Monday, December 17, 2012

Math Reform (or: An Essay in Mathpoetry)

In the spirit of Harry Hess' revolutionary 1962 paper (An Essay in Geopoetry) that set the basis for Plate Tectonic theory and shook the foundations of Geology to its roots but provided no firm evidence or research to support its points, I am titling this blog post "An Essay in Mathpoetry." I doubt it will shake the foundations of teaching mathematics to its roots, but having been a HS math teacher for 15 years prior to becoming a tech facilitator, I have observed lots of changes in math curriculum, and witnessed (and participated) in lots of facets of the 'math wars' over curriculum, technology, calculators and pedagogy, and I have an idea...but I have no research or firm evidence other than my own experience to back my opinion. But then again, that's the perk of having your own blog. :-)

Despite striving to be a modern educator, using collaborative tools and exploring ways for the kids to lead the learning, my math classrooms were very traditional. I often was the 'sage on the stage', guiding instruction with examples and lectures, my teaching notes were meticulous and I carefully scaffolded problems until the kids could see the patterns and could use the underlying mathematical principles in more and more complex situations. The kids were often in rows, isolated with their thoughts and deeply immersed in solving problems, collaborating when necessary, but responsible for their own work. Although I tried, when appropriate, to provide 'real world' examples for the math we were learning, it was always challenging,  limited in scope and a little forced. I always felt a little guilty about this, as the literature and lunch table conversation was about 'using real-world examples' and 'making it authentic', however the mental world my students and I occupied was already rich with ideas and concepts, and I almost never had students who claimed they felt that they missed something by not being given examples of how completing the square would be useful in their lives, or what the role of imaginary numbers would be once they graduated college. I found that, just as a chess player can get immersed in a challenging game with a fair opponent into a state of 'flow' as described by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, my students did not need concrete examples and real life applications to become immersed in the process: increments of success with ever-increasing complexity was enough to draw them in. The beauty was in being able to crack the shell of a complex math problem, use the correct mathematical tools to break it down, and express the solution in the most efficient and standardized form. It didn't matter that the problem was a purely theoretical construct, with numbers and structure rather than apples and pears, and the answer was not expressed in terms of 'how much land should Farmer Brown plant'. The process was as meaningful, and as meaningless, as trying to checkmate your opponents King. And just as challenging and open-ended. And satisfying.

This disconnect between teaching ideology and my pedagogy grew with the release of ever more powerful calculators. As calculators evolved beyond 'number crunching machines' into having more advanced features like a Solver, graphing ability, symbolic notation and CAS operations, more and more, kids could get the 'right' answer by inputting the problem and hitting a button, entirely circumventing the underlying processes. And just as having a cheat code to a game diametrically changes the game experience, having these technical tools drove a change in pedagogy. Math teachers starting using  sensor devices to generate acceleration data, temperature probes to gather data from which to derive logistic curves (using a plotter and solver), and the growing challenge became less about how to scaffold problems of growing complexity, but how to run classroom experiments that had dependable results so students could extract the mathematical concepts, but were authentic enough that they were meaningful. In short, 'good' math classrooms began to look a lot like good science classrooms.

I'm not opposed to this: authenticity is a wonderful thing, and many (even most) students require this to internalize their learning. Many students comment on how they never really understood Calculus until they took Physics and had to use it. Or never understood Geometry until they took a surveying class and had to apply it. Applied concepts are essential, for many. However, science teachers are already quite good at running good science classrooms, and a lot of Theoretical math is being lost in the process, and we may have thrown out a bit of the baby with the bathwater.

Some students actually thrive more on Theoretical Math, rather than Applied math, and many teachers are quite adept at teaching Theoretical Concepts. There is a legitimate debate about what is 'mathematical thought'...I attended a presentation from a renowned math teacher from Philips Exeter Academy who showed us some problems using 'clock arithmetic'. He concluded that the kids were learning to think in a different base and modulo, and that this was a great example of extracting 'mathematical thought' in a physical activity. I challenged him, asking why learning to crack a 5th degree polynomial by hand to find all the precise roots, real and imaginary, by using Descartes' Rule of Signs and the Fundamental Theorem of Algebra, was not 'mathematical thought'. His response was that it was no longer necessary or useful to do that, as the calculator could find all roots and express them, even irrational ones. My point was that the kernel of the activity was not the solutions, but in the process involved in figuring out how to find them using purely mental tools.

Our world still needs theoretical mathematicians; people who like to solve incredibly complex abstract mathematical problems and who do not require any basis in the physical world. This is the underpinning of Encryption, Cosmology and a host of other disciplines. As many have said: mathematics is not necessarily applied mathematics. And HS science teachers already have a conceptually rich environment to use applied mathematics; why should math teachers try to compete with or replicate this?

My proposal is that HS math and science curriculums should differ in ideology. Science classes should teach the amount of applied math needed to understand the physical scientific concepts in their courses, and all kids should be required to take an abundance of these classes. This will develop a group of citizens who not only understand basic scientific principles, but also have enough mathematical skill to participate in intelligent debate, and who see math as a useful and important skillset for existing in the modern world. Science/math courses should use calculators, computers and all sorts of technologies to assist with helping kids find actual, practical and usable solutions and to be able to represent and interpret situations and results.

Math departments, on the other hand, would be smaller and focus on Theoretical or Pure math. Those students who enjoy finding solutions to abstract problems, with an early emphasis on solving problems by hand, could take these courses as electives, taught by teachers who prefer to teach this content. The non-calculator based coursework would establish a firm understanding of the concepts underpinning the procedures, and students could be encouraged to delve into deeper theoretical questions about patterns and theories. And being released from having to offer these courses to ALL students would free up the curriculum for those who truly thrive on teaching and learning this material.

