Doesn’t Play with Lion

Mac OS X LionI was recently asked which private schools in the Atlanta area had 1:1 laptop programs, and I honestly had no idea, so I contacted two colleagues, and I discovered that of the schools who have 1:1 programs, most use Macs. I don’t think it’s a secret that I’m a Mac fan. I wanted to upgrade to Lion as soon as it was released, but I discovered that several programs I run regularly don’t play well with Lion. This is probably no surprise, especially due to the fact that in Lion, Rosetta is discontinued. I advised my Mac-loving colleagues at work to hold off on an upgrade until I could find out when these programs would work with Lion. The main programs I’m concerned about are the following:

  • GradeQuick Web Plugin (not really a plugin, but a program). In my opinion, GradeQuick doesn’t work well even in Snow Leopard. It functions, but the UI is terrible, and it opens a different window for each class.
  • SMART Notebook 10.8. I only know of one teacher who regularly connects her SMARTBoard to her MacBook, but I am sure others use Notebook on their Macs to create files to use with their SMARTBoards.
  • Konica Bizhub copier drivers. We can print to our copiers using our Macs, but the Konica website doesn’t have a driver for 10.7 yet, and they have published no ETA for releasing one on their website.

I am going to an Edline/GradeQuick conference next week, and I hope to be able to find out more about when GradeQuick will work on Lion at that time. This email from Edline support to the LRSD Technology Center is the only information I’ve been able to find. The tone of the letter disturbs me because it sounds as if Edline is blaming Apple for the incompatibility. Apple switched to Intel-based processors some time ago, and Rosetta (at least to my understanding) was meant to be a way to transition from PowerPC-based to Intel-based processors. The announcement that Apple was making this change was made in 2005. Snow Leopard, which was introduced in 2009, was released as Intel-only and you had to download Rosetta in order to run PowerPC programs. To my way of thinking, software developers knew two years ago which way the wind was blowing, but because Apple was still supporting Rosetta, they effectively decided not to make any changes to their software until Apple forced them to. Education software is not always known to be the most proactive bunch, but given how many schools seem to be moving to 1:1 laptops and how many of those programs are using Apple, it just doesn’t make business sense to decide not to upgrade until you’re forced to. There are alternatives out there, and if you want to keep a school’s business, it seems logical to make sure your software runs on their hardware.

SMART is making the same mistake. A cursory glance at the SMARTBoard Revolution Ning reveals users are having a whole host of problems with Notebook 10.8 on Lion—actually, seems to be unstable with Macs in general. Take a look at this thread. The answer that the original poster was given when he asked when SMART would be resolving known issues with Macs and SMART Notebook? Not until next year when the next update is pushed out. So users need to downgrade to 10.7 if they wish to use Notebook on their Macs? When so many schools use Macs?

I tweeted Konica about the drivers for the bizhub copiers, and they replied that the new driver should be released next month, but that the driver for 10.6 would still work on Lion. That is good news for those of us who print from our Macs. Still no firm date, and “should work” doesn’t mean “will work,” but since I can’t upgrade due to issues with GradeQuick and SMART Notebook, I can’t test it.

I have decided that I want to install VMWare Fusion to run the programs in Windows on my Mac. I admit I feel frustrated. Would the software companies drag their feet like this on Windows software? Given the large number of Mac OS users in education, how can they justify dragging their feet on Mac software?

Do you know of any other programs educators might use that will not work in Lion? Please share in the comments. Also, feel free to share any other issues you’ve had with using Macs in school.

Image via TUAW.

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Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Re-Examined

Ferris Bueller's Day OffI went to see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the theater the summer before I started ninth grade. We had just moved to Maryland Heights, MO, and I would be attending school at Parkway North High School in Crève Coeur in a few weeks. I didn’t know anyone. I remember feeling scared and stressed. How would I be expected to dress? How would I make friends? Why hadn’t my mother signed me up for band?

