Sunday, May 29, 2011

Living Facebook Experiment: Embracing the Tactile

by John T. Spencer - A Reflection on the Living Facebook Experiment

I could spend an entire day living in my mind.  Give me a day off at Starbucks and I'm good.  On some level, I could spend an entire lifetime avoiding the terrestrial here and now.  Let me blog and write, listen to Sufjan Stevens and speak in front of people.  I can debate ideas, tell stories and ask hard questions.  I can join chats on Twitter, post quirky updates on Facebook and manage life from a fourteen inch screen.  Not only can I live this way, but often times I do live this way.  And the crazy thing is that people reward me for it with a virtual thumbs-up or a retweet.

The Living Facebook Experiment (does it need to be a proper noun when what we are doing often feels so overtly improper?)  forces me to engage in social interaction with my real voice and my two hands.  Whether I'm writing on a window (it's a long story regarding why we avoided walls), scribbling intant messages on a church sermon handout or pulling plants in our Suburban Farmville, I'm stuck with real-time and real-space and all the insecurities that go with it.

On one level, the experience is humbling. I have clumsy hands.  Okay, not entirely.  I can sketch and paint.  But it's not effortless.  It's not as simple as dreaming up an imaginary fantasy land for a novel.  The tactile side of life always feels slower and more prone to mistakes.  And that's why I need to relearn the importance of the five senses.

On another level, it's liberating. It's fun.  I forgot the feeling of sliding a letter into an envelope, licking the nasty glue and sliding the note into the mailbox, thus sealing its fate forever.  I forgot what it was like to use an Expo marker, not to illustrate a social studies concept, but to draw a virtual cigar or cup of coffee.

I need to live with my hands.  I need to learn to look and to smell and to listen.  I need to remember that life does not happen virtually.  So, do I abandon the online vapor me?  Do I keep away from social media and instead pursue social interaction?

It doesn't have to be either/or.  In fact, it shouldn't be either / or.  It is deeply human to pursue the imago, to live in the mind and to dream up fantastical ideas that may, at some point hit the terrestrial terrain before our eyes.  And yet, we are of the land and in the land.  Sometimes I forget that there is more complexity in the dirt between my finger nails than in the entire programing of my iPad.

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink.  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer

Friday, May 27, 2011

Learning About Culture Through Dance

by Shelly Blake-Plock

Thinking today about Sir Ken Robinson's thoughts about the travesty of dance not being taught in school. So, here's a short video of a small group of some of my 9th grade history students who are trying to understand the Renaissance... through dance:

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

IEP Recommendation: Mobile Access

By Shelly Blake-Plock

As a parent of a dyslexic elementary schooler who happens to be obsessed with all things tech -- especially iPods and WoW -- I've been thinking recently in terms of what his future might look like. And I keep coming back to the idea that mobile tech is the single best vehicle for addressing the confidence and practical needs of many of our kids with learning differences.

I don't mean to say that the tech itself is the 'difference', what I am trying to say is that the tech -- and especially the personalized and always-on facet of mobile tech -- will provide the connection to the tools, the teachers, and the interventions that will make the difference in a way both unique and also requiring a re-thinking in terms of how we offer relevant services to students with learning differences.

And two things need to happen if we are to make the most of what the current digital situation represents. First, we need to explain to developers what we and our students need from them. Even better, we should be calling for Ed Schools to provide instruction in app making and digital design so that we -- the teachers -- have the capacity to program our own teaching. App design and personalized programming might do very well as a standard requirement for a master's degree in education.

Second, we need to push now for an end to the access issues facing all of our schools: public and private. So let's start by writing mobile tech into the IEPs. Let's make districts come to the realization that mobile devices and mobile access are the point-of-entry for learning right now. Let's put state funded devices in the hands of kids who need them and let all kids bring their own INTELLECTUAL EMPOWERMENT DEVICES to class.

My son learns better and understands better when he has access to the net. And given some common sense simple provisions, there is absolutely no reason why he nor any kids like him nor any kids at all in this day and age should not be allowed the resources the world has to offer them and that are offered anywhere but within the confines of a 20th century school building.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Question of the Day: What are the five most important qualities of a 21st century school leader?

