April 29, 2009

Some Questions

What if...
our curriculums are wrong?
our concept of traditional skills, standards and content are wrong?
what I learned about teaching English in university only 4 years ago has drastically changed?
kids can communicate just as clearly through shorthand text messages as I can in a formal essay?
we refuse to acknowledge any of this as plausible?

What if...
we are too self-centered and egotistical to think that things can change drastically in a short amount of time?
we are too ignorant to realize the entire planet is shifting and education is stuck in neutral?
we are too stuck in a model of what we think content areas should look like and include to be advocates for elaborate change?
I don't know how to keep up?

What if...
we think that kids should be learning what we learned?
we compare ourselves to our students?
we compare students from last year to students today?
we are stuck in a bog hole of stale ideas but view ourselves as fresh?

How do we.....
give students appropriate skills?
come to the realization that although we are the experts...we know very little?
we keep up with change? (and don't say some things never change?)

A few days ago Dan Meyer wrote a blog titled "In Defense of Digital Media". He said that although "[his] preference is also for the real thing over a digital simulation of the real thing" sometimes "digital media is preferable to the real thing". One example:

The real thing is too mathematically noisy for classroom use. Jason prefers a real demonstration of projectile motion using bottle rockets to my use of online simulators but that introduces acceleration and wind resistance— mathematical noise — into the system. Let's not romanticize the real or the digital. They are both deficient. They both require a cost-benefit analysis.

This got me thinking - how much of what we do is romanticized. Yes, we would love students to experience certain opportunities in the flesh...but how much of that is actually a benefit to student learning? But then I thought - we are educating students for a future that we know very little about. What are the most important skills for them to gain? Isn't mathematical noise a good thing (I am not a Math teacher)? Don't we want our students to be problem solvers in a real world context...shouldn't they be creative and face a variety of situations in order to prepare them for life outside the closed model system?

And then I thought - are we a closed model system that tries to avoid "educational" noise?

April 24, 2009

Lions, Crocodiles...and the WTO?

This video has been circulating for some time now - for those of you who haven't seen it it is a video that captures an extrodinary set of events. I had heard that it was going to be made into a National Geographic documentary and I guess that is true (look here). If you haven't yet seen the video, watch it first before reading on.

Wow! A complex video, and story, in so many ways. Not only are there evil villians (the lions and a crocodile), but also a happy ending (maybe not for the predators but certainly for the water buffalo). And then of course there are the people watching.

Okay, intersting...so what? Well, as teachers, we always look for a learning opportunity. I was excited by this video, it interested me immensly...but now what? How can I use it? Well, it just so happened that in my Social Studies classes we were discussing what I like to call the 'big fish, little fish" topic. I offer a comic strip that shows a big fish about to eat a medium sized fish who is about to eat a little fish. The captions read (from big fish to little fish) "the world is just", "there is some justice in the world", and "there is no justice in the world". Now, for you Social Studies teachers you immediately understand that we will go on to talk about power and justice in the world...for you Math teachers, well...there are 3 fish. I next offer the comic strip that shows a big fish about to eat a little fish; the little fish then whistles and all his little fish friends show up and together - eat the big fish. The comic strip is called "organize" and the lesson is taken from the book Rethinking Globalization (check out their website...it is a great organization).

Given this context you may begin to understand what an opportunity a video like "Battle at Kruger" offers for extended learning. We began to use the Battle at Kruger as an analogy for the world in relation to power struggles and justice. Who might be the big fish and medium fish (e.g. lions and crocodile). Oh, I see, well the lions could be the United States and Canada and the little fish could be India or Pakistan etc... Students then came up with some general analogies that I really liked. The lions and crocodile could be "developed" countries, transnational corporations, or world organizations (such as WTO) and the water buffalo could be "Third World" countries and governments. The people on the safari could be us. You see, the water buffalo finally realize that they are powerful through numbers and fight back. The people on the safari simply sit back and watch - they do nothing to interfere (and some eventually benefit from the video). We had been talking about sweatshops. Students applied this to the video. If Third World governments worked together to demand better conditions etc... the lions and crocodiles would have less power. And what about us, the safarians, what should we do? Anyway, students eventually developed their own in-depth analogies of the situation. Had it not been for this video I would never have thought of using the animal kingdom to connect learning of power and justice with a deeper context. But I guess that is the joy of teaching, finding those things that really connect and solidify student learning on a deeper level.