Obviously the larger message of the film was one calculated to appeal to people in my age group: the sort of carpe diem theme I would later visit in the poetry of Robert Herrick and Andrew Marvell (and they were writing in the seventeenth century—there truly is nothing new under the sun). But there was also this notion of defying authority, represented in the movie by the dean of students, Mr. Rooney. Authority wants Ferris in school instead of out and about in Chicago, where he will actually learn important stuff about life. Perhaps no scene embodies the uselessness of school as well as Ben Stein’s famous economics lecture:

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dxPVyieptwA[/youtube]

Despite the fact that this film turned 25 years old (yes! I checked Wikipedia!) this past summer, it still resonates. My students were talking about it, in fact, just this week. There is no doubt that it has become a pop culture icon, and it’s interesting to look at its critical reception. Richard Roeper is a big fan. His license plate even says “SVFRRIS.” He says the film is

[O]ne of my favorite movies of all time. It has one of the highest ‘repeatability’ factors of any film I’ve ever seen… I can watch it again and again. There’s also this, and I say it in all sincerity: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is something of a suicide prevention film, or at the very least a story about a young man trying to help his friend gain some measure of self-worth… Ferris has made it his mission to show Cameron that the whole world in front of him is passing him by, and that life can be pretty sweet if you wake up and embrace it. That’s the lasting message of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. (Wikipedia)

Steve Almond says, it is “the most sophisticated teen movie [he has] ever seen” and added that it is “one film [he] would consider true art, [the] only one that reaches toward the ecstatic power of teendom and, at the same time, exposes the true, piercing woe of that age” (Wikipedia). National Review writer Mike Hemmingway says, “If there’s a better celluloid expression of ordinary American freedom than Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, I have yet to see it. If you could take one day and do absolutely anything, piling into a convertible with your best girl and your best friend and taking in a baseball game, an art museum, and a fine meal seems about as good as it gets” (Wikipedia). One of the film’s stars, Ben Stein, describes it as “the most life-affirming movie possibly of the entire post-war period” (Wikipedia). I found it interesting that such a diverse group as Wolf Blitzer, Dan Quayle, Michael Bublé, Simon Cowell, and Justin Timberlake call it their favorite film.

I remember the film resonating quite strongly with me and other members of my generation. It remains a cultural touchstone. We have all felt like taking a day off without permission, playing hookey, and getting away with it. But I was thinking quite a lot about the film’s message about school, particularly in light of Steve Jobs’s recent death. In his commencement address to Stanford in 2005, Jobs admits to dropping out of college after a semester and auditing classes he found interesting: famously, he credits one class he took in calligraphy for awakening an awareness of and interest in typefaces that would inform development of fonts on Apple computers. Neither Jobs or his sometime friend and rival Bill Gates graduated from college. I have heard them cited in arguments that college is unnecessary, and the message that school isn’t really necessary and actually can impede your real learning is a big part of Ferris Bueller. I’ve not necessarily heard either Jobs or Gates make that argument, but the fact is that both of them learned by taking a risk and jumping in, failing, then trying again. I’m not sure school could have taught them what they needed to know to do that, beyond the basic skills. Frankly, I have never heard anyone advance the argument that Ferris, Cameron, and Sloane would have spent their day better in school.

I don’t think it hurts us to examine whether what we’re teaching students—and the way we’re teaching them—is relevant to their lives, both in the present and the future. Sometimes I think we do a poor job of communicating the relevance of what we teach to our students. I overheard a disagreement about this issue the other day between a colleague and student, and the colleague walked away, while the student remained unconvinced. Listen, I am not sure I would have won that argument either, but I cringed a little when the “I’m the adult with the experience” card was played. Students will use math, science, art, literature, social studies, and all of the other subjects we teach. They might not know it, but they will. We can take this lesson from Ferris Bueller: we have a long way to go help students see school as compelling, and it starts with relevance. A student can’t give me a higher compliment than to tell me something I taught them was “relevant.”

Perhaps if Ferris’s teachers had thought about that issue, he and his friends wouldn’t have had to take the day off to learn.

Another lesson we can draw from Jobs is to remember our “time is limited” and we shouldn’t “waste it living someone else’s life.” One can hear echoes of Ferris Bueller’s statement that “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

I think it’s important that our students don’t feel time spent learning from us is time wasted. I hope instead that they feel it is preparing them for what they want to do and awakening their curiosity.

And we should feel it’s important and relevant work to spend our days teaching them.

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Ada Lovelace Day

Ada Lovelace Day

Who is Ada Lovelace?

