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Friday
Feb222019

Growing recognition of the need for Information Jungle skills

In the wake of mass confusion caused by the internet and social media, there have been calls for a renewed commitment to teaching civics and instructing students in the foundations of democracy. But if we think this challenge is only about civics, we’re deluding ourselves. Bringing education into the 21st century demands that we rethink how we teach every subject in the curriculum. ...

A new course in media literacy or a half-day presentation by the librarian is a Band-Aid. Ushering education into the digital age will demand the educational equivalent of the human genome project ... Sam Wineburg, The internet is sowing mass confusion. We must rethink how we teach kids every subject. USA Today, Feburary 12, 2019.

I am always happy to read editorals like the one above. (Thanks, Larry Cuban, for sharing it.) Many educators, librarians especially, have recognize this need for a new set of information literacy skills for a rather long time, and have been helping others (Band-Aid solution or not) gain those skills.

Way, way back at the turn of the century, I published Survival Skills for the Information Jungle: Problem-Solving Activities Are More Important Than Ever in the September 2001 issue of Creative Classroom magazine. In it I wrote, in part:

Most jungles ...can be confusing and even dangerous to the inexperienced traveler. The sheer abundance of resources and multitude of paths in them demand explorers have special skills if they are to be used in constructive ways. Find below six Information Jungle Survival Tips for teachers and students.

Information jungle survival skill 1: Know where you are going and make sure the trip’s worthwhile.

Information jungle survival skill 2: Learn to stay on the main trail to avoid the quicksand of irrelevant information.

Information jungle survival skill 3: Learn to tell the good berries from the bad berries.

Information jungle survival skill 4: Don’t just gather sticks. Make something with them.

Information jungle survival skill 5: Learn to play the jungle drums (and remember, others are listening)

Information jungle survival skill 6: Prepare for the next journey by learning from the last.

Teachers who help students formulate and answer meaningful questions and solve real problems take chances. Critical thinking often leads to messy solutions, information literacy activities are tough to time, and higher-level thinking by students often leads to genuine intellectual challenge for the teacher. To be successful, teachers may need to collaborate with technologists, library media specialists, and assessment experts in order to design effective projects. And the results of such projects can be both spectacularly good and spectacularly bad.

 But these teachers have the satisfaction of knowing that their students are using technology as a real world application; that basic skills are being reinforced through their application, that they are providing meaningful, motivational experiences for their students. And as one media specialist puts it, “The activities that require originality and creativity and the use of technology in order to solve a problem are just plan fun for both students and teachers.” Getting students excited about learning powerful skills is the best reason of all for trekking in the Information Jungle.

I don't know in the past nearly 20 years how many teachers have helped their students explore and wisely use the resources of the Internet, including now social media. I don't know that if an effort to re-shape education on the scale of the genome project is even feasible.
But I do know that librarians and technology folks need to continue to do what they can as individuals to help others navigate the ever more challenging Information Jungle.
Wednesday
Feb202019

New appreciation for the EL learner's challenges

What if English Were Phonetically Consistent? 

I've always liked this old riddle:

  • What do you call someone who can speak many languages: Multilingual
  • What do you call someone who can speak two languages? Bilingual
  • What do you call someone who can only speak one language? An American

Despite having had a couple years of Spanish in high school and a week every couple years to practice Spanish when traveling, I really can't consider myself truly bilingual.* So I truly admire those children in our schools and immigrants to our country who are learning English.

Although it makes few lists of "world's most difficult languages," English is tricky to read, even for those who grow up speaking it. The inconsistencies demonstrated by the clever video above are just the beginning of trying to decipher a language that seems to have as many exceptions to rules as it has rules -both in pronunciation and spelling.

One of the reasons I'm excited about ebooks is that many come with a read-aloud feature. Students of any age can follow the printed text while that text is read to them. While such an experience pales in comparison to learning to read while sitting on a parent's lap with a beloved picture book, it certainly can be effective. I'm proud to have helped establish in our district collections of ebooks (MyOnReader, Macking Via, Tumblebooks, etc.) that can be accessed from students' homes and classrooms.

We can, of course, always do more in helping parents and teachers be aware that these resources exist. (I've always said that an e-book no more jumps onto a kid's computer screen than a print book jumps off a shelf into a kid's hands.) This role of the librarian is absolutely critical, especially if we want to genuinely serve our immigrant families in which every member may be undertaking the daunting task of mastering English. The resources without the teaching and promotion and reminding are pretty much a waste of taxpayer dollars.

Next time you see an English Language Learner, think of the little video above. And respect the challenge she faces.

*Last time I ordered my meal in Spanish at a local Mexican restaurant, I was kindly asked to "just speak English."

Monday
Feb182019

Why every tech director should have once been a classroom teacher

There's been a conversation this past week on our state tech directors' listserv about how tech departments deal with damaged staff computers. Do we forgive? Do we charge? The "teachers should pay" and the "district should pay" policies for broken screens, sodden keyboards, and missing chargers seems pretty evenly divided.

I fall firmly in the "just fix the damn things out of the district repair budget" camp. The $100 screen replacement is not worth the $1000 of enmity that making the teacher pay would incur. Now were this the 3rd screen in as many months, I might change my opinion, but in my experience, seriously careless teachers are about as common as chickens needing braces. Required tools used in the commission of one's job should be expected to need repair and it should be up to the district to make those repairs - not the user.

My stand on this and a good many policy-type questions is guided by my own, now ancient, experiences as a classroom teacher. I taught English, drama, speech, reading, and journalism for seven years from 1976-1984. During my first two years, I generally had 6 different preps for 7 classes. I also sponsored the yearbook, the newspaper, class plays, and speech contest. Oh, and I had a part time job at a gas station on the weekends to make ends meet. I slacked off the other five years as a half time librarian and half time reading/language arts teacher. Not so many extra-curriculars, but I did work the night shift at a local motel to supplement my income.

From what I remember of those days when I had far more energy and optimism than I do now:

  • I would rather correct papers and plan lessons at the kitchen table than at my desk in the classroom. I was tired at the end of the day and papers seemed more interesting after a couple beers. As teacher work has become digital, I understand the need/desire for taking a laptop home - and the associated risk of damage in transport.
  • I was always poor. I drove old cars. I took very modest trips. I was paying off student debt. I lived in old farmhouses that were drafty. Had I needed to pay for a repair to a computer, it would have hurt.
  • I was always busy to point of being overwhelmed. I don't remember being physically tired as much as mentally exhausted each and every day. After my first two years of teaching, my biggest desire was for a job that required no thinking at all. (I got one working in a hospital while in grad school.) While this does not speak to computer damage, it has framed how I think about asking teachers to take on new tasks, learn new skills. They had better be worth it. Period.

Good technology decision-makers cannot look solely through the lens of technology. Whether through experience or other mean, need for a direct connection to the realities of working in the classroom cannot be over-valued.