Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Shootings

No fancy opening paragraph here; no clever word usage or tricky introduction.

I think more than anything I just need to use this vehicle, a blog, to vent. Everyone else has, via Facebook or Twitter or comment threads under news stories. To me, 99 percent of it is crap: emotional reactions to a horrific event. It's understandable; we're humans. Maybe 99 percent of what I'm about to say is crap, too.

I see this school shooting in Connecticut from two angles:

Firstly, it pisses me off that only after some terrible event like this, do people get outraged. Recently, in Chicago -- one city in America -- they passed 400 gun-related deaths in 2012. One city. One year. Where is the outrage here? It struck me as so ironic that the President of the United States -- a Chicago native -- barely mentioned the epidemic of hateful violence that has his home town completely terrorized. And I would guess that almost all of those deaths in Chicago were caused by criminals with illegally-obtained weapons. So where is the outrage? Here is the part that really irks me: Only when terrible things like this happen to white people, or white children especially, in middle-class America, does it make the really big headlines. Nobody really cares if black kids in the inner city are being slaughtered. It might make the local news, but the next night there are other murders to take the place in the news cycle. Nobody really cares, nobody remembers.

For the next several weeks the media will be lamenting what happened in Connecticut, and people will hold vigils, and pundits from both sides will raise and then deflect the issue of gun control. Finally, the public sentiment will die down, and folks will move on. Not in Newtown, mind you, but across America. The fact is, something like this will probably never happen in Newtown again. Yet in Chicago, and other cities across America, the violence will continue, day after day. Where will the outrage be then? It will be absent. Who cares about black kids or inner city crime? Some give it lip service, but nobody really cares. It's the kind of hypocrisy that really pisses me off.

Secondly, I don't have a problem with banning assault weapons. Americans have the right, whether one likes it or not, to possess firearms. It's not an option. But one doesn't need an assault weapon, even to protect one's home and family. Ban them, I don't care. Do it. Quit giving it lip service. But realize that doing so will not stop people from killing each other. People kill other people because of what is in their hearts. People have always been crazy; and evil has always existed. But there is something that used to exist strongly in our culture, and doesn't really exist there any more: God. God has been pushed aside, sent to the sidelines to observe, and taken out of mainstream America. When the Founders set this country up, they knew that the country needed religion in order to restrain themselves, because so much freedom would exist. We have so many gun-related deaths because we're a free society, and it's easy to abuse that freedom. There must be some kind of restraint.

I have taught sociology before, and one of the things I try to tell students is that aside from one's personal beliefs, generally speaking, nations need religion in order to exist, long-term. It gives the people a common bond, a common set of morals to live by, and common consequences to avoid -- even if only perceived. And the more free a nation is, the more it needs religion. More freedom requires more personal restraint. The problem in this country, I tell them, isn't the different religions that exist. It's that the more different religions there are, the less we are -- as a group -- bonded by common beliefs. Diversity can be a strength, but in some ways it can be a liability: It is better for the long-term stability of a country if everyone is on the same page. What is even worse today is the fact that so many people are choosing "none of the above." You can still be a good person without religion of course, but long-term, for the group, it really helps to have these common traits. Personally, I believe that God, and more specifically Jesus, is the way. I cannot tell my students that (unfortunately), and I would not attempt it. It's just my personal belief.

Honestly, we take God out of society, out of the public view, out of schools, and -- this is ironic -- out of churches, and we wonder why our country is going to hell?

If we really want to stop this trend of mass shootings and gun-related deaths, and violence in general, then we must accept the fact that contrary to what the culture is telling us, we really do need to look to higher powers for help here. We must accept that we're not as smart as we thought we were, and maybe, just maybe, we don't always know what is in our best interests. Maybe science isn't everything. Maybe we should have a more humble attitude. Maybe we should ask God for help.

