28 December 2009

Crossing the Rubricon

Next month, an intrepid group of educators from around the state will be joining me to help construct our assessments for Educational Technology. While I can't say much about them individually (oh, those pesky confidentiality agreements...), I can say that collectively, they are a "dream team" of teachers from all walks of K-12. They have significant experience with developing, rangefinding, and scoring large-scale assessments. A few are nationally recognized for their contributions to the profession. I am totally stoked about meeting them and working with them over the next eighteen months, in part because we have some big issues to hash out. I will share what I can along the way as I will be needing your help, too.

As I plot, plan, and prepare for this project, I am struggling with thinking about how the rubrics will shake out. Take a standard like this:
Generate ideas and create original works for personal and group expression using a variety of digital tools.
  • Create products using a combination of text, images, sound, music and video.
  • Generate creative solutions and present ideas.
This standard is not about a tool. We aren't interested in whether or not a student can make a powerpoint presentation. This is a little bit like asking a student to create a picture. The kid might choose watercolors or charcoal or pastels or pen and ink or...the list goes on. The same is true for digital products. A student might choose powerpoint, but they could also choose Voicethread or Zuiprezi or GoogleApps or...the list goes on. So part of the challenge is to develop a way to score student products when there are no parameters around the media used.

The bigger challenge, however, is that these standards don't nicely fit into a rubric. I have been trying for awhile and you know what? I've decided not to try anymore, at least for now. If I am trying to make a square peg fit in a round hole---doesn't it make more sense to go find the square hole rather than keep pounding away at the round one in impotent frustration? (Okay, that sounds naughtier than intended.)

What are the alternatives to using a rubric to evaluate student performance tasks? Are there other scales of performance out there? I've been looking around...and there isn't much. The Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) was working on a project called EdSteps that is making some attempts to do so, but they are some distance from showing off their efforts.

Or maybe we just need to get back to the roots to rubric-ness. I was reading something recently that reminded me that a Level One performance is not about identifying the worst characteristics of a product or a list of what is lacking---it is about describing what the work of a beginner looks like. This is an excellent perspective. I know that I have been guilty of building a rubric by identifying "at standard" performance and then taking away from that to get to Level One. Instead, the approach should be more individual for each level: here is what a student at standard looks like...and here is what a student who is just beginning to engage with the standard looks like. It is more about identifying what is present, rather than absent.

I'm glad that I will have a constellation of superstars joining me in a few weeks to have some real time conversation about these issues. However, for those of you reading this who have your own ideas about how you would evaluate standards like the one described above, leave a comment for me to pass along. Suppose you could create whatever system you wanted to score student performance---would it include rubrics? Or are there other/better ways?

26 December 2009

Data Visualization for the Classroom

I recently got to take my Data Visualization presentation out for a spin. I've been thinking about it for close to year. I was foolish enough to put in presentation proposals for such a session long before I really even knew what I might talk about. And unlike every other type of proposal I've developed, this topic was accepted for every single conference I submitted it to. This was just the prod I needed to finally get my thoughts organized.

We talked a bit about how a good visualization is like telling a good story. It also needs to provide some sense of interactivity with its users. And, it must be a little bit sexy---have some "glanceability." We also spent some time thinking about how to use common tools (like Excel) to improve our visuals (and also the ways in which data could be distorted).

I think improvements in data visualization have enormous promise for schools. As the Harvard Business blog noted earlier this month, the access to increasingly superior visualizations will help us navigate the information ocean we all find ourselves in these days. In particular, there are three major benefits:
  1. Great visualizations are efficient — they let people look at vast quantities of data quickly.
  2. Visualizations can help an analyst or a group achieve more insight into the nature of a problem and discover new understanding.
  3. A great visualization can help create a shared view of a situation and align folks on needed actions.
I was interested in what the participants wanted from their data. This was a room of ~50 educators, all from different walks of the school spectrum. I know that they are inundated on a regular basis with all sorts of data. What do they want it to do? They had some interesting answers. One teacher remarked that he would really like to be able to overlay his gradebook with his seating chart. A superintendent wants to mash student achievement data with Google maps. In short, they need their disparate data sets to come together. I love these ideas.

I did show off my revised report card idea and had some nice feedback. One person asked me on the way out if I had shown it off to any parents yet. I haven't. He was quite excited to run out and get some feedback on it. I really hope he sends me a line about what the reaction is.

Randy Krum from Cool Infographics put together a basic worksheet in Excel (using conditional formatting) for me to illustrate the first idea about grades and a seating chart. I am hoping that we might continue to look for some tools and ways for educators to get what they need from the information that is constantly generated in their worlds.

All of this makes me wonder what other intelligent things we should be doing with school data. Bar charts and line graphs are not evil---and they have their place in the pantheon of visualizations. I am just left thinking about what else we could be doing to get more meaning from the information that we have.

25 December 2009

Happy Holidays 2009

I've been away from blogging for the past two weeks. A combination of three different respiratory infections to battle (one war is still raging), a "make up" Thanksgiving for the one I didn't get to have last month, two nights of dealing with a dying furnace, technical issues with my site that needed time and support to resolve, and other events have kept me away and busier than I would have liked. But there is plenty to share in the next few days.

I hope that your holiday season is restful and rejuvenating and you are enjoying the season. See you tomorrow.

10 December 2009

The Big O-5

Ye Olde blog turns five today.

It's hard for me to believe that another year has passed in this space---one that has seen me through job changes, surgery, grad school, a move to this domain, conference presentations, numerous personal ups and downs, 1400 conversations (including this post), and nearly 300,000 visitors.

I recently wondered if there is something equivalent to "dog years" for "blogging years." Five years is not a long time when compared to a human lifespan, but is about half of Blogger's existence...and roughly one-third of my online existence.

These milestones are reminders for me to be grateful for many aspects of this online existence. I am always thankful for my readers and commenters. Some of you have been coming along for the ride nearly as long as I've been here. Thank you to those of you who link to this space and share posts. All of you have provided me with an incredible community to learn with and share. I am a better educator for all of your efforts.

Shall we go for 10?

05 December 2009

Isn't That Special?

I know it might not look like much, but this binder has a bit of magic in it. Its contents were developed about five years ago, just as my career was making a change and this blog kicked up. I was tasked with getting the secondary science program in the district more, well, program-like. As such, I needed some way to collect and organize the myriad pieces for this process. This bit of cardboard, tape, and file brads was just the thing.

This was my first time to lead this sort of project. If you're so inclined, you can peruse my archives to see how things started, what happened next, anticipating the end, and moving to the next stage. There are other miscellaneous posts that refer to this project, but in many ways, the posts are not the most important documentation or legacy. For a variety of reasons, the binder itself is.

One of the most frustrating things about developing and delivering professional development (PD) is that it is usually only done once. Now, I've sat in on enough bad PD to understand that sometimes, once is more than enough. From a planning standpoint, however, it's kind of a bummer. I typically spend anywhere from three to eight hours planning per hour of delivery. That's a huge investment for something that can only be used once---no matter how large the payoff in whatever product or outcome is created by the group.

But this binder lived on. Once the pieces for moving a group through a standards-based scope and sequence process were in place, others adapted and used it. The binder lived for awhile with the language arts group. It stayed with math and guided them. It even went to another school district for nearly a year while they hashed out the same science issues that we had. After every trip, it made its way home to my file box. From time to time, I pulled out a piece to refer to, but I could never quite bring myself to just disband the item or throw it away.

