Friday, October 19, 2012

The Geezer Zone

DoghouseDiaries, 10/19/2012
Today's DoghouseDiaries web comic sort of sums it up for me.

I'm not a grumpy old guy, but there are some in my department that will tell you that sometimes my emails come across as if I'm playing the role of a little old lady. (Not the nice ones, who are gentle in voice and manner, and are quick to offer you a freshly baked good. No, I'm talking about the annoying ones who bitch and whine about how cold it is, then two minutes later complain that it's too hot.) I try to be reasonable when it comes to generation gaps. I don't drop the "when I was your age..." to correct beliefs or behaviors. I'll do it when I want to make a point with something I'm teaching, or add a little whimsey to a situation. And, I'll play the "back home in Minnesota" routine when I think someone is complaining just a little too much, usually about the weather. For example:

  • When my students and I are moving equipment from one end of the building to the other repeatedly: "Back home in Minnesota, we'd call this 'walking to school'!"
  • On a particularly hot and dry day: "Back home in Minnesota, we call this 'marathon training weather'!"
  • On a rainy, dark and dank day: "Back home in Minnesota, we call this 'The Fourth of July Weekend'!"

You get the idea.

But Ray, Raf and Will, the creators of DoghouseDiaries, nailed the mood of the day for me.

Keep in mind, this is just after I spent two great days at the Iowa Technology Education Connection (ITEC) conference in Des Moines. (Which rocked, by the way.) I spent two sessions working with smart - or app - phones and how they can be used effectively with students. I've changed my tune regarding those little gadgets - or at least I thought I had.

Last night, while working with a half a dozen young theater technicians, this scene in the last panel played out. We were going over the particulars of repairing lighting instruments, and I was demonstrating on a light in need of repair. I was talking while working, absorbed with the task. When I completed the repair - giving a blow-by-blow commentary of the fix as it happened - I looked up. Four students were face first into their phones, with the other two looking over their shoulder.

I'm glad I didn't go with my first instinct, which was to start throwing things. I took a breath. (OK, I took three because the first two were through clenched teeth.) "What's going on?"

The oldest student - a sophomore - spoke up: "We're looking for the video from last year's Stage Craft class - remember we did that at the end of the term? I think this was the type of fixture we worked on for that video."


Yup, he was right. We had put together a video for the purpose of accessing when people were - wait for it - repairing these very lights. (Unfortunately the video is no longer posted, but we think we remember who did the video and are trying to get it back up on the web.) So, they weren't blowing me off being totally bored with what I was saying - they were searching for additional information.  They were using their phones in a way that supported their education. I'm thankful I didn't tell them to put the damn things away.

Comedian Louie Anderson
But my first instinct was to go all grumpy old guy on them: "When I was your age, we respected our elders by paying attention!" And we did,  but it was more along the line of "When our elders were talking to us, we took off our headphones and turned off our Walkmans and paid attention!" Comedian (and fellow Minnesotan) Louie Anderson had a great line about being an old guy: "What am I going to tell my grandkids about how hard it was for me? 'When I was your age, we didn't have cable'?" It's sort of where I am. Computers in the classroom were first a reality when I was a sophomore in high school. We had technology, and we were properly wowed by it, but no one really knew how to integrate it. I think my trigonometry teacher may have had the right idea when he said "poke around with it. See what it can do." Hardly technology integration, but we learned a few things by "poking around with it."

I did seize the opportunity to say something about how great it is to have that sort of access in our hands when we have a task at hand. My students enthusiastically agreed. And when I say "enthusiastically," I mean they shrugged their shoulders and cautiously said "yeah" as if I was going to launch into another of my "when I was in high school" stories that involved a Radio Shack TRS-80.  I'll take that, though. They seem to get it.

So I'll keep geezering on. I know how it was back when, and I know how it is now. I'll keep telling kids to put their phones aside when I need to have face-to-face communication, and I'll send them texts and emails when that's the better option. I'll use the technology when it suits me and my teaching, and I'll leave the phone behind when gazing at the stars on a clear night. And if the rest of the world zooms forward with the next gee-whiz thing that takes us further from face-to-face interaction, so be it. I'll try to keep pace and adapt with my students because, when I was their age, that's what I did.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Nothin' Up My Sleeve ...

Rocky and Bullwinkle. Ward Anderson and Scott, 1958.
Unique ideas and creative solutions for education (or anything else for that matter) can resemble the act of pulling a rabbit - or beast - out of a hat. Is it really that hard to come up with something completely original? Has creativity died?

