Book Review: Some Remarks

I admire Neal Stephenson for honesty. He begins his collection of essays and stories — Some Remarks — with the admission that some of the pieces may not hold up so well over time and that he feels a bit odd as a published novelist to suddenly pull together his essays and shorter ideas into a book format. And while I didn’t find all the pieces worth reading through ’till the end, I didn’t feel all that guilty about abandoning a piece, either. I think Neal would understand.

That said, there are some intriguing pieces in here in which Stephenson — whose Snow Crash is still one of my favorite cyberpunk novels but I could not get into his System of the World series — explores technology and culture from an introspective and inquiry angle, and Stephenson the informational writer is fun to read. He brings a lot of voice and wit to the page. Two pieces that come to mind are the one about China and how technology innovation is changing China’s (and Hong Kong, and Taiwan) role in the world and the longer (a bit too long, perhaps?) piece about the laying of the longest undersea wire system in the world that later became one of the main pathways for the world’s data information flow.

There are a couple of interview transcripts, too, that are interesting to read, particularly as you realize how Stephenson grapples with the label of science fiction writer in the literary world. And I did enjoy his final piece, in which he explains to the reader why he does not take time to respond to readers, noting that if he replied to emails and letters and spoke at more conferences, he would have less time to write his novels. And, he explains, he would rather be a writer than a “correspondent.” Nice done.

Peace (in the article),
Kevin

 

 

Considering Web Literacies/Digital Literacies


I appreciate the inquiry and exploration and sharing by Doug Belshaw here. It’s interesting to think of web literacies as part of the larger digital literacies umbrella, and separating one from the other as a source of exploration is fascinating. It seems like Doug’s work with Mozilla Foundation around these issues might evolve into something larger, and it may be worth keeping an eye on as we think about the ways that literacies are shifting with the influences of technology and media.
Peace (in the inquiry),
Kevin

Pilot Idea: Text Messaging with Parents

We try to keep the lines of communication open with our parents as much as possible. We generate an email list early in the year, and use it once a week for project updates and information. We have a blog site where we post daily homework assignments and links to handouts. We, of course, use the phone to make calls, and email to connect.

This year, I am going to dip my toes into another way to communicate with families by using a site called Kikutext, which allows teachers to set up classes so that text messages can be sent to cell phones and mobile devices. The site — which has a free version (create up to four classes with 80 accounts) and a pro version (more options) — seems friendly enough. I was up and running within minutes and using a teacher colleague who is also a parent of an incoming student as my experiment, I had things working with very little hassle.

kikutext screenshot

Kikutext does not provide your cell phone number to parents. Instead, it filters messages through its web-based interface, so that from my standpoint — it feels more like a web-based email client — but once parents opt in, I can sent forth class-wide messages or individual messages, and the hope is that by reaching them on a device that most people bring everywhere, our channels of communication about their children and my students will be positive.

And I intend it to be as positive as possible. I really need to set a goal of alerting families to the achievements and accomplishments of students, and not just have contact when problems arise. I don’t do enough of that, and if a site like Kikutext can help me, then I am game to give it a try. I am going to pilot Kikutext with just one of my four classes, and try to focus in on parents more than students (but I am not sure this is a good idea — why not have students in the system? The reason for now is that I feel constrained by the free version, and the 80 account limit, since I have 80 students in my four classes. I’ll see how that develops. I would love to have students as part of the system.)

Do you use text messaging with families? I’d love to know more about how it works for you. I follow my National Writing Project friend, Jeremy Hyler, in his work with cell phones in the classroom using Cel.ly for writing, polling and more. I guess I am not quite there yet. But I feel myself moving in that direction. How about you?

Peace (in the texts),
Kevin

 

 

Time Magazine: The Wireless Issue

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)

1. Elections Will Never Be The Same

2. Doing Good By Texting

3. Bye-Bye, Wallets

4. The Phone Knows All

5. Your Life Is Fully Mobile

6. The Grid Is Winning

7. A Camera Goes Anywhere

8. Toys Get Unplugged

9. Gadgets Go To Class

10. Disease Can’t Hide

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.
Peace (in the changing times),
Kevin

Hello, Audioboo (with a response and a podcast poem)

Yesterday, I began the wave goodbye to Cinch, my podcasting platform of choice, and today, I say hello to Audioboo. The two platforms have many similarities, and as I explore Audioboo (on the web, with the app, and with the call-in phone number), I find it might meet the needs of my classroom. My students regularly podcast on our iTouch, and Cinch was our favorite site (for ease of use). I am hoping Audioboo can take its place now that Cinch is closing up shop.

