Archive | September 2009

I Create, Therefore I Am

I have to say that I am excited. Having been around the block a few times in my years as an educator, I think I sometimes get a little jaded and perhaps always see a down side to every up. (Yeah, it’s a great tool, but how can I fit it in? How can I find time to master it? My twenty-four hours are full. My teachers will never try it.) So, when I say I am excited about something, I mean it.

I am excited because my kids are excited. Not everyone of them, but so many. It didn’t take much, but what it took was allowing them to be “content creators”. Not being so regimented. Letting them know that they had a say in something and could create an identity. The simple little blogging site we have been using has opened up a whole new world for them, and therefore for me. “Please, sir, I want some more.”

This is our third year with David Warlick’s Classblogmeister site. I was timid at first. I waded out a little farther the second year, trying to think of some topics for the kids to write about, to help them understand what blogging was, even as I was learning myself barely a step ahead of them. But they were far less fearful than I. Last year there were a few students, almost always girls, who would blog when the spirit moved them, writing short stories, poetry, anything. Fussing over their page backgrounds and font colors, although the choices are somewhat limited on the site. I was pleased that a few were doing it for fun rather than for a grade.

Enter year three. Since this blog of mine is hosted by Edublogs, I received the notice of the Bloggers’ Challenge and decided it was something we might be able to handle. My goal in setting up a class blog originally had been to establish a platform by which classroom teachers could have students blog across the curriculum. The “home base” so to speak would be the tech class, and they only needed one username and one password. In two years time only two teachers have ventured to assign a post. But despite that, I felt it was a way for students to grow as writers and so I continued with or without the other teachers.

Thanks to the Bloggers’ Challenge, one of the first things they did this year was to create an avatar to represent themselves on their blogs. The lightbulb appears over my head when I see that…they love it. They absolutely love it. A simple little thing like creating a character that could be cool, or silly, or wild…green mohawk, guitar in one hand, cell phone in the other; little microphone-clutching divas and tiny sports figures. But they owned it, they controlled it, they created it. (one rule: no cigarettes or weapons)

They also now could create a title for their blog page. Why didn’t I think of doing that before? From “City Boy” to “Red Herring” to “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, they find another way to express themselves.  But what they want most of all is to know that other people are reading what they write (and here is where I make my case for spelling and grammar and punctuation). Almost every one of them listed in their first post that their goals were to reach out to other students, learn about them, communicate with them, have those students visit and read their blog posts, leave comments. In scanning the long list of challenge participants, younger ones with their teachers and older ones (ages 14-17) who entered on their own because they have their own personal blogs and want to communicate and want others to find them and read their thoughts, I have come to realize that they all seek the same thing. To create something, and to have someone notice that they have created something, and hopefully to receive feedback to show that their creation has value.

The  Pew study (Pew Internet & American Life Project – “Teens and Social Media”) shows that it is girls who dominate the blogosphere,  with a strong correlation between blogging and other content creation among teens. In my students grades 6 through 8 I see the eagerness of the girls surpasses the boys, and they are already going beyond the scope of the project. After learning how to insert a widget into the sidebar (their choices were a flag counter or ClustrMap) one girl was clever enough to figure out how to insert a second widget, a virtual pet, just by reading other student blogs and noticing what others had done. And since I was absolutely fine with that, the floodgates opened and they began searching for more ways to individualize.

Our latest venture is commenting: how to comment constructively, how to continue a conversation, how to make it easy for others to come back to your blog page. Their hopes for many visitors from all over the world may not be met, but perhaps being permitted some freedom to showcase their thoughts, their artwork, their favorite websites or games, will make them begin to think outside of the box in other areas also. Perhaps their enthusiasm will even move a few teachers to get involved. When you teach third graders to enter a one sentence blog post and see it on “their page” and then find one of them has gone home and written 5 posts on his own and is requesting publishing (so what if 2 of them are jokes)…well I can’t help feeling that something good is going on.

Avatar images created by students using AvatarPortraitMaker.

Planting Seeds of Creativity

In the discussion forum for this week’s class, based on Chapter 4 of Gardner’s Five Minds for the Future, I raised the issue of allowing for creativity within the core curriculum, even if art and music classes may be receiving less emphasis in the curriculum. In a sense, what I was referring to bears more resemblance to “self-expression” rather than “creating” in the sense that Gardner uses the term. Students in our classes may not be “ruffling the contours of a genre” by any stretch, but perhaps we need to allow them to feel that they might color out of the lines if they so choose without experiencing the repercussion of a lowered grade. We must of course, provide the baseline of literacy and a solid foundation in the disciplines, but within the disciplines, do our students feel that they have an avenue for creative expression?