By Shelly Blake-Plock

Question of the Day: What are the five most important qualities of a 21st century school leader?

This is a question inspired by the current principal search going on at my school. It's been interesting to watch and hear the reactions of different constituencies to different candidates. Would like to know what all of you would look for in a leader.

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Face to Facebook: 5 Thoughts on Education Reform

by John T. Spencer

For the last ten days, I've been participating in a Living Facebook Experiment, where I do everything in-person that I do on Facebook.  While I initially saw it as a chance to rethink the role of technology in my life, I'm now recognizing how it's changing my perceptions on education reform.

#1: The Dangers of Customization
Observations: Facebook, Google and other media have encouraged me to grow myopic in personalizing my settings. I realized this awhile ago with Pandora, when I began to listen to a narrower version of indie folk rock. I saw this recently in a TED Talk. It was as if the author had been articulating the dystopia I was trying to describe - a world in which the "relevant" and the "personal" replace the important, the uncomfortable and occasionally the boring.  For years I have advocated customized learning based upon students' interests and personality.

Teacher Take-Home: What I'm wondering now is how to balance what students want versus what they need and how to expose them to the painful, the boring and the disruptive side of learning while still  meeting their individual interests.  I used to think Pandora would be the ultimate model for a school.  Now I'm seeing that I would rather have a school that looks like a rock festival where students can roam the live music with constant exposure to new ideas.

#2: It Isn't Neutral
Observations: Social media initially appears to be transcultural and trans-geographic.  Yet, there is a significance in what a medium omits and promotes as well as how it organizes information.  The end result is a distinct brand-based culture that permeates the entire experience.  I feel as if I "go to" Twitter and "go to" Facebook even if it is simply the tap of a plus-icon on my Chrome browser.

Teacher Take-Home: I'll be working with ten 21st Century Classrooms next year in a hybrid, one-to-one learning environment.  I've been thinking about collaboration and communication using social media.  I've been dreaming up project-based learning opportunities.  And yet, this is forcing me to rethink some of my initial ideas.  I'm recognizing the danger in social media to colonize and socialize.  I'm recognizing the need to not only criticize the media but also the transcultural experience created by a media platform.

#3: The Power of Friendship
Observations: This project is forcing me to rethink the meaning of friendship. I have hundreds of "friends" on Facebook, but I'm starting to question what all of that actually means. As I interact with my "friends" offline, I'm struck by the notion that I am sometimes more transparent online than I am in person.  I am far more guarded, private and awkward in my interactions with neighbors than I am with my PLN.

Teacher Take-Home: I'm wondering what it means to "friend" former students and wondering about the relational distance we should expect.  In particular, to what extent should I still have a voice in my former students' lives? Moreover, what does it mean for students to "friend" students in other parts of the world?  How authentic can we be without the physical geography?

#4: People Are Profound
Observations: I'm fascinated by the depth of strangers. Sometimes I get into this place where I think that my friends are the only deep thinkers. I've been surprised by the deep conversations I've had with people I didn't know.  I never thought this would be the case, but living Facebook has caused me to see the depth of humanity in a way I hadn't seen before.  In other words, for all the trash people talk about social media, I am struck by the thought that I am living better when I am living Facebook.  Scary, perhaps, but true on some level. On the other hand, I'm often disappointed by the shallow nature of social media.  Often it feels as though the deeper conversations aren't occurring on Facebook and that much of Twitter is used to share resources rather than ideas or questions.

Teacher Take-Home: What does it mean to use Twitter or Facebook for in-depth, critical thinking projects when adults often model a shallow, take-this-quiz-on-which-Phil-Collins-song-you-are-the-most-like?  What does it mean to encourage students to ask hard questions about their universe when they have so often used these social media platforms for entertainment?

