The Value of Floundering Around

Searching the NetI have been plagued with a question over the last few days.  When students ask me questions about computers (mostly software, how-to type questions), I most often take the easy path and show or tell them.  But they don’t remember how to do it later.  So the question that’s been on my mind is how much should I let my students flounder around and try to figure things out?  I mean, that’s how I learned my way around a computer.  I poked and tried until I got it to do what I wanted to.  Sometimes it took hours.  But later on, I was able to do it on my own.  I value that learning in myself, but I don’t think I am fostering it in my students.  If they ask me answers to problems or issues that come up with their reading or writing, I don’t always show or tell.  Sometimes I throw the questions back or tell them to think through it a little harder.  So why don’t I do that with computers?  Should I do that with computers?

To that end, I began a new feature in my classroom blog called Tech Tips.  Each week, I will explain how to do something.  I have already subscribed all my students to the blog, so ostensibly, they should have access to the tips and can make of them what they will.  One of my frustrations as a teacher is how little my students appear to use the classroom blog.  I haven’t yet become so frustrated I felt I should just quit, but I have come close.  Which brings to mind another frustration I have.  Students are willing to learn how to use Facebook or IM, but it frustrates me that they won’t poke around my site and learn to use it as well as they do other tools.

I do think it’s valuable to flounder around and even fail for a while before you get it.  So how do I put that into practice without feeling like I’m being unhelpful?

Creative Commons License photo credit: macluke170

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Education and the Web? Not Really

One of the first classes in my IT program is a course entitled Education and the Web.  Based on the title alone, it was the one class I was really looking forward to because the title led me to believe it would treat up-to-date tools and uses of the Web in education.  How silly of me to leap to that conclusion.

My problem with the class is that I am not learning anything useful about Web tools or education-related sites.  One assignment I found particularly pointless dealt with the difference between the Web and the Internet which basically required some background reading on the history of the Internet (and the Web… because it’s critical for our purposes that we get the difference).  It was mildly interesting, but I didn’t advance my knowledge of how I can use the Web in education.  My biggest issue so far, however, is with the journal of Web sites.  I am required to collect and categorize a minimum of 50 Web sites that are useful in education, providing a link to the URL and a brief description of the site.  OK, no problem.  I am required to do it in Excel.  Can someone please tell me why, in a course called Education and the Web, they didn’t think to ask us to use a social bookmarking service like Delicious?  Delicious would enable me to collect and categorize through tagging.  It also allows for providing a brief description.  The URL and site name would be saved automatically.  What’s more, I could share all of my sites with my classmates as we could have been required to share and subscribe to each other’s feeds.  And we would be using the actual Web to learn more about Education and the Web.  Instead, I’m using Excel?  It reminds me of a remark Will Richardson made about presenters at NECC taking notes in Word.

This whole deal does not inspire confidence.  When the one class I thought might be most useful becomes the one I’m not learning anything from, what do I do?  Will my other classes similarly be at least five years behind the times?  Because that’s deadly for an instructional technology program, in my opinion.  I hope I get a chance to do a course evaluation.  I don’t have a problem with my instructor.  I’m not sure who wrote the course, but my perception is that a department of teachers all teach it at various times, so it may be that my instructor has had little input on the curriculum or it may be that my instructor created the curriculum.  Therefore, I am not sure whether it would be beneficial to advocate for myself and my learning by saying something to my instructor or advisor.  Some people would consider it useful constructive criticism and address the problem.  Others would see it as an attack.  I worry more about my classmates than I do about myself.  I have a pretty decent grasp of how to use the Web effectively for education, and because I keep up with so many savvy folks, I also know about some useful tools.  But what if my classmates were counting on learning the same kind of information in this class?

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Tom Discusses Teacher Shortcuts

I really enjoyed Tom Woodward’s recent post “There Are No Shortcuts at Bionic Teaching,” but I left a comment that really didn’t say all I was thinking.

