Sunday, August 28, 2005

Sunday Papers 3: "Learning to teach, teaching to learn"

This article (from Sunday Inquirer) by cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson examines changes in authority and learning that have been taken place and what it might mean for society. She apparently writes about this in depth in her book Willing to Learn: Passages to Personal Discovery.

Some interesting excerpts from the article:
But in addition to teaching their parents how to deal with new technologies, kids today also are teaching them profound ethical lessons about protecting the natural world and respecting themselves and others. Here are some of the examples I have heard from schoolchildren that go beyond technology or popular culture: A girl: "I taught my mom to recycle." A boy: "I taught my dad to enjoy rap." A boy: "I taught my mom to be independent." A girl: "I taught my dad not to interrupt me." A boy: "I taught my dad not to make cracks about gays."

The relationship between who learns and who teaches has been fairly constant in human cultures for millenniums; you looked at the previous generation to learn how to live. Of course parents and teachers still do a huge amount of teaching, from life skills to grammar, but today children increasingly are teaching their elders, as well. To thrive under conditions of accelerating change, you have to be learning all the time.
A whole series of relationships are becoming two-way streets: The boss has to listen to the employee, the manufacturer has to listen to the customer, the professor has to listen to the student, and the political leader who doesn't listen is likely to be out of a job. Change means that the nature of authority also is changing all over the world.

The transition I'm talking about takes a couple of generations and is moving unevenly through society, but it is already well under way. I think we are now, in this country, beginning to have a college population whose parents already understood that they didn't know all the answers and were curious and ready to learn from their children, so that the kids grew up in a kind of dialogue. That's not to say that it's true of everybody, but there's a shift in ethos.

And my personal favorite:
The slogan I use is, "You are not what you know but what you are willing to learn." Willingness to learn demands respect for others across difference. Puzzling and even disturbing ideas are invitations to curiosity, and the greater the difference the more there may be to be learned. The world is a rain forest of variety full of promise that is at risk of being lost. If one teenager could give his father an appreciation of rap, another may be interestingly articulate about body piercing and baggy clothes. I have argued that the willingness to learn is a form of spirituality. It is a stance of humility, because there is so much to be learned.

This describes a change in the atmosphere and meaning of education that has been going on for some time now. And although some haven chosen to focus on the lack of respect shown to authority figures like teachers, others have seen the positive aspects of this revolution and how classrooms must adapt to it. More support for education as a conversation and equiping students with the skills they need to adapt and learn in an ever changing and "flat" world.

Thursday, August 18, 2005


Today's Philadelphia Inquirer contains a nice analysis of how blogs and other media outlets interact to bring attention to a story that's not being covered in the mainstream media (MSM):
"They're called 'blogswarms' and you never know when they'll attack. Bloggers start taunting and disparaging the mainstream media - or MSM - for not paying attention to a story they deem worthy."

As mentioned in a previous post, the power of blogs is something students can harness as well. As a new blogger, I know how exciting it is when someone recognizes the value of something you've written (Hey, someone is actually reading this stuff!). Realizing you're writing for a real audience about something you care about certainly has an impact on writing and is one of the important elements that is sometimes left out of classroom blogging. One of the reasons might be the potential problems. Could students writing about issues at school that they don't like cause discomfort for some? Yeah, it's called democracy folks! When we empower students to take their place as citizens, these are the risks and rewards. As educators it is our responsibility to make sure students are aware of their rights and the consequences of their actions, along with the benefits of responsible internet publishing.

As adviser of the school newspaper, one of the reasons we give for why sensitive stories and controversial subjects should be covered is so that underground newspapers don't spring up to give voice to student issues that aren't being heard. But there aren't underground newspapers anymore. There are blogs. And if we don't give students a way to voice their concerns in a responsible and constructive way, there might be a blogswarm coming to a school near you.

"Blog pressure and blog reporting are integral parts of the 21st-century information revolution," Malkin said. "Better get used to it."

When the Emperor Was Divine

An interesting article in the New York Times about the growing popularity of this novel in schools. We began teaching it last year in American Studies while doing our WWII unit.
I never really thought about the present day parallels: "What has happened with "Emperor" is what no one in publishing or education can predict: the way an accomplished work of art, though set in the past, captures something essential about the present day."