#5: Obsession With Numbers
Observations: I care too much about numbers.  I am bummed to see that I have only ten subscribers.  However, I am surprised to see that I'm getting over two hundred page views a day.  I care too much about retweets or @mentions.  And that's the subtle seduction of social media - the way it encourages me to seek my self-worth through popularity-based data. It's been a humbling experience (for example when I wear a t-shirt advertising my friend count) to see just how arrogant I can be about my online influence.

Teacher Take-Home: How do we pursue a humble reform when proposing bold steps toward changing education?  How do we communicate in blogs, conferences, podcasts and books in a way that recognizes the human element rather than the data-bound pie charts?  Have we, in the educational technology community, simply bought into a new data-bound narrative that is not much better than the current metrics used to rate students on standardized tests?

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Question of The Day: Online Teaching

By Shelly Blake-Plock

Starting in the Fall, I'll be teaching a year long high school Latin course entirely online. Would like to hear some advice and thoughts from teachers and students who have conducted classes on the web; what's been your takeaway? What are the pitfalls? What are the benefits? How did you make the learning happen?

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Design as Literacy

by Mike Kaechele

This week I had the privilege to attend TEDxGR. One of the speakers was Mickey McManus of the design firm MAYA. He talked about the need for a new literacy based on design. He mentioned SEL and STEM as being important emphasis in education but felt that there was something missing. He sees the missing piece as human centered design. His company starts with people and designs products based on people's needs. Their main clients were teaching their design principles to CEOs in successful companies. They decided to try teaching these skill to students in middle school students as an experiment. Check out the results:

This is a short film about a pilot program we (LUMA) ran in Columbus, Ohio. It shows the value of human-centered design thinking and real world problem solving to educating the next generation of innovators. Teachers were weeping by the end of the week and kids that wouldn’t even make eye contact at the beginning of the camp were presenting ideas based on real user research to heads of foundations and industry.

Now I am not sure that I think that this is a "new literacy" as what "is" or "is not" literacy causes many arguments that I am not sure that I even care about. What it does seem to be to me is an excellent example of a complex PBL environment. It is student driven, authentic, with both real world audience and problems. Students work in groups and use creative problem solving to design and have to present their ideas to testers where they receive feedback and then have to re-design until their idea is a working prototype. So it may not be a new "literacy" but I am positive that we need more of this kind of learning in schools. 

A Day of Living Facebook

by John Spencer

The Premise

It was a novel idea.  The protagonist would meet a physical manifestation of the online version of himself in the form of a method actor trying to practice for Death of a Salesman.  The actor would slowly achieve more than the protagonist in every category until, in the final pages, the protagonist recognizes what the actor will never experience: intimacy.

After sketching out the plot, I abandoned the plan and instead thought about a new project.  I decided that I wanted to live this idea and record it as an experiment.  So, Christy and I decided we would do Facebook in person:  tagging Poloroid pictures, handing out birthday cupcakes to friends, sharing a movie, conducting a neighborhood #chat about education.

Our goal would be to compare our offline experiences with our online interactions, asking ourselves:  How are we shaped by the medium?  How do we change in our language?  To what extent are we developing a perfectionist alter-ego?  (One that doesn't hawk loogies out of a car window or stammer when he's nervous).

The Experiment: Students

I begin the experiment with the concept of "I like," "Let me comment," and offering a thumbs up when I approved of a person's statement.  Students recognize the experiment within the first five minutes of class.  A few roll their eyes. Most of them joined in, if for nothing else, a little end of the year novelty.

I begin our Philosophical Friday with, "Are people born creative?"

"I think it's our limitations that lead to creativity," a boy responds.  Ten students offer a "thumbs up."

A girl shakes her head and adds, "Just to comment on what he said.  I disagree.  Little kids have few restrictions and they are really creative.  But school and parents are the ones who force us to not be creative."  Eight students give a thumbs-up and I can sense that she's hurt.

When we move to our blogging free write, one student writes, "Everyone is acting like Facebook in class today.  It's so rare to get someone to say 'I like what you said.'  We're dying for affirmation, but it's never there.  Teachers give compliments, but we never get it from each other."

Another student comments, "I don't like the fact that I can count the thumbs up in our philosophical discussion.  We shouldn't quantify ideas like that."

