Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Technology Presentation

Today after school I will be giving a technology presentation to new and veteran staffers as part of my high school's mentoring program. The program is designed to pair teachers new to the district with those who have been around the block a few times and established themselves within the system.

Six years ago when I was a new employee, I had the good fortune of being paired with a fellow English teacher who would both challenge and nourish me as a person and educator. One of the highlights of our first year as mentor and protegee was taking advantage of release time to visit other teachers and sit in on their lessons. I greatly appreciated the opportunity to see some of my fantastic colleagues in action, and also to experience life as a student. By the end of the day both of us were both exhausted and had trouble focusing. Teaching is certainly fatigue-inducing, but so is life as a student in the factory.

During the hour I have been given to present, I hope to provide a brief overview of Google Docs, Blogging, Twitter, Dropbox, Grou.ps, Photo Story, and Feedly. There's no way an hour will be anywhere close to sufficient to cover just one of those topics, but hopefully by providing teachers with links to various resources, they will be able to explore something that interests them on their own time.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Field trip

Tomorrow my Journalism students and I will venture to a nearby city for a tour of one of the area's daily newspapers. This will be my fourth year taking the students to the paper, and I have no doubt that it will be - as it has been in the past - one of the year's highlights.

The editor-in-chief has graciously agreed to give some of his time to the students and lead them through an editorial exercise where they will be responsible for selecting the stories that would have run on both the main and local front pages. Students will split into teams of four, be given a list of about 20 articles the paper was planning to run, and then decide what gets prominent placement and what doesn't.

After the students reveal their choices, the EIC will display that day's paper and explain why they ran what they did. It's a fast-paced, authentic activity that simulates the decisions editors must make as they work to create each issue.

This will be followed by a tour of the newsroom and the paper's printing press. Finally, the students and I will adjourn for lunch before heading back to school. Not a bad way to spend a Thursday.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

200th post

Today concludes my second day back at school. It also marks my 200th blog post! So far the year is off to a good start. I'm enjoying getting to know my new students, and it's nice to see them engaging with the work. My only complaint would be with the heat. It's been in the mid 90s these first two days, and looks to continue through at least tomorrow.

I've started tweeting my homework assignments on bgassignments. Some students seemed to think this was cool, while others didn't know what to make of it. In time I think they will grow to appreciate having an easily accessible list of assignments that also includes key handouts in digital form. I imagine parents will also be interested in this, as it provides a lot of information about what students have been - and will be - doing.

I'll have to celebrate reaching 200 posts this weekend. There's still two days left in this week, and a lot to do before Friday 2 p.m.!

Monday, August 30, 2010

The plunge

Well, I'm back at it. The first day with students is tomorrow. Today was spent in meetings, with about two hours to work in our classrooms. Fortunately I went in three days last week, or I would still be at school. I'm ready for tomorrow, and I know where I'm going and what I want to do, but I need to tweak some old handouts and generate some new ones before we can get there.

I'm planning to do a number of things differently this year. I'd like to use social media tools like Twitter and Ning. I want all my students to have Gmail accounts so they can submit writing via Google Docs. I'd like to do less evaluation of writing in exchange for more writing, more feedback, and greater emphasis on process.

I want to do more non-fiction reading, with students reading periodicals and magazines and newspapers and other credible sources as they become knowledgeable on things that personally interest them.

I plant to tweak the way I do outside reading books, and launch something called the occasional paper.

Plenty of ideas, and plenty to blog about. Stay tuned for updates.

Have a great year.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Thank you, summer

Thank you, summer, for lazy mornings of blueberry-strawberry smoothies and iced coffee on the porch.
Thank you for The Wire, all five seasons consumed in less than two weeks.
Thank you for Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2, allowing me to get lost in an alien world, save the galaxy from Saren and the collectors, and earn Paragon points.
Thank you for A Long Way Gone, The Kite Runner, Doing School, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and the first two books in the Tales of the Otori series.
Thank you for allowing me to catch up on my subscriptions to Rolling Stone, GQ, Esquire, Men's Journal, English Journal, Wired, Maximum PC, Computer Power User, Backpacker, and Vanity Fair.
Thank you for time to reduce my stack of Boston Sunday Globes.
Thank you for hoops in the driveway.
Thanks for a family Red Sox game.
Thanks for inspiring me to tie up the running shoes and hit the pavement.
Thanks for four glorious days on Vermont's Long Trail.
Thank you for Camel's Hump - the view was spectacular.
Thank you for time with my wife.
Thank you for time with my sister.
Thank you for time with my parents.
Thank you for Good Harbor Beach, riding and diving into waves.
Thanks for lobster rolls and fresh clam chowder and baked scallops.
Thanks for time to pause.
Thanks for time to reflect.
Thanks for time to recharge.
Summer, you will be missed, but you've done your work, and I am grateful.
Thank you.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Mass Ed Board Adopts National Academic Standards

From the Boston Globe:

State education officials have been exploring the possibility of adopting the national standards for more than a year, a controversial proposition for a state known to have some of the most rigorous academic standards in the nation.

The national standards, which Massachusetts officials helped to develop, specify what material should be taught in English and math at every grade level. The voluntary effort was spearheaded by associations representing the nation's governors and state education leaders and has received the support of President Obama, who is now pushing states to adopt the standards by offering financial incentives.

I'm not sure how I feel about this. To be honest, I don't know enough about the national standards to make an informed comparison. I do know that Massachusetts has spent billions of dollars implementing its own standards - standards which have launched the state to the pinnacle of the student achievement mountain. That old adage about not fixing something if it ain't broke seems to reverberate loudly with this decision.

Of course, as the Globe article states, this choice is as much about money as anything else. When states appease Obama and sign on to his national standards, they are eligible for federal dollars. The question is, how much cash will Massachusetts get, and is that amount worth giving up control of an educational system that - while certainly not perfect - seems to function better than the rest of the country.

