an apology letter students

Dear Students,

When I first got the cameras, teachers warned me that students would all of a sudden be "off task."  See, in our profession, we have this magical formula called Time on Task and it helps determine if students will be successful in their education.  I scoffed when I heard that projects and pencils and pictures would all take my students "off task."

However, I watched as you moved off-task.  I saw daydreaming.  I heard conversation that seemed "off task."  I noticed some of you pulling away from your project for awhile.  Was I providing too much freedom?  Was this a failed experiment?  When I corrected you, a few of you commented, "I'm working on this part at home," or "just let me think."  I assumed you were being disrespectful and I reprimanded you.  Verbally.  Publicly.

When I saw the finished products and participated in the conversations, I noticed how deeply you had been thinking.  It hit me: it's not about being "on task" so much as it is "thinking deeply."  It's not about work completion, because learning is not a chore.  You taught me that if students are excited about learning, they will end up working harder.  Yet, if I chide you for not working hard, you will neither work hard nor learn much of anything.

I even had to rethink some of the "fluff stuff."  When I was a student, teachers would yell at me for talking and for joking.  They mocked me for drawing pictures.  Yet my ability to draw and talk and listen and even joke around have made me a better teacher.

So, again, I'm sorry.  I don't mean this to be an excuse for a class of anarchy.  I'm just saying that from now on, I am going to focus less on what you do and more on what you are learning.


Mr. Johnson

six lies we tell ourselves about technology

So, I'm at the PIE Conference and I place my slides on the projector. I'm nervous, shaking, literally sweating bullets. Okay, not literally, but figuratively. I assure you that there were no flying bullets in my room. I choose the number six, since it's perfect and I so badly want something about this presentation to be perfect:

Lie #1: We can connect to the world and still feel the grass beneath our feet. I tell the story of our neighborhood and the lack of community that exists as a result of newly emerging new transportation, urbanization and the fact that information is now global (thanks to the telegraph)

Lie #2: What is new is always innovative.  I mention that of novelty versus innovation and the fact that often "innovation" is merely hype (I piss a few people off by mocking the iTablet.  Note to self: some people love their yellow legal paper, even if it won't let you multitask and take papers out like a real notebook)

Lie #3: We can control the effects of technology.  I mention the changes in Europe after the printing press and how wildlife changed as a result of railroads and barbed wire.

Lie #4: Quality isn't lost in compression (and the lie that effeciency means effectiveness): Here, I play the mandolin and then a phonograph and asked them to write down which sounded better.

Lie #5: Better tools equal better learning. I share the idea that often simpler and fewer tools force students to be more creative).

Lie #6: It will save time.  Time will move on whether we "save" it with gadgets or not.

*      *      *

The workshop (which is a bit of a lie, given the fact that no one is building anything) is failing miserably. People are drawing pictures and ignoring me. So, I open it up and say, "What are you thinking?" It becomes a conversation.

"I don't think pen pal networks and telegraphs have changed anything," a teacher begins.

"Me too. If anything, time away forces me to appreciate the grass when I'm back."

"Can't we have it both ways?" a teacher asks.

"I don't think technology makes things better or worse, it just changes things.  So, we don't lose our connection to the land.  We just view it through a new filter."

"If we think critically about technology, we can predict its outcomes," someone adds. "That's a pretty fatalistic mentality."

But then another teacher mentions Prometheus and Pandora and quotes a few lines from a Socratic dialog. We talk about the Tower of Babel and the Sirens and the Roman notion of bread and circus. We talk about how often a pen pal letter will pull us away or how the edgy urban environment can make us feel claustraphobic. As we discuss the ideas, I find myself yearning for something low-tech - perhaps a chalkboard where I could be drawing diagrams or taking notes. I feel a bit like a heretic in a high-tech cathedral.

Finally, a teacher says, "I agree with all of these except number two." We discuss it for awhile, but I am struck by this notion that our frame of reference for wisdom is anything but innnovative. We're going back to Greek and Roman mythology. The teacher, for his part, finally says, "I guess there's nothing new under the sun," quoting a man who lived in an era where the printing press didn't even exist.

we don't need a shared vision

"We need to have a shared vision of education in America," I parrot to Paul the Pre-industrial Poet.

