A few recent pieces of writing

Two pieces I wrote were recently published.  One – What Works: Collaboration, humility and audacity  – sums up the first year at Harvest Collegiate:

Over the past year, I have had the honor, privilege, and daunting task to co-found a new public New York City high school, Harvest Collegiate High School. The proposal for the school was set forth by Kate Burch, then an NYC teacher and now our principal; I joined the team last January and helped move us, along with a team of experienced teachers and a social worker, from an idea that existed on a dozen sheets of paper to a fully functioning school with 126 ninth graders when we opened this past September.  As we finished our first year at the end of June, I looked back and realized that without a doubt, this was the best year of my teaching career.  By any measurement — student learning, attendance, student and staff morale, excitement from incoming students and families — things went outstandingly well.

As I think about this incredible past year, I think about the infusion in it of both audacity and humility.  It’s audacious to start a school, but I think we did it with humility for how much we could do well, for the giants whose shoulders on which we stand, and for our place in the larger political/educational world.

The second piece is in my role as a member of the “Team of Experts” for the Alliance for Excellent Education’s Project 24: From Rocks to PowerPoint: Technology is a Tool.  It seeks to remind people that as districts rush to implement new technological platforms, we need to remember that technology is a tool, not an end:

One of the earliest lessons I teach students in my Global History courses is that technology is not something that was newly invented, but rather, it’s anything humans create to help make our lives easier. Language was a good starting place for humans.  A lot of progress has been made from there: parchment, ink, pens, paper, the printing press, telegram, computer, iPhone, etc. Thanks to technology, the communication that defines our humanity became more powerful over time.

Another lesson I teach my students is that we’ve also made pretty big advances in the technology of murder.  For thousands of years, humans used technology like rocks and sticks to kill people.  Humans worked their way up from there as well: slingshot, bow & arrow, sword, rifle, machine gun, nuclear bomb.  Over time, we got a lot better at destroying humanity as well.

I think it’s important to keep these two extremes in mind when thinking about building up a technological infrastructure for schools and districts.  Technology has the power the amplify our humanity, but it also can deaden it. Technology is the tool, but it’s not an end in itself.

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Why I'm No Longer Tweeting

It’s been a month and a half now since I’ve looked at the never ending stream of updates from the people I follow on Twitter or Facebook. And while I am thankful for the network of excellent educators I’ve connected with through Twitter, I came the conclusion that it wasn’t something I wanted to keep in my life anymore.  

What follows is an explanation of why I’m making that decision.  I’m not suggesting that everyone should make the decision.  I’m also not deleting my accounts, so that I can still connect with people through both mediums. I’m also regularly checking my RSS reader and reading the many longer and more thoughtful edublogs I find there.

Last year, I became convinced I developed adult ADD.  I felt like I was loosing my ability to concentrate on any one task for an extended length of time.  Luckily, teaching is a job that rewards being aware of many different things at once, so it didn’t affect my job performance.  There were times when it was a challenge for me to focus on extended conversations with my wife, though.  I seriously considered going to see a psychiatrist and talking about going on adderall (which I, unlike many of my generation, never used recreational in high school or college).

I think a lot of the feelings I had could be attributed to the stress I was going through with a crazy-long commute, over finding a new job, and leaving a school I helped build.  But despite a huge decrease in stress this fall, I didn’t feel completed normal.

In December, I came across the following short piece by Jonathan Safron-Foer (whose Everything is Illuminated is one of my favorite books) in The Millions:

The best book I read last year — and by “best” I really just mean the book that made the strongest impression on me — was The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr. Like most people, I had some strong intuitions about how my life and the world have been changing in response to the Internet. But I could neither put those intuitions into an argument, nor be sure that they had any basis in the first place. Carr persuasively — and with great subtlety and beauty — makes the case that it is not only the content of our thoughts that are radically altered by phones and computers, but the structure of our brains — our ability to have certain kinds of thoughts and experiences. And the kinds of thoughts and experiences at stake are those that have defined our humanity. Carr is not a proselytizer, and he is no techno-troglodyte. He is a profoundly sharp thinker and writer — equal parts journalist, psychologist, popular science writer, and philosopher. I have not only given this book to numerous friends, I actually changed my life in response to it.

In search of a potential change for the new year, I picked up The Shallows, and read it over winter break.  And while I think there are some flaws in the book and its reasoning, I have to say, overall I was convinced that much of what I was feeling could be attributed to the ways in which I was using the internet in general, and Twitter in particular.

Carr accuses the Internet of “chipping away [his] capacity for concentration and contemplation” (p. 6). He described, what I found in myself when I was in the constantly updating world of Twitter:

[W]e enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning. It’s possible to think deeply while surfing the Net, just as it’s possible to think shallowly while reading a book, but that’s not the type of thinking the technology encourages and rewards (p. 115-116).

The book references numerous studies that have huge implications for those of us who teach using the net, with this conclusion being the most startling:

Even though the World Wide Web has made hypertext commonplace, indeed ubiquitous, research continues to show that people who read linear text comprehend more, remember more, and learn more than those who read text peppered with links (p. 127).

There were many points on which I disagreed with Carr.  I think his criticism of reading on the Kindle is the book’s weakest section.  His claim is that by turning every word into a hyperlink, e-readers encourage distracted reading, as readers can leave at any moment to look something up with the click of a button.  That has not been my experience, while reading Carr on my Kindle, or any other book.  If anything, my Kindle has allowed me to take on mammoth texts I never would lug with me on the NYC subway, including War and Peace and In Search of Lost Time.