When I was a junior high math teacher, I was occasionally faced with students, and one particular very intelligent young man comes to mind, who chose to solve the “word problems” by their own means, or perhaps entirely in their heads, rather than set down the formula and neatly balance both sides of the equation. Process and solution were both important I thought, and so I insisted that each student demonstrate, at least on occasion, that he knew how to set up the good old equation. Whether that was the true means by which the student arrived at the solution, I might not have known. There is something to be said for the organized approach, and in the middle years, perhaps insisting that the standard methods are at least learned, if not necessarily followed, will provide a foundation that will serve the student well as he or she continues in that discipline. There may be only one correct response to how many square feet of turf are needed to cover the football field, but how one arrives at that solution can vary. Gardner does state that “only through the honing of a discipline would genuinely creative options ultimately emerge.” The foundation, the basics, need to be in place, before one ventures off the beaten path.

One of the things I have come to realize in this course that I believe will serve me well in the next one, is to look ahead and see what the readings and requirements are over all, get the broader picture first perhaps. I spent much time in the forum developing my thoughts on creativity and how blogging in the classroom was such a great tool, and I do believe that. Well this week’s “in the classroom” leads to next week’s “outside the classroom” and perhaps that is where the blogging best fits. Did I see that was where we were headed before now? Oh no, I chattered merrily on. (We blog IN class…therefore I saw it as fitting but now I think it should have been left to the following week.) I also threw out a link to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED video on creativity without realizing it is one of the upcoming class resources. Lesson learned…look ahead.

Therefore the tool I am recommending as a vehicle for creativity IN the classroom is digital storytelling. The application I have used most often has been PhotoStory, although MovieMaker does have more features there is a steeper learning curve and having limited time I usually opt for PhotoStory. For the past several years students have been completing a digital story assignment and then at the end of the year I would burn it to CD and they would take home their finished product. (I do mean “end of the year”….some are literally walking out the door on the last day with the CD in hand. Then there is the dreaded “I will mail it to you over the summer…ouch!) I have now worked on some form of a storytelling assignment with grades 4 through 8, and last year, all of those grades.

This does not mean digital stories cannot be shared with a wider audience, but when the stories involve personal photos, we are very careful where they go. And I must confess that even when the eighth grade completed vodcasts on earth science topics two years ago, I was nervous about posting them on our website for fear I had missed some copyrighted images. One of the aspects of teaching students about digital storytelling I most enjoy is finding stories created by others and watching them together, some created by students, some by adults, and then discussing how the stories made us feel. One story on Bernajean Porter’s Digitales site that spoke to my heart was “My Mother’s Socks“. Perhaps it was the fact that I had four sisters. When I first saw the story my mother was alive. I have gone back recently and watched it again. I tried to explain to the students why that story spoke to me, but it wasn’t easy. But I encouraged them to watch other stories and see which ones spoke to their hearts. I personally feel that in order to tell a good story you need to have heard many good stories yourself, or in the words of one site – Listen Deeply, Tell Stories. Other sites with digital storytelling resources are Joe Brennan’s Discovery Blog and the Digital Storytelling portal. We use our class wiki to provide resources, step by step instructions, and rubrics. I have to admit though, that it is a difficult concept to teach. Perhaps because a good story has a creativity that one cannot teach, but instead just nurture the seeds of. All we can do is help our students find the stories that are inside them.

Cone on Horsetail plant. Paul Fuqua. 2003.
Discovery Education. 22 September 2009

Reflection – Digital Media and PowerPoint Project

In this assignment to create a media-infused PowerPoint presentation we were asked to blend our subject matter, whichever discipline that may fall into, with our knowledge of technology tools and the vast resources of the Discovery Education site, with the purpose of creating a learning module that would be of benefit to both student and teacher.

Although I teach across the disciplines, I have chosen technology literacy for the presentation, specifically the area of Internet Safety. This is an area that I touch on each year, but with a ready made lesson such as the one I have submitted, I feel that I can approach this very important topic in a much more organized way. I am planning to use this lesson over a few class periods beginning the last week of September.

Due to the necessity of uploading the file to another site, I have merely created an image where the video segment itself would be embedded, and just provided a hyperlink directly to the Discovery Streaming site. Normally in my teaching of the do’s and don’ts of PowerPoint (and I do not claim expert status by a long shot) I remind students that there should be no special effects, no little sound clips, unless they actually enhance the content being presented. In order to comply with the project requirements I have added a sound file, a single bell when moving to from the video slide to the review slide of a sub-topic. There is no way this has any bearing on the learning activity but there seemed to be no ready-made sound file that would serve a purpose here. One of the great features of many of the Discovery videos is the supplementary materials provided, as is the case with the video “Internet Safety: Pitfalls and Dangers”. There is a wealth of material from parent letters to pre- and post-viewing activities and discussions, to blackline checklists and outlines of the important concepts in the video.