It should be interesting to explore some of these questions as we read this beautifully written little book. I didn't realize any other schools even read this novel. It might make for an interesting collaboration with a school that has a large Muslim population.

Invitational Education

I just read about this theory and haven't done enough research to know how I feel about this yet. It's briefly explained here.

Invitational Education is a theory of practice that addresses the total educational environment. It is a process for communication caring and appropriate message intended to summon forth the realization of human potential as well for identifying and changing those forces that defeat and destroy potential.
The four qualities of Invitational Education are respect, trust, optimism, and intentionally:
Respect. People are able, valuable, and responsible and should be treated accordingly.
Trust. Education should be a cooperative, collaborative activity where process is as important as product.
Optimism. People possess untapped potential in all areas of worthwhile human endeavor.
Intentionally. Human potential can best be realized by creating and maintaining Places, Policies, Processes, and Programs, specifically designed to invite development, and by People who are intentionally inviting with themselves and others, personally and professionally.

It's certainly intriguing and in many ways in line with the type of classroom environment I would like to create. Seems a little idealistic and abstract on the surface though. I need to know more about practical applications and whether there is a serious body of research behind it.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

American Studies Project

I've spent a good deal of time in this blog talking about my vision, ideas, and beliefs about how education can be improved. Now, with the school year rapidly approaching, it's time to take a much more practical approach and begin to propose how I paln to implement some of this in my classroom. In the spirit of collaboration I hope you will provide me with ideas, questions, criticism, and helpful advice.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I plan to revisit an experiment I began last year in American Studies - a year long interdisciplinary course that combines English and US History. I'm hoping to engage students and parents by making the unit and lesson planning process more transparent and inviting them to participate.

I've also begun to think of this in terms of a long term project that might connect to the required research paper. If we begin the year by having students reflect on their interests, the unique experiences they and their familes have had, and how all this might apply to the themes, issues, events, arts, literature, cultures, and places that we cover in this course, perhaps each student can become engaged in an area that will have meaning for him or her.

After doing some initial research, students can be taught how to utilize news aggregators as a way to keep track of the latest material published on the internet about their topic. They could conduct interviews, collect artifacts, and write reflections on what they discover. They would then publish this all on a weblog, and when we get to the time period or unit to which their topic best relates, the student can be the expert on this by presenting what he or she has discovered. By publishing it through a weblog each student can get feedback along the way from teachers, parents, students and other experts in their chosen area.

Finally, they would examine the impact this topic had for the country in the traditional social studies research paper.


This is a wonderful magazine that is available through an RSS feed. After reading the articles from the current issue in my news aggregator, I think I'm going to subscribe to the print edition. Few articles have articulated the vision I have for the classroom as well as this one entitled "Big Ideas for Better Schools." They identify ten credos that are categorized under students, teachers, schools and community. The magazine plans on publishing a series of essays that will expand on each credo in upcoming issues.
Below are some of the credos I feel are most important.

