Thursday, April 28, 2016

iMovie, Poetry, Lit Class Mash Up

A colleague of mine, +Terry Guerin  recently gave her 9th grade students this assignment for literature class.


Using one of the poems in the packet, create an imovie visual/audio interpretation of it. Your film should be no more than 2 minutes long (preferably one minute). It may be a slideshow with music, it may have a voice speaking the poem while images float by, it may be an animation you create, it may include original music, paintings or drawings. You do not have to use the entire poem, you may use a portion of it. If you work better with a partner, you may work with someone but then you will create two presentations. Use the maker space to create a stop action animation? Ask anyone there for help with the imovie app OR consult the instructions on the app. On the day of the showing, please turn in an analysis of the poem (if you are working with someone, you will each write on one of the poems) and your inspiration for your film. Please include a description of the process, how you arrived at your work of art. 

I very much like the open ended nature of the assignment. I always like when students have real choice in how to attack a task. Here is one of my favorite videos and its accompanying explanation. Thanks to Jonah W. for allowing me to share his work here. 

He writes:

I chose to do “Do Not Go Gentle into The good Night” by Dylan Thomas. I chose this poem because it is full of imagery, poetic devices, and the words are very powerful. The poem is about how Dylan Thomas wants his father to fight death, and not allow it to take him. The poem speaks to me on a personal level because as my grandfather was sick, I watched him fight death, I watched him rage against the dying of the light, and I watched the night finally take him. In my imovie, I chose to include pictures of the sun setting, and night falling in. I chose these images because night is a common refrain throughout the poem. The concept of night is a powerful one, Thomas uses connotation to give night the greater meaning of death. When he says “Do not go gentle into that good night” Thomas is saying do not go gentle into death, but fight it. I also chose to put the image of soldiers throughout my imovie. I chose to put soldiers because Thomas talks about the different types of men that fight death. This concept made me think of how soldiers are fighting death when they are in battle. The poem also caused me to think of a candle. While it is burning, it is raging against the dying of the light, and when it goes out, it is going gently into that good night. Overall, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” speaks to me in both a poetic and personal way, achieving powerful imagery and an even more powerful meaning, Do Not Go Gentle is truly an epic poem.

Built into this assignment is metaphor, imagery, and voice. I sat in on this class as they presented their films. A tech-skeptical teacher was blown away by both the quality and thoughtfulness of these videos. I've said all year that tech done well let's us build upon what we already do so well. So many teachers view tech as a sterile, Skinnerian learning box add on that will rob humanities classes of the essential way of being that makes a good humanities class. I've suggested that just the opposite is true, that it can enhance what we already do.  I love this assignment and I love the fact that my colleague took a big risk. I love it even more that the risk paid off. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

iMovie, Making "shorts", Newbery Winners!

With colleague, +Rebecca Guenther, I assigned 6th grade students to make short films celebrating Newbery award medal- winners and honor books and entered James Kennedy's 90 Second Newbery Contest. We invited the contest's creator, James Kennedy, to come to our school to host a screening of these films.

+James Kennedy did indeed come! He spent the day with students yesterday, presenting book talks through the day. James' book-talk about his zany Order of the Odd-Fish engaged and entertained the students. I got to see it four times! (I needn't see it again.)

In the evening, he hosted the Philadelphia area screening of 90 Second Newbery films.  If you are looking for a terrific, reasonably priced speaker for your students, check out James Kennedy. I really feel our day with him was a success. Our students loved the day,

Okay, promo aside, what do kids get out of iMovie projects such as this? What are my thoughts on this project as a teaching tool? It seems to me that digital video know-how should be explicitly taught in a more formal manner than most schools currently do. It should be a core competency. While my colleague Rebecca and I did engage +Josh Weisgrau to teach the kids a lesson in framing and film narrative, I think we still need to do more. I truly do believe that being literate will someday include understanding how to compose in multimedia (if it isn't already).