Anyway, I'd love to set up a program that did this; put the 'real world' math and the abundant math tech tools (calculators, etc) in the hands of the science teachers, and let those who liked to play with numbers and patterns immerse themselves in Pure math. They could still use technologies, of course; sharing findings online, recording their efforts and sharing ideas and suggestions via blogs, voice thread, youtube, and online programs etc. Calculators and other devices would be available once the students felt that they had a good understanding of the concepts and principles, but the consistent technologies would primarily be about sharing and communicating, rather than generating solutions or data and trying to extract the (sometimes quite sublime) underlying mathematics.

Monday, December 10, 2012

ADE application

So my application is in the eMail for the Apple Distinguished Educator class of 2013. I applied two years ago and was rejected: a major component of the applications process is to submit a 2-minute video about a topic that changes yearly. The topic in 2011 was 'How do I use Apple technologies in my profession" and in truth, it was a crap video. I was seized up with writer's block until the last second, then I threw something together and it showed. It was pretty much just a talking head rambling on about using technology remotely....not impressive at all.

This year, I put much more thought into it, and the question was much more manageable: "How do I use creativity to transform the learning environment?" I mean, that's practically my job description!

I decided to focus on three things: the SDLT, my Experimental Classroom, and StuCon2012. All are innovative, self-created and were effective in supporting the technology mission of the school. I wanted to include some other stuff, like the cool jury-rigged document camera I made once, and to talk about the websites and protocols I have developed here at HKIS for different purposes, but the video can only be two minutes long. As it was, I had to 'layer' the message with images and voiceover, plus a popup window and a scrollbar.

Lots going on; check it out and tell me what you think.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Catching up

It's been awhile since I've blogged and a few things are running through my head. So there are going to be several blog posts in a row; I want to unload some of my thoughts before they fade.

First: An update on the Gr 9 Blogs
OK, so I have been able to troubleshoot the issue of getting every Gr 9 student to create a blog (using blogger), to link their blog to their myDragonNet profile, to set their security settings so that they would not accept comments (for now) and to make their blogs visible to the world to see, but only if they had the URL.

The challenge has recently been to be able to verify that these settings are correct. I had a big meeting with all the HR teachers and gave THEM the task of checking this with their kids, but unfortunately (and not unexpectedly), the HR teacher's skills are all over the map, so they are not really reliable editors. My newest idea is to have the members of my SDLT go to each homeroom and check settings, etc, then bundle the blogs and send the link to me.

For those who do not know what a 'bundle' is, it's a great feature of Google.reader that they finally got fixed a few months ago. After you subscribe to a bunch of blogs and drag them into a shared folder, you can right-click on that folder, select 'create a bundle' and it gives you a link you can send around. The recipient gets the link, clicks on it, and it installs the complete folder into their Google.reader account. It's a tremendous way to share the blogs. Unfortunately, google.reader does not allow you to make subfolders, so you cannot bundle all these HR bundles into one, but at least you don't have to subscribe to 180 Freshmen blogs at once. In the future, I'll see about putting all these bundles on a webpage and uploading that, so people don't even have to get them in an email.

This thing about the teachers' skills being all over the map is huge. Learning to use technology is a huge process; I do it full time, and I feel like I've just scratched the surface. For my colleagues who teach content area full time, the additional (and uninvited) burden of having to infuse tech tools is really a challenge. A tech colleague put it very well: it's the difference between a 'trip' and a 'journey'. People on a trip just want to get to the end destination, and success is measured by merely completing the task. People on a journey are more interested in what happens along the way; success is measured by the different things encountered and the experiences. Using tech in teaching can be either: to those for whom it is a trip...they just want to get the task done the quickest way possible and get back to their other responsibilities. To those for whom it is a journey...each tech-related task is a learning ground for new experiences and tools, and they don't mind the time spent exploring settings, troubleshooting, etc. They actively link new tools with old, modify tasks to accommodate new skills, and are always learning. I think a major component of the job of a Tech Facilitator is to help teachers become more interested in the journey, and less on completing the trip.

Next post: musings on Math curriculum.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Checking and changing security settings

Here is a video that shows you how to:
  • Make the blogs hidden from search engines, and
  • Block comments until further notice.
(the video may not show on iPads: it uses Flash)

Blog security

This is the second post to parents about the Gr 9 blogs.
Blogs work best when they have readership, however it is reasonable to be cautious about letting students broadcast ideas out in an unsupervised fashion.  Although they are already prolific users of social media, we do not expect our students to inherently understand the appropriate boundaries for these blogs, as they are very different than their typical informal social online presence; these are ‘professional’ sites and should reflect maturity and presence of mind. This is quite different from their ‘informal’ digital presence that they have in Facebook and other social media sites, where they use informal symbolic notation (phonetic spellings like ‘ur’ instead of ‘your’, etc) and post humorous and quick comments.  It is quite reasonable to assume that they have little, or no, experience maintaining a professional online presence, so these blogs provide a wonderful opportunity to help them develop this skill.

 They have all created profiles in ‘Blogger’, a simple and user-friendly blogging platform that is contained in the suite of tools provided to HKIS by our google.apps account (along with gmail, google calendar, google sites and several others). The shared platform means we can standardize instruction on how to use them and how to change and control settings. Ultimately, however, control over the settings is in the hands of the student, so it is important that adults regularly check to see that they are properly set.

Currently, as the students begin their creative process, we have asked them to make their blog settings such that no one can comment, and the URL address of the blog is hidden from search engines. As a result, the only people who can see their blog is someone to whom the URL is given directly. As of now, their blog address is stored in their user profile in myDragonNet, so only people with access to that password-protected site can find their site. Parents are welcome, and encouraged, to ask their sons or daughters for their blog addresses: these are meant to be showcases of their growth and achievement, and you can give them feedback on their posts and the appearance of their blogs.

