Archive for March, 2008

Reach Out and Touch Someone

Up until about a month ago, my primary use for Skype was for facilitating video chat between my parents and my 3-year-old son. While that’s a great use, it wasn’t until very recently that I’ve begun using Skype for more educational purposes. Students in my Honors British Lit class just completed one very successful Skype interaction, and are about to embark on another.

While the course is called “Honors British Literature”, in all honesty we skew very English in the literature we read. In addition to wanting to give my students some exposure to non-English British culture for balance’s sake, I also wanted to satisfy their curiosity at seeing some street signs in Welsh. I turned to fellow teacher, Twitterer, and ex-pat Englishman in Wales Dave Stacey for help.

Over the course of a few weeks, Dave and I corresponded via email and arranged for him to Skype into our class on 13 March, when he spent about 45 minutes speaking with my students. In preparation for the chat, they brainstormed questions for Dave, using a page on our class wiki as their “scratchpad”. Dave obligingly researched (and posted answers to!) every question my kids could throw at him prior to our chat. Dave and I had a test run to make sure both of our school networks could handle the Skype-y awesomeness, then linked up for the real deal at 11:15am EDT / 3:15pm GMT. Dave fielded questions from my students on the Welsh language and pronunciations, culture (popular and otherwise), and even his personal experiences moving from the south of England to Wales for university and eventually settling down and starting a family there.

I was impressed on a few levels: first, at Dave’s willingness to make himself available to a bunch of American high school kids long after his work day ended (not always easy for a new dad). Second, my students could very easily have sat there and been passive learners. They chose to engage themselves in the process, more or less interviewing Dave the entire time. They shaped the discussion, the lesson, and, ultimately, their own learning.

In our session debrief, I asked my students what the value of an experience like this was for them – not why it was cool, or new, but what value it held for them. Responses centered around these major concepts:

  • first-hand access to a living primary source
  • interactivity & having the ability to probe and ask for explanations & clarifications
  • hearing a non-American perspective; combating ethnocentrism
  • greater investment in preparation
  • greater overall engagement due to all of the above

It was such a positive experience that when Christian Long contacted me to brainstorm some ways to link up our British Lit classes, Skype was my first thought. For this experience, my students will be leading his sophomores through discussion of issues pertaining to Hamlet and Shakespeare’s tragedies. They’ll be meeting each other in a few weeks; I’ll be sure to post reflections on that shortly thereafter.

How do you use Skype in your classes?

Full of Sound & Fury

All-teacher email messages can be a funny thing. Sometimes they’re very positive and encouraging in nature (“Hey, did anyone catch the play this weekend? Good job everyone involved!”), and other times, like today, they take on sharper tones. I’d be lying if I said I never got sucked into it, but today I sat on my hands while people argued about our school’s new cellphone/”electronic entertainment device” policy.

Our new policy (in a nutshell) allows for the use of iPods & mobile phones at lunch and in the hallways between classes, but not during class (current policy is no use at all, anywhere during school day). Consequences escalate with each subsequent infraction, but all involve confiscation of the device. This policy will be piloted during the 4th quarter of this school year and evaluated over the summer.

The email that kicked it all off challenged proponents of the new policy to defend it. From there, the emails came thick and fast. By and large, responses revolved around one of these themes:

  • FINALLY we’re allowed to confiscate phones – what took so long?!
  • We’re too soft on these kids
  • Why don’t we just jam the cell signals?
  • They banned them in NYC; why can’t we ban them here?
  • If you didn’t sit on the committee, you have no right to complain (not explicitly stated, but implied)

To my dismay, nobody actually used the phrases “In my day” or “When I was their age”, but the pseudo-rant that I can only hope was a poorly written attempt at satire more than made up for it in the “missing the point” department. Also to my dismay, not a single response dealt with the possibility of using mobile phones in a classroom context. I was getting frustrated reading these responses, and decided to craft my own. After a quick Twitter shout-out for some links to add to my existing collection, I wrote the following:

Hi everybody,
Amid the talk of mobile phones at school, I’d like to highlight the part of the policy that allows for teacher discretion of use in class (…they’re to be turned off “unless approved by the staff member in charge.”).


Some of the links below go to discussions and presentations on the emerging use of mobile phone technology in education, and others are to specific applications that can either be infused into the curriculum or used as organizational aids; the latter use might be particularly useful for our students with learning disabilities and the oft-attendant organizational issues (I use Jott and GoPingMe all the time).


This, like other technologies, is simply another tool for which we have an opportunity to explore and model not only appropriate use, but also potential pedagogical benefits.



(To my credit, in that email I refrained from the shameless self-promotion in which I’ll now engage.)

My email was followed about an hour later by one from the head of the committee that developed this policy. She provided some links to old favorites of the edublogosphere like Did You Know? 2.0 and A Vision of Students Today, as well as some other stuff based on Prensky, Gardner, et al. Nothing new to most people reading this blog, but potentially (I hope) discussion-starting for my faculty.

My biggest beef with this policy is the confiscation; I don’t like it at all, but I guess I have to live with it, at least for a few months. While not perfect, I think it is FAR preferable to dropping the ban-hammer on 3,200 students (good luck enforcing that, by the way) or mandating a multiple-day suspension for multiple infractions (as appeared in the original draft, since removed).

I’ll be following the grapevine at school with great interest between now and June, and looking forward to the committee’s post-trial evaluation report.

Crisis of Conscience

It’s Saturday afternoon, my wife and kids are napping, and I’m filling out an application with PAREAP, Pennsylvania’s statewide educational job bank. I’m doing this in anticipation of my graduation from the School Psychologist graduate program I started back in the summer of 2003. At the time, I was a little disillusioned with my job, and wanted to take some graduate credits in anticipation of an eventual career move.

