Thursday, October 18, 2012

the seductiveness of the interwebz

Never underestimate the power of the Web to rock the social-cultural-political-economic boat. Here are some customer reviews that have recently emerged on the Amazon website for the

Avery Durable View Binder with 2 Inch EZ-Turn Ring, White, 1 Binder (17032)

It strikes me that as the Web invites this kind of creativity, in fact, tantalizes us to join in, it also gives us a place to expand our creativity, smooth those ole' rhetorical moves. No wonder the Web gets blocked in schools-- just think of what our kids could do with it.

Photo: Occupy DC (Freedom Plaza) by Daniel Lobo via CC BY 2.0

Monday, October 1, 2012

More than Kvetching: A Letter to the Secretaries

I read Diane Ravitch's blog post from yesterday, Ten Years of NCLB: A Student Says, “How Sad.” Her Teacher Agrees and got inspired to do a little letter writing. Here's a copy that went to Jason Snyder, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and School Turnaround in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. A similar version went to Arne Duncan. 

You can find more names from this office here. I followed the model of Duncan's email address, 

Dear Assistant Secretary Snyder,

I have the privilege of teaching pre-service English teachers in an M.A. program in the teaching of English. Several days ago, one of my former students wrote the blog post I have included, below. As the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education with a particular focus on turnaround schools, you are the leader who would most closely understand this teacher's concerns. Your response to his closing question would be very helpful. 

You may respond in the comments section here: Alternatively, I would be happy to directly convey your response to this teacher. 

Thank you for your attention to this matter.


So . . . I've started my first year of teaching here. A quick background: I'm teaching freshmen at a school in ________. The student population is mostly black, a little Hispanic, very few ELLs. Most are on free lunch. It's a vocational school, so most of my students are boys (I'd say it's 90-95%), three of my classes are literature, two are grammar, classes are forty minutes long, I have no books to use (and so make a lot of photocopies and write a lot on the white board), zero technology in my classroom (not counting the lights) and very limited access to it elsewhere (unless you count a TV with a VCR and an overhead projector, but I use neither since I have PTSD of teachers wheeling those out in front of the class when I was in school), my classes sizes are 30-34 per and my room is small, which has proved highly prohibitive to any arrangement of the desks that doesn't constitute rows. So my students are sitting mostly in rows, rows which have such narrow aisles that are otherwise clogged with backpacks and feet that they prove difficult to walk down if I wanted to, say, tap on a student's desk and ask him to please get his head off the desk. Or if for some reason I didn't want to constantly have to stand in front of my students and wanted to stand in the back. And so, you know, group work's hard to do for purely physical reasons if not for all those typical, sometimes confounding and always frustrating reasons stemming from teenagers being pathologically repulsed by having to do any sort of academic work with someone whom they don't know and on whom they scent the faintest whiff of difference, low-grade coolness, whatever. I taught ESL in _______ in the Peace Corps for two years and taught in school rooms with broken desks and bare shelves and chalkboards, packed to the rafters with students who were so different from myself that the only common ground we seemed to have at times was that we all breathed oxygen and this  . . . this hardly feels different. 

Additionally, I am constrained by a department-wide curriculum map that I'm not opposed to on principle, but that I have little faith in for a number of reasons. One, it's extremely uncreative and uninspired. As best as I can tell it's been copy and pasted together piecemeal from the NYC DOE and Common Core, most apparently in what texts I'm to be teaching my students. And so with little regard for my particular population of students and their background, or what they might respond to, or our (the teachers') own taste in literature (I can teach texts I'm not enthusiastic about, but I can't teach boring texts I don't care for), the creators of this curriculum map have cribbed the canonical suggestions from the DOE and the Common Core and slapped them on there. We are to teach those poems and short stories and novels and teach them together at the same time. (Absurd for reasons I don't need to elaborate on.) And the suggested end-of-unit projects or papers and even what of the texts we're to teach are equally dry, bleak and uninspired and clearly test-driven. When I asked how much we can waver from these circumscribed units, I was told not very, but that if I chose to teach a poem or a short story outside the map, I was to get approval from everyone so that we can all be on the same page. (Why, exactly, we need to be on the same page, is beyond me.) And which leads me to the second reason why I have little faith in the curriculum map: I'm almost positive none of the other freshman academy teachers are following it closely. I've seen print outs left out on the copy machine, peaked into the rooms and the lessons are almost never centered around texts from the curriculum map. And these deviation from the very teachers who shut me down during the department meeting when I meekly challenged the circumscription of the maps. It's all for show. I know it, they know it, and no one wants to admit it out loud. And three, the curriculum map isn't teaching my students what I believe they actually need to be learning. Last week some mentor group came in and wanted to talk to the boys to try and recruit some of them for this after school program. Leaving aside the fact that these guys were young and black and were from the same neighborhoods as my students and I was lamenting the fact that I'll never be able to speak to my students in the same way these guys do (or connect, I should say connect) (and same goes with most of the other teachers, too, who are mostly older and black or Hispanic and have a certain rapport with the students I simply will never have and while I am mindful of the fact that, yes, I have something else to offer my students all I see when I see them seeing me is them seeing a teacher who is basically from another planet and so cold comfort my own particular "uniqueness" is), I was looking at my lesson on the whiteboard behind them and it was about sonnets or some other such bullshit and I nearly had a break down because I was thinking to myself Jesus Christ this is not what my students need. It does not matter that they learn what the "rules" are for what makes a sonnet. Even further, it doesn't really matter that they're able to identify what the "theme" (yuck) of the sonnet is. Sure, there are skills associated with finding those things out that help my students academically, but so many of them seem to need so much more help in other non-academic areas (focusing, getting organized, staying on top of the work) that teaching them what a Petrarchan sonnet is feels absolutely ridiculous. And which is not to say that my students are throwing desks at the window and standing up and telling me to suck their dick and eating nachos in class, because they are all very nice and seem to like me and respect me and want to do well, and so it's not like I'm working with the worst of the worst here, but focus and attention and being organized and actually doing the work are daily mountains to climb nevertheless. And so I bring up the "sonnet" thing merely to highlight how in yet another way how constraining the curriculum map is because if it were up to me, I'd have designed an entirely different poetry unit that would have engaged them (I believe) on a deeper, more important, more relevant way that didn't just answer the what and the how of the literature, but of the why. (Though a current professor eased my mind by wisely offering the counter argument to this which was that "the WHAT is important foundationally, and/or the WHAT develops certain capacities and habits that are missed by an exclusive focus on the WHY or even the HOW. And might it be the case that the WHY is lovely for readers who have certain luxuries to begin with (such as time and resources outside of school), but that other readers (including the more left-brained) really can benefit from a focus on the WHAT?" which helpsAnd in fact I did, but was told I couldn't use it. So. 

