Today my Digital Journalism class took the governor off and explored a current event or newsworthy situation through questioning. They identified what they knew about a topic, wrote questions using the 5 W’s of journalism fame, and jotted down a list of possible sources. Next, off they went. Some took notes on their tablet. Others recorded their interviews with Audacity. Still others recorded video of their interviews directly into Microsoft OneNote. I taught them none of those tricks, but another teacher did show a group of students how to use OneNote in this manner.
Once they had their first set of information, the next set of questions came flying in as they made connections and created new understandings. More sources became obvious. Off they went. They recorded more information. The cycle continued, and then they wrote. They began to lay out rough articles with spaces for the possibilities left open to them. They tore down earlier preconceptions and filled their new concepts with actual information. They struggled with how to present facts without bias. It was beautiful, and it was just the beginning. In our next class, they get the iPads and we’ll see how that platform opens venues for questioning and exploring in comparison to the tablet. And, they’ll have the option to choose whichever they would rather use. After the novelty wears off, I think functionality will win the day. We’ll see.
Yesterday, a colleague unearthed what she thought to be one of two missing video cameras “belonging” to a course I now teach. Tucked deeply away in a closet, amidst a snarl of cables and battery chargers was a camera. Not one of the cameras, but a camera. As we marveled a bit at the mysteries of schools, she said (and I paraphrase) that without a more relaxed approach to some of these items, to inventory, to the organizing of stuff, our school would not have come so far so fast with technology.
Which got me thinking – hard as it may be to swallow, schools are messy places. Schools will never serve their most important functions in our society and be cost efficient, totally personalized, streamlined pods where students dutifully follow their playlist for the day, tick the box, score points, or earn Mario Brothers-style gold coins while teachers stare into their digital dashboards and adjust their classes of seventy like an America’s Cup skipper. Some like Tom Vander Ark spout wild, jargon-laced treatises and sometimes even almost start schools, but the underlying dream of all corporate reformers is a shiny new kind of school running with for-profit efficiency, even if not-for-profit.
Of course, even the shiniest, ivory Apples can’t seem to stay neat and clean, yet the image of the squeaky clean corporate model persists. Imagine: Apple loses a prototype for each of it’s last two iPhones and the buzz seems to be that it’s a publicity stunt on Apple’s part. Because Apple is hurting for publicity, right? Maybe the easier explanation is that programmers like to get hammered on tequila, too, and that the iPhone is a slippery fish in a trouser pocket. But, how could this happen again? Because it’s worth it. It’s worth it to have the phone in the real world, the real, messy world, where people spill drinks and throw down their backpack and cycle with their phone on the handlebars and get frustrated about a particular function and then change the function. Messy is dynamic and dynamic is successful.
Likewise, schools are messy, dynamic places when they function well because learning is messy and dynamic. Just today, a student I’ve never met before gave me a lesson on a new Adobe web design software that I’ve never heard of before and showed me his photo website that he just built with it. If his laptop didn’t allow him to install software or had crazy admin hurdles in place, he wouldn’t have built the website. Sometimes, when the powers that be cede control and let things happen, stuff gets broken, lost, misplaced, misused, and sometimes abused. It’s expensive – messy is often expensive. But, it beats a rigid bureaucratic or authoritarian approach because that cost is an investment in creative energy. School reformers who lead with efficiency should have their hands slapped with rulers because school is an investment in the future, and investments take courage and a stomach for delayed gratification, neither of which are values of the “efficient” corporation.
Do I wish someone would have slapped a sticker on one or both of those video cameras? Sure. Heck, I would settle for having noted the location of the shelf in this out of the way closet where they were stored. But, if we had those cameras, we may not have embarked on our current, messy iPad pilot that involves students as experts in their own learning and explores what’s possible with these tools. The outcome may be unimpressive, but nobody is going to be hurt. In fact, kids given such opportunities may learn to take agency in their learning process. It’ll be hard to test the results, but the kids will know. That’s messy for you.
