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.


Stupid is an ugly word.

Tuesday marked the first meeting of a group of teachers that signed up for the “School.  Different.” sessions I am leading.  To prepare for the day, I asked them to examine the following list of materials:

Minds on Fire
Reading v. Reading (see comments that follow it too)

Sir Ken Robinson
Kaplan University
Learning to Change, Changing to Learn
Did You Know, 2.0

To course them through the discussion, I used this slidedeck.

One of the slides, the one I used to get them split into their first cooperative group, featured the question that so many have debated this year: Is Google Making Us Stupid.  What I noticed in gathering the material for this class is the vehemence with which people responded to Nicholas Carr’s July article.  Google, what people referred to lightly only a few years ago as a project by some college kids, has truly changed how we find things, and how we expect our information delivered.  In reading this post from Trent Batson, I dug down into the comments and found this gem from John Vieth from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville:

To say that Google and the Web make us stupid because we don’t have to work as hard to do research and find information is like saying books make us stupid because we no longer have to arrange an interview with an expert to gain some of their knowledge–we only need to read the information in a book. Nicholas Carr’s article is just more negative sensationalism a la John C. Dvorak. It’s noise. Ignore it. Come on people. Let’s put our critical thinking hats on. Google and the Web are equalizers. They give information access to people who never would have had it otherwise, and they free our time to focus on problem solving and thinking instead of information gathering.

The equalizing affect of something as simple as a search engine, coupled with increases in internet access via smaller and cheaper devices, is no small matter.  The unsettling fact for many is that information is no longer the property of a select few.  It’s like the Gutenberg effect on HGH.  Jon Becker dropped these three coincidences into the knowledge base the other day:

Newspapers fold as readers defect and economy sours

(CNN) — The Rocky Mountain News, gone. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, gone…At least 120 newspapers in the U.S. have shut down since January 2008, according to Paper Cuts, a Web site tracking the newspaper industry. More than 21,000 jobs at 67 newspapers have vaporized in that time, according to the site.

Farewell to the Printed Monograph

The University of Michigan Press is announcing today that it will shift its scholarly publishing from being primarily a traditional print operation to one that is primarily digital…Michigan officials say that their move reflects a belief that it’s time to stop trying to make the old economics of scholarly publishing work. “I have been increasingly convinced that the business model based on printed monograph was not merely failing but broken,” said Phil Pochoda, director of the Michigan press. “Why try to fight your way through this? Why try to remain in territory you know is doomed? Scholarly presses will be primarily digital in a decade. Why not seize the opportunity to do it now?”

MIT makes research available on the web

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) faculty voted unanimously March 18 to make the school’s scholarly research available for free on the internet, joining other noted universities that hope to encourage more scholarship and expand researchers’ audiences…The open-access movement aims to put peer-reviewed research and literature on the internet for free and remove most copyright restrictions. Advocates believe this will invigorate more research across academia.

We are likely to see more of these types of shifts as the nature of how we read continues to change.  This point of Google being a double-edged sword was brought up in the Moodle discussion that has gone on since Tuesday morning’s class.  One teacher has likened the nature of Google and the internet at large to that of the rainforest.  While it contains secrets both known and unknown, it also hides potential dangers in its richness.  How we leverage its offerings is going to make all of the difference.  That’s true whether we are talking bits or bark.

Britannica Outsources to you!

This from the Britannica Blog yesterday:

For some time now Encyclopaedia Britannica has been at work transforming, our main product for consumers, into a place that will feature more
participation and collaboration both from our expert contributors and
the public. The aims of the new site will be to expand and improve the
coverage we provide both in the Encyclopaedia Britannica
itself and in other features on the site; and to provide our
contributors and users with an online community that’s valuable
and beneficial to them in a variety of ways.

Holy smokes!

That was my original reaction, but in looking at this a little bit closer, why should I be surprised?  Even the bastions of and hangers-on of the canon are beginning to see the value in the wealth of knowledge, experience, and joie de vivre of the populace.  Contributory learning and active reading, especially in the model that Britannica is offering here

Users whose editorial suggestions are accepted and published entirely or in part will be credited
by name in the section of each article that lists contributors. For
that reason, people who want to edit articles will be asked to
register, providing their first and last names, which will be used to
credit them, and an e-mail address where we can contact them with
questions and acceptance notices.

is valuable and that fact is being acknowledged by the media.  Why not our schools next?

The Key to Moving People is Moving People

Part of what we do as teachers and learners is report back on what we find out in our personal inquiries.  As teachers it was done on a daily basis with our students.  We helped them disseminate the information that they need to be successful.  As administrators, the number of presentations often lessens, but the audience usually increases; at any one time there could be up to 100 people in the room we are presenting in.

