Why Technology?

A question I have been asked quite a few times lately is why I moved into technology integration after having been a successful English teacher for over a decade. It’s a complicated answer because it was not a planned move. I like teaching English. It’s not like I woke up one day and decided I didn’t like teaching English anymore and was looking for a change in career. When I started down the technology integration path, I didn’t know where it would lead, and I never imagined for a moment that exploring technology integration and teaching English were mutually exclusive (hint: they’re not).

When I began teaching English in 1997, my first classroom was a small room with old desks and a chalkboard. I didn’t have a classroom desktop computer. I had a laptop, but only because it had been given to me as a graduation gift. I can’t really say I did anything to integrate technology. We didn’t have any of the tools one might typically use to integrate technology. We had precious few computers in the school. We did watch VHS tapes of movies. We had one student in my student teaching cohort at UGA who I might have described as tech savvy, and that was because she could answer our questions about how to work email. I never imagined that years later I would be like her. I couldn’t imagine I would ever have any sort of aptitude for technology.

Back when GeoCities was still around, I experimented with creating cheap, garish-looking websites. I liked the creative process of bringing the websites to life, and I gradually taught myself HTML. I decided to start blogging about education in 2005. One thing I noticed was that many of the other education bloggers at that time were educational technologists, and for good reason: they were the “techies” who felt most comfortable with the tools of blogging. They became my models. I began reading about what they were doing. Then I attended EduBloggerCon before ISTE in 2007. Here is what a newbie I was to the whole notion of technology education: I didn’t even realize there was such a thing as an ISTE Conference (back then, it was called NECC). All I knew is the education bloggers were all planning to meet up in Atlanta, where I lived, and I decided to go. Once I got to the conference center, of course, I realized it must be part of some larger conference I knew nothing about.

What? You mean a whole conference devoted to technology in education? I desperately wanted to go, but I found out about it too late to ask my employer to help me pay for it. I enjoyed the time I spent with the other edubloggers. I met Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, who introduced me to someone as “a great writer.” I still relive that moment. I met Megan Golding, who recognized me by my blog when I introduced myself. I met Vicki Davis and Julie Lindsay. I met Tom Woodward. When I wrote about the experience that evening on my blog, Chris Lehmann left a comment chiding me for not saying “hi.” I had forgotten this, but I was standing right next to Dave Warlick in the big photo someone took.

I’m going to look like a huge geek, but I’ll just say it anyway: I was in awe of these folks. I thought they were so cool, and I really wanted to be in their club. It really wasn’t long after EduBloggerCon 2007 that I began pursuing my instructional technology master’s. In fact, I enrolled at Virginia Tech in August of 2008, so it must have only been a matter of months between going to EduBloggerCon and deciding to get my master’s in instructional technology.

I had already started using technology in my English classroom before I went to EduBloggerCon. I considered a master’s in English, but I admit it didn’t appeal to me much. I had also thought a few times about a degree in library science. At one point in my career, I thought I wanted to be a media specialist. I don’t think that I had a notion there was such a thing as an instructional technology degree.

Around the same time as I attended the first EduBloggerCon, I also started presenting at conferences. I discovered that I liked working with teachers and helping them learn about ways they could use technology in their classes. I also enjoyed sharing ideas face-to-face in addition to on this blog.

My interest in technology integration and working with teachers grew organically into helping teachers integrate technology. Before long, I was the teacher in my building who answered the “techie” questions and helped colleagues.

If you had asked me ten years ago if I would be doing what I’m doing now, I would have called you crazy. In fact, ten years ago, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to teach anymore. After the 2000-2001 school year, I was determined to quit teaching. I wound up teaching pre-K for a year and decided perhaps I didn’t want to quit teaching after all. It is amazing how your life can change trajectory and open up possibilities you never dreamed existed. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately as I begin a new phase of my life as a technology integration specialist at a new school. But more about that to come later.

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Reluctance and Technology Integration

One of the questions I am often asked in interviews for technology positions is how I would approach dealing with faculty members who are reluctant to embrace or integrate technology in their lessons.

