Monday, February 15, 2016

Differentiate with Digital Tools: Five Free Web Apps

This is a presentation I gave for my district-sponsored Digital Learning Conference.  

I love sharing at this local conference each year because it's teachers teaching teachers! If it helps others, all the better.  

The link to the slideshow is HERE should you want to comment or ask questions. 

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Resource Review: Student News Daily, An Ironic Study in Media Bias

As an educator, I love free quality resources my students can easily access, but I've learned--sometimes the hard way, to be much more discerning of what it is I'm curating for them.  

Recently, I came across a site that came highly recommended as a news aggregator geared specifically toward high school students. Upon first look, it seemed promising as one of many choices I could offer students for exploring current events. It even had resources for spotting bias in media, which made me think the site's creators had a purpose similar to my own; challenging students to think critically while consuming the news.  That's what compelled me to want to know more and to look deeper, and that's why the results were so disappointing.    

Student News Daily purports to deliver to its young readers "fair and unbiased" news. It has all kinds of resources teachers love to work into their daily activities, including weekly features on political cartoons, quizzes, and vocabulary.

Sounds full o' awesome, right?  I thought so, too, so as with any news source, I checked the "About" page and couldn't find any humans or organizations attached to it. Here's what I did find on the Media Bias page:

Media Bias

Since citizens cannot cast informed votes or make knowledgeable decisions on matters of public policy if the information on which they depend is distorted, it is vital to American democracy that television news and other media be fair and unbiased.
In a recent Gallup Poll, the majority of Americans believe that the mass media slant reports in favor of the liberal position on current issues.
[The bias] is not the result of a vast left-wing conspiracy – [there is] an unconscious “groupthink” mentality that taints news coverage and allows only one side of a debate to receive a fair hearing.  When that happens, the truth suffers.
As a Language Arts educator, I teach my students about text structure.  That grey line hugging the text along its indented margin is called a block quote and its purpose is to indicate to the reader that the text is a longer-than-usual direct quote.   In this case, however, the grey line's used incorrectly. It's misleading in that, visually, it suggests the content is being attributed to someone other than the publishers of the site.  But there's no attribution. There was the Gallup link, glaring at me as a link...could it be Gallup? I clicked, and no, it wasn't from Gallup.

First, here's what startled me about the pseudo-quote: It says, in so many words, that a majority of Americans believe mass media to have a liberal slant. True enough, says the Gallup data (in the depths of the link)-- the perception exists.  But it appears Student News Daily would like you to read that as "Yo, left-wing bias is for realz" rather than just the mere perception of it. Embedded in the statement is the assumption that left-leaning bias in the media is a
 foregone conclusion. In fact, as far as Student News Daily is concerned, they know the reason for it and they're happy to explain: Not to worry, they tell their young readers. It's not evil lefty conspirators that are at play here, but rather it's group think on the part of sheep-y liberals.  You are safe from leftist mind control as long as you--the student, use Student News Daily as your news source because we are fair, unbiased, and free of left-leaning zombie herds

One has to see the humor in what follows; "Types of Media Bias," including media spin, which the above fuzzy logic is a marvelous example of!  I could've saved myself a whole lot of speculatin' brain cells by reading the very bottom of the page:

The true irony here is that much of the content on the site can be pointed to as examples for the various "Types of Media Bias" described on that particular page, with special attention to Bias of Selection of Sources.  

Taking a closer look at Student News Daily content: 

  • Political cartoons are presented as challenges for student analysis, yet upon said analysis, the majority are biased against progressive figureheads, policies, and ideas, and good luck finding any item that is critical of conservative ideals. This one's a good example of the general tone and subject matter, collectively. 

  • The Conservative vs. Liberal resource is presented as an innocuous handy-dandy reference guide for students to be able to understand the differences in what each side values, but if you're a progressive and you pay close attention, you'll notice it's rife with cleverly-disguised conservative-leaning nuances:  

  • Liberal-sided descriptions are both overly-generalized and absolute (it's the government's role to make us all happy, equal, and without need) while conservative-sided descriptions are ethos-heavy (if conservatives care about freedom to pursue one's goals, does that mean liberals do not?)

