Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Some of my best friends...
Stereotype of Homeschoolers.
Some of my best friends are homeschoolers. 

Stop looking at me like that.

A product and practitioner of public schooling, I still have to admit that some of my favorite people to talk about classroom design and pedagogy with are homeschoolin' mommies.

By and large, my friends choosing this route have active boys with special needs due to either learning disabilities, super high IQs, autism spectrum issues, or all of the above. The moms are high-achieving college grads who are making up as they go along, but without all the isolation that used to come with homeschooling. Today's homeschoolers are using curriculum their moms researched and chose online.  The families are runnin' around town, playing soccer together, doing gross experiments, taking a month-long tour of the national parks, serving lemonade at the nursing home. The kids are responsible, contributing members of their communities. They see how their day to day life is part of their learning.

I like that.  I want that for "our" kids--the ones squirming in the plastic chairs at PS #5 or Abe Lincoln High. I want kids who are learning how to be good citizens, and who see their education as part of what's going on in their community and the world.  It'd be nice if they could read, too.

Thomas Jefferson was homeschooled. So was everybody, back in the day. Tutors taught children, and all they were responsible for was informing students:  "Here, learn this Latin conjugation so you can read this passage from Plutarch's Lives and be a better leader,"  "Here, learn to sew so you can make beautiful and useful things for your family," "Here, learn how to use this compass so you can go from one end of our property to another."

At that time, and really until the mid-20th Century, most kids helped their parents with chores, wandered their land or someone else's, and made their own toys by whittling, sewing, knitting, or manipulating the natural world.  Today, "our" kids expect to do all their learning at school and to come home and "play" by doing things that are entirely imaginary.  Watching tv, playing on apps, even reading and writing are all pasttimes without surprises: nothing will happen to the child that's out of their control. Nothing will be asked of the child that he or she can't say no to.

This is why I'm encouraged by project-based and problem-based learning models: THE WORLD IS ASTONISHING! The factory-style schools we've inherited continue to function as if anything happening outside of school will knock these kids' socks off.  It's our new job as 21st Century (dun dun dun!) educators to reveal the foreignness, the wildness, of the way physics and chemistry and biology and politics and sociology combine to make the world go 'round.

They can get the basics from modern tutors (the web), but we need to instruct them in how to apply that knowledge, how to know which of it is important for their futures, and which of it is valued in their communities.  And heck, we need to introduce them to their communities to begin my homeschoolin' mommies are doing. Kids will demand reading skills when they know why they're important - the way the children of the past begged for compasses, their own bridles, or their own knitting needles.  I hope that technology is part of us "flipping the classroom" in a way that puts information-getting back in its place and makes the whole world the classroom.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

App Review: TinkerBox

I downloaded Tinkerbox thinking it might have some physics practice. That wasn't the case, but it's one of my favorite apps right now just the same.

Tinkerbox is a puzzle game that allows you to use pieces with defined characteristics (some rotate, for instance, while others fall or stick to the background) to solve problems.  It also allows free play and experimentation with the pieces.

There's a lot to love about this app. For one thing, there are no words. If you're someone who spends your life reading and writing and talking for a living, you know how quiet a word-less space can feel.  I'm sure some of our students, especially our boys, feel that same need for verbal rest.

Secondly, it's free form; you can create, you can get things wrong -- unlike many, many games out there, part of the whole fun of the game is trying the same thing again and again and again and finally getting it right. Play that works this mental muscle is essential to expanding intelligence, so despite the lack of explicit instruction, I'd rate TinkerBox as highly educational.

Oh, I also appreciated the tutorials. Quick, but very instructive - you try things out to learn, unlike the long, wordy instructional pages I've seen on many other apps. Words, ick.

  • Does it do what it says it'll do? The site says, "While it is full of interesting science facts and teaches basic engineering concepts, TinkerBox is more than just educational!" I'm not really seeing the facts, but I am seeing a lot of practice in sequencing, cause and effect, sustained attention, and persistence. That's good stuff. 
  • Does it solve a current problem in the classroom?  I'm afraid students using this in the classroom would tune out, but maybe there's a place for this in the physics classroom for post-testing free time or for extra credit. Students could complete a puzzle or build and invention and then write about the forces involved.
  • Does it create a new opportunity in the classroom?  It, perhaps, creates a new opportunity at home, but as fun as this is for my lazy grown-up butt playing with it in the eye doctor's waiting room, I'd rather see kids playing with tinker toys, simple electrical circuits, and other real objects.
  • Would Thomas Jefferson think it was cool? I'm pretty sure he'd wonder why we were playing with objects in 2d when we could be building and moving things in real life. But this does seem like a great way to capture attention, harness excitement, and get kids wondering. That seems like a good start.

