Sunday, April 13, 2014

What's Going on in 205

It's hard to believe the we are really only a few weeks away from the end of the year.  It doesn't help matters that students already have missed multiple days (Close Up, Knowledge Bowl) and the spring sports season really isn't even in full swing yet!

Here is what's going on in my room currently.

College Comp 2 - We are about ready to finish our unit exploring Seth Godin's Linchpin.  Last time around, most of my College Comp 2 class disposed this book.  The others loved it.  I chalk this up to the fact that kids don't read much in English classes in the way of nonfiction.  Thus, they keep lamenting, "He keeps saying the same thing over and over again."  That simply isn't true but when someone is expecting rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution in everything they read, I can see where their frustrations come from.  I need to do a better job of addressing this on the front end.

Luckily, my spring semester class has been much more engaged in Linchpin.

Tomorrow we will wrap up our discussion of the text.  Then we will begin work on our final Linchpin presentation boards.  Here is a link to the assignment and presentations from last semester.

After this week, we will only have a few more things to do:

The multi-genre research paper
Read, discuss, and present lessons to the class in peer groups for Austin Kleon's Steal Like an Artist.
Read, discuss, and present lesson to the class in peer/faculty member groups for Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From.
Submit remarkable projects.
Final exit interview at Digi-Key.

College Comp - I'm currently trying to wrap up grading the braided essays.  Then I'll do the same for their novel #1 mini-research papers.

This week we will start our film review unit.  First, we will watch Jaws.

Jaws? You question.  Really?

Yes.  Why?  I start this unit with Jaws for a couple of reasons.

First, nearly everyone has seen it or at least they have heard of it.  Better yet, all of their parents and grandparents have seen it.  Some can even recall having seen it in the movie theater.  I use this because it helps illustrate the film's visceral impact on its original audience.  I hope students have actually seen it already, for I hope to show them a different side of the film than they ever thought about before.

Second, I talk about how Spielberg masterfully develops his characters (so you actually care about them, which makes the suspense even greater when they are placed in harm's way), how he deliberately uses the power of suggestion (knowing he is stuck with an incredibly fake looking shark, he wisely holds off showing it until the end when, again, here is where his excellent character development proves so vital, because we care so much about the characters, we are able to suspend our disbelief that no shark we have ever heard of has ever behaved this way, let along leaped onto an actual boat and began devouring the crew), how Spielberg has made a movie about a killer shark, but he has also made a movie about greed, about man's struggle to protect his community, about a scientist who is willing to kill that which he has spent so much time studying, and about a maniacal fisherman who is a modern version of Ahab.  Sound like the Jaws your familiar with?  Oh yeah, Spielberg expertly manipulates our fears of the unknown and of one of our most basic fears (that of being on the menu in the grand scheme of things).

Third, it is incredibly entertaining.  That's always a plus.

After watching this in class, we will dissect it for theme and film technique.

This will prepare them for analyzing the film they will write their theme on: Little Miss Sunshine.

Once their film review is done, we also begin to wind the year down pretty quickly. We will read "The Yellow Wallpaper" and discuss it as a warm up for our literary analysis paper.  Then we will read "Young Goodman Brown."  Then we will listen to it again and examine all that we missed on our initial reading as we examine the story in far greater detail.  Then we will write a literary analysis where students choose one theme from "Young Goodman Brown" and then analyze how the theme is shown through three of the four devices: plot, character, setting, and symbolism.

Then we will spend a week comparing "Young Goodman Brown" to Training Day.  We will write a comparison essay between the story and film.

Since students write so many other persuasive essays in other classes, I've decided not to have them write another one in College Comp.  So we will have some extra time to examine the previous three themes and not feel rushed to compose them.

Finally, students will take their test on their second novel and write a full-fledge research paper on it.

And that will bring year 16 to a close for me.

Monday, April 07, 2014


Yesterday afternoon, I was trying to get Cash to take a nap.  Our usual routine, even though he is starting to grow out of this a bit, is to cuddle up in our rocking chair and watch a movie, usually an episode of Scooby Doo or maybe Jonny Quest, on the iPad until he begins yawning and rubbing his eyes.  When that happens, it's only a matter of time before he out cold.

As I was rocking him yesterday while we were watching Scooby Doo and the Witch's Ghost, I gently kissed him on the top of his head.  I said, "Love you, bud."

Then - just over the dialogue of the movie - I heard Cash whisper, "I love you more than anything."

Ahhh.  The little guy almost had me in tears.  What a compliment!