I even brought it with me to my new job. I'm not sure why I made that choice, when so many of my other tools and products are packed away in the basement. Perhaps I just needed that little bit of magic sitting on the shelf, whispering that I can do this job...and do it well. Or maybe it was a trophy of sorts. It might not mean anything to anyone but me, but it made me smile to see it there.

After more than a year of sitting on a shelf collecting dust, I am pleased to say that the binder is being called back into action for one more tour of duty. There is a new process I'm involved with, and as I started to put materials together, I realized that some of the pieces for the kickoff (e.g. roles/responsibilities, norms...) were sitting a few feet from my desk. It's like working with an old friend---it's comfortable. It's special.

01 December 2009

All's Fair in Lovin' Science

If you have a moment, stop by the science fair in Compton, California---where the scientists display their projects and students are the judges.

I'm intrigued with this idea. Not only does it provide research scientists with a different audience for their real world information, it also gives students some ideas about what they do and don't like about presenting science. Seems to me that this could be a great kickoff to the student science fair season.

29 November 2009


In September, I mentioned that I'd been reading Yong Zhao's Catching Up or Leading the Way, an exploration of the fervor toward standardization by the US in order to be more like China and India...while China and India are wanting their educational systems to be more like the US, valuing creativity and choice. I was excited to hear that he was going to be speaking at a conference I would be at in November. I ultimately ended up missing the event due to a funeral; however, our state government station replayed the speech Friday evening and I found several points as food for thought.

Zhao shared a story about kindergartners in India...and his own kindergartner. Bob Compton of Two Million Minutes fame told Zhao that he was inspired to make the movie after asking kindergartners in India what they wanted to be when they grew up. Those five year olds said things like scientist, engineer, and doctor. Big dreams, indeed. Zhao said he wondered if he should be worried, because his own kindergarten daughter wanted to be an elephant. Does this indicate that American kindergartners are already behind in international comparisons? Zhao doesn't think so. He believes it is a luxury to be able to dream of being an elephant---to really think that you can be anything you want to be. I find this to be a rather refreshing viewpoint...and, unfortunately, unusual these days.

FYI, the Chinese kinder said she wanted to grow up to be "a corrupt government official." I kinda like the blend of whimsy and observation of public service.

The primary point that Zhao seemed to be making was that the US doesn't need Common Core Standards. In fact, education doesn't need standards at all. I don't want to get into all of his points here (go visit his blog or read his book). What I do want to share is that his twist on things really made me think. I've always viewed academic standards as basically a good thing in the sense that there are some knowledge and skill pieces that every child should have (e.g. how to read and understand what is being read). Children who leave the public school system without these elements are at a significant disadvantage for quality of life as adults. This is not a new problem...and Zhao wonders if lack of standards is a problem at all. The first TIMSS-like study was in 1963---and US students (13-year olds were tested for this international comparison) were third from the bottom. Those students are well into adulthood now and the US hasn't suffered in terms of innovation nor collapsed under the weight of the perceived stupidity of those students. We also don't need standards, according to Zhao, because of the varying developmental rates among children. Is it appropriate to state that every child will reach the same benchmarks at the same time---and then assign intervention after intervention simply because the child isn't "ready" yet? Zhao equates standards with testing/accountability---which I think is a mistake. There is no denying the connection, but there are very different issues afoot with each. Unbridled zealotry for assessment is not the same as a list of learning goals.

And yet here we are a breath away from national standards---and the whispers of national assessments are not far behind. A friend at work was recently wondering if Elinor Ostrom's Nobel Prize winning reassessment of the Tragedy of the Commons might not have implications for education. The basic idea is that people who have a direct stake in a resource are the best at managing it. Once you make an assumption that people will do the wrong thing and encourage privatization or government regulation, things pretty much go downhill. If our children are an important resource, then are we doing them a disservice in moving away from localized curriculum? Are the qualities of innovation and creativity that the US educational system has fostered for so many years about to become extinct in the name of nationalized standards?

If you're so inclined, you can watch Zhao's presentation on the TVW website. His part of the program starts about 30 minutes in and lasts for about 50 minutes. See what ideas are engendered for you about whether or not our window of opportunity to reverse the national trend is going...going...gone.

21 November 2009

Grading Roundup: November 2009

Shall we see what the interwebs dragged in this month in terms of stories about grading practices in schools?

My personal favorite is a story about a Teacher Who Broke the Law by Posting Top Test Scores (via Teacher Magazine). I have seen any number of teachers post grades (with or without student names). I remember finding out grades on exams in college by looking at bulletin boards and finding my ID number. I had a teacher tell me in the past year about his great idea to put every student's name on a card and then order the cards on the wall showing the rank from top to bottom in terms of grades. He thought it was "motivational." In part, he was right---but it all depends on what you want to motivate students to do: value grades or value learning. There's nothing wrong with individuals knowing their own scores and considering what it says about personal performance. Once you make a public classroom notice, you've changed goals and outcomes for kids---not to mention violating their privacy and opening yourself up for a lawsuit. Find other ways to communicate with students that doesn't involve public posting of everyone's scores.

Meanwhile, Education Week is reporting on a lawsuit filed by five Texas school districts concerning the state education commissioner's interpretation of grading scales. The law requires that the scale for A - F have equal intervals, i.e. if a score of 90 - 100 represents an A...then 50 - 60 must represent an F.

Five Houston-area school districts filed a lawsuit against the state education commissioner over his interpretation of a new law prohibiting minimum grading policies, a lawyer said Thursday.
Commissioner Robert Scott told districts last month that the law applied to grades on assignments as well as six-week or nine-week grading periods.
The schools — Fort Bend, Aldine, Klein, Alief, Anahuac and Clear Creek — assert in the lawsuit filed Wednesday that the law only specifically applies to assignments and should not be applied to grading periods or semesters. The lawsuit, filed in Travis County, seeks to have the minimum-grade ban only apply to single assignments.
"Even though the language of the bill does not address in any way minimum grading policies for report cards or grading periods, that is the way the commissioner is interpreting it," said attorney David Feldman, who is representing the school districts.
"Well over half of the school districts in the state have minimum failing grade policies," Feldman said Thursday.
A spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency did not immediately return a call to The Associated Press seeking comment.
"It is a sad state of affairs when school districts are willing to go to court for the right to force their teachers to assign fraudulent grades," said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who sponsored the new law earlier this year. Administrators "are willing to waste precious education resources on a misguided lawsuit to continue these policies, which undermine the authority of our teachers and reward minimum effort from students."
Fraudulent grades? I think not. I will be watching this one to see how it plays out. I am all for the use of professional judgment when assigning transcript grades, but I think there are going to be some major issues with parents if one grading scale (50 - 100) is applied to individual assignments and a different scale is used for end of term.

There are a couple of interesting posts from the edusphere worth a click. Jim---blogging over at 5/17---shared an idea about having students track their own progress using GoogleDocs. OKP wonders if she is becoming Softer or Smooshed? as her perspective and policies on late work evolve with her career.

That's all the news fit to print for grading this month. If you've seen an article or post to share, please do so in the comments.

19 November 2009

That Was (Too) Easy

A few weeks ago, I listened to several different people from around the country share some ideas about educational technology programs. The most frequent words used by presenters were "simple" and "easy." I suppose that there is some appeal in that; but, I kept wondering when someone was going to say "meaningful." I would have even settled for "effective."

I understand that there needs to be some room for both. When I buy a can opener, I want one that does the job, but isn't difficult to use. The most important part is that the can opens---I get the result I want from the tool I have in my hand. Someone who sells me a can opener based on how simple it is to use without showing that the tool is able to remove a lid from a can will get no future business from me.

