Category Archives: web2.0

I’d Give My RIght Arm for a Tool That…

Veins in my Right Arm.
…is cross-platform and collaborative, and would allow me to assign my current “fantasy unit test” in history classes. That unit test would have students create a conversation from home featuring images and texts that is recorded and embeddable on their blogs — call it something like a recorded Skype conference + screencast.

I’d simply want small groups of students (individuals would be easy) to discuss the big events of the unit like the newly-educated budding subject area experts I’m trying to create — and to do so in a relaxed, informal, and audience-conscious way.

I picture that audience being their parents, and the “synopsis” of their “talk show” to be along these lines:

In today’s episode, the hosts talk about the often mind-bending beginnings of Chinese history, how radically different that history is from all other major civilizations’, and what those other civilizations might learn from China’s ancient beginnings that could still be useful in today’s world — with several detours for laughs along the way.

I picture the audience being maybe their parents, who might be curious to learn from their kids where their tuition dollars are going.

The problem? I don’t know a tool. My school allows Macs and PCs, and I don’t know how three or four students could do an online session with a shared desktop and screencast-recorder that also records conference calls.

Shareski? Ira? Beuhler?



On Student Genius, How Not to Grade a Wiki, and Making the World a Stage

clock pictureScot Aldred asks how I assessed projects like the Broken World Wiki textbook, and I tell him I haven’t the foggiest idea. It was too long ago. More to the point, he notes that since I said in my Australia keynote that whatever I did at that time led to burnout, the better question is, “How are such edit-heavy projects best assessed?” This set me to thinking of a speech I saw a brilliant Korean student give in the Original Oratory competition at the IASAS Cultural Convention in Taipei, Taiwan, earlier this month, and how it challenged a lot of what I’ve been taught is “authentic” writing instruction and assessment.

But this post is as much about that brilliant young speaker, and how he and the other young prodigies at that event need to learn to showcase their brilliance by harnessing the power of the web. So, first, that Korean kid.

The Spoken

Slouched in the back rows of the auditorium, high above the stage, I looked down on this kid approaching the podium with a bit of amusement. Straight bangs down to his mad scientist glasses, thin and slightly hunched frame, he didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Even less when he took a few beats too many, it seemed to me, to adjust the microphone, pause, survey his audience left, center, right. Had he forgotten his lines? Finally, he hunches forward into the microphone and peers out at the audience from beneath those low-hanging bangs:

To the left: “Tick.”  To the center: “Tick.” To the right. “Tick.” Pause. “Time is passing, and you’ll never get a moment back.”

My cliche-meter activated, I’m already plotting a path to the most discreet exit. But he keeps going: “And that’s why I want to talk to you today about what we’re told is one of the great evils of student life: Procrastination.”

He belts that last word out with such surprising flair, both vocally and physically, wheeling his body in such a way that he takes in the whole audience with his eyes, that I’m inclined to nibble at his bait. I’ll give him a few more seconds.

“You’ve all heard it a million times from a million teachers: ‘Don’t wait until the last minute to start your essay. You’ve got a week: start drafting now.’ Or, ‘Don’t put off studying for that test until the last night.’ ” Pause. “But I’m here to tell you: the teachers are wrong. Procrastination is one of the wisest strategies for living the Good Life.”

The pleasure of the hook piercing the cheek. I relax into my seat to enjoy being reeled in.

The Heard

The student went on to marshal all sorts of evidence that real people often wait until the deadline to do their work, and they do just fine. He’s got me thinking of how I teach writing — the Six Traits of Effective Writing, using the Writing Process to revise, trait by trait, over a number of days — versus how I do it, and have always done it: in one sustained outpouring of words that normally begins around 10 pm with a full pot of coffee, and ends around dawn the next day at the bottom of the second pot. And yes, that day is the day of the deadline.

It worked for me in college, where my professors almost always praised my writing. And it has worked for me since, in all the (admittedly modest) ways my writing has been successful.

So why was I making my students practice a model I myself didn’t practice, had never practiced? Why was I forcing them to sacrifice on its altar so many irrecoverable ticks of the clock, and forcing myself to sacrifice hours as well to assess each of those revisions?

