The Kids are Ready! The Teachers?

A number of us gathered yesterday afternoon at our school district office to discuss the role of technology in our vision for our students. I’d call it a first step but I am not sure anything really got done in the 90 minutes. We talked a lot. We threw some ideas out.  We’re going to meet again in five weeks.

But I don’t think we really know where we are going with it.

For my part, I tried to make a few points:

  • We need to make sure that the concept of student learning is at the center of any vision plan. As we went around the room and each school talked about the elements of their five year technology plan, I heard a lot about “hardware” and “administration” and other ideas that are important (for sure) but we need to shift our language to more student-centered ideas.
  • After a discussion about what students are doing outside of school as compared to what we are doing inside the school (ie, a disconnect between the literacy and media they use in their lives and the literacy we teach them), I mentioned that, when it comes to using new technology, “The students are ready. The teachers are not.” I am referring to the fact that so many teachers have not yet  made the leap into using technology beyond gathering information from websites. We need to help our colleagues.
  • Thus, the concept of a technology coach, who could work directly in the classroom with a teacher to weave technology into the curriculum, and not have technology as some stand-alone cool concept. But teachers need  a helping hand. If we want to really transform teaching practice, this coach concept would make a huge difference.
  • Access for all students — whatever their socioeconomic level — is critical and we can’t rely on our students learning these New Literacies outside of our door. The kids with families of means will be fine, but the ones without means — those ones we really need to reach, in fact — will fall further behind. This means that technology-infused work has to be done in school and we need the tools and the know-how to make that happen.
  • And finally, technology need not be some new initiative on its own — technology should be woven into the curriculum work we are already doing (such as our two-year Literacy Initiative). If we do this, then teachers will see our district values this push and that it is just part of what we do. It isn’t right now.

I’m sure my friend and colleague, Gail, will add her own thoughts. She was there and I was glad — too often, the early elementary grades get completely left out of the conversations around technology. She made sure the kindergarten set had a voice.

I often have to bite my tongue at these gatherings, for fear of taking over the discussions. I am pretty passionate about it and have strong ideas. And when it is a room of principals (nice people, all, and open to ideas), I need to be careful of what I say. I don’t want to inadvertently step on toes or give the wrong impression about what our schools are doing. We’ve made a lot of progress in the last five years — light years of progress, actually — but I find myself impatient.

A few years ago, when I was paid a stipend for some tech work, I drafted a vision statement for our school that continues to be part of the evolving plan. The vision began:

Emerging technology continues to play a vital role in the modern industrial society in which computers and software are integral to success in the life of our citizens.

The William E. Norris Elementary School Technology Team views its role as important in integrating technology into the classrooms in ways that will help prepare students to succeed in this rapidly changing world. The primary goal of all technology initiatives within this plan will be the positive impact such endeavors will have student learning.

I still believe in that.

Peace (in the vision),

Me, Outside my Zone of Proximal Development

Bear with me on this one …

Yesterday was full of music for me, but I was challenged in ways that I have not been challenged for some time and it made me reflect a bit on those students of mine whom we do push and cajole to move onto unfamiliar ground and how uncomfortable the experience can be in the moment for them, but how empowering the effect can be later on as a learning experience.

I have been asked to play my saxophone for a jazz-infused service at our family church in two weeks. With a bunch of professional jazz musicians. On songs that I really don’t know. On a saxophone I have not really touched much in the past seven or eight months. I said yes, but then, as I listened to the other guys at practice yesterday, I gulped and wondered if I had done the right thing. I am way, way out of my league with these guys. These folks play in touring bands, run music programs at colleges, they pull chords and melodies from their heads, they are immediately in sync with each other.


I was a fish out of water yesterday as we ran through the six or so songs that we will be playing, with two more to be written by the piano player “for the occasion.” They all nodded at that, but all I could think was: I sure as heck hope he writes it out for me.

I could feel my brain working overtime just to find the right notes as we played, since all of the music was in C concert key and I was on my tenor sax, which a Bb instrument. I had to transpose on the spot and then keep in time, and then take solos from time to time, and I really did not know what I was doing.

I was at the upper reaches of my Zone of Proximal Development, for sure, and they were unknowingly moving me forward. The trick for me was to keep going, to remember what I was learning so that I would not make the same mistakes the second (or third) time around, and then, now that I am home, to practice what I learned. I want to be near the Zone where these guys are, if only for this upcoming performance. I want to find a place inside this musical bubble.