Over the first year, once the blog has enough content to have a ‘tone’, we will instruct students on how to open their comment settings so others can provide feedback in a ‘moderated’ fashion. This means the author will still retain full control of what is seen; they can reject and not publish any inappropriate or non-constructive comments; hence the content of their blog is still entirely under their control. Likewise, at any point, if a post or title of a post is deemed inappropriate, the student can edit and change past posts, and even hide posts until they have reworked them into a form that they are proud to publish.

Blogging is a tremendously common social platform with people all over the world participating. As with virtually all school blogs, our own have a specific purpose: to document growth of understanding of the SLRs. At all times, important stakeholders will have the ability to see the growing content, while the student learns appropriate digital behavior. The author retains full control of their content, even posted comments, and can edit and ‘rework’ their content over time and as skills improve. Teachers, counselors, administrators and parents can all watch these products unfold during the students’ time at HKIS, and the author is welcome to share their blog with relatives and friends, as they choose. Parents are welcome and encouraged to subscribe to their child’s blog and discuss them together. Once there is a good record of posts that show the development of the student, they may choose to share them with summer employers, colleges or anyone else to whom they want to have see their development as a student at HKIS.

Next post: Setting up a google reader account so you can subscribe to your child’s blog.

Thursday, September 20, 2012


Keeping parents and other stakeholders informed of the process is crucial. This is the text of the first of about 6 parent communications I will be sending home over the next 5-6 weeks.

This year, all Freshmen students have staked out a blog space where they will be guided through reflecting on their growing understanding of the SLRs during their time at HKIS. With our rich technological environment and 1:1 laptop program, we have all the right tools in our grasp to make this an authentic and valuable digital learning experience where the students can reflect upon and record their own growth over four years, with guidance, oversight and instruction.
A ‘blog’ (contraction of ‘web log’) is merely a digital presence; an online website where an author posts entries in reverse chronological order (newest on top) about some topic. Blogs can host a wealth of digital content; movies, photos, hyperlinks, embedded documents, and serve many purposes.
  • Interest blogs, where authors share their hobbies, like fashion, technology, movies or travel;
  • Information blogs, with info on family gatherings, concerts, etc or documenting an event;
  • Expert blogs, where the author provides guidance and resources for others with a similar interest. Many teachers post ideas for lessons via blogs of this type;
  • Collaborative blogs, where groups of individuals collaborate and enhance their communication channels;
  • Reflective blogs, where authors post their thoughts on a topic for an intended audience.
The main thing that all these types of blogs have in common is that the posts are done by individuals in a digital space, with the hopes that they will hold the interest of readers.

The student blogs are of the Reflective type. Over the course of this year, the counselors are teaching the students about the SLRs and their relevance to the HKIS learning experience. As these are transcendent ideas that exist across all courses and activities, they are not usually directly taught within a subject area, yet they are important to the HKIS learning experience. The blogs ensure that the students are mindful of their existence and reflective on their growing understanding. As they make reflective posts once or twice a month over the next few years, they will generate an historical record of their own developing understanding of the SLRs, and as a result can see and share evidence of their own growing maturity as thinkers and learners.

As a digital learning tool, blogs offer some tremendous opportunities, and accordingly schools worldwide are leveraging them. Students improve their literacy skills, learn appropriate online behaviors, improve their skills with using technology, develop a learning partnership with their family, school and friends, and generate a record of content and growth that is relevant and important. As students ‘grow’ their blog with more posts and take increasing pride in their production, they can also generate an audience of readers from among their friends and family, who can provide important feedback and validation for the student’s reflections. This is a truly authentic learning experience being developed under the watchful eyes of their counselors, homeroom teachers, peers and parents.

Next week: More on blog security, and how to check your child’s settings to ensure that you are comfortable with who does, and does not, have access.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Going Blog, part 4

So now we have successfully had all 187 Freshmen create blogs. The next step is to start getting the different audiences and mentors involved at a pace that is manageable for them, engenders their support and gives them a role, but also keeps them all in alignment with information, goals and objectives.

Since the HR teachers will be important mentors, I am working with them this week. Their role will be especially important in the realm of helping the kids make good value choices with how they present themselves publicly, how they cultivate their tone, and how they respond to others, I am helping all sixteen HR teachers create google.reader accounts, subscribe to their kids' blogs, and sometime in the next few days, to check that all the blogs have the following:
     -appropriate blog names
     -appropriate post titles
     -correct privacy and security settings (more on this)
     -appropriate URLs
     -the student is posting under an appropriate name.

The great news is that google has finally fixed the bundling problem in Reader! It's been around for years, but now it works: with two clicks, the teachers can share the entire class set of blogs with everyone else's reader page.

The security thing came up from a couple of parents. Some are less comfortable with their child's blog being accessible to the general public, so they found the setting to make the blog only readable to those who are invited. This solution has several problems.

First: by closing down visibility, no one can see the blog! Blogger only allows a single account to be a member of 100 blogs, so there is no way all 800 HS kids can have their blogs closed by default and still list me or the HS Admin as members.

Second: It's a solution to a problem that might not be as extensive as the parents' believe. There is no evidence of stalkers ever finding kids via monitored school blogs. Instead, data shows that overwhelmingly, situations that arise are in connection to a relative or someone who already knows the child. or through unsupervised social network sites. However, we want to help educate the parents as we accommodate their concerns, so it's important that the HR teachers are involved in the discussion.

Our solution is to have the kids of any concerned parents change their blog visibility settings so it is hidden from search engines. The steps are very easy: just go to the settings and look next to "privacy". This is analogous to having a house with the door unlocked, but the house is hidden in the woods. The blogs are 'open' (unlocked), but hidden. This way, parents can send the URL to relatives and friends who can read the blog, but search engines will not find it.

