Yesterday, one of my staff invited me in to talk to her junior Honors United States History II students about how to be more efficient and effective with their internet searching, and with their time in front of a computer screen in general. To begin the discussion, I showed them this quick clip:

I wanted to help them see that there are other options than Google and Wikipedia, but also how to work within those two frequent web destinations for students. Among the alternates to Google I showed them was something called Sweet Search. This site uses a system of web guides around various topics to help students narrow the web to the areas they need instead of searching the entire web. They have guides on everything from Family Travel to High School Geometry. Additionally, we looked at some history specific sites like George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, the State Department’s Background Notes, University of Houston’s Digital History, and news aggregators like 10×10.


However, as great as some of the students thought these sites were, the techniques we use to find information once there, and then determine the credibility of that information are most important. We discussed some basic tips on how to streamline and focus your search so that the likelihood that relevant results appear is increased. We used these two guides:

By using limiters like putting search phrases in “quotes,” or limiting results only to .edu sites (site:edu “search term”) students began to see that the results they got were of high quality than just regular searching.


We also showed them some of the guiding principles behind Wikipedia. As a resource, Wikipedia has often been vilified by educators at both the university and high school level because of the supposed unreliability of the information. Because of how search engines work, the links into and out of a Wikipedia entry cause it to be at or near the top of a typical Google search. What I tried to stress with the students was the value of Wikipedia stems from the basic rule of editing an entry: you have to validate your information with credible sources, and then list those sources at the bottom of the entry. By beginning with the “works cited” list in a Wikipedia entry, you gain access to a pre-made bibliography to begin your research on a particular topic. Don’t end your research with Wikipedia, start there.

Evaluating Research

While we didn’t have time to dive deeply into how to interrogate the web to figure out if information is credible, we did explore a few sites that help decipher which media outlet is telling the truth., and offer some compelling research into what Congress, the mainstream media, and even some celebrity pundits claim. By checking in on those sites and attempting verify claims, students can begin to build a better radar when it comes to the verity of a source.

Eliminating Distractions

One element that students often claim gets in their way is the amount of distractions they have in their lives in the way of social media–things like Facebook, Twitter, SMS, or BBM. Even adults are beginning to see how distracted these elements of our lives can cause us to be. To combat it, I showed the students how to use browser plug-ins like Readability to strip the extra content like ads and videos from a page they are reading on the internet. We also looked at things like quietube and Turn the Lights Out to eliminate distractions while they watch video on their computers. I also referenced this article, which has helped me reclaim my attention span.

The Nerd Knack.

I’ve talked about it before here, this idea of withitness that is truly hard to quantify when it comes to teaching, but I think it coincides nicely with the idea below.  Both Dr. Cleeves and “Frank” would be traditionally characterized as “nerds” both by physical appearance and society’s intellectual qualifications.  Kids react one of two ways to teachers of this ilk: embrace or terrorize.

Dr. Cleeves was wicked smart.  So smart, in fact, that he held several patents that he created during his time in the pharmaceutical industry, a bit of information he shared with us on the first day of microbiology in my Junior year of high school.

“Frank” was wicked smart too.  His collection of jarred specimens in formaldehyde gave his room a distinct Shelley-esque feeling as I sat raptured in both his Biology class as a sophomore, and Anatomy class as a senior.  That coupled with his encyclopedic knowledge of tissues, organs and systems clearly matched the degrees that hung on the wall of his office.

Both men had obvious intelligence, and the paperwork to prove it.  One was a great teacher and had to fight off students trying to get a moment of his time during his prep periods.  The other didn’t make it past November before a student lit up a cigarette with her Bunsen burner.

What separated the two clearly knowledgeable men?  Simple.

The Nerd Knack.

Dr. Cleeves provided us with a wealth of content knowledge about the inner workings o single-celled and simple life forms and showed us proper procedures for working in a lab; however, we never knew him.  We never saw him as someone who was in it for us.  He loved science, he loved figuring things out, but he lacked the capacity to share that passion with us.  Soon enough, once the initial politeness of being in the presence of a learned person wore off, students were figuring out ways to disrupt his thought process away from nucleotides and towards the nonsense happening between the aisles.

“Frank,” played it entirely differently.  From the moment you walked in, your name changed to something associated with either what you did outside of school, a sibling that had gone through the school, or something he noticed about you.  How did he find this stuff out?  Because he cared to know who you were and where you came from.  Whereas Dr. Cleeves was literal in his definitions, “Frank” was descriptive and hyperbolic, often taking the time to find obscure images of things such as filarial worms, or onchocerciasis (all really, really nasty things that leave lasting impressions on adolescent minds).

