Tuesday, November 13, 2012

5,000 Students Can't Be Wrong: 6 Reasons Why You Should Support the Wikiseat Project

The idea is simple.  We want students to build chairs.  Lots of them. 
Why chairs?  Because chairs solve problems.
Solving problems is useful. 
So is learning how to solve them.

The Wikiseat Project started with 85 kids.  Now we have over 5,300 students on three continents signed up and waiting to build chairs, share the journey, and create a vast community of people doing what we think people do best.  People make stuff.  From little kids with blocks to the adults who produce all the things we come in contact with a million times a day, the process of design is constant and has been from our early beginnings.  We identify problems, create solutions, and share our work when we're done.  This is the very definition of progress, and we've built a 100% grass-roots effort to bring the experience of design to over 100 classrooms around the world in 2013.

 So what do we need from you?  Honestly?  We need $85,000 dollars to fund 5,300+ catalysts, pieces of angle-iron that serve as the basis for these three-legged seats, as well as well as the catalysts that will be given away as part of our reward system on the Indiegogo campaign we have set up.  Why should you do this?  Here are six reasons why you should support these students:

1. Transcurricularness

Real learning doesn't fit into nifty categories.  It's messy, problematic, and has an unpredictable outcome.  While I was able to align the project with my 10th grade English Language Arts content standards, and I do feel like this can also be done in other content areas pretty easily, this is a project that is about learning writ large, not confined by "subjects" and "classes". The design process, in which one mentally moves from identifying a problem, analyzing that problem, creating possible solutions, drafting, and finally production, is a process that is clearly necessary for today's world.  A close look at the 100+ innovative educators who have signed on to lead students through the Wikiseat process clearly shows that building chairs in school applies in a wide variety of curricular areas. 

2.  It Begins and Ends With The Audience.

Like all good design, the Wikiseat Project always has you, the audience, in mind.  Not only will students identify a place in their life where they could use a new seat and actually bring it to fruition, they will also be engaging with a whole wider community of peers, participants, and supporters.  The first group of 85 students were able to get their work displayed in a great local art gallery, complete with an opening night meet and greet session.  As an educator, I can't stress enough how proud I was as my students engaged a live audience gathered solely to hear kids share what they were learning in school.  What will the other 5200 students come up with this year?  Where will they share their work?  What size audience could that many kids reach?  Help us find out.

3.  It's the Future and You Want Futuristic Schools

Seriously.  Think about over 5,000 kids sharing the entire Wikiseat process together online.  Kindergarten classes in Newfoundland skyping with Master's Degree candidates in Australia.  Massive galleries of still photos, updated constantly, and providing a sense of community to both student participants and online supporters.  It's time we start to unleash our student's natural capacity to work and share collaboratively.  The days of having all school work handed to an audience of one are over.  Sharing is what happens when scarcity ends, and now that every kid has access to everything that everyone has ever learned via the internet, the kind of scarcity that has been the model in education for 100 years is done.  We don't have jetpacks like we though we would, but the future we wound up with is totally new and it's a super-exciting time to be in education.  

4.  We Need To Go Back.

All classes should be soulcraft, not just shop class.  And it's too bad about shop classes here in the US, they've been eliminated at the time when we could really use them the most.  This project is about a return to making things.  It's a reaction against throw-away culture.  It's about craft, and learning from mistakes, and physicality.  While the experience will be shared in a very modern way online, the actual construction process is entirely lo-tech. As much as we want to turn everything into a shared experience, we should pause and make sure that we also see value in the simple conflict between a human idea and a physical object.  Handing a kid a hunk of welded angle-iron is a very visceral thing.  It has weight, it's a bit greasy, and it makes an awesome thud as it plops down on a desk in front of a befuddled kid wondering how they are going to turn that into a chair.  Kids love the challenge of making things, and they also love to use the things they make.  I started this whole project because I realized that somewhere along the line I had given up on that love of making things I had as a kid.  I encourage you adults to contribute enough to get a catalyst for a Wikiseat shipped your way because I think there are plenty of people like me out there who'd love to feel that challenge of making something again.

