Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Real Integration

Yesterday I watched a room of teachers receiving their iPad Minis and having their first experiences with Apple technology. It was like watching a bunch of 8-year-old children staring at a calculus problem. They couldn’t make heads or tails of what they were doing, and needed handholding through ever little step along the way.

Moments like this always fascinate me. People whose entire existences are dedicated to instructing others and encouraging vast exploration of the unknown are struggling through their own learning experiences and throwing their hands up in frustration as they simply cannot figure out what they’re supposed to do.

Yet, I know these are amazing educators, and some of them have been doing this successfully since I was a baby. I might know more technology than they know, but they are far better teachers than I am. And they struggle every day trying to find a reason to learn a new way of doing what they’re already doing so well. Sometimes they succeed; often they don’t.

And this really gets to the heart of what I believe I am doing with my vast explorations of educational technology. The key word is integration. What I believe integration means is utilizing technology in authentic ways to take what we already do so well and bring it to the next level. Sometimes the technology is simply placed into the classroom just to be there. This is pointless. Sometimes the technology actually takes us a few steps backwards. If we’re trying to get our kids to think deeper, but the tech savvy teacher wants to use fancy online quizzing programs that only grade multiple choice questions, technology is harming the educational experience. When a poster would do just fine, but the students stare blankly for ten minutes as their teacher tries to set something up, the technology is damaging to our goals.

But when used intelligently and authentically, technology can take our classrooms into realms never before imagined. I think when exploring any new technology the teacher needs to always ask these questions: Why am I learning this? Is it worth my time learning this? Will this enhance the learning in my classroom? What is my real motivation for incorporating this into my classroom?

I have learned so many different things over the past few years. God willing I will learn so many more. I just hope and pray that I always have the strength to ensure at all times that the technology I explore is ONLY in my classroom for the right reasons.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Instantly Addicted to Wordle

It’s so simple, and yet so powerful. I can’t believe I never heard of this website before now. I’ve just stumbled upon the Wordle website ( and even though the site is utterly simplistic and lacking in massive amounts of applications, I find myself strangely addicted.

What is Wordle? You take any text and you plug it into the site, e.g. cutting the words to this blog post and pasting them in the site. Within moments it will create a beautiful image based on the words in the text you provided; however, the size of the words depends on how often they are used in your text, i.e. the more common the word, the bigger the text. (

The first obvious benefit of this program is the ability to create an amazing visual display based directly on the concepts you are writing about. But it doesn’t stop there. What this site does is provide you with an indelible visual representing the real essence of what you’ve written. You can see what matters to you the most. You can see what are the driving forces behind your thoughts and ideas. You can see if you’ve seriously overused a word. You will never be able to look at the writing you plugged into the site the same way again. That’s a website worth using!

Monday, February 18, 2013

Look What You Can Learn in Sixty Minutes!

I recently watched this amazing video:  (Actually, to be honest, the video has two minor technical issues. I had problems with watching it on the site, so I just downloaded the whole thing—bulky, but VERY worth it. Also, they made a bit of an odd error and the first 17 or so minutes are watching them set up for the presenter. Just skip it.)

In this video the presenter speaks of 60 web tools teachers can use for their classrooms or other professional purposes, and the novelty is he’s doing all of this averaging about one site per minute. This is phenomenal since not everyone is interested in the same things, so you never get stuck listening to too much information not relevant or interesting to you (or that you already know); it’s nearly impossible to get bored. He is well-researched and the sites he presents are excellent. You’re basically guaranteed to find something in there that you’ll want to use immediately.

The video is a couple of years old, so some links no longer work; nevertheless, I found myself constantly pausing the video to try things out, as well as to forward ideas to other teachers at my school. I learned about one site in particular that I need to share with anyone willing to listen. It’s called Free Rice:  The site is loaded with all sorts of review activities in tons of basic subjects. The novelty: Someone’s donating grains of rice to third world countries based on the number of questions you answer correctly. You need to check it out. It’s fun and educational, and the whole time you feel like you’re making a difference in the world.

This is just one of the many treasures hiding in plain sight for those who take the time to watch this video.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Cloud-y Ambivalence

I like to consider myself a healthy cynic.

On one hand I’m extremely excited about what the future holds for easy and vast information sharing. I see statements like this: “The district’s assessment system could alert administrators and educators when students are in danger of failing so that they can provide intervention quickly.” (Solomon & Schrum, 2010, p. 165) I start picturing the amazing possibilities about a student transferring schools and the new teachers at the click of a button able to pinpoint exactly what he or she needs based on prior experiences. It really is thrilling. All relevant participants can find out anything and everything they need to know in no time at all from the comfort of their homes.

But then the cynicism starts to creep in.

How many steps are we away from the system being corrupted? If everything is reduced to numbers in documents, and that’s how we’re all judged, who’s to say the day won’t come when that information will be bought and sold? Am I going to have trouble getting a job because someone was able to find out that I had a disciplinary issue in my 5th grade math class, and the potential employer doesn’t want to take any chances? I fear the greatest fear that the decidedly human elements of life are way too close to being reduced to bubbles filled out in computerized data collection forms.

I am not what a computer, paperwork, or statistical analysis says I am. I am me. I will always be me. Do I come with a lot of complicated baggage? Absolutely. I also come with many qualities no computer will ever be able to measure.

