Sunday, November 21, 2010

ePortfolios will be central to the New-Form

For my Nov. 22, 2010 blog post on education reform, I'm going to piggy-back on Ira Socol's post. Ira points out that grade based schools need to go; Ira makes the point clearly and eloquently. One of the practical components to doing away with grade based schooling will be to implement portfolio based 'assessments.' Portfolios will be the product of the IEPs that Ira envisions for every student. We have the technology to make it happen, we just need to learn how to do it.

I also think that this 'piggy-backing' on each others ideas will be an important feature of the 'new' education system. Being the expert on any given topic is no longer of much use; it's not bad, but it's more important to be able to blend our thoughts and ideas with those of others to give those ideas real power. Twitter, Google apps, Moodle, and all of the other tools that will be showing up on all of the various devices we'll be using to communicate are important, but it's not the tool that's important; it's the sharing of human ideas.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cell Phones and Handhelds for Instruction


When I was invited yesterday to join a district policy discussion about Cell Phones and Handhelds for Instruction I was referred to as an early adapter. I'm flattered to be considered an early adapter; I think I have some credibility as an early adopter, too. I did some writing about the general subject of information devices and access to information a year ago as a guest blogger on Shelly Blake-Plock's TeachPaperless site. Note the links in that post to the blogs of Ira Socol , Will Richardson; they and lots of other folks are talking and have been talking about the day when schools decide to quit wrestling with the horse and decide instead to jump in the saddle and start riding.
Matt Montagne's comment on my post deserves some thoughtful consideration, I think:

"Schools need an exist strategy for getting out of the computer business. Barbara Bareda wrote about this in a recent leadertalk post. Let kids bring in their own stuff and provide stipends for students/families who can't afford a device. I'll take it a few steps further. In the next 5 years, the relevance of the LAN and school owned networks will shrink as wide area broadband continues to proliferate, improve and become a commodity. Are schools prepared for this? Do they have an exit plan to get out of the computer and ISP business? December 20, 2009 6:39 PM

I think it's great that the MPS is considering beginning to use current and future communications methods, but I think it's crucial that this discussion be as public as possible The issue of the how we access information and report information and share information and create content is indeed a very broad subject. It's the essence of what we do as educators.

This discussion has the potential to lift the MPS out of the gloomy morass in which it's currently slogging. This discussion has the potential to move the MPS into the 21st Century ( we won't be any more tardy than lots of other educational institutions, if that's any consolation to the realization that we're way, way behind in waking up to what's going on.)

I've started a Twitter hashtag for this discussion #MPShandhelds and I'll be posting some more thoughts here about why I think this discussion needs to be publicly documented; Moodle, or one of the available tools on the new MPS web platform would work for a public archive. I suspect that we'll reinvigorate the debate that followed Steve Dembo's post on Dangerously Irrelevant when he said: " I don’t see it as teachers spurning technology, or choosing not to take advantage of those new ideas and tools. I think most teachers don’t even realize that there’s a decision to be made. " (There's 138 comments on the post, so far.)

The notion that all opinions regarding this issue are equally valuable needs a little more discussion, too. When it comes to designing how we construct our teaching and learning for the future, the opinions that lack the benefit of experience or research are less valuable than those which are informed by experience and objective research. The opinions of those who will use the new design are important, but we have information from the new world that will alter the closely held beliefs of those from the old world - North America is not India; Earth is indeed a sphere. We don't need to make the same kind of mistakes that those who 'discovered' the Americas made.

The question is not whether to use the tools or not, the question is how to proceed to learn how to to use the teaching and learning tools of this age.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Twitter, Moodle and the History of U.S. Education

I've had a draft started for a blog on why I use Twitter and why I think Twitter is a real professional benefit to teachers, but I haven't had time to write much in this last month as school began. The only writing I was able to manage was this post on Dr. Scott McLeod's Blog, Dangerously Irrelevant about my use of Moodle in my classroom. The topic of the post was reconciling 21st Century skills with standards and accountability- I'm not sure I really ever reconciled them but...

Scott and I don't always agree, but the next time I'm in Ames I hope he'll be able to spare some time from his family and demanding job for coffee. I know about his family and job because of Twitter.

Yesterday via Twitter I was connected to this great blog by Cecilia Coelho , an obviously very committed educator who has a different kind of classroom than me, but who uses many of the same tools I use. Her insights enrich my practice. Next time I'm in Spain, I'm hoping Cecilia has time for coffee, too.