As a result of all this--what I feel is a bad curriculum, little pedagogical autonomy, zero access to digital technologies, overcrowded classroom, little physical space--I feel very strongly that I am failing. Class management has become an issue, most especially for one class (if not two), and while that may have to do with other factors, I also think it has to do with how little I am able to engage them and vary the instruction. I'm finding myself standing in front of the class for almost the entire period, either lecturing or calming every one down because it's so so so difficult to get them to focus. A lecture that I imagined would run 5 minutes, with an reinforcing group exercise I imagined would take also five minutes ends up taking the entire class. Group work has proved fruitless. I find it impossible to go around and make sure everyone's working or everyone's understood the concept simply because most of my time when I send them off to do individual work) is consumed with a few students who are talking or refusing to do work. I do not want to be the center of my classroom. The only time I have success with that is when they do journaling (which they're better at some days than others; I've been experimenting with prompts) or independent reading, but that's new, and I'm only using it in my grammar classes. I don't want to result to simply handing out worksheets and asking the students to do them individually, but I don't know what else to do. 

And so . . . the big question for you, the veteran teacher, and one with a lot of good ideas and a lot of good advice . . . what do I do? Given what I have and where I am, what in the goddamned hell do I do?

Image by Tomas Hellberg Used via Creative Commons license BY-NC-SA 2.0 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The 5 Cs of the Classroom Web: Connect, Collaborate, Create, Crap-Detect, Commons-Sense

I just re-discovered a video I made in August using Screencast-O-Matic and thought I'd share it. Why? Yesterday, meeting for coffee with some of my #literacies Tweeps (AKA, Literacies Live), a young teacher at another table keep turning to listen to our conversation about web-based tools in the classroom. She shared some of her frustrations with using VoiceThread with her students and I was reminded, one again, how it's not the tool, it's the pedagogy, and even more important, the mindset you have about bringing the Web to school.

Maybe this video will offer someone a helpful perspective, or maybe it will muddy the waters. Please let me know! 

After I discovered Screencast-O-Matic this past summer I needed a little project so I could learn it, so I joined my class in completing the final assignment. It was the kind of assignment that makes students crazy: wide open, but I still argue that this is the most valuable kind of assignment. Here it is, cut & pasted from the course wiki.

Inquiry Project
As the class has progressed through Web-based experiments, theories about digital learning, and more technology bloopers than I have ever experienced, you know enough to see how much there is to learn about this digital world. I believe that you also have discovered a bit more about yourself as an explorer-risk taker, and you have honed questions and larger concerns about the place of technologies in teaching and learning. The purpose of this final activity is for you to inquire into a question, issue, curiosity, or goal that is of interest to you, and, as a result of the inquiry, to contribute to the class Commons a product that has the potential to add to the knowledge, skills, questions, perspectives, etc. of your colleagues.
  • Description of your inquiry or goal and what inspired it.
  • Discussion of the research, theories, examples etc. that have guided your thinking about this inquiry.
  • The product that emerged from your exploration. This must not be physical in nature, i.e., no paper, plastic, or other materials may be used.
  • A description of the path you took-- what kinds of issues, questions, new ideas, etc. did you have to consider as you proceeded? (In other words, what would you want fellow explorers to know before they start-- or, what do you wish you had known?)
  • You'll share all of the above elements as part of the final product, which, again, may not be paper-based.
I encourage you to use many modes, sources, resources, etc. to explore and/or represent your ideas. Your final product does not have to be fancy, flashy, a gazillion pages of alphabetic text, just an honest reflection of your mental work and your collaborative efforts. And if you end your project with more questions than you started, that is fine-- those questions can be part of the product. 'Failure' may also be part of the product.

Not acceptable:Shallow thinking, minimal effort, letting other people do the work, giving up.
Use your imagination. Have fun.
A little background information for the video:
The "Commons" is a term that describes an ethos of the Web as a place where information is freely shared, thereby making it possible for people to create new knowledge, art, literature, etc., in order to better humans & the world.

In our class, we talked about the importance of using Web-based tools in our classrooms within a larger framework (i.e., vision). We talked about Henry Jenkins ideas of Participatory Culture, and used Five Cs as principles around which to design opportunities for learning: Connect, Collaborate, Create, Crap-Detect, Commons-Sense. This list was influenced by Howard Rheingold 's wonderful work, which I remixed a bit for the class.  You'll see some of Jenkins' & Rheingold's ideas in the (teensy) white text in the last slides. I hadn't planned to share the video publicly, so my BIG apologies for not incorporating credits for all pieces of it.