5.  Kids Who Understand Questions Find Answers Better.

My kids have to take the same standardized tests that your kids do.  I don't really think about those tests much, though.  I'm making a calculated move towards the fundamental  premise that engagement is the most necessary element of any learning experience, and a calculated move away from this notion that content acquisition is the most significant goal of education.  By teaching my students how to think using a design framework, I am teaching them to not only find answers, but to appreciate questions as an opportunity to learn and grow.  My students approach those standardized tests with a desire to be measured, a desire to be put to the limit regardless how low or high the bar, and a desire to be done and get back to real learning as soon as that horrendous week is over.  They don't work for grades, they don't work for points.  They learn because they appreciate the beauty of moving from not-knowing to knowing, and they carry an appreciation of that beauty for the rest of their lives.  Oh, and they score quite well to boot.  

6. It's Just Cool.

This thing is as grass-roots as it gets.  Nic, Alaric and I had no idea that we'd put out a call to see if anyone was interested in building seats in school and get the response we got from students and educators all over the world wanting to come on board this crazy pirate ship we've got going.   This is something that wasn't possible a few short years ago, and now that we have the chance, we simply just have to follow through and get these hunks of metal in these kids' hands.  It's going to be incredible, and loud, and beautiful, and awesome.  

Whatever the reason, and I'd love to hear yours, please support kids who want to make things in school. 

- Sean Wheeler

Monday, November 12, 2012

I'd Advocate for More Soul.

My son doesn't like school anymore and it kills me.  Here's a kid alive with wonder, building entire worlds in his play time, always questioning the why's and what's of our daily lives, and he comes home every day with a different story that centers around "the loud kids" or "talking out of turn" or simply how boring it is to answer questions all day long in preparation for "the big test".  The disconnect between who my child is as a learner in the real-world, and who he is as a typical 5th grade student in America, is so vast that I wonder if school is doing him more harm than good.  When learning is a quantifiable end, and not a means to engage more deeply in one's curiosity or frustration, I worry that we're turning out a generation ill-equipped to solve real problems.

I have good reason to worry.  By the time kids like my son make it to high school they've learned the game, the rules, and how to best play at being a student.  This largely consists of not speaking in class, seeking minimum requirements, and avoiding any kind of frustration or annoyance.  Kids like my son work for points and grades.  Kids like my son turn into little test-takers and extra-point junkies.   They procrastinate, put their heads down in class, and get caught on their cell phones.  They hate school, and as well they should.

I became a teacher because I hated school.  It wasn't that my experience was particularly bad, it was just so boring.  After a few years of soul-searching in my twenties, I decided to re-enter the classroom and see if maybe I could go back and design the kind of learning space that I so sorely wish I would have had coming up.  It's been ten years, and I'm now more convinced than ever, we need to stop aiming at the test answers stored temporarily in our students' brains, and instead we should ignite the spark of curiosity and engagement that is innate in their souls.  

Souls aren't things you hear much about in the education debate, have you noticed that?  It's because the "stuff" of the soul is too difficult to quantify on paper and doesn't fit into the curricular categories we came up with 100 years ago.  My son surely has a soul, and whatever it contains within in it, whatever passion, curiosity and engagement he was given at birth, it is systematically being stamped out of him every weekday from 8-3.  The authors of my son's sad education narrative aren't primarily his teachers or his school, but the people at the top of the decision tree (politicians, billionaires, and profiteers) who favor the science of easy data over the art of stirring souls.

This wasn't meant to be a lament.  It was supposed to be about why you should donate to our Indiegogo campaign for the Wikiseat Project.  But I feel a need to share what is at stake here.  My children are at stake, your children are at stake, and I have decided to be unafraid when it comes to advocating for an education that is engaging, inspiring, and that taps into the potential that our current model of education seems all-to-willing to ignore.

- Sean Wheeler

Poster Design by Ben Barry.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Teaching Design: Finding Problems

AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by zachtrek

by Sean Wheeler

Problems are great.  They put us in uncomfortable places in our heads and hearts.  They frustrate us and gnaw away at us.  And it's because of this quality of problems, that they put us in what feels like a negative space, that problems get a bad rap.  But if we want our students to be ingenius, to be engaged, to be creative, we need to embrace the idea that the tension created by a problem fosters the kinds of growth we really need our kids to experience in our classrooms.

