wonderful your teaching, a guest has the novelty to capture your students rapt attention for a day or two, and their memories for a lifetime. They have clout of experience and an authentic voice to say "good work" completely detached from scores.

O'Keeffe gave our students many treasures during her fleeting visit: ideas, stories, hints, and tips. No doubt some of these gifts will be as lasting in the students' hearts and minds for many years hence.

If you haven't experience the magic a guest artist--a writer, a poet, an actor, a musician, a painter, a dancer--then now is the time to figure one or two into your schedule. For your students' sakes, and for yours.

Image Credit: "Tiffany Gift Box." By Jill Clardy. 26 May 2008. Flickr.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Drilling Down

This has been a difficult start to another year of teaching. Seems demands are more numerous and trying out new, innovative strategies with technology are paradoxically piling up next to outdated testing pressures. On one hand we teachers are being held accountable by standardized testing and drill down into the data; and on the other hand we are being told that technology, creative, and performative skills are the way to go. It's like trying to get the moon by digging to the Earth's core: as ineffective and as frustrating.

This past month I've been drilling down on a standardized reading test that is sampling our state's standards. Pennsylvania has 3 reading standards with a total of 35 specific skills defined. Of those 35 skills, 12 have been translated to assessment anchors, or ways of measuring a third of the defined skills. Of those 12, the test samples 9. Of those 9, the questions sample 3 skills 3 times as much, while sampling others only once or twice. So as I drill down on 120 students individually--taking 5-10 minutes on each--my mind wanders and wonders if knowing so little about so little is worth the effort, let alone the time: 10-20 hours, if you do the math. Taking into consideration that the student might not have felt well, had had a difficult time that morning at home, or just didn't care so much to take the test seriously and the worth of standardized test scores wanes in my estimation.
So we've headed the wrong vehicle in the wrong direction to the wrong address.
I worry about my next dozen years or in the classroom, not because of the future, but my past. Before teaching I was in advertising, first the creative end and then the business end. I couldn't stand the marketing numbers. So then I worked for a family run book retailer which emphasized the love of books and knowledge. But they sold they went public and became a national corporate concern--and the concern was price points. I got out and returned to my first love--teaching. Now after 20 years of the testing movement and despite the call for 21st century skills, a dinosaur of data-driven decision-making is starting to bang at my classroom door. Is it time to move on? Or face the dragon? A lesson life keeps presenting might be a lesson worth learning.
Image Credit. "Free Mixed Numbers Texture for Layers." By D. Sharon Pruitt. 18 Nov. 2008. Flickr. Used by permission of Creative Commons License.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Technology Never Promised to Take Less Time

Technology never promised to take less time. Well, if it did that was back in the '70s when we thought 2001 would never come and by then we'd all be wearing white zippered polyester suits a la Star Trek. This week I spent four days doing with Web 2.0 what used to take ten minutes the old-fashioned way.

Okay, now, to do it again, I could probably accomplish it in two-days, given what I learned in the process.

My students had made what I call "Beowulf Tapestries," panels of muslin fabric on which the students depict a scene from Beowulf on each panel. Together they roughly make up a project in the style of the Bayeux Tapestry, which we study as well. Each panel is to depict a moment from a particular canto and quote text. Then students identify themes that resonate from this scene.

In my early years, I would stitch the panels together for a wall hanging. One year I had a panel for each of the hundred-some cantos. Lately, I've stapled them together on a bulletin board for a similar effect. This year I decided to go digital.

Rather than present their work in the room, I had my students snap a picture with the web cams in their laptops and maneuver the file into our PB Works wiki for an online ensemble. No sweat, right?

No. . . sweat! Computers didn't log on. User names were mispelt. And my students had never played in a wiki space before. So it took four days and we learned along the way. By the third day I realized that I should have started by having everyone make a sandbox page first. This facilitates them all working at once and uploading their files simultaneously--a huge time saver. They also can "play" in their sandboxes! while waiting for others to finish.
All in all the project turned out. My students and I have a few more digital skills in our respective repertoires and Beowulf is still our hero.

