Monday, December 01, 2008

Might As Well Blog or My Map for the Quarter

Can't sleepI've honestly been trying to go to sleep for the past 45 minutes, but I can't. No good reason, just restlessness.
I got much done today.
The book I've been waiting to teach, Dave Eggers' What is the What, lingers in back order purgatory, so I've decided to move on. Not only have I mapped out the remainder of this quarter, I've a plan of attack for the third and fourth quarters as well. I'd been letting things live in my head for a few months now because the final three quarters of my year will be linked. Tomorrow, I unveil this triptic project to one class of 11th grade students. I'm expecting it to be a bit intense.
The outline is available here, but I'll give you the skinny on Q3.
The essential question they'll be investigating this quarter is "What causes systemic and individual change?"

Reading: The students will be operating in Lit. Circles, reading and analyzing texts related to the question. They'll be organizing a timeline to complete the reading on schedule, having online conversations using moodle's forum feature and having three f2f group talks about the book. Even better, I'm working to get at least one teacher SLA or not working with each book (spaces still available) to put more of a focus on the exploration of texts.
Long Way Gone
Ishmael Beah
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Ken Kesey
It's Not About the Bike
Lance Armstrong
What is the What
Dave Eggers
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
Maya Angelou
When I was Puerto Rican
Esmeralda Santiago
The Soloist
Steve Lopez
A Room of One's Own
Virginia Woolf

Writing: The 2fers continue this quarter. This may be my all-time favorite assignment. A bi-weekly 2-page analytical paper built around an original thesis from each student with MLA citation. The frequency gives me time to provide each student individual feedback for the next paper and shapes my remediation or decision on which skills they're ready for next.

: This is the long one. The students will be working with partners to identify a problem facing Philadelphia. From there, they'll be responsible for researching the problem's history, causes, impact and cost. They'll be drafting annotated bibliographies on all of the above and then creating presentations in the vein of The presentations will go up online where the world will vote for the problem and presentation that shows the most promise to be relieved. The top presentations from each class will create action plans in the third quarter and the fourth quarter will be all about putting those plans into action.

It's not how I was taught English. While Mrs. Henning-Buhr and Mrs. Miller were lovely women, I don't remember ever completing an assignment in their classes and feeling connected to the outside world. The goals across the three are simple: 1. Examine various texts for insight as to how their characters help shape a possible answer to the quarter's essential question. 2. Incorporate that insight into frequent analytical writing to deepen their thinking on the topic. 3. Carry that enduring understanding to application using literary ideas to inform real world problem solving. All right, maybe not so simple.
More later.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Little Perspective

Never one for the "What are you thankful for?" essay, my students watched the Water Buffalo video in class yesterday. I suppose I'm now one of those teachers who watches videos on the day before break, but that's my cross to bear.
The plan was to have them watch the video where a $450 water buffalo which equals an Indonesian family's yearly salary is gifted to such a family and we all learn a little bit about life and maybe, just maybe, ourselves.
To hit the lesson home, the students were going to catalog the price of everything they had on their person. This leads to, "Ohmigosh, I am carrying around the salary of an entire Indonesian family," and our very special episode of Blossom concludes.
In another instance of underestimating our kids, they got it.
First hand up, "It just made me think of how much I have and how much I take for granted. I mean, all that work they have to do just to farm..."
Well, my work was done.
The nods of agreement across the classroom told me I needn't proceed with the cataloging.
"Look up here," say I, projecting the homepage on the board.
After a 10-minute explanation, the kids are working in teams to find a loan to which they think we should contribute the $50 sitting in my Kiva account.
When we get back from break, the class will vote.
The judiciousness with which they approached the selection process was inspiring.
There's your critical thinking.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Proving Kevin Costner Right Canadian teacher friend of mine made an impassioned plea to a group of assembled teachers the other day to get them to stop buying bottled water. "It is wrong to charge people for something necessary to their survival," he reasoned.
As much as we speak of the fact our students don't know a world without an Internet, they don't know a world where where it isn't the norm to pay money for a bottle of water either.
And then, there's this:
...[S]tarting today (Aug. 1), coach passengers flying aboard US Airways Inc. must pay for a drink of water.
This morning, US Airways began charging fliers $2 for bottled water and
sodas and $1 for teas and coffees. First class members, trans-Atlantic passengers and a select group of others are exempt from the extra fees.
If this is a harbinger of things to come, no one tell Kevin Costner. I'll be picking up Bottlemania by Elizabeth Royte.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Viacom's Drop-out Rate shoots us the indelicately titled "How American Youth Will Screw Viacom" describing Viacom's lackluster sales growth in the Second Quarter.

After I dried my tears, I read on. What got me most was this:
The fundamental problem could be that the "youth demo" that Viacom has hotly chased after for the last couple decades is a bust. Teens and twenty-somethings don't watch TV anymore; they don't read newspapers; and they're technologically promiscuous -- how can big media sell advertising against them if you can't corner them in front of any single device?