Ada Byron Lovelace was the daughter of the poet, George Gordon, Lord Byron. She was a mathematician and is widely acknowledged to be the world’s first computer programmer. Her notes on her friend Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, which would have been the first computer had it been built, constitute the first algorithm intended to be processed by a machine. The computing program language Ada is named in her honor.

What is Ada Lovelace Day?

Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated on Friday, October 7. A celebration of Ada Lovelace’s contributions to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) was inspired by a study conducted by psychologist Penelope Lockwood. The study’s results found that it is more important for women to see female role models in their field than it is for men to see male role models. “Outstanding women can function as inspirational examples of success,” she said, “illustrating the kinds of achievements that are possible for women around them. They demonstrate that it is possible to overcome traditional gender barriers, indicating to other women that high levels of success are indeed attainable.” Google executive Marissa Mayer says, “The number one most important thing we can do to increase the number of women in tech is to show a multiplicity of different role models.”

Ada Lovelace Day is a celebration of women role models in STEM. Fewer women than men go into STEM fields. Some statistics from NCWIT, the National Center for Women & Information Technology, and the Association for Women in Science:

  • Only 19% of students taking the AP Computer Science exam are girls.
  • Only 11% of top executives at Fortune 500 companies are women.
  • Women comprise less than 25% of engineering and computer science majors.
  • Only 18% of Computing and Information Science degrees were earned by women in 2009. This number has reduced from 37% in 1985!

Women have much of value that they can bring to STEM. The good news is that the numbers of women majoring in math and science near 50%. It is a myth that fewer women major in math and science because they don’t like or don’t have an aptitude for those fields; however, women are socialized to believe that computing and engineering careers are not for them.

The Importance of Role Models

I am a technology integration specialist at my school. In my department of four, I am the only woman. No girls take our course in Java script, which is taught by another member of my department. Only one girl signed up to be a technology ambassador, a new role we have created for students who help guest speakers and faculty with their technology needs when they do presentations at whole-school meetings. Clearly, I have some work to do, and I have taken it upon myself to be a role model for girls at my school, to encourage them to see themselves as good with computers and technology. I haven’t always felt that I was good with computers and technology.

As strange as it seems to me now, given how much students in high school today use technology, I never used a computer for school until I was in college in the early 1990’s. I did try to use a computer in the media center in middle school. I can no longer remember why, but I do recall being frustrated by never getting past the syntax error in DOS. I took and passed a computer competency exam in high school without touching a machine, ever. Computer labs or rolling laptop carts were not thought of, never mind 1 to 1 laptop programs or iPad/iPod programs.

When I was in college, I recall needing to use the Apple computer in the language lab to do exercises in Latin on a floppy disk. I also recall using the computer in Dialectology to see language use patterns for a project I completed on dialects in West Virginia. I thought UGA very high tech because it had such computer labs, but I still registered for courses by looking up course numbers on large dot-matrix printouts at Memorial Hall and bubbling in fields on a card, placing my bubble sheet in a slot in the wall, which was processed and either spit out my white schedule or a yellow error form. My roommate had a laptop with an LCD display that rippled when you touched it. I myself wrote my papers using a Canon StarWriter word processor that had four different fonts and saved files on double-sided, double-density floppy disks.

I never had a female technology role model until 1996. I had left college for three years after I married and had my oldest daughter, and when I returned to finish my senior year, Jenny DeWitt, one of my classmates, was our resident tech guru. She helped all of us figure out email and various other applications on the computer. All of a sudden, I was registering for classes on the computer. The Internet was younger and didn’t have the same sorts of resources (how I envy student teachers starting now all those free lesson plans!). Jenny demonstrated that you didn’t have to be a guy to get computers. I didn’t see myself as ever being as competent as Jenny, but I admired her perhaps more than she has ever realized. She probably has no idea how thrilled I was we reconnected via Facebook and eventually Twitter.

I was given my first laptop computer for a graduation present in 1997. I was very proud of the device, and I sometimes brought it to school to do work, especially when grades were due (we kept our grades on a floppy disk that needed to be turned in). Students who saw it were very impressed by it. It was the first laptop many of them had seen.