It may be an unfair comparison between a can opener and software for collecting and managing data in schools. I still can't help but think that the bottom line is the same: the tool needs to do the job it was designed for. If it's easy to use, that is a definite bonus---but that aspect should not be the first words out of the mouths of presenters.

It also means that as buyers, we also need to be careful about the questions we ask and the values we communicate. I remember a sign that used to hang in a local store. It had a short list: Cheap, Fast, Good. Underneath that was the instruction for the customer to "Pick Two." I am wondering if our pursuit of Cheap and Fast (Easy), has led to our neglect of Good in education. It would seem well past time for us to insist on quality in our programs instead of taking the easy way out.

16 November 2009

Data Visualization for the Classroom: Part II

In a previous post, I suggested a couple of ways to take a gradebook and make it more visual. I've also been considering ways to share student performance with a larger audience.

There are lots of examples of Dashboards (like the one at the right) for business. The one shown comes from Excel Dashboard Reports. The idea behind using a dashboard is that it communicates a large volume of information in a compact area. Sparklines are used as a way to condense the data. Anyone using the report who might need further information could then dig more deeply into individual data sets.

I have yet to run across a Dashboard designed for the school setting, but my hunch is that they are being used somewhere. Perhaps those using them are not teachers, but rather administrative staff. Or maybe some options are already built in with commercial programs, but they are too laborious to use for teachers. At some point, however, I expect that we may see something like what is pictured at the left (although much better). To give myself something to play with, I pulled some gender and ethnicity data, as well as some summaries of class performance. The pie chart and stacked bar chart at the top are fairly easy reads. The bullet charts at the bottom have this information: a black bar representing current progress, a red line showing where the standard is, and three shaded areas of grey to denote the ranges of performance. Again, a nice snapshot for teachers, summarizing hundreds of data points into one easy to read space. As with the gradebook examples discussed previously, these sorts of things might show information, but they don't tell you the next step. We need different tools for that.

Grant Wiggins has written about the idea that report cards should be more like baseball cards, providing various statistics about student performance. I like this in concept. I think we can even take it a step further with the use of data visualizations (click to embiggen graphic shown below).

At the top I have some of the basic information for a report card: names, places, dates. But below, I've added information beyond some basic numbers. There are some bullet graphs showing current progress toward a standard. I added some Sparklines representing all of the scores in the data set. And finally, for those standards for which there was some student progress, it is reflected in a modified bullet graph. This graph allows stakeholders to see the growth student is making---an element that is missing from most report cards. Again, I've left out a lot of information from this report card that we could add or manipulate. For example, attendance and comments about non-academic behaviors are not included. Future iterations may have that information. In the meantime, I think this is a good start. And with Excel, once the template is built, it can be automatically updated for any and every student. It may be that there are some commercial versions of these graphic report cards available for schools and I just haven't seen them yet. If your school is using something like this, drop me a line.

I'll be interested to watch and see what sorts of tools become adapted for use within school settings. I have three upcoming presentations with different education audiences to talk about data visualization. Perhaps I'll have some interesting things to report back in the coming months.

Update 5/2012: Please visit my page on the Excel for Educators blog for the most recent versions of gradebook and reporting tools. Most have sample workbooks to download and instructional videos.

14 November 2009

It's All Very Personal

While lying in bed the other morning, I was thinking about one particular scene in the movie Beetle Juice. Adam and Barbara (newly deceased) have gone for help, because they're rather frustrated with their afterlife. They end up in a waiting room much like you would find in any "live" government office, but filled with quite the cast of characters: a woman who had been sawed in half, an explorer with a shrunken head, etc. The following exchange with the receptionist takes place:
[in the waiting room of the afterlife]
Barbara: Adam, is this what happens when you die?
Receptionist: This is what happens when *you* die.
[points at a gaunt man smoking]
Receptionist: That is what happens when *he* dies.
[points at a woman cut in half on the sofa reading]
Receptionist: And that is what happens when *they* die. It's all very personal.
I mention this only because it is my mother's time to die. Her nine-month battle with brain cancer is at an end. It's been a difficult few days here with family as we keep a round-the-clock vigil and move into other phases.

Grieving, too, is all very personal. As such, I'm not sure what this space will look like in the next week or so as we deal with funeral arrangements and other issues. I have a few half-finished posts in the queue that I will try to shine up and set to auto-post. Please be patient with comment moderation, as my access to the internet may be intermittent and I have a variety of traveling to do.

Life moves on, sometimes in fits and starts and pauses. So will this blog.

13 November 2009

Data Visualization for the Classroom: Part I

One of my professional goals from last year was to delve deeper into the realm of "data visualization" and think about applications to schools. There are any number of websites devoted to great visualizations of social and economic information (as well as plenty of "Infoporn"/eye candy), but I'm not seeing much in the way of transitions to practical applications for schools. And I think we could use them.

I'm still playing with some ideas for an upcoming presentation, but here is some of my thinking so far...

Consider the graphic to be a piece of a gradebook. I haven't labeled the assignments, just input some numbers representing where students scored (on a 4-point scale) for a given standard. I used boldfaced type for summative assessments---others are formative.

Fuchs and Fuchs (1986) conducted a meta-analysis of feedback types given to students and determined that graphic representations (putting information into pictures---not just words/numbers) increased student achievement by 26%. So, what can we do with the batch of numbers shown above? For one, we can apply some conditional formatting and make a "traffic signal" visual:

It's not bad. It certainly gives me a better idea about whether or not the class is "getting it," depending on the assignment. But we can also take things a step further, and eliminate the numbers altogether:

The graphs above come from a Sparklines add-in for Excel. It is a free, open-source (Thank you, Fabrice!) tool that provides you with multiple options for charts/graphs that are one cell in size. (Note: Microsquash just applied for a patent for their own version, but it is nowhere near what others have developed...and, let's face it, there is nothing proprietary about their ideas in this matter.) But back to the snapshot above, I had Excel generate a simple line graph for each student (with the red line representing "At Standard/Level 3") and the bar chart at the bottom summarizing the data for the entire class.

So far, so good. When I look at this with my teacher eyes, I see so much more of a story appearing about each student. It is no longer a sea of numbers. Now, these fancy-dancy charts won't help me know what to do next (e.g. If students are still below standard, what should the intervention be?), but it may be a better start for identifying issues.

I have a few other tricks up my sleeve that I'm working on and will share in the coming days. What would you like your gradebook to be able to do and show you?

Update 5/2012: Please visit my page on the Excel for Educators blog for the most recent versions of gradebooks and reporting tools.

08 November 2009

What I Learned at Work Last Week

Have I mentioned that I have a very odd job now? Not just the most recent incarnation of my state-level work, but just about everything over the past 15 months. (Guess I did do a short post on my Surreal Life a couple of weeks after embarking on this phase of my career.) As someone who has spent the vast majority of my adult life with the under-18 crowd in classrooms, working with adults all day is very different. Quite often, I wonder if I'm grown up enough to be doing this job. I'm probably not, but I keep trying anyway.

