Wednesday, September 29, 2010


We were putting the finishing touches on the letters to our Senators and several students had just finished sealing and stamping. That's when one 14 year old boy asked me: "Where do I put the stamp?"

Friday, September 24, 2010

Sending Snail Mail from a Paperless Classroom

My kids are using paper this week. Two sheets per kid, actually.

This week's unit in Freshman Human Geography was on forced migration. As our case study, we looked at the events of the Sudanese Civil Wars and the Darfur Genocide.

We watched two striking films: God Grew Tired of Us and The Devil Came on Horseback. The first is about the plight of the Lost Boys of Sudan, the second about the situation in Darfur that arose out of the Civil Wars.

Then we looked deeper, using the resources of Google Maps, Radio Dabanga, PRI's The World, New York Times, and the BBC. Students looked at survivor accounts and explored the resources of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum on genocide, violence, and witness.

And we blogged and discussed what we had learned.

All of this was done paperlessly. And most of it could never have been done in a pre-digital classroom. But now we come to the stage where we must put pen to paper. Because there are somethings that the digital medium does better than the analog, but there are somethings that pen and paper can still do that you just can't do with an email or a Tweet.

Things like getting noticed by a US Senator.

And so my students are taking everything they have learned and all the stories, discussions, resources, and realities we have digested over this unit, and they are sitting down, putting pen to paper, and they are writing letters to their Senators. They are writing about what they've learned and they are writing about their own personal reactions to the genocide in their own words. They are asking the Senators what they've done, what they are doing, and what they propose doing to assist and empower the victims and to bring the perpetrators to justice. They are learning what it means to play an active role in democracy and they are learning about the limits and realities of one nation's influence over the destiny of another.

And they are writing letters. Not because they don't have access to digital means, but because they do have the ability to produce what in these days of massive digital issue campaigns might be more effective in being something that gets noticed: a handwritten letter.

This has not been an easy unit. I've seen kids cry. I've also seen them smile along with John Dau and his Sudanese compatriots. I've heard them ask why they didn't know this was going on. And I've heard their questions and their frustration that something like this could happen.

As for 'Teaching Paperless'? Well, two sheets of paper per kid and a handwritten and heartfelt query is well worth it to engage them in that kind of learning.

Because, as I've said from the beginning: this paperless thing isn't about the dogma of paperlessness; it's about dynamism. It's about change. It's about using the connections to create situations where learning can take place. And sometimes the best way to do your part to effect change -- or to see the limits confronting it -- is to send a bit of snail mail.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Saying No

"No, I will not tell you the definition of 'austere'."

"No, I will not tell you where Laos is."

"No, I will not translate that for you."

"Do it yourself."

Been thinking about this recent TED talk by Sugata Mitra ever since catching it over at Will Richardson's blog. And over the last week or so, I've really been putting into action many of the ideas inherent in the talk. Most important I think -- and this is on top of a ton of important realizations in the presentation -- is the idea that if we want students to engage with learning, we won't tell them the answers.

Now, I work in a 1:1 environment. Which means that every single student in this school has a machine sitting in front of them that gives them access to the collected knowledge of recorded human history. So why would I treat them as if they do not wield such immense power?

And as an experiment, the way I've chosen to get them to realize the potential of what happens when they combine the power of their brains with the power of that access is to just say "no".

"No, I'm not going to define that for you."

"No, I'm not going to spell that for you."

"No, I'm not going to find that for you."

"No, I'm not going to repeat myself five times slowly for you."

You want to succeed in learning? Then learn to activate your own capacity to learn. Figure it out. Use that thing sitting on your lap and the connection to the world that it represents. And stop leaning on me; because soon enough I won't be here. And it will just be you and the world.

I asked a student yesterday if that made sense to her. And her response was simple, elegant, and telling. She said:


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Homework: From Chills to Thrills

So there's this debate that goes on in my head. It's about homework. And whether/how and what/when to give it. I think about how I've handled assigning homework over the years, and it's chilling for me to think just how lousy I used to be.

