Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Feed the Hungry..and Improve Your Vocabulary

An interesting combination. If you haven't seen it yet, check out the Free Rice site, part of poverty.com. Here, you can test your vocabulary, and for each correct definition you choose, 10 grains of rice will be donated to the United Nations World Food Program. Yesterday alone, well over 212, 600,000 grains of race were donated.

I like to think that 319 of those grains came from me--and I also learned that plangent means resounding or reverberating. So there you go!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Not Exactly Google Maps

I love old maps. They combine practicality with a fine sense of aesthetics, so I was interested when the Scout Report recommended this online exhibit from the Field Museum. Maps: Finding Our Place in the World is an excellent tour through the historical world of map-making, with some truly exquisite images of old maps from around the world. With interesting interactive displays and links to other resources, this exhibit would be a lovely tool for any class studying the history of maps--though I wonder if it would also be good for an art class? I suppose that's not their usual area of study, but look at this image. Couldn't that lead to great discussions on form and function??

I starting digging around the site a bit, and they also have a nice exhibit on Darwin.

Leo Belgicus (map of the Low Countries)
Michael von Aitzing, Dutch
Ink on paper
Courtesy of LaSalle Bank Dutch Map Collection, Chicago

Thursday, November 15, 2007


That nifty-looking little box to the right is me playing around with SnapVine, a voice blogging/commenting tool that seems pretty nifty. It would be even MORE nifty if people could leave comments via their microphones, rather than phoning them in. The only way to do that is directly through the SnapVine website, which would seem to defeat part of the purpose of allowing users to add it to other sites.

Still, it's kind of fun. The site also allows you to send comments as email, which is VERY cool. You can also post them to your Facebook or MySpace page.

I need to play around with posting them to a wiki--that would seem very useful.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Google Game

One of the other members of the search group mentioned the Google Game, which I'd never heard of. So hunted it down and found this great article in the SLJ. What a fun way to teach search techniques!

I'm a Convert!

OK, so initially I was skeptical about a conference this formless, but my last two sessions today were really interesting. One discussed new technologies and how it affects teacher pedagogy (well, that was the initial topic, but it metamorphosed). You can see the video of that conversation here (click the New Technology) video. The last session was a free-for-all tentatively about search techniques but which quickly became a debate/discussion about Google vs. databases. I find I'm actually enjoying the free form style--it lets us wander to what interests us. In fact, tomorrow I'm going to lead a discussion of digital storytelling and documentaries. Can't wait!

You Have to Laugh...

So we're all sitting at the opening session, which was supposed to be linked to a video-conference with students from a school somewhere. At the same time we were listening to the un-keynote speaker, he had us log into the conference chat, where we were told to discuss different topics. Multi-tasking overload! And of course the conference link wasn't working, so we couldn't hear what anyone was saying; half the people couldn't log in to the chat. The rest of us were so focused on the chatting, we ignored the speaker.

A perfect lesson in "just because you can (or, in this case, can't!) doesn't mean you should." The chat was really a gratuitous use of technology--we were sitting right next to the people...why would we chat?? Face-to-face would have worked better and been more meaningful.

It also had me wondering about students who "multi-task" during class. While they're so-called "digital natives," all the studies show that multi-tasking actually decreases performance level, so at what point do we insist they slow down and mono-task? Or is that concept all but defunct in the world to come?

The video-conference debacle was a problem with the resort--it was built 150 years ago or so, is wired for Web.05, and we were trying to run Web 2.0 technology. So I definitely felt for the poor speaker, who was having the technology nightmare we all dread. But we also need to be careful. If this had happened with non-tech savvy teachers, they would have walked out in 15 minutes, or used it to reinforce their technophobia.

I'm now sitting in a Drupal session. Everyone else is more au fait than, I, however. I'm interesting in using it to develop the new library site--Joomla was a disaster this summer!--I need something more basic than this, though. Not off to a booming start; some interesting sessions coming up, so my hopes are high!

And you can't complain about the setting at all. These photos were taken off the balcony of the session room.

