Posts Tagged technology

4 More Reasons I’ll Always Use GoogleDocs for Essays

It’s taken a few years and several relapses into pen-and-paper, but now there’s no going back for me. For every tangible, tactile sensation that is lost, the digital process makes up for it with a practical benefit. And besides, why do we English teachers get so weepy about saying goodbye to grading papers with a pen? It’s grading papers – the bane of our existence. Why do we romanticize the things that drive us crazy?

Anyway, here are some things that went well with this last round of 9th grade essays.

1. Real time support for a larger number of students

Armed with detailed outlines (or at least that was the plan), I brought my students to the computer lab for a full session of typing. Once they were all going, I opened up a few papers at a time to take a look and see if I could give a quick tip to redirect a student who was veering off course. I’ve written about this before, but I’m still amazed by how this lets me help so many students in one class session. Using the chat sidebar feels comfortable for a lot of students, so I find that more of them are willing to ask for help, which is often the biggest hangup for kids when it comes to writing.

Instead of using the chat sidebar, sometimes I’ll just add a few comments. I’ll do this if I want to point the student to a specific  sentence – or a part of a sentence. I’ll also use a specific color highlighter so show them where there is a punctuation problem, then give more details on how to fix it in the sidebar if I think they need it.

That first comment in the above screenshot also speaks to the fact that some students think this kind of communication is actually fun. Which could be a second subheading here.

2. It’s kind of fun

Here’s another exchange with that same student.

3. Students adding comments on their own papers

I hadn’t realized the potential here, but it’s interesting. For starters, several of my students added comments to something they had written or revised when they weren’t sure they were doing it right. Like this example below, which she wrote from home. I didn’t see the comment until later when I actually graded it, but it was nice for me to have a sense that she wasn’t confident about that sentence, that she was thinking about it, and that she just didn’t know how to write it any differently.

I feel bad about my harsh (and late) response. But this did get me thinking that I could require some sort of reflective work like this from my students when they turn things in. One of the hardest parts of writing instruction is trying to distinguish ability from effort, and I think this could help.

This student also added a lengthy comment in the margin of her conclusion, explaining why she started talking about Freedom Writers. I think she knows that this is not something I recommend doing in a conclusion to an essay, but she felt strongly about it, so she took the opportunity to explain herself.

That made me think about asking students to annotate their own essays. I could have them identify their strongest sections, their weakest sections, and I could have them explain what they’re thinking by writing without the mental freeze that worrying about “essay writing” often brings.

4. Thanks!

I couldn’t find screenshots of them because I think they were all in chat windows, but several times in class that day, after helping students get back on track, they’d type something like “ok, thanks – that helps a lot.” Or, “ahhh, that makes sense now – thank you!” I wish I had the proof because I know how unbelievable it sounds that a 9th grader would say that, but it happened. Not only that, I actually had a student come up to me the next day and say to my face: “I saw those comments you wrote on my essay and I wanted to thank you because they really helped me revise it.” I could hardly respond since my jaw was on the floor.

But don’t worry, you sentimental traditionalists. Even if you use GoogleDocs, it’s still grading papers, so you’ll still want to tear your hair out at the end of the day.

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NoRedInk might actually make grammar fun

Teaching grammar is kind of the worst. I’ve never come up with an engaging way to teach comma placement. I’m not quite sure how I learned it myself. I feel like I learned most of my grammar in 6th grade, when I had a charismatic teacher (Ellen Friedman) and an eagerness to learn anything.

NoRedInk is a new site that gives me some hope for my own students. It’s brand new, and I think there’s more to come with regard to writing instruction, but here are two things about it that I like:

1. The interface for changing punctuation and capitalization is super-intuitive. It makes so much sense that it’s surprising we haven’t seen more programs like this. Here’s a screencast of me playing with it.

2. As soon as you sign up, you get to choose some of your interests, and NoRedInk then uses your choices to generate the names for people in the sentences it gives you for quizzes. So, having clicked on things like hip hop and Harry Potter, you’ll see Jay-Z and Lucius Malfoy on your quiz. You can even enter in names of your friends or have the site pull names from your Facebook friends. To me, this is an ingenious little way to keep kids engaged in an otherwise dreadful affair.

Best part? It’s free right now.