First, I think it’s an excellent question, and my answer to it says a lot about how well I would be able to work with faculty. It is a question to which any good technology integration specialist should have a good answer at the ready. Before I tell you what I think, however, it bears saying that I think a healthy skepticism of technology is not a bad thing. I have seen tools adopted simply because they will add technology to a lesson. If the only reason you’re using technology is to say you’re using technology, then you’re not truly integrating technology. Your faculty and students will see through it. I have been teaching fourteen years, which is long enough to see a few trends come and go. Technology has to be more than just flash. It needs to add something to the lesson (or whatever you are doing with it), and if it doesn’t, perhaps you don’t need to use it.

I personally feel technology has two propositions to answer before it should be adopted for integration in a lesson/class/school/activity:

  1. Will it make it easier to do what I’m trying to do?
  2. Will using it increase engagement?

Having said that, sometimes a learning curve is wrongly interpreted as making something more difficult to do. We need to be willing to invest the time into learning how to use the tools properly sometimes, but just because they are not immediately intuitive does not mean they are making everything more difficult and need to be chucked. One case in point is the evolution of sharing handouts with students. I actually have used one of those blue ditto machines. We still had one at one of my schools, and we had to use it if we did not turn in our photocopying with enough notice for the secretary who did our photocopying (a practice that is looking more and more attractive to me for reasons folks who work with me will understand completely). The ditto machine produced handouts that were serviceable, but damp and blurry. I only used it as a last resort. The photocopier produced nice handouts, but required me to hand in assignments early to the secretary, or, in other schools where I have worked, provide my own paper and assemble the packets and hole-punch and staple them, not to mention the time spent making the copies. Now sharing documents is as easy as creating and sharing a Google Doc or uploading a document to a content management system. The students have the freedom to print or even edit the document as needed, but they can also store it on their device using their personal file management system. Obviously, there is a learning curve involved in switching to Google Docs over a more familiar word processor (not much of one, but still), and users need to learn how to share the documents with others. Learning how to upload documents to a content management system also involves a small learning curve. Initially, learners who have a little more difficulty learning how to use new tools might balk at being asked to use Google Docs or a content management system, but once they learn how to use the tools and have been convinced that the tools are making their jobs easier, they will not be reluctant to adopt the technology and may even be your biggest evangelists.

On the other hand, sometimes using technology is not necessarily going to make our jobs easier, but will increase engagement. A good example of a project that fits this criteria is a recent lesson I did with our social studies department on how to use PowerPoint. I am told that the students were reluctant to come to my lesson because they didn’t think they would learn anything. They had, after all used PowerPoint before. I, like you, have seen many ineffective PowerPoints over the years, and I have actively sought presentation mentors who have taught me about creating more effective PowerPoints. I shared these lessons with the students. In essence, I taught the students:

  • You are essential to the presentation. If you make yourself inessential because you put all of your presentation text on your slides, you have no reason to be standing in front of the room.
  • Your slides are visual aids for your presentation and should therefore be light on text and heavy on images.
  • Go beyond the default fonts and prepackaged themes.
  • Give credit for using images and try to find images licensed under Creative Commons.
  • Practice your presentation in front of your mirror, your dog, your parents. If your teacher lets you, put cues on index cards, but you shouldn’t read from the cards any more than you should read from PowerPoint slides.

The lessons went very well. The students asked great questions. I was impressed by what I saw them creating in class. They shared at the beginning of the lesson when I asked how they feel when they see a PowerPoint on the screen that they associated PowerPoints with boredom.

Creating good PowerPoints definitely does not make your job easier. In fact, it is easier to create a bad PowerPoint with all your speech on the prepacked theme slides and few images (or perhaps the odd clip art image). But these PowerPoints are not engaging for your audience. In order to make your presentation more engaging, you will need to do some work. Most people who have seen a great presentation will say that it was worth the extra work to increase audience engagement.

I was thrilled when I received this feedback from one of the social studies teachers about the students’ presentations:

Just wanted to give thanks to Dana Huff for helping with a very successful technology integration project for 9th grade CP2.  Dana helped to teach my students how to utilize MS Power Point to create a dynamic and interesting visual accompaniment to a presentation.  My students took Dana’s lesson to heart and have come up with some compelling visual aids.

