It's a Blook

I'm not a fan of word morphology and "blook" is among the worst.  Still, I'm mentioning this because I am turning this blog into a book.  In the book format, expect to see some real departures from the blog (which I will use more as source material rather than a script, per se).  I hope to incorporate the following into the book:

  1. More of a true story arc.  Currently the blog goes all over the place with a very vague story.  I want to tell the story of tech integration using a more organic, narrative method.  
  2. More events.  Right now it's mostly dialog. I'd like to add some action. Not necessarily explosions, but at least a sense that something is happening.  
  3. More of the classroom.  I'd like to tell more stories connected to the classroom and how students engage with the learning tools.  
Overall, I think a few themes have emerged and I'd like to express these themes in a narrative:
  1. Tech-integration does not exist in a social, cultural or political vacuum.  It is a deeply social, deeply human endeavor. 
  2. Tech-integration is both positive and negative.  The myth is that we can always predict ahead of time the costs.  Technocrats are better scientists than they are prophets. 
  3. Students and teachers need to be part geek and part guru in how they approach technology
I'm not sure if this will be self-published or published by a company.  I doubt that there is a huge market for fictional stories about nineteenth century teachers using technology.  However, I also think it's a little quirky and different and that's what makes it work. 

I'll still do some posts here. This place will continue to be where I go to to test out ideas.   

wondering if we'll ever go all-out on pencils

"Hey Techno-Tommy, I need you to fix this paper.  It seems I can't erase it for some reason."

"It's covered in scribbles.  Have you considered updating your paper and using a new page."  

"Just make it work," he tells me.  

The same morning, as I'm setting up for lesson plans, another teacher walks in.  "My notebook is broken."  

"What do you mean, broken?"  

"The rings won't work anymore," she explains.  "I have no idea what happened." This is code word for, "I dropped this and don't want to buy a new binder."  

The same day, I have a teacher complain to me about her notebook.  "I was running out of room on my notebook and then I got sick of having a cluttered desktop.  You know, papers everywhere and all, so I tossed it in the trash can. I have a lot more space now, but I can't seem to find my lesson plan folder." 

"You can't get it out of the trash can," I explain.

"But I've done that before."

"Yes, but if the trash is emptied, I can't go search through the landfill to find your lesson plan folder."

Paper and binders are flimsier than slates and they require a little more care.  I'd love to say that teachers always do an amazing job being stewards of materials, but I've found that they can be worse than the kids.  It has me thinking that perhaps we won't see full pencil integration (a term that still jars me) until pencils become either a durable or consumable good.  For the time being, they are still too expensive to fix and too easy to break.  

a pencil-based economy

As I approach my new job working part-time as a teacher and part-time for the district office, I find myself remaining silent when people suggest it is our duty to use pencils to "prepare kids for the industrial economy."  It's the Guilded Age, the day of steel and factories and information spread worldwide via telegraph and so pencils should prepare students for the twenty-first century, right?

We don't have electricity in our home.  The grid is new and I don't trust it.  No telegraph or telephone.  Off the tele and if they someday invent a tele-picture or tele-image or tele-vision, why, I'll probably avoid that, too.  No photographs.  I don't want my daughter growing up to believe the lies of an advertisement age.  I don't want her to believe her self-worth is the result of what girdle she buys.

We have a garden.  Dirt and water makes mud.  Mud and creativity make clay.  We create - whether it's pots and pottery or soup and salad - but we are never under the impression it came from us.  Perhaps the greatest gift I can give my daughter is the notion of grace; the concept that we never earned any of it.

We've been moving slowly from an extractive and consumeristic domestic economy (read: home) to one of creativity and sustainability.  I don't pretend that it would work for everyone.  I'm not pretending that we have it all together, either. I still buy the hay to feed my horse.  I make a money with ideas, often ideas that I'm asked to sell rather than ideas that students need.  We use pencils and talk about ideas and that's fine.  It really is.  But I still want kids to dig with their fingers, to plant a seed, to study life.