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Cleanliness is next to appropriateness

I love this extension for Chrome: clea.nr. It cleans up Youtube entirely – no related videos, no comments, just the video I want to show my class.

Once it’s installed, youtube.com looks like this:

And this is what it looks like when a video is playing:

Those recommended videos in the sidebar can be terribly distracting. This makes a Youtube video feel so much more appropriate for classroom use. Especially when watching something that leads Youtube to make terrible suggestions, like videos of what a “jerkline skinner” does to better understand Of Mice and Men. 

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5 ways I’m using Edmodo now

I started this school year excited about using Edmodo, but I all but abandoned it around the end of the first quarter. I was getting less than 50% completion on any online homework assignment, and I always had a few students in each class who said they did not have computers or reliable internet access at home. Much like Jennie Magiera writes about in this great article on EdWeek Teacher, though for different reasons, I decided to stop, reflect, and reassess what I was doing.

So as second semester started, I realized something simple: I was getting less than 50% homework on pen & paper assignments, too. Also, all students have at least one 99-minute study period during which they can go to the computer lab if they need to. I realized that I really wanted to bring the online component back into my instruction, and that merely 10 minutes of homework could accomplish this. My novel units were feeling so much duller than I remember them feeling. Part of this is because of how much actual reading I feel like we have to do in class. Remember that homework problem I mentioned? I don’t know if it’s school culture or what, but assigning reading for homework definitely goes nowhere. Still, there were things I was doing on Moodle back in my 1:1 days that added some richness and continuity to a novel unit.

So I’m having another go at it. I think the online component of the course will only work the way I want it to work if students get in the habit of checking it regularly, and for that to happen I have to be consistent with it. Here are some ways I’ve been using it this week.

1. Exit tickets to find best questions

I’m excited about this idea. I want my students to have some sort of threaded discussion online, but I’ve always had two major problems with it: bad discussions questions and late discussion questions (when students would rotate roles as discussion leader).

After reading a chapter in class together (but without having time to discuss it), I had all students write down their best discussion question on an index card as an exit ticket. I told them I’d pick the three best questions and post them on Edmodo. If I chose your question, your homework is already done and you earn full credit. Everyone else has to respond to one of them. I was able to scan the questions and post the three best ones in less than 10 minutes right after the bell rang.

2. Image searching homework

The opening scene of Of Mice and Men is filled with Steinbeck’s rich and vivid descriptions of the clearing by the Salinas river that proves so pivotal to the story’s ending. I want my students to really picture it (before we see the movie). In this assignment, I asked them to search for an image inspired by a specific phrase from the opening pages. Unfortunately, you can’t embed the actual image in an Edmodo post, but I was able to click on all of these during class and show them what their classmates had found – beautiful images of rivers that are “deep and green” and “sycamores with mottled, white, recumbent limbs.”

3. Getting kids to be more themselves, while also looking closely at the text

That was my intention with this assignment for seniors reading Their Eyes Were Watching God. Trust me that the students who wrote these first few comments do not speak this openly (or do not speak at all) in class.

4. Quick Polls

5. Checking in

My hope is that if I stay consistent in using it and keep varying the tasks like this, I’ll start getting more than 50% completion. Updates to come.

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The Golden Ticket

I have this foundational belief that technology can make the job of teaching easier in ways we can’t imagine. It’s not such a strange thought. This laptop I’m typing on has pushed the job of “publishing my writing to a disparate audience of readers from my couch” from laughably impossible to laughably easy.

So why shouldn’t new developments in edtech change the job of, say, teaching English from “rewarding but necessitating a martyr complex” to simply “rewarding”?

It will happen. Here’s how.

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is holding a contest. (Doesn’t this feel Willie-Wonka-dramatic?) They’ll be awarding $100K to “the designers of software that can reliably automate the grading of essays for state tests,” according to their press release, which I read about in EdSurge. There will be a demonstration from a bunch of vendors who already make this kind of software to see how good it is, then they’ll open it up to the public to develop the best essay-grading software and win the prize money.

It’s a joint project with Tom Vander Ark’s Open Education Solutions. I like what he writes about it here.

