Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Control the content.

I'm looking at this from the standpoint of a High School English teacher.

The reality is that it doesn't matter much which books I teach my students. While I like and have predilections towards more thoughtful literature, I really don't need to use those books to do what I do. If this seems strange, I blame it on my labeling as an "English" teacher.
I don't teach English. Never have. Don't even know how, really.

What I teach is skills via literature.

And if we can all agree for a moment that the "skills" part of that is the important part, then it becomes clear that the literature is really just a prop to help me teach those ever important skills. I honestly don't really need any specific prop- I just need something to work with.
All that said, I've become increasingly agitated by the constant questions about "text books." So let's talk about those.

First off, textbook companies exist for one reason: To make money. That's it. Any motivation they have to provide a quality product is dependent on that product being able to make them money. As a result, it's in their best interest to create a product for the largest possible market. Practically speaking in the US, that means building textbooks that fulfill California and Texas' requirements. Everybody else gets to buy it too, but the content is engineered for those states. Fine.
Second, textbooks were a thing created out of need. There was no practical way for an educator to compile all the resources they would need for a year's worth of instruction. Books could be rare (or obscure), there was a lot of writing to be done, and a huge amount of organization to be undertaken.
All of which is to say that we got lazy. We started to think that it was easier to just buy a textbook than it was to build what we wanted for ourselves. We were led to believe that we should leave such stuff to the "experts." Here's the thing: we are the experts. We are the educators, we do know what we need in the classroom.
Several years ago now, I spearheaded a project at my school to have the senior English text be an in-house self published book. We did it in one summer- and yes, it was a lot of work. But from that effort we had exactly what we wanted- nothing more, nothing less. Once that initial push was made and the text existed, every year we could revise it, tweak it, modify it to fulfill our ever-shifting needs as educators. I'll also tell you that self publishing a textbook was wildly less expensive than buying one- printed commercial textbooks were $80-100 each, and our books were less than $6. It was so much less expensive, actually, that we could give them to our students every year- they would keep them, write in them, take contextual notes in them... and it'd still be cheaper than buying some published book.
Now, given that my school has gone 1:1, things are looking even better. We're slowing the printing of texts and moving to ePubs. We're building a modular contextual vocabulary unit that will allow each teacher to pull from the same bank of words, but easily re-order their vocab books to reflect the order in which they intent to teach texts.

If we can't, as educators, be bothered to take control of the very content that we teach- if we hide behind the facade of a textbook, then we do ourselves and our students a profound disservice. We become the same as a chef who takes no interest in the quality or provenance of his ingredients. We become a farce.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

My dirty secret.

I've been wary of saying this publicly, but I think it's something I can't dance around anymore. So here it is:

I throw everything out at the end of each school year.

Lesson plans.

Actually, there are maybe half a dozen lesson that I'll keep from year to year- but I only keep the idea of the lesson, not the stuff attached to it.
I'm saying this for a simple reason: I've been bombarded for years with people trying to move stuff they've made from one format or platform to another, newer one. I usually try to help, and the efforts are usually messy and only partially successful. They always ask how I'm managing the transition, and I always say that I don't have the problem. I think they must assume that I have some secret method for reformatting my teaching resources, but the truth is more simple. I simply make new stuff, all the time.

I think it's because I bore so easily. I can't imagine re-using something I've already used. Or maybe it's because I believe that each year's students are fundamentally different than the last, and the things I'm using to teach should reflect that. Or it's that I believe that my job, as an educator, is partially to create content, and if I'm using content from years ago I'm shirking my duties.

Whatever it is, it keeps life good for me. I'm always solving new problems, always re-imagining how things should be presented, always looking for a better way. And I never have to deal with moving my stuff from one platform to another.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Reading Deep

I've been thinking out this concept that I've had in my head for a while now.
Reading Deep.

One of the skills I've developed for myself over the years is the ability and willingness to read deep- that is, to read not only the core text, but to read the texts related to it. As an example: When I read Lord of the Flies, I read not only the book, but also related subject books. In this case, it includes texts on the Milgram experiment, Stanford Prison experiment, Third Wave experiment, the Bible, and so on. Then I read articles about those books. Repeat.

I feel the need to impress upon students that understanding a subject isn't a matter of reading any one book, but reading a wide swath of books on the subject, and even beyond that, understanding the dialoge that is currently taking place on the subject. We can't make students experts- it's on the of reasons I take issue with the use of the word "mastery" in education. Mastery is a journey that we start, but not one we ever really reach.

But I digress.

I'm thinking about how to inspire this sort of deep reading in students- how to make it a part of their natural behavior and habits to dig a bit.

Or maybe it's not ever going to be part of the majority of student's behavior- maybe it's not part of the majority of people's behavior.

Photo from jonny2love

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

I'm warry of apps.