I'd be interested in knowing what you think.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Project-Based Learning: Being the Change

By Indy Kethday
It's a sunny fall day in a parking lot at the head of a town nature trail. The community service project, that students proposed and planned is underway. The students are building a bridge. Well, they are supposed to be, anyway.  This morning, they are bickering. One boy is ordering others around. You can see the resentment rising off the others. (You can hear it in some of the language that rises, too.) The number days allotted to this project is dwindling fast. The town parks and rec director expects that there's going to be a bridge installed. The requirement for credit is that there's going to be a bridge installed. These are seniors in high school. Their first quarter grades will go into their college applications. There's got to be a bridge installed.  

As the deadline looms, you cannot forget that parents, already unsure of the wisdom of allowing their child to attend an alternative program, see you as THE Teacher, the Responsible One. By the end of the year, they will see things differently. But not yet, not this early in the year. What if that bridge doesn't get installed? You begin to wake up at night in a small panic. 

This was one of my early experiences with project-based learning. It was valuable, for sure, but a tough process to go through. Here are some things I wish I'd known.
  • Expect drama. Not intentional drama, but whenever you do something differently, people-- students and teachers-- can become unsettled. Students get mad for a variety of reasons: they have to think, they have to think for themselves, they have to interact meaningfully with others, they have to do meaningful work that adds to the whole effort. They can also get really excited, in a Mt. Vesuvias sort of way. This is not always popular with other teachers. 
  • Prepare for angst-- your own. True project-based learning means letting go of typical ways of planning for classes, interacting with students, grading. This also means devising new practices. This is easier said than done, because new practices emerge from transformed beliefs, usually about the purposes of school, your subject, the role of the teacher, etc. 
  • It's OK for students to fail. Really. One motto at our school used to be Failure is just feedback. The real question was, what worked, what didn't, and what will you do differently next time? And/or, what will you do now to make it right? It's exciting when kids start to see how their choices and attitudes come home to roost in the quality of their learning, their work, their relationships with classmates. Writing as a tool for reflection makes a great standard practice.
  • Help kids learn how to learn-- the metacognitive aspect of learning is an essential part of project-based learning. Reflection is an essential part of that.
  • Set clear boundaries from the beginning. Why? Because when kids hear a good reason for a fair policy or expectation, they can accept it; eventually the policy/expectation becomes not a weight to bear (or resist) but another way for them to engage in learning how to learn-- if you set it up this way from the start. (No, I do not ask kids to make class  rules, usually because it's a meaningless process unless the kids will be an active part of dealing with the outcomes of broken rules.) These are tiny examples of a system that will stand up under those moments when failure seems imminent (see #3 and #1 above):
    • Rules for discussion. Mine are, one person talks at a time. Why? Because everyone has something to bring to the table therefore everyone deserves to be heard. (The corollary of this is, the project needs everyone to succeed, so everyone has to find ways to bring their best stuff to the table.) I start with a raise hands policy, but it doesn't take long for students to propose other ways of doing things. Fine, but there has to be a check-in about how that method is helping the class achieve its goals. 
    • Completing work: handed in via a box on my desk or online by a specific time, or, according to what a project team decides. Why? If I collect it, that makes me responsible for it. In the real world, if you're late for a plane or train, that's not the pilot's responsibility-- that plane takes off, that train still leaves the station. 
  • Be very clear about your expectations from the start, everything from behavior and ways of treating each other to the quality of work.
  • Ask yourself, over and over, who owns the learning? How does your project structure support that? 
So, what will you do? You could step in and facilitate a discussion. You could sit back and wait for the situation to come to a head in its own time. You could suggest a couple of specific steps they might want to consider and hope that gives them something to focus on.  Would you let them miss the deadline?  If they miss it, what will you ask the kids to do-- will they be the ones to meet with the parks & rec manager? To speak frankly with parents about what happened? 

<-- You Are Here by Jeremy Price
I think I tried to "steer" them toward effective action. That may have gotten the project completed, but I now think that all it taught them was that they really couldn't  be responsible for their learning. I had not yet learned #3. 

Today,  I'd probably call a meeting and present them with what I observe, my concerns, and ask i f I could help in any way. I would tell them some ways I could help and then I would let them decide. I would also be very clear that it would be up to them to talk with parks & rec manager, parents, anyone else involved, about what happened.  And, I would probably write Incomplete on the report cards until the bridge was done-- because, no matter what, it would need to be finished, on their own time if necessary. 

Project-based learning has the potential to be a game-changer, if we make changes in our expectations, approaches, beliefs, etc. I fear that otherwise it's just a different way of doing the same old thing.

Photo credits: 
Indy Kethday, used via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
<--You Are Here by Jeremy Price used via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Monday, August 27, 2012

Project-Based Learning: Gimmick or Game-changer?

This is the second of several reflections on project-based learning. 

I.  A question of values

What are you teaching toward

I don't mean what are the goals or objectives for a unit; I certainly don't refer to the so-called "Essential Questions" of a well-known curriculum planning template. 

I'm asking you to describe the vision of the world for which you are preparing your students. I'm asking what you believe they need to know, and why you believe that.  I ask because curriculum theorist Eliot Eisner (1994) writes that in education, values and beliefs are what shape ideas about what schools "should teach, for what ends, and for what reasons" (p. 47). These values are expressed thru decisions about curriculum, evaluation, teaching, etc. 

"Well, duh," I can hear you thinking. But Eisner's not talking only about elements of schooling that you can see, i.e., a course catalog. He's also talking about the elements we're so familiar with that we don't even think about them. Ways in which schools organize time, physical space, daily operations-- all of these emerge from certain ways of seeing or thinking about the world; in turn, they become powerful conveyors of cultural values, with long-term implications. 