Still, some day our nation will see the damage of the factories, especially in schools.  We'll see the down side of the bell schedules and the rote memorization and the packaged meat worksheets and the whole notion of a teacher as a robotic arm of the machinery.

We'll want a new model for living and perhaps a new model for education.  I'm hoping they'll look back a bit, over their shoulders if need be.  In another century, I hope they'll still have a place in their public memory for the one-room school house I had and the tight-knit community of my hometown in Kansas.  I hope, before building something more futuristic, they'll consider the options of creativity and sustainability.

banning books

A local special interest (called the Clean Reading Approach Project) group has lobbied to rid our school of the library.  "Searching for information in a library, students might stumble upon information that is contrary to their viewpoint," a man suggested.

"Couldn't that child simply not believe it?"

"Their minds are impressionable," the man responded.

"So, let parents make a decent first impression," I explained.

The librarian offered a new solution.  Instead of banning all information, perhaps we could create a book filtering program where we might be able to search for books that are appropriate for children.  After all, in this wild information age, we need an authority figure who can decipher what is best for children.

*     *      *

So, we get our list two weeks later from the Book Banning Committee. "You want to ban Tolstoy?" I ask the representative.

"He's offensive.  And Anna Karenina has some lewd material in it."

"What about our one American classic, The Scarlet Letter?"

"The protagonist is an adulterer and I hate to be a spoiler but the man who caused the problems is a minister."

"No Mark Twain?"

"Can you trust the guy?  He won't even use his real name.  That man is shifty, I tell you."

He hands me the codes they use for the books: occultism, nudity, violence, sexual situations, homosexuality (got Whitman right there), anti-family, unsuitable to age group, suicide.

"I have a book that has all of these characteristics.  In fact, that main character tells people to abandon their family, is brutally murdered and then his friend commits suicide.  Oh yeah, and he is friends with hookers. Should we ban it?"

"Sure, what's the title."

"Oh, it's the Bible."

*      *      * 
Oddly enough, one of the lessons he could have learned from my suggested banned book is that banning something only makes someone want it more.  I stole that argument from Paul in Romans (the dead guy and not Paul the Pre-industrial Poet).  

Some day kids will quit reading The Scarlet Letter, not because it is so boring (which it is) but because it will be mandatory school reading.  If the Book Banning Committee really wants to prevent kids from reading inappropriate texts, they should suggest them as required reading. 

they won't use pencils in college

"Tom, what are your thoughts on giving homework?" Mr. Brown asks.

"I don't like it.  If I truly believe that learning happens 24-7 then why not let the kids do the learning on their own?"  

"So, you don't assign any work?"

"Nope.  None. I think the word 'work' is key there.  I'm more interested in learning than working and I don't want to kill their motivation to learn."  

"If you really feel that way about homework, why do you make them work when they are in class?"  he asks.  

"It's not a choice." He's silent for awhile and finally says, "I guess you really can't completely scrap grades. But, are you ever worried that we won't be preparing students for colleges? I mean, with the pencil initiatives and the lack of homework and all.  Are you ever afraid you're doing more harm than good?"  

"Look, I hear that same argument with pencils.  People tell me, 'Techno-Tommy, you realize they will use pens and not pencils when they are in college.'  But here is my issue with that: they're not in college. I wouldn't make that argument for having kids binge drink or have sex with strangers.  I wouldn't suggest kids go wherever they please or smoke cigarettes in the halls.  I wouldn't suggest we reduce the school day to two hours and then allow them to do homework on their own time.  You know why?" 


"Because they are kids, Brown.  That's why." 

This leads to a deeper conversation.  Brown goes back to the issue of college readiness and suggests that maybe there is some validity on the importance of kids still using pen and ink rather than simply busting out pencils.  He mentions a tension between preparing kids for the future and teaching them at their developmental level. 

He shares his concerns with the lack of permanence in pencils.  "Just look at the phrase 'pencil you in.' It's a reminder that all things can be erased.  I wonder sometimes if we need pen and ink to remind students that words are permanent and not cheap."