As a tool for generating student thinking, short movie projects like this one can be fantastic. A good short film challenges students in all sorts of important ways. They have the synthesize material, capture essential details, and consider plot and mood to make an effective film. In some ways, notwithstanding my point in the previous paragraph, I truly feel that process is more important than the result.

Though Percy Jackson is not a Newbery book and thus was not eligble for the 90 Second Newbery Screening, I feel that this student's project from my LA class last year best captures quality film making (notice Kai's effective use of framing!) while engaging the higher order thinking skills I point to in the preceding paragraph.

Kai Davidson - Percy Jackson Ares Motion - h264 from Alex McDonnell on Vimeo.

Sunday, April 24, 2016


What makes a person "successful" ? Surely, in our common use of the word, our society uses the word to define wealth accumulation. "He made a success of himself," doesn't refer to fatherhood. Many may describe Donald Trump as a "success". Readers, that is a very narrow definition. But few would blanche if they heard Trump being described that way.

I found myself reading the radio again. NPR has a fine blog and today the link to this article came across my Twitter feed  Neil Gabler, the person being interviewed in this article said the following, which really struck me:

We have been taught that a middle-class existence is ... maybe a $250,000 house, and a vacation every year, and a car for each adult, and education for the children. And indeed, those are the very metrics that the commerce department has used in defining what a middle-class life is. But as I point out in the article, if you put a price tag on that middle-class life, as USA Today did several years ago, the price tag for that middle-class life is $130,000. Only one in eight Americans makes $130,000. So the middle-class life that we've all been taught is ours — if only we work for it — is out of the reach of all but a very small number of us.

We better begin to rethink in a serious way what he means to be successful in the United States because very few are going to "make" successes out of themselves. Of course, we also need to also make it so that American wealth is shared more broadly and fairly.

How does this relate to schools? I can't help but think of The Race to Nowhere.  For it is in school that we begin to define success by how fast we go, how many credits we acquire, our scores on standardized tests, etc... For some students, this frenzy never ends. They even may feel that they thrive in such a system and are proud of their ability to "win" the race. I can't help but think of the millions of folks who self-medicate themselves with food, booze, or drugs to cope with the stress of it all. Thousands of our best students chase success but earning great grades to get into great colleges to get into great grad schools to get prestigious jobs. The whole time people do this, they are looking forward. I think it little wonder that people have mid-life crises. "All this for what?" some of the "successful" may say to themselves. And for those who fail to make the magical $130,000, they must realize by the time they reach their 40s that they never will "make" it. Either way, most of the "successful" and the "non-successful" are dooming themselves to unhappiness.

As technology begins to take the jobs of white collar workers, the need for a reimagining of success will be increasingly urgent.

Our best schools can help kids by encouraging learning for its own sake. We could also help reimagine what success means.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Simulations- Choices for the 21st Century Project.

I wrote the following a couple of years ago, before I started this blog and this new job of mine. In this 2016 election year, it resonates more than ever. The lesson it describes uses little tech. Instead, it uses a simulation I built based on the Choices Project from Brown University.

When considering the hostility of today’s political climate with its charges, accusations and counter-charges we often bemoan its lack of civility and long for a more civil public discourse. We yearn for the days when our leaders actually “got along” and worked together for the common welfare. Yet, this frustration with the present is unfair to this generation. Our nation’s politics have been full of vitriol since our founding. Because we sense that things are now different, we do not look to the past for the lessons that it could teach us.

As a teacher, I try to have my students understand that it did not have to turn out this way. This particular present was not preordained; indeed, it was the choices and actions of individual people that shaped and continue to shape the course of history. It does not just happen.

I find simulations a terrific way to help students understand this. Earlier in the year, I wrote about a computer simulation we played in my social studies class. Last week, we returned to a simulation, this one about the onset of the now almost forgotten War of 1812.