What strategies were successful for us when we stood in front of students and helped them make sense of information?  What can we take from our time in the classroom and make it work for us as presenters?

Saturday at ASCD, I changed my schedule around so that I could attend a workshop by Deborah Estes, a presenter, former teacher and administrator from Texas.  The title is what originally caught my eye: “Brain-Friendly Presentation Skills.”

I present frequently to my departments, and I’ve struggled recently with creating engaging content.  Not that what I am saying is earth-shattering stuff, but I know that there are moments in my presentations that I need to invite the audience to digest what I am saying and give me feedback.  Sitting in Estes’ presentation, I learned that I have not been nearly observant enough of my audience; your audience and being able to read them and redirect them through the use of movement, storytelling, and, of all things, touch, determines the success or failure of your message.  Information without reflection and discussion does nothing for learners.  Give them the chance to hash out what you are saying and clarify it for one another and you stand a much better chance of making a difference in their learning.

Right from the start, Estes subtly began to coerce me into her presentation.  I was early by about 20 minutes, but she was much earlier than me.  She greeted me with a handshake and used my name (name-tag) when she did.

Points #1 and #2: Be early and set up at least 30 minutes before your scheduled start to greet your audience by name and appropriate touch (handshake) as they enter.

As she began to speak to the room of 150+ people, like most presenters, she gave her background and brief bio.  Hers was not done as a description of credentials or current occupation, but rather the story of how she became a teacher, coach, administrator, and speaker.  It was done structurally, meaning she related herself to all levels of educators: high school teachers, middle school teachers, and elementary teachers.  Each part of her opening story, which took about 5 minutes, had relevance to someone in the room because in our lives we, too, held or currently hold one of the positions she did.  More than that, her stories were relative to experiences we have all had.

Point #3: Use the power of storytelling to share information.  We remember best when we give our information context.

One of the most powerful things she did was move us.  Not the kind where we were emotionally moved, but rather we physically moved around the room.  In the 90+ minutes we were there, we moved over 15 times.  We conversed, we shared information and discussed the topics in the handout on our own terms, but in ways that she dictated.

Point #4: Move people.  Look at your audience and find clues that they are disengaging.  When you see the nods or the glazed eyes, change their state.

Some examples of what we did:

  • Moved to another seat
  • Turned and talked
  • Four corners of the room (body voting)
  • Invented names
  • Hand voting (raise your hand and think of a number, use your fingers to represent the number, then find someone else in the room who has that number.  When you do, discuss the topic with them).
  • People bingo
  • Touch blue (simply walk around the room and touch something blue)
  • Take your neighbor for a walk around the room while discussing the topic at hand.

Another thing I often struggled with is the format of how I present.  Should I do straight lecture and give a handout with all of the cute slides on the handout?  What other options are out there?  Estes presented us with at least 10 examples of how to change up the format of your lecture.

Point #5: Transfer of information does not have to be in the format that we all learned it: the straight lecture.  What if your audience knows a great deal about the topic you are covering?  Why spend time on the details if they already have them?  Give them the opportunity to list everything they know about the topic.  Have them present it to the crowd.  Based on what they know, amend your presentation on the fly and allow your group to go deeper into the topic.

After leaving the room, I realized that not only had I met over 20 people during the course of her presentation due to the movement and socialization, but I reflected on the attitudes of the staff that I work with as they receive information during faculty or department meetings.  Wow.  I see the source of their boredom and frustration.  They are disconnected from the information because they never have time to reflect on it.  The subtleties of presenting were on display for me today, and I thank Deborah Estes for sharing them with me.

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It is rare that we come across empirical data that supports what we believe through our own practice, but thanks to Bach at Plethora of Technology I was made privy to a blogging study (Collaborative Blogging as a Means to Develop Elementary Expository Writing Skills ) done at the University of Florida.

The researchers looked at a group of third grade students who were given the task of researching a Native American tribe and producing a five-paragraph essay as the end result of the writing process. What they found were intended and inadvertent results that varied from

  • Collaborative blogging helped improve students’ attitudes
    toward writing


  • Students transferred knowledge learned during the
    collaborative blogging project to other academic and social facets of classroom.


  • Collaborative blogging enabled differentiated instruction while
    ensuring everyone met with at least some success.

The most impressive thing to me, were, of course, the visuals:
The list of questions asked prior to and post the blogging project tells the tale of student learning and engagement better than any other measure. As a rule, conducting a meaningful survey of your students before and after their learning experience is a portal into the actual changes that took place within the child.

Drexler, Wendy, Kara Dawson, Richard E. Ferdig. “Collaborative Blogging as a Means to .” Electronic Journal for the Integration of Technology in Education 6(2007):

School Supply List

As we move into the throes of another August rush back to school, back to that odd bouquet of spoiled milk that most schools tend to proffer, the preparations begin both on our end and on the end of students and parents everywhere. Never is this more evident than on a trip to Staples.

