Friday, 12 September 2014

So let's Compare and Contrast

So here's the thing. This appeared on my Facebook feed today. A Grade 6 Washington D.C. teacher assigned her class a compare and contrast assignment and there has been major back lash because she was using a Scholastic text about Hitler and WWII to contrast with an article written about George W. Bush and the Iraq War, a text the school board admits was used the previous year in a separate unit.

So where is the issue? What is the fuss about? Have we not been using compare and contrast as a tool to promote higher order thinking skills for a while now in classrooms? Or was it because politics have gotten in the way? Or because the president in question is still living? Has American society (and perhaps Canadian as well) become so polarized that even a classroom discussion contrasting events cannot be envisioned? Or was the furor over the idea that behaviour we consider most extreme, like that of Hitler, should be compared to anyone at all? Then how do we talk about Stalin, Mao or Genghis Khan? The teacher has been reprimanded for using poor judgement even though both texts have been approved by the board.

So was this an exercise that should have been left for a higher grade level? Or was it the idea that questioning past historical events is not acceptable? Would a compare and contrast between Andrew Jackson, he of the Trail of Tears and Hitler have been acceptable? Or between Sir John A. MacDonald and his policy of starving the natives and Hitler been ok? When do we discuss eugenics? The cleansing of people with developmental delays through sterilization in Canada? Residential schools? Using aboriginals in starvation experiments? The internment of the Japanese in World War II and the internment of Germans in the Great War in Canada and the US? How do we discuss war, genocide, hate literature and the general ugly side of human behaviour in class and at what grade if this simple compare and contrast exercise is abjured?

Are not we, as teachers, required to look under the rocks of history and peer at subjects that are difficult to discuss? Because if we don't discuss them, challenge enshrined beliefs and ask our students to look objectively at issues of the day, what will we discuss with them? And if part of our role is to encourage citizenship, critical analysis and critical thought how do we do that when we can't even ask the questions?

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Kingston CoderDojo and Connected Courses

So I've been offline for a while for various reasons, the main one being I am of that age when parents need more care and support and this has been a support summer, from that perspective. Thank goodness my parents' health is now good and they have moved onto the next stage of their lives without too many problems.

In the meantime, in 2013, I approached the Kingston Frontenac Public Library about creating a CoderDojo and this fall we will be launching the pilot project for students ages 11-17 in October! Volunteers are always welcome! It is the first small city in Canada to set up a CoderDojo so I would love for this project to become a template for other small cities throughout Canada.

As well, many thanks to Mariana Funes for suggesting Connected Courses for the fall. Time to jump back into postETMOOC as well. I admit my creative juices are a little depleted and I need an injection of connected learning! So I am looking forward to being creative and engaged.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

#TVSZ 4.0

Now I am big fan of #TVSZ, a zombie twitter game as you may or not know. I've written about it here and here. I've created movies (sadly more than one!) about zombies. So you can tell that I think #TVSZ is an wonderful learning experience. The brainchild of Jesse Stommel and Pete Rorabaugh it is a petri dish of online learning.

Now let me explain why you should play #TVSZ 4.0 if you have never indulged. This round of play starts Friday June 20th, 2014!

1. It's a game. This means it's fun. It's not an obligation, it is play. And like all play, the learning is not always effortless but it is driven by the compulsion to participate, which means the learner moves forward over the obstacles because of their desire to participate fully. What are the benefits? Through play I learned to:

  • Use Twitter and Tweetdeck effectively
  • Attach a picture to a tweet
  • Make a sound recording and attach it to a tweet
  • Make a movie using Popcorn Maker
And what was so wonderful was these were skills that were transferable! So by playing #TVSZ it opened up a whole host of other learning opportunities. I've been reaping the rewards ever since.
2. Creative production. Since #TVSZ is played on the web, to play you must communicate. This means that to play effectively you end up writing stories, taking photos, creating videos, making music, etc. as the game evolves. To play wholeheartedly you must produce and often to a deadline. If you've ever participated in DS106, they use a similar method of stimulating creativity. Within my blog are lots of #TVSZ posts I wrote while playing #TVSZ 3.0. They were silly, but fun. Some of my writing was, dare I say it, elegant, over the subject of zombie feeding habits.

3. Friendship. Truly an unexpected side benefit of #TVSZ. Who knew that being a member of the zombie hoard would be so life affirming? I am still in communication a year and half later with the people I bonded with playing #TVSZ 2.0. And that has been enriching my life ever since.

4. Learning. With #TVSZ you are learning constantly because the rules change every 12 to 24 hours. There is no complacency in this game so you must be flexible and adaptable. And aren't those the qualities we want to nurture in ourselves and our students?  

I look forward eagerly to every game of #TVSZ as another opportunity to learn, create and play. Register here for #TVSZ 4.0. And have fun!


Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Education and Autism

It's World Autism Awareness Day.