Links: National Common Standards, New York Times Common Standards Discussion

Photo by Joanne Rathe, Boston Globe Staff

Monday, July 5, 2010

Making comments

Ah summer, thank you for this time to read. In the spirit being an active and contributing member of the blogging community to which I belong, I am going to read and post comments on some of the blogs on my blogroll. Once I do that, then I shall write something new here.

Thank you to everyone on my list for your engaging and fun-to-read postings!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Happy summer!

Congrats to all teachers out there who have made it through another year of trying to do right by your students. If your experience is anything like mine, I know that you've fully-immersed yourself in the world of your students and your school as you've worked to leave your kids in a better and more informed place than they were when they walked through your door last August.

There are a number of things I plan to blog about over the course of the next two months, including summer reading, new ideas and initiatives for next year, my graduate program, and other musings and meanderings that fancy my attention and interest.

Right now, however, my overgrown backyard is beckoning for a rendezvous with my lawn mower.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Another spin

Last Sunday marked one more year that I've been around to partake in the earth's celestial voyage around the sun. As Lenny Kravitz once sang, "I'm old enough to see behind me / But young enough to feel my soul." After a full and bustling school year, I'm ready for the summer downshift that shortly awaits.

Aside from a hike on Vermont's Long Trail and some quality R & R at one of my favorite beaches, I plan to do a lot of reading, including summer reading books for school like A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, books for pleasure like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and a revisiting of literature for the two Accelerated English 12 courses I'll be teaching next year like Brave New World and 1984.

Three pedagogical texts I want to peruse are Ravitch's The Death of the Great American School System, Pope's Doing School and Jim Burke's latest, What's the Big Idea?

I'm also planning to jog regularly and make it a priority to carry over a fitness regimen to the new school year. And I'm going to get to the links a few times to try and improve what could graciously be considered an "emerging" golf game.

Summer will fly by as it always does. I hope to return to school renewed, refreshed, and ready for the commencement of another year.

Image from http://www.newzonfire.com/2009/05/19/26-outstanding-photos-earth-space/

Monday, May 31, 2010

Motivating journalism students

Do I have apathetic students? Sure.
But do I also have motivated (or willing to be motivated) students? Yes.

I motivate my journalism students by reminding them of their power and obligation as knights of the keyboard. I let them know that they will sink or swim on their own merits. I do my best not to edit their work for grammar and typos. As staff writers and editors, it is their responsibility to catch these things. Will I advise them on content and organization and leads and quotes and meaning and subjectivity and prominence and newsworthiness? Of course. But I refuse (despite strong inner-yearnings to do the opposite) to be a copy editor.

For some of our most important stories, I will read them over and offer general feedback. Rarely do I make specific suggestions. Instead, I'll say that sentence needs to be cleaned up, is awkward, rambles, etc. I'll say the lead doesn't do the story justice. I'll alert them to problematic areas. But they need to fix them. It is their paper.

Our school's publication has been around for 90 years. I let the students know that they are torchbearers, keeping alight a flame kindled long before we walked the earth. Once kids buy in and put forth effort, they will win awards. And suddenly they've created an award-winning paper. And they feel good about that. And they will be intrinsically motivated to continue that tradition and keep the flame burning for their successors.

Student journalists preserve history. What they do matters, and has repercussions far beyond what most of them can currently perceive. As teachers and advisors with the benefit of greater vision, we must remind them that their work will be felt across time, and we must challenge them to live up to the weighty obligations they took on when they signed up to be part of the school newspaper.

Image from http://casualhardcore.wordpress.com/

Monday, May 24, 2010

Technology's Role in 21st Century Education

The teenager clad in sweatpants and Ugg boots shuffles in her seat, disinterested, as her teacher drones on about the major themes found in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The girl, a senior, started counting down the days to graduation back in December. It’s now March. She only has to endure this state-sponsored "education" for two more months before she’s finally free to move forward with life on her own terms.

Suddenly, she feels a small vibration from the right inside pocket of her sweats. It’s her iPhone signaling that she’s just received a text message. She glances up at the teacher to be sure she’s in the clear, then carefully cradles the phone in the palm of her hand as she begins to read the message from a friend about a road trip they’re taking this weekend to visit her older brother at college. As the girl looks up, she’s startled by the authoritative stance of her teacher staring over her shoulder.

“Jessica, put that phone away now, or it’s mine,” says Mr. Brown. Because Jessica attends Antiquated High School, she is forced to comply with her school’s prohibitive electronic device policy. However, if she attended the forward-thinking Health Sciences High and Middle College high school, she would likely be using her iPhone for academic purposes thanks to a “courtesy policy” that governs the use of electronic devices during school hours (Fisher & Frey, 2008).

Rather than using her phone to solidify weekend plans, Jessica could have been listening to a Podcast on how superstition affects human behavior, or browsing a scholarly text on how blind ambition leads to one’s downfall, another theme prevalent in Macbeth.

Jessica could have been posting a discussion question to her class blog, or using Twitter to respond to a question her teacher posed regarding Macbeth’s most loathsome character. Instead, she’s half-listening to her teacher’s lecture, her body in the classroom, her mind already assembling her outfit for Friday night.

It’s not that Jessica’s ditsy or genuinely disinterested. Her GPA puts her in the top quarter of her class, she regularly does her homework, and she’s generally polite and courteous to her classmates and teachers. Unfortunately for her, Antiquated High School – no different than the majority of American high schools – is failing at its three essential functions, which, according to school technology leader Scott McLeod, are to develop students who are socially functional, economically productive, and able to master the dominate information landscape of their time.

