Thursday, December 20, 2007

getting through that awkward stage

The decision to do a new lesson or project is a daunting, challenging, and soul-questioning endeavor. When integrating a snazzy 2.0 (two point oh) component, planning, like any other lesson, is extremely important. If you’re new to Podcasting or Digital Storytelling, getting your proverbial timeline set can be an exercise of total mystery and guesswork.

After a semester of working with classes, I’ve formulated a pretty little set of advice to live by from now on. Believing that these new tools can increase student achievement, I offer the following recommendations whenever you should choose to incorporate Podcasting or Digital Storytelling with your classes.


  • Write, edit, revise, write, edit, revise (rinse and repeat).
  • Grade those scripts!

  • Rehearse, rehearse, and then keep on rehearsing.
  • Familiarize students with a recording program. Use Audacity; it's free.

  • Give a set time limit for recording. Since a good length for a Podcast is a couple minutes, ten minutes is a fair window for production.
  • Tell students to talk to a point five feet beyond the microphone in order to eliminate "Quiet Talkers".
  • Screech...screech! Keep that microphone stationary @ all times!
  • Create a group folder on your school’s server so podcast files can be saved to an easily accessible location.
  • The teacher should save the file when the student is finished recording.

Movies / Digital Storytelling:

  • Write a three-column script (or story board), edit, revise, write a three column script (or story board), edit, revise (rinse and repeat).
  • Grade those scripts / story boards!
  • Use Atomic Learning or Flickschool to teach basic cinematography. Ask your TV Production teacher to help, or a teacher with a strong acumen for video production.
  • Have students talk you through their intended shots. Ask clarifying questions; settle for nothing less than comprehension and confident interpretation of topic.
  • If filming during class time, have students fill out a location sheet so you know where they are at all times.
  • Fear absence. Store the tapes at the end of every day. Don’t let kids go home with them.
  • Time permitting, share all / portions of the raw footage with the class and continue to discuss topic (comprehension and interpretation). They’ll not only think about their filming, but also, and more importantly, their understanding of their topic.
  • Create a group folder on your school’s server so files can be saved to an easily accessible location.
Like any lesson, if you see its relative value, you should most definitely be able to make it work. The first time through may remind you of that awkward prepubescent phase, but remember, eventually you’ll grow into that momentarily misshaped frame.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

concussive joy - is there any other kind?

When Jason and I collided, I had the unfortunate experience of standing at the very top of twelve concrete steps. At some point, later in the day, my mother shook my left arm a bit and asked if I knew what happened. I think that’s what she said.

At some point, later in the day, my father told me a joke about a duck. I don’t remember the punch line.

At some point, later in the day, my grandparents stood over me. My grandmother leaned over, almost face-to-face, and observed, “You’re much too young to be in a hospital.”

At some point, twenty-five years later, my second son arrived. On Brian’s second day of life, I took his older brother, Mark (then 1 ½ ), to the hospital for the traditional sibling meet and greet.

When Mark and I entered the room, his eyes opened and opened and opened. Had the lights been out, the room would have shone a radiant shade of blue. His focus immediately honed in on his mother, but he remained by my side, well aware of a new, uncertain presence.

Mark, this is your brother, Brian.

He thought about that statement. His head tilted a bit. He started to move toward the window.

Oh no, don’t do it!

When he reached the window, he turned around and looked back toward the door. He walked back across the room and stood directly under the door handle. He reached up with his right hand.

Oh no, he’s going to run away!

Mark moved away from the door and made his way over to his mother and brother. He raised both hands in the air, the tell-tale ‘pick me up’ indicator. Twenty seconds later, all four of us occupied that bed; mom holding Brain, Mark and I flanking them on either side.

At some point, twenty-five years earlier, my family stood, sat, and even joked beside me.

And at some point, twenty-five years after that injury, my family stood, sat, and even joked with one another.

There is love in a hospital.