The problems we need, need to be different from the problems we're used to.  I think we've gotten used to pseudo-problems, problems that lack a real-context, and most especially, come ready-served without any of the aforementioned frustration.When my students used to write essays on Campbell's "The Hero's Journey" as applied to early Native-American oral tales, they weren't solving any mysteries, they were tellling me back everything I'd already taught them, but in a nifty MLA format.  However, when I asked a group of students a few years ago to go out and identify an environmental problem in our city and give a presentation to our class that persuaded me to care about the problem, they were using all kinds of observation and analysis skills that are sorely lacking from the pseudo-problem posed by my old Campbell/Native-American  essay.  After teaching my students persuassive rhetoric, they were able to use it to persuade not only me, but members of our local community, that these issues are important to my students.  The whole key to our success on that project was that I didn't walk into class on the first day and lay out "the problem" for them.   Instead, I asked them to find those places in their walks around town that frustrated them, that bothered them, and then I asked them to share these frustrations and work on alleviating them through invention, creativity, collaboration, and tenacity.

Last year, at the start of the Wikiseat project, I asked my 85 students to think about where they needed a seat in their life.  It sounds like an odd request for a homework assignment, but I asked students to think about moments of frustration in their daily routine that might be eased by having a chair to sit in.  One student told me that her little sister liked to hang out on her bed during homework.  The little sister was pretty squirmy, and it might be useful for the little sister to have a chair of her own.  That way she could still hang out, but wasn't squirming too much on the bed.  Another student told me that his mom worked two jobs, and in between jobs she'd sit on the back steps to put on her 2nd shift shoes.  He thought it would be nice for her to have a stool to sit on, so she wouldn't have to sit on the dirty steps and ruin her work uniform.  Other kids wanted a suped-up video game chair.  Another only cared that her chair matched her walls, because her current chair certainly didn't, and the clashing of colors was too much to bear.  The significant part of this whole process was that the students were able to identify a problem, and with that problem in their craw, they were able to start envisioning solutions.  I suddenly had students who were driven in ways that I'd never seen before.  By giving them the opportunity to work on the problems they saw around them, even something as trivial as building a seat for someone to sit on at home, they became engaged in finding solutions because the results actually mattered.

I'm really hoping to shape students who welcome problems with enthusiasm.  That's got to be as good as any content we'd serve up otherwise, right?  Teaching them how to think, using real problems as the means, seems significantly more important than teaching them what to think.  And when it comes to the answer-based tests that dominate our current education landscape, I want kids who love questions because they are the ones that want to give the answers.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Teaching Design: What Makes a Cup a Cup?

"What makes a cup a cup?
For your answer, please take some time to carefully consider the question and to compose a thoughtful response.  Each response will also need to include a legal picture of a cup (If you don't know what I mean by a "legal" picture, please see me.  You can also look up Creative Commons licensing.)
Your answer will need to be spelled correctly and it needs to be an example of your very best writing." 
First online forum assignment of the Wikiseat project.  August, 2011.

In thinking about how to approach the Wikiseat project with a networked group of over 4000 students, I think it might be useful for me to go into greater detail about exactly what this whole thing looked like in my 10 grade US Literature class last year.  This way, as we begin to develop a network of teachers thinking about how to tailor the Wikiseat project for the learning needs of their students, we can discuss how to adapt, modify, and supplement what was done last year.

The "What Makes a Cup a Cup?" assignment was developed to get students thinking deeply about the notion that design solves problems, as well as introduce them to concepts of form and function.  On the day before we start this lesson, I ask students to bring a cup to our next class so that they'll have it in front of them as the lesson begins.  "What makes a cup a cup?" is actually a very difficult question to answer.  As you can see from the exchange below, students not only posted responses, but also engaged in a bit of argument, which, as a Language Arts teacher, allowed me to begin working on our evidence and support standards:

(And I guess I should start looking into this "onternet."  Oops.)

But eventually, students came to give responses like this:

After we began to classify aspects of student responses into descriptions of either form and function, students began to come to an understanding of how form and function work in other objects.  We looked at shoes, thermostats, audio speakers, and students desks, among other things, and students were quick to display a pretty firm understanding of the basic principles of design.  However, I was pushing for them to learn something more.