Of course, search spiders are clever, and this method is not 100% foolproof (what is?), but for now it provides an excellent level of control and assurance for anyone concerned.

We have, of course, discovered a new bug. When the teachers subscribe to this blog, they also see an old cached post from a different blog one of the ETS techs and I were working on a few weeks back! It's not even part of this blog...but somehow it is linked when to subscribing to this one. If anyone reading this (from among my hordes of followers) subscribes and sees this, let me know: the top post (Doesn't matter) should not be there. I'll let you know what I discover.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Going Blog, stage 3

OK, yesterday was the big blog rollout. Sort of...because things fell apart. More on that in a second.

The admin and I returned to school last week. Near the top of the itinerary for the start of classes was to get the SDLT blogs up and running; despite some vocalized misgivings from a few faculty members, the wheels were in motion. We had addressed some of our earlier questions during end-of-year meetings and disussions: it was decided that

  • the blogs would be public. These blogs represent one of the first 'professional digital presences' for our kids, so we wanted them to learn to post appropriately, with the proper voice and the audience (teachers, peers, parents, board members) in mind. 
  • structured time WOULD be granted during counseling seminar classes (where most of the focused teaching about the SLRs would take place). However, these times would be better described as 'deadlines', where kids were encouraged to have already written their blog entries and could talk about them with each other.
  • the question of assessment was premature. These are much more important than just something that gets a grade, so over time we would continue to emphasize that these are being read by people in the 'real world' rather than merely being graded by a teacher.
  • responsibilty for the blogs would lie with everyone. Counselors would focus on the SLRs, teachers would capitalize on opportunities to remind the kids of their blogs, and even occasionally create tasks that would support them, homeroom teachers would spend some time with their kids reading each other's blogs, parents would be asked to look through them at various times. Something like this needs to be an institutional process or else it gets lost in the cracks.
  • the blogs will be dedicated solely for the SLRs. Blogs have purposes: if we muddy the water by using these for their PE reflections, or use a Humanities blog as the forum for the SLR reflections, then the kids would miss out on lessons about voice and context, and readers would not clearly see the growth with respect to the SLRs.
So we had a big faculty meeting with the Gr 9 teachers and let them know that all the freshmen would create their blogs and link the URL to their myDragonNet profiles on the orientation day on Tuesday. A great part of that pre-meeting was that the entire talk came from the Admin; it's imperative that initiatives like this are led from the top, so it was great to see our admin team taking ownership. 

Then came the big day. We have an Orientation day where the 9th graders go through four 45-minute sessions to get introduced to the High School. My session was dedicated to discussing the Student Use Guidelines for HS, and then creating the blogs. 

But unfortunately, we discovered that having 50 kids at a time try to create a blog overwhelmed the google provider, and all were denied! The could create their blogger profiles, but when they went to actually book their URL, they got an error message denying them access. Oh no!

Fortunately, after freaking out a little bit, I decided to go into the smaller counseling seminar classes on the first day and see if a group of 15 kids could do it. And the great news is....they could! So now I am dropping in on the seminar classes for two days (3 today, 7 tomorrow) and all the kids are finally creating their blogspaces.

Next step: first posts, voice, audience, and technical details (format, template, gadgets, etc). Then to see what type of intrinsic faculty support starts to happen. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Crowdsourcing Ideas

Here's a very cool website that has collections of crowdsourced ideas. "Crowdsourcing" means to ask something from the pubic, then collect their responses.

In this case, the question was "What are some interesting ideas for a class blog post?" and the offerings are a wealth of great ideas!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Going Blog, stage 2

Maintaining a reflective blog is a new graduation requirement for our incoming Grade 9 class.

Stage 1 was to agree that we wanted our students to use reflective blogs to document and introspect (is that a verb?) on their growth relative to our school SLRs. We ran a pilot group through one of the counseling seminar classes, where the teacher/counselor could see how motivated the kids were to maintain blogs and begin to explore the realities of addressing the SLRs reflectively. I had a group of tech-savvy kids keep blogs so I could start to organize the logistical end: find a location for an index of blogs, determine where training would be necessary, etc.

Yesterday, we introduced the idea to our faculty leadership team, who had some legitimate concerns and developing insights. Some of the important things they are bringing to the table include:
-should we make these blogs public or private? Or should we consider having them private until the kids get the training wheels off, then make them public?  
-who will provide structured time for the kids to blog, and can it be successful if we DON'T do this? 
-how will they be assessed? Who will assess them? Will they be assessed intermittently, or just at graduation? 
-who is ultimately responsible for this process...the kids (not likely), the counselors (that might offload this entire thing to one group), humanities teachers (already the standard carrier for far too many things), the HR teachers (varying degrees of investment and skill with such a thing), the faculty in general (what belongs to everyone belongs to no one)? 
-should these blogs be dedicated solely to the SLRs, or can they incorporate other class content? Can they incorporate recreational content?

All these things have yet to be determined, but the process of raising these questions and the discussion that ensues is a healthy way to get buy-in from faculty and to create a good product. I think it's essential that the teachers have first-hand experience as both consumers and producers of blogs, so I plan on helping them all set up a google.reader page so they can subscribe to blogs of personal and professional interest, and hopefully get many of them blogging themselves. As the hyperbole and mystery of blogs disappears, I think we will design a very powerful and useful tool.

If anyone out there has any insights or anecdotes to share, the 'comment' button is just down there...

Monday, May 7, 2012

What does it mean to be....

