Tech Salad

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Month: April 2015 (page 1 of 2)

The Civility and Civics Of Wikipedia

I love Wikipedia. I argue with anyone who says it is bad, and I’ve even created a document to help teachers use Wikipedia effectively with their students.

There is something special about this giant collective work and the community that has helped create it. I often think about the authors and editors and how they arrived at the decision to give up their time to share their knowledge.

This morning @Braddo tweeted a link to a post on Big Think about Wikipedia and its community. Here is a quote from the transcript.

… I think it would be wonderful to make as part of the curriculum from, say, sixth grade onward part of your task and what you’ll be graded on is to edit and make the case for your edits to an article on a service like Wikipedia and then we’ll have new ranks of people being supervised by teachers who are working on the articles and on the product and that maybe even will apprentice to the norms by which you have an argument over what is true and what isn’t. And maybe some of them will choose to continue on as Wikipedians even after the assignment is over.

 I have proposed authoring or editing Wikipedia articles as school projects many times. I’m guessing this is not such an innovative concept now that Wikipedia is 14 years old. What I like about this proposal is the last bit.

So to me if I think of an advanced civics class, it’s great to learn that there are three branches of government and X vote overrides a veto, but having the civics of a collective hallucination like Wikipedia also be part of the curriculum I think would be valuable.

We would be teaching Civics for citizens of an online world. 

So go take a look, and scroll past the write-up to the comments, where one reader offers advice for teachers willing to take on the challenge.

Earth Day Extended Celebration

Last Friday and today, Ms. Kass and I took the students in her Science classes outside to do a little exploration of our environment. In a scavenger hunt type activity, we made a list of concepts the kids have studied during the year and went outside to look for examples. We looked for stages of life cycles, evidence of the water cycle, erosion, pollution, and documented the organisms in our ecosystem. Over the next few days, students will share the images they made with their iPad cameras in a Schoology class discussion. We will discuss what we found, and if we have a chance, we will make a plan to clean up the substantial amount of trash we found in the woods.

Here are a few of the pictures I made of during our outings of little things the students found.

Soldier beetle

Lichen and moss



Sawfly larvae



Stop Motion Cells

Mr. Summitt’s students have been learning about mitosis and they have put together really nice animations using their iPads. I have edited four of my favorite animations turned in through Schoology into a single movie.

Watch these cells divide and learn.


Purposeful PBL

Yesterday I walked into Mr. Rooke’s room to do something menial and simple. I walked away awed and inspired, and with a sense that we really are making a difference in our schools.

Mr. Rooke, our very deserving Teacher Of the Year, has a very non-traditional way of teaching Spanish. I’ve never seen his students filling out worksheets. I’ve never heard his students complain about unfair amounts of work, boring lessons, or tough tests. Mr. Rooke’s students go on to perform outstandingly in advanced Spanish classes, genuinely like Mr. Rooke, and treat him with the utmost respect. Mr. Rooke embeds language learning into study units that are of personal interest to the students, and that is what we discussed when I was in his room yesterday.

Students have been learning about Central America through movies, novels, and classroom discussions. They have learned about the role of poverty in the civil wars of the 1980’s, and the effects of intervention by outside powers such as the United States and the Soviet Union. Recently, they have been discussing MS-13, a violent gang that traces its origins to refugees from the civil war in El Salvador.

So, as the students are learning Spanish, they are also becoming aware of recent cultural and political events that are not covered in traditional Social Studies classes, and they are becoming very aware of how interconnected our world is. They are also learning about real people involved in events, not just learning about events in an abstract manner. This personal connection is crucial.

To reinforce these connections and foster empathy, Mr. Rooke has added another dimension to the learning. He has funds in an account with that the kids will award to applicants for microfinancing. To decide who gets the funds, students have selected loan applicants to research.  They are using Explain Everything and other tools on their iPads to prepare Shark Tank-style presentations for their peers. Then, as a class, they will vote on the top applicants and award the funds to them. When the loans are repaid, probably next year, the next group of students will be ready to evaluate a new set of loan applicants.

This project embodies everything I’ve always imagined for our G21 initiative. It is about the kind of learning that is not for the test. They are learning about people who live in places they have never even heard of. They are learning about the reality of life in these places. They are becoming aware of their privileged lives as citizens of the United States, and of the power and responsibility that comes with that privilege. The kids will always be able to point to this time in their lives when, as a class, they made someone’s life better. 

