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Thursday
Aug182005

This I Believe

If you haven’t been listening to or reading National Public Radio’s series This I Believe, do. I submitted my statement yesterday. Try writing one. It’s fun - but tough to stay within the 500 word limit!

I Believe in the Innate Goodness of Libraries

I believe in the inherent goodness of libraries – that their value is above opinion polls, research studies and empirical data.

I came to my love of libraries growing up on a small Iowa farm. The endless soybean fields that needed to be hand-weeded and the remorselessly filling hog barns that needed to be emptied were about as far removed from the oceans and mountains and adventure I yearned for as any place could possibly be. But a small Carnegie public library on the hill overlooking Main Street provided me with a route to adventure. It was the first place I headed whenever we came to town and the librarian knew me well. I still count among my finest moments when she informed me that I read every book in the mythology section. Somehow walking the beans was more bearable when it was a “Sisyphean” labor or when the hog barn was the Augean stable.

In my high school library I found new adventures as I traveled with Heinlein’s spacemen, Tolkien’s Hobbits, and Crane’s Civil War soldiers. In university libraries I found adventurous ideas in the writings of Hayakawa., Postman and McLuhan. By then I’d left the farm behind, but now I was released from the prison of blind ideologies as well. Libraries made that escape possible.

But libraries have another role as well - one I learned as a school librarian. One that a Nigerian boy named Chinedu taught me. Big for his age, talkative, and relentlessly cheerful, he drove his fifth grade teacher and classmates crazy. As a result, Chinedu was often sent to the library for a little timeout where, to be honest, he was still a pest. His silliness could be a real bother to everyone in the library, but he also liked to work. I kept on hand a Chinedu –do list of jobs he could perform. Things would go smoothly for weeks and then Chinedu would do something outrageous like dumping a cart of books just to get attention. I’d go home wondering why the library should suffer his presence.

But late one afternoon, Chinedu reminded me that libraries are not just escapes, but refuges as well. Out of the blue, he approached my desk, grinned, and in his melodious accent declared, “Ahh, Meester Johnson. Dees library. Eet is my hoom away from hoom.” And I was taught that libraries are often the only place in a school or community that is comfortable and welcoming for many people.

Like shade trees, chocolate, and summer afternoons, libraries really need no hard-reasoned defense. I can, of course, dig up research that “proves” libraries improve a community’s workforce and students’ reading skills. But then, with enough persistence, I can find research that supports any point of view.

I’m afraid I don’t use libraries as much as I once did. My impatient nature makes bookstores and the Internet increasingly appealing. But my belief in not just the value, but goodness, of libraries is stronger than ever.
_________________________
Believe in anything strongly enough to put it in words?

Tuesday
Aug162005

The Lazy Person’s Reading Plan

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book! —Henry David Thoreau

At heart, I am a lazy person. Nothing suits me better than to veg out and loose myself in a mindless potboiler full of sex, violence and dubious plot twists – the reader’s equivalent of staring glassy-eyed at the television screen.

But, alas, I am a sluggard with some small professional conscience as well - damn whatever gene caused that! So I am compelled to read things that are good for me – my intellectual vegetables. Therefore I’ve developed a “mental exercise” plan that seems to work.

It’s pretty simple. I alternate between “snack” books and “healthy” books. For every Daniel Silva or Michael Connelly or Dan Simmons, I read a work of non-fiction or something called “literature.” (Listening to a “healthy” book on tape also counts.)

I’ve done this for years, and found surprisingly, that the healthy books can be nearly as enjoyable as the “snack” books.

One of my long-range plans to create a list of important books in my life that somehow bring to mind Thoreau’s quote above. I created a short, eclectic list in my book Machines are the Easy Part; People are the Hard Part:

1. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Neil Postman.
As good as when it was written over forty years ago and even more critically needed today. Remind yourself why you went into teaching.
2. Language in Thought and Action. S. I. Hayakawa.
How language controls us.
3. School’s Out. Lewis J. Perelman.
The educational, structural, and political changes Perelman predicted are coming true. Just more slowly.
4. Punished by Rewards. Alfie Kohn.
The most compassionate education writer alive explains why extrinsic motivation harms students.
5. Savage Inequality. Jonathan Kozol.
Explains the difference between schools for the governors and the governed. In which do you work?
6. Failure to Connect. Jane M. Healy.
Computers being used badly in schools. Tell me it isn’t so!
7. Future of Success. Robert B. Reich.
Readable exploration of work as our students will know it.
8. The Mac (PC) is Not a Typewriter. Robin Williams.
One read through this and your printed work will look good.
9. Things That Make Us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine. Donald A. Norman.
Bad engineering and design is behind the frustration with technology that many normal people feel.
10. Results. Mike Schmoker.
An intelligent, practical approach to the power of educational measurement and accountability.

Happily, I’ve discovered a couple other books this summer that will make my “important” book list. The first is Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat about global economics and its impact on the workforce. The second is nearly a companion volume, Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind that argues the successful people in a global economy will be those who exercise their right brain skills. (Not quite finished with this one yet.)

So what books are you reading that may “date a new era” in your life?

Oh, feel free to adopt the Lazy Person’s Reading Plan if you feel it will work for you.
Monday
Aug152005

The Techiest Person in a Three State Area

I spent the weekend in Aberdeen, a surprisingly nice little city in northeastern South Dakota. I somehow got talked into giving a workshop on creating websites to a bunch of Kiwanians attending their 3-state district convention there. Believe it or not, I am considered one of the “tech gurus” for the district - a genuinely frightening thought.

The folks in Kiwanis* (and I assume Rotary, Lions, Sertoma, and other service clubs) are by and large very, very nice people. They undertake fund-raising for and volunteer in lots of projects that better their communities. These are people with a social conscience that they actually use in concrete ways. The average age of this group of convention goers was about 105, but a good number of them were quite insistent that their clubs should be moving into the 21st century (or at least late 20th century) tech-wise.

We met Friday afternoon at a local university computer lab where all 30 attendees could have some “hands-on” experience using a web-generation program specifically designed for Kiwanis clubs. The object of the workshop was useful, the technology itself worked just fine, and the following day, I overheard attendees sharing what they had learned in the workshop. All in all, a successful event.

What amazed me though was just how technologically-illiterate wonderful, involved and intelligent people still are in this country. I was thrown back 15 years and more to teacher inservices when I could not count on learners knowing how to use a mouse, click, or even find the enter key. I’d not worked with such a group for an awfully long time. I actually had a nightmare about the training that night. The experience told me:

1. As educators, we may be the MOST technologically-knowledgeable people in our communities. Staff development has paid off. So we don’t know everything. Isn’t everyone a life-long learner?

2. We cannot assume our kids come from homes that include adults who can guide their technology use. For so many students, schools are their only source of technology skill acquisition and librarians are often their only teachers of those skills in the schools.

3. Many adults don’t realize their public libraries can provide them technology access. When folks complained that they don’t have a computer at home to practice skills and I suggested they use the terminals at their public library, they seemed genuinely surprised. Was this ignorance or willful ignorance? I wondered.

One of the coolest things I’ve ever seen a librarian do was to ask parents to bring their children with them to a PTA meeting, during which the KIDS taught their parents some of the online research skills the librarian had taught them. Parents learned skills, students had those skills reinforced, and the stature of the librarian in the parents’ eyes grew tremendously.

To what extent should we in the schools be educating not just kids, but parents and the community as a whole? Any good ideas about how this can be accomplished?

*Potential prejudice alert - I am president this year of our local Kiwanis Club here in Mankato.

 Kiwanians get techie.kiwanians.jpg