Archive for October, 2011

On that article about the Waldorf school

Matt Richtel’s front page Sunday NYTimes piece on the tech-free Waldorf school in Los Altos has sparked a vigorous debate. In short, the article notes that several Silicon Valley exec-types send their kids to this expensive school that follows the Waldorf philosophy of eschewing technology in the classroom and instead teaching old-school things like handwriting and knitting. These kids do well, most of them will go to college, and some of their parents are happy to delay their technology inundation. The point, I suppose, is to question how effective or necessary it really is to make sure that classroom are equipped with computers, internet, and gadgets.

I think it’s an interesting model, but I don’t think it necessarily provokes any interesting ideas regarding technology in regular classrooms.

This is a community where, as many Times readers have commented, families can afford to shun technology. Parents are highly educated and highly involved in their kids’ education. There are tons of resources at home.

Perhaps more importantly, the teachers at this school are trained in – and believe in – a specific and well-established pedagogy. The administration supports the teachers and they all share a common vision.

To me, these factors are much more relevant to any Waldorf alum’s success than the absence of computers (or even whiteboards) in their classrooms. And I tend to agree with Ira David Socol’s blog post calling the article a bit of class warfare by the Times, mainly because I think it’s dangerous to suggest to voters that spending money on equipping public schools with basic technology would be a waste of taxpayer funds.

I can’t say whether that’s really Richtel’s agenda, as this Waldorf parent contends, but it does seem feasible that some readers might say, “Well if those kids do fine with blackboards and chalk, why should I pay for computers or wireless access in my public schools?”

For starters, some of the quoted arguments from parents and teachers in the article have major flaws. Like this one, from a teacher who used food to teach fractions, implying that there are better, more tactile ways to engage kids than by using computers.

“For three weeks, we ate our way through fractions,” she said. “When I made enough fractional pieces of cake to feed everyone, do you think I had their attention?” 

Nutritional abuse aside, I don’t even spend money on Dum-Dums for my kids, let alone cake. Not gonna happen.

Then there’s this one, from a Google exec who is proud that his kids don’t yet know how to use it.

“It’s supereasy. It’s like learning to use toothpaste,” Mr. Eagle said. “At Google and all these places, we make technology as brain-dead easy to use as possible. There’s no reason why kids can’t figure it out when they get older.”

I used to think that, too, until I actually worked with a classroom full of “digital natives” who clearly weren’t figuring it out. I’ve written about it.

So it’s easy to write off this whole Silicon Valley Waldorf thing as another example of the privileged being able to pretend times are different, like this guy, who paid $30 for this cellphone handset.

But I definitely understand the backlash against the mad rush to fill classrooms with technology. I know from experience – both my own and those of teacher-colleagues of mine – that some schools will dive head-first into expensive and time-consuming affairs with a particular technology because it hits on the buzzword of the moment (ahem…curriculum mapping…ahem). And when professional development hours are devoted to these projects, they are taking teachers away from the humanistic parts of teaching that Waldorf teachers rightly value.

In talking about this with my brilliant wife, she brought up Sesame Street, which sought to use the medium of television to bring a research-based curriculum to all preschoolers, in effect leveling the playing field between those who could afford preschool and those who could not.

And that’s the impetus behind the best edtech happening right now, but it requires a degree of infrastructure in our schools.

Now, my brilliant wife went on, many people took Sesame Street‘s apparent endorsement of TV too far and plopped their kids on the couch for hours on end, hoping the magic of educational programming would make their kids smart.

So we see where she’s going with this. There are definitely teachers who rely on their TVs in the classroom as a crutch in lieu of a lesson plan, and we may well do this with our internet and our iPads in the future (or the present). An overburdened teacher in a difficult school may even be more likely to do this.

So it’s everything in moderation, isn’t it? Good teachers know they have to continue to engage their students on a human-to-human level, just as they know they cannot pretend that the ballpoint pen hasn’t been invented yet.

And it’s about thoughtfulness and buy-in from all parties. If administrators, teachers, and parents all agree that we should try using iPads in math because of a body of research that suggests good results, we should do it. And if we all are swayed by a body of research that recommends teaching knitting and cursive handwriting, let’s go for that.

Enough false dichotomies, enough reactionary extremes. Most schools need to be equipped with computers and wireless internet. And if not, there better be tons of cake.


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Teach me how to Google?