Every now and again, I get stuck when coming up with an interesting, unique and creative set design for our school's theater productions. While I teach full time, and direct the extracurricular technical theater activities, I still want to create the newest and coolest contribution to the theater world. So I sit and think, and then I doodle, and after that, I open up a new SketchUp document, and play around with shapes and lines .... and then I turn on the TV and see what's on ... and then I get hungry and make dinner.

It's after I do all of that when I start searching the internet for ideas.

I don't search the internet to use someone else's design. (I've done that once, with the designer's permission, and it proved to be way more work on the backside of the process.) I search to see mostly out of curiosity what has been done before. What I find are some really great set designs - and not necessarily by professional designers. (In fact, it's hard to find Broadway designs online.) I also find some designs that lack inspiration, and at the risk of being designer-snarky, some that are just deficient of good design basics. These help in the "what not to do department." The common denominators of the research are the elements demanded by the script: things that are necessary for the progression of the plot or character interaction. After that, the designs diverge into their "good, bad and ugly" designations.

Draughtsman's Compass. Tudedude,2010
What inevitably happens to me - and to other scenic designers that have admitted so - is that I find one element here, and another element there, and combine them with my own idea or interpretation of what the set should look like. Theaters are built in different shapes, sizes and configurations, so rarely will one set design work for another theater. It's practically guranteed that it will be more work forcing the design to work in our theater space than creating a new design - but that doesn't mean that certain elements won't work at all. This is evidenced by a recent conversation I had with my Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer:

I am at my computer, straining to create a brilliant set for our next production. My Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer is looking over my shoulder with a smugly disdainful look on her face.
Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer: Hey, that looks familiar!
Me: Be quiet.
Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer: No, really. The staircase is straight out of Guess Who's Comming to Dinner. I can practically see Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn walking down it together!
Me: Leave me alone. I'm trying to concentrate.
Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer: Who else are you ripping off?
Me: I'm not ripping off anyone! I'm simply ... paying homage ... to great set designers.
Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer: Ah! The ol' "paying homage" dodge. You know what you should be paying? Money. These people design for a living. They can't eat "homage."
Me: I'm only using the stairway - and besides, I had to re-design the damn thing to make it fit onto our stage.
My nemesis.
Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer: Uh huh. I see that you are also "paying homage" to the archways in Casablanca, the furniture layout from Act I of Phantom of the Opera, the transom doors in The Odd Couple, and the baracades from Les Miserables.
Me: Those aren't baracades. They're potted plants.
Imaginary Award-winning Set Designer: Yeah, whatever. Look, if this is how you define creativity, that's your problem, but people will notice their stuff in your designs sooner than later.
Me: I'm not copying! I'm not! It's just a ... um, sampling. You know, a mash-up? Right? Sure!
At that moment, an older man with thick mop of white hair and black rimmed glasses bursts in.
Spencer Tracy: Hey, jerk! Whaddya think you're doing with my staircase? You give that back right now, or I'll show you what an old-school mash-up is all about!
And then Spencer Tracy beats the living daylights out of me.

Here lies the conundrum: is this the theft of intellectual property, or paying homage to a clever designer?

Jeffery Davis
Creative consultant Jeffery Davis writes about "The Creative Thinking Myth" in his April, 2012 article on The Creativity Post. His contention is that there's more to creativity than original thought. Environment and a person's physical condition has as much to do with creativity as "right brain cognizance." He refers to several different researchers who have done work in this particular area. From my own experience, I would agree that he's on to something. I won't pretend to understand every single aspect of his work, but there are times when I'm not motivated to create or design - and it's usually when I'm tired, or hungry, or if I'm somewhere where I can't work undisturbed. When I do start cranking out ideas, it's when I'm in a good space both physically and mentally. It makes sense. And I'm not just referring to set designs - this applies to creating assignments, units, rubrics and other material for my Language Arts classroom.

Recently a colleague introduced me to this video series. "Everything is Remix" comes from Kirby Ferguson, and is in four parts. It's worth the view for those who are consumed with trying to be completely original. (Spoiler alert: stop trying.)

Everything is a Remix Part 1 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

And here is Ferguson presenting at a TedTalks this past June:

So the pressure is off, it seems. Just as long as I keep most of my creative juices going, I can accept that my designs - be it sets on stage or lessons in the classroom - are remixes that meet the needs of those I work with.