Sunday, April 06, 2014

MCTE 2014

I spent two days with my entire department, as well as Mandy, our ALC English teacher, and Sara, our curriculum director, in Duluth at the Minnesota Council of Teachers of English conference.

I had never gone before, the main reason being that it always used to fall on the NFL draft.  Missing that is out of the question.

However, since the NFL moved the draft over the past year, things finally worked out.

We all went down because there were going to be text book reps attending, and since we are in the process of purchasing new materials for our curriculum cycle, we were going to devote some time to looking over new textbooks.  However, because of the weather (Duluth was expecting upwards of 20 inches of snow by the end of the weekend), the reps didn't show.  And that was fine with me since I don't really use a textbook anyway (College Comp I and II don't' have textbooks).

The first part of this year's theme was excellent, "What You Do Matters."  However, the last half wasn't quite so inspiring, "Connecting with Common Core."

Though I didn't know what to expect, I have to admit that I was very, very happy that I went.

I enjoyed every single presentation, and, honestly, I came away with about a dozen new teaching strategies or ideas for improving my craft.

Here is a rundown of the sessions and speakers.

The first day began with a presentation from NCTE president Dr. Ernest Morrell.  Talk about an excellent way to begin the conference!  Dr. Morrell is the son of two teachers and passionate about education.  He is professor of English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.  Oh by the way he also earned his Ph.D from Berkley.  Must be rough.

He was incredible well spoken and relevant.  The title of his presentation was "(Re)Inventing the Future of English: Teaching English in the Digital Age."  The main focus on his presentation, which he was kind enough to share with us via Dropbox, focused on literacy, mainly seeking to address the questions of "What should we read?" "How should we read?" and "What are we doing while and after our students read?"

One of the best ideas I can steal from Dr. Morrell's presentation is the idea of his "The Reading Ladder."  This idea features students building (with my help, of course) a ladder of reading material focusing around a specific subject (such as "coming of age," "sports," or "bullying") that starts out easy and then ends up with more complex readings.

I'm not sure how I'd design this.  I don't think I'd have the entire ladder consist of books.  I think I'd have three books (one at the bottom of the ladder for easy reading, one at the middle for moderate reading, and one at the top for difficult) and then mix in several different genres on each "step" of the ladder related to the theme.  I'd even try to use various media, film, graphic novels, non fiction, poetry, and so on.

I'd love to devote significant time to this project.  In fact, I'd rather spend our money here than on a textbook.

And I know the standards call for us to teach a Shakespeare.  And 9th grade (where my remedial class is taught) is the traditional spot for teaching The Odyssey.  The be honest regular 9th grade classes struggle with these texts (they struggle with Rome and Juliet because of the Shakespeare's style and the struggled with The Odyssey because our textbook butchered it when they included samples from it).  This is where another thing Morrell spoke about comes in: graphic novels.  I'd love to see the 9r class get a classroom set of graphic novels for both The Odyssey and Romeo and Juliet (or whatever Shakespeare play we decide to cover).

It's safe to say that once Dr. Morrell finished his opening presentation, my mind was on fire.  And the conference had just begun!

Luckily, for me, it wasn't downhill at all from there.

Our first session of the day "Going Digital: Creating Online Content and Curriculum" was easily the weakest of all the sessions I attended.  But that is mainly because it really didn't present us with any new information or ideas.  Since we are 1:1, we do plenty of creating content and curriculum.

After the first session, it was time for our next presenter, Native American writer Jim Northrup.  When I read his bio, I swore that I had heard of him before.  Then I recalled going to an author talk when I was at NCTC when a Native American author spoke to us.  I recall hearing a very powerful poem from that man about being in Vietnam and not dreading the bullets with my name on it as much as fearing the bullets addressed to "To Whom It May Concern."  That phrase stuck with me for the past 20 years.  I also recalled how he chronicled the difficulties of life on the reservation and the horrors of boarding school.

Sure enough, this was the same man.  He read the same Vietnam poem.  I was blessed to hear it again, though it packed the same type of punch as it did all those years ago.  Northrup was a riot.  He was pretty much the polar opposite of Dr. Morrell, who did Berkley and Columbia proud with his speaking skills and stele.  Northrup was blunt, off color (dropping the F world at least half a dozen times), and brutally honest.  He did a great job though and had everyone laughing.

The second session of the afternoon was "The Omnivore's Dilemma for Young Readers: Using High Interest, Non-fiction Text to Engage Reluctant Readers." The highlight of this session was Jesse Kwakenat.  He works with special ed students at Central High School. He was an absolute rock star and the kids are fortunate to have him.