Here’s what I realized today: my students don’t know how to use Google.

You might think that sounds crazy. Kids have grown up using Google. It’s second nature, right?

I don’t think so. I think that growing up in the information age may be having a perversely counterintuitive effect on them. Namely, they have no idea how to find information.

I took my frosh to the computer lab today to give them time to work on their essays on “The Cask of Amontillado.” They were armed with teacher-approved outlines and sample essays. I got them signed on to GoogleDocs and settled in for what I hoped would be an hour of frenzied typing with plenty of over-the-shoulder writing instruction.

Not so much. I did end up hopping around the room like a madman, giving plenty of instruction, but very little of it pertained to writing. Starting with the most frequently asked, these were the top questions of the day:

1. What was the name of the guy in the story?

2. How do you spell “catacombs”?

3. What’s Poe’s first name?

4. How does this sound so far?

Oh, how I wish question #4 were at the top of that list! That would have meant that I spent my day helping students articulate their ideas and clarify their writing. I love doing that! But instead, I spent my day responding to those other questions. Let’s look at them.

1. What was the name of the guy in the story?

I’m not even worried about the fact that they can’t remember these two names (the only two names – besides Luchesi – in the story). Who cares? And that’s exactly the point – there’s no reason to memorize the names of the characters because we can find them so easily! Or so I thought. To each kid that asked this, I told them to find out themselves. But how? We didn’t bring the textbooks down! Use the tools in front of you, I said. There are no tools in front of me! This actual exchange happened once, which caused me to mime ripping my hair out (I’m quite bald, so this always looks odd). I said, you have Google and the entire internet in front of you (you know, the most powerful tool in human history?).

After this exchange, I simply told each kid that asked this question to Google it. This instruction was usually met with a moment of hesitation. Some even asked, “How?”

Seriously. How do you google it. Can you imagine how difficult it was for me to hold back the tone of condescension in my voice when I explained, “Well, you type “cask of amontillado” into that Google search bar”? In fact, you don’t even have to do that. You can type “cask,” and Google will figure out the rest. Then you click on any 667,000 results that pop up 0.23 seconds later, and find the characters’ names in a plot summary or in the text itself.

2. How do you spell “catacombs”?

I often hear students cry out in distress, “How do I right-click?!” when in a Mac computer lab. It seems a lot of them rely on that technique for spell checking their Word documents at home. The fact that GoogleDocs doesn’t even let you control-click to find suggested corrections threw them into utter despair. “What do I do? I don’t know how to spell that?” Google it, I said, again. “But how – I don’t know how to spell it?” Just type a guess into Google, I said, trust me.

Again, with great trepidation, they’d begin to type their guess at the word into the Google search bar. Did you mean catacombs? “Oh look ,there it is.” Yup. Whaddaya know?

You can probably guess how question #3 went at this point, too.

So what does this mean? How is it that these students seem so unable to find out the simplest pieces of information? Is it laziness? Is it easier to wait with a raised hand or (who am I kidding) call out and try to get a teacher to give you a piece of information than to type it into Google yourself? Is it really possible they didn’t know that Google could help them?

To my generation, and to all those that came before me, the magical ease of Google may be due to the baseline we have for finding information. When you grew up having to walk/bike/get driven to a library, search card catalogs, follow the Dewey Decimal System, then search through the volume you finally find for an answer to your question, Google’s 0.23 second solution is incomprehensibly easy.

But when Google is your baseline, when you and your parents have always been able to find the answer to any question in an instant on your phone, maybe the act of typing the word in the search bar doesn’t seem so easy. Maybe it’s only natural to try the easier version first: asking the teacher.

I’m afraid, though, that the ease of finding right answers somehow leads to more indifference about making sure your answers are right. I hate to launch into a “kids these days” rant, but, for example, I Googled “dewey decimal system” a few moments ago just to make sure that I was right about the spelling and capitalization. I was pretty sure I was right, but since I only had to actually type in “dewe” before Google guessed what I wanted, and then it only took another 0.14 seconds for confirmation, it seemed worth it to me. And I know there will always be good students (like me) and less enthusiastic ones, but still, it’s troublesome how many “Cast of Amontilado” essays I’ve read over the past couple of years.

But why would ease of finding information lead to indifference? Is it the same reason that I’ve never been to the top of the Empire State Building? Growing up in New York, you know it’s always there, so why do it now? Growing up with Google, you know the answers are always there, so why find them now?