April 9, 2009


Well, I have been playing around with the idea of podcasts for some time now.  I finally figured out how to use them in a meaningful way...here is a short clip of the first Pow-Wow mix my students ever made...they did it in about 15 minutes.  Now, I can either embed a player for everyone to listen to...like here - 

Or...I can embed it to be downloaded (or so I think).  This would mean that other students could download songs (or even videos) we created and play them in their ipods.  Am I right? Any input would be greatly appreciated...Eldon, if you read this I'm looking at you.

Download this episode (right click and save)

Give me your ideas!

Here is a video one of my students made about a game called "Pos or Not".  I am beginning to see a huge advantage to having students do things like this.  It is interesting to see that while she guides us through the game she also engages with the material.  As she addresses topics she points the mouse to the part where she is talking about - too bad Jing doesn't let you highlight and draw on the screen while recording (Voice Thread?).  Perhaps the biggest benefits, are that her video has provided a model for other students as well as for herself.  After posting her video on her blog she started analyzing and critiquing herself - what could have she done better, what did she do a good job of - oh, she needs to speaker louder, etc...  Anyways, this is the first time I have had my class do something like this and I am super excited.  If you are way ahead of me in doing stuff like this with your students I would love to hear for you and gain some insight.

April 8, 2009

Sharing is caring

Just came across this sweet video!  Haven't watched it all yet as our internet connection seems to be getting slower by the day...oh well, check it out and let me know what you think...chances are you will be able to share your opinion before I can even finish watching it!

April 6, 2009

Sleeping on the couch?

I've noticed that as I get more and more involved in collaborative communities I have more and more meaningful conversations.  Well whoop de doo and la de da!  But just hold on a second, they are more than just conversations - they are enthusiasm generators and shift initiators...meaning that they get me excited about learning and teaching, and force me to think about myself - what I believe, if I am being effective, etc...  This last part is HUGE!  If we do not evaluate ourselves, constantly questions ourselves, and have dialogue with ourselves, and othters...how are we going to improve?  And if you, as a teacher, don't think you need to improve allow me to let you in on a little secret...you're wrong.  

Of course we need to improve!  We're part of a system that strives for constant improvement.  This is what we pride ourselves on.  It's how we measure student success...and our own.  Anyways, nothing new...same old song and dance just sung from a different mouth and danced with a new pair of shoes.  What I do want to talk more about, and explore, is learning.  I've dropped the "I need to be perfectly prepared for every class" mentality and adopted the "where are the teachable moments" philosophy.  Let me explain.  Yes, I need to be prepared for class.  But I also need to be prepared to change and adapt.  Real learning takes place on the fly, in real time.  This is something I am coming to understand.  So, someone shows me something cool they are using in class (e.g. getting their students to blog), cool - looks good, I want to do that.  Now I have two options.  Old Nickell would go home and test the idea out, try to figure it out and set up expectations for how it should be used in class.  New Nickell goes straight to his class and has his students start blogging while he refills his coffee cup...just kidding, but seriously.  Okay, what I have started doing is I go straight to my class and share my enthusiasm with my students.  I show them blogger and all the cool things people are doing with it.  We talk about how we could use it in class, what skills it could build, what they would like to do with it...and then we do it.  This collaborative culture that we talk of...it's not just between teachers...but teachers and students.  And students provide an interesting perspective...they let you know what they would like to learn.  Anyways, learn and then do...or learning by doing...quite a concept.

Now I had planned to blog about something else.  I had planned to share a conversation that I had with my wife just a couple days ago.  She is an elementary teacher.  People sometimes say "that is great, but how do you ever escape work?"  Truthfully, why would we want to.  Learning is our passion.  So, back to our conversation.  We were talking about PLC's.  I told her that our staff had just started using exit questions in our staff meetings.  We had to create a question we had about PLC's and then research it, come back to the next meeting and talk about what we had found, and then revamp our question or create a new one - depending where our research had taken us.  Great idea...gives people the chance to do some learning on purpose (courtesy of Gary Ball).  Not only that, but we can answer a heck of a lot more questions as a group.  Now, I am not sure if people saw it as an opportunity to learn and share, or simply a homework assignment that needed doing.  Hopefully the first, why wouldn't you want to help create a collaborative environment?  