In 2001, I entered what Will Richardson calls the Read/Write Web. I began creating content for real with my first blog (of sorts). Eventually, I liked it enough to buy my own domain, built a website and blog, and share. In this endeavor, Jana Edwards, a retired English teacher, was my role model. After a while I found Vicki Davis‘s work. I remember meeting her at my first EduBloggerCon in 2007. Vicki became a technology role model to me.

I discovered Silvia Tolisano’s Langwitches blog a couple of years ago, and Silvia became another role model. It may have been Silvia’s blog that finally convinced me to earn a masters in instructional technology—I can’t remember. I just remember that in feeling my way around in the darkness, trying things, flopping and flailing sometimes, I found my way and discovered that not only did I have an aptitude for computers and technology, but also that I was able to teach others how to do things with computers and technology. I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I would do with my master’s degree beyond learn more about computers and technology so that I could use technology better in my own classes—in fact, all I was really conscious of thinking was wanting to be more like Vicki and Silvia—but shortly after I earned my degree, my school offered me this new role, and I took it.

Most of what I do is teach my colleagues. I have worked with colleagues this year on everything from using our electronic gradebook to transitioning from Outlook to Gmail. I have team-taught with two English colleagues on technology’s role in plagiarism and how to avoid plagiarism. I have team-taught with our AP Spanish teacher on how to record mp3’s of Spanish conversations, which will be a piece of the AP Spanish exam. I will be creating and implementing SMARTBoard training for our teachers. And it’s only the beginning.

I really enjoy it. As I have told colleagues, I feel very useful, and mainly it is because my feedback is often immediate. My colleagues offer their gratitude for my help. Teenagers don’t always do that, you know. Sometimes you never learn whether you impacted them or not. Immediate feedback is pretty amazing. I love what I do, but it’s a pure accident of fate that I ever started doing it. If I hadn’t stumbled into the edublogosphere in 2005, I am not sure I would be doing much of anything with technology. Seeing models made me realize what others were doing, and furthermore, that I could do it, too. I didn’t need to be a computer programmer or some kind of genius to create with computers or to integrate technology in my classroom. All I needed to be was willing to roll up my sleeves, be patient, and figure it out. And I did it, for the most part, without help or, it must be said, encouragement.

I wish that I had had more women role models. I think the main reason I landed where I am today is sheer stubbornness, but I worry that girls and young women are not always as stubborn as they need to be. I have seen the girls go ask one of the boys for help with her computer instead of trying to figure it out. Sometimes the students ask one of the male members of the technology department for help before they think to ask me. When I have made the offer to help, it’s as if they suddenly realize, “Oh yeah, you are in the technology department now, aren’t you?” Of course, a few students learned earlier than others than they can come to me for help or questions, but the majority don’t. Today, a student who was having trouble printing walked past me, to a male member of my department (who also happened to be busy with another faculty member) and asked for help with the printer. I actually knew what was wrong and could have helped. I was also free at the moment he asked. Students in my own writing class often ask a fellow student for help with their computers before they will ask me. It must be said that my colleagues probably have more confidence in and knowledge about my abilities, and they frequently ask for my assistance. My fellow department members have never, not once, made me feel inadequate, and they even ask me for help on occasion. But when I look around at the students, especially the girls, I see the work that needs to be done. The students can play with their computers, but by and large, they need to learn how to use them better for work. They need to learn how to troubleshoot. They need to learn not to be afraid and to try things. They need to learn to see themselves as technologists. Especially the girls.

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My Kids are Students, Not Fundraisers for Your School

scream and shoutMy husband and I went to Maggie and Dylan’s curriculum night on Thursday. Before we could meet their teachers, we had to sit through the PTA’s harassment over the school fundraiser. I was angry about it, but a series of tweets by @paulwhankins today made me mad about it all over again because he gave some articulation to what I was feeling. The PTA representatives pointed out the number of students who had sold junk for the fundraiser versus the number of students in the school, presumably to make us parents feel guilty enough to push our kids into selling junk, and they also pointed out they are only 1/3 of the way to their goal. In the weekly newsletter, we learned the sales period is being extended so that the goal can be met.