Tom mentions using fun fonts to make boring content exciting (and has particular ire for Comic Sans).  I have been known to use fun fonts, but I hope I graduated from using them to disguise boring content many years ago.  One of the main issues I had with a recent word processing assignment I did for one of my grad school classes is that it was intended only to see if I could do a variety of different tasks in Word rather than make something attractive, interesting, and substantial in Word.  The resulting document looked like an aesthetic mess to me because I had to single space, double space, triple space; use three different fonts; prove I could bold, italicize, and underline text; and manipulate images for different effects.  I didn’t wind up with a document I could use for anything later.  In fact, I was embarrassed by how it looked (I was following the directions to the letter).  The content was not an important part of the assignment.  I wound up riffing on what I was currently doing with Beowulf in my classes and putting a bunch of Beowulf-related pictures in the document.  I suppose I proved I can use Word to manipulate images and text, but I don’t think the assignment proved I can use it well to create a document that has substantial content and an attractive design.

That said, I don’t use Comic Sans because I teach high school, and I consider it an elementary font, but I don’t have any particular hatred for it.  Still, I think Tom’s larger idea is that some of us create documents that are crammed full of proof that we can manipulate images and text, but that contain little substantial content.  In the interest of full disclosure, though I labored over this decision, you can download a PDF of the document I created here, but I removed my required heading because I think it’s the polite thing to do.  I also removed the file name from the footer because even though my files cannot be accessed except by my teachers and me, I don’t want to give folks who are interested the encouragement to try to break into my files.  By the way, inserting the file name in the footer of only the last page was the only new thing I learned in doing this assignment.  How useful a skill is it?  I don’t know.  We’ll have to see.

Tom also skewers using technology to make a boring assignment interesting.  Too many teachers fall prey to this trap with Power Point.  I have seen more Power Point presentations that make me want to tear my eyes out!  I would much rather listen to someone talk without visuals at all than view a poorly designed Power Point.  I think this guy captures Death by Power Point really well:

And this guy shows how you can use it effectively to enhance a presentation:

I liked what Tom said about “digital native/digital immigrant” terminology.  I have yet to meet more than a handful of students who know as much or more about technology than I do, and that’s not boasting — it’s an observation.  Granted, I think I know a bit more than the average teacher, but everything I know I taught myself by playing around with it.  I haven’t worked with too many students who are willing to play around with a bit of code or a piece of software to see what happens.  To my discredit, I admit sometimes (a lot of times), I take the easy way out of showing them instead of letting them struggle with it a bit.  How much better would they learn if I asked them to teach themselves a bit?  Likewise, teachers labeling themselves digital immigrants can be a way of giving themselves a pass on being ignorant about technology.  I’m not saying teachers all need to be Vicki Davis (though she’s wonderful and it would be great if more of us were on her level), but I think we’re past the point at which it’s OK to be a complete luddite.

As an addendum to Tom’s admonition about “faking it,” as he did, I can say only that when you genuinely like and understand something the students like, and connection is genuine, it’s wonderful.  I don’t pretend to be up on everything my students listen to, but the ones who like classic rock know I’m a pretty good resource, and if they have a question, they ask me.  That’s genuine interest.  I can talk about my passions, and Tom is right — that’s what students are interested in seeing — not that I like what they like or that I’ve latched on to the latest trend in education.  I can remember vividly the occasions when I saw my teachers’ passions shared and finding what they had to say intriguing even if I didn’t necessarily share that passion.  A good case in point was a recent class of my own that was derailed by a passionate discussion between a visiting teacher and me about why it is important that “Han shot first.”  Truly, the students couldn’t have cared less about the issue (we are going to study Star Wars in that class beginning next week — it’s my Hero elective class), and most of them haven’t even seen the movie (!!!), but they remarked later on how interesting the discussion was.  I felt like a failure after letting my class go off on such a long tangent (we discussed The Iliad very little that day), but perhaps it will be valuable in some other way down the road.  At any rate, they saw two individuals talk about an issue they both knew a lot about and felt really strongly about, and I think their interest in studying the movie is piqued.  And I suppose we were both certainly really ourselves in front of the students.