Pitchforks down, readers. I’m a strong advocate of the Six Traits, and sing its praises whenever the topic comes up. It’s a beautifully focused model for zeroing in on the fine points of the writer’s craft, and its internal logic makes it a baby worth keeping. My way of teaching it, though? That’s the bathwater this kid was making me think should be thrown out. (And that points toward my first gut answer to Scot: assessing wikis shouldn’t excessively weight the number of edits. It’s the quality of the final piece that should be assessed. For some writers, excellent quality will take many edits, and for others, none at all. The proof is in the pudding. If the final product lacks polish, the student should be able to show edits as proof of effort. Otherwise, ignore them.)

The Echoes

Then came the moment of the speech that lifted me powerless onto the deck, happily flapping at this young speaker’s feet: “And now let me close by warning you of your fate if you don’t procrastinate: you become that most unhealthy of things in modern civilization” — and he wheels on the next phrase, and spits it out with fire-and-brimstone perfection — “a workaholic!”

Laughter and applause all around as he speeds through the details of a life lost to obsessive perfectionism and a work ethic gone berserk, before putting on the brakes, slowing to a pause, and closing where he started, with the “Tick, tick, tick” of that precious clock that, unless we rule it, rules us: a healthy reminder that some cliches earn their status for good reason.

Toward a Bigger Stage

I left that Original Oratory event the way I had left so many others — the Impromptu Speaking, the Oral Interpretation, the Extemporaneous Speaking — at that Convention: amazed by the talent of the students, and depressed at how boxed-in it all was. That Korean student (Sung Jin J. of Jakarta International School) struck me as nothing less than a young, Asian David Sedaris, able to use his wit and verbal skills to turn his quirky physical package to his great advantage; another student, a Pakistani young man named Raheem of the International School of Manila, spoke in multiple events with such polish and intelligence I would have paid admission to see more; likewise Zach at my own school, with his Original Oratory speech about the degeneration of high school into a breeding ground for “fakes, hypocrites, and cheaters,” an institution devoted no longer to “college preparation,” but to mere “college application preparation”; and an Australian young man whose name I forget but whose speeches I never will: all of these students showed nothing less than genius. And while IASAS deserves kudos for celebrating these prodigies on the same level that we usually (and depressingly) reserve for people skilled at getting a rubber ball through a hoop, across a line, or over a fence, it still falls short of promoting them on a far broader, and at the same time far less labor-intensive scale.

You know what I’m getting at: all that genius disappears into silence or, only slightly better, onto some school website that gets ten visits a month. If they truly had the savvy popular wisdom suggests these “digital natives” do, they could be getting thousands, tens of thousands of viewers a month. And that could lead places for them.

The missed opportunity to showcase them as they deserve killed me. I approached many of them, gave them my card, told them they deserved a wider audience than the auditorium, and I wanted to help them reach it. It was all unplanned, so I cast about in my mind for possibilities: I could propose to my old colleagues at that they publish these students as guest-writers. I could see about interesting them in reviving Students 2.0. I could feature them on this blog.

But all of those ideas are more complicated, it seems to me now, than necessary. It seems to me that all those students need to do is start their own blog, or YouTube channel for their orations, and share their talents with the world that easily. When they launch, they can tell me, I can tell you, and we can all promote them and send viewers their way. And then the unpredictable possibilities of “Open Living,” to quote Alan Levine — the possible job offers, interviews, feature articles, and the million other serendipities — are given their opening. And maybe these young geniuses can be discovered before they graduate high school.

Image by zoutedrop

On Using Technology Without Understanding It

This editorial from our high school student newspaper is a must-read for its criticism of the school-wide technology integration initiative. It’s a must-read for other reasons too — and other readers — but read it first, and we’ll get to that very different party afterward.

hs edtech editorial
hs edtech editorial 2

The first thing I did when I read this was mentally applaud.

The second thing I did was wish I could reply to it and, better still, promote it for a wider audience than the guaranteed one in the schoolhouse (I’ve always thought school newspapers were a bit like busywork, since they were monopolies without real-world competition, and had no incentive to earn a bigger audience through superior quality — especially silly in the Information Digital Age).