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?
- 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.
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.
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.
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…
A large number of human relationships in any social group are still upon the machine-like plane. Individuals use one another so as to get desired results, without reference to the emotional and intellectual disposition and consent of those used. Such uses express physical superiority, or superiority of position, skill, technical ability, and command of tools, mechanical or fiscal. So far as the relations of parent and child, teacher and pupil, employer and employee, governor and governed, remain upon this level, they form no true social group, no matter how closely their respective activities touch one another. Giving and taking of orders modifies action and results, but does not of itself effect a sharing of purposes, a communication of interests.
Dewey, John (2009). Democracy and Education: an introduction to the philosophy of education (Kindle Locations 157-161). Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.
On a beautiful day in Switzerland, July 4, 2011, I am reminded of the power of true, open democracy to shape people into a society. I am also reminded of something a consultant said to me once. She was from a private company in Florida hired to fix my school on the Navajo Nation which had been placed in the NCLB solitary confinement cell called “Restructuring.” We were learning structures for getting feedback from students and using this feedback not to influence instruction so much, but more to get kids to buy into certain structures being laid down from this corporate consultant. When someone asked what to do if the feedback didn’t support the prescribed structures, the consultant said: “Well, you can do a degree of facilimanipulation.” Facilitate to manipulate. Nifty.
This is the Fox News discussion model. Students in this chronically disfunctional school wouldn’t be given a voice democratically. Instead, I would stand before them, the Anglo Sage, and manipulate them with a guise of cheer and helpfulness to swallow whatever I was handing down from on high (which had been handed down to me from on higher). Beyond the historically appalling subtext, the text itself is terrible: facilimanipulate. This Frankenword has become an ironic joke between my wife and I, but I can understand it’s lazy appeal – trick the kids into thinking they count. Yikes. See quote above – no shared purposes or communicated interests in this essentially authoritarian model.
So, I consider today ways to continue making students real partners in the classroom, with agency in their learning process and experiences. I’m planning action research in a new course (for me) entitled “Digital Journalism.” Together, students and I will explore how best to learn through experience about doing journalism and publishing work in an online student newspaper. It’s very easy to give up the reigns in this course because I’m clearly not an expert journalist, so our shared purpose together will be learning the subject through actually doing it. I’m really excited because students shaping this course is meta-agency – students will help design the course in order to publish their work. Hard work, but good work, ahead. Maybe we’ll even form a mutually beneficial social group!
John Dewey had some great ideas 90 years ago and you can read them for free today! Happy Independence Day!
I just listened to a fascinating podcast from On Being entitled “Investigating Healthy Minds” with Dr. Richard Davidson and it meshed with an interview published recently in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Don’t Know Much About History” with famed historian David McCullough. While Dr. Davidson makes many points about the nature of the mind and the effect of meditative practices on the mind from the perspectives of a practitioner and a neuroscientist, toward the end of the interview, a question about meditative practices as “spiritual technology” elicited the following, fascinating response:
Potentially. I don’t think I’ve used that phrase, but certainly I have talked about the range of practices, really the mechanics of practice, that are so richly described in some of the contemplative traditions and the potential value that many of these practices might have for modern science and our modern understanding of the mind. You know, I certainly — the idea of transformation is one that to me meshes perfectly well with conventional scientific understanding. I’ve no problem with that and, you know, I think that really is a natural byproduct of understanding many of these constructs as the product of skills that can be enhanced through training. (emphasis added)
This idea underlies all of teaching and learning: the acquisition of skills over time changes the brain at any age. So often, I see kids sitting and staring at their desks, their notebooks, their laptops when they are working on prewriting exercises or planning stages of projects. Almost invariably, when I ask what they’re up to they respond with one word – thinking. My response is also almost invariable – thinking is doing, so do something. This is not merely flippant. I have a raft of suggestions for activities from taking a walk to drawing a picture to working on something else for a bit. Every assignment and project isn’t perfectly designed to capture every student, intrinsically motivating them into motion, but at the end of the day, thinking is action. So, do something, analyze the result, revise, and try again with an altered approach. Learn to do, better and better, through practice, approaching this process as a skill related to fluency in other skills, like writing, speaking, or film making. In the context of the conversation, I take Dr. Davidson to mean that meditative practices transform the mind in powerful ways because they are learned skills worked closer and closer to perfection over time. Because these practices are learned and then put into action repetitively, I see them as analogous to any performance skill taught in a classroom.