Dana spent two class periods with my students teaching them how to use the Power Point software itself and also reviewing best practices for using Power Point in the context of a 10-15 minute presentation.

Thank you to Dana for all of your help!  The students greatly benefited from the time they spent with you!

Another project that required more work but definitely increased engagement was a QR Code project I helped our art teacher with. Creating and editing student videos was certainly more work for the art teacher, and uploading the videos and creating QR Codes that linked with them was also time-consuming. Hanging up the art and calling it a day would have been easier, but putting the QR Codes next to the art work so that the art displays could be more interactive made the art show more engaging for the participants.

I think the best way to approach a teacher who is reluctant to integrate technology is to share a specific idea and be willing to do some convincing that the idea will either make their jobs easier or make what they do more engaging (for them, their students, whoever). After that, you must be willing to support that teacher’s learning with professional development. The worst thing you can do is give a teacher a tool and tell them to figure out how to use it. It won’t be used because it is much easier to just keep doing things the same way. Which is essentially what Tom Whitby said on Twitter the other day that prompted me to retweet:

So in the interest of learning more about what others thought, I tweeted the question “What do you do at your school to encourage teachers who are reluctant to embrace & integrate technology?” and added the hashtag #edtech in the hopes of attracting answers from folks who don’t follow me, but keep track of that hashtag. Here are some of the responses I received:Gary Anderson

Allison BerryhillAbbey WilsonAbbey WilsonDeej LucasShervette MillerSome definite themes emerge in the responses:

  • Offer extensive professional development.
  • Demonstrate using the technology is really going to make their teaching better.
  • Model technology integration (or provide models).
  • Provide resources and choices.

I would argue that there are simply cases when mandating is required, such as when a school-wide grade reporting system or content management system is rolled out. Inconsistency can cause a lot of headaches for a school, but the important thing is to allow faculty to be part of the decision about which tools to use so that they are more likely to buy into their use.

The worst thing a school can do is mandate use of some new form of technology without any professional development.

Leadership in technology integration comes from the top down, as I have said before, and if administrators are not prepared to support their teachers’ use of technology, their teachers will not use the technology. It’s not because teachers are not willing to change or to do the right thing for their students. It’s because teachers, like everyone else, want to see the relevance behind what they are learning, and they want to know why and how they will use it. In integrating technology, like everything else, you need to begin with the end in mind and determine where you want teachers and students to be, what you want them to learn, and what you want them to be able to do. Then you need to determine how you will get them to that place.

Some additional resources I found as I was thinking about and writing this post (via Twitter):

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Technology Goals

In the spirit of setting goals and writing them down somewhere so I will attend to them, I’m sharing some of the career/technology goals I have. My timeline for completion is a little up in the air as I search for a new position.

  1. Become a Google Certified Teacher. Some of my friends have this certification, and as I have become the go-to person for Google Apps at my school, I would like to learn even more about them (even though I am moving on, I think a lot of schools I have spoken with are doing amazing things with Google Apps). I also want to become a Google Apps for Education Certified Trainer. Without knowing where I will be next year, I have elected not to start the application process until things are more settled.
  2. Become an Apple Distinguished Educator. Most of the schools I have spoken to are 1-to-1 Mac schools. I wouldn’t have been able to justify pursuing this program on my current school’s dime, as we are officially a PC school with no 1-to-1 program at the moment, but I can see that in a 1-to-1 Mac environment, this program would prove useful, especially as I would have more opportunities to use what I learn.
  3. Obtain OS X certifications, Certified Mac Technician Certification, and  iWork Certification. Depending on the needs of my future school, I’m willing to pursue Final Cut Pro Certification, but I don’t currently have or know how to use that software. I think most schools use iMovie for their purposes.
  4. Pursue additional SMARTBoard training. Many of the schools I’ve looked at have SMARTBoards, and I haven’t had as much training as I’d like, but there are several self-paced online courses I can take in addition to the ones I’ve already taken.
  5. Participate more often in Twitter chats like #engchat and #edchat. I have always got a lot out of these chat sessions, and my experiences in leading #engchat in the past have been positive, too (and are something I would like to do again). For the record, if you were not able to participate, I moderated chat sessions on integrating technology in English and on authentic assessment.
  6. Become more involved in my field through conference attendance. I’ve been able to attend English conferences, but I have wanted to go to ISTE for about five years and have not been able to do so. I sometimes feel out of the loop, even though I connect with several innovative tech leaders and teachers on Twitter and elsewhere.

