Monday, February 04, 2008

Show and Tell in the BrainWorld

As I mentioned in my last post, I retuned to present at the Indiana Computer Educator's Conference last month.  This time was different.  Aside from six years of advances in technology, this time I decided to take two students with me to present.  The response has been extremely positive.

My students have been invited to speak at other schools, and this past weekend, I was invited to be a guest speaker for Dr. Curt Bonk's graduate course in Instructional Technology, offered through Indiana University.  Curt has since added me as a guest contributor to the online component of the course.

I've also generated a bunch of new content on my website,, and, perhaps the most exciting of these is a free podcasting tool I've created.  GinormousFeedster is an RSS feed generator that produces iTunes compliant podcast feed code in less than five minutes.  If you're interested in podcasting and you don't have the latest and greatest in software, check it out.

All of this stuff make me think back to what was my favorite part of Kindergarten and 1st Grade--show and tell.  Do we ever really grow out of our desire to share what we know, what we like, what we're passionate about with others?  Thinking about my own teaching practice and that of my peers, do we do enough to nurture that desire in our students?  How often do we unwittingly squelch it?

Let's face it.  A student who wants to share with peers is a student who is engaged and excited (and, yes, maybe sometimes a show-off, but that's okay).  Engaged and excited learners, in turn, make for a more vibrant learning environment and a culture of creativity and inquisitiveness.

So, I say, bring back show and tell, for all students.  Why should elementary school kids have all of the fun?

Monday, January 21, 2008

Return to the ICE Age

This week I am returning to the Indiana Computer Educators Conference as a presenter. My first ICE gig was in January of 2002, when I presented as a participant in the Indiana University School of Education TICKIT Program. Lately, I've been thinking back over the past six years of technological, professional and personal growth, so I thought I'd jot some of those reflections down here.

At the January 2002 ICE Conference, I presented my first (and only) webquest. In this activity, students were asked to put together a virtual Art Gallery in PowerPoint. I was just learning to create web pages, so I was eager to show off my new found technical abilities. My webquest was comprised of 35 (yes, THIRTY-FIVE) web pages, each with custom graphics, rollover effects and any other eye candy I could throw at it. Although I would later learn that my "webquest" was nothing close to the sort of thing Bernie Dodge had in mind, it was a far cry form the photocopied worksheet version of an artist research project I had passed out a couple of years before as a student teacher.

For all of its excesses and shortcomings, however, that webquest taught me a lesson in the value of simplicity. Once doesn't need to throw in everything but the kitchen sink to generate interest and spark enthusiasm.

As I spoke at that conference in 2002, I was already thinking ahead towards the next project. I wanted to start using an online classroom and I also wanted to do digital video with my students. I combined the two into a Public Service Announcement project for 8th Graders. I set up an online classroom at which is still on the web, still free to use, and devoid of advertisements. Nicenet has a conferencing feature that is quite similar to a blog. It was then and remains today a really great, free web tool.

I asked my students to generate a half dozen or so topics, social and political concerns, that we would discuss on Nicenet. I set up the classroom so that I was the only person who knew the identities of the participants. I even asked some adults--teachers and college professors--to participate. The discussions were spirited, although respectful and remarkably mature for 8th grade students.

After a week of online discussions, my students broke up into small groups, chose a topic from the discussions, and began crafting 90-second public service announcements on their topics. In my 7 years of teaching, I have rarely seen a classroom come alive the way it did during this unit, and the work these students produced remains among the very best I have ever seen.

Over the next several years, I did my best to introduce at least one new technology-based activity in my classroom per year. Here, it was not just a matter of putting a new spin on a previously used technology, but an attempt to integrate some new or emerging technology into my classroom practice. I did online writing prompts, streaming video demonstrations, and blogs, all with varying degrees of success.

I've come to realize that technology alone cannot make the learning experience. This became crystal clear to me when one of my current students remarked to me that he thought PowerPoint was "boring." Back in 2002, my students PowerPoint. It was new. It put their ideas up on the video projector or TV for everyone to see. Sure, they all overdid it with the transitions, animations and sound effects, but that was the fun of it for them.