Autism and pervasive developmental disorder is a personal part of my life because one of my nephews, a lovely boy named Henry, was diagnosed with autism when he was five. I have to admit when he was a toddler I only saw him a few times because we lived far away, but I no sign of any disorder at that time. But by the time I moved closer to home in 2009 it was obvious that Henry had communication and attention issues. He lives in Ontario where it takes a shameful amount of time for diagnosis and to get access to treatment. In Henry's case, over three years between the diagnosis and action. Three very critical years. It is lucky for Henry that he is intelligent, taught himself to read by the time he was 5 years old and that our family as a group works very hard at fostering communication skills. But that isn't enough. 

What was missing in Henry's life was the school component/social component. Henry, prior to enrolling in the school he's in now, was having a great deal of difficulty in school. JK and part of Kindergarten was completed in a regular school, where they believed he needed to be sent to a behaviour class (this was prior to the diagnosis.) They also didn't believe that Henry had taught himself how to read. The rest of kindergarten and Grade 1 was completed in a Waldorf type school environment. A small class, focusing on life/social skills, where Henry thrived but also began to wonder when he was going to a "real" school. Since there was no nearby Waldorf school and given Henry's wish to go to a "real" school he transferred to a local school at the end of Grade 1. The principal was welcoming and so was the teacher. Grade 2 was great. Henry still had problems, as he doesn't like to write or do math and he has no understanding of social boundaries and touching. But his Grade 2 teacher knew he had ability and pushed him to do what he didn't like and so did his aide. But Henry didn't have any friends and in fact a fellow student broke his collarbone by picking him up and throwing him to the ground. Grade 3 (this year) has been not so good. A different teacher, a different aide, and the inclusion in his class of the student who broke his collarbone has made this year in this particular school much less successful. Henry is easiest to deal with when he is left to read and so that is what they have been doing. Once again, there is talk of sending him to the "special class" since he has not improved in regards to understanding social space and stopping the inappropriate touching of people (he really likes belt buckles and belly buttons).

So why am I hopeful for Henry? For a number of reasons. At Christmas, Henry got to play with his cousins for three weeks (they live in Australia, so we do not get to see them often). They are the same age. He noticeably improved in his social behaviour because of that interaction. And in February, after three years of waiting, Henry was finally been placed in a school where he can thrive. Three days a week he is in the new school and two days a week he is in his old school. Suddenly he is excited to go to the new school. He has friends, real friends. And the work he is being requested to do appeals to him. The government will help fund this opportunity for one year but I hope for Henry's sake it is for longer. 

My questions are many. Why does it take the Ontario government so long to diagnose and provide services for autistic children? Why do teachers, all teachers, not have training in how to create a truly inclusive classroom?  Why is special education taught as an ABQ (Additional Basic Qualification) instead of part of basic teacher training across Canada? My sister showed me the potential training the Ontario government was going to originally give to Henry's regular classroom teacher prior to making the decision to offer him a place in his new school. It was a booklet. That's frightening. 

Finally, why do we continue, as a society, to judge what is "normal" and what is not? One day I hope we will stop marginalizing anyone who is not like us or is different. As teachers, we should be at the forefront of creating a warm welcoming space for all of our students and demonstrating that different is ok. It is interesting how social media is becoming a vehicle for shrinking our differences. Witness this link that Sheri Edwards sent me a few days ago. I am sharing it here. Thanks Sheri!

P.S Another link Sheri sent me!

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Oral vs Written

I have finally watched the week four video. One last thought before I move to week five on the idea of "Is books making us stupid?" I write for many reasons. To keep records, to list what needs to be done for the day, to communicate with others, to work out my thoughts, for the sheer joy of a cleverly turned phrase.

Dave is right about the distance of writing, but wrong to think that this is somehow a cheat or dishonest in terms of communication. I think the reverse. I think that because one has to consciously think about what one is going to write, one is actually self censoring prior to writing as well as editing once it is down on paper. I am glad of that objectivity, glad of that distance. Too often words spoken in haste lead to unhappiness. Interpretation of oral words is just as culturally biased as reading is. Are we just celebrating the immediacy of the spoken word vs. the thoughtfulness of the written? The preference for the engaged immediacy of the spoken word can be as dishonest a cheat as the written word for are we truly truthful when we speak? And do we remember what was actually said or what we think was said? Is any communication truthful then? Or just simply truth as I know it and interpret it?

How is the give and take within an educational community any different? I have been present during some fabulous lectures, but most likely the ideas were synthesized after both reading information, discussion with peers and the application of practice. And I expect the lecture was written down first, prior to delivery. In a round robin discussion, how many times have I seen them veer off course because they have gotten bogged down in semantics or the inability to communicate a larger idea or guide the discussion? Sometimes groups mesh as an engaged community, sometimes they don't. Communication, like all human endeavors, is a flawed one.

This year I will be married for thirty years. As I look back, many of our arguments and fights were over our inability to adequately communicate our ideas verbally, by improperly interpreting the other's words, expressions and making assumptions as to meaning. A part of our life together has been lived apart due to his career. A phone call could lead to hurt, while a letter soothed the sting because we could explain ourselves fully. In a letter, I could explain what was in my heart and head, I could express my anger, hurt, love, loneliness and all of the other emotions that encompassed our relationship at that time.