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New Opportunities

'The Long and Winding Road', United States, New York, Catskill Mountains, Kaaterskil Valley

I am excited to announce the next chapter in my life. I will not be returning to my present school after this current year, and I am actively searching for opportunities elsewhere. I have a strong background in technology integration and English and am seeking opportunities in either or both areas. One of the things I can bring to a school looking for a technology integration specialist (or similar position) is my patience and ability to work with teachers at all levels of proficiency with and investment in integrating technology. I do first-tier troubleshooting with a variety of devices, also, and I am willing to pursue advanced training in order to meet a school’s needs. I keep abreast of trends in educational technology and can help teachers use technology to make their jobs easier and engage their students. My background as a classroom teacher enables me to help teachers integrate technology in thoughtful ways. You can see a self-directed course I designed for my colleagues who wished to learn how to create websites and podcasts here. You can also see my portfolio from my instructional technology masters program here.

As an English teacher, I bring fourteen years of experience teaching students at every level and grade from 6th to 12th. I have a great deal of experience with 9th grade, American literature, and British literature. I have designed a popular elective course based on the hero’s journey. I am active in both the National Council of Teachers of English and the Georgia Council of Teachers of English. I serve on the Georgia Council of Teachers of English’s executive board as SLATE representative. I have presented at conferences hosted by both organizations, and I have also presented at the Georgia Independent School Association’s conference several times. You can see my reflections and ideas in archives of this blog, which span over six years.

Another component I bring to a school is a strong background in backward design as described by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in Understanding by Design. Inspired by this book, I created the UbD Educators wiki, which now has well over 300 members from all over the world.

I am looking for a school with a strong, collegial atmosphere, where the faculty lounge is a place where teachers brainstorm and exchange ideas. I am looking for a school that has a vision regarding its plans for technology and has expectations that teachers will integrate technology and offers support for teachers wishing to integrate technology both through encouragement and professional development. I am looking for a school that values professional learning and encourages teachers to blog, use Twitter, and otherwise network to connect with both the community and their peers. I am looking for a school that values professional memberships and conferences and is willing to send me to conferences so that I can continue to present my learning to others and can continue to learn from my peers both in English and in technology.

If you feel that these qualities interest you, or if you are looking for someone like me, please take a look at my online resume and feel free to request a PDF copy with my contact information and references.

Update, 2/15: I should mention that my family is willing to relocate for the right position. My two younger children are on the autism spectrum, and the school system in the area where I teach will need to have a strong special education system. Thus far, they have received a great education, and I would want that to continue.

Creative Commons License photo credit: WanderingtheWorld (www.LostManProject.com)

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Time for This

Transit spatio-temporel (Time & Space Transit)I’ve been thinking about this blog post for a couple of months. I have also had several conversations in that time that led me to believe the issue of what we decide we have time for is an important issue to explore.

A lot of people ask me how I have time to do the things I do. In fact, someone asked me that question just the day before yesterday. I don’t know how to answer that question because I have as much time as everybody else. How I’m choosing to use it may be quite different. I think if something is important to you, you will make time for it, and if it isn’t really that important to you, you won’t.

Case in point: Kirstie Knighton and I were discussing the EC Ning, which is a great resource for English teachers. She mentioned that she has tried to refer several colleagues to the Ning, but many of them claim they don’t have time to participate in the ECN community. Kirstie’s response was, “How do you not have time” for using this fantastic resource to grow and become a better teacher? The answer, of course, is that Kirstie has made that growth and attachment to the ECN community a priority, so she makes time for it.