Then a bit later yesterday, I was surprised and deeply honored to read my name in this post by Ira Socol whom I've come to regard as a friend even though we've only spent an hour together over coffee last summer after corresponding for 18 months via Twitter. Ira and I share a lot of interests. I value his research on the history of education almost as much as I value the knowledge about technology tools that he shares so generously - and then there's his novels, and his insights into all things Irish. Ira's inclusion of me on this list makes me blush- "Teachers, and most teacher educators, are, as Dr. Becker says, "blindly focused on their classroom and kids." From Linda Darling-Hammond to Lisa Parisi, Dan McGuire, Patrick Shuler, Punya Mishra, Pam Moran, Dave Britten, Dave Doty, and tens of thousands more, are working with students every day, trying to make the changes we can in the lives and learning of our students. "We" are the William Alcotts of today, the Maria Montessoris of today. "

None of these valuable connections to the things important in my life would have come my way without Twitter, I think. Twitter is not a waste of time; it connects me to many educators all over the world who are working hard to be better at their crucial work. That list continues to grow and I can't name them all here, but in the last couple of days I've shared correspondence with: Melissa Benson, Kelly Tenkely, Ben Knauss, Pam Moran, Joe D'Amato , They make me feel like I'm part of team that extends way beyond the walls of my classroom and school. I would like that richness available to all of my colleagues in their place of work. Twitter needs to be unblocked again in the MPS.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Response to M. Horn's comments

I appreciate very much the engagement of Michael Horn with my post about the book he co-authored with Clayton Christensen and Curt Johnson (see previous post and his comment there.)

So, Michael, why then did you focus so much in the book, Disrupting Class, on computer based student-centric instruction that substitutes or replaces teachers? You barely mention blended (computer and F2F) classes in the book, the model that is growing the most. You also didn't really pursue how computers might enhance the student teacher relationship and improve both teaching and learning; you stuck with the notion of using computers to substitute for or replace teachers. Then, you noted that when you consulted with veterans of the battles of school reform you learned that these veterans didn't think that 80% of courses taken in 2024 would be online because teacher unions wouldn't allow it. The evidence cited by these veterans who were consulted was their battle scars. On page 102 you write, “Veterans of the battles of school reform with whom we've consulted for this project have been uniformly skeptical about these predictions, primarily because, as evidenced by their battle scars, the teachers unions will not allow it.” Really !

I think there's more than one problem with the above assertion, but let's look at where you go with it. You say that if the substitution is managed disruptively, it will happen, even though these institutions, the teacher unions, can wield self protective power in the political processes. You then go on to explain why a change in the political (governance ) structure of schools is necessary. What exactly is the evidence of battle scars? This argument for a regime change is shakier than the weapons of mass destruction one used by you know who.

Your logic also got a little fuzzy when you started speculating about all of the student-centric individualized software that would be developed by user networks. I suppose that might make sense if all we wanted to do was get students to pass standardized tests on a standardized core curriculum. If everyone were home schooled or conveniently placed in the little boutique schools you envision, having a broad selection of software packages that you could take off the shelves of the new user network supply warehouses (probably a branch of Wal-mart) might actually make sense. But as I've pointed out earlier, I don't think the primary political organizations of our society (school districts) are going to go along with your schema. Standardized tests on standardized curriculum are a long way from reality (that's a long discussion that got cut way too short in your book.)

And, then, you say that “the influence that teachers unions can wield over textbook and instructional software adoption decisions looms so large that many would-be school reformers have abandoned hope of significant change.” (p142) You're kidding me, right? That must be another of those facts based on somebody's scars. Come on, at least try a little evidence on me before you jump to the conclusion that “administrators, unions, and school boards will CAPITULATE to the FAIT ACCOMPLI of larger and larger numbers of students acquiring and using superior, customized learning tools on their own. That sounds like the pyramid scheme model. It's certainly not something that's based in any experience that I've had when it comes to text book or software adoption. I've been very active on the District Technology Advisory Committee and have pretty much given up on me or any other teacher ever being consulted again before any kind of acquisition. That's consistent with what I'm hearing from teachers in other districts, too, so I'm really curious where you got your 'fact.' Usually the 'teachers' who are consulted are TOSAs (teachers on special assignment) who are really administrators in training still being counted as teachers for purposes of tax referendum public relations.

I do think you're on the right track some times, but you've confused yourselves with theories, as you were warned. You provide insufficient evidence, in my opinion, for jumping to governance change, which is another name for highly nuanced teacher union bashing. Can I get in on the next book in this series?

Monday, August 9, 2010


My new hard bound copy of Clayton Christensen, Curt Johnson and Michael Horn's Disrupting Class arrived the other day (It was signed by Curt Johnson. I won it by re-tweeting something from Education Evolving.)

The disruptive thing is intriguing and probably true in the instances they cite in the book, but they don't really offer much in the way of what their new school will look like except that it will be student-centric, and they'd like to see a new form of governance, which is to say that they'd like all schools to be private, or chartered, or TPPs, or 'new schools' of some kind.

Essentially, they're talking about wiping out public schools as we know them. In the future they're seeing, we'll be rid of those nasty teacher unions and the bloated bureaucracies that run public schools. All schools will be tailored to the aspirations and learning styles of all of the students.

As proof that this notion is to going happen the authors talk about various commercial innovations that have been disruptive technologies – the transistor, and … well, their examples are all in the book. I spent the first 18 years of my adult life in regional, national, and international ICT business markets doing sales, sales management and consulting; I learned about disruptive technologies. When I first starting selling telephone systems in competition with the mega monopoly of all monopolies in the 70s, there were businessmen (pretty much all men, then) who seriously thought I was doing something illegal. In fact, the Bell System spent a whole lot of money on lobbyists trying to make what I was doing at the time illegal. (My adventures in D.C. lobbying against the Bell 'advances' are a good story for another post.)