The Experiment: Adults

During my prep period, I stop by 7-11.  I'm tired and I need caffeine and the convenient store offers enough Diet Coke to kill a horse.

"Good afternoon," the employee says.

"I like that," I say with a smile and a thumbs up and, like a yawn, it goes viral.

"Good choice on your chip selection," a lady tells me.

"Oh, I love adding Cherry Coke to Diet Coke," a man says.

So it goes, in one of the coldest relational climates, a small dose of optimism reframes the space within minutes.  We talk to one another.  We affirm each other.  In small ways, perhaps, but I leave the place feeling surprisingly refreshed.

I continue the "I like," thumbs up and "Let me comment," concept through our staff meeting.  Interestingly enough, nobody figures out the experiment.  However, I notice a few other staff members giving themselves the permission to affirm one another.


It has me wondering if maybe the allure of Facebook is that it meets my primal need for affirmation of both my ideas and my identity.  I want a metric for how I'm doing; just a little quantifiable evidence that who I am and what I think matters in this world.  Narcissistic?  Perhaps.  But sometimes I wonder if people are dying for some kind of feedback in our offline world and yet our social norms prevent it from happening.

What if we asked permission to comment?  What if we gave a thumbs-up or a handshake or even a hug more often?  What if we said verbally, "I like what you said?"

At the same time, a day of living Facebook forces me to recognize the limitations of the medium.  Everyone is "nice" on Facebook.  There's a "like" but not a "dislike" button.  It's a place where everyone is nice and everyone likes everything.  Shallow, perhaps, but always pleasant.  In other words, Facebook is Paula Abdul on steroids.

For me, Facebook is a pleasant dystopia, offering intimacy at arms length.  It's a personal playground where I can be Social He Man, master of a universe where I can scan through "this is what I'm having for dinner" and comment on what I deem to be important.  It's a customized community that centers on me.   Living Facebook is forcing me to recognize just how passive-agressive I can get online.

The reality is that I need interruptions and laughter and body language.  I need stutters and stammers and interrupted speech.  I need the vapor of language that doesn't hang around in ones and zeroes like ticker-tape for our lives.

I'm not sure where my 40 Days of Living Facebook experiment will lead me.  However, after one day, it's forced me to examine not only the social media I use, but my own humanity.

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink.  He recently finished two books, Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and Drawn Into Danger, a fictional memoir of a superhero. You can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Best Thing About Chromebooks: It's Complicated

by Shelly Blake-Plock

The best thing about Chromebooks has nothing to do with the actual physical devices themselves. It has nothing to do with how much they cost. It has nothing to do with the fact that they are made by Google or Samsung or Acer or whomever. The best thing about Chromebooks is what they suggest about the way we are now thinking about computing.

Computing used to be about hardware and software. Now it's about connecting. So when you hear people naysay technology, you might point out that, to an extent, they are actually naysaying the connection between people.

There is of course the issue of money money money and all the big players who stand to make a buck off our tech needs.

I was talking to a school's IT guy today and he said: "Look, I'm vendor-neutral." And that makes sense to me -- in terms of a way to approach tech. Because when it comes down to the brass tacks, the connection is more important than the device; in the same way that my used car gets me where I'm going just the same as Joe Schmoe's Ferrari. The highway is more important than the car.

But you can never really be vendor-neutral any more than you are neutral when you decide to buy a car. There are no generic cars. There are no generic tablet devices (despite what some of them look like).

There's also the matter of what the devices do and how they connect us socially. That's not generic either, though to maintain those connections, we are somewhat beholden to the general terms and operating structures of FB, Twitter, etc.

Read an article in the NY Times today about backchannels in schools. And it was immediately apparent both in the article and the comments that the majority of the critics of social media in education have no experience actually using social media in education. And as I suggested later on Twitter, that's pretty much like those folks who will protest a movie they've never seen.