And whose job is it to teach kids how to Google? We 9th grade English teachers spend weeks teaching them how to navigate the SIRS and Gale databases to find scholarly articles, but that is starting to seem as sensible as teaching someone how to make a cheese soufflé instead of how to fry an egg.

I’m not mad at middle school teachers here, the way high school teachers sometimes get when our kids can’t write a sentence. I get it – we all thought they knew about Google! We see them manipulate their phones so dexterously, always texting their friends and using savvy-sounding abbreviations and even hashtags. And we think we’re on top of it with all of our 21st century learning goals and media literacy objectives.

But maybe we need to take a step backwards first. We’re all trying to make sure they become lifelong learners. It’d probably be good starting point, then, if they knew that the screen in front of them has the answers to pretty much every question. And it’s really not that hard to find them.

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One vision of the future

T.H.E Journal has an interesting  feature in its October issue: “Educators Dream Up Their Ideal Mobile Device.” Most of the ideas are variations of smartphones and tablets, but more rugged and with better battery life. I really liked this “iDesk” idea from Kyle Ross, an assistant principal at Chaparral High School in Scottsdale, AZ (go Giants).

Imagine a glass-top student desk that is like a larger version of an iPad–a touchscreen computer desk connected via WiFi to a school’s network. Using cloud computing, students would sit down and log into their desks, where they can respond to teacher prompts, complete and submit work, and connect with other students–all without needing additional computers or mobile devices. As smartphones evolve more into full-function computers, students’ mobile devices can be linked to the iDesk.

I had a good time staring at this artist’s mock-up and imagining what it would be like to have these in the classroom. And while it might just seem like fun, far-off fantasy, I probably would have thought the same thing 10 years ago if someone had shown me a classroom full of iPads. Or 20 years ago if someone had shown me a classroom full of laptops. So who knows?

Of course, by the time this is feasible, touchscreens might not even be engaging to kids anymore since they’ll be so used to them. But at least we’ll be able to tempt them with the privilege of using the antique pencil sharpener as a reward for good behavior.


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The No-Tech Day (and Poe story) that Saved Me

I was having one of those low energy, low enthusiasm days. Not the typical “Ugh, I’m tired and that coffee didn’t do the trick” kind, either. The scarily bad kind. The “This is all pointless and I’ve got nothing to offer” kind.

I was going through the motions with my 9th grade English class – some silent reading, some grammar stuff – and then it was time to finish reading “Cask of Amontillado.” I looked over my notes from last year and saw that I had them reading it in small groups, taking notes on setting and mood together. I had made a note then that it had worked well, and I was honestly looking forward to getting “offstage” and letting them figure out the story for themselves.

But before launching them into groups, I gave them an option. I said we can read it together as a class or in small groups. I do this a lot when I think I know what they’ll say. When students believe they are navigating, I think they might be more interested in where their ship is headed. So I was sure they’d all choose groups. Of course, I was wrong. To make sure it wasn’t just the loud students who yelled out “whole class,” I asked every single student to vote, one by one, and they all said “whole class.” Peer pressure aside, I think they actually wanted this. This is my ridiculously small class: (don’t hate me) 19 students. We had begun reading the story during the previous class, and they said they had recognized that it would be hard to read it on their own.

So I was to remain onstage. I had them take out their notes so they could record details of setting for an upcoming essay. My enthusiasm level was about to flatline, but I grabbed the book, pulled a chair into the middle of the room, sat down, and began to read.

And everything changed.

As I read to them, stopping often to ask for paraphrases of tricky sentences or to make sure they could visualize what Poe is describing, two unexpected things happened. They remained engaged, and I began to enjoy myself.

I couldn’t help it. It’s a great story, and as I delved into it with them I couldn’t help but get excited. Like when I read this exchange, for example:

He raised it to his lips with a leer. He paused and nodded to me familiarly, while his bells jingled.

“I drink,” he said, “to the buried that repose around us.”

“And I to your long life.”

Shudder. Even though this might be the 17th time I’ve read that, I still shuddered. And when I hinted at its irony to my students, I saw that some of them had joined me.

It happened again a moment later, when Montresor removes the trowel from his cloak to prove, in a twisted jest, that he is a “mason.”