Welcome to the classroom, Viacom. The parallels extend beyond the classroom. It might just be me, but each time I speak to a group of teachers, formally or informally, about new tools and tactics for the classroom, I invariably get the same question, "But, which one should I use?" It's the silver bullet question, and I hate it. It's the question that tells me either they weren't listening or I didn't strongly enough make the the case that it's about a paradigm shift.
Undoubtedly, Viacom execs are confounded as to which tool they should use to bring their audience back. Of course, one tool won't do it. If I may make a hyperbolic metaphor, their target demo is out of the cave.
The dancing shadows of I Love Money and Real World/Road Rules Challenge MMMCVI just don't hold the same magic.
The same is to be said of the classroom, though it could be argued textbooks never held quite as much magic.
It's not just networks; now Viacom's gotta compete with the world.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How will I waste time now?

scrabulous logo
Stupid copyright getting in the way. Philly City Paper's staff blog, The Clog

Everything is ruined forever! 

social networking site Facebook finally pulled down Scrabulous, its
third-party version of Scrabble, after being threatened with legal
action. Following Mattel, who owns the international rights to
Scrabble, U.S. rights holder Hasbro slammed Facebook with a Digital
Millennium Copyright notice. F-book took the game down due to the
copyright concerns (which, let's be honest, it totally violated wicked
hard), and Hasbro in turn is filing suit against the application's

Can't we just jump forward in time to a free and open exchange of ideas? Stupid copyright. Stupid, stupid copyright.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Brain Dump: What I'm Tinkering with for Next Year

We're adding another year to SLA this fall. I'll be teaching Freshmen and Juniors. As such, it means I'll be developing a new curriculum for the Juniors. I'll also be working Larissa Pahomov the newest addition to our English Dept. We've started trading e-mails back and forth in prep for the coming year. My last epistle included some of the big and medium ideas for the year. I thought I'd throw them up here for review.
Freshman Interviews: This would be an opening mini-project where each of my 11th graders interviews one of my 9th graders using questions drafted based on the 11th-grade essential questions. The interviews will be edited as podcasts put on Drupal and iTunes. The hope here is two-fold:
  1. It gives the 9th graders something they will be able to examine as 12th graders when they get there.
  2. 2) One of the concerns I heard over and over last year is that the 10th graders never really got to know many of the 9th graders.
Objectives: Get them considering the essential questions, building communication skills and learning how to develop effective interviewing/research questions.

Bi-weekly 2fers: One of the pieces I want to build into the year is the idea that, at this point, the kids should be able to consistantly develop a thesis and draft a formal paper with little assistance. The plan would be to have kids write a 2-page paper every other week based on readings, class discussions, outside reading and/or current events. I'd set up a standing analytic soring rubric based on things like conventions, focus, organization, incorporation of outside sources, etc. Because I'll have two sections of 11th, I'll alternate the assignment weeks to help with grading.
Objectives: Develop independent writing skills, practice conventions of formal writing, build diversity of thesis development.

Change Project: This one's still in the tinkering stage. Because, conceivably, half of my students next year will have been my students last year and half will have been in Josh Block's class, I'm heading back to the drawing board on my 3rd Quarter "Change the World" project. I'm planning on working with our new History teacher Diana Laufenberg on this one too. In the opening weeks of the year, we'll brainstorm and research different topics in the world that need attention/changing. The students will identify those areas they have the most interest/stake in and then be grouped accordingly. From there, they will be assigned the task of moving to define the problem through its relation to the texts we examine in class as well as identify and perpetrate needed change.
The project will culminate as their fourth quarter benchmark. The idea here is to get them thinking as a group in a year-long way they can then build off of as seniors when working individually on their capstone projects. I'm thinking the first quarter entree will be an examination of local community service groups and a required period of community service through Again, this would be partnered with their History work. Maybe Q2 will be about selecting issues they have examined in Q1. I don't know. This one is still fuzzy, but feels like a strong and compelling idea.
Objectives: draw connections between literature and real life, draw connections between history and literature, encourage community involvement and subsequent reflection, foster group communication skills, build intensive research skills, encourage real-world problem solving.

Outside reading: While I think Larissa and I agree the texts we've selected for 11th are great, I know some of the students are going to have other ideas. I don't want to have the kids feeling like the only time they read is when we've selected and assigned a text. As such, I want to incorporate outside choice and reading this year. I'm not certain how the accountability side of this would work. Perhaps the assignment of one outside reading book per quarter. Maybe one of the 2fers each quarter would be assigned to include a comparison between their selected texts and a class text or current event. I know that moves away from inquiry a bit, but I'm just brainstorming, right?
Objectives: develop personal choice in reading, build comparative analysis skills, increase the breadth of literary experience.