I think it is imperative that we as the future of education recognize that technology exists to make what we’re doing easier and better. But there are so many ways it could make things worse as well, and we need to keep in mind at every waking moment that whereas technology must serve us, we must never become slaves to it. Technology is not good; it is neutral. It’s up to us to make sure it is used only for making the world a better place.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Wiki Saved Me from My Collaborative Woes

I have had a perpetual block against collaborative learning that goes all the way back to my days as an undergraduate student. I had a teacher who assigned us our groups, wouldn’t change my group upon request, faulted groups when any member didn’t do their part, and faulted individuals if she saw evidence that some students were compensating for others. So, I worked really hard on behalf of my lazy dopy group, only to receive an undeservedly low grade, one which I appealed for 1 ½ years before I had it stricken from my record.

So perhaps it’s understandable why I now, as an educator, am very reluctant to make my students do group work.

But God bless modernity! I am so excited at the possibility of using wikis in my classroom. I am so excited at never having to rely on a corny smile and nod to determine whether or not a student contributed to the group. I am so excited to never put the hard workers in the uncomfortable position of telling whether or not the other had actually contributed. I absolutely love the notion that the computer will tell me exactly who did what and when, and will tell me who changed anything along the way.

I know that many an educator swears by collaborative learning. I thank the concept of the wiki for reawakening in me the possibility of making it work.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Virtually Ridiculous

Will I ever use virtual environments in my classroom? In short: I seriously doubt it.

I’m all for using technology to enhance communication. However, I am fundamentally opposed to using it as a replacement.

I have said it many times before: Technology should be used in education if and preferably only if it authentically enhances the experience. If technology is inserted into the classroom simply because it’s really cool and/or popular, but it does nothing really to enhance what the learning experience would have been otherwise, I think it should be avoided.

The most compelling reason I have heard so far as an educator to explore virtual environments is because if they become mainstream in the classroom, it would be a shame to suddenly need to play catch-up. There is truth to this idea, but a very limited truth, one that if broadly applied could really be used as an excuse to fiddle with just about everything. Why don’t we all spend hours a day on Facebook so we’re masters of the environment if it ever becomes the preeminent educational tool? We don’t because (a) we don’t believe it will and (b) we’re relatively positive it is not the best use of our time.

Furthermore, the concept of a virtual environment actually bothers me a bit. Not only do I think such an experience can become addictive, but I think it fosters a false sense of confidence in who you are not. In a virtual environment, if you want to be a pro-wrestler spy who is rich and suave, go ahead. But are you learning to be the best YOU that you can be? One of our jobs as educators is to help students learn how to maximize their potential. But it still has to be THEIR potential. And anything less will ultimately be very unfulfilling.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Movies in the Class: Where Do I Go from Here?

I love making student movies. I have yet to master the art of short movies, but giant, epic reviews of entire books are my cup of tea!

A few years ago I sought funding to make a movie review of the entire book of Shoftim. My boss said it was OK and we purchased a Flipcam. He also said that I should understand that it will likely be awful and it will be a ton of work to make a short little nothing.

I took it as a challenge.

I wrote a script, learned how to use Windows Movie Maker, and picked up other bits and pieces of knowledge one should have in order to produce a movie (e.g. file conversion). By the end of the year the entire grade went to the theater to watch our 45 minute masterpiece and each student went home with their own copy of the movie.

In my second round, my school bought be the movie editing program PowerDirector and a tripod, and with the experience of one movie under my belt and much better software, we made an hour long film that left the other one in the dust. One of my colleagues (someone who has never paid an unnecessary compliment in his life) commented that he didn’t see how we were going to outdo the previous year, but that we most certainly did so.

What’s the secret to making it work?

The truth is, at this point I can write a small book. It would be filled with gems like:

1.     Understand that young people are bad with subtleties. When you instruct them to move over just a little bit, they take an enormous step. Most of the time you actually to have to physical show them where you want them to stand.

2.     Seek greatness, NOT perfection. When you have done three OK takes of a scene, it’s often time to move on and choose the best of what you have. If you seek perfection, you will likely be disappointed. You will also likely not finish. The kids will not enjoy themselves and conflict is inevitable. Greatness is achievable, and it’s completely worth not pushing past that so that everyone has a positive experience.

So, I’ve done it. I’ve done it well. The only things left to iron out are small but significant. 

Maybe someone out there in the world can help me answer some of my questions and concerns:

a.     What can I have students who are not being filmed do during the time when others are being filmed? If they are noisy, or even just talking, they will interfere with the filming.

b.     In the past I’ve written, filmed, directed, and edited everything. I’ve progressively ceded bits and pieces of control, like song choices, titles, and designing the DVD cover. What else can I have the kids do? I don’t like them handling the equipment, because they’re spazzy middle schoolers, and we don’t have extras. If they break something, the project ends. Also: Maybe I’m cynical, but I’ve seen the movies they make when it’s just students. They’re usually inane and very poor quality. I want them to look back with great pride even many years later. But I also want them to feel ownership.

c.      Are there resources available for teaching someone how to direct kids? Or resources about the fine details of making a movie I’m unlikely to learn naturally through experimentation (e.g. how best to use lighting)?

d.     How can I get more funding? I don’t like to ask my employers for money all the time, but at the same time, I know money can help make a project so much more impressive. Are there alternative ways I can get money for these projects?

If you’d like to see some of the movies my students and I have made in the past, here’s last year’s Shoftim movie (there are four parts, but Youtube has blocked #2-sorry!):