The follow up question in class for the day after the students posted their "What Makes a Cup a Cup? responses aimed to have the students begin thinking about what problem a cup actually solves.  Sure it has a form and a function, but why would anyone make it in the first place?  We had a bit of fun in class thinking about the person who invented the first cup.  I asked students to think about how that person must have felt about having to walk to a river, stream, or lake everyday to drink.  The students easily understood that the cup was invented out of frustration.  And then they came to understand that this frustration led that first cup inventor to find a solution to the problem.  I asked students to consider the ways in which the form and function of a cup serve as a clearly tangible solution to the "I-don't-want-to-have-to-walk-to-the-water-source-to-drink" problem.  Towards the end of class, we played a game in which I pointed to any man-made object in the classroom and they shouted out what problem the object solved.

I think a discussion about form and function as related to problem-solving is applicable in a wide-variety of learning situations.  A biology teacher could discuss the ways in which evolutionary traits are responses to environmental problems.  Maybe a history teacher could discuss how government systems are formed and function to solve issues of a civic nature.  I look forward to how the growing network of teachers working on the Wikiseat project will adapt, modify, and add to what was an exciting first step in what my students accomplished last year.  I'd appreciate any comments or questions that help us to think about how this would look in classrooms around the world.

Next Post:  So what problem will your Wikiseat solve?

Monday, October 8, 2012

Catalysts for a Change.

by Sean Wheeler

"Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these books.  Hence, Instead of Man Thinking, we have the book-worm." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

In perhaps the most provocative line in his "American Scholar" speech, given in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 31, 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson makes a distinction between two conceptions of education.  On one side, that of the "book-worm", students are to go about the work of studying greatness.  ON the other side, and the one engaged by the WikiSeat project, is a conception of education that promotes thinking and the actual potential for greatness of the students.

The Wikiseat project begins with what Nic Weidinger has called a Catalyst.  A Catalyst is a welded support structure that forms the beginning of what will eventually be made into a functional Wikiseat.  It's been one year since I first placed a set of Catalysts in front of the eighty-five students in our 10th Grade American Literature classes, and as I approach a second go at this project with a new batch of students, I find myself drawn to this distinction made by Emerson in 1837.

I want my students to become thinkers, not book-worms.  I want students who not only study the views of those who have gone before them, but also students who put forth views of their own.  In this digital age, with all of these outlets for speech and expression, I want students who can think critically about information, issues, and problems. I then I want them to communicate, collaborate, and create. And I want them to learn all of this by making a Wikiseat.  

At the core of this project, is a lesson in the design thinking process.  Students learn to identify a problem or need (Where could I use a chair?), and then move into considerations of form (What should my chair look like?), and function (What should my chair do?).  They then sketch, prototype, build, test, and finally, produce their Wikiseat.  Students are encouraged to freely collaborate regarding materials, access to tools, and ideas concerning each other's work and progress.  Whether this be for a first grade classroom or a high school one, teaching students the iterative process is fundamental in helping students learn how to be thinkers and makers.  

As a Language Arts teacher, I found ways to both work in some great literature, as well as use that literature to inspire and spur on students as they began actually constructing their Wikiseats.  We sat with our catalysts in front of us and read Whitman, Thoreau, and mainly, Emerson.  I was able to gauge student reading comprehension, and they had a purpose for reading in that the actual content served the overall purpose of their work on the Wikiseats.    It isn't difficult to imagine tie-ins to other curricular areas.  A math teacher could use the triangle inherent in a three-legged Wikiseat as an opportunity to talk about angles and measurement.  A biology teacher could link the design thinking process to the scientific one.  And a history teacher could find a way to take form and function into thinking about government systems and historical innovation.  And maybe a few groups of teachers could try all of the above with an elementary school classroom.  

And as students begin to share their work with other classrooms, the Wikiseats will begin to tell a new story about what our students are capable of, of what we should actually be measuring, and what could change when given the right catalyst.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Making a Case for Interactive Fiction - Part II

After a decade long push for “proficiency” in education, the transition to college and career ready standards is quickly working through school districts across the country.  In my district, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking, and communication has become the central focus in every classroom; it is these skills that students need most to compete in the academic and business worlds they will encounter when they graduate from high school.  And in my opinion, there is no better time to turn our attention to interactive fiction. 