Outside speakers: Because of our partnership with The Franklin, SLA has had the opportunity to hear from some scientists at the head of amazing scientific endeavors. I'd like to work with Diana again to pull in as many relevant outside speakers as possible. I had the chance to meet Andrew Carroll last April. He lives in D.C. and would be great to have in whilst the kids are reading The Things They Carried. For that matter, I'd like to get in touch with Tim O'Brien who lives in Boston. If we can't get him down, I'd like to at least blog/skype/whatever. This is to say nothing of Larissa's work with the Free Library last year and getting Sudanese refugees in to talk while we're reading What is the What. I'm thinking one speaker a month would be good to shoot for with other, smaller speakers coming in as a type of brown bag lunch series.
Objectives: Authentic textual connections
School Paper/Lit. Magazine: This never got off the ground last year. I'd like to see it as an extracurricular activity. Just putting it out there for now.

Visiting Professors: I'd also like to get some local professors who specialize in the books we're reading to come in and talk. Maybe that could be a brown bag seminar. I'm not sure.
Objectives: Deepen understanding of literature, build academic dialogue about given texts.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Oh, district, you're so witty.

So, I was doing a little Stumble Upon because it tends to garner some pretty cool tools for helping my students research and write.

Then I stumbled upon this:

I had to laugh to keep from crying. The district has blocked the Sarcasm Society website. The best part? It is blocked because the content falls under the category of "Humor/Jokes." I suppose we now know the district has a sense of humor, it just chooses to keep it blocked. What would its therapist say?
More Later.

Monday, May 19, 2008

"To what base uses we may return..." OR Shut up and read

As of today, Philly's got one month left of school. It's starting to show. I'm fine with that.
In retrospect, I probably wouldn't have saved Hamlet and Othello as the last texts for my ninth and tenth graders respectively. Still, I did, so we're here and there's nothing to be done about it now.
I co-teach my freshman sections with an equally energetic teacher whom the kids dubbed Ms. WaWa before I arrived.
We've made it to Act V Scene i and this is where the good stuff starts, right? I mean, daggers are drawn, poison is discussed and NO ONE is reading.
When reviewing the plot as it relates to the main themes in one section of today's class, I did one of those teacher pauses and noticed that thing that happens sometimes where a teacher asks a question, gives the appropriate amount of think time and then in the absence of eager hands, answers the question with an energy level that would make the Micro Machines Man winded.
Direct questions to the more aloof members of the class resulted in the bewildered stare I remember giving to my mom where I hoped I could wait out her interest in an answer rather than offer something self-incriminating.
My sails a bit wind-deprived, I stopped WaWa and asked a question to which I already knew the answer.
They hadn't read. Well, to be fair, four of them admitted they had completed the required reading. The rest of the class was either sitting idly hoping to go unnoticed or proffering up answers that belied a less-than-complete knowledge of the text.
I got my ire on.
"If you've read, that's great, get started on tonight's reading and you'll be ahead of the game. If you haven't read, start. Tomorrow, there will be a reading quiz asking for detailed answers to what happened."
I was met with the requisite, "oh-geez-we-ticked-him-off-feign-shame" silence. A minute or so later, shame had passed, a laptop was opened. "What are you doing?" says I.
"I'm going on sparknotes to read the No Fear Shakespeare version."
"No, no you're not. We're keeping technology out of this one and we're just reading and making notes where we don't understand things, so that we can ensure a rich class discussion tomorrow."
Yeah, I used the teacher "we" when I was talking about them - that's how ticked I was.
Now, I'll admit to faking my way through many a class discussion (I like to think it's a part of why they gave me my degree), but I also knew the classes where actually reading the text was key to survival:
Understanding of plot points - necessary
Main ideas of article on a New Historicist understanding of text - unnecessary
They don't know how to honor these differences yet. Today's class pulled back the curtain on a rather befuddled All Powerful Oz. Tonight they will read. They may not like it, but they will read. Such is life in compulsory education.
Tomorrow's class will be better for it. They will feel smarter because they will actually be smarter. They will know which questions to ask and how to ask them. At least that's the goal. No computers, no ActivBoards, no wifi, just kids, books, teachers and the occasional stickie note.
Here's hoping.
More later.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

