Friday, February 26, 2010

Authentic Audiences

Lauren's Challenge Based Project group attracted over a thousand hits in the first days they went live. In a previous post I referred to it as a "web masterpiece". How did this happen? Well, they were a very bright group of young women to be sure, tight knit and motivated as well. But in this video, Lauren conveys something that was a constant theme across the CBL groups: They were highly motivated to create a medium for an authentic audience.

Unique, to Lauren's group was their determination to reach sub-audiences, as well. She describes a three tiered approach at the Democracy of Tomorrow site. (If you "google" , the name, it's the top hit). Watching this happen has changed my view on how to teach.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

A Favorite Podcasting Activity

I recently launched a favorite tech activity in my AP Government Class. Students independently watch a political documentary film. This year's group wanted to draw draft choices and then took turns selecting a film from my list of 30.

After watching the film, students will create a ten minute podcast. Students were given instructions for issues to address in the podcast, and given tips on how to use GarageBand and Audacity. On a designated due date students must submit their mp3s and I then post them to an iWeb blog page.

Then, the fun begins: Each student is assigned to listen to two other podcasts and "review" them on the blog page. Again, they are given specific instructions on what points to consider in their "two page" review.

Since the podcasts and reviews are published to a blog site (password protected) all students in the class have access to all the productions. Knowing this generally brings out the best in both the podcasts and the written work.

While posting the ten minute podcasts is a chore for me (any suggestions on how I might relieve myself of this chore in a password protected space?), I always look forward to reviewing the results-- It sure beasts reading a stack of term papers!
Screen shot from AP Gov class vlog site

Monday, February 22, 2010

Monday Musings at the Drive-thru

Monday Musings at the Drive-thru....

People still say things to me like, "This will make you happy - I'm not using paper for [such and such]." This is odd, since to my recollection I have never scolded other teachers not to use paper.

I subscribe to a weekend newspaper and a magazine simply so I can have full access to their online services. When the dead-trees arrive at my house they usually go straight to the recycling bin. This is a horrible business model, no?

Over the last year and a half, I have had more questions from other teachers about Google Docs than any other tech subject. Rather than highlighting how tricky Docs are, this testifies to their ease of use and classroom functionality-- folks are eager to adopt them.

Recently, I sent my Consumer Technology Revisits my Film Class to Netflix and the MHS English Department for comment. The comments? The deafening sounds of silence from both parties .

I have totally succumbed to one social media addiction-- tracking #mlb trade rumors on Twitter.

After maintaining this blog for almost a year and a half, have really come to appreciate the ability of bloggers like Tom Schusterbauer and Patrick Hayes to spark a discussion.

We had a staff appreciation dinner, last week, where I was honored for thirty-five years of service. I came away not only feeling appreciated for things that I have done in the past, but also how genuinely my school supports me as I try our this new tool and that new method. Despite complaints to the contrary MHS is still a place where teachers have considerable autonomy.

I've reached an age where now and then folks ask me about my "retirement plans." I have none. But, the other day I was thinking that if I did retire from teaching, I would enjoy creating a daily sports blog-- basketball or baseball. Lots of tweeting too!

It's become fairly common for peers to request tech consultation with me-- usually involving new projects. I really enjoy these collaboratio, but almost always have to schedule them before or after school. It's also tough to follow-up on the projects. I wish I had some release time to do more. That's my pre-retirement dream.

"Ceiling Detail" Flickr Creative Commons photo courtesy of Onion.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Why I Don't Teach Technology (much)

If you listen to Lauren's brief clip, you will get the idea as to why I spend little time teaching technology: I think students will learn what they need to use and are more likely to retain this knowledge if they apply it toward a particular project. Lauren describes the expertise she gained using video for her Challenge Based Learning Project. I can relate to this because I learned similar skills when I had a specific, real video project of my own. People react skeptically when I say that I did not teach any technology for these media-rich projects, but it's true.

