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EdTech Update





Grammar is good for you - relevance and teaching

  1. Grammatical errors are distracting.
  2. Grammatical errors interfere with clarity.
  3. Although exceptions abound, there is a correlation between seniority and literacy.
  4. Just as “Loose lips sink ships,” according to the World War II poster, gruesome grammar hurts happiness.
  5. People who don’t like you will point out your errors to attack you and undermine your position.
  6. “Bad writing makes bright people look dumb,” as William Zinsser once observed so succinctly.
  7. Too many little errors will make you seem careless, sloppy and slovenly.
  8. A single big error, such as writing, “My principle concern is …” when it should be “My principal concern is …” will make readers (a least some readers) think you don’t know what you’re talking about.
  9. Errors annoy people, as I annoyed Paula in my last column when I wrongly questioned the use of “secrete” in this sentence: “The offenders range from international banks to small-town mortgage lenders, which together helped secrete more than 10,000 U.S.-related accounts holding more than $10 billion.” (Paula wrote: “I grabbed my trusty Oxford dictionary and there it was as a secondary definition of secrete: ‘conceal, put into hiding.’ I’m used to people who think they’re smarter than everyone else and often show their ignorance by not verifying their facts before blasting others. But for you to join in the bashing on this common of a word was troubling.”)
  10. Good grammar will make people want to go out with you, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, as it made Katy von Kühn want to go out with her future husband, Sam, when she saw his posting on a dating site: “The whole reason I responded to Sam was the way he formulated his e-mail.”

Top 10 reasons you should learn to use proper grammar, Stephen Wilbers, Star Tribune, November 15, 2015

While I am by no means a perfect grammarian, I'm good. (And I know as I write this that I will make a grievous error somewhere in this post.) I did not learn parallel construction, passive voice, subject-verb agreement, and the differences among their, there, and they're as a student. I learned them as I taught them to high school students during my years as a classroom teacher.

Warriner's English Grammar and Composition was my textbook and I used it like crazy, moving chapter by chapter, exercise by exercise. As I remember, this is more or less what the book looked like 40 years ago. A merciful god has since seen to it that the text is now out of publication, but 1946 to 1987 is a pretty good run for a textbook to be in print. I must not have been the only teacher in its thrall.

Despite my primitive and probably ineffective teaching methods and materials, I always liked teaching grammar because I felt it was in my students' best interests that they become proficient in its application. While not being able to articulate as many reasons for its importance as Wilbers does in the quote above, I convinced more than a few of my students that their success in life would rely heavily on being good communicators - and good communicators needed good grammar.

Until teachers understand "why" what they are teaching is in their best students' interest (WIIFM), those in their classrooms or online courses will be bored, tuned out, and quite possibly disruptive. Might lack of relevance be the reason why so many students turn to their electronic devices in the classroom when these "distractions" offer activities of interest?

I'd make a terrible history teacher. I love history but would have a tough time making a case for its importance to students. Same with calculus and coding and physics and Latin. But all of us need to make the case in meaningful ways for the importance of our lessons in kids' lives. If we can't, we should seriously ask just why the hell we're teaching.



Empathy and libraries

I am sure that I am not alone in not knowing how to respond to the terrorist attacks in Paris a few days ago. My gut reaction was - let's declare all-out, take no prisoners, no holds-barred war on ISIS  everywhere on the planet. Let's be realistic, groups like this will not and cannot be eradicated. But I hope they can be transformed. Or if they cannot be transformed, our own reaction to them can be.

I worry about my own community's reaction to its Muslim population. I hear stories I don't want to believe about how my fellow citizens are being addressed, mocked, and threatened - in public.

Building cultural understandings by building empathy is now more urgent than ever in our classrooms and libraries if we wish to create a more empathic community. I am re-posting a column about building empathy through reading below.


Building Capacity for Empathy, LMC January/February 2009

A group of Toronto researchers have compiled a body of evidence showing that bookworms have exceptionally strong people skills. … Their years of research … [have] shown readers of narrative fiction scored higher on tests of empathy and social acumen than those who read non-fiction texts.

The quote above comes from a fascinating article published by Globe and Mail about how reading fiction builds social skills and empathy:

Most of you reading just said, “Well, duh! Haven’t we known this for years?” But isn’t gratifying to have our observations confirmed?

Empathy? Social acumen? Are these essential skills for surviving and thriving in today’s economy? Our national associations and gurus seem to think so.

From ISTE NETS 2007 …

Students … develop cultural understanding and global awareness by engaging with learners of other cultures. …use multiple processes and diverse perspectives to explore alternative solutions.