It's all me

attitudegraph.gif” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.As part of every induction session (usually the part we don't get to because we fall behind in the script) we are supposed to read a journal article loosely based on the session topic.
The first session's article dealt with the cycle of a first-year teacher. Nevermind the fact we're none of us first-year teachers.
It used the graphic to the right.
I'm worried.
Chris blogged the other day, “Too often, the rhetoric of schools does delve into the heroic martyr teacher succeeding against all odds. That's not sustainable. That's not even useful.”
Let me be clear, I do not want to be a martyr - that never ends well. I can't say I even want to be a hero - tights chafe.
I worry as I read this and this and this that teachers around the country are getting stuck somewhere in winter. Teachers are hitting the wall.
Something noble still exists in teaching.
Dana Huff writes:
Some days, I think teachers get a great deal of satisfaction out of their jobs — because truly no feeling can top working with a class when everyone’s really getting it and engaged in learning — and those days are worth the days when we don’t feel appreciated or satisfied, but it’s difficult, and I don’t think a lot of people are willing to or may even be capable of the endurance it takes to make a career of teaching these days.
The tale end of her description falls nicely in line with what Chris has to say about ex-teachers: Those teachers felt overworked, under-prepared, under-challenged, and under-appreciated.”
These teachers live in November. They teach daily in a long, cold winter of disillusionment after a gray, dreary autumn of survival.
Seeing this, watching it happen to teachers I know, I wonder why I'm still here. What's wrong with me that I still look forward to coming to school everyday?
I've yet to teach in a perfect school. I never will. I've yet to teach in a school where I couldn't fall in love with my job. I never will.
When it comes down to it, I come to school everyday because I've made certain I work in places I love. I always will. As cliche as it sounds, I live by choice.
I exercise control in what I have control over. That makes the horrible days - the really horrible days - when the things beyond my control take center stage still livable.
When did teachers abdicate control?
More later.

Friday, May 09, 2008

I'm Either Insulted or Going Crazy

I think I may have stumbled on to one of the causes of the high rate of new teacher attrition.
Wednesday night, I finished session 4 of 5 of the School District of Philadelphia's New Teacher Induction program.
My blood pressure wasn't as high as it had been for sessions 1 and 2. I got out of session 3 by presenting with Marcie at Penn State's 1:1 Laptop Conference. Coincidentally, it was the session where we talked about whether or not technology integration was important to differentiated instruction. (Had I been there, I'm pretty sure my eyes would have bled or I would have rocked back and forth in the corner humming "The Farmer and the Dale.")
I had to go through new teacher induction my first year in Sarasota. The process took the entire year. SRQ uses a mentor/mentee model where novice teachers are teamed up with veterans. I'm pretty sure my mentor didn't like me because our meetings usually consisted of the following:
Her: How you doing?
Me: Fine.
Her: Good. I guess I better initial those papers.
It was a synergy to make Stephen Covey proud.
Philly's induction, like Philly's core curriculum, is scripted, minute-by-minute. You can imagine what that does to class discussion. Not surprisingly, this also means, we have avoided the topic of differentiated instruction.
Wednesday, as we began looking at data and AYP and core curriculum and needs assessments and PSSA trend analysis and everything else, I could take no more.
"This is insulting," I said, "We are all professionals, we have been trained as teachers."
The instructor/facilitator/swami agreed, but pointed out that our ability didn't mean a few bad teachers didn't enter the profession.
"Yes, but I've had a few weeks with the 20 people in this room, and I'm pretty confident we're not those teachers, but we've allowed for the building of a system that treats us as though we are."
At this point, the train had jumped the tracks.
It was wonderful. We had an honest discussion of race and the history of Philadelphia, about systems and the like. For the first time, the car ride home was filled with discussion not of how things could have gone, but what things can become.
I've more thoughts on this swimming around. They'll appear shortly, but the crux of it is this: I know new teachers need support in their first two years or they'll revert to teaching the way they were taught when they were in school. But shouldn't that support be dynamic? Shouldn't that support be about what teachers need? Shouldn't we be engaging each other in the kind of dynamic discourse we're hoping for in our classrooms? Shouldn't we?
More later.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Oh, The Paper

For those who are unaware, SLA is a textbook-less school. More to the point, we're a paper textbook-less school. It is a beautiful thing. Truly.

Today, preparing my 10th graders to create the Action Plan portion of what they've dubbed the "Change the World Project." I created a Word document complete with step-by-step instructions with guiding questions. It was good teaching. I threw the doc up on our Moodle page and worked the kids through the prep they needed to undertake the assignment. Then, it happened, Moodle was down. The Moodle (sometimes we call it that in our Seinfeldian way) was down.

If I may drop some sarcasm on you, one of my favorite moments in a class is when something simple doesn't work and hands shoot up and the kids start shouting my name like it's a button for an elevator that won't show up.

I say all this because it's the thing about actual textbooks, they don't crash. That's it. I've worked in a 1:1 school in some incarnation or another for almost three years now. I love it.

They crash. Yes. You know what, though? They come back.

A few things can't be done easily with paper textbooks: upgrading an entire curriculum in a day, patching, getting the most timely information possible, receiving information free of charge or corporate filtration, researching innumerable points of view, differentiating instruction on a dime...

Here's the rub, when a kid forgets his book, that kid just needs to share with his neighbor. When an online book crashes, sadly, it falls on the shoulders of a schools techies. The shift or added layer of responsibility that comes with paperless texts can be difficult to maneuver. That, though, is why we are the teachers. Since the days of slate tablets, Plan A has failed and Plan B has been picked up on the fly.

The point is this, paperless books are not perfect, but they are far better than the tools of old. By the time I'd printed the pages I needed for today's lesson, The Moodle was back up and what I'm sure was half an acre of Brazil had been clear cut. My own personal Change the World Project?