When we finally got to the tiny “interior recess” at the “most remote end of the crypt” where Montresor chains Fortunato to the wall, we stopped at length to make sure we had Poe’s dimensions right: “in depth about four feet, in width three, in height six or seven.” I roughly marked out this space in the middle of the room so that the students could see it was the size of a closet. When Fortunato “reached the extremity of the niche, and finding his progress arrested by the rock, stood stupidly bewildered,” I had a student demonstrate by walking blindly into the wall in the back of the room (he’s okay).

All the while, students are copying down descriptions of setting to use for their essays, but they’re also reading and responding to the story. “That’s messed up!” or “This dude is twisted!” or “I’d be so scared.”

How often do I wish that they can do that kind of simple multi-tasking? How often do I wish they would actually pay attention to what we are discussing and see if they find any value in it?

And what was the brilliant, engaging use of technology here? A textbook, a notebook, a pencil. Now, I used plenty of technology to set it up. We looked at pictures of catacombs online and we’ll use Popplet later to outline our essays. But for the actual story, we turned off the projector and pretty much had a good old-fashioned story time.

The success of that kind of lesson every now and again reminds me why some veteran teachers are so resistant to school or district initiatives to incorporate technology into their teaching. Sometimes we are led to believe that they want us to use tons of brand new technology every single day. Sometimes that might be what they actually want. But it shouldn’t be, and I think teachers are sometimes afraid of giving up the kind of teaching that they know works for a lot of kids – and for them. Besides burning out those expensive bulbs in our projectors, we (teachers and students) need a break from the new stuff to get back to the most powerful tools we really have: great stories.

Oh, and I even tried to play a youtube recording of Vincent Price reading the story, but the students all complained that he was too hard to understand. So score another point for the live reader (their teacher).

So while I was slightly disappointed when they asked me to read it – and I made fun of them for being babies who need their storytime – in the end it saved me. When the bell rang I was on a high. That story is just too good. And seeing it get through to a room full of reluctant readers is really why I got into this gig. I know I’m supposed to blog about technology here, but this no-tech day ended up feeling like a revelation to me.



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Using Diigo, finally

Diigo is another one of those tools that has been around a while but that I never really got into the habit of using. Lately, though, I’ve been finding it so handy.

It’s basically a social bookmarking site, but the highlighting and sticky note feature make it especially useful in the classroom. I pulled up Edgar Allan Poe’s Wikipedia page today before reading “Cask of Amontillado” with my 9th graders. I used Diigo’s highlighter tool while skimming the article for key info with the kids. The next time I pull that page up through my Diigo bookmarks, I can click the Diigo icon in my toolbar to reveal the highlights I’ve already made. 

I use this Chrome extension.

I’ve also been collecting articles and photo galleries on the Occupy Wall Street protests, since I know I’ll be introducing Marxist Criticism to my seniors soon.

I can open each of these pages in my browser before class starts and be ready to go. I love how, with the toolbar extension, collecting these resources can be such a natural part of my everyday web-reading. It really only takes about five seconds to make the boomark, select the tags, and maybe write a quick note about it. It’s what I’m always looking for with web 2.0 tools: something that subtracts steps in the process of incorporating technology into my teaching and doesn’t add any.

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Email, the dinosaur

You may have heard the rumors, but it’s actually true. Most kids have no idea how to use email.

So do we lament this and try to teach it? Or do we trust that it’ll become outdated before too long anyway?

If I had gotten my students on GoogleDocs, there wouldn’t have been a problem. I’ve had kids use GoogleDocs tons of times in the past, but I foolishly thought they would finish this particular project in the computer lab during one class period and be able to upload it to Edmodo right away. When it became clear that this wouldn’t happen, I had to decide between getting them all onto GoogleDocs for the first time (these were 9th graders) or telling them to email their documents to themselves.

I chose poorly.

The main problems were:

  • I don’t have an email account. This is untrue. All students get a district email account, but many never use it.
  • I can’t remember my password. This has also been a huge problem with my use of Edmodo. Maybe password creation and retention is a skill we should be teaching?
  • I have no idea how to attach a document to an email. The most common problem, by far. But, like I said, maybe an outdated skill in 5 years?

I was reminded of this post from TeachPaperless: 21 Things That Will Become Obsolete in Education by 2020. Email isn’t on the list, but maybe it should be.