Jessica’s classroom is aligned in rigid rows where students sit isolated, tasked with individual desk work that requires little collaboration or use of resources beyond their text and the teacher’s lecture notes. In this class, Jessica isn’t able to use the latest Web 2.0 tools because her teacher doesn’t know much about technology and has little desire or incentive to learn. And even if he did, her school’s Internet filter blocks blogs, wikis, Ning, Twitter, Facebook, and other social, academic, and compositional Internet resources.

Because Jessica is able to memorize information, she does well on quizzes and tests. Because she sufficiently models her teacher’s writing exemplars (most of which are provided by the state department of education) she scores above-average on her essays. Jessica’s high grades have given her an inflated sense of self as a student. What Jessica lacks is an independent and curious intellect. Rather than break new ground and take chances, Jessica plays it safe while keeping risk-taking at a minimum.

Heidi Jacobs, author of Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World, would argue this problem is not entirely Jessica’s fault.

Schools tend to teach, assess, and reward convergent thinking and the acquisition of content with a limited range of acceptable answers. Life in the real world, however, demands multiple ways to do something well. A fundamental shift is required from valuing right answers as the purpose for learning, to knowing how to behave when we don’t know the answers – knowing what to do when confronted with those paradoxical, dichotomous, enigmatic, confusing, ambiguous, discrepant, and sometimes overwhelming situations that plague our lives (Jacobs, 223).

This lack of ingenuity and creativity will hurt Jessica’s chances of employment in the long run. Because she hasn’t learned to tap the power of the Internet for research, self-publishing, or networking, she’s already miles behind the students at Forward Thinking School District who have been cultivating positive electronic personas since elementary school.

Even if Jessica is able to land a good internship during college, she is going to require extensive training before she’s well-versed in the electronic networking and publishing software used by her company. Rather than coming into this new work environment as a leader and a source of innovation, Jessica is seen as unprepared and burdensome.

Some say schools are responsible for preparing students for the “real world.” Others take this a step further and say school should be the real world. Antiquated High School and others like it are stuck in the past, preparing students for jobs that no longer exist. Their true responsibility is to prepare students for jobs that have yet to be created, and they are failing, miserably. It is time for today’s educators to get serious about giving students a malleable set of skills they can apply five, ten, and even twenty years down the road.

This means that students can work effectively in groups. It means they can analyze, criticize, create, deconstruct, and synthesize. It means they know how to use technology for serious, academic research and investigation, not just social networking and gaming. Students will not learn these skills unless, we, their teachers, undergo a focused, constructive, cumulative initiative that challenges the current educational paradigm and reshapes it for the 21st century.

This cannot happen unless the federal and state governments renew their commitment to education, moving away from drill-and-kill instruction and toward constructivist, open classroom environments where teachers facilitate learning though technology, collaboration, and exploration. The days of the teacher as the “sage on the stage” are gone. Our new roles are to serve as guides through an increasingly complex and ever changing digital maze of information.

We can’t lead our charges into this new horizon with the tools of the previous century. To remain relevant, school districts must acquire the digital hardware of today’s workplace, train teachers on its use in the classroom, and then give students the freedom to explore, experiment, and harness their skills as navigators, evaluators, and creators of tomorrow’s world.

Bonk, C. (2009). The world is open: How Web technology is revolutionizing education (1st ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Frey, H. & Fisher, D. (2008). Doing the right thing with technology. English Journal. 38-42. Retrieved from http://www.ncte.org/journals/ej/issues

Jacobs, H. (2010). Curriculum 21: Essential education for a changing world. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Herrington, A., Hodgson, K., & Moran, C (Eds.). (2009). Teaching the new writing: Technology, change, and assessment. Berkeley, CA: Teachers College Press.

McLeod, Scott. (2010, March 16). Notes from India – My TEDx talk [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://dangerouslyirrelevant.org/2010/03/notes-from-india-my-tedx-talk.html

Metiri Group. Multimodal Learning Through Media: What the Research Says. (2008). Retrieved from www.cisco.com/web/.../Multimodal-Learning-Through-Media.pdf

National Council of Teachers of English. Writing in the 21st century. (2009). Retrieved from http://www.ncte.org/press/21stcentwriting

State Educational Technology Directors Association. Maximizing the impact: The pivotal role of technology in a 21st century education system. (2007). Retrieved from http://www.setda.org/web/guest/maximizingimpactreport

Seniors 'Articulate' on final day

Today was my seniors' last regular day of class. In both my World Literature and Journalism classes, we concluded the year with a game of Articulate. Featuring elements of both Charades and Taboo, the game requires players to describe to their team members a variety of people, places, things, and actions within a 30-second turn.

It's exciting, fast-paced, and rewards students for being knowledgeable and - you guessed it - articulate. When students get on a roll and they're in-sync with each other, teams can guess five or six items within the half-minute window. When students get stumped or spend too much time on one particular card (they're allowed to skip once), one or sometimes no correct answers are given.

I enjoy playing it with my students because it gives those who have different strengths and areas of expertise a chance to put their skills to use. For example, when the "nature" card comes up, students who are good in biology and the sciences are the best describers, as they're able to quickly break down the item on their card for their group to guess. The same goes for the "geography" and "people" cards. Students with specific knowledge can help their teams win, their smarts rewarding them with instant social capital.

The game is also great for team building. In my Journalism class, we played seniors vs. underclassmen, and the seniors narrowly scraped out a victory, despite having almost twice as many players. The members of the class of 2010 left the game with their dignities in tact, while the sophomores and juniors had every right to feel proud as they held their own.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Teaching the New Writing

Teaching the New Writing is a compendium of teacher anecdotes, lessons, and insights on what writing instruction looks like in the 21st century classroom. Edited by UMass professors Anne Herrington and Charles Moran, and sixth grade teacher and blogger Kevin Hodgson, the book offers educators of all levels an opportunity to learn from colleagues as they go about bringing 21st century skills into their classroom.