Anyway, as we were talking my wife raised an interesting point.  She said that it is sometimes more difficult (e.g. time consuming) for elementary teachers to research or discuss such issues. Let me explain, one: because I am not being clear and two: because I don't want to sleep on the couch tomorrow night.  Some of the conversations we have as teachers (e.g. how to create a collaborative culture, shifting our ways of thinking about education , etc..) are easily transferable into a high school classroom.  I can discuss these topics with students, and the difference between my classes and an elementary classroom is that we can have an in-depth conversation.  Such discussions are also right up my alley in terms of my teaching assignment (ELA and Social Studies).  Translation, it is not more work to engage in such topics...it is my work.  Now take an elementary teacher.  They spend most of their day reading literature designed for young people.  They deal with issues and topics in relation to little people.  We deal with issues and topics in relation to adults (we have many adult students at our school) or young adults.  I think you see where I'm going with this.

So this is what I was going to blog about.  This was going to be my topic of discussion.  But then...I came home...and my wife showed me what she was doing with class blogmeister, and a site called buildyourwildself.com.  And I got excited.  I said, cool, I want to do that...how can I use that in my class.  And guess what...tomorrow...well, you know the rest.  Then I showed her what one of our elementary teachers had done with class blogmeister (she came back super excited from a conference on Friday and boom,, she's doing it...yay her - learn and do!)  Then I showed her what I was doing with my classes and blogger.  Then we had fun looking on the internet at other cool programs.  Our discussion eventually lead to talking about autism, and FAS, and learning patterns.  The point - we had an in-depth conversation about learning...and it was a conversation that was directly related to our classes - even though she teaches elementary and I teach high school.  All we really need to do is find ways to connect and discuss topics in meaningful ways.  After all, we are all learners - and learning is a universal topic.

Life Long Learning

This blog is brought to you by a blog posted by Gary Ball...oh, here, and the number 5 (enter the Count from Sesame Street).  Okay, so Gary basically talked about life long learning and posed the question: "do you learn, or do you just teach?"  He stated how it is sometimes too easy to just put off that job related learning.  

The ideas and questions that Gary pondered raised some questions of my own.  How many teachers actually see learning as their job?  I know that I have, in the past, been a guilty culprit of putting off that job related learning.  "I'm too busy teaching", or "teaching takes up most of my time".  And then I realized something...teaching is not my job.  Learning is.  I did not become a teacher to teach, I want to learn and be part of a learning environment...it's the type of environment that I feel most comfortable and meaningful in.  And because I have been learning a lot about PLCs and collaborative environments another thought ran through my mind.  It is virtually impossible to be part of a collaborative environment and not learn something.  If you are part of such an environment and not learning something...then you are doing it wrong.  

Perhaps this is a touchy area, for it represents a shift in education - a change, and sometimes people have a hard time with change.  But, if you have a hard time with change and are not willing to learn, perhaps you are in the wrong profession. Learning is our job.  If we want our students to become life long learners then we have to be life long learners.  If we want to see a steep learning curve within our schools, teachers need to be part of that steep learning curve - and not as teachers but as learners!  Students no longer need teachers to be the center of the classroom.  Why would I want a student to come to me for information when they could find it on their own?  So I guess it is my job to help them develop the skills to find and process that information.  But I too must find and process information; I must do, on a regular basis, what I want my students to do...and I must do it with excitement and find learning opportunities within it.  I am finding that embodying this philosophy makes our jobs much more exciting.  I do not know how many times in the last while (a lot)I have been in Gary's, or another teacher's room discussing a new idea or learning how to do something. And you know what?  It comes through in my classes. And they are, as a result, more exciting - and a steeper learning curve takes place.  Whether it be sharing your learning with your class so that more learning can take place or sharing a new "how to", learning is exciting - and rewarding.  Oh, and to answer your question Gary - the last thing I learned on purpose was how to use Voice Thread (about 10 minutes ago).  Now I am excited to see how we (my students and I) can use it.  Thanks. 

April 1, 2009

Video games in the classroom

So I am in the process of getting all of my students to start blogging. Their first task - assess some of the online educational video games David Warlick pointed out in his session during the Emerging Learning Summit. You can find these games here. I posted a video to model what I want student to do. They have started looking at the games and the response has been very enthusiastic.