It’s like Christmas, except the lists aren’t created by the children, but by the teachers and staff in each school, grade and classroom. An odd reversal, if you think about it, as the students then present their bounty for inspection to the teacher as they arrive in school, often for the first grade of the year. Imagine if we did that with Santa? What pressure!

On a recent trip through the office superstore, I came across a kiosk that had supply lists from every school in our surrounding area in neat little piles for the taking. Just for giggles and grins, I took one. This is what was on it:

Grade 6-8 Social studies

  • 1 3ring binder
  • 1 composition book
  • Colored pencils

Grades 6—8 Science

  • 1 1-inch three-ring binder and lined paper
  • highlighters
  • pencils
  • paper reinforcements

Grades 6, 7, 8 Language Arts

  • 1 4/6 note card case
  • 200 4×6 note cards
  • 4 multi-colored highlighters
  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
  • Pencil case
  • Pens
  • Pencils
  • 5 2-pocket folders
  • CD’s, floppy discs or flash drives
  • 1 5-subject notebook-college ruled

Grade 6 Language Arts

  • Pocket folder
  • 1 3-ring binder


  • 1 3-subject notebook
  • 1 set highlighters
  • Erasable pens
  • Non-erasable pens
  • Pencils
  • 1 2-packs of 3/5 index cards
  • index card box

I began to think immediately of how this looked different in some of the schools I read about, like, perhaps, 1:1 schools. Are the students still required to procure the standard items like binders, or, my favorite on this list: paper reinforcements (we had another creative name for these when I was working as a field archaeologist)? As we are currently rethinking our school philosophies, do these lists change? What would they look like in your “school of the future?” What does yours currently look like?

The last few days of mine have been spent working with a group of teachers in a workshop we called Research 2.0. One of the first discussions we had was about research methods and tools. Eric Hoefler (from whose work I borrowed heavily) had come up with this quote and list initially, and it generated some great discussion among my group on Thursday:

These tools and approaches are now “dead” or “almost dead.” If your research plan relies on them, you are probably not adequately preparing your students:

  • Floppy Disks
  • School computers with extreme filtration
  • CD-ROMs
  • Note Cards (or other pen-and-paper-only note-taking methods)
  • Limiting the number of “online resources”
  • Outlawing “citation help” from online services (Who memorizes the MLA handbook, anyway?)
  • Basic web searches or school-database-only searches
  • Completely independent research methods
  • Text-only sources
  • Text-only reports

With this in mind, is there a marriage between old method and new method that needs to be created? I am having trouble seeing it right now. Any ideas?

Image Credit: “Back to School Ad” by chishkilauren at Flickr.


The gentleman that runs our monthly meeting, Ned Davis, just came out with a quote that I thought was interesting regarding the students he teaches at St. Elizabeth College. He was decrying the multitude of resources that they have to sift through in order to get the correct information for their research:

“There is just so much crap out there!”

This, to me, makes a great case for literacy to be revisited at ALL levels of education. Even students who have grown up immersed in technology and are ready to enter the world are often not equipped with the ability to deconstruct multiple sources and recognize validity. Ned’s students, confronted with multiple resources might be struggling because the literacy skills they have accumulated in the academic environment do not fit the types of media and information, or even the amount of information.

How do we teach discerning students? What are some methods we are using to do this in our classrooms or seminars? We talk about digital literacies, but what are some tried and true methods?

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The Death of the Term Paper?

…the old-fashioned term paper — composed by sweating students on a
typewriter as they sat elbow-deep in reference books — has no useful
heir in the digital age. It’s time for schools and educators to
recognize the truth: The term paper is dead.

This is from Jason Johnson’s op-ed piece in the Washington Post on Sunday. I think it speaks volumes about what we call school reform and the entrenched systems that are going to change.

The article is titled “Cut and Paste is a Skill, Too.” Right there, he captivates. In working with both teachers and students, this might be the number one concern about switching to Web 2.0 applications: how do I stop them from plagiarizing? Johnson says we might not be able to.

Internet plagiarism is growing at a rapid pace, according to recent
studies and the anecdotal evidence I hear from my former colleagues in
education — and there’s no end in sight.

Within the article, Johnson makes reference to the fact that not only are students turning to term paper services like StudentOfFortune for term papers, but for homework answers as well, with that transaction cost being $1 per answer. The culture of sharing through social networking is being taken to a new level by students of today. Should educators be discouraging this transfer? Or should we reevaluate what we are asking students to do?