Included in the book is an index of technology terms ranging from multimodal composition and vodcasting to digital storytelling and weblogs. Seventeen teachers representing a full range of grades and classes across the education landscape contributed to the book, which features a variety of student work to go alongside lesson plan notes and reflections.

The book is divided into three sections. The first spans the elementary and middle school years, the second focuses on high school, and the final chapter extends to college. Given this range, Teaching the New Writing is apt for a variety of audiences, including classroom teachers, parents, administrators, curriculum coordinators, and pre-service teachers looking to gain a holistic glimpse of writing instruction in the 21st century.

Some of the choice chapters include Chapter 4: Digital Picture Books – From Flatland to Multimedia, Chapter 5: Be a Blogger – Social Networking in the Classroom, Chapter 6: Poetry Fusion – Integrating Video, Verbal, and Audio Texts, and Chapter 12: Technology, Change, and Assessment – What We Have Learned.

One of the core concepts of the book is that we need to rethink our definition of writing. In fact, we should replace it with the word “composing,” and consider composition as the creation of “texts that might include words, images, sounds, and hyperlinks that connect any and all of the above to other words, images, sounds, and hyperlinks” (199).

As far as integrating technology into the classroom, the authors recommend patience, as it will take time for new technologies to intertwine themselves with curriculum. The authors warn that business-as-usual professional development will not work.

“The usual kind of staff development – the one-shot training workshop mandated by the principal or superintendent – will not produce the desired effect, or perhaps any effect at all” (203). Until that model changes, teachers will bring technology into their classrooms gradually, over time, and at different rates. Membership in professional organizations focused on technology integration and attendance at regional and national workshops will be vital to providing teachers with the training necessary to bring their pedagogy to the 21st century.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Online education

For those interested in learning more about Boise State University's EDTECH graduate program, take a look at the video below. I'm only two classes into my degree, so I haven't had a chance to take a class that makes use of Second Life. It certainly looks like it could have promise.

I think good educators draw on a variety of resources and strategies to get students engaged in the curriculum. Could the virtual world of Second Life be one of these resources I use? Sure. Does this mean that the concrete here-and-now goes out the window? Of course not.

As an online student, most of my learning occurs through a pixilated environment. As a high school classroom teacher, the majority of my interactions with students are face-to-face; this despite the fact that they spend one-third of their day interacting with screens. While there is definitely a benefit to incorporating virtual worlds and online interaction into my teaching, it's worth noting that some of the most meaningful classes I've had have occurred in the format of an old-fashioned Socratic seminar

Teacher and student

With the end of the school year in sight, it's no surprise that I find myself busier than ever. What's different this year than previous years is that not only am I juggling curriculum and assessments for the five classes I teach, I am also busy completing work for two classes I am taking for my master of educational technology degree.

I have about one week to write a major research synthesis essay for one class and create an in-depth WebQuest for another. It is going to be an arduous stretch. I will complete it, though, and thankfully will have a little break before I once again juggle the roles of student and teacher in the fall.

As those of you who are teachers know, teaching is a full-time gig. I'm at school by 6:45 a.m., and often stay past 4:00 p.m. And unlike most professions, my work day doesn't end when I get home. There are always lessons to plan, assignments to correct, and constituents to get back to. This is just the reality of being a teacher. While it's time consuming, it's also wholly engrossing, meaningful, satisfying work. If I didn't enjoy what I do, I wouldn't do it.

Because I give a lot to my job, I have a limited number of hours to give to my wife, myself, friends, and family. With two graduate classes also in the mix, it's safe to say that my cup is near overflow. Fortunately, I've been able to keep sipping away before any drops spill, but it hasn't been easy. Knowing that a respite is near helps motivate me to take the final necessary gulps.

Although my graduate work will soon be over, my responsibilities as a high school English and journalism teacher will continue through the end of June. When we return to school tomorrow, my 9th graders will be turning in poetry anthologies, and my seniors will be submitting major research papers. The journalism kids will assess their latest issue and begin planning their final paper of the year. With the seniors finishing at the end of May, there will be a changing of the guard for the last edition, as underclassmen take on the major editorial roles.

My seniors' last unit is Lord of the Flies, which we'll start tomorrow. The freshmen will end with Speak and Romeo & Juliet. Best wishes to students and teachers everywhere for a swift and fulfilling journey to the finish.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A digital initiative

A few weeks ago I was selected to be part of an innovative team of educators who will be responsible for laying the groundwork for an online high school in Massachusetts. Thanks to a $400,000 grant, pockets of teachers from across the state will develop quarterly online courses that can be administered to students via computers through the Internet.

I met recently with five other content area teachers at a regional educational collaborative. There we were given laptops and offered an opportunity to explore various Web 2.0 tools. Once we become familiar with the electronic options available to us, we'll conceptualize how to best put them to use to teach students the curriculum they need to earn a high school diploma.

The majority of my work will be done in the fall, when I will actually create the class using the Moodle content management system. Once the course is set up, I will administer one pilot section of it in the spring. The goal is to fine-tune the course for the state so that eventually, other tech-savvy, certified educators will be able to teach the course to students from across MA.

Online learning has a number of benefits. The asynchronous nature allows for students to engage with the content during the hours that are most suitable for them and their lives. The discussion-board style discourse gives all equal voice. This is a contrast to brick-and-mortar classrooms, where the most vocal or loquacious students run the risk of dominating classroom conversation. Rather than get caught up in the heat of the moment, posters also have a chance to reflect on what it is they are learning, and how exactly they want to portray an idea or show their understanding of a concept.

Given that students spend nearly eight hours per day in front of screens, online learning also provides comfort and familiarity. The main drawback, obviously, is that students miss out on an opportunity for face-to-face contact and interaction. It's hard to truly get a"feel" for your teacher and classmates until you actually spend time with them in the same physical place.

