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!