"Where did that come from?" 

"A speaker at the PIE Conference mentioned it.  I tend to agree. As long as we fail to agree on the purpose and direction of education, talks of pencils and photos and telegraphs are meaningless."

"I'm not crazy about that idea," Paul mentions.  "If we all share the same vision and goal, it becomes myopic. And when it's myopic, it becomes too easy for those in power to hijack the language and use it to make money." 

"What if the vision is good?"  

"It's not a matter of good.  The issue is this: if you define a vision too loosely it's meaningless.  We could have something like, 'We will create life-long learners' and it sounds pretty, but what does it mean?  Or we could begin with something more specific like, 'Equip all students for the skill sets required for the industrial age.' It ends up missing out on big parts of an education."  

"I see.  I guess it fails to allow for the conflict and the paradox that often lead to a whole education."  

"Exactly. So, we start with, 'Why do we learn?' Historically, we've had three streams in this area: a neo-classical ideal of the well-rounded citizen needed for democracy, a religious idea of education leading to a more moral person and a vocational stream with the notion of learning a trade."  

"Can't we find some overlap?"  

"Maybe.  But I'm thinking there are elements each can bring to the table.  So, I like the apprenticeship model and I like the option of vocational education.  I like a deep philosophical understanding of the world and an appreciation of the liberal arts and a preparation for college.  And, even in a secular place, I like concepts like love and humility that we can take from the spiritual side. It's not overlap I'm looking for, it's diversity of opinion."

"So, can't we agree on the best parts of each of those streams?"

"I don't know.  Maybe we can.  But look: I have listened to too many conversations on the best vision for my race.  Some say DuBois and others say Washington.  I think they both make sense.  We need a talented ten percent.  We need leadership.  But that alone will be merely elitism.  We need economic empowerment and practical skills.  We need to fight injustice but we also need to reform the system from within.  They both have great points and I doubt that you'll get people to agree on both sides."  

seven positive trends in this year's PIE conference

I had my reservations the first time we went to the Pencil Integrated Education (PIE) Conference.  First, people seemed to be more impressed with the technology itself than with learning.  "Hey, it's cutting edge.  It's a set of colored pencils.  It will forever revolutionize education."  Socrates revolutionized education.  The Gutenberg Press revolutionized education.  A tablet instead of a notebook?  Nice upgrade, but not revolutionary.

Then there was the issue of those who mistook PIE to be all about baking.  We did our best to accommodate them, but the questions always felt odd (i.e. "How many recipes will college-ruled paper hold?") We had the other segment of mathematicians who mistook it for a pi conference and wanted to talk about developing theorems and setting up new algorithms. Actually, I think they kept us grounded a bit, preventing us from groupthink.

It never felt like a waste of time, because the true benefit had nothing to do with what I learned.  It was the human connection that mattered.  It was the chance to get to know people who also used pencils rather than slates.  Sometimes when I was on my own, I'd feel so lonely.  I needed the PIE Conference to remind me that I'm not crazy - or that if I'm crazy, it's not because I am insane, but because the system is insane and things like critical thinking come across as insanity in a factory education.

*      *     *

I've noticed something different now.  People seem more interested in learning.  Yes, we have our fair share of people obsessing over just how light a paper tablet is (even if you can't multitasking), but in general I've noticed a few positive paradigm shifts:

  1. A focus on the way people learn.  In my first PIE Conference, a presenter would show us how to use a pencil (it's not that difficult, really) and only at the end would we get ideas.  Now, we're planning, connecting, using multiple media all with student learning as the goal. 
  2. Connecting to other disciplines - in other words, not seeing Pencil Tech as its own entity, but instead getting into brain research (though I'm still not sure what to think of phrenology), motivation, assessment practices, etc.
  3. Openness to some of the criticisms about how technology (from pencils to the telegraph) are changing technology in both positive and negative ways. We're moving from "pencil citizenship" to citizenship.
  4. From a "we'll use this in the new industries" mentality to a mindset that embraces life-long learning and progressive education.  Pencils can be used not just to manage a factory, but to create art, poetry, tell stories, advocate for social causes, etc. 
  5. A better understanding of the social, political and economic pressures that prevent students from accessing tools.
  6. A more philosophical bent.  We're now asking questions like, "Is hard work as important as deep thinking?" or "Should assessment be based upon a product or a cognitive process?"  (or, in the case of the phrenologists, bumpy heads) 
  7. A chance to extend beyond the conference.  With the whole PLN concept and the pen pal networks, there is a sense that I get a human side to the people I will interact with through shorthand notes and perhaps via telegraph.  

pencils - part three - the conflict

"Mr. Johnson and Mr. Brown, your students never filled out the Migration Packets."

"No, they created independent projects instead," I explain.

"Yes, I saw.  They were cute."

Mr. Brown cuts in, "No, cute is baby bonnets and fluffy bunnies.  What my students created was powerful."

She continues, "But the Migration Packet was more about problem solving."

I argue, "My students had a migration problem that they solved in groups.  It was authentic, connecting ideas of science and social studies and they had to develop a solution . . . "

"Yes, so you solved one problem.  The packet had one hundred problems chosen by some of the best educators that Pencil Island could find. We spent good money on learning tools and you neglected them."

"You bought the wrong tools," Mr. Brown replies.  "I could build a house, but it would be useless if I bought a demolition ball."

I add my thoughts, "My students went deeper into the content and hit every objective you wanted them to hit. The Pencil Packet was a multiple choice marathon."

"I see your point, but it is what it is."  I hate that phrase.  It makes it sound like "what is" cannot change, as if we are reduced to academic fatalism.  "Tell me, will students answer one question in-depth or do multiple choice on our high-stakes test?"

"Multiple choice," we reply in unison.

"And McKinley's Caravan to the Top is all about test scores, right?"

"But . . . "

"And you agreed to do a common pencil-based unit with the rest of the staff."

Mr. Brown corrects her, "Common is shared. Standardized is imposed. Common is horizontal. Standardized is vertical.  I agreed on the objectives that we planned.  I never agreed to standardization, though."

"Look, we even got you photography machines, cameras or whatever they're called, so that you could create motivational PowerSlides for your students.  Yet, you gave dangerous machines to your students."

What she can't see is that the pencil packets were far more dangerous than a camera.

pencils - part two - the end product

A girl stands before a crowd of parents, the projector flickering a fuzzy image of a bird.  It sharpens as she begins telling a poem of migration, weaving in and out of metaphors, a series of seemingly unrelated pictures tying into the story of movement.  It's our story.  The Guilded Age.  The Age of Industry.  A time of gray smoke stacks and gray graphite  and gray steal trusses and gray trains barreling through our landscape.

She moves to her story, with images of her home and her neighborhood.  It's the story of migration as well.  She cries when she speaks of learning a language and no one knows if it's acting or if it's reality or if maybe it's both.  

*     *     *

The photography project was part of our larger unit on migration.  Mr. Brown and I tied together concepts from math, from science, from literature and from social studies.  Though we often read the same texts and engaged in similar dialog, students chose their own project.  

One boy compared the movement of a child to the movement of an adult - the migration from free movement as a youngster to the restrictive movement of school on up through the factories, where the machines move and the people are confined.  Another student charted the migration of ideas by taking pictures representing various methods of story-telling.  A girl chose the migration of nature - from the animals to the seasons and the cyclical nature of it.  

Some chose to present in a scrapbook.  Others chose slideshows.  Still, others chose to use SmartCharts and present it in a larger poster board.  Some integrated painting or drawing into their photography.  It wasn't so much differentiated instruction as it was empowered instruction.  Students chose not only the concepts but also the media and the presentation methods. 

*     *     *

Mr. Brown stops comments, "Photographs are pretty powerful, huh?"

I answer, "The power was not in the photography.  I'm doubtful that any of my students will become the next Ansel Adams . . ."

"At least not yet! You never know."

