It’s a New Day

It is truly difficult to describe my feelings today

I’m having breakfast alone, in the Swan Room, at the Westin Hotel, near the Atlanta Airport.  Today is the first general day of the Georgia Educational Technology Conference (GaETC).  I’ll ride a shuttle over to the convention center in a bit and watch Ron Clark’s keynote address.  After that, I will join the other featured speakers (Patrick Crispen, Steve Dembo, Chris Moersch, Bernajean Porter, Tony Vincent, Brent Williams, and Tammy Worcester) and other distinguished educators, as we set about presenting more than 250 sessions.

With all of this going on, it will be difficult to remember the significance of this day.  Not only did we elect a new president of the United States yesterday, but we elected a man, who, when and where I grew up, would not have been allowed to drink from the same water fountain as I. 

We have a long way to go, a lot of catching up to do.  But yesterday, we turned around to face our future.  We have chosen to walk and climb forward — and for the first time, in a long time…

I am proud of my country!

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The Beaten Path

“Building your own personalized travel guide couldn’t be easier. In five simple steps you tell us where you’re going, where you’re coming from, your name, and when you’ll be there. That’s it!”

It’s very early in the morning (I neglected to change the clock by my bed back from daylight savings time), so I do not recall how I ran across this, but the first thing I caught, in these early hours, was an announcement from Dave Sifry, the founding CEO of Technorati.  His new endeavor is Offbeat Guides.

He explains in the announcing blog post from his Sifry’s Alerts,

Our first product is quite simple: On-demand, Personalized Travel Books. Travel books that are tuned just for you, only about the place that you’re going, with local information like festivals, events, and concerts that are going on during the dates of your stay. We put in local maps that are tuned to where you’ll be, and we even customize the guide based on what we learn about you, like the timezone differences from your hometown, electrical plug differences, embassies and consulates nearby, differences in tipping policies, exchange rates, local weather forecasts, and much more.

They include 30,000 cities destinations from around the world, which include New York, Paris, Rome, and Tokyo — and Newark, Paradise, Romeoville, and Tokorozawa.

The tool needs to know where you are going, when you will be there, where you are coming from, where you are staying, and your name.  From this information, it constructs a travel guide that is geared to your specific locales, any local festivals, events, or concerts, and contextualizing the material to your place of origin.

As we continue to dream about the possibilities of textbook 2.0, which is not only digital, but pliable — and we imagine book services where the teacher (and even students) can pick and choose among modules of content, assembling webtexts that are specific to instructional needs, such individualized content generators may be one of the most appealing aspects of such a service.

The Offbeat Guides are not free.  A printed book will cost $24.95 and a PDF edition is $9.95.  You can get both for $24.95.  As you shop for modules for your North Carolina history, specific teacher-generated reports about the origins of various generations of immigrants might be highlighted, both by the publishers and by procedural recommendations.

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TechForum Beyond the Hype Panel: Question 3

A Flickr image by R. Martinez, merged with a Wordle build from the RSS feed of the latest blog articles that include “more time for teachers.

It has been a few days since I’ve had time to get back to this, and this question is particularly irksome, though it’s something that we’ve all talked about — almost constantly.

Identify the two most significant barriers to using connective technologies in schools, and suggest a strategy/strategies for overcoming them.

  1. Access to information
  2. Time to react, reshape, and adapt

We live in an information-abundant world, where many of us walk around with Google in our pockets — a profound transformation from the information scarce world that I grew up and even taught in.  Our schools at that time were defined by their limits, what could be taught within the four walls of the classroom, the flat space of a chalkboard, and the two covers of a textbook.

an aside, I wonder that beyond the relevance of digital, networked
content for learning, fund-constrained schools may find that digital
content and learning opportunities might actually be more
cost-effective than traditional products and practices.

Being able to live, work, and prosper in an information-abundant environment requires, above all other things, the ability to relentlessly learn, and this is what our students should be doing now — learning in schools that are defined by their lack of limits.  We need to assure that every learner, on both sides of the teacher’s desk, have nearly unfettered access to global content, and tools for accessing, working, and contributing back to that content.  This will be achieved through a
new vision for education, courageous leadership, and acceptance that a forward-reaching society has no choice but to pay for it.

Providing teachers with three or four hours of planning time every day will certainly be more difficult to achieve.  It runs more counter to schooling-as-usual than tossing textbooks for laptops.  Yet, when
considering the possible benefits to our students learning experience, boost to the profession, and relief to the families of classroom teachers, it behooves us not to easily set this suggestion aside.  If we are not willing to at lease consider changes as radical as restructuring the school day/week to give teachers more professional time, then we’re simply not going to make it.