I wanted to start a conversation with the writer, share ideas and viewpoints, extend the topic — you know, basically learn more from her, and ideally give such quality feedback in my comments that maybe the author would learn more too. Surely she knew that authors have far less authority in the Information Digital Age, that the nature of those things called texts and authors has been revolutionized by the ability of readers to write on the same page, to (in the language of AP exams) “challenge, qualify, and extend” the author’s ideas and words and worldview.

Surely she knew that the 21st Century writer learns as much from the 21st Century reader as the reader does from the writer. (Because 21st Century readers — the best ones, anyway — write with the writer. Just look at Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman’s blog, all the references he makes in his writing to what his readers are saying in comments. Look at Rolling Stones’ Matt Taibbi having conversations with his readers in the space beneath his articles — you know, those silly “forum”-like things. Just look.)

So yeah, I wanted to respond to it, and share to the world here on my (real) blog. I thought the writing and the critique of the rush to laptop use in the classroom were that good.

But the editorial was on that precious resource and traditional tool called — what was it? It’s been so long since I’ve written on it — oh yeah, paper, so no luck there (for me, or the forests, or the atmosphere, or the students’ future environmental situation).

The third thing I did was figure, since the student says her “generation is more than adept at using technology,” that she would surely know that journalism lives more and more online now, that print news is dying. Since she says, after all, that she’s a “member of the Information Age,” she would know that the Huffington Post — a newpaper that has never been in print — eclipsed the venerable old Washington Post (that traditional newspaper that actually still uses paper) to take the number 2 spot, after the New York Times, in total traffic last September. I figured she’d know that the, what shall we call it?,  traditional NYTimes itself is taking out loans on its headquarters building, due to its almost nonexistent profit margins in this post-Gutenberg age. But surely this student knew all this stuff too, because I’m sure she uses an RSS reader, and reads links from the thousand smart people she’s built up in her Twitter network — surely Tweetdeck is one of the applications open at the bottom of her screen, and surely it’s populated not by people who share her blood or her table at the school cafeteria, like most of the silly Facebook crowd, but by like-minded peers (and unlike-minded ones) around the world.

Surely she uses these by-now old tools to stay more informed about the world than people who don’t use them.

I figured, in short, that I could find an online version of the editorial — since the student surely knew that that’s not only writing’s future, it’s its present — and be able to respond to it, and promote it to all of you readers dotting the six inhabited continents on my nifty Clustrmap at the bottom of the right sidebar. A simple select, copy, paste, and link to her site so my blog’s readers could follow the link, join the conversation, share their praise (and their experience).  Maybe offer her an internship if they’re in the publishing biz, since I figured her blog would surely have a “Contact Me” page for just such possibilities. I mean, she’s technically adept, after all, and so used to troubleshooting Internet Explorer for her parents. (She surely dropped IE long ago with most geeks in favor of Firefox, Opera, Chrome, Safari, or whatever. It’s a parent thing, surely.)

The fourth thing I did was search for the online version of the paper and, sure enough, I found it — in pdf. You know, the format where, as I saw Will Richardson put it, “good ideas go to die.”

And that almost totally changed my view of the editorial. I couldn’t comment. I couldn’t read other students’, teachers’, administrators’, parents’, and purely authentic Readers-from-the-Brave-New-Web’s ideas about the text. I couldn’t copy and paste the most interesting ideas in the text for fine-grained commentary here, and link to the article to send you there. Instead, I had to take screenshots of it and upload it here. All of which suggested to me that, contrary to the claims of “adeptness” and expertise in the editorial, the editorial writer(s) have much more to learn than they realize.

Parting shots: Last month I took three days off of school to fly to the beach in Australia, all expenses paid, in order to give a talk to an educational technology conference. I got the offer via the “Contact Me” page on this blog, from a reader of this blog I’d never met (because while she did read, I’m not aware of her ever commenting). She invited me to speak simply by virtue of the fact that she said she was a long-time reader who liked what she read here.

Here. On a simple blog.

That wouldn’t have happened if I thought pdf was good enough for the 21st Century writer.