"Right. But the novelty of the medium wore off quickly, with each flashing bulb losing its magical luster.  It was replaced, though, with something deeper."

"I know what you mean. I'm getting to where I love technology.  However, I love technology, not for the flashing bulbs or the instant access or the efficiency.  It has to do with the ability to relate and create and communicate.It has to do with mixing media meaningfully so that learning grows deeper."

My students used text-based resources and they used pencils and photography and the parents were moved to tears in the oldest, perhaps most foreign of all media - the voice, orally spoken, memorized and rehearsed and delivered as if it were the first time.

photographs - part one

The folks at Kodak want me to pass out the cameras and "let kids explore."  I'm imagining plumes of smoke in my room, so I take it cautiously on the instructions.  Yet, first I want students to think philosophically about the new medium.

I ask them to write a plog post answering the question, "What holds more power: words or pictures?"  To my surprise, the students do not all agree.  I assume that with the novelty of the photograph, students would write about picture power.

"A picture can tell you what is empirically real while words can write about reality that we cannot express in a photographic form.  Show me a picture of love.  Show me a picture of hope," a student writes.

One student writes, "Photographs are more permanent.  They are more objective. They capture the truth without having to be reinterpreted.  There are less layers of communication to go through.You can't edit a picture."

Another student disagrees, "Pictures are more emotional and more subjective.  It's because there are no words.  There is no context.  The photographer has deliberately framed a scene, just one scene, and you're stuck with it."

I begin with this concept of more powerful and we more into: Which captures reality better?  Which captures the truth better?  Most students tend to believe that a person can change words, but that pictures are undoctored.  So, I show them the famous Lincoln picture with the body of John Calhoun.  They're floored.

A girl asks, "How do you know what's real if you can just manufacture truth by changing pictures?"

"Isn't that what we do with words?" a boy asks.

"What if all truth is manufactured?  We keep asking 'does the photograph capture truth' and it's not something out there that we capture.  It's something we make up as we go along."

when books go social

"I hate when students underline their books with those ridiculous pencils," a teacher begins.

"Why does it spark such a strong reaction?"

"A page should be fresh each time one reads it.  Let a student start with a pure page, free of the viewpoints of other readers.  Whether you like it or not, reading is a solitary endeavor and I'd like to keep it that way."

"Yes, but reading only became solitary with the advent of the printing press.  Before that, when the resources were scarce, reading had to be social.  So, people shared books, read books aloud, listened intently and spoke together.  It has been a communal endeavor more often than individual."

"But we progressed toward individuality. Students now have access to books through our library.  They share, but it's sharing on an individual level," she answers just like that, with thick italics.

"So, what if pencil is another form of progress?  What if the pencil enables reading to be both social and individual?  What if students can now read a book but also interact with it and share in an asynchronous dialog with past readers?  What if they learn more from a book by the writing in the margins?"

"Or what if the social aspects of reading simply distract?  What if they're too distracted by all forms of social media - from the loud phonograph to the emerging motion picture industry to the pen pal networks and the instant information on the telegraph?  What if learning needs a little loneliness?  What if solitude is good for the mind?"

We're at an impasse, both realizing that arguments are not games to be won, but neither of us humble enough to admit it.  So we wait in silence and I finally ask, "Is that egg salad?  It looks delicious."

nothing is temporary and nothing is permanent

My wife wrote me a love letter.  For Victorian Times, it was pretty steamy.  Hell, for any time period it was pretty steamy.  She slipped it into my sports coat this morning as I was preparing to ride to work.  My horse was sick, so I had to walk.  Sometimes I wonder if maybe a horseless carriage might end up being best after all.  Technology is predictable.  It's not as if the engine will just shut down out of nowhere. Or maybe I just need a mustang.  (Or does that require a midlife crisis first?)

So, here's the thing: She wrote it out on pencil. I know it doesn't seem like much, but it bothered me.  Pencil is temporary.  Pencil is gray.  Pencil is movement.  Pencil is modern.  The graphite letters leave a soot behind that matches the dull gray cloud in this urban landscape, leaving its ugly erasure marks on the ever-changing steel cage neighborhood that I've learned to call home.