Now, it seems, PowerPoint is passe.

Back in 2002 I felt very strongly that technology had the potential to fundamentally transform education.  I still believe that, however, six years after my first ICE Conference, I can see more clearly why instructional technology can and does fail.  When technology is viewed and used simply as a new conduit, it loses its magic once the novelty wears off.  Just because students are viewing educational content on a computer screen rather than in a book, on a television, or a filmstrip (remember those?LOL) doesn't effect student motivation and performance significantly.  Students who type papers in MS Word don't really enjoy writing any more than they did back in the days of the electric typewriter.

The transformative power of technology resides in its potential to transform the relationships between learners, teachers and content.  The transformative power of technology resides in its potential (which is rarely used) to take learning outside of the classroom and, indeed, out of the school building altogether.  Let's not forget that, among many things, current technology is primarily a tool for communication, for sharing ideas, for connecting to other people, other cultures.  But it's not just about saying your piece, it's also about knowing you've been heard, it's about feedback.  This is why and remain two of the fastest-growing sites on the web.  

So, this year, I've kind of gone back to my roots.  Not to the 2002 webquest, but to that video project.  With the advent of, streaming video, and podcasting, my students now look forward to something that was far less accessible to my 8th graders of 2002--a world-wide audience.

Now that I think about, though.  I still have one or two of those old PSA's on my computer.

Better late than never, I guess.

This video, "Get Over It,' addresses issues of tolerance.  The main brain behind this was an 8th grader named Nick Hurm.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Blogging for Education Brainstorm

Yes, at it's heart, blogging is writing . . .

But you can share links, pictures, and even audio/video.

What possible uses could you find for blogging in your classroom?

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Just so you know . . .

The previous post is one in a series. For the full effect, start with the post titled Finding a Classroom Practice that Flows.

Stepping Aside as the "Chief Art Critic" in the Classroom

Over the course of the first couple years of my teaching career, I saw a need to distance myself from the role of Chief Art Critic in my classroom. This is a role that perhaps too many art teachers perform with too much relish. I could see very clearly that the more I played this role, the more I was denying my students one of the most important lessons art has to teach us all--how to critically and honestly evaluate ourselves and the work we do.

Every art teacher will recognize this scenario. You are sitting at your desk or working with a student. A student approaches you, project in hand, and sets the project in front of you. The student says nothing and just looks at you, as if he or she is waiting for you to say something. This is what I would call the "silent request for the rubber stamp."

In this scenario, the student doesn't actually ask for your approval, but that is exactly what she or he is doing. Here's the remarkable thing about this scenario, which is extremely common in the art classroom (and probably in every classroom). The roles of "teacher" and "student" are so firmly ingrained in both teachers and students that the student does not need to vocalize their desire for evaluation and approval of their work. Both student and teacher understand the roles so completely and are so comfortable with them that words are not necessary. After several dozen of these unspoken requests for my "rubber stamp," I decided to make a priority of breaking down these roles in my own classroom.

So, here's a scenario that is fairly typical of the way I began to handle these situations. Just for the record here, Ashley is no student in particular. She is an amalgamation of a whole slew of students, male and female, with whom I have had this type of exchange

(Student approaches. Sets project in front of me.)

Me: Hey, Ashley. What's up?

(Ashley remains silent. Glances at her project. Looks at me, waiting for my response.)

Me: How's your project going?

(Ashley shrugs.)

Me: Oh, now, really . . . You don't know? Well, how do you feel about it?

Ashley: (finally speaking) I don't know. (pause) Is it good?

Me: Hmm. Lemme look. (Pause) What do you think?

(Ashley shrugs again.)

Me: Okay, well, tell me . . . what do you like best about it? What's your favorite part of the painting?
(Yet again, Ashley shrugs.)