The divestiture of AT&T and the almost total dissolution of the CWA certainly qualify as disruptions of major purport ions. Some very intelligent people actually believed at the time that the telephone system was a true natural monopoly. Christensen et al are likening public education and the teacher unions to major corporations and their dependent unions. There are certainly similarities, but it's the differences that are important. Public education is not a single entity, never has been. The teacher unions, though politically powerful, are nothing like the CWA. The power of the teacher unions, and the thing that so irks their opponents, does not come from their collectivity; it comes from the fact that they're respected solid citizens in most every community in the country and they very closely mirror the primary political organization in those communities- the local school boards. And, yes, they're left leaning, but not nearly so much as many would have you believe.

The authors' vision won't leave intact the primary political organizations in the U.S. of A. Local school boards would not survive the kind of political and organizational disruption that is suggested in this book. AT&T's stockholders, for the most part, did very well, Thank You, after only a bit of anxiety. McKinsey and Co. and the Reagan administration greased the deal so that the only ones who took much of hit in the disruption were the members of the CWA. They got hit big time, and there really wasn't much they could do about it. The unions are the target in the author's vision; school boards will merely be collateral damage, which will leave our local communities scrambling even more than they are now to maintain a functional identity.

The unintended consequences of the kind of disruption that the authors promote has not been adequately thought through. If you think busing created a mess; they're talking about busing on steroids. Busing was an attempt to do part of what the authors think would be a good idea, except that busing kept the school boards mostly intact.

The authors are actually on the right track when they talk about software innovations and changes in assessment being the key to the future of education. The disrupting force that is already in process might even be bigger than the notion they promote. Teacher unions will surely need to change, but not in the ways that Horn, Johnson and Christensen think they should change.

The hardware and software already exists to make learning truly student centric, and make assessments individually relevant, and I think the authors already know that to be true, or certainly should. So why then are the authors are so insistent that no change will come to public education unless governance of schools and the governance of the teachers in the schools change? Might the authors be more interested in governance change than they are in actually improving teaching and learning. They want to shift the political power when that isn't even necessary, and I would argue, desirable.

What needs to change is attitudes and understanding. The education system needs to understand that the tools to make learning student centric are already available. Let's innovate the teaching and learning and not change the governance structure of our schools. Let's kick the big corporations out of our schools and let our local governance structures use the tools of education that are already freely available to them. What would happen if all of the money that is spent by the U.S. Department of Education was simply given to the local schools without strings attached? Do you trust the people you leave your kids with every day to know how to spend the money necessary to make that classroom all that it needs to be.

The unwieldy confusing testing system is not working because it's not being used for teaching and learning but as a tool to change the governance structure of public education. Let's assess individual student learning instead. Portfolios can replace testing, very quickly. Portfolio assessment will actually save the system a lot of time and money. Portfolio assessment will create the professional status for teachers that ED/Evolving is pushing as part of its current drive for political change . New and improved standardized testing, by definition, can't document student centric learning - portfolios will be the documentation of student centric learning. They already exist.

The administrations of our schools don't need to bother with wondering how to deploy literacy devices in classrooms (The authors talk a little about computers, but mostly they're focused on computers that are at least a decade old.) The administrations of our schools simply need to decide to let students use the literacy devices that are already deployed and owned by most students for teaching and learning instead of as distractions to teaching and learning. The disruption has already happened – the new void that was filled was the ability for everyone to be connected 24/7 to each other and to the increasingly vast archives of information. The job of administrations is to support teachers in learning how to teach with the literacy devices that are already in most of their students backpacks or on their shelves at home because they're outlawed at school.

Using open source learning management systems like Moodle puts the power to create individualized learning in the hands of teachers. It already exists, it's tested, it's available in almost a hundred languages, and it's free. Moodle will work with most of the literacy devices that students already own; teachers just need to be gently shown how to use it. Things will change, that's certain. Most of the change is going to happen, though, between the ears, as many a teacher has often said.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Writing Tools

Last week I spent four days with 120 of my elementary teacher colleagues in the MPS Summer Science Institute. This was a premiere staff development of the MPS. We were treated to some very effective hands-on learning lessons that we'll be able to use with our students. Well, that is if we can fit it in to our class schedules. There's a little competition from the Literacy and Math Departments for minutes of instruction, but that's a blog for another day.

What's on my mind now is the full day session we spent the first day with Karen Worth. Ms Worth is a delightful person; she's got the personality that every parent hopes their kid's 1st grade teacher will possess.

The day long session was an in person delivery of her book, The Essentials of Science and Literacy: A Guide for Teachers -we got a paperback copy of the book, too. The day included a demonstration of how to conduct an inquiry discussion in a circle, and video showing us some of the finer points of leading discussions, and we talked about writing, why it's important. Mostly, the day was a power point version of the book - talking about science and writing about science is important. Got that! The link above will let you sample a chapter and get a good feel for the book.

Here's my concern - the book is prescribing 19th Century teaching techniques, maybe 18th Century, whenever it was that was before we started separating science from the 'other' subject areas. It's a good thing to integrate reading, writing, math, and the arts with science; that's not my concern. My concern is that Ms Worth and her book ignore the tools that scientists use for writing, math, and integrating art with science.

