Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Maddie is Going Away for the "Year" Post

Aug 12, 2015
Hi Mad –

It is a glorious day today – I am wearing new socks, the Mets won last night (while the Yankees and Nationals lost), the sun is shining brightly, we just received a shipment of books which will keep AJ busy and quiet for a few hours and it is August 12 (shhh). Today, so far, is a good day. But mixed with that good is the knowledge that you will be headed off to Israel soon. I wanted to take a few moments to put some thoughts down in a medium which allows you no ability to respond, and I won’t know if you roll your eyes.

Eighteen and a half years ago, you changed me. You turned me from a guy who made poor fashion choices and needed a hair cut into a father: a guy who makes poor fashion choices and is balding but who understands love and worry in ways that he never knew before. I sang to you when you were only minutes old. And, much like you do now when I sing, you cried. It didn’t dawn on me way back then that you would ever have to move away, and I couldn’t possibly have anticipated the incredible person you have become.

Now, you are on the cusp of a huge shift in your life. Sure, we can still talk, email, chat, Skype or whatever it is the young people do these days, but you will be forging a new life, one which does not have me in it all the time. I have been blessed to see you at school every day. Most dads miss out on the connection we have and I thank God constantly that I have had this chance. I only hope that you carry with you the lessons we have learned together and that they inform all sorts of great decisions you make in the future, and shield you from the sorrow in the world around you even when I can’t be there to do so.

Not every day is a great day. Sometimes the Mets lose. Well, most times, but you get my point. Some days will stink and I won’t be there to pick you up. You have done and possibly will do dumb things and make bad calls, but you have to get back up and make things right. It won’t be easy, but you are strong. You are one of the strongest people I have ever met. Also lazy, but primarily strong. You can pick yourself up, and others with you. You are smart, crazy smart. You are insightful, and if you put your phone down, you are also really in tune with your world. You are part of something really big (a family, a religion, a country or countries) and you play a vital role in your world. YOU ARE NOT UNIMPORTANT AND HAVE TO RECOGNIZE THAT NO ONE ELSE IS UNIMPORTANT. You are special – to me and others. You need to wake up every morning, invested in being the special person everyone else knows you are.

So you are on your way to a war zone, to a distant corner of the round world full of challenges and experiences that I never embraced, opportunities that I missed out on and risks that I never faced. And I am proud of you. So, so proud. I am proud of the person you have become and I can’t wait to meet the person you turn in to. Will you stay? Will you come back? I honestly don’t know and there isn’t a single decision you can make which won’t scare the heck out of me. Aliyah or no, college choice, major, job, housing, relationship…every moment fills me with a combination of dread and excitement as I see you growing up and becoming this incredible adult.

I die a little inside every time you move away from me on any level but I live even more when I watch you grow. You started moving away in 7th grade and it was sad and joyous at the same time. Every day since then you have spread your wings a little more and I have been left behind to wallow in my sadness and to celebrate my sense of fascination and fulfillment at your successes. I guess that tension is what being a parent is all about: watching a child get on an airplane and not knowing whether the tears are from sorrow or joy, and the shaking from pride or fear. I will cry at the airport. It won’t be the first or the last time, but I want you to know that some of those tears are absolutely because I admire you and what you are doing. Some are because I will feel an unwelcome emptiness and some are because will be carrying onions. But most will be because I will be carrying a measure of love so overwhelming that it will try to get out through my eyes.

You are on your way to Israel (you have been on this path for many years, a path we encouraged and discouraged in even measure) and I won’t have the chance to embarrass you in front of your friends (though I may sing at the airport, just for old times’ sake). I won’t get to interrogate you about every thing you do. I won’t get to remind you to be careful and make good decisions whenever you leave your dorm. And I won’t have the opportunity to say “I love you” every morning when you get out of the car and every night before bed. I will worry during every waking moment and freeze every time the phone rings. But I will tell people with incalculable pride that you are following a dream and making a difference in the world in a way that is worth bragging about.
Remember please, as you work with those who need your help, as you love those who make your life complete and as you meet those who will make you into the new you, that you are loved by your parents and family and are an incredibly wonderful person, surrounded by people who believe in you and swell with pride when your name is mentioned.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

עַל-אֵלֶּה אֲנִי בוֹכִיָּה

I apologize in advance if anyone in particular is offended by my feelings here. It is not my intent to hurt, only to vent.

Tonight begins the Jewish fast of the Ninth of Av. It is a 25 hour fast coupled with prayer and introspection as we mourn the loss of the temples in Jerusalem, and with them, the national identity and cohesion which held sway to one degree or another, while they stood. By forcing ourselves to suffer a little (through not eating, drinking, bathing, or sitting in regular seats) we share in a tiny fraction of the suffering the people of that time went through and we remind ourselves that we are missing something in our lives. For years, I have tried to get myself to feel sad for the loss of a building, and the concomitant way of life. But even though in my prayers I look forward to a third temple and the return of a theocracy and a priestly system, I can't really feel bad. I live the good life in a great country; I practice my religion freely. I don't feel the loss and void that I am supposed to.

But today, I heard someone say something which made me feel very alone, and very sad. During prayers, we read the phrase "the four corners of the earth." The person sitting next to me, a respected community member and someone I am happy to call a friend, mumbled "I wonder what they said when they realized that the earth doesn't have corners...this is all BS." Then he continued to pray, out loud, in a lovely voice, with what looked like fervor and intent. He wasn't making a joke and if he was lashing out at his religion because of troubles in his personal life, it still hurt me to hear it. He knows as well as I that the use of that phrase need not be seen as a relic of a flat-earth world view. It can be seen as reflective of the four cardinal directions, the historical necessity and convenience of using a 2-D map representation of the world, or a literary construction not intended to present a realistic vision of the world. Instead, he looked at it as literal and let his anger show, and then kept up with what was now clear to me as a charade of practice. And he isn't alone. I am surrounded by people who practice the rituals of Orthodox Judaism because they are the accepted social conventions or comfortable vestiges of an upbringing which didn't really sink in, but who lack any actual faith. They don't seriously believe in any of it, and what they do accept is so compromised and watered down by their shame at being believers that it is a shell of what the religion could be.