UPDATE: If you would like to help the students fund additional Kiva micro loans, make a donation at their GoFundMe site.

Learning On the James

This week we celebrate Earth Day, and our 6th grade students have spent the past few weeks learning about wildlife and water quality on the James River. Last Friday I joined the last group to participate in a field trip to Presquile National Wildlife Refuge.

We had perfect weather for outdoor learning, and the docents did an excellent job of engaging all students in learning. From sturgeon to solar energy, we learned about research, restoration, and protection. We discussed Kepone and its effects 40 years after news of health problems emerged. We learned about LEED building certifications and how they help keep Presquile clean and comfortable. Most of all, we had engaging conversations about the importance of the James River for all of us.

Over the next few days, I will be working with the 6th grade team to incorporate what we brought back from our field trip into our Earth Day celebration plans.

Presquile, a former peninsula, is now an island and a wildlife refuge.

Learning about blue catfish, an invasive bottom-feeding species.

An adult Chironomid fly. Its aquatic larvae are an important source of food for fish.

Pulling in a net, hoping for fish.

Pink and green grasshopper hiding in the tall grass.

Cows, Pigs, Blocks, and Learning

“What did you do today?”

“My friends and I blew up pigs with TNT. We called it a barbecue.”

“That’s not very nice…”

“We also started building a gothic cathedral in our village. It has flying buttresses but we don’t know how to add stained glass windows.”

“That’s better.”

Variations of this conversation are common at my dinner table. Love it or hate it, Minecraft is here to stay, at least for a few years.

Personally, I love it. I have never used it myself, but I’ve sat next to my son as he gives me tours of his ever-growing village with serfs’ cottages, a castle, a forge, community gardens outside the castle wall, and all sorts of things he’s read about or seen in movies. He has also done serious research online to make sure everything he’s including is accurate. What started out as something he had to know for a test has turned into something he really enjoys. And he continues to learn on his own.

If you hate it, you might agree with what this dad wrote for the BBC Magazine: kids become obsessed and do nothing else. Still, think of making the most of the benefits of becoming an expert Minecraft builder. Or think about the serious research kids have to do when building something as accurate as a Minecraft replica of the Forbidden City. Then give this parent a chance and read his very sound advice written for The Guardian. Instead of fearing Minecraft, try understanding it. Instead of keeping kids away from it, set parameters.

I hope teachers will follow this advice and encourage kids to use Minecraft for learning rather than goofy digital mayhem.  In fact, I hope we are able to use formally soon.

Photos For Class

Last week was Spring Break and on Tuesday I made a very conscious decision to disconnect and have a very slow dinner with my children. I knew I’d be missing a couple of Twitter chats, so I went looking through my feed on Wednesday morning. There were lots of really good ideas there, but one stuck out because it solves a problem I see over and over in our schools and have been unable to do more than put little band aids on it over the years.

Katie Morrow (@katiemorrow) shared the Photos For Class website. This is a website that searches Flickr and finds only G-rated images that can be used in school project. It gets even better. When you download a photo, you automatically get the citation.

I know this resource, if used consistently, will save us many disappointments in the future. Just in the past few weeks, I have had to revise plans with teachers multiple times because what they planned to publish openly online was full of copyright-infringing images pulled from Google and other online sources. I also know this resource is trustworthy because I know that Katie practices what she preaches and she would not recommend a broken resource. If you would like to see what students can do with the right guidance, take a look at Katie’s blog post on students as published authors.

We have all the tools. We have a great example. Let’s make it happen.

Training Vs. Professional Development

I have a really fun job. I provide professional development and training to teachers, often embedded in the classroom teaching model lessons, co-teaching, or just stopping by to help everyone troubleshoot. I also help teachers in one-to-one appointments during the school day, in brief after-school sessions, and in long format sessions over the summer.

Is there a difference between providing training and providing professional development? Absolutely! Training is all about how to do things: click here, drag there, type this, do that. Professional development is about why we should do things: pedagogy, mission, philosophy, ethics. For the most part, it is very easy to train. Sequencing events or procedures is not extremely hard, when working with teachers who are comfortable with technology as most of our teachers already are. Providing professional development requires a very different approach because the process often involves changing teachers’ attitudes, both towards their students and the technology I’d like them to use.