“War Fever” broke out in the United States at the beginning of James Madison’s presidency. This Fever was similar to the fervor that seized the United States in the months after 9/11. Our nation, now independent for a quarter of a century, was deeply frustrated by Britain’s utter disregard for our maritime rights among other things. Talk spread in the United States that victory would be easy. Sound familiar? New Englanders were among the forefront of the movement against the war. They formed the heart of the Federalists, the party of Alexander Hamilton and John Adams. These Federalists deeply opposed the war and some of them even considered secession!

To make this past come alive, I wrote a simulation based off of a framework created by Brown University’s Choices Project.  This framework puts students in active roles advocating the different choices available to the decision makers of the time period. Students spent three full classes reading and preparing for the mock Senate hearing. This hearing was moderated and led by students. Students asked the questions and answered the questions. For the two and a half class periods, I watched and enjoyed. Towards the end of the second class period; debated became particularly heated and as ideas and argument raged passionately back and forth across my class I began to smile. One student caught a glimpse of my smiles and said, “You are enjoying this aren’t you?” A visitor walking in the room at just that moment might have been taken aback by the zeal (and yes, noise.) But I was thrilled. Students were deeply engaged in learning, thinking, and debate all about the now forgotten political debates of our early nation.

We will pivot off of this unit to a current events debate in this very same format. This time, our topic is Iran. Our nation faces a series of choices we need to make. Students will be assigned different roles to research and then represent. It is my hope that through this active meaning making that students will realize that history indeed does matter.

Thanks to Morgan Crowley who took pictures of this simulation while also ably fulfilling her role as a Senator during this simulation. This one shows the students mid-debate. It begins to capture some of the enthusiasm for the project.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Rules of the Game

How much of what we do in schools do we do because students will do it again later? I hear this all the time in response to my appeals for change. "They'll need it in high school" or "They'll need it in college". Look, there's a certain logic to this. However. let's posit that some of the things we make students do aren't helpful, useful or right yet we still do them "to prepare" kids for what is coming later. Can any reader nod their head yes in agreement? I found myself doing just this a couple of weeks ago. (Note my recent blog post about student choice in summative assessment) I worried that my students would be unprepared for the department created final exam which is full of "what" questions. The fear is real. 

We can look this another way, however. Who would be mean to children with the logic that it is preparing them for people to be mean to them later? Actually, I hear whispers of this in some of the people who mock the "everyone gets a trophy" awards. "Suck it up kids, life sucks", seems to be the mindsets of some critics. By the way, I also argue against giving kids trophies, but for different reasons. Alfie Kohn has largely convinced me that rewards punish in the long run.

I digress. What I really want to write about is that sometimes we are misguided in the game of school. We think we are preparing students for what is coming next. But we aren't. The rules are changing; we don't realize it yet. Tests for recall once made sense in a world in which information wasn't ubiquitous. Way back in 1997, David Shenk wrote, "Information used to be as rare and precious as gold. (It is estimated that one weekday edition of today's New York Times contains more information than the average person in seventeenth-century England was likely to come across in an entire lifetime.)" Process this and now think of the revolution in information technology that has happened the past 19 years. We simply can't expect people to remember everything that they'll need to know in their profession.

I'm thinking of this because Friday night I was listening to a fascinating Fresh Air broadcast on NPR on the impulsive and addictive prone teenage brain. It's worth a listen and I include a link to the entire broadcast. During a fascinating segue midway through the broadcast, my ears prickled when the neuroscientist being interviewed said this:

" Well, it is a different way of learning. And actually in the medical education field - here's an interesting fact - that over the last two or three decades, learning had - it was determined that learning had to be done in a different way. There were just simply too many facts to memorize during medical school... So about 20, 25 years ago in a few schools, including at Harvard, they started to do a different form of learning, which is really teaching students how to access information rather than absorbing, digesting and ingraining that information. And, frankly, that today's modern physician does operate much more in that mode because, of course, there's always this new information coming every month about new treatments, new patterns of practice that you should be employing. You couldn't possibly stay, you know, up to date by memorizing everything. So it's more teaching you how to access information. ...This actually is playing out very - in a very real way in the medical education field, I can tell you that. [So when your doctor has to look something up it doesn't mean] they're a bad doctor. It means that they're probably doing you a huge favor, that they're making sure that there isn't a better drug available that might have just come out or a new test that they can look for that mysterious disease that they still haven't made a diagnosis on."

