Motivational Tech Tip

Don’t try this at home, really.  Just don’t.

When I first came across one of those sites that allow you to create your own motivational poster, I thought about throwing a screenshot into the picture and adding some pithy remark as a clever way to send out a little “reminder” concerning tech-etiquette and use.  Yesterday, with tongue firmly in cheek, I threw one of these picto-barbs into our shared faculty conference and learned a hard lesson.  It’s almost impossible in this environment to define the difference between sarcasm that’s funny and sarcasm that mean.

motivator9935047I waited long time to use this particular “tech-tip” in a motivational poster because I did not want to make an example of someone “responding to all” in an routine post.  It would be obviously hurtful, making an example of a poor soul who just clicked “respond” and cluttered the mailbox by making as all read their compliment to the mom or dad who shared  photos of their newborn.  So when I saw a thread of banter about plans for a faculty dessert social during lunch I thought it was the perfect opportunity.  This was already a humorous conversation, the original call for teachers to get-together had been followed by joke messages that were “respond”s so everyone could read them.  I thought if I posted my little riposte it would be taken in the same vein of light humor.



Although several teachers thanked me for reminding people (again) that “reply to sender” keeps the conference lean and easy to follow, some took offense.  How could I be so mean?  I have since spoken with the few who voiced their concerns to me directly and it took no more than a minute to clear the air and we are back to making fun of each other.  But who knows how many others did not talk to me about, concluding on their own that  I’m an arrogant tech-bully.

I should have thrown a smiley 🙂 at the bottom of the message, Lightening the collateral damage, that’s my the emoticon was invented.

Still, the motivational tech tip is a great idea.  And for once, it’s original.

Wearing my last nerve

Enough!  I’ve had it, no more Mr. Nice Guy.

There’s been a spate of student complaints about “too much tech” because they have to remember  usernames and passwords for their email and the school’s Moodle site.  In some classes they even have to (gasp!), go to other sites like Turnitin.  How can we expect them to do all this?

Unfortunately, teachers and parents who don’t have enough experience with technology themselves may


think these protests are valid.  They can quickly dismiss student complaints about “too much homework”, but somehow they think student protests about technology are legitimate. Maybe it’s because they agree.  Setting up accounts, logging into websites and remembering  passwords seems like to much trouble to them.

Teachers with technology experience have no trouble for seeing these complaints for what they are, simple student whining.  Students complaining about “tech-fatigue” are not any different from students who try to convince teachers that they shouldn’t do any work on Friday because “it’s almost the weekend!!”  A teacher told me that he quashed these complaints by showing students that on-line banking, medical insurance, paying taxes, renewing driver’s licenses, reserving flights, registering for college classes are all on different systems that they will have to learn and master quickly.

Come on folks!  By forcing students to navigate new environments we are giving them essential experience to survive in the real world.  If they come back with the ‘ol “but you are teaching Social Studies”, hit ’em back with “you can’t learn Social Studies if you are illiterate”.

And don’t think for a second it’s only students experiencing this misunderstanding.  I created a professional network on Ning for social studies supervisors that many of my colleagues complimented.  But those compliments were quickly followed by “maybe we should phase this in slowly”. Translation: “Let’s keep the listserve open”.  The jump from the listserve to the professional network was apparently too much to ask.  These educators are familiar with email and they know how it works so it was claimed that they would need training to create accounts and navigate the site. After six months, thirty member registrations, and no more than five posts made by people other than me, the network is a ghost town.

Two years ago, I readily understood the discomfort that accompanies the first jump into this new world.  Although I still sympathize with those people trying to understand these new environments, I’ve lost my patience with those who claim that it’s too difficult to manage a couple accounts and navigate web sites.

This anger and frustration fueled an analogy that popped into my head last week and I’ve repeated it in at least a half-dozen conversations.  A person in 1990 who could not write a letter, address the envelope and


mail it using the postal service would be considered functionally illiterate.  A person in 2008 who cannot create an account or remember a username and password to access a website is also functionally illiterate.