One nice component about the course I'm piloting is that the students will be in a room with other students taking the class, and they'll have the assistance of a paraprofessional. Thanks to Skype and other video conferencing programs, students and paras will be able to converse with the "behind the screen" teacher to ask questions and receive immediate feedback.

As an aside, one of the teachers in my cohort was an old friend from my undergraduate days at UMass whom I hadn't seen in more than 10 years. It was great to reconnect with her, and served to further drive home the notion that it really is a small world, and we are connected in more ways than we realize.

Photo credit iStockphoto

Sunday, April 4, 2010

A teen summit on bullying

Area teenagers discuss bullying with reporters from the Daily Hampshire Gazette. For those looking for a deeper understanding on the root of bullying behavior and its effects, this is a worthwhile view.

Restive times

It's been the kind of day that's evocative of summer. Balmy temperatures, neighbors operating lawn-cutting machines. The smell of burning leaves and twigs from a nearby brush fire. I spent much of the day outdoors, patching a divot in the driveway, assembling a shade umbrella for the back porch, and wiping off the deck chairs and table. Physical tasks to quell a restive mind.

A conglomerate of national and international media gathers outside my high school as a DA's investigation into a student's suicide yields charges and arraignment hearings. A school community desperately tries to heal while an impassioned public calls for heads to roll. Slick and self-righteous media figures feign compassion as they grasp at half-truths and call for justice.

It's the story du jour, the outrage of the moment, the latest flaming spectacle. Somewhere under the media light lies nuance and truth. Yet the cameras and microphones pick up simplistic anecdotes, condensed for the masses into 30-second digestible bites. All flash and sensation. Emotion and conviction. We know. We know. We're hundreds of miles away, yet we know. We'll give you your objects of ire. See where our finger points. We're infallible. Omniscience is our coxswain.

Despite the media's barrage, life goes on. Students come to class ready to learn. Their resilience is remarkable. Is learning just a convenient distraction, or is it the nature of the teenage mind to be elastic and malleable, always seeking to absorb a new experience and perspective as world view is created inside expanding neurons?  

Existential thoughts color day-to-day interactions. Justice, redemption, remuneration, repudiation. Reactions, accusations, justifications, recalculation.

Next week will bring arraignments and pleas. A community braces. A nation - and a world - awaits.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Inventing the new paradigm

At a recent TED event, school technology leader Scott McLeod admonishes the current educational establishment for sticking its head in the sand and failing to adjust to the digitally and globally connected world.

In this video, McLeod describes 21st century classrooms that look nearly identical to the classrooms of 1890. He calls for a rethinking of curriculum, instruction, and assessment, and states that every kid needs access to a computer.

"It's a digital world. We're going to have to stop pretending that it's a paper and pencil world in schools," McLeod says.

As currently constructed, school environments are set up to prepare kids for the last 50 years, not the next 50 years, McLeod observes. He says schools are failing in their three essential functions, which are to develop students who are socially functional, economically productive, and able to master the dominate information landscape of their time.

"We can see quite clearly that we have some disconnects that cannot continue to be maintained."

I happen to agree with a lot of what McLeod talks about. It is for some of these reasons that I chose to go back to school for a master's degree in educational technology.

As I wrote about recently, it's made for a full year. In the end, though, the effort will pay off, as it will help me provide my students with a 21st century education that's relevant to their lives, needs, and the world they will inhabit.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Power outage

At around 4:00 in the morning, we lost power. Last night was an evening of fierce winds and pounding rain, and eventually the electric lines in my neighborhood surrendered.

No power meant no leisurely Sunday morning hot coffee. The blender that usually prepares a berry smoothie sat silent and forlorn. The pile of laundry in need of washing waited idly in its basket. Because we get our water from a private well - whose pump depends on electricity - our faucets were dry.

Rather than sit around and panic, my wife and I did what any other couple would do in our situation. We went out to breakfast.

We hoped that upon arriving home, power would be restored. Alas, it was not. When we finally received notice that we'd need to wait until evening, we settled into non-electric tasks. For me, this meant finally reading the stack of old newspapers that had gone neglected on the coffee table since January.

Periodically I kept hoping the power would come on earlier than expected so I could catch the Celtics/Cavs game. Fortunately for me, a man who bleeds Green, I wasn't able to tune into another disappointing loss for what's quickly becoming an embarrassing team.

Being without power isn't so bad, but on a day like Sunday when you need it for a myriad of tasks, it's quite an inconvenience. I say this with a grain of salt, though. I thought a few times about earthquake victims in Haiti and Chile and quickly regained perspective. I live a charmed life, with all the comforts and amenities one could ask for. I have shelter, health, and family. My choice occupation brings stability and a sense of purpose.

While going without the things we rely on can be a hindrance, there's a renewed appreciation that awaits when what was missing is finally restored.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Sylvanic scurryings... and basketball

This afternoon I went for a jog through the woods behind my house. While this certainly isn't groundbreaking news, in the larger scope of things it signals that spring is on its way, as the snow was all but melted. I am ready for longer and warmer days, and ready to recommit to an exercise regimen.

It's tough. Many of us make New Year's resolutions to improve our activity level at a time when nature's creatures are dormant and the weather makes it easy to stay inside and lounge. Aside from personal health, another more pressing motivation for me to stop slothin' around is this Thursday's student/faculty basketball game. Yup, I'm playing. I hope to score a few points, make a couple stops on defense, and not completely embarrass myself.