Engage: Project-Based Learning Students go beyond the textbook to study complex topics based on real-world issues, such as the water quality in their communities or the history of their town, analyzing information from multiple sources, including the Internet and interviews with experts. Project-based classwork is more demanding than traditional book-based instruction, where students may just memorize facts from a single source. Instead, students utilize original documents and data, mastering principles covered in traditional courses but learning them in more meaningful ways. Projects can last weeks; multiple projects can cover entire courses. Student work is presented to audiences beyond the teacher, including parents and community groups.
Connect: Integrated Studies Studies should enable students to reach across traditional disciplines and explore their relationships, like James Burke described in his book Connections. History, literature, and art can be interwoven and studied together. Integrated studies enable subjects to be investigated using many forms of knowledge and expression, as literacy skills are expanded beyond the traditional focus on words and numbers to include graphics, color, music, and motion.
Expand: Comprehensive Assessment Assessment should be expanded beyond simple test scores to instead provide a detailed, continuous profile of student strengths and weaknesses. Teachers, parents, and individual students can closely monitor academic progress and use the assessment to focus on areas that need improvement. Tests should be an opportunity for students to learn from their mistakes, retake the test, and improve their scores.
Coach: Intellectual and Emotional Guide
The most important role for teachers is to coach and guide students through the learning process, giving special attention to nurturing a student's interests and self-confidence. As technology provides more curricula, teachers can spend less time lecturing entire classes and more time mentoring students as individuals and tutoring them in areas in which they need help or seek additional challenges.
Adopt: Technology The intelligent use of technology can transform and improve almost every aspect of school, modernizing the nature of curriculum, student assignments, parental connections, and administration. Online curricula now include lesson plans, simulations, and demonstrations for classroom use and review. With online connections, students can share their work and communicate more productively and creatively.
Involve: Parents When schoolwork involves parents, students learn more. Parents and other caregivers are a child's first teachers and can instill values that encourage school learning. Schools should build strong alliances with parents and welcome their active participation in the classroom. Educators should inform parents of the school's educational goals, the importance of high expectations for each child, and ways of assisting with homework and classroom lessons.
Include: Community Partners Partnerships with a wide range of community organizations, including business, higher education, museums, and government agencies, provide critically needed materials, technology, and experiences for students and teachers. These groups expose students and teachers to the world of work through school-tocareer programs and internships. Schools should enlist professionals to act as instructors and mentors for students.

Sunday Papers 2

One of my favorite weekly rituals is to spend Sunday morning with a cup of coffee or tea and my Philadelphia Inquirer. In between the T.O. coverage there was a couple of interesting articles that look at the complexity of what many see as simple issues.

First was Arthur Caplan's look at Rafael Palmeiro and the renewed steroid scandal in baseball. But this article (by the Chairman of the Medical Ethics Committee at the University of Penn) sees this issue as the first in a series of complex ethical questions we will have to face in the near future: "There is nothing about the reaction to Rafael Palmeiro's downfall that indicates we are ready to deal with the fundamental ethical question raised by his use of steroids: How can we draw the line when it comes to enhancement?" This issue is explored further in this article which is a preview of a new book on the subject by Joel Garreau entitled, Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies - and What It Means to Be Human and in the film Gattaca.

The second article looks at the many gray areas in copyright infringement. This is another area that raises some complex and difficult ethical questions as digital technology becomes more sophisticated. When is copying legal? When is it stealing? And will society lean more toward open collaboration (see Creative Commons)?

It should be interesting to see how these issues play out and to get students to respond to them as well. We try to touch on some of these issues when we do a unit on Dystopian Literature in a junior/senior level English course. Having them examine real ethical questions and how they might effect society in the future helps them to see what the statement the authors are trying to make about society through the novels and stories. Students choose one of the following novels to read: Feed, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and A Clockwork Orange.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Self-Detemination Theory and what it means for the classroom

From the beginning of this weblog, I've been inspired by the transparency and grassroots movements that have taken place in journalism and other disciplines. I thought by applying this to education, students would have more of voice in their learning and feel more engaged in it. In reflecting on my intial efforts to apply this, I've stumbled on to a whole body of psychological research about something called Self-Determination Theory. Basically this theory says that if people feel competent, autonomous, and relatedness then intrinsic motivation will increase and so will feelings of well being. Makes sense to me. A couple of articles apply this directly to education.

The first study conducted by Black and Deci looks at the autonomy of students and teacher support of student autonomy as a predictor of success in a college organic chemisty course. Autonomy in this study is defined as instrinsic motivation. They determined motivation for students to do work for a course through a questionaire. "Individuals’ ratings of the degree to which each reason is relevant for them can be combined to yield a summary score called the Relative Autonomy Index (RAI)." They found that students who chose the course because of intrinsic interest were less likely to drop the course and make adjustments to the requirements. They also found that students' whose RAI grew during the course performed better and that if they perceived that their instructor supported student autonomy they performed much better. They concluded: "It appears that shifts in teaching approaches toward providing more support for students’ autonomy and active learning may hold promise for enhancing students’ achievement and psychological development. To some extent this can be accomplished by having professors become more student-oriented, more accessible to students, and responsive to their needs and concerns.