If you want to a see a teacher who is passionate about what he does and uses technology effectively not only to create handouts that are informative and attractive but also to have his students create thoughtful presentations with Power Point, you need to check out my friend Joe Scotese’s site.  He blows me away.  To me, Joe is a perfect of example of avoiding the shortcuts Tom discusses in his post.  At any rate, Tom’s post resonated with me so strongly that all I could really do was agree at the time.  After spending a couple of days thinking about it, I decided that for all the reasons I have discussed, Tom’s shortcuts shortchange our students, and they don’t make us good teachers or help our students learn.

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The Calm Before the Storm

Somehow it seems appropriate that the very outer bands of Tropical Storm Fay brought some sprinkles and a few gusts of wind today, as this weekend is my last before I begin working on my master’s degree, and it really does feel like the calm before the storm.  Classes start Monday.  I have been so busy this week, and I already feel behind.  I have had to start making to-do lists.  I know some people swear by them, but I haven’t really needed to use them often in the past.  It feels very good to cross items off that list.  I hope I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew — I already feel busy without worrying about my own studies!

I have found blogging to be important for my own teaching practice.  This space helps me be reflective and connect, and after doing it for three years, I have discovered I need it.

I guess blogging needs to have an important position on my to-do list.

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Writing and Reflecting

After I viewed some pieces on the DVD that accompanies Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them, I thought about my improvement as a teacher over the last few years, and I have decided that a lucky confluence of two events contributed to making me a better teacher: I began teaching at Weber four years ago, and a year later I began writing this blog.

Working at my school with an administration that has supported my efforts to grow and try new things, like blogging and wikis and other ideas, has been so freeing, and if I had not found Weber, I wonder if I would be blogging now or trying some of the other things I’ve tried.  In fact, I wonder if I would be teaching.

Here I am, in the middle of July, and I’m blogging about education and reading education books and blogs.  Why?  I can take a vacation, right?  The thing is, I really want to be back in school and try it all over again.  I am lucky in that my school doesn’t mind that I blog.  This is huge in an era when blogs are routinely blocked at schools, never mind encouraged.  I have always been able to blog about my journey as an educator, here, under my real name, and not worry about it.

And the blogging is what really made me a better educator.  I really began thinking and reflecting about my practice in a way I hadn’t done before.  I read professional literature and wrote about it here.  I jumped in and took risks with projects, and even if they failed, I felt better for having tried.  I shared.  I asked questions.  I helped.  I got feedback.  The audience I have here has truly been helpful to me as I struggled to figure out who I was as an educator and what I wanted to do.

I am excited about the next school year already.  Each year is better than the last.  I am learning and growing all the time.  Blogging has energized me and made me excited about my career.  I have struggled with my career in the past and even quit teaching for a time.  Now I just can’t imagine doing anything else, and this reflection, this space to think and discuss ideas, has given that to me.

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Changes

Nobody’s complained about the absence of my weekly reflections, but I suppose I feel the need to explain anyway. Our last day of school was today. This week was finals week. I have been crazy busy because not only am I finishing up the year, but I’m also moving classrooms and wearing a new hat, which has taken up some time this week. My department chair is leaving us, and I was offered and accepted the position of English Department Chair. I have never been an administrator of any sort, and I always said I didn’t want to be, but I do want to do this job, and I want to do it well. As department chair, I will take on duties such as managing department issues (professional development, book orders and inventory, ensuring department tasks are done), facilitating meetings between my department members and parents (if necessary), serving as a liaison between administration and my department, planning and conducting department meetings, and probably a lot more stuff I don’t even realize I’ve taken on.

OK, I admit I am excited and honored. I didn’t think I would be in this position a few years ago. Initially, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do it because I wasn’t sure I could do it. Over the last few weeks, however, I have decided that as long as I approach this new position as I always tried to approach my job and I do the best job I can do, it will be fine. I actually am pretty good at the paperwork and bookkeeping elements of teaching. What will be new for me is being in a position of some authority.