Monday, September 7, 2009

iPod Curriculum

First let me say, for those who don’t know me from previous posts, I’m a digital media literacy advocate. I believe that it’s imperative for media literacy and digital skills to be taught in the English Language Arts classrooms, and elsewhere. But I also believe that students must be taught these skills in tandem with traditional literacies of reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing, and representing. The new media expand these literacies, but first they stand on them.
Without the traditional skills and understandings of basic language arts, digital literacies become just so much pushing buttons, tinkering with software (soon to be updated and outmoded), and presenting the superficial.

I am reminded of Mike Schmoker’s essay “The Crayola Curriculum,” published nearly a decade ago in Education Week. A professional stickler for academic results, Schmoker raises the alarm for classroom activity without learning, products that lack process, and process that lacks rigor.
Technology in education often has the allure of that was once held by the diorama, the poster, and the book jacket project. Nowadays, we see PhotoStories, iMovies, and PowerPoints accepted without anything more critical than “Wow!” “Cool!” and “Neat!” Not only are digitally made projects new and glitzy, they may even beyond the can-do of the teacher, which grants them special but superficial esteem. Add to this the mandate that the teacher-learn-along-with-if-not-from-the-students, and it’s tough to develop best practices, let alone be sure that language arts our being taught and learned at a deep level.
As an advocate for media literacy and digital skills in the English Language Arts classroom, I must constantly remind myself to plan backwards using essential questions, outcomes, and objectives that use technology in service to reading and writing and other traditional literacies. Although digital literacy is part of literacy, the tools of the trade are still thinking and practice, expression and audience. Another factor in the equation is time. Figuring out how much time to teach, which skills, and what is relevant to the curricular unit at hand is key. Sometimes the Crayolas make more sense than the computers.
Students, too, are a strong motivating factor. They love the technology, especially if they can check surf a few of their favorite sites in lieu of staying on task. What teacher doesn’t want to be popular not only with administrators pushing the tech but also with students who gravitate toward the cool teacher that brings out the laptops daily. The question for us professionals is –now as ever--what and how is being taught effectively and efficiently?
Technology has become part and parcel to English Language Arts. Perhaps it’s been that way since stylus and clay, stage and theatron, Gutenberg and moveable type. Today, skills of expression, representation, and reception are multiplying at a blurred pace. Teaching our students the basics is still essential to teaching the latest device, lest our students produce creative and satisfying but mindless and vain Power Points, iMovies and video games, and become casualties of “The iPod Curriculum,” unable to read, write, and think about texts critically.

Image credit: Remix of "Sweet Sweet Phone." By Miss Karen. 10 June 2007 and "Crayola Lineup." By Laffy4k. 26 Feb. 2007. Flickr. Used by permission provided by Creative Commons License: BY.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Respect, Kindess, and Empathy in Social Media

Can social-networking technology actually be social? I've worried, not just about anti-social behavior like bullying and ranting, but about people substituting face-to-face, or ear-to-ear, and hand-in-hand communication. Much is lost in the media.

Will the next generation be burrowed in their own niches, texting in syllables, with only like-minded fbfs--completely incable of geniune social skills?* No tubs of ice cream in this picture.

Yet I saw a glimmer of hope in the words of Himanshu Nigam, chief security officer at News Corp. and MySpace. In an article posted by Cnet, Nigam made the following points about the potential of social networking sites to promote certain social behaviors:

Post with respect: photos are a great way to share wonderful experiences. If you're posting a photo of you and your friends, put yourself in your friends' shoes and ask would your friends want that photo to be public to everyone. If yes, then you're uploading photos with respect.

Comment with kindness: compliments are like smiles, they're contagious. When you comment on a profile, share a kind word, others will too.

Update with empathy: sharing updates lets us tell people what we think. When you give an opinion on your status updates, show empathy towards your friends and help them see the world with understanding eyes.

So with lessons in media literacy can come lessons of social literacy. What an engaging and unsexpected arena to teach caring for ourselves and others! Conversations about fair, just, generous, and kind dealings naturally can be reasoned out as we teach our students how to best interact on the web. Alas, maybe with media can be geniunely social, even if the ice cream must be served separately.