Basically, our data-hungry, standards-driven attitude has pushed us to embrace inadequate multiple choice tests just because they give us easy data. I’m guilty of this at my current school. We have a professional learning team (PLT) of 9th grade English teachers, and we work very hard to develop a common assessment so we can review data together. But it’s a Scantron, and even though I’m to blame since I had input into the creation of the test, I don’t think it’s a great assessment. This year we added a writing component, so I feel better about the semester final we just gave, but it was hard to score those before grades were stored at noon yesterday.

From the press release:

“Better tests support better learning,” says Barbara Chow, Education Program Director at the Hewlett Foundation. “Rapid and accurate automated essay scoring will encourage states to include more writing in their state assessments. And the more we can use essays to assess what students have learned, the greater the likelihood they’ll master important academic content, critical thinking, and effective communication.”

While a “greater likelihood” might not sound like a sure thing, that’s quite a payoff, given what business we’re in.

I know English teachers will scoff at the idea of essay-grading software for a long time. How could a program possibly assess the subtleties of argument the way I can? How can it assess a writer’s voice or style or depth of analytical insight the way I can? How can it see how much a particular student has grown as a writer the way I can?

And while I have no idea how the magicians who write code will do it, I know they will. Of course they will! Especially if there are more incentives in the marketplace like the kind this competition is creating. Look at Watson. Look at Google. I remember when those things would have sounded impossible, and I’m not even very old.

Speaking of Watson, that reminds me of Ken Jennings’s brilliant take on Kent Brockman:

As an English teacher, I also welcome our new computer overlords. If they free up some time for me so I can work on an exciting new lesson (or spend time with my family) instead of grading papers, great! If they allow standardized tests to evolve into the kinds of assessments that we wouldn’t feel horrible about preparing students to take, great! Welcome to Earth!

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3 *really* simple things I do with Word

That first few days back in the classroom  after a two-week break sure are a rust-fest. I feel like a rusty teacher, trying to work with rusty lesson plans. The students are completely encrusted with the rust of two weeks, which for teenagers translates to about three months, more or less.

Blogging feels rusty, too, so I’ll just write about something I do all the time in my classroom. It’s probably the last thing that comes to mind when we think of innovative ed-tech, but it’s everywhere. Word.

No, that’s what I’m writing about: Microsoft Word.

I gave my 9th graders a practice exam and then projected the document to go over the answers. In going over the answers, I manipulated the text of the study guide to show correct answers and added notes.

This really is so much of what I do every day in the classroom. And while it’s not particularly techy, I think it’s the kind of technology usage that really helps me teach. I basically use Word instead of writing on the board. Even if my handwriting didn’t happen to be indecipherable, I’d still think this was a good idea. I can post my notes for the day on Edmodo, and, while it does entail more sitting at my desk than I would like, it keeps me from having to turn my back on the students to write on the board. I think all teachers hate that.

Here are three simple things I do when projecting Word documents that I find easy for me and useful for students.

1. Increase text size:   command+shift+> (mac)  ctrl+shift+> (pc)    

and decrease…              command+shift+<                ctrl+shift+< 

I do this so much I forget that it’s anything until I see someone highlight text maneuver the cursor all the way up the toolbar to change the size of the text. It might seem silly to think these precious seconds being wasted are really so precious, but here’s why I think they are (aside from the obvious reason that every second we have with out students is precious).

When we’re doing something as potentially boring as taking notes, we need to keep our students engaged. And while watching some highlighted text quickly increase in size may not be the most riveting theater, it’s better than watching a teacher try to locate the size menu at the top of the screen and click on a different point sizes until it looks right. I got bored just writing that sentence.

It’s also a really easy way to add emphasis, of course, so it can help students realize what’s most important. If I’m writing a lot on the board, I might end up having to cram something important into a small space.

2. Highlight

(I always show my formatting toolbar.)

It’s a pretty obvious ways to add emphasis, but I think it can be really effective if you can do it quickly. Again, it can keep kids engaged and it can make the notes clearer.

I also like how dramatic highlighting the correct answer can be. I’ll ask the question, hear various answers and rationales for each answer from around the room, wait until more students are actually curious to find out if they are right, and then show them. It’s like a magician’s great reveal, just slightly less exciting.