I always make an effort to provide both training and professional development in a balanced approach when I work with teachers. I don’t just show teachers how to use a new tool. I point to how the tool can be used to solve an instructional difficulty the teacher might have or how it can help us meet our goal of providing deeper learning opportunities for students. Of course, there are issues that rely solely on training, and for those I try to push out some help using a handout or a video on my blog. The clearest recent example is the simple fix for a misbehaving Mail app on our laptops. There is no benefit to any student from a teacher knowing why or how to do this, and the DIY approach will save teachers the effort of walking to my office. But, when working with teachers to adopt something that the students will use, I have to be face-to-face with teachers, or in an extended interactive online class. This is why we have our firm two-hour minimum tech class requirement for all our teachers. 

Of course the tech team can make tutorials on how to use Garage Band. We could even grab some ready-made videos off a million different places and email those to teachers. We could have every teacher making amazing podcasts about their cats and their favorite recipes in no time. The challenge lies in changing the way teachers approach students’ role in education. Instead of lecturing day after day, allow students to formulate and answer questions, and share their findings with the rest of the class via serialized podcasts. We could write lengthy articles (like this blog post) with lots of tables and citations, but text doesn’t always convey messages like personal interactions do. Just like teachers in classrooms, we, as providers of professional development, need to read our audience and see the light dawn in teachers’ eyes.

This post I read recently asks whether we should train first and provide professional development later. The author and I agree that the two should go hand in hand. Not doing this would be a disservice both to teachers and students. Otherwise…

…training without professional development could just lead to poor teaching being delivered faster and more efficiently. While training should certainly be part of the equation, it should take a back seat to professional development. When it comes to education technology, pedagogy should be the driver and technology the accelerator — otherwise, technology will simply end up being the brake.

Beyond the Book

Ms. Thomas’s students have been reading the play based on the Diary of Anne Frank. To better understand why the Frank family was hiding, students researched other events recognized as genocides. Each student taught the class the causes, events, and outcomes of each genocide. I’m sitting in class right now listening to presentations on the Holodomor, Armenian genocide, and Australia’s lost generation.  The questions the students bring up prove they are listening and they are interested. What was the global response? How does this genocide affect global politics today? What are the survivors doing now? How did governments managed to hide what they were doing? Why didn’t they fight back? The presenters are answering, but the class is actively discussing, citing current and historical events. I’m very impressed.

These kids are connecting all sorts of things: Malala Yousafzai’s story, ISIS, current fighting in Ukraine, redrawn borders after World War I, Al Shabaab, the Trail of Tears…

The conversations are great. This might not be covered by an standards, but these kids will always remember this activity and will have a very different awareness of the world for as long as they live.

Of course, I’m also very happy the kids used Google Slides  and cited all their works properly. Beautiful work, Ms. Thomas and kids.

Reading Is an Evolving Skill

I am always interested in research that gives me real information about opinions I have formed based on anecdotal evidence. For example, I read an article in The New Yorker yesterday about the nature of online reading. I had blogged about some of the issues years ago*, and had concluded that the problems or benefits would continue to evolve. I’m glad serious people are devoting time to the changing relationship between text and people.

If you are a teacher in a school going through a digital conversion**, you might want to take a look at the article. There are lots of ideas to think about. For example:

  • kids must be taught to read differently because comprehension and retention seem to be closely related to self-control (This is the part that goes immediately back to my old blog post linked above)
  • kids who are avid gamers seem to deal better with on-screen distractions
  • all readers, young and old, need to make a conscious effort to read rather than skim. This one seems to be more of a problem with scrolling as opposed to flipping digital pages.
  • sometimes it might be a good idea to take a device offline when reading lengthy texts
As the article says, online reading is new. We’ve been reading ink on surfaces for centuries, and we have learned to cope both as writers and readers. This new trend is not going away and we won’t really understand what is happening to our eyes, our bodies, and our brains for many years. We just have to wait and read on.


*Why am I surprised that I can say “years ago” when I refer to a blog post I wrote? I guess before coming to Goochland I never thought I’d ever do any writing. Now I have eight years worth of blog posts and three books. I’m so thankful to have this ongoing record of my work and reflections.

**I’m not fond of this term since, to me, it says we are taking all the old stuff, making PDFs, and not really changing how we do school.

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