What sorts of remixes have you created to fit your learning environment?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

It Was a Slap in the Face How Quickly I Was Replaced

Sure, we were all there once: "Splitsville," "Dumpedtown," and the Greater "It's Not You, It's Me" Metro Area. We've all had a sour relationship. (Or five, but who's keeping track, right? I'm pretty sure I don't.) No one feels great after the break-up, and while time heals all wounds, time tends to move a bit more slowly. We go through a process of grieving, and we come to terms with the change in our lives. Certainly, we've all been the benefactor of some well meaning friend's or colleague's cliche-esque wisdom:

"Nothing lasts forever."
“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.” 
“It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything.”
"Better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all."
And my all-time favorite:

"I don't want to say I told you so,  but I told you it would never last."

Perhaps that last one is a bit more brutal than the others, but it's the one that resonates with us the most when it comes to accepting new technology into our lives and classrooms. We are told that as soon as we purchase/acquire a new technology, it's already obsolete. And with technology, an area of our lives that we intertwine with more each day, it's a lead-pipe cinch that change will happen.

Which is why I sort of panicked when Google SketchUp became the property of Trimble. I suddenly felt like the father of a lovely sixteen year old girl who has been asked out on a date by a new boy - one I had never met before.

The scene: I am with my Imaginary Sixteen Year Old Daughter as she is preparing to go out on a date. 

Me: And just who is this Trimble kid?

Imaginary Sixteen Year Old Daughter: He's a guy I met the other day.

Me: Is he a new kid at school, or have I met him before?

Imaginary Sixteen Year Old Daughter: No, he's been around for a while, but I just met him. He's really smart, and he does a lot of stuff with GPS and he's into construction, and - OH! he has this really cool laser optical thing, too. He's really technology savvy.

Me: OK, but what about Google? I mean, I thought you really liked him. I know I did.

Imaginary Sixteen Year Old Daughter: Dad, puh-lease! Everyone liked Google. I mean, every time he did anything, people fawned over him. I just got tired of it.

Me: But he's such a stable kid - the kind that will stick with you.

Imaginary Sixteen Year Old Daughter: Trimble says he'll be just as true to me as Google was - and since he's smarter than Google is in certain subjects, he's just a better fit for me.

Me: Uh huh. And what does Google think of all of this?

Imaginary Sixteen Year Old Daughter: Oh, he's cool with it, totally. In fact, he's the one who introduced us.

Me: OK, but I just have a few more quest-

I am interrupted at the sound of a car horn. Outside of my home, a flying DeLorean equipped with a Flux-Capacitor pulls up.

Imaginary Sixteen Year Old Daughter: Oh, he's here. Gotta go, Dad. Love you, bye!

And they fly off to God knows where, leaving me with a screwy look on my face.

So, here is one of my favorite applications - SketchUp - one which I've used in the classrooms since v.4.0 with a lot of success, and now it's someone else's baby. Google's philosophy was to make it free and to make it user friendly. Most of the time, it was; but even when it wasn't, it was still worth teaching and learning because it was doing some really cool advanced drawing maneuvers. I'm hoping that Trimble will follow suit, and that some of my worries are all for naught.

But really what I'm hoping for is that some of the shortcomings regarding SketchUp are addressed. Namely:

  • The application itself is not Web 2.0, which limits collaboration on models.
  • The self-paced tutorials are OK, but not easy to get to, and are short on some of the more advanced features.
  • 3-D Warehouse is sometimes not accessible to older models
  • Models in 3-D Warehouse are not consistent with scale I use in my drawings (which is something I can fix myself, but to me, it seems like it could be easily remedied.)
  • Shortcuts seem more complicated than need be

I suppose that this wouldn't worry me as much if it hadn't been for the fact that Google is doing away with iGoogle in the near future. I really like my iGoogle page. I know there are other things out there that will do the same thing, but - well, we've been together through so much. I got my MA with iGoogle, and I use it to prepare for my classes, and to use with my hobbies .... I'm just not sure how I'll do without her.

(Sorry. Lost it there for a moment. I know this sounds like a cheesy break-up story. I'm sure I'll be fine without her. I mean it. Be fine without it.)

This reminds me of my fondness of a suite of programs by Claris at the start of my teaching career. Claris Cad was a great little two-dimensional drawing program for the Mac, FileMaker was a powerful database, and ClarisWorks was the Mac contender to the early version of Microsoft Works. It ran beautifully on the Mac Quadras, and the the PowerMacs, and then the very earliest versions of the iMac ... and then it all came to an end. Claris got rid of everything but FileMaker, then renamed itself that same moniker. In short, Claris dumped me. Most of my files had to be converted to MS works files for the Mac, and since then have been replaced by files created by the updated, incompatible versions of current applications. Like the past love letters of so many (read "few") girls in my past, there are no longer any more Claris compatible files in my life. That's probably a good thing ... I think.