*fbfs - Facebook friends

Image credit: "Goat Milk Ice Cream." By Stu Spivak. 29 May 2007. Flickr. Licensed under Creative Commons: BY, SA.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Anticipating the Rubber Hitting the Road

I find myself in the same quandary every year. I can't recall what teaching teens is really like. By now, my eighteenth year of teaching, I feel like Dante at the beginning of The Inferno, midway in life's path with a dark woods, threat of beasts, and a bit off the trail. No, teaching is not a journey through hell despite its rough moments, piles of essays, and lost weekends of work. It's just that I never can recall the pace or timing of teaching until the rubber hits the road.

Maybe I'm not supposed to. Every year is different as every class, every student is unique. And I'm changed, too. Every encounter with students is a new one despite my experience, the tricks in my bag, my attempts to keep up with slang, and the four four-drawer file cabinets filled with instructional materials. I've traveled to Africa this summer to steel the authority of my teaching Heart of Darkness and Things Fall Apart, and read a couple of books on "understanding by design" and "differentiation of instruction" to hone my practice in general.
Yet, students always show me the way. Rather than Virgil, a shade of reason to guide my journey, it's the rationale of student inquiry more than standards, student character more than habits of the mind, and student energy more than AYP (annual yearly progress) that charts the scope and sequence of the year.
Until there are twenty-five students--expectant, tired, nonplussed--facing me and I say "let's see who's here" will I know what teaching is really like again.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Out in Africa

Since 2007 when I started this blog, I don’t think I’ve let a month go by without a post. This year I’ve found it difficult to keep up. I’d like to post at least once a week, but working on National Board Certification took its toll and posts dwindled in number and last month I was in Ghana on a Fulbright-Hays group project abroad with little chance to stop at the rare Internet cafes.

Our group of twelve educators participated in fifteen lectures by top experts and visited four regions of Ghana, a country that is a vibrant mix of old and new, urban and rural, a democracy that is reaching toward the future, while remembering its past.

For all Ghananians’ optimism and earnest endeavor to become one of the leading countries of Africa (and a population that is nearly fifty-percent under the age of eighteen), their government apparently underfunds its schools. I found in all of the half dozen schools, students seated at wooden desks, chairs attached that look as if they were there when Ghana achieved independence in 1957. Although a few fluorescent tubes were mounted on the walls and fans hung from the ceilings, all were off to conserve electricity. Students wore bright, clean uniforms and carried oak tag covered notebooks; these I understand are supplied by themselves and not the school.

As much as one can tell from a tour of schools, the students seemed earnest and the teachers dedicated, and they all had the trademark Ghanaian good humor toward life and its problems. Of course, insomuch as bricks and books don’t make a school, the teachers and students achieve despite the lack of both. I saw elementary student notebooks that were printed and illustrated nearly as neatly as a Word document and a high school class of boys studying science unattended while they waited for their teacher to arrive, delayed because of heavy rains.

Yet, in a country that is freckled with cellular phone company kiosks and billboards, I fear the lack of technology in the schools is once again going to leave Ghanaian students without digital skills and more importantly digital paradigms—ways for thinking about and connecting in the world—as my home school wavers over glass and copper fibers for its ethernet.

The contrasts between the schools I visited pale somewhat when compared with the kinship of teachers brought about by the challenges we face, the work we do, and the students we love. When it comes to what these schools lack versus what I find missing in my own classroom, I’m not convinced we’d agree to exchange U.S. electricity and Internet access for the high-valuing education, triumphant sense of community, and focus of mission that I met with the lights out in Africa.

Friday, June 26, 2009

A Meter of Happiness and Success

A few years ago I blogged about "booby-trapping your day for happiness," or at least some happy moments. Now research backs up this idea. And it's not just good advice for teachers. Kids too, and in fact everyone benefits from at least three positive experiences for every one negative.

In a recent U.S. News and World Report article, "Positive Psychology for Kids: Teaching Resilience with Positive Education," points to experts' findings of how accenting the positive in experiences can help students cope with the stress of learning. And that means learning how to deal with failure as well as success.