3. Change text color

These antecedent questions require some complicated (and boring) explanations. But I think the concept clicked (or re-clicked) for a lot of kids when I did this, judging simply from their reactions and the questions they were asking (quantitative data to come). I used the formatting tools to illustrate my thinking process when reading a question like this. First I find the pronouns – and make them red – then I determine which one is the singular pronoun (and strikethrough it). Then I read the sentence again to find what word that pronoun is taking the place of.

I conducted an informal interview with my students on how this went. I asked how other teachers go over handouts. Apparently some teachers never do that.

There are also plenty who project the Word document directly onto the whiteboard and have students come up to the board with a marker to show the class the right answer. I like doing that, too, but with so many examples to go over on this review, I didn’t want to engage in the constant erasing and repositioning that method necessitates. When I asked for feedback on this overall process, though, several students spoke up about preferring to go over handouts that way. It’s not hard to see why – they get to stand up.

Many students spoke about being “visual” people, and needing to see the answers like this to get them. They complained about teachers who simply read the right answers aloud. They said they can’t absorb those, or even really listen.

To be sure, there are much more engaging and flashy ways to do these kinds of things, whether by using interactive whiteboards or some flashier gadget or application. But we don’t all have access to those things in our classrooms. And I assume we’re all pretty comfortable with Word already, which is no small thing.

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The good kind of chatting in class

More on how I used GoogleDocs last week:

I’m afraid that what I’m about to share sounds like the worst idea ever, but I actually think it worked pretty well for some students.

They were all working on laptops in my classroom (I had reserved a mobile lab for the day), and they were finishing their research papers. Some were putting on finishing touches, some were still drafting, some, somehow, were still researching.

Here’s what I did: I opened three or four student papers on my own computer (they had all shared them with me). I announced to the class whose papers I had open at any given time so that they could chat me in the sidebar that GoogleDocs has.

Those students would then chat me a few questions, asking me to look at their conclusion or a specific quote they used, asking for help on how to start a particular sentence or if their formatting was right. I could answer them in the chat sidebar or type directly into their document in a different color if that seemed like an easier way to explain something.

Sometimes, when I’d type some complicated feedback, I’d see a kid reading it, struggling to make sense of it. Then I’d call out from my desk, “Hey Katie, does that make sense?” And they’d assure me that they did, or, after a few minutes, they’d chat me a follow-up question. Or they’d make some edits, then ask me – via chat – to take a look at it again and see if it’s better.

On one level, this sounds absurd to me. It’s like the stories you hear of parents texting their kids to come down to dinner (apparently, this happens a lot). I definitely value face-to-face interaction. If a student wants me to show me an early draft of a paper, I always insist they come sit down with me so we could talk about it.

But there were a few things that made this experiment seem worthwhile to me.

1. I could help more students.

I think I was able to look at more papers this way than if I had been sitting down at various students’ desks with them. When I do that, I think I tend to spend too much time at that one desk. I get drawn into reading the whole paper, and I end up ignoring much of the rest of the class. Most importantly, I usually end up only bouncing around the desks of the students who ask for help. In my experiment, I systematically opened a few documents at a time, working my way “around” the entire classroom. And we all know that the kids who don’t ask for help are often the ones who need the most.

2. I was less intimdating.

I don’t consider myself an intimidating person. Most of my freshmen are taller than me. But still, I’m a teacher, so plenty of kids will freeze up and not ask the questions on their minds when I’m crouched down at their desk or reading over their shoulders. Through chat, I think a lot of kids are more comfortable. They might be more willing to admit what they don’t understand. They even seemed more willing to say things like “thank you.” Which was nice.

3. They had more time to process

When working one-on-one with a student, I often find myself talking a lot, giving tons of writing advice to a silently nodding person. I ask for reassurance that they understand, which is often greeted with a hesitant “…yeah, I think I get it…” When those students go home to revise their work, they might forget what I had said or realize that they really didn’t get it. During these chat sessions, since I was leaving each document open for 5-10 minutes while looking at the other two or three, that first student then had time to look over my comments, process them, think about what they didn’t understand, and ask a question to help cement their own understanding. This seemed valuable, and it seemed like something that couldn’t happen in a face-to-face interaction, especially with a student who processes information at a slower speed.

