Do You Know What Today Is?

Birthday CakeIt is huffenglish.com’s 8th birthday! To make it even more special, I’m celebrating by writing this post in the Blogger’s Cafe at ISTE!

Of course, a cursory glance at my content for the last year or so reveals very little actual blogging.

Why is that? Well, I moved 1,000 miles away and started a new job. I now work at Worcester Academy, and this summer I begin my second year as their Technology Integration Specialist. I can’t think of a more wonderful place to work. They value my professional development enough to send me to the premier educational technology conference in the world, and I work with some truly amazing educators.

I have been really dissatisfied with the quiet on this blog. Even though I made some major changes in my professional and personal life over the last year, and I gave myself permission to let the blog go for a while, I have always maintained that people make time for things they consider important. People used to ask me how I had time to blog, tweet, etc. You know, all the social media. I said I made time to do it because it was important to me. And it is still important to me, but clearly not as important as some other things going on. I am announcing today that blogging has once again moved to my front burner, and if it’s not on the very front burner, at least it’s on the stove again. It’s been relegated to the recesses of the freezer as I tried to acclimate to my new home and job, but because blogging is important to me, I’ll be making time for it again.

Why is blogging important to me? It allows me to reflect on what I’m thinking and learning. Sure, I can do that offline in any one of a variety of note-taking apps I use or even with a pen and notebook, but the kind of thinking and reflection I do here on this blog transformed me as a teacher. Eight years ago, when I started this blog, I was an English teacher, and I had no idea technology integration specialists even existed, much less did I dream of ever being one. I assumed I would spend the rest of my career as an English teacher in Georgia. I am still teaching one English class, by the way, but who could have imagined I would be helping teachers integrate technology in Massachusetts? I didn’t even like technology when I started teaching, and I certainly didn’t think I was any good with it. Now I teach others how to use it in their lessons. Is that crazy?

You really never know what trajectory your career is going to take, and it is smart to make connections with really smart educators online and off, to participate in chats with other teachers when you can, and to tap all those great resources online and in your community. You just never know where your life will take you, and even if you plan it, opportunities will arise that you never foresaw, and doors will close where you expected them to be open.

I am the happiest I have ever been in my life right now, and a lot of that happiness has to do with my professional satisfaction. But only a few years ago, I felt like I was at a professional nadir, and my dissatisfaction at work made it hard to enjoy everything else. It is really true that if you find something you love to do, you really don’t ever work again.

Here is hoping you can find what makes you happy, too.

Happy birthday, huffenglish.com. To many more years of blogging! (And I mean real blogging.) Cheers!

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Tuning Out

Fingers in EarsSometimes you just need to take time off and check out.

I can’t remember the last time I checked Twitter and tried to read most of the tweets. I can’t remember the last time I checked out one of my favorite blogs. I haven’t written a whole lot lately, either. And all of that is OK because I think sometimes we need to take breaks from all the information overload.

I like to be a part of the edublogosphere and keep up with my colleagues and friends on Twitter. But sometimes it can be overwhelming, and the sheer volume of information can be daunting. So, I have been on an information sabbatical, and it has been wonderful. I have learned how to make soap, and it has become a satisfying, engaging, and interesting hobby for me. I have been reading a little. I watched the entire first season of Doctor Who and a few episodes of the second, so now I’m totally hooked. I have been busy with the start of school in my new position.

The move from Georgia to Massachusetts was mentally and physically exhausting, and I think I just needed some time to recharge my batteries. I didn’t unplug right away, but I would say it’s been about a month since I really kept up with all the social media I usually use. I am beginning to feel recharged. I think once I get my bearings at my new school and find myself settling into the routine of the school year, I will be able to engage in social media again. As for right now, if you’re wondering where I’ve been, well, here I am. I am not the kind of person to announce a hiatus or quit altogether, but I recognized I needed to tune out the cacophony for just a little while.

It’s been a wonderful vacation, and I know in my heart I’ve missed some really important things, but stepping back can be important, too, and I think many of us hear the message that we need to be continually engaged in the conversation or people won’t read our blogs or will not follow us on Twitter. I decided not to worry about that a long time ago. If my blog is good, people will visit when I post. If they are looking for quantity, they probably won’t. If what I tweet is helpful and interesting, people will follow, and I don’t need to worry about losing folks who think I don’t tweet enough. This is great advice to anyone who wonders how to juggle it all. The fact is, I’m not sure anyone can. You have to set priorities based on your goals. Right now, my goal is to settle into my job and enjoy my new home. So far, so good. I will be in touch soon.