This goes much better than mere self-esteem. In the past decade or so, I've seen the hollow sense of self-esteem students have been given by the empty words of "great job" and "excellent" no matter what the outcome. Rather than our gilding every effort no matter how weak or futile, students need to learn to find the silver-lining in the clouds of their mistakes and missteps.

The article also links to a free website to test your own happiness ratio, designed by Barbara Frederickson, a professor at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

"Doing so might help you learn the sources of your positive emotions and the
triggers for you negative ones. 'The truth emerging from the science is that
feeling good as it is a wise investment in our future,' she says."
Studies are showing that teaching our students as well as ourselves how to interrupt the negative scripts we have in self-talk and with each other can lead to greater achievements in the long run and longer life. Resiliency.

As a result of inflated grades and so called lessons in self-esteem, I've seen students in my office in tears over the "first B" and dealt with parents who complain about a score because they "know" their child is an "A student." What ridiculous--pressure on students with all the emphasis not on achievement and learning but on scores and false ideas of esteem.

Remembering the maxims about learning more from our mistakes than from our success, I ask whether students did their best, what they learned from the activity, what they learned from the score, and what they can do to make their best better. Only be being honest with children, with what is expected and what is accomplished can we truly accentuate the positive, teach the positive, and teach resiliency--all which is much more lasting and fulfilling than a cliche high-five for mediocrity.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A Dry Spell?

I think of the students who say "I don't have anything to write about." I coax, I cajole, I tell them to get busy. But it nags me, could it be true?

I'm having a dry spell myself. The crush of this past school year. The end-of -the -year burn. I feel like I just want to lie in a hammock. So what about my students? How would I know if they really don't have anything to write about?

I say things like "write that you don't have anything to write about." Not original. Pliny the Younger said as much. Most of the time they are just not trying, right? Or just out of practice.

Could that be with all the practice of Twittering and texting and updating their status? Have they worn themselves out? Have we asked for so much writing they are tapped dry?

At any rate and back to my own dearth, I recall Franklin's charge: "Either write things worth reading or do things worth writing about." This summer I am headed on a Fulbright-Hays Group Project Abroad to do research on West African Culture in Africa.

And it's the rainy season!

Image credit: "'Dry' Season Road." By hoyasmeg. 19 Feb. 2009. Flickr. Used by permission of Creative Commons License: BY.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Information Highway: Country Roads, Take Me Home

For a short time I moved to Texas in the late 1980s. It was after the crash of the oil boom that preceded it. I lived in a suburban townhouse plan that had an exit of I-30 specifically built for the suburban sprawl right before the economic downturn; thus, the exit became specific to a few plans and a four-lane highway that went about four blocks in each direction before the black and white fence and sign reading "End of Expressway."

I am reminded of that roadway as I contemplate the information highway. As a teacher I often jump on the Internet to gain or refresh about topics in the curriculum. (What did teachers do before the Internet?) We can find websites, webquests, and lesson plans at our fingertips. Yet I was reminded such how fast and short those journeys can be when, after reviewing a few websites on a poet's work that I was reviewing for class, I consulted the hard copy leatherbound set of Encycolpaedia Britannica in my home library.
Was I reading about the same poet? Britannica led me into three and a half pages of fine print that gave so much breadth and depth on the subject that it almost seemed like a different biography altogether. I laughed. How many times during student research projects had I led my class to the literary criticism shelves of the nonfiction section and feigned amazement: "Lo! What have we here? Books, whole chapters--indeed whole books--on books!" (Seldom is my enthusiasm shared by my students--ah, but sometimes those "country roads of knowledge" are found serviceable by the earnest learner.)
As I pored over the Britannica entry and added to my lecture notes I enjoyed the scenery of one of those country roads, catching so much more than the information highway typically affords.
This month Microsoft curtails its Encarta program, stating:
People today seek and consume information in considerably different ways than in years past. As part of Microsoft’s goal to deliver the most effective and engaging resources for today’s consumer, it has made the decision to exit the Encarta business.
Is this a surrender to Wikipedia? I wonder . . . and worry.