Currently, I working on modified cbl projects with 85 sophomores. Last semester I began by "teaching" them to create Google Accounts, collaborate on group Google Docs, and start wikis. Last week, I skipped all of that. After they organized into groups, I simply told the groups that they were responsible for getting everyone up to speed.

Guess which method was more calm and more successful. The students were motivated to get each other on board. Instead of trying to put out a dozen or more brush fires simultaneously, I only dealt with two or three tech issues in each class. Sure, I will take time to show them a few tools along the way. But I plan to do these in twenty minute lessons rather than entire class periods.

Lauren is an exceptional student and she independently taught herself exceptional skills. But I am learning not to underestimate the power of student groups to motivate and teach each other basic tech skills as long as the requirements are reasonable and clearly communicated.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Drawn to the Bright Lights

I recently posted "Diary of a Country Priest Movie Review" to YouTube. As I indicated in my last post, I love making these little movie reviews. Sometimes they relate to my film class; other times just for my Film Favorites site. I have written original scripts and created the movies with iMovie. "Three Colors Blue" is a good example.

More often, for purposes of expedience, I use Photo To Movie because it is so darn easy to use (Thanks for the tip, Rick Strobl). And ....I often don't write original scripts. Instead I base them on the likes of great writers like Chris Koehn, Patrick Crogan, James Berardinelli, and David Church. In each case, I have contacted the writer or scholar and requested permission to use his text in my script. The permissions process has been quite gratifying. The writers are enthusiastic and flattered.

My collaborator for the "Country Priest" is Gary Morris, the editor/publisher of the "Bright Lights Film Journal" -- a terrific film resource. Gary even threw out the possibility that someday in the near future he'll be redesigning his site and might even accommodate little movies like mine! A fun idea and a gratifying collaboration.

Screen shot of PhotoToMovie "Review- Diary of a Country Priest" project

Monday, February 15, 2010

Blurring the Lines between Personal and Professional

Over the last two years I have received considerable personal pleasure working on projects related to technology in education.

In one case the boundaries between personal and professional are particularly blurred. Once a month, I make a movie-- often using Photo to Movie -- about film. Sometimes I do it for class, like my short piece on Akira Kurosawa. Sometimes I simply select a great film like Three Colors: Blue, and post it to my Film Favorites web site. Occasionally, a movie I makelike the review of The Passion of Joan of Arc (pictured here) will serve both purposes.

Is this work or a hobby? It doesn't really matter to me. Like a hobby, I've accumulated a nice collection of these pieces which I have housed at my YouTube channel. If I come up with ideas that I might be able to use in the course, all the better.

Screen capture from my Commentary of the Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

Friday, February 12, 2010

Consumer Technology Revisits My Film Class

I have recently come across two interesting blog posts about streaming video. A recent NYT piece by describes state of the art technology for HD on demand movies. I also read on Mashable that Netflix has recently added three hundred of foreign and indie titles to its rapidly growing number of "instant watching" features.

Now, frankly, I am not eager to move into regular viewing of streaming movies. I like big screen viewing and DVD features. I also don't want to deal with the buffering issues or other baggage the HD streaming technology currently carries with it. students sure do use streaming video. I am amazed by how many films they are able to track down online -- legitimately posted and otherwise. And I started thinking about how an emerging consumer technology might once again improve the film class I teach.

A few years ago, when I switched from VHS to DVD my entire approach to discussing the films changed too. DVDs made it practical to review several different clips during discussion-- something out of the question with tape due to winding. Nevertheless, I still have to spend the obligatory 2 hours or so (usually three full class periods) in order to watch the entire film in class. In fact, last year, when I decided to add a documentary film to the mix, I bought four discs to loan, so that we didn't have to use precious class time for viewing.

But what if students could obtain all or most the films through a source like Netflix. For a few bucks per month, they could watch the film on home or at during study periods (We are a 1:1 school), and I would suddenly have so much more time. We could actually visit more films and/or consider them in greater depth. Some kind of classroom license for for the service something to dream about as well. That would be pretty awesome for our learners (and would be an opportunity for the providers to introduce their service to consumers).