First, here is a podcast that I recorded yesterday, as a comment response to Bill Ferriter’s great piece about whether kids really are motivated by technology (or whether they are more intrigued by the social aspects). I agree with Bill, but argue, too, that we have in fact noticed increased motivation by our struggling writers, in particular, when technology tools are in the mix.

Then, I downloaded the Audioboo app on my iTouch to give it a try. I was writing a poem about the end of summer, and decided to podcast it out.

Here is the poem:

Summer Slips Away

I’m trying not to flinch
as my own kids get antsy about what could only be called
the inevitable march towards the end of summer,
so we’re doing our best to:
tape down the calendar so that August never ends and September never arrives;
cram our days with biking, running, hiking, jumping, playing;
absorb warm summer rays on the baseball fields;
read the last few chapters of the last great beach book;
but still .. but still …
my teacher mind that never really sleeps wakes me up now in the middle of night
with calls of lesson plans, project ideas,
and the purposeful pacing of that first morning just days away now where I will meet
with my students,
and they, with me,
and together we will begin the first steps of our adventure and inquiry
even as the last bits of summer slip away from us
with the leaves already turning yellow from the cool night air.

Peace (in the podcast),
Kevin
PS – One thing I don’t see with Audioboo is the quick link to download the file as an MP3, which Cinch allowed, and which was very convenient for me to collect student work as audio files. But I found a workaround in the forums. So that’s good.

 

So Long, Cinch

http://castabigger.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/cinch-logo.png

I was saddened to see that one of my favorite podcasting sites — Cinch.fm — is shutting down. I guess I can’t be too surprised. It was free, and in the end, free sites run the risk of slowly being put out to pasture by companies. Still, Cinch worked nicely for me, as a writer and as a teacher. One of the things I loved is how Cinch could be accessed across multiple platforms, so my students used the Cinch App on our iPod touches to do podcasting while I often shared the audio from the Cinch website onto our classroom blog. I also called into Cinch more than a few times from my cell phone to podcast reflections from conferences.

And it was free.

But this is what they emailed me, and what is posted on their website:

Dear Cinch.FM Users,

We’re sorry to announce that the Cinch.FM web site and iPhone application will be shutting down on August 20, 2012.

After this date, no new content will be accepted, and your iPhone application will cease to function. Also, no new Cinch.FM accounts will be allowed after the 20th.

Those of you with Cinch.FM accounts will be able to download your content by logging into your account. The content will be available for you to download for two months, until October 20, 2012. Any Cinch.FM players you’ve published on your blog or other web site will continue to function during this time, and the RSS feeds will also continue to work.

After October 20, 2012, all Cinch.FM content and services will be terminated. You must download your content before this date, or it will be lost!

– Cinch.FM

I’m now going to have go see what I want to download and save from my personal and classroom Cinch sites, and then begin the research of finding an alternative for my classroom, in particular. Any ideas? I want to find something easy to use, that has an app and web version, and is free. That’s not too much to ask, is it?

So long, Cinch. I really enjoyed you as a platform for getting my voice, and my students’ voices, out into the world.

Peace (in the podcast),
Kevin

Book Review: Calico Joe

It’s been years since I have cracked open the pages of a John Grisham novel (although I have been intrigued by his new youth series about a kid detective. Theodore Boone). But the theme of baseball never ends in our house of three boys, and with our family trip to the beach last week, I grabbed and packed Calico Joe as part of my mix of reading. I remembered why I have not cracked a Grisham novel in a while (the writing) but I also remembered what makes Grisham so popular — he’s a decent storyteller.

