Subtext is Engaging

Twice today I was captured in a classroom conversation about very different texts – one a short story, the other a persuasive essay on language, culture, and identity. In both cases, students began the discussion with their own ideas from a short exercise focusing on small sections of texts followed by small group discussions. Observing their small group discussions, I found they were all on track, sharing ideas revolving around important literal ideas and meanings. When we brought it back to the entire class for a conversation, ears pricked up when we began to circle ideas and meanings existing in the subtext, created through subtle mechanisms from a single word choice, to elusive concepts like tone.

As a few glassy expressions caught glints of interest, I was reminded of why I have so much fun with critical literacy. Students know something is going on here, and they want to dig in and uncover the dirty truth, or tricks, girding so much of communication. Always, a student or two discovers a funky bit jutting out of the surface of a text and, with a little focusing from me or from a peer, they start excavating until they uncover a critical piece of the subtext. You know they’ve grabbed something essential when vehement opposition springs up in a small group; there is always a naysayer. Once we get into an entire class setting, if I manage to ask the right questions and not blow the whole thing open, ruining the fun, it’s an amazing sight to see heads start nodding and kids start rushing to ask questions, or share an idea as the layers peel away.

Subtext – everywhere and nowhere. Man, it’s fun when they get after it.

The iPad 2 for Learning: Some Answers, More Questions

The first big list of questions I had have led to more questions and a few answers:

  • Syncing – not that big of a deal, for the most part. We will sync the iPads to a single MacBook Pro and a single iTunes account, purchasing apps with a gift card so as not to leave an open tab for HyperAngry Birds 18 to be downloaded at 1 am and so on. I don’t think this is going to be a bother for students in terms of “ownership,” but I may be wrong. Of course, because of the locked down proprietary structure of the iPad, following RSS content is not totally smooth if not routed through the Apple system. For example, if students set up a Google Reader account, they can easily read blog posts, watch video, and listen to podcasts from a single location, but, alas, the Google Reader apps cannot stream podcasts and the podcast links don’t work in Safari. So, the iPad is not a one-stop shop for digital content without each student having an individual iTunes account to which the iPad is synced or unless the paradigm is teacher centered, teacher directed media consumption, which is not a way that I will operate with secondary school students. So, new question: Is there a way to make the iPad into a totally functional media machine without individual iTunes account syncing?

    Sad T-Rex struggles to type on the iPad, just like me. Thanks to ijammin.
  • Accessories – they are legion. They are expensive. They are often necessary for the functions we have come to expect from our digital companions. So, better budget for them, educators! A case is a must, a stylus comes in second place, a keyboard is awfully desirable, as I look like a Tyrannosaurus Rex typing on the thing. I’m sure there’s more…
  • The million dollar question: So far, nifty sidecar for me. But, students don’t have their hands on them.
  • New question: Is a proprietary, death-by-a-million cuts approach good for education? Do we really want to be buying lots and lots of cheap apps when the Internet used to (and, truly, still does) offer totally functional free versions of these apps?
  • And another: I’m super, super lucky to be working in a well-resourced school willing to take risks and experiment with possibilities in order to give kids the best possible learning environment. So, I have iPads. So far, it feels very extravagant. As I noted in my first reflection on the iPad for teaching, I could really use the iPad or a ringed notebook for the lesson planning function via Google Docs, and the notebook wins for ease of note-taking (funny, that). Perhaps more than a question, I have a quandary about the expense of the toy/tool/device. Will what we learn justify the expense? To that end, I’m working hard to learn as much as possible.

More questions are coming and I look forward to sharing some student questions and answers as we research the possibilities together.

