If It’s Not on the Web, Does a School Exist?

I’ve had the oddest experience lately with my sons’ school district (where I live but don’t teach). The other day, I was trying to find some information about one of my boys’ teachers, and I could not remember their email. So I went to search for the school district website.

Nothing came up.

I thought for sure it must be me, using the wrong search queries. So I tinkered with words to modify the search. I went very specific with my terms. I even waited a few days and tried again.

Nothing came up.

It was as if the school district had been yanked off the Web. I went to our city website and searched for a link to the School Department.

Nothing.

I scratched my head. Later in the week, my wife came downstairs, clearly frustrated, because she was trying to email my high school son’s guidance counselor to talk about his junior year. She had been searching and searching and searching for the high school website for 30 minutes.

Nothing came up.

I’m baffled on a few levels. First, I suspect that the school must have done some upgrade to its web presence that has completely taken it off the grid (maybe a new Google “Right to Be Left Alone” experiment?) at a time when schools need to do more to reach out to parents. But where is the site? And, second,  I find it interesting that, as a parent, I really do expect our community schools to have at least some sort of presence on the web so that information is available. I want information, now.

I’m assuming this disappearance is only temporary. The school is still there (or so my son tells me …) and my wife cobbled together an email address from some older email archives. But still, it should not be this difficult to find a school, right?

Peace (on the web),
Kevin

Cultural Contexts: The Strangeness of Slender Man

You know how, every now and then, you realize that kids have been talking about something you think you know about — usually from making some assumptions of context of their speech– and then a kernel of information floats by, and you realize, Oh, THAT’s what they are talking about!

This week, I learned about Slender Man. But it turns out, references to Slender Man have been in the air all year, particularly when my sixth graders have used our BitStrip Webcomic site. A few students have created faceless characters, called them some version of Slender Man, and I just assumed they were tinkering with the avatar creator’s advanced tools, and that the name described the characters they had created (no eyes, long face, long thin body). One student even wrote his expository writing piece around how to make a Slender Man in Bitstrips, and demonstrated how to create the character in front of the class.

I thought it was odd, but I honestly didn’t think much more of it.

What I didn’t realize is that Slender Man is one of those cultural touchstones of youth — a meme gone viral whose origins are a bit murky but whose presence in fan fiction and app games and other elements of social media.  Slender Man is a mysterious figure that spooks and stalks children. Me? I was clueless about Slender Man, until I opened up my New York Times yesterday and read a piece about two girls who killed another as a way to prove themselves worth to a Slender Man they imagined was real and lurking in the shadows of their lives. Or something like that.

So, realizing the connection to the expository piece from a few days earlier, I turned to my 13 year old son, and asked, “Who’s Slender Man?” and got a full overview of Slender Man’s origins that matched pretty closely to some research I did online later on in the night. Know Your Meme has a good overview of the Slender Man story. When he asked why I was asking, and I told him about the story of the girls, he shook his head, and said,” That’s tragically stupid.”

Uncovering Slender Man is another reminder that cultural information often flows beneath the surface of our lives, as teachers and as parents. You don’t know what you don’t know until you find out what you didn’t know. Now I know Slender Man, but what else don’t I know?

Peace (in the information),
Kevin

A Boatload of Journalistic Excellence

It’s not that there are not excellent pieces of journalism floating around the Internet. It’s that finding them can be difficult, unless that kind of task is your full-time job. So, it is always a pleasure when someone else, like Conor Friedersdorf in Atlantic, does it for you. He has collected “slightly more than 100″ examples of excellent journalism, and I could spend a few hours moving through them, I suspect.

Friedersdorf also curates a Best of Journalism email newsletter. I haven’t yet subscribed but having someone with his lens on the world of quality news and quality writing might be worth the cost attached to getting his newsletter on  regular basis, particularly if this collection at Atlantic is an indication of how he works.

Check out Slightly More Than 100 Fantastic Pieces of Journalism

Peace (in the news),
Kevin

Dear Ysabelle, Who Hacked the Hallways

(In order to understand why I am writing this letter to Ysabelle, you need to read Paul Bogush’s post over at Medium. It’s a powerful reminder of how students react to the stifling nature of our educational system by pushing at the boundaries of rules.)