The session focused on how Kwakenat and another teacher used the book The Omnivores Dilemma for Young Readers to build almost an entire curriculum around, featuring writing, reading, science, and public speaking.  This was excellent.  The used a gallery walk that I'm going to use in my classes this week.  I've used a variation of it before, but I am going to use it much the same way they did.  What a gallery walk includes is several large sheets up paper hanging up around the room with a question written across the top.  Then we were divided into one group per sheet of paper.  Then we were dispersed to answer each question.

So here is how I'd use it in College Comp 2 where we are currently reading Seth Godin's Linchpin.  I'd have five sheets of paper up with a specific question on each sheet, such as "Of the seven abilities of a Linchpin, which do you think is the most important?"  and "Why has the world changed from a labor intensive world to a thought intensive world?"

So each group would take turns answering each question.  Then when all groups had a chance to answer, we'd discuss briefly.

Then - and this is what I love about it - I'd walk to each piece of paper and remove it to reveal the same question that had been posed to a previous class.  This way students can instantly compare how they answered the text to how their peers did.  Or I could survey employers or other adults, having them answer each question.  Then I'd jot their answers on the sheet before taping a blank one over it for my students to answer.

When that session was over, we had our last one of the day.  And this one was the best session of the day: Using Structured Socratic Seminars by Daryl Parks.

What I enjoyed most about this session was that we actually modeled exactly what we were learning about.  We sat in a large circle and modeled a Socratic Seminar.

And it was awesome. Now granted he had a bunch of English teachers as his "students," but this was still a great idea for fostering true discussions in class.

For my discussions I ask questions and try to get everyone involved, but that's not an honest discussion, at least in the way the Socratic Seminar is.

The grounds rules are this -

1. The day before, hand out a short piece to be read and discussed in class.  Our "homework" was a very short Ray Bradbury story entitled "The Last Night of the World" from The Illustrated Man.  Of course as a Sci Fi/Horror geek, I had read this book at least three times when I was younger.  So I was well versed in it.  Still I had never thought about it so deliberately as we did in this session.

2.  When students come to class the next day, welcome them and remind them of the homework assignment. If some haven't read it, have them do so quickly.  After all, what's the use of a Socratic seminar session if someone hasn't done the work?

3.  Establish the ground rules for the discussion - no one will raise their hands (I love this.  Dr. Parks noted that raising your hand ruins discussions.  Where in the real world do you ever raise your hand to talk?  Ridiculous).  No talking over someone (or being too eager to share your idea) nor talking under someone (having side conversations or talking about someone's comment beneath your breath).  And if you're an extrovert, be warned to tone it down just a bit for the good of the discussion.  Likewise, if you're an introvert, try to step it up just a bit for the good of the discussion as well.  Finally, the teacher does not make eye contact with anyone.  The reasoning here is to avoid the natural tendency of students  to focus their answers on the teacher.  That doesn't occur in real discussions either.

4.  Be sure to have specific text questions related to the reading.  These questions have to be open ended with no set answers.  This is vital for the discussion.  And I need to get better at this for often I 'fish' for answers in my 'discussions' instead of actually asking questions I have no idea how to answer. In fact, Dr. Parks gave us a list of dominant themes in literature so if we ever have a lull in the conversation, he offered us to just pluck one theme at random (like 'fate vs. freewill') and try to have the class apply it to the story.

5.  Each session begins with a question that is answered by everyone in a specific order - we went clockwise.  Our question was, "What do you think is the title of this story?"  It wasn't fair because I had read this back in 10th grade!  The each session ends with a specific question too.

This was a blast.  And I can't wait to do this in class.  Dr. Parks said that he doesn't use this for all of his discussions, though.  He uses this only three or four times in an entire semester.  So it's best when used sparingly.

That was it for the day.  It would have been a great day too had it not been for the blizzard that was descending on Duluth.  Over the course of the hour or two we went out for supper and a bit of shopping, Duluth was covered in at least four inches of snow!

Friday morning was pretty bleak.  There were fewer people in attendance as many hit the road early because of the weather and a few of the presenters weren't able to make it in.  Still, we plowed ahead (nice pun there) anyway.

Our first speaker was a poet who was pretty much the polar opposite of Jim Northrup.  Our speaker was a past MN Poet Laureate, Joyce Sutphen.  She was gentle, soft spoken, a bit scattered brained, and excellent.  She spoke on teaching and poetry and writing and she worked her magic as she read several of her own poems and the poems of other poets she used in her classes sat  Gustavus.  In her hour or so speaking, I was struck with at least a dozen ideas for poems.  That's how rich her talk was.  She even had us write a haiku about Duluth.