I am looking forward to this new challenge. My school has offered me a great deal of freedom and support to grow as a teacher. In the four years I have been there, I have written an English Journal article, made a presentation at a statewide conference, offered professional development to my colleagues in the faculty, connected with educators all over the country and the world through blogs and wikis (with the support of my administration when many schools discourage blogging), and genuinely felt embraced and valued for my contributions in way I have never felt anywhere else. And it has only made me want to do more. I have done more in the four years I have been at my school because I have been able, through their support, to do more.

So… onward and upward to even more great things!

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Week in Reflection, May 12-16

We’re truly in the home stretch now.  My own students have two more weeks of regular classes.  My children have just one more week.

Once again, poetry has been squished in at the end of the year.  I suppose this happens because poetry is generally short, and teachers can expose students to poetry (and do a pretty fair job) in a short period of time.  Still, if I teach 9th grade again next year, literature in general, and poetry in particular, is something I want to focus on improving.  In our curriculum, which emphasizes a grammar survey and composition, literature tends to get the short shrift, but with careful planning, it doesn’t have to.  I have to say I did a much better job this year than I have in the past with integrating more literature; however, room for improvement exists, and I will make it a focus next year if I teach the same course(s).

I had the opportunity to teach my colleague’s British literature class, which was a real treat for me.  Because I think the lesson is potentially useful, I will post it soon.  I taught Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue “Porphyria’s Lover.”

In true “what works with one class doesn’t work with all of them” fashion, I am trying an SAT introduction unit with my own tenth grade class that worked beautifully in a colleague’s tenth grade class when I took it over for a couple of weeks.  My perception is that my own class resents the instruction.  That could be because of the time of year, and perhaps they would resent whatever I cooked up for the final few weeks, but it puzzles and bothers me that something that was so well-received and appreciated by one class is borderline rejected by the other.  I suppose I need to think about this unit over the weekend.

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Week in Reflection, May 5-9

I try to write these reflections on the weekend, but perhaps I can be forgiven for skipping Mother’s Day weekend.  This time of year is so busy for teachers, isn’t it?  Even as things are wrapping up, which should make me feel lighter, I seem to have more to do than ever.

I have already reflected a little bit on last week in a previous post.

One thing that’s been on my mind this week is that it is taking quite a while for Amazon to ship my copy of Write Beside Them.  I would like to have it by June, so I am starting to wonder if I shouldn’t cancel my order and order directly from Heinemann.  I was so excited to save money by ordering from Amazon, but it’s taking unusually long, and I feel I should apologize to folks who ordered the book through my referral.

As I write this, I find I am not feeling particularly reflective at all because I can barely remember what I taught last week.  I think I will chalk it up to the time of year.  I do know that utilizing backward design has made all the difference in my teaching this year.  At this time of year when students have one eye on the calendar (and so do their teachers) and the other out the window, I am pleased to say we’re still learning and thinking and writing and reading.

Each year gets better, but I’ll save that reflection for the end.

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Week in Reflection, April 28-May 2

Our Spring Break was last week, so I didn’t post a reflection.  As this was the week of our return to school, and we have also entered that final stretch of the year, I’m not sure either I or the students were as plugged in as usual.

My seniors basically have two weeks left because our school allows them to finish early.  Next week and the week after, they will be working on a final paper for me.  This week, we finished watching A Streetcar Named Desire, and I was struck again by Brando’s performance.  You probably know this bit of trivia, but Brando was the sole member of the core cast not to receive an Academy Award, though he was nominated.  Vivian Leigh won Best Actress for her portrayal of Blanche; Kim Hunter won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Stella; and Karl Malden won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Mitch.  The Best Actor award that year, however, went to Humphrey Bogart for his performance in The African Queen.

My ninth grade students are working through grammar.  One class finished up phrases and started on clauses.  The other class learned about active and passive voice and began discussion of Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye.