Perhaps Encarta is off-mission for Microsoft in the long-term and I shouldn't fret. Still to loose an accessible, popular, and reliable reference tool is sad. Do we need to fear Britannica will follow suit, giving way to Wikipedia? Don't take this the wrong way: I myself love Wikipedia for a fast drive across contemporary knowledge and items not worth a encyclopedia's consideration, but when I want to get to know a subject in some depth I turn to a more established road. Wikipedia might get me there, but it's rather like asking a passerby for directions. In reaching my destination, if I don't suffer wrong turns, I still might not realize where I am along the way.
Image credit: Remix of Microsoft Encarta trademark and "Around the Bend." By Erica Marshall. 11 July 2008. Flickr.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Insert Key to Overwrite -- Baby Come Back!

Okay, I'm slow on the uptake. I see blogs from two years ago discussing this. But it's been only a few weeks that the school where I work updated to MS Word 2007. I purchased the application for my home office shortly thereafter and soon learned that the Insert key no longer functioned to overwrite text.

If I was dismayed to find this out, I was shocked to find bloggers celebrating this change and--further insult!--suggesting that MS dispatch the Caps Lock button next! I happen to find both Insert (to overwrite) and Caps Lock PERFECTLY USEFUL! As a teacher, I am frequently titling worksheets with capital letters and renumbering alternate versions of tests with the insert to overwrite function. I didn't take well to having to cursor over type to overwrite it. Well, fortunately on other online sources, I learned that all was not lost despite such calls for anarchy. If like, me you like to use the Insert key to overwrite, here's the fix.

I quickly tapped on the MS Office button, located the discreetly embedded Word Options button at the bottom of the dialog box, clicked Advanced, and then ticked the box for Use Insert key for overtype mode.
All again is right with the world. And don't worry, Caps Lock, I'll come back after you, too, if need be.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Spinning Plates

My blogging presence has been much less persistent in the past few months. In March, I completed the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards portfolio entry, and in April, I took the NB examination. When I began the process I kept wondering "what's so difficult?"

Isn't it just a record of the great teaching I'm all ready doing? Yes, but writing that record and gathering and organizing the documentation of what's happening in the classroom in accordance to the myriad and multiple questions that are posed to standardize the response make the process time-consuming.

It's estimated that 300 hours are spent in preparing the entries. That's two month's worth of forty-hour work weeks atop the thirty-five-hour professional day plus the twenty additional hours of homework. Okay, that leaves only sixty-eight hours per week for sleeping and four hours per week for everything else. Hmmm. Something had to give even though I spread the challenge over more than two months. Describing, analyzing, and reflecting on my practice seemed to take all my words. Ultimately, not just my blogging but also my students' needs suffered some from the process, but they are resilient; my future students' needs will be better served from my processing, questioning, rethinking, and affirming my teaching practice. Time-it-takes is frequently the downside of many worthwhile educational endeavors. So start early and get on with it.

If I had not started in by October, I would not have made it. In November I planned my units, then, in December I completed Entry 4, January Entry 3, February Entry 1, and March Entry 2, and general organization.

Another tremendous help is having a support group of NB coaches. I can't thank them enough nor recommend anyone to find a NB coach enough. It will be a long wait of six months till I learn my scores for the scores, but I know I have fared much better having worked with the folks from the Duquesne University cohort. The definitely helped prepare me with a ten-week introductory course on NBPTS, even before I decided to become a candidate. The cohort's facilitation of state and national funding, moral support, and logistical guidance I found essential, but my coaches' review of written commentaries kept me on track. "Have you answered ALL of the questions?" Best get on with it.

Like all standardized products one of the greatest challenges stems from framing authentic practice is in constraints of artifice. It was a constant struggle--"Who writes this way?" National Board candidates do, best get on with it.

Fortunately, with all of the moving parts to this portfolio, its instructions are available on a hyperlinked CDRom, and the testing centers give you downloadable practice to ease the orientation to the test. These helped a lot, as did Jerry Parks book So You Want to Be a National Board Certified Teacher?. It's packed with helpful lists, not bogged down on theory and details--you get those in the incredibly well-written Standards themselves.