In fact, the best place to start is "me." As a song lyric says, "the problem with the world is me." It's true when you think about it. If we all stopped blaming circumstances, blaming other people, blaming government, blaming guns -- all of that stuff -- and examined ourselves and what was in our hearts, we would take a very real and significant step in changing the world. Guns, mental health, society, culture, school security, video games, violence in films or music -- pick your poison. These are all problems worth addressing. But the real solution is something much more basic and real. As a nation, we must turn back to God. I absolutely guarantee he will be there waiting for us.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Fall Reflections: A's and B's

As we come close to the Christmas season, I thought it might be a good time to update the ol' blog, since neither of my Fall classes has required blog entries. I have taken two very good classes, one of them exceptionally good, and I'm about to finish that second one in a couple of weeks.

A debate has resurfaced during this latest class, which I don't know the name of right now, but trust me, it's been good (actually, not being too specific gives me some leeway here). The debate is over how to best train teachers to adapt to using modern technology in the classroom right now. A couple of people in my class have insisted that we need to train teachers to use Google Docs, or Glogster, or other current popular web tools.

My opinion is that we need to help teachers learn how to accept technology, love technology, and find web tools on their own. After all, the web tools of today could be gone tomorrow; or swallowed up by some mega-company.

That may seem a little paranoid, but about a year ago I fell in love with Fridge (, a site that provided easy setups of private social networks. It made sense to me, with parents rightly concerned about allowing kids to log on to Facebook or Twitter during school hours, to set up a private network with all of the bells and whistles that was isolated from the noise and disruption that is Facebook. Students could collaborate, teachers could keep track, students could connect and chat without the teacher being able to pry, friends could be made, assignments could be completed -- everything a social networking tool should be to a classroom.

But soon after I had signed up, got familiar and started telling others about Fridge, the company got bought out by Google. Now Fridge is being "folded into" Google+. Well, I like Google+, but I hesitate to use that in the classroom for the same reasons I would hesitate to use Facebook or Twitter: There's just too many jerks out there.

Hunting and trying out web tools is a time-consuming and difficult job; and that's why tech gurus that do this for us and share the good ones are so valuable. But a good one for me might not be a good one for you. A good one for Student A might not work for Student B. Realizing halfway through a lesson that one of your students needs a certain learning experience requires teachers that know what they need and know how to find it.

I guess I'm splitting hairs to some extent. We need teachers that want to learn; and want to find new tools and new ways to use the old tools. As long as teachers are eager, and curious, and engaged, we'll be OK. I just want us to avoid spending a lot of time learning about Tool A when it could disappear tomorrow, and Tool B might be better anyway.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Enhancing Literacy: Final Reflections

I just want to say that I have thoroughly enjoyed this class. I have met a lot of great educators/students that I hope I'll stay in contact with throughout this program, and maybe even beyond. This is a great, talented group. Thanks to Mrs. Blanco as well for her help and leadership.

I guess if I had to make a suggestion for improving the course, it would be more integration between the projects we worked on and the books we read. Although I read almost all of the readings, it seems like I could have completed the projects and the paper without doing any of the reading (although it would have been more difficult).

Having said that, I really liked the activities/projects we did in this class. Especially the Infographic. That was really fun to do and something I'll be able to use down the road. Overall, a very educational class and a great start to what will surely be a fantastic program. Good luck to everyone. See you next class!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Civil War Infographic

Once again, I struggled over the weekend with web-based tools. I simply could not find a program -- for free -- that I could figure out, use easily and be satisfied with the product. Eventually I used a program I'm more familiar with, but isn't based on Web 2.0 technology. That program was Microsoft Publisher. I wanted to produce a document with links to various web sites, so students could easily go to the source to learn more about a subject. Since I could only post a picture here, and not a web-based document, those links are not active on this picture. But they are there. Hopefully this will be sufficient to my classmates.

It would have been nice to have a little more room, but with what I was working with my best option was to choose 11x17 format. I would hope to use this infographic in a high school Social Studies classroom. Now that it's done, it's possible, I hope, to move all of the graphics and information into a web-based program. Otherwise, the students would have to have MS Office in order to use the links. At least I think that's the case. Still, the PDF version of this document allows for linking.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Digital Story

Photo Credits:
Crowd pic:
Shanksville pic:
Muslim relations:

Monday, September 24, 2012


As a high school Social Studies teacher, I will be asking my students to research. Students must be able to tell fact from fiction; and truth from propaganda. Students must be able to search primary documents and scholarly journals to find how fact and opinion can merge to provide powerful insight. My hope would be that students, by this time, have already been taught that plagiarism is wrong and must be avoided.

