Time Magazine has a fascinating cover story and article collection (plus global survey results) about the ways in which mobile technology is changing our lives. When you consider how relatively quickly wireless connections and handheld devices have caught on, you realize again that we are in the midst of profound culture changes around the world. How it will all unfold is really unknown, and this is something that we teachers grapple with in our classroom. How do you teach skills for a world that is still unknown and unsettled, and shifting just about every week?
The magazine points to ten ways that mobile technology is shaking things up. (Yeah, you need to be a subscriber to read the entire articles but this gives you a glimpse anyway)
I, of course, was curious about the piece about schools. The article focuses in on how schools are grappling with kids and mobile devices, and the pros of allowing students to use their own cell phones in class (powerful computing, instant access, real literacy) with the cons (running afoul of federal law, cheating, distractions). Me? I remain mixed on the idea. I can see possibilities of allowing students to bring their own devices out in class (and I have experimented with it, to mixed results) but I worry about equity issues, distractions and the ability to effectively monitor activity.
The other piece that intrigued me was the gadgets. Some neat stuff there, including the Eye-fi that can convert a camera into a wireless sender of photos. Interesting.
Check out this very interesting short film by Douglas Rushkoff called Life Inc. that explores modern life in different tangents, as impacted by corporate influence in our lives.
“People are accepting the ground rules … unaware of the fact that these rules were written by people at a very specific moment in history with a very specific agenda in mind… there’s no way to prosper in this world without selling out.” — Rushkoff
If true, what does that mean for us and our students? He advocates finding time for more personal connections between people, and taking the time to care about others, not about money or jobs.
Way back in early spring, I wrote about being a coach with my son’s Little League team for Slice of Life. Well, the season just ended (believe it or not) with my son’s team having a great regular season and a weak All-star season. But, we had a blast, and on the last practice, we had a fun game of adults versus kids baseball. The pictures here are of me, pitching to the boys. Yeah, my arm hurt the next day but it was worth it!
You may not know it, but today is the 100th anniversary of Woody Guthrie’s birth. There was a big lead article on one of our alternative newspapers this week about the 100th anniversary because Guthrie’s granddaughter is performing his songs at a local concert (Arlo Guthrie lives not too far away) and the article reminded me of the power of Guthrie‘s songs and fierceness of message and heart.
A folk song is what’s wrong and how to fix it or it could be
who’s hungry and where their mouth is or
who’s out of work and where the job is or
who’s broke and where the money is or
who’s carrying a gun and where the peace is. – Woody Guthrie
One of my favorite Steve Earle songs is this tribute to Woody, called Christmas in Washington about the state of politics. I hope you enjoy it and remember Woody as an American icon.
Peace (in the song),
PS — Why isn’t today’s Google Doodle about Woody? (It’s about artist Gustav Klimt.)
I have long been fascinated by the genre of Choose Your Own Adventure books (and how to flip that interest that kids have in those stories by having them plan and write them). I’ve used wikis to have my students create their own, and will probably do that again before the end of the school year, and I have presented the concept of merging technology and writing with those kind of stories that branch out in different directions.
The other day, I came across a website that just blew my mind. It is a comprehensive look at how Choose Your Adventure stories unfold, and the researcher (whose name I can’t find) took a real analytical approach to what it means to read one of these books. They examined the books across the years, using colors to chart the various endings and choices. Using all sorts of data analysis and graphs, the writer really unpacks the critical thinking that goes into being an active reader. It’s fascinating.
“… their interactive function is to create a gameworld for the reader. This is part of the wonder of these books – they took a pre-existing set of interface conventions designed for utilitarian search tasks and mapped a new activity onto it. They were effectively a new kind of software application for the oldest information-display platform we have.”
I had not really considered the books in terms of gaming, or even software design, and yet … that makes complete sense now that I do consider it. The non-linear, problem-solving approach that puts much of the agency in the hands (or eyes) of the reader makes for such a different kind of experience when you are reading Choose Your Own Adventure stories. It made me wonder about why these kinds of narratives are not more in vogue with apps and ebooks (only to see that, indeed, there is a line of the books now available for the ipad)
On the flip side, having students plan and write these kinds of stories is an interesting endeavor. At least with my sixth graders, some “get it” and some don’t – mainly because of critical thinking skills. Those who get it compose rich stories with multiple exploration points, and some narrative branches will even arc back with others. Those who don’t get it still follow a very linear path — and who can blame them if that is all that they ever read. The use of the powerful “hyperlink” opens up possibilities for this kind of writing, though, whether it be via a wiki or powerpoint or even a folder of Word documents. (or even using Google Docs forms to do the same thing, which is another interesting twist).
And, if you want to stretch it even further, you can now annotate videos on Youtube, and create visual Choose Your Adventure stories. I did this experiment a few months ago when I was writing about mentor texts. Watch the video and click in the video to make your choices. Notice how the viewer is the one with a bit more agency than usual, just as the reader is with the books.