Now, please, don't assume that I am a zealot. I am a child of my age, and one who embraces the world around me. I watch movies and TV, listen to decadent rock and roll music, value secular knowledge, and have a reasonably wide awareness of the world and its cultures. I am neither a luddite, nor an isolationist. But it seems that all the people who are equally comfortable with the modern world, have not compartmentalized their approaches and have let that modern rationalism destroy any deep seated faith in perfect and mysterious divinity and (for example) textual infallibility. I work hard to straddle the line between the two often opposing understandings of the world and the more I listen to those around me, the more alone I feel. I am a believer often even in the face of rational argument. And I value rational argument, because it can help bolster my belief. I am happy with the contradictions it creates and comfortable with the reconciliations of those contradictions which have, to my mind, stood the test of time for centuries and which are being expanded every day by leaders who stand on the shoulders of giants and make religious law relevant and consistent even today.

On this Tisha B'av, I mourn the widespread loss of traditional acceptance of faith and belief as bedrocks of my religion. I mourn the loss of the sense of solidarity and unity which comes from being able to share a love of religion with others who are equally idealistic about it (especially when they can be idealistic while not sequestering themselves in a ghetto). I mourn the loss of a temple for what it represented -- a central authority which was respected and which worked hard to maintain that respect. I sit on a low chair, I deprive myself and I do feel tears well up because I see that we, though numerous and economically powerful, and politically positioned, are dying spiritually and the only alternative for many is to swing to the right and deny the utility of anything not explicitly within the religious realm. The notion of "Modern Orthodox" as a group which sees value in both the religious and secular world, is not working out. People are either adopting stringencies and freezing out any innovation and evolution of the religion, or are pushing boundaries with such force because they are willing to give up central faith-based tenets which are supposed to provide limits and structure. And I feel like I am alone, stuck in the middle, trying to negotiate a middle path on my own and having to apologize and justify myself to those on either side of me.

I mourn because I see the daily destruction of the land and nation of Israel even if not physically and only metaphorically. I see the constant loss of the temple through the loss of interest in what the temple stood for. I weep for the loss of kindness and compassion which should be a natural consequence of a strong faith. I mourn a religion which will end up with as many sects as we have people because each person will decide to pick and choose and rationalize in a unique and personal way, making his vision of Judaism distinct from and even incompatible with that of others around him. I mourn because it seems that every day, more and more, we are not just "Jews" any more. We are so busy crafting our own particular paths that we fail to stick together as a people, and that's sad to me. The external threats which didn't care what we believed and just oppressed us for the label "Jew" failed. But we are succeeding because we are destroying that label from the inside. For this, I cry.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Tyrannosaurus Dan

I am a dinosaur. Not the kind that makes it into movies, or into Far Side cartoons. I'm just the kind that refuses to change because change leads to things like extinction level events and the rise of mice as the dominant species. And mice, though cute, are not nearly as cool as dinosaurs.

I'm especially a dinosaur in the classroom. Now, please understand -- I'm no Azendohsaurus or even a Mussaurus. That'd be crazy. I am much more a Chinshakiangosaurus or maybe even an Ampelosaurus. [note, though probably lost on everyone but the 10 year old boys who follow my blog hoping for dinosaur references, my point is that I am not an early dinosaur, but a later one, reflecting some allowance of change and adaptation but still afraid of big rocks falling from the sky] I still enjoy school bells, I still take attendance, and often present material. I give all sorts of assessments and try to encourage my students to explore in the classroom. I'm a teacher. Sometimes a facilitator, sometimes a mediator, even occasionally an observer, but always a teacher.

The issue of technology, therefore, is one with which I have had to wrestle. How much can a dinosaur embrace change in the classroom and still be a dinosaur and not some psammobiid bivalve? I know, right? So I have, indeed, adopted certain methods. I have a laptop in the room with a projector and a Smart Board (TM, no doubt). Students use computers to take notes, write essays, watch the NCAA March Madness games and shop for sneakers during class. I post homework on a website, along with salient complementary material and messages to students, and I keep an online calendar with due dates and test times. But I am still the teacher. Yes, whenever I say something, students double check my facts and then shoot more back at me. Yes, when I teach something in print, it is helpful to present audio, video and crowdsourced background to the masses so that they can ignore the text in a variety of ways. But I am the teacher.

So what's my job, that I hold on to the title so dearly? I try to effect learning. That's not so easy sometimes, and when I get it right, it feels great. So when new pedagogical models are presented I assess whether, simply put, they stand a better chance of accomplishing effected learning than I would (not than I do, just than I would).

I have written about bits and pieces of this in the past (and will resist the temptation to link to earlier can look for them; trust me, they are there) but some new issues popped into my mind. Let me start off by copying over something I posted on someone else's blog about tech in education (I will delete the parts not relevant, but trust me, they were awesome):

Learning is what it has always been — a combination of various orders of thinking to acquire facts and skills and the sense to know when and how to use or not use those facts and skills. It is impacted by interest, relevance, utility and necessity. It does not need technology to be effected. And if it is still within a system of established curriculum, standardized testing and a higher education model which seems to be working (and which parents want their children to continue in) a divergent and disruptive approach seems like so much curmudgeonly narcissism...[G]ood teaching is good teaching, and, we hope, what might inspire some measure of learning (which is, ultimately, out of our control).

Learning is about building knowledge. It is about making memorization stick and mean something. It is about turning recall into application. It is a complex process which can be shepherded through the active process of teaching. Sure it can happen without a guide especially when one of the other motivators is present, but it cannot be checked against an established norm that way. Formative assessments (formal and informal) give the teacher the ability to provide the proper guidance.