You might still be able to get by in 2008 without these basic technology skills, you might even think you can become president.  But the clock is running, and it’s running fast.  If you are an educator, it is your responsibility to make sure your students can survive in the real world that they will live in, not the one you grew up in.

Imagine if mail service was invented, would these people complain about the stamps?  Where do I buy these things?  Where do we stick them?  Why do I always have to put in a return address?  Why do I have to remember the zip code?


Growing Faster Every Day

With two maternity leaves, a military leave and a retirement, our Social Studies department faced a human resources Armageddon this September. We’re two weeks into the school year and the four brandy-new replacement teachers are feverishly burrowing into their new careers (and doing quite well, thank you very much). Five years ago, five teachers in the department brought a collective 95 years teaching experience to their classrooms. Today, the total aggregate classroom experience of five teachers is not more than a year and a half. Of all of the implications brought by such a dramatic demographic shift, there is one thing that stands out. These new teachers will grow much faster than the predecessors.

Of all of the challenges facing new teachers, one of the most dreaded is figuring out what to do tomorrow, something one of my mentors called “lonely, lesson-plan-less nights. I distinctly remember hopeless efforts in dark hours, trying to breathe some creativity into an Erie Canal lesson for a Geography class in my first year of teaching. I envied the veterans, who had built a such an extensive inventory of lessons that they did not have to plan much anymore, they only had to schedule. One teacher even had a collection of “observation” lessons, available at an unannounced moment’s notice and categorized to match the reform du jour, guaranteed to impress the administration with a show class. In those days of the early Internet and Windows95, it took from three to five years for a teacher to feel comfortable enough to relax a couple nights a week. Assuming of course, that they taught the same prep, course changes reset the clock to zero.

Today’s teachers collect more course material and lesson plans faster than their predecessors because they work exclusively in a digital environment. They have access to an exponentially larger library of materials. Not just books, but every painting, picture, movie, music and recording ever made. And they can save the material faster; a point and clicker on the Internet will build an inventory faster than a scissor cut and copier with newspapers and magazines. New teachers store their lesson plans, assignment sheets, notes, articles, images, audio and video clips on their own machines, school’s drives and in “the cloud”.

Not only that, new teachers have their materials tagged, organized and cataloged, and therefore more easily accessible than anything their ancestor teachers ever had. Our retiree left six packed file cabinets in his wake, overflowing with materials for a half dozen courses. Although the folders were labeled and organized, only he knew what he had and where he had it. It is non-transferable until we review it folder by folder, scanning and storing the good stuff, organizing it by course and storing it on our shared drive.

Technology has cut the “material-experience” curve of new teachers from five years to perhaps two.

Why isn’t this enough to convince the ten year teachers to abandon their manilla and paper for flash and silicon?

Say What? in Action


These guys are great, check out the rest of their stuff at The Well Agency.  The best illustration of the frustration felt by our teachers is expressed by the antediluvian in this video (almost nsfw) who complains that he “just doesn’t want to learn anymore”.  Teachers may have a similar limit to the amount of new programs, learning environments and tools they can consume in one year.  It’s not always a result of simple recalcitrance.

A Crime against Nature and Nature’s God

You would be hard-pressed to find a more concept more unpopular than lecture in education today. It is the single, most universally despised form of instruction in the industry. It’s probably safer to wear a Red Sox hat to Yankee Stadium than go to a graduate class and suggest that lecture offers even the slightest hint of value. Graduate students should know they are better off talking about multiple intelligences, differentiated instruction and backward design. Keeping their references to lecture hidden behind innocuous labels like “direct instruction” may not even be enough to insure their safety.

Movers and shakers in this business must always pedal something new and different to sell their books, grab their grants and distinguish themselves from others. So it is not surprising they would criticize such a traditional form of teaching. But let’s be honest, lecture’s bad reputation comes from the fact that there are so many poor examples of it infecting our schools. History teachers are the worst offenders.