After watching Paul Anderson’s TED talk about game design and classroom design, and his experiment about setting up Angry Birds on his computer with a sign that said “play” and nothing else, I got interested in what would happen if I did the same thing in my classroom. So, yesterday, for morning work, I put Angry Birds Space on the interactive board, and pinned a huge “PLAY” sign on it, and just watched as my sixth graders came in. I purposely gave them minimal directions and very little input.
Here’s what I was expecting: a mad rush to play the video game first thing in the morning, particularly when they were expecting some math morning work. I figured we would have a crowd of kids up in the front of the room, all clamoring to play (I also hoped that the interactive pen would work for pulling back the birds, but it didn’t, so they had to use my computer.) I even had my camera ready, to capture the scene as it unfolded.
I was, therefore, surprised by what did happen. Not at all.
Only three or four of my students sat down to play. A few watched, but then milled about to chat with friends. They sort of kept the game in view out of the corner of their eyes. But mostly, it was a small handful that played. And they weren’t dominating the game. They would play, walk away, see no one else playing, go back, play, etc.
I did notice some teaching going on, as the more experienced Angry Birders showed another student how to play the Space version (which uses physics and gravity), and there was some interesting cheering going on.
But I was surprised it wasn’t much of a hit. Certainly not like Paul Anderson showed in his video. (Maybe they are already bored with Angry Birds? Maybe the social interaction with friends was more important? Maybe they didn’t know what to make of my “PLAY” sign? Maybe they need explicit instruction from the teacher? Or maybe they were tired on a Monday morning.)
Last week, I spent a day at another elementary school in my area, focusing on sharing some activities that integrates technology into the writing activities as a consultant with the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. The principal of this school (who is probably reading this .. hey, Mike) has impressed me with his energy and also his commitment to helping pave a path for his staff to see some possibilities and start planning out more steps forward towards considering how media and technology are part of young people’s lives and how we as teachers need to start tapping into that for learning. It really does take the leadership of a principal and support of administration for teachers to feel like they can take that first step (even if it is handing over the pen to the interactive board to students for an activity). When a teacher feels isolated, and if they are already wary of technology, then change will rarely happen in the classroom.
The team at the school who brought me in wisely asked that I do some demonstration lessons, so I spent much of the morning in a first grade classroom (using Storybird), a third grade classroom (digital storytelling) and a fifth grade classroom (more digital storytelling) working with students while the teacher and other guests from the building and district watched. Then, I gave a presentation to the entire staff about the issues around technology, focusing in on digital storytelling in particular. Finally, the principal invited me to join a few others in a podcast discussion around technology and the lives of young people.
It was a fantastic day, all around.
Sure, I got to share some expertise of mine from my own classroom and work with WMWP, but for me, it was so wonderful to go into another elementary school, meet a really dedicated staff of caring professionals, interact with different groups of students, and become part of a larger conversation about what kind of shifts need to be taking place as we consider the changing nature of classroom instruction in the age of Common Core (which our state is part of) and digital media. It makes me wonder why we don’t do more school visitation programs.
The principal kindly sent me feedback and reactions from his staff regarding my day at the school.
I was impressed by how many ideas are now being sparked by what we did that day. Teachers are considering digital storytelling ideas for activities across the curriculum, envisioning new ways to use their interactive boards, having students become photographers for images that will spark more writing, creating Prezi presentations for their students and by their students, thinking of the ways that technology might motivate and reach a diverse group of learners and provide access to learning in new ways, and considering how to use technology do more cross-class collaboration projects.
Now it falls to the principal and his group to keep the momentum going (I still have a few hours to work there so we are now working on a follow-up plan), and he wisely asked his staff the question of “what do you need” from him to make progress. Again, the teachers were very insightful and specific with their recommendations. One theme: time to explore and time to reflect on how to make the technology meaningful in their classrooms.
As a consultant coming in from the outside, this school clearly has a lot of positive energy, and is inquisitive, and is on the path towards interesting things.
There’s been a lot of discussion recently in the educational communities that I am part of around computer-based assessments of student writing, and what that means for the teacher (less work?) and students (inauthentic audience!) and companies (profit!) when writing is put into a computer program for assessment. You can probably tell by my snarky comment inserts that I am not all that supportive of the idea, although I understand the reasons why some districts might consider moving into that direction for some writing assessments (college entry exams have long used these kinds of automated grading systems).
In the most recent edition of Wired magazine, Steven Levy profiles the flip side of that coin: computer software programs that are now beginning to write news stories for publication by tapping into data streams. Sports and financial news are the first steps to this kind of “writing” but Levy brings up a lot of intriguing issues, such as: would a computer ever win a Pulitzer Prize for Journalism? Well, I’d like to say, no, but can we really discount that sometime in the future, a program might be able to analyze some obscure data and create an article that would shake the world? It can happen. The folks at companies like Narrative Science (great name, btw) suggest that it may very well happen in as little as five years from now.