This session was so good it could have been twice as long.  Actually, what would have been fascinating would have been to listen to Sutphen and Northrup talk about poetry.  She was so gentle and soft spoken (she reminded me a lot of the Divination teacher in the Hogwarts movies).  One could imagine her having a glass of wine and listening to NPR in the evenings.  Whereas Northrup was gruff and off-color.  I imagined him winding the day down with a six pack of beer and Breaking Bad.  Yet, how interesting it would be to observe these two total opposites talk about poetry and their work and the writing process.  I bet they wouldn't be so polar opposite when it came to that.

After Sutphen we had our final breakout session, this one entitled "An Uncommonly Good Homecoming Friday Leson Plan" by John Zdrazil.  He spoke about what it's like trying to teach sophomores who are all wound up on homecoming week.  And those are the kids who are actually in your class, not the four pulled out for homecoming coronation rehearsal and band practice.

Most of us try and combat their exuberance and just plow through with a lesson . . . or give in to the fact that zero education will be occurring and just show a movie.

Zdrazil said that he stumbled across a lesson that lets you use the students' goofiness and energy for an actual academic lesson.

And it would work so well.  The lesson?

He asked us to create a school based on a literary figure.  So if you were about done with Fahrenheit 451 when homecoming hit, instead of trying to give a final test on the Friday of homecoming (always a bad idea), you could hold off until Monday for the test (probably still a bad idea) and go ahead with this lesson where you'd imagine Montag, Faber, or Beatty (maybe even the Mechanical Hound) as principal or headmaster.  The you would give students a sheet of paper with a high school on it.  As you look at the paper, you see questions all around the school.

Some of the questions were - what is this school's fight song? What classes do they offer? Who is their rival? What sports or extra curriculars do they offer? What is their mascot? What is the vibe in the school during homecoming? What do they have for lunch? What are the dress up days and activities for their homecoming? And so on.

For the record, here is what I came up with using Beatty (the antagonist of 451).

School name - Beatty’s Academy for the Average

Colors - black, red, and gray

Mascot: Home of the Prowling Mechanical Hounds

Song - Cheer, Cheer for those who don’t think
for when the reader’s ship goes down, it will be on fire
and we’ll sing “burn, burn” as it sinks.

Required reading . . . only for those who we wish to expel (or exterminate).

Required viewing instead

Courses -

Mindless consumption

Constant entertainment

The Benefits of materialism

Immolation 101

The physics of fire

Intoxicating the mind with music, drama, and TV.

Fun Park Architecture I and II.

Shakesfeare 401

How to burn turn in your parents.

Burning the elderly isn’t bad

Montag High
Hemingway Academy
Melville Tech



Lunch - Salamandar soup.  

Homecoming week-

Monday -  Announcing the court.  The winner is crowned.  Second place fodder for the hound. Third place burned alive at the homecoming bonfire.

Dress up - Asbestos wear

Tuesday - Twin day

Wednesday - injury day (dress as your most recent burn victim).

Thursday - Mechanical Hound day - Activity - hide banned books in rival lockers.  Then turn the Hound on them.  Can you outrun the Hound.  If you survive first block, your class is awarded 100 points.  

Friday - Coronation.  The winner is crowned.  Second place has a dance with the hound  Third place is the guest of honor at the bonfire after the game.

Now that was a lot of fun.  So students - who would be very much in the homecoming mood during this day - would be able to channel some of that energy into this assignment.  Again, I can't wait to give this a try.

Friday came to a close with a great speaker, author Geoff Herbach who chronicled his quest to become a writer, which was not an easy task at all.  Still, he shared us stories from his high school days that were hilarious, as was the story of how he got the seed of the idea for his breakthrough YA novel, Stupid Fast.

I enjoyed every moment of Herbach's presentation.  Any school who has him in to speak to their student body, especially young males who have stopped reading, are very, very lucky.

This was such a great experience that I fear I'm hooked on MCTE.  Hell, even if it does fall on the NFL draft, it is still worth going!  And that's really saying something coming from me given that my favorite day of the year is the NFL draft.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

April Fool's. Indeed.

I wish yesterday's blizzard was a joke.  But as this picture attests to, it wasn't. I couldn't even make it out of our neighborhood!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Snow Day Reads, Views, and Links

Well, what else can a teacher do on yet another snow day but blog and do some professional development?  Oh, don't worry.  This day isn't going to be all fun and games. After this entry is complete, the kids and I are going to build a fort and have a Pixar marathon.