One things which therefore is not so necessary is the frontal lecture. Reciting a fixed text so that students swallow it and can spit it back is not, in and of itself, about learning. It is all about teaching, regardless of outcome on any level beyond the lowest regurgitation. Which is gross. Because I am, as I speak with my class, constantly assessing the learning via body language, responsiveness, questioning and eye contact among other things, my content is always changing. Handing the reins over to a canned lecture available online (via Khan Academy, or even a lecture which I create for my class) is still subjecting students to that lecture without the benefit of dynamic spontaneity which makes my classroom a classroom. Flipped classrooms miss out on what turns teaching into learning. Their pedagogy is no different from assigning students to read from a textbook -- no questions, no explanation, and no one making sure that the student isn't actually asleep. A computer and a teacher can teach a rule, but a computer can't figure out when it is proper, appropriate or necessary to break the rule. When I walk around through my classroom and discuss literature, I am performing 25 different classes/videos at the same time, each one changing depending on the background, momentary needs and environmental exigencies of each student and the class as a whole which cannot be predicted. That's what good teaching is.

So technology cannot replace the teacher in the class (and the bedroom/livingroom/other place cannot replace the classroom), but then what is the power of technology in terms of access to facts? Technology does present facts to students -- anything all the time. Anything. Right or wrong. Unlike students 100 years ago, our students can get misinformation, or incomplete knowledge 24/7. What a joy. Who vets the data? Who selects the data which will be useful for the class discussion the next day or two weeks later? Who selects facts which reflect a tangent the class went yesterday? Who changes the data set midstream if the student interest moves in a different direction? That's what good teaching is. Students have had access to myriad facts for a long time. We called the repositories "textbooks" or "encyclopedias". A student could go home and open a book up to a topic the teacher said he was going to cover, read the entry and all related entries and know pretty much nothing and everything at the same time. The good teacher, knowing that drinking from the fire hydrant is a bad idea, doesn't hand agency over to the technology. Do we just let the outside source be the teacher? English teachers wouldn't have to assign books, just Cliffs Notes and let them present the plot, the symbols and the characters, present suggestions for discussion, and then assign an essay. Done. The good teacher knows that a video, a -pedia entry and any thing else can't watch for signs of thinking. Yes, a website can have a quiz that can change based on right/wrong answers but it cannot watch to see the student's eyes and get a sense of comprehension; it can't know the student's mind. The good teacher can.

I think that one important notion can be imported from Jewish law. In many cases in Judaism, a person who has an obligation to perform a commandment can be exempted when another performs the action, and keeps the first person in mind. This can happen, though, when the one actually performing the action has the same obligation. Somehow, this imports a sense of empathy and a connection, bilaterally. In the same way, the most effective teacher is the one who can understand how a student learns because he had to go through the same process, himself. A person who knows his material intuitively and naturally might make a bad teacher if he cannot understand that students struggle with what he thinks is easy. He cannot break it down and re-present it in a way which will accommodate different modes of learning because he "got it" automatically. The internet is that person. It never had to learn. It just knows, so it cannot bring about learning in others unless its single more of presentation happens to resonate at a particular moment with a specific student. Very often, the most successful websites in terms of 'teaching' are the ones programmed by people who had trouble learning so the programmers/writers can infuse one dimension of empathy, anticipating a limited range of difficulties. But it still pales in comparison with a teacher or teachers who can know each student and respond in kind. In a sense, this is why taking a class in a Jewish school, and studying Talmudic texts is often called "learning with a rabbi" not "learning from a rabbi." The rabbi is an active learner at that moment also. The experience of discovery and enlightenment happens to all participants.

I was asked if I thought that the internet (and its ilk) is the biggest change in education since the printing press. I don't know -- I think that each has advantages. When the entire Talmud was printed up, it didn't mean everyone had a full copy. And when everyone had a copy, it didn't mean that people suddenly knew everything or could open it up to get the answers quickly, and on their own. If you plop a student down in a medical library, he won't find his way out after 3 years having become a doctor and yet all the data are right there for the taking. You can't drop someone off in the middle of a library and say "study what you like" and expect him to be a well rounded person able to exist with others after 4 years. You can't drop someone off in the middle of Rome and expect that after 4 years, he will be a scholar of Roman history.

Teaching isn't learning. Doing isn't learning. Watching isn't learning. Learning is a guided tour with plenty of stops along the way and effective teaching is being an active tour guide who knows when to present and when to shut up, based on insight into each person in the tour.

So, sure, I am willing to go as far as becoming a Lophorhothon and maybe, maybe, someday, be a Nimravid but this dinosaur doesn't see any computer being able to guide that tour just yet.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015


Today's schedule was a bit different. Instead of loading myself up with 15 different tables, presentations and session,s I set aside some time to visit the expo hall and learn about what is out there that I have to buy if I want to stay up to date in the education world. But first, this.

I guess if you have been reading this you get the idea that I am some sort of arrogant, unappreciative jerk who believes that he is right and that the rest of the world is wrong. Well, that's not a fair assessment of me. I am, sometimes, moderately appreciative. I went to this conference because my school and its administration made the opportunity available, and even encouraged me to go and be a non-adopter. They wanted me to balance out the rah-rah voices and give the cynics impression of all this stuff. So I am deeply indebted to my school, my principal, the APs and the tech people, along with the other teachers who went and who put up with me. I did learn some stuff; I did find products and services and methods which appeal to me and which I might want to pursue so I gained from this and am happy that I went. I also want to thank my wife for being OK with my abandoning her to go to this thing. It is her birthday today so I have come back so I can type this from home on her birthday.

And one other note of appreciation. There were over 15,000 teachers there. That's over 15,000 people who care about kids and education and who took their own time (and often, their own money) to learn about how to be better and how to increase the skill level and professionalism of an oft ignored or taken for granted job. I walked through the (long) halls and I had to remind myself that all the people here made a choice to go in to education and are still trying to do right by kids -- they aren't giving up, so kudos to all them, to the attendees, to the presenters who had something they needed to share, and to the organizers who put this massive undertaking together. Also, it was nice to hear that others shared some measure of my cynicism about technology and the state of education, so I'm proud of all those teachers not yet drinking the Kool-Aid.

That having been said...

