Tag Archives: teacher

Digital Humanities in the Classroom

As I get my feet wet with this public-blogging thing (intentionally public, anyway–this isn’t the first time I’ve blogged publicly, but it’s the first time I’ve done so while trying to capture the attention of a specific audience and string a common thread through my posts), there is a growing pile (digital and otherwise) of things to think and write about. I find that I am accumulating post topics at a much higher frequency than I have time to write about them! This forces me to be judicious with words and space (believe it or not), to critically think through how I might thread several disparate concepts together, and to consider how I’ll use various media to convey the heart of my message.  As informal as blogging can be, the project of maintaining a blog for a specific professional purpose becomes a formalized act that follows a distinct process, much like that of writing a research paper or article manuscript. Which brings me to what inspired this post: last night’s CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative talk with Shannon Mattern and Mark Sample.

Shannon’s presentation in particular, “Beyond the Seminar Paper: Setting New Standards for New Forms of Student Work,” gave me things to think about when it comes to my research.  While I (and many other K-12 public school teachers in NYC) have a knee-jerk reaction against the word “standards,” it was refreshing to hear someone discuss evaluation and assessment in the context of why.  It’s not that I haven’t heard other academics speak about assessment in productive, logical ways; it’s just that so much of my time as a 5th grade teacher was spent producing pretty, neatly formatted assessments because I was forced to, not because it made sense.  One year, using an informal system of notes on a post-it was the accepted form of evaluation; another year, the focus was on rubrics; our heads spun with the rapid changes that seemed episodic and disconnected to the goals of our lessons, and in the interim, the whole purpose of evaluating was lost on many of us. While Shannon has developed a series of evaluative tools along with each project she has developed with her students, it was clear from her presentation that her evaluations were not seemingly random rubrics or checklists like the ones I once compulsorily produced–her evaluations have a specific purpose, and are connected to the larger learning goals of her students’ projects.  I appreciated being a part of this conversation at the higher-ed level–particularly the part that took up questions around support for practitioners.  (And I’d like to see more spaces for conversations like this at the K-12 level.)

So what do we do if we want to use a technological tool we don’t know how to use?  What are the resources available to professionally develop your own skills as instructors–at all educational levels?  And how can the growth of our society’s do-it-yourself (DIY) culture support those endeavors?

Shannon’s talk last night touched briefly on what I hear mentioned often in professional talks lately: getting an academic job is no longer a guarantee once you get your PhD.  I feel like I’ve witnessed the development of this phenomenon first-hand over the last decade, and have to wonder at how it has paralleled the development of technology.  At age 26 (eight years ago), with but two years of teaching 5th grade under my belt, I was hired as an adjunct to teach a course called “Assessment and Evaluation” at a local university.  Not only were the students in my course teaching in grades K-12 (I’d only taught elementary school at that point), the course text (which was dictated by the department) was unbelievably dry and disconnected from most of my students’ daily work, and my students were rightfully frustrated by the course content and my teaching of it.  I had not yet developed the wisdom (which would come several years later and is still evolving) to logically develop a purposeful assessment tool that was accessible to my students and made sense for the larger goals of the project or assignment.  At the time, there were few impressive lines on my CV that related to teaching at the Masters level, and other than being an ambitious, personable young woman with lots of energy and a brightly decorated classroom, I didn’t seem qualified.  So why was I hired?  Surely it couldn’t just be because I was cheap at $2,250 per class (or thereabouts), or that I was referred by an advisor through the New York City Teaching Fellows–I still went through an interview! Was something else happening at the time?  Was it the start of what we are witnessing now, with the disappearance of full-time, tenure-track positions? What does it all have to do with the advances of technology?  I realize I’m tangenting, and again, raising threads that I will want to return to, but all of these thoughts were descending upon my brain last night as I sat and listened to Shannon and Mark talk about their work at their respective institutions. (You can read more about my K-12 teaching experience in my previous post if you’re interested.)

Toward the end of the discussion, someone asked a question about the boundary between teaching tech and teaching content–for instance, at what point does teaching how to use a blog platform detract from the content-specific point of the activity?  I appreciated that both speakers had already intimated in their respective talks that the boundary is blurry and increasingly so–that as pedagogues, we will often be required to move our technological knowledge along independently, and make use of the advances available to us whether there is a PD session to support it or not.  I admit I’m out of the loop when it comes to debating the identifiers of “digital humanities.”  It seems that technology and teaching are so inextricably linked at this point that you cannot teach without bumping into technology somewhere along the way, and vice versa.