Sometimes, it’s the best kind of all.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

'it's' about time - a fictitional account

There’s this assignment in my head. It’s multi-layered and full of scaffolding. Certainly, it will win an award for Best Project Ever; at the very least, a nomination is guaranteed.

Like all the best assignments, it begins with rich essential questions. Context will be set, schemas will be exposed, and the slow but steady path to learning, knowledge, empathy, and growth will sprout. Banners of the questions will border the classroom, thereby making thinking unavoidable.

What follows is a careful reading of a novel. A clear and delineated reading log is part of the process for the students. They will read independently and in small groups; they will hear read-alouds and they will even get some directed-reading activities to hammer home comprehension, prediction, and analysis. Post-its will be provided, free of charge.

Quizzes will be given intermittently during the reading. Vocabulary, drawn from the novel, will be studied, synonymed and antonymed. And not a Scantron anywhere! Remember, we’re not teaching them to fill in circles.

Primary sources? Most definitely! Students will read documents direct from the time-period in which the novel was written. Letters, written by the author during his service in some glorious military endeavor, will be studied. Students will examine them for clues that indicate the slow development of his now timeless novel. A grandfather will come in on Friday and speak to the class. He won’t show you his scar.

Nobody wins an award for any of that. Standard stuff, right? But this assignment, the one brewing in my head, is just about ready for the stratosphere. Look-ee, look-ee:

So now the students are ‘getting it’. They’re only half-way through the text and they’re talking about the novel. They’re even asking questions of their own creation. They’ve abandoned the Post-Its and have noted-up the margins. There will be no discipline slips for these infractions. The desire to learn is far more important.

And then, I hit ‘em with the zinger! I’m taking this project to the next level. Oh, yeah, it’s going 2.0 (two point oh). If this assignment is going to work, they must do more than communicate, investigate, and appreciate; they need to collaborate. But those markers and packets of construction paper are defunct remnants of an ill-conceived educational past and they won’t work. But blogging will work.

Now, this isn’t just ‘get in the gate’ and go sort of blogging. It’s important that you realize that they’ve been reading blogs all semester. They all have accounts at Bloglines. These are Twenty First Century citizens through and through. Most subscriptions are blocked by the school filter.

The novel comes alive as students post as if they are the characters. Suzie is no longer a tired adolescent; through the power of blogging she’s been transmogrified into the tired protagonist from the novel. She posts and she comments. She inserts a ClustrMap. A Tibetan is reading.

In class, someone’s post is glowing with the power of a Hewlett-Packard projection system behind it. We re-read posts. We discuss the comments. I ask clarifying questions. We even use student posts to work on the conventions of the writing process. Students work independently and in teams. We edit and revise. There’s a mini-lesson on the comma. Bathroom requests increase.

The blogs are working…better than expected. Suddenly, students are posting on their own and comments are soaring. Suzie comes to my class before homeroom. She tells me her post from the other day now has thirteen comments. The Tibetan commends her interpretation.

At one point, we even Skyped another school.

I ask the students for permission to share their blogs with teachers in our building who may not be aware of the work they have done. They are happy to oblige. Tibetans are reading, surely the faculty will appreciate the work.

Email out, hyperlinks included.

Emails in, lesson concluded:
“Too much time.”

“No way you get through the entire curriculum if you do all that.”

“There is such a dearth of writing skills that an assignment like this is more than time-consuming, it’s a reinforcement of all that is wrong with student writing.”

“They could have just as easily written a paper.”

“Tell me how blogging helps with our State Assessments and maybe they’ll be a reason to abandon real teaching.”
One day, when this assignment wins Best Project Ever, I’ll thank a handful of avatars who made me believe that teaching is more than just quantity, more than just testing, and more than just commas. It’s about something you use with care, something you use deliberately, and it’s about something you use with an awareness of student advancement.

It’s about time.