I participated in NaNoWriMo last month (won, thanks!), and I have averaged about a book a week this year (first time ever!). Why? Those two things, my writing and my reading, are really important to me. I set aside time to do both. I don’t watch a lot of TV. The only show I have to see, aside from a few specials here and there, is Big Bang Theory, and that’s new because I only started watching at Thanksgiving. Sure, I miss out on all the pop culture references, and I don’t get to participate in things like the Lost phenomenon, but I decided for myself several years back that TV wasn’t important to me and that I needed to use my time in other ways, so I let it go. That doesn’t make me better than someone who chooses to watch TV (there is a lot of good TV). It just means I made a different choice regarding my time than someone who watches more TV made. (Interesting side note, there is no correlation between the number of hours of TV someone watches and the number of books in his/her home; I know this because I did a study using a random sample of work colleagues for graduate school and the resulting scatter plot was all over the place.)

Another thing I do is use technology to help me be more efficient. I think people sometimes either don’t use the right tools, or they don’t use the tools they have available to them efficiently. If I want to keep up with certain blogs, for instance, I subscribe to their feeds in my RSS feed reader. Then I check my feed reader and scroll through the updates, reading the ones that seem interesting, and skipping the rest. Dipping in occasionally sometimes makes it seem like I’m doing more than I am. Same goes for Twitter. I put everyone I follow on Twitter on a list. I scroll through the updates to my list in my Twitter client, not necessarily reading every single one, but reading the ones that catch my eye. I join groups that interest me on the EC Ning and the MC Pop Ning and set my email settings so that whenever someone posts to those groups that interest me, I receive an email. If the subject of the new discussion posted is something I think I want to discuss or something I can help with, I post a reply. I don’t necessarily consider myself extremely involved in the worlds of blogging, tweeting, or online discussion. I consider what I do to be dipping in when interested. This is something anyone can do. It’s easier to manage all the online conversations you want if you use free technology tools available to help you do that.

I also multitask. I might be reading RSS feeds or writing a blog post and checking Twitter at the same time. I read while I ride the bus to work (I always take a book with me). I automate certain tasks. For example, I use Diigo for social bookmarking, and I have set up my account to work with my Twitter account and my blog so that every time I favorite a tweet, it is automatically bookmarked, and all of my bookmarks are automatically published to my blog on Sundays. Many weeks, that post may be the only post on my blog, which is why I am always sort of  flabbergasted when anyone suggests they don’t have time to blog. Sure you do. Just don’t make yourself some kind of crazy schedule you can’t handle and otherwise post when you are inspired.

I use Google Calendar to manage my time and create appointment slots for colleagues who need technology assistance. There are all kinds of things that you can do if you make yourself a schedule and stick to it. Like anything else, the things you want to do sometimes take planning, and you need to schedule time for doing them during your day.

Obviously having very small children, going to school, or having long required work hours are going to eat up time, and I don’t think people who have such demands on their time should make themselves feel guilty when they can’t participate in activities they want to participate in, but to be honest, these aren’t the kinds of people who tell me they don’t understand how I have time to do the things I do. Most of the people I hear this from have older or even grown children, are not in school, and work a normal 40-hour week like I do. So what gives?

It isn’t that anyone has or doesn’t have time for this, whatever this is to you. If you are telling yourself you don’t time for something, I would counter that you aren’t making time. I have three kids, too. I work full time, too. There are ways to make time to do the things you want to do. You just have to figure out if whatever it is you think you don’t have time for is actually something you want to make time to do or if that’s an excuse you use for not doing things you’re not actually all that interested in, anyway.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Gilderic (Very very slow internet connection)

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I Won NaNoWriMo!

Winner!I posted this on my book blog, but I don’t necessarily have the same readers on each site. I am so excited because yesterday I validated my novel, and I wrote over 50,000 words during the month of November. The story is not finished yet, and in case you care, I tried a new genre (chick lit). I usually stick to historical fiction of some kind.

I learned some interesting things about myself as a writer as a result of participating in NaNoWriMo.

