Monday, May 31, 2010

It's the End of the School Year . . . Hum Loudly

"Summertime and the living is easy." 

I've been humming this frequently lately.  Not because I'm out of school session yet, but because I'm still in session.  Humming this phase is a coping strategy.  It keeps my cool as times get crazy.  I remember my college supervisor warning me that "In education, insanity reins supreme."  Agreed, and at this time of the year the sublime and the ridiculous are one.

I find that at this time of year, I am reminding myself more and more:  "it's only 10, 9, 8, 7 . . . more days. I can do anything for that long." Grin and bear it. I hum louder.

This Memorial Day Weekend, after grading 75 essays, I picked up Diane Ravitch's new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education.  I'm just a few chapters in to it.  So far I'm in agreement with implication of  the title, and Ravitch as education historian has concisely and clearly reviewed U.S. edcuational policy from A Nation at Risk (1983) until today.  Having graduated with my education degree two year's later, just as Risk was being digested, and having lived through the fog of policies Ravitch now reviews, I feel something that might be summed up with "okay, so I wasn't crazy--this really was happening."  Ravitch tells why.

This is a must read for any American educator, whether you've lived this or are just starting out, and have been reared in a culture of standards and testing. Ravitch helps one find center out of the thirty-year malaise of failing policies. Not only does she bring us up-to-date on what many of us have lived, but also she takes us back to what really matters--not choice and testing, not even standards and accountability--but curriculum. What students should know and know how to do, or again, in a word curriculum, is where true reform is to come.  A Nation at Risk recommended this in 1983 and now after going around the mulberry bush with outcomes, standards, vouchers, and test, we had best get back to it.

As I say, I'm only two or three chapters deep into this book.Thus, I am earger to read not only her postmortem on the Great American School System, but also her ideas for new life for education in the 21st century, which is still ravaged by the market-driven business models.  Just having Ravitch diagnose the problems has made me feel a bit better already. 

Insanity, as misery, loves company, I guess.

Image credit:  "One Room Schoolhouse on the Prairie." By Kansasexplorer 3124. 26 Apr. 2006. Flickr.  

Simple Text Reader

If you're not a native speaker and would like a general audio clue as to how a word might be pronounced in English you can easily make an application for your PC to read text to you.

1. Open Notepad
2. Copy this code:

Dim msg, sapi
msg=InputBox("Enter your text","Message Box")
Set sapi=CreateObject("sapi.spvoice")
sapi.Speak msg
3. Paste it in Notepad.
4. Save the file with any name and the extentions ".vbs"
5. Thus, if you name it "Textspeak,"  then the filename would be "Textspeak.vbs"

Now, open the file. A dialogue box appears for you to type any text into it.
Click OK and you'll hear the text spoken in English.

Unfortunately, it will only take one short paragraph at a time. You may copy-n-paste a sentence or so to see how it basically would be pronounced in English.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

On the Edge?

What follows is my response to a teacher named Paul, who posted on the English Companion Ning, and expressed the feelings that he was "losing his edge" to teaching with technology, to students learning with technology.  As becomes obvious, he strikes with me a chord, a kindred sense of handling the need for clarity in what makes "21st century learning" relevant. Perhaps you, too, feel as if you are losing your edge, a bit out of touch, as Flip cams, document cams, PowerPoints and Prezis, blogs and wikis, netbooks and iPads join our worlds. If so, take heart.

You are not alone. And you're not out of touch. Just the reverse. You're ahead of the pack with regard to sensing the urgency of finding the right balance. Yes, education is embracing technology, at a somewhat slower pace than general culture even, and we need address the whole host of 21st century learning skills and knowledge (by which I mean 90% of what we've known education to be for past twenty centuries).

Keep those strategies of working with words on paper as well as texting on iPads, of looking into students eyes sans webcams, of asking students to talk with note cards as well as with a slide show, of reciting a poem with emotion and meaning in a circle, of improvising a scene of process drama to find out how people might get on in a real-world situation instead of a virtual gaming scenario, of drawing a map or illustrating a episode with paints as well as with video cams, of reading aloud and reading silently, sustained, and deeply, besides browsing a search and clicking through a web reference.

I try technology in my teaching as quickly as the next teacher. I'm chairing the "21st Century Learning Committee" in our K-12 district. I know I'm "perpetual beta." But, I as we move forward with technology, our students will be served with our humanity. Indeed, English class may be one of its last (and first!) reserves. In any case it never becomes irrelevant.

Perhaps you not losing your last edge as much as finding your next groove.

Image credit: "The Edge of My World." By Eye of Einstein. 21 Feb. 2008. Flickr.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Anti-Social Behavior of a Social Network

Or ways to unfriend everyone at once and lose bragging rights to the Web.

Facebook, once the promise of clean, fun social networking, lately has taken one move after another out of the Orwell playbook.