The majority of today’s top selling video games have some sort of multi-player component.  And in many cases, the multi-player component is the primary reason players buy the game.  Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, for example, made a billion dollars after only 16 days when it was released in late 2011. 

So what’s the draw?  Communication and collaboration!

Games like Modern Warefare 3 or World of Warcraft provide players with opportunities to communicate and collaborate in an environment that is unlike the one they live in every day.  Players can communicate and collaborate with other players from around the world to carry out objectives and reach goals. The players are forced to use clear communication skills in order to sustain team objectives and initiatives.  (In my world this sounds like a professional learning community!)

In the end, it is these types of communication and collaboration skills that colleges and businesses are expecting our students to know...and video games are teaching them!

While one argument against interactive fiction is that it limits the creative capacity of the players because the world is already created for him/her, games like Minecraft give players an unlimited amount of resources to create a brand new world.  

Minecraft allows players to create items and objects to use in the game world with only the resources that they can harvest in the game.  As many RPG games allow players to craft items, Minecraft provides players with an opportunity to truly stretch the limits or their creativity to populate a new world.
Similar arguments can be made for the multi-player components of games like Halo: Reach.  In many of these types of games, players can create maps for use in multi-player games.  With trial and error, players create maps that are both challenging and enjoyable and stretch the limits of their creativity.

Critical Thinking
There are many times that I sit down to play a game to simply allow myself to be immersed in a new world.  However, there are other times when I sit down to play a game and want to think critically.  With games like Portal 2, Myst, or World of Goo, I get the opportunity to think deeply about how to solve difficult puzzles and problems.  

These games give players a chance to solve difficult puzzles and problems within the confines of the game world.  While there may be more than one way to solve the problem, players use trial and error to find a solution that works to advance to the next level.  This type of critical thinking, along with immersive interaction, is what keeps players engrossed in these types of games.  

With all this said, it's time that we meet our students where they are.  We know they go home at night and play video games.  Let's begin to use their knowledge of interactive fiction to teach collaboration, communication, creativity, and critical thinking.  It's time to start making the case for interactive fiction! 

Questions Matter More

Attribution Some rights reserved by Stephen Brace
by Sean Wheeler

Currently, education is an answer-based culture.  We do all kinds of things with student answers.  We measure them, we grade them, we cross them out, we comment on them, we graph them, chart them, mine them, sort them, and report them.  We also use these answers to measure our effectiveness, our failures, and our growth as teachers.  Districts use the answers to allocate funds, make curricular decisions, and build a successful staff.  Politicians use them to set policy, budget, and law.  Parents use the answers everywhere from deciding where to live to whether or not their son or daughter is grounded on the weekend.  And probably most importantly, students use them as a measurement of their potential and worth.  An answer-based culture makes a whole lot out of what it sees under a very small microscope.  There are questions involved, of course, but they are questions we ask of the data not the people who gave the answers in the first place.

However, the internet is made for questions.  The whole reason that Google exists is because people open their browser with a question in mind.  While Yahoo! Answers might do what the name implies, it's the questions that are asked in the first place that matter most. Wikipedia has revolutionized our ability to easily access answers (much to the chagrin of answer-based teachers), but it wouldn't exist if weren't fueled by questions. And feedback, which is a conversation based on the question, "How are we doing at what we say we're doing", is quickly becoming the most valuable asset for businesses and organizations that seek to improve their customer satisfaction by carefully listening to the answers and suggestions their customers provide them.

We want to tap into that question mindset, replicate it within our students, and then hold conversations about the answers we find.  The value of asking great questions is on the rise and if we aren't teaching our students this skill, even though it's hard to measure, we are surely doing them a great disservice. Asking a question comes from within, while too many of our students are led into answers due to some extrinsic motivator (points, tests, etc.). Exploration starts with a question every time. "How Did School Do?" is as much an exploration as it is a destination. We honestly don't know what people are going to say in their feedback videos, and it is precisely this reason that makes this a valuable learning opportunity for our students.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

"How Did School Do?" - Here We Go!

by Sean Wheeler

“How Did School Do?” : A Social-Media Qualitative Research Project Designed to Acquire Feedback on the Relevance of Our Education Systems

Currently, we judge the effectiveness of our education system by endlessly measuring the progress of our current pool of students.  But as suggested in Shelley Blake-Plock’s article, If School is Not Relevant, this need not be the only way we can measure the relevance of the education that we provide.