Of course, I will have to reinforce that. In any classroom, in any group setting in the world, there will be those present who think they can cheat and get away with it. I must first of all provide the model of proper research. I must be aware of all copyright and fair use policies and give my students a fair and legal teaching experience.

When I hand the ball to them, I must explain how important it is to do their own work; and then explain the consequences for plagiarism. I must make sure each student knows what plagiarism is and what it means. I must use all learning techniques, from written words to video, audio and online tools, to make sure no student  is left out of the learning process. This is always true, but vital at this point.

As they work through their research and writing, it is important that I allow them to work with group members, so teams can 'police' each other. I must work with the teams step-by-step to show them how interesting, fun and beneficial proper research can be. I believe if you make them aware of what the consequences are, show them the way to do it right, and connect what they are doing with the real world, this will go a long way to ensuring that a bare minimum of students try to plagiarize someone else's work.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Digital Storytelling Process

Like many, I am struggling with certain parts of the digital storytelling process. The writing is second nature to me, so no problems there. After my peer editor sent the revised rough draft back to me, I had my final text version of the story finished by the end of the day.

However the graphical elements of the story are not flowing so freely. I spent hours today, literally, searching for just the right program to present my story the way I want to present it. Really what I wanted was a 3D 'avatar' to represent me, and narrate the story. My story-related images would flash on a screen in the background. I wanted my avatar to be the teacher and present my story to the reader. I might have gone forward with that idea, but that program costs money (Moviestorm), even for the educational plan. I have not been able to find a similar program that is free. I have found many free tools, but none of them really provides exactly what I'm looking for; which is a place to combine music, voice, photographs and videos into a user-friendly interface that gives me a nice three to five minute movie. Close, but no cigar. I guess I'll just use Windows Movie Maker and lay down a standard soundtrack over moving images. It's that "Ken Burns" look that I was trying to avoid. If anyone knows of the program that's right for me, I'd be grateful.

I am about to work on the storyboard. I know what this is, but I've never completed one before, so I'm a bit hesitant. Hopefully it will all come together soon.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Teacher and School Websites

Oh my gosh, school and teacher websites, are you kidding me?

It's my opinion that school-related websites are some of the worst designed and maintained sites on the entire Internet. Oh sure, you can find good ones, but I'm talking about the websites I've seen at the schools I've been at and the teachers my children have studied under. It's a joke. 

The class sites look like they were designed by, well, some high school teacher with no clue what a website is supposed to look like and feel like. They are hardly ever maintained. You click on the website, either a class or school site, and you can read the calendar items for eight months ago and see pictures of last year's graduation ceremony, if you're lucky. Oh, they tell you they'll keep their site up to date, but it must be the doormat on the priority ladder. Class sites are almost as bad. Teachers with good intentions start a website but don't have the time and/or ability to keep it up to date. It's too bad, because school websites can and should be the communication link to the community and the parents. Class websites should and can be the link between the teacher, the students, the parents and the public at large. In this day of modern communication and short attention spans, proper website management is critical. But I almost never see it happen correctly.

For me? That's what I would spend my summer vacation doing: creating the best class website I possibly could. My website would be the go-to place for students and parents on a daily basis. Students would post examples of their work, find out what they missed yesterday and what the assignment was today. They could ask the teacher questions and read previous frequently-asked questions (FAQs) to get tips on completing the work and solving problems. Students could easily link to class wikis and blogs, where they can share information and collaborate on projects. The website would have links to research sites and web tools. For the parents and community, it would be simple but comprehensive. Parents could view their children's work, see what assignments they should be working on, and how the class is progressing overall. They will have multiple options for communicating with the teacher and the school, including counselors and administrators. They can absolutely ask me, the teacher, any question at any time. All communication would be confidential.