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Something for the math and science teachers (for now)

I came across Gooru today (via Edsurge) and got really excited about it. It’s a new non-profit that has built a library of “classplans.” They call them playlists of curated (and standards-aligned!) curriculum that teachers can search, copy, edit, and use in the classroom. There’s a nifty note-taking feature for resources you find on your own. There’s a smooth looking drag-and-drop interface for organizing the classplans. The overall interface, too, is meant to look like an interactive whiteboard, not a browser. Seems like there’s a chat feature, too.

Here’s their introductory video:

I am so in love with this idea. How many times have I searched for some sort of web resource to give a visual or video element to a lesson, spent way too much time searching, and then ended up making up something else from scratch? It looks like the whole idea behind Gooru is to cut down on that time wasting and wheel re-inventing, and that potential is exactly what is so appealing to me about education technology. It looks like it’s also banking on teachers submitting their own content to add to the database, and we’ve seen that teachers will do that (see BetterLesson).

So I requested my invitation, excitedly registered, then saw that it’s only math and science curriculum right now. So, math and science teachers, enjoy!

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The power of the hallway

I had a little power struggle with a senior boy today that reminded me how simply being in the classroom can make someone act like a more awful version of himself.

The first flare-up happened during a class discussion when I asked this student – let’s call him Shane (why not) – to put away the work he was doing for another class. Shane, in the front row, treats me and the entire class to an extraordinary show of eye-rolling and grumbling as he slowly and noisily packs up his math binder or whatever it was. “But this is boring,” I hear him grumble. “I don’t want to do this.”

“Oh,” I say, “I’m sorry. I didn’t think it was boring. And anyway…” And then I think I made some indistinct gestures meant to get him to hurry up. My tone was probably a mix syrupy sweet sarcasm and stern patience.

With ten minutes left in class Shane asks to go to the bathroom. When I refuse, he resumes his show in front of the class. He’s standing by my desk and arguing that he should be allowed to go. I laugh. I can’t help it. As he stalks back to his desk he says, “It’s not funny. I really have to go.”

“I’ll explain to you later why it’s funny,” I say, for some reason.

He shoots back, “I’ll explain to you later when my mom files a complaint against you.”

Okay. This kind of thing used to really rile me up and get me nervous, but, happily, not so much anymore. I realize he should have left the classroom a long time ago, and he must have realized this too because he is packing up his bag to leave. “You’re leaving?” I ask. Yes. I write him a pass to the deans and tell him he can come talk to me later to discuss what happened. “Do you think you might do that?”

“Probably not.”

I see that the rest of the class is either watching with interest, pretending not to, or having their own conversations. I’m fine with that right now, so I step out into the hallway with Shane. And here is where everything changes. I explain the bathroom decision – how it’s the last ten minutes, and how he was being a jerk earlier, and I ask him if it seems reasonable to not allow him to leave. After his initial protests that all his other teachers just let him go whenever, and after some more reminders from me about his attitude, he concedes that my position makes sense.

“So what’s with all that attitude?” I ask.

“I’m just having a bad morning. It was a tough weekend.”

Ah, there it is. I tell him that’s fine, but that next time he should just ask to take a walk and I would think that totally fine and a mature thing to do. He’s looking at me and nodding – it’s as if the fog had cleared and he finally became his normal self again. He was in a low level rage in the classroom, behaving like a 7-year-old in a 17-year-old’s body. He knew the whole class was listening to him and his objective seemed to be to cut me down whenever he wasn’t sure what to say. But out here, merely on the other side of the door, in the empty hallway, he was allowed to listen to me, and he calmed down enough to realize what he was doing.

These things happen all the time, I know, but it always amazes me how powerful the move to the hallway can be. I’m reminded that students are always performing, always putting on airs and aware that they are being constantly scrutinized by their peers. And if we remove them from that stage for one minute, they can sometimes become themselves again.

Of course, Shane clearly wanted all of my attention – he was demanding it in the most immature way inside – and I ended up giving him exactly that by following him out into the hallway. That might positively reinforce this kind of behavior and it makes me feel bad for all the quietly mature students in the classroom with whom I did not have a one-on-one conversation today.

But it also made me think how impossible a situation the classroom can be. How are we supposed to get kids to be themselves when they are constantly on stage? How are they supposed to relax enough to be able to express confusion or be open to a new experience if they can be so stifled by the audience around them so as to act ten years younger than they are?




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