First, even though I have “won” NaNoWriMo before, it doesn’t feel any less fantastic to win again. In fact, it might feel even better to win again because I feel reassured that the first time wasn’t a fluke. I really am a writer. I really could write novels if I keep at it. After I wrote my first book, I didn’t try to write another one for years. I was a little worried all I had in me was one. I tried NaNoWriMo for the first time in 2006, and I didn’t come close to winning. My story never truly gelled, but I did create a character for that novel who sort of sits in a corner of my mind, tapping her foot impatiently, waiting for me to do something with her. The first time I won was in 2009. I still haven’t edited that novel. I didn’t win last year. I fell behind at NCTE, and I never did catch up again after that. I had over 30,000 words, and it was frustrating to lose, particularly because I thought (and still think) the idea behind that novel was pretty good.

It’s weird that when you create characters they become like real people in your mind. For my 2009 NaNoWriMo novel, I created a protagonist named Imogen Medley, a girl who lived in the mountains of Breathitt County, Kentucky during the Great Depression. She is completely real to me in many ways. I had the rest of her life planned out, even though there was no occasion to show it in the novel. I know, for instance, that she grew up to become one of the first woman judges in her neck of the woods, a calling prompted by an injustice she witnesses during the course of my novel.

A second thing I learned about myself is that the large amount of writing I’ve been doing this year, mostly on my reading blog, has made me a faster, more fluent writer. I know that we writing teachers tell students that they will become faster, better, and more fluent writers if they just practice it more, but I’m not sure I ever noticed a measurable difference in my own practice until this year. I rarely had a problem reaching the daily word count of 1,667 words (except some days I skipped while at NCTE). Many days, I was able to write over 2,000 words. That last day, I wrote over 2,800 words. I was stuck one day, so I just started writing about being stuck, and eventually, I was writing my story again.

When I wrote my first book, I had this massive notebook with all my research. For my 2009 NaNo novel, I put a bunch of research into a program called Curio, but it was clunky to flip back and forth between my research and my writing. This year, I used Scrivener, and I found that having all my research and my writing in one place made me more productive. We should teach our students to try out a variety of tools until they find the ones that work for them. I think we all have trouble with finding the right tools sometimes, and the right tools can make a huge difference in our ability to succeed. I think I won NaNo this year partly because I found a tool that helped me work better and smarter than any other tools I’ve used in the past.

Another interesting thing that I noticed (not so much learned, I guess) is that I seem to like to write dialogue. I worry that my stories have too much dialogue and not enough description, but I like to hear my characters talk. I know dialogue can be tough for some people to write, but I think if you listen a lot, your dialogue will sound more natural. It goes without saying that reading other writers will also help you shore up weaknesses in your own writing. You have models for good dialogue, good description, tight plotting, characterization, and beautiful language if you read a lot. I have also been doing a lot of reading. This year, I’ve read 45 books. I am trying to make it an even 50 before the year is out. I know writing was easier for me this time because of all the reading I’ve done.

I know some writers look down on NaNoWriMo because they feel it encourages sloppy, quick, poor writing. I think some people need the pressure of a deadline to get their words down the paper, and NaNoWriMo is becoming my favorite way to start a novel. I think most people who participate realize their novels aren’t publishable on December 1. In fact, they’re likely not even finished. There may be some misguided individuals who don’t understand that revision is where the real work happens, but they’ll probably eventually be disabused of their confusion (one way or another). Another criticism I hear is that it’s unnecessary: true writers will write whether there is an event scheduled around drafting 50,000 words or not. Perhaps. But I do know that writing along with a community and receiving the moral support of NaNoWriMo has encouraged me. Maybe others don’t need that encouragement, but writing can be solitary. It helps to know you’re not alone.

The most important thing was how much fun I had this time. It was hard work—no doubt about that—but I enjoyed it the whole time, even on days when I had to make myself write because I didn’t think I wanted to.

Good luck to those NaNo participants heading into the home stretch tonight.

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Post-NCTE Reflections

Having had a little bit of time to reflect on my trip to the NCTE convention in Chicago, I wanted to talk about some of the highlights for me.