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2 things I did with GoogleDocs this week

My students will sometimes complain about it, and so will my colleagues. Sometimes GoogleDocs just works really slowly at school, and no one likes the wait-a-minute-to-see-what-letter-you-just-typed game. Some students have told me that they can’t type on GoogleDocs from their home computers. I’m not really sure what’s going on there.

But, all things considered, it’s still awesome. (Here are 10 reasons why, from Jeff Utecht at The Thinking Stick.)

I “collected” final drafts from my seniors yesterday, and I loved not having to deal with all the printing sob stories. A couple of students who have listening problems (not hearing problems, mind you) brought their printed papers. When they confusedly handed them to me, noticing that no one else was doing the same, they said things like, “Wait, did we not have to print it out? When we ‘shared’ it with you, was that turning it in?” They then went on to tell me the printing sob story anyway, to ensure I knew how hard it was for them to print it out. I can’t win, sometimes.

So here are two things:

1. Super-commenting on a draft

I was doing some evening edtech reading, like I do, and I came across an Audrey Waters piece on the issue of banning cell phones. (She linked to it in the text messaging installment of her “top ed-tech trends of 2011 series” on Hack Education.)

Anyway, I have a freshman doing his research paper on that issue, and I know he’s been struggling to find good articles in the library databases. So I pulled up his draft in GoogleDocs and typed a note to him at the top of his paper, with the link. (Don’t worry, I changed his name in the picture below).

When he decides to work on his draft later tonight (ha! sorry, too cynical?), he’ll see that note, click the link, then delete that from his paper, hopefully.

2. Public In-Class Editing Session

I’ve done this a few times, and students have told me it was very helpful for them. I make a speech kind of like this.

Okay, I’d like to make a proposition to you all and ask for a volunteer. I want to pull up one of your drafts right now on my computer, project it in front of all of you, and edit it. I’m going to tear it apart, so you have to be okay with that. I’ll point out what’s good, but I’ll also point out everything you need to revise, and I’ll write comments in the margins explaining all this. I want to do this to show you how closely I’m going to read your papers. I want you to see the things I’m going to be looking for when I’m reading them. If I end up using your essay, you’re basically getting a free one-on-one editing session without having to come in on your own time, after school or during lunch.

That’s usually when a couple of hands shoot up, if they haven’t already. If I have a few volunteers, I pick one whose essay I can guess will be slightly above average. A superstar’s draft won’t give me enough to comment on in terms of revisions, and part of the goal here is to jolt them awake to how much work they have left to do. In other words, I want to scare them. And a below-average paper just isn’t a model I want to show them, plus it could be too embarrassing for the author.

When we have a volunteer, I ask for a round of applause. I then do just what I promised – pick it apart, write tons of comments in the margins (using the “add comment” feature, whose keyboard shortcut, ctrl-alt-M, is a must-learn), both positive and constructive. I highlight all the typos and spelling mistakes in bright green or blue, which usually does a good job of helping them visualize how crappy a non-proofread essay will read.

While I’m doing this, I ask students to take notes on the kinds of things I’m writing down in the comments. I tell them not to write down everything I say, of course, but to watch and listen for some comment that they know I might end up making on their draft. Basically, make notes to yourself on what you need to fix. I think this kind of task makes students feel respected in that they’re not being asked to merely copy down everything I say even if it doesn’t apply to them.

They’ve also told me that the “behind-the-scenes” view of how their paper is going to get graded is especially helpful. I do give them rubrics, but, you know, they don’t all look at them. I think the public viewing of something that is normally very private and hidden is part of what makes this work.

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The ultimate mixed bag: Video CliffsNotes for Shakespeare

I saw this little piece in Good about CliffsNotes new enterprise: six-minute animated videos on Shakespeare’s plays.

I watched their Romeo & Juliet, and, over the course of those six minutes, I found myself on a roller coaster of reactions, from excitement to hesitation to dread to…acceptance? Not sure, let’s see where this goes.

First, here’s the Romeo & Juliet video.

Or, if you’d rather, here are the others they’ve made: Midsummer, Hamlet, Julius 

Caesar, Macbeth, or Othello. Find them all here.

Ok. First, the good.

It’s pretty entertaining, so it could be engaging to a lot of kids. And I think many English teachers share the goal, when they approach Shakespeare, to get the kids to actually enjoy the story. And that bit about jeggings at the end made me giggle.