Monday, December 17, 2007

dropping a new year

You've filled 'em out before:

Scrolling, scrolling along until...

Depression kicks in.
Anger increases.

It's like a big drop-down kick in the pants.

Friday, December 14, 2007

prep time versus teach time

So it took ninety minutes to put his sub plans together. Let's presume that he teaches in the Block and therefore his class is ninety minutes long.

You know what, let's presume that he doesn't teach in the Block and his class period is, oh, about an hour.

Either way, isn't it fair to presume that planning for a period should be equal to, if not greater than, direct instructional time?

When (if) I go back to the classroom, I'm definitely following this model:

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

presenting on the uphill

Worth noting: Slide #3, the one in red, used a friendly little font called, Children Should Not Play With Dead Things. To add to the joy of Slide #3, I gave the text a 'very fast' 720 degree clockwise spin. The PowerPoint is right here if you want to see it in all it's spinning font fun.

So I asked students to pick a slide and defend their choices.

And I quote from a senior:
I'd want to watch a presentation with spinning, bloody letters.
And I ran to a corner of my classroom and cried:
So much time spent on design and barely a dent! Oh, but to listen to their "presentations"! Why haven't we taught them how to present?
I'm all for design and Pecha Kucha, but shouldn't it be of some concern that our students' understanding of their content is in no way growing proportionally to their aesthetic awareness of slide design?

You're not new to this, nor am I, but as seniors in our school start the process of preparing their Senior Inquiry presentations, anxiety about another round of stammer and pause-filled presentations gnaws at my tricuspid valve.

Just yesterday I worked with Brian, a senior working on a presentation for his English class to demonstrate understanding of a central theme in William Golding's novel, Lord of the Flies. He requested my help, wanting some advice on the design of his slides. They were a lot like option number one from the above slidedeck (I love that term, slidedeck!). We worked together and after teaching him how to create mildly transparent text boxes and use strong, central images, he seemed shocked that his slides actually looked, his words here, "adult and professional".

Naturally, as one who taught senior English for a decade, I asked him to take me through his presentation. A quizzical, 'wha 'choo talkin' bout, Rodoff?' look emerged.

Immediately, he turned to the computer and started looking at his slides. You should have been there! He looked at those 'adult and professional' slides and to his new-found misery, he realized that they could not help him deliver the content that he moments earlier had bullet-pointed on his slidedeck (still love that word, slidedeck!).

Shouldn't Brian know his content well enough to speak about it in extemporaneous fashion before he ever sits down to make a RISD-quality slidedeck?

Design doesn't create understanding.

place aversion

Today represents the one year mark since Shane's suicide. I am sitting in the library, a place many people had a tough time re-connecting with in the immediate aftermath of his death. You see, after moving through the halls, Shane took his own life right out in front of the library.

Place = Trigger = Aversion

It's understandable.

Recently, students began expressing a myriad of tribute ideas. Some planned to meet early in the AM and place a memorial. Some talked of not coming to school at all. Others wanted to organize a walk-out at the time of the shooting. And others...well, they silently went about their day to day existence. These are the students I worry about most.

Last year, as the Faculty Advisor for the school newspaper, the staff and I discussed the type of coverage to provide in our next issue.

No one wanted to "be the one" to write anything, to express an opinion that might come off as wrong, hurtful, or disrespectful. But everyone of them really, really felt that the school paper, by title and spirit, should 'chronicle' this monumental event in school history.

Near the end of the meeting, the editor asked if I would write an article. I protested:
"It's the student paper. Students should write for it."
"It's the school's newspaper. Anyone can write for it," she countered.
Sometimes students are quite argumentatively adroit. So here's the article that ran in the January '07 issue of The Chronicle:

One week after Shane’s suicide, I found myself embroiled in a verbal dispute with a student. As emotions escalated, I asked the student to step out into the hallway with me. My first sentence surprised not only the student, but also myself.

“I am angry, but I am not angry with you.”