NEIT2007 Unconference

My first live blog! I'm attending the New York something something technology unconference, listening to Jeff Lebow the un-keynote speaker at the beautiful Mohonk Mountain Resort. Why all the un's? The conference planners decided the best part of any tech conference is usually the unplanned conversations that take place between sessions, so they're trying to build an entire conference around that unstructured, participative structure. I'll keep you posted!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Nettrekker and Pathfinders: Are We Making Their Lives Too Easy?

Renee over on the Teacher/Librarian Ning posted a question that's fomented an interesting discussion: Are we doing our students a disservice by subscribing to products such as Nettrekker?
I'd like to come down solidly on the "Yes" side of the debate--and I work at a school that purchases Nettrekker.

Students, whatever they think to the contrary, are information illiterate. They're marvels at using technology as social interaction, but virtually clueless (pun intended) about more analytical applications and information access. If it's on Google, it must be good.

I was reading a study online that I really wish I'd bookmarked, as I have no idea where it is now. A university researcher was studying the research habits of college freshmen. Aside from their general problems in framing a research question, one student also complained about not having a list of sites he knew his professors would approve. (You mean I have to THINK?!) My first thought: Here's a kid raised on Nettrekker.

While I can see a case in using it with elementary students, by the time they're in middle school, kids need to taught to navigate the web on their own. They won't have Nettrekker in college--or in life. They need to be taught about portals and search techniques and evaluating sites for authority and relevance. That's a lot of work, so I wonder if one reason Nettrekker and the like are so prevalent is because it makes our job easier? We can turn them loose with a few lessons on Boolean and keywords and there you go. We don't have to worry about porn or peeved parents.

But what do students learn?

From there, it's a small step to pathfinders. As an English teacher, I would have loved having these as a resource. When I show them to the teachers here at school (it's a new concept for them) they rave about them. Students love them, too, because it does a large hunk of the hunting for them. I spend HOURS searching great sites on forensic anthropology or the 1920's. And the students happily click away, never having to worry about whether the site is authoritative or not, because I did that for them.

So I wonder: in the long run, am I helping or hindering? Or maybe there's a medium ground--not every research task has to be a huge project. We can provide them with pathfinder and SIRS WebSelect for small project, but on key projects each year, they do guided digging. We point them to great portals and directories, but they have to find and analyze the sites themselves.

What do you think?

Friday, November 9, 2007

A Picture's Worth...

We're having an image crisis at the school. Since Gale no longer carries the Corbis database, teachers are struggling to find good quality images to use in the classroom, and United Streaming isn't a lot of help, since we just subscribe to the basic version. So I put together this image resource wiki page. Joyce Valenza also has a good resource page for images here.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Great Science Links

I made this hotlist handout for our science teachers. Help yourself!

Now I Get It: Documentaries and Teaching for Understanding

Previously, on Bib 2.0:
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4,
Part 5

At long last finishing the documentary series.

Having discussed the how, we now reach the more fundamental question: why? In these days of high-stakes testing, how can any teacher afford the amount of time this sort of project takes? Frankly, can't afford not to.

If you have never read Grant Wiggins' Understanding by Design or attended one of his workshops, you really must. With NCLB, districts increasingly focus on content-based teaching and learning the facts for the test--despite everything we know to the contrary about how students learn. The emphasis in this scenario is on the teacher and covering curriculum (and certain lower parts of the anatomy) in order to say, "Well, I TAUGHT it."

However, when we focus on teaching rather than learning, when we cover the material rather than teach for understanding, there is, as Grant Wiggins says, no room for the learner. And test results repeatedly bear this out. While students may learn rote formulas, when asked to apply the same information to unique situations/problems, they repeatedly fail to answer correctly. Two examples from Wiggins' book:

The "most wrong" item on the state test. Students were given excerpts from a 9 paragraph humorous essay, then asked the following question
This selection is best described as
a. a biography
b. a scientific article
c. an essay
d. an investigative report

71% gave the wrong answer, saying it could not be an essay because "it was funny" and "it had more than 5 paragraphs."

From an NAEP 8th grade science task.
When students were asked HOW batteries should be placed in a flashlight to make it light, 97% answered correctly. When they were asked WHY they should be placed that way, only 34% gave the correct answer.

