As the old sayings go, “Teaching is an isolating profession.” and “Every classroom is its own world.” I never really understood those phrases before I started teaching. How could teaching be isolating when you are around students all day? Its own world? There are classrooms of kids right next door!
But when I finally had a classroom of my own, I quickly understood. Even though I had students all day long, I really didn’t know many of the other students. Even though I was next to the library, I felt miles away from the other middle school teachers. My students and I developed daily procedures and habits we followed the entire year. The only time I would see other teachers is for 15 minutes a day in a noisy cafeteria. Indeed, I felt isolated and in my own world. And being an extrovert, it was driving me crazy. I was so busy with the day-to-day activities of planning, teaching, and grading I felt like I was in a rut.
My role is very different this year. While I don’t see students all day long, I see multiple groups in the technology lab and in their laptop-equipped classrooms. Instead of seeing only 6th through 8th grade students, I see Kindergartners through 8th graders. While I don’t have to grade or have meetings with parents, I still have to plan my lessons. And for a while, it was comfortable and fine. But something was missing. I felt we were doing the same things over and over again: find out the content from the teacher and make Powerpoint presentations on the content. We weren’t moving forward or pushing the boundaries. Yes, making flaming transitions on your slides is interesting, but after help dozens of students do the exact same function, it gets a bit old. We needed to spice things up.
It was about that time my principal sent me a link to a project aimed specifically at middle school students about digital citizenship. It was called Digiteen, a project under the Flat Classroom Project. I read the material and decided to give it a try. At the same time, I started reading the Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds book. Both of these activities, along with being more active on Twitter, are beginning to change my entire view on education and technology.
My background is in technology: I hold a B.S. in Computer Science and I was a professional software developer for 12 years before I started teaching. So my view of educational technology naturally begins with the technology itself. But the more I teach, the more I realize that’s the wrong approach. You can’t start with the technology and make it fit the student. You start with the student and mold the technology to fit the student’s needs. It’s taken me a long time to get used to this concept.
But beyond my own thinking, I’m thinking of the impact Digiteen is having on my students. Many of them have never connected or communicated with people outside of their own city. For the last few weeks, they have been posting to students from all over the world on Edmodo and our class wiki. And today we even used Skype to communicate with some of them. These are important moments for them. Moments I hope they remember and build on.
I’ve broadened my connection and communication to my elementary students, creating blogs for each of their classrooms. My goal is to connect all the blogs and have them comment on student’s posted from different classes on different grade levels. Then we can go global and really connect with the world. I’ve also discovered the multitude of global projects my students can participate in no matter how old they are. Exciting times indeed. This is only the beginning.
Last year I was given the task of finding a 21st century classroom. Being the geek-turned-teacher I am, I imagined smart boards on every wall and touch screen devices for every student.
So we visited a few schools and spoke to their teachers and students. Some had iPads for every student. Some had technology over five years old. But we still didn’t see what we thought was a 21st century classroom. So I kept researching. I looked at the ISTE NETS standards but they looked broad, vague, and written in 2007! That’s a lifetime ago in the technology world. I expected to see things like tablets, tweets, and Skype in these standards. But they weren’t. I kept digging. And the more I dug, the more the letter C kept coming up: connection, communication, collaboration, critical thinking, citizenship, creativity, choice, celebration. Technology was barely mentioned. Finally, my techie brain realized that a 21st century is about students first and technology second. Those skills were what made a 21st century class with technology used to support them. Connecting through blogs, communicating through Skype, collaborating through wikis, and so on. A 21st century classroom looks behind its four walls and connects to classrooms down the hall, across campus, across town, country and throughout the world. These are not things you always see when you walk into a classroom. They don’t always take the latest technology to succeed. But what they do take is a brave teacher and willing students who are ready to explore the great unknown and learn as they go. And isn’t that what teaching is all about?