Personal highlights:

  • My presentation with Glenda Funk and Ami Szerencse. Loved working with you ladies, and especially loved celebrating your birthday Saturday night, Glenda. Also appreciated those of you who gave me the positive feedback after the presentation.
  • Meeting Joe Scotese. We’ve been friends for years, but we had never actually seen each other face-to-face.
  • Meeting and having great dinner and conversation with Meenoo Rami and her college friend and college friend’s co-worker (and Glenda!). Loved it! The pizza was excellent.
  • Going to the Art Institute of Chicago. It was right across the street from the Palmer House, and after my presentation I needed to decompress. There is absolutely nothing in the world like seeing those paintings up close.
  • Forging deeper connections with Georgia folks like Kirstie Knighton, Karen Mitcham, and Kathleen McKenzie (Kathleen, I’m looking forward to being more involved with GCTE).
  • As always, reconnecting with the Folger group. I loved working the booth with them on Sunday and meeting up at the Chicago Shakespeare on Friday night (Mike, you let me know when you are starting up that school).
  • Meeting Ryan Goble and Richard Beach in the same session. Ryan’s mom is the coolest.

“Smart” Things I Did:

  • Visiting the art museum. Sure, I missed a ton of good sessions that day, and I’m hoping to find at least some of them on the Connected Community or elsewhere, but really, it was so worth it to see those paintings.
  • Planning my conference in Evernote. I had a whole notebook with all the sessions I was interested in, all the places I wanted to go, transportation information, hotel and airline reservation information, and session notes. Had I not done this, there is no way, especially without wifi access, that I could have figured anything out. I also learned how to send emails into Evernote. I didn’t know how to do that before, and it proved extremely useful.
  • Buy a hat and gloves. Hey, it’s not as cold down here in the South. Still got windburn.
  • Go to the EC Ning meetup.
  • Save money and avoid the exhibits. Look, they are very cool, but truthfully, only the cheap/free paperbacks were worth my while. I didn’t want to carry home or have to mail a bunch of stuff like last year, so good job this year on saving space. Next time the convention comes to Atlanta, I’ll load up completely. Maybe.
  • Find time to write. Yes, it was mostly on the plane and at the airport, but as a result of finding time to write, I am only a little behind with NaNoWriMo. Last year, I gave up after NCTE because I saw no hope of catching up.

I came away from the conference wanting to be more active in the EC Ning, MC Pop Ning, and Twitter conversations (especially #engchat). Thanks for the wonderful time, everyone.

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Why I Write

Moleskineh

Today is the National Day on Writing, and bloggers are encouraged to share why they write. I began writing not too long after I began reading, mainly because no one ever told me I couldn’t. In fact, I was encouraged by teachers and family, and I can’t remember not writing. I have always made my own little books with stories in them. As I learned and grew and was exposed to more models, I think my writing improved.

I enjoy participating in NaNoWriMo when I can because I love the camaraderie of writing along with other writers. I was a little worried about participating this year because I didn’t have any ideas for a NaNo novel, but I actually had one today that is really exciting, and now I can’t wait to start.

I think writing is necessary for me. I don’t know what else I would do if I didn’t write. I have dreamed of being able to write full time. Sometimes I think my perfect life would be somehow being a successful enough writer that I could move to England and live in one of those grand old houses and just write, write, write.

Writers have always been my heroes, from Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume when I was younger to J.K. Rowling, Jasper Fforde, Stephen King, Sharyn McCrumb, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, and so many other writers living and dead. I draw inspiration from them. I want to be like them (not in all ways, of course, but in their writing lives).

I write because I have to.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Amir Kuckovic

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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 Preview Image

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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Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

Like so many, I was saddened to hear about the death of Steve Jobs today.

He made technology into art.

He was one of the true visionaries of our time. The products that Apple created while he was at their helm revolutionized computers, communication, and music. My Apple products have enabled me to create wonderful things.

Dylan Happy

My son Dylan drew the self-portrait above using an app on his dad’s iPhone. Dylan took to the touch screen interface of the iPhone like a duck to the proverbial water, and he was suddenly able to create and communicate in ways he couldn’t before. For those of you who don’t know, Dylan is autistic. The iPad has done such revolutionary things for individuals with autism that many special education programs are now using them in the classroom, and Dylan has been able to use one at school. I know there are programs to try to match families with autistic individuals with iPads, too.