More later.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

I just like this

I stumbledupon this, and it made me smile.
More later.

Going Deep

A Pownce from a student yesterday:
[S]o [C]hase, when [I] google stuff to find links to help me out for my posts [I]'m starting to get my own work!
[It's] driving me crazy. Just wanted to tell you for no reason.

She's not the first person to find herself when searching for new information on her benchmark project. I was hoping this would happen. I could have preached the shortcomings of the almighty Google, but they wouldn't look anywhere else until they truly needed it.

They've started needing it. They've started needing the deep web. We started talking about it today. A somewhat convoluted metaphor of Google being like the garbage men on my block and deep search engines being like the little old lady who picks up the actual litter started things off.

Wikipedia's entry on the Invisible Web says this about its size:
In 2000, it was estimated that the deep Web contained approximately 7,500 terabytes of data and 550 billion individual documents. Estimates, based on extrapolations from the study entitled How much information 2003?, from University of California, Berkeley, show that the deep Web consists of about 91,000 terabytes. By contrast, the surface Web, which is easily reached by search engines, is only about 167 terabytes. The Library of Congress contains about 11 terabytes, for comparison.

Philly schools have a subscription to EBSCO. It's one of the best kept secrets in the district. Now, EBSCO got me through college. Fully text searches were the reason I spent minimal time in the library (sorry Doug Johnson). Showing it to the kids today, though, I felt like I was handing them a Vespa in celebration of their 16th birthdays. For some, it got the job done. For others, more was needed.

Enter "99 Resources to Research & Mine the Invisible Web" and a tutorial from Berkeley on using the invisible web.

Not all of the tools were right for all the students - I know, I was shocked too. It's weird when they learn and see that it's important.

More later.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Seeing Themselves

Part of the "Change the World"  project that I hope you'll participate in and comment on here or here requires my kids to write 5 reflective  posts about their progress.

The first was due last week. I wasn't sure what to expect. While my students' ability to write about their lives in their journals has been  steady,  I was worried asking them to reflect on their work in such a focused manner might give them problems.

Turned out my worries were misplaced. Julia writes:
From the explanation of this project as a whole, it seems unbearable. Completely impossible. My expectations were that there was no way I could do it. When I first looked it over, I didn’t even know how or where to begin. At this point in time though, I’m pleased with the progress I’m making on this project.

She goes on to make certain her audience doesn't confuse her progress with ease. Still, it was her last three sentences that got me:
I think the obstacles are there, but not impossible. Mostly, I think that as a 10th grade English class, we are doing something different and amazing. That’s the most satisfying progress so far.

She's excited about learning. While not every student is putting his or her excitement in quite the same form, something different is going on. Over the last few classes, I've answered questions about finding better sources, better change agents, writing letters, correctly formatting direct quotes...I mean a 10th grade student to asked how to set up a direct quote.

Sometimes, things go ok.

More later.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The problems we face

Ms. Hull and I presented at PETE&C today. The coming "blizzard" likely affected attendance at our last session of the conference. Thank you weather for providing scape goat.

To get people thinking and break the Sit & Get mentality, we had those in attendance think of the 1-3 things keeping their building from breaking through to greatness.

They shared with the people sitting next and reported out.

Here's the list they generated:

  • Staff resistance
  • Keeping current
  • Lack of community support
  • Lack of a vision (clear vision)
  • Administration road blocks
  • Money $$$$
  • Lack of technicians
  • Lack of solutions
  • Deciding – dealing with overload
  • Blocking the server – firewalls
  • FEAR
  • Lack of voice for teachers
  • Need for communication from techs to teachers
  • Common language
  • Sense of community
  • Time
  • Pride

Read the list again - I had to. The topic of the presentation was "Planning the 21st Century School."
Aside from blocking the server, these are 20th Century problems. Replace server with "texts," "discoveries," "evolution," etc. and you've jumped in the Way-back Machine.

My invitation to you - pick a problem, any of the above or one specific to your building, and comment with a possible beginning to a solution. What can be done?
More later.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A outline for changing the world

[Below is the description of the project I last posted about.]

Q3 English Benchmark Description
Social Action Project

Alignment with SLA Core Values

What is an issue affecting you at the local, state, national or global level that you can work to change?

Research: Identify the social, historical and scientific factors surrounding this issue. Identify realistic steps that can be taken to create positive change regarding this issue. Identify a change agent with capital (social, political or economic) necessary to work to improve the status of your issue.

Collaboration: While conducting your research, you will identify and subscribe to at least three RSS feeds from viable sources regarding your topic. Throughout the quarter, you will synthesize your information in the form of at least 10 blog posts to your SLA Drupal blog. Two of these posts must analyze the topic through the scientific lens, and two of these posts must examine the topic through a sociological or historic lens. You will also be responsible for subscribing to and commenting on the blog postings of two members of your stream as well as two members of the opposite stream.