I’m a technology guy first and a teacher second. At least I used to be. I have a B.S. in Computer Science and 12 years as software developer so technology has been my life for many years. But the last 8 years of teaching and parenting has changed my philosophy about technology. Building desktop computers, upgrading software, writing code, playing video games, and complaining about users dominated much of my earlier career. I was so immersed in the technical side of the field that I didn’t realize my job would not exist without users.
Now that I’m a teacher and converted Apple fan, I live on every iRumor that appears on my radar. My house is dominated by Apple products: phones, tablets, laptops, etc. I crave every new product they create. But as a technology educator, I have think differently. While it would wonderful to provide iPads for every student in our school, you can’t just drop them off in a kindergarten class, say “good luck”, and expect them to automatically learn calculus. The technology is simply a tool. My technology director is fond of calling it the modern day pencil. Technology in education is transformational and amazing but it’s still just a tool. An iPhone in the hands of blind student is useless unless it’s used to enhance the learning of that student. Otherwise, it’s a overpriced paperweight. We should never start with the technology in mind and then think about how the students should use it. It should be the other way around. Start with the student and mold the technology to help the student.
In other words, educational technology is not about technology. It’s about the student. And it always will be. Let’s never forget that.
Remember the days when you went to the computer lab to do your class projects? Computer labs: imposing places with strict rules and sarcastic, awkward geeks who were supposed to help you instead of making you feel like a total idiot for asking how to print. I remember very clearly because I used to be one of those geeks who helped people. I tried not to be sarcastic when people asked questions, but I couldn’t help the awkward part. And twenty years later, I’m still helping people in a computer lab where I work. And these people are teachers and I’m also teaching their students. Students who are having their first experience in a computer lab. A computer lab I want to be different than the kind I used to work in. A lab where students are comfortable asking any question. Where they can experiment and explore without fear of being punished. Where they can create, communicate, and collaborate with their classmates, other classes, and even other students beyond the school walls. A flat classroom with no walls.
It seemed to go fairly well this year with teachers bring their classes to the lab for instruction that was related to what they were learning in their own classrooms. But something seemed to be missing and I couldn’t figure out what it was. It was right about the time a began teaching a new class to middle school students called Digiteen, which is a project under the Flat Classroom Project that teaches students about digital citizenship and safe online choices. In the process of starting the class, I met the organizers online and set up the tools my students would be using to research and collaborate with other students from different countries. I also began reading the Flatting Classrooms, Engaging Minds book that was related to the project. I began realizing how dated my technology instruction had been. I started connecting with other educators and reading what they had been doing in their classrooms and I was blown away. First graders videoconferencing? Fourth graders doing their entire writing portfolio online with wikis and sharing them with multiple countries? I was astounded.
The first day of my class, I was bubbling with excitement when I shared with my students what we would be doing. I was sure they would be thrilled as well. But they looked at me with blank stares and asked, “So…we’re gonna Skype every class then?” When I talked about doing research on digital citizenship topics and collaborating on a wiki with international students, they simply looked at me without comprehension. We’ve had several classes since and I think they are slowly understanding. It’s a difficult process because it’s so new, but I’m hoping they really get something out of it.
But then I started to look at the elementary students who come to my computer lab. Shouldn’t they also be a part of this global project too? So I decided to make a change in how I taught. Instead of having the classes always come to the computer lab for instruction, I decided to go to their classrooms, which already had laptops, and teach them in their environment. I set both 5th grade classes up with blogs and they are now communicating with another class in a different state. We plan to Skype with them tomorrow. We are all very excited. Stay tuned…..
As a lifelong gamer (both tabletop and video), I view games as more than just diversions or time-wasters. I view them as learning tools. Tools than can teach skills like communication, collaboration, logic, patience, problem solving, critical thinking, reading, math, and many more. But many games have a bad reputation as being violent, repetitive, or simply glorified babysitters. Part of the reason is the word itself. According to game designer Jane McGonigal, the word “game” is used negatively in our everyday language: “Don’t play games with me!”, “He is gaming the system.”,”What do you think this is: a game?” Popular culture and the media have only worsened the stereotype. News stories abound blaming video games when gunmen shoot innocents. But those who play games know the value of what they are playing, even if they can’t explain it others.