If I had more hours in the day, I would spend time looking at how developments in letter-writing and the postal service, television, telephones, automobiles, radio, and other technologies have impacted policies and practices around teaching and learning–this tension surely existed before computers, right?  I can’t imagine the development of automobiles having had the same impact on classroom learning as computers and the internet, but I’m curious about how the education system catches up to advances that move quickly around it.

I’m looking forward to continuing this discussion with you and other friends and colleagues involved in the project of education.

Using Blogs as Data Collectors

When I started graduate school, web-based reference tools were only just being developed. At the time, I was using Endnote to keep track of my citations.  That is, until I clumsily tripped over the cord attached to my iBook. This was before the cord was magnetic, and I watched in stop-action as all of my work came crashing down. Little screws and bits of plastic spewed out from the sides. I hadn’t backed up in a while, and have not made that mistake since.

Today, it seems like everyone I talk to is using Zotero.  I was, too, until I realized about halfway through last year that someone else was using my Zotero library (and adding to and reorganizing it), too, in the adjunct office where I spent the bulk of my time last year. I hadn’t completely understood how Zotero works, and although I managed to get through defending my dissertation proposal by using it, I gave up and have been wavering ever since on where to take my library of citations next. And it dawned on me: why not just use a blog?

Has anyone had experience doing this? If I set up categories for authors and subjects, would it be easy enough for me to aggregate the appropriate data when necessary? I wonder if it would be possible to develop a WordPress plug-in (or if there already is one) to export bibliographic information as Zotero does. In the meantime, I am considering using a blog to organize my data by using categories and tags as codes. Obviously, the blog would need to be private; however, I wonder what other institutional requirements might be necessary for such a project. If my data is housed in a private site on the internet, is that as good as a locked file cabinet in an office?

Meanwhile, I have a Google Scholar alert set up for “teachers and blogging,” and have for almost a year now, and I’m fascinated by what comes up every time I receive a new digest. This morning, there was a paper about students “phlogging,” the practice of blogging from your phone, to complete assignments. And something else dawned on me: I have witnessed a 180-degree turn when it comes to technology and gadgets in the classroom.

I have probably already mentioned how when I started teaching at an elementary school, if we had to look something up on Google, we felt guilty; like somehow we weren’t good teachers if we didn’t have all the knowledge we were trying to impart to our students stored away in neat little virtual folders in our brains.  The fact of the matter is, I don’t remember all the capitals to all fifty states anymore (and probably haven’t since I memorized them for an in-class quiz about twenty-five years ago now), not to mention all of the conversion rules for ounces/cups/quarts, etc.  It’s not that I had to sit there with my laptop open, Googling things every moment of every day in order to teach; however, I admit that there were times when students asked questions that stumped me, and my colleagues and I made good use of the technological tools within reach. (A note on laptop use as a teacher: when our school was initially wired, teachers were not permitted to use the wireless network.  This is another example of the policy-practice gap I’m examining in my research.)

I’m getting a little off-topic here, but it’s hard not to think about how things have changed, while trying to figure out how to make technology work for a project right here, right now.  I have a feeling that in ten years, blogs will be even more sophisticated, and there will in fact be a more universally available option for keeping reference information and research data in blogs.  In the meantime, I’ll be developing my own system and will keep you updated on that project in future blog posts.

In other news, I went down to the Occupy Wall Street protests again yesterday with a group of colleagues, and was overwhelmed (in an inspiring way!) by how huge the crowd had gotten by the time we got there.  Thousands of people came from all over, and union representation was enormous.  At one point, we stretched all the way from Foley Square to Wall Street.  You can see photos here if you’re interested:

Occupy Wall Street 10/5/11

Lastly, RIP Steve Jobs.  Apple technology = awesome.

What Do I Mean by Policy?

I asked one of my professors during my first or second year of grad school, How are education policies made?  I demanded an answer to a truly impossible question, and my professor’s answer was appropriate: It is a very complex process.