For example, schools organize children by age, moving them in age cohorts from grade to grade. Eisner (1994) writes that this orderly practice
reinforces the idea that the task of being a successful student is to learn the content of the grade, a condition that results in promotion to the next. It also reinforces the idea that knowledge is fixed and tidy, that smart people possess it, that textbooks contain it, and that the aim of schooling is its orderly transmission (Jackson, 1986). (Eisner, 1994, p. 55)
Eisner is asking us to think about a specific practice, yes, but he's also asking us to consider that practice as a metaphor for aspects of a larger cultural system. 

Think about the powerful lessons to be found in spelling and math (and standardized tests): the important aspects of school have single, correct answers; the teacher knows these answers; the student's main responsibility is to learn them. Eisner again:
The school creates an environment that does not put much premium on imagination, on personal spirit, or on creative thinking. It emphasizes a form of rationality that seeks convergence on the known more than exploration of the unknown. It emphasizes the virtues of hard work. It limits the degree to which personal goal setting can occur and it rewards conformity to correct outcome more than it rewards productive idiosyncrasy. [My emphases]
Leaning heavily on Eisner, my question asks you to consider what values or beliefs shape your world. Because that world that you carry within you, that's the world you are teaching toward. 

II. How does the question relate to Project-based Learning?

PBL is not just a different, 'cooler', way to cover academic content. Its purpose isn't primarily to "engage" kids, or to "make learning fun,"  even if these frequently are outcomes. Nor is PBL just a different way to do the same old curriculum.

Ultimately, the most effective PBL is built on a different way of seeing the world and the teacher has simply structured class around this way of seeing. 

For example, students are seen as capable and independent. We can tell this by the ease with which students 1) ask questions, 2) talk about their mistakes not as failures but as cues they can use to determine their next move, 3) decide for themselves what they think.  

Students own the learning. We can tell this because they are active in planning and doing, in assessing the progress of the group and themselves as individuals, in problem-solving about the nature of the project's structure and overall organization-- often to the point of expressing more opinions or ideas than the teacher. The teacher talks with students how to do all these things effectively. And, the teacher seems to take his/her cue from the students; s/he appears to be responding rather than initiating or directing. 

The world that students from this classroom are heading toward is not a world where single answers to problems exist, or where people wait for someone to tell them what to do, or where an individual will work alone to accomplish something. 

In other words, the 21st century. 

It's exciting to see/hear the buzz of excitement about project-based learning. But I hear Eisner's caution-- and invitation-- when he says, "As long as we remain oblivious to the values that animate our intellectual life, we will be in no position to modify them" (p. 51). Implementing project-based learning without reflection has just as much potential to be the new gimmick in town, the flash and dazzle that dresses up the same old thing as it does to be a game changer. 

So, you're thinking about trying project-based learning. What are you teaching toward? And, more important, why?

Eisner, E. (1994). The educational imagination : On the design and evaluation of school programs (3rd ed.). New York: Macmillan .

Image credit: Universe in a Magic Drop by h.koppdelaney is used via Creative Commons License BY-ND 2.0

Friday, August 17, 2012

Project-Based Musings: A Beginning

watch it
The upsurge in conversations hashtagged #PBL-- Project-based Learning-- streaming through my Twitter feed has been fun to watch. I'm interested in the current surge of interest in PBL because I spent most of my secondary teaching career as the Language Arts teacher in a year-long, challenge-based experiential program for high school seniors. And while I love reading about and hearing some of the experiences people have had with project-based learning, I  also think that some important things either go unsaid or get glossed over when we strive to step-- or think-- outside the box that education has become.

For the next period of time, I want use this blog to reflect on some of these unsaid, glossed-over, invisible things. I do this in part as a way to think through some aspects of my dissertation, in part as a way to reflect on the course I just finished teaching, and in part because, well, aren't we supposed to feed the Commons? (Is that Howard Rheingold's phrasing?) IOW, if I have experience that might benefit another educator, let me put it out there.

In the challenge program I mentioned above, I developed and taught the Language Arts 'curriculum' that wove through the different segments of the program, including backpacking, extensive community service projects, and long-term career internships. Other colleagues focused on Social Studies and Environmental Science, as well as related electives. Together my colleagues and I co-planned the experiential aspects of the program and facilitated the students' processes through them. We were guided by our beliefs, and others', that when students confronted and had to work through challenges, they would develop the confidence and dispositions with which to build meaningful adult lives.
Adirondack Mountains 2003

In other words, when the students were backpacking, so were we. When the time in the school year came to do something tangible for somebody else, we coached the students on how to identify a need, devise ideas to meet the need, contact someone in the community, etc. We taught kids to write resumes and make cold calls; they interviewed for and secured internships in careers they wanted to explore.

Me, I asked them to write. A lot. All the time. On mountain-tops, on the job, in a class meeting. We wrote, shared our writing, wrote some more.

Through each experience, we asked students to set personal goals and reflect on what they had done to achieve them, as well as to work through the barriers in their own thinking that had held them back. "You can do more than you think you can" was like a mantra humming in the background of everything we did. And the students could, and often did.

For that matter, so did we. Because in any project-based learning experience, everybody is a learner. And that can be a very humbling experience for a teacher.


watch it by emdot used via Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 2.0
Adirondack Mountains 2003 by Karen LaBonte 


A few PBL-related resources that splashed across my Twitter stream:

Friday, August 10, 2012


I could sum up my grading practices in five words: I have to submit them.

Once I wrote on a syllabus:
Grades come with assumptions that can undermine the creation of a community learners. These include the beliefs that 
  • teachers decide the value of student work, 
  • grades are objective assessments of student performance, 
  • grades are indicators of student potential. 
There are practices around grading that foster negativity, such as when grades are used as a way to control behavior, show who’s boss, punish a student or class.  
There are negative effects of grading: a student can work for a grade and  never engage emotionally or cognitively with the subject, never learn to work persistently at understanding and/or creating knowledge for him/herself, never learn how to be genuinely curious or how to seek to know.   
Ultimately, there are subtle beliefs that can evolve and become deeply rooted. I get Cs so I must not be as good as a person who gets Bs.  
In short, I think grades can be impediments to student ownership of the process and products of their own learning. That’s on a good day. All too often, though, grades & grading seem to have the same effect as the Dementors of Azkiban.  
In the literacies and technologies class that just ended, grading is absolutely counterproductive to the atmosphere of experimentation I want students to experience.