There are several ways that this could be accomplished.  Simply require students to spend less time in the classroom by redefining homework, structuring more engaging, project-based work for students that results in learning. With more planning time scheduled into the day, we would likely have more talent coming into the profession.  The establishment of a trained and capable paraprofessional league of educators and/or an apprenticeship program would free up master teachers for planning,
collaboration, research, materials development, liaising with families and the community, professional development, assessment, and more.

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My Fieldtrip to the Seattle Academy

Originally the site of the first Hebrew Temple in Seattle

Admittedly, it is not the best practice for a nationally and internationally renowned expert and public speaker to confess this, but sometimes I feel out of my league.  Take my most recent gig, delivering the closing keynote address for the National School Boards Association’s T+L conference, one of the true anchors of the ed tech year.  I suppose it went well.  Even Gary Stager, one of my frequent critics and teachers, said that although he disagreed with some of my assumptions, it was a good presentation.

But even standing before all of these education and ed technology leaders paled compared to the day before, when I worked with educators at the Seattle Academy of Arts & Sciences.  I do not believe that I have ever worked with, or known a school where the spectrum between vision and business-as-usual has sided so strongly with the visionary.

There are so many details that escape me, as at least part of my attention remained on the next day’s keynote.  But I remember, clearly, my conversations with Jean Orvis, the school’s director and head of school, apparently since its inception in 1983.  She recently returned from a series of meetings on standards for accrediting independent schools reporting to the faculty that, “We must be paying attention to this video game thing.”  Since then, students have begun to develop  games using Multimedia Fusion and Alice.  One of my presentations for the faculty was about video Games in education.  But, that it was the students who spearheaded their attention to gaming says a lot about the school.

I spent several hours touring the school with Vicki Butler, Director of Academic Technology, and Fred Strong, Dean of Faculty.  It became almost immediately clear that this school was already practicing many of the philosophies of schooling that I advocate, and they were doing it outside of the realm of “technology” — at least as we usually discuss it.  For them, the community is the platform, not the motherboard.  To be most accurate, they have been a 1:1 school, grades 9-12 for a number of years, requiring students to own a laptop computer.  But that almost never entered into the conversation.

An old-fashioned animation table
A working 16 millimeter projector
Classroom as fishbowl

The school itself, consists of several buildings scattered across several city blocks, in a gentrifying section of Seattle called Capital Hill.  They include buildings, originally designed as schools, and converted retail establishments — one looking much like a former laundromat.  But the unconventional appearance fades when you step inside and see learning in action.  According to their web site, the school’s teacher to student ratio is 8:1, with a maximum class size of 18-20.  But I saw very little class going on, and the teaching that I saw was just as frequently coming from students.  You see, one of the foundational principles of the school, and one of the more intimidating factors to a staff development presenter there, is what they call performance culture.

Students write papers and take tests.  But they also are required to perform what they learn.  This includes formal presentations.  But the arts are also a huge part of the school’s philosophical roots.  Vicki (or Fred) told me about a number of their students attending a Microsoft retreat, discussing software, and that because of their comfortable, confident, and articulate interactions with the professionals, they were invited to become regular participants with the group.

Strong informed me early on that the arts and physical education were considered to be equal in all ways to the core academic subjects.  All students are required to take art (drama, music, visual arts) and PE every day.  I managed to finagle extra time in the arts sections of the building, where I met a drama teacher, who, with a colleague is writing a text book, an art teacher, the film teacher, and I waved to a dance instructor through a huge window.

Windows seem to be a big part of the school, as many, if not most, of the classrooms are exposed — fishbowl-style.  Strong insisted that this gives the teachers a sense of performance, as other teachers and tour subjects can easily observe. 

I had an especially enjoyable conversation with the film instructor, Cheryll Hidalgo.  I joked about the presence of a darkroom, sixteen millimeter projector, and animation table (same type Walt Disney used), but that was mostly to shield my growing admiration for their program.  Although they provide some structure for how students do their work (produce their videos) the mode of operation is learning, and students are allowed and encouraged to learn from mistakes.

I was especially interested in the fact that although the school boosts seven doctorates, 58 master , and 92 bachelor degrees, a majority of the faculty and staff are not certified teachers.  This is not, in itself, impressive.  What impressed me is that they keep so many of them.  The number of lateral entry (North Carolina’s term for teachers who come in from other industries) who stay more than two or three years is minuscule.  Teachers at this school do not merely have permission to be passionate and inventive, but it’s encouraged.  A math teacher, Gary Anderson, shared with me his theory of forgetfulness.  Having taught himself programming, and becoming a something something module developer for Moodle, is creating modules to measure and address student forgetfulness.

There is so much more to share about the school, but I want to close here with a realization that I had during several of my conversations.  When students (and teachers) are learning and working, and they know that the are or will be, in some way, performing what they are learning to an audience of peers, and that those peers are accomplished critics, then assessment is something that you do to yourself every day.

I hope to have the chance to visit the Seattle Academy again.  I hope you do too…

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