Ten years from now, the DVDs we now use may seem as quaint as the reel-to-reels that were on the scene when I started teaching. Any thoughts?

Screen capture of Vudu's home page.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Luddite Letters of Recommendation

A couple of years ago, I finally got fed up with writing college recommendations and having no idea what happened to them after they were dispatched. Occasionally I might hear that they couldn't find the copy I mailed in or something nifty like that. Otherwise, it's been a sheerly one-way process.

I decided to fire off a letter to my alma mater about my complaints and was shocked to receive a phone call from a senior admissions officer at the University of Michigan who chatted with me about teacher of recommendations for a good half hour or so. After the conversation I tailored my constrained my praise about the student to specific areas that stood out in my class. I now present the recommendation as a series of bullet points, focusing on qualities like resourcefulness, intellectual curiosity, communication skills, and creativity. I describe specific achievements in my class rather than construct some kind of general resume, biography or mash note. So the conversation was helpful to me in terms of recasting the template for this annual chore.

This year, I did all my recommendations online. But all that this meant was filling out the same old forms at a web site and then uploading the pdfs of the kind letter I formally did on paper. Way to go, colleges, you have moved up to using a 1993 technology and you still want teachers throughout the country to peck out a bunch of text for you-- a process that probably tells you more about the teacher than the applicant!

As I focus more and more on using Web 2.0 technologies in my class, these old-school letters of recommendation seem less and less relevant. For example, one of the applicants this year had made a terrific video for a blog on vlogs exercise. If you viewed one minute of this video you would know as much about this student as I might write on a page. Shouldn't the admissions office see the student's work. Our role would be to authenticate it, not mediate the student's work. When my current sophomores apply in a couple of years, I'll be describing the web sites that they created in my class, laden with video, pod casts and slides. Shouldn't the college be checking these out for themselves?

For that matter, if I made a three minute podcast, I could give the university a personal sketch of the student and waste far less of my time doing it.

I'm not going to hold my breath waiting for the universities to request authentic evidence of what the kids have creatively designed and deeply learned. But I am starting to send them the links to these treasures whether they want 'em or not. Someone has to start pushing back against the colleges who should be leading the way, not lagging so far behind.

For a nice little piece on the original Luddites, see

Monday, February 8, 2010

Tech Agony and the Ecstasy

Have you ever fallen into an unexpected tech problem that complicates exponentially in a matter of moments? Well, that happened to me a couple of nights ago. I backed up my Macbook to an external drive. When I finished, I picked up the computer and toppled over the hard drive. I checked it out, and it started clicking. Then I found that I could not write to it-- kind of a problem for a back-up drive. This led to a series of diagnostics and tests. I looked up the warranty, filed a service ticket, etc, etc.

Almost two hours of my life disappeared with nothing to show for it as I wait to hear back from customer service. At moments like these, I wonder, if this junk is really worth the trouble.

But a few hours later, technology solved in ten minutes a problem that I thought would take two hours.

Last semester, I kept track of my AP students' blogging on vlogs with a spread sheet. This was a time-consuming, joy-killing, and inaccurate. So I brainstormed with students about going to a self-assessment model. We all agreed it was worth a try, but I couldn't see an easy tech solution until yesterday. I opened last semester's spread sheet in order to ponder it. Eureka! I erased the data on the sheet originally created with Numbers and converted it to Excel. I uploaded the Excel version to Google Docs. I created a Google Doc of instructions and linked that to the new spread sheet. I then imported my class email list to the new Google spreadsheet and invited the entire class to be editors.

It worked perfectly. In moments I had taken my old spread sheet and turned it into a public document. I know this is not exactly a cutting edge technology, but it is new enough to me to still seem like pure magic!

Flickr Creative Commons Photos: "agony is" by hometownzero and "Ecstacy" [sic] by Michael Downey

Friday, February 5, 2010

Ning Nut or Nuts to Nings?

I have become a kind of Johnny Appleseed of Nings this year. And after my staff in-service presentation, a thousand flower-nings bloomed.