Up and six, just in time to wait 3.5 hours until the expo doors open. 9:30? Really? So I joined the rush as soon as they let us in to the expo hall and I started walking around and looking at what was there. I am going to combine my notes from both blocks of time that I spent inside so that I can deal with the other 2 sessions I attended separately. I saw some truly interesting tables -- Infobase provides a set of research libraries (they used to "Facts on File") and treatments of current events to support student investigation and discussion. My only concern was that they might have too much. They have prepackaged "pro" and "con" statements for cutting edge controversies and I think that students should be generating those based on the research. But the material was quality and the write ups were sincere and accurate.

I went to another table and had someone say to me that his product will "change the way I look at classroom management software." I didn't have the heart to tell him that, since I don't look at classroom management software, he was going to have an uphill climb. Then a woman approached me and asked (in all earnestness), "Do you love data?" I asked her if that was a Star Trek reference and quickly walked away. She now thinks I'm a pervert AND a geek. At another booth for some software, the woman asked those of us assembled "What gradebook do you use?" I was a bit befuddled because I don't know its exact name, so I said, "You know, the red one with the lines and the fake vinyl cover." She was shocked that I still use a paper gradebook. Truth is, I don't -- I lied because I was annoyed at her question. My "gradebook" for the last 15 or so years has been an Excel spreadsheet and early on, the numbers were copied out of the red gradebook. Before that I just sat with a calculator and did the math. It isn't that tough.

On my first pass, I saw that very little had to do with "learning" and even less with "teaching." There was a lot of data management, resource management, infrastructure management and management management. There was a plethora of services which help deliver content via computers, organize material and save it via computers but all of that was about replacing the teacher as the source of content. I felt bad about taking all the little give-aways, like an exploiter and a user. I know I'm not going to buy stuff so I feel like I am wasting their time and money. I'm not going to keep their card or materials but, man, do I want that stress ball, fanny pack and t-shirt. There were a lot of vendors giving away pens, and even more giving candy. So I left with 50 pens of various sorts but with my diet intact. Yay will power and free pens (which were delicious). I listened to a bunch of sales pitches to earn the swag and I signed up to receive the emails and be contacted by pretty much everyone I met.

STE(A)M and IT seemed to be served really well by the various vendors. English teachers were not as served; there were two kiosks focusing on vocabulary (I took info from one and it does look interesting) and I thought one about Shakespeare but they were just using a sonnet to show how material can be shared by students and projected onto a wall. There were some great e-book purveyors (some who make the books, some which allow teachers to customize them and some which take teacher materials and warehouse them to be available for other teachers. These cards I will save and maybe even talk over with my department. Digital portfolios seemed neat and the sale women was so sincere. Also, I really wanted the cell phone stand and the mints she was giving away, so I listened. The thing is, most every skill-building, service or resource is actually addressed by 17 different vendors (there were over 2500 vendor spots) and I don't know w2hat the difference is between them. And since I'm not actually in the market to buy anything, I intend to avoid the work required to research the competing companies. There was even a cottage industry of companies whose service was making sense of all the other stuff being offered. It was recursively delicious.

Each vendor also seemed to have his own wifi signal and there were so many (all protected so I couldn't use them) that my phone could no longer find the free wifi provided for the event. So my phone dropped out of wifi and started relying on 3G. At one point, all the internet went out so all the people didn't know what to do. It was fun to watch them all scramble to find a free pen and pad of paper so that they could sketch their products for the various teachers.

I lugged my bag of goodies to two sessions today, so I will now pontificate on them for your amusement.

The first session was entitled "Move over Mr. Guttenberg" and was about a school system that was using digital texts. At least I thought that that's what it was about. it was more about a new school that decided to rely on iTunes for everything, including their lunch program and how wildly successful they are. They actually banned backpacks (truth) because all students needed to carry was a single iPad. Everything, they insist, can be done on the iPad. They also said that all class content was curated (that's the buzzword of the moment) by the teachers. It seemed like they were saying that the teachers reinvent the wheel, create all the materials and post them along so that the whole world can take their classes, thus making actual teaching completely superfluous. They really didn't talk about text books (nor about books not available on a digital platform). They didn't talk about having conversations and interacting with other humans. I guess these aren't 21st century skills. They simply worshipped at the Apple iDol. The idea of relying on a web based everything is nice if you are starting fresh with lots of money and no interest in using material that exists, because why would we assume that anyone ever had a good idea in the past? They weren't really clear about what the teacher actually "creates"; is it work sheets? is it a video which replaces a lecture? Is it a graphical organizer or a rubric? When does the real learning happen?

One speaker focused on letting students "tell their stories" instead of relying on rote memorization. But who relies on rote memorization in this day and age? Is the only alternative embracing a digital experience? What about authentic teaching and learning? There was much talk about "personalized learning" with "content" being "delivered." Maybe someday, they will realize that they are a school and not a pizza parlor. If they force their students to live on the iBad, what happens when the students go out into the world and have to do something by hand? Will they be able to? And how is this any different from the system my school uses? We have "Haiku Learning." We can use any device because this is a web based service on which we can post homework or announcements, create assessments, have students take notes and share conversations. So why are they better than we are? They say that they are "heavily PBL" but that's not a solution which demands iPads. They "rethink learning" by having a project in which students get to choose the book they read. Um...that's not especially innovative. The fact that someone had to suggest this in 2014 is shocking to me. It means that they haven't sat down to quantify their learning goals and match them to appropriate methods and assessments. It smacks of stupidity. Sorry fancy new schoolo. You are way late to the party. I'm not impressed that 2000 people around the world want to take materials from your free online course; if your materials are so stuck in the 1920's then anyone who takes them is a bigger fool than you. I left happier than ever that we use textbooks and yet have modified our teaching to have innovative approaches without claiming that computers did it.