Imagine if schools were judged not by how well students achieved while they were in school, but in how well they achieved once they left. If schools saw their worth not in how many kids got accepted to college, but in how many kids went on to live meaningful and engaged lives and who would point back to their school years as the point of relevancy that was the foundation of it all.”  

The “How Did School Do?” Project  seeks to solicit and gather feedback from post-k12 adults via a social media call for video responses.  The respondents are invited to participate by uploading a 3-5 minute video to their own Youtube channel that answers the question, “How well did your K-12 education prepare you for your life?”.

This project is being launched via a wide-variety of social and traditional media formats, with the aim of collecting the largest pool of feedback on education’s relevance ever.  The pool of videos will be openly available for viewing, independent research, and analysis by communities and schools.  The project will also serve as a significant contribution to ongoing discussions about school relevance and effectiveness.

Research will be conducted from a post-positivistic stance, as will be appropriate due to the nature of video collections and the subjects themselves.  Dr. Sharon Kruse, of The University of Akron, has agreed to partner with us in coding the research and developing methods to sift through the data.  Another key aspect of creating this pool of videos will be the ability of independent researchers and commentators to use the information contained in the videos for their own research purposes.  This is a significant step towards social-media driven research, and the possibilities of such a pool of data seem numerous.  Lakewood High School students will use this data to develop research questions of their own, and to analyze various aspects of the research.

While much of our work will be shared on TeachPaperless, this blog will focus more directly on our students and how they navigate the project and begin conducting their research. We'd love to hear from all of you both in your video and in comments and conversations via our numerous social media venues. Please follow @teachinghumans on Twitter, and feel free to email us at teachinghumans@gmail.com. We welcome your input, partnership, and help in spreading the word about the project. 

Please visit howdidschooldo.com and lend your voice to this important opportunity to be heard.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Stop the Baloney! - A PD Revolution in 25 Keystrokes

AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by programwitch
by Sean Wheeler

Here's a familiar scenario.  I'm at a school meeting.  Perhaps it's a department meeting, maybe a district leadership meeting, even a staff meeting.  You've been there.  You know how these things go.  A familiar refrain is heard.  "We need a transition plan to provide more effective professional development, and we need to carefully develop a roll-out of the plan once it's created.  Are there any volunteers to do a pilot so that we can study our revised professional development plan?  We'll meet again in a month to see how our pilot program went, and then we'll create scaffolding so that we can increase buy-in from the district, staff, or department as a whole."  I raise my hand and suggest that we begin to explore Twitter, particularly #edchat, as a resource for individualized professional development.  This is met with some lip-service as a good idea, and then the suggestion is ignored or turned down because "we don't have time" or because "some teachers need to be trained on how to use technology and we need to be sensitive to those needs."  

Baloney.  We need to stop thinking like this.  

I firmly believe that every education staff in the world could be taught how to begin getting valuable professional development and classroom resources in less than ten minutes and with  twenty-five keystrokes.  To put twenty-five keystrokes in perspective, I have to type twenty-six keystrokes just to check my district email.

Here's my roll-out plan:

1.  Type "Twitter.com/search" into your web browser. (18 keystrokes)
2.  Go to the search bar, even without signing up or logging in, and type "#edchat" (7 keystrokes)
3.  Scroll, click, peruse, learn.

If a district employee can use a keyboard, they are only 25 keystrokes away from an unlimited and valuable pool of constantly streaming resources and conversation.  To make things even more specifically tailored to the audience, substituting "#edchat" with any of the relevant hashtag searches found here, would help to more carefully match content area or interest.

No following, no tweeting, no registering.  

20 keystrokes, 10 minutes.  That's all.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

My Case for Interactive Fiction - Part 1

I’ll wholeheartedly admit it, Atticus Finch is my hero!  To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the novels I look forward to reading each year with my freshman students.  Integrity, character, and standing up for what’s right are concepts that students seem to understand through Atticus’s struggles while defending Tom Robinson in a community that is seemingly against him.  To Kill a Mockingbird is undoubtedly a wonderful novel.  But I have another admission: Sometimes I need more! 