Later in the day, I was with other musical friends. Now, here, I was on bass and we were practicing for the first time for a benefit concert coming up next month (more on that another day). I am not a bass player in the slightest and my fingers plodded along on the fretboard as I searched for root notes. But, like the morning jazz session, I was determined to keep up and by the end, I think I pretty much had it grooving. This was a little less stressful setting — no professional musicians in the house — but still a learning experience.

So, how does this all help me as a teacher?

My discomfort reminds me of those students who often venture into a new subject or a weak area and feel themselves grasping at straws just to keep up. Instead of swimming, they feel themselves sinking. For me, the musicians I was with in both settings yesterday were patient with me (although in my own head, I heard the invisible negative comments and I had to shush myself towards quiet) and this support allowed me to make mistakes. But I had a responsibility, too. I could not give up. My students also have to be encouraged to keep pushing forward when they run into a wall. To not give up. They need to see small steps of success to know that larger accomplishments lay around the corner. And we, as teachers, have to be there to help them swim. We can’t let them sink.

Yes, I was uncomfortable yesterday, but today, I woke up thinking of the structure and melody of Thad Jones “A Child is Born” and the bass line to “Collide” by Howie Day, and that little run on the original song performed by a former student for the concert, and the backup singing to “Fireflies” by Owl City, and how I am going to solo on “When the Saints Go Marching In” and how, darn it, I need to make time in my days ahead to practice so that I can push myself forward.

That’s called learning, right?

Peace (in the zone),

When Professional Development is about us, the teachers

On Friday, our school district held a half-day professional development sessions around literacy. This PD continues the work of our Literacy Initiative (still in its first year) and I want to give props to our administration for listening to the feedback from teachers after our Literacy Conference in November in which many of us asked for grade level meetings for sharing out some of our own best practices around literacy. The idea really echoes the philosophy of my National Writing Project, where teachers are at the center of the learning.

I am part of our district’s Literacy Committee (our district is a pretty large geographic area with five elementary schools and then a combined middle/high school — although the ms/hs folks apparently have “opted”out of the Literacy Initiative — which surprised me because I didn’t know staff would have that option …) and so I helped plan the day, and I was asked to co-facilitate the sixth grade teachers’ session with my co-teacher. The district had teachers in grades K-2 in one building in one town and 3-6 in another town because of space issues.

Every group first discussed the Five Components of Reading and how these ideas come together in our teaching practice, no matter what level you are at:

  • Phonemic Awareness
  • Phonics
  • Fluency
  • Vocabulary
  • Comprehension

We then each had ample time as grade level teachers to share out a lesson plan, an activity, a strategy or maybe some student work. (I brought in ideas around developing rubrics and questions around reading comprehension, for example).

As sixth grade teachers, we focused most on vocabulary and comprehension skills, and it was great just to have space to talk, chat, ask questions and learn ideas from each other. One of the projects we have in mind is to develop a summer reading list for upcoming sixth graders and I am already envisioning using Etherpad among my colleagues for collaborative writing around this idea. If nothing else, the meeting on Friday sparked us all to want to collaborate more on ideas and become more of a community of teachers.

At the end of our grade level sharing, all of the teachers in 3-6 gathered together to share out our points from our discussions, and I was the facilitator of this large group gathering as well.

Here are some things that I saw as themes emerging from the teacher-based discussions:

  • Playfulness with words enriches vocabulary instruction for students;
  • Reading skills are important beyond the Language Arts class. We must pay attention to reading in the content areas;
  • Moving students to think “beyond the text” has been a struggle for many of us (note: I personally think that the use of Accelerated Reader in some of the middle grades of our building is partially to blame and told our principal that after the conference);
  • Students benefit from skill of learning common roots, suffixes and prefixes;
  • Repetition and Practice in comprehension-style questions are crucial — also, in use of vocabulary;
  • Reading aloud, mixed with silent reading, benefits fluency;
  • There needs to be even more family support for reading and literacy at home for  many of our students;
  • The question of how to appropriately reach all learners across the spectrum came up here and there — how to use differentiated instruction;
  • and more …

I did notice that much of our whole group discussion focused around vocabulary instruction more than comprehension, and fluency seemed to get very little attention.

I wonder how our colleagues in the K-2 grades did at their session (Gail?). Our administration is supposed to compile all of the general discussions into one file and share with all of the teachers so that we can all see any trends around our literacy instruction and identify possible ideas for improving what we are doing in the classroom.