We're a full decade into the 21st Century. Twenty five years ago, Donald Murray, the father of the process theory of writing instruction, in the revision of his seminal book , A Writer Teaches Writing noticed how useful computers were for writing. Murray probably wouldn't consider his observations to be scientific, but when it comes to writing about writing, he had a pretty good grasp of the 'current research' on how you teach writing. The appendix of his book lists almost everything that's been said about the teaching of writing in the 20th Century.

Murray said:

“The principal advantages of the word processor include:

* A good typist can type aster on a word processor than on a typewriter, because the typist is typing only one continuous line. The machine does the carriage return automatically, and this speeds up the process immensely. A poor typist can type quickly on the machine and then clean up errors easily later.

* The writer has increased freedom to create a discovery draft without worrying about anything that will have to be corrected later. The writer can feel an enormous freedom to get something down that will be developed and refined later. I have found, for example, that sometimes I write in bursts of one to five paragraphs on the word processor; then cut, add, and reorder, shaping the fragment’ the polish it line by line, checking each word, each phrase, each sentence; then write in another burst. That’s a very different pattern for me, and it’s made possible by the word processor.

* The writer can produce a section of a longer piece of writing whenever it comes to mind, because it can be moved around easily and inserted wherever it belongs later on.

* The writer doesn’t have to worry about the internal order of paragraphs as much as in ‘normal’ (my emphasis) writing. The writer can get the paragraphs down, then reorder them easily later.

* The three main functions of revising and editing - cutting, adding, and reordering - can be done with amazing skill and ease on a word processor. The writer can cut - zap - just like that. The writer can insert easily, and since most writing is undeveloped, the word processor makes it easy to do the necessary developing. The writer can reorder words, sentences, paragraphs, sections and re-reorder.

* The writer can see a clear text immediately after each change instead of the messy, scrawled-over drafts that are normal for a writer (using paper and pen.)

* The act of writing that always has been a satisfying form of play for most prolific writers is available as play to more people. For many people, the word processor does seem to make writing a game. They can enjoy the fun of making a text come clear on the tube.

* Many word processor have programs that spell. Educators may worry about this, but the fact is that many writers - present company included - are poor spellers, and the ability of the machine to check this allows spelling to b put in its proper lace, at the end of the writing process, so that it is not a matter of primary anxiety on every draft.

* The writing can be stored away easily and recalled whenever the writer has somethingv to do to the draft. These changes may be small or large. No matter, they can be added to the draft, and the draft can be stored away efficiently, ready to be called up again.

* Most writers will confess that in the past they have not made changes that should have been made because of the time and energy it took to produce a new draft. With a word processor you don’t have to worry. The draft remains flexible, changeable, until it is printed.

* The writing remains in process for a longer time. There is a wonderful impermanence about the draft on the video tube. It is always writing in process, ready to be changed.”

So, writing is crucial to learning, in any subject, and technology has been observed by someone who knows writing to be a tremendous aid in writing. Why is there even a question about whether or not technology has an effect on teaching and learning, and why wouldn't we want to use computers in a science classroom ?

Murray never got to use modern learning management systems like Moodle to teach writing, but if he had, I’m sure he would have been as appreciative of Moodle as he was of word processors. Moodle allows teachers to do all of the things that Murray advocates but even more quickly and more easily. All of the advantages of the word processor that Murray delineates are extended and expanded with Moodle. I’ve taught reading and writing to 3rd and 4th graders without word processors, with word processors but without Moodle, and with Moodle. There’s no reason not to use Moodle, or Google apps, or one of the many new technologies that adds global collaboration to the advantages that Murray listed of using word processors in the writing process. I really never want to see the tears welling up behind the eyes of another 3rd grader when I tell them that most everything they’ve written needs to be reordered when they’ve just labored mightily with a pencil to get their story onto the page, especially when the usual response to revising with a computer is, "Hey, this is kinda fun." The computer provides the power and access to language that most of us adults who've used a computer for a while have come to expect. For me, the question is not whether or not technology has an effect in the classroom, it’s why isn’t everyone using technology in the classroom.

So why, then, does Ms Worth actually caution against using technology in an elementary science classroom. And why does the MPS, in 2010, buy books for their elementary science teachers that don't even mention how the current tools of science might be used in a classroom? Those are really important questions.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Willingham on Technoogy

Last year at this time in the CASTLE summer book club I was criticizing Daniel Willingham for not considering technology in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School?. Scott McLeod thought I was too harsh on Dr. Willingham, and Willingham excused himself by saying, "Well, the book is about the human mind, it's not about the uses of technology in teaching. You may feel that technology is essential to the future of teaching. . .if so, that may prove a lively point of debate in the book group."

Well, this June, Dr. Willingham has, at least, taken a beginning look at how technology fits in with teaching. His piece in the current issue of the American Educator falls way short of being thorough and well thought out, though, despite the twenty-two end notes which are mostly from the last ten years.

As long as we're at the end of his article, let's note that I think the editors must have chopped off his ending, because there isn't one- the article just stops at the end of a list of four things that answer the question- What Does All This Mean for Teaching? The four items are:

1. Encourage your students to avoid multitasking when doing an important task.

2. If a new piece of technology is placed in your classroom with the expectation that you will use it, take advantage of online teacher communities.