“Despite Thomas Jefferson’s famous “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” in America, and in public schools, any rebellion now and then is a little rebellion too much. People who do rebel are seen as outsiders, as weirdos, as the crazy ones. Most kids who rebel are seen by teachers as being kids who do not have the qualities to be successful, yet they possess the very qualities that we would include when we list the attributes of heroes, role models, and leaders.” — Paul Bogush, Legacy at Medium

So, I found myself writing to this student that Paul featured in his post. This letter to Ysabelle goes like this:

Dear Ysabelle,

This morning, I read Mr. Bogush’s piece in Medium about your thought-provoking project to hang signs encouraging creativity and independent thought throughout the hallways of your school. I appreciated that you took the time to wrote a letter to Mr. Bogush about the rationale for what you did and why. I want you to know that I, a teacher too, applaud you, and so much of what Mr. Bogush writes in his piece, inspired by your act, is what I believe in, too.

Ysabelle, your response seemed reasoned, passionate and a powerful call to action for your fellow students. Your “hacking the hallway”, which is how I think of what you did, sent forth a strong message that no one is in this world is alone but that doesn’t mean we have to think and act like everyone else, either. The world changes for the better not because we shun those who think different and have a tilted lens on things, but because we embrace the crazy ideas that have the potential to become innovative ones.

I know enough about Mr. Bogush to know that he admires what you did, and so do I. Although I spend the school year with my sixth graders working to engage them as independent thinkers, so many students have already fallen into the comfortable role of following rules so closely they don’t know where to begin when given a task with no directions or specific outcomes. This is not their fault. It’s society’s fault. It’s us as parents who micromanage their days, and it is us as teachers who have clear expectations that narrow the possibilities of learning, and it is the world at large that casts a sneer at anyone with an original thought that falls outside of expectations … until that thought becomes something that alters the way we engage with the world (prime evidence: the admiration crowd surrounding the myth of Steve Jobs).

Your project reminded me of a Hackathon that I joined during a convention of teachers in Las Vegas a few years ago. Like you, we decided to “hack the hallways” by posting sticky notes on the artwork that was hanging throughout the convention center. Yes, even teachers like to be creative and break the rules. The task was to spark thinking in our fellow teachers in the convention, and to use the public artwork on the walls as a space for art. It was a blast, and even more importantly, there were a lot of teachers who asked what we were doing and who stopped to read our satirical notes. We hope we made a difference, just as you do. The convention center staff was not pleased, however, and some followed a few minutes behind us, ripping down our hacked signs as if we had used Sharpies and not sticky notes. It didn’t matter. The point had been made. Pictures had been snapped of the hacked art and the hacked notes were shared in online spaces, becoming a viral part of the conference. Our mark had been left behind.

The same goes for you, Ysabelle. Sure, your signs were probably taken down at some point. But the signs were only temporary outposts to your thinking, and yes, you have “accomplished more than just helping a few people…I have hopefully made every reader of this article’s day better,” as you write in your letter to Mr. Bogush. You did with me, Ysabelle.

If you ever find yourself in Western Massachusetts, Ysabelle, I invite you to come hack my classroom. Hang posters up all over the place. Spark my students to think creatively and independently. Take what you’ve done there at your school and pay it forward. In some ways, your poster brigade is a small act with small ripples. But ripples can become waves, and waves can change the world.

Thank you, and thank you to Mr. Bogush for sharing your story.

Sincerely,

Mr. Hodgson
Sixth Grade Teacher
Southampton, MA

Peace (in the response),
Kevin

 

Intentionally Imbalanced Infographic: NextGen Testing

Intentional imbalanced Infographic
The PARCC test has been on my mind a lot lately, due to its piloting all over the world (or so it seems, even though I know it is only in PARCC states). More and more news items are coming into my RSS feed of parents opting out, of teaching refusing to give it, of superintendents telling families how much they don’t like it already, of parents at a school in my city picketing PARCC with signs and everything, of criticism that our state Educational Commissioner has a role in the PARCC consortium, of talking to teachers at my school (and parents of kids) who administered the PARCC pilot (although they are not allowed to talk about the test), and more, more, more.

A very powerful piece ran in the New York Times opinion section by Elizabeth Phillips that is a must-read: We Need to Talk About the Tests.