Copied from another blog:

What does it mean to be:

    • A digital learner wants media, multimedia, audio, video and images
    • A digital learner seeks to integrate media into “school” and “life”
    • A digital learner works within a circle of friends
    • A digital learner uses social media to connect, find resources, and interact (ask and answer questions)
    • A digital learner uses MORE technology to accomplish tasks
    • A digital learner uses technology DIFFERENTLY to accomplish tasks
    • A digital learner multi-tasks with multiple technologies or applications
    • A digital learner is a social learner
    • A digital learner is an active learner
    • A digital learner is a consumer, producer and creator of learning, and learning resources
    • A digital learner is learner focused and learning centered
    • A digital teacher uses technology to extend, expand, and enrich learning
    • A digital teacher provides multimedia to explore “lecture” topics
    • A digital teacher connects with students through technology
    • A digital teacher provides or creates technological alternatives
    • A digital teacher creates a social space for learning
    • A digital teacher uses and participates in social learning
    • A digital teacher is learning focused and learning centered
    • A digital classroom is dynamic
    • A digital classroom supports collaboration, locally as well as globally
    • A digital classroom encourages inquiry
    • A digital classroom provides access to technology
    • A digital classroom can be easily reconfigured
    • A digital classroom is more of an environment or space than a fixed classroom
    • A digital classroom supports and encourages social learning
    • A digital classroom is learner centered

Friday, April 27, 2012

Early steps

I had 25 students create blogs, and submit their URLs via a google survey I set up. From that spreadsheet of addresses, I created a folder in my google reader and subscribed to an RSS feed for each of their blogs (renaming them so I could keep track of the authors).

Subscribing to the RSS was a little time-consuming. I first installed a widget from Reader that puts a shortcut on my taskbar that imports the feed to Reader, then I opened each blog, one at a time, and using that widget, subscribed to it. Then, in Reader, I had to change the name of the blog and drag it into the assigned folder.

It took about an hour to do 25 blogs....doable for this trial, but not at all for next year's rollout of 200 blogs. Additionally, I don't forsee 85 teachers all learning to manage Reader so they can control the subscription to the blogs (homeroom, a class, etc) that they choose to follow. I still need to think about that.

I also need to find an aggregator program that will host the URLs in a nice format, and find some management program (or write the code) for a subscription program that can read from the google survey and keep the aggregator updated.

This is going to be a challenge, but I suspect when the dust settles, what I will have learned will far outweigh whatever product I come up with, and that product will be somewhat streamlined and manageable.

I hope.

Hey, I found a great solution. I am creating a field in our school LMS where the kids can input the URL to their own blog. Then any stakeholder (classroom teacher, homeroom teacher, club leaders, etc) can see all their kids' blog addresses in one location. One person can download them and put them in a folder, then bundle them and send them around. Even though this is much of the same process as before (subscribing, renaming, putting into a folder), it is MUCH faster than going to an external site and subscribing: teachers can just copy the URL from the LMS site and paste it into the 'subscribe' window in google.reader. It only takes about 10 seconds per blog, so someone can subscribe to a class set of 20 blogs in only a few minutes.

Watch for a future post explaining this in detail, with pictures and a video.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Next Big Project

One of the challenges of being a tech facilitator at a HS with 800 kids is economy of scale: there's no opportunity to meet meaningfully with everyone; in small groups, it takes too long, and in large groups people's attention wavers. So I have to find ways to facilitate change through other means.

Next year, we are going to require our Freshmen to begin to keep blogs, and my next challenge will be to roll this out for 200 Freshmen in the first week of school. So far, along with the other members of the committee, we have made some decisions:

-The blogs will be public. This is important...the essence of a blog is about broadcasting your thoughts to a public audience. So rather than try to maintain some sort of overarching control over access, we will work with the kids in counseling groups throughout the year to help them learn about voice, audience, appropriate digital behavior and digital security.

-We will make Blogger available, but not require those with previous blogging experience to use it. Since Blogger is under the general umbrella of our school google.apps account, it will be easy to set up some standard settings and create digital resources to help first-time bloggers get started. But if someone is already a blogger, they can continue to use their own blog.

-I will introduce the blogs, and guide the kids through setting them up, at the pre-school orientations. In early August,  I meet with the kids in groups of 20 (ten different meetings over a couple of days) and help them map their network drives, set up accounts, school folders, etc. I'll lengthen the meeting times from 30 minutes to 45, and also help them set up their blogs.

-I will leverage my Student Digital Leadership Team. The SDLT are an empowered and enthusiastic group of kids who run a help desk, teach parent sessions and pitch in wherever there is a digital need. I'll have them work with the Freshmen in the orientation sessions to ensure that they get their settings correct and are able to get started.

-I'll spend time this year creating a digital archive of 'helpy files' for assistance. The SDLT will be starting their own blogs in a few weeks, so they can assist with this. My intention is to have a well-populated resource bank before school starts in the fall.

Watch this space: I'll keep everyone updated as this project moves along. If any of my millions of readers have any good resource files on how to get kids to blog successfully, or how to set up blogs for groups of 200 students, pass them along!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Loss of a Heroine

I first met Lyn Lusi when I was teaching at TASOK in Kinshasa, Congo. During a brief time when the local airlines made that region accessible, a friend arranged for me and Lauren to stay with Lyn at her home in Goma while we had an adventure tour to eastern Congo. Lyn was a most accommodating and gracious host, feeding us, housing us, arranging expeditions, and driving us around the region, and I did some repairs on her satellite dish and household internet network in exchange. She introduced us to the region (as well as to fried locusts and how to pay bribes to police) and gave us our first glimpse into how the Rwandan Genocide and its aftermath affected the people of eastern Congo, especially the women.

At the time, I was not really aware of how terrible the magnitude of the crimes committed in that area were, but I was impressed that this somewhat dainty-looking and pleasant British woman had dug in her roots in a place called "the most dangerous city in the world", and was spearheading the building of a local hospital that ran entirely on donations; a facility known as HEAL Africa. She told us fascinating tales of how, only a few months earlier, a volcanic eruption had engulfed the town, destroyed their new building and forced them to relocate into tents as they began rebuilding on the still-warm lava.  