As a fifth grade teacher, I couldn’t fathom the enormous chasm that lived between the in-the-name-of-achievement intentions of various policies and the way they were lived out in actual classrooms.  As a brand-new teacher, I assumed these were official laws, coming down on high from some dictator-type person perched in his uncomfortable wooden chair (you know, the kind that swivels and is always featured in movies about teachers).  But when I became a literacy coach, and got a glimpse of what it’s like to be an administrator, I realized that decisions about policies–these supposed laws that govern the way schools and classrooms run–are made at many different levels and it’s a lot more confusing than you’d think.

That sounds a little obvious now that I’ve said it out loud, but if you think about it teacher education programs don’t spend a lot of time talking about the history or process of educational policymaking decisions in this country.  It seems that policymakers would need and want teachers to know and understand the history and process of educational policymaking, so that they could be active participants in that process once they become teachers.  Aren’t teachers the experts on teaching after all?  Writing about this makes me think about polls that newspapers and new shows so often speak of.  I’ve never been asked a question for a poll for the Post or Daily News or any other publication or production of any kind in my twelve years as a New Yorker, and I don’t know many people who have.  How can these polls possibly claim to represent my view if I’ve never been asked?  Being a teacher kind of feels like this, only way worse, because they’re not just being narcissistic and complaining–they actually aren’t ever asked, not even a little.

I have to give credit to the administration at both elementary schools in the city where I’ve worked–they listened to their teachers, even if they couldn’t (or wouldn’t) always act on what they heard.  Even if you’re lucky enough to work with a principal who has a heart of gold, their hands are often tied by bureaucratic red tape.  One time, I was urgently called into the office to help purchase books and other supplies with a large sum of money that the school would lose the following day if we didn’t use it up.  This made no sense to me.  How were we trying to force the purchase of a bunch of random materials for thousands of dollars when we actually–desperately–need new books?  soap in the girls’ bathrooms? pencils? a librarian?  But illogical things like this happened all the time, and policies were always at the root.

I remember thinking at the start of the school year, when are kids going to know who their teacher is?  There was so much jumbling and re-jumbling of students at the start of September that classrooms didn’t fall into a rhythm until well after Columbus Day.  How were we supposed to effectively employ the start-of-the-year rituals we’d learned in our teacher certification programs and new teacher professional development sessions when we didn’t even know who our students would be for the first month of school?  How were our students supposed to feel comfortable and ownership over their classroom when they might have to leave it the following day?  That supposed plateau that a teacher hits after the first few weeks of guiding students through daily routines when the classroom is running like a well-oiled machine remained a myth for many of us.

I also remember days upon days of additional students in my room in a space that already housed 32.  I remember looking up what the UFT contract said about splitting up classes, which is the process of distributing the students of a teacher who is absent among the remaining teachers’ classes.  According to the contract, this was only to happen in an emergency situation.  For my first three years of teaching, you could almost guarantee it would happen every Monday and Friday when absences were high, and there was one stretch of time when one of my colleagues was on extended sick leave and it happened for several weeks straight.  I couldn’t understand–where were the substitute teachers?  I inquired once and recall the answer having something to do with a sub pool draught and a thin budget. Like other things that didn’t seem to make sense, this was another “policy” that didn’t quite work and made my job very difficult.  And sadly, all it did was make the teachers resent each other when they were absent and got in the way of meaningful instruction.

At the end of the day, it wasn’t the students, the content, my colleagues, or students’ parents who made getting any teaching and learning done nearly impossible when I was a fifth grade teacher; it was the inconsistency in the school environment.  The ground beneath our feet always seemed to be shifting–as soon as the schedule was set, it changed; as soon as we mastered a new curriculum, it changed; as soon as we got used to the new learning standards, they changed; as soon as we’d painstakingly written our students’ names in bubble letters on construction paper (and added glitter as long as we knew we’d be getting four hours of sleep tonight instead of five), our roster would change; and the list goes on.