The second artcle summarized the finding of many studies and looks at ways in which educators can put these theories to use, for it claims that "self-determination theory has identified ways to better motivate students to learn at all educational levels, including those with disabilities."

It draws the following conclusions:
"Students experience competence when challenged and given prompt feedback. Students experience autonomy when they feel supported to explore, take initiative and develop and implement solutions for their problems. Students experience relatedness when they perceive others listening and responding to them. When these three needs are met, students are more intrinsically motivated and actively engaged in their learning.
Numerous studies have found that students who are more involved in setting educational goals are more likely to reach their goals. When students perceive that the primary focus of learning is to obtain external rewards, such as a grade on an exam, they often perform more poorly, think of themselves as less competent, and report greater anxiety than when they believe that exams are simply a way for them to monitor their own learning."

Unfortunately, as I've discussed before, most of my students perform only for a grade and it seems a difficult culture to break. It comes back to an ideal that many teachers aim for: creating lifelong learners. It doesn't seem to me that we are doing a very good job of this.

Challenging Students

I know I've spoken about engaging students as a key element in improving education a lot lately. Empowering students to pursue some of their own interests, drawing from their experiences and involving family and community to create writing and products that have relevancy is certainly an important part of this, but sometimes I feel as though I've sold academic rigor short. I don't want to do that. One of the most important roles of a teacher is to challenge students to look at things from a different viewpoint or present them with material that makes them re-examine conventional wisdom. Beyond using what's in the curriculum, I'm always looking for new ways to present interesting topics and prompts for writing and discussion.

This summer I saw two films that certainly challenged me and got me thinking.
One was called Baraka which I found out is one of a growing genre of movies that began Koyaanisqatsi with in 1982. They have no dialogue or narration, but instead use vivid visuals, music, and editing to make statements and raise questions. Many of them examine the value of progress and technology by contrasting our everyday lives with the natural world or effects on Third World countries. This might work well with the book Into the Wild which examines the life of Chris McCandless who was a bright upper middle class college graduate who threw away all material things to travel the country and spending a great deal of time alone in the wilderness. Many students fail to see any value in his journey and find it difficult to really examine the lifestyle we all live from day to day. Perhaps some short clips from Baraka and other films of this genre would lead to valuable writing and discussion.

The other film was What the Bleep Do we Know!? which although certainly thought provoking might not have any English classroom application. It probably crosses too much into the spiritual realm to be used, but I certainly enjoyed the way they used storytelling, animation, and interview to explain complex topics. In a way it is an expansion on what New Journalism strives to do, except it employs ficticious characters to put a face on the story.

Has anyone had success using unconventional videos such as these to prompt writing and discussion?

Friday, August 05, 2005

What Bloggers can do.

As has been recognized before, one of the values of the blogosphere is to give voice to the voiceless, and bring attention to events that aren't determined newsworthy (for one reason or another) in the Mainstream media. This was illustrated once again last week in the story of missing pregnant woman Latoyia Figueroa. This story was only being covered in Philadelphia until local bloggers such as this one and this one and then the more widely read raised the question about why Natalie Holloway's disappearance was getting so much national media attention while Figueroa was getting none: "She isn't white. She isn't rich. She is a mother. She is also pregnant. And she's missing, and has been for the last 8 days." Enough noise was made in the blogosphere that CNN and others national news organizations began to cover the story. Blogs were even given credit for bringing national attention to the story in this Philadelphia Inquirer article and this syndicated column from the Kansas City Star. The way the media covers missing persons is even going to be the topic of a segment on "Dateline NBC" tonight.