All in all, I was amazed at the number of plates I had to spin between five core principles, sixteen standards, six of the English Language Arts strands, multiple videotaping sessions, and documenting student work. Then formatting, organizing, and responding to dozens of questions about descriptions, analysis, and reflection, all made for a Herculean task. It's not for the faint of heart, nor for the thin-skinned, nor for the egotist, nor for those with inferiority complexes--but, then again, what in education is? Best get on with it.

Image credit: Theremina. Detail of "Spinning Plates." 6 Sep. 2007. Flickr. Used by permission granted through Creative Commons License for attribution, non-commercial use.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Get the Shmoop

No, that's not a typo.  Shmoop is the latest study guide site for students and teachers of literature, poetry, and history.  It's put out by professors and grad students at Stanford, Berkley, Harvard, Yale, and other ivy-draped halls of humanities. 

English teachers and students are bound to like it for its scholarly-yet-breezy take on literature. It's cheeky in a nice way, comparing Conrad's Heart of Darkness to Lucas' Star Wars rather than Coppola's Apocalypse Now.  No snobs to pulp, you'll find Shmoop tells it like it is on everything from Hamlet by Shakespeare to Twilight by who-it-that-wrote-that?

I find it's got more goods and easier to access than Sparknotes, and a great improvement over Cliff Notes.  For a free account sign up, you can also save your favorite bits of information, organized in folders. They boast that the information on the site is documented and cited, and they help students cite for MLA, APA, and Chicago styles.

One downside is ads appear in the margins of the site that some teachers might not approve of for their students.  At any rate, it can be a guilty pleasure for teachers to have a reference. Looking up Tennessee William's The Glass Menagerie for such things as "Brain Snacks" (interesting trivia and allusions), pictures of playwright and performances, lists of literary devices (with examples), and 27 quotes on "Memory." 

Williams might agree that Shmoop is one of those "long-delayed but always expected something that we live for."

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Market Price

An article in The Wall Street Journal reporting on recent speeches given by President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan notes a plan that seems as blind to the causes of the financial crisis as irreverent to the effects it would have on education.

Some may doubt the Obama administration's belief in market forces in other areas, but Mr. Duncan clearly believes those forces can work to his benefit in pushing change in education. He is taking $5 billion of that stimulus money and establishing a Race to the Top Fund that will go to states that show they have both a record and a plan to push the kinds of changes the Obama administration seeks.

But only a "limited number" of states will get funding, Mr. Duncan says, and they will have to compete to win grants. "We're going to work hard with states, but they're going to have to work with us on reform," he says. "The federal government has never had $5 billion to fund excellence....This isn't rhetoric. This is billions of dollars that are at stake." (Gerald F. Seib, reporting for WSJ)

Now, I'm no economist, but market forces seemed to play upon the the lowest natures of humankind. I may be an idealist in thinking that education, especially K-12 plays upon some of the noblest aspirations of people. And call me a cynic, but I am appalled at the idea that government will play a game of carrots (after 8 years of a playing a game of sticks) with school's in the U.S. Can we expect that greed and corruption will not overtake education till we have teacher who care less about fostering the growth of a child and more about boosting scores on a test report (for the margin of profit in paycheck)?

Yes, we need standards, but we need less, not more of standardized testing. I've already seen the loss of more than 180 curricular days go to testing by the time a student graduates high school he or she has missed a full year of hands-on participation in learning staring at bubble sheets and inauthentic writing prompts.

Of course, test scores have gone up over the past two decades. We are reluctantly teaching to the test. It's easier to do, when the testing cartels are lobbying their white-papers to politicians who want a simplified message to wave before the electorate. Teachers are busy professionals with little lobbying power compared to big business of test manufacture. As standardized tests and curriculum to prepare students for them become the main, the professionalism of teachers will become as perfunctory as that of clerks.

If I wanted to games of risk, I would have lost my shirt in Wall Street already. Now, with more than 15 years ahead of me in teaching, I wonder if I will loose my mind (and those of my students).

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Media Literacy Lesson that Matters

As we teach 21st Century literacies, teaching copyright, copyleft, public domain, and other copyright friendly designations like those from Creative Commons often is met by disbelief if not resistance by the my so-called "digital native" students. (They may be native speakers but their digital literacy sometimes has as many problems as their English grammar!)