And that's where my trouble with SketchUp lies. What will become of her? She already has replaced the shallow 2-D drawings of my beloved Claris, and seemed so safe under Papa Google. Now this heart-throb Trimble comes along ... will he whisk her off to the sophisticated sunny beaches of AutoCAD, or the glitzy, high-rise world of TurboCad (motto: "What happens inTurboCAD stays in TurboCAD"), or will he just move her to the lovely landscapes of the Terminal Update Cove, where she will languish the rest of her days as v.8.0? Maybe she's just too good for me ... I'm so confused.

Learning and teaching technology is not like learning and teaching History or Algebra. It's not likely that The War of 1812 will turn into The War of 1814, or that quadnominal expression will have anything but four terms; and while new aspects of history, math and science are always being pursued and presented, it doesn't demand that sort of quick-change attitude that technology does. Technology is always moving, even when you're not changing or upgrading a favorite and trusted application. Chances are your students are already paying close attention to the latest changes and upgrades, so you need to move with them. The 21st Century classroom needs to reflect those moves, no matter where your comfort zone lies. I'll continue to use SketchUp and implement its upgrades and changes as I see fit in my classroom, but I'll keep a wary eye on where it's heading so that I can move with the changes.

My hope is that SketchUp will keep evolving to take advantage of the faster processors in computing devices, and computing devices will keep developing faster processors to provide SketchUp (and every other app out there) the room to grow. Someday, though, it's rudimentary three-dimensional model-making capabilities will be replaced by a hot new commodity that is attractive in every 3-D modeling way. And, just like days of yore, I'll fall for her completely and devote all of my drawing energy toward here in an effort to forget my dear SketchUp.

And if she winds up saying that we "should just be friends," I know I'll just get hurt in the end. Again.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Wednesday is Pork Chop Night

Branagh, K. Henry V, BBC Films, 1989.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.

Henry V, Act III, Wm. Shakespeare (1598)

Perhaps a little more dramatic than need be for the start of another school year, but I will confess, there have been times at the end of the first week of school when I feel like Sir Kenneth and Sir Derek after their battle scene in Henry V. (Sorry Sir Lawrence fans - he was just too clean and kempt for this post. But it was very good in the role.) I will admit that when I hear people who describe teachers as "those in the trenches," I feel a bit of "oh, yeah!" But there are times when I cringe, because it brings to mind a very specific image.

Trench warfare. (Was there a time when anyone really enjoyed that?)

Yet there are times when I am mine own enemy. I am teaching the same schedule of courses that I've been teaching for the past five years (with minor variations). I (mostly) don't have a choice in this matter, but for me, it has been a good thing despite the lack of variety. For one, I can take materials, lessons and units that I have devised in previous years and tweak them so they fit the changing landscape that is the 11th and 12th grader. I can make choices with instruction that will allow for more meaningful learning, and after teaching this schedule for the past two years while attending grad school, I can implement technology in ways that I had not thought of before. These are all things in the plus column of "Why It's Good to Have My Schedule." 

Untitled. Hawkins, Z. , Dec. 13, 2007.
With repetition, however, comes the risk of routine. I found myself looking at last year's planner and grade book to see what I was doing on Day Six of the first term. Because I needed to know what I was going to do on Day Six of this term. This might sound like it's a smart thing to do, but I discovered that this year's students are way ahead of last year's students when it comes to understanding plagiarism and citing sources. This is the material that I start the course with so that all expectations are understood, and students write and research with a bit more confidence. So, on Day Six of last year, I spent time on reviewing the use of parenthetical references because, as apparently was the custom, my classes did poorly on their first two attempts. This year, they got it on the first try. Which meant that I had to come out of my trench. And coming out of the trench can be harsh. Allow me to illustrate this with a recent conversation I had with my inner imaginary Master Teacher:

Me: Ah, Day Six! Today is the day I spend time reviewing how to insert parenthetical references, like I have for the past five years, because my students haven't quite mastered that skill.

Imaginary Master Teacher: Except you don't need to do that. They all got it by Day Four. You checked it. They know it. Move on.
Me: Yeah, but ... it's Day Six ... and Day Six is ... I  ... um ...
Imaginary Master Teacher: No, go ahead. I'll wait.
Me: Well, see ... Day Six is that day that I hand out ... well, you know ... those three short stories that ... and ... um ...
Imaginary Master Teacher: Keep going, I think you're getting there.
Me: ... I ... ah ... see, they read the stories ... and ... 
Imaginary Master Teacher: Listen, you just keep talking, and I'll find some reading material to pass the time while you come to grips with things. Hmm, let's see ... something light ... here we go! Les Miserables. That'll do it.
Me: ... and then I show them ... more examples ... uh ...