A couple months before that, I got another “Contact Me” bite from a PBS TV documentary producer asking if I’d be available to be a talking head on a show they were doing about classic literature — for the first episode, to be exact, which was about none other than Gilgamesh, about which I’ve written about 20,000 words over the last year here, on this simple blog. She’d read my take, and said it was exactly the kind of approach and tone her team wanted for the show.

That, too, wouldn’t have happened if I thought pdf was good enough for the 21st Century writer.

But at that Australia conference, much of what I said actually agreed with what the student editorial said: I agree that teachers can be excellent at what they do without technology. I agree that, worse still, pushing teachers to use technology before they’re trained, experienced, and ready can indeed lead to worse teaching and worse learning. I really do think the student writer’s criticisms along these lines should be taken very, very seriously. I’ve been in this world long enough to believe that we can’t push the reluctant to use it, and that that’s a fool’s errand. The best we can do is “pull,” I said in Australia. But even that word is wrong, since it still requires more energy than is sustainable for teachers. Now I believe the best we can do is simply attract. The sun isn’t getting muscle fatigue keeping the planets in orbit. It’s simply attracting them, effortlessly, because of its impressive mass. Teachers should be suns in this way, and students the planets worth keeping in orbit. Those with ears, let them hear.

But. What I hope I’ve given the writer pause to reflect on in all of the above is that having “six or seven apps” open on your computer, doing Facebook, and helping Mom with IE is nothing special. It’s about as impressive as publishing to pdf.

And: Here’s my pitch, and it’s to you, student editorial writer, whoever you are:

Our school is going 1:1 next year whether we like it or not. And I’m not sure I like it myself, since I’ve taught at a 1:1 laptop school before, and really wonder, as I wrote lately, if “the Web is too beautiful to waste on the young.”

Because just as you’re arguing that admin shouldn’t force teachers who don’t want to learn new ways to do their job, I’d much rather not force students to learn what I’ve learned after three or four years of self-publishing, podcasting, networking, and more. I’d much rather invite the “three out of a thousand” I see every year to come by after class so I can say, “You’re a great writer (or speaker, or artist, or photographer, or whatever), and if you want my support in sharing your uniqueness with more than the school hallway or your bedroom file cabinet, I’ll show you some things that have worked for me. They might lead places for you.”

Moreover, I’d much rather you use the laptops at home to watch podcasted lectures and whatnot, and come to school to discuss, write, plan, create in a workshop-style setting that applies what you learned on your laptop the night before.

And I have no interest in playing cop to your generation’s Facebook addiction in the classroom. Sometimes I wonder why I should have to. Students who choose to spend their school time writing graffiti on Facebook (and not, in the traditional way, on their schooldesk) instead of learning from the web activity that the teacher, after all, ideally has judged as worth their time  — that’s their choice. It’s a choice not to rise. Maybe they shouldn’t rise, then, and they should go ahead and practice their spelling of “LOL,” “wtf?”, and “rotfl.”  Meanwhile, the teacher can focus on the students in the room who want to learn, and to peacefully pursue future superiority over the Facebook scribblers sitting next to them. It’s a lesson in real-world responsibility. Sometimes we have to do things we’d rather not do, or suffer the consequences.

And while I’m not sure I believe that, this I do believe: It’s going to be messy for all of us.

And you, student, whoever you are, can help make it less messy. You took a good first step by articulating the problems you say students are talking about. Now take the next step: get those students to join you in generating solutions. (Read my “Recession Skills 101″ posts here, here, and here to get my take on how you should see yourself as a stakeholder in your education — as basically an employee who’s expected to contribute to the betterment of the company.)

Do it openly, do it professionally, do it maturely, and do it constructively. Don’t name names and if you’re going to stab something, stab a solution.

How can you do that? The simplest way would be to start a blog — or turn the newspaper into one.

And one last thing: as you’re helping the school try to launch this thing, as you’re suggesting your changes and communicating your point of view, don’t forget to be open to changing your mind and learning something new. Because there’s more to the web — to “blogs, wikis, and forums,” to quote your example (did you know the CIA and United Nations use wikis now?) — than you seem to understand.

And that’s true for all of us.