It is now one of the most cluttered and confusing websites since Yahoo.  What was once a relatively sharp, bright interface and simple concept has grown into a complex, non-intuitive, morass of functions that tend to complicate rather than ease contact with others. Perhaps confusion is by design. Months ago Facebook redesigned their simple menus and lately they've been trying to link user's profiles to a host of other third parties.  It's privacy policy has become a blank check.  Going from annoying to creepy, akin to some psychological horror movie, the site represents your associations and you get the sense from strangers that the call is coming from inside the house.

For example, when one signs in to see "what's on the mind" of his contacts, he wants to see the News Feed of what his friends have posted; rather he's faced with a splash of ways to do something else, often without a "no thanks" button. It's like a childhood bully blocking your way to your locker. Today, I was presented the option to link to pages that were "suggested" by the information I put in my profile. I was prompted as to whether I wanted to link my profile to them. When I deselected the fifteen items, I was in effect (as I soon learned), erasing them from my profile. Back to my hallway bully analogy, I just got "bookchecked."  So I can't tell you what I do for a living or my favorite film without linking to some other page, because now I have no profile.

For more than a year, I have not used any of the fun applications or websites, because Facebook shares my information with these outside developers. So no fun, just news from my friends.

With the new design came some wonky, non-intuitiveness. For intance, when I click on "Photos," I expect to see my own.  No go. I see everyone's except my own.  Once I find my own albums, it's very difficult to find profile photos. I can't tell you how; I just keep clicking about the site till I stumble across a link.

If I want to send an email, it isn't called that. Facebook changed the name to "Messages," arguably a more general term that doesn't distinguish from postings and instant messages, two other things one might do on the site.

Okay, so for the past year the site was again and again going against the grain of user-friendly.  It was breaking down social mores as it was touting social-networking. (Hmmmmm.  Oedipus, Macbeth, and other tragic heroes and fatal ironies come to mind.)

With 400 million registered users, more than Google users, its CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced plans to be for the 2010s what America Online was for the 1990s" and dominate the Web. (A-hmm, is that a good business model? to plan to be ignored in a decade?)  In any case, it seems we have a good bit of classical hubris, Me-generation myopia, and a whole lot of greed for information and the money they can make for third-parties connecting to it.

But now, this past week, came an outcry over privacy and Facebook's do-first-ask-later practice of sharing the 50 billlion items of personal information with third parties.

What started out as a lively way to keep in touch with friends and family, has turned into an abuse of trust and privacy. Is that what social networks will become?  Zuckerberg phrases Facebook's sharing of information as "social experiences."  Count me as unsocial, then. Facebook is a popular, but awkard site today, with a clever and untrustworthy leadership.

Zuckerber is 26 (yes, Orwell, born in 1984), and 31 is the average age of FB employees, and I can recall how ready I was at that age to run an international company with 400 million customers.

Ultimately, I figure it's Facebook's site, Zuckerberg and his thirtysomethings  can do what they want.  But if they take over the world, I'm ready to move planets. Hurt and dissappointed by Facebook, I look forward to the promise of other social networks such as Diaspora (see below), not threat of Big Brother. Orwell, move over, you're getting company.

Image: The "F" design is a trademark of Facebook, used here inverted for commentary.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Verb That Got Me Worry

Get worried? I recall my grade school teachers admonishing my peers and me if we used "got" in our papers.  "It's dull writing!" the elders decried, and we fledglings were most likely using it incorrectly: She got worried about it.

Every generation has its own scruples. My teachers were looking for correctness and variety.

I don't mind got if it is used to mean acquired. But more and more I'm seeing its being used as an auxilary for some other verb.  I know I'm no linguist, and not arbitrator of usage.  With regard to cheerleaders' "c'mon get psyched" to advertisers' "get amazed," I can have no sway.  I've given up hope on in-the-field, off-the-cuff journalist speech, but please allow me to cringe when it's in a written and obstensibly edited article in an educational journal, such as this month's issue of Educational Leadership.  One writer suggested that readers "Get familiar with asynchronous tools" of digital learning.  I simply ask, whatever happened to "be," as in "Become familiar with asynchronous tools."  Get needs a noun, not a verb.  Now my working grammar is not above reproach, but I expect more from edited texts.

Is it too much to ask? I don't expect folks to suddenly add nouns. "Get familiarization," "get amazement," "get readiness," or "get richness" don't roll off the tongue.  I imagine the battle of using adverbs rather than adjectives would be won first. Recall Apple Computer's ubiquitous slogan of the 1990s:  "Think different."  It still bothers me. Language evolves, I know, still it seems a loss, especially when adding -ly to form adverbs or using be or have instead of get is so easy.

Nowadays, I crusade with my students to think of "to get" as "to acquire," and "got" as "acquired."  If you can fit acquired into your sentence, then you may use got (sorry, gained, garnered, partook, copped, collected, obtained, and snagged!)  I got

What about when got is the main verb? "You've got mail," much groaned over, is fine by me.  In this case, Have is the auxilary to the past tense of get. Read as "You have acquired mail." (Remember those halcyon pre-spam days when that was a great thing to hear!)

So get with it! Acquire a new understanding of got.  Don't worry. Be amazed. Be psyched. Think differently.

Image credit: "Worried 62/365." By Roberto Bouza. 1 Dec. 2009. Flickr.