Pork Chop. All Things Mimi, Sep. 26, 2010.
Perhaps you came from a family, or knew a family where the dinner menu was dictated by what night it was: Wednesday was "Pork Chop Night," Friday was "Pizza Night," Sunday was "Burgers on the Grill." That's what almost happened to me this year. Day Six nearly became "Pork Chop Night." Thankfully, I have voices in my head. (I know, that sounds really creepy, but it's OK - they aren't the type that keep repeating "redrum.") These voices are seasoned veterans of my teaching career, they have good instincts, and they headed off what would have been a redundant, not-so-useful day. I think teaching by the calendar is an easy habit to fall into when you have more than a few years under your belt. It can put a teacher in the mindset of trench warfare - the "I gotta do this no matter what" feeling of classroom instruction. And let's face it - if you don't like it, how do you think your students will feel?

The beginning of the year is where you make the first impressions upon your students and set the standards. There are times when you need to have "Pork Chop Night" in your classroom because it is a lesson that works, or is the slam-dunk example that every student understands and finds engaging. However, this year, Day Six needed to become "Carry-out Stir Fried Pork with Long Beans Night." Same ingredient, different flavor. So, today, on Day Six, we marched forward with Neil Simon, American Playwright, to feast upon two of his works. Not because it was next on the list, but because the students were ready to move to that. It's a good thing. 

So, once more unto the breach dear friends, once more we take charge of the classroom and everything that happens there. What are things you do as teachers to keep Day Six from becoming Pork Chop Night? How do you make this happen without reinventing the whole menu? 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

And Now, My Quadrennial Rant

Ah, the Olympics. That amalgam of sporting conquest, inspiring back stories, the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat .... and the NBC color commentators.

I know that those who have previously played, participated, trained and/or coached a sport or activity have knowledge about what they are supposed to cover that the rest of us don't. That brings the potential for a reasoned and informative commentary. It can also provide a little excitement for when someone does something great, even at the risk of being a little too Ameri-centric. But what it ultimately does is ruin the amazement for the rest of us, to the point that in normal conversation we sound pretentious:

Me: "Did you see that awesome gymnastics thingy by Zelda Rheumatismansky last night? It was one of the most amazing things I've ever seen!"
Someone Else: "Yeah, she was good, but her feet were a little apart when she did the tripple-axel-Molotov-Hamill-Camel-extension-with-a-drop-loop-Aye-Caramba on her dismount. Really disappointing. 
Me: "Oh, yeah, I ... noticed that ... too ..." 

I have a new definition of "The 99 Percent:" It's the percentage of the worlds population who CANNOT DO ANY of what an Olympic gymnast does in competition. And I'm going to speculate that it's probably a higher percentage. So, "I am the 99.98 Percent," which means I am just in a lot of awe that a body can self-propel itself to fling, run, swim, spike, tumble, throw, shoot, and goal as much as I've been seeing in London.

While I appreciate the explanation of rules and technicalities, I don't think using descriptors such as "devastating," "catastrophic," or "horrendous" is right when a highly trained athlete makes a bobble. I can understand why an athlete will feel that way when things don't go well. Training for four, eight, or even twelve years to attain an Olympic medal only to come up short will illicit empathy from all of us watching. We want our people to do well, and to realize their goals. We cheer with them when they do well, and we may even cry with them when they miss their opportunities. What I don't want to hear half way through a routine or a match is that "it's over for him/her." Thanks, expert color commentator! Now I don't have to tediously watch the rest. I'll just turn the channel now to see what whacky things are happening in Judge Judy's courtroom. Now if we can just get Turner Classic Movies to flash the graphic "Rosebud is the sled!" right in the middle of Citizen Cane, we could spend more time watching reality TV.

(Oh, spoiler alert: I may divulge a critical plot element of the film Citizen Cane at some point during this post.)

