Monday, June 7, 2010

in 2005, I Asked Myself a Question...

Friday, March 12, 2010

"I Been Thinkin' With Keke Parker"

"I Been Thinkin' with Keke Parker is a weekly video blog produced by Keke Parker and the DMA Video Department.   Keke has a great way of telling it like it is, she's sarcastic, a little cutting, and she doesn't pull any punches, but it's her great big smile and her fantastic wit that make her spots shine.  Go to to view her site and watch her first episode.

Monday, March 8, 2010

LiveBinders and CorkShare Rule, Toobla? Well...

A month or so ago, I found Toobla, a site that allows you to compile bookmarks online and share them with "friends." Like many other sites, Toobla gives you a bookmarklet to add to your browser's toolbar, so that you can easily add a site to your collection. The big difference between Toobla and other bookmarking sites, like Delicious or Reddit, is that rather than posting and sharing your links in long boring lists, Toobla creates organizational folders full of thumbnails of the sites that you've posted. 

When I signed up for the service, the whole thing looked very cool.  One side of the screen displays your folder and on the other side is a larger representation of whichever bookmark you have highlighted.  
The best part is that Toobla's folders are embeddable - I had big plans to turn all of my "links" lists in my Moodle classes and other sites to Toobla embeds. 

Unfortunately, the day after I presented Toobla at a PLC meeting, my account stopped functioning for me. Instead of displaying my sites graphically, I got a gray clock telling me that my preview was generating... forever.

My colleagues started accounts and experienced the same problem. I tried it at home and at work, on a Mac and on a PC, I even tried starting a couple of new accounts... no dice. 

I posted something on the site and received an email from Toobla's Jake Saxbe that same night: 
"The preview generating issue should be fixed by next week.  It is a lingering bug that has caused to to replace our old programming team with a new team that is working to now to solve the problem.  I will let you know when it has been resolved."
Great response time on addressing the complaint, too bad the problem was never fixed. I checked back this weekend and even started a third account, just in case mine was somehow corrupted, but the results were the same: "generating preview." The frustrating thing is that if you go to any of the examples that they post on twitter or elsewhere, they look great.

Frustrating for a start-up with such promise to be such so glitchy. On March 6th, I posted this on twitter: 
"So frustrated with @toobla account. Previews won't generate. Acct will not deactivate. Good idea, not an impressive site."
Within hours, representatives of two social bookmarking start-ups contacted me via twitter: CorkShare (@JimEngland) and @LiveBinders  (not a peep from @toobla, who is a follower). 

LiveBinders is not visually stimulating, but I think it may become a big part of my online classroom.  It's like a file cabinet for websites. You can create as many "binders" as you want, each a collection of related websites.  The sites are tabbed like a browser, but can also contain subtabs under each tab. Take a look at the LiveBinder I created, documenting my Internet footprint.

LiveBinders can be embedded to your website or blog, allowing you to share your bookmarks in an unusual, but organized way.  I'd like to see it become a little bit more customizable - maybe some skins or the ability to upload my own background - but on the whole, I like LiveBinders a lot.

CorkShare looks like what you'd expect - a browser-size cork-board. Users upload links, YouTube videos, Facebook posts, and post "sticky-notes" other widgets to the board to share them with a network of "friends." You can also share the URL of your board to share it with non CorkShare users.

You get one board per account, and when your posts become old or unimportant to you, you archive them to a more typical list format. I can see this as a great tool to share things with students in a paperless classroom.

Unfortunately, at the moment it is not embeddable, but England twittered me that they were about a month away from upgrading to an embed option, as well as thumbnails for link posts.

I put together a CorkShare with a few sites and videos, but I had trouble with the interface. As I note on a sticky on my board, some of the posts didn't work and they would not delete from the board, so I'm now stuck with them.  When I took a look at the feedback page, there were other, similar complaints, so hopefully these kinks will be ironed out. (Note: about an hour after I posted my sticky note, England wrote to me solving one problem and promising to look into the other.)

Even though I'm disappointed with Toobla for now, and despite my annoyed tweet about the site, I'll probably keep checking back, it is an incredibly good looking and useful site. 

As soon as CorkShare becomes embeddable, I can see myself using it to post notices for my hybrid classes or on a class blog, so I'm hoping they keep improving as well.

I'm also happy about discovering LiveBinders. It's a great way to group web pages for works cited, presentations, and "links" pages for your online or hybrid classes.  I'm looking forward to some improvements in the look of the site.

I'm happiest about my twitter experience. Twitter continues to be a fantastic professional tool for me. I posted a frustration, got two great solutions, and was able to interact with the people running the businesses.  Fantastic.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Just Because I Bought You Donuts Doesn't Mean I'm a Serial Killer

Unhappy teachers are not effective. And it's the little things that can pull you down. Sometimes they happen sporadically, but sometimes they come at you in a rush.

