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I just had one of those transcendent teaching experiences when the walk out of the classroom fired up and ready to slay the dragon of ignorance.

Invited to sit in on a US History class’s debate on the effectiveness of Brown v. Board, I listened to a student read off statistics from a crumpled piece of notebook paper. His monotone went from number to number, from percentage to totals, graduation rates to dropout rates. After about three minutes of this, the teacher stepped in and asked him to summarize his argument. It took continued questioning and cajoling, but he was finally maneuvered into saying that he was supporting his team’s argument that Brown v. Board was a failure because the dropout rate of African-Americans was greater than whites. Before letting the other team respond, the teacher asked the source of these statistics and when they were gathered. Another student pumped his fist in the air declaring “US Census” as if the unimpeachability of their evidence sealed the entire debate. The fact that the statistics came from 2000 was barely noticed by students on either side.

The debate reeled around for the next ten minutes and covered every possible permutation of causes for this disparity that could possibly be imagined. Both sides argued about child care, teen pregnancy, the different regard in which different communities held education. They argued over the legal requirements for high school and how long a student was required by law to go to school. It bounced around at least a dozen different topics by the time the teacher stepped in and brought an end to the madness. The last student allowed to speak was arguing that in some communities you don’t have to become a businessman, while in others, you do. I swear, I’m not making this up.

Apparently a student had simply offered some statistics, and his opponents and then his team took a field trip through a teeming mass of other arguments, none of which was directly related to the question at hand.

To bring them back on the reservation, the teacher asked the student to summarize his argument in one sentence. With some fumbling, he said that his statistics showed that African-Americans are dropping out of school and therefore Brown isn’t working. Once again, the teacher asked, “in what year?” The answer, 2000, meant nothing.

At that very moment an angel of thought came down from heaven and gave me this analogy. I asked the class to consider this statement, “I weigh 200 pounds, my diet doesn’t work.” Immediately they did the same thing to my statement. “Maybe you can’t lose weight.” “Maybe you are cheating on the diet”. “Maybe you are genetically predetermined to be obese.” “My uncle had tried every diet there is and he still hasn’t lost weight.”

We had to stop them again.

Realizing this needed spoon feeding, I asked them to reconsider my conclusion. “I’ve just said that my diet doesn’t work because I weigh 200 pounds, but how do you really know if my diet is working?”. I was tempted to put my head through the window when one student said, “Because we don’t know what diet it is you’re talking about.”

Through the grace of a kind Providence, another student finally noted that they needed to know how much I weighed before the diet.

Bingo!

A moment of silence hung in the air as the gears turned in their heads. Finally, they got it. They could not conclude about the effectiveness of the Brown decision if they only considered what happened after the decision. They had to compare the statistics of before and after.

Yes there are still many problems with this. What counts as “dropping out”? How can you compare statistics from different states? How reliable is the evidence gathered from the south before Brown?

The point is this: instead of having a lesson on the Trail of Tears, why don’t we have a lesson that illustrates this feature of the use of statistics in argument? Ok, I know, sacrilege. How about this…Why don’t we teach this rather than have the student separate FDR’s New Deal agencies into a Relief, Recovery and Reform chart? Yes, blasphemy.

But if you were hiring someone, would you rather they have that skill or that content? If you were concerned about a literate democratic public, would you rather have a voter who knows that statistics have to be viewed this way or someone who forgot that New Deal worksheet they did in high school?

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For over a year, social studies teachers at my school have been struggling with a new US History curriculum.  Having wrestling the Content/Skills octopod of unsolvable  arguments to the ground, we cobbled together an authentic assessment that would drive the main focus of the course, “doing history” rather than “learning history”.  We defined the skills of an historian, wrote rubrics for each and built into the curriculum a portfolio in which students would reflect upon their performance throughout the year.  It’s hoped that course work will assume a different character when students have to reflect on their own performance, identify what needs improvement and establish a process through which they can improve.

The problem (isn’t there always at least one?), was how to explain this task to them.  Asking them to reflect on their work after it’s graded rather than stuffing it into a backback or saving it for June’s ritual burning is hard enough. How are they going to understand what is expected of them if it involves several waves of reflections, rubrics and evidence?

The attempted solution is this video.  All it takes is PowerPoint, Snagit, Audacity, Camstasia and a script that you write.  Will it work?  We’ll see….

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Napoleon thought that the port at Antwerp was “a pistol aimed at the head” of England.  Likewise, the information revolution is also a pistol, aimed at the core content of the high school survey course in US History.

While waiting for the start of a NJ DOE presentation on the High School redesign project, I’ve been enjoying the early morning silence of Kean University’s student center.  Having learned to steer clear of the Route 78 beast by commuting early, I’m using the extra time to wrestle with my school’s US History I content survey results.  Social Studies teachers poured over lists of names, dates, events, people and laws, and ranked them on a 1 to 5 scale, weighing their importance to the curriculum.  Ultimately, we’re going to have a “must understand ” content list for students and a “may include” content list for teachers.  So I’m averaging the top two categories, organizing the items in categories and themes and compiling lists for every unit in the course.  And, not expectedly, realizing how much I’ve forgotten in the process.