With these thoughts in mind, I designed and taught a video game design course to middle school students this school year. I want to share my experience.
At first, I thought I was in heaven: I got to teach one of my passions to a new generation. Of course, I had a class of all boys, 15 of them. I had visions of creating Xbox Kinect games and iPhone apps. It was going to be fantastic.
But what I didn’t realize at the time was something that became painfully obvious as the weeks went on: playing games is more fun that creating them. And since this was an elective with only a pass/fail grade, most of the boys wanted to play instead of work. So began a recurring battle: how to inspire my students to create the games they want to play.
My wife is f0nd of the saying, “Be careful what you wish for because you might just get it.” This year, I got exactly what I wanted. After struggling last school year with grading, lesson planning, and getting used to being a classroom teacher, I finally earned a position I’ve been working towards for almost seven years: full-time technology teacher. I remember when I first left the technology industry, expecting to easily find a technology teaching position in the public school system. That was my first taste of the highly political world of public education. Now I’m in private education and things work differently. The red tape of budgets, committees, government funding, etc. is gone. I’ve been given the responsibility of shaping the technological future of our school. I better not screw it up.
2010 was a watershed year for me. It was a year I left a school and a teaching job I knew was wrong for me. A year, after six long years, when I finally got what I really wanted. Honestly, I knew a high poverty, mostly African-American school was not a long term gig for me: a white, middle class former software developer. In fact, I stayed longer than the three years required, even though I probably mentally checked out two years before. But I stayed partly because I had a fairly easy job and partly because of sheer pride.
So when the opportunity to work at small, mostly white private school closer to my house practically fell in my lap, I jumped at the chance.
Now that I have been at my new school for a half a year, I wanted to look back at how things have changed.
The first culture shock I had was actually at my job interview. I’ve been on many interviews in my life and I thought I was ready for anything. Thinking back many years ago, I remember a particularly rough group interview where the interviewers asked me the question, “Mr. Meyers, is there a programming language you do NOT like?” My response: “Well, I really don’t like COBOL.” Long pause. “Mr. Meyers, do you realize that most of the programming we do here is in COBOL?” Oops. Anyway, I went into this interview ready with my standard answers. Turns out, I didn’t need them. It didn’t feel like an interview at all. It felt like a conversation with old friends as we discussed educational philosophies. They had read my blog and wanted my opinions on education and technology. I wasn’t used to this treatment. I was used to being browbeaten, ignored, and treated like a child. This was refreshing. They had me at “we don’t have discipline problems” and “you don’t have to write IEPs.” My final interview with the head of school was even more shocking. For one thing, she hugged me. Never in my life have I ever been hugged by my boss, much less someone who had not even hired me yet. This simple act was the beginning of a feeling of family I had never felt in any organization in my entire working life. I had been so used to distrust and distance that I was completely overwhelmed. She even called me a role model because of my choice to become a teacher in spite of my speech impediment. Was this too good to be true? When I got the job offer and it was less than my current salary, I didn’t blink. There are some things money just can’t buy.
I am NOT a Euro-snob…well, maybe a little.
In 2003, I got to do three amazing things many people only dream about. First, I flew to California and cheered from the 50-yard-line as my beloved Tampa Bay Buccaneers won their first Super Bowl. (Thanks to my awesome sister-in-law and father-in-law for making the entire trip free). Two weeks later, I was watching the rain-soaked Daytona 500 with a free ticket from my boss. In October, my wife and I went on a two-week Rick Steves‘ tour of Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Shortly afterward, I quit my $70,000-a-year, 5-minute commute software programming job to become a teacher.
There are moments in your life when you realize you are experiencing something you will remember for decades. Events so rich you know you will be telling them to your grandchildren or to anyone who will listen at a retirement home when your life is in its twilight. Such were the multitude of moments from those three trips. I drew on those incredible memories in my first year teaching on my own. I vowed to teach these kids about the pure joy of celebrating a victory with lifelong fans, the magic of medieval castles along the majestic Rhein River, and the horrors of the Mauthausen concentration camp. I wanted them to know the world was their oyster and they could go anywhere and do anything they wanted. They did not have to live the same lives their parents and grandparents did. As it turned it, they taught me more about their culture than I taught them about mine.