In November I noted the Center for Social Media recently release of the "Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Media Literacy Education" which will help teachers and students in the United States navigate copyright in the digital age. Now there's an interesting case at hand.

While working on video projects, my students point to all of the music and image that is being used on YouTube, while I point to the same as copyright infringement.

"But I bought the album, myself" students argues when I question if one got permission to lay down a commerical track, and "that gives you the privilege of playing it for yourself, not re-posting it in a video on the Web" is my response.

"How do you know if a photo is copyrighted if it doesn't say?" another student asks. "Assume it's 'all rights reserved," I remind. "Ask for permission," I coax. "Whenever I've asked for a photo to use in a non-commerical project I've received a "yes." A collective harrumph, says the digital native as he tromps back to Creative Commnons/Flickr.

Having done lessons on propaganda and advertising in the past, I know sometimes it's difficult to find examples from popular culture that students can understand and care about. Enter the Shepard Fairey /Associated Press /Mannie Garcia squabble over the famous and "Hope" poster of Barack Obama's likeness.

The Associated Press has claimed rights over a photo taken by free lance photographer Mannie Garcia and sought damages from Fairey who found inspiration in the photo for the iconic poster. Fairey has peremptorily sued AP citing "Fair Use" protects his work.

The upcoming ruling on this case may affect creative media use of intellectual property in ways important to digital natives (and immigrants) who use artistic content: how we download, remix and upload media in public spaces including the Internet.

National Public Radio's Fresh Air with Terry Gross presents a synopsis of all sides with fascinating interviews with Shepard and Garcia, a couple of official statements by AP, and commentary by Law Professor Greg Lastowka. All presented in nuggets of audio that can used easily to illuminate the key points and prompt discussion with students about media, artist expression, and copyright. The contemporary hipness and recognizable nature of the Hope poster, the clarity with which Shepard, who started as a skater-street-artist, talks of appropriating images for his graphics, and the implications hanging in the balance for our students and 21st Century media use combine to make this case perfect for students to consider. Thanks to Ms. Gross for her thoughtful, logical line of questions that layout a story's subtleties and nuances.

Obviously this story stands on its own for a lesson on media literacy. Also, it would work in with any study of propaganda--think Animal Farm or 1984. Fairey makes insightful comments on propaganda, the arts, and consumerism throughout. You'll find more of his iconographic street-graphic art at the Obey Giant website, which is a topic of discussion that brings up Orwell as an influence of Fairey's politic.

Image credit: Photo by Mannie Garcia for the Associated Press and Graphic by Shepard Fairey.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Perpetual Beta: Does It Mean Mediocrity?

It's been quite a while now that I've resigned to the concept of perpetual beta, the idea that technological change is occuring so consitently and with such frequency that resistance if futile or at least frustrating to getting on with teaching and learning.

Though I can't resist rapid change, I wonder if I must resign myself to mediocrity. Working through problems--such as trying to get all of my students on our classroom wireless at one time, or logging on to an essential site for instruction only to find it is blocked by our school's filter or wracking my brain to remember the control "switches" between PC and Mac--and thus taking twice as long to get to the nugget of learning seems counterproductive.

It not limited to lack of competence in using all of the latest tools in the planned course. This month I've noticed systemic breakdowns in websites, rental car stores, retail chains, and don't get me started about my Sprint Instinct mobile phone. Companies and institutions gleefully brag about their twenty-somethings running the technology. Yes, what the geek squad can do is wonderful, but what "the kids" as Apple, calls these uber-underlings, all to often don't have is experience, people-to-people diplomacy, and a "customer is always" right mentality.
So I'm wondering if I am colluding with society that accepts a shoulder shrugged "system's down" excuse for how things are. I have been compelled to accept papers late because of the technical glitches ad nauseam at the nexus of student user and online paper submission system. My "dog ate it" has morphed into a parental note "please excuse this because our computer was not working last night." Hmmmmm. I think I liked the dog excuse better, for the lessons I'm afraid we are teaching our students as we "hang in there" till we're back online.
Image credit: Vingette of "Bulldog." By Pleple2000. June 2007. Wikimedia Commons. 25 Jan. 2009 <>.