Summer and Institutional Memory

As another school year kicks off, I’m struck by the loss of plans, ideas, concepts, and such over the summer. We come together for a week of meetings and some frantic preparations from micro to macro, individual to collaborative groups to department to grade level to whole school. Always, frustration ripples just under the surface as people arrive back from wonderful vacations that I value greatly, but arrive back with adjusted priorities and minor confusions bred by distance and change. While I’m not ready to give up a nice chunk of vacation, I can’t help but wonder what the week before school might be like if we had a week or two for paid curriculum development, research, in-house professional development, or just time to be together as professional educators without any else going on before and after a nice summer holiday. What might happen during that time, that uninterrupted, relaxed work time? I imagine this past week would be more focused and less hectic.

The iPad 2 for Teaching: Lesson Plans

I’ve been doing my lesson planning in Google Docs, but have found the switching between attendance taking tabs and planning tabs a bit clunky in my Windows 7 and browser setup. Today, I realized I could view my lesson plans in Safari on the iPad. Of course, editing those docs, taking notes on the lesson plan, or altering the plan is not possible in the Google Docs/Safari combination. So, I guess I need an app, perhaps this one. Once I get editing fucntionality, I think this will be a really great sidecar for lesson planning and keeping formative, real-time observation notes. Not groundbreaking, and not something that couldn’t be done in a notebook, but still an idea for something that will work.

Edit: After 2 minutes of play at home, I saw the “Edit” button in Google Docs – Safari. Sweet! And, the learning curve is transparent, thanks to the blog. Modeling learning through minor embarrassments daily!

The iPad 2 for Learning: Initial Questions

As we move forward in the thick stew that is the beginning of any international school year, as faculty shake off the jet lag and slowly lose their suntans, a few questions have arisen in our iPad 2 pilot project that need to be (and soon will be) ironed out once the higher priority tasks are ticked off the list. They are:

  • Syncing – If students have individual iPads to use daily and take home at night, should they be synced to an individual laptop in a 1 to 1 school like ours or to a central Mac for managing purchased apps, etc? It’s a pilot and we are well-resourced, but we don’t have a blank check for sweet games at 10 bucks a pop. We are heading toward syncing to a central computer, but that brings up…
  • When do iPads get synced to a central computer? How much ownership will kids lose or perceive themselves as losing when they give up the iPad for syncing? Does this matter at all?
  • What about the accessories? Clearly, the iPad needs a protective case, needs paid apps, needs charging which, if centralized, becomes pretty expensive quickly.
  • In a 1 to 1 environment with laptops and iPads, how will students manage care of their electronics? Are their hands full already in a purely concrete respect?
  • Will the iPad create an efficient workflow for kids, or will it be a Personal Distraction Device?
  • The million (and millions of) dollar question: How on Earth can the iPad be anything other than an engaging, useful sidecar to a solid computer? I spent an hour today making a Google Doc flow chart in Adobe InDesign complete with flow charts and I couldn’t even come close to duplicating this on an iPad based on what I have been able to find so far. It’s simply not tooled up for that level of creativity. Which brings me to
  • What do we want kids to do in school? If the iPad doesn’t unleash the full potential of current computing technology for kids to do things with, to explore, tinker, discover, and make, and we consider it as a laptop replacement, what are we doing wrong?

These are my big questions so far and the students aren’t even back yet. But, within two weeks kids will have their hands on the iPads, so I want to be collecting answers and revising questions immediately. I really wonder what issues and questions other teachers working with iPads have at this point and need to do a little digging in the next few weeks.

The Power of a Common Functional Vocabulary

I worked closely with a number of colleagues this week to prepare curriculum for a new IB English course, IB Language A: Language and Literature HL in full jargony regalia. During the course of our efforts, a cloud descended as we discussed strategies for grading an internal assessment done early in the students’ first year. I spoke of grading and scoring, another colleague used grading and marking, and our third colleague used all three. As such, great confusion arose as we sought to decode what, exactly, anyone was talking about at any given moment. When I spoke of scoring, I meant using IB rubrics to put IB-dictated numbers on a piece of work with corresponding feedback, but by grading I was referring to the letter grade we would assign to specific scores on the IB scale. Perhaps you’re already confused.

