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EdTech Update





Why read "literature"?

To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn to be dropped from Duluth area classes because of ‘uncomfortable atmosphere’ their use of racial slurs creates. The Guardian, Feb 12, 2018

Why do we have kids to read "literature?" As a former English teacher and librarian, you'd think I'd have this figured out by now. But I don't.

I am certainly a proponent of reading -  for recreation, for knowledge acquisition, for gaining an understanding of current events, for learning how to complete a task.

But reading the classics? 

I've been pretty tough on math teachers, often expressing that time spent learning algebra and trig would be better spent on more practical math applications rooted in the real world. On of my favorite t-shirt reads "Well, another day has passed and I didn’t use algebra once."

My math friends could easily counter, "Gee, how did you use what you learned reading Antigone or Macbeth or Old Man and the Sea today?"

Is reading literature the equivalent of studying fine art, listening to classical music, watching ballet? Is it a nice extra for those who appreciate such things?

Probably the primary reason it has been my mission to get kids reading fiction is that it is one of the best ways to hone the ability to view other people and situations empathetically. In an old column "Building Capacity for Empathy" 2009, I wrote:

Reading fiction - especially when the setting is another culture, another time - has to be the best means of building empathic sensibilities. How do you understand prejudice if you are not of a group subject to discrimination? How do you know the problems faced by gays if you are straight? How does it feel to be hungry, orphaned, or terrified when you’ve always lived a middle-class life? By harnessing the detail, drama, emotion, and immediacy of “story,” fiction informs the heart as well as the mind. And it is the heart that causes the mind to empathize. 

So for me, the question of whether we ask kids to read literature and what titles we place in our curricula boils down to which works best build empathy. Are Huck and Jim, Scout and Tom characters who resonate with today's kids? Do the problems they face or the questions they try to answer still remain in today's society? Or do characters in books set in more contemporary times and places help kids more easily slip into another's shoes?

Do we wistfully let Twain and Lee slip into the hallowed historical archives of Debussy and Shakespeare and Rembrandt? 


The power of convenience

Around 2003, John, the principal of a large high school in the district which I worked, decided that the daily bulletin would go to teachers as an email. The practice had been to print the bulletin and at the end of the first hour, send runners through the halls to clip the printout just outside each classroom door. The bulletin was then read aloud at the beginning of second period.

The end of the print bulletin was met with strenuous objection by a single teacher. Bob insisted on continuing to get his bulletin on paper. So Principal John acceded to his request. He printed Bob's bulletin but instead of having it delivered to his classroom, the printed copy was placed in Bob's mailbox in the office where Bob had to walk to retrieve it. 

Bob soon started using the electronic version of the bulletin.

What I learned from this was that making a digital means of completing a task more convenient was a better way to facilitate change than a simple mandate.

It's no secret that I am a fan of paper-less schools. Not just from an economic standpoint, but because we should be giving our kids experience in working in environments, work and school, in which tasks are increasingly completed digitally.

I certainly would never take away anyone's ability to print. But I would certainly make it sufficiently inconvenient that one might think twice before doing so....


Sustainable technology

For over 20 years  I have advocated what I call "sustainable technology".  Like sustainable agriculture, sustainable technology implementation recognizes that systems must be deliberately maintained, upgraded, and replaced on an ongoing basis. Technology is rarely if ever a one time expenditure; it should be treated as a general fund expenditure - not capital. The three tenets I proposed are:

  1. Not purchasing more technology than can be regularly maintained, upgraded and replaced.
  2. Rotating the technology.
  3. Having reasonable expectations.

As my district now starts looking past its initial 3-year student device rollout, we have some interesting planning to do - and it is my goal to make sure the good things that are happening as a result of our 1:1 projects and our classroom-based technologies will continue. 

We've been having interesting discussions about categorizing current equipment. A simple description I have used for many years is whether a machine is "mission critical" or "supplementary." Teacher computers, student devices needed for the completion of school work, and administrative/secretarial computers all fall under the mission-critical category and should be on a regular update basis. We have determined the Chromebooks in our 1:1 student program meet the "mission-critical" criteria. 

Mission critical equipment that has been replaced but can still be used, is supplementary. Those Chromebooks, for example, that are over 3 years old may still have some life in them and can be used as loaners, by educational EAs, or in other places where high reliability, speed, and functionality is not as important. 

The second set of categorizations we've been developing (thanks to my great instructional technology coordinator) are describing a piece of equipment as:


  • Tier One: Mission Critical (repair with purchased parts)
  • Tier Two: Supplanted (repair if inexpensive to do so)
  • Tier Three: Use until it dies, but do not resuscitate (repair)
  • Tier Four: Remove from inventory due to security issues (no longer upgradable)


Using these definitions of purpose and of machine status, we can make sure that we squeeze every bit of goodness out of each machine without creating reliability problems for users.

I expect some would call me cheap. But I also recognize the value of small class sizes, good support personnel, and other non-technological educational resources. Maybe sustainability is not being cheap - just responsible.