Image via Roxie’s World

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Email Subscriptions and Theme Changes

Subscribe by EmailThose of you who receive post updates in your inbox will want to take note of some changes. Up until now, I have used Feedblitz to manage email subscriptions. However, in order to streamline services and make things a little easier for me, I am discontinuing support for old Feedblitz subscriptions as of one week from today, July 8. At that time, I will delete my Feedblitz account. If you would like to continue to receive posts in your inbox, please visit the blog at huffenglish.com (assuming you are receiving this post in your email), and look for “Subscribe to Blog Via Email” in the sidebar on the right of the page. Enter your email address and click the “Subscribe” button. You might receive posts twice during the one-week grace period until I delete Feedblitz. I apologize for the inconvenience, but I have been dissatisfied with the Feedblitz option for some time, and it is my hope that if you want to continue to receive posts via email, this option will work for you.

In other blog-related news, after many years, I have changed the blog theme. If you are interested, I have installed the Twenty Eleven theme from WordPress. I like the font and the clean look. I have streamlined some of the sidebar content. You can also now find my links, categories, and a tag cloud on the bottom of the page.  My links area used to be on the upper left hand side under the disclaimer. I link to several social networks and other sites, such as the English Companion Ning, and some of my website content that for whatever reason I didn’t want in the navigation bar on the top.

Let me know if you are having any trouble finding things. I hope you will find the site just as easy (perhaps easier) to navigate.

Image via derrickkwa

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Seven Years of Blogging

It seems fitting somehow that my blog turns seven years old as I am currently attending my first ever ISTE conference. I am also starting a new job 1,000 miles away from the place where I have lived and worked for the entire time I have written this blog. I started this blog because I thought I had something to say about education, and I was impressed with what I was seeing in the edublogosphere (which was much smaller at that time). I didn’t try to analyze what I would focus on or what my audience would be. I just decided I would write about the things that interested me, and if they also interested others, so much the better. I still think that was a smart move because even when months go by without a post on this blog, I know that I am writing here still because I want to share something, not because of any expectation I set for myself. I have seen so many good bloggers quit over the years, and I think that they are partly crushed by unrealistic expectations:

  • They feel pressure to build a huge audience really quickly. I know how it feels to think no one is reading your posts. You don’t see comments. It feels like an echo chamber. But over the years, I have heard from lurkers who might never leave a comment but still get something out of what I post. There are a lot of bloggers with wider audiences, and there are all kinds of reasons for that, but I feel blessed to have a supportive readership.
  • They feel they need to focus on one thing. It’s true that niche blogs seem to do well—just a focus on math or technology or educational policy. But I think sometimes folks put themselves in the position of feeling like they can’t comment on other things because their audience expects them to write about one subject only. It’s your blog, and you should explore topics that interest you.
  • They set up a posting schedule and/or feel they must write every day. Write when the spirit moves you, I say. If you force yourself to write every day or to write according to a posting schedule, you are going to wind up treating your blog as work instead of your own reflective space. I am guilty of this, too. I have a posting schedule set up in my calendar. I was worried about how little I was posting, not realizing that part of my silence was due to some real unhappiness on the job. I determined that a posting schedule would solve my problems. I couldn’t follow it. I started feeling guilty, and I worried no one would stick with my blog. It didn’t turn out to be true, and putting that pressure on myself only made me want to blog less. Blogging when I want to about what I want to made me love my blog again.

This conference has been amazing so far, and I am sure that once I have had time to think, decompress, and reflect, I will have plenty of posts about it.

Image via Martin Thomas

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Technology Integration for Preservice Teachers

Bethany Smith asked a great question on Twitter this morning:

I don’t remember learning much about technology integration when I was a preservice teacher, but then that was 1996-1997. We thought we were advanced for using email to communicate with each other. I’m not sure what has changed in the intervening years, if much of anything. I have found, contrary to popular belief, that young teachers do not necessarily know as much about technology as older teachers think they do, nor do younger teachers necessarily naturally integrate technology. (For that matter, I don’t think kids know as much about technology as teachers think they do, at least not using it for school or work, but that’s a separate blog post.)

The key word in instituting technology integration as part of a preservice teaching program is integration. Technology shouldn’t be an add-on, or else preservice teachers will only come to think of it as such in their classrooms. Asking preservice teachers to create lesson plans and assignments for their college courses that integrate technology and then reflect on how that technology might be used in their classrooms might be effective. An e-portfolio would be a great start. preservice teachers could share it with prospective employers. It can be hard sometimes to find a job with no experience, and a great portfolio can encourage administrators to take a chance on first-year teachers if the portfolios show the young teacher to be thoughtful, engaging, organized, and involved in their field. That portfolio should include a blog. When I was a preservice teacher, my classmates and I had to write weekly “think pieces” about an issue we were concerned about. We passed these around in class so that our classmates could be exposed to our ideas, and of course, they were graded by our professors, too. A blog would be a natural forum for such thinking aloud.