Several years ago, students in my classes began to indicate that they had no memory of schooling without high-stakes testing. I know because I asked; I ask every semester. By now, every hand is raised.

I began asking after I noticed something different in the feel of classes. Students were increasingly cautious. They needed to know exactly what they were supposed to do to the point of not attempting to independently interpret the assignments. Anxiety about grades was sometimes almost palpable. Increasingly I find that students are quite skilled at masking their feelings about classes. How successful the American public schools have become at churning out obedient young automatons adults!

In the literacies class, I ask students to set goals for learning at the start of each week and to assess their progress toward those goals at week's end. This takes place on a Google Doc shared by the student and myself. I believe-- I hope-- that this might spark or affirm a subtle shift in attitudes about who is responsible for learning in the class. At the end of the semester, the students evaluate their work and assign it a grade. Nine times out of ten, the student and I are in complete agreement.

What matters to me is that students begin to work, learn, and think for themselves.

I think that happened in the course that just ended. Which is probably why I forgot to do grades yesterday. But I remembered today.

I submitted grades because I had to.

Image:"Bill Gates Talks 'Free Education'" by Libby Levy/opensource, used via Creative Commons License CC BY-SA 2.0

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Make the Road by Walking: Six Weeks Closer to the New Unknown

I give my students, pre- and in-service teachers, a lot of credit. After about five weeks of intensive reading (i.e., new literacies, participatory culture, youth and digital life, etc. ), venturing into the wilds of the Web to play with a wide range of tools (e.g., Google Docs, Google Reader, Animoto, Flickr, podcasting, blogging, TitanPad, TodaysMeet, Adobe Connect, Skype, Twitter), they've gone off in teams of two and three to create a product that will feed our class Commons (hat tip to Howard Rheingold and Lawrence Lessig for that concept), and address a question or idea that matters to them related to teaching, learning, and/or "English." Their overarching mission is to see what happens when they try to use principles of new learning as the context for their teaching.

The idea that educators work with a trio of knowledges-- pedagogic, content, and technological-- within a social & cultural context comes from the TPACK model. According to the TPACK Website
Technological Pedagogical Content Knowledge (TPACK) attempts to identify the nature of knowledge required by teachers for technology integration in their teaching, while addressing the complex, multifaceted and situated nature of teacher knowledge. At the heart of the TPACK framework, is the complex interplay of three primary forms of knowledge: Content (CK), Pedagogy (PK), and Technology (TK). 
All I do is insist that my students swap an Industrial Age context for a context comprised of new definitions of literacy, new mindsets about communication, knowledge, economies, and participation in society, and new technologies.

There are lots of lists of the elements that make up the new contexts for learning. To keep it simple, we use five. Drawn from the work of Howard Rheingold and others, they are: Connection, Collaboration, Creation, Crap Detection, and Commons-Sense. These five terms capture the spirit of the complex and varied ideas about the new literacies needed for our evolving social contexts.

What students need to know how to do, ways they need to be able to think and work-- all of these things are radically different in a world described above than the Industrial world in which so many of us grew up.

Being Connected means being conscious of living in a world larger than one's immediate life and seeking connections to that larger world, usually by means of technologies, i.e., the World Wide Web. Collaboration speaks to new ways of working made possible by the dissolution of rigid social lines. Creation is the act of making new knowledge for the benefit of the larger community.

Crap Detection: the skills to 'read' messages being conveyed about people, places, ways of being.  Postman's (1969) "Bullshit and the Art of Crap Detection", for example, and Rheingold's 2009 "Crap Detection 101" encompasses media and information literacies, as well as skills described as essential for a participatory culture (Jenkins et. al., 2008), and even broad ideas of critical literacy (Luke).

Commons-Sense refers to the belief that, in this new society, information must be freely accessible in order for people to continue to build knowledge that can benefit everyone-- i.e., the Commons. Ideas that information can be "owned," i.e., via copyright, are counterproductive to knowledge creation, and Creative Commons Licensing is a new way to protect rights of content creators while making information accessible to others.

I imagine that this is not what many of my students expected from this course. It would be so much simpler to write a list of Web-based tools on the board, ask them to dream up cool ways to use the tools in the classroom, and then to require that these be written up as lesson plans. But that's not what's needed for the transformation of education. It's barely even change. It is the substitution of new technologies for old, in order to do the same old thing, only more efficiently-- "old wine in new bottles" (Lankshear and Knobel. 2006. p. 55).

I keep telling my students that this is really hard. That we don't know what the answers are. That, together, we will create them.

Some students are keen to try their hands at seamless integration of tools into lessons. Others are trying to see how/if traditional concepts of humanities could be brought to a new place within the new context. Still others are trying to see if sustained silent reading could transformed. I can't wait to see what they've created.

Jenkins, H., Purushotoma, R., Clinton, K., Weigel, M., & Robison, A. (2008, March). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: media education for the 21st century. Retrieved from
Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2006). New literacies: Everyday practices & classroom learning (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Tech in Schools: It's Not Just the Tools, Stupid

At Educon a couple of years ago, I heard someone-- maybe Will Richardson?-- say that he was thinking that the best kind of PD session would be to take a bunch of teachers, throw 'em in a room with computers, and say "Figure it out." I think that was true several years ago but I'm starting to believe that learning to weave a seamless flow of tech, curriculum, and practice is becoming much, much more complex.