Having taught for some years and also having been a student, I know how these things work. They ply kids with junk prizes to sell their junk and make them feel like it’s one of their responsibilities to raise money for their school. As Paul astutely pointed on on Twitter, there are a lot of adults in the school who can write grant proposals or even post on DonorsChoose.org. Why we have to make children feel like they have to sell junk or they don’t care about their school, I can’t understand. I would have less a problem with a PayPal donation button on the school’s website than with this sort of fundraiser.

It may seem weird, but I exclude Girl Scout Cookies from this sort of ire. I think because the emphasis is less on crappy prizes (and theirs are crappy, too), but some things I think Girl Scouts get right about these fundraisers that schools get wrong include the following:

  • The product has appeal. I think the cookies are overpriced, but for a once-a-year treat for something I can’t really get elsewhere, it doesn’t bother me. I can buy cheese logs, frozen cookie dough, and wrapping paper much cheaper elsewhere, and the only incentive I have to buy from the schools is to support the schools.
  • At least in my daughter’s experience, there has been no pressure to be responsible for selling. My daughter’s troop leaders have established cookie accounts. Money the girls raise by selling cookies goes into those accounts and is used, if the girls wish, to pay for activities, such as camping and trips. They are not made to feel as if they are letting the troop down or causing the troop not to be able to do something by not selling cookies. They are encouraged to sell, but they aren’t guilted into it.
  • The prize is not the goal. Girls can earn prizes for selling cookies, and they’re as unimpressive as prizes for any other fundraiser, but the goal is to raise money for activities (which is the point of fundraisers), and my daughter’s troop leaders, at any rate, make that clear in the minds of their girls. And their troop sold the most cookies of any troop in our city, so something about the approach is working. My kids never know why they’re selling products for the school—only that that should.

I am certainly not anti-technology, and I support my school raising funds to purchase interactive whiteboards. I love being able to use one at school, myself. But I think there are vastly better ways of going about it than to push fundraisers on our kids.

Creative Commons License photo credit: mdanys

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Question: Google Apps for Education Contact Lists

WhyMy school is using Google Apps for Education.

We are looking for a solution to a problem that is proving rather sticky. We have several contact lists that we maintain. For example, we have lists for all 9th grade parents, all 10th grade parents, and so on. All of the students, faculty and staff have email addresses in our domain, and they appear automatically in our contact, but we can easily make groups or contact lists from those emails. The parents do not appear in our domain as they are not given addresses on our school’s domain.

Does anyone know of a solution that allows Google Apps for Education users to create contact lists that could be updated globally so that each user in the system would not have to update every single change? We are trying to minimize the number of people who make global changes (such as when we add a transfer student’s parental emails or when a parent changes their email). CSV files are proving to be rather cumbersome, and they also do not allow for quick global changes.

Right now, we don’t know of a way for a single user to add a contact and share it with everyone on our domain using native Google Apps tools, which means we would have to continue to load CSV files or keep some separate list. This solution is not ideal mainly because of the support we would need to provide faculty and staff as well as the increased opportunity for errors to creep in.

If you have a solution, can you brief me on it in the comments and provide any relevant links as well as personal experience with the tool(s)?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Tintin44 – Sylvain Masson

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Why, Microsoft?

Frustration (was: threesixtyfive | day 244)Microsoft, can you please tell me why you felt it was necessary to change the default line spacing to 10 pts. after a line? The default should be 0 pts., and if a user wants to change it, they can change it. I have to teach my students how to make this change every time they write a paper. Now that we are standardizing Word 2010 at my school, I can see I will need to help faculty and staff change this default, too. I cannot think of a single defensible reason for monkeying with this particular default feature, which prior to Word 2007, was always 0 pts.

Correct formatting for MLA (and every other style I can think of) calls for double-spaced line-spacing, and this setting you changed introduces extra space after each paragraph. You have introduced incorrect formatting by default and have forced users to change this default in order to correctly format their writing. That is not user-friendly, and it is not cool.

Also, I hate Calibri.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Sybren A. Stüvel

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Is Snape a Bad Teacher?