I believe a presentation like this lends itself well to in-class discussion, but what I would hope to do is to then upload the activity and use it in Assignment Builder, after the whole class activity, perhaps creating the opportunity for students who missed all or part of the presentation to catch up, or to provide for the needs of the student who may benefit from a second and a third look at the topic. So many discussion areas and blogging topics can arise from this learning activity, as well as, I hope an increase in the level of technology literacy. I do plan to download the video segments to create a stand-alone teaching tool that can stand up despite network or streaming difficulties. Despite the pressures of meeting a deadline, I am grateful for the make-and-take opportunity and I know my students will benefit.

Synthesis Soup

In my role as “tech teacher” and “tech coordinator” at my school, I find myself faced with two broad challenges. First, I need to help my students develop technology literacy and use 21st century tools in appropriate, constructive, and creative ways; and second, I need to encourage and support the classroom teachers with integrating technology into their lesson plans in a way that will not only enhance their teaching methods but also provide opportunities for students to put into practice the tech literacy I am trying to develop. I have experienced some success with the first challenge, though I feel that there is far more to do than my 45-minutes a week with them will permit. In the second challenge, I feel I am somewhat of a failure. (There are also the unwritten challenges of unjamming printers and unblocking sites on the content filter and maintaining the website, etc., etc…but let’s not go THERE.)

Perhaps my expectations are too high but I fear that a number of my teachers see technology as a discipline that can work in isolation rather than one which can blend quite well into the curriculum to enhance the discipline(s) they teach. Though I have tried my best to refer to it as “tech class” as opposed to “computer class”, students are still told to line up for “computer” as I approach the door (and of course you can imagine how quickly they are all ushered out so the “prep time” may begin!). Well, if I am painfully honest, some of them see it as nothing more than another “special” along with art, or music, or Spanish. The ideal is for us to be working together and blending, dare I say, synthesizing, the elements of content matter and technology that will produce a desired outcome, or performance objective. There is time built into the schedule for us to meet, but often they are too busy and prefer to grade papers or work on some other task. I have done a number of interesting tech projects with my students that were based in a curriculum area, but the students fail to see it as a way to learn about the economy, or The Alamo, or the space program, as much as a “project for computer class”. It also is not given as much importance in their eyes because “it doesn’t affect my general average”. If I work with a teacher to develop a project, let’s say on an assigned South American country that calls for them to research and then share that information in a video format, I am still working with them on the project weeks and weeks after the class has moved from South America to Europe in the curriculum.

null There are a few minor success stories. One project completed with eighth grade last year allowed for developing skill in technology tools in the completion of a project based on the health curriculum. Mrs. C, our health and phys ed teacher, and I worked together and did extensive planning for this project. We did feel that we had accomplished our goals because we didn’t say, “Oh let’s not ever try this again!” On the contrary, we plan to do it again this year but fine-tune any weaknesses we encountered the first time. I will explain how we blended health subject matter and technology literacy in this project following Gardner’s four loosely ordered “components of synthesis” (the recipe for Synthesis Soup):

1. A Goal – The goal was to provide a vehicle for eighth grade students to learn as much as possible about Risky Adolescent Behaviors for the purpose of helping them to make sensible choices as they encounter situations in their teen years.

2. A Starting Point – Students were presented in health class with the idea that they would be facing many choices in the future and they needed to learn as much as possible about the effects and consequences of their choices, even in areas they had not yet experienced. Since there were so many areas to be covered, they would work in groups to research their assigned topic and create a presentation by which they could share their findings with classmates, and eventually a wider audience, in order to help others make informed choices about risky behavior.

3. Selection of Strategy, Method, and Approach –
Our strategy was using a team approach to be able to present as many topics as possible, and the following technology tools were brought into play:

wiki – The eighth grade class wikispace section on health was developed with an opening page explaining project goals, expectations, and due dates. A resource page was added with selected sites for each team to use for information in developing their project. I assisted in the setup and permissions on the wiki, and some of the coding. The health resources were gathered by Mrs. C. with tech resources added by myself. Each team then had its own page on the class wikispace that was setup for them as a table so that each expectation was clearly defined.