The other session was something about rubrics and blended learning. To be honest, I haven't the slightest idea what it was about. I tried -- I really did, but they didn't make their object clear so I got lost quickly. They were talking about their school system and something about something. They put slides up on a screen and made them all availale at and their presentation seemed practical and real and probably really useful to someone who knew wat they were talking about, so look it up and let me know what I missed. They started out with a poll which required texting the answer but my phone was in the back of the room charging so I missed that. I was also surprised that in the projected slides, all the rubrics shown were actually just photographs of hand written rubrics! So much for technology. They seemed to be measures for self-assessment of the blended learning which were not technology dependent (the most jargoned sentence I have ever written). I left before they tried to get me to participate because I was sure I would say something inappropriate.

On the whole, I felt that so much of this was unnecessary (at least for me as an English teacher who already uses a few different teaching techniques and who works to get students to think and argue in person). Technology really should be the pencil which doesn't need its own conference. True, I do have to sit and write about whether learning has shifted in the computer age, or whether the printing press was a paradigm shifter in different curricular areas, but I'm just not convinced that the world of student learning has to be reinvented because I can look up Millard Filmore's birthday online instead of in a book.

January 7, 1800. Now you know, but whatever you do, don't memorize that fact. Authentically integrate it into your technologically cultivated experiential something something.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The second half of Monday (ISTE 4)

The day continued much as it had begun, as a series of long walks, and not that much great info. I don’t mean to complain. I mean to whine and moan. But complain? Not my style.

On my way to the tables, I took a quick detour through the expo room. I chatted with the Microsoft representative about tech infrastructures, then with the McGraw Hill Rep about digital and print textbooks. They were both very reasonable. So many tables were full of people selling “digital learning” but I am still not convinced that such a thing exists and that students are any different and can’t just learn.

I headed over to the tables for the 11AM group. I saw one table in which a company was selling its e-books and its websites which collect and organize research tools. The one which showed how students can publish their work as real books and isn’t that nice. I didn’t stick around to ask how their service was any different from the many other publishing options available online. I’m not arguing that self-publishing isn’t a nice way for students to see concrete proof that they existed, but they did nothing to convince me that their company was better suited to the task than any other.

The next table was the marketing division of Powtoon which is a piece of presentation software. It exists based on two important educational pillars – one, that students need to create presentations to prove they know stuff and, two, that these presentations must be on a computer at least, and preferably, online (unless you pay more for the ability to download them to your own computer so you can watch them even when the internet disappears). I then went to a table at which a teacher was showing how she used Google docs to create virtual e-books with her students. The students could take material and annotate it, color it and jazz it up and then be able to access it whenever they want and make it a resource for others. It was nice but I was struck by the fact that she wasn’t trying to sell me anything. She told me what she did. Now I have her secret. I don’t need her anymore.

I then made the mistake of making eye contact with the students from Mexico so they launched into their sales pitch. Now, they weren’t selling anything either – they made a website using Google sites and they were proud and wanted to walk me through how one creates a website. The training and practice of making a presentation is a marketable skill so there is value in that but the truth is, I know how to make a website and seeing it done in Spanish isn’t all that useful to me. But who can walk out on a Mexican 8th grader who is really interested in practicing English and showing off a web site? For my troubles, I got a free t-shirt. I only hope that XL in Spanish still means “extra large.” Maybe next year, there will be an app that teaches students how to make a presentation at ISTE.

Off to the table at which the woman presented her research about whether having a school newspaper (online or print) increases literacy. She also wasn’t selling anything so I skipped to the end and found out that, yes, it increases literacy, but students prefer making and reading print of electronic papers. The last table also showed how students can use Google docs in order to free up the writer in each of them. Apparently the secret is out.

At the same time, there were 2 other table sessions which I missed and which sounded really interesting so they probably weren’t and life will go on. I hiked over and got myself situated outside of the room in which the “Should we get computers out of the classroom” panel discussion was going to be held and ate lunch. While there, I chatted with a volunteer who tried to get me to go into a session about “redefining Learning.” I told him that I was quite happy with how it as already defined and didn’t see the need to redefine it. That bothered him. We both agree that, methodologically, skill/drill and rote memorization and spitback are not very good, useful or rich teaching styles and don’t encourage deep learning but since I don’t define “learning” as the effect of those styles, I don’t see the need to change. I also see the flaw here as one in the teaching and assessment, not in the “learning” part of it, so I’m not sure what he thinks happens when you redefine learning by changing teaching and ignoring learning. Has learning really changed? My students still seem to learn and I do things the old-fashioned way. Maybe they are lying to me and they haven’t learned a thing. Maybe they learned how to lie.

Well, win/win I guess.

Am I threatened by challenges to my tried and (maybe) true methods? Or am I rightfully and righteously angry at this phantom belief that the world and the teenaged brain has changed so markedly that we have to reinvent the virtual wheel? Is it that things are so broken that we should start over or maybe, there are parts that have ALWAYS been broken and never should have been the preferred method, regardless of the technology involved.

I will now summarize the 5 speakers at that session – I don’t have their names but they are all, supposedly, very important people well respected in the field of something or other. They have written books and, no doubt, said very important things. They all kept quoting a guy named Seymour Papert. He was, it seems, the go to guy as it relates to technology and education. I wouldn’t know – I’m an idiot who knows nothing about computers and even less about teaching.

Guy 1 (Maybe “Will Richardson” maybe not – one guy introduced the topic and then an Australian guy spoke and I don’t know the name of either) – 10.2 billion dollars was spent last year on Ed Tech and that’s dumb. Tech is viewed as a faddish cure-all and it is slapped on without looking at the real cause of education problems. We are trying to fix symptoms, not problems. If a student says that he finds Facebook more interesting than a teacher’s lesson, the teacher shouldn’t coopt Facebook; the teacher should make the lesson better. I liked this. This spoke to me. This was a high point in the conference to me, and the fact that any people clapped was heartening.

#2 (Audrey Watters) – We must give up on computers because they are no longer subversive. In fact, they are symbols of neo-liberalism, libertarianism, imperialism and colonialism. And maybe some other isms. I lost count. Computers are an extension of the government/corporate machine through which the white man controls. The networks and servers control and surveil all of us; they monitor and manage us. Computers were designed to be tools of war and should be removed not just from the classroom, but possibly from the planet. She’s nuts. I had written in my notes that she is a Luddite and then later she got up (as if by some psychic force) and explained that being a Luddite isn’t bad because the true Luddites were OK with some machinery – they just didn’t like it out of their control. Whatever. I have failed to communicate the depths of her crazy.