The skeptical side of me likes to cling to the notion that alleged moments of clarity are bogus and contrived, but as I spoke the above sentence, I firmly believe that I had a much-needed, too-good-to-be-true moment of clarity.

We returned to the classroom and I apologized to the whole class, but I kept going. I told them that I was angry, livid, distraught, ravaged, hurt, and scarred.

Shane’s suicide hurt on levels that are as multi-faceted as a complex piece of machinery, but as I processed the untimely and violent passing of a student, I found myself torn apart over an unspoken, fractured relationship between me and my father.

On this day, my students were spared the details about my latent emotional issues pertaining to my family. As I left school that day, I knew I needed to talk to someone; preferably someone completely unbiased, but everyone in my cell phone contact list would most likely take on the obligatory role of Ken-sympathizer. The choice was clear: sit down with a psychiatrist.

To date, I have had eight sessions.

In the days following December 12, 2006, thoughts tumbled back to me, free-falling from my subconscious.

There was a time when bike rides were the norm. On Saturday mornings, a father would kiss his wife goodbye for the day. He would fasten two bikes to the back of his car and head down to Kelly Drive with his son riding alongside in the passenger seat.

They would start their day at the Falls River Bridge. They would make their way down the sinuous path that bordered the Schuylkill; father leading the way and son always right behind. That little eight year old boy would try to ride as close to the rear wheel of his father’s bike; a game requiring dexterity, but an action indicating a son’s admiration for his father.

I was highly unprepared for this repressed memory, and I had little time to process because another followed close behind.

Then there was a time when that son would stay at his father’s small one bedroom apartment on alternating weekends. At 6:30AM on Saturday mornings the father would wake his son and urge him to get ready for work.

At 7:15AM they would walk out the front door. They would turn the corner and pass two rusty bikes that leaned listlessly along the vinyl siding. By 7:45AM the father had his fourteen year old son at work. These rides would be taken in silence, but they would tear at the spirit of a teenage son who sat quietly mourning a lost connection once had with his father.

Why would these memories, twenty to thirty years old, return to me in the days following the traumatic event here at the high school?

I had no time to think, to make a connection or to put it all together; whatever it represented.

In fact, somewhere inside of me, there was a desire to avoid these memories.

How random, I thought, to have thoughts of my childhood and adolescent relationship with my father. There are many other things going on in my life that demand and deserve my attention. My wife, my children, friends, lessons and lacrosse, lacrosse, lacrosse seemed far more meaningful.

In the days following the suicide, we were all told that a varied and valid array of emotions may rise to the surface. We were also told that a varied and valid array of emotions may be buried. In the days that followed, the school community rallied together. Faculty, staff, and students demonstrated that our collective spirit can overcome even the most horrid event.

But some of us merely played along, exhibiting situational-appropriate emotional responses when needed. I did; because at the time, I could not process what really hurt me the most after December 12th. Seven days later, no longer able to maintain the guise, I sought help because I needed help.

Because I wanted help.

Because I want to help.

Parents emailed me. Students complimented me. A co-worker told me that I was brave.

Today, December 12th, the students seem extra quiet, the hallways extra-clean, and the memories, hard to suppress.

But today, December 12th, the students are here, the halls are clean, and memories keep us moving forward.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

beetlejuice, beetlejuice, beetle-

Sometimes, I have thoughts that are impure. I feel dirty and vile, and then I take those thoughts and post them...

So, you don't blog for egotism?
Forgive me for this one, but I'm staring @ that little Feedburner number over there on your blog and it's screaming 300 readers. Is this number meaningful for me, the reader?

I have a tough time digesting the notion that blogging is not about vanity.

There are far too many blogs with ClustrMaps and Feedburner stats to suggest that we aren't screamin', cravin', and cryin' out for some attention.

And now I feel really, really dirty. But I'm gonna go get me a ClustrMap! Oh...and don't forget to click on that big 'ol 'subscribe' button up there!