Yesterday I sat and suffered with 45 colleagues through the best and worst examples of instruction. The first half of the afternoon was a dialogue with an undisputed expert in antebellum history, followed by a lecture from that same expert. Knowing more about Uncle Tom’s Cabin than should be permitted by law, the professor first engaged the class by asking questions about the book. Citing a series of passages, he led us through a discussion about the characters, images and meanings of the book. You could sense the interest among the participants, and recognize it clearly when their questions to him took his original provocative thoughts in several directions.

After a short break however, we returned to the room for the “lecture” half of the presentation. This lecture consisted of the professor reading one of his articles to the group. There’s simply not enough amphetamine in the world to keep that class conscious. Every interesting and engaging thought from the first half of the afternoon crashed in the train wreck of the second half. Watching the closing eyes and bobbing heads, I was embarrassed, uncomfortable and convinced that there is nothing quite as bad a speaker can do to an audience than to read a scholarly article to them.

Yet, I am convinced that students in history classes benefit from lecture. Tucked in the niche of perhaps 25% to 30% of classtime, well-crafted and well-delivered lectures compliment content delivery with passion, reality and common-sense understanding that text and video alone cannot provide. It is much more a difficult and complex art form than a formulaic lesson plan that can be followed step by step. Lectures fail so often because every element has to be developed, written and performed well in order for it to work. It requires the ability of Ken Burns to find the poignant images and stories to infect it with emotion, the quirky observations and timing of George Carlin, the stage presence of Robin Williams and the organization of a Supreme Court opinion to come even close to success. To push it over the line it has to be rehearsed a couple dozen times as well.

If lecture works, it inspires, informs and leaves the audience on fire. If not, lecture is a crime.

James Madison’s Death

I’m more than fortunate to be at the James Madison Seminar in Teaching American History at Princeton University. In the second of a three year program, several teachers from my school and many others from northern New Jersey schools enjoy the Hogwarts ambiance of Princeton and immerse ourselves in the thick content of our discipline. This history teacher’s geektopia is made possible by a federal grant designed to “raise student achievement by improving teachers’ knowledge and understanding of and appreciation for traditional U.S. history.” The James Madison Seminar’s program seems well-tuned to meet the goals of “traditional”, through a foot-and-a-half high stack of readings, and an assembly of wicked-smart professors providing mornings of lecture and afternoons of discussion.

Last year’s emphasis on the early American republic focused on Constitutional history, yet was also leavened by a cultural emphasis on period music and architecture, complete with a visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art and colonial mansions along the Schuylkill river. This year we are digging through antebellum politics, the system of slavery and the philosophic foundations of the secession crisis. Was the Constitution a pro-slavery document, or did the founders (as Lincoln insisted) mark the institution for eventual extinction with an anti-slavery Constitution? Were Republicans returning to the original intent of the Constitution in 1860 or were they revolutionaries that brought on the Civil War? Sifting through each of the nine opinions written by justices in the Dred Scott case and dissecting South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes against Lincoln’s first inaugural is not for the timid. It’s not easy to wrap one’s mind around the idea that there is a logical argument to be made for the spreading of slavery into the west in an effort to end slavery. (Look at the dates of state abolition of slavery in the north and you will find that the states with the lowest percentage of slaves ended slavery first. The math is simple, the less slaves in a state, the easier it was to end slavery so it makes sense to diffuse slaves across the continent by allowing slavery in the west).

The participants in this program assiduously complete the readings and are focused in the lectures and discussions, exploding the content knowledge behind the instruction provided to thousands of students. Yet, as good as this sounds, the James Madison Seminar was not approved to continue on the grant beyond our class’s final session next year. Although the directors seem bewildered that such a well-respected program was discontinued, I would bet that they were not approved because of the word “lecture”. If they threw words like “collaboration” and “emergent technologies” on their grant application they would have made it. We were told that the Department of Education would want to test our students to assess the success of this program. Translated, this means, “we are going to give your students multiple choice questions to see if they know and have appreciation for traditional U.S. history.” Do you catch just a hint of personality disorder in this? The DOE doesn’t want lecture because that old school rote memorization is out of vogue, but they will test based on just the type of knowledge lecture promotes.