I think, and this is an assumption, is that Dave is asking us, in the same way Prof. Sicoly (my research and methods prof) used to do, is to not make assumptions. To take every item of truth that we hold dear, whether written or oral and question it. And to remember that long after the spoken word has gone silent and no longer reverberates in our head, that the written word has a very long life span.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Books is Making Me Stupid

Confession time: I still haven't watched the video for topic #4. Instead I made a video on, you guessed it, "Books is Making Me Stupid." The title seemed appropriate.

Since the question/statement has been rattling around in my brain all week I started to write some thoughts down (walking the dog is my time for clarifying thoughts!) I then recorded it using Audacity and hunted around on Freesound for some background music. But none of the music matched the rhythm of what I had sung. So I just started looking for jazz instrumentals that had an underlying beat. I played the music, while I spoke the song. It's not perfect (there is some squealing in the background which came from I know not where) but overall I was pretty pleased with it. You'll notice that the final is different from the original.

Now there are some things I wanted to do differently in terms of the images I chose, but two things happened: a Windows 8.1 upgrade (yuck!) and sheer laziness. (I just didn't want to be bothered hunting around for software that strips the sound off the video and leaves me the video alone, I always seem to pick up a virus, it was late, I was tired, Windows was hurting my brain, yada, yada, yada.) So instead I just went to Goodreads, plugged in the different words, picked a book that tickled my fancy and just worked on the timings in Movie Maker. For the videos I just went online (I knew I was going to use a still from Zoolander), except for the last clip of Mariana Funes, who graciously sent it to me so I could work on a zombie video. I was having trouble finding the steamed image, when I remembered how wispy Mariana's video was and decided to use a chunk for my video. Thanks goodness for my time in DS106 that gave me some background in making a video!


So here's my final product. As always, the video seems to look and sound so much better in Movie Maker. In YouTube the music in the background is fainter. Oh well.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

I am uncomfortable....

with this week's topic! "Is books making us stupid?" Now I haven't even watched Dave's video and I haven't read anyone's post because in my mind I am thinking "Uh, no?!" and "Fix the grammar!" So I know Dave is being deliberately provocative to try and make me challenge some long held assumptions about literacy and reading, books and the idea of fixed knowledge. So I'm uncomfortable and really reluctant to go there- to engage at all. After all, I am a readaholic- I always have at least 3 or 4 books on the go. There is not a day that I do not read something, even if it's drivel. But I am also driven by curiosity to know what Dave has posted. Honestly, I completely understand Pandora!

But the statement alone "Is books making us stupid?" does speak to me on so many levels. First, of course, is the idea that books are a source of fixed knowledge- that once written down, it is finished. Except at its heart this idea is false. Any writing, and therefore any written idea, is fluid. Volumes are edited, abridged, reworked, rewritten, lost and then found (think Shakespeare, the great borrower and the great influencer- the ultimate in recycling of ideas!) The fact that an idea is written down gives us time, as the reader, to mull over in our minds what the writer means to convey. The beauty of it is that as soon as the thought is coalesced into writing it is no longer the property of the writer but the reader. Each of us, when we approach a text bring a different viewpoint, life experiences and cultural dynamic to bear. We shouldn't expect to engage in understanding text the same way, because we are different people.

As to those who read and cannot find the "correct" meaning as according to the educational powers that be, good for you! If you can articulate your point of view and derive a different meaning from a text, that is as it should be. As far as I am concerned, your perspective is valid (after all, you're reading the writing of someone who loathes "Waiting for Godot" supposedly the best play of the 20th century! What about Pinter? Or "Rhinoceros"?)  As well, different words, especially in English, have multiple meanings and multiple interpretations. I find that as I get older, my writing and language usage is becoming archaic (Karen the dinosaur!) Does this mean that I am a poor communicator or that I should stop writing? And reading?

And how can books be making us stupid, when the internet runs off of text? Text messages, blogs, visual presentations, email, Twitter, reviews all rely on our ability to interact with text. Or perhaps books and text are making us stupid because we have stopped listening to each other? And yet, if that were true why is YouTube, Skype and Google+ hangout and radio such communication mainstays?

As educators, our challenge is to make sure that our students are comfortable engaging with text as well as the spoken word and other forms of media. Reading is such an immense hurdle for so many students and writing even more daunting. Is that because we assume there is a "right way" to interact with text? A right way to write? As an elementary teacher, I've had some brilliant students, gifted at writing and reading, in understanding the contextual meaning as defined by what the ministry has determined a book means, etc., etc. But I've also had some students who are gifted, imaginative writers who cannot spell and grammar eludes. To them I say, keep writing! (Hire a good editor!) Because in the end, what we really are trying to develop in each student is their gift or talent in the area of communication.

Next stop? Dave's video!