One problem-- challenge-- is the multiplicity of competing, sometimes conflicting realities: the stakes for testing will get even higher as test results become linked to teacher evaluations. We thought NCLB drove learning toward teacher-centered practice, drill and kill test prep, and increasingly narrowed curricula? I predict we ain't seen nothin' yet.

Let's look at one conflict. As districts scramble to understand and implement the Common Core standards, I'm hearing about PD that is not only boring, it's increasingly dictatorial, moving toward telling teachers what to teach and how to teach it. This despite the oft-repeated CCSS assurance (in the Myths section) that this is exactly what should not happen.  

At the same time, the push to move beyond tech-for-tech's-sake-- AKA "engaging" the connected learning environments and real-world contexts is calling teachers to transform the way they think about teaching, learning, and the structures of schooling.  At least, it would if teachers could get access to social networks in their schools.

This push-pull starts to look like "use technology to get kids to do low-level thinking while we trick them into practicing filling in bubbles on Scantron pages." Of course, no one not many intend(s) for this to be the goal, it's just that there's no time allotted for authentic, teacher-driven brainstorming about how to create and work toward a different vision.

So. Enough bemoaning the difficulties. What can we do?

  • Teachers, especially those with tenure who know the bureaucratic ropes of their districts, can come together across academic subjects and meet with IT folks, Superintendents, etc. to get specific social networks unblocked: Google Docs, VoiceThread, Glogster, Skype are the ones I see teachers talk about most often. I would add Storify to that list, especially for Humanities teachers.

Strategies need to include

  • Concrete examples of how the tech will be used and for what purposes. For example, an argument about developing interdisciplinary work that would build cross-discipline  inquiry-based learning environments across the entire school would be a great way to start using the Common Core to inspire a...well, a common theme for the whole school, perhaps even a grade-level concrete problem to solve or goal to accomplish that every academic subject could connect to 

  • Concrete examples of what other schools have done and the results (of course, the positive results). Schools that are similar demographically and/or in closer proximity to your own will carry more weight. There are a couple of YouTube videos you could share-- URL only, because YouTube will undoubtedly be blocked in your school. Here's one: Teachers and Principals Talk about Google Docs

  • The Connected Principal, a blog by a group of connected principals, would make great reading for your school leaders. 

  • Teachers, even one or two, can commit to spending 1 block of time --and yes, it will probably be after school, and yes, it will undoubtedly be uncompensated-- playing with new tools, and, more important, to talking about ways to use them to build new dimensions in curricula. Teachers can pick a book to read together. I make some recommendations here.
  • Parents who are connected will be invaluable resources. Draw on their expertise and ask them to bring other parents on board. 
It's not all about the technology. It's always about power-- what is the tech that matters? That doesn't? The rationale for any decision? Who decides? 

I want to hear teachers' voices loud & strong in the push for change. 

It's time. 

Image: Speak Up: Make your voice heard by Howard Lake used via CC  AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by HowardLake

Thursday, July 26, 2012

This is for Arne Duncan

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in a Facebook update of a former student. The update read,
"Have you ever had a moment, three years after Graduate School, when you FINALLY understand what your genius professor was talking about in class? 'Without active reflection, every Educator teaches like his/her worst teacher.' I GET IT NOW! Thank you Karen LaBonte!" 
I'm no genius, and reading this makes me feel like a million bucks. The point I want to make here, though, is about teacher ed programs. In a blog post, Wes Fryer quotes Arne Duncan:
. . .  ”Districts currently pay about $8 billion each year to teachers because they have masters’ degrees, even though there is little evidence teachers with masters degrees improve student achievement more than other teachers — with the possible exception of teachers who earn masters in math and science.” 
First off, I don't give a crap about Duncan's version of "student achievement;" standardized tests measure only how skilled students are at taking standardized tests.

Second, Duncan's focus on math & science reveals his underlying assumption that content trumps all. This assumption never fails to amuse me: the discussion of what English is and what its content should be has been a brutal battle since 1898, when the professors who comprised The Committee of Ten determined which academic subjects should be part of an American high school curriculum, how much time should be devoted to each course, and what each course should cover.

The battle rages today. Should kids read only the canon of classic texts? (Whose classics?) Are young adult books OK? What about writing? Shouldn't literary analysis be the focus, with five-paragraph essay as the foundation? What about other forms? How much say should students have in what they write? Thank goodness the Common Core Standards have arrived to clarify these questions for us. Nonfiction texts, writing that focuses on analysis and argument-- that's what kids need to be "successful in college and career."

Me, I also want teachers to be able to think. That way, when the pendulum of public opinion swings from one set of "best" ideas to another, usually opposing, set of ideas, teachers will be able to peer through the rhetoric to study the "reformed" objectives and think about why these matter-- or, in many cases, why they don't.

I've noticed that education students who expect to graduate with a secret manual of tricks and catchy lessons have a different level of professional stamina than those who are willing to ponder as they write lesson plans, go to student teaching sites, meet with supervisors. The students who learn strategies for classroom management and content sequencing while they seek to understand and apply educational theories generally turn into classroom rock stars.

That doesn't happen overnight. My student learned something from graduate school three years after she graduated.

I hope she's in a setting where she's getting mentored, where she has opportunities to keep growing professionally. If she's not, I believe she still has something to draw from.

Because she went to graduate school, Arne. She learned not only to teach, she learned to think.

Which seems, to me, to be the point of education.

Exam Time by Cocoen used under Creative Commons license AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Target Practice, or, What Many of My Students Feel Like at this Point in the Term

You've seen the cartoons, the unlikely ones, where the duck or the rabbit is in the batting cage or on the tennis court with the machine that spits the balls. Suddenly, the machine starts spewing balls so fast that the athlete crumples under the assault.