All sorts of folks have let me know about their Nings. They have started them up in their classes, for their departments, or even for their families! This is ironic at two levels: 1) I really haven't really pushed this particular social platform. 2) Most of the Nings that I have joined through school have one active participant-- me!

I have written before about my frustration with starting the Blog Squad club with a Ning. I had dozens of students join but very little participation after joining. More recently, I have joined Nings that were started by the chairs in my two academic departments. I have posted a number of discussion threads and items to each one. But no one else is really using these virtual meeting places, let alone responding to my posts.

Between you and me, the Nings could almost completely replace our physical meetings. So this is a bit of a head-scratcher for me since I find many such meetings to be time-wasters and would rather participate on my own terms with the Nings. So I'm going to be a bit stubborn about this. Both departments have asked me to help out with some techie issues. And I will......But the help will be channled through their poor neglected Nings, not through some watch-the-paint-dry meeting. We'll see if this helps to reactivate the Nings (You can count on me to keep your posted). As usual, I welcome your reactions and insights!
"May 8 - Multi-Color Ning" Flickr Creative Commons photo by Paul Robert Lloyd (old)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

AP Government CBL Project -- Assessments

A very important aspect of Apple's Challenge Based Learning model is Assessment:

Challenge Based Learning follows a workflow that mirrors the 21st century workplace. Students are given enough space to be creative and self-directed and at the same time are provided with support, boundaries, and checkpoints to avoid frustration.

I emphasized the importance of this with my AP Government challenge groups. The groups set goals and logged them on their google docs. These tended to be overly ambitious and lofty, so I nudged them to make them more measurable and concrete.

At the end of the process, the groups reflected seriously on their journey. Across the board, their evaluations were insightful and interesting. Here is an except from the What Up Gov! group:

We found as we did our research that [one goal] was too broad, and our audience was unrealistic. . . . By changing our audience, we felt could make a greater impact and be more successful. We were trying to go global, but that was way too ambitious. . . . we focused on finding the most successful medium to do this. . . . We experimented with Twitter, a website, and Facebook. . . . The Twitter didn't receive many hits, and we felt it wasn't as successful as other mediums. The Facebook really took off well . . . We feel we really achieved our goal, because we got teens involved in the forums and sparked teen interest in democracy and our government. The discussions were very informed and interesting . . . .We're also a lot more educated on all the issues, because when we posted discussion topics we had to learn about the issues first. We also learned a lot from the posts of other people, allowing them to educate us, which we thought was really cool. . .

Pretty cool, indeed!

"Reflection "I" Flickr Creative Commons photo by VisualAge

Monday, February 1, 2010

AP Government CBL -- Student Solutions: Facebook

This is a fifth student solution to the following cbl project challenge: "Create an Authentic Medium for Improving our Democracy".

In my last post I described a student-created web site simply brimming with original content and already visited by over 800 persons before the group even revealed the site to our class. I was completely blown away by this accomplishment.

But, ironically, another group-- one group I suspected of taking the easiest route to a solution, may have actually come closest to fully meeting the challenge. They created a Facebook Group to hold an information and discussion forum that is still actively functioning, today. In terms of authenticity, I think this group is hard to beat.

Quoting from the notes on their Google Doc, the students arrived at good reasons for choosing Facebook as their medium:

People are already there, are comfortable in this arena (casual)
Not graded, viewed by an adult (might be condescending)
It's a place for people with similar interest, compelled to discuss because joined a group
Positive peer pressure
It's cool to be political!
Sparks interest,conversation
Ex.- gun control talk
Where else would anyone with interest go?
Diverse group gathers here
Views are challenged
Views are published, cannot be wishy-washy

After reviewing the discussions at What Up Gov! it was evident to me that students were genuinely engaging in discussions and responding to peer review. This cbl group had in fact created a comfortable commons for students to virtually hang out and engage in political discussions. If you are on Facebook, consider joining!

I will also be using the What Up Gov! group for my final AP cbl post: Assessments.

Screen Capture of What Up Gov! Facebook Group site

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