  • The "Wednesday Example of Media Bias" is less veiled if you scroll down the archived list of titles. They're obviously conservative talking points that the publishers of the site feel the left-leaning media is ignoring (you'll be hard-pressed to find anything editors see as unjustly biased toward conservatives, because..well, c'mon, read the Gallup poll.  That doesn't exist).

  • Here's a question from the latest weekly news quiz:

The answer to the above question, according to Student News Daily, is true because it's what the commentary said, not Student News Daily. See what they did there? So clever, they are...whoever they are.  I dare you to try to find who exactly is behind this site (if you have a couple of hours to spare that you'll never get back).

I'm not out to vilify conservative thinking, but rather the disingenuous manner in which ideologues cloak their ideas, as if they have no faith in the common sense of people.  But this is aimed squarely at our students, which-- I'll admit, makes my blood boil (if you haven't already noticed). 

This site is biased. At the very least, it's disingenuous to not acknowledge, from the get-go, the conservative-leaning tendency of the curators to collect or create content that is critical of only one perspective and to squarely ignore anything remotely critical of their own political views.

The real shame is that there are a few good resources on the site, which serves it well in attracting students and teachers.  We want students to be able to identify bias, so why not link this FREE and easily-accessible site to a blended lesson or a curated list of resources for thinking critically as consumers of media?

That's what makes this site unpalatable to me as an educator-- the sheer sneakiness on the part of the site creators in response to their own perceptions of media bias. The claim that it's "fair" takes on a different shade of character if you consider the possible motivations behind the creation of the site.  They don't mean fair as in multiple perspectives, ethical, and objective news reports. They mean fair in the context of a war with a perceived ideological opposite, playing by what is assumed to be the enemy's tactics for lassoing the hearts and minds of impressionable media consumers.  Too bad the young readership of this site has potentially little to no clue as to that larger context.  That's what makes it insidious, that it's not geared toward adults but rather our youth.

As I turn my sights toward further developing my Humanities program, framing it through the lens of journalistic ethics, I'll be bookmarking sites just like Student News Daily to show students exactly what I mean by deceptive and misleading practices and how to spot the red flags (no transparency, no open discussion on the site- what little there is is highly-filtered, no names or faces attached, etc.). 

Teachers: Don't do your students an injustice by using this site as an unfiltered reference.  Use it to teach about bias cloaked in anti-bias advocacy, because that's exactly what it is.

To the faceless and nameless folks behind Student News Daily (should this ever come your way): Practice what you preach.  You may not be journalists, but you're a curator of news, regardless, and you disingenuously present yourself to young people as being "fair and unbiased," which is false.  

Here's a little reminder of a source your site points students toward in a way that suggests you actually value it (by including it as a tab in your site's drop-down menu...again, using text features to mislead): The last part of The Society of Professional Journalists' "Code of Ethics"...

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Ode to a Graduate Task Left Undone

Share the literacy story of one of your students,
asked the handout found in a dusted-off binder 
marked "Grad School Assignments"
My cohort had mapped out their own literacy journeys;
a charge that left its reflective mark, even ten years on.
Harold's Purple Crayon,
lyrics to a holiday song I insisted was my own,
my name etched into the wood of grandma's basement wall,
The Marvel universe's flawed, self-sacrificing heroines,
anything by Stephen King,
and then the start of my own bookmaking.

How did you learn to read,
I would ask my students, one by one, 
anticipating rich maps, much like my own.
I dunno. I just did, I guess.
Do you remember the very first book you read
over and over again?
Um, no.
Did anyone read to you as a child?
Um, no.
What do you write when it's not for school?

Was I just strange to them,
this teacher asking questions about books and reading?
Was I unclear about the purpose so they wouldn't feel
their answers would be judged?
Were the questions wrong?
I went back to my notes on the book, Growing Up Literate
looking for ethnographic methodology
and found notes on what surprised me
about the rich literate lives of poor families from that study:

The letters to themselves and to one another,
love notes,
reminders, lists of things to do,
the everyday quiet ways they made meaning of the world-
ways that mattered when navigating the day to day
unnoticed, usually, like
Crayola homes surrounded by bright green living things
stick figures connecting in close proximity suggesting
a beautiful smallness of the world
everything ordinary a thing of intimacy
and comfort
-a children's code
we all once knew.