Friday, September 21, 2012

App Review: StoryLines for Schools

The original vocab word was "shackle."
One spring when I was teaching ESL in a Texas district, we had what felt like a dozen tornado watches. Each time the sirens went off, I'd be responsible for keeping my students silent. We'd kneel on the floor and cover our heads with textbooks for long enough for my Vice Principal to check us off her list.

Unfortunately, the VP had a couple dozen other classes to check. Desperate to avoid the chaos that naturally follows bored kids, I tried a few practice activities.  No go; the students were indignant about doing schoolwork while on the floor. Finally, I tried the Telephone Game.

My students were from all over the world and had never heard of the game.We giggled as we whispered our sentence from ear to ear. I was proud knowing that they were getting feedback on their pronunciation and that we were under control...until everyone busted up laughing when the last person said what she had heard: "I am a student learning English" had become "I see eggs and nurse."

StoryLines for Schools is a combination of the Telephone Game and Pictionary. Like my classroom game, it is silly fun with some fun practice built in.  The silly way to play is easy, and I actually think this would be a fun activity for English Language Learners in particular (though we play it at home and we are pretty good at English).  Student A writes a sentence or chooses an idiom. The iPad is passed to the next student. Student B sees the idiom or sentence and draws a representation of it.  iPad is passed again and Student C writes what he thinks he sees.

Another way to play is to have the students write in their vocab words, or they can build general word skills by choosing from elementary, intermediate, or SAT vocab. This would be a really fun "station" game and a fun time killer after tests or when you're saying, ducking and covering.
  • Does it do what it says it'll do? Yep. Low expectations: "A game of telephone with pictures." check.
  • Does it solve a current problem in the classroom?  Ok, not really.
  • Does it create a new opportunity in the classroom?  Ok, not really, either. You could do the silly way with paper. But a kid could practice SAT words in a small group -- it's a fun idea to think of what "stations" could look like for older kids. I know my ESL kids liked them a lot.
  • Would Thomas Jefferson think it was cool?  Well, it does give students a higher-order-thinking way to practice vocabulary, and finding motivating ways to extend practice time on important things like words would've definitely floated TJ's boat.

App Review: Sushi Monster

Scholastic's Sushi Monster ate my family. One bite. I said, "I'm trying out this app" to a 40-year-old, a nine-year-old, and a seven-year-old, and each time the person disappeared into the land of sushi until forced to relinquish the iPad.

It's a simple game; I'm not sure how it manages to be so fun. The game teaches factoring and drills players on their multiplication and addition facts. To that end, the sushi monster sits in the middle of the table.

Players feed it plates of sushi with numbers on them that add up to or multiply to equal the number at the top of the screen. When players succeed, Sushi Monster gobbles up the sushi. When the number is wrong, Sushi Monster tosses the plates aside and grumbles monstrously.

Having missed multiplication lessons during my many moves, I count on my fingers and have to stop and think about what times what equals 121.  And I hate, hate, hate math speed drills.

But I loved this game: the speed, the silliness, the varying levels of difficulty. So let's give it the TJ Test:

  • Does it do what it says it'll do? Yep. It says it's a fun way to practice with number families, multiplication and addition, and so it does.
  • Does it solve a current problem in the classroom?  Yes. It uses kid-friendly wackiness to encourage repeated practice of core math fluency skills.
  • Does it create a new opportunity in the classroom?  Basically. With one iPad, this would be a fun game to have at a station. I would love to see this projected via a smartboard so kids (say, third graders) could move the plates themselves and the whole class could call out advice. In a one-to-one setting, students could use this as their practice time in support of units on these subjects.
  • Would Thomas Jefferson think it was cool? I wonder sometimes if that guy had a sense of humor, but as far as this kind of learning helping and not impeding a young genius? Yeah, I think it works.  TJ and his compatriots ...and almost every other educated person on the planet who wasn't educated in the US since the 60s...carried a lot of information via memorization. And they work hard to get that stuff in their brains. This is the same kind of work, but sillier. I like that.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Do as TJ Said, Not as He Did, Except Sometimes

Martha "Patsy" Jefferson
Let's get this straight: I'm not recommending we follow most of Thomas Jefferson's advice on education.  A forward thinker in many areas, his views on education were often confined by his position as a Privileged White Guy.