Presentation: Based on your research and synthesis, you will create a 3-5 minute “elevator pitch” designed to convince your identified change agent to act on your issue. You will also create a research-based action plan outlining realistic steps that can be taken to improve conditions surrounding your issue.

Reflection: Given the cumulative nature of the understanding gained through this project, you will post 5 reflective posts charting your progress throughout the quarter with the fifth post to follow completion of the Presentation portion.

Skill Sets

Necessary Tech Skills:
  • Posting blog entries to Drupal
  • Searching and identifiying reliable information sources
  • Subscribing to RSS feeds
Necessary Social Skills:
  • Contacting change agent
  • Arranging face time with change agent
  • Providing productive feedback and support to peers

So...about the world, seems like it's time to change it

My mom likes to tell the story of the first time she read me the biography of Martin Luther King Jr. I was all of 7 or 8 years old. As she tells it, there was a bit of a paradigm shift involved. I marched back and forth in my footie pajamas explaining to her that "it was wrong, why would someone kill him? Why would people hate other people because they looked different?" It was my first run in with some of the big questions that unfortunately continue to trouble the world.
Two weeks ago, we started the third quarter at SLA.
As I last posted, I seem to have challenged my kids to change the world in 9 weeks or less.
Friday, they started posting.
The basics are this:
  1. Pick a problem.
  2. Build a feed reader with at least three feeds on your problem and search/bookmark viable sites.
  3. Throughout the quarter, write 10 informational posts using the information from your reader/bookmarked sites.
  4. Throughout the quarter, write 5 reflective posts on your progress.
  5. Draft an 3-5 minute "elevator pitch" for a possible change agent to show you know what you're talking about.
  6. Draft an action plan around a realistic solution to the problem you've selected.
  7. Meet with an identified change agent and present your pitch and action plan.
Friday, their first two posts were due. I've started reading them. Some good work from first-time bloggers. The next step is to help them build readerships. While I'm asking teachers at SLA to read and comment on posts regarding their areas of interest, I issue this call to anyone out there - read here or here and help teach our students.
I'll be linking the formal project and rubric descriptions soon.
More later.

Thursday, February 07, 2008


My tenth graders created podcasts in the vein of This American Life. The results were varied, but by-and-large, impressive.
I'm speaking of the quality of the work, but also of the investment of the students. For the first time, truly, my students were engaging in work that meant something to them and a larger audience. We've blogged before. We've used wikis. Blah, blah, blah.
This assignment, however, was something else. They owned this. I took my hands off the wheel and trusted they'd know where to go.

One student who moved with his family to the states from Bangladesh five years ago interviewed his family on the decision to move an entire household. He interviewed his family in Bengali and had another Bengali student record a translation over the speaker. The work was fantastic and he put more time into getting the story right than I've seen him put into any other assignment this year. As an emerging language learner whose mastered the conversational vocabulary, but is still developing his academic vocabulary, he found a voice in this project that that has continued to augment his contributions to class discussion.

This quarter, a new project is at hand - Change the World. Admittedly, it didn't start out with that charge. After explaining to my first section of 10th graders that they were to pick a problem in the world, work to talk to a possible change agent and present that change agent with a feasible action plan, one student raised her hand and asked, "So, basically, you want us to change the world in 9 weeks?"

I paused for a beat and replied, "I guess so, yeah."

We're two weeks in and their first blog posts are due at midnight tomorrow. Each student is using his or her SLA Drupal account to document the process and information. All the posts are aggregated on the class pages. Their topics are wide-ranging and sights are set high.

If you've got a second, drop by Gold or Silver and leave a comment. They're finding feedback invigorating. Heck, I'm finding feedback invigorating.

More later.

Monday, February 04, 2008

One of my favorite things to do

PhoneIt's Monday night. Here I sit in my PJs with my gradebook up-to-date. I decide to reward myself.
I open the student contact file on my computer along-side my gradebook and pic a student who's doing well in class. I look up the number, dial and wait.
The voice on the other end clearly does not recognize my Floridian number on caller ID.
"This is Mr. Chase," says I, "Milana's English teacher."
"Yes..." a clearly uncertain pause.
"I was just calling to let you know how great it is to have your daughter as part of our class. She's one I can count on for insightful comments, and I'm impressed by how hard she's working on the Quarter 3 benchmark project."
The conversation goes on for a few minutes more. We talk about how I joined SLA after the year started - that's why she doesn't remember meeting me. We joke about keeping the call between the two of us so as not to inspire false confidence in her daughter.
Before we hang up, though, she says, "I don't know if this something you do personally as a teacher or what, but keep it up. This is one of the best phone calls I've gotten in a long time."
It's the best way to end a Monday I know.
When I was in Florida, I tried to make two positive phone calls home before I went home each day. I developed the habit after Hal Urban spoke at my first school.
Much can be said about setting the tone with parents, building relationships, etc.
That's part of why I do it, but it's not the bigger why.
I make those phone calls home because it makes me feel better. I make those phone calls because it pushes me, everyday, to look at the best of my students. In the hectic frenzy of any given school day, the least I can do is make certain I catch the best of my students.
No matter what happened before, the words, "This is one of the best phone calls I've gotten in a long time," made this a good Monday.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Wanted: Teachers