For now, the system built by Narrative Science is writing and publishing news articles on things like Little League and sports games and other areas of the news world that newspapers and media companies are ignoring. They are finding an audience niche, for sure, and actually, after reading the sample that Levy provided (and even this one from Forbes Magazine), the computer didn’t do so bad with the writing (as a former reporter, I’ve seen worse copy by fellow journalists). Of course, the computer-based writing misses the nuances of speech and other elements of style, but the developers claim they can tweak the program any way they want, and suggest that they could have the software cover the financial news in the style of Damon Runyan (I, for one, want to read that. See? Maybe there is an audience).
But, as someone who views himself as a writer, what does this all mean? If a machine writes, is it really writing as we know it? What does this do to the implicit compositional agreement that readers have with the writers, and what does this all do to that compact that if you read what I write, then we share a special connection? Does this idea even matter in these days when those bonds are very loose, and getting looser every day? I find it fascinating to think about. Could a machine write a poem? And what would that poem read like?
In my view, there is still something sacred about the process of putting ideas down on paper or a screen, and there is something very human about that experience. While I am intrigued by the direction that software might take writing, it scares me more than a little to know that someday, it will be difficult to judge whether a writer is a human or a machine. (And, why does it matter? Does it matter?) It brings me back to my complaints about automated assessments — the writer is composing ideas for some big black hole of nothingness, only a score. The act of writing has to be more than that.
Writing is about connecting with others, about making sense of the world around us.
First of all, I want to thank you for being a librarian. I can’t think of a more important job. Your task is to place the right book in the right hands of the right child at the right moment, and when hundreds of kids are coming through your doors every week, I am in awe of your profession’s charge to reach every child. I also know that you need to be keeping track of so many new books each year, so that you are on top of the latest works of literature. And now, on top of all that, we are expecting you to be proficient media and technology specialists. Your role is constantly shifting. That’s a lot to ask of anyone. But librarians are nothing if not adaptable, and wise. I admire what you do.
I know that you are new to my son’s school this year, and therefore, you have to carve our your identity as the librarian. The last person in that library, an aide who filled in as librarian, did her best for many years and we are thankful for her years behind the desk. At least, the library was open for children. We didn’t necessarily like that she was so strict with our children around the books they could take out. We still don’t understand the day our niece came home and told us that when she (a second grader) tried to check out a fifth-grade level book that she really wanted to read, she was denied because it was not a “second grade book.” I have trouble getting my head around that, don’t you?
So, we have high hopes for you. You are young and energetic, and we like that you are offering after-school enrichment programs. You connected with the kids right from the start, it seems. Our son would come home, talking excitedly about going to the library. But we began to notice something strange.
He never had a single book in backpack.
All last year, after every library period, he would have a book for the week. He’d pull it out and we would read it together. Sometimes it was something new; Sometimes, it was an old classic. But he always had a book after going to library. This year, no books. His backpack is empty on library day. Instead, he has regaled us with talks of what he has been doing with the computer while in the library. He’s made little animated movies, created slideshows, played plenty of online games and more. All very nice.
But … no books.
We were hanging out with some other parents the other day and one of them noted that her child told them (and we will take this story for what it is and consider its source) that you told their class that if they could not behave themselves, they would not be allowed to use the computers and instead, they would have to spend their library time with books. “As if that is a punishment,” this mom said, shaking her head in exasperation. “If the punishment is quietly reading a story, then bring it on!”
I think I get what is going on. The push for technology in our schools (which is a priority of your principal) and the lack of expertise among your staff (which we know all too well … this child is our third) has you front and center with Animoto, Glogster and Go Animate. Sure, the kids are loving it. I get it.
But, please, in the hype to be teaching 21st Century Skills, don’t forget the power of the book. Don’t forget the quiet moments of story. Don’t forget the magic that can truly happen when the right book finds the right hands, and touches the right heart. You won’t find a bigger advocate for technology skills than me, but I want my son to keep loving books, too, and not just the ones that flash across the screen. I want his fingers and eyes and brain to move across the page, to connect an author’s ideas to his own experiences. I’m not ready to give up paper for bytes.
And it’s not just for my own child that I write. Here, in our home, we immerse our children in books and writing. You should see the stacks of books that we bring home from the city library. You should see the piles of books in our living room. As a librarian, you’d be very happy. No, what I worry about are those children who come from homes that are not immersed in literacy. Those children, and those families, need you more than ever. They need to have the love of reading and books instilled in them. You can make a difference in their lives just by allowing them time to read, and to choose what to read, and to help them navigate that experience.
Please, turn off the screens and open up a few books with the children of the school. There’s nothing more important for you to do than that.