Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Real Internet

To begin, an analogy:

When you have a toddler, you tell him or her to stay away from the street because it’s dangerous. And it is, for someone who doesn’t have any knowledge of the things that could happen. However, as the child grows, you help him or her learn how to cross the street safely. No longer is it something to avoid, but something that is usable and helpful, as long as the child knows what to do and what to look for.

The same thing applies to our students and the internet. As they grow older, they must be allowed to access the real, unfiltered internet; so that they know what to do when they arrive at online scenarios that leave them with choices to make.  Too often, when we as teachers aren’t sure ourselves how to deal with online citizenship, we gloss these situations over by relying on web filters to “keep our students safe.” 

In reality, this only serves to make them unaware of what to do when they encounter the real internet (which they certainly will). In essence, to go back to our previous analogy, it’s as if we were to never teach a child how to cross the street, but to continue to tell them to stay away from the street because its dangerous, even as they become young adults.

Our job as educators is to give our students the skills they need to navigate the internet with eyes wide open, using caution as well as research skills. In my technology courses, we use very little filtering. We spend a significant portion of time talking about how to effectively use Google. If we only give students a list of pre-approved websites to do research from, they’ll never learn which types of sites give them reliable, unbiased information, and what websites look like that they should NOT trust.

Even more, it’s important that we don’t shield them from inappropriate comments online. We need to point them out, identify the issues with behaving that way, and then discuss together how you could participate in the conversation in a civil, respectful way, even when you disagree. (A key distinction!)  

These are crucial skills that will impact how effectively our students use the internet, which will go on to be one of the biggest technological influences in their lives for years to come. The majority of us never had any formal education in these skills, and look at where it’s gotten us. To an internet showcasing useless information, rude comments, and lots of time wasters hiding the actual gems of knowledge.

If we, as teachers, don’t teach our students these skills, who will?

[Photo: Student photo from 8th grade Photojournalism class]

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Face to Face Big Ideas

This week, while I attend the Mobile 2012 conference, I am lucky to be able to take the light rail to the event each day, which gives me time to use one of my favorite apps, Read It Later, (is very similar to InstaPaper). In it, I save all the things that I want to read, but will probably forget about if I don't save them. Added bonus: it saves them in an offline mode so I can read them anytime (usually when I'm waiting on something). What I usually pair Read It Later with is the LongReads twitter feed. LongReads makes it its business to promote longer-form essays, which don't tend to be too popular in this day and age of two-paragraph news articles and 24 hour news tickers.

The essay I read today during my light rail ride was an opinion piece from the New York Times called "The Elusive Big Idea." It's main premise is that we're living in the Information Age, where we can know anything with Google, Wikipedia, etc. and where we can know everything about our friends through social media. However, there are very few big ideas or "big idea"-type people around anymore, and the ones that are around, aren't heard.

It makes excellent points about how social media especially leads us to focus on the short, distilled form of knowledge about a topic, rather than anything that deeply explores the ideas that can lead to new inspiration. The author quotes Yogi Berra who said that you can't think and hit at the same time. I have found this to be quite true at this conference (and conferences in general). When I sit and listen to a keynote, I rarely just sit and listen. Often I'm taking notes and tweeting quotes from the speaker throughout the process. While I'm glad I do this on some level, I'm fairly certain it doesn't encourage me to actually thoroughly digest the ideas that are being presented to me, because I'm too busy tweeting that fascinating statistic the speaker just mentioned, etc. In fact, the author of this article describes it as not just a form of distraction, but "anti-thinking."

However, I do draw encouragement from conferences like this, because it is an incubator of big ideas. One speaker yesterday quoted Steve Jobs, who is obviously a technology guru, as saying,
"There's a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat. That's crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they're doing, you say 'Wow,' and soon you're cooking up all sorts of ideas."
When we take time to sit down with other people and talk about how we go about doing things, and thoughts we've been pondering of how to make our teaching better, those big ideas can become real practices that can fundamentally change what we do. As the author states, "While social networking may enlarge one's circle and even introduce one to strangers, this is not the same as enlarging one's intellectual universe." I feel that gathering, idea-discussing, and brainstorming are the incubators of today's big ideas. In many ways, the face-to-face conference is from the last generation, but it serves a critical purpose for today. Direct contact is what inspires the big ideas of the future.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Oh the places Google will take you...