Monday, December 10, 2007

an educational bris

When an email begins with:
The entry below is why I want no part of blogs or wikis for class discussions..
I find myself thinking about the days of yore...

Remember assigning papers and students would submit their papers? From my end, these moments were exceptionally fulfilling because seeing all their work neatly stapled and piled upon my desk meant that my assignment had been effective.

However, grading those papers and painfully going from page to soul-crushing page made me experience full-throttle antithesis. These due-date honoring students had turned in what amounted to berry-less boxes of Crunch Berries. About mid-way through grading any given set, I suddenly felt like a highly ineffective teacher.

Their papers represented the epitome of suction. In order to re-establish my efficacy as a classroom instructor, I immediately wanted to punish my students' for their lack of adherence to the CLEAR INSTRUCTIONS & SPECIFICATIONS that I had outlined. But that's just a coping device to avoid taking ownership over the problems that I perpetuated.

Teachers are people too, and we are an adroit lot when it comes to the art of instructional separation.

Case and point:

Mr. Stevens wants to use technology. He wants to use it as a platform for students to demonstrate their understanding of the current content. He is, by nature, not a willing tech integrator and whenever he and I meet to plan, he often says things that distance himself from the technology.

At first, I thought these statements provided insight into his lack of knowledge or confidence about computers.

But I was wrong!

Turns out, Mr. Stevens constantly distances himself from any technology because then he can point and wave his teacherly finger at me if problems arise. If Mr. Stevens takes ownership over his desire to use technology, then he would have to deal with feeling ineffective when things don't work according to his preconceived notion of successful teaching. But Mr. Stevens doesn't want to feel that way. His students have been submitting papers with due-date precision!

All is right in Mr. Steven's classroom.

So, when he does make the choice to use technology and he receives this email:
hi mr stevens its jimmy i am sending are project but there was a problem since i showed up late and kate didnt andy gave us what we should do so he did the pic and about me so i got the blog and wall comment and kate got the top friends and likes and we were all going to do the works cited so i finished everything i needed to do and so did andy but i looked and nothing was where kates part was supposed to be i facebooked her cause i didnt no her phone number or email so i just imed her but i am not sure if she got it but here is out project any way i dont no if you want to check it with us just giving you our id and pass and our pass is Jackson but if this doesnt work then we can do it in class tomorrow thank you and ill see you tomorrow
then it's my problem, not his and he feels completely validated to dismiss technology.

But part of me wonders: what the hell do his students' papers look like?

Friday, December 7, 2007

educational value included

Mark came across blabberize, and first, he tested it out:

Then, he began to wonder about its place in an educational environment:

Thursday, December 6, 2007

an interest invested or otherwise

There's a student over here; just to my left, and she's staring at an error message box that just appeared on her computer monitor. The two of us are the only ones in the lab right now, and she tells me that she is having a problem:
I have this paper due and I'm trying to print it and it won't print and I have this error message and I don't know what it means and it's not my fault and will you write a note to my teacher telling her that I tried to print out the paper but something was wrong with the school equipment so, and yeah.
I look to my left. I peek over the monitor I'm using. I turn to see what's behind me.

And I pause. One of those really deliberate, Hamlet-like pauses because I'm hopeful that my simultaneous perusing and pausing will lead this young lady / future world leader / thoracic surgeon to the twenty-eight possible solutions surrounding her.

And now I'm thinking: God, please don't ever let me get sick.

In the spirit of Intervention, I decide to demonstrate actual investment in her plight because I realize that she may very well decide to pursue medicine as a future course of study. And if she stays local, I may one day find myself on her operating table.
Try another computer.
The immediate sense of relief she experienced is, at some level, hard to quantify here, but I'll paraphrase her comments:
Sweet Lord, it's a miracle! I am saved! You have set me free! My paper is spooling through the printer with vigor! You, good sir, great teacher, have shown me the light and for this, I am eternally grateful. God has sent you to me, to us, this school, this sacred bastion of higher learning. Thank you, thank you!
But the part I'll remember most; the part that will resonate with me for days and months upcoming, would be when she uttered this most majestic conclusion:
So, can you write me that pass?
Problem solving. I hear it, read it, and think about it on a daily basis. But I'll be a goosed-rooster if we've really empowered our kids to embrace its liberating, self-gratifying potential.