So, why do Science AP exams still look the way they do? For that matter, why do all the AP exams look the way the do?

Look, I'm a constructivist. I believe our minds need some facts to build a scaffold. Schema theory tells us this. But next time you do something only because you think you are preparing students for things that are going to happen to them later in university, grad school and beyond, maybe you're wrong.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

I Don't Want to Substitute

Puentedura's already famous SAMR model posits that in "Substitution" technology simply replaces another tool. In my years of teaching, most tech adaptations and introductions have largely existed in this stage. Examples abound, digital worksheets, online quizzes such as Kahoot, or even attendance taking via computer more or less replace what existed before it with little modifications. The digitizing of the teacher's workflow has done little to move technology use beyond Substitution into Augmentation. I'm just not that interested any longer in tools such as epackback even as I recognizes their potential power if all aspects these tools are leveraged.

 A couple of years ago, I was outraged at the amount of printing teachers were still doing. Okay, I admit, it still bothers me, but I want to spend my time and energy as a tech integration specialist moving people into thinking about ways technology allows for significant task redesign. And it doesn't matter much to me if the paper flow is electronic or digital if the paper is still written for an audience of one.

from Kathy Shrock's Guide to Everything
I was just speaking with my school's archivist. Yes, we have an archivist! In the 19th century, my school had a famed writing master. The archivist showed me examples of his beautiful work. Below is an exquisite cover page he wrote for a student's autograph book. Yet, his amazing skill has long been seen as not essential for students. Very few question this today.
I fear that so much of what ed technology companies are pushing to schools gets no further than the Augmentation step (at best). We aren't letting go the 20th century equivalent of the writing master. 

I was thinking about all of this as I read this article . Technology affords us such possibilities! Yet, we have to questions some fundamental assumptions about teaching and learning if we think that technology is going to be "transformative". 

Friday, April 8, 2016

What is Your Teaching Philosophy ?

Yesterday, my principal asked the faculty to fill out a series of questions that, when tallied, gauges one's teaching philosophy. I thought this survey was interesting. The scores numbers to the right of each heading are my scores. Take a look at the following descriptions. What words would best describe your teaching philosophy? The sentence or two in bold is my reaction to each paragraph.
Perennialism: 11/25
The acquisition of knowledge about the great ideas of western culture, including understanding reality, truth, value, and beauty, is the aim of education. Thus, curricula should remain constant across time and context. Cultivation of the intellect is the highest priority of an education. Teachers should directly instruct the great works of literature and art and other core curricula. There is much of beauty that comes to us from Western Civ and indeed cultivation of the intellect is of the highest priority. But the idea that curricula should remain constant strikes me as misguided.

Essentialism: 11/25
Essentialists believe that there is a core of basic knowledge and skills that needs to be transmitted to students in a systematic, disciplined way. A practical focus, rather than social policy, and emphasis on intellectual and moral standards should be transmitted by the schools. It is a back-to-basics movement that emphasizes facts. Instruction is uniform, direct, and subject-centered. Students should be taught discipline, hard work, and respect for authority. This is how I was taught through my elementary school years. When I arrived at a secondary school which asked me to think, I was unprepared. This is not the optimal way of learning for most students.

Progressivism: 24/25
Progressivists believe that education should focus on the child rather than the subject matter. The students' interests are important, as is integration of thinking, feeling, and doing. Learners should be active and learn to solve problems by experimenting and reflecting on their experience. Schools should help students develop personal and social values so that they can become thoughtful, productive citizens. Because society is always changing, new ideas are important to make the future better than the past. Amen. I'm a progressive educator. Nothing else to say.