Since I'll be at a conference for most of this week, the few 7th graders I did see spent their class period this week doing a Google scavenger hunt I compiled from a few sources. Its meant to have them practice the search skills we've discussed all year (use keywords, choose reliable sites, use multiple sources, etc.) However, as I was putting the scavenger hunt together, I ran across Google's search features page, which describes many of the reference-type features Google has integrated into their search results. For example, if you want to know the score of your favorite basketball team's last game, you simply type in the name of the team, and the score appears at the top of the search results; you don't even have to go to a website. (See below.) It was good practice and the kids enjoyed seeing that Google will do math for you, tell you stock prices, and even offer it's best guess.

The "best guess" feature was something I'd never seen on Google before. I was quite interested to see that if you type in a fairly generic question/keywords, Google will offer it's best guess. Basically, it takes several of the top hits and combines their answers into one obvious answer posted at the top of the page. For example, if you type in "length of Mississippi River," it offers it's best guess as 2,320 miles, based on information from National Parks Service, Wikipedia and others. (See below.) I especially like that it tells you where it's taking it's information from. (This helps my students learn what is and isn't a trustworthy source.) This particular feature seems to have been rolled out with absolutely zero fanfare, as I can't find anything online about it, but I like it so far! :-)

As my students were discovering all the cool things Google can do, I noticed a student struggling with the first answer. The problem wasn't difficult, but he is a special education student who I knew was going to spend the entire class trying to remember the first four letters of the answer while he clicked back and forth between tabs. So, I taught him how to copy and paste.

Some teachers would totally cringe at this thought, since they think all students will begin copying everything from the internet. However, I knew this student 1) was too sweet to even think of doing that, and 2) needed it too badly not to teach it to him. When I showed him, he was blown away! Changed his world. He was so excited that he literally came back after class to ask for the link to the scavenger hunt so he could finish it on his own time! How often do kids come back asking for more work?? As he left class, he offered to show his teacher how to do it (who doesn't know how!) :-) [Another skill that falls into this category is the "search" function available on any webpage. This saves SPED and ELL kids from thinking they have to read and understand every word on a webpage to find the answer.]

Too often in education we assess students on something that isn't what we actually need them to know. For example, oftentimes word problems end up testing a student's reading ability, more than their skill at adding fractions. In this case, I would have thought the student didn't know how to use Google, given that he only would have answered a few questions. However, offering one simple skill enabled him to focus on the content. Not only that, but he was able to enjoy the content as well.

[More on tech adaptations for SPED and ELL students] 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Welcome Back with a Laugh

Hi everyone! I took a break from blogging for a while since I had all things baby on my mind for the last trimester of my pregnancy and have been absorbed into the lovely face of my new little one (Pax Jacob) since he was born in January.

However, I just returned from maternity leave and have been "enjoying" discovering the chaos that ensued during my leave in all 4 of my labs. These are some of the things I have found as I went through last week weeding my way through my labs:
  • 3 out of 4 printers were not working (broken, out of ink, etc.)
  • at least one or two computers in each lab were completely non-functioning and in need of repair or replacement
  • there were so many new students that I ran out of computers in one class
  • in one lab, there were about 5 chairs missing
  • in another lab, there were two new giant tables in my way that were being used for an intervention program
  • at one school, the blog I'd been using had been so abused that the administrators took the initiative to shut the entire thing down
On the positive side,
  • I actually had a sub
  • kids had actually done the work I'd left for them
  • the sub left grades (as I'd asked) so I didn't have to make up 3rd quarter grades
And on Friday, I discovered this gem (at right). In case you can't read it, I'll type it below. (I changed absolutely nothing, including punctuation. This is exactly the way it was handed to students.)  Bless this person's heart for having their students use the crazy, new-fangled interwebs, but oh the inaccuracies and unnecessary steps...  It's also a good example of someone trying to use technology (which is good), but literally translating a not-great "analog" method to a digital environment. 
How to spell check your work on the Computer

Steps to using the computer to check your spelling.

1. Click the Internet Icon (Fire Fox internet explorer)

2. Type in the IP address if it is not already displayed

3. In the Google search space type in dictionary online.

4. Click on

5. Type your word in the top search box. 

6. Check all the words you think might be misspelled

7. Take your time but work productively this is the only day you have to work on this!
In case anyone was wondering what a better way is to check spelling digitally, here are some other options: 
  • Use the spell-checker in Word. It's pretty darn good. 
  • Use the spell-checker in Google Docs, which is also pretty darn good on its own. However, recently it's started spell checking against the entire internet (not just it's own dictionary). So even words that may not be real, but are commonly used will be spelled right. 
  • Use Google to tell you if something is right or wrong. I've yelled at kids for being online when they shouldn't, when they are just typing something in letter by letter into Google to see how it should be spelled.