Monday, December 3, 2007

role and purpose

Sometimes my chest seizes up like I'm under a massive, soul-crushing amount of stress. These moments are damning and liberating because I want the feeling to evaporate, but I trichotillomania my way to a tolerable level of pseudo-comfort.

Rip, rip.

Do you have any stress-ers? Here are some of my more common ones:
  1. Twins
  2. My job
  3. Blogging
  4. Coaching
1. Going from two kids (both currently under the age of three) to four is, well, you don't need any whiz-bang mathematical prowess to deduce that's a 100% increase. Oh, and the questions about twins are constant sleep-deprivers:
Will my wife need a C-section?
Will they come early?
Will they be premature?
How long before we can hold them if they are premature?
What if one...?
What is the other...?
What if I...?
2. This gig I got goin' right now is somewhere between ephemeral and illusory; part high school popularity, part watery mirage. The '08-'09 state budget is a summer-time issue so knowing whether or not the grant will continue (and with it, the funding for my position) is one big David Blaine magic trick; could it be? maybe. no way!

I'm spending a lot of think-time devising a powerful platform to prove to my district's Great Contract Creators that any tech-driven initiative requires a sustainability plan that includes a Tech Integration Specialist. Really, can we just keep putting computers in the classes and not provide on-site, mission-critical professional development? I don't think so, but I know that beyond the occasional ew-ah presentation I have absolutely zero sway when it comes to the allocation of district spending.

3. Why are there so many friggin' questions about blogging? I only wish my students would ask a meager percentage of the questions that I find myself constantly asking about this topic. Heck, for my students, any topic! Ask something that has some depth and meaning! Take ownership over your own learning! When there's a problem, solve it! And I want to quote Vanilla Ice (who doesn't?), but when he muses:
If there was a problem, yo I'll solve it
an apoplectic moment of verb-tense agreement ensues and I'm left with hollow edicts and staring at the ceiling.

4. Mesmerizing observation: high school students go to parties. And at those parties, said high school students drink. Sometimes, a neighbor calls the police. And the police show up and then they bust and bust. Once in a great while, one of the busted is a player on the team I coach. Now there's this part of me, the part that attended high school and went to parties, that wants to grab that player of mine and say:
You're an athlete! How on Earth did you get caught? Rrrruuuunnn!!!
But another part of me, the part that works at a high school and believes in things like accountability and responsibility, wants to grab that player of mine and say:
See ya! You can try out again next year.
But that's heartless. That's cruel. And if that student were one of my would-be twins, then I'd grab that child of mine and say:
You've made a mistake and I hope you learn from it. I'm extremely disappointed with you. I still love you. Now, tell me about your day.
And where's your sister?

bubbles on your video

Thanks to Jim Gates for this one. And remember, a vote for Jim is a vote for progress!
So, remember how I told you about the history teacher with the video project?

Yeah, well, 'dem videos about to get poppin'!

This here nifty new app, Asterpix, allows you to create interactive videos by adding embedded notes. Simple mouse-over the 'beacons' and the video will pause and a bubble will open, replete with notes and hyperlinks. Notes and such added by the video creators.

Anyhow, the history teacher always tells her students that their videos should stand on their own. Conceptually and thematically, she wants those videos to convey the mood and the issues of each event.

Now, as Dan Meyer has pointed out, creating really effective videos is a tough game. But now, Asterpix comes along and affords some textual help.

Something like Asterpix can only help increase the richness of student work, right?