Me: (with great seriousness) He, you know when I was your age, I used to shrug all of the time like that, and you know what happened? (She shrugs again.) I started to develop this nervous habit where I would just shrug for no reason at all. (I shrug) And it's gotten to the point where I'm not even aware when it happens (I shrug again). And even when I know it's happening (shrug) I can't (shrug) stop (shrug) myself. (shrug - shrug).

(Ashley starts to smile and tries not to laugh.)

Me: Okay, so what part of the painting did you enjoy doing the most?

Ashley: (hesitantly) The waves in the ocean, I guess.

Me: Really? Wow, you know, I would have guessed that because they look really great. It looks like you had a lot of fun doing them. The brush strokes have a lot of energy in them and it looks like you were being really playful with color--the different shades of blue, aqua, and I see that there's even a little bit of purple that you splashed in there.

Ashley: Yeah, I like purple, but I wondered if it was wrong for me to put it in there.

Me: No WAY! It looks awesome. Hey, don't be afraid to follow your instincts like that. What do you think of the purple?

Ashley: I like it.

Me: Good! and you know what? If you like it, other people will too. I mean, I like it.

(Ashley is smiling more)

Ashley: Okay, but what about the dolphin?

Me: Okay, what about it?

Ashley: Well, it doesn't look right.

Me: Why not?

Ashley: I don't know. I just don't like it.

Me: Okay, well why not? I mean what is it specifically that bothers you about it?

Ashley: Well, it just looks fake.

Me: What do you mean by that?

Ashley: I don't know. It just looks flat and, like, there's no water splashing around it. I mean the waves look really real and the dolphin . . . it just looks, I don't know, . . . fake.

Me: Okay . . . Well, I have good news and bad news.

(Ashley's eyes widen. She's waiting for the shoe to drop)

Me: You're absolutely right. The waves do look great. They're very convincing. And this dolphin isn't fitting in right now. It's kinda flat, and I think you're right that it needs more detail like splashes and stuff.

Ashley: so . . . what's the good news?

Me: That's it. It's both. You just told me what's bothering you about the painting and that's your key to how you can make it better, how you can make it something you're more satisfied with.

Ashley: Oh. So, I'm not done?

Me: Hmmm. Well, that's entirely up to you at this point, but would it satisfy you to say you're done right now?
Ashley: Not really.

Me: Good. Y'know, you've worked really hard on this for a week now. You owe it to yourself and you owe it to the painting to make it the best it can be.

Ashley: I know.

Me: Hey, honestly, it's up to you. Don't do this for me. Right now, you have a really cool painting, and you know exactly what you need to do to make it even cooler.

Ashley: Well, I was gonna give it to my mom for her birthday next week.

Me: All the more reason why you should make it something you really, really like. Look, your mom is going to hang this up in your house, right.

Ashley: Yeah, she hangs up all of my paintings.

Me: Well, if you don't work on this dolphin, it's going to bug you every time you look at this painting. Save yourself the anguish (laughing)

Ashley: (laughing too) Yeah, okay. But how do I make the dolphin look better, more real?

Me: Well, take a look at it. What do you think it needs?

Ashley: Well, splashes, but I already said that. (pause) It doesn't really have any shadows.

Me: Right. You have a nice mid-tone here, but it does need some darker shadows. Can you think of anything else?

Ashley: (pause) Highlights. It needs reflections because it's wet and the sun would be reflecting off its skin.

Me: Exactly. Hey, let me know if you need any advice on mixing colors, but I would say try your colors out on a scrap of paper first so you can see if they look right. Okay?

Ashley: Okay. Thanks.

Obviously, I could have saved a great deal of time by simply "rubber stamping," by approving of the waves, telling Ashley to "put some shadows and highlights on the dolphin and a few splashes of water around it," and sending her on her way. However, that's teaching by the rules of the constant sum game, and contrary to appearances, both teacher and students lose out.

Teaching by the rules of the constant sum game (where you assume that the time you take following a student's individual interest is time you lose in teaching the standards) is teaching for short term gain and not with life-long learning in mind. I would argue that, for many reasons, constant sum game teaching is less effective and, despite appearances, more work and less efficient for teachers.