We don't do much out of state travel, mainly because of a "freeze" on such events. There are plenty of good things to attend on behalf of the state and reasons to connect with others across the nation. Some things don't cost the state any money (e.g. the feds pay), but the office paperwork to get permission to travel is so intensive and the process so nonsensical, most opportunities slip by. The recent trip to DC was almost one of these (the pic at left is as close as I ever got to seeing the sights as we were saddled with an unforgiving schedule). Here are a few things I learned last week while meeting with other educational technology folk from around the 50 states...
  • The observation that Educational Technology is not "T Enough" to participate in STEM discussions is not limited to our state. This appears to be a problem around the country. Like Doyle, I am not a fan of "STEM for the sake of STEM," that is to say preferring economic goals over student-oriented ones. However, for those programs which put the needs of students first, I believe that online environments should be part of the mix. It doesn't mean that they're better or more appropriate for every situation, but open source engineering or collaborative tools for solving math and science issues are a piece.
  • There are very few presenters in educational technology who can walk their talk. I find it depressing that the majority of my time in DC consisted of being talked at---not with. And not even about our more meaningful issues. I sat through several discussions about how to electronically collect and present educational data without a single person addressing what they were doing to support asking good questions about the data...let alone what to do with the information. Any number of presenters neglected to offer even one shred of evidence that their programs had a meaningful impact on students and/or teachers. Only one presenter (out of at least 30 I sat through) used any sort of good design for adult learners. Perhaps one of the reasons EdTech'ers aren't considered "T Enough" is simply because they're too wrapped up in the tools and have no understanding about what constitutes learning. If they want to be invited to the table with curriculum/instruction/assessment folks, then they need to show that they understand those pieces and not just the "Ooooo...shiny..." distractions.
  • The US Senate has its own paparazzi. The distinguished looking gentleman in the center of the picture below (and the object of attention) is the Director of the National Science Foundation, Ardent Bement, Jr. He had just been by our table and was now ensconced with a virtual frog dissection beside us. I have to say that it is a rather odd experience to be surrounded by Very Important People (including a senator from our own state who stopped by to chat). I'm just a smalltown girl. Never expected to go to the ball. Mind you, I learned this week that VIPs do not introduce themselves. They will shake your hand while you say your name---but they expect that you must already know who they are. For someone who doesn't run in those sorts of circles, this is an impossible task. You know they are important due to the slew of cameras flashing around them...but there is no way to know their position, let alone their names. Perhaps being immersed in that environment means that it's best to keep all of your cards close to the vest...to listen and not talk.
  • There are going to be a couple of big changes in terms of state leadership for science education in our state. As I noted back in May, I have been concerned that science education would be driven into the ground. While there are no guarantees that new leadership will equate to "better," I can say that there are a lot of sighs of relief happening. I never realized so many people were unhappy with the leadership. I have now heard many "survivor" stories from others who thought the path was the wrong one. Happy dances are ensuing. Personally, I feel like a huge weight has been lifted. There is a chance, now, that someone who puts the needs of students first will be leading. There is hope.
My odd job will no doubt bring other new things to learn this week. In spite of the time away from home (and working with students), I like this part of my job. I like being able to learn from all sorts of people and visit new places. My hope is that I can figure out how best to use it all for the classrooms depending on me.

06 November 2009

Science Fiction

Forbidden Planet (1956) by Dallas 1200am CC-BY-NC-ND

I was listening to a keynote speaker earlier this week who was telling us just how flat the world would be someday. He had some glitzy pictures of technology gizmos---like a bluetooth headset that you could wear on your finger as a ring when it wasn't been used. He espoused tools and connectivity. He told us all about the impact of this on the classroom, where in some Hegel-ian vision, the sum total of human knowledge would be available to each and every child.

Forbidden Planet (1956) by Dallas 1200am CC-BY-NC-ND

I think this was supposed to be very inspiring to the gathering of educational technology leaders sitting in the room. Me? All I could think about was Forbidden Planet. If you haven't seen this 1956 gem of a movie, it's Shakespeare's Tempest set in outer space. (Aside: The Tempest is my favourite of his works. I like the metaphor of Caliban as student and Prospero as teacher. But that's another post.) I won't summarize the film here, as IMDb can do that much better than I, but if you've seen the film, you may remember the context of the image at the left. Walter Pidgeon (seated) has a machine attached to his head which allows him to increase his IQ. Leslie Nielsen is pointing at the 3D holographic image of Anne Francis that Pidgeon has been able to create using his mind. Cool, right? Maybe not. See, the machine had been built by an extinct civilization (the Krel)---a machine used to train the young of that species. A machine that contained the sum total of Krel knowledge. This allowed the Krel to do some wonderful things, but it also led to their own self-destruction (and eventually the destruction of Pidgeon and the planet itself).

In spite of the story, I'm not fatalistic about putting learning tools and information in the hands of students. However, this connection did give me pause to wonder if we've really thought about all of the possible consequences of a flat world.

Jurassic Park by davehunt82 CC-BY-NC-ND
This train of thought led me to another sci-fi connection:
Jurassic Park is another tale of the negative effects of "too much" knowledge. Within both the movie and the novel (which is far more interesting than the film), the character of Malcolm plays Satan's Little Helper in terms of asking the others to consider the consequences of what is being done. He points out to the developer, John Hammond, that "...your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should." Is it possible that when it comes to creating flat classrooms and embracing the idea of globalization that we are so blinded by possibilities that we aren't taking the time to really think things through? Have we considered the responsibilities that come with the power of knowledge?

Toward the end of the keynote the speaker trotted out a chestnut I've heard elsewhere: We're preparing kids for jobs that don't yet exist, where they'll use technology that hasn't been invented to solve problems we don't even know exist. This isn't a particularly deep observation---it's stating the obvious. I wanted to shout out that this is what education has always done. Don't you think that our own teachers were in the same position when we were in school? We are always going to be in the position of preparing students for an unknown future.

However, the speaker admonished us to be futurist and "begin with the end in mind" where technology is concerned. Other than a science fiction world, this is not possible. The platitude in the above paragraph tells us that we can't know what kind of world our students will inherit. Fiction tales from our past remind us that people don't always understand the consequences of the present on the future. The best we can do is help the next generation separate fact from fiction as they add to our progress.

02 November 2009

I Get Around

In another month, this blog will be five---old enough to be eligible for kindergarten next fall. And along the journey with this space, I've been fortunate enough to be able to connect in real life with many of the bloggers listed on my sidebar. I've met Ryan, Jim, Hedgetoad, Kirk and one of the bloggers (Luann) from Stories from School---all of whom are based in Washington. I recently met three teachers I've been following for awhile on Twitter (and now work with another educator I first connected with through that network). I've met Hugh (nee RepairKit and now the Thoughtful Teacher) and exchanged snail mail with Kiri8. There have been other encounters where my online life and real life have bumped into one another---no doubt there will be more.

On Sunday, I was able to make two additional connections. I could hardly stand the thought of traveling to DC for work and not find a way to meet some of my favourite educators. The writers of Organized Chaos and Elementary, My Dear, or Far From It were gracious enough to take some time away from family and their schedules to take me to brunch. I've read their blogs for years and have always been impressed with both the passion for education they bring to the edusphere, as well as the compassion they have for the students and families they work with. I have admired their intellectual curiosity and their ability to connect with readers. My heart has been both heavy and joyful at times as they've shared their window into the educational world. And now, after sharing some ricotta pancakes, bacon, and mimosas, as we chatted a mile a minute about a range of topics, I find myself even more enriched from spending some "face time" with them. Thank you both for a wonderful visit (and to OC for her very kind words).

I will be out and about a bit more this year. Some of it is work related and some of it is personal. Here's a quick rundown of my schedule at this point:
  • Within my home territory, I'll be at the annual WSSDA conference later this month, WERA conference in December, and NCCE and WSTA in March. I have presentations on a variety of topics for each of these.
  • In January, I'm headed to the Triangle area of NC (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) for ScienceOnline 2010. I am hoping to also get to Educon 2.2 in Philadelphia, but right now I don't have a funding source. Keeping my fingers crossed.
  • I'll be taking my grading presentation to the ASCD conference during the first weekend in March. If you'll be in San Antonio, let's grab a margarita on the riverwalk and talk some education.
Are you headed to Washington state? I can tell you from experience that we bloggers are a friendly group. We don't bite, bark quietly, and play well with others. If you find yourself getting around, too, drop me a line and let's get together.