The larger question here is what does this tell us about today’s student? If it’s possible to tear ourselves away from our own school experience and focus on the skills necessary for success in today’s world, what does this tell us about the relevance of things like term papers? I will not go as far as Johnson, yet, to call for the death of the term paper; however, this is a topic worth looking into when we begin to redesign our schools. It was even more telling to look at the comments left by readers of the article. One commenter noted that to copy and paste one source makes you a plagiarizer, but to copy and paste many sources makes you a scholar.

Nevertheless, the educational system needs to acknowledge what the
paper is today: more of a work product that tests very particular
skills — the ability to synthesize and properly cite the work of
others — and not students’ knowledge, originality and overall ability.

Does the ability to synthesize information from disparate sources into one continuous form have merit in today’s world? Absolutely. However, the assessment aspect of the “term paper” should never be ignored. What are our new options? I foresee a shift from the term paper that stresses large-scale research, utilizing various sources, visualizing data in multiple ways, and finishing with a demonstration of tangible learning by either presentation in an oral way, or through a rich, multi-media design. Johnson makes a key point about the relationship between how most schools assess term papers that “cut and paste” and about what they may show regarding student learning:

Students who are able to create convincing amalgamations have gained a
valuable business skill. Unfortunately, most schools fail to recognize
that any skills have been used at all, and an entire paper can be
discarded because of a few lines repeated from another source without
quotation marks.

Services like, and Google searches with large chunks of student writing feel more like band-aids at the moment, and it’s only a matter of time before students figure out how to get around those measures (if they haven’t already). Instead of being reactionary, let’s jump ahead of the curve and re-design our idea of the research paper to incorporate this amalgamation that Johnson talks about.

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Are Our Students Really Doing Anything Wrong?

Yesterday I had the privilege of working with four students in a 7th Grade Study Skills class, a daily class for each of our special education students that enables them to either work on academic work from their course-load, or to practice skills that will help make them better students. My plan yesterday was two-fold: I was going to show them how to effectively search using Google, where to find the resources and external links in Wikipedia, and how to use Grokker (my new favorite student search engine), and I was going to observe how they interacted with the web when faced with research problems.

After I walked them through the basics of searching using quotations, plus signs and minus signs, and discussed with them the merits of Wikipedia, and more specifically how to begin their research there, I let them wander through their intended research. The projects they were working on involved searching out specific features of a country, like climate or current events or economy. What I noticed was the ease with which they accepted what they saw as fact. If the students landed on pages that contained bulleted points or lots of “facts” organized in a coherent manner they were highly likely to assume them as truth, without questioning the validity of the source.

I stopped them and asked them some questions:

Me: How do you know if a page is worth using for research?
Them: If it comes from a good source?
Me: What is good source?
Them: Google, CNN, anything that pops up on Wikipedia.

I’ve been reading the Macarthur Foundation’s Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning blog for the last few weeks and this quote from Alecia Marie Magnifico in response to student interviews after playing epistemic games for several weeks, struck me yesterday when I finally got to it. When asked about how they use the web:

They tell us about using web sources for school reports, for chatting, for playing games with their friends. They even report knowing that anyone with a webpage can publish opinions for the world to see. I wonder how much of this finding comes from the simple fact that young people don’t often need to check or even understand their sources: textbooks and teachers are the authorities, and they must be believed (even memorized!) in order to get good grades.

Bingo. They were looking for the right answers, not looking to authentically learn. Has that skill been neglected in our test-mandate society (wink)? When asked to complete the project at hand, finding out facts and delivering them, what better way to do so then to gather them from known, seemingly credible sources and give them back for validation.

My teachers are wonderful, dedicated individuals, which I am sure most districts throughout the country would say. Authentic learning is hard to do, let alone teach. How do I begin helping them restructure the way they affect student learning? How do we teach students to question what is given to them in the classroom by way of learned critique? Most teachers might see that as an invitation to disorder and chaos. But consider this, again from Magnifico’s post:

A teenager questioning commonly-held information would likely be perceived as antagonistic in many classrooms, although the same behavior would be rewarded for a researcher developing a new theory or a doctor treating a pernicious ailment. These divisions between school and working-world occupations have led several education theorists to label most classrooms as “inauthentic” – composed of facts to memorize and “test questions” to which teachers have set answers –
rather than “authentic” explorations of complex issues that may not have absolute solutions.

It’s this type of juxtaposition that has our teachers cast in a bad light. I cannot fault a teacher for being upset or hurt when told that their methods are out of date; I cannot hold them to the fire and tell them to change. What I can do is show them where their students are landing on traditional scales and measurements with regards to learning, not testing. It’s as basic as Bloom’s Taxonomy. Watching those students, with whom I had great conversations about what is good content and what is bad content, let me see just where we are and where we should head towards. It’s on us, and we need to adapt.