Who has time for engagement?

This is an interesting post from one of my all-time favorite bloggers, Angela Maiers.

The post cites a book by Eric Jensen entitled Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind.  The post talks about how vital engaging students is to retention of material.

Big shocker, right?

Yet, there is a lot of pushback around engagement or eductainment.  I get that.  It's a lot of work to try and engage or entertain students. It's exhausting always feeling like you have to be on stage as the ring leader.

I get that.

But unfortunately, that is how this generation learns best. And I would argue that's how most of us learn best.

However, sadly, that's not how most of us teach best.  It's easier to make copies of worksheets or guides supplied to us by the text book company.  It's easier to find lesson plans on the internet.  It's easier to just read the directions and go through the motions.  But it's not engaging to these kids.

Now, to be fair, the article explains that there are several other words that "engagement" goes by: feedback, project based learning, cooperative learning, and interactive teaching.

So if we all referred to engagement as interaction, we wouldn't have so many eyes rolling when we bring up the topic.

We might even have a few more students tuning in to our lessons.


Speaking of unengaging lessons, here is an example from the much maligned Common Core math series.

There is so much wrong with this type of question and activity.  I like that it's trying to combine math skills and writing skills. I like that it's working toward divergent thinking, allowing students to come up with the sentence in their own way that shows the problem.

But there's a whole lot that I loathe about this.

First, it is making a simple problem far too complex.  It could have ended right after "How many cars did he see?" Or maybe even after they have written the number sentence.

Second, isn't there a better use of the student's time and thinking other than having to devise a ridiculous sentence to  "Explain how the number sentence shows the problem."  Where will students ever have to do this?  When was the last any of us out in the real world had to do this?  If they're interested in getting the student to write, why not ask the student to write a sentence estimating how many cars might be in the school parking lot or in the city in which he lives?  Wow. Then you could actually do a little bit of actual research as a class (like walking to the parking lot and having students count the parking spots and seeing how many are empty?).  When was the last time you had to deal real research of some sort in the real world?

Unfortunately, whoever devises textbooks and their materials has spent too little time in an actual classroom teaching real kids.

In fact, this textbook company could do well to read this short article, 5 Powerful Questions Teachers Can Ask Students.  Any of them (and they're listed below) would be more engaging and thought provoking than the ludicrous example from the Common Core.

#1. What do you think?

This question interrupts us from telling too much. There is a place for direct instruction where we give students information yet we need to always strive to balance this with plenty of opportunities for students to make sense of and apply that new information using their schemata and understanding.

#2. Why do you think that?

After students share what they think, this follow-up question pushes them to provide reasoning for their thinking.

#3. How do you know this?

When this question is asked, students can make connections to their ideas and thoughts with things they've experienced, read, and have seen.

#4. Can you tell me more?

This question can inspire students to extend their thinking and share further evidence for their ideas.

#5. What questions do you still have?

This allows students to offer up questions they have about the information, ideas or the evidence.

Love this one. The power of the internet. Let's hope it works to bring this sick girl some joy.


A Guidebook for Social Media in the Classroom

I was just having a conversation via email with a colleague about this. She was concerned about what her students were putting online.  This is always a concern.

Students need to learn to not share everything.  Then they need to learn to behave more appropriately so there isn't anything they need not share on social media.  But don't judge them too harshly.  I think we all had to learn that as we grew up.

That still doesn't mean, though, that we should make use of the most engaging (there's that damn word again) platforms for learning available to us.

I know what some of you curmudgeons are thinking, "yeah, but that's not real learning or teaching."

If that's so, then why do we English teachers practically kill ourselves teaching Shakespeare to our students, yet no English teacher I have ever met harbors the illusion that we will so enthrall our kids with the Bard's excellent prose (and it is the best ever written) that they will promptly go home and read Hamlet or King Lear or The Tempest on their own up in their rooms.

That's asinine.  We actually hope they go home and just read anything, Stephen King, Jody Paccoult, or J K Rowling.

Yet, why do we teach them Shakespeare?  We do that because we hope they will be getting the skills to think critically, evaluate a complex text, and form a conclusion.

Those skills will come in handy in college.

The same is true for social media.  If I have students peek at what social media can do for them as a learning tool or being part of a learning community or to connect with others, that doesn't mean I expect them to do that on Twitter or Instagram when they walk out my door.