01 November 2009

What Do You Make of This

If you're an 80's kind of child, then the header to this post probably engenders a response of "This? Why, I can make a hat or a brooch or a pterodactyl..." as once uttered by the character Johnny in the movie Airplane! What I'm wondering about at the moment, however, is the various ways you might use video clips like the one above in class---and whether or not using one "counts" as technology integration.

I've been pondering this while sifting through the mountain of links I inherited. Most of the links are fine (and are tagged under a list of "integration resources"), but I don't know that we can assume that just handing a link to a teacher is enough to assume that integration of technology is occurring.

When I think about video clips like the one above, I see potential for a lot of things. I see a launch for a unit of study---especially the opportunity for predictions and observations. I see a chance for formative assessment. I spy (with my little eye) a resource for reteaching or an intervention activity. I also smell a model summative assessment---something to prime kids' pumps before they go out and document an inquiry lesson within their own classroom.

Maybe Johnny was wrong in his thinking about the hat/brooch/pterodactyl. Perhaps I need to look at these links in a more Magritte sort of way:

Ceci n'est pas une YouTube video! Ceci est une "instructional material." Mais oui!

But do other teachers look at such resources in this way? Will they if I simply hand them the link---or are supporting documents necessary?

The bigger question for me, however, is whether or not using a video clip as an instructional material means that technology is being integrated into the classroom. I have been wondering if the answer is dependent upon who is using the clip. If, as a teacher, I use the pickle clip at the beginning of this post at the beginning of a unit, then I may be integrating technology (both hardware and software) into my lesson...but has it been integrated into student learning? Is it better than me actually doing the demonstration for students? Why would I choose a video clip over a "live" option?

When does something stop being a vanilla instructional resource and become technology integration? If a teacher goes to a website and downloads a worksheet to print for students---is that teaching with technology? What if s/he projects the same worksheet on an interactive whiteboard and students answer the questions or edit the passages there? Is a classroom with a single computer (and just at the teacher's workstation) able to integrate technology---or does it require x number of student computers? How many sites need to be able to get through the &$#@*! internet filter? I don't expect a single line here that will divide the issue into "this is integration" and "this is not." However, if we can't at least come up with some guidelines, how will be bring along those teachers who are still struggling to add a row to an Excel sheet or change the size of a font in a document? How do we get them to see the same possibilities as Johnny did for a piece of newspaper in Airplane! when someone sends a link to video on YouTube?

30 October 2009

The Mountain and the Muhammed

I am an interloper. A lifelong content person who often resisted being labeled as "techie," but has come to find herself in just such a position. What I am finding, however, is that while being a transplant provides opportunity for me to see connections between different groups, it doesn't mean that others do.

For example, Washington, like a lot of other states, is hot on the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) trail. STEM is the buzzword du jour among all sorts of stakeholders at the state level. Interestingly enough, educational technology is not included with any of the conversations. I guess they're not considered part of the big T. I think this is a mistake, but I'm not sure which group is the mountain and which is Muhammed in this situation. After all, I haven't seen content areas invited to many of the EdTech conversations.

How does this sort of stalemate end? How do we move from cliques to expertise to integrated conversations about classroom instruction?

27 October 2009


One of the things I've been doing the past few days is looking at a mountain of links collected by teachers as examples of "technology integration" to share with other teachers. Mind you, the mountain represents only a minute amount of content available on the internet---and the selections made by the groups varies quite a bit in terms of focus. Some picked resources for teachers to use as lesson plans...others went heavy on the "tools" and left their uses wide open. There were groups who picked simple wordsearch games and those who selected projects to flex students' critical thinking. Since I was not involved with these groups, viewing the work has been a bit of an anthropological project. I don't necessarily agree that all of their choices were the best of what's out there on the interwebs, but the variety does say something about how teachers view the use of the internet in their classrooms.

It has left me wondering: What is linkworthy?

With young students, teachers have to make very conscious choices about what they ask students to write. Young minds and hands have only so much attention and motor skills---whatever you ask of them must be of the utmost importance to capture. I am starting to think about time on the computer the same way. The fact is, most classrooms do not have access to a computer lab very often. Perhaps there are only a few computers in the room at any given time with lab days sprinkled in a few times a year. For the precious time that there is, do we want students doing a wordsearch on the computer...or do we want students to learn about advanced search functions in Google?

I can't help but think of Elaine and her horde of sponges...having to think carefully about whether or not a suitor was "sponge worthy." Perhpas we should be as picky and miserly with our computer time with students.

How do you decide what links to collect and share with peers and students? What makes a link worthy of your attention?

26 October 2009

Back to Our Regular Programming

Various projects over the past week haven't left any time or headspace for blogging...until now. A return to our usual programming will return tomorrow. Stay tuned.

18 October 2009

Story Time

I taught myself to read when I was 2. We had those 45 records (except for "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," which needed a 33 RPM job) with the companion books. Somehow, listening to those and following along was enough to divine which sounds went with which symbols and the rest followed from there. Reading for pleasure has been a part of my life ever since. I like having books around the house as well as sharing and trading them with friends.

I have not, however, bought a Kindle. This is not because they aren't handy or cool. I know people you have them and love them. I am tempted to get one every time I hold one in my hands or hear how people are using them in different ways. While I appreciate what this piece of technology does, it's what it can't do that keeps me from buying one: It cannot provide the tactile and interactive experience of a book. What researchers are wondering is whether or not these sorts of cues impact the ability to read and process information, especially for young children (from Science Daily: Storybooks on Paper Better for Children):
Clicking and scrolling interrupt our attentional focus. Turning and touching the pages instead of clicking on the screen influence our ability for experience and attention. The physical manipulations we have to do with a computer, not related to the reading itself, disturb our mental appreciation, says associate professor Anne Mangen at the Center for Reading Research at the University of Stavanger in Norway. She has investigated the pros and cons of new reading devices.

Mangen maintains that reading on a screen generates a new form of mental orientation. The reader loses both the completeness and constituent parts of the physical appearance of the reading material. The physical substance of a book offers tranquility. The text does not move on the page like it does on a screen.

"Several experiments in cognitive psychology have shown how a change of physical surroundings has a potentially negative affect on memory. We should include this in our evaluation of digital teaching aids. The technology provides for a number of dynamic, mobile and ephemeral forms of learning, but we know little about how such mobility and transience influence the effect of teaching. Learning requires time and mental exertion and the new media do not provide for that," Mangen believes.

Somehow, the idea of sitting down with a little one and a Kindle does not make for the same pleasant imagery as a child with an actual picture book. I have to wonder if it is possible at all to replace that.

I like turning pages---seeing the progress I've made through a novel. When I'm using a text for work or professional development, I want my pad of sticky notes handy to make notes to place in the book. I enjoy seeing the layout of text on a page---the choices of fonts and margins and headings. With all the wonderful things a Kindle can do, it is not (currently) able to replace any of these. College students who are piloting the use of Kindles as a substitute for texts are discovering the same disadvantages, but they also have some compliments (from eSchool News):

Most like how light the device is--just over a pound--and many would be willing to overlook technical hassles if it meant not having to carry any books. Most still had to buy and carry textbooks for non-Kindle classes this fall.

