Book Review: Team Geek

I’m not a programmer, or coder, and I have never worked on a software developer team, so I am not sure exactly what spurred me on to pick up Team Geek by Brian Fitzpatric and Ben Collins-Sussman. Both of them work at Google, and I had heard a bit about this book through one channel or another, and it piqued my interest. I’m glad I got it and read it.

While ostensibly about the ways that a team of software programmers can work together, and avoid chaos and friction as much as possible, the book’s larger theme of how people can come together, learn from each other, respect each other’s expertise and work on larger ideas in collaboration with each other really resonated with me in these days of Personal Learning Communities and Communities of Practice and whatever other term is popping around the educational circles these days.

With great humor and lively writing (ie, humans are “giant intermittent bugs” of code), Fitzpatrick and Collins-Sussman put a premium on four main traits of a group that can work together:

  • Humility
  • Respect
  • Trust

In their view, a solid team and its leaders keeps these three ideals intact at all times. It’s simple, but powerful. We need humility to admit that we don’t know everything and are always in search of better information that someone else might have. We need to respect the interests and expertise of our colleagues, even when their interests might not jive with our own. And we need to trust that together, we can do a better job than if either of us were alone, and we need to believe that the team has our best interests at heart. If that isn’t applicable to the ways that teachers and educators come together to plan curriculum or talk about students or shift into big changes (Common Core, anyone?), then I don’t know what is.

At the end, the writers admit that while they were writing about software teams, they really weren’t writing just about software teams. “Our stories are essentially about the art of maintaining a healthy, functional community — any community … Humans are tricky to deal with no matter what the context, and software development has the same community-health issues as any other group endeavor.” (158)

So do educational groups.

Peace (in the code of HRT),

PS — here is one of the videos they did for Google about programming with humans in mind. It will give you a taste of their humor.


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),



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),

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 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),



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),

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),
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

I was saddened to see that one of my favorite podcasting sites — — 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),

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),


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),