It's likely the students will beat us, although, who knows? I've heard some of the faculty members have game, and if a couple of us get hot, anything's possible. If the students push the ball and run every time, they'll likely have an easy victory. But it we can get them to play slow-it-down basketball, we have a chance. I really don't care about the outcome of the game. What's more exciting is the chance to interact with some of my colleagues as I attempt to relive those glorious days of my high school rec league.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Poetry and promise

Shorty I will be leaving to attend the Massachusetts Poetry Out Loud semi-final event in Springfield, where one of our students will represent our high school in the annual recitation contest. Three years ago I brought Poetry Out Loud to our school. While participation in the event hasn't been as robust as I would like, each year we've been able to field a competitive contestant.

Not only will my morning be filled with poetic recitations from some of the areas brightest high school kids, but the sun is out and temperatures may creep into the 50s. I'm looking forward to getting outdoors later, maybe to shoot some hoops, go for a jog, or explore the rail-trail behind my house. Winter for most of us here in Mass has been - for lack of a better word - weak. When other parts of the country were getting pounded with powdery blasts, we either had rain or nothing at all.

I wouldn't mind experiencing one solid winter storm before officially yielding to spring, but at the same time I'm also ready right now for the regenerative spirit that comes as the earth rotates toward longer and warmer days.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Oh boy

Midterm grades to compile and enter. Course work for my Master of Educational Technology degree to complete. An interview tomorrow to help develop and pilot a Massachusetts Online Curriculum. It's already been a 12-hour day, and there's still much to do.

This, of course, is in addition to daily lesson plans that need to be created, parent e-mails and phone calls that require timely response, and ongoing student work that must be read and evaluated. And then there's special education forms and field trip forms and writing assessment forms and other forms whose names escape me.

Oh, but surely you must have time in the school day to do these things, right?

I have 55 minutes to make photocopies, clean my boards, write the new day's agenda, write the new day's homework, organize handouts, and use the bathroom before a bell rings and students begin to fill my room.

In education, there are essential things that MUST get done each day. What you don't accomplish in your 55 minutes becomes a responsibility that has to be completed on your own time. While I love the work - it's engaging, rewarding, fulfilling, and stimulating - I sometimes wonder if it's burning me out. Since my graduate classes started, I haven't had time to maintain my New Year's Resolution of jogging consistently. At some point, I'm going to need to give more consideration to my health. And if my wife and I decided to ever have kids, I have no idea where I would find the time to be a father given my current schedule - something would definitely have to give.

If we had kids, our children would need to be at the top of our priority list. As a teacher, you see what happens when children are neglected and their parents aren't there for them, and it's trying and sobering. Life is hard stuff, and children need mindful ambassadors to lead them through its peaks and valleys. If your parents aren't responsible, nurturing, and involved, you're at a distinct disadvantage.

Being an adult is about being able to juggle many things with finesse, dexterity, and care. It's about meeting multiple priorities and finding balance. Right now that balance seems elusive, but I'll eventually muddle through and find equilibrium.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Thoughts from Ft. Lauderdale

I've spent the last week at my grandmother's condo in the beautiful (and usually temperate) Ft. Lauderdale. As those of you in the New England area know, this week is February vacation, where students and teachers have a five-day respite from school.

This year my wife and I got together with my parents and sister for a rendezvous in Florida. The plan was to soak up some Vitamin D and enjoy a break from the frigid temperatures of Massachusetts. While it has been sunny, it's also been unseasonably cool. The average temperature for this time of year is a toasty 78 degrees. It's averaged about 65 since we've been here, which has been a bit of a bummer, but it's still been warm enough for us to get out and enjoy the surroundings.

The above photo illustrates the view across from the balcony at my grandmother's place. She lives in an area of Ft. Lauderdale that's divided by a series of waterways - a la Venice - and home to a number of gorgeous multi-million dollar residences. Most of the homes here easily start at $3 million. I've jogged around the area and have been blown away by the overt opulence. Beamer, Mercedes, Lexus, Porsche, Range Rover, and Lamborghini camp out in the driveways of these estates, many of which are behind iron gates.

To the right of my grandmother's balcony is a boat docked in the canal with the name "Insatiable." It's a fitting metaphor to describe the lavishness with which some of these people live. Would I like to one day have a residence on the water? Sure. But it would need to be modest, as there's a certain point where the accumulation of material goods becomes offensive.

The arc of our lives depends largely on the environment we're born into. The social norms of behavior, the availability of resources, the cultural and familial values, all of these are as important as one's work ethic. Am I a hard worker? Yes. Am I successful? Yes. But there are millions of Americans who work as hard as I do yet are floundering economically because they don't have a means of upward mobility.

Education truly is the great equalizer. However, millions lack access to fundamentally sound learning opportunities, and many of those who are so fortunate take it for granted. Life really isn't fair. Those who deserve more often have to give the most. And sometimes those who are undeserving are given the keys without any gratitude or appreciation for what they're able to drive. Knowledge is the ultimate key to rising in the system, but even that alone is no guarantee you'll be able to ascend to a respectable place.

As I sit on this balcony and appreciate the soothing sounds of water and the orange glow of the setting sun on the palm trees, I realize I'm fortunate. Yes I've worked hard to get to where I'm at, but I was also positioned to succeed. I was born in a safe and prosperous country to parents who took their responsibilities seriously and whose families valued education and its role in helping one become a happy and productive member of society. It was assumed I would go to college and eventually pursue an advanced degree. That was the norm of my family, and as such, it was easy to accept that as what my reality should be.

I think one of the greatest gifts an educator can bestow upon his students is the gift of vision - to help them conceive of a personal reality that stretches beyond the borders and limitations that have been placed on them or that they have placed on themselves. And one of the greatest challenges educators face is the sense of entitlement and infallibility that those who have been given the keys feel they've earned just for showing up. It's a constant challenge to balance the multiple personae necessary to motivate and educate a classroom of students.  On some days it's an impossible task, yet on others, when all parts are playing harmoniously, there is nothing more rewarding or satisfying.

LCD Projector Giveaway

Take a moment to vote for a chance to win a free LCD projector for your school. The 10 schools with the most votes will win. All schools located in the United States are eligible. For more info, click here.