Students also were impressed with the "electronic ink" screen, which Amazon touts as far easier on the eyes than reading off a computer monitor. But it can't be backlit, disappointing one student who wants to read during dark early-morning bus commutes.

Kraizel, the Case Western freshman, says always having the Kindle with her has improved her study habits. It's much easier to cram in a few minutes of studying between classes, she says, and she's noticed that when she sits down for a serious study session she's more familiar with the material.

The Kindle also can do things books can't, like read homework aloud. Una Hopkins, a 46-year-old student in the nurse-practitioner program at Pace University in New York, got five chapters finished that way when she was stuck in traffic.

"It was robotic, but it got me where I needed to go," Hopkins says.

The device's usefulness goes beyond textbooks: Another Washington grad student in computer science, Franziska Roesner, has used the web browser to read and write eMail when she's away from her computer. It's slow, but it worked, she says.

And sometimes its uses go beyond productivity entirely. Students at Arizona State have found the Minesweeper video game that comes with the device. They've also figured out how to download music.

Roesner, who was steeped in Kindle hype as an intern at Amazon over the past two summers, lamented the device's problems with PDFs, which make up the bulk of this quarter's assignments. Still, she won't write off e-readers.

"If reading devices like this really come to replace reading paper," she wrote in an eMail, "I think in 20 years we'll look back at the Kindle with nostalgic affection and amusement, like we now look back at 1990s computers."

The quote at the end makes me smile. I can't be the only one who remembers learning to program in BASIC on a Tandy computer (or who had Apple IIe computers in my classroom when I started teaching). I think the point is well taken in that we can expect several iterations and evolutions of eReaders in the coming years. Until I can choose how to interact with the information on the screen, I'll stick with my analog books in this digital world.

14 October 2009


In the beginning, there was Bloom's Taxonomy for categorizing types of thinking. And it was---and continues to be---good. It provides a framework for educators to consider the rigor of the work provided to students. Generally speaking, Bloom's tends to be all about the verbs: identify, describe, explain, state, choose, evaluate, and so on.

But the assignments we provide in classrooms are more than verbs. They are also about objects: either the tasks we assign or the items students produce. And this is where Norman Webb with his Depth of Knowledge framework offers an alternative to Bloom's arrangement. It is a more holistic look at a learning target before determining cognitive demand.

For example, "identify" doesn't have to be part of the slacker Knowledge group of Bloom's. It would be if I ask a kid to identify the location of Ireland on a map of Europe. But, if I ask a student to identify a strategy which might resolve the civil conflict in Ireland, I've asked for something far more involved...something beyond mere Knowledge.

I am thinking about using Webb with the new standards for Educational Technology. Some targets are simple to assign to a classification (Recall, Skill/Concept, Strategic Thinking, Extended Thinking)...but I am struggling with others. For example, "Participate in an online community to understand a local or global issue." Is this a Level One target---because "understand a local or global issue" is the only cognitive piece represented...or is there some amount of demand on the student implied by "Participat[ing] in an online community..."?

How does one classify those targets and tasks involving intangibles like participation? Should these be included? Participation is one of those classroom values which is nearly impossible to standardize. What it looks like from grade to grade, teacher to teacher, and content area to content area can be very different. And while we might come to some sort of consensus about qualities of "good" participation, I still have to ask if there is any cognitive demand involved in the process. Could you write a task for it?

I don't expect any sort of elegant resolution to these questions. I may have to set them aside for now and concentrate on other issues. But if you have some insight to share on how we determine the depth of thinking associated with participating, engaging, and or collaborating, I hope you'll share it in the comments.

11 October 2009

Dinosaurs in Our Midst

I've been thinking a lot about a recent WaPo article on a district's choice to disband its Parent-Teacher Association (PTA).

From a high mark of 12 million in the 1960s, national PTA membership has dropped to a little more than 5 million. Although school enrollments have ballooned, the PTA lost a million members in the past decade alone. Through the years, Washington's inner suburbs have been high-profile exceptions to the general decline. More than 90 percent of the schools in Fairfax, Arlington and Montgomery counties have PTAs, for instance, compared with about 25 percent nationally.

But even here, there are worrisome signs for the future of the PTA.

"I think it's time we join the nation," Catherine Potter, Woodson High PTSA's past president, told the assembled parents and a few jersey-clad students last week. She argued that the national group is too bureaucratic and less relevant in the Internet age, when parents have access to education-related news from Richmond or Washington and can get involved politically in other ways.

While I'm not so sure that "the rest of the nation is jumping off a bridge, so we should, too" argument is the best reasons for disbandment, I do think one of the key pieces here is the "Internet age."

In an era of email, Facebook fan pages and Twitter accounts for schools, blog-savvy parents with an axe to grind, and any other number of options, is a brick and mortar organization (like the PTA) still relevant? I believe so. Schools are still places where people meet and learn---virtual support isn't going to be enough when it comes to doing the best we can for all kids (not just the ones whose parents have a special interest wheel to squeak). That being said, organizations like the PTA are only as relevant as they choose to be.

PTA leaders say they are struggling to communicate their message to a new generation of parents.

"The question is, 'What have you done for me lately?' " said Michele Menapace, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs. "And we need to do a better job telling them" that the PTA is involved in issues they care about...

Nehrbass, of the Virginia PTA, said it's getting harder to convince parents that it matters to be involved in issues affecting more than their children or their school.

Working alone, for instance, parents can raise money for a computer their school cannot afford because of budget cuts, she said. Working together, they can fill a boardroom to fight for more education funding.

To reverse the decline in membership, the national PTA is trying to redraw the face of children's advocacy. It's reaching out to fathers and training minority leaders to organize growing numbers of immigrant parents. It is also appealing to younger parents through social networking sites.

The elementary school I was a part of two years ago had a terrible time trying to sustain its PTA. Whether it was the dues (a "luxury" for a family living in poverty), the meetings (when parents were working two jobs and/or relying on public transportation and/or had no one to watch the children), or just an aversion to being in a school, I don't know. I do know that those students, more than any, needed a group advocating for them. There needed to be something different with the structure and purpose.

If the PTA is going to evade a dinosaur-like ending to its existence, it is going to have to adapt to the changing form of the American family, as well as the shifting landscape of how people organize and communicate.

10 October 2009

Metric Day 2009

Next year will be "A Very Special Metric Day" (10/10/10), so why not get in some practice today? Three doesn't have to be the only magic number out there; and, isn't base 10 much easier to deal with?

Celebrate all things metric today. The National Council of Math Teachers (NCTM) has a nice page on ways to get your 10 on (even if they forgot to update it for 2009) as does the US Metric Association. Check out the Metric Olympics Events. Go wild on this Saturday night!

08 October 2009

Curiouser and Curiouser

You might recall that I am on the hunt for rubrics and other tools that support the evaluation of student skills in educational technology (and/or "21st century learning"). In my opinion, a lot of the problem with developing these sorts of things is that we are trying to capture and deliver feedback on skills that defy quantification. Can one consistently rate how well a student innovates? collaborates? thinks critically or creatively?

I am not any closer on developing these kinds of resources; however, two pieces I read last week are prodding my thinking along. The first came from the Harvard Business Review and represented an interview with the authors of a "six-year study surveying 3,000 creative executives and conducting an additional 500 individual interviews" to identify five discovery skills these innovators have in common: associating, questioning, observing, experimenting, and networking. Of these, the ability to associate (make connections between disparate pieces of information) was seen as the most important; but, it's really the synergy among these things that leads to inquisitiveness.
We think there are far more discovery driven people in companies than anyone realizes. We've found that 15% of executives are deeply innovative, meaning they've invented a new product or started an innovative venture. But the problem is that even the most creative people are often careful about asking questions for fear of looking stupid, or because they know the organization won't value it...