One taught science, the other taught kids.  And we understood the difference right away.

Cover Letter to Everyone

If you haven’t discovered 750Words, you should.  It’s unbelievably liberating.

This is a recent rant that I think may make a decent cover letter.  I’ve been wrong in the past. Please tell me if I am so here.

I am a change agent. I will not apologize for this, nor make exceptions about or alter the course of this. There is a need within all organizations, especially within education, to remain relevant to their constituents. I go to find the steps between the pending irrelevance of the current system and the innovation necessary to continue the vital role that education plays in the development of productive citizens in the United States and beyond.

It has been said, by wiser minds than mine, that we live in exponential times. The information landscape that our current teaching staff evolved with is no longer a relevant model, but the skills they carried through that process are. How do we, then, take those critical analysis skills, those precise tools of skepticism, and apply them to the current, and ever-evolving flow of data that overwhelms our student populace of today?

I am a change agent. The paradigm is shifting in education and information ownership. It’s only the institutions of learning that are failing to realize this very simple fact.

“When Gutenberg invented the printing press, we didn’t have Europe plus books. Instead we had a whole new Europe.” (Postman)

There is no hubris in echoing the same sentiment today. We don’t live an a world where there is unfettered access to information and the existing institutions of higher learning. Rather, we live in a world where there are information-consumers and information-prosumers: those that can access information and those that can make information work for them.

Time is the one commodity that technology has traditionally promised to save. Every single invention created for the sake of time salvage has only done the opposite: we have increased our ability to work more meaningfully through the automation of tasks. Why would information gathering and displaying be any different? It is my distinct feeling that we as students, teachers, and administrators waste far too much time seeking information, when we should be aware of and acutely accessing systems that force information to flow towards us. RSS, social networks geared towards educational professionals, and the creation of personal learning networks should be a pre-requisite for any educational professional entering the field, or migrating one’s practice from one year to the next.

Data is omnipresent in our society. We have more meta-analysis about what works in education than we ever have before. We know that the most important factor in a child’s education is the quality of the educator in the room. We know that there are elements of instruction that each teacher can incorporate into their practice that are proven to increase student achievement.

Yet we struggle to incorporate those strategies into our practice as educators in a way that meaningfully leverages the social and cooperative nature of computer technology. This is not to say that our students have to be connected every minute of every day. To the contrary, we are seeking wisdom, not ubiquitous connection, but the restriction of learning to the moments we spend in the classroom with our students is disrespectful of our students time. Why should we set parameters on their willingness to engage in learning? We can provide everything we would have done to “deliver” content digitally and customized for each student we have and according to their needs, thereby reserving class time to that which is most important: discussion and engagement. Along with our detailed research on how children and adults learn, we know that we learn best in cooperative structures where we have the opportunity to learn socially with a mixed ability group whereby each member has a stake in both the contribution and distribution of knowledge.

Our current teaching staff exists various levels of technological dexterity, much as they exist at varying levels of pedagogical proficiency; we have teachers at all levels of expertise in all areas of professional domains. It is not practical to assume that if a teacher is not incorporating technology into the daily practice in their classroom that they are a poor teacher, much as it not practical to assume that a teacher who is incorporating video, social networking, or social media into their daily practice is an excellent teacher. What we have to engage our staff in is a bigger discussion:

What does it mean to be well-educated in today’s society?

Once we have an answer to that question that our whole staff and student body can live with, our journey to understanding what effective teaching is will take on its own life.

Accidental Theme Day

I heard the phrase “disruptive innovation” 23 times today. For a good portion of the day it was all I talked about. It took a raucous, yet fresh perspective on our use of technology in schools by Gary Stager to counterbalance it.

Not that I minded the term’s dominance, rather, I thought it was about time that more influential people are ringing that bell. Tools are great when placed in meaningful context and supported by educators who know how and when to leverage them, and at conferences like FETC, the tools tend to dominate the subject matter of the sessions. Whether it’s a teacher that is proud to show off the methodology he or she has created around that tool, or it’s a vendor marketing that tool to new audiences, the majority do not appeal to me. Those sessions that did dealt with school change. Throughout the course of the day, I was able to learn from Curtis Johnson, one of the co-authors of Disrupting ClassDr. Chris DedeIan Jukes, and Stager in sessions aimed squarely at the very meaning of what we do in school.