3. Think about what the technology can and can't do.

4. There's nothing wrong with engagement.

I don't know many teachers or parents who would argue with the premise of the first point while it's almost a given that there are lots of teen-agers who could offer a very spirited contrary opinion -my daughter being one of them. The second point begs a further discussion about what teachers need to do to insist on being given proper support in the classroom which includes adequate professional development to be competent with the tools of our trade, and the tools are changing and will continue to change.

In his discussion of the third point, Willingham compares a chalkboard to an overhead projector. That's about as useful as comparing a horse drawn carriage to walking as a means of traveling from Minneapolis to Chicago. Horse drawn carriages and walking are both still very lovely things to experience, but neither are practical for traveling from Minneapolis to Chicago. I still really like a chalkboard for some things but I would never buy a new one, and all overhead projectors need to be tossed as soon as possible for lots of reasons - a document camera does everything an overhead does and so much more. I wonder if Willingham has ever used one in a classroom? I guess we shouldn't expect that much investigation from a cognitive scientist- No, wait a minute; Yes, we should, especially one that's writing in a magazine called the American Educator that's published by the AFT.

Willingham reveals his superficial understanding of Twitter by pointing out that while it provides asynchronous communication between two people, the users are limited to 140 characters. I can't really take seriously anyone who claims to be writing about technology and teaching who's that limited in their understanding Twitter. It's in his fourth and abruptly final paragraph that Willingham reveals his lack of engagement with the technology. He suggests that Twitter might be useful for providing a moment of fun or energy and implies that's all it's good for. Willingham asks us to "be clear-eyed" while he's only seeing a small corner of the picture.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Auditory Learning

This was posted in the Online facilitation course I'm currently taking. We were having a discussion about whether or not auditory learning was important.

This is very definitely an aside, but it is still about the issue of auditory or not:

Ira Socol just posted his thoughts on why Ulysses is so important in our literary tradition. For those of you who might not be fans, (you don't need to have read the whole damn thing in order to be a fan, either)next Wednesday, June 16, just after we finish this course is Bloomsday. Bloomsday is a holiday to celebrate Ulysses. All of Ulysses takes place in one day, kinda like a 24, on June 16, 1904. Ulysses was originally released as a serial.

Before I digress into Ulysses and Joyce too much, the point that Ira makes is that it is not really possible to 'read' Ulysses without saying the words outloud, reading with your lips moving, something that we try to drum out of kids.

Try to get through as much of the text from Ulysses as you can and then skip down to Ira's comments at the end. Ira has an opinion about the auditory part of reading.

By the way, and this, too, is an aside, if you look at the background of my profile picture, you can see, if you super magnify it, the Martello tower of Sandycove which is the opening scene of Ulysses and which is across Dublin Bay from where I am in the picture. I had made my pilgrimage out to Sandycove the evening before, and purposely wanted to put it in the background of this picture. If you want another stream of consciousness/auditory type of experience with an Irish flavor, you can go to my facebook videos and play a clip of the great band I heard at Pearce St Station on my way out to Sandycove.

I will also digress to my Chaucer course in grad school: I was outraged, and at 25 yrs old my outrage was barely tempered, that the prof didn't plan on reading any of Chaucer's works out loud in the class. She, the prof, was offended that I was outraged and more than a little dismissive; I think I managed to finally get a 'B' out of the course, but just barely. I distinctly remember 35 years ago being looked at like was silly or something, but I'm still outraged; I mean, how can you rationally expect to really be learning about the Canterbury Tales if you don't actually read at least out loud. I thought then that the whole thing should be read out loud, and then we could start talking about the connections to Italian poets from the 13th Cent., maybe. I think auditory learning is very important. I'm so glad that we can now link to an actual reading of the words. And I'm glad that I'm an elementary teacher and I get to read out loud everyday to my students. Roald Dahl's, The Witches is my favorite.

Friday, April 9, 2010

A Tool that Really Works

I'm excited. I found a tool that really works. Not only does the tool work really well for what I need it to do, it comes with spectacular directions. (Guys do use directions, sometimes; I tried figuring it out on my own first, of course.)

The tool that I'm talking about is the Database Module ; it's a special tool in the very big toolbox called, Moodle. I've discovered that the database module works really well as a reader's response journal for my 3rd and 4th grade students. I use it in place of the spiral notebook or three-ring binder or composition book method. In previous years I've tried both the Workshop Module and the famous Moodle Forum activity module. The Workshop Module is overkill for 3rd and 4th graders; it's like using a cam/cad computer to sketch an elementary illustration. The very flexible Forum can be made to work, but it doesn't have enough of the built-in structure to be really useful for what is needed for my 3rd and 4th grade students. (Although, a couple of them are approaching the level of being able to benefit from the more complex Workshop Module. That's the trouble with teaching; once you teach them something; they want to learn more.)

I learned how to use the Database Module by watching the fabulous short tutorial that Tomaz Lasic created a while ago. I set up the database so students could easily log in the title, author, main characters, settings, plot problems, and plot solutions. The directions at the top of the database input screen directs students to use complete sentences and as much descriptive detail as possible.