I couldn't put words to why (I still can't)
but I knew the task had to go undone
that's what happened, and now a decade later,

here's its poem.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Letter Grades Inhibit Deep Learning. They Must Die.

In the world of school, grades are supposed to represent where a student is at in relation to mastery. A = spot on, F = far from it.  Well, that's the idea, anyway, but I have a hunch that's kind of rare.

My guess is that it's more likely grades are used as leverage, lorded over students as a form of academic "justice"; rewards go to the high-achievers while punishment is doled out to the offending slackers who didn't get the work done.  

When it comes to what we know about the nature of learning, though, letter grades fall short in fostering, within our students, a willingness to think about, discuss, and reflect on their learning.  For the most part, there's no solid sense of the why behind them or what was learned as a result, so it's no wonder that high-achievers are hyper-focused on them and struggling students avoid them (and the loser-tag they exact).

Learning is a process that needs choice, voice, reflection, timely feedback, and opportunities to revise in order to grow, but points awarded for simply completing tasks (we'll call them giddyap gradesconvey the opposite. They're more about getting things done so they likely represent a student's level of agency rather than where they're at with the content. The problem is that no one would really know for sure, including the student, who sees an A, and thinks "success!" and sees the F and thinks, "Oh dang, no cell phone for a month."  

Dan Pink makes the case that the carrot and stick approach motivates people when the work is menial, rote, or mechanical. In other words, if the task doesn't require any specialized knowledge or ability, rewards and punishments increase motivation and productivity. But when the tasks require even the most rudimentary cognitive challenge, increased incentives have the opposite effect. 


Pink's target audience is the tech industry, so he pushes to dispel the myth that innovation is driven by monetary incentives.  Money is a motivator in that if you don't pay people enough, it's likely they won't be motivated.  However, the best use of money as a motivator, the studies suggest, is to take the issue of it completely off the table. Pay people enough so that the monetary reward is not perceived as conditional. When this happens, three factors emerge that seem to drive people toward increased productivity, innovation, and satisfaction around the work they do. Those factors are autonomy, mastery, and purpose

Autonomy = the desire to direct our own lives
  Mastery = the urge to get better at something that matters
  Purpose = the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves

Now, take money out of the equation and replace it with grades. Notice how Pink's definition for mastery jives with growth mindset, where all endeavors are viewed as practice, and where failure is merely an opportunity to learn rather than grounds for punishment. If I can make mastery the focus of the work we do, but do so within contexts that are meaningful to my students (purpose), where they set their own goals, work at their own pace, and assess their own gains (autonomy), then yes, I can make that almighty letter grade work to my advantage by challenging students to give themselves the grades they deserve. They'd use their body of work, feedback, and their reflections to make that case. That would be the only time grades would come into play and it would be on their terms.

My gut and my experiences tell me this is possible and it's the right direction for me to move toward.  It's already being pioneered by teachers who are generously sharing their journeys and inspiring others to do so (see Starr Sackstein here and Mark Barnes here). 

I don't call this blog EduNut for nothin'. I'm obsessed with teaching, and so a lot of my personal time is spent striving to build on what I know. It's a weekend morning and I'm wrestling with pedagogy on the pages of my blog, obviously driven by a sense of purpose and a desire for mastery of my craft. Pink's ideas resonate with me because I can easily see how they play out in my own learning. I want to replicate that for students.

I'll be transitioning to as close as I can come to a "no grades" assessment plan for next year.  I still have to ultimately place letters into that grade book at the end of each term, but at least I can do so in a way that honors my students' work and progress more authentically than not. 

Beginning in late-May, I'll be blogging and vlogging to make it all transparent as best I can (Sackstein-style).  I'm excited and nervous at the same time. In the past, those two feelings together have always preceded the crossing of a meaningful threshold in my life or career.  'Tis a good sign.