The other day, I listened to one student tell another that if you graduate from our school, you are not eligible for the Marine Corps, because "we don't go to a real school." When I asked him what in the world he was talking about, he repeated that you had to go to a "real" school to join the Marines.

Last I heard, charter schools like ours are not pretend.

Yesterday, I was cleaning some graffiti off of a wall - mostly random pencil marks. A student of mine watched me for a minute and then asked why I was bothering. I told him that if you let the vandals know that their tags would be cleaned up immediately, they'd eventually stop putting them up. He laughed, turned to another student, and said, "how's he think he's gonna stop the tags? We go to a gang school."

A gang school. Is that what they call it?

Today, I stopped at the student bathroom to wash my hands. When I entered, I saw two kids with money in their hands. There wasn't much I could do, they weren't doing anything wrong that I could see, but I was suspicious. I asked them what they were up to and one of them said he was getting change for the soda machine. I eyed them as I dried my hands, and even decided that I may have jumped to the wrong conclusion.

Just then, a colleague entered the bathroom, saw the pair with the money in their hands, and said, "Come on guys, can't you find a better place to do that."

The pair protested: "Why ya'll always think we're dealin' drugs or something, I just want some change."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," he replied.

I stood stunned. A staff member just implied - directly to a student - that it was okay to deal drugs in school, just not where you might get caught. How do you improve the attitudes of the children when the adults have given up?

Later, I decided to walk across the street, get a dozen donuts, and hand them out to my co-workers. According to "Dexter," that's what normal people do to cheer each other up. I'm no sociopath, but sometimes, like Dexter, I feel like I live in a world full of people I can't quite comprehend.

Friday, February 26, 2010

At-Risk Kids: What Are We Really Saying?

I constantly battle an attitude that is displayed by many of my colleagues. I call it the Our Kids syndrome. The symptoms are: a tendency to say "our kids" or "at-risk" when what you mean is poor and minority, an ability to blame educational failures on the fact that "our population" is different, and a well honed ability to generalize and stereotype students by their race and economic situation.

As a part of the annual Minnesota Online Learning Alliance (MNOLA) conference today, I attended a 'break-out" with the super-catchy title, " At-Risk High School Students and Online Learning: Characteristics, Needs, and Instructional Strategies." It was the low light of an exceptional day of learning.

We were treated to a long explanation of a Delphi study that was undertaken by the presenter as a part of a book she is writing. Her purpose was to come up with a definitive list of instructional strategies for at-risk students. The study started out by asking a group of high school educators, parents, and college professors for a list of characteristics of at-risk youth, and to narrow that list down to the characteristics that 80% of them could agree to. Here are some examples:
  • Have a limited or poor ability to read
  • Lack study skills
  • Mistrust the educational system
  • Have self-doubt about their educational abilities
The study went on to name some things that the group thought at-risk kids needed, things like:
  • Frequent contact with instructors and counselors
  • Flexible school work times
  • Curriculum modification
  • Critical thinking skills
At this point, besides being bored out of my skull from the description of the particulars of the study, I was beginning to get annoyed.

Does it occur to anyone that it is unreasonable to assume that because a kid is a so-called at-risk student, that she has a problem reading! What kind of assumption is that? Is it fair to assume that it will be difficult to teach certain students using online methods because they don't have access to a computer or the Internet. Can we assume that? Is it fair to take a group of students who are doing poorly - because of poverty, or teen pregnancy, or abuse, or drug addiction, homelessness, mental illness, or undiagnosed disabilities - and attach "needs" that apply to all of them?

Absolutely not.

Furthermore, as I reread the handout and the terms assigned to at-risk students, I realized that the same set of characteristics and needs could be applied to plenty of non-risk students. So who are the at-risk students? Are there any non-risk students? What the hell do we mean when we say "at-risk?"

As educators, we know that no one strategy works for all of our students. We are talking about individual human beings whose educational and instructional needs are varied and unique. This thinking should never be thrown out the window just because the kid doesn't look and act like the kids on the Disney Channel.

Let's do all of our students a favor and stop referring to them as "our population" and start calling them by their true names: like James, and Latonya, and Raven, and Hank. They are individuals after all, not just members of a group.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Vimeo Goes Mobile

Good news for Vimeo users with iphones - Vimeo is now supporting mobile versions of your videos that can be played on your phone - as well the ipod Touch, Android phones, and the Palm Pre. This is a big deal for educators who use Video to display student work, especially considering the number of young people who do the majority of their web browsing on mobile devices.