The comments feature of the database allows other students or me, the teacher, to make comments on each entry. In that way, it is much like a discussion forum. I was pleasantly surprised when I found that three of the students had discovered the comments feature on their own and had already started commenting on each other's entries. If you use technology in a classroom, you gotta get used to students showing you how to do new things. When I showed the whole class how to use comments, the whole class eagerly took to writing on each others entries. My job as the teacher then became to coach students to expand, clarify, punctuate, relate, etc. - all of the things writing teachers do.

Except that I had one problem. The way that I had set up the database didn't include an easy way to go from the 'list view' to the comments. It was easy enough to search for a particular student or title, but then I or the students had to go back to single view and tab through all of the entries until the desired entry was reached. The students didn't mind as much as I did, mostly because they aren't as familiar with databases in general and didn't sense that there must be an easier way - tabbing through to see what others had written is still new and intriguing.

When I showed my A.E. what was happening, she was as impressed as I was about how eagerly the students took to writing about books. I mentioned that I was frustrated about not being able to go to the comments directly from the list view and said, "I think I'll do a search of the Moodle Forums and post a query if I don't find the answer right away." I'd had a great experience a year and half ago when I was trying to add a pdf file to an online text assignment. That was my first experience with the power of the Moodle user community. It happened again. After about 15 minutes of browsing through the Database Discussions I just posted the question to the forum. It took less than 3 hours to get a detailed response about how to do what I needed to do. Itamar Tzadok from Toronto, confirmed my hope and explained how to do it. I hadn't had time to check on the forum until a few days later, so I didn't actually see his response for a few days. In the meantime, Ivan Dobrovolskij from Moscow, had asked a clarifying question. Itamar explained Ivan's question, too. Talk about collaborating and connecting ! I feel renewed hope for our profession. When students and teachers work together, we both learn how to use great new tools.

My students convinced me today to let them do a literature circle on Jeff Smith's Bone series of graphic novels. I haven't read them yet, but have lately seen noses buried in one of the nine different titles all around the room. The Bone series literature circle will use the refined database with links to comments, and I'll be learning about Fone, Phoney and Smiley.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Collaborate and connect

I couldn't help but think of collaboration and connecting when I was asked this morning for some summary thoughts about the use technology in elementary classrooms- I've been doing a series of a guest speaking talks via Skype in a course for future teachers at the U of Minnesota (we're only blocks apart but without Skype I wouldn't make it back to my classroom in time to meet my elementary students in the morning.) I've also been fortunate to be involved recently in several discussions between educators about sharing, connecting and collaborating. In her recent post, Pam Moran, Superintendent of the Ablermarle County Public Schools, beautifully juxtaposed collaboration-a butterfly with a pendulum-the machine that is the public school system. With my words to the future teachers in the class this morning, I echoed Pam's exhortation to make creating the freedom of the butterfly in our classroom our necessary job. I told them it's our job to bring whatever tools we can to our students; that we needed to teach our students what they needed for their lives, not we we were taught to use for our lives.

In our district, there's an initiative underway headed up by Todd Pierson @tpierson to create MPS specific Moodle courses for both instruction and staff development. Elsewhere, around the world and here in Minnesota, Tomaz Lasic has created a venue for sharing Moodle lessons; Joe Thibault is creating a place to archive every Moodle course ever created; Carl Anderson has just created a site for sharing Minnesota Moodle courses; the Minnesota Moodle users group is growing daily; Nellie Deutsch and friends are sharing ideas and tools vibrantly all over the planet.

All of these teachers know it's their job to connect, to share, to be the butterfly of creation in classrooms. It's what teachers do.

Thanks for sharing, really !

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

New Technologies

Ira Socol wrote about technologies today. I had written the post below after school today (I'd been thinking about it for a day or two) and submitted it to the StarTribune in response to this piece in Sunday's StarTribune by William Souder. Both Ira and I, unlike Mr. Souder, like the idea that 'books' are available in multiple formats.

William Souder offered the opportunity to judge the essay he wrote that was printed in last Sunday's Star Tribune and which was also made available in the online version of the Star Tribune. His essay fails to prove his point. He proposes that formal writing is dying; that it is being replaced by digital writing. I'm not quite sure what Souder means by formal writing, but he implies that it is writing that does not appear in electronic form, which is a ridiculous proposition since most of what has been written by humans in any language and on any surface with any tool is now available on line. For Souder, digital writing is writing that is not published and printed on paper by publishing houses that published books by Tom Clancy and Stephen King. Souder asserts that those publishing housed used to subsidize a number of less-famous writers whose work was worth reading but who couldn't make money for the publisher or, presumably, themselves. I will acknowledge that that how people get paid for writing is changing. Souder says that this inferior digital writing is somehow lessening the value that existed for the kind of writing that came before it. He makes fun of the what he calls digital writing but fails to show how that harms the other kind of writing. Good writing endures, no matter the form.

I still value what Plato wrote about what Socrates said about writing. Socrates, or at least, Plato using a character called Socrates, didn't think much of writing; he considered writing to be much inferior to oral discourse.