Friday, April 3, 2015

I Pseudo-Stalked My Students and Found Some Things

Each year, I've tried to impress upon my advisees that they must stay mindful of the digital footprint they've made. Instead of the usual talking to, this year I decided to make it "for reals" and stalk their social media profiles to collect potentially-incriminating items they never thought were public, where prospective employers might find them, should they do a simple search.

The idea was to spend no more than five minutes searching for each of my twelve advisees, so that when it was time to show them (privately) what I'd found, I could say, "And this (points to compromising picture) was only after five minutes of searching!"  

Don't worry, it never got to that point. 

I set out to search and I braced myself for shock and/or alarm (we're talking members of the teen species here).  It was very easy to find them, especially the ones with unusual names, but finding potentially embarrassing stuff was a whole other matter. There wasn't anything to find except the usual and mostly-innocuous shared stuff of adolescent lives.  

But as I was searching those first few minutes, reading through bad jokes, glancing quickly through pics of friends making faces, getting distracted by cute sleepy kitten videos, clicking through all those awkward selfies, something started happening.  

I started seeing my students-- seeing them in ways they wanted others to see them, I could see hints of insecurities, their frustrations, their fears, and their aspirations.  It was both humbling and deeply moving at the same time.  

Jason, a student new to our school, is quite the artist with a gift for portraiture. He seems able to hone in on whatever it is about his subjects that reveal their humanity. I wanted to see more of his art than what was on his Tumblr. 

Then there's Mona, whose anti-authority persona at school is tough as nails, and yet her Facebook stream was chock full of Buddhist quotes and messages of inspiration. "How you make others feel says a lot about yourself," says one of 'em. Indeed, Ms. Mona, indeed.

I got lost in Lena's joyous collection of photos, including that of her recent quinceaƱera (a rite of passage for Latina girls). She looks incredibly happy in each picture, surrounded by loving friends and family. There is so much pride in her heritage, and in all the pictures of celebrations, she's surrounded by children looking up at her, adoringly. She's shared with me how incredibly anxious she is about her struggles with reading and writing and getting into college.  Now I can see a little more of that story; how she may be taking her family with her on that dream, and how she may fear letting them down should she fail.  Suddenly, the role I play in her life takes on more weight and possibility. I can help her. I will

One hundred students a year; that's one hundred beautifully-flawed, sad, joyous, lonely, witty, hopeful, and complex human beings under the same roof with me every day and yet, I don't know much about them aside from a few surface facts and their reading and writing needs.  That's okay, they're teens and so they have secret lives that even their parents don't know about. I'm good with that, and honestly, I don't want to know everything.

But a lot of what they shared was public for a reason, and if there's any take-away from that ill-fated search for potentially-embarrassing photos, it's that (just like me, doing what I'm doing at this moment) they're all reaching out in the hope they'll be seen on their own terms.  As a Humanities teacher, I can do more to make room for that in my classroom and at my school.  I can and so I will

I end with this last little find: It's what one student tweeted about the project we were doing (Pan-African music analysis):

The truth is out there, and it ain't always pretty...and-- invariably, someone will retweet it.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Note to Self: Professionalism Begins with a Smoothie

Today's question: What's our most important professional responsibility outside the classroom?

Initially, I was compelled to shoot off a litany of professional badass-erisms starting with staying up to date on what's happening in the world of education and making our instruction transparent, as I'm gearing up to do with these daily blogs. That's wholly due to the culmination of a 30-year anti-public ed movement and the groundswell of discontent parents are finally becoming a part of. I'm fired up!  

But then I remembered a lesson whilst parenting: Take care of yourself first so you're in better shape to take care of others.  

I'd guess that's true for teachers, too. If we take care of our health and well-being, it pays off in all other aspects of our lives.  I struggle with sustaining that. When I don't eat breakfast, exercise, or sleep, it impacts my energy and brain power, not to mention my justifiable outrage and my willingness to get out there on the street and fight!

So, eat your Wheaties, boys and girls!  A kale smoothie is probably better.  Just do it so we have the energy to save public education and then get back to our usual business of saving the WORLD!