Reconstructionism/Critical Theory: 20/25
Social reconstructionists advocate that schools should take the lead to reconstruct society in order to create a better world. Schools have more than a responsibility to transmit knowledge, they have the mission to transform society as well. Reconstructionists use critical thinking skills, inquiry, question-asking, and the taking of action as teaching strategies. Students learn to handle controversy and to recognize multiple perspectives. I'm surprised my score is so high. I don't believe a schools' primary job is to transform society. However, I do feel that this is a de facto outcome of a good progressive education.

Information Processing: 15/25
For information processing theorists, the focus is on how the mind of the individual works. The mind is considered to be analogous a computer. It uses symbols to encode, process, remember, and retrieve information. It explains how a given body of information is learned and suggests strategies to improve processing and memory. Nope, the mind is not a computer . However the knowledge we are learning about how the mind works should indeed shape our teaching.

Behaviorism: 11/25
Behaviorists believe that behavior is the result of external forces that cause humans to behave in predictable ways, rather than from free will. Observable behavior rather than internal thought processes is the focus; learning is manifested by a change in behavior. This is known as the stimulus-response theory of learning. The teacher reinforces what what the student to do again and again and ignores undesirable behaviors. The teacher's role is to develop behavioral goals and establish reinforcers to accomplish goals. I'm giving grades as a teacher for the first time in 22 years. Yeah, it works but it sure kills the joy of learning for its own sake.

Cognitivism/Constructivism: 23/25
The learner actively constructs his or her own understandings of reality through acting upon and reflecting on experiences in the world. When a new object, event, or experience does not fit the learner's present knowing structures, a conflict is provoked that requires an active quest to restore a balance. Teachers facilitate environmental conditions and mediate experiences to support student learning. Yep, schema theory and all that. I believe this to be true.

Humanism: 22/25
Humanist educators consider learning from the perspective of the human potential for growth, becoming the best one can be. The shift is to the study of affective as well as cognitive dimensions of learning. Beliefs include: human beings can control their own destiny; people are inherently good and will strive for a better world; people are free to act but must be responsible; behavior is the consequence of human choice; and people possess unlimited potential for growth and development. There is a natural tendency for people to learn, which will flourish if nourishing, encouraging environments are provided. I'm not sure what this all means, but I do believe that the affective domain is critically important, almost as important as the cognitive domain.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Google Certification Level 2

Around the New Year, I took Google's Level One certification test. Here's what I wrote about it at the time. Today I took and passed the Level Two Test.

The basic details:

  • It costs $25.
  • One has a week to take it from the time of registration.
  • Once the test is started, the taker has 3 hours to finish the test- no pauses or breaks.
  • The test-taker needs to have a camera on his/her computer so Google can monitor the test-taker.

The test has two segments. The first part is a 25 question test. The questions come in a variety of forms. Some questions have two correct answers, other questions ask the test taker to put a series of tasks in order. Other questions are essentially matching questions. I found this section to be difficult. There were a couple of questions (I signed an agreement not to share content so I can't give details) on which I simply guessed.

The second part asks the test-taker to use the full Google suite of tools. One has to be able to use Sites, Gmail, some Extensions and Add-ons, Drive, Scholar, Docs, and all other things Google. The questions were fair, but I found the test challenging enough as it took me 2:54 to take the test. And the end, I was "fried" enough that I didn't even take advantage to the chance to review my answers. I simply clicked, "submit".

Within minutes, Google will tell you if you pass or fail. I've heard that one needs to get 80% correct to pass. I don't know if that's true. And one does not get to see which questions one gets right and wrong.  I probably found out in a minute that I passed.

It is definitely harder than the Level One test, but it is not significantly harder.

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