The "Constant Sum Game" of Teaching

As I look back, I can see that the problem was simply a matter of falling prey to the same type of thinking that devours so many teachers. "How will I address my subject area standards if I allow students to simply 'explore'?" As so many teachers do, I was thinking if I reduced my "teaching" time that students wouldn't learn. I conceived of classroom time management as an economics problem, a constant sum game of time where I had the choice of either letting kids explore or teaching to the standards. Quite simply, it's not that simple.

The constant sum game is one in which the gains and losses of participants always add up to a constant, the constant sum. It's like sharing a pizza. If Mike cuts himself a huge slice, he leaves less for his friends to enjoy. It doesn't matter how you slice it in the constant sum game. The parts always have to add up to a complete pizza. So it goes with the thinking that teaching is a constant sum game. "The more time I allow students to explore, the less time I have to teach. There's only so much time (the constant sum) in the school day." Fortunately, the constant sum game of teaching is just that, a game. It's easy to quit playing and start a different sort of game, one in which it's possible for all participants to win.

The fact is, teaching and learning is not a tangible thing like a pizza, and it is rarely, if ever, a constant sum game of intellectual economics. I suspect that if it were, I would have never gone into teaching. When we teach/learn, information does not flow in a straight line from teacher to student, like water flows out of a faucet into a pitcher. This is what Paulo Friere points out so eloquently in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. What I found I needed to do was to fully adopt my intrinsic philosophy that I was a facilitator and a co-learner in my classroom, not a teacher in the traditional sense. Furthermore, I needed to define my own goals and my role as a facilitator more clearly, so I would have the freedom of mind to simply work with my students, rather than worrying about following a scripted lesson or whether I was addressing standards.

So I began to view my role in my classroom more as a resource person and as a general goal setter. I did not give up teaching in the traditional sense entirely; rather, I simply revised my thinking about why I was teaching in the first place. All teachers, traditional or non, teach because they want their students to be successful. I decided to take that quite literally as a motivation for me as I taught art concepts and techniques. Rather than taking a subject-centered approach and presenting, say, two-point perspective as "a concept you must learn as you study art," I presented it as one concept and one technique among many other spatial techniques in two-dimensional art that students could use to make satisfying and successful works of art. I began to see that, as the teacher/facilitator, I was more valuable to my students when I provided them with an array of art concepts and techniques (tools, if you will) that they could apply to their specific project goals as they saw fit. Contrast this to the "cookie cutter" approach where the art teacher provides one "tool" (two-point perspective) and demands that students fit their creativity to the constraints of that one tool to create a project.

This is where I find the whole contemporary notion of accountability in education to be a big, fat red herring. The dominant thinking is that standardized testing hold students and teachers accountable to a certain degree of excellence. Unfortunately, politicians, parents and way to many educators have, to use the vernacular, "dank the kool-aid" on this one. While I wouldn't go so far as to completely discount the value of testing, I would assert a different perspective, that just as testing sets standards and goals for students to reach, it also places limits on exactly where they reach and on how high they climb.

Think of it this way. When we attempt to quantify learning in terms of test scores and percentages, we are setting up a system that, by its very nature, places limits. Barring extra credit (which is a bogus idea in my view anyway), it's not possible to score better than 100%.

Now, think of this a slightly different way. An eighth grade student scores 100% on a comprehensive final exam in American history. That's a perfect score, right? Does that really mean that this very bright 8th grader has a "perfect" knowledge of all American history?

Maybe all of this is a semantics game--"100%," "perfect score," "standards," "accountability"--but here's the crucial point. External standards of accountability create a situation wherein we are training students to be externally motivated. We are teaching students that learning is a constant sum game, and it is not. It's as if we set an academic "pizza" in front of them, and when they've consumed it all, they're done. Study after study has proven that the best and most meaningful learning is the product of a student's intrinsic motivation. The best and most productive people in the workforce are those who are intrinsically motivated to do their jobs to the best of their ability. The question is whether we want students and workers to jump through hoops, to meet a standard, or to pursue their own learning and work with a sense of gusto. Should school and work merely be a matter of paperwork and accounting or should it be the sort of "optimal experience," where intrinsic motivation, engagement, focus and meaning are at their pinnacle?