PowerPoint – The presentation was delivered in PowerPoint and techniques in developing a good PowerPoint presentation were explained in technology class. Expectations of quality were spelled out on a score sheet for the technology aspects of the project and links and tutorials were provided on the wikispace for reference.

Podcast – After the presentations were made in class, students then worked in their teams to turn their presentation into a dialogue that could be recorded as a podcast. In this way, the basic information was shared with a wider audience, while the in class presentation was visual and allowed for images that may have been copyrighted but cited in the presentation. This was a learning experience for me as well as the students, as it was my first time having students do podcasting. Previously I had only created them myself. The eighth grade podcasts are still available on our tech class blog on the right sidebar of the page.

4. Drafts and Feedback – Here I am not sure if I should analyze the feedback for student work or the feedback Mrs. C. and I gave each other as we discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the project. One thing we felt needed more emphasis next time was developing a more in-depth understanding of the project. Many times a team would have pulled a statement or a statistic from one of their sources, without fully understanding the context from which it was taken, or its significance in the overall picture of the risky behavior. I am not yet sure how we will deal with this issue this year. Students will not ask for help if they think they “get it”, but it may not be obvious until the final piece is presented that they didn’t really “get it”. So we must then step in and use the teachable moment. We also need to place more emphasis on oral presentation techniques. So I suppose our first year project was a “draft”, and hopefully this year’s students will benefit from our learning. We indeed learned along with them throughout the course of the project. Another area we hope to refine is being able to define for them our ideas of “excellent, adequate, and unacceptable” work on this project. We seemed to be more re-active than pro-active in this regard.

Will they be able to apply the best practices for presentation we tried to develop in other work they do in high school? We might never know if those skills carry over. More importantly though, have we given them the opportunity to develop their knowledge of risky adolescent behaviors so that in the future they do not become like some of the victims presented on their slides? Again, we may never know but, we can hope.

Note: Should anyone in the Wilkes Digital Media course wish to have guest access to our private eighth grade wikispace, that can be arranged. Feel free to contact me.

-Image created with Wordle and Microsoft Clip Art

Which Way to Oz?

When Gardner states his belief that “…today’s formal education still prepares students for the world of the past, rather than for possible worlds of the future” many educators will nod in agreement. And yet, what are we doing to change that looking backward mentality?

The resources available to educators today are astounding, perhaps we might also say, overwhelming. How can we find the best way to approach our planning and teaching? How can we best reach our students? His research on mulitiple intelligences tells us that there is no one correct or best way to reach each and every student. We need a diversified approach, taking into consideration the varieties of ways in which individuals learn. Gardner states that if a subject is worth studying, “it is worth studying deeply over a significant period of time using a variety of examples and modes of analysis”. And in so doing, “Any lesson is more likely to be understood if it has been approached through diverse entry points.” (from Points 2 and 3, How To Discipline a Mind in Chapter 2)

With this in mind I searched through Discovery Streaming for video content which would support my goal of helping students to better understand the concept of “Digital Citizenship.” I have chosen this content area because although I work with teachers across the curriculum and may help to develop projects in science or social studies, health or religion, I feel a personal responsiblitiy as the “tech teacher’ to promote digital citizenship.

The video content I chose is “Internet Safety: Pitfalls and Dangers“, slightly over 16 minutes in length but available in six segments. The video also provides a review segment, a video quiz, blackline masters, and a Teacher’s Guide, as well as a sample letter to parents on the topic, asking them to also be involved in the discussion with their child. An especially nice feature of this video is the fact that the date is 2008, so the message is very timely for today’s student.

How shall I use this video? Let me count the ways…

  1. Each topic can be presented first by asking about students’ prior knowledge or pre-conceived notions and then playing the individual segment to reinforce, clarify, or correct what surfaced in discussion. Each video segment can then serve as a jumping off point for a more in-depth look at the topic within the unit on digital citizenship.
  2. The video segments could be placed as links in Assignment Builder, where students could view/ or re-view) and respond by summarizing the key points, either with in the builder or in an individual blog post. The accompanying supplementary materials provide questions that can be used as a quiz in the builder also.
  3. The video segments could also be embedded on a private wiki (which I use with each of my classes) to allow for viewing both at home or school, with discussion questions and students responses taking place in the wiki discussion area.
  4. Individual segments of the video could be assigned to groups of students to role play an appropriate scenario that represents the do’s and don’ts being presented. In this way there are “performances of understanding: (Point 4 How to Discipline a Mind) allowing students to demonstrate a deeper understanding of the topic than merely memorizing the “right answer”.
  5. Unfortunately this is not an editable video. If it were we could do such things as take an image or frame and perhaps add talking bubbles or narrate over it. I believe it would be permissible, however, to turn down the sound and have a student summarize the content of a segment on social networking or online shopping for use within the classroom only. A student could create a slide show in which the segment was embedded, and I am assuming still voice over that way, as long as the slide show were presented in class only. And of course the review segment would summarize and reinforce all the content and discussion and could serve as a unit wrap-up.