Curtis explained to his crowd that we would be hard-pressed to find an “industry” or model more ripe for disruptive innovation than the educational system is right now. He pointed to several factors that made this so, and used them in opposition:

Old Assumptions Emerging Realities
Knowledge is scarce, hard to access
knowledge readily available
multi-dimensional learning
improvement by command
crucial role of motivation
students learn same way/same time
kids more different than ever
Standardization-batch processing
radical personalization

My first thoughts, and I dropped them into our group notes, were of customization. Available to us now are the tools to really customize learning for large numbers of students. What we are lacking is the thought and the vision to realize it. I am speaking of my immediate situation when I say this; there are numerous conversations I have had with others, and some I have initiated, around this idea that our students need choice in what they are learning, yet, what steps have I taken to make sure they get it? My thoughts as I go forward this year are directed at trying to find ways to scale this for the students we need to serve better.

Chris Dede made me want to be a better presenter. His content was impeccable, as was his demeanor in front of a room of nearly two-hundred people. He was calm, witty, and extremely gracious with his time. His story, which wound itself around the theme of disruptive innovation throughout, dealt with some more of the pressing issues that we deal with in public education, namely those of engagement and accountability. Dede spoke about the need for their to be quantifiable data for our teachers to analyze if they are to assess students progress according to the standards they are held to. When looking at the MUVE he showed calledEcoMUVE which he and a team of scientists are designing for the Cambridge Public Schools, he remarked about how because the servers store student activity as events, there is so much information about what the students are doing, and in many cases that data is in the form of snapshots taken, notes written, and questions asked and answered.

Working with teachers as often as I do, I see the assessment piece as one that will be a tough nut to crack if we are going to bring customized education to each of our students. We need to rethink the notion that assessment is an end product. Dede showed us that while the students immerse themselves in the pond in EcoMUVE (literally and figuratively), they may disengage on occasion. The game, much like other games on the market today, contains an Easter Egg of sorts. On a given date, the students return to the pond and find that all of the fish have died. The task than becomes somewhat of a CSI:Pond. Since the server catches everything they do within the environment, teachers can choose a variety of ways to assess their progress in the task: notes they enter as they investigate, snapshots of plant and animal life and its possible link to the dying fish.

In light of the current discord in New Jersey regarding our governor and his stance on the public education teachers union, theNJEA, a few things from the day stood out rather clearly.  I asked Curtis Johnson what he thought of the situation in New Jersey whereby unions are being blamed for the slow pace of change in education.  His thoughts were fantastic.  What if unions, he asked, decided to come out in support of these changes and made their own models for how it could happen?  What if, instead of being blamed for the problems in education, they presented their own disruptive innovations?

Food for thought.

Next: Jukes to Stager in one afternoon.

The Thesis is Dead. Long Live the Thesis.

I have learned a great deal from my monthly meetings with the English department: how to lead, how not to lead, how to completely miss the mark on what teachers need, and how to recover beautifully from missing said mark.  However, one of the simplest things, I have found, you can do for teachers to aid them in their professional development, is to listen carefully and then deliver on what you hear.

On Wednesday, all of the above situations played out.  We have often discussed having an expert voice come speak to us to help us drill deeper into an element of our craft.  A while back, I  came across an article by a Duke University professor, Dr. Bradley Hammer (who is how at UNC), that dealt with the shifts that were taking place in student writing in the “academy.”  The title of the article spoke volumes: “A New Type of University Writing.” Now, my English department already thinks I have a massive case of technophilia, and inviting this professor who believed that college writing, long believed to be the epitome of thesis driven argumentative writing, was now transforming into another piece of the digital landscape, was a risky move.  But, after talking to him on the phone in September, I knew he would make some waves of the good kind.  And did he ever.

The teachers were very interested in hearing about trends he saw in student writing, in essence asking for feedback on what he thought of Freshman entering the program.  Dr. Hammer didn’t disappoint in his response.  Most of his work, he stated, is deconstructing what the students come in with.  For example, he stated that 15 years ago, it was common for students to arrive at the college campus with very poor argumentative skills: weak ability to write strong theses, very little support for arguments in their writing.  Now, they all arrive knowing how to “do the essay.”  Formulaic, straightforward positions, support at all the appropriate turns, and of course, an adherence to the five-paragraph format.  His work is to get them away from “doing the essay,” to caring about the essay.

His work is about teaching students to deconstruct their own biases in their writing so that when confronted with a traditional topic (he used abortion in our our conversation as an example) the students would begin to generate questions about the factors that define the topic rather than automatically deciding which side of the argument to sit on.  For the students in his writing class, it’s not about whether or not you can convince someone of something, but rather that you get an understanding of yourself through an issue presented to you. His greatest line, by far for me, was this:

High schools train students how to argue–they need to learn how to ask questions and interrogate ideas first.