If you look at 4-year-olds, they are constantly asking questions and wondering how things work. But by the time they are 6 ½ years old they stop asking questions because they quickly learn that teachers value the right answers more than provocative questions. High school students rarely show inquisitiveness. And by the time they're grown up and are in corporate settings, they have already had the curiosity drummed out of them. 80% of executives spend less than 20% of their time on discovering new ideas. Unless, of course, they work for a company like Apple or Google.

Is this true for schools---both the adults within them, as well as the students? As much as I hate to admit it, we do drum out curiosity and value conformity over time. I don't know that technology will change that, but I do think it will return some of the power of learning to students. The more tools a student has at hand to demonstrate their knowledge, the greater value we place on variety. That being said, not everyone is going to grow up to be Steve Jobs...but not everyone will have to grow up to be Bubba, either.

More intriguing was this image from Inverting Bloom's Taxonomy by Sam Weinburg and Jack Schneider:

They report on a task given to two groups of history students. One group was comprised of AP US History students...the other graduate students in the field of history. Each participant was provided "a document and asked...to read it 'historically,' articulating what he thought the piece was about, raising questions about its historical circumstances, and sharing insights about the text...The document was a proclamation by President Benjamin Harrison in 1892."

As you might imagine, the two groups of students approached the task differently. AP students "marshaled background knowledge about Columbus and worked [their] way toward the Bloomian peak, eventually challenging President Harrison’s praise for Columbus with his own critical alternative. [The] response, though unpolished and in need of elaboration, seems like critical thinking. And that’s how the teachers we interviewed generally saw it." As for the graduate students...

From the start, it was clear what the young historians were doing differently. As one began his reading: “OK, it’s 1892.”

Our high school student Jacob knew the story of Columbus. But he didn’t know how to read a document as the product of a particular time and place. To the historians, critical thinking didn’t mean assembling facts and passing judgment; it meant determining what questions to ask in order to generate new knowledge.

Why, the young historians wanted to know, did Harrison make this particular declaration at this particular moment? Over and over, as they puzzled through the document, they asked “why?” In our dozens of interviews with high school students, not a single one ever did so.

Light bulbs soon started popping for the young historians. “The 1890s, the beginning of the Progressive Era, end of the century, closing of the frontier, Frederick Jackson Turner, you’ve got the Columbian Exposition coming up the following year. Biggest wave of immigration in U.S. history.” This one was on the scent. And then …

“That’s it!”

At the end of the 19th century, America was getting a makeover. Seemingly overnight, immigration had transformed the country’s look, bringing “Slavs,” “Alpines,” “Hebrews,” “Iberics,” and “Mediterraneans” to the United States. Among these newcomers were millions of Irish and Italian immigrants who formed a new political interest group—urban Catholics. Harrison, in honoring Columbus, was pandering. “Discovery Day” appealed to millions of new voters by bringing them, along with a hero who was one of their own, into the fold.

Mystery solved.

Now that’s critical thinking...

To the historians, questions began at the base of the pyramid: “What am I looking at?” one asked. “A diary? A secret communiqué? A government pronouncement?” They wanted to know when it was written and what else was going on at the time. For them, critical thinking meant determining the knowledge they needed to better understand the document and its time. Faced with something unfamiliar, they framed questions that would help them understand the fullness of the past. They looked up from the text curious, puzzled, and provoked. They ended their reading with new questions, ready to learn. The high school students, on the other hand, typically encountered this document and issued judgments. In doing so, they closed the book on learning.

Does this illustrate how curiosity becomes closed by some classrooms? In our zealousness to teach facts and figures, have we emphasized the right answer too much...and the right question not enough?

While I may be no closer in knowing how to evaluate curiosity and innovation in the classroom, I am appreciative of these reminders to build in supports for these skills along the way. Perhaps the instructional resources I gather and share will be grounded there. Maybe the answer to evaluating students' use of instructional technology will be the questions they create.

06 October 2009

(R)evolutionary Parenting

When I started my career, there was an animal known as the "stage mother." It was not a new discovery. The species had been cataloged long before I picked up a piece of chalk and cranked a mimeograph, but it represented only a small subpopulation of parents (both male and female). I rarely observed this type of parent in my science classroom; however, it was not uncommon to make field observations in performing arts classes and at athletics events. These were the parents who advocated for their children beyond what might be considered normal...almost to the point of embarrassing both themselves and their children. Teachers, coaches, and administrators received many a pitying glance after coming in contact with the stage mother in his/her native habitat.

And then, sometime in the 90's, a curious thing happened: The stage mother evolved. There was radiation akin to the Cambrian Explosion. Stage mothers were now "Helicopter Parents," and they had developed into a variety of subspecies, adapting to every niche within a school. An invasive species, they even began to occupy college and university habitats.

We've more or less been at this eyerolling state of things ever since.

Schools, however, need to face a cold hard truth in this scenario. After all, the population of Stage Mothers were more or less at equilibrium for decades. What was it about the environment which changed to allow them to become so pervasive? What happened in school settings that allowed them to use their opportunistic behaviors in new ways? You may have your own answer, but I think it has everything to do with the self-esteem movement. This is not to say that I approve of crushing students---ragging on them within an inch of their young lives. But we have started to tell kids that appearance is more important than substance. Your test scores are more important than what you learn. The number of events you can list on your college application is more important than who you are as a person. Being told you're smart is better than actually being smart.

To be sure, we cannot weed out helicopter parents. Stage Mothers will never become extinct, but perhaps we can discourage their growth and abundance. We can prune. We can encourage alternatives. Po Bronson thinks that native parenting types may be making a comeback---A Return of Tough Love. (You can listen to an NPR interview with Bronson and read the first chapter of his book here.) I don't think this will be a simple or quick reclamation project. It means caring about our kids enough to allow them to make mistakes. It means that while parents should continue to want the best for their children, they have to realize that advocacy does not mean your child gets each and every thing you want. It means that while high expectations and positive thinking are wonderful things, it is more important that the child have an internal representation of those...not just external ones. If we try, we can bring back a balance to the ecosystems that are our classrooms.

05 October 2009

Science Online 2010

This year will mark the fourth annual ScienceOnline Conference. The name might be seen by some as misleading, as the conference itself is not virtual (unlike the K-12 Online Conference). Instead it is a gathering of those who advocate for science using online communications. It is "a free three-day event to explore science on the Web. Our goal is to bring together scientists, physicians, patients, educators, students, publishers, editors, bloggers, journalists, writers, web developers, programmers and others to discuss, demonstrate and debate online strategies and tools for doing science, publishing science, teaching science, and promoting the public understanding of science."

And this year, I am going. (And presenting with Sandra Porter from Discovering Biology in a Digital World and Antony Williams from the ChemConnector. And doing a "Blogging 101" session.)

Although I have a greater association with the "online" vs. "science" part of things anymore, I find myself looking for more ways to integrate the real world with the virtual one. Spending time with like minded folks will be good for my working life...and more importantly, good for kids. I realize I'm biased, but I think the sciences have the greatest potential for connection between professionals in the field and students in the classroom. Especially when I run across articles like this one describing how blogs and other online tools bring scientific research within reach:

Every school year, teachers across the country set out to make the work of scientists understandable and appealing to students, who might otherwise find it indecipherable and dull.