As for school websites, they often look good, but that's about where it stops. Far too often, the information is old and irrelevant. Should we really have to tune into the local news channel to find out if school is canceled? What about that guy I heard was trying to pick up girls after school the other day? What's being served for lunch tomorrow? What was that announcement my son missed at the beginning of school today? via Facebook

Often the sites are too busy, with too many links going too many directions. What information the parents and community needs to find should be front and center, with no clutter. It's great that the band performed during halftime at the big game, but it's not worth a massive slideshow mucking up the front page of the site.

Websites, for both classes, schools and districts, are often the first thing people see. First impressions mean a lot. I'm sure there are districts and teachers that are website masters, and their sites blow away anything I could come up with. I have seen good ones, and those are the ones I use to model what I want to do. But in my world, over here in the Land of Lincoln, it's coming along very slowly, indeed.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Addendum: Amazing But True

This has nothing to do with our assignment this week, but I couldn't help but shout for joy as my local school district has changed their cell phone policy.

Now phones are allowed in all common areas, such as the cafeteria and hallways. And it is completely up to the discretion of the teacher as to how phones can be used inside the classrooms. This is a complete '180' compared to last year, when the use of all cell phones in the classroom was banned. I have never considered my home district, in which I sub frequently, to be particularly "forward thinking," but that has certainly changed now.

Of course, there are still limitations. A teacher cannot force a student to use his/her cell phone to send a text or get on the Internet. But that option is there now. It's an amazing change. Kudos to the school district and the curriculum coordinator.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Literacy In the Secondary Social Studies Classroom: This Is Going to Be a Long Post

Blog posts are supposed to be pithy.

But the more I think about the ways I can and should integrate literacy into my secondary Social Studies classroom, the more overwhelming it becomes. I believe it is fundamentally imperative that we help students better understand the world in which they live. One way to do that is through Social Studies. I must make it interesting, relevant, and fun. Literacy is a vital portion of this equation. Students must be able to read texts, comprehend what they are reading, and apply it to the real world. Students must be able to take knowledge and communicate what they have learned to others in a concise and meaningful way, either in written or verbal form. Students need to learn how to research effectively; meaning they need to understand how to identify reliable sources, and how to verify facts. They need to understand the value of primary sources. And in no other way does Social Studies incorporate more into other common core teaching areas than in literacy learning. These skills are useful in every facet of life.
So how do I do it; and how do I know if students are grasping the content? Here is a list of strategies and tools that I believe work well for me and my students in learning literacy. I wouldn't necessarily use each one in every unit, but at least two or three in each unit, for sure: journal writing, maps, graphic organizers, current events presentations, class web site, web-based research projects. If you have time, you can view these two videos on YouTube, which although they focus on younger students, I like the general strategies of each teacher. The first video focuses on an overall strategy of research and presentations, and the other focuses nicely on using maps. There are just a couple of examples: There are numerous videos and other resources on the Web that discuss the integration of literacy teaching into the curriculum.

I really like to use journals throughout the year. I have only done this by having students use their notebooks; I would like to try it online, such as a blog like this one. (But there's nothing wrong with writing in a notebook either.) I like it because it helps me introduce a topic, get a sense of what the students prior knowledge is, what interests them or what they would like to learn. When the unit is finished, I can look back and see the progress that was made. I love graphic exercises, either organizers to help with reading and planning projects; or maps to help with geographic placement, politics, industry or resources.

Although many students can be scared or nervous, I usually plan for a series of short current events oral presentations. Students need to become comfortable with speaking to their peers about subjects that interest them. It also reinforces mutual respect and listening skills. I know some do not like to stand up in front of the class. I might allow them to sit and give their presentation, then I might require them to stand at their desk. Eventually all should come to the front of the class to speak. This instills confidence and self-worth.

I also like to plan for a project near the end of the unit that tries to encompass everything learned in the unit to that point. Tests are a fact of life; and I want my students to do well. But I find the students can show how much they've learned by completing some kind of project, hopefully using modern technology. This helps them see a payoff for their work; and gives me an evaluation tool. I have used digital posters like Glogster, or presentation tools such as Sliderocket or Animoto.