During the program, I became very enthusiastic about the potential for helping in this position, much as I was enthused about the potential for helping during my teacher training program. I still want to become a psychologist, and am looking for a position for the 2008-2009 school year, but here’s the rub:

I feel that this school year, I’m just starting to hit my stride in terms of connecting my students with a world much larger than their own. Some of that is thanks to “Web 2.0” and the perspective shift brought about by my involvement in blogging and Twitter over the last 8 months; some of it just due to my own personal growth & maturation.

My question is one with which I’ve been wrestling for a few months now, but have been a bit timid to blog about: after 5 years and several tens of thousands of dollars in tuition & book fees, is there a place for psychologists in the School 2.0/Unschool framework? Is there anything my expertise can provide or help facilitate, or am I effectively signing away any ability to contribute once I am no longer in a teaching or administrative position?

Passion Quilt Meme

Both Suzanne and Pat bonked me with this one, so now I feel doubly guilty for having neglected it for over a month (sorry, Suzanne). At any rate, here are the rules, blatantly plagiarized from Pat’s post:

Passion Quilt Meme Rules:
1. Think about what you are passionate about teaching your students.
2. Post a picture from a source like FlickrCC or Flickr Creative Commons or make/take your own that captures what YOU are most passionate about for kids to learn about…and give your picture a short title.
3. Title your blog post “Meme: Passion Quilt” and link back to this blog entry.
4. Include links to 5 folks in your professional learning network or whom you follow on Twitter/Pownce.

Here we go:



I was perseverating over a few photos, but I ended up with this one for a few reasons:

  1. High school can be an isolating time – I do what I can to help students feel that they are part of a caring, supportive group of people when they’re in our class, and encourage them to be each other’s academic and personal support systems.
  2. There’s a lot of personal connecting going on in this picture.  While I’m not always successful, I always strive to make the material meaningful and relevant to my students so they can engage it on familiar turf.
  3. I know this wasn’t great, but my feet hurt and I’m tired, so I’m going to bed now.

Who to tag, who to tag… howzabout:

  1. Jackie
  2. Dave
  3. Jeff
  4. David
  5. Pam

Please do a better job than I did (shouldn’t be too difficult).

(PS: Extra credit if you get the title)

When It Rains… An Addendum

I happened upon this Facebook discussion thread this evening and thought it germane to the issue of student-teacher Internet contact as covered in yesterday’s post. Check out the whole thread for yourself, but here are some choice quotes for your contemplation (cut & pasted; only minor editing for clarity and some emphasis added):

It took me a while to get on here because I was worried students would search me out or something. You never know. I’m sure some have. But I stopped being worried about it. I asked my friends to be respectfull of what pictures they post of me. Other than that, I use my privacy settings and hope for the best. I have friends all over the world and this is the only way to keep in touch with everyone.


While I don’t seek out my students on facebook (I see enough of them in school) some have found me and sent a friend request. Keeping this in mind I simply make sure that there is nothing incriminating in my profile, and I make sure that any wall posts or pictures are respectful. So I guess I censor myself to make sure that past or future students don’t have leverage on me! PLus, I think we should set examples for appropriate internet behavior, it’s never a good idea to display too much about your personal life or post pics that show you in an unsavoury manner, no matter what your occupation may be.


I think the key is: treat your facebook like it’s a postcard. Anyone can read it if it is curiously intersting for anyone.


honestly i just didnt add them, not even to my limited profile :s it would be too weird to have them reading my posts…especially the older ones…


Maybe when they graduate or leave the school [I’ll add them as friends –Ed.], but while they’re a student at my school, I don’t want to risk any semblance of inappropriateness. I’ve also overheard some of the other teachers and admin at my school talking negatively about Facebook, so I’m not sure if they’d look favourably on my even having an account period. I felt better when I found out some of the other teachers had accounts too. We just don’t talk about it at school.


I use my email addresses to send my Grade 9 students handouts, assignments, etc. It’s an exchange of information, that’s all. It allows them to send me things but does not give them access to everything that’s been sent to me. Giving students access to my Facebook account gives them access to all of my friends and their photos, my photo albums, a listing of my groups (including this one) and everything written on my wall. To me they are two very different things.


I just see facebook as another tool for teachers and students to interact. Which I feel is extremely important.


I’ve had a few students (last semester and one I taught two years ago) send out a friend request, which I declined. Students are students. I joined Facebook to network with friends. However, having said that I did go on the alumni website of my present high school where I teach and found out what some students really think of me: I’m a bitch, but a hot bitch. [Yeah, I get that a lot, too. –Ed.]


Our union has been very clear about technology. Basically, the phone and face to face is the best thing for you, probably because nothing’s in writing. Email interaction is something that we have been told to avoid. Really, nothing is stopping people from changing you words around…I hear stories about teachers who are suspended because their profile pictures are inappropriate (holding alcohol, wearing bathing suits, etc.).


Try to use common sense and good judgment. Set a good example for the students. I think its OK for teachers to have a facebook and accept friend requests, but use discretion. Like an earlier poster said, its public–show that you have nothing to hide.


Oh, and a bit of friendly advice –

NEVER, under ANY circumstances, have pupils as friends, and
NEVER, under ANY circumstances, message them, or reply to messages.

Any interactions should be kept face to face, and in the classroom.

The lines MUST NEVER blur.


Originally I had made up a hotmail account so students could email their assignments to me without it being late but even that got me in a bit of trouble. Since then I avoid anything to do with connecting through technology. I just got a permanent position and I plan on keeping it.

The thread seems to still be active; if you have an account, why don’t you add your two cents?