This fall, a New Hampshire educator was helped in that mission by a group of scientists—working from a boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Those scientists were conducting research in the Phoenix Islands, a remote collection of atolls and reefs in the central Pacific. During breaks, they kept a blog on their work, which Julianne Mueller-Northcott’s students followed every day. Her students e-mailed questions to the marine scientists, who responded when they had time and a working satellite link.

That arrangement is just one of many aimed at connecting students through technology with scientists doing research in the field, an increasingly common practice in schools. Museums, colleges, federal agencies, and individual teachers have become more adept at putting students in direct contact with scientists, even those working in very remote locations—like aboard the NAI’A in the central Pacific, 6,000 miles away.

It's a very cool idea; and, one of many available to classrooms. I am hoping that the ScienceOnline conference will help uncover more ways for classrooms and researchers to connect. I suspect that at least part of that discussion will involve how we also support each group in learning to use online tools. From the education side of things, a recent survey has shown that while many educators use social networking or web 2.o tools, they believe that they could use professional development in terms of using these more effectively in the classroom. Perhaps there will be some good tips I can pick up in January to share with teachers---and maybe I can share some things with the scientists about working in k-12 environments.

See you there!

03 October 2009

Where Have All the Bloggers Gone?

Like many internet users, I do most of my reading through an aggregator. It wasn't always this way. The motley crew of blogs on my sidebar represented part of my daily perambulations around the web. I still try to get out and visit sites every once in awhile. As nice as Google Reader is at collecting things for me to enjoy, I miss seeing the blogrolls and additional features that others have on their sites. I always have an eye out for a new read.

I recently made an effort to search for science education bloggers. You see, other than Science Teacher and Science for All, I really don't have anyone on my sidebar that represent science ed. I always enjoy Mrs. Bluebird, but her stories are more about kids and classroom than anything science. And as I searched through Twitter profiles and a recent collection of all things education blog, I noticed that there are three basic categories of extant science education blogs.
  • First, there is the "hobby blogger": someone who has a blog that is only updated every 4 - 6 weeks, at best. I removed these from my consideration because blogging (in my opinion) should be about sharing and conversation. Someone who only writes 8 - 12 times per year is not interested in using a blog to network or nurture relationships. Typically, these are teachers who just want to be able to say "I have a blog!" Sadly enough, this was the greatest percentage of science education blogs out there.
  • The second category represents teachers who use their blogs to communicate with students and parents. This is a great use for those stakeholders (and one I tried myself)...but it's not designed to be particularly reflective or used for connections outside that circle. I removed those from my search, too.
  • The final category is comprised of science teachers who only post about educational technology. These aren't bad blogs, either...but again, the conversation is not about science education. (For those of you who think this is a bit of the pot calling the kettle black, you're right. I'm not entirely science oriented myself, anymore---but I do try to keep a toe in.)
After eliminating all of the blogs that fell into the above categories, there were a few left. I have to say that I wasn't all that impressed with either the writing and/or the format. At the risk of sounding like an old fart, people used to have some pride in their templates and ease of use for readers. What is up with bloggers filling up every square inch of the page---with the text such a hot mess that you can't tell where a post begins or ends?

Blogging, like any medium, is bound to change with time. I don't expect permanance, but I am hoping for continuity of ideas. I have to believe that there are science teachers out there who are interested in sharing their tales. If you have a recommendation for me, please do leave it in the comments.

02 October 2009

Once and Future Learning

There's been a lot of rumbling at the state and federal levels about "continuity of learning," should the H1N1 virus (or other disaster) prevent schools from operating normally. Both the ASCD blog and Education Week have recently focused some screen time to these topics.

From ASCD:
ASCD Executive Director Gene Carter emphasizes that in addition to prevention and monitoring efforts, schools must consider how they plan to support continuous learning, both for individual students who are home for extended periods of time with the flu and for the whole student body if the virus spreads widely and forces school closures.

“Some estimates indicate H1N1 could infect half the U.S. population this fall and winter, which translates into considerable classroom disruption and absenteeism,” Carter writes. “Students in the same class could end up in wildly different places in the curriculum. Meanwhile, entire classes could fall behind if their teachers are out sick for several days.”

He suggests educators form professional learning communities to help them work together to assess knowledge and skills when students return to school and develop plans for instructional next steps.

If the swine flu plays out in these numbers, then there is no doubt about the disruption to the educational process. I wonder if it is more disruptive to try to keep schools open than to shut down during the peak of infection. This does not mean that staff and students would conveniently all be ill and well simultaneously, but considering the every student/class in a different place of learning at any given moment...why not slow things down for everyone instead? How is a sick teacher supposed to plan for students who may or may not be there themselves?

This is where the e-learning ramp up could play a role, as Education Week suggests. Suppose a teacher posts assignments to their website/Moodle site or e-mails students with lessons. Will this work?

To a point. We are going to have to assume that every child has internet access at home (all with the same bandwidth) and time to use it. This is not guaranteed in a one-computer household with many members. We also have to assume a "one size fits all" lesson---at this time, I suspect that few teachers are going to offer accommodations for ELL, SPED, etc. We are also going to have to assume that every teacher is equally savvy about the tools available for these kinds of lessons and how to use them.

All in all, I don't think that we're ready to offer an alternative learning environment in case of a pandemic...and we're not going to be ready by winter.

I do think that e-learning will be a typical part of future classrooms...a blended model of brick-and-mortar and virtual learning. At that point, it will be a simpler extension and expectation to go all virtual all the time for short periods. If we are truly going to be prepared for a widespread flu epidemic this winter, we need to look at some realistic discussions about what continuity of learning looks like in 2009-2010.

01 October 2009

A Quick Aside

Do you remember me mentioning that I was gaining six hours a week this year? The amount of time cited represented what I save by telecommuting two days per week; however, there are far more benefits than that.

I save 40% on gas, maintenance, and wear and tear on my car...40% on bridge tolls and parking fees. Those are the obvious personal benefits. But I also save 40% on makeup, pantyhose, wear and tear on workclothes/drycleaning costs. In a biennium where there will be no pay raises for state workers, these savings represent a bigger and better benefit than any raise I could have ever had. And the thing is, it doesn't cost the state any more to give it to me.

It's true, I recover that time that I would have spent driving. There are other time benefits. I am not ruled by an alarm clock every work day. This does not mean I can sleep in as late as I want, but when one's "office" is 20 steps from the bed, I can "sleep in" until 6 (I usually have to be up at 4:30) and still easily be to work on time. My work ebbs and flows with the day. I can spend the first few hours of the morning on projects while my mind is most alert and active...and when I'm ready for a mid-morning break, I have a shower and breakfast. There are now three "Fridays" a week, because the evening before a telecommute day, I feel like I can relax and destress. I can actually be wild and stay up until 10 p.m. without fearing I will be dead on my feet the next morning due to lack of sleep.

I'm better focused and more productive on the days when I can sit in my kitchen with the sunlight and fresh air streaming in and can rest my eyes now and then on watching the tide move in and out. The fact is, I probably put in more hours at home than the office simply because I can use the time and space to best suit the needs of the tasks at hand.

I also am getting to reconnect with personal friends and projects. Without the 90-minute drive at the end of the day, I can finish up at 4 p.m. (my scheduled time) and meet someone for a brew at 4:15. I feel like I can be creative again. I'm a real person---not just a worker bee.

So, on one of these "Friday" evenings, as I see the time on the clock is past ten (and I'm okay with that), it just seems right to have a quick aside here to say how much I'm looking forward to spending more time here.