A few years later, when Lauren and I had relocated to Hong Kong, I adopted a service club at the school that supported Médecins Sans Frontières, but after a year we realized that our funds would be better utilized for a more grass-roots effort, so I remembered Lyn and her hospital, and the students and I formed the HEAL Africa Club.

To help generate local support for the hospital, we invited Lyn and her husband Jo to come to Hong Kong, all expenses paid. The HKIS Alumni Association (under the leadership of Ken Koo) pitched in and paid for their airfare, and the Mandarin Oriental Hotel comped us their deluxe suite. Unfortunately, as is too common in the DRC, Jo Lusi's high profile status as an ex-Representative in the government, and other political frictions between DRC and HK led to the perpetual postponement of his HK visa. Lyn was immune, holding a British passport, so she came alone. During the week she spent at HKIS, she spoke to classes, student leadership groups, parents and teachers about the issues facing women and the efforts of her hospital in Goma. She even introduced the first Asian showing of LUMO, a documentary about a patient at her hospital. The HEAL Africa club raised about $30,000 for the hospital that year, and was a highly visible club among students and the community, mostly because of Lyn's charisma. Lyn also nurtured a genuine relationship with Elvira, the student leader of the HEAL Africa club.

The following year, Tash, one of our PE teachers, decided to take a year off and do some travelling. High on her bucket list was a trip to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas. I convinced her to make a side trip to Goma to see Lyn and the hospital, and the result of that was the birth of another genuine relationship and friendship between Lyn and someone from HKIS. And during that summer, two seniors who were members of the HEAL Africa club decided to make the journey to DRC as a graduation gift to themselves, and worked at the hospital for a week. Lyn's effect on our student body was generating long-lasting effects.

About this time, Lyn's efforts at bringing the work of HEAL Africa and the plight of the Congolese women to the public eye resulted in her winning The Opus Prize, a $1M cash award that she used to establish a trust fund to generate monies for the hospital. Her acceptance speech is fascinating and worth watching.

I have stayed in loose contact with Lyn over the past two years, reporting on the efforts of the HEAL Africa club, and hearing about her work with the hospital. My students and ex-colleague have also stayed in loose contact, and we were all surprised to slowly discover how high-profile she really was (with inteviews on BBC, PBS, connections with global celebrities and many other accolades); she had that ability to make you feel like you were important and that you and her were peers and at the same level. 

This was obviously not so: Lyn was one of the most amazing and giving people in the world, and in a class of people far above ordinary people like me. Her work at HEAL Africa created an institution that benefits thousands and thousands of people who otherwise would be abandoned, she motivated and enlisted the support of people worldwide, she rubbed shoulders with Heads of State, CEOs of multinational corporations, well-known actors, teachers, students, rape victims and orphans. And throughout it all, she was still that 'somewhat dainty-looking and pleasant British woman' I first met in Goma, who never lost her humility or single-minded dedication to helping the victims of the marauding militants in eastern Congo.

She will be missed, but the work she has started will go on.

Her passing and her life was commemorated in several high-profile places, such as The EconomistPBS Newshour and on the Floor of the US Senate.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

StuCon has left the building

Its 5am Sunday, I'm lying in bed with my thoughts churning after the 24-hour tech event, thinking about how it went. Lots to process, and I have that feeling that it will take a few weeks, lots of random conversations and some time before I can process everything, but I want to get it down in writing while its still fresh in my mind in its unprocessed state.

The format: 
-Student-run: I think this component was a huge success and is fundamentally essential. We had some discussions about having the Gurus run sessions, as they would provide an 'outside' perspective, would be well run, and would be substantive, but in general I think the kids felt that they 'owned' the conference more because they ran it. A lot of the discussions and comments in Twitter and in videos was about it being student-run. That was part of the branding.

This is the part that is hardest to analyze. On one hand, it is what distinguishes it from any other conference, and defines StuCon. It also made it into a type of endurance event, which gave the kids a definition of 'success' that was less about technology and more about participation ("I survived StuCon"). Lots of the conversations were about this; kids challenging each other to stay up all night and congratulating each other if they did. I'm not sure how this component directly effects the quality of tech learning, as kids being overtired and saturated certainly has an effect, but I think it adds a component to the conference that was good. It certainly provided opportunities for the kids to bond in ways that were meaningful and not under our control.

-4-hour blocks:
We all felt that some of these were too long, especially in the second block, where the presenters were so tired that the energy level was down. I think the original intent was for the 4-hour block to pose a bit of a challenge itself so the presenters had to push themselves, but when combined with the lack of sleep it was just too much of a challenge for most. By the end of the second and third block, kids were spending an hour off task, playing games and napping. The second and third block, at least, could have been shorter.

The idea of having gurus was to have some 'nurturing adults' who were a resource for the kids. The organizers, with their heads full of logistical issues, ended up with a sort of professional distance, so the gurus's role was to fill this gap; to be an expert resource to answer questions, provide motivation and help refine their thoughts. I think they did this, but it was more complex than that. Kids are used to there being an adult in the room, and simultaneously having their own culture that excludes that adult; the Gurus were young and hip enough to be part of the youth culture, so they became de-facto model leaders rather than advisors, which was a good thing. They also provided some structure so that the kids' products had a chance to be more professionally done (I'm thinking particularly about the Game proposals). However, too many Guru-run 4-hour workshops could taint the purity of the 'student run' component; I think those should be kept to a very minimum. The Power Sessions were a good compromise, and the kids responded very well about those.

The coaches were great; most of them did not participate much at all, but slept or wandered around or watched their kids present. This allowed the kids to have control and for StuCon to evolve in a direction dictated by the kids' energy. They also did absolutely no second-guessing, no undermining or grumbling, which was wonderful and supportive. I wish I had had more time to chat and network with them, but my own exhaustion and focus on logistics kept me from being able to socialize much. But I think their sense of 'hands off and go for the ride' made it very easy to let StuCon run its course and we could all see where it would lead. As the night unfolded, I deeply appreciated the coaches' tacit support of this experiment. 