Disclaimer: I do not endorse consumption of said Wheaties. 

Note to Self: Keep Asking Why It Is You Teach

I remember the moment I chose teaching as a career. I was two years into college and had to declare a major. Among the choices, teaching offered the greatest potential for positively impacting others. That was the clincher.

I'd love to be able to think pure altruism was what has sustained my desire to teach these last fifteen years, but that would mean I would've expected nothing in return for my time and energy, and that was just not the case.  I'm hardly as selfless as that. Sure, I've depended on the paycheck, but ultimately, I've expected at least the sense that my time as a teacher meant something to others. I didn't need to see it, I just needed to feel it. I didn't even need to know that others saw it. I just wanted to be sure for myself.

Fortunately, I have been, and here's why:

1. The odds were pretty damn good!  I've taught close to 100 students each year, which meant close to 1500 students passed through my classroom.  Given there are 180 days in the school year, that would mean I had 180 days with each student where there was a very good chance of having impacted them in a positive way (since that was what motivated me). 

2. I've had some great teachers whom I quietly admired and even revered.  They impacted me in ways they could have never known (well, okay-- some do know now thanks to the modern-day magic of Facebook, where everyone you've ever known somehow finds you).  If even one of my ~1500 students took a piece of me along on their life's journey, in spirit, it'd be pretty cool. I've been fortunate enough to be told this was the case by former students.

3. Lastly, there have been those moments where I sensed it; a personal connection that was made, a mutual understanding, a shared experience, time, patience, and honesty acknowledged. Even if they didn't get it, I did. Maybe some day, they would, too, the way I could only do in retrospect when thinking about my own teachers and how they quietly left their imprint on my teacher-being.  

Interestingly enough (to me, anyway), I care less about all of that.  What sustains me as a teacher has shifted quite a bit. Where before it was about using my "superpowers" to inspire and to help students become self-aware (that being the "positive impact"), now I'm more inclined to want my experiences and my knowledge to be of value. If there's an impact to be made, it's on their learning, and I feel much more equipped to do that given the depth of knowledge I've acquired. It's a quieter impact, but one that's more likely to endure and have a direct & positive impact on their self-concept. 

Also, there's no denying that all this time, I've been impacted by my students on so many levels; as a parent, a learner, a teacher, and as a fellow human being. For that reason, I have a sense that in a few years, even legacy will cease to be a factor in what fuels me. If it's anything like parenthood, what will mean the most will be the sum total of those quieter moments where we all ran outside under the first snowfall to catch snowflakes on our tongues (high schoolers, these are), or all the times we found ourselves in mutual awe of things serendipitously stumbled upon, or that made us appreciate the mysteries of our own human nature. 

I feel the start of that shift, and I embrace it.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Wabi-Sabi Teacher = Beautifully-Flawed

A couple of decades ago, while learning how to spin a clay pot, an art instructor told me about wabi-sabi, a Japanese art form that conveyed the beauty of impermanence and time's impact on objects. Picture a sculpted piece of driftwood along the beach, or a smoothed-over river stone; both are wabi-sabi-ware, organically worn and shaped by nature's geologically-slow hand. The instructor applied it to the imperfections in my clay pot noting that it gave it a wabi-sabi feel. I didn't think too much about it, except that I felt relieved she saw the asymmetry of my piece a thing of beauty rather than a newbie flaw. It was a natural part of my process as an artist, she said, and that's what made it special.

When I first started teaching fifteen years ago, I could've used someone like that art teacher to tell me I didn't have to be perfect right out the gate. We enter into our first classroom with a head full of theory and meticulously-constructed "units of study", and it doesn't take much more than a spit wad hurled across the room to realize we're going to have to adapt to survive. When it happened to me, the sense of fear and urgency was strong enough to put me into overdrive. 

As a result, I would spend a good amount of time and energy those first years trying to reach edu-nirvana, that state where all those rock star teachers in the movies were at. You know who I mean, the ones who stood and delivered atop desks and, at the risk of life, job, and limb, challenged students to positively disrupt their lives using education as the way to do it. I wanted to be that teacher, as many young teachers did. It wasn't hard to shed that myth after a year or two of experience, but the motivation for impacting others and the passion for teaching remained. 