Note - Usually I don't feature contests or advertisements on my blog, but occasionally if I feel something is warranted, I will include it. As a teacher interested in the integration of technology in the classroom, I believe the benefits of sharing this information outweigh the potential downsides of featuring a corporate promotion in a blog post.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Sweet acoustics

I stumbled across this guy on YouTube. His renditions of some of my favorite Beatles tunes are the best covers I've ever heard. He's worth a watch and a listen.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Some good news

Payton Manning and the Colts lost the Super Bowl. I am happy. If you're from New England like I am, your allegiance is to the Patriots. And as a Patriots fan, it's your duty to loathe Manning and the Colts. I didn't watch one minute of this game, as honestly, I didn't want to have to view Manning's face on my 46-inch Samsung DLP projection TV. A bit harsh? Perhaps. But I've been saturated with images of Manning for years. It's hard enough suffering through his television commercials.

In the More Good News Department, there's a little snow in the forecast for Wednesday, and in five days school will be out for February break. Since I started teaching high school six years ago, I have to say that the past few weeks have been among the most challenging due to the barrage of local, national, and international news coverage over a tragic incident involving one of our 9th grade students. I know I speak for my colleagues and many of my students when I say that we're in need of a break and meaningful time spent with friends and family.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

21st Century Literacies

I enjoyed this short video about students using technology in their English class. While I have yet to incorporate Twitter into a lesson, it's something I'm open to trying. The National Council of Teachers of English has recommended that teachers begin working 21st century literacies into the classroom. The NCTE has also put together a policy brief for teachers and administrators about what 21st century literacies are, and what they look like in the classroom.

Here is one more video about using Twitter specifically in the classroom.

Monday, January 18, 2010

A long week

Last week was one of the longest and most difficult I've experienced as an educator. The first source of stress was the closing of Second Quarter grades. The second was our monthly faculty meeting, although that really wasn't as stressful as much as it was simply a time commitment. Despite much of the negative publicity that seems to surround teachers and faculty meetings, it's my feeling that our principal really tries to make our meetings as relevant and engaging as possible. For the most part, he succeeds at this task. I can honestly say I actually enjoy some of these meetings!

The third stressor was the fact that we weren't allowed to use our computers because a Trojan had infected the entire network. This was a MAJOR problem for me, as so much of what I do in the classroom is dependent on technology. It appears that most computers have been fixed, but the mini-lab in my room still needs to pass a clean bill of health before I can reconnect to the network. Given that my 9th grade students are working on short stories, I really need the ability to do word processing. They could initially write their stories by hand, but eventually I want the stories posted to their class blogs, so the sooner we have the ability to get them into digital form, the better.

The greatest stressor though, the one that really puts those above three items into perspective, is that one of my students, a 15-year-old freshman, killed herself. It's an unbelievably tragic event that has really rocked my world and the school community. While some of my peers have met tragic ends  - via cancer, a motorcycle accident, and suicide by hanging - I've never had a student so young die, let alone take her own life.

The circumstances surrounding why she killed herself are complicated, and currently under investigation by local and state authorities. As such, I'm reluctant to say much more. I do know that the word of her death devastated me for the past few days. I found myself thinking about her constantly, searching for some kind of insight or solace. One of the last things she said to me involved a conversation she had had with a former student of mine. "Mitch said I'm really lucky to have you as a teacher," she told me. I told her I appreciated the sentiment, and that I enjoyed having Mitch in class. What I wanted to tell her, what was on the tip of my tongue, what I would have said had I not at that moment been distracted by one of my other students, was that I was equally as lucky to have her as a student.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Lit Circle Jobs 2.0

Today my district had a three-hour professional development day. While many teachers might cringe as they envision high-priced education bureaucrats and consultants lecturing at teachers in cramped auditoriums, fortunately my school decided to let the staff propose a variety of activities for which colleagues could sign up.

Our tech-savvy librarian offered a workshop on Google Documents. Our special-ed director led a seminar on the school's co-teaching initiative. And I participated in an independent study where I did research and created a new assignment.

One of my most popular blog posts from a couple years ago was about literature circles. During today's workshop, I created six new literature circles roles. When I originally started using literature circles, I had the basics - Connector, Illustrator, Quoter, Question Creator. Click here for my first version. I worked to refine the wording and increase the amount of written response over the last couple of years. At the start of this year, I added two new jobs and tweaked the titles for all. So, in September my students were greeted with this document and presented the following options: Line Illuminator, Connection Captain, Word Warlock, Question Commander, Illustrious Artist, and Summary Sultan. Pretty snazzy right?

For the most part, students got excited about their roles, met my expectations, and effectively used their "jobs" to facilitate both small group and whole-class discussion on the reading. And just when you thought it couldn't get any more exciting, along comes Lit Circle Jobs 2.0! featuring the Character Commandant, Mood Maven, Insightful Identifier, Symbol Sleuth, Mind Muser, and Reactionary Revealer. I'll be trying out these new jobs with my seniors as they read Treasure Island, and my freshmen when we dive into The Old Man and the Sea.

If you have any questions about how I use literature circles, or if you've had your own success using them in your classroom, I would love to hear about it. Those of you who do use my work in your classrooms, please give credit to Mr. B-G, bgenglish.blogspot.com. Thanks!

Circle image from Wassily Kandinsky, www.prints.co.nz/page/fine-art/PROD/7104

Sunday, January 3, 2010

A decade of my life

I first saw the format for this post on Epiphany in Baltimore, the honest and insightful blog of a 30-something high school English teacher in Baltimore City. I really appreciate his candor, and at times wish I could be as forthcoming.