At the same time, I understand where the critics are coming from. They are a bit jaded (once again) about the idea of "change" in education and yet nervous about what it could mean (this time) in terms of shaking up their worldview (and their paycheck, to be frank). But I think their criticism would be better levied against the producers of the means -- for example, arguing that the big tech and big textbook money should be removed from the educational landscape and that they should all do business as non-profits or social ventures (fat chance... ie getting the change there, not the levying of criticism) -- rather than against those teachers and students who are re-imagining the ways we connect for the sake of learning in a connected world.

This connection thing is complicated, no?

Thinking about it, the real importance of the Chromebook is not the vendor, it's not the device, it's the fact that it makes the prediction that the Web of the future is not just a place to go look for stuff, or even a place where we can share stuff and network, but rather it's a place where everything is done. And the social technology that the current Web represents is the reality of the world -- it's not auxiliary to our reality, it is completely merged with it. To the point where we don't need a download of a song much less a cd; we just need a connection and access to Cloud based playlists. We don't need to be accepted to MIT to learn about physics; we just need a connection and access to their open courseware. We don't need to wait for the mainstream media to tell us what's happening in the world; we just need a connection and access to the social stream.

And that direct connection to the net: as the place where we do our work, express our feelings and opinions in the public arena, and grow as networks of engaged citizens -- that direct connection is what the Chromebook represents. And it's not like its unique to the Chromebook. It's inherent every time we work on the Cloud. It's just that the Chromebook magnifies that by making it the "sole" purpose of the device.

It also represents the reality that we depend so much on tech companies to provide that access. And as teachers, we depend so much on tech companies to provide the way to make that connection. It's a position I think many of us are plenty wary of. But we are living in an era where the means is so technologically specific and nearly impossible to reproduce without the industry, yet the potential outcome is so great.

We don't get 'On the Road' without the automotive and oil industries. And we don't get the blogosphere without the tech industry.

Again, this connection thing is complicated.

In the end, as we become more connected, we inevitably become more dependent upon the providers of our connections. So we have to go forward vigilantly, not scared of the connection and not naysaying reality, but as truly aware citizens. And we're gonna have to think about what this whole connection business is all about.

Because this connection thing is complicated.

In the practical, as educators, we should be considering the following: how do we help teachers understand the change in the culture of computing and how do we best help them become empowered users?

And in the philosophical, as educators, we should think about this: how does the new idea of computing -- Cloud-based, app-driven, mobile -- affect my relevance and reality as a teacher in the physical world? How does this connection thing complicate my identity?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Question of the Day: On Building a PLN In an Age of Mainstreamed Social Media

Question of the Day: "Is It Harder Now In 2011 to Build a PLN Than It Was Before the Mainstreaming of Social Media?"

In my experience, teachers understand the value of building a PLN. A common problem many have, however, is just getting started. And for many teachers just starting out, it seems as though they may have even more struggle than many teachers did just a short time ago.

Though engaged in all sorts of online endeavors since the earl 90's, I only began in earnest putting my education PLN together back in 2008 through minor blogging endeavors and some freelance writing. It was in the winter of 2009 that I got into Twitter and I recall that for about the first three months, I didn't even make a post. I remember reading the tweets and blogs of other folks and I recall becoming so full of anxiety whenever I would leave a comment. (I probably checked to see if anyone commented on my comments several times a day at the beginning...)

It was only with the creation of this blog and my cross-pollination of content into the Twitterverse that I started to feel more comfortable with social media -- despite the fact that I'd been engaged in one way or another going all the way back to the days of BBS boards. Things started picking up. Eventually (eventually!) I found my own voice, and of course now I feel completely at ease in my writing, in my commenting, and in my tweets.

I wonder though if it was easier engaging in a PLN in early 2009 -- before the mainstreaming of social media -- than it is today. We often talk about how events in the summer of '09 changed the public perception of social media. From the China earthquake to the Iranian protests to the founders of Twitter on the cover of Time magazine to FB hitting 500 quadrillion members (slight exaggeration), that summer saw social media go big. And I wonder if that actually makes it more difficult to engage.

And I'm not talking about the number of followers you have. That's relatively arbitrary. I'm talking about the quality of connection you are able to make. I'm talking about the ability to foster professional -- and personal -- connections via this huge and ever moving arrangement.