And I saw from Diane Ravitch that Pearson, who is developing the PARCC, is searching for scorers, but they are targeting college students and paying only $12 an hour. These are the scores that are going to be used for teacher evaluations someday down the road? for student graduation requirements?  Ack. for revising the PARCC? (cue fake laughter on that one).

It’s hard to keep an open mind with all that floating around. So, I went and decided to make a completely unreliable infographic of what I believe will be the end result of PARCC, which is that the testing companies will make out like bandits in the end. ‘Cause they will.

Read Valerie Strauss’ piece at The Washington Post: March Madness.

Meanwhile, with the federal test-creating grants running out later this year, the future of the two consortia is not clear. But for now, they’ve got a pretty good deal: They get millions of field testing subjects — for free.

I know I’m being grumpy and pessimistic here, but it’s hard to see things unfolding in a positive light right now around the Common Core testing systems underway, and if any of my sons were in classes where Pearson is piloting the PARCC, I would probably have them opt out. (Hey, Pearson gets free data from our kids, doesn’t have to share any of the results with anyone? That’s a coup. Maybe they should donate a cart of laptops to every school that has piloted the PARCC.)

Sigh.

Peace (in the test),
Kevin

I had Stickers – An Early Childhood Appreciation

The other day, I volunteered to lead a family poetry workshop at Barnes and Noble to support our Western Massachusetts Writing Project. I didn’t know what to expect, so I gathered up a bunch of supplies for a Post It Sticky Note Poetry idea. I had a bunch of small mentor texts (haiku, couplets, shape poems, etc.) along with lots of art supplies.

 

I set up in the little staging area of the children’s section, still not sure who would come and participate. Now, remember, I teach sixth grade and spend my days in the midst of 11 and 12 year olds. And I have three boys of my own, two teenagers and one 9 year old.

So, imagine my surprise when I was surrounded by a group of five girls — ages 3 and 4 — with their parents for the poetry workshop. I was a fish out of water because clearly my plans for writing and understanding poetry styles would not connect with this group of energetic mostly-pre-writing girls. I was in a sixth grade mindset and that would not work here.

Luckly, I had stickers! Lots of stickers! And that led to some post-it poems, of a sort (well, more like drawings) and some basic rhyming games. Some of the girls could write some basic words, so we wrote rhymes. For others … it was all about the stickers and post-it notes.

That was OK but it reminded me (again) of the task before our early childhood colleagues who are often faced with a class full of young learners who might or might not have had preschool experience, might or might not have had parents read to them regularly, might or might not have had pre-writing experiences, and the range of literacy was staggering in that little group.

It was fun and enlightening, and certainly a very different kind of teaching experience for me, one that reminded me to appreciate the kinds of days that my colleagues often have, and how grateful I am as a sixth grade teacher for all the work that gets done in the years before my students reach me to get them ready for the rigor of our learning.

Thank you, teachers.

Peace (with stickers)
Kevin

 

Remixing the Comics: Standardized Testing


You might guess that we are into standardized testing time in our school and state. Hey. You’d be right! I was reading the comics with that on my mind and frames began jumping out me. I just had to hack and remix the comics as a sort of commentary about testing. I used ThingLink as way to embed some comments for each frame, although I suspect you could get my message even without my words.

Honestly, though, it was that kid staring at his test in the Nancy strip that got me going. He looks so … sad.

Wondering how I did this kind of remix?

First, I read all the comics and tries to piece together a possible story sequence. This is the most difficult part because you need to look for narrative threads and understand there will be some gaps in whatever story you remix with the frames. Once I started to identify possible pieces of comics, I got to work.

I started with old fashioned scissors and tape, and blue paper. I scanned it as an image file (when I have taken a picture of this kind of remix in the past, the words get fuzzy. You might have a better camera than I have, though). Then, I uploaded the image to Flickr, where I used the Aviary app in Flickr to add text, and “borrowed” the completed image over at ThingLink. That allowed me to layer in some commentary.

Peace (in how we frame things),
Kevin

As I watched far afar … DML Ignite Sessions

I snuck in moments to watch the short Ignite sessions that have been archived at the Digital Media and Learning Conference YouTube channel, and tweeted out my comments and reactions. Here, I collect them all together. There are a few Ignite sessions at the end of the very long video that I have not seen. Maybe later …

Peace (in the Ignit-ion switch to learning),
Kevin