We argue and criticize.  We laugh, just so that we can argue at a deeper level without anyone getting hurt.  Mr. Brown brings up points about relevant, meaningful homework and I share ideas of extension activities that are ungraded and voluntary.  He warns me about going slate-free and suggests that I am being as stubborn as the anti-pencil people when I refuse a medium just because it's not cutting edge.

We find common ground and yet we still disagree.  

For all the talk about relevant professional development, I'm convinced that our conversation led to a higher level of professionalism simply because it was so unprofessional.  It was casual and chaotic.  It was interactive.  At times, it was offensive.  But it was real.  

it's not the pencils that make it interesting

Gertrude the Cognitive Achievement New Data-driven Year-round Learning Acquisition Nuanced Development Specialist (or CANDY LAND Specialist for short)  calls us in for an emergency meeting.  "Emergency" is a misnomer.  No carnage.  No dangling limbs.  Just a meeting to go over motivational strategies on our high-stakes testing week.

"The issue isn't with the test.  Kids are checked-out.  They're bored.  We haven't given them any incentive to learn.  I read a magazine article by a guy who has never actually taught in a classroom about how schools are paying kids to do school work," a teacher suggests.

"I like that idea," another teacher adds.

"Let it mirror the factory," Gertrude points out.

I step in, "We could be motivating all the time.  I mean, we could make class meaningful.  We don't need to bribe them or threaten them through extortion.  We could start with autonomy and meaning and make sure things are challenging. "

Mrs. Jackson adds, "Tom has a point.  His kids seem to be really into their learning."

"They have pencils," Gertrude says.  "Every kid would be excited if they had a shiny new pencil and some fancy iParchment.  Let's just get a set of notebooks for everyone.  We won't even need desktops for everyone, right?  Well, we don't have the money.  So, we need some cheap solutions."

And that's the issue.  Cheap solutions.  Chincy answers. Flimsy bandages on open wounds.

I answer, "It's not about pencils.  It's about why we learn.  A student rewarded to do work will learn two things: that learning is about work completion and that learning demands a reward.  To me, that's a really dangerous lesson. We need to rethink motivation."

"Loving learning is great, but it won't mean higher scores, Tom."

"Maybe it will.  If they love learning, the test will seem easy.  They'll pass it regardless."

"Look, I'm a curriculum specialist.  It's what I specialize in.  I know about curriculum and I know about motivation. Where is your data to back it up?"

"I'm a teacher.  I'm not a specialist.  I don't specialize in anything.  I don't know everything about data and assessment.  But I know kids and I have a hunch that they aren't learning because they are bored."

"I'm glad you have hunches, but our jobs are on the line with Caravan to the Top.  Hunches and puppies and dandelions are all cute, but we have a test to pass. So, can we move on to motivational strategies?" she asks the group.

*     *     *

Here's the deal: My students enjoy my class, but I'm often surprised by this.  I don't go into it asking myself, "How can I make this fun?"  We don't use pencils for Hang Man (the uber-conservative Temperance Movement folks would complain of supporting violence) or Tic Tac Toe.  We use them for writing and communicating and solving problems.

I do, however, ask myself, "What matters?  What is important?  Why are students learning this?"  and on a good day, I bring them into that dialog.  Pencils are a part of it, but they are a small part of it.  Ultimately, it is the deeper drive for meaning that makes "pencil integration" such a strong motivating force.

taking the job

"So, are you going to take that job?" Mr. Brown asks.

"Yeah, I think I am."

"What about our proposal?" asks Mrs. Jackson.   "That was our baby."

It's silent.  "I mean, oops, these are Victorian times.  We would never have a baby together.  It's a metaphor you know.  Because, well, it would be wrong on so many levels . . . okay, just one level, but one very important level and you know . . . "

"I get it.  I know how to spot a metaphor," I explain.

"What's going to happen to it?" Mr. Brown asks.

"I'm going part-time.  I'll work as a pencil teacher the first half of the day then oversee our plan, the new pencil professional development and the district pencil classes.  Nothing will change."

"Don't lie to yourself.  You can't be pulled away and change both your status and position and pretend that things will be the same.  We'll be friends, but I guarantee that you will change."