Anyone now reading these words electronically can with one click be able to the words of Socrates, via Plato, written in fairly modern English. There are probably scholars of both Greek and Latin who could offer alternative translations and thus maybe put another twist on the meaning of the words as they appear to us, today. Was Plato's writing on a kodex in classical Greek formal writing? Are his words dead?

Chaucer significantly messed with the formal writing of his day. He eschewed the old formal Latin in favor the indelicate vernacular English. Now we call him the father of English literature. Chaucer would've been all over Facebook if he were here today. And the rhythms and rhyme he so informally wrote six hundred years ago - “Whan that Aprille with hise shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.”- still delight even though the spellings and pronunciations have changed a bit.

With this 'inferior' digital writing, I'm also able to connect readers of these words to the words of Wordsworth – now there's a guy whose words are worth reading. What I especially like about using an electronic tool is that I can go right to the part of Wordsworth's words that I want readers to notice. I have a hard time remembering the exact paragraph where the line I want to share shows up, but I remember that the word 'torpor' appears in the sentence so all I need to do is type 'torpor' into the little 'find' box at the bottom of my laptop screen and, presto, I'm at the passage which expresses notions which readers familiar with Mr. Souder's essay will recognize. Wordsworth, too, was turning traditional, formal writing on its head in favor of the language of the common man.

It was almost two hundred years ago that Wordsworth said, speaking of the capability to excite the beauty and dignity of the mind, “It has therefore appeared to me, that to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability is one of the best services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged; but this service, excellent at all times, is especially so at the present day. For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. to this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves. The invaluable works of our elder writers, I had almost said the works of Shakespeare and Milton, are driven into neglect by frantic novels, sickly and stupid German Tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse.” I suppose Mr. Souder would put blogs and Twitter threads, no matter who wrote them, in with all those sickly and stupid German Tragedies and the deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse.

The number of English speakers globally continues increase rapidly so the market for things written in English, digital or formal, is also growing. Mr. Souder's main objection to digital writing seems to be that it is endangering the profits of the owner's of the means of distributing writing on paper. Books are not going away; writing is just showing up in new places in addition to books, newspapers and magazines. If there's enough demand for words printed on paper, somebody will figure out how to make money making books. I think the Book of Kells is gorgeous, but I'm not going to suggest that everything written should be written in a book using the same skills required to produce the Book of Kells. Mr. Souder laments the fact that Moby Dick is available for free. I think it's a good thing that a child in the Philippines, or China, or wherever, can download a copy and read it, or almost any other book, with the aid of a translating tool and even online explanatory notes. Lots of people without the ability to hold or read a book can also have the text read to them by this 'inferior' digital tool. Electronically produced writing opens lots of doors for lots of people. Our ability to tell our stories whether we're bards or scribes is not hampered by electronic communication- electronics make both the stage and the seating area a whole lot bigger and more inclusive.

Friday, February 12, 2010

More on iMoot 2010 and the networked creator

Tomaz Lasic is promising to write about the panel discussion in iMoot 2010 that he moderated and I listened to last Saturday morning; I participated via the chat board. As I mentioned in my last post here, it was a wonderful experience in which to participate. I'm eager to hear/read his report. Tomaz is starting his new job at Moodle HQ soon and he posted to Twitter a comment that a friend of his made to him "So, you're going from environment that doesn't encourage community creation (EdDept) to where comm. is valued & key (Moodle.)" I clumsily tried to expand on that comment by expressing my envy of Tomaz in his new job, but I think the point of the comment that Tomaz's friend made is crucial to what's happening and needs to continue to happen in education. Moodle is by definition a tool that encourages community creation, and Tomaz is a perfect example of John Hagel's poignant observation in his recent post - "Rather than simply pursuing our passion as a hobby, we felt a growing need to make our passion our profession." Tomaz is truly a "networked creator."

I also listened to Martin Dougiamas's keynote talk that kicked off iMoot. Martin, too, demonstrated what a networked creator looks like. In fact, Martin is the gold standard for doing conscious networked creation. His early writing makes his intentions clear. The millions of Moodle users around the planet are the beneficiaries of that conscious networked creativity.

And that contrasts sharply with what is all too common in k-12 school districts- A superintendent holds a meeting that is attended by a group of people. Everybody at the meeting takes notes on paper but nobody records communally what's said. Then, the people at the meeting call another meeting where even more people attend and take separate notes on paper and nothing again gets recorded in common. Each of the people at that meeting then go off to their buildings and call meetings where they mimic the behavior they've just witnessed - they report what they've heard. Sometimes this pattern gets a little 'innovative.' Instead of just having meetings the information is passed via paper, and then, sometimes, even greater 'innovation' occurs and the information gets passed via a chain of emails. That's not creativity - it's passing information. The passing of the information dilutes creativity and accountability.

Instead of welcoming the feedback and criticism that Martin describes as crucial to the quality of the ongoing creative process, the hierarchical information passing system is paranoid about making sure the information is passed 'with fidelity.' Because there's no common record, the information tends to get confused or misunderstood or twisted somehow. And yet, the paranoid system seems to take weeks to get even the a single convoluted idea on paper or into print.

