Sunday, January 29, 2012

What Would Happen If I Broke Up With Google?

by John T. Spencer

I'm bothered that Google has a profile on me. I've known it for years, but something about the new Terms and Services (I'd go Google it and add a link there, but I'm too lazy) seems like a creepier step closer to Big Brother.  Which I think is the problem. I already view Google as a Big Brother - a giant android there to help me, adding the training wheels to life and pushing me on my way so that I can function.

I make the assumption that my data is safe and that this profile is somehow different from the real me that taps away at a machine. But if the online me is still me, a part of me, full of interests and ideas and questions and drives - then I'm making a bold assumption about the inherent benevolence of Big Brother Google.

To illustrate the power of this codependent relationship, I'm thinking about what it would look like if I had a falling out with Google.  This has already happened in real-life with my twin brother and the lasting effects are that I'm a little more insecure relationally and I deeply miss the man who shares such a long history with me. On a relational level, the impact is subtly present. However, in terms of functioning, I'm doing okay at life without him.

Now, consider a falling out with Big Brother Google. In one day, I would lose all my contacts. I would lose my calendar, both in terms of what I have already done and in terms of what I need to do. I would have to ask sheepishly for people's birthdays. I would lose my ability to communicate with distant friends through e-mail. I would lose my blog, the domain name that goes with it and the community that has stuck with me for several years. I would lose whole manuscripts of books I wrote and books I'm trying to write. I would lose our family's budget and critical work documents and the fragments of spiritual journals that I started and then abandoned out of boredom. I would lose important things like the PD site I am developing right now and insignificant endeavors like the sketchy videos I've added to my blog.

In other words, I would lose a chunk of life. I would lose a sense of place. I'm sure I would find the manuscripts on my backup hard drive and I would find a way to go to Wordpress and I would hope that people still find me on Twitter. Still, I would instantly break relationships through lack of organization. I would feel lost.

There's something unnerving about how much I depend upon one corporation in order to function in this world. I still have a voice, but I'm willingly filtering it through the white noise of Google, hoping that when they claim "don't be evil" as a mantra, they'll stick to it.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Most Important 21st Century Skill

John T. Spencer

Joel approaches me timidly. It's a rare weekend where I have no other choice than to work on school-related projects. He senses my frustration, so he whispers his request, "Dad, can we pick oranges and make orange juice?"

"Maybe later. I have to get this done," I respond.

He comes back five minutes later and I tell him, "Later means really later, okay?"

Christy calls him aside and says, "I'll help you. Daddy needs to work."

Something in the gentleness of her tone and the emphasis on the word "need" that pulls me from the office. I shut the laptop and put on my tennis shoes. It takes me a few minutes to adjust to the sun on my face and the cold air on my hands. But with every orange we snatch from the tree, I am forgetting about the website I need to develop or the videos I need to edit.

Brenna joins us. She picks thirteen oranges, but each time she counts, she stops at eleven. "I have eleven," she says to anyone willing to listen - to me, to Joel, to Micah, to the dog and to Micah's Papa Bear.

It feels like magic when the twirling machine converts each orange into juice. Joel is obsessed with technique and Micah is trying to figure out the mechanics, but Brenna is simply delighted to press down on each orange and watch the juice flow from the spout.

*     *     *

When I think about the skills I want my students to acquire, I often say things like, "think globally and act locally" or "recover a sense of the terrestrial reality around them."  Or sometimes I talk of sustainability and organic learning and growth and . . . what I really mean is I want them to learn what it means to shut off the devices, walk outside and pick oranges or plant a garden or study a sunset.

I want my students to figure out what matters in life and then have the courage, patience and endurance to live accordingly. The greatest twenty-first century skill is simply this: to learn to live well.

Mumford and Sons say it best:
Where you invest your love, you invest your life.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Twimpact: Twitter's impact on my week

By Noah Geisel

I still hear people asking, often in a disgusted tone of voice, “Why would you use Twitter?” They say it’s just for people to see what celebrities are saying. They say it’s just a way for people attracted to the Me Generation ethos to transmit their self-centered Facebook musings to a wider audience. They say what they believe and I respect that, for them, it is the truth about Twitter. For me, Twitter is another story altogether.

The last 7 days have served as a shining example of how Twitter significantly impacts my teaching, learning and professional development. A sampling my week’s Twimpact:

  • I attended an inspiring TED Talks salon event that I found out about via Twitter. Had I managed to learn about it through other means, it would have been after the tickets were sold out.

  • I read dozens of articles and blog posts that were shared by the people I follow, 22 of which were helpful enough that I bookmarked them for future use. I copied the links and shared via email 3 of these articles with certain teachers and administrators in my building.

  • I read 12 tweets that I thought could be valuable to others and were worth Re-tweeting (sharing) to my followers.

  • I learned about 2 apps that I downloaded to my iPad and believe will be very helpful.

  • I learned a new trick for the Promethean Board that I never would have known was possible.

  • I reconnected with a teacher friend and brilliant education mind with whom I had not spoken in 18 months. It led to a phone call and awesome conversation that I already know will impact a lesson for my students later this week.

  • I had conversations with 16 other educators, many of whom I’ve never met in person.

  • I had two former students reach out to share with me what is going on in their lives.