Third up was David Thornburg who didn’t deal with computers in the classroom. He focused on the Raspberry Pi, and Arduino. They, as tiny computers, will democratize computers in a way that the Apple II didn’t and all will be right with the world. The problem was that back then, instead of kids continuing to code new programs, companies made ready-to-use software and so kids didn’t have to learn to code. If kids code, the messiah will come. Of course, this doesn’t address the topic, but it gave him a chance to wax poetic on the Arduino. Often.

The next guy (no guess on name) – said that as a tax payer and parent, he believes computers should be out. Computers haven’t changed teaching or learning. They are supposed to give kids agency over being self-learners and they haven’t. We have, he said, “lost the conversation on learning” so no one asks why we have computers in education at all.

The last guy was Gary Stager who is a big wig and such. Whatever. He railed against computers, starting out by posting a number of quotes from Papert (who he painted as a Jesus figure who was not understood or believed in his lifetime, but whose prophecies have all come to pass and he was made to suffer for the sins of everyone) and in fact, he was simply putting them up on the screen, and reading them. Not so effective a method. He said that he has grown frustrated with ISTE because it sold out to big companies which sponsor it (he named companies and sponsors and insulted them. I try not to bite the hand that feeds me unless I am being fed by a man made out of chocolate). He said that the power is being given over to the corporate machine and the powerful get more powerful. He was starting to sound crazy. He then continued to bash ISTE as an organization, wondering what its role even is. The model of education hasn’t changed so any new technology can only support an old and failing system. His was a slightly different flavor of conspiracy theory. He did say that “any teacher who thinks he can be replaced by a Youtube video probably should be.” Nice. He also pointed out that having a conference on Education and Technology is silly because we don’t feel the need to have a conference on “Education and Pencils.” Very true but that’s be a rocking conference.

I stayed behind to ask then why, instead of “reclaiming” ISTE, he doesn’t just advocate dissolving it. He chafed at that and defended its existence. It was then that I realize that THE MAN had gotten to him, too. Trust no one!

I went back to the rooms with tables for another report on research, this time, with a student who had studied 1:1 laptop:student use. She was in Indiana so she was piped in via some technology or another which made it hard to see and hear her. All I could note was that she couldn’t get any verbal or visual feedback as part of her presentation and that made me question online teaching in general, but I’ll move on. (By the way, this time the tables were numbered but the noise was still an issue.) Her central question was If (and if so, how much did) laptop use affect test scores, attendance, GPA, proficiency and graduation rates. This was all done via a metastudy so the fact that her district was 1:1 was sort of irrelevant. Then she used her own school to research qualitative student response. Ten of her student said that they liked computers, so there you go. There was a majority of positive response: students who used computers felt more comfortable using computers and students felt more prepared to use computers in college. They didn’t like use policies. Hurray for research. [One class did work to create its own use policy so students understood why the rules were there.] She proceeded to load up slides and read them. There was a compulsory ACT program on the laptop so kids used it and felt more prepared for the ACTs and their scores went up. They liked the math program they did on the computer (it tied in with their text book and had answers). The students felt that some teachers were afraid of using and/or breaking computers and that limited student enjoyment.

She didn’t talk about HOW computers were used in the district in any classroom. But as long as they are popular, I guess.

I moved to the talk on the “Gamification of the ELA Classroom” because I teach ELA and I like gamificating things so, yeah. I had to forgo the talk on assessments, failure and deep learning but hey, games are worth it. Well, you’d think so.
The teacher identified three versions of “game based learning”:
1. Playing actual games on or off line
2. turning the class into a gamed experience, like a store, so students earn points through behavior modification
3. Making the class and curriculum into a gamed setting. This is the one he focused on.

He said that games give the opportunity to fail and try again and only move on once competence is proven. Games also give options for paths to success and they teach the right path through in-game hints. So why not do that with English class? (hint – because it doesn’t work…shhhh). In games, losing is a distinct possibility, the game play is differentiated and the levels are scaffolded. This was right around where he lost me. He created a background scenario for his students (time travelers encountering poetry through the ages in England) and allowed students to gain “Experience Points” (XP) by performing certain activities at each level and stage. He explained to the students why they were studying the material, gave them background information through videos or frontal lecture, assigned a text, had students prove that they read it, had the students create a summative creative project and then perform a more traditional, individual assessment. Totally different from a regular class because instead of grades, their success at each point was rewarded with those points which then added p to an overall rubric-based grade. But simple mastery only garners the students 85 points. So whence an A? From extra work within the curriculum or additional “badges” which are independent tasks. And if they earn enough badges, they earn all sorts of freedoms, like the freedom to choose the structure of their next assessment, and if that isn’t enough to motivate a teenager, I don’t know what is.

He decenters the class by incorporating all the buzzworthy methods of blended learning and flipped presentations, and simply employs the artifice of “game” to keep teacher and student interested. He could do the same with technology but that would just be called (his words), “good teaching.” He admitted that it was silly to have a conference on technology because it should focus on the right way to reach students, and if something is a tool, it is mentioned, not made the focus. He didn’t explain certain nitty gritty bits – if I assign a paper, how do I measure “competence”? Is it about the writing? The content? The argument? A paper is a complex assessment tool and a grade is rarely a cut and dried measure of mastery. Whatever. I left when it seemed acceptable to leave.

The last thing I went to was the “birds of a feather” meeting. I eschewed the Jewish group because I knew I’d see all the participants 30 minutes afterwards, at dinner, and I went to the “Weird Teacher” meet-up. It was weird. We didn’t have a room so I had to sit on the floor and nurse a painful back. As an icebreaker, each teacher was asked to tell something weird about him or herself. I lied and said I was afraid of ice cream. They believed me. We went through ten attributes of the weird teacher. What was scary to me was that there could be teachers who DON’T do these things. Anyway, everyone exchanged Twitter handles and I wrote “I hate Twitter.” We’ll see how that plays out. Here I am, the new Jew on the weird block and I lie about a phobia and insult their app of choice.