I understand that it takes time to formulate ideas. I've yet to get my thoughts on the page about why Moodle is a model for the kind of 'accountability that is being yearned for by the 'reformers' even though I don't think they would recognize the truth of real accountability if it was staring them in the face. But I won't be surprised if that thought process isn't taken up by someone else via Twitter, or a blog, or even the new and somewhat still puzzling Buzz. I'm not suggesting that this convergence of ideas is the same thing as the recent scandal of the teenage novelist in Germany (I'm not even going to bother to link to that; google it if you haven't yet read about it.) It's just that the speed of ideas that go zipping from Australia to Minnesota to Germany and back to Australia (I was tipped off via Twitter to Hagel's blog by John Mak) is becoming something I'm beginning to trust. I've never met John but I think we've thought about the same things at about the same time and mentioned it to the world via our 'network.' It's work is progress.

Monday, February 8, 2010


iMoot2010 was the answer I gave to a query this evening asking for the best staff development. iMoot2010 was a gathering this last weekend of people who use, create and promote Moodle. People from all over the world were chiming in online about a wide range of aspects of an education tool that has the potential to significantly alter teaching and learning; actually, it's already changing it. Colleagues of mine have paid hundreds of dollars to travel to a hotel conference room to listen to a presentation that may not even be recorded. I attended iMoot 2010 in my slippers and I can review the recordings for at least 90 days. I suspect that the discussions will move over to the forums on the always reliable Moodle Community sites.
Moodle provides the kind of accountability that Arne Duncan et al are asking for in the RTTT. Moodle goes much farther than the clumsy observation and test score methods being touted as ways to make teachers and schools 'accountable.' I was reminded of the transparency that is and always has been essential to Moodle. Martin Dougiamous reminded us that the strength of Moodle is the fact that it's open source and only gets better as more people use, test, question, critique, modify, and expand the tool. The refreshing openess of the conference reminded me why I like teaching and learning.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Twitter for teacher professional development

Last Wednesday at our PLC (Professional Learning Cmmunity) meeting we were discussing how to integrate science into our reading curriculum. We shared the ways that we used notebooks with the science kits that we use. When the question was raised about what kind of resources we, as teachers, could use to increase our learning about how to to use notebooks, I offered to see what I could get from Twitter (at least one of my colleagues raised an eyebrow.) It took about 2 minutes when I got back to my room to locate the recent account that the folks at Lawerence Hall of Science have created for their great elementary FOSS program. I had to wait to look it up because we meet in the multi-purpose room with about 6 other PLCs - it's easier for the admins to observe and coach us that way. There's only about two AC outlets in the room and only a shaky wireless connection to the district intranet which still has Twitter blocked. In my classroom I put my laptop near the window by my desk and I can hitchhike to Twitter on one of the unsecured routers in the neighborhood.

One of the recent posts on the @FOSSScience Twitter time line was a link to their web page about, guess what, using notebooks in the science classroom. The FOSS web site also contains enough information to occupy our PLC for more than a few of our next meetings. Someone else actually suggested that we meet in my classroom for our next PLC so we can look at the web site on the overhead. I'll also let them peak at Twitter, Shh, don't tell anyone.

So, here's a couple of my wishes for the New Year. I would like to be able to access Twitter from anywhere in any of our school buildings. If we need to start by providing access only to teachers, fine, but let's start. One of the other things I'd like to see in the new year is that all of our professional development notes and communications be done on our staff Moodle site. That would be handy, for instance, for me to review the PLC notes if I wanted to do something like write about my professional development on the couch at home with my recently broken ankle wrapped in an ice pack while the Packers are trying to sneak by the Cardinals [edit: They didn't.] It would also be handy if I noticed a tweet from someone about teacher professional development relating to integrating science into a literacy program - I could just pop it into the Moodle notebook instead of sending myself an email to remember to bring it up the next time we gathered to drag out the 3-ring binder. I'd also like to change our PLC meeting times to at least include some asynchronous 'meeting' time on line.

My wishes for the new year are probably not what Shelly Blake-Plock was looking for when he put out a call for crazy stuff, but it's one of the little steps that Ira Socol (get that wheel rolling soon) was talking about in one of his recent posts. We need crazy little steps to do our work. (See what I did there, Kelly?)

Saturday, January 2, 2010


I didn't get anything posted here during the month of December. Getting ready for the Christmas break both at school and home was a necessary and obvious priority. I did write a guest post on Shelly Blake-Plock's TeachPaperless blog; it was sincere pleasure and honor to work with Shelly on the post. As Shelly points out on his blog and I alluded to in the post, this is the kind of sharing teachers need to be doing even more frequently.
It might be obvious, but blogging and even using Twitter ( I don't like the verbs, tweeting or micro-blogging) require writing skill and especially skill with some kind of electronic input tool (I'm still using mostly one of my two second-hand WindowsXP laptops.) Writing and 'typing' are skills that have essentially been worked around for years in education, justifiably or not. We can only hope that things like Dial2do or some of the other voice to text tools will make it easier for everyone to get their thoughts out to a place where they are more easily shared. 'Writing' in any of the many ways that word is defined is still one of the keys to teaching and learning.