Having listed all this, I am faced with the age-old dilemma that in providing a variety of entry points and allowing different ways for students to demonstrate “conceptual ablility”, a unit of this nature could stretch out for weeks and weeks with a class that meets only once per week. When we are faced with curriculum guidelines that basically call for content that is “a mile wide and an inch deep”, how do we reconcile that with Gardner’s call for core knowledge to be “intense and acquired in meaningful context”? This has been my stumbling block with projects I have suggested to teachers who are worried about all they have to “cover. Until some of that pressure is removed, many teachers are afraid to go too far in depth and then “fall behind” in the curriculum. And with the ever-present state testing, what are we to do?

Yellow Brick Road Second LifeIs there an Emerald City of education where all these concerns can be resolved? If Gardner had a visiting superintendent who wanted to see examples of such-and-such because that is where you should be in the social studies curriculum, but instead he as the teacher had done a very in-depth project that took several weeks, how would he respond to the question? Does this say to us that there needs to be a revolution in thinking “at the top”? We educators have brains, and heart, and (for the most part) we ARE striving to create life-long learners. We need to gather up our courage and creativity and keep trying to do what will allow our students to “come to enjoy the process of learning about the world” and see learning as a joy rather than a chore. Perhaps we can see Emerald City in the distance, but the yellow brick road sure has a lot of bumps along the way.

Blackberry Jam

I have returned to my Blackberry Alley blog site to introduce myself to my fellow learners in the Digital Media in the Classroom course at Wilkes University.  I say “returned” since lately I have been using my DEN STAR blog located at For this course I will post in Blackberry Alley. The name is derived from the narrow alley that ran behind my childhood home, and down which I trudged, at times reluctantly, and frequently late, to my little grade school.

For the past ten years I have been the technology coordinator at my school. What exactly is a “technology coordinator”? I wonder if there is an actual definition. At my school it means that anything remotely related to a computer is my responsibility.  In addition to teaching technology classes at my school for grades 3 through 8 (the librarian does K-2), and meeting with teachers to help plan the integration of technology into the curriculum,  I built and am maintaining the school website, do  the E-Rate applications, write and update the technology plan, serve as the PowerSchool administrator, train the teachers in after school tech sessions, upgrade and maintain all the PCs and laptops in the building (small school, just under 100 computers in all), manage the network and content filter, supply users with swipe cards for the security system, unjam printers, connect DVD players….you get the picture. If it has a plug, they call me.  For the past 3 years that is all I have been doing although for 7 years before that I also taught Spanish classes for K-8 in addition to the tech work. It got to be too much to say the least.

My classroom experience goes back 25+ years teaching grades 4 though 8.  I think I always was drawn to technology, though. Does anyone remember something called Systems 80? So old even Google didn’t have an image of it. 0826destinationI also begged to be the one to get the Destination computer in my classroom. Nod if that sounds familiar. I once did a summer internship with a major local business in their MIS department and one of my assignments was to use Lotus 123 on this new device they had just obtained, put in a little glass room all by itself…something called a “PC”. Sounds funny now, doesn’t it?

One of the ways I have grown as an educator has been to expand my personal learning network. The best way I have found to do this has been with the Discovery Educator Network. Since I became a STAR educator in 2006 I have learned so much, and made so many friends among educators all over the country. It is Vita Demina in SLwonderful to be able to share ideas and practices, to learn new things together, and sometimes just commiserate. I have become especially active in the Second Life group for DEN educators and am a recent addition to the DEN in SL Leadership Council. Besides it being a great vehicle for professional development it is also a lot of  fun and the tech aspects of it are quite appealing to the geek in me.

What I hope to learn in the Digital Media course is not only a more in-depth understanding of some of the digital tools at our disposal, but how to best make use of them by listening to the ideas and comments of my classmates and pondering the writings of some “experts” in the field, though we are all experts at some things and beginners at others.  The DEN slogan is “connecting teachers to their most valuable resource – each other” and I think we will learn far more from each other than we can from any textbook. Let the games begin!

P.S. A shameless plug, but if anyone wants to visit our classroom tech blog, we would love to see more red dots on our Clustr Map. I keep telling the kids that, “Yes, people do read what you write. It does matter.” They will begin next week and will be excited to see how the map has changed since they left in June.