As soon as he said it, I immediately began running thumbing through my mental Rolodex to try to remember how many times I have heard that in my reading over the last two years.  It just rings.  Whether it’s been caused by federal mandates or by our poorly thought out responses to them, we’ve underestimated our students ability to be meta-cognitive about the writing process.  It’s more about the process rather than the product, when we truly break it down to it’s smaller parts.  Is it really imperative that little Suzy write her essay in five standard paragraphs with a neat little thesis hook at the end of her first paragraph?  Or would we rather see her wrestle something down to it’s bits in the pre-writing and research stages and produce something in three paragraphs?  I’ll take the scrapping any day.

What was great for me, aside from the fact that it was a meeting where I did very little direct talking, was the dialog that sprung up after our call ended.  Some of those in the room were in agreement with Hammer; we should be focusing more on the meta-cognitive processes of writing.  Others asked if the reasons Hammer and his colleagues are able to do the deconstruction with students and push them in the direction they do is because of the argumentative underpinnings that high school English teachers provided them with?  Can they get to B without having gone through A?  Others asked if there was a way we could see products of the freshman Hammer worked with; we wanted to see what inquiry-driven writing looked like in the end.

The most challenging element about working with the four departments I do is trying to find something for each of them to sink their teeth into, and this did it for the English teachers.  My own personal belief about what compositional writing should like look at any level is very simple: writing should demonstrate your ability to think, and your ability to convey those thoughts succinctly.  My answer to the departmental question about whether or not we should be doing the things that Dr. Hammer does in our classrooms is undeniably yes.  But, like anything, let’s allow the students to determine the level to which they can successfully do it.  Just because they are 16 doesn’t necessary preclude them from inquiry, and the same can be said in reverse for some students.  Push where needed, pull back when necessary.

All in all, a great meeting.

Image Credit: “Me & teh thesis” from doryexmachina’s Photostream

Embedded Reporting

I am banking on one very important thing this year: that the use of publicity will continue to raise the tide of change and lift more boats.

For the last two years, I have managed a district technology blog called Tech Dossier.  This year, I have reconstituted it thanks to a few posts by Miguel, but changed it slightly.  First, the name: from Tech Dossier, to The Dossier.  I truly want to move away from the inclusion of the word technology in any of the titles I use.  Through several conversations with people like Barry Bachenheimer and Patrick Chodkiewicz, I’ve come to realize that semantics matter, especially to teachers.  It’s not about how to use technology when you teach, but rather it’s about how you can teach, period. Second, to match the semantic shift in the title, the focus of the articles has now broadened to include topics that are not solely technologically based, but rather a highlight of some of the innovative practices our teachers are using.  We have teachers in all of our buildings who constantly push their thinking and their students thinking.  I’d like to get there and find them; the rest of the district, and the world at large should be seeing what they are doing.

I’ve enlisted several people to write over the two years, and this year we’ve added a second-grade teacher from one of the elementary schools to the list of authors.  We’ve got three administrators, two high school teachers, a middle school teacher, a tech coordinator, and now an elementary teacher writing and looking out in their buildings for ingenious ideas.  Also, being no stranger to shameless promotion, I send out a bi-weekly email highlighting all of the posts that have appeared.  I am trying to get a feed service to send it to our global address book, but somehow I think that may either get flagged as spam, or individual teachers would not recognize it as an important message and just delete it.

The idea of doing some reporting, let’s even call it micro-reporting due to the short nature of the posts, on what is going on instructionally within you building is a gold mine.  While our commenting has been limited so far, our stats are through the roof, so I know people are going to the page.  At this point that’s all I want: people to know that others are out there looking for them, trying to catch them being competent and taking risks.

Head on over to The Dossier, and check out what our teachers have been up to.

Image Credit: “Reporter’s Notebook, U.S. Version,” from niclas’ photostream

Is this the Academia I am Sending my Children to?

From the my own personal Neo-Luddite collection (I found this one in the Philadelphia Inquirer):

“Now that we’re aware ChaCha exists, I can assure you that we will begin
discussion of a formal policy to prohibit cell phone use in classes,”
said Gerard O’Sullivan, vice president for academic affairs at Neumann
College in Delaware County, Pa. He said most professors already
prohibited cell phone use in class.

Let’s rule out something before it is examined.  Sounds highly anti-academic to me.