My husband wrote an email to Steve Jobs in May 2010 conveying our thanks for the innovative products that Apple has created that have unlocked Dylan, for lack of a better word. Here is my husband’s email.

Dear Steve,

When my wife got an iPod Touch a couple of years ago our son had only just begun to speak. He was 5 and had been mute till age 4. He was diagnosed with autism and indeed, is a classic autistic child in many respects. His affect is often flat, he speaks now but doesn’t proactively communicate, he tends to obsess on seemingly odd, random things, flaps his hands, etc.

We started letting him play with the Touch and we quickly discovered that the little boy who had become what seemed like a closed-off mystery to us around 18 months or so not only had a vivid imagination and interests all his own, he also found the Touch an irresistible way to navigate the Web. With no help whatsoever he discovered the Youtube app. Then he found the Google mobile app. Through the Touch interface he could find any video he wanted (he is obsessed with movie logos in particular) and find images & websites that interested him. His facility with the Touch was amazing, really.

We were afraid Dylan, our son, would always be closed off from the world around him, walled in by his disability. Then we realized through his use of the Touch that he was going to find ways, whenever possible, to explore the world and to reach out.

We didn’t really understand how he could use these tools to get through to us until the day he was fooling with my iPhone. I took it away from him, miffed because I need it and he had been kind of tough on the iPod Touch, and didn’t think much about it till later, when I was checking out a note-taking app that’s designed to let you write/draw with your finger.

A smiley face with hands and legs is attached to this email. It is the drawing Dylan made with that app. It might not seem like much to a lot of people, but seeing this little smiley waving at me was a kind of milestone. I realized, in some small way, who my son was. It was a greeting and a kind of reassurance. (Actually, I posted Dylan’s smiley on Reddit under a nick because I wanted people to know a little bit of the story and it’s currently the number 1 link on the main page, so maybe a lot of people do understand, after all.)

Twenty years ago, I’m not sure we would have been able to find out nearly as much about Dylan and who he is. There weren’t easy-to-use, straightforward interfaces like those found on the iPhone, Touch & iPad. Were it not for this technology, Dylan might have remained locked inside his head, unable to communicate his interests or in some small way, his feelings to his family, to the world.

So we thank you and we thank Apple. We have some vital knowledge of our little boy, of who he is and what he thinks about, even feels, because of your products. For this reason alone we will always be grateful and will always remain faithful customers.

Thank you.
Steve and Dana Huff

Steve Jobs is somewhat famous for replying to some of the consumer emails he receives, and he sent a short reply to my husband:

From: Steve Jobs <sjobs@apple.com>
Date: Sat, May 15, 2010 at 11:26 PM
Subject: Check this out
To: [redacted]

Its on the iPod and iPad too.

Proloquo2GoProloquo2Go

AssistiveWare

Proloquo2Go™ is a new product from AssistiveWare that provides a full-featured communication solution for people who have difficulty speaking. It brings natural sounding text-to-speech voices, up-to-date symbols, powerful automatic conjugations, a default vocabulary of over 7000 items, full expandability and extreme ease of use to the iPhone and iPod touch.

My husband and I were grateful for the reply. A lot of people would not have taken the trouble, and I don’t like to think about how many emails Steve Jobs received in an average day. It’s not a long email, but it is, in a sense, a typical Steve Jobs response—to share a tool (cue the joke about there being an app for that)—a really, really expensive tool, too, it must be said—that was designed specifically to make the user’s life easier or better in some way.

To me, Steve Jobs is the epitome of what you can do if you allow yourself to fail, to dream, and to find your way. He was a designer in the truest sense of the world, and his innovations made my life better. Though his life was shorter than seems fair, few can say at the end of their lives that they have made as large an impact on the world as he did.

I am hoping that the legacy he leaves behind is that the next generation of creators, innovators, inventors, and engineers continues to “think different.”

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