First-year Reflection

It occurred to me that you will, most likely, be viewing these postings in reverse order of their writing. Just so you know, they are all of a piece, beginning with Finding a Classroom Practice that Flows.

*** *** *** *** ***

During the summer after that first semester of teaching, I did a great deal of thinking, reading, and reflecting. I examined what had worked (some things had) and what had not (most of the things I had tried to do). I began thinking that teaching is, to a large degree, finding a balance between the freedom students need to be creative and intrinsically motivated and the structure of academic content. For the next four years, that would be my main focus as a teacher, finding that balance, or, rather, embarking on the life-long pursuit of fine-tuning that balance.

Towards the middle of that first semester, I bought a copy of Drawing with Young Children and Teens by Mona Brookes. In addition to having written a popular series of books on drawing and teaching drawing, Brookes runs a franchise of art schools throughout the country. Brookes' ideas amalgamate those of Betty Edwards' Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain with what I would characterize as a "self-centered" approach to making art. I don't mean self-centered in any pejorative sense. Rather, Brookes encourages students to create art for their own enjoyment first. She stresses the notion that when we make art to please our own internal sensibilities, we make art that others will enjoy as well. Moreover, she suggests that we are most engaged in our own art-making when we are working from our own emotional, creative, and intellectual core.

This last notion has become a centerpiece of my approach to teaching art--encouraging my students to nurture their own internal critical sensibilities. Here again, I was faced with the balance dilemma. How would I balance the elements of art, the principles of design, art history, and the technical aspects of art with the individual, internal aesthetic sensibilities of 30 students per class? How do we, as teachers, balance the demands of the curriculum with the needs of our students?

Finding a Classroom Practice that Flows

When I started teaching, I was committed, perhaps foolishly to a completely democratic classroom environment, one where students exercised a nearly complete freedom of choice with very little restriction. I believed--once again, perhaps foolishly--that students could and would make the best and most appropriate choices regarding their own learning.

I was simultaneously completely right and completely wrong. 8th grade students and younger are completely capable of directing their own learning, in theory. In practice, in the particular context where I was teaching, this was not possible without guidance. What I had not considered was the fact that, for the past six to eight years, these students had rarely, if ever, been afforded the opportunity to exercise the freedom of choice I wanted to give them. They weren't used to doing that at school. They were accustomed to being told what to do, how to do it, and when to have it done. When I set them loose, this type of freedom in a classroom was so absolutely foreign to them that they simply reveled in the freedom, completely devoid of focus.

For the next several posts (or the next several dozen), I want to explore my own thinking about the balance between freedom and structure in the classroom. Although I am approaching this from the perspective of an art teacher, I suspect the issues I would raise are not exclusive to the teaching of visual art alone or even the Arts in general. I would claim that these issues are at play in every subject, in every classroom regardless of grade level.

I hope you will read and, more importantly, respond.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Anarchy in the Classroom? Not really.

I taught middle school for five years, and it always astounded me how much documentation teachers threw at students on the first day of class. I mean, imagine you're 12 years old, excited to see your friends, to meet your new teachers and arange your new locker. Then, for nearly 8 hours, teachers hand you endless lists of rules to read or listen to. Over the course of that first day, any enthusiasm is severely muted by the repetetive, hours-long stream of do's and don'ts.

For this reason, I have always tried, as much as possible, to be a facilitator rather than a teacher, in the traditional sense of the word. I have never bogged students down with long lists of classroom rules and expectations, opting instead to place the onus on the students themselves, meaning that common sense and common courtesy should guide student conduct and that a student’s sense of self is the best standard for their performance in class.