So I guess when I talk about policy, I’m referring to any decision that determines how things “should” go in a classroom/school/district.  And in my research, I’m concerned with making sure that the policymaking process starts considering what gets in the way–the stuff that policy decisions don’t often account for or anticipate, and that only teachers know.  I mean, who ever decided there should be 300 leveled books (or maybe it was 500…the year 2003 seems so long ago now) in each elementary school classroom library? They certainly didn’t consider how that was supposed to happen in schools that were underfunded, under-resourced, and under-staffed.  In my grad school text books, I recall images of jovial-looking teacher types talking and laughing while leveling books at a table in what looked like some sort of well-equipped teacher lounge.  The reality of getting my books leveled included weeks upon weeks of late nights looking up titles in a book one at a time (this was before Google being the oracle it is now), writing out different letters on color-coded stickers, covering each label with clear packing tape, and organizing the leveled books into appropriate baskets.  Students were kind and helped out, but where was my release time for this behemoth of a task?  Why did I have to spend so much of the time I needed to spend preparing lesson plans leveling books?  (And for those of you who don’t think teachers work hard enough, I came in early and stayed late for most of my five years in the classroom, and still never had enough time to reasonably meet all of the expectations placed on me.  The more I read about teachers’ daily lives, the more I realize my experience is hardly singular.)

Policy is big and expensive, and in my opinion, so out of left field sometimes.  I wonder how much news of failing schools, coupled with the growing national anti-teacher union/tenure sentiment, is actually a cloaked mark of the failure of polices like No Child Left Behind (which trickled down to create the 300-some-odd-leveled-books rule), rather than of the failure of students and teachers, which is the more popular theory.  Clearly, schools aren’t working as they should; and thankfully, we know a lot of what is wrong.  If we could just get policymakers and teachers at the same table regularly, talking, reflecting, and problem-solving together, we could make real change happen.  I know it’s not a silver bullet, but it would be a start.

Night Before the First Day of School

I wonder if my bad sleep patterns lately are a subconscious act of solidarity with teachers throughout New York City who are preparing to start another academic year tomorrow.  I remember all too well that charged mixture of excitement and anxiety that churns in your belly the night before school starts — I always thought that the more experienced I got, the more calm I’d be on the night before the first day, but that never happened.

As a classroom teacher, I spent my time on this night prepping first-day/get-to-know-you activities, and frantically finishing the touches on my colorful bulletin boards, in the hopes that the first day would go smoothly, my prep and lunch schedule would afford reasonable bathroom breaks (one year, I taught for nearly four hours without a break on some days), and I would be able to be myself without being a total pushover (which a former supervisor described me as during my rookie year — ouch!).

Here’s a picture of that rookie (that I’ll probably be horrified about having posted come morning).  Note the empty shelves behind me that demonstrate the lack of books I was faced with during that first year.  I’ll never forget asking my AP (the same one who called me, to be exact, a “soft, white pushover”) sometime in September, when would my books be arriving for my classroom library?  I was directed to make due with what I had, or provide a library using my Teachers Choice money (which amounted to $200 per year per teacher at that time, and funded the purchase of very little for an entire classroom of students, as you can imagine).  The books that existed in the room when I arrived were in a variety of languages and skill levels, and all seemed to be published sometime before 1990.  I think the room had been a learning language lab at some point.  Very few of the existing books were appropriate for a group of third-grade students, many of whom were still learning to read.  I was lucky to acquire a number of book collections from friends during that year, and my classroom library eventually grew to robust proportions; only to be replaced two years later by the “mayors’ library,” which involved an exciting-and-then-anticlimactic delivery of over 300 volumes to my classroom that were mostly inaccessible to my students because of a mismatch in skill level.

So, at the start of a school year when education funding is being slashed left and right, and teachers are busying themselves in the spirit of bringing meaningful, engaging learning experiences to their new students, I cannot help but think about their collective task ahead.  My heart and soul are with all teachers tomorrow — I wish you a wonderful, productive first day, and 179 smooth, engaging days to follow.  In the meantime, thank you for the tremendous work that you do.  Your job is, after all, the most important job.

“Hope and enthusiasm are soaring here. But not test scores.”

This past Sunday’s New York Times published the first of a series of articles about “the intersection of education, technology and business as schools embrace digital learning”(p. 16) with the title “In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores.”  I have to say, I appreciate the NYT’s effort at turning the spotlight to education every now and then, thus encouraging the masses to pay attention to K-12 classroom learning; however, they don’t always get all sides of the story.