And I’m not alone.  Over the last five years, I’ve heard excellent discussion amongst my students about character and story development from reading To Kill a Mockingbird, but the “real” conversations about these topics takes place after class is over—when students crowd around my desk to talk about video games.  It is in these conversations that my students skillfully analyze character and story through interactive fiction.  It is from these conversations that I slowly realized that my students demand more interaction with characters and story than a novel can provide. 

As the increase in technology pushes our capabilities of teaching in the classroom, it also increases the level of collaboration and interaction students have with each other and the world.  Growing up with Twitter and Facebook, today’s students need interaction in order to understand and make sense of the world around them.  The same is true in the classroom.  Reading a book “the old fashioned way” doesn’t offer the same level of interaction that our students have grown up enjoying; it just doesn't seem as relevant.

Over the course of the last twenty years, video game technology has also improved from the pixilated characters and settings of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System to lush, vibrant vistas of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.  These artfully rendered games immerse players into a world that a written novel could not begin to describe.  Look at the Playstation 3 downloadable title Flower for example.  In this game you play the role of a flower petal seeking to repopulate a world devoid of color.  Using the intuitive controls, players are able to engage in a truly unique, "Zen-like" experience. 

In the end, as a teacher seeking a relevant entry point for students to engage in literature, I can't deny the power and influence of video games.  While there are many games on the market that I would not use in my classroom, there are twice as many that I would.  The same could be said for books, of course.  Regardless, I know the majority of my students are playing video games at home with greater regularity than they read books.  And with that said, it's time to start making the case for interactive fiction!

Shane A. Sullivan 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Networks are Power - Part 2: The Teachers

AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by BlueRobot
by Sean Wheeler

Part 2: The Teachers

It's not an easy time to be a teacher, but it is an exciting one.  It's not that often that an entire profession has the ability to redefine it's purpose and explore entire new vistas in the field.  Unfortunately, most of us work under an oppressive weight of local, state, and federal mandates that seem to continually ignore the voice of teachers in the decision making process of what matters in our classroom, what we should be measuring in regards to student learning, and how we should go about preparing our students for a world that seems to be shifting at an amazingly fast pace.  As a teacher in Ohio, and like the teachers in Wisconsin, New Jersey and many other states, I especially feel like teachers are becoming the victims of an education agenda that would rather scapegoat teachers than work towards making significant changes toward the advancement of all students.  We feel like we don't have a voice.  We wait for the next hammer to drop.  We shuffle to meetings about initiatives that feel very far removed from what we know to be the most effective elements of the work of our classrooms.  And most importantly, we leave our schools everyday feeling like no help is on the way.  This isn't how it should be, and my suggestion is that we begin to use our ability to network to take the power back and shift the conversation about education in a whole new direction.

It starts with professional development.  It is truly a sad state of affairs that most of us associate the phrase "professional development" with irrelevance, top-down management, and having to muster up a sense of "buy-in" to things that we really don't see much value in.  If I have to go to another Common Core PowerPoint presentation about rigor, I might actually claw my eyes out.  However, if teachers began to reconsider what professional development might look like if we could design it ourselves, things might start to turn a corner.  

Teachers need to start participating in networked sharing of resources, strategies, and ideas.  While there are increasingly more teachers jumping into Nings, Twitter, and various other arenas of idea sharing, too many teachers have yet to test these waters.  If we could get more teachers involved, we could start to shift the conversation about education by our sheer numbers alone.  If our labor organizations returned to the original concept of organizing large bodies of employees that can't be ignored by creating vast networks of empowered voices all moving in the same direction, they might actually be able to redeem their less-than-positive public image.  It seems that the membership of our unions takes a rather dim view of social media, often resorting to a level of fear mongering that runs along the "be careful, you might get fired for saying something stupid" variety.  But if they could get past their fear, they just might find that the old folk song is true, "There is Power in a Union".  