While all the talk of teaching and students at Educon2.0 was enjoyable, it felt good to be back in the classroom Monday. Normally, that would be enough. This Monday was special.
Konrad Glogowski and I have been following each other's writings and thoughts for about two years. Though he tends to be immensely smarter than I, we share many ideas.
As we were leaving Educon2.0, on a whim, I asked Konrad what time he flew out Monday. Turned out he wasn't leaving until 7 pm.
Now, I'll say this plainly, my idea was to invite him to sit in one some classes. "Can I teach your class?" he asked jokingly - I'm fairly certain it was jokingly.
I'm not one to pass up a good idea.
Monday, Konrad rocked the house.
From sharing his own experience with poetry as a student to calling a student up to create an improvised poem where she opened up in what many would consider a vulnerable way, Konrad rocked the house.
After having the class walk within one block in any direction of SLA and "zoom in on what's important," we all returned to SLA's cafe and engaged in a discussion of poetry, revision, authorial choice, etc.
The thing that hit me was the fact it didn't matter to Konrad that the students spread out to write whilst the rest of the class discussed. Those same students dropped into and out of the conversation as they heard something worth their attention.
Over lunch, with several members of the SLA faculty, we debriefed. One thread of the discussion was on the use of space within SLA. Our classrooms extend beyond their 4 conventional walls. On any given day, my students can be found in cubbies, nooks, offices, hallway tables and floors outside my room learning.
I know this isn't unique. I'm glad it's not. The thing that struck me about the goings on during Konrad's lesson and the thoughts batted about during lunch, were the commonalities in our styles, our approaches and beliefs.
This speaks to my and Chris' contention that SLA is not unique. Chris said at Sunday's panel discussion that we sadly rare, but I'm not certain that is true either. We know how to connect, how to tell our story, how to engage with other like-minded individuals, and we're learning how to do each of those things more effecitvely. Our drive to tell our story may be the rarity. I have to believe that great things are happening in many classrooms and schools around the world; they just don't know how to talk about it yet.
What happened Monday was a first for me. Try it. Find a teacher in your network and invite them to teach your class. This could be via skype, via chat, via ustream, whatever method you choose. And, if I am part of your network, I offer this open invitation - come teach my class.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Spencer Wells Comes to SLA - Live Blogged

Dr. Spencer Wells, Explorer in Residence at NG, heads Human Genographic Project
Goal is to answer the simple question of where people come from. Polled immigrant students on where their parents came from. How different are we, really?
Population geneticist - field trying to figure out the answer to that question.
How do you explain the patterns of human diversity?
Broken into sub-questions:
Are we, in fact, all related to each other?
how did we come to populate every corner of the globe and generate the diversity we see?

Darwin's second book, the Descent of man. In each great region of the world the living...
Darwin answered the question over a century ago, "We came from Africa." But Darwin was talking about ancient ancestry. Didn't address the issue of humans. He was talking about things that happened a long time ago.

Apes appear in Africa 23 million years ago.
Fist African exodus 15 million years ago.
We want to know about the origins of the human species, not apes.
Paleoanthropology - digging things up out of the ground and determining ancestry based on shape. Actually relies on very little data. Completely changes the interpretations of where we came from. Three species of hominids found in the same place. Were living in the same place in the same time. Don't know which we actually descended from.
Usually use shape as the only data. Linneas first gave us binomial nomenclature.
The question of origin is really a genealogical question.
3 billion units of DNA in each human cell.
Nice job of comparing copying a book by hand to copying of genetic material.
When they get passed down through the generations, they become markers of descent.
People are 99.9% the same. comparing genographic information from five people to search for variation.
Imagine the DNA sequences are like real words. We're looking at the variable information.
"FIX" and "CAT"
We count the number of changes to get us back to the common ancestor "DOG."
Africans have been accumulating these mutational changes longer than any other group of people. This means Darwin was correct and humans started in Africa. Left Africa 60,000 years ago.
Showing a map of believed migratory paths.
Book, The Journey of Man and PBS film of the same title.
Genographic Project:
  • Global DNA sampling
  • Public participation
  • A Legacy Fund

Regional offices with the goal of sampling indigenous people.
Between 100 and 300 million indigenous people in the world.
Can go on website and get yourself tested.
Net proceeds to legacy fund to help the indigenous tribes maintain educational and cultural programs.
Migrating from homelands to dominant cultures means a sacrifice of culture. About 6,000 languages spoken in the world today. Maybe only 500-600 languages spoken by the end of the century.
Indigenous cultures tell us about natural sources for treatment medicines. Losing cultural knowledge means losing links to important information.
Participants get deeper knowledge.
Showing information from Miss Hull. Showing a map of the migration of Hull's ancestors. Amazing. Her ancestors killed off the Neanderthals. Traced back to a single female ancestor, most successful female group.
Evolved more in the last 10,000 years than we did in the prev. 100,000.
We will be giving up hunter gatherers because of globalization.
Science and Religion: As a scientist, you have to stay away from religion and be as objective as you can. Average Brazilian has no idea what their ancestry is.
Are we turning back into monkeys? No  evidence we are devolving.
Interesting question to end on.