Trust SnapeSeverus Snape can be a nasty piece of work, can’t he? He happens to be my favorite character in the Harry Potter series, but I admit much of my affection for him may be down to Alan Rickman’s portrayal. As J. K. Rowling herself has said of Snape, he’s not a nice guy. My daughter Maggie and I are reading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and we just finished the chapter in which Snape finds the Marauders’ Map and is subsequently insulted by it. Each time I re-read this series, I pick up on nuances I missed before. This time, I noticed Snape seems to know exactly who Messrs. Moony, Padfoot, Wormtail, and Prongs are, though Lupin plays dumb as though he assumes Snape couldn’t have known the nicknames he and his friends used in school. Lupin also seems to be using Occlumency on Snape—Harry notices Lupin’s face goes blank and guesses he must be doing some “quick thinking.” Of course, none of this is exactly the point of my post. With all the hubub surrounding the release of the final Harry Potter movie, and Snape’s vindication (as well as Alan Rickman’s performance) making news for those who hadn’t read the final book, I thought it might be interesting to examine his skills as a teacher.

Most people will read the title and wonder how it’s even in question. After all, Snape is sarcastic and bullies students who are afraid of him (Neville). He is disrespectful to his colleagues (Lupin) in front of their students. He favors students in his own house, Slytherin. He takes away points and gives detentions, sometimes for hardly any reason. Is there anything good about him?

As we learn in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Snape has been protecting Harry out of love for Harry’s mother, and he has taken on the seriously dangerous role of double agent in defiance of the most dangerous dark wizard in recent memory. But what about his teaching? Does he do anything right?

Harry inherits Snape’s old Potions text in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It quickly becomes clear that the notes in the text teach Harry more than he has learned from Professor Slughorn, and he quickly becomes a star in Potions class. It occurred to me that though Harry buys a reference text for Snape’s class (1,001 Magical Herbs and Fungi), any time students are brewing potions, he puts instructions on a chalkboard rather than having students read out of a text, as Professor Slughorn does. One can assume he is sharing his recipe refinements with the class, and perhaps if he didn’t scare them so badly as they worked, they might produce the same quality work as Harry does using Snape’s text in sixth year. Dolores Umbridge questions whether he might not be challenging his students too much—she mentions the Strengthening Solution students are preparing when she observes his lesson as being inappropriate for the students. Snape is also capable of brewing immensely complex potions, such as the Wolfsbane Potion he brews for Lupin during his tenure at Hogwarts. He also is able to brew some concoction that extends Dumbledore’s life after he tangles with the Horcrux made from the Resurrection Stone/Peverell ring belonging to Marvolo Gaunt. Sirius Black reports that Snape arrived at Hogwarts knowing more curses than many seventh-year students, and it is clear from his Potions text that even as a student, he was inventing spells and curses.

Hermione compares Snape’s teaching of Defense Against the Dark Arts to Harry’s teaching of the DA. She mentions they both speak about the Dark Arts with reverence for the sort of power and harm it can cause in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Snape is the only Death Eater described as using a Patronus charm. In addition, as Snape is escaping Hogwarts after killing Dumbledore (by agreement with Dumbledore), and Harry is chasing him, Snape easily deflects all the curses Harry attempts to hit him with and leaves him with what I feel is extremely important advice: that Harry needs to work on nonverbal spells so that he will have an advantage as he gears up to face Voldemort. I don’t think Harry recognized it as such at the time—he wasn’t in any situation to take instruction from Snape at that moment—but it does become important later. In addition to attempting to teach Harry nonverbal spells, Snape also attempts to teach Harry Occlumency so that he can close his mind against Voldemort, one of the most accomplished Legilimens. Though Harry doesn’t master either nonverbal spells or Occlumency under Snape’s tutelage, he does learn the disarming spell, Expelliarmus, at the dueling club meeting run by Professors Lockhart and Snape. Harry uses this spell in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire when Voldemort rises again and attacks Harry in the Little Hangleton graveyard. It later becomes his signature. Later, he uses it to defeat Voldemort utterly. A spell to disarm rather than attack—I’ve always found it interesting that Snape chose to demonstrate that particular spell at the dueling club. You can say what you like about his personality, but you can’t deny he knows his subject matter—both Potions and Defense Against the Dark Arts. Knowing one’s subject matter does not necessarily make one a great teacher, however.

Snape has several faults that prevent him from being a good teacher. But it could be argued that he is certainly one of Harry’s most important and effective teachers, and perhaps one of the teachers Harry learns most from.