"People always promise that they'll stay in touch, that they'll stay grounded.  But even if you teach part time you forget.  You forget how to hold your bladder for hours.  You forget what it's like when one kid wears you down by the end of the day.  I don't think it's wrong that you're going half-half, but don't be shocked if you only feel like half a teacher."

It's like a shot of whiskey and I'm thinking whiskey shouldn't be consumed at ten thirty in the morning.  So, I change the topic.  "How about that local hometown sports team?  I hear they are doing really well and perhaps we can live vicariously through their arbitrary athletic pursuits."

AT&T - Part One

I meet up with Paul the Pre-industrial Poet for a pint.  We promise not to have "shop talk," but inevitably it slips in. I suppose it's because neither of us really views teaching as a shop.  If it were, we'd have left long ago for a higher paying gig - and who knows, perhaps that's why teachers will never completely demand their rights. It's easy to screw over people who aren't in it for the money.

Mr. Brown says he doesn't mind that they screw us over, but they at least owe us a smoke afterward.  He can get away saying stuff like that, because his highly educated accent makes even the crudest comments sound charming to Americans.

"So, I met with the sales guy from the American Telephone and Telegraph company. He's trying to sell me on this idea of having a telephone in my room and a telegraph at my school."

"Are you going to do it?" he asks.  

"I have my reservations.  It just seems like another example of a teacher-centered technology.  Like an Edison projector or a chalkboard from Man-Who-Stole-Fire-From-The-Gods company.  Seriously, a century from now every classroom will have a phone and teachers will still be the ones to use it."  

"Maybe.  Or a century from now, they'll find a way to combine the telephone and the telegraph and they'll make it portable.  It's what happens to all media.  Pictographs are permanent and expensive and located on cave walls and then they are portable on papyrus and then the printing press turns reading from a collective experience to an individual one.  Some day they'll do the same to motion pictures and telephones and maybe all on one device."  

"Sounds cool to me.  Students will finally have a chance to use a technology that was once teacher-centered."  

"Maybe.  Or maybe schools will ban them, because the real issue is one of power.  Who wants students to have instant access to information at all times?  Dangerous stuff, Tom.  Teachers won't want to give up the control.  So, my guess is like the pen pal networks and the personal journals, schools will ban the portable telegraphs."

steam punk or sell-out

The district office administrator called me into his office.  "Mr. Johnson, I've been reading your plog."

I sat there silently.

"There's some good stuff in there.  You're a forward thinker.  The question is what we should do with you. How can we use you best?"  I don't want to be used.  For all the talk of human resources, I'm more human than I am resource.

"I think the classroom is working well out well for me."

"Look, I read your entry about Pencil Class.  I almost left an anonymous comment on the margin. Instead, I thought I would talk to you about it.  What if you could be in charge of the pencil classes? I think you have ideas."

"I do.  I would like to shift the class into a publishing class.  Let kids go through the writing process and participate in creating literary magazines and social issues magazines.  Let them have an elective where they use the pencils for something more relevant than penmanship."

"We'll have a formal interview and all, but is this something that would interest you?  You could have more of an impact."

"I'm afraid I'll lose perspective. I'll forget what the classroom is like."

"So, you teach in the morning.  No more waiting all day to urinating.  No more cramming in a twenty minute lunch.  Think about it.  Then you hop on your horse and visit a different classroom each afternoon.  You'll be a resource for the teachers."  Again, there's that term.  I don't want to be a resource. I don't want to be used.

"That's something to consider."

"We have a great grant from Carnegie.  We need someone forward thinking.  Someone progressive who will lead us into the twentieth century.  I think you are our man."

"I once protested at one of Carnegie's factories and I'm nervous about robber barons who try and buy influence.  I'm nervous that their voice will win out and that we'll move toward job skills instead of learning to live well.  I'm worried about the factory model of education.  You say progressive, but moving forward doesn't always mean moving up."

"Couldn't you offer that perspective?  Couldn't you be the one to steer the program that direction?"