Don't get me wrong, I love the letter.  It's just that the medium didn't fit.

In fact, it's not the letter itself that bothers me.  It's the pencil.  It's in this middle zone of being more permanent than speech and more temporary than ink.  We say "pencil me in," when we want commitment without commitment. Sometimes it seems as if relationships, community, our most sacred social institutions have adopted a "pencil me in" mentality.

We confuse novelty for innovation and it's all at the cost of long-term public memory.  We can't remember anything.  No shared stories when they are spliced up into bits and sent via telegraph.  No common voice when it's compressed into a phonograph.

So, I walk, with letter in hand, to my factory-styled school, questioning if the pencils are even worth it, wondering if we are penciling in a shady world where nothing is temporary and nothing is permanent.

a call to story-telling

A Note from the Author:

I'm a geek.  Part Luddite geek, part techno-geek, but a geek nonetheless.  I grew up with comic books (Or graphic novels.  I suppose there is nothing all that comical about saving the world, aside from the tights.)  I am surprised, then, by how few stories I hear in the realm of educational technology.

Don't get me wrong.  We need lists of new gadgets.  We need theoretical debates.  We need loud calls for transforming the system.  We need TED Talks and conferences and workshops and all of that.  But I know very few people who go out and try educational technology after reading lists or debates.  

We need honest stories, human narratives that delve deeper than the latest gadget.  We need humor and satire and the sometimes insane hurdle teachers face every time they attempt to use new technology.  We need conversations that reflect not simply the ideal "what if" but the reality of what it's like on the inside.  I'm not saying those stories aren't out there.  It's just that the true stories are often so honest, so painful and so bizarre that they are difficult to tell.

I began this blog as an attempt to think through my own story.  I chose the nineteenth century, because it removes me from the constant need for the cutting edge.  That, and I'm wired for metaphor.  I chose fiction, because I have a freedom to tell the truth by not telling the truth.

I almost gave up several times, because there isn't a solid story arc.  But then again, my own journey hasn't fit well within a story arc.  It's been much closer to a postmodern narrative where the twists are found in the subtleties of life.

I'd love to see more story-telling in educational technology.  Not necessarily PR stuff, either.  I'd love to see honest stories about the human side of educational technology.  I am not naturally a story-teller, but I have found that stories, even corny nineteenth-century, semi-satirical ones provoke discussion in a way that prose cannot. This blog is much more popular than I ever thought it would be.  I have a hunch it has to do with the narrative format more than anything else.  

you can't let them bring their own pencils

"It's an issue of equity, Tom," explains the district office representative.

"I'm not seeing where you are coming from."

"You allow students to bring in pencils from home.  Students who have inferior pencils will feel inferior.  We need everyone on the same page," he adds.

"On the same page.  I'm curious, do you use that reasoning with all learning items or just pencils?  I mean, you said the same page and it had me thinking about reading.  My students aren't on the same page.  They're not even on the same book.  And get this, some of them actually bring in books from home."

"That's different.  You don't require them to bring in books from home."

"But I do require them to read and some of them use the library, others borrow from friends and still others bring in books from home.  To me, that's the real issue of equity.  Does every child have access to books?"

"Yes, but pencils are used in the same learning activity.  So, really, it is not the same thing."

"Can I ask a question?"

"You just did," he adds with a chuckle.  Oh, the hilarity of the district office! Why, I'm hoping they start an improv group soon.  Really, I am.
"Do you require all students to eat the cafeteria food?"

"No, many of them bring lunch from home."

"And it's not all the same food?  What if Charles gets jealous of Gertrude's lunch?"

He says nothing.  "What about slide rules?  Not every child brings the same slide rule.  Is that an issue of equity, too?"

"Kids will pick on other students who have cheap pencils.  It's a reality you can't see, Mr. Johnson."

"When I walk on campus, I see students tease one another about the clothes they wear.  That seems to be a bigger status symbol.  Yet, parents would be up in arms if we required every child to wear the same brand of clothes."