For those who don't know, Vimeo is a video hosting site, much like YouTube, but different in a couple of ways - ways that are especially important to educators and serious filmmakers. First of all, Vimeo's quality (both HD and DV) leaves YouTube in the dust. Like any video sharing site, users only get the quality that they put in, and that video you shot with your grandpa's phone isn't going to turn out very crisp, but if you start with quality footage and follow Vimeo's compression guidelines, your videos will look like they're hosted on Hulu. Just the fact that they provide easy-to-find guidelines for prepping your video is a big bonus.

The Smother, "The Snuggie Without the Holes" from MTS Digital Media Academy (if you are on a iphone or other mobile device as you read this - click here for the mobile version of the video).

The other thing that sets Vimeo apart is the content on the site - important to the people who decide what does and doesn't get through school filters - there is no juvenile videos of kids knocking over bike riders or pirated music videos. This is a site that is geared toward serious audiences and they keep the garbage out, including inappropriate content.

I have several channels on Vimeo to showcase work from different classes and school years and I'm pleased that my students and their friends will now be able to check out their work on their phones and ipods.

For more information on how to convert your Vimeo files to mobile files, check out their blog.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Thoughts on Unions and Charters

Just came across a series of responses to a Joanne Jacobs blog on charter school misconceptions and unions in school districts. You can check out the whole thing here...

...but here's the best of what I had to say in response to a posting that cited a terribly inaccurate blog from the Seattle School district.

Trey Wodele
October 8, 2009 at 11:39 am

I can’t talk about every charter school in the nation, nor would I want to. By their very nature, charter schools are unique institutions and to lump them all together is not a realistic or fair way to judge them.

I can only talk about my employer: one of Minnesota’s largest, oldest, and (in many ways) most successful charter schools. I can only state what I know from experience, but for a very easy-to-read and informative document outlining Minnesota’s laws surrounding charter schools, you can look at the Minnesota House of Representatives research department’s information brief on charter school law:

I can also counter some of the general claims made by the Seattle Education blog you cite. Remember though, while I am writing about Minnesota charter schools, the Seattle Education blog refers to the nation’s many charter schools and in very general terms. In reality, each state is different in the way they regulate charter schools and some of what I am reporting will not be true in other states.

1. In Minnesota, charter schools are sponsored by a private organization, a public school, or even a post-secondary institution. They are managed by an elected board of directors. There is absolutely not, “complete control of the school by a private enterprise.” Decisions are made by the board of directors which (by law) includes educators, administrators, community members, and parents.

2. While the blog’s claim that most charter schools do not hire union teachers is true, the phrase, “they can demand the teacher work longer hours including weekends at the school site and pay less than union wages,” is troubling. Again, I can’t speak for every charter school, but I am on a contract which states very clearly when I am and am not expected to work. I was aware of the requirements (which include a three week stint teaching summer school) when I took the job and I’m fairly compensated. I’ve never been forced or coerced to go beyond my contractual obligations.

3. My charter school does not, would not, and cannot expel a student, “(who) it doesn’t believe fits within its standards or meets its level of expectation in terms of test scores.” In fact, many (but certainly not all) of our students are kids with academic, social, and economic troubles. We are the last hope for many inner-city parents who have tried everything and who cannot afford the cost of living in the successful suburban districts or the tuition costs of private schools as an alternative to public schools.

By Minnesota law, charter schools have, “an obligation to enroll an eligible pupil who submits a timely application unless the number of applications exceeds the capacity of the program, class, grade level, or building.”

In addition:

-My school offers high quality and innovative programs like: a Digital Media Academy featuring Video Production and Editing, Screenwriting, Music and Sound Recording, and Graphic Design; a Medical Careers Academy; a Carpentry Careers Academy; and a Sports Careers Academy. These are the kind of programs that just don’t exist for many students at inner-city public schools.

-We embrace new ways of teaching using technology and the Internet, Google Apps for Education, and Moodle – among others.

-Our high school classrooms average around a dozen students per teacher.

-Our teachers are paid a competitive wage, our medical and family medical benefits greatly exceed those offered by the local public district, and we have the opportunity to earn performance pay through Minnesota’s Q Comp program.

Are charter schools the only answer? Absolutely not. Do they fail sometimes? For sure. But ask yourself the same questions about traditional public schools and your answer may be the same.

But most importantly, we must look honestly at charter schools, voucher programs, public schools, alternative schools – and any other education solution. It is difficult for those of us in the field of education to discuss policy without looking at it through the window of our own self interest. But these are our children we are talking about, and those of neighbors and our fellow citizens.

Let’s stop misstating facts, tearing down solutions, and complaining about what does not work – and start offering suggestions, solutions, and advice to the people who are trying to make a difference.