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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

Thursday
Aug112005

Digital Cameras and Visual Literacy

My father-in-law, Barney, has a new toy - a Canon Rebel SLR Digital Camera. He couldn’t have been more pleased by the shade of green I turned with envy when he showed it to me.

I’ve loved taking pictures since my baby brother was born. At age nine, my camera was a Brownie, if I remember correctly. I still have some of those affectionately taken 2×3 snaps around somewhere. I graduated to an Instamatic (remember flashcubes?), to a Polaroid, to a used Pentax SLR in grad school, to a new Pentax and big zoom lens that I used to shoot Kodachrome slides while on vacations.

But there was no looking back when I used the first QuickTake digital camera we purchased for the district. Wow. The pure luxury of shooting dozens of photos and tossing 98% of them without additional cost was intoxicating. iPhoto and Adobe Elements were a huge bonus - quick reliable photo editing. And more recently, the ease of using photo sharing sites like smugmug and hpluks.jpg give friends and relatives the ability to see and download photos as well. (On a recent bicycle tour in France, many of us riders swapped sharing sites.)

Digital photography seems to be one of the first and most simple technologies adopted willingly by classroom teachers. Simple cameras, simple editing software and cheap color printers have allowed teachers to create personalized booklets, posters, timelines, and bulletin boards, often with pictures taken by the students themselves. Powerpoint presentations with photographs help reach those visual learners.

I like the ways our clever T-Ls in the district use digital photography as well:
- to illustrate presentations to the school board, PTOs, and community groups with pictures of happy, productive, library-using kids (HPLUKs)
- to illustrate their parent newsletters with pictures of HPLUKs
- to promote reading by creating personalized “READ” posters of both kids and the role model adults in the buildings hold favorite reads

I am concerned whether we are doing enough to teach some basic principles of visual literacy - or at least, what are the qualities that make a photograph a good photograph. Like teaching a word processing program and ignoring good composition and editing skills, are we asking kids to take pictures, but not showing them how to compose and edit the images they create?

When we think about “integrating technology into the curriculum,” I hope we remember that digital photography is a simple and effective way to do this.

What are some ways you’ve seen digital photography being used productively in schools?