This is not to say I have no behavioral guidelines, but they are simple and emphasize the basic foundations of a close and productive community:
• Trust
• Integrity
• Perseverance
• Inquisitiveness and creativity
• Compassion
• Self-awareness

I have always believed that codification of behavior standards in terms of do’s and don’ts is a short-sighted solution to classroom management. To a great extent, this teaches children to operate in a binary system of right/wrong, reward/punishment, or carrot/stick. In the traditional rules-based system, students are indoctrinated to modify their own behavior in response to the “or else.” Students learn to make choices based almost exclusively on self-interest, on what will happen to them if they make the wrong choice, and not in terms of doing what’s best for everyone, including themselves.

If, as teachers, our goal is to nurture democracy through knowledge and citizenship, it seems me that we defeat this purpose by teaching students to conform to a classroom “rule of law” rather than allowing them to exercise and develop their own personal sense of ethics and social responsibility.

Admittedly, what I am about to say is mostly anecdotal, however, I guarantee that the “rule of law” system generates no better student behavior than an ethics-based system. Moreover, I am certain that the ethics-based system produces better, more engaged and enthusiastic learning.

I make this assertion for several reasons. Fisrts of all, under the “rule of law” system of classroom management, teachers place themselves squarely in the role of Chief Enforcement Officer. This is a terrible and counter-productive role for teachers to choose for themselves. I have known a great many teachers who so firmly implant themselves in the role of “classroom cop” that they spend literally hours each day documenting rules infractions, counting demerit points, and assigning the necessary consequences. In five years of teaching middle school, I never wrote a behavior referral and never had to make a negative call home to a parent.

As teachers, we are authority figures by default. We’re the oldest, most experienced, and often the largest people in the classroom. However, it seems to me that we have a choice about how we define “authority” for ourselves. We can, as many do, choose to view authority in terms of power and control, in terms of “authorizing” what is acceptable and what is not. Or we can define authority in terms of our expertise, experience, and, yes, wisdom. Put simply, we can choose to be a cop, or we can choose to be a resource person, a counselor.

Obviously, we can all conjure up worst-case scenarios that might occur in the absence of “rules.” I will simply conclude with this question: do we not, as a culture, tend to celebrate the adage “rules were made to be broken” as a motto for those who think critically and creatively, for those who innovatively solve problems, and for those who boldly blaze trails into new territory?

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

eduBlogging made easier

VERY COOL! I just discovered an Apple Widget that alloows users to easily publish new blog posts from the Apple Dashboard. If you're posting to multiple blogs, this thing is especially handy because you can select any one of them from a dropdown menu in the widget.

It's a simple matter of just typing and clicking "post." Very very cool.

Friday, February 24, 2006

begin the begin

"A birdy in the hand for life's rich demand"
--R.E.M., "Begin the Begin"

As I launched this blog, this quote just popped into my brain. The more I thought about it, the more approriate it seemed.

R.E.M.'s lead singer sings this line at the opening of the band's fourth album, Life's Rich Pageant. As I thought about this title, a couple of things started swirling around in my head.

This blog is devoted to teaching and learning with technology. Although it's primary focus is for teachers, I hope and expect that students and parents will post here as well. "Life's rich pageant" and "life's rich demand" seem to encapsulate what learning, discovery, creativity, and meeting our daily challenges are all about. In this historical moment, when technology is transforming our work, our leisure time, and our schools, we are presented with a rich pageant of opportunities for learning and discovery that lead us to powerful ways to creatively address the equally rich demands of our lives.

My philosophy is really quite simple. Technology has the potential to effect profound transformations in the relationships between teachers, learners and content. The computer is much more than a new means of delivering content. The web offers every single student and teacher the capability to publish, to communicate, to form discussion groups, to collaborate (and so on well )beyond the walls of a classroom. Just as technology brings a world of information to our fingertips, so too does it also invite us all to share what we have with this new global brain trust.

I invite all educators, students, parents, and anyone else who cares about the role of technology in learning to post comments here. Share your ideas, cool resources, and exciting web tools.

My hope is that this blog will be someplace where you can discover new things and share what you know.