Honestly, with Caravan to the Top and all of the reforms of the McKinley administration, it seems that teachers are losing autonomy.  We're no longer public servants, but rather cogs in an edufactory.  So, I'm leaning toward taking this position. And yet, it bothers me.  I'm wondering if this means selling out.

pencils and pointless prep

"Mr. Johnson, why do we use pencils?"  Cynical Gifted Boy asks.

"It's a learning tool.  Why do we learn?"  I ask him.

"We learn to pass the test so that we can get into the honor's program in junior high so that we can pass the test to get into the honor's program in high school so that by 1901 we can pass the new SAT test so that we can get into the better university so that we can get a better job,"  Cynical Gifted Boy answers.

"What then?" I ask him.  

"I think you work hard and look forward to retirement, where you wonder what happened to your life and why no one wants to talk to you, because they are too busy passing the test to get the job to get the high pay to guarantee that they'll have a good retirement."  

What if we taught in the now rather than as a preparation for the future?  Don't get me wrong, we are always preparing for something else, but it happens by being relevant today.  I use pencils and paper, not because it is necessary for a particular job, but because it is what they need right now to learn.  

sorry kiddos, but pencils aren't always fun

I read a kid's plog today.  It was a free write where he described how horribly bored he was while writing. For a piece about boredom, it was honestly pretty fascinating; vascilating between clever wordplay and edgy sarcasm.  I should have enjoyed it more. However, "that's boring," is a phrase guaranteed to hurt me.  On a very rational level, I get the need for play and the aversion toward work.  What I don't understand is the aversion to learning.  Perhaps I've played a role in blurring the two.

On a more emotional level, I take it personally.  I try hard to make lessons relevant and meaningful, challenging but not too challenging.  I throw myself into what I teach and sometimes the wall of apathy can feel like a wall of spikes. If I'm not careful, tiny disruptions can feel like a slap in the face.  I know, I know, they're kids.  It's not a social contract.

I pull out a paper and write a letter.  It's not meant to be sarcastic and it's not even meant to be sent.  It's a letter to all students:

Dear Student,

I know that learning might feel boring to you.  I know that you want fun.  Clowns and puppets and a Great Dane that juggles fire.  I can't offer you fun.  Don't get me wrong, there will be moments of fun.  There will be moments of humor.  But these are moments.

What I offer is meaning.  I offer you a chance to learn.  I provide you with challenging tasks, a ton of autonomy and a chance to explore the questions in your mind.  If you find that boring, I can't help you.  The truth is that you've been fed a lie.  Through bribes and extortion, you learned that learning is a chore that demands a commodity in return.  I can't give you confectionary delights.

I know that there has been some confusion. You are used to using pencils for the pen pal networks (and admittedly we will use Pen Pal networks in our class) or for creating pictures (we'll do that here, too, sometimes).  Still, our class uses pencils for learning.  If it's fun, that's great.  But fun isn't the bottom line.

You learned that the opposite of boring is fun.  Someday, hopefully, you'll find that fun is not the antithesis of boredom.  It's simply a numbing agent.  It's what you rub on the wound when your sense of meaning has been amputated.  What you need is something that has been missing.  And the true miracle is that it is possible to regain that sense of meaning that you lost somewhere in grade school.

Don't get me wrong, there will moments of boredom and frustration.  I had days when I struggled to learn my multiplication tables and I hated Shakespeare the first go-round.  However, if you can see these moments of dull tasks as an integral part of the meaningful learning experience, you might just find that they become at least a little more tolerable.


Mr. Johnson

*     *     *

I once viewed pencils as a magical talisman that would transform every student into a self-motivated learner.  I believed that the Pencil Natives would grab hold of a pencil and start creating amazing works of poetry and narrative.  I thought that the simple existence of paper would mean clarity of thought, critical thinking and logic in persuasive writing.