  • I found out about a webcast hosted by an MTV VJ in Mexico, from which I discovered two new bands whose music I could share with my students.

  • I connected with the lead singer of one of said bands who has agreed to Skype with one of my classes about life in Lima, Peru.

  • I connected with a Venezulean baseball reporter who has also committed to a Skype conversation in which he will provide a season preview of the Colorado Rockies and take my students’ questions about the team in Spanish.

  • And, so as not to leave out the celebrities, I favorited 8 tweets by Spanish-speaking artists that used the same vocabulary that my students were studying so as to provide them with examples of Real World, in-context use of our target learning.

I get it that Twitter is not for everybody. In my teaching and learning however, it makes a huge difference. What is the #Twimpact for you?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Imagine if the Government Censored the Web

It would be like China or Iran or . . . the average American school.

Maybe it's time we advocate for open Internet in every context.

-John T. Spencer

John T. Spencer is a teacher in Phoenix, AZ who blogs at Education Rethink. He recently finished Pencil Me In, an allegory for educational technology and A Sustainable Starta book for new teachers. He also wrote the reform-minded memoirs Teaching Unmasked: A Humble Alternative to Waiting For a Superhero and Sages and LunaticsHe has written two young adult novels Drawn Into Danger and A Wall for ZombiesYou can connect with him on Twitter @johntspencer

Don't Censor the Web

Friday, January 06, 2012

Sometimes Lo-Fi Is The Answer

by John T. Spencer

It's a rough afternoon. My directions were too long and too specific and the students acted out in boredom. I took it personally and yelled. I'm trying to rethink my lesson for the following day with the knowledge that the Clipboard Crew will be stopping by in an effort to see the magical formula that leads to higher test scores. I should be honored, but I'm terrified. I'm doubtful. I'm doubtful about my inability to create the kind of story they're looking for.

I turn on the Iron and Wine cover of the "Waiting for Superman." The song is the perfect marriage of a broken, lo-fi*, acoustic sound with the themes of humility and expectations. I'm reminded that we're human. We're all broken (even the Clipboard Crew) and the amazing story is that powerful things happen in humble places.

It has me thinking about the notion of lo-fi and the concept that sometimes less is more:

Tools: My students blog and podcast and tweet and all that. And yet, give them a composition book and let them draw in it, sketch in it, duct tape it, organize it however they want and their Individual Learning Journals become a powerful statement about minimalism, humanity and the power of low-tech learning. If the Eco House project was a tech-infused Postal Service tune, their journals were Sufjan Stevens with a banjo singing Casimir Pulaski Day in a way that would make you weep.

Directions: The lo-fi approach reminds me that there is a power in simplicity. When I listen to Iron and Wine, I am reminded of the need to slow down and allow for additional mental space.  Fewer directions. Fewer assignments. It's often where students find the autonomy to personalize their learning. An indie classroom should have indie thinkers and indie thinkers should be able to customize their learning.

Discipline: One thing I love about the acoustic, minimalist sound is that it retains the human voice. I don't want a discipline management system. I want a relationship that respects the human voice.

Approach: I think it's interesting that Iron and Wine has brought back a pastoral, naturalist lyricism (that never really left). It has me thinking that the natural, the pastoral, the outdated might just be the vintage, the classic and the sustainable that we're missing in our standardized Pop 40 system.  It's not trendy by any means, but a philosophical discussion, a confusing parable or even a choral reading or a powerful story all have a place in the 21st Century Classroom.

*I know some people would have a fit with me calling Iron and Wine lo-fi. I get it. Lo-fi is often used in metal (especially 80's lo-fi) but I'm really intrigued by the acoustic lo-fi sound.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

The Aaron Rodgers Story

By Noah Geisel

I’m watching an ESPN profile on Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. If you’ve listened to five minutes of sports talk radio in the last month, then you know people are talking about his season as one of the best played by any quarterback, ever.

One thing that is striking about the story is how it relates to assessment. In the big money, high-stakes world of college football, a lot of work goes into evaluating young men and their potential. Expert scouting begins as early as 14-years-old. As a teacher, this sounds familiar.

At the beginning of the profile, the reporter talks about Rodgers’ dream of playing for Bobby Bowden at Florida State, and how the assessments of his abilities missed the mark: “Florida State did not want Rogers. Nor did any other Division I school.” A guy with a 1300 SAT who would go on to be a 1st Round Draft pick and NFL superstar launched his collegiate career at Butte Community College.

When asked why he believes he was overlooked, Rodgers responds, “Far too much weight is put into your height, your weight, your ‘40’, your bench press. The things you can’t measure: your character, your confidence, your mental toughness, your physical toughness, not as much weight is put into that.” Again, this sounds familiar to educators.

The Aaron Rodgers story is yet another reminder of why we educators need to be implementing in our classes (and pushing for system-wide) assessments that seek to measure the important skills that we know are essential for 21st Century success. We work in a world of high-stakes testing that primarily focuses on evaluating students based on multiple-choice, knowledge-based questions. Certainly, there is a place for assuring that our students have acquired the desired knowledge in our classes but with the weight that is placed on district benchmark exams, statewide assessments and even national exams, we need to be evangelists for the importance of measuring not only what students know but what they are able to do as well.