We returned for a dinner and another faculty meeting, and now, I have to wrap up all my stuff and prep for tomorrow.

Why I don't like Mondays, at least the morning (ISTE #3)

I wasn't planning on keeping running posts, but during my wanderings at the convention hall, I found my way into something called the "Blogger's Cafe." So I think that by law, I have to write a post. Of course, no one else here seems to feel bound by the name -- people are milling about and being social. Social! What the heck kind of blogger actually has human social interaction? If we had that, we wouldn't blog!

Anyway, I need to write down some of the random things that I have been jotting notes about for the last couple of hours, so you can read it or not. You still have time to come down here and be nonplussed on your own, or you can explore the vicarious thrill of underwhelm-ment via proxy.

After a night of not sleeping well, I made my way downstairs before 7. I printed up some puzzles and the directions for how to come home (assuming the car starts) and shared a morning faculty meeting before setting out to the conference. I had broken down my morning into areas and times, tables and rooms so I felt that things should go smoothly. Tables were first -- the tables are like glorified science fair-type presentations with companies and individuals shilling for their cause, program or product.

The first table was about teaching online. I thought it was going to be about learning to teach online but instead it was about teaching online classes. I don't intend to teach online classes so I took their handout and walked away. The second was about the use of blended learning. The two guys there are teachers who can sell their prepackaged videos or help advise teachers who want to make their own videos (using animation, puppets and animated puppets). The third was supposed to be about using blended learning to help students with learning disabilities and executive functioning issues. They didn't show up. The jokes write themselves for this one.

I then moved to the "rooms" so I could go to the tables there. These tables are different -- people who have conducted research sit at round tables and discuss what they researched and why it matters. I thought these would be the same elevator-pitch based presentations so I write down 3 tables to visit. When I showed up I learned the following:

1. no one had numbered the tables so no one knew where to go
2. the presenters had no idea what they were doing in terms of technology or materials
3. the presenters were all presenting to their tables at the same time so there was no moving between tables
4. the presentations were designed to take 45 minutes

So after I got through my initial confusion I realized that I was stuck at one table and I would not get to visit any of the others. I found myself at a table listening to the research into teaching Turkish college students how to speak English by letting them go into real world (or simulated real world) situations instead of simply teaching the rules of grammar. Oh yeah, and recording them on their phones (the technology element). So I sat for ten minutes hearing how immersive use of language is more effective than not using the language. This from someone whose grasp of English was mediocre at best and whose "research" consisted of asking her students if they thought they learned something. When the presenter went to go find someone to help her load up the video if her students learning English I excused myself and ran away. I missed out on the tables focusing on digital literacy and citizenship. I think I have had my fill of those anyway. I hugged my pen and pad of paper tighter and left.

I walked and walked to get to the next major item I had scheduled. I wanted to go to some other rooms, but those rooms weren't dominated by tables; they were hour long formal sessions which had their doors closed and were not admitting latecomers. So I missed two things I had wanted to see because of the timing conflict. I kept walking. The issue of passing time is important here because it takes a good 7 minutes to get from one major area to another, and that's without traffic. And there is always traffic. I am getting my 10,000 steps over early and then I am going to sit down and insist that presenters come to me. I found the ballroom and the session on copyright and such.

In this monster room, three presenters were discussing the issue of fair use and what is allowed to be used in the classroom. But instead of dealing with the kinds of situations which I confront (can I photocopy the entire book and hand it out instead of buying any other copies) the questions centered around making book-trailer videos with 7th graders. The presenters covered the three essential questions a teacher must consider (am I repurposing or adding, am I simply retransmitting - could my product replace the original, how much of the original did I use) and then played a neat music video about section 107 of the copyright code. Truth.

I felt that this as trying to teach teachers to be their own lawyers and come to decisions. This is a dangerous precedent. Tough teachers have some protections as long as they have used a reasonably logical formula when deciding how much fun infringement would be, I think that we shouldn't be encouraging teachers to susurp the role of the lawyer. Then what will the lawyers have to do to keep busy! Son't anyone think of the lawyers?

Also, I disagreed with a couple of their interpretations of the law. I also wondered how much any student or teacher really worries about copyright law when making a very local project. Is this really a concern? Well, apparently, yes. I next wandered into the area focusing on digital story telling. Many of the booths and presenters were touting their copyright free music and clipart, so this seems to be a thing. Don't tell anyone, but when I create my videos for class, I ignore these problems. That's mostly because I don't create videos for class...I actually teach. (shots fired. HA!) Many of the booths also were selling apps which enhanced videos with effects, or which helped publish videos to servers or websites. The earnest people there tried to show me how their particular products would help my students tell their stories. I needed to rethink that -- I rarely ask my students to tell their stories. I ask them to think and reflect on literature and construct arguments to support their contentions and persuade me. i don't want to hear their stories. The one assignment I use which does ask for students to tell a story has them do so in writing, to be printed and read, as words. Crazy, right? Am I doing this all wrong? Is the real 21st century skill that of being a narcissist? Is a green screen, a music bed and voice over, or a professional website necessary and reading, thinking and structuring an efficient written response unnecessary? These were clearly cases where technology is leading and content is lagging far behind.

So I took some handouts, left behind all the magnets, buttons and stickers, and moved on. The exposition hall is open so I may wander through and have thousands of people try to sell me stuff. My next round is 7 tables which open at 11, a room from 11-12 which I think I will miss and the session at 12:45, the reason I am here, "Is it time to get computers out of the classroom?"

I hope the answer is "yes." I have yet to see anything here which makes me feel otherwise.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

ISTEchnology the point?

Blog 2, day 1

Here are a few random thoughts generated after my arrival at the Sheraton Downtown and attendance at the official opening ceremonies of the ISTE 2015.