Calico Joe follows the aftermath of an event years in the past when the narrator’s father, a professional baseball pitcher with a mean streak at home and on the mound, may or may not have intentionally beaned the best prospect coming into baseball in generation, ending Calico Joe’s career and creating a whirlwind of controversy that the narrator (Paul) seeks to resolve. It felt like I was watching a movie, such as The Natural, as I read the book, and I finished it in a single day. (And in fact, the story is inspired by the real events of the death of Ray Chapman, the only major league player to be killed by a pitch)

I liked how baseball and personal history came together in this novel, even if the writing itself wasn’t necessarily my style. I was hoping for something with little more substance, even though the relationship between Paul, the son and narrator, and Warren, the father, is complicated. But it’s complicated in a conventional way, you know? Still, it’s hard to argue with a fast-paced, quick read at times, and Calico Joe is just that. I would just wait for the paperback version, that’s all. Maybe next summer.

Peace (on the field),
Kevin

 

Graphic Novel Review: Steve Jobs (Genius by Design)

As someone who reviews graphic novels, I saw my fair share of Steve Jobs biographies get churned out when the Apple co-founder passed away and Walter Isaacson’s book about Jobs hit the best-seller list. This one — Steve Jobs: Genius by Design — by Campfire Books (which puts out a lot of interesting graphic novels based on popular and obscure myths and stories) is nicely done, and could easily pique the interest of students who know a bit about Jobs but not enough to understand him as an innovator who suffered lots of failure before success.

The book follows Isaacson’s story closely, it seems to me, and the publishers are right to start out with a lengthy disclaimer, acknowledging that they were piecing together the story of Jobs’ life through multiple sources in a hopes “to celebrate his legacy.” And the book nicely balances the pros (Jobs’ much celebrated ability to see technology through the lens of design and use his gut instinct for development of ideas and products) and the cons (his early abandonment of his daughter and harsh treatments of employees and friends). As with other pieces, this book shows the complicated person Jobs was to the public (and probably even more complicated to those he was close to in private).

Campfire also has posted a preview of the book, which is handy for teachers when considering the purchase.

Peace (in the graphic novel),
Kevin

 

Examining the PARCC Initial Set of Test Items and Tasks

I’ve been keeping an eye on PARCC (as you should, if you are a Common Core state moving into a PARCC assessment). The group recently released what it is calling “Initial Set of Test Items and Task Prototypes). It’s important to note that the information flowing now from PARCC are not necessarily test items of record, but merely examples to demonstrate what PARCC is shaping up to look like for our students (and for us, since let’s face it, we need to know how our students are going to be assessed).

View the Test Items/Prototypes page at PARCC

I started in the sixth grade area, of course (since that is what I teach). My initial observations are that the resources are handy. I appreciate at least how PARCC. For example, if you look at the link for the Grade 6 Narrative Task, you can see two questions from a piece of reading from a real novel (in this case, Julie of the Wolves), and if you click on the link for more specific information, the PDF shows how the answer would be scored, the rationale for the score, and how it connects to the Common Core frameworks. That at least takes some mystery out of the development of the assessment. (for now, anyway. Who knows what changes are still in store?)

Another link took me to a “constructed response” to the reading, and this turns out to be a task in which students are asked to write a short story that extends their thinking around the text they have read. Their fictional story should use a character from the reading but also demonstrate understanding of the original author and use evidence from that story to inform their own story. I like that idea, and it at least shows PARCC has some focus on narrative, fiction writing.

I’d also suggest you check out the expanded (draft) PARCC rubric around narrative and analytic writing, as it is a helpful guide. I noticed many alignments already for our own school writing rubric.

And finally, PARCC has released an updated Model Content Frameworks. If you are a PARCC state, you should check that out.

Overall, I appreciate the information. The more I can get, the better I feel. I’m still worried, of course, and the lack of real information about or PARCC so far has increased my concerns (given that the timetable for implementation in our state is as early as next year for PARCC). I still need more time to read, absorb, and think about what PARCC has put on the table, and I welcome your thoughts, too. Whether we buy into Common Core and PARCC (or Smarter Balance, if that is you), the shifts are here and in front of us. Information is what need. This may be a trickle, but at least it’s a start.

Peace (understanding PARCC),
Kevin