I was lucky. I did not have a class of my own to manage the entire day. I moved from class to class, working with individual students or groups of students. The students ranged from kindergarten to fifth grade and had difficulties ranging from behavioral issues to learning problems. I enjoyed the variety and movement my position afforded me. I got to know more students and teachers than anyone in the school. I got to learn the culture of the school and how it operated. That first year, the teachers were so grateful for my help in their classes, it never mattered how long I was there as long as I was supporting them. The second year was very different.
Meet the new boss. NOT the same as the old boss.
We had a new principal and several new teachers. We also had more students. My first year our school population was around 650 yet our overall building capacity was around 1,000. We were a magnet school in a high-poverty area, so we used the magnet program to draw students from other areas of town to our school. But we weren’t drawing enough. At the same time, several smaller schools in the area were overcrowded and could not accept more students. So the school district decided to create a village of schools were students from the surrounding area could go to any of the schools and they had priority over magnet students. As a result, our population increased to nearly 900 students in one year, most of them neighborhood kids from the other schools. So much for the magnet program. Also, our new principal had just come from a very small school. Now she was taking over a very large school with almost 300 new students on top of the 600 already there.
When I met my new principal, I was thrilled. She was the polar opposite of my former administrator: open, easy to talk to, and she listened to me. I used to say to my friends that I used to carry a shield when I walked to my former principal’s office. I used the “shield” to protect myself because she would immediately start attacking me for something before I could even sit down. I’m still convinced the only reason she didn’t fire me that first year was because I was a male and special education certified, a combination so rare in elementary schools that should have convinced me to play the lottery. This new principal actually smiled and asked my opinion on school matters. She even called me by my first name for a little while.
The impossible caseload
Happy as a clam, I started working on theoretical time travel cloning, also known as my student contact schedule. Those of you who have written schedules for elementary schools might have some idea of what I am talking about. Scheduling reading, math, writing, gym, music, art, lunch in a six-hour day for a class of twenty students is nothing short of a nightmare. Now image you have to do the same thing multiplied by 6 (kindergarten through 5th grade). Then consider the students you have to see are in different classrooms within different grade levels. But wait, there’s more…you have no planning time and have morning, lunch, and afternoon school duties to perform. Good times. During my second year, I was supposed to service 35 students every day: helping them with work, modifying their tests, helping the teachers grade their work. etc. I actually calculated it at one point and determined the only way I could legally service all of my students was to make FIVE copies of myself and send each clone to a different classroom.
Somehow, I managed to get through the year keeping most people happy. I even wrote 15 additional Individual Education Plans (IEPs) for a teacher who quit in the middle of the year. I was on fire and loving every minute. It was the high point of my time at this school. But the end of the school brought a major change: I was going to be a father the next year.
Next: Who’s Your Daddy?
On November 5-6, I went to a conference called Geekend in Savannah. After going last year and really learning a lot, I went again and here are my thoughts.
Straight from the conference program:
What is Geekend?
Geekend is the annual gathering of the geek tribe in Savannah, Georgia. Geekend is what you might call an interactive conference with some truly awesome parties. It’s the kind of event that you’ll be texting, Tweeting, and Facebooking about, making all your friends back home super jealous. Geekend is a mashup, a meetup and a Tweet-up all mixed together in a delicious Lowcountry boil of innovative ideas. It’s networking, Savannah style. It’s a veritable supermarket of fresh idea ideas. To sum up Geekend up in one word is really quite impossible, but we tend to use this one: Fun.
Is Apple More Open Than Google and Why Should You Care?