Check him out, writing to his daughter, Patsy.  He starts out manipulative, "The acquirements which I hope you will make under the tutors I have provided for you will render you more worthy of my love, and if they cannot increase it they will prevent it's diminution." Then TJ follows with a curriculum entirely lacking in the subjects most interesting to him; math, science, classical history, philosophy, and comparative theory of government:

"With respect to the distribution of your time the following is what I should approve.
  • from 8. to 10 o'clock practise music.
  • from 10. to 1. dance one day and draw another
  • from 1. to 2. draw on the day you dance, and write a letter the next day.
  • from 3. to 4. read French.
  • from 4. to 5. exercise yourself in music.
  • from 5. till bedtime read English, write &c."
Poor Patsy; I wonder if she ever said anything her father was remotely interested in. For future voters, of course, TJ held education in the highest regard. His essays on the topic did what his writings often did, which is to reflect the highest refinement and cleanest meat of the current argument for his side, which was in this case in 1778, the side of public education:

"Laws will be wisely formed, and honestly administered, in proportion as those who form and administer them are wise and honest; is better that such should be sought for and educated at the common expence of all, than that the happiness of all should be confided to the weak or wicked:.."

TJ invented the revolving book holder
I want this so much.
When I can read that without hearing, "except for girls, and black folk like some of my grandkids, and certainly not Indians," I find it heartening and true and still so relevant. If Patsy ever read it, I imagine it got on her nerves.

That's the trick here -- to use Thomas Jefferson as an example of an agile, searching, tremendously creative mind, and as example of someone who did real and permanent good in our society . . . without taking all of his contradictory advice literally.  What's inspiring and admirable about TJ to me is the way he used every bit of what he learned to do something cool--from designing (and redesigning and redesigning) his own house and gardens to using the French he learned as a teen to bring the French around to our side during the revolution and after. He read Plutarch's Lives in Latin and used his analysis of the leadership shown to come to conclusions like the one about education above.

TJ's formal education involved lectures, dead languages, rote memorization, and lots of math and logic problems(1)No self-respecting educator would prescribe such a curriculum to kids of today.  But what his example tells us, or at least me, is that the pressure to purchase or learn the latest curriculum is false.

Even Thomas Jefferson didn't foresee the skills his own daughter would really need or that would make her happy. We don't know that about our kids, either. Instead, the pressure on us as teachers and community members is to help kids recognize internal motivation and to act on their best impulses with persistence and curiosity; to make them capable of pursuing life, liberty, and the happiness in ways we never dreamed of.

This video from of Ewan McIntosh at TEDxLondon  is one of those fun times where someone on the internet says what I'm thinking much, much more elegantly than I have (Am assuming here that my vast readership missed the first time I linked to this video):

So maybe Latin isn't the only way to get kids there. Neither is MangaMath. But I think there are some principles that have given us active, hungry problem finders, compassionate, organized, effective leaders, wise followers, and beautiful voices over the centuries. I'll be thinking about those in this space this year.

1. Peterson, Merrill D., ed., The Political Writings of Thomas Jefferson, (Thomas Jefferson Foundation,1993), 18,19.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

In Which Project Based Learning and Troy Aikman Make My Day

I am so excited about football season starting! If you know me, you may be thinking my account has been hacked, but no, it’s really me. Here’s how we got here:
First, my district is getting fired up about Project Based Learning. So to catch up on the conversation, I’ve been watching videos at Edutopia. I was suspicious about PBL being another “this will change everything!” educational trend, but it’s really just a fancy name for all the coolest things you remember doing in school (like this suped-up soil project).