I hope the focus continues to be on what teachers need and already do around literacy, and not some top-down, canned  Literacy Program that dictates what should be taught, when and how. I am hoping that the use of our time on Friday for teacher-led discussions is a good sign of where we are heading right now.

Peace (in the discussions),

Bringing Collaborative Stories to an End

The three strands of this week’s collaborative storytelling — in Google Wave, on an Etherpad site, and in a closed network of teacher-writers — were brought to an end this morning as I wrapped up the adventures under the title The Datastream.

You can read all three stories together on a Google Docs website that I created. You also have the opportunity to read each story on its own through links that I put on that master document.


I did very little editing or tidying up of the text, although I wanted to re-form the stories to make more sense as we neared the end.  That was the editor in me. I resisted the urge, figuring that the way the stories get tangled and untangled is interesting in itself, and part of the process, and I did not want to lose the various voices of the collaborators. I loved how links, images, even Twitter, became part of the Wave story.

I struggled with how to end the three stories, even as I tried to steer the narrative towards each other in the last day or two. It became a science fiction-ized story at that point because I could not see any other way to bring the stories together and to a close. What I did not want was a project that never ends.

Ending are as important as beginnings, right?

I decided that I would write the ending piece as second-person narrative — an attempt to draw the reader into the collaborative experience as much as the writers (and there were more than 20 writers across the platforms collaborating on different strands of the story).

So, the obvious question: does this kind of collaborative story have a place in the classroom?

Absolutely, and as Tracy wrote about on her blog, you don’t need technology. Simply having students write the start of a story on paper, and then pass that paper around the room two or three times (it’s a good way to have them think about plot — one person does exposition, another person takes on rising action, etc.).

A few years ago, I used a wiki for this kind of student collaborative writing over a vacation and the students loved it, although the story made no sense whatsoever. Perhaps it would be good to designate some “student editors” of the story, to do sort of what I did here — gently shaping it.

This story project began because I wanted to know what Google Wave was all about. I figured a collaborative story might make sense, and I did learn a lot about Wave from the story writing. I don’t like Wave all that much but I learned how to use it. Then, it occurred to that I am part of a writing community already — the iAnthology — and why not draw them into the concept? So, a second strand began. Someone complained that they could not access Wave, so I started a third strand over at Etherpad, an online word processor that requires no registration.

You should have seen me bouncing around between the three stories, trying to keep plot lines and characters straight in my head. It was fun but strange, as if I were dancing with three partners to three different styles of music, all at once.

If you were a participant in this particular collaborative adventure, I want to thank you. If you are just a reader, thanks, too. We’re in this together, you know.

Peace (in the stories),

How the collaborative stories are evolving

For the past few days, I have been overseeing three different collaborative stories that jumped off from the same starting point:

To say she was connected would be too simple a statement. She was never disconnected. Even in her sleep, her dreams came to her in bursts of 140 characters. (She knew this because she often woke up and jotted down her dreams, a habit she acquired in her college psychology course. Her notebook was full of nighttime ramblings.)

And so, the night of the storm, with the weather forecasters freaking out about the high winds and possible lightning, she, too, began to freak out. She checked for batteries. She stood waiting near the electrical outlets, ready to pull the plugs at the first flash of lightning.

The last thing she expected was the knock at the door, but then, the unexpected always comes at the least convenient moment …

One story has been evolving at Google Wave; another at our iAnthology networking site; and the third, on Etherpad. I am calling the adventure DataStream because of the parallel stories but also because the ending will have to do with a stream of data coming together.

My aim is to close up the stories tomorrow (Sunday) and to weave the three together with a common ending, so that they all start and at the same place but the heart of the stories are different. I’m fascinated by this but also struggling with it.

You can join us — I need more writers at the Etherpad site, in particular, and the beauty of Etherpad is that no registration is required: you just go and write. So, please come join us, even if it is only for a few lines:

The Etherpad Story:

Here are a few observations that I have:

  • It’s not easy to keep three stories in my head. I am dancing between the stories here, trying to keep the plot moving along with clues from the writers (There have been about 20 people writing with me on these three platforms).
  • Google Wave may have some potential but I have not been impressed with it, to be honest. It is slow, and not so easy to use. Not intuitive at all. I started the story to experiment primarily with Wave, and so, that has been helpful, but I don’t really like it.
  • Writing on a Ning (the iAnthology) is nice because you can thread the story as discussions. I was hoping I could get a few more of our teacher-writers involved, but the holidays make that difficult, and I don’t want the project pushing into next week, when school starts up again.
  • The Etherpad is probably the easiest to set up and use. It is so simple. But it has had the least amount of traffic, even though I have blasted about it on my Twitter network.
  • I’m working right now in Google Docs to create a master document with all three stories together, in tables. It looks kind of odd this way, but it was the best way I could think of.