It’s concise and thorough. I guess that’s what CliffsNotes has always done well. They crammed most of the important stuff into that video, which seems pretty hard to do.

It’s accurate. I liked the inclusion of key passages from the actual text. Students may recognize those lines more readily when they come across them in class, or they may feel more equipped to write or talk about them after having seen and heard them being spoken.

It’s visual. We always remind students that Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be seen, not read. So, there we go.

It’s interactive. The way you con hover over a character to get the name and then read their brief overview below the video is pretty ingenious, I think. It can keep a viewer engaged on a whole other level, and those little write-ups aren’t so bad, given how brief they are. They even worked in their little theme write-ups at the end. There’s no way to really read all those while the video is running, but you can pause it if you wanted to and see them all.

So all that seems pretty great. It’s a free and easy resource for kids to use at home that might help them wrap their heads around the plot and/or engage them in the unit they’re doing in class. What’s the problem?

I guess the best way to put it is that it’s a CliffsNotes video for Shakespeare. The danger here is the same as the danger that CliffsNotes has always presented: that students will rely on this instead of reading the actual text. And, of course, that’s what most of them do, no matter how often we might tell them how evil we think that behavior is. It’s easy!

More specifically, I began to doubt the value of the Romeo & Juliet video when it got silly. In an effort to engage young viewers, Paris becomes a preening dandy and Friar Laurence a bumbling old fool. If those depictions were to color a young reader’s impressions of those characters instead of the subtleties of the text, well, I think many English teachers would shed a few tears.

Then there’s the substitution of silly for pathos. Why does Capulet need to make a joke about losing his deposit on the wedding when he finds what he believes is his dead daughter? That’s a heartbreaking part of the play, but I wouldn’t know it from the video.

My aforementioned dread came from imagining every possible scenario: A student watching the video on his phone in a bathroom stall before a test. On its own, that doesn’t bother me so much. It’s just an updated version of flipping though the paper CliffsNotes or asking a friend how it ended on the way into class to prepare for a reading quiz. Nothing really new. But then I imagined having to read an essay that describes how Romeo was able to kill Paris at the end by surprising him, since Paris “didn’t see that coming.” But, as I think about it more, that isn’t really new either. We see students regurgitate their peers’ wrong answers all the time, and that gives us a clear indicator of how we should assess their understanding (or their effort).

It all comes down to what we do in the classroom. If I taught Romeo & Juliet by assigning all the reading for homework and then giving reading quizzes on plot the next day, my students would have to watch the video. I couldn’t blame them. They’d get some stuff wrong, some stuff right, and, if I weren’t writing this blog post and therefore aware of these videos, I might be none the wiser. Those students who didn’t read the play wouldn’t get out of Shakespeare what I always hope they’ll get out Shakespeare – an appreciation for  the language and for the insights into the human condition. And that would be bad.

But there are always students who don’t do the reading. And there are always students who will seek out every shortcut they can find. And when it comes to Shakespeare, there has always been a glut of resources available to students looking for a little help or looking to cheat. That’s why it comes down to what we do in the classroom. I have to come up with activities that require some actual wrestling with the text. I have to help students explore the nuances in Juliet’s character.

But even if I’m doing those things, and working as hard as I can to provide scaffolding for my struggling students, there will still be some who feel lost. And that’s where I think videos like these have real value. We may spend a month engaging with the text in class, poring over speeches, and digging into characters’ motivations. But there will still be a handful of students at the end of that month who will not grasp how the elements of the plot fit together, or who will confuse Mercutio and Benvolio. This video is perfect for them, and I’ll probably point them in this direction when the time comes.

We discussed the Common Core State Standards in a department meeting today, and we looked at the rationale behind the focus on text complexity. Basically, high school graduates are looking seriously underprepared to do the kind of reading they’re required to do after high school, whether in college or in the workplace. So we have to make sure we’re giving them plenty of exposure to complex texts. Some people might think that allowing them to watch videos like these is another example of the coddling that has run rampant in schools, hurting our students by lowering our standards for their achievement.

But Shakespeare obviously wrote some pretty complex texts, and a video like this might provide the necessary scaffolding for some students to be able to actually engage with the text in class in a way that would previously have been out of reach.

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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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