"Look, we'll look into it.  Right now we don't have a procedure for assessing this issue, so I'm going to have to  stick with the rule about banning pencils.  We just don't know all of the liability involved."

So, we're left with rules over reason, uniformity over equality and liability management over leadership.  Take note of this, politicians and pundits and parents: the real issue isn't the access to pencils.  The real issue is the lack of access to innovation.

getting a phone: part three

"How's the phone working?" Mrs. Jackson asks.

"It's working out really well.  I mean, there are moments I didn't anticipate.  Some kids get scared if they are talking and the room is silent and then others have a hard time hearing if the class is even remotely engaged in task that requires any noise.  I hadn't thought of the human side of it."

"That makes sense.  But is it a tool you think you will use in the future."

"I think so.  Here's the thing though: the power isn't in the tool.  The power is in the problem-solving.  See, they're doing a project where they look at an issue in our community.  They work with students in another school across town and they create a solution to the problem.  Part of the research on the solution is actually going out and doing community service."

"Very nice, but what happens when they don't create a solution?"

I get really sarcastic here, "Well, it shows up on the rubric.  I have a whole category for it.  The boxes are really cute.  I made it myself using paper and pencil and . . . "

"No, what happens if there isn't a solution?"

"I'm not sure where you're coming from."

"What if the solution is a mystery or a paradox?  What if it has no solution?  Or if the solution causes more damage?"

"I didn't think about that."

"I just fear that you're beginning with the wrong question.  Instead of asking them why they love their community or how they would serve it, you are starting with how they would change it."

I get really quiet here, feeling ashamed of how excited I had felt just minutes before.

"Tom, I'm stealing your idea and doing it in my classroom, too."

"What about all the questions you just asked me?"

"I'll ask my students the same questions.  I want critical thinkers and problem-solvers.  I also want students who are humble and recognize complexity and mystery.  This is the kind of project where I can bring in both ideas."

getting a phone: part two

Midway through the project, I ask students what they think of communicating via telephone.

"I think it's better," a girl explains.  "We aren't confined by our own classroom walls.  We can go anywhere that the operator allows.  It's like being two places at once."

"I don't know how I feel about that," another girl points out.  "I don't always feel present when I'm physically here.  I wonder if it's a good thing to let my voice travel over the wires and into some other place.  I'm not sure we're meant to be that way," she adds.

"I find myself making gestures at the phone. It's like I forget that our interaction isn't real. I mean, I could stick my middle finger out and the other person wouldn't see it."

"It's not real.  I feels like pretend compared to the classroom," a boy responds.

"This class doesn't feel all that real, either.  I mean think about it for a minute.  They pack us together into the smallest space in a building designed like a prison.  Maybe phones aren't natural, but neither is this room."

"It's not that phones aren't real.  It's just a different kind of reality.  I wonder if the physical separation actually allows me to listen better . . . or not better, just more intently."

I bring up mythology here and it gets dangerous.  Not really dangerous.  Pretend dangerous.  Like war games or fire drills.  We talk about the Babel babble of ongoing talk, unceasingly speaking across the globe, promising that we can solve the problems with a higher tower and more cooperation when the tower itself is preventing us to know to one another from our front porches.

We talk about siren calls and the intoxication media promising a relationship while silently dehumanizing us.  We get into Prometheus and debate whether or not it is right to steal fire from the gods.

When it's over, the girl who first claimed telephones were better laments, "I liked this conversation and I feel conflicted.  I wish this could have happened with my friends who are outside these walls.  Yet I wonder if a telephone can allow for that type of interaction.  Do we have to have close proximity to have depth?"

As I walk into the staff lounge, a teacher tells me, "I wouldn't get a phone in my classroom.  They're too dangerous."

"I know.  My students just had a great conversation of the implications of audio-only communication."

"Did a kid call the police or something?"

It has me thinking that in our push to be relevant and practical, we miss the larger philosophical dangers of technology.  When it is simply about the immediate liability management, educators are less likely to see the long-term dangers.  It's like focussing on the need to avoid choking on one's food while ignoring the clogged arteries that will someday lead to a heart attack.