So what does all this have to do with education? Well as mentioned in an earlier post, many are seeing an explosion in amateur creative production due to the new tools that make it easier to create professional quality music, video, and publish new works. Students also have the ability to become activists and expose racism and injustice in a new real world setting. This is an opportunity that education can't miss out on. We can't let our fears about what students might produce keep us from encouraging students to do real work that will have meaning for them and others. We can give them the guidance they need to make good decisions, keep them safe, and allow them to fulfill the learning objectives of the curriculum while still pursuing topics and activities that will fully engage them.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Interactive News Map

Google has developed a mapping software that seems to have all kinds of uses. One that might be applicable to schools is a news map called NewsGlobe that plots stories by location. As describes it: "The tool scans headlines for keywords that identify the location of the story, and then presents them by headline with the location pinpointed. A summary of the story appears when the user hovers over the text and they can click through the the full story on the original news site."
Students can subscribe to different news publications that put out RSS feeds (New York Times, BBC, Washington Post, etc.) and follow the way events are covered by them. This would lead to an interesting study for journalism classes, but also might have uses for any class that is studying a certain region or even local current events. Google Earth also has a bulletin board that encourages discussion from educators and others about how the software might be used in the classroom.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Culture of High School - Time for a Change?

Here's an interesting article that calls for the American high school to be abolished. As a high school teacher I obviously have some problems with this, but the author makes some observations that I find it hard to argue with. Here's an excerpt:

The result, predictably, is the warped culture that holds sway in the halls of most American high schools. Adolescents are conformist, so the culture demands conformity. Adolescents are vicious, so the culture is cruel beyond belief. Adolescents are insecure and anti-intellectual, so the culture despises academic achievement. And, of course, adolescents (or their parents, more likely) adore athletics, and so the culture treats athletic stars and their paramours as its kings and queens.
When a student finally graduates out of this culture, he has undoubtedly gained a smattering of practical knowledge. But after four years in a shallow, conformist world, he is no closer to being an adult, really, than when he entered high school in the first place. Or if he has matured, than it has been in spite of his "socialization," not because of it.
But it's so important for kids to spend time with their peers, the objectors will bleat. Well, yes, time with one's peers is great--but must it be every day, from eight till five and beyond? Surely this is arrant nonsense. Adolescents are messed-up, confused, insecure human beings, each buckling under an individual, angst-ridden burden. Why on earth would it be good for them to spend all of their time with other angst-ridden, insecure, unhappy types?
In a saner world, they would be forced to live with, and as, adults for large chunks of time--making it more likely that they would actually become adults. Such a world would encourage home-schooling, for instance, by easing the economic burden for parents who choose to stay home and teach. It would offer a more flexible, decentralized system of education, balancing classroom time with, say, vocational training and programs allowing kids to work under and alongside adults in local workplaces. It would be a world where adolescents were integrated into society, not ghettoized in the local high school.

My view of adolescents isn't nearly as bleak. I don't find most of them to be "messed-up, confused, insecure human beings," but the effect of the culture Ross Douthat describes seems fairly accurate to me. The idea of radical reform that many have called for recently to fix high schools might involve removing students from this culture for at least part of the day. Creating a more "flexible, decentralized system of education" is vital, I believe, and I think technology and the work of forward thinking educators could produce this. But it certainly won't happen without the courage to make some very radical changes. But what might these changes look like and how would they benefit teens both socially and intellectually? Could partnership between colleges, community, and business (whether in person or online) be part of the answer? And how do you facilitate this while still keeping kids busy and engaged during the hours their parents are at work?

Monday, August 01, 2005

Teens and Technology

A new study from the Pew Internet and & American Life Project was released last week and although there were no big surprises revealed, a clear picture of the way that teens communicate and spend their leisure time emerged.
Here's are some findings I found significant:
87% of U.S. teens aged 12-17 use the internet, and 51% of teenage internet users say they go online on a daily basis. And for high school aged teens the percentages are even higher: in 7 th grade, it jumps to 82% who are online. From there, the
percent of users in the teen population for each grade climbs steadily before topping out at 94% for eleventh and twelfth graders.