Now that I'm at the mid-point of my career as a teacher, I find myself thinking about that clay pot. Teaching is a craft, like ceramic art. There is no higher place to be than where we are when we're knee-to-knee with students as their mentors and guides.  

We can embody wabi-sabi, not only in our aesthetic (gray hairs and the wrinkles of a smile), but in our ways of "being", too. I see it in artists and teachers who value process over product. I sense it in those who accept their own finite natures with grace and brevity, making sure they're "present" for their students; honoring their learning journeys with patience and compassion. It's in anyone who seems to be in sync and at peace with nature's rhythms.

This is what I wish to remember as I embark on the second half of my journey as a teacher: that I am that stone, newly-aware of being less jagged in all the right places, and I embrace all that which makes me beautifully flawed.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Idea: Easing into the Launch of a Class Blog

I stumbled upon a process for launching a class blog that was non-threatening to struggling writers and yet, still engaged the more confident scribes in the room.

For our first post, I had students collect ten images (self-created or not) representing different aspects of their lives or personalities.

They then created a slideshow with the images and embedded it into the main page of their blog.  The only requirements: (1) images must be "appropriate" enough to show a roomful of grand-folks, and (2) no text.   No text piques readers' curiosity and prompts them to comment with their questions, thereby inspiring the blogger to draft another post in response.

The next day, I had students create a list of "Top Ten" (any topic of their choosing). I used my own blog as an exemplar, sharing my list of "Top Ten Moments of Bliss" (in no particular order):
  1. Snowboarding with Tommy, my nephew
  2. Receiving my Bachelor's degree- my whole family was there.
  3. Falling in love and realizing it for the first time
  4. Rock climbing, making it to the top, breathing, and then turning around to take in the view
  5. Biking down the Sandia Crest trail
  6. Backpacking around Cuba, up to the mountain valleys (lush)
  7. Bungee jumping off of a New Zealand mining bridge (where bungee jumping first originated)
  8. Walking along the Nova Scotian coastline
  9. Waking up on mornings after a big trek along the New Zealand coast (Akaroa)
  10. Floating on a river through a cave- looking up and seeing glow worms (they looked like stars!)
I asked the class which item on my list was most intriguing to them and conveyed how I could use their feedback to determine the topic for my next post.

Happy blogging!
P.S. I use Google Sites as a platform for our class blog.
If you'd like a template that you can simply copy, leave a comment and I'll kick it your way.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Welcome to Being Human- A Syllabus Intro to Humanities

Syllabus Intro to Humanities, Gr 10

Once upon a time, roughly 5 billion years ago, a gravitational collapse gave birth to the solar system you're presently spinning around in. At first, things were a mess. Most of the cosmic matter gathered and fused at the core while the rest of it scattered outwardly into a flat, orbiting disc of debris. 

As that debris field spun, it slowly (over the course of a billion years) started massing into clumps, thereby forming a number of stars and satellites, one of which we're all sitting on as it orbits its own star (the sun).

A billion years later, after things cooled down a bit on this home-planet, conditions were ripe for simple life forms to emerge, and eventually they evolved into increasingly-diverse complex organisms. It took mammalian life billions more years to emerge, but the planet was still hostile to larger forms of life, so there were a few mass extinctions. Each time, though, life continued to evolve.

Tens of millions of years after the last of those mass extinctions (that of the dinosaurs), ape-like animals began to emerge and at some point, they adapted by standing upright on two legs, thus heralding an evolutionary chain of events that would lead to the emergence of the species you, yourself, are a part of. That species' brain slowly grew and evolved to become self-aware of its own existence, and with the use of language (this one, the one you're using as you read this), created words to carry and record ideas from one generation to the next, words such as "human," which conveyed a category of life separate from all the rest.

Which brings us to this moment, whereby we find ourselves here in this class focusing on that very thing we call human. Welcome to World Studies, fellow human beings. Here, we'll explore what it means to be human and, if things go as planned, you may see more clearly your part in the ongoing story.