But the potential is there.  Students need to see how vastly different their use of Twitter is to mine.  They vent or share (mostly) trivial information. I use it to connect with other like minded educators and to get a plethora of professional development sources.  In fact, here is a great link to How Twitter Makes Me A Better Educator.

For the record, here are 12 ways you can use social media in your classroom

12 Ways Teachers are Using Social Media in the Classroom Right Now

  1. Tweet or post status updates as a class. Teacher Karen Lirenman lets students propose nuggets of learning that are posted for parents to read.
  2. Write blog posts about what students are learning. Teacher Kevin Jarrettblogs reflections about his Elementary STEM lab for parents to read each week.
  3. Let your students write for the world. Linda Yollis' students reflect about learning and classroom happenings.
  4. Connect to other classrooms through social media. Joli Barker is fearlessly connecting her classroom through a variety of media.
  5. Use Facebook to get feedback for your students' online science fair projects. Teacher Jamie Ewing is doing this now, as he shared recently.
  6. Use YouTube for your students to host a show or a podcast. Don Wettrick's students hosted the Focus Show online and now share their work on a podcast.
  7. Create Twitter accounts for a special interest projects. My student Morganspent two years testing and researching the best apps for kids with autism (with the help of three "recruits"), and her work just won her an NCWIT Award for the State of Georgia.
  8. Ask questions to engage your students in authentic learning. Tom Barrettdid this when his class studied probability by asking about the weather in various locations.
  9. Communicate with other classrooms. The Global Read AloudGlobal Classroom Project and Physics of the Future are three examples of how teachers use social media to connect their students as they collaborate and communicate.
  10. Create projects with other teachers. (Full disclosure: I co-created Physics of the Future with Aaron Maurer, a fellow educator I first met on Twitter.)
  11. Share your learning with the world. My students are creating anEncyclopedia of Learning Games with Dr. Lee Graham's grad students at the University of Alaska Southeast. The educators are testing the games, and the students are testing them, too.
  12. Further a cause that you care about. Mrs. Stadler's classes are working tosave the rhinos in South Africa, and Angela Maiers has thousands of kidschoosing to matter.

Speaking of social media, here is another cool article 10 Social Media Sites For Education

10 Best Social Media Sites For Students & Teachers
  1. Twiducate: Described as a “walled garden,” this site is billed as a safe site for teachers and students to collaborate. It’s easily accessible and allows teachers to create a class community online using a class code rather than an email address. It also allows teachers to have total control over who is a member and what gets posted. And, it’s free.
  2. TweenTribune: Want to join up with a site that hooks kids on current events? TweenTribune lets students stay up-to-date with current events from the Easthampton student whose tongue froze to a metal pole to a proposal by New Jersey’s governor Chris Christie to lengthen the school day and the school year. It gets students in the news habit and offers a chance for them to comment on the days events. Unfortunately, it does have advertisements (though, what news outlet doesn’t). It sticks to the upbeat news of the day–don’t log on expecting the latest on the Syria conflict.
  3. Blackboard: This the industry leader in course management systems, but it isn’t something you can adopt on your own. The decision to use Blackboard is usually made at the district level, though occasionally by individual schools. Blackboard is an incredibly powerful, safe and comprehensive platform. Many newer teachers will already be familiar with it from their teacher training programs. The downside is cost. This is a very expensive platform, but you pay for quality. That said, it will lack some flexibility for its most tech-savvy teachers.
  4. EDU2.0: This is for teachers looking to integrate course management systems like Blackboard, without the cost. Edu2.0 starts out by offering all it’s premium features on a free trial basis. At the end of the trial period, those features turn off and you can still use the basic platform for free. These features will be plenty for the average user, but may be enough for “power users.” Edu2.0 is cloud-based and requires no significant investment in storage capacity.
  5. Wikispaces Classroom: Collaboration is second nature to Wiki users and Wiki Classroom proves it’s no exception. Wiki Classrooms are private social networks complete with news feeds and communication tools. It’s safe because you decide who’s invited — students, parents, administrators. You can assign, collaborate on, discuss and assess projects all within the site. It can even handle multimedia. The best part, Wikispaces Classroom is free.
  6. Edmodo: Here’s another excellent, free classroom management system. It includes news feeds, assessment tools, communication capabilities and security features.
  7. Skype: Too many educators overlook the potential of Skype in the classrooms. It is the one site that can literally bring the outside world right into your classroom. You can host authors, visit science labs or talk to pen pals from across the globe.
  8. MinecraftEdu: The secret of MinecraftEdu is its ability to harness the power of video games to engage learners. This game allows students to collaborative, explore and problem solve all while learning about history, economics, science and math. Teachers can customize it to fit their curriculum.
  9. Sumdog: This gaming site is kind of like flashcards on steroids. Elementary school age kids love this site. The social aspect is the ability to add friends to their accounts. Kids will race home from school to play them online. It has fun levels and clever characters.
  10. Twitter: Not everyone loves Twitter in the classroom, and there may be good reasons for that. However, it makes the Top 10 because students love it and they use it. Setting up a GroupTweet account lets you moderate who joins and what gets posted. It is also important to keep the account strictly business