The tenth grade writing class I teach presented Power Point presentations.  So often our kids add animations, busy backgrounds, and too much text, then read the text rather than use it as a guide for the audience.  Despite my instructing students on the perils of Death by Power Point, a few of their presentations included some of the problems I’ve mentioned, and I am frustrated that I somehow was not able to communicate how to avoid these issues to my students.  Also, I am frustrated by the fact that in order to be successful, they had to unlearn bad Power Point habits, which may explain why all of them weren’t successful.  We need to teach kids how to use Power Point correctly from the start.  I think too many teachers are a little too impressed by all the bells and whistles and actually reward students for making cluttered, busy, and ultimately unreadable presentations because they themselves don’t know how to do some of the things the students do, thus the teachers assume it’s hard and took a lot of time and effort.  Let’s face it, our students have become accustomed to being rewarded for style over substance.

The last two days of the week, my writing class began a unit on SAT preparation and practice.  I have evaluated SAT essays in the past, and as I haven’t done so for quite some time, I suppose it’s safe to disclose this fact.  Students generally find this unit to be very helpful.  I have been using Sadlier-Oxford’s helpful Grammar and Writing for Standardized Tests as a guide; I highly recommend this book, as it focuses on the SAT’s writing section (error correction, sentence and paragraph correction, and essay).

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Week in Reflection, April 14-17

This time of year, I find that I’m not blogging as much as I would like because I’m so exhausted.  You know, people talk about what a perk it is for teachers to have breaks in the winter and spring and a longer one in the summer — usually people who don’t teach, by the way.  These breaks are absolutely necessary to rejuvenate.  I think teachers put a lot of themselves into their work.  Having to be “on” so much of the time wears me out, and I don’t think I’m the only one.  Every time I take any sort of Myers-Briggs test, I always come out INFP.  If you aren’t up on the parlance, that basically means I am introverted, and I find social situations tiring.  People suck the energy right out of me, and you can’t get more people-oriented than teaching.  This article in The Atlantic actually did a lot in terms of helping me understand why I’m so tired at the end of a school day, and as the end of the school year ends, it seems to get worse.  As a result  of this exhaustion, blogging is one of those things that tends to go by the wayside.

I read the blogs of other teachers and feel inspired by what they are doing — especially descriptions of lessons and ideas for teaching –and I want to contribute, too.  Maybe this week will afford me some time to do so, as I am (finally) on spring break!  Why so late?  Passover falls late this year in the Jewish calendar, and my school, as a Jewish school, follows the Jewish calendar.  Our break starts tomorrow.

Teaching the week before spring break is always difficult.  I came home today and took a nap. This week, my seniors finished reading A Streetcar Named Desire, and we began watching the excellent Elia Kazan production.  One forgets how attractive Marlon Brando was.  Every time I watch that movie, I am amazed all over again by his embodiment of the role of Stanley Kowalski.  One of my students pronounced the play her favorite piece of the year, and another quickly agreed.  I really enjoy teaching the play, too, if for no other reason than the opportunity to see the excellent movie again at the end.

My writing class was creating Power Point presentations.  I have seen a lot of death by Power Point lately, and we can’t very well blame the presenters if they are never effectively taught how to create a Power Point presentation that works.  A cursory glance at my students’ works in progress tells me that most of them understood not to cram too much information on a slide or use busy backgrounds, but I’m not sure all of them heard this message, and I am puzzled — I thought I really emphasized that part.

I have been teaching verbals, clauses, and misplaced modifiers.  I struggle with this part of our curriculum every year — not because I don’t understand it or because I don’t impart it with some success.  I struggle with its usefulness.  If a student is using gerunds correctly when he or she writes, is it imperative that they be able to label them as subjects, direct objects, indirect objects, predicate nominatives, and objects of prepositions?  Yet, it is part of the curriculum, and therefore, part of my teaching.  I find it much more useful to spend time on the nuts and bolts of writing that students struggle with — commas, for instance.  I thought I created a fairly effective unit for teaching commas, but I find over the course of the year that students are still not consistently applying rules for using commas.  Marking comma errors hasn’t done much to help my students learn to use commas.  Suggestions are welcome.

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