Perhaps is the deterioration of a middle-aged mind, but right there in the middle of the lists, I came to a horrible realization.  I can’t remember a name!

I taught AP US History for years, and remember fondly the lesson that traced the first steps of the independence movement in the colonies because it started with a story.  Lifting A.J. Langguth’s first chapter from his book, “Patriots”, I described the Superior Court of Massachusetts in Boston and the first test of a British law allowing customs officials to search and seize colonial property without a warrant.  Langguth framed his explanation of the Writs of Assistance with the perspective of a young lawyer, John Adams, a spectator at the trial.  Do the “Writs of Assistance” belong in the US History curriculum?    How about the lawyer, who argued the case for the colonists?  He made a passionate defense of liberty and said that a man should be safe in the “castle” of his home.  Without a warrant and a reasonable suspicion of a crime, royal soldiers could not search homes and warehouses of law-abiding colonists.  It’s a great way to start a discussion of the foundation of the independence movement.  But wait…I can’t remember the name of the lawyer!

What the heck?  What was his name?

I know he was overweight, but the only obese colonist I can remember at the moment is Henry Knox, who  was busy selling books at the time of the trial, yet to rise to fame dragging captured British cannons from Fort Ticonderoga to the continental army at Boston.

But there’s hope. I’m in a university student center, the ghost-like “wireless network found” floated on the screen when I logged in.  My ignorance should only last a second.  Opening FireFox, throwing “Writ of Assistance wiki” in to the search box and clicking twice should only take about five seconds.

Curses!  Kean only allows people with accounts to use their wireless.

My ignorance will last as long as my beleaguered brain decays and as long as I am “disconnected”.

Here the point.  Once we get beyond the 1840 railroad internet infrastructure to get to “all access, everywhere, all the time” remembering such facts won’t be important.  Most of the people who are fine democratic citizens and contribute much to our society are ignorant of the facts we insist students remember in high school.  The information revolution proves that process obsolete.

Note to former students reading thus stuff – go ahead and laugh at me.  Live it up.

Meanwhile, I’ll wait for that delicious “ah-ha” moment, when I get reconnected to the cloud and reacquainted with a name.

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If that title brings a melody to your memory and you have visions of Bill Bixby walking on the beach in the early 70s sticom, your where my mind was at Saturday morning. Do you want to ride along with my memory for a moment or two?

I’m walking out the door with my oldest son, on his way to a whole-day, four-game , soccerfest. Clad in cleats and sporting a spray painted coif of yellow and blue, I’m giving him the part-time Dad’s once-over , grilling him on his last couple days in school. These conversations normally morph into rants against the superfluous, ”how can a middle school teacher in his right mind penalize a student for an improper margin on a hand-drawn picture of the solar system”? But this one was different, his book report poster could be crafted with tech tools, it didn’t have to be cotton balls glued to construction paper.

Sometimes, your kids surprise you. But even if it’s blatant pandering, it still warms a parent’s heart.

“Dad, can I use Jott?”

“That might not make sense Nelson, your time would be limited. Besides, why not just type it?”

“Dad, can you Jott to Skype?”

“What!!??”

There’s nothing quite like a shared laugh between father and son. Especially when it involves something that sounds as ridiculous as that.

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Diigo Déjà Vu

This may be hard to believe, but trust me, it’s true.

While reading a story about a superintendent in a neighboring school district, I followed the link in the story to the district’s high school’s web site. A recent interest of mine is school and teacher site design because I think we underestimate the impression our sites make on parents and the community. I was impressed with the district’s site. Dead-easy navigation, tons of pertinent information right up front, and colorful and well-organized to boot. It was obvious that this was one of those popular corporate packages bought by schools to solve new responsibility of web site design. But the teacher pages within these sites are usually just shells, open space for the teachers to design and present their own content.

So I was flipping through the teacher pages when it hit me. Sitting in that familiar little yellow voice balloon, a Diigo comment was hanging on a teacher’s page. Clicking it open, I was shocked to discover it was my comment, made about ten months ago. I left a Diigo “sticky note” on this page almost ten months ago, and remember nothing about it. Rather then contemplate the diagnosis this implies for my quickly aging brain, I was more impressed by the pure serendipity of coming across the note. What are the odds that I would come across this particular teacher’s page on this particular site again by just trolling?

It took a moment or two for me to recreate the fact sequence of last year, reviewing different school’s web sites to share with our Tech Committee as we were shopping for a web site package ourselves. This particular teacher had an image of a nativity crèche on her site and the little Social Studies teacher in the back of my brain shouted “lesson plan”! Is there a legal difference between a crèche in front of a public school and one on a teacher’s page in a schools web site?