I would like for color commentators to keep their hyperbole in check, or at least in the realm of reasonable. When I think "devastating," it conjures up scenes from Joplin, MO after the EF-5 tornado last May. "Catastrophic" is the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina or the Haitian earthquake. The human tragedy in Darfur is "horrendous." I really don't think that a highly trained athlete with sponsorship and endorsement deals missing out on Olympic medals is "tragic." It's disappointing, discouraging and heart aching - and we need to allow them to have these feelings. But please, don't try to get me believing that our world is a little worse off because someone else triumphed and is celebrating their victory. And don't tell me that someone is "done for" in the middle of their match. It's like seeing a graphic in the middle of Godfather III that says "Michael Corleone dies at the end, old and lonely, in one of the most laughable death scenes in film history."

(Spoiler alert: technically, this is not a spoiler, because very few people have the stomach to watch Godfather III to its conclusion. Think of this as me saving three hours of your life for something far better. You're welcome.)

There is a lot of other nonsense that NBC is doing: using winter Olympics athletes to promote summer games (I'm looking at you, Apollo), getting Matt and Al  to "humorously" attempt and make a mockery the events that most of us don't watch, the six-hour tape delay that requires Brian Williams to urge the NBC Nightly News viewers to "turn away from the screen because we're just going to 'show' the results and not 'talk' about them" (Spoiler alert: big tall swimmers win some medals ... again ...), and of course, the contest to see who can be the first one to really piss off Michael Phelps by asking him for the umpteenth time "how does it feel," and "you're really not going to retire this year, are you?" All of this is fair game, but alas, I don't have time to write about it.

I have to watch the horrendous, devastating catastrophe that is the final of women's beach volleyball, as it is certain that one American team will fail miserably and be forced to take home the silver. Oh, the humanity ...

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Sub-letting Your Instructional Day

Karns, K. (2008). "What's in my bag."
If there is one thing I know of that sets classroom teachers apart from the rest of the work-a-day world, it's this: when someone calls in sick, they can hang up the phone and go back to bed. (I know that there are exceptions, but let's for the moment take a look at the big picture.) When a teacher calls in sick, he or she is expected to construct a plan for the day so that someone else can take over. Many times, this calls for a moderate adaptation of what a teacher has actually planned for that day. In some cases, a teacher may need to find the substitue themselves. (It's probably no secret that teachers have a "go-to" substitute for when the need to be out of the classroom; that person isn't always be available, however.) The final step is for the teacher to get the day's plans to the sub. The advent of email and websites has made doing that remotely easy. Sometimes, however, a teacher needs to deliver the materials to the classroom prior to the school day.

Something that I've observed regarding integrating technology into lessons is that most subs don't understand the overall assignment, or don't know much about the technology that is being used. How does that affect the classroom if the missing regular classroom teacher?

Based on a recent experience, I would say poorly.

Please don't mistake this as a harangue on the substitute teacher. I have many to choose form that are perfect for my classroom: energetic, tech savvy, and possessing of a good dose of common sense. There are some who I have asked never to be be assigned to my classroom ever again. The reasons for those folks are less than exciting: they mostly didn't want to be in my classroom. Still, there are days when the best classroom plan is "silent sustained reading," simply because what I had planed to do would take more time to explain in a written plan than would actually take to implement by the substitute teacher.

The issue is this: the classroom teacher who integrates technology into their lessons/units/courses puts a lot of time and effort into the thought and planning process. If they do it right, they consider all of the benefits and pitfalls of implementing technology in their classroom. They are damn near experts on the software, hardware, and perhaps even the research behind its integration. They are prepared for all of the successes and failures that will come.

Kirkland, M. & Selman, M. (2009). "Bart Gets a Z."
The sub is there to satisfy the legal requirement that a licensed teacher be in charge of the classroom. There is no law or rule that stipulates they need to be expert in the subject they are stepping into. That's not to say that they aren't expert - some of the subs for my classes have had some amazing experience and credentials. But the substitute that helped write the AP World History exam last year will likely not have the knowledge of how my students use digital image editing for their projects, or have access to or experience with Edmodo.

The easy answer is "well, when I get back, I'll get everything back on track." The problem is - based on actual experience - is that the nagging back pain might be a kidney stone blocking the essential plumbing. (You'll miss three-to-five days because of this, but the painkillers are amazing.) This means your sub will be on call for many days in a row. That's a lot of time to have to "get everything back on track." You may not be able to schedule the substitute who understands exactly what you are doing in your classroom. What do you do then?

I wish I had an answer to this one. I'm fortunate that I work in a school and a department who support integrating technology, but they also have their own classrooms to tend to. Sometimes you have to restort to the "life gets in the way" philosophy. Perhaps your technically infused lesson will have to wait until your return. In my experience, a day or two delay is not a lesson killer; a week is a long time to let things go without specific instruction. I've had those days where specific instructions were left behind, along with the caution "please make sure they are working on their projects." I've always received the report the next day that "those kids really worked and were focused on the computers." Many times, the work wasn't project related. Kids are still kids when it comes to the substitute teacher.