I’m often looking for articles and media presentations about teaching that take into account teachers’ input, and it should be noted that this article gives a nod (in the section “Teachers vs. Tech” on the last page of the article) to the impact of recent technological developments in education on teachers — particularly the financial constraints of new materials, resources, and training.  So often, discussions of education leave out the part of the narrative that honors that teachers are living, breathing human beings, too, who, despite the efforts of teacher education programs, don’t arrive at the classroom door with a fixed set of skills — especially at a time when skill-level requirements (particularly around computers) are changing and ratcheting up on a daily basis.  Teachers, just like students, need ongoing learning opportunities, too, and their input in this conversation is necessary but often absent.

There are a million threads to take up in response to this article, but I want to focus on just a few:

  • definition of what we’re referring to as “technology”
  • teacher as guide instead of lecturer
  • proof of value of technology in the classroom

Definition of what we’re referring to as “technology.”  So what do we mean by “technology”?  It is implied throughout this article that the “technology” being discussed is computer and internet technology.  But where does technology end and begin?  Wasn’t the invention of the wheel “technology”?  Isn’t using a xerox machine technology?  Do students have to be operating in virtual spaces for it to be considered “technology”? Are there actual, specific requirements for a classroom to be considered “technology-centric?”  How does this distinction help or hurt when it comes to developing best practices in the classroom?

Teacher As Guide Instead of Lecturer.  The article references Kyrene School District in Arizona, which has “invested roughly $33 million” for computers, interactive screens, and other virtual technologies, and states “the digital push here aims to go far beyond gadgets to transform the very nature of the classroom, turning the teacher into a guide instead of a lecturer.”  This line honestly floored me — each of my teacher education courses, whether I was a student or an instructor, centered around the Piagetian idea of constructivism, in which the teacher is a guide, not a lecturer.  Put simply by Dewey, constructivism means that “experience is education,” and that the act of doing is, in itself, a powerful form of learning.

For me, and the majority of my teaching colleagues, the notion of acting as a “guide” instead of  “lecturer” is not new, and focusing on this as some sort of new method for approaching the classroom via the lens of technology does a disservice to the last century of progressive educators’ work.  While I can only speak for myself, I find it angering to have this concept renewed again and again, as if for the first time, without focusing on what is really happening: a lack of equally accessible resources, a dearth of ongoing, effective training for teachers, and a system of policymaking that could not be further from the actual classroom.

I remember when the new citywide curriculum for K-6 was implemented (roughly 7 school years ago) in New York City, and as a fifth grade teacher I was expected to start teaching with a new curriculum that was unfamiliar to me (Everyday Math).  At that time, the rhetoric was that we needed classrooms to be “child-centered.”  Now we need classrooms to be “technology-centered”?  Will this simple shift in focus actually make a difference?  I am guessing that it won’t.

Proof of Value of Technology in the Classroom.  The article states the claim that “educators would like to see major trials years in length that clearly demonstrate technology’s effect. But such trials are extraordinarily difficult to conduct when classes and schools can be so different, and technology is changing so quickly.”  Sure, yes.  We would all love to see trials of things that “work” in education, period, but one sure-fire thing that a century of education research has helped us conclude is that nothing works for everyone.  I am not advocating the willy-nilly implementation of programs in classrooms (if you’re a public school teacher, you know this happens already.)  As an educational researcher, I unconditionally agree that more research must be conducted; however, one need not conduct a years-long, longitudinal study to make the basic claim that technology (of the computer/internet variety at the very least) is increasingly becoming a necessary pedagogical component.  You can’t get a library at the local library, get an MTA card, or communicate with a cell phone today if you don’t have a basic understanding of technology.

As I said, there is a lot more to say, and I’m having a hard time cutting this post short as a result, but…  I hope this is the start of a really important conversation that every educator can be a part of right now: how can/will the technology revolution transform education?  Will it transform education?  Or, will the same trends continue, in which a new silver bullet is proposed (in this case, “technology”), tons of money is invested, and empirical data shows little or no change?  At what point are we going to stop beating around the bush and figure out that 1) any new device — whether curricular, pedagogical, technological, or any combination of the above in nature — will require additional, sufficient teacher training; 2) clear channels for teacher input/expertise need to be forged; and 3) the internet isn’t going anywhere and kids need to interact with it in their learning environments — and not just in the name of improving American test scores.