My school is moving to a 1:1 environment, with roughly 1100 iPad2's being distributed in the coming weeks. It's deeply exciting, and I feel it has the real possibility to change the way I teach and students learn. In a positive way, if that wasn't clear.

That said, there's been a TON of talk about the apps that we should have student using. People have been worried about spending money on apps, finding good apps, weeding out the bad apps, blah blah blah...

Can I tell you a dirty secret?

I've bought maybe 4 apps. Ever. And I've been on the iPod Touch/iPad/iPhone train for a long time.
I guess I'm just really, really picky about what I throw money at.

I don't do single purpose apps. I like tools that are flexible.
I don't do content based apps. I make my own content, and just as I don't like/use commercial textbooks, I won't use the digital equivalent.

So what do I use? (and this is the school-based list...)
Sure. Let's do this by category.

Social Media:
1. Twitter
2. Google+
3. Mail

1. neu.Annotate
2. Evernote
3. Adobe Ideas
4. iDraft
5. Draftpad

1. Instapaper
2. Flipboard
3. iBooks

1. Scan
2. Clock
3. Dropbox
4. Safari

And that's mostly it. Give me those and some wifi, and I think I can get it done with students. I'm not saying there aren't good apps out there, but I'd rather have fewer good, versatile, workable tools than a giant bin of one trick ponies.

FWIW, only two of the above apps are paid (Instapaper and Adobe Ideas). Both are excellent, versatile, and easy to use. I can likely do without Instapaper as dotePub gets used more and more, and I'm sure there are other decent drawing/sketching/designing programs out there, but I got Adobe Ideas when it was free. So there you go.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Know what I don't do?

Read Education blogs.
Well, hardly at all- once in a great while I delve in and see if I've missed something, but the bulk of the time I stay well clear. And here's why:

It's all the same.

It's much the same reason I don't take part in #edchat as much as I used to- it feels like people talking in circles about the same issues over and over. I can't remember the last time I saw any disruptive tech/ideas surface in one.
And what I strongly believe we need is disruptive ideas.

We've pushed incremental change for years- refining ideas and delivery and standards, but ultimately, we've not broken a lot of new ground. We haven't climbed many new mountains or discovered many new lands. We need to.

So I'm looking for new ground, and new tech, and new ideas that haven't been done before in education. Disruptive, difficult, complicated, fertile new ground.

See you there.


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Comprehensive Education?

I've become increasingly bummed about what we've left behind in education.
We don't really do comprehensive education anymore. And I think it's a shame.
And while I (personally) would love to see sewing and welding come back into the curriculum, I understand that for many people (educators included) those days are past.

What I'm interested in is what I might call 21st century comprehensive education.
I'm envisioning a one semester course (at the High School level).
It works like this:
1. We start with basic principles of business and marketing.
2. We brainstorm ideas for tangible products.
3. We, using laser cutters and 3d printers, create prototypes of those products.
4. We revise and rework those prototypes into workable final products.
5. We create elevator pitch videos about our products.
6. We create Kickstarter accounts and promote products via Social Media
7. We investigate production-level sourcing for our products.
8. We evaluate what we did well or what might need refinement in our products & approaches.

What you're left with here is a comprehensive class that leaves students with a wide swath of skills. Everything gets covered, from English to Film production, Math and Accounting, Business law, and the like. Total cost to equip a classroom for that sort of course:
1. Computers ($500 x students)
2. Laser cutter (~$2000)
3. 3d Printers (~$900 x 3)
Total Cost = $10,000 (with some flexibility of course)

Worth it in every dimension.
If a student were both talented and motivated, it's possible they would pay for college or their first house. Even if a student's project doesn't go anywhere on Kickstarter, the experience of starting a business in High School would I think be a major benefit in later attempts.


Monday, May 9, 2011

Assembly Lines are Great for Cars...

...but not for students.

The idea that it takes each and ever student four years to get through High School is deeply flawed. The idea that every student needs to sit in a classroom for 990 hours a year is also flawed. And both of these flaws are based on the same mistake:
That all students are the same.

We know this isn't true.

We know this because we have ed plans. And 504's. And tutoring. And leveled classes. And AP classes. And night school. And summer school.
All things designed to put flexibility back into a rigid system.

Why don't we stop putting bandaids on this gaping wound, and address the problem itself:

The system needs to be based on flexibility.

Why don't we run things on a credit based system? You need (x) credits to graduate from High School. They need to be in the following distribution. If that takes you 5 years, that's just fine. If it takes you 2.5, that's ok too. If you'd rather take classes during the summer to speed things up, we'll offer those. If you want to take a semester off to do an internship, that's great; we might even grant you some credit.

Kids aren't all the same, and treating them like they all need the same schedule does them a disservice.