Any debates over the merits of grading and/or externally assessed courses like IB/AP notwithstanding, this time-sucking, frustrating conversation ended in laughter as we figured out how we had linguistically tied ourselves in knots. If we had a pre-defined, shared set of function words referring to specific teaching practices distinct from one another, the conversation would have shed 28 minutes of slowly escalating befuddlement and we could have made a decision and moved on. This is no different for students. In content areas or skill acquisition, teachers should agree on a common set of nonnegotiable, essential vocabulary that allow students to function within the discipline and stick with those. In the composition classroom, we have dozens of ways – generally inexact – of referring to concepts like voice or organization in writing and students must adjust and catch up year by year in the absence of a shared, explicitly taught set of functional vocabulary agreed upon by consensus. In reading and literacy instruction, dozens of like terms have bred, begetting myriad crazy labels for processes simple and complex. The truth is that it doesn’t matter what words we use as long as the definitions are clear, shared, taught, and regularly applied. Of course, many academic contexts or subject areas have common functional vocabulary, so it’s silly to force kids to learn “order of operations” as “fun with figurin'” in fourth grade, only to confuse them in fifth grade when the teacher uses the standard terminology.

The idea is to get past linguistic hurdles, give knowledge and skill steps clear, common labels whenever necessary, and move on to the doing of learning. In our conversation, we lost half an hour to inexact functional language – not Earth shattering, but a solid lesson in the power of a common functional vocabulary!

The iPad 2 for Learning: First Impressions

I have received an iPad 2 prior to a pilot program that my Digital Journalism class will be a part of this year and after a few days of playing, I see possibilities, but wonder if the iPad 2 can rise above its functional design concept.

In short, the iPad is clearly a window for consumption, consumption of media, consumption of goods, and primarily for consumption of iTunes downloads. Compared to my Android phone, the iPad suffers from a dearth of high-quality free apps. Some exist, clearly, but the initial flow of all information is via iTunes and the structure of the iPad’s OS relies heavily on their proprietary software. That’s kind of a drag after experiencing Android for the past six months. I may find killer free, open source apps for the iPad yet; it’s still new to me. However, that’s not the design concept.

Additionally, the iPad is tough to be beautifully creative with. It’s possible, but it’s not as easy as a comparable laptop computer . Free online resources like Aviary become a number of costly proprietary programs like iMovie and Garage Band. My biggest shock so far (I obviously am not a golfer) is that the iPad doesn’t run Flash on Safari. Wow. Again, the design concept won’t allow it, or savvy people would never buy Garage Band. Apple’s desire to control the usage of it’s products has led me away from iPods and all things iTunes, but now it’s all back like Ferris Bueller’s sunglasses and fedoras thanks to the iPad. The iPad interface is locked down and all conduits to information are via Apple. It’s worth considering the medium and the message when we give these fun toys to kids.

On the plus side, the iPad takes good snapshots and video. It’s no Leica, but the possibilities exist, especially for crowdsourced content for student online journalism. My initial impression is that the iPad should be wed, like all media machines, to media literacy with an emphasis on media creation. This will require an upfront  capital outlay on Apple software that will allow for such creation or as a viewpoint of the iPad as a capture device first, with student laptops as the media studio, which is what I am leaning toward. Additionally, the iPad seems fairly well equipped to become a nice journalism tracking device for informed media consumption. Student journalists should be able to follow a wide variety of journalism in print, podcasts, and video form through RSS feeds, but I haven’t found a really great free, ad-free reader. With ads, plenty of options exist and work fairly well, although I haven’t seen one with folder capability yet. The design says consume, and so they shall.

All of this notwithstanding, the iPad is going to get student attention. And then immediately demand more of it. That’s a joke, for the most part. First impressions: minor frustration, resigned acceptance to the Apple business model, and tenacious curiosity.

Edit: Feeddler RSS is a perfect Googler Reader style app for free and without ads so far. Google docs is another story…