Image credit: You the doormat, then?

Notes on this post:

  1. I am kind of proud to say I didn’t look up anything except whether it was 1,000 or 1,001 Magical Herbs and Fungi as I wrote this post. I have apparently read this series rather closely. I also Googled some links I share in note 4.
  2. I keep a Severus Snape action figure on my desk and have a Lego Snape keychain. I’m a big fan.
  3. I hope I didn’t annoy readers too much with this bit of Harry Potter indulgence.
  4. The chemistry teacher J. K. Rowling based Snape on died a few months ago of cancer. He had a good sense of humor about his influence on Snape.

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Banish the Whole-Class Novel?

the infernoI’ve been thinking about Pam Allyn’s article in Education Week for a couple of days. I read a few of the comments, too. While I think Allyn makes some valid points about putting the right books in the hands of students, I also think that can be accomplished through independent reading and literature circles without eliminating a whole-class novel study. More goes on in a whole-class novel study than just reading books. Critical thinking—synthesizing ideas, analysis, compare and contrast, application of one situation to another, interpretation—the list could go on. Sometimes, students actually do enjoy those books, too. I’ve seen it happen many times, even with books you wouldn’t think. I have had students not want to stop reading when class is over when we studied The Catcher in the Rye. I have had professed non-readers tell me how much they liked The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. One former student told me when she packed for college, she had room to take three books. One of them was Wuthering Heights, which I had introduced her to (granted, our study of the story was based on the film and I gave her the book to read when she showed interest in delving deeper).  Do all students like all books? No. I didn’t like all the books I read in school either. And sometimes I think we try to teach books that students are not ready for. I’m not sure I was ready for The Scarlet Letter in high school, but I enjoyed it when I read it in my late twenties for the first time. Same thing with The Great Gatsby. However, I have also taught students who were ready for those books in high school and enjoyed them. One student who was in my class in ninth grade blossomed in his English class when his tenth grade teacher taught The Great Gatsby—he loved it. Would these students have read The Great Gatsby or The Scarlet Letter if we hadn’t done a whole-class study? I’m not so sure. Sometimes it does happen that a student finds a book that means a great deal to him or her through a whole-class novel study, and I and other teachers I work with have been personally thanked for introducing that student to that book. And students do enjoy whole-class novel discussion. It’s not a novel, but whole-class study of Romeo and Juliet has been a hit every year I’ve taught it.

While I think we really do want to create life-long readers, and establishing independent reading in our classrooms can go a long way toward accomplishing that goal, studying a novel as a class is not a waste of time, and we can and should incorporate more nonfiction and more books that appeal to boys as well as girls. To me, it’s about balance rather than an all or nothing approach—balancing choice reads with whole-class or literature circle selections. One commenter on the original post said, “It’s not the whole-class novel that’s the problem—it’s how we choose those novels.” I agree. The example Allyn uses to demonstrate problems with the class-novel study is of a twelve-year-old reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I read that novel in eleventh grade, and it was the perfect book for me at that time. I taught it for years as a ninth grade text until students began coming to me having studied it in middle school. Even though I see the value in re-reading a novel, I also had to contend with parents who thought I was teaching a middle school text, so I gave that one up. My personal opinion is that To Kill a Mockingbird is perfect for high school students, but there may be some middle school students who are ready for it. So what do we do in the face of pressure to include more rigorous reading in the middle school? What should all literature teachers be doing to foster a love of reading while pushing students forward as critical thinkers?

Well, the commenter I quoted previously went on to say that “[a]ll choice is no better than no choice.” We need to think about what studying a text will teach us that we can’t learn from studying any other text—the first step in backward design, by the way. When we studied The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I asked my students themselves to justify its place in our class. Should it even be taught? Wasn’t it racist? Couldn’t some other book do just as well without exposing students to the n-word over 200 times? They put the book on trial, and the conclusion they came to was that it was important for us to study Huck Finn because it captured a moment in our history that was important not to ignore. We should be thoughtful about why we teach anything that we teach.

Next year, I will not be teaching literature classes for the first time in my teaching career, so this is perhaps not even something I need to chew over very much because it’s not a decision I will have to make. However, I do know that any time I ever teach a literature class, I will always teach the whole-class novel as a part of my curriculum.

