Monday, January 27, 2014

Information, Not Toys

Joanna, Chris, Jason, Sam and I took a fantastic voyage to Chicago last week. After four of us sat still for four hours on I-94 outside Michigan City, Indiana (Chris, the smarty, took the train), we had a late-night meal in a faux English pub and got up early Friday morning to hear a gent called Alan November talk about the future of education.

I had seen Alan nearly twenty years ago in San Francisco when I was teaching at the Urban School there. He was talking about the future of education then, too, and much of what he predicted has indeed come to pass. He asked us in 1995 to envision a future in which each of our students has a screen, and we could see what was on every screen, and we could post one of the screens up in front of the room and discuss what was on it . . . . . in other words, exactly how we do much of our work today.

In Chicago, Alan talked about the fundamental shift that technology has wrought. He argued that the revolution was not in the devices, the toys of technological innovation, but in the nature of information. He contends that good teachers no longer pre-select information for their students. Rather, we orient them toward good questions, urge them to consider multiple perspectives, train them in finding worthy information, and push them to explore questions thoroughly and responsibly.

The SK contingent was proud to consider that many of these radical re-imaginings of education were already well in process at our little school. We also came away newly familiar with many fantastic tools for using technology and for helping our kids navigate this brave new world.

Alan pointed out, memorably, that 'Google does not speak English'. Coincidentally, the website Lifehacker recently posted a thread called 'The Most Useful Life Skills', one of which was 'Search Google Like a Pro'. We'll be training soon so that we can all make better and more efficient use of search engines. Everyone thinks they know how to search. If you do it inadequately, the internet doesn't break. But there are incredible depths to what's possible that we haven't yet plumbed.

Here's a link to the Lifehacker article. The Google item is in the comment section.

We also learned about sites called Diigo, Prism, Pollev, Kaizena and others. We'll be busy reviewing these over the coming weeks, and deciding which is most useful, and in what forms.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Next Books

Here is a window into one of the rows on the massive wall chart--row ten, to be specific: the Cities books.

Returning families may remember last year's Literature Circles, in which small groups of students read novels together in the winter and early spring. I have adapted this approach for our third theme, on Cities. First of all, as with the Explorers and Identity themes, I will be publishing and assigning a coursepack of readings on the topic. The Cities coursepack will be shorter than then previous two, however, with a half-dozen excerpts. Here is the table of contents for that collection:

Quality of LifeOtis White
Why Detroit?Frank & Arthur Woodford
Melting PotRichard Bak
Detroit Goes to WarDennis Wrynn
It Happened in HitsvilleLisa Robinson
Master of his FateBruce Catton
Reimagining DetroitJohn Gallagher

Between them, these readings address five foundational questions about cities.

What draws people to cities?
What work is found there?
What inequalities develop there?
Why are cities diverse?
What culture develops there?

In addition to these readings, our class will read six novels about city life. Two students apiece will be assigned to each book. Some of these books are classified as Young Adult and some are not. Five of the six are told from the perspective of a child of approximately middle school age (the protagonist in the sixth is a nun). Unsurprisingly, some of the characters encounter unsavory situations. These books would all be rated either PG or PG-13.

The kids will read these books with the baseline questions in mind. Our project work on Cities will engage these questions as organizing principles.

Below are the books, which will be handed out this week or next.

titleauthorcityadd'l material
House on Mango StreetSandra CisnerosChicagoLatino USA (all)
Girl with a Pearl EarringTracy ChevalierDelftEmbarrassment of Riches (chapter)
We Need New NamesNoViolet BulawayoHarareThe African City (chapter)
Q & AVikas SwarupMumbaiSnakes and Ladders (three essays)
When You Reach MeRebecca SteadNew YorkIsland at the Center of the World (chapter)
City of SilverAnnamaria AlfieriPotosiThe Devil's Miner (watch all)

Monday, January 20, 2014

Big Doings

This is a photo Fran took (and posted on Facebook) of one little portion of one of our whiteboards. Come check it out anytime, because I'm not erasing anything from it until June, if then.

The twenty-one rows of the chart represent our plans for the semester, not counting any of the specials classes, though there is plenty of integration, especially with Art and Music. Here are the titles for each row:

Identity Projects
Identity Exhibitions
Athletics & PE
Place out of Time
Lit Publications
Work Crews
Student Government
Cities Books
Cities Projects
Cities Exhibitions
High School 101
Theater 2014-2015
Maker Faire
Mythology Lit Circles
Mythology Projects
Spring Trip
Math Assessments
Final Exhibitions

The columns run January through June, with a PS for September--several of these topics will carry over into the 2014-2015 school year. The idea behind the giant chart was to integrate and coordinate as much work as possible, and to set an ambitious agenda that we could constantly preview and review. We took a little time on each day of the first full week back (January 13-17) to talk through the various topics. You can expect further illumination on each of these, both plans and progress, from future blog posts, to the tune of one or two a week. 

Friday, January 17, 2014


We have instituted a new check-in system with the new year, and early reports are that it is wonderfully useful. On the face of it, the system is simplicity itself. Every week, I meet with each student twice, one-on-one.

The first meeting is twenty minutes long, and we always fill that time. We check in on what work is troublesome, edit writing, figure out what resources we need, and map what's ahead: long-term goals as well as immediate necessities. If there's additional time, I'll ask the student to go up to one of the whiteboards and show me a theory, plan, or project in which they are currently enmeshed. It was in this manner that I got more familiar with Ryan's regionally sensitive statistical measure of poverty, and with Aristea's planned art installation on theories of the fourth dimension.

The second conversation, which happens on Friday, is shorter, a follow-through on the earlier session. Here, we plan ahead for both the weekend and the week to come.

All of this is recorded in a document called Tutorials. Since we implemented all this, the kids have gotten in the habit of opening the Tutorials doc first thing in the morning. With separate tabs for each bi-weekly session, it serves as a detailed calendar of project work as well as a tracking method for the whole semester.

We can employ this method now because the kids are bow at a point when they need very little policing from me to get to work. While I'm meeting with one student, the other eleven are at work. The process, thus far, feeds itself.