It worked for a day or two, but eventually the pencil novelty wore off and students realized that they were working with tools.  Looking back on it, I was no different than the students. I confused novelty and fun with meaning and depth.  I'd like to think I know better now, but a "that's boring" comment can apparently still throw me over the edge.

changes to this blog

So, I'm changing a few things on this blog.  Nothing severe.  Same sarcasm.  Same spattering of historical references melded with thinly veiled modern metaphors.  However, I'll be doing a few things here:

  1. Adding dates to the blog posts, so that it reads like a longer chronicle of events.  In other words, a blog post one day might be April 12th and the next will be May 3rd.  
  2. With the dates, I'll be adding a side-bar of all of the events in chronological order.  
  3. Shifting toward story.  While I will still post a few rantings and ravings, I want to have a story arc and I'd like that story arc to resemble my own journey with technology (though not in any way the  exact same events.)  
  4. Make use of labels for events, ideas and characters.  You'll see what I'm talking about soon. 
  5. Link to past events within the blog post.  In other words, if I mention using Nong, it might not be bad to link it to the original post where the Nong event was mentioned.
This blog began to feel stagnant for awhile and I considered deleting it.  However, I think I just need to adjust it a bit.  It's been really fun to write it.  I've never done fiction before.

one pencil per child

A student brings in an article for his functional text.  It's a story about the One Pencil Per Child initiative.

"Sorry kiddo, but this isn't a functional text," I explain to him.  

"Sure it is.  It's telling the reader how to colonize Africa with pencils."  

"It's informational text with some narrative mixed in," I explain.  

"But it's an implied functional text.  At the end there is even a description of what you can do to help."  

I inform him that he will need to bring in a new article tomorrow, but we will discuss his article together as a class during our civics time.  For what it's worth, I'm not so sure that civics needs to be a class.  Shouldn't everything we do be a civics lesson?  Shouldn't our aim to be to encourage critical thinking, democratic citizenship?  Doesn't exactly fit our factory school, though.  

*      *      *
"Is this good for the children in Africa?" I ask.  

One girl steps in, "Would you ask that same question about Europe? It seems to me that Africa is a whole continent with different languages and cultures.  Yet we treat it like it's this one entity.  The people of Africa have no chance to determine their own national and cultural identity."  It's a hard topic for her, because her family is from Africa and she is mixed race and our town is generally segregated.  

Another boy adds, "We've been learning about imperialism.  It seems like passing out paper and pencils to kids is simply another form of imperialism."  

"I disagree," a girl responds.  "Imperialism has motives of conquering and using resources.  It doesn't respect the rights of the people."  

"And you think this does?  Did anyone from the OPPC study the needs of the people?  Did anyone study the culture?  No, they just toss out green pencils and claim that it will lead to freedom.  Africa needs economic development.  Africa needs the right to nationhood without interference from imperial powers. Pencils are nice, but I don't think they are very helpful in keeping France and Britain out of your backyard."  

"So, do we do nothing?  It seems like doing nothing just makes it worse.  Kids need paper and pencil.  They need an education.  We can talk about imperialism, but let's be honest, every kid needs a chance to write."  

"Maybe," a kid adds.  "And maybe the pencils will be a good thing.  But I still think it's imperialism.  It's using kids' minds for their own good.  Why are they doing this?  To feel good about themselves probably.  And to get a little recognition when people see just how shiny and durable the green pencils are. So, they might have good intentions, but it's still imperialism if they are using the minds of Africa to boost their sense of purpose."  

*     *     *
When I tell Mr. Brown about this story, he explains to me, "I am the product of colonialism.  I hate that word product, but that's how it feels.  I don't even know my Indian last name.  My language, my clothes, my religion - all British.  I think they're asking the right questions."  
"It makes me wonder about our grant proposal.  If we have a guy like Carnegie paying for our education, isn't he now the one with the loudest voice?  And even if he is looking out for kids and really wants us to have pencils, isn't he failing to look at the injustices of his own factory? Sometimes I wonder if we should raise the money from the community instead.  Let the resources come from the locals."  

"Or not," Mr. Brown reminds me. "Look, there is injustice in all the resources we use.  You can get all worked up about the iPaper and the waste of money when we could get open source paper.  However, you miss the fact that little kids in the factory are making the paper that our kids are using.  Or we talk about imperialism and that's fine, but how often do you push your own agenda on your kids?  Everyone is guilty either by complicity or apathy or outright participation.  The amazing part is that out of injustice something beautiful grows."