It's not fashionable to blog about the icky moments in teaching, the ones where you're suddenly aware that you are not only working without a net, you're not even on the tightrope, and the class time, the semester, is running out.  Think of what happened with Michael Wesch. A colleague comes up to him and says that Wesch's tech-filled lessons have been a dismal failure for him. Wesch writes about it. Suddenly, the headlines blare that Wesch is renouncing technology in his teaching.

You can read a situation in many ways. I read Wesch's situation not as a cautionary tale about using technology in one's teaching, but as recognition of something we've always known: teachers have individual styles and, the more experienced they are, the more established their comfort zones. It is tough to leave the comfort zone, whatever that may be. But teaching through this new time is tough, and this seems like a valuable conversation to have.

So I'm teaching this course, Literacies & Technologies in the Secondary English Classroom, in one of those summer sessions where you do 15 weeks of work in 6. Not optimal for grappling with complex subjects, but you do what you have to do. Some may think that what I'm trying to do is ridiculous. I run the risk of some of those people being my students. I run the risk of creating a situation where the reading and activities come so fast, from so many directions, that it feels like an assault. A big, frustrating blur of ideas, whizzing by. Or, even worse, projectiles screaming through the air, some smacking against into the body before they bounce off, roll away.

True, deep learning is usually uncomfortable. It should rock your ideas to the core, make you roll back on your heels and say, WHOA, I never thought of it like that. Cognitive dissonance, I tell my students. Learn to love it sit through it.

But there are so many layers. Let me try to sketch these out.

It's hard to talk about the profound changes that are rocking our teaching and learning lives as a result of the exponential changes in information & communication technologies, particularly the Web, if the Web isn't woven through people's daily lives. I'm not talking just individual tools here. I'm talking about a different way of seeing, of being, that comes as a result of mindful playing with whatever Web-ness one can grab. So I ask them to go out on the Web and see what's there. To tinker. And I design assignments that push against some of the traditionally basic tenets of our subject area, English, as well as some of the practices that are traditionally considered "best."

Over the semesters I've taught this course, I've seen that even this one layer is challenging in so many ways:
The computers. How do you turn them on? How do you sign in to the College's system? The wiki, the blog, the shared folder of documents-- the passwords. So many passwords. So many pages on the wiki. Which page are we on? How will I get back to it? How do I find something? Tags? What's that? Wait, how will I know my blogging partners have written? Oh, the new blog title is bolded in my Google Reader. Oh, that means I need to check it regularly.

I count at least a dozen balls alone in the paragraph above.

Then we add a new layer. We read. It's not easy reading, either, and the ideas? They are so unsettling. Since when did literacy go plural? What's the difference between Discourse and discourse? (and why should I care?) And what about books, and literature, and.... (So many ideas, so many projectiles, help, I'm dying here.)

Then we start talking about the so what. If we can have class in a virtual space and see each other and talk to each other, what's the purpose of place-- a classroom, a building. If anybody can add a wiki page, write something that challenges what the teacher says, suggest that deadlines or projects or readings be changed, then what's the purpose of a set-in-stone syllabus (curriculum)? What counts as learning? Who decides?

Then there's reality. How can any of this make sense when every site is blocked in my school? When we don't have computers? When we spend the entire year preparing for tests because we're a turn-around school? Why aren't you telling us the answers?

Because we haven't created them yet.

In my head, of course,  loom the fears. The awareness that everything students might be thinking about me as a teacher could be true: I'm disorganized, indecisive, ignorant. That I sound like a nut case. That the course, already on the outer reaches of the department's priorities for teacher preparation, is going to fizzle and die.

Today I'm going in to do the thing I usually do at this point in the semester. More risk. More projectiles.

More opportunities to learn.

Image: boles grounge by Miquel Bohigas Costabella via Creative Commons License BY-NC-ND 2.0

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Racing Toward Literacy(ies)

We're a few weeks into the summer course I'm teaching, Literacies and Technologies in the Secondary English Classroom. Typically, at around this time of semester, I rewrite a course syllabus around the interests and needs of the class I have begun to get to know.  This time is no exception. 

But something is different. Since I last taught the course-- two summers ago-- I have experienced for the first time the sense of being flooded by information, tools, people, to the point of being overwhelmed. It is not possible to track, do, read, try, it all. It's barely possible to maintain a finger on the pulse. At the same time, cutting off the flow of information doesn't provide the same respite it once did. 

So what does that mean, for me and for my teaching, especially this particular course? I think a couple of things. 

First, it is really important to s t o p and synthesize. Writing is an essential tool for this. Like many folks, I'm an information pack rat. I make links to interesting Web pages just in case; I keep every last byte. But my collections of information are like bureau drawers crammed full to overflowing. When I'm clicking through links, grazing on data, I don't form the same extended connections I make when I am wrestling to get an idea into prose. 

Second, I think that there's a new dimension to the world of the Web. The volume of information, the number of new tools and resources, all of this continues to expand exponentially. The new dimension is in the connections that form around the information, tools, and resources. I don't refer here to Siemen's theory of connectivism or Castells' idea of the network society. I am simply watching Twitter buddies coming together, usually around an idea, and working on a project: P2PU and EdCamp are two that come immediately to mind. 

A new Big Truth I am thinking about is, "It's the relationships, stupid."  People connect digitally, they share information, and then take it one step further. Together they are using the information to do: act, create, build. So as a Web traveler, one still has to deal with a tsunami of information. Then, on top of that, one has to decide with whom and in what venue to engage with the information. You can't experience everything, everyone, everywhere. How do you pick? 

This is not something I see on anyone's list of Essential Skills for the 21st Century, yet in an adolescent's world where 500 friends on Facebook is not an anomaly, setting boundaries in virtual peer groups begins to look like a survival skill. How will our young people learn to do this? Especially if the adults whom they see every day secretly think Facebook is a little silly, something the children will probably outgrow in time. 