How do you handle the heavy tech lessons when a substitute has to step in for you?

UDATE: And, oh, by the way, Happy 2nd Anniversary, BlamSpot! I can't wait to see how you handle the terrible twos!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Why Yes, You May Call Me "Master"

"Marty Feldman" (07/2011). Critical Fright.
Two years ago, I began my quest for an advanced degree. As a teacher, I had observed many colleagues fulfill their goal of receiving a Master's degree, and they all claimed that while it was a lot of time, work and money, it was worth it. The University of Northern Iowa's Instructional Technology Cohort program seemed to be the right program for my needs and schedule. I qualified for admittance, and began my trek with my first online class at 6:00 PM on Tuesday, May 4th, 2010. At 7:00 PM Friday, May 4th, 2012, the journey ends when degrees will be conferred.

Please - you don't be formal when you address me. You may just call me "master" from this point on.

The next chapter of my educational journey is now largely up to me, but it does come with that little tag at the end of my credentials: MA. How that will affect what I do in the classroom or with my career is yet to be seen, but there is an aire of optimism regarding how I will be accepted in the realm of education. The fruits of my labor - and newly acquired knowledge - will bring me more than just a better paycheck (not that there's anything wrong with that, I'm not complaining. I'm just saying.) So as opposed to speculating on my future, allow me this posting to reflect upon the experience.

First of all, for those who are interested, my ePortfolio can be found here. This is the academic treatment of my past two years, and while not all of the artifacts will turn the pedagogical sphere inside out, I do feel that I've shed some light on things that otherwise needed some light. It represents a lot of work, observation, practice, collaborating, pontificating, writing, revising, revising, and revising.

Some other musings:

People ask me if getting my doctorate is next. The anser is "no," for these reasons:

  1. I had a hard enough time just writing a research literature review that met specs. I think a dissertation would kill me. Even though I know I am a better academic writer than I was two years ago, it's just hard to let my mind go to that space right now. Maybe in two years when I get really bored I'll consider it - but I doubt that I'll considering for very long.
  2. My wife would probably be less than thrilled - at least at this point in time. She's really enjoying the fact that for the first time in two years, I "don't have to write something." (Come to think of it, so am I.) She encouraged me to pursue this degree, and has been a huge cheerleader during the past two years - and there where many "poor me" moments that she managed to slap down. I think I owe her some "I don't have to write something" time.
  3. I like the title of "Master." I think it beats "Doctor" any day. Consider it from this point of view: "Doctor" makes it sound like you have to take care of someone, or cure their ills. It concocts an image of a kindly old country doctor taking care of the boo-boos ala Norman Rockwell. "Master," on the other hand, conjures images of an imposing figure with chiseled features and Fabio hair flowing in a gale-force wind, hurling thunderbolts down from a cliff while pounding his chest and shouting "I am man imortal!" Do you really have to think about this one? Please.
The human element must be addressed as well. I had the opportunity (which after a very short time became apparent that it was a privilege) to collaborate with fifteen amazing cohorts. I've learned volumes from them all, but more specifically (and importantly):
  • Chelsea, Lisa and Joni were champions for the elementary student viewpoint. Their projects and reflections reminded me that their students' challenges and successes will eventually become my students', and they will likely do better because of what these three do every day. 
  • Sarah constantly amazed by guiding us with her research abilities. I think she may have special powers, but we all agree that she's just a wicked-smart teacher-librarian.
  • Jennie inspired us by shattering the image of "the man's realm" with her teaching a unique male dominated subject.
  • Brandi, Marty and Deb constantly proved to us that they would (and probably should) be amazing classroom teachers, and that what we do in the classroom isn't always as clear as we think. Their perspective was sometimes humbling, but always valued.
  • Lance created some amazing opportunities via the ITEC conferences and set up important infrastructure for our projects. His ability to backchannel on multiple platforms was awe-inspiring.
  • Jamie and Stacy demonstrated to us that yes, you can teach full time, get a Masters degree AND have children all at the same time. I didn't think anyone could be that bored, but then again, what do I know? I think those kids are pretty lucky to have them as mothers. 
  • Carrie showed us that fighting the good fight for the kids who need a bit more help is always worth it, and challenged those she presented to to treat all kids with respect and compassion.
  • Mande and Cathy showed how collaboration between their students in two different school districts allowed for new learning opportunities and teaching methods. (Cathy also showed us that leaving your hometown and all that that is familiar can, despite being painful, provide some amazing revelations both in and out of the classroom.)
  • Dr. Z shepherded us through all of this by challenging, confounding, celebrating, confusing, and coordinating us. I don't know if anyone else could have done as well with this group. I suspect no one else could.
I think very highly of these folks, and I will miss them. From the start, it was clear that we all liked each other and got along fairly well. When posible, we would get together for some valuable face-to-face time. We collaborated, commiserated, edited each others' work, and sent messages to each other during our online classes. We bonded. In this era of online communication, it's not likely that we will all lose touch; at the same time, though, these were the people that made hopping on line every Sunday night much more enjoyable, especially when the backchannel chatting began. It was easy to post "We are the Cohort, the mighty MIGHTY Cohort" after successful presentations and accomplishments.