Other artifacts that might be included in such a portfolio:

  • Evidence of understanding good presentation practices. I have seen some horrible PowerPoints in my day (often created by teachers and administrators), and teachers cannot be expected to teach students how to create good presentations if they themselves don’t know how. Presentation skills are a key part of any preservice teacher’s education.
  • Evidence of having created an online PLN through Twitter or through a group such as the English Companion Ning (or equivalent for subject matter). A link to the Twitter account or biography page should be sufficient.
  • Evidence of having created a wiki, perhaps as part of a group assignment for the course or perhaps as a repository for lesson plans.
  • As more teachers are flipping the classroom, I think an important piece of the portfolio should include a lesson delivered via audio, and a lesson delivered via video (could be a screencast). The topics should be well chosen in that they should be topics easily taught and learned via this method.
  • A link to the preservice teacher’s Diigo profile. I think social shared bookmarking has been one of the most fantastic tools to come along in my fourteen years as a teacher. It’s a quick, useful way to share great resources that can be integrated with both a blog and a Twitter account as well as your browser (depending on which one you use). I happen to prefer Diigo to other bookmarking systems myself, but it’s not the only game in town. Any professors teaching preservice teachers could make that call.

One of the most important things a teacher needs to learn when integrating technology is flexibility. Sometimes things go awry when you’re trying to integrate technology, and it’s important that teachers are able to change course if the technology fails. The Internet sometimes goes down. Sometimes the projector bulb burns out. Lots of things can happen, and it’s important that teachers include, as part of any lesson plan integrating technology, their backup plan for what they will do if the technology fails.

As part of their preservice teaching program, teachers should also learn how to search. Using boolean search strings will save them time and help them find resources they’re looking for quickly. Learning how to use the everyday tools of teaching, including projectors, the Internet, videos, and the like should be an essential part of a preservice teacher’s education.

To steal an idea from Melissa Scott, time to share tools, perhaps a weekly session, would be great. The way I would probably set this up is to ask preservice teachers to sign up for time if they have found a cool tool and then present and demonstrate that tool to their fellow preservice teachers. Before long, teachers would have quite a toolkit to take with them to their first job. Any tools that could more easily be shared via a Diigo group created for the preservice teachers would not necessarily need to be shared via presentation, and there should be an expectation that the preservice teachers will make use of Diigo, contributing shared links and also saving links.

It’s also key that preservice teachers understand the importance of rehearsing technology. Teachers who fiddle with tools they aren’t sure how to use in front of a group of students are wasting time and hurting their credibility. Try out the tools and figure out how they are used before asking students to use them or before using them in front of students. Don’t rely on students to be your tech support when you get stuck, which leads me to my final recommendation: learn basic troubleshooting. Most of the troubleshooting I do for other teachers, they could do themselves if they tried searching for the problem online. That’s the first thing I usually do anyway. I’m happy to help teachers. I don’t mind troubleshooting. However, they could save a lot of time if they learned how to do it themselves. It isn’t the best use of the IT department’s time to restart your computer if it freezes up when that is something teachers themselves could have done much more quickly on their own.

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Better Living Through Beowulf

Better Living Through BeowulfScott McLeod sometimes shares blogs that “deserve a bigger audience.” I don’t presume to know how many people read Robin Bates’s blog Better Living Through Beowulf, but I find it consistently makes me think about the connections between everyday life and literature. Robin is an English professor at St. Mary’s College in Maryland. He regularly shares his insights regarding literature’s and film’s connections to such wide-ranging topics as current events, sports, and spiritual matters. I often save his posts for last when I’m catching up on RSS feeds in my feed reader because I know I will want to read them slowly and think them over. There’s nothing I don’t love about his blog, from his interesting connections and engaging commentary all the way down to his layout. I think even if you don’t teach English, you can learn something from Professor Bates’s blog.

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Happy Birthday, Blog

Happy BIrthday Austin

Six years ago today, the first blog post appeared on huffenglish.com. Just as I have done for other anniversaries, I begin by sharing some statistics with you:

  • This is my 765th post.
  • This blog has received 2,942 comments.
  • 1,297 readers subscribe to my RSS feed.
  • 157 subscribe to updates via email.

Some of my favorite posts over the years:

  • A Hogwarts Education: Being interviewed for Irish radio was one of the highlights of my career as a teacher/Harry Potter nerd.
  • Shutting Down Class Discussion: I thought it was an important topic for English teachers, and perhaps all the more timely in light of recent debates on the place of the whole-class novel study.
  • Blogging Teachers: Some Advice: I think teachers should blog, but we have to be wise about how we blog, too. There is plenty of stuff I’d like to write because ranting feels good, particularly when others side with you. But it stays out there, too. People are fired for what they put out there. It’s wiser to be more positive.
  • Why Fiction Matters: A response to Grant Wiggins in which I advocate for the teaching of fiction.
  • Failure: My post about failing as a middle school teacher and how it helped me be a better teacher today. I labored over whether to write that post for years before I felt confident enough to do it.
  • Would You Send Your Kid to Hogwarts?: I never thought this post had much traction, but it was a lot of fun to write. Though it’s now five years old, I still agree with everything I wrote.
  • Grade Inflation: A Student and Teacher Dialogue: I wrote this post with Anthony Ferraro, who was not my student, but was in tenth grade at the time. Last I heard from Anthony, he was studying at Yale. He made a really good case in his argument. I think of this post as a real turning point because it was one of the first posts I wrote that received some fairly serious attention. I also had the distinct feeling of having scored a coup in being able to host the dialogue between Anthony and me.
  • A series on teaching Romeo and Juliet (Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four): I’m still proud of these posts and hope that teachers have gained something from them.

    Creative Commons License photo credit: katalicia1

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    Tech Frustrations

    I'm sitting here in pieces, and you're having delusions of grandeur!I hate it when I become dependent on a piece of technology and its creator decides to stop updating it. I feel kind of lost and directionless. I have been frustrated trying to find methods of keeping up with replies to comments I leave on blogs without subscribing to a bunch of comment RSS feeds that will clog up my feed reader. So as a result, I feel like I have just dropped out of the conversations I start. I used coComment‘s Firefox extension. It was great. Every time someone replied to a comment thread in which I had left a comment, the little coComment button turned orange. New comments! I could easily go check them and see if any of the replies were to me, and I could continue the discussion if they were. After Firefox 4.0 came out, coComment was broken. It’s been like that since March, and despite several comments in their help forums, no one representing coComment has said whether they intend to update the extension or let it die. And I can’t find an alternative. You know of one? If so, please, please tell me about it. Some folks allow you to subscribe to replies via email, but not everyone has that feature enabled on their blogs.

    Another frustration: I used to use a WordPress plugin called Apture to add links to all kinds of content. I could click on a button in my post editor, and I could search for information on the Web using a variety of search engines and easily link to books on Amazon or Wikipedia articles. I thought it was great because it made writing posts a snap. Then Apture decided not enough people were using the plugin, and they pulled it. It didn’t even work if you already had it installed. I was not alone in my frustration on this one, but it looks like the folks at Apture felt that what users liked most was the Apture Highlights, which allow readers to highlight text and search right from your page without leaving it. Well, I don’t care because I can always open a new tab rather than leave a site. What I liked was the ability to easily create posts that had links to relevant material. I found a great Amazon plugin called WordPress Amazon Associate that enables me to easily link to books and other items for sale at Amazon the same way that Apture did, but there is not another plugin that does everything Apture did.

    I think a lot of Delicious users had a similar panic attack when it was announced that Yahoo intended to “sunset” Delicious. After Chad Hurley and Steve Chen acquired Delicious, users had a reprieve from losing a social bookmarking service they loved (I had moved on to Diigo and cross-posted links at Delicious so that anyone subscribing to my Delicious bookmarks would still receive them).

    It is anyone’s prerogative to take their toys and go home, I guess, but I just find it frustrating when I really enjoyed playing with those toys and can’t find any like them to have for my own. I also don’t know how to build them myself—which is a fixable problem, but a one that will not be fixed without a whole lot of work.

    Creative Commons License photo credit: pinkpurse

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    Negativity PSA

    Folks, I have received two comments lately in which teachers have shared their belief that I’m lucky to be able to get to the literature part of teaching. I published the first. The second was linked to a site that made me wonder if the comment might be spam. In any case, if you do not enjoy teaching where you are teaching, please remember that this blog is not your forum to complain about your job. I think that’s not very wise anyway, but even so, if you have problems with your job, there is little complaining here about it can do to resolve the situation, and such comments do nothing to further conversation here.

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    Malaise

    ???This blog is in the doldrums, and I’m not sure how to pull it out yet. I always hate those posts in which people say they’re going to take a break from blogging, and I don’t really want to take a break, but I do want everyone to be aware I know I’m not writing much and what I’m doing feels more forced. Comments are by and large still kind, but more often I notice the odd cranky comment. It feels like crankiness is just sort of in the air.

    It’s also March, and that’s a tough time of year. It’s hard this time of year. I often feel uninspired and really tired this time of year, and I think that’s normal for teachers.

    All of the anti-educator rhetoric in the air is depressing. There is so much anger and uncertainty in the air.

    I will work on it.

    Meanwhile, I did hear that the NCTE conference proposal put together by Paul Hankins, Glenda Funk, Ami Szerencse, and me on the hero’s journey was accepted. Unfortunately, I will not be able to present with the Folger folks because the sessions were scheduled for the same time, but I am very excited about this presentation, and I hope to see you there. And that right there is a good reason to get out this malaise.

    Creative Commons License photo credit: charles chan *

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