I am also very fond of Webquests. Here is a quest I made for another class on Christopher Columbus. It is very detailed and would take a long time to read, but it offers the students some individual tasks and collaborative tasks. The standards are included in the quest, as well as evaluation tools. Students will receive a grade from me, but also can grade themselves. I'm not saying my quest was great or anything, but the tool itself, created with Zunal, is awesome. You can also look at other educators' Webquests, get great ideas and even ask them for the right to use their quests in your class.

I don't want to carry on too long. Hopefully I've answered the requirements of the assignment. Like I said, I consider literacy in Social Studies to be among the most important things I can teach. I see technology as offering more exciting and fun ways to do this. 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Wiki Wiki

I believe wikis are possibly the most misunderstood and under-appreciated web tool available to educators today. It is so simple but so powerful, yet many teachers cannot figure out what goes on in a wiki and how to use it for their classroom.

Wikis are a direct result of the Web 2.0 revolution; that is, web pages that can be changed or edited by anyone. The monster example, of course, is Wikipedia, which is a public encyclopedia that can be edited and added to by anyone in the world. I still run into people I would consider tech-savvy that don't understand Wikipedia is not a standard encyclopedia, like Britannica, etc. People can write anything and present it as the truth. (Wikipedia is monitored, and obvious falsities or inappropriate statements are often deleted, but more ambiguous statements often remain.) For this reason, Wikipedia must never be used directly as a source. Its real value is that properly cited pages can provide numerous links to legitimate sources. Wikipedia also shows the traits of a good wiki. Visual elements are used very often, including pictures, video and audio files. And those who wish to edit the pages find a simple, user-friendly interface. 

Our studies this week led us to look at a couple of educational wikis created by teachers. I hope all educators check out such wikis, because they offer students a real-world learning experience that combines creativity with collaboration. It can be fun for the students and the teacher. Mrs. Lodes' "Treasure of Learning" wiki uses a pirate theme to bring her students into the wiki page. The theme is age-appropriate, which is very important. Visually, the pages are colorful, but I do think some of the images are distracting. On one page there is a widget apparently called "wall wisher" that I found to be way too busy and unreadable.

It is possible that my browser was causing this, but it is worth remembering that teachers should make sure the students can properly access the wiki with a choice of browsers. I also found this wiki that is made for history teachers. It is very interesting to me as a history teacher, but I still think it's too busy. Movement on a page is cool, but in very small doses, in my opinion. I have seen boring wikis too, but if I had to err on one side or the other, I think I would prefer not enough graphic elements, rather than too many.

Looking at this wiki that deals with literacy tools, the overall feel is so clean and subdued that I find it very appealing. One concern would be with the sheer number of links on the page. The table of contents is quite long as well. Still, the intended audience is educators seeking resources, so in that aspect the site delivers in spades. Every link I clicked on was current; and that is important to remember when constructing a wiki or blog. Many times links go dead, or change. Site administrators must make sure their links are still active. This wiki was created with Wikispaces, which happens to be the tool I use to experiment with creating wikis. I am hardly and expert, and I was certainly intimidated at first, but I found the creation process to be fun and productive.

This is something I want to communicate to other educators: Creating wikis is not tortuous, and the results can be tremendous. The greatest positive in my opinion is the collaborative aspect of wikis, the ability for students to post their work to a page that all can view, comment on, and even add to if they wish. For groups of students, or entire classes, this is invaluable. And the work is saved forever. Next year's class can build on what this year's class does. Or teachers can compare last year's accomplishments with this year's. Teachers can also evaluate their own progress. How did the students respond this year compared to last year? And parents can monitor the entire process, if desired. It's a great way for teachers to keep a record of the work being completed. And once students learn how to use the wiki, teachers can basically step aside and let the kids go at it! (Not completely of course!) 

I'm sure creating and maintaining a wiki page is a daunting task to many teachers. One reason -- maybe the biggest reason -- I am seeking the MET degree is to help teachers get over their fears and learn how to use wonderful tools like wikis.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

What is Literacy?