I sat and waited for other teachers from my school and when they arrived, I sat and waited for the registration to be completed for an hour plus. It takes time to tell a computer that 13 people ate registering at a hotel but paying for one check. Computers are dumb like that, apparently. Our fearless leader, while explaining that all 13 of us were n0ot there just yet but that we would all show up, also had to explain that we were here for a technology conference and were told that there would be complimentary wifi access in the rooms. They wanted to charge us 13 bucks a day to have access to stuff which we were here to discuss. Eventually, they said that they would eliminate it from the bill. I can’t wait to see how that works out.

The room is lovely but I had only 8 minutes to admire it before we struck out on the mean streets of Philly to hit the conference at the convention center. The building is relatively close by, at least the entrance is. The registration area is 4 miles away, all within the building. We walked and walked and final, when they ran out of hallways to send us down, found where we pick up our tote bags and advertisements for the companies that paid for the additional hallways. The structure was overwhelming to say the least. If I wanted to say more than the least I would start by saying it in all caps.


We found the registration area (destroying the one ring in the process…it was a long walk) and got similarly overwhelmed by the content of the free tote. The maps were confusing, the paperwork was cryptic and most of it was either wrong or unnecessary. And I had trouble putting the ID badge necklace on over my ears. I suffer. The next big item was the keynote address by news person Soledad Obrien. Instead of fighting the crowds to get into the hall in which she was speaking, my compatriots found a television on which the speech was to stream. I found a dark corner with relatively little noise so I could assimilate all the info that had been dumped on us. It took a while and in the middle of it I realized that I was operating on 4G not wifi. It seems that the wifi kicked out and I was using data! After a few minutes the wifi turned back on – I had been warned that the wifi can’t always handle the demand.
I am not comforted by the advice they give in the info packet to turn off the wifi on devices while at the conference in order to save bandwidth. [“To maintain Wi-Fi speed, please turn Wi-Fi off when you are not using it and switch off any auto-syncing applications.”] This is a technology conference and they are asking people not to keep synching, not to keep connected etc. They have set up apps so that we can have online schedules and maps and take notes to share with the world, but they want us to turn off wifi when we aren’t actively using it? Doesn’t this smack of a problem (if not simply an example of delicious, delicious irony)? I found myself transferring everything to a pad of paper using a (gasp!) pen so that I wouldn’t have to rely on the fancy technology at the tech conference.

I also noted that there were long lines of people waiting to get in to the key note. It looked like the lines at Disney except the weirdos here weren’t toting children along to make their bizarre habits look acceptable. I wonder what it feels like to be a Soledad Obrien groupie.

I sat in my corner and tried to chart each session I signed up for, each table I wanted to visit and each time slot in which I was supposed to be in 3 places. The supposed “interactive map” which would guide me was a series of static images which didn’t correlate to the printed map (as a note, the street we walked on wasn’t even ON the printed map…we had wandered that far inside the building that I believe we were in Connecticut). There were no indications of room numbers on the local maps so I couldn’t ground myself and figure out how to orient the map. I found my way by wandering back and forth, dropping breadcrumbs and hiring a dog to urinate on various escalators.

Soledad’s speech was…um…speech I guess. She spoke more about herself and her interactions with stuff than about technology. I now know about her family and upbringing and about 5 different news pieces which she filmed over the last 3 years. Fascinating, and her hair is nice. But it wasn’t about technology. It was about her and about the sad state of education, mostly as a function of politics, race and economics. I applaud the candor with which she said “We can leverage technology to change the world” and I endorse the truth in her statements that this shouldn’t be about technology for technology’s sake, but about creating opportunities for all to succeed, but it took her over an hour to make a simple point and I had lost interest way before then.

We moved all the way back to the entrance and the vendor tables there. I visited 7 tables before I headed out:

1. Two teachers who are marketing themselves as experts because they use technology such as interactive notebooks and kids seem to like it. There were hearts and polka dots and colors and I have no idea what they were selling
2. A group which tries to create virtual dialogues between students from different cultures internationally. I don’t know what else they do, but I signed up for their informative email because tolerance and stuff is awesome.
3. A program designed to teach digital literacy and citizenship from the young ages and from pre-computer stages so students understand how to use Twitter without a computer. Truth.
4. An organization which groups tech resources and can create suggestions for you once you tell them what you are looking for. They are consultants who for a fee, will tell you which of their products to buy depending on your need, your skill level and bank account size. Huzzah.
5. A bunch of elementary school students who were talking about ho they connected with another school virtually and shared info about Hans Christen Andersen and global warming. It seemed more about giving these 5th graders a chance to present their Weebly presentations – is this about the specific content? The ability to connect disparate school systems? The skill of creating said presentations regardless of who sees them? I have no idea, but I now realize that Hans wrote the Princess and the Pea, so there’s that.
6. A program which encourages sharing of stories and traditions between Native Americans and Jewish day schools. Except the sharing is done IN PERSON and not by leveraging technology. So if we want to take our students out to Cheyenne for a week, they can set that up.
7. A program modeled on the BOCES system of shared resources to defray costs and make various technological opportunities available to public schools in North West NY state. I don’t know what they were selling.

On the whole, I was left with many questions, not the least of which was whether this entire thing was about technology or about different approaches to teaching with technology being an asterisk or an afterthought. It just didn’t seem like the focus was on anything revolutionary in terms of technology or even its use. It was just people saying “het, I did this and it seems to have worked…pay me X dollars and you can copy me even if your situation isn’t the same as mine…and, oh yeah…technology.” So I’m not yet convinced.

I stopped back at the hotel with just enough time to leave my room and get lost on the way to a dinner that can’t be beat and a faculty meeting before retiring to my room, my almonds and my chocolate chips. As a side note, Philly's downtown is architecturally beautiful. All three sky scrapers are works of art.

Tomorrow, the fun begins before 8AM as I have to hit 3 more tables, a level 3 area, and 5 rooms before 9:30 when the real stuff kicks in.

So, until then, I leave you with something Soledad Obrien said: “Hi, I’m Soledad Obrien.”