Because I used to be a homework freak. In my early years teaching, I was that guy who insisted students do problems #1, 3, 4-6 and then I'd check 'em the next day. I'd give homework before even reading the questions myself. And I felt fine with that. Because I really thought that so long as the students were 'working' they were 'learning'. So I piled it on.

And while I certainly learned a lot about the mechanics of grading homework, I'm not sure I did much more for my students than increase their stress and decrease their sleep.

So, I've sort of come around. I still give homework -- or more properly titled 'work that needs to get done on your own time' -- but these days I like to think that I've replaced the arbitrary with the essential and the busy-for-busy's-sake with something the students can actually 'use'.

These days, the homework I give isn't based on some arbitrary idea of how much work a kid should do 'at home' to reinforce something we did in class, but rather it's a matter of asking the students to do something necessary to prepare themselves for the next class. Homework becomes an act of preparation -- and hopefully sparks some anticipation not for seeing what you 'got right or wrong', not for seeing if you can jump through that next hoop, but anticipation for taking part in the next day's discussion, activities, and learning.

I want homework to be a cliffhanger. I want it to be the device at the end of the chapter of every thriller that won't let you put the book down until you've read the whole thing.

The key is that it has to make you want to continue.

It's like in life: if you have a meeting with a really interesting character, you prepare for the meeting -- you might review material and jot down notes, maybe talk to an associate beforehand to make sure you've got your bases covered, and hit the Web to make sure you understand both the material and the objective of the meeting. Your preparation is done in anticipation for the meeting and because you care about the meeting and genuinely want to talk about the matter at hand, you prepare out of a sense of thrill.

Yes, I said 'thrill'.

I want homework -- or work done beyond the limited time that I've got 'em in my classroom -- to come with a sense of thrill. I want it to accompany a sense that it's really helping one get in the right frame of mind to engage with what we're talking about in class.

Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes the most complex thing on paper turns out a dud and sometimes the most simple thing turns out to have some real teeth. One way or the other, the trick in preparing kids to prepare is to more often than not get the teeth rather than the dud.

And it usually comes down to simple choices.

Consider a photography class. Is it a better use of my time and my students' time to have them go home and read a photography manual or is it a better use of time to ask them to take pictures? Sort of depends on a lot of factors, but I know which one is more 'thrilling'.

Consider English class. Is  it a better use of time to go home and answer questions out of a textbook or is it better to read a poem, jot down some notes about it, and discuss it with friends on Twitter or Skype? Again, in 'real-life' does anyone actually get a thrill out of answering canned questions? Yet there are bookclubs everywhere. And why is that? It's because people love to talk about what they are reading. They don't love to be graded on how they answer questions, they just love to talk. And in talking and discussing, they learn. And in this social media rich environment, it's downright backwards to refrain from tapping in to that.

What's a better use of time in history class: practicing the 'proper' way to write a DBQ or listening to the news and current events for 10 minutes each evening so that the next day when you come into class we can actually talk about what's happening in the world and why it's important to understand that what's happening now has a history behind it? Anyone can learn the format of a standardized answer. So who cares what anyone has to say in a standardized answer? It's a mystery to me that we allow random readers on an AP exam to tell us how well the children we engage with everyday understand a subject. That, my friends, is an affront to our professionalism. Furthermore, it makes for really boring and life-draining homework.

So I ask myself: why in the world would I do this to my kids?

And that question is the one that as a history teacher, I've most been mulling over endlessly.

A few days ago, we were talking about 'conflict' in one of my Freshman classes. I put a handful of place names up on the screen -- Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Tibet -- and asked the students if they could tell me anything about recent or past conflict in these places. And the one that really got me was Afghanistan: out of 35 or so Freshmen in two different sections, only two or three kids had any idea what conflict was currently going on in Afghanistan.