Does boundary-setting qualify as a new literacy

And here we are at my third point. What characterizes a new literacy? Last week, someone I know reported reading about ‘existential literacy’ and I almost fell over giggling. 

Technology is no silver bullet; despite all kinds of new technologies, we still grapple with the issues that we've been grappling with forever. What does it mean, to know? For whom? What’s important to know? Who decides? The information and digital era just provides the new arena/setting for opening these old packages.

My question to myself is, how does the tool or practice disrupt, call us to new relationships with ideas, students, ourselves. How does the tool or practice help me emphasize to the learner that this is her journey; how does it help me invite the learner to take up the responsibility and joy of inquiry; how does it help, make, force the learner to question, seek information and another like-minded person with whom to create some new idea, product, solution?

But here's the irony. How do I open these ideas in a structure where the syllabus sets the course. By course,  I don't mean the entity that's shaped and marketed through an institution of learning. I mean course as in the course a runner takes. No, not a runner. A racehorse. Because at heart, in the purest form,  that's what I think learners are.  Beautiful, streamlined racehorses -- no, not race horses either. Wild horses.  Wild horses, running, not a circular track with a starting gate and a finish line and  a stopwatch, but on a beautiful open prairie, toward a point they can only imagine.  

That’s new literacy, baby. 

Do Note by Paul Watson is used via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Feral horses in Eastern Nevada near a Greater sage-grouse lek by Tatiana Gettleman used via CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Tinkering: Screencast-o-matic

I recently heard a recommendation for a screencasting tool called Screencast-O-Matic. Basically, it's a tool that let's you make a recording of whatever you are working on on your desktop accompanied by any commentary you'd care to make. I learned about this tool when a Twitter pal of mine tweeted:

I favorited her tweet and went to check out the tool & her blog post. I love how she uses her webcam so we can *see* her talking to us. I also love that she includes sound and icons of different tools that are part of her early digital life. Her discussion of the way she uses different digital writing tools in her teaching and learning is also valuable.

I've used Jing as a screencasting tool and really liked it, but it has two limitations, in my mind. One, each screencast is limited to five minutes. While that kind of time limit may encourage focusing only on the central ideas, it's often just not enough. Screencast-O-Matic has a 15 minute limit.

In addition, Jing's output options seem a little convoluted to me, whereas Screencast-O-Matic offers three straight-forward options: post to YouTube, save it to your computer, file it on their site (which I think requires a pro account? I didn't pay attention to that because I wasn't planning to use that option).

Another plus: If you want the additional benefits of a pro account, Screencast-O-Matic is only $15 a year!

I've learned it takes a bit of planning to get images lined up to use on my desktop, etc. I also probably say "Umm" too much. But it's an interesting addition to a publishing portfolio. I think I'll keep it.

Photo: lens 2 by hunnnterrr used via CC BY 2.0 

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

That would make me a fire fighter?

Last week, I noticed for the first time since being on the Web that I feel overwhelmed with It All-- not the information as much as the complexity of connecting all the pieces where I'm involved. I have always told people, "Dive in! Just start!" That's still good advice, I think, but as someone who likes to bring people into this world, I sure need to do some fast re-thinking about how to manage the complexity. 

As someone who thinks a lot about how the Web can help transform teaching and learning, I thought I'd better put my money where my mouth is and make my own learning process in our class transparent. So I started this blog. I hope it will offer a model of teaching and learning that might help students; as a writer and writing teacher, I know I should always write with my students, so this keeps me accountable to my beliefs; ultimately, I do it because I'm selfish-- I know blogging will help me synthesize what I know I'll encounter through our class. 

It seems to me that the structure of our class, Literacies and Technologies in the Secondary English Classroom, is wrestling with the weight of this new complexity. I'm thinking hard about how to streamline the connections between nodes-- right now, we're working with a wiki, blogs, RSS. Not bad for a group of people who just met yesterday, and amazing for the number of people who are coming to the Web feeling a little nervous. I applaud you! 

This is the first time I'm running this class with this configuration of technology. Usually, I use a social media site that has different pieces connected within the site. Each member has a blog there, there's a shared discussion forum where people can start and participate in discussions, people can upload videos to share, etc. This model has been great-- it definitely makes it easier for people to dive in. It also creates the chance for the development of a great sense of cohesion in the class. 


The Web is not this organized. I've been concerned that a one-stop social media site affords a class short-term comfort potentially (probably) at the cost of long-term learning. A one-stop shop also reinforces the idea that the teacher is THE Teacher. Through the structure of the site, The Teacher controls the flow, direction, and development of the site and the class. We'll never get away from that, I think, but dissolving that infrastructure makes it easier for a student, you, to feel not like you have something to bring to the table, but that you have a responsibility to do so. This is a microcosm of the Web.  So I went with a course infrastructure that I imagined would better prepare you for a long and evolving life on the Web.  

Now we work together to tweak the infrastructure we have so that it better meets our needs, as individuals and as a class. 

To that end, 
  • There are notification settings on the wiki-- you indicate when/if you want to be notified of changes to the site via email. Be sure you set them to receive at least one notification of changes a day. You can also set it to receive notifications more often. (Or not at all-- not recommended.) 
  • Essential links now appear in the Sidebar.
  • I've created an Assignments page. I think it'll be easier to keep them all in one place rather than stashed on each class page; we can put a link to the assignment page on each class page. (I'll show you how on Monday.) If you have questions about any aspect of the Assignment, bring it up in the comments section at the bottom of the assignments page. 

Here's what it all looks like:

Here's a closer look at the Sidebar & Notification sections:

I hope this helps-- have a great day!