-Adjusting our agenda
At two points of time, we were faced with changing horses midstream. At the end of the two hour movie time, when the lights were low and the room was silent and it was 3am, there was an idea to extend this time period to 'let the kids sleep', but three of the four organizers pushed back to awaken the kids and get the next round of workshops on track. There was no surprise that the kids were overtired: this was a designed component, but creating a physical environment so conducive to sleeping at that moment made it hard to stick to our game plan. But in fairness, it was challenging not to seem hard-hearted with all these innocent little kids sleeping around you, by turning on the lights and waking everyone up. 

The second time we were faced with adjusting the agenda was for the last session. The tired kids had not been using their scheduled time fully, so there was a lot of 'down time' where they were gaming or napping, and we were concerned that they might feel bored or under-challenged. We decided to cut the last sessions down from 4 hours to just under 2 hours so the material would be compressed, and so they kids and coaches could get out early, but it wasn't an easy decision. Some of the teams felt let down, as they had prepared four hour sessions, however others had no one attend, so they were unaffected. The kids were in such a daze by then that I think they were only looking forward to getting home and to bed, so I don't know if any of them actively revamped their lessons. It was no surprise that the sessions were laggy by then, as the kids were exhausted, however we never gave that 'bounce back' of energy in the second day a chance to revitalize things. Like I said, I'm unsure whether we made the right call or not. I know that, as a team, we were unresolved about this, but went with it after good internal discussions. Compromise is key.

-Background Tasks
In addition to the workshops, we had discussed the existence of some activities that ran nonstop; such as 'make a video about StuCon', or 'take pictures of familiar objects and make them unfamilar', etc. I think the presence of a flurry of these things could have served as a much more binding element; the 'make a movie' one turned out to be the only one and did not generate very many products, but that was probably because it was not pushed very hard throughout the night, as we wanted to see if it would develop legs of its own. If we had given them a checklist of activities or posted a running log of achievements for a flurry of activities, it might have been a more motivating aspect. But, of course, it would have added an 'adult run' component, too. Maybe in the future, we can give design and running of these 'background tasks' to a student group to run, or something.

-Lack of sleep
The 24-hour component was directly related to the 'lack of sleep' aspect. We could build in some nap time, or break the conference into two parts, but we specifically wanted to create an overtired aspect to enhance creativity or push the kids into an 'altered state'. I think we achieved this but I am not so sure we capitalized on it, as we revamped the end of the conference so the during last few hours the focus was on getting wrapped up (and home to bed). Doubtlessly, at the time the lack of sleep felt mostly like a distraction, but I look forward to hearing how the kids feel about it in a week or two. It might turn out to be a signature component, or it might turn out to be a disposable element. 

Those are my first thoughts as I lie here in bed, at 6 am, recovering from StuCon. It was a challenging event to design, develop, organize and run, but it was fun and rewarding. I was the only coach or organizer to stay awake all 24 hours (well, 22 hours), so I feel quite weary, but I feel like I might have some unique contributions on some components of the design. After reading the hashtagged posts on Twitter from kids and coaches, and looking through some of the archived products, I realize that we did create an energy and an event with its own presence and life; I think there is tremendous potential for StuCon to become an established event with its own identity. What will be important is that we carefully analyze what are the best components, then make a conscious decision to more closely follow a traditional conference model, or to hold on to the very nontraditional structure.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

After the rush

Deep felt thanks to the excellent kids, coaches, gurus and support folks who helped make StuCon2012 a success. And a special thanks to all the coffee growers of Central and South America...without you, it just would not have been possible. :-)

Friday, March 16, 2012

StuCon has arrived

Our long awaited student tech conference is in session! There was a very cool suspended silence in the meeting room for about an hour, then 45 kids arrived at once on a bus, followed closely by 25 more via taxi, on foot and being dropped off. Registration went well, we fed them full of pizza and coke, and sent them off to their first session: programming in Java, MineCraft, Starcraft, writing a movie script (to be made into a move later tonight), and a tour of the CNN offices in town.

My first impressions were that it was a type of controlled chaos. I wanted to avoid too much 'sage on the stage' addressing the crowd, but of course there was a lot of logistics to share. As we spoke, I saw kids on their computers, gaming, texting, posting on looked a lot like they were doing anything but paying attention. But it soon became obvious that this is how they work. Once the boundaries of adult control ("I'm the mom and I said so") were released and they realized that this was THEIR conference, to be run the way THEY want, they soon slipped into the learning mode they were most comfortable with. When it came time to sign up for sessions (a not-so-simple task), they quickly learned what they needed to from each other, and got the job done. It's obvious that they were motivated to figure out how to do it, so they learned. I'm looking forward to seeing if the rest of the night works out the same way. I feel optimistic.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

New Things

I just got glasses for the first time. Not surprising...everyone else in my family wears them, but despite having enjoyed remarkably good eyesight for all my life, for the past 6-8 years or so I have noticed a steady deterioration. At first, I could not see things in the distance as clearly as before; everything was getting a little 'haze' around it like I was looking through a very light fog. Then it started to get so that I could not even read documents right in front of me; signing things became a game of 'pin the tail on the donkey' as I stabbed my signature at what I hoped was the correct line.

You might be wondering what this has to do with my tech blog. Hang in there.

So anyway, I finally dropped by LensCrafters to see about getting an eye exam. They did one right away, and there was a strange sense of jubilation in me: I felt like I was getting my youth back or something; that I was going to receive a rejuvenation in something that I used to be very good at, but that has slipped away from me. During the whole eye exam, I was as honest and careful about my responses as possible (no trying to guess what letter was on the chart; if I couldn't make it out, I told them so). After the lengthy exam, the optometrist gave me a pair of 'steampunk' glasses with MY prescription in them and told me to look around.