And it makes me wonder what kind of homework they had in middle school. It makes me wonder how a 14 year old -- living during wartime -- doesn't realize they are living during wartime.

I don't know. Maybe the two are not related. But maybe they are. Maybe we get so fixated upon the kids knowing what's in the book that we neglect what's in the world.

One way or the other, I'm thinking about what homework means and I'm thinking about how not to give it just out of a sense of obligation, and about how not to refuse to give it out of a sense of dissatisfaction with it's results, but to fundamentally change the way the kids and I approach it.

In that history class, for example, we're going to spend the year learning and discussing history in class, but as for homework I want them listening to daily podcasts from around the world about events going on right now. I want them to understand the history in every living event. I want the world -- in real-time and live -- to replace their textbook.

Because we don't live in a textbook world.

And we wouldn't want to.

This year, I'm gonna try to use a bit of chance to create asymmetrical understanding. That is, I'm not going to plan the questions -- and I'm certainly not going to plan any solutions -- before we sit down and listen to what's actually going on. I'm going to let current history lead my history class; and I, of course, as a person living in that history have no idea where this all leads, but like a researcher employing grounded theory, I really don't mind looking at something and examining it before deciding according to my own varied theories what the thing is. I'm going to use my own confusion and sense of wanting to understand -- I'm gonna use this stuff to my advantage.

Because I myself don't learn anything when I just spit out what I think it is that I am supposed to know.

Having read the arguments both for and against homework I can't help but try to think of it not from the teacher's point of view, but from the student's. If I were 15 years-old taking a class, I know that I'd have a better time understanding what was going on if I were prepared. I also know that completing boring (even worse -- patronizing) textbook work every night would drive me insane. So, if the teacher asked me -- given my busy 15 year-old student schedule of school plays, sports, band, family commitments, etc --  I'd pretty much say that I'd want to be prepared for class and that if that meant doing some prep at home, that would be fine. But don't give me homework out of a sense of obligation. And don't give it to me just as a way to get a 'grade'. Give me homework because it's going to help us get stuff done. And let's get stuff done that's going to thrill me.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Question of the Day: Accepting Change

And the question of the day is:

Do you teach your students how to accept change?

All 'hows', 'whys', and 'what-fors' graciously appreciated. Would love to hear how this applies to different subjects and different ages. Share your thoughts.

A Peek Into What We're Doing in Class

Just giving you a peek into the kinds of stuff we're doing this year in Human Geography class. Right now we're working on a unit about language and migration. Here are the last two posts from my class blog -- I think you can get an idea about some of the stuff we're talking about as well as see some of the resources we're using.

Recap of Indo-European Language Discussion


What we did in Section 2:

2. Played a game where we had to give directions in Urdu to a blindfolded friend.

3. Looked at the history of Indo-European language; (Here's a link to the Indo-European language map.)

4. Used Google Maps Streetview to explore places where Indo-European languages are spoken.

5. Discussed how English and Urdu are related.

Tonight, please finish up the Language Region Google maps. We'll use those next class. And remember to check our Twitter feed for announcements/updates. Thanks.

Language and Humans


What we did today:

1) Review of how a human geographer can use the "Soda Pop" map to analyse migration patterns. Here's a link to the map:

2) Listened to a podcast about Dual-Language Schools:

3) Debated whether immigrants to the USA should have to learn English.

4) Used Google Translate to read news in German and Korean.

Here's the podcast to listen to and summarize for homework: (20 minute program -- spend about ten minutes writing brief three or four sentence summaries of each part of the program).

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Making Connections: A Little Soda-Pop Story

Generic Names for Soft Drinks by County

A note here to folks getting this via a reader, you definitely want to check this out on the site: so that you are sure to get all of the pictures; this just won't make sense without the pics. 