Peace (in the collaboration),

To say she was connected would be too simple a statement. She was never disconnected. Even in her sleep, her dreams came to her in bursts of 140 characters. (She knew this because she often woke up and jotted down her dreams, a habit she acquired in her college psychology course. Her notebook was full of nighttime ramblings.)

And so, the night of the storm, with the weather forecasters freaking out about the high winds and possible lightning, she, too, began to freak out. She checked for batteries. She stood waiting near the electrical outlets, ready to pull the plugs at the first flash of lightning.

The last thing she expected was the knock at the door, but then, the unexpected always comes at the least convenient moment …

10 Years Ago … and counting

I know a lot of us are mulling over where we were in life as 1999 came to a close. I remember where I was: I was a newspaper reporter and like the rest of hte world, my editors thought the Y2K bug was gonna destroy all of the computers and lead to a community meltdown.

So, I had to stay in the office until midnight and wait for The End of Technology to happen. Yeah. Didn’t happen. So, I sat around, bored out of my gourd, watching television with one ear on the scanner, thinking: this sucks.

It wasn’t too much longer that I bailed out on my career in the newspaper business, stayed at home as a dad for two years (yeah!), went back to school and then went into teaching. Meanwhile, we had one kid born before 2000 and two more after 2000, and boy, time goes by fast.

I went through two rock bands, a number of smaller groups (one of which I named the Millennium Bugs as a nod to the great disaster that never happened) and an endless number of songs, poems, stories and whatnot throughout the last decade, and the words keep coming (not all of them good).

I also began the decade as a technology neophyte (heck, if the Y2K Bug had hit, I would have been in trouble trying to figure out how to explain it), but that changed when I joined the National Writing Project and took a path into technology in education. That changed my life. I am now fully immersed in the world of tech and loving it.

At least, tonight, the only bug we have to worry about is the flu. That’s progress.

Peace (in the decade),

What I love/don’t love about Sci-Fi

Yesterday, I took my older kids to see Avatar, the movie. We had to keep reminding my nine year old that it would not be a movie version of the cartoon/comic series also called “Avatar.” I wonder if there was some legal transactions around that name recognition, since the first time I heard of the movie in progress, I too thought of the comic series. (And to make it more confusing, I see now that the series is coming out as its own movie called The Last Airbender, or did I miss it already?)

This was the first full-length 3D movie that I have watched, wearing the funky glasses and all that. Three hours later, I had a bit of a headache but it sure was an interesting experience.

But the movie reminded me of what I have always loved about science fiction and what still rankles me.

I love how James Cameron really creates an entire world on the screen. It was beautiful and rich and stunning in its vision. I was particularly swept away by the little floating seeds. I won’t go into all the accolades that other reviewers will say about the beauty of the film, but it was magical to see. I’m not sure the 3D experience did a whole lot,however, and I would probably have been just as happy to see it in 2D (and save a few bucks in the process).

I was expecting to be knocked out with the 3D effects after all the press Cameron got. Some of it was cool, but I guess 3D still has a long way to go to become a fully immersible movie experience (Don’t tell Cameron that — every interview indicates that he has revolutionized filmmaking with Avatar — don’t believe the hype).

But Avatar also contains the weakness that drives me — a sci-fi nut, really — crazy. The story was another rehash (it was an updated Pocahantas, as done by Disney) and the dialogue was mostly terrible or barely passable. Character development, which was really the heart of the story, was just OK. The acting was pretty wooden for the main character (interestingly, I thought he did a better job when he was the computer-generated avatar than when he was a live person on the screen.)

Why can’t movie producers pull these these strands (effects, new worlds, dialogue, story arc and character development) to make a film that will blow away all audiences? I don’t get it. Last summer’s Star Trek took a good step in that direction (and now I see it popping up on a lot of Best of … lists) and the old TV series-turned-movie Firefly (the movie was Serenity) had some elements and updated Battlestar Galactica (against all odds, considering its history) kept storytelling and character development at its center.

But the movie world is littered with sci-fi crap. How can I expose my sons to the wonderful element of Science Fiction if so much of what falls under that umbrella is worthless junk?

Give them the books, of course. Give them the books and let them imagine the worlds and go deep into the stories.

Peace (in the worlds),