I would like to see the community here give some practical advice to those folks plugging their user ID into Twitter for the first, second, or third time. What should they expect? How can they leverage social media to get the most good out of it? Why is it worth their time? And is it harder today (or not)?

Let's hear it in the comments and get some conversation going.

Sunday, May 08, 2011


by Mike Kaechele

It is a beautiful, sunny Mother's Day in Michigan. I got my first nap of the year in my hammock, listened to the Tigers win on my stereo (yeah I still have my big speakers from college in my shed), and my son went fishing in the lake.

My yard

Then my son made a potion. He has been begging me to do it all week. He mixed vinegar, Oxi Clean, baking soda, cinnamon, sugar, flour, and ketchup. He then applied it to my dandelions and apparently they will be dead tomorrow.

My son loves science and experimenting. When is the last time you experimented? When is the last time you gave students time and space to experiment?

Now I am off to help my daughter make a potion. Experimenting is contagious...

Friday, May 06, 2011

A Short Survey on Schools and Attitudes Towards Tech

Dear readers,

If you could take a moment to fill out the following short survey, it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance!

- Shelly

Click here to take survey

Thursday, May 05, 2011

To Hack or Not to Hack?

by Shelly Blake-Plock

Yes or No:

It is the duty of the teacher who believes in networked learning to, if necessary, hack and proxy and to encourage hacking and proxying for the purpose of getting students into a place where they can connect freely online despite whatever institutional filters and blocks might be in place in the school, district, etc...

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Authentic Assessment: Let's Publish an eBook

My Latin III students and I sat around this afternoon chatting about what to do with the last month of their high school Latin career. They decided they wanted to write and publish a book about their favorite Roman poet -- Catullus.

And they don't want to fake it.

By the end of a 45 minute session, they had chosen two editors-in-chief, worked out assignments ranging from writing and translating to public domain picture vetting. Two students took the lead figuring out how to publish an eBook that would be available on Amazon; by the end of class, they had figured out how to get an ISBN number and were talking about how to distribute any money from sales to charity.

They set up a Google Group for organizing, and a Tumblr and Twitter account to promote their work and to connect with folks interested in what they are doing. As I understand it, they want to set up a video streaming channel to talk to other Latin students; and they are looking at different ways of putting a book together.

Finally, they are going through all of the translation and critical analysis they've done all year and they are editing it all into something that can stand on its own.

This is authentic assessment. It's assessment directly integrated into the process of "the making of the learning". It's assessment that will likely live on in Amazon comment boards and archived chats long after I've done the work of giving grades. And it makes something as potentially arcane as ancient poetry into something with which the students can work and make new things.

They'd love it if you followed their progress at @CatullusDivided and soon on the YouTube channel where they will be documenting their experience.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Digital Literacy Objectives: A Starting Point

by Shelly Blake-Plock

Nothing provides a better forum for learning to understand what the new media is all about than the discussion tabs on Wikipedia articles related to current events. Here's a starting point, for example:
Hello students, today's topic is
Objective: Students will be able to demonstrate digital media literacy by analyzing and explaining the discussion that has surrounded the decision-making process in the editing of the Wikipedia article on Osama Bin Laden in the wake of his death.

I'd like to know what you all could/would do with this sort of thing. I'd love to see a wiki resource developed to help teachers use the Wikipedia discussion tabs in planning and facilitating lessons designed to help students learn new media and develop their digital literacy.

Anyone interested in a project?

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Culture-part II

by Mike Kaechele

We had some interesting pushback in the comments of my last post about creating a culture of responsibility in schools. As I read and responded to comments I realized that some people were interpreting my post as one change to make to a traditional school setting. But what I observed at the school was a re-interpretation of how to do school.  So I thought I would share the values of a New Tech school by comparing it to a traditional school. Changing only one of these things in a school will not have the same effect as all of them working together.

Click here for enlarged view

What would you add or subtract to these values? Does seeing all of these things clarify how this school creates a culture of responsibility? Leave a comment and I will share what I think is understated in my next post.