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 bit.ly/ISTEPLRubric 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.”


International Society for Technology in Education 2015 Conference and Expo.

Against my better judgment, I decided to attend a conference in Philadelphia – something to do with technology in education. I’m an educator and I use technology so it seemed reasonable but I didn’t like how it was going to require me to leave the house and interact with people. Then my school said that they would pay and I said “where do I virtually sign?”

I go in to this with an open mind and curmudgeon’s heart. I believe that there are a variety of “technologies” which have their place in the classroom (including chalk, record players, computers and bananas) but that the electronic variety has value if it becomes an organic extension of the education and content. The cart should not lead the my-kingdom-for-a-horse. Too often, I see people who say “let’s invest in the electronics and we’ll find a way to build the education around them” or who assume that “newer is important and the wave of the future. Since students use new technology in the world, we have to shift our classroom paradigm to accommodate and coopt the technology so that we stay relevant. New technology must be good so new methods must follow.” Harumph, I say.

So I printed up directions (just because “Waze” exists doesn’t mean that I want to use it) and gassed up the car for the drive to the city of brotherly tolerance. On the way, the maintenance light went on on my dash so I might not ever come home, but the free wifi in the hotel seems sufficient.

I have set up a schedule of events and talks to go to. I tried to pick ones that either addressed my position as an English teacher, or which seemed to respect my particular cynical attitude towards computers in the classroom. The key note is scheduled for 5:45 and then there are some things to attend in the evening. I will try to take notes during presentations (I even brought pen and paper so take that future humans!) and reflect a bit, then write up my thoughts and post them. I wouldn’t call this “live blogging” mostly because I think that that is a stupid phrase. Whenever I blog I am alive (at least thus far) so there will be little difference in my existence status for these posts. I will not be giving a play by play unless the presentations truly call for an immediate rebuttal. Otherwise, I will absorb and fire off a grape shot post after it all calms down. And if the car doesn’t start for my return trip I’m sure I’ll have something more to say then.

So if you are an educator and can’t be at ISTE 2015, or you are here and want to see if your response falls in line with mine (which will be, of course, the right and normative response), or if you are just a fan of everything I have to say, then stay tuned and I will post brilliance whenever the muse descends.

And for those of you reading this while still on the way here, the traffic stinks, there is construction and poor signage, but the lobby is pretty. Drop by and say “hi” then leave me alone. I miss my house.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Meet the Mets, Beat the Mets

I'm sitting here watching the Mets. I want to explain what that is like because I have been doing it for a while and it is a feeling that I feel needs sharing.

It isn't quite pain, but pain is a good place to start. I guess it has something to do with pain because it certainly does hurt to be a Mets fan. Watching any strange combination of events conspire to keep the team you love from any consistent success can inspire a wince or two. There is nausea involved, and a fair amount of it. But the real feeling of being a Mets fan has to do with the emotional toll it takes on people.

The Mets drag you down. They are always a scrappy bunch of kids with the can-do spirit who clearly can't do a damned thing. Injuries, chronic underperformance and just plain stinkiness hound them each year. They field a minor league line up and are constantly relying on a set of pitchers who seem to be a shade beyond their historical success. Somehow they always seem to be on the cusp of coming out of a slump, but stay mired in that slump until the one day that they explode for 15 runs and make you believe.

That's the great crime. They make you believe. In fact, in 1973 the claim was "Ya Gotta Believe" and you do, as a prime imperative HAVE to believe in this team. Then they go and win the series in 1969 and 1986. That's great. They make it to the series a couple of other times. Maybe we're on to something. And you invest yourself. You put your heart right back there on the line and learn the player names. You start paying attention to the standings and hoping -- hoping against hope, itself, that this band of mutts will step up and be great. They will stop being the mediocre, middling bunch of has beens and never will bes and coalesce into an actual team. And they implode. Then, in March, it starts again: a strong spring season with a bunch of players of promise, and sometimes, an early season which gives them a great position. Then the collapse. It could be in May, in Late July or September, but it happens, and they time it each year to create maximum sadness among those who still flock to Flushing with visions of miracles in their eyes.

And if that isn't enough, players who were barely pulling their weight get traded away and suddenly become superstars on other teams, and prove it especially when they come back to play the Mets. And the big name guys who are brought in to anchor the group suddenly forget how to play the game, get hurt or just prove that you really can wish for "lukewarm" when confronted with "ice cold." New dimensions in which to disappoint are explored. Time passes. People go to the games late just to see the events afterwards or say 'no' to the promotional offerings. Sportscasters make jokes and the Mets' play-by-play guys struggle to find something to talk about. It is just sad.

And the fans. The poor, tortured fans. We come back every time. We defend our team. We curse them and insult them, second guessing them and being proven right. We yell about how much we hate them and still, we come back. We give up hope before the season is a month old, but we still harbor, in the darkest corner of our hearts, that this is the year in which the Mets will prove us wrong and pull one out of the fire and actually win something. Not a singular game, but a consistent streak in dominant fashion. And while it gives us a thrill, we don't really want the team to scrape by in extra innings or get runs with two outs, against all odds. We want to see a team which lives up to the salary wasted on it, being what we have been led to believe they can be. We are afraid to watch the reruns of games they won for fear that they will find a way to lose this time. We breathe when they are up because at least then they can't lose a lead.

We go to games when no one else goes (I recall promotional games from the late 70's which were sparsely attended) and we stay well beyond when we should. We watch the airplanes, make comments about the shape of the stadium and do whatever we can to keep us from watching the team. We don't have a closer. We don't have a bang-bang lead off or clean up hitter. We don't have a slam dunk ace pitcher. We don't have a miracle fielder. We have a set of no-namers playing in the top market, providing a punching bag for any other team that decides to show up.