Second, I was talking with an esteemed colleague (e.c.) about his youth league football season starting up.  He shared an ESPN video that he shared with me (at top: watch it to about 3:10 to get the full effect – goosebumps), and it gave me this epiphany:

Coaches are the most successful teachers in school.

Now, I don’t mean in their health classes or whatever they’re also teaching (I’m thinking of you, Meathead the Physics Coach).  I mean, on Friday nights, their students are so excited about the subjects the coaches are teaching—physical skills, plays, teamwork, leadership and followship—that they are practically throwing up before the game.  They want to win! They want to show their whole town how hard they’ve worked and how much they’ve learned!
Gratuitous Photo of Troy Aikman (Allison v. Smith)
True story, folks: In the history of schools, no one has ever felt that way about an end-of-six-weeks grammar test. 

I want that! I want kids so excited about being successful that they practically pee their pants (but don't actually; that's why I don't teach elementary). When that kind of excitement has been present in my classroom or others I've seen, it's when we've come alongside the kids to make them ready to meet a goal that's bigger than our tiny classroom world. When we've coached.

And I think that's a very old-fashioned, sound educational theory. In TJ's time, kids followed grown-ups around and their educational outcomes were things that really, really mattered and that could make a kid proud: things like "I helped that calf learn to take milk from a bottle so my sister can drink its mothers' milk," or, "I made that stepladder that my dad can use in the storeroom," or maybe, "I learned the Latin phrase that I have to say in front of the grownups at the school exhibition." 

Watching the boys in the ESPN video talk about the "fire inside" as they approach the field, watching the coach remember his the coaches who'd mentored him after he lost his dad, watching Troy Aikman remember the pride he felt walking through the hallways on Friday nights...I get all tingly. and it's not all because Troy Aikman is the cutest thing ever. It's because this is why we all got into the kid business to begin with.  We wanted to put fires inside kids that keep burning throughout their lives.  We wanted to give them clear eyes and full hearts.

So I'm excited about football season because I plan to learn a LOT about how coaches have been way ahead of the curve on this stuff.   And because I can see more of Troy Aikman. He's still playing, right?     Right?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

App Review: Little Bird Tales

Good news/bad news about the app/webpage, Little Bird Tales: The good news is, it's super fun. TJ and I approve. Bad news: I didn't discover it before the end of summer.

Little Bird Tales is a slick update of ye olde "write a picture book and record yourself reading it" project. I still have my first self-published storybook somewhere, with the tape that I recorded on the classroom Sony portable.  The best-seller featured a unicorn/pegasus (pegacorn? unisaurus?) who rescued a princess, and the turn-the-page sounds were made by my friend Andy clanking the teacher's keys on a coffee can: very high tech.

In the 21st Century (dun dun dun!) version of this project, Little Bird Tales provides a one-stop shop for combining the pictures (hand-drawn or photos) with narration. Kids can publish to the web and share with family members or even the Little Bird Tales community.  Like, check out this adorable how-to I found. How cute is her voice?

For the classroom, one of the things that stand out to me is the photo option--lots of teachers were imaginative little kids, but our students today are often more comfortable with nonfiction. Reluctant readers, kids on the autism spectrum, ESL kids, even just regular red-blooded American boys may be reluctant or unable to produce stories that are made up. 

If the goal of the activity is to practice, say, the parts of a story or descriptive writing, nonfiction can be more solid ground for these kids. I can imagine an English Language Learner writing about a day in the life of someone who still lives in her home country, or a third grade boy writing about his uncle's motorcycle. In both cases, photos and found illustrations would make the project look great and still meet the goals of the lesson.

At home, I think this is a great way to handle thank you's and momentos. Having the kids send "What We Did on Vacation" stories to grandparents would've been fun ways to keep the girls writing this summer, but I'll just have to remember this around the holidays. We'll write thank-you notes using pictures from Christmas morning and some drawings from the kids. With a few clicks, I can package the story and send it off to the grandparents via a simple link.Who says you can't torture children with manners and writing lessons at the same time?