I’m fairly certain that most students would be ill-served if they were expected to process history at this content level. Some could perhaps handle the factual retention necessary, but the complexity of relationships and amorphous, gray areas between one idea and the next are quite beyond their ability. This content knowledge improves our teaching by reinforcing the foundation of our curriculum design, but we should not simply project that content onto our students. In fact, we should use our expanded content knowledge to better judge what to cut. The reading comprehension skills built by comparing South Carolina’s Declaration of Causes and Lincoln’s First Inaugural will serve our students better than the memorization of the British Acts of Parliament preceding the Revolution.

James Madison’s demise is indeed unfortunate, but not for obvious reasons.

November’s Momentum vs. The Rubble Pile

My district’s end of the school year/beginning of the summer two day administrative retreat is widely acknowledged by its participants as the “best two days of the year”.  Not only has the completed school year blown away the “to-do list” cloud of worries, but the phones have stopped ringing.  There is no better way to spend this all-too-brief respite than to gather with a group committed and talented professionals to chart a new direction for our schools.  The retreat starts with a presentation from people like Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Gary Marx and Ian Jukes and ends with a workshop applying their ideas to our district.  It is not an exaggeration to say that Alan November’s presentation Tuesday created more momentum than the last couple years combined.  Stressing new literacy, Alan’s review of web tools and the conceptual framework of specific student roles in a “connected classroom” sparked enthusiasm like nothing has in the past.  The next day people were setting up iGoogle home pages and Skype accounts.

Usually I’m re-energized by these presentations, the outside affirmation from such a respected speaker anoints what I have been saying for years with legitimacy.  It was easy to get caught up in the excitement of this new age with the blood pumping and the mind crackling.  Getting together with like-minded people and exchanging this tool and that tool, this site and that site, the conversations would just flow with ideas and applications.  We could do this, we could do that.  The possibilities were always endless. 

I’m sad to say that I don’t feel that way anymore.  In fact, I didn’t even get juiced by introducing Alan to wetpaint.

The excitement has grown as stale as the excuses that none of these tools have really gotten any traction beyond a few classes and couple teachers.  It is for just that reason that I’m skipping the tweets and posts from NECC, hearing people gush about “convergence” and “global collaboration” is old already.  Most of them are riding the circuit, making snake-oil presentations and leaving districts faster than road-runner from Wile E. Coyote.  And all of the hope for real change floats to the ground like those last couple feathers.  The presenter’s check clears, teachers post their PD hours and everyone gets back to business as usual.  Systemic change is the grail, and we still haven’t found it.

Underneath all the possibilities and all of the tools is a big, nasty pile of rubble that can only be moved one stone at a time.  Half of the rocks are “my password doesn’t work” or just “it’s not working”.  Others are the format mess that infects almost every media making it impossible to move text, audio and video between editing tools and viewing platforms.  The most intractable layer of that rubble pile is the conceptual understanding of the differences between a web page, a blog, a forum and a wiki.  And the silly names don’t make it any easier.   

Yet those of us who have moved through our pile over the last ten years should recognize that we cannot dismiss the frustrations of our colleagues as simple ignorance or intransigence.  It may boil down to nothing more than time, screen awareness and clicking.  No one who uses these tools was trained to do so.  They found them, got excited and started clicking.  How do we balance the excitement of possibility and the drudgery of necessity?

Systemic change needs the clarion call of Kennedy challenging a nation to put a man on the moon.  A effort on the scale of the Marshall Plan to pay for rubble removal.  Schools need squads of people who can answer the “it’s not working” questions so swat teams can be available in any classroom at any time.  This would work much better than just one or two people in the whole school.  Governing councils with the infrastructural expertise of tech departments, the pedagogic vision of teachers and the authority of administration need to chart and fund a specific direction for the district and insist upon its success, by any means necessary.  And all of us need the courage to dump much of what we have been taught about schools. 

But while the days are long and the grass is tall, perhaps we can build our confidence that we will eventually find our way between the rocks and the hard place.