The map here is pretty amazing. Color-coded, it shows the national distribution of terminology used to describe soft drinks. You'll notice some telling facts. For example, the thin swath of yellow running down an otherwise red Florida's coast. That's East Coast migrants (aka retirees) bringing their slang to Florida. And notice which state seems most pluralistic? Yup, that's all those military folks from across the country huddled together in New Mexico.

Maps tell a story. And that's what my Human Geography students and I talked about today. We talked about how you could lay a map of something as seemingly innocuous as how people describe soft drinks over the context of patterns of human habitation and find a telling correlation.

They were pretty blown away.

Until somebody said, "But how do we know that's accurate?"

So we decided to do a little informal test. The 9th graders and I tweeted out the following:

Question from Freshman class: Hey world, what is the generic name you use for a softdrink? Please give name & yr location. THX! #JCHUMANGEO

And then we started chatting about the accents and dialects of different folks in different parts of the country. Had a nice discussion. And then I remembered to check to see what had come in via Twitter.

And I saw this:

Tweets 9/9/10

How's that for a little confirmation?

In real-time, sitting in a classroom in semi-rural Maryland, my 9th grade Human Geography students reached out to the world, asked it a question, and got a response.

We looked through the responses -- many of which included little stories of people's own lives and migrations -- and compared them to the map. The map proved most accurate.

Now that's what I call 21st century education: analyse information, check it against the real world in real time, and evaluate what it all means.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A Paperless Survival Guide to Managing the Occasional Tech Snafu

Things go wrong. So it's always best to be prepared when they do.

One of the things I've found, especially with teachers new to working in a live social tech environment, is the fear of the tech breaking down and said teacher being stuck twiddling the proverbial thumbs.

So here's a shortlist of things you can do (or should think about) when broken tech brings the pain.

1. Prepare tabs of all sites you plan to lead students through in advance; this way, should your network go down, you can still manage through the majority of your web content. Students should also save offline syncs of info-style pages regularly accessed -- like e-books, encyclopedia entries, etc. In fact, tab-prep can suffice as a pre-classtime requirement for students.

2. If you have both wired and wi-fi networks available, consider setting up a small local hub in your room to connect computers should the latter go down. Or if you have your own portable 3G hotspot, share it.

3. Should the network fail while using Google Docs or while writing blog posts, have students dump their work into a word program and work there until the connection is re-established (this is what Gears should have been able to do). Anyway, make sure that your students know to do this from day one, it will save a lot of headaches.

4. I realize this could be considered a controversial one, so I won't tell you what to do, but I'll make a suggestion that you think about making "educational fair use" temp downloads of those YouTube videos you want to show. While I don't publicly condone hacking, there are plenty of easy-to-use and easily-Google-able resources that will help you do what you need to in a pinch.

5. Find alts. If you need a backchannel and Twitter gets scrambled, try TodaysMeet. There are plenty of Web 2.0 sites made specifically for education, as well; search through Richard Byrne's site for ideas.

6. Design assessments based on students both collaborating and playing to their individual strengths. If your network is shaky, you might be able to have a few kids online while others are working offline. Rotate it up, let kids share tech, for the sake of argument consider the parameters of a shaky network an opportunity to experiment with group dynamics and new forms of collaboration.

7. Let kids access the Net via their phones and personal Internet devices.

8. Have students create any and all new accounts -- i.e. Twitter, Google, YouTube, Jing -- from home or from the library. All new account registrations basically work the same these days, so just give the students the info they need and have them set up their resources as homework. This gets rid of the problem you often encounter in a classroom when trying to make multiple accounts simultaneously under the same IP address. There's nothing more frustrating than having an entire classroom of kids fail at trying to set up online accounts just because of security and redirect issues. It's a waste of time; so save time and have them do it on their own time.

9. Be prepared to improvise. And I'm not talking about flying by the seat of your pants. I'm talking jazz. You've got to practice the skill and hone the craft of improvisation everyday in every class so that when things do go haywire you're not completely screwed. If it were up to me, I'd make "Authentic Improvisation" -- as opposed to "B.S. Improvisation" -- a required class in ed school.