In other words, students may be learning, but they're not understanding. It's how I learned math. I could plug in formulas quite happily, but once I had to understand the problem, I was sunk...and dropped out. In the examples above, students learned the convenient formula (essays are five paragraphs), but failed to grasp the function: a reflective piece expressing a point of view.

If teaching to the test doesn't work, we must teach to engage the learner, through questions, problems and tasks to be solved.

This involves:

  1. Discovery--Students don't need to recreate the wheel, but they do need to discover ideas for themselves. We've all had that wonderful ah-ha! moment of the new insight. I bet you never forgot what you learned from that moment. Your students won't either.
  2. Hands-On: Whether you're a kinesthetic learner or not, learning through tangible tasks provides a multi-sensory approach that aids both understanding and recall. It also engages students interest, which also improves learning. My next post will look at this and multimodal learning in more detail.
  3. Relevance: Learning needs to connect to students' lives. We all learn best when we recognize the learning is meaningful for us beyond getting an A on the test. We all know that, yet still neglect leading students toward that relevance, settling on the glibly easy "you need it for the test"...or for college. If we can't decide why students need to know something, why are we teaching it?
  4. Student Choice: We also learn better when we're interested in the topic, or at least have they have a stake in our learning. Students need to feel that they have choices.

Well, sure, but...

As Wiggins states, many teachers see teaching for understanding as if it were "incompatible with state mandates and standardized tests. They would teach for understanding...if they could. The only way to raise test scores is to 'cover' those things that are tested and 'practice' the test format."

In fact, quite the opposite is true. Wiggins cites the 1996 Newmann study which showed that "Students in classes with high levels of authentic pedagogy and performance were helped substantially." The practice even decreased the disparity between low and high achieving students.

I suspect, if you're reading this blog, I'm preaching to the choir. I've let this posting sit as a draft for a few days, trying to figure out how to end it. I wish I had a rousing solution or call-to-arms: Teachers of the World--Rise up and Unite!! The Students Need You! Refuse to Compromise! Refuse to Buckle Under the Pressure of Test Score Meritocracy. Refuse.... Well, you get the idea.

However, I also understand the pressure to play it safe and do what the public at large believes will work. But that's not good enough anymore, and most of us know that. We need to lead by example. To take the risk, stop covering the material, give students more control and allow them to learn. We need to educate the public as to what real learning looks like, in all its messy glory, and stop allowing the testing and textbook industries to lobby their way into legislation that's damaging to students and the educational process.

If more teachers took the time to engage students in real learning and real assessment, I believe the results would not only speak for themselves, but also encourage others to take that first step. Let the revolution begin!

Next time, final post: Documentaries and mulitmodal learning.

Thursday, November 1, 2007


That's the title of one of my favorite Buffy episodes, where a group of monsters called "The Gentlemen" steal the voices of Sunnydale's denizens. What does that have to do with libraries? Silence--or the lack thereof, has become an issue in my library.

In library school, we all held the vision of an active, vibrant center-of-learning, with students engaged in collaborative learning. We disdained the old-style librarians who insisted upon a sepulchral silence. During my practicum, I darned near gave myself an ulcer trying to determine the line where my co-operating librarian would insist upon greater quiet from the students, since it was often FAR sooner that I would have done. I vowed I would run a more student-friendly library.

Enter reality. My library has a "silent" side, for students who need the quiet, and a "collaborative" side, where, ostensibly, they may work quietly in groups. Two or three people working quietly is very different from 20 people working quietly, and I find myself not only waffling on where I think the line is, but going around "sshhshing" people far more frequently than I ever thought I would, and feeling at worst like the guy in the picture, or at best like the old-maid librarian stereotype of the movies.

Sometimes it really is too loud. Other times, students are working in what I think is a reasonable, albeit somewhat noisy, clamor, yet teachers or other students will complain about the volume. Of course, teachers can be even louder than the students!

So here's my question: how quiet is quiet? And how do you provide both a space to collaborate and the silence some students need? Is it really old-fashioned to insist on near-silence, in essence "stealing" student's voices? Or is there a genuine need for a place of quiet reflection and thought?

Or am I completely over-thinking this and, like most of life, the answer is somewhere in-between?