And now for a little humor - This is the Science Project to End All Science Projects.


Ever wonder if your students learned anything? I mean you taught the lesson, right? But did they learn anything?  Trust me, I've been there. Many times.

Here are some things to try the next time you're wondering that -


This is a job application after my own heart.  I need to use this somehow in my College Comp 2 class for our college and career project.

I mean, come on, it just doesn't get any cooler than this!


Want to know why a vast majority of professional athletes end up broke after their careers are over? It's because colleges give them a chance at a free education and let them pass with work like this!

The message is clear to athletes: the university doesn't really care about you.  If you can help make them tens of millions of dollars by helping their football or basketball teams to championships, they don't care if you get even the rudimentary skills needed to be successful when you graduate.  And remember less than 1% of all athletes who play college athletics ever go on to the pros.  So if this essay merits an A- what kind of education is being handed to the 99% of college athletes who enter the work force with their degrees?


This is hilarious. 15 odd inventions from the past.  And some people think we're foolish today.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Today's Read, Views, and Links

History in a Tree

This is amazing.  Now the tree hugger in me asks why cut such a magnificent thing down?  But maybe it was diseased or had to be cut down.  Regardless, imagine living through all that this tree did.


A matter of perspective.  I love this one from one of my favorite bloggers/administrators.

This is what every teacher should strive for: connection.  If you're just up reading directions without passion, a computer could do your job. What's the point of showing up to teach?


If you're still holding back from embracing social media in your classroom or school, here are 11 Ways to Use Social Media in your School.

My favorites are -

In class:
  • Class announcements and discussions are shared on sites like Twitter
  • Professors share learning materials and more on blogs and networking sites.


School pride:
  • Colleges create mascot Facebook pages to encourage school spirit
  • Free school swag and materials are offered online

Free school swag? I love that!

Speaking of social media, here is an interesting post form an educator talking about What Your Twitter Profile Says About You?   Have you ever thought about it? Have you ever thought about your digital footprint?


How cool is this? An elementary school class that allows students to create their own learning environment.  Gotta love innovation.


Another reason why I love the personal essay.  And why I think it should be the dominant form of writing taught at high schools. Perhaps, it even is!


This commercial is awesome!

I don't seeing either of or cats being so calm free falling from 15,000 feet!  Of course, I wouldn't mind seeing Kozy, our dog, free falling. Minus the parachute!  Ha ha.  Just kidding.

Inevitably, this commercial sparked outrage from animal lovers; however, those folks seem to forget there are such things as blue screens and special effects. NO CATS WERE THROWN FROM PLANES.

If they were, don't you think they'd look a little more disturbed? Einer just about claws my face off whenever I jokingly hold him over the bathtub.  What do you think they'd do if you were tossing them off a plane?

I don't know of a better commercial. Maybe this one.

 I will never forget how hard my father laughed at this one when we watched it during the Super Bowl.


And this is how the Bard should be taught and read to high schoolers!  Brilliant.


Mr. Powers sent this to me. I think it's brilliant. And an amazing assignment.


And finally, when I assign both the braided essay and multi-genre research papers, I tell students that the record is 76 pages.  And I offer a challenge to anyone interested in going for the record.

Well, this time a senior accepted the challenge!

I never would have imagined 93 pages!  That's what 11 hours worth of writing can produce. It was great to see her go to work in class.  She would sit down, put her headphones one, tune the world out, and give anyone interrupting her the can't-you-see-I'm-busy-writing look. 

And here's the proof she sent me.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Today's Reads, Views, and Links

I bought the book How To Deliver A TED Talk: Secrets of the World's Most Inspiring Presentations at Barnes and Noble yesterday.  If we lived in Fargo, I'd be a regular there.  Yes, I couldn't gotten the book for half the price at Amazon, but the atmosphere of Barnes and Noble was unmatched. If I would have had more time, I'd have sat down and order a light roast with a shot of espresso from the Starbucks inside.