TJ and I say:
  • Does it do what it says it'll do? It says it encourages creativity and expression. It does; simple and straightforward, the app doesn't push kids into a box and allows for a lot of experimentation.
  • Does it solve a current problem in the classroom?  Kinda. Kids need to hear themselves read and this is one way to help them do it. It's also another of many publishing options for projects, and it accomplishes work that I'd normally combine other apps to do.
  • Does it create a new opportunity in the classroom?  Yes. Great end product for group projects, and there are many ways to use it...and you don't need an iPad for every kid to make it work.
  • Would Thomas Jefferson think it was cool? Yes. He liked writing, pictures, and listening to himself talk, from what I can tell. I think he'd like seeing kids tell stories, true or made up.
Little Bird Tales gets a thumbs-up.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


Y'all, I'm flipping out.

It's a zillion degrees and that means a new school year is looming. Brand new in my role as a technology trainer, I panicked a little this week.  I've been worrying, "Will I have all the right answers? Do I really know enough?"

As usual, panic has not spurred me to action. It's had me zoned out in from of the Olympics with my iPad open to some educational tech story.  Fortunately, somewhere between reading about flipped classrooms and watching Gabby Douglas flip her way to gold, I remembered that I had my thinking all backwards.

You've heard of flipped classrooms, right? In a flipped class, the teacher videotapes her lecture and students watch it at home.  Then, during class, the teacher and students work together on practice problems and assignments.  I like the sound of this model because it makes the teacher a coach, watching the kids solve problems and correcting their form.

I'm not sure that the lecture is the only thing that needs to flip in the classroom. Ewan McIntosh gave a thoughtful and inspiring speech at TEDex London asking if the whole "problem-solving" mentality needs to flip as well.  Watch this clip below and think about the way gymnasts like Gaby learn and set goals.
(give it a second and you'll clue in to his accent)
McIntosh says, "I want a generation of young people who can go out into the world and find problems that need really solving and have the capacity to go out and start solving them."  I love how this way of thinking embraces failure, misdirection, and restarts. I love how it brings teachers, students, and the rest of the world into a community of learning, one where everyone can and should be contributing to their fullest potential.

And I really love how it lets me off the hook on the knowing-everything issue.  It just isn't my job to know all the answers: even if I did they might be answers to questions no one cares about. Helping teachers and students ask good questions, to listen to each other, and to hear from and interact with their community...that's my job.  I don't think that's too high a bar for me to flip over.
photo by Mike Blake, Reuters

Monday, July 30, 2012

The Test

As a teacher working in a rich school district in early 2000s, I saw curriculum trends, software programs and hardware updates follow each other down the pike like speeding cars.  I can imagine the announcer at the races:  "Annnnnnd here comes whole language back around the bend, passing phonics-only! In lane two, math with lots of blocks and dry pasta is whipping past the timed-test approach!"  These days, the announcer could say, "In lane three, we have iPads outpacing graphing calculators, and it looks like project based learning is lapping everyone in lane four!"

As a technology trainer in a small district today, I want to avoid that track.  I know that kids these days love their internets. They live in a technology-rich world and it's my job to make sure they emerge from our district with the skills they need to succeed.

But what I really want to do is to slow down. Breathe. When a super-nifty conference speaker has me fired up about how no student can every really learn to read without XYZ educational product or approach, I ask myself: Did Thomas Jefferson need this?

I mean, Thomas Jefferson--really, you could pick any founding father--was a pretty smart guy. Solved some important problems. Got along well with others. And he did it all without Singapore math or a Smartboard.

Don't get me wrong. I love this stuff. I think of Smartboards as "magic wands for the classroom," and every day I bug someone about a cool app I just found for the iPads.  I just want to keep my priorities straight.

We need critical thinkers. We need good citizens.  We need kids with a wide set of tools that prepare them to learn well and to lead well. We need kids who aren't afraid to experiment, to fail; kids who like to play and who know when what they're working on matters. Kinda like Thomas Jefferson.

With that in mind, this space is a place where I'd like to evaluate the technologies and techniques I'm seeing as a noob educational technology facilitator.  I'll be asking:
  • Does it do what it says it'll do? 
  • Does it solve a current problem in the classroom?  
  • Does it create a new opportunity in the classroom?  
  • Would Thomas Jefferson think it was cool?

Hopefully, that'll help me sort through the barrage of incoming vehicles of learning and find the stuff that'll really take our kids and our schools where there they need to go.

by Maira Kalman for the New York Times