I know I'm a better person today, a better teacher, because of these people and the associated activities. It's been worth it. I think that's the real payoff of receiving the title of "Master." So, yes, you can call me "master," thank you.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

You're an Analog Player in a Digital World

"Pen Collection." Aztura82, 5/26/2008. 

Like the rest of the e-world, I get many emails plugging and extolling the virtues of the next greatest thing - usually a technology or a gee-whiz gizmo. Like the rest of the e-world, I will pick and choose what I read and what I ignore. (Spam can be irritating, but it can also be entertaining as well.) Today, I received an email with the following subject line:

"Important News from Paper Mate!"

My first reaction was "oh, this will be good." My curiosity was handsomely rewarded: there is a "new kind" of pen and ink delivery system out there. At the risk of appearing like a shill for PaperMate, they are touting that this "revolutionary new ink delivery system" will cause pen thefts to skyrocket (assuming normally honest people will be so envious of this marvel they will turn to a life of petty larceny to acquire their class- or officemate's pen.) If you think I'm making this up, see for yourself here.

Then my giggly snarkiness turned a bit melancholy. It was like watching the guy who invented the DittoMaster standing in the middle of an empty, cavernous warehouse, waving his arms and screaming "Wait! It reproduces stuff in black ink, too! And kids won't get high anymore sniffing the fresh ink!" Here is a pen company trying to sound like they are just as high tech as Apple or Google. Ink is still a very analog medium, no matter how revolutionary it is. And they aren't alone. The Eastman Kodak Company, who brought us many decades of memories in KodaChrome fashion, is on the brink of collapse because of the advent of digital imagery. And in case you need a healthy mouthful of irony, they are putting their over 1,100 patents for digital imagery up for sale. This is the company that practically invented digital photography. 

The Boston KS Model 1031. 
I confess, I know as much about "ink delivery systems" as I do about microcircuitry, so I won't rule out that there may be something very exciting going on at PaperMate. But we are at a kind of turning point here. Our classrooms now use a significant amount of digital input devices. More students in my classroom then ever before are using computers, email, PDA, tablets, electronic notebooks and Web 2.0 tools for completing assignments. However, I still do the analog thing: paper worksheets, journals, "jot this down in your notes," etc. Some students just get their personal computing device out and tap in there responses and reflections, and I don't discourage that in the least. The rest dig a pen out of their backpack, or come up to the pencil sharpener. (Ah, my good ol' trusty Boston KS Model 1031. Has there ever been a more effective workhorse in the classroom?) 

I've been in the classroom fulltime for 22 years now - and I am the quintessential analog teacher in the digital age. I still love the feel of a good, heavy pen in my hand, but most of my writing is done via a digital input device. In my classroom, I use chalk on my blackboard, dry erase markers on my whiteboard, project documents on my SmartBoard, and connect to the Internet seamlessly. My dictionaries sit on a shelf not far from the wireless router. A 21" cathode ray tube TV casts a shadow on my 15" LCD flat screen computer monitor. The classroom clock has three hands and twelve numbers; the phone is connected to a LAN. Somewhere, some time, something's gonna give. 

Tomorrow, my World Humanities class will construct character sociograms using a Web 2.0 tool like Webspiration or MindNode, and I know someone is going to ask if they can do it by hand because they "are just better at that." It always happens. Perhaps it's fear of trying something new, or perhaps it's the limitations of the tool itself. And in the interest of constructivist learning theories, I will let them. But I will have them try the tool during class. I still don't think it's futile for an analog player to teach the digital natives. If I did, I wouldn't be writing this today. We just need to remember that there is room for the analog tools, and that they still help learner achieve in ways their digital counterparts can't.