Now that's a great way to spend an afternoon!

The book, by the way, is going to be awesome.  I really wanted to buy it when I was down at TIES, but I went with the excellent Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook! by Gary Vaynerchuk.

I'm going to use the tips in here for my Honor's Banquet speech this spring as well as in designing my summer tech classes at the NWSC and my class next year.

Speaking of TED Talks, has it really been 8 years since this iconic TED Talk debuted? This was my introduction to TED Talks. And what an introduction it was!

Like all great professional development, whenever I see this I'm amazed that I was able to think, live, and teach without it.


Here is an interesting read on a topic near and dear to my heart: Student Engagement.

Of the 26 keys to engage students, for my money, here is the most important. This is the thing I work hardest on in trying to engage my students.

Outside: To really engage students, we must bring and allow some of the their outside into the classroom. Every student we teach has something in their lives that they do well AND love. If we can identity the engaging and creative ways they do their work outside of school and find ways to bring that into the classroom, students may start to see that school is not such a bad place after all. There are many sites on which students can learn directly from experts and professionals.


We had a department meeting last week where we looked at a rubric we - as a department - could use in selected textbooks since our curriculum cycle is up and it's time to get new textbooks.

Textbook.  Gulp.

I know.

My take on textbooks, since probably my fourth year of teaching, which was when I stopped solely using them as my curriculum, is that they are (a necessary) evil.

Full confession time here: my first year teaching I used my textbook almost religiously.  I can close my eyes and see the blue cover of the sophomore level Elements of Literature (replete with the full text of Julius Caesar and A Separate Peace).

It had some stories that I loved, "The Cold Equations," "The Bride Comes to Yellowsky," "The Pit and the Pendulum," "Two Kinds," and "With All Flags Flying."

It also contained a sample from Le morte d'arthur.  It was at this moment in the year that I tried to supplement what was going on in my curriculum.  I bought a copy of Excalibur and showed it in class. Now I still did a shameful job with this, giving a number of worksheets with and lecturing about it rather than doing anything really engaging with it.

But the students seemed to enjoy it, and, best of all, they really got into it.

That was a bit of a turning point for me.  Now I supplement my curriculum quite liberally.  This is not perfect. I sometimes (maybe often) end up stepping on the toes of someone else's curriculum.  But I try to avoid this as much as possible.

I just know that a generic textbook can never meet the individual needs to the 28 kids in my class.  So I need to supplement.

Plus, outside of education, where do textbooks thrive?

If I weren't a teacher, I'd never even consult one of the damned things.

I think Seth Godin has the right take on textbooks.


Well, some good news finally. There is no new doomsday prophecy on the horizon.  At least until we invent one.


I love this one.  If a student would have done this in a class of mine, I'd seriously consider giving him or her an A.

If they would have added the phrase . . . "nor does this really teach us anything," they'd have earned an A for sure!


George Courus is one of my favorite bloggers. This post reminds us of the 3 Things That Should Never Change in Schools.

Here is another great post from Courus.  And it's a question every teach should be able to answer with either one of these two phrases: "Hell yes!" or "Damn straight!"

And he includes this wonderful bit of video shot by a teacher subjected to some horrifying professional development. If our students video taped us in class, would this type of 'learning' be going on?  Good lord, I hope not!

And Courus asks a great question: the internet is abuzz with negative comments about this type of professional development.  Yet, if you replaced these teachers with students, would the same outcry occur?


Finally, I love this one: What It Means to be a Leader, 11 Tips.

These are my favorites -

  1. People are waiting for you to make the tough decisions. If you're the leader, look around the room at your team. Yes, they are looking at you and waiting with bated breath to hear what your decision is. They might hem and haw, but in their deepest hearts they want you to make those tough decisions. We all learn by watching, and they are watching you to see how you do it.
  1. Your job is to do the right thing, with love. There is a place for love in the life of a leader. In fact, that place is everywhere and with everything and everybody. No matter what you do, it's always better done with love. But still, remember #4, and don't think that doing things with love means needing to feel loved in return. You still need to do the right thing, just in the right way.
  1. Get out of your comfort zone, and do new things and encourage your teams to do so, too, because that's where creative ideas, strategic intelligence, and innovation come from. Travel. Learn. Talk to people. Go food shopping. (I always call shopping "market research," since while you're there you see firsthand what people are doing and how they're responding to things.) If you do the same things over and over again, you're going to get either the same results or slightly worse results over time. The only way to get new ideas is to do new things.