10. Know your students. I'm convinced that at least part of the fear of tech going down in flames in one's classroom is really a manifestation of a deeper issue: teachers not really getting to know their students and therefore not having the trust, conversational faculties, and mutual understanding of learning goals to get past a rough spot. If you and your students trust one another, you should be able to teach each other using nothing more than voices and gestures. And that's not some newfangled idea: that's what teachers have/had done for thousands of years.

11. Take a nature walk. Every classroom community benefits from mutual engaged experience. So you lose the wireless and your lesson is shot? Use it as an opportunity to go out and experience something with your students. Take 'em out for fresh air and conversation. Take 'em to the cafe for a snack and a chit-chat. See if the gym is open and shoot a few baskets with 'em. Don't dwell on what didn't work; rather, use the opportunity presented by a snafu to look at the world in a different way.

Now, if that wi-fi keeps going out or those computer batteries keep drying up after a half-hour of use, you're obviously going to have to deal with that problem. No one can integrate tech and education in those conditions. But with a good network in place, on those relatively rare occasions when things do fall apart, you should be able to manage without losing your hair. Consider the tips I've offered (all of which I've used at one time or another) and please leave some of your own ideas in the comments. Good luck!

Tuesday, September 07, 2010


Decided to take a break from blogging with the plan to get started again the day after Labor Day.

Looks like that day has come.

And so, I offer this humble post -- which is really just a reflection on something that's been running mantra-like through my mind recently. Namely: this paperless thing is easy.


You don't need a guru to lead you through this mess. It's not even a mess.

I remember when I quit smoking. I'd started back in high school and got up to two packs a day by the time I was 23 years old. Then a serious case of bronchitis hit and I was put on my back for a few days with nary a smoke. Coming out of that, I decided to see how long I could go without a cigarette. And I wound up quitting.

I think about this now, because as I've said before, the number one reaction I had to quitting smoking was that I became furious at the cigarette companies. And I grew furious at myself. I was so angry because I felt like I'd completely been put on and because I'd wasted so much time and money on smokes.

And that's the same way I felt years ago when I went paperless.

I felt like for so long I'd been at the mercy of paper companies and printers and publishers. And I realize how that can sound silly; but as any teacher sitting under five sections of research papers knows, it's anything but silly.

These days, instead of waiting for all of my students to meet a deadline, I just have them share a Google Doc with me and I follow along -- popping in now and then to give advice and see what they are doing as they are doing it.

And that's a paperless move that changes the feel of teaching. It's an empowering thing. It's a formative thing. It's a thing that suggests what the future might be like rather than a thing that insists on dragging the past along out of some sense of perceived comfort.

And it's easy to do.


And that's why in this -- what I guess you'd call the third season of TeachPaperless -- I am questioning whether or not I need to write this blog. Because so long as you can get computers and access, you can do this stuff. You don't need to pay me to come teach you. You don't need me to write a book to sell you. This stuff is easy; all you have to do is experiment a bit and find what works for you.

As for those of you -- many of you, in fact -- who don't have computers and access: make this your year. Make this your year to organize parents, students, and teachers together to figure out how to get real tech in your building. Make this your year to petition your admins, their supers, and all the rest to get what you want going on in your school.

Because it's 2010.

And if you don't do it now, when are you going to do it? And if you don't do it, who will?

So bring your A-game. Do some research and argue for the reallocation of funds from textbooks and printers to internet devices and wi-fi. Find grants. Find alternate funding. Get your parents on board. Get your tech thing worked out.

And then you'll have the chance to try out this paperless thing with your students. You'll have the chance to learn and to teach and to blog and to share. And you'll have the chance to realize that this stuff is easy.

And then, come one summertime soon, you'll have the chance to sit back and reflect on what you've done. And you'll think to yourself: this paperless thing is easy.