P.S. Unrelated, but speaking of Education Week, Katie Ash interviewed me for her article “Language Arts Educators Balance Text-Only Tactics With Multimedia Skills.” Key word: balance. Check it out!

Creative Commons License photo credit: church mouth

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The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, Alexandra Robbins

In her latest book, The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth: Popularity, Quirk Theory, and Why Outsiders Thrive After High School, Alexandra Robbins, author of Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities and The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids, examines what she calls the “cafeteria fringe”—the group of kids marginalized by so-called popular students. Robbins’s argument is that schools and parents should be doing more to encourage the unique traits often found in the cafeteria fringe because they are the very traits that will make these students successful after high school.

I was a part of the cafeteria fringe when I was in high school. For starters, I went to three different high schools. I played the flute, so at least being in band was an activity that enabled me to make some friends. When we moved to California when I was a freshman, it took me a month to find friends to eat lunch with. I dreaded that hour of loneliness, watching all the other groups congregate in their favorite areas of the school year, wishing I could figure out some group to be with. When I moved to Georgia in the eleventh grade, I was already dreading the prospect of sitting alone for who knew how long. However, a girl in my homeroom asked me to eat lunch with her that day. It was a small kindness, but she has no idea how much it meant to me then and still means to me. In other words, I could identify with what Robbins says in this book about outsiders. She’s absolutely right that after high school, it gets better. Of of the most interesting things about Facebook to me is that it has allowed me to see what happens to the so-called popular kids after high school. Most of them stayed close to home in the case of the last high school I attended. But they are no better or worse off than anyone else. The special status they were accorded in high school did not seem to follow them. And that message is important for all students, whether they are cafeteria fringe or part of the in-crowd, to hear. As a teacher, the aspect of Robbins’s book that bothered me most was seeing teachers not only perpetuating the type of bullying that goes on between cliques, but actively engaging in it themselves.

This is an important book for parents, teachers, and students to read. In fact, it might be a good idea to ship copies to school libraries. I like the way Robbins exposed the workings of high schools by following seven individuals through a year in school: Danielle, the Loner; Whitney, the Popular Bitch; Eli, the Nerd; Joy, the New Girl; Blue, the Gamer; Regan, the Weird Girl; and Noah, the Band Geek. It was easy to identify with each individual for various reasons, but mostly because  the narratives offered insight into how these people saw themselves and their schools; it was easy to see how they were all struggling with similar issues—even Whitney. Interspersed throughout are essays about issues raised and tips for students, parents, teachers, and administrators about how to “set things right and reclaim their schools” (379). It’s a gripping, engaging nonfiction read, which I won’t go so far as to say reads like fiction, as the book jacket does. It’s perhaps more compelling because it reads like the truth.

Full disclosure: The publisher supplied me with a copy of this book.

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Girls in Tech

Child Using LaptopI think we are doing a better job encouraging girls to go into science and math. I think we still have some work to do, but we’ve come a long way. I don’t think we’re doing as well encouraging girls to go into technology. Next year, I’ll be the only female member of my four-person technology department, and that’s not unusual. Actually what’s unusual is that my technology department has any women. Our technology classes are populated mainly by boys, at least by my casual observation.

This month’s digital issue of Tech & Learning cites a College Board statistic that the Computer Science AP exam has the lowest number of girls of any of the AP exams since 1999 at 18%. I am showing my ignorance here, but I didn’t even know there was a Computer Science AP exam. The National Center for Women & Information Technology has published a fact sheet with more disquieting facts:

  • In 2009 women earned 18% of computer science degrees, down from 37% in 1985.
  • Women comprise 25% of computer-related occupations. Of these women, 2% are black, 4% are Asian, and 1% are Latino.
  • The number of women interested in majoring in computer science for undergraduate studies has dropped 79% from 2000 to 2009.

One way I plan to try to raise awareness of women/girls and technology among my own faculty is to coordinate some event, even if it’s just a newsletter, around Ada Lovelace Day this October. Raising awareness is all well and good, but what should be done to encourage girls and women to go into technology? What is at the root of the decline in interest?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Picture Youth.

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