This session was clearly aimed at software developers interested in writing software from freely available open source code. While the answer to the question might be obvious (Google is clearly more open than Apple.), the presenters explained that both companies contribute quite a lot to the open source community either with money or source code themselves. For example, Apple’s OS X operating system is built on open source code, the BSD kernal. Also, while Apple and Google are fierce competitors in the iPhone vs. Android cell phone market, Google uses Apple OS X servers for their development. Several examples of companies were given as truly open. Photo-sharing application Flickr is a good example because of the way their photos use the Creative Commons content rights method and how their entire database of photos is searchable to anyone. Another example they gave was Twitter. Twitter was fully open from the very beginning and they allowed users to use Twitter tweets however they wished. In fact, the hashtag (#) and reply (@) features were not a part of Twitter originally. Users added these features and then Twitter brought these features into the core of the application later. In fact, Twitter is so open that 70% of all tweets come from user-created Twitter applications, not the Twitter site itself.
It’s All Social: How to Succeed in Today’s Connected World
This presenter was Phil Peterman, the head of social media at Paula Deen Enterprises. He spoke about how a brand’s social media impact can be measured. Good metrics: sales, time on the site, bounce rate (when they leave the site), amplification (retweets in Twitter or forwarded links in Facebook or email). Bad metrics: sentiment, authority, and number of followers. He stated that having a quality message on social media is not a measure of success. For example, more people know about LOLCats than how much the Gates Foundation is spending on medical research. People want to be entertained on the Internet. The incident with Paula Deen accidentally getting hit in the face with a thrown ham was an example. Paula’s response of, “I should have ducked”, showed responding to something potentially negative in a positive way gave her brand even more credibility. The brand’s biggest failure in social media was when she tried to use her authority to influence a contest one of her relatives was participating in. The backlash from the user community was swift and harsh.
Paul also touched on web site analysis from Google Analytics, Alerts, Sprout Social, and Clicky. Every brand should be using one of these measuring tools. The key to social media success is to find the conversions and engage. Do not try to control user conversations. Let them create buzz for you and continue to respond.
- The average person sees 3000 advertisements every day
- 78% of people trust recommendations from peers
- It’s not about the product; it’s about the relationship to the brand
- The Paul Deen brand has 1.2 million Facebook users and 200,000 Twitter followers
- The Facebook users tend to browse the website but rarely buy products
- The Twitter followers tend to buy more products than the Facebook users
- Why? Twitter followers may be younger, more affluent, and more tech-savvy.
Do You Have a Power Adaptor I Can Borrow?
The presenter spent a great deal of time going through the multitude of cell phones he has owned over the years. He displayed how cell phone towers are now disguised as trees and are even inside of church steeples. He raised the question of whether we are too connected and our phones need to be simpler.
Teenagers: We Get It
The presenter was Parth Dehbar, a high school junior, who created simple-reviews.com, an iDevices review site. He went over all the pressures teenagers go through each day: peer pressure, parents’ pressure, and grades. His advice was to constantly write your ideas down. He also mentioned the three biggest hurdles of being an entrepreneur: money, time, and infrastructure. He said he hired all of his writers and developers for simple-reviews.com through Twitter. He said when you have an idea, just start something small, don’t be afraid if it’s never been done before, and expect criticism because that means your are doing something right. His advice for teachers is to create an entrepreneurs club at school to give students the chance to work on their ideas.
The War on Stupid Needs You!
This session raises the issue that we are so inundated with information from biased sources we cannot make sense of any of it. We are reaching the biological limits of what the brain can process. We are also suffering from three limiting factors: cognitive bias (we believe what we want to believe), option paralysis (we shut down when given too many choices), and information buffet (there is too much information from too many sources). The traditional sense-makers (media, academia, government) are now highly mistrusted. As a result, we are living in an echo chamber where we read only what we agree with (example: liberals read the Huffington Post and conservatives watch Fox News). Consequently, we have seen the rise of pundits giving their opinions instead of reporting the news. Also, a loss of civility has occurred with the left and right becoming more hostile toward each other. Solution? We need creative people to create forms of media we can easily digest (Jonathon Jarvis explaining mortgage crisis with animated pictures, The Story of Stuff by Dan Roam). We also need journalists to create the content that gets closer to the truth. What kind of journalists can be trusted? Presenter’s answer: non-profits like NPR are trustworthier than for-profits like Fox News. Other resources: Radiolab and book I Live in the Future
Keynote Speaker: Oscar Gerardo from NBC.com
Oscar is the Chief Architect of NBC.com, which has won numerous awards for interactive content. The site has created several successful projects based on primetime shows including:
- A virtual social network based on the show The Office. Fans created a persona with a virtual job and had to perform tasks to earn points and gain levels to create a virtual desk.