Carr also fetishizes the “deep thinking” that he associates with reading, without giving enough credence to the shallow thinking that is sometimes more desirable, like when you’re teaching a room of 34 adolescents.

But despite the flaws, Carr did convince me that the amount of time I was spending on Twitter (and, to a lesser degree, Facebook) was altering my ability to focus for extended lengths of time and to do the deep contemplative thinking and non-fiction reading I would like to do more of.  And that’s what I hope to be doing moving forward.

Technology is a Tool

(This post is part of a series of posts for Leadership Day 2010, which aim to help school leaders who need help with technology use in their schools)

Next fall, I will start leading three new learning experiences: I will be teaching both sides of an aligned English/Global History course on world history and literatures to 11th grade students; I will also facilitate a Peer Learning Group at my school for fellow teachers on Technology and Teaching. All three experiences will share one common understanding:

Technology is a tool.

In the history class, we will looks at how technologies have altered how people live and interact with each other, from the new agriculture techniques of the Neolithic Revolution through the Internet. In English class, we hope to help students to learn how to use the various tools available to them to support the writing and revision process. In both these classes, we will help students learn how to find information, sort through it all to identify what is useful, assess the information for validity and bias, and finally use it in some meaningful form. With my peers, we will explore how technology can make them better teachers, and how they can use technology to better help their students learn. I’m really excited to use all three venues to help students and teachers improve their practice.

However, in honor of Leadership Day, I want to focus on the converse of the above understanding:

Technology is not an end.

My first year teaching, my Assistant Principal came and observed my class and was satisfied with 90% of what he saw. I don’t remember the exact lesson, but what he probably observed was students working in small groups to analyze complex historical documents, perhaps an excerpt from Hamarabi’s Code, before having an all class Socratic Seminar where we inquired what the Code told us about class relations in ancient times and what parallels we saw to society today. He liked what he saw: students were actively constructing knowledge; they were developing their reading and critical analysis skills; and they were using a social constructivist approach to creating knowledge for their selves. His only suggestion was that I find a way to incorporate technology into my lesson. He suggested that I go observe another teacher in the school who “did great things with PowerPoints.” Always looking to improve, I happily obliged.

The classroom I observed could not have been more different from mine. Students were all focused on the PowerPoint at the front of the room. The teacher provided them with printouts of the slides, with some keywords removed and replaced with underlines. The students’ task was to listen to the teacher and fill in the missing words. They were then told to take the notes home to study for a quiz the following day, where they were asked to fill in the same blanks using a word bank. In this classroom, students were passive vessels who existed merely to be temporally filled with arbitrary knowledge which they would regurgitate on command, and then likely forget soon after. They were not asked to take risks, be critical, use what they have learned in anyway, or connect history to today.

My supervisor’s mistake was seeing the use of technology as an end in itself. He did not considered what was being built with this tool. And what is built with this tool is all that matters. I’ve seen this same mistake made by countless teachers and administrators since.

I am a huge fan of using technology in my life, and in my classes. I blog and am on Twitter because I want to connect with other teachers to get ideas and feedback so I can improve as an educator. I have my students “publish” their work online because it adds an extra layer of accountability and gives them a real audience, which motivates them to improve their writing and deepen their thinking. I will encourage other teachers to find ways to use technology to make their classes more inquiry-based and student centered. But technology is merely a tool in all these situations. Technology, in itself, will not make you a better teacher or make students better learners. I encourage administrators to give their teachers all the tools necessary to help their teachers succeed in their classrooms and engage students. At the same time, technology, like any other tool that teachers have at their disposal, is only valid and useful if it’s being used to help students become better writers, readers, thinkers, and people. It is these ends that matter, regardless of how we reach them.

New Tech Teaching Toys (to me) from #sschat

Had a great time participating in the first Twitter #sschat last night. Having been away from blogging and the online teacher world for the past three years, I have missed a lot. Last night’s conversation on Web 2.0 Tools for the Social Studies Classroom really helped bring me up to speed, not to mention it really showed me for the first time how Twitter can be a valuable tool in my professional life.

The list below are tools that were new to me that I think can help my students better learn in my classes this year.

  • Worlde to help students analyze texts and documents [Thanks Daniel (@Agins213) for the idea and examples]
  • Voicethread is making my mind hurt thinking about all the possibilities. This looks like it could be an especially strong tool for my ELLs and struggling writers. I love that students could post via cellphone or video chat. This could transform homework in my class. I do an activity regularly where we put documents around the room on a poster and students respond around it. This would take the same thing and kick it up a notch. [Thanks, Jerry (@cybraryman1) for all the resources, and Greg (@gregkulowiec) for the document idea]
  • Wallwisher looks like it could be used for the same activity if I wanted to do it quicker. It would also be great for when students do stations and have to leave responses. [Thanks Becky (@Becky_Ellis_) for the idea)
  • Glogster looks like fun, though I worry I would have to spend a week teaching students just how to use it before they could produce anything. I’m also not sure how to use this to push student analysis as opposed to just throwing information on a poster [Eric (@vtdeacon) had some great ideas, though would still love to see examples]
  • Prezi looks like a really cool tool for me, and perhaps for students to use to show how a theme develops throughout history, though I have the same concerns as with Glogster. (Thanks Mr. Nesi (@mrnesi) for the first mention

Thanks to Greg (@gregkulowiec) for organizing and putting up the summary.