We bleed blue and orange and that isn't because of some weird disease. Unless you call being a Mets fan a disease, which often it feels like it is. We wish we didn't believe, but we gotta.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Stuff that I like, people whom I don't. And vice versa.

I have never made my antipathy towards statistics private. I wear it on my sleeve. I think statistics are vile in the best case, and downright dangerous at any point beyond that. They can be used to prove any point that one idiot wants to make, and they generally are. Somehow every show is the highest one rated, every disease is least likely to kill you and the percentage of people who lose between 3 and 400 pounds is either 1 or 97. It isn't enough that statistics requires us to look at numbers but it does so in a way which encourages misunderstandings and enables a huge number of lies. By my quick count, not only are more than half of all statistics made up, but over 95% of all uses of statistics are intentionally misleading either by masking sample size or selection or by mispresenting variables or context. Statistics are horrible because they present as some vision of truth what is, in some form, invariably a lie.

But, and I mean this sincerely, I have no quarrel with statisticians. They are probably well meaning people who like to count stuff. They generally aren't the ones using their statistics for evil. They are about presenting possibilities and they let people decide meaning. That might be a touch irresponsible, sort of like laying down a loaded gun and saying "whatever you want..." but they aren't shooting anyone.

I feel quite the opposite about another field -- a field in which the study itself and even the findings are completely acceptable but those in the area of study are the ones I can't stand. If you are in this discipline, I apologize in advance; you might be a fine person but in your official capacity I don't like you. The subject in question is archaeology and the practitioners, those archaeologists, are the problem.

Unlike statistics, archaeology is a field inherently honest. People crouch in the hot sun with brooms and shovels and stuff and look in the ground for neat things like bottle caps and civilizations. Eventually, after a whole lot of diet soda and boredom, someone unearths a fragment of a bone, or an arrowhead shaped like a cookie, or an old cookie shaped like an arrowhead and jumps for joy. The precise location is charted, graphed, mapped, catalogued and tweeted along with the depth, orientation and taste of the artifact. The item itself is photographed, sketched and interviewed (or so I've heard) so that everyone all over the world will rest assured that we have yet another piece of old lamp or a stella. A what? a STELLA. This process produces no lies. It produces things that can be looked at and admired, especially if one wishes to pay the suggested donation. The context in which each was found is clear and findable on a map. There is no uncertainty about the existence of the thing qua thing.

Archaeologists are another matter. They make their living getting tourists and volunteers to do their digging for them while they sit back and scribble in their notebooks about the air temperature and the stupidity of the volunteers. Then, they look at the little piece of nothing that some schlub found after 6 hours and a mild touch of heat stroke and they make up stories about all that the existence of that old gum wrapper proves. Proves, they say, as if finding a broken pot in the middle of the desert can prove anything other than "someone, at some point, dropped this pot and it made its way into the desert." For all anyone knows, it was dropped in a bustling metropolis and a passing sheep got it stuck on his head. He worked it off while he was in the desert and voila! Instant proof.

A few years ago, while on a rare vacation, my family collected some sea shells. Small ones. Pretty ones. We brought them home and then realized that we don't particularly care for sea shells, so we put them in a little basket which we put on the front steps. Along came a rain storm and the basket tipped over and the skells landed in the patch of dirt and pachysandras in the front of the house which we call the garden. I decided to leave them there. And in 10, 100 or 1000 years, when some future archaeologist digs up those shells, he will dream up some scenario about the ocean's level having been up to my front door. It will be a lie. The fact that the shells are found there will be the truth but the archaeologist will invent an explanation. He is the liar.

Archaeology cannot prove or disprove anything. it can provide tantalizing clues that need to be connected and established in relationship with other clues but all that is done by drawing conclusions and making guesses. And even then, the scope of the concept proven has to be local to the precise nature of the find. If I find a skeleton with an arrowhead inside it and matching scoring on the rib cage, I can conclude that this arrowhead passed through this one person's ribs. I cannot conclude a cause of death or a motive. I cannot do anything more than speculate. And I certainly can't come to any conclusion about this person's family, society, culture or values. All of that is bunk. And yet archaeologists do that, everyday. An archaeologist's primary job is to invent lies. Now, I'm not talking about an English teacher's interpretation of symbolism in a text. That's also invention, substantiated by textual evidence. But the end result is the creation of a larger set of possible understandings. Archaeology's end result is the presentation of a single truth, a knowledge of the machinations of the past and the particular path of history.

You are probably wondering why I am writing this -- that's a fair question. I am in the midst of an online argument with an archaeology student who insists that literary authorship can be established or refuted through archaeology. Now, he isn't talking about finding an inscription which reads "Joe did NOT write that book" which still would prove nothing if I lack knowledge of the provenance and authority of the one who inscribed it. He is talking about archaeology "proving" that the text is not true and that the author didn't exist. The text in question is the bible and the author is Moses.

Now I'm not here, or even there, to get into a discussion about whether archaeology has proven or disproven the accuracy of the bible -- that has been done thousands of times. The fact that there are myriad books, articles and websites which take contradictory sides, all using the same "finds" should show the inadequacy of archaeology to prove anything definitively. But this guy injected his belief in the primacy of archaeological 'proof' into a discussion of the literary analysis of a text. This is just further proof that archaeologists are jerks, making up stuff when they are in their own field, and elevating themselves over other fields which are unrelated to their process or findings.

So, in summary: statistics, bad. Statisticians, good. Archaeology, good. Archaeologists, bad.