I am of the belief that when teachers stop learning, they cease to be good teachers.  A personal learning network (#pln) is a great entry point into teacher learning.  If we could all begin to see the value of a pln, we could start to design a system in our districts and states that recognizes the value of that learning and would count towards our required professional development.  We claim to want our students to be independent and intrinsic learners, but many of us are missing out on modeling that behavior in the digital space.  Any teacher that says they can't learn online needs to be taught how, and any teachers that refuse needs to consider how relevant they are to their students' future.

It's about adopting a pro-active and empowered stance towards growing as professionals in times that simply demand that we do so.  We can wait around for someone in administration to order us to enter the digitally networked environment, or we can start to do so on our own, with a full realization that by combining our voices and helping each other we can begin to change the balance of power in a conversation that we all know has made us more weak and fractured than we should be.  We have the opportunity to use our networks to abolish the whole notion that our classrooms are "islands".  I love teaching, and so do most of our teachers, but if we continue to be reactive and resistant to change we will be bowled over by people with more power, and less knowledge about what works for kids.  And for those of us who are already building this community of educators online, we need to work even harder to patiently help others to see the value.  

Start now.  register for Twitter, type #pln into the search bar, and join in.  Search for anyone that your district talks a lot about (ex. Robert Marzano) and follow them.  Hit the "retweet" button on anything you like, reply to any post with a question or comment, and eventually start to lend your insights in a tweet.  You don't need to wait around for someone to offer a class or hold a pd session.  Change your stance, be a bit more proactive, and become the kind of learner we want all of our kids to be.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Networks are Power - Part 1: The Kids

AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by LivingOS

by Sean Wheeler

All across the country our education systems are being forced to consider the significance of social-media as it relates to how, when, and if our students engage in a more networked learning community.  Questions of access to equipment, the use of firewall software, and the safety or danger of the digital environments now available are being considered in school board meetings, professional development programs, Acceptable Use Policy debates, and here in the digital environment itself.  Labor Unions are wrestling with issues as far ranging as teacher online conduct, definitions of class time and size, as well as when the work day begins and ends within an online structure that doesn't recognize the difference between 9 a.m. on Thursday and 3 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.  Parents rightly worry about bullying, their child's digital footprint, and the whole notion of what happens when young people gather together online largely out of the view of any adult guidance.  The emergence of networked social-media and digital learning is a disruptive force in the way we in education have always gone about our business.  Unfortunately, during all of this discussion and concern, a significant component of the rise of social-networks is being largely ignored.  The networks, themselves, are power.  And it is the power of these networks that will most likely settle most of the debate in the years to come.  Over the next few days I'm going to be posting about leveraging the power of social networks to help kids, teachers, and administrators.

Part 1:  The Kids

What if each of my students could leave my classroom at the end of the year with a Twitter following that included thought-leaders in the students' chosen field of endeavor?  What if the 15 year old aspiring doctor in my classroom here in Cleveland could be networked with the amazing doctors and thinkers right down the road at the Cleveland Clinic?  What if my aspiring chef could trade recipe suggestions with Michael Symon via a direct message?  Why isn't the young man who spends hours writing songs in his basement connected with the CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?  It is beginning to become clear to me that all of these connections are a click away and do not require a field-trip form, any kind of academic pedigree, or even an expensive computer.  Part of the mission of our schools should be to help students begin to build a network of responsible and interested professionals that could assist these young people on their path towards meaningful work and lives.  What is the true cost of the connections that our firewalls prohibit?  How will we look years from now when we recognize that we failed to make very easy connections between those who want to learn and those that could teach them?

I had a young poet, Chania, read me something between classes today that brought home how little we sometimes do to help bring her talent and aspiration into contact with those who could help develop and support her as a poet.  Chania is working at her craft in the cracks of our education system, and though I can help her learn a bit more about delivery and word choice, I honestly don't know the many poets that are out there and willing to listen and nurture a young and eager voice emerging on the poetry scene.  So today I've decided that my first goal is to help Chania build a social-network of poets that will connect her with live readings, poetry blogs, and the publishing scene.   And after I help Chania, I'm going to start to explore ways in which all of my students can begin to build powerful networks that   engage my students in the conversations relevant to their career interests.  It's becoming increasingly clear that this is a way that I can work as a teacher to help my kids achieve the dreams that have gone unheard for too long in my classroom.