One out of every two teens who use the internet lives in a home with a broadband connection. This statistic surprised me and lends more credence to the explosion of online content referred to in the Inquirer article I commented on in a previous post. This is an area that seems to hold a lot of promise for educational uses. By being able to share games, audio and video files and webcast, content and discussions can move out of the classroom. But more importantly we're now entering a time when many students have the skills and tools to produce these products as means to demonstrate their learning and teach others. In fact many are noticing and prediciting an explosion in amateur creativity (as described in this BBC article) that schools and students could, and should be a part of. Another by-product might be new meaningful interactive homework and enhancement activities. A frequent complaint I hear from students is the about the amount and ineffectiveness of homework. In fact, a study summarized here looked into this very matter. They used an interactive homework program to engage students and parents and found it a more effective learning tool and one that students would more readily complete. They also found that parents can play more of a role in high school students' schoolwork through programs like these. "High schools have the capacity to change the way that families support teens' school success. When high schools reach out to involve families, families are more likely to be involved in ways that support teens' success through the last year of high school."

"Instant messaging has become the digital communication backbone of teens' daily lives. About half of instant-messaging teens or roughly 32% of all teens use IM every single day."
"IM is a multi-channel space of personal expression for teens. They typically converse in text, but they also share links, photos, music, and video over IM."

IM is another overlooked technology that has educational uses. Teens are obviously very comfortable with it, and although you wouldn't want it to be used where more formal reflective writing is required, for quick informal discussion and interaction among teachers and classmates it is ideal.

When compared to adults, teens are more than twice as likely to play games online; 81% of online teens say they are gamers, compared to 32% of online adults.
This seems to be a growing area for educational software developers and something that was covered in my interview with Marc Prensky.

I believe that if we want to engage students in new ways we must utilize the formats of communication, entertainment, and information that they are familiar with. An earlier Pew study focused on what they termed the Digdisconnectonect: "Many schools and teachers have not yet recognized, much less responded to, the new ways students communicate and access information over the Internet. Students report that there is a substantial disconnect between how they use the Internet for school and how they use the Internet during the school day and under teacher direction."

These studies taken together offer a portrait of our students and the means of content delivery and areas of interest that compete for their time. Students are regularly reporting that high school doesn't engage them. So rather than try to beat them; let's find ways to join them.

The Sunday Papers

A few interesting articles yesterday from my favorite newspapers the Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times. The front page of the Inquirer featured an article about how broadband technology is changing the way people use the internet to include video footage and even online TV stations. They describe college students who get practically all of their content (news, entertainment, music, information) from the internet and internet only TV stations such as ManiaTV!. What really interested me was the ease that they claimed someone could broadcast, the interactiveness of some of the broadcasts, and the growth and makeup of the audience. I'd like to introduce a broadcast component to my Journalism 2 class and maybe this is a different and less time consuming way to do it.
There was also this column about the textbook the Philadelphia School district will be using for it's new mandatory African American History course. This topic is a favorite of mine and is important in the interdisciplinary American Studies course I team teach. One of the problems I've found in teaching African American history to mostly white students is they have a hard time understanding the impact of our history on the present. They seem to think that racism and discrimination were in the South and the past and if there is any discrimination today it's against whites. The African-American Odyssey is a college textbook being re-written for tenth graders and seems to do a nice job clearing up some popular misconceptions. The article even includes a quiz (derived from the book) with some surprising answers (I only got 7 out of 10 correct). Did you know that as of 1830 there were over 2,000 slaves in New Jersey?
The New York Times also had a useful article to help get through to these kids. It is a study from Penn State that used DNA evidence that showed how most of us are of mixed races. Too bad we couldn't start the school by letting each kid discover his or her true racial makeup. I'm sure it would engage some students in African American history in new ways.

Finally, there was this story in the New York Times that questions the usefulness of college education programs. It claims that "for decades, education schools have gravitated from the practical side of teaching, seduced by large ideas like 'building a caring learning community and culture" and "advocating for social justice.'" It calls for education programs to become more focused on what goes on in the classroom believing that will help reduce the large number of teachers who leave the profession in the first few years. But while I acknowledge that there might need to be a better balance between the practical and the theoretical, I don't think too much of a swing would be helpful. Teachers need to be aware of the big picture in education beyond their content material and how to prepare for standardized tests. Knowing the history and scope of education and the various theories supporting it, creates reflective teachers that work to engage students in the content in new and more exciting ways. I'm glad that I took a mix of education and English content courses in graduate school. Many of those education courses made me rethink what I do in the classroom and why I do it.