Interesting stuff and thorny issue – but that’s not the point. How many breadcrumbs have we left on the web? What’s the chance we’ll stumble across them later? What sort of digital flotsam and personal info jetsam are scattered out there?

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Hoping to start a tradition of “social justice” programs every year, our school (with the generous help of the PTO)  hosted Jim Keady of Educating for Justice last Friday.  The presentation, describing the sweatshop conditions under which $200 Nike sneakers are made for less than $18,  was thoroughly engaging.  Jim Keady’s genuine, passionate commitment to workers in Indonesia gave students an example of what one person can do to make a change in the world.  Any teacher would be impressed at how many students were inspired to ask questions, though it was particularly refreshing to see students take issue with Mr Keady’s representation of the issue. Yet, it’s a small detail that shows how our world is changing.

As part of the program, pre-printed postcards addressed to the CEO of Nike are available for students to sign.  There was also one for Tiger Woods asking him to travel to Indonesia to visit the factories where the products he endorsed are made.  He makes more in a round of golf than an average worker in nine years of making sneakers on an assembly line.

As a handful of students crowded the stage after the assembly to fill out the cards a couple asked what they should write on the lines in the top left of the front of the postcard.  Even though their innocent question was met with a chorus of laughter, their ignorance is not a failure of our education system.  How often do you address an envelope?  How often to you click “send”?

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An online class calendar is the best way for high school teachers to take advantage of their web presence and achieve transparency between the classroom and their students’ learning outside of the classroom. Students who can check homework assignments, project requirements and test due dates at home will learn more than those who cannot. Teachers writing assignments on the board, forcing students to use their paper planners are preparing their students for a world that no longer exists. If there are any work environments that still require that skill they will be out of business before these kids graduate. These students, especially hyper-scheduled millennials, need the ability to manage their schedule electronically.

On the teacher side, the maintenance of a calendar is yet another chrono-vampire, ready to suck time out of an already overtaxed schedule. Or is it?

Teachers use a variety of methods to keep track of what they are doing. Some plan their class schedules on napkins, some use desk calendars, and others use picture perfect, graduate school template lesson plans. To eliminate the time drain of an online class calendar, teachers need a tool to direct this planning to a calendar that be used for both planning and announcing. There are many calendars available to teachers, but only Google calendar presents the perfect solution to online class calendars.

Most of the companies that design calendars as part of teacher and school websites seem clueless to the basic workflow of a teacher. Teachers with five sections of two preps often have to duplicate events across five calendars. They don’t have the time to click between five different monthly calendars; they need to see all five class events in one month, toggling on and off each class. They need to copy events from one section to others with less than three clicks. They need to make the class calendar open to both students and parents. It would also help if the calendar could send e-mail reminders that take less than two clicks to activate.

Would it be too much to ask if the calendar generated a feed that could appear in the teacher’s reader, or better yet, their internet home page? It’s probably too much to ask that the calendar allow students to incorporate one teacher’s class schedule with another teacher’s schedule and their athletic team schedule. For every education calendar system available, the answers to these questions is “No”. For Google Calendar, the answer to all is “YES!”

Using a Google account, teachers can create a separate calendar for each of their class sections. They can post and copy events or change dates with ease. There is no other calendar that better fits the workflow of a high school teacher.

Google eclipses all other calendar systems with its ability to be embeded in any other web site. Google earns billions because it is simple to use. With just a click, copy and paste, teachers can throw some gobbly-gook code into their website and voila, their class calendar appears on their teacher page in the school’s website. They can even put it on other learning environments like Moodle. Once the calendar is embedded, the teacher never has to worry about it, all of the work they put on their own calendar, with automatically appear wherever it is embedded, they never have to see the code again.

Students, creating their own Google account, can “add” a teacher’s class calendar to their own. By putting the calendar on their customized iGoogle page, their class assignments are always right in from of them. Students athletes who know what they are doing can grab their team’s schedule from one of those high school sports scheduling sites and put their games and practices right alongside their assignments.

Experienced teachers can grab a csv file from the company that makes the student planner or the school’s web site and throw that into a Google calendar as well. Teachers and students can also add this calendar to their own, schoolwide events can appear alongside their classes and athletic teams.

On the skill side, the sweet spot it students gaining experience navigating different scheduling systems and applications. Of course the ones available to them as adults will be radically different that the ones they use now. But the more they learn, the easier it will be to learn more later.

The Sweet Spot for Class Calendars

The Sweet Spot for Class Calendars

On the pedagogy side, the sweet spot is detailed descriptions for every class period. Why should class objectives and goals be hidden in the teacher’s lesson plan binder when they should be read by the students?

On the education side, every dollar spent by school districts on sterile, inflexible and difficult to manage calendar systems peddled by edtech industry thieves could be donated to rebuilding inner-city schools.

Google calendar wins.

 

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