Image Credit:

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

On Editing

Our 9th Graders are working on fractured fairy tales for their benchmark. Last night's homework was to complete their rough drafts. Because these will be incorporated into children's picture books, there's a word limit of 500. It does an English teacher's heart good to have students complaining they absolutely cannot write anything under 596 words.
In an effort to stem the onset of AEP (Adolescent Editing Phobia), I'm turning back to my roots - my college roots.
There were a few things I garnered from my formal college education, truly a few. One of them was comparative adverbial forms such as, "He slowed down more slowly than she did." The other was from Professor Bob Broad - The Writer's Memo.
I remember writing my first memo in Broad's class. I remember thinking it was a complete waste of time. I remember getting my draft back with memo and comments and realizing I had just learned something about editing.
Today, my 9th graders will be turning in their rough drafts, writing their memos and trading papers. I'm hoping for goodness. I realize not every student is going to get as much out of the writers memo as I did. Still, I'm hoping it will be a start to a larger conversation over what it takes to truly get worthwhile peer review happening on a draft.
If not, I'll move on to comparative adverbial phrases.
More later.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Frustrations in Radioland

My 2.0 tools are running into Beta problems.
Currently, my tenth graders are working on creating podcasts in the vein of "This American Life" by interviewing and recounting the stories of people they may or may not know around the theme of sacrifice. This all ties back to the plight of Janie from Zora Neal Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.
We spent days listening to stories and watching some superb material from Current posted on Youtube where Ira Glass explains storytelling. We deconstructed, timelines were created, and now...
A handful of students are creating some superb content. The majority look at me in class as though I'm completely unreasonable not lower my expectations.
The thing is, my frustration comes from my inability to take them any further in the process. At some point, I have to say, "That's all the scaffolding I can provide." My frustration comes from giving them all the tools I can to help them succeed and then having to step back. My frustration comes from realizing I can't actually do the work for them and achieve the ultimate goal.
Many of my students have decided their success depends on an external locus of control. Mainly, this happens when they come to the portion where they must edit the material they've collected. As much as I warned, (and it often included much failing about whilst speaking) many of the students approached editing as though it were an afterthought. This is not at all unlike their approach to editing in the writing process. Unfortunately they come to the rather stark realization that this whole process takes supreme amounts of focus. At that point, any number of reasons are batted about as to why they cannot complete the project.
One class' audio is due tomorrow. I'm not sure what to expect.
The question that circles in my head is what can be done? This is not a new problem - for me or any educator. And so, here's the point of reflection, what's to be done?
If nothing else, the situation is a lovely example of the fact it's not the tools that get kids to succeed.
And then...
As I finished typing the last sentence a student walked in to ask where he needed to return the Snowball mic he had been using. The student had been working for two-and-a-half hours to translate an interview he'd done with his father about the decision to move his family from Bangladesh 5 years ago and the effect it had on the student.
Mind you, this is a student I've seen limited academic work from thus far, mainly because the academic vocabulary develops so much more slowly than the conversational vocabulary. He's here, two-and-a-half hours after school ended. That's never happened with a traditional writing assignment.
Maybe I'm not doing everything right, but maybe I'm doing something right.
More later.

Image from

Monday, January 07, 2008


My inbox held this message last night:

You're invited to Pownce!

I'd forgotten I'd signed up for an invite to Pownce a little over a month ago. In fact, I'd forgotten what it was. Given the pace at which tools hit the web, I'm hesitant to try many things out. Pownce wins.

Think of it as "Twitter on steroids" as Marcie said. The setup is similar, but it's also ready with a desktop app that runs on Adobe AIR.

The big draw for me is the range of tools Pownce brings to the table:
  • No 140-character limit which was cute in the beginning, but frustrating when I need to say something more intricate.
  • 10 MB file transfer capabilities (100 MB if you pony up the $20/yr. for a pro account)
  • Link posting capabilities (I know this is easy in twitter, but it's still nice.)
  • Event posting capabilities.
Now, I'm also a fan of the little things. A person's Pownce profile page will also hold contact info. from pretty much any social networking, IM or web-based presence you can think of. It's a one-stop shop to look at a person's online footprint and has already proved itself helpful in tracking down a friend's info.

So, I've a few invites left for Pownce for those who are interested (It's still in Beta, so admission is invite-only). As soon as the network's big enough, I'll be deleting my twitter account. Yeah, that's how much I believe in it.

It will be interesting to see if/how soon this app gets snatched up by the likes of Google, MyspaceFacebook or the like.