It was like HEAVEN!

I suddenly could see everything, clear as a bell. The fog was gone, I could see my fingerprints in clear focus, and the whole world looked clean and new. I could not WAIT to get my own pair! I eagerly paid the rather large amount of money for lenses and frames and went home to blab to everyone I knew about how excited I was to get my new glasses.

So after about 3 weeks, I got the phone call that my glasses were ready. I had to wait a day until I could get downtown to pick them up, but as soon as I got there, I popped them on and looked around.

Uh oh.

Something was wrong. My right eye was happy, but my left eye felt like I was cross-eyed or something. Things just would not focus correctly, and my left eye almost felt like it was straining so much it hurt. The optometrist said 'it takes a few days to get used to them...give it the weekend and see." So I wore them home and waited for the magic to happen.

Unfortunately, after about 4 days, it still didn't seem quite right. I was a bit disillusioned. What happened to the promise? What happened to the clear vision I had when I was there? How come my eyes felt WORSE than they did before? How long did it take to get used to these glasses??

I talked about it regularly (maybe too regularly) with anyone who was around, and even got accused of never being satisfied with anything. I sort of took that to heart, and decided to just accept that this is how they are supposed to be. Not ever having worn glasses before, I knew I needed to adjust my expectations, so maybe this is what it's like. Unfortunately, it wasn't at all what I had hoped for, but by now I had invested a ton of money in them, and my eyes had adjusted enough that NOT wearing them was just as uncomfortable, so I was sort of stuck in the middle. So I decided to just stop taking about it and just put up with it.

But that only lasted so long. Pretty soon, I decided that, instead of asking friends for their input, I should go back to LensCrafters, get some education and get my expectations managed better.

When the optometrist checked my prescription card against her database, she let out a gasp. Turns out that someone had misread a '+' sign as a '-' sign, and the left lens was entirely wrong. She apologized profusely, made a brief mention about how it was surprising I could see out of that eye at all, and wondered why I had waited so long to come back in. She told me to come back in a week and she'd have the new lens installed and I could get my glasses again.

A week later, after the call, I went in and put on my NEW new glasses. It was a world of difference! I could see things in the distance clearly and crisply, and could see close items perfectly. However, things in the middle distance were still similar to without the glasses, but the optometrist assured me that this was normal: the glasses were ground to improve long distance vision, but near distance vision should be somewhat unaffected, which was what I was experiencing.

So I wore them home, off on my merry way, and have been enjoying my new, clearer vision ever since. I don't wear them all the time because there are times when I prefer to be without (like when I'm watching TV), but in general, I can really feel the improvement in my life because I can see better and have the right lenses in my glasses. I sort of hate that I have to clean them ALL the time (I can't stand streaks), and I also have to keep track of them. And sometimes I don't like how they make my face look, but I try not to be so vain. I realize now that they are something new that I need to take care of, if I want to gain the benefit of having them. I sure wish they were completely easy to own, but that's the reality of it.

"So" you ask, "what does this have to do with technology?"

Everything. My experience with new glasses is very very similar to teacher's experience with technology. Let me draw the parallels.

  • Have reasonable expectations but don't dig in too much. Be honest and accept that your expectations might not be very mature when you start. Glasses don't give you new eyes; technology doesn't give you a totally rebuilt curriculum. You need to be prepared for things to be different than you expect.
  • Don't be afraid of a few false starts. Even failures are learning experiences, and lead you further successes.
  • You may not recognize success when you see it, because you were expecting something else. Revisit the first bullet.
  • Tech is a tool. One definition of a tool is "a purposeful design that connects a problem with a solution'. Tech is a tool in that way. It doesn't SOLVE anything, but it connects the problem and the solution. My glasses are a tool that connect my deteriorating eyesight with better vision (although not exactly how I expected it to). Technology is a tool that connects the changing world and students' changing motivations with better, more multidimensional learning (although probably not exactly how you expect it to). 
  • If you feel like something isn't working right, don't wait too long before you consult the experts. You might be entirely correct that you are doing something wrong, or you might be doing things just right and that's how it works. But you probably lack the experience to know it. That's why facilitators are help with the benefit of THEIR expertise.
  • There is no 'there' there. Just as I have discovered that new glasses does not equate to totally new vision, infused technology does not mean we've arrived at the perfect learning environment. We've just changed one set of challenges (that were not yielding the most benefits) for a new set (with much greater potential). But we still have to manage it.
Anyway, the similarities seemed so much stronger before I wrote this post, lol. I'll try to be more eloquent in future posts. 

Wednesday, February 29, 2012


My friend Dave Navis from the international school in Guangzhou had an idea for a few years about a student-led tech conference. This year, I joined ranks with him, Justin Hardman (my tech director) and Pat McMahon (tech guy in Shanghai) to make Dave's dream a reality. On March 16-17, HKIS is hosting StuCon2012, a 24-hour nonstop tech-a-thon for HS kids in Asia. So far, we have about 60 kids signed up, with an expectation of about 20--30 more. It should be interesting; I've never hosted a conference before, and it's a little scary thinking about 80 teenagers running around all night doing tech, or worse yet...NOT doing tech. There's a lot of responsibility on the coaches to ensure that their teams have good presentations, and Dave, Pat and I are communicating a lot with them giving support and encouragement. I have three groups from HKIS going, so I also have some coaches to guide. I've already created several websites and,  and Justin has overseen the preparation of lots of brochures, etc. This week I am working on logistics; arranging classrooms, food, transportation, staff, materials and getting ready to make a planning schedule. Stay tuned to see how it plays out. :-)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012