From AASL’s Standards for the 21st Century Learner 2007 …

Students will: Consider diverse and global perspectives in drawing conclusions. …show social responsibility by participating actively with others in learning situations and by contributing questions and ideas during group discussions.

From Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind

Not just logic, but also EMPATHY. “What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others.

The unsung hero of many a successful enterprise is empathy. Understanding the needs and desires of others is critical for leaders, salesmen, politicians, lotharios, preachers, CEOs, writers, teachers, consultants … well, just about everybody. The better one understands others, the more effective one can meet their needs, appeal to their self-interests or, I suppose, manipulate them.

With a global economy, our empathy needs to extend beyond our next-door neighbor. Multi-culturalism and global awareness simply means understanding, not necessarily accepting, the values, motives and priorities of cultures other than those in which we grew up. (You mean not everyone values lutefisk and lefse!)

The question is, then, can empathy be learned - and how? Is there a small muscle somewhere in the mind or soul that can be exercised, stretched and built that allows us to more fully place ourselves in others’ shoes? Or sandals? Or moccasins? Or bare feet?

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.

Viewing the world through the eyes of a narrator completely unlike oneself, draws into sharp detail the differences of experience, but also the similarities of the narrator and reader. And it is by linking ourselves through similarities - common human traits - that we come to know others as people, not just stereotypes.

Happily, empathy building through reading doesn’t end with childhood. We adults can be just as moved – and influenced by novels. My nominees for best empathy-building novels I’ve read recently are Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (reading it left me with a better understanding of autistic children) and Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (the author’s experience of the horrors of Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and difficulties of cultural assimilation are profound.)

Unfortunately, as school budgets are stretched, school library funds that purchase quality fiction and school library professionals who select and promote quality fiction are too easily axed, replaced by reading programs, specialists and tests of basic comprehension.

Our politicians and educational leader rarely ask: If one can read but is not changed by reading, why bother? Empathy is an ability that is difficult to objectively measure. As a result, many educators simply ignore it, like they do too many affective skills. It’s essential that we librarians fight for our programs and budgets.

Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird gave this advice to his young daughter:

“If you just learn a single trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

It’s perhaps fitting that those of us who have experienced Lee’s book have indeed had our quotient for empathy increased by reading it.

Mick, Haley “Socially Awkward? Hit the Books” Globe and Mail. 10 July 10 2008.



Thinking about technology "dis-implementation"

Our district, along with many others, is asking whether we continue to view interactive whiteboards (IWBs) as a standard piece of classroom technology.

These expensive slabs of metal, plastic, and wire were not long ago the sign of a "high tech" classroom, a device that allows the teacher (or student) to write, draw, and provide input directly on to the projected image on the screen itself. Smart and Promethean were (are) two of the popular brands of IWBs here in Minnesota.

Yet as schools add new classrooms and as the older boards in current classrooms need replacing, serious questions about their continued use arise:

  • Have the devices been used as intended? Never implemented with fidelity in many situations due to a lack of PD and no changee in teaching style, too many IWB have been little more than projection screens in some classrooms. And remain so. A fact of which I am reminded quite often, especially when promoting any new classroom technology.
  • Do the devices have educational benefit? Little or mixed results of educational benefit of IWBs (like all instructional technologies, it seems) have led to questions whether education dollars might be better spend on more effective resources.
  • Do the devices encourage a "front of the room" focus and discourage individualized instruction? Perhaps one of the most damning criticisms is that IWBs encourage the one-to-many teaching model, discouraging individualization, small group work, and collaboration.
  • Is the changed pricing plan affordable? SMART as couple years ago announced that it would begin charging an annual use fee for its software. This came as a rude (and I would argue unethical) shock for many institutions that had purchased the hardware with the promise the software came free.
  • Can the functionality be duplicated/improved by using screen mirroring software on an iPad or other tablet? The basic functionality of being freed from sitting behind a computer to change/manipulate projected images, can be duplicated by using software like Reflector or AirPlay to mirror iPad screens. Added advantages are that teachers are no longer tethered to the board itself and that any student can project from his/her device.
  • In 1:1 classrooms, is a classroom viewable image even needed? Software that allows the teacher to "push" her desktop image onto student devices allows a common viewing experience without the need for projector, screen, giant monitor, etc.

If we do decide to "dis-implement" IWBs in our district, a real possibility especially at the secondary level, how can we do it purposely? A major disincentive to retiring this technology is that many of our teachers have created units, lessons, activities using the "smart" software that came with the boards.

Should we now create a "dis-implementation" strategy for educational technology? And what other technologies may we also begin to phase out? Desktop computers? Local file storage servers? Flashdrives? Computer-based software? Mounted projectors? Dedicated student response systems? Full-blown operating systems like Windows and MacOS? Scantrons? Fax machines? Printers?