Learning as doing that transforms the mind is also reflected in the Wall Street Journal’s conversation with David McCullough, as he suggests, among other great ideas like active, involved parenting, student centered projects and art in the teaching of history in order to create critical minds:
And teach history, he says—while tapping three fingers on the table between us—with “the lab technique.” In other words, “give the student a problem to work on.”
“If I were teaching a class,” he says, “I would tell my students, ‘I want you to do a documentary on the building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Or I want to you to interview Farmer Jones or former sergeant Fred or whatever.” He adds, “I have been feeling increasingly that history ought to be understood and taught to be considerably more than just politics and the military.”
What about textbooks? “I’d take one of those textbooks. I’d clip off all the numbers on the pages. I’d pull out three pages here, two pages there, five pages here—all the way through. I’d put them aside, mix them all up, and give them to you and three other students and say, ‘Put it back in order and tell me what’s missing.'” You’d know that book inside and out.
Mr. McCullough advises us to concentrate on grade school. “Grade school children, as we all know, can learn a foreign language in a flash,” he says. “They can learn anything in a flash. The brain at that stage in life is like a sponge. And one of the ways they get it is through art: drawing, making things out of clay, constructing models, and dramatic productions. If you play the part of Abigail Adams or Johnny Appleseed in a fourth-grade play, you’re never going to forget it as long as you live.”
McCullough’s final point is powerful and true. History isn’t a fixed quantity to be memorized and held (or forgotten), but a series of techniques for understanding the past through drawing connections and interweaving disparate narratives and artifacts. Skills. Teach doing, build fluency in questioning and examination as skills, and transform minds as meditative practices transform minds thanks to the brain’s elasticity. Spiritual practices and history are both shrouded in mystery, but through the sometimes mundane, sometimes transformative process of doing each, we learn and are changed for the better.
Edutopia’s blog section has a nice piece up today with “Five Fundamentals for Creating a Positive Writing Atmosphere” that I like a great deal and not just because it begins with one of my classroom mantras: writers write. As teachers of writing, and all teachers are writing and communication teachers (and models), this piece is worth a look. I particularly like the idea of modeling writing for our students, which is one of the reasons I have a class blog and why I love #4 on the list, which is to “set pure tone” by doing the writing assignments yourself:
Jeffrey Wilhelm, professor of English education at Boise State University and the director of the Boise State Writing Project, believes that teachers need to write in order to teach writing. In his interview for the book, Teaching the Neglected “R”, he clearly states that it’s important for teachers to do the writing assignments they give students and then ask, “Would I do the work I’m asking my students to do?
This is essential – could I write a descriptive essay about Thomas Jefferson using my five senses? What did Jefferson smell like? How does he smell today? What kind of grade would that piece get me in fifth grade? Writing responses to AP-style prompts and sharing them with students has informed my instruction, given me compassion for some of the uncool realities behind on-the-spot literature surprise attacks, and shown me the potential value of document-based synthesis surprise attacks.
I also value the realization that writing takes time and so often schools cram in more and more and more, choking out time for creative enterprise and energy. Students amaze me at the depth and beauty of their output so often whilst being strung between endless club, activity, academic, artistic, and social demands. Some freedom and space in both the physical and time dimensions can give opportunities for creative output – written or otherwise.
An environment for writing in the classroom corresponds to an environment for creative, active learning in the school and beyond. I’ll be thinking about this blog piece as I plot out next year’s curriculum and loose plan in the next few weeks.