So what is Literacy? Why, it's about readin' and writin' of course. Right?

Actually I think the answer is yes, but I was intrigued by the points brought out in the blogs I read and the videos I watched this week. First of all, before I define 'literacy' I want to define 'technology.' Because there seems to be some confusion in the EdTech community at large. One person in the video seemed to suggest that technology equals computers. That is wrong, in my opinion. When the pencil was invented, it was ground-breaking technology. At one point, overhead projectors were 'the latest technology.' Any tool that teachers use in the classroom is in some way 'technology.' 'Modern technology,' or '21st Century technology' refers to the tools we are talking about in this class; and the tools we need to master to obtain the degree we are studying. That's fine, but let's not dismiss older tools just because they are not cool enough.

So using technology to teach means something much greater than putting MS Word on the computers, upgrading to Windows 7, or buying an iPad for all of the students. 'Using technology' is the art of incorporating all of the available tools in the classroom, in a way that expands knowledge, differentiates between learners, and involves the parents and community. After all, that is what the students will need to do in their adult lives, right?

Sometimes, a book is the perfect tool to use. Sometimes, a worksheet is the most efficient way to involve everyone. Other times, one would be crazy not to use web tools to help students collaborate effectively. My point is there is no one tool for every one task. In fact, relying on modern technology to do our teaching for us is a critical mistake, in my opinion.

Personally -- and my experience is limited -- I like to keep the students guessing. I might use the web for a certain task, but revert to the textbook for a similar task in a different unit. To me, teaching literacy is helping students learn to use all of these tools.

Still, the foundation of reading and writing must not be overlooked. Students in the 21st Century have no lack of social media experience. They need no help in sending email, uploading graphics or commenting on posts. In fact, they need no help in searching for whatever their wondering eyes might be tempted to see on the Internet. But I digress. What students do not regularly receive are prompts on reading, comprehension, and writing skills. They know how to text, but they cannot write a simple essay. They know jargon, but too often they do not know how to communicate, especially one-on-one.

Computers draw us away from each other, into our own little worlds. This might be cool, but it can easily become unhealthy. Although we must sharpen technological skills for our students, we must make sure they are learning and understanding the importance of those foundational skills that will help them stand out from the Facebook crowd.

Yes, I'm talking about readin' and writin'. The 21st Century model would suggest that those skills can be learned on a computer; and since that is the tool they will use as adults, that is the best way to prepare them for the real world. Well, they can learn to read on a computer, but should we get rid of all books? Students can learn to type, but do we dare abandon the pencil and paper? Are these the trends of the near future? Are they healthy trends?

I think those questions need to be seriously asked and debated in the EdTech community.

Finally, I have very few man-crushes in my life, LOL. My wife tells me I have a man-crush on Adam Bellow. He is a EdTech guru from New York that is possibly the most dynamic and informative speaker on the subject. Here is 15 minutes of brilliance from Adam at a conference he spoke at in 2011. I saw his keynote at METC last year, and I was blown away. If you want to know the EdTech guy that influences me the most, it's Adam Bellow.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Shifting sands

As you read the posts below, written about a year ago, two things will surely take place: firstly, you will be bored beyond comprehension; secondly you will see a student who didn't want to rock the boat.

Those two things will change. I refuse to be boring; and I refuse to 'toe the company line' as it were. There isn't enough time left to try to make others happy. Forces are coming together that are affecting our children. We must keep perspective and tradition in the conversation, or we will be lost in a sea of political correctness and scores.

We must take every step to teach our children character. But this is useless if character is not being taught in the home. We must give our students the tools to succeed in their world; but there is more to this than providing them with an iPad and teaching them how to create a blog.

I am always involved in the EdTech conversation: I love it. I see a lot that I like, and a lot that is useless. What I often do not see is common sense. To many people, this makes me an old codger; a fool, irrelevant.

I am still learning, and will always be learning. My posts should reflect that. But I have something to offer, too. That's why this blog will now be known as the Codger Report.