- An information weight-less and nutrition education program tied in with the show The Biggest Loser.
What Instruction Manual? Interactive Process and Education
A coordinator of interactive media at Elon University gave this session. The speaker quoted Marshall MacLuhan frequently, the most notable quote being, “If it works, it’s obsolete.” He was referring to interactive projects always being in a state of flux and never being truly finished. He talked about how most people are visual learners and vision controls 50% of the brain’s resources. He referenced books such as Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud and Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug to illustrate teaching visually and information overload are changing the way we understand information. These presenters stressed to save everything you create: projects, ideas, etc. so you can refer back to what you have done and create something new. He also talked about the repeating three phases of a project: revise, rework, and refine.
Job Search and Recruiting With Social Media
Social media experts in health care and employment resources presented this session. They claim social media is a window to the culture of a company. When employees give updates about their companies, they should include non-business related updates to give a prospective employee a view of how the day-to-day life is at the company. As for employees concerned about employers constantly spying in their social media updates, they suggested people read and set privacy settings accordingly. The also used the simple advice, “Be smart.” “If you are posting pictures of yourself hung over on Facebook six days in a row, you can expect employers might not be too happy about that.” They mentioned Germany is introducing legislation limiting how much social media information employers can access about their employees. They advised using social media site LinkedIn to network. They also advised updating your social media profile every 30 days to show you are an active member of the community. Finally, they recommended spending one hour per day to read blogs and tweets about your industry.
Your Social Media Soundtrack
While pictures, video, and text are used for most social media, audio is sometimes overlooked. This session explored the role of audio in social media. The presenter talked about the old school mix tape as the first version of social audio, where users created their own media of songs to fit a certain purpose. He went on to talked about a few social audio tools like Chirbit, twtfm, and Trottr. He discussed sonic branding. Companies like Audi have used sonic branding to develop a corporate sound for the entire organization. The sounds of the car engine, doors, etc. are used extensively in the company’s marketing. Another example of audio in vehicles is Microsoft’s Ford Sync where the drive only needs to speak and the vehicle will respond. Apparently there is a term for everything. Ever had a song stuck in your head? It’s called an earworm. Like to have an audio diary? Try AudioBoo. For recording audio, tools such as GarageBand and Audacity are good for voice recording and podcasts.
Mobile Application Development for the Web Developer
The New Human: Technology, Social Innovation and Intentional Evolution
Two futurists spoke at this session and used many terms you might have to look up: mindjacking, zettaflopping, lifelogging, datascaping, neuroplasticity and singularity. They mentioned humans need four traits: transformational, adaptive, resilient (instead of sustainable), and possibilians. We are heading towards multiple futures created with every decision we make.
Four rules of the new human
1. The revolution will not be organized optimized
2. Your future is data exhaust (e.g. Foursqure check-ins)
3. The new you is an exoskelton (created by your Facebook account)
4. Change comes from the bottom up, not the top down
Finally, we need to embrace diversity because it breeds creativity.
Keynote Speaker: Noah Everett from TwitPic
Twitpic was a weekend project and completely self-funded. Noah was working a full-time job and living with his parents when he created Twitpic, a photo-sharing helper application for Twitter. The company now has 12 million users. The site rose to prominence during the airplane crash in the Hudson River. A passenger posted the picture on Twitter through Twitpic and the company became massive overnight. Further pictures from the Iran conflict and election made the Twitpic what it is today. Twitpic also works with many non-profits to help their causes. Noah is creating a new project called Heello which will be out very soon.