When I started this blog at the end of 2006, I made a decision to publicize it with my students, colleagues, and administrators. As such, at any given time, the superintendent of schools, my department chair, or Johnny's mom could be reading. That doesn't bother me. In fact, I am elated to have a variety of readers. What it does mean, though, is that I sometimes filter feelings and raw emotion, which, in turn, makes my writing not as powerful or affecting as it could be. Yet that's OK. This blog's purpose is not to serve as a drippy digital journal where I reveal my innermost thoughts and secrets. It's primarily designed to be a sharing and learning tool.

With that said, I will now, ironically, reveal more intimate details about my life than ever before...

2000: Graduated from college with a degree in Journalism and a minor in English. Landed my first full-time job as a newspaper reporter at a mid-sized daily in central Massachusetts. While living at home, I managed to save $7,000.

2001: Quit my job at the paper to fulfill a dream I'd had since high school - hike the 2,175 mile Appalachian Trail. I manged to last three months and 1,000 miles before succumbing to two straight weeks of rain. Wrote a series of columns about my hike called "Tales from the Trail." Landed my first "job" in education as a volunteer tour guide at a nature reserve, which eventually led to a full-time middle school sub position.

2002: Survived the year as a building sub and decided if I could handle that, I could handle just about anything the world of education could throw at me. I enrolled in graduate school and spent the summer working at a really fun arts camp for kids.

2003: Had success teaching composition to first-year college students. Gained experience working at a writing center where I learned of the "non-directive approach." This would have a significant effect on my teaching philosophy.

2004: Earned a M.Ed. in English Education. Landed my first full-time teaching gig at a small high school in Western Massachusetts. My first year of teaching proved to be challenging and more work than I had imagined. I made it through the year, but had doubts about teaching as a career choice.

2005: Spent the summer mulling my future in education. I eventually switched to a larger high school in a nearby community. This was fortuitous, as I was paired with a mentor who would validate my ideas about education and encourage me to stick with it. He became an outstanding professional resource and great friend.

I met the girl I would marry at a coffee shop. She was a grad student studying to be a teacher who agreed to meet me on the condition that I would help her prepare for the teacher test. Fortunately, our next date did not involve test preparation.

2006: Served on a variety of committees at my school. Was given better classes to teach, including a Journalism elective. Started blogging. Won a grant from the New England Association of Teachers of English, which went toward the purchase of a new classroom computer. Hiked a 100-mile section of the AT with an old high school friend. Decided I would finish the trail bit-by-bit, knocking off various chunks during summer vacations.

2007: Proposed to my wife outdoors on snowshoes. Rewrote the Journalism curriculum. Had my students published in a national poetry anthology.

2008: Got married. Purchased my first home. Earned tenure. A huge year.

2009: Took a breath after all the action of 2008. Settled into married life and home ownership. Revamped the school newspaper as advisor and enjoyed success as students won awards. Earned the title of Certified Journalism Educator. Enrolled in a Master of Educational Technology graduate program.

Friday, January 1, 2010

This year I will...

Thanks to Kevin for sharing this cool little New Year's Resolution generator. While I have a number of goals for this year (which will likely be the fodder for future blog posts), I like the simplicity of how "JOG" fits neatly in the center of this image. This also makes for a good metaphor, as jogging has always helped keep me centered and feeling  right, both mentally and physically.

I ran cross-country in high school, and was a captain my senior year. My best mile was 5:10. While I don't necessarily have ambitions to run that fast again (although I'm certainly open to the idea), my plan for 2010 is to make running a regular part of my routine. Starting today, I vow to run at least two miles four times per week. By doing that consistently, I will be able to bring balance into other areas of my life and have more energy and mental focus. Here's to good health for all in the coming year.

Canon S90 Review

This holiday season I received a present that has rekindled my enjoyment and appreciation of photography, the Canon Powershot S90 digital camera. Ever since the digital revolution began at the turn of the century, my experience with photography has been limited to point-and-shoot cameras that had paltry manual controls. Given the high price of digital SLRs, I was content to compromise camera creativity and artistic freedom for portability and convenience. Well, with the S90, I no longer need to make that trade-off.

While the S90 doesn't have the image quality of true single-lens reflex cameras, it packs an above-average size sensor that's closer to those found on full-size rigs. It also has a fast f/2.0 lens that lets twice as much light in as most compact cameras. The larger sensor and wider (faster) lens provide greater image quality and better shots under low light conditions. But I did not decide on this camera just for its sensor and lens. What sets the S90 apart from other point-and-shoots is a fully programmable control ring on the front of the camera that allows the user to adjust shutter speed, aperture, ISO, focus, zoom, exposure, or white-balance.

The selection of the front ring's function determines the setting of a second control wheel located on the back of the camera. For example, I have my front ring set to control aperture. As a result, the rear wheel defaults to control shutter speed. And, as if that weren't enough manipulation, an easy-to-access programmable shortcut button allows me to change the ISO with the flick of a finger. In the days of film, a photographer would be stuck with whatever speed was in the camera. When I used to carry my Olympus OM-2 everywhere, I usually went with 200-speed film. It provided some flexibility in low-light situations, while also allowing for high-quality outdoor shots when lighting was optimal.

With the Canon S90, I now have the portability of a point-and-shoot with a full array of easy-to-manipulate manual controls previously found only in SLRs. While it's going to take me a little while to learn how to wield all of the camera's features to their potential, I'm looking forward to becoming acquainted with this new camera that's willing to let me be an equal participant in composition process.

If you're seriously considering purchasing this camera, I can't recommend enough Richard Franiec's S90 Grip. Aside from making the camera more sturdy to hold, it's also made it more enjoyable to use, as it really feels right on your fingers. Plus, it looks cool, and appears to have been part of the camera's original construction. The image of the S90 above features the grip. The first link in this post takes you to Canon's website where you can see the camera without the grip.

S90 image from lensmateonline.com, accessed 1/1/10