Our Media Selves in Education

In my last blog, I spoke about the importance of developing and cultivating relationships with students. I referred to Sherry Turkle and her groundbreaking book, Alone Together. It explored the effects of modern social media on our habits of being. She maintained that technology does not just change what we do, it changes who we are: our media self.

Alone Together?

One of my favorite books is Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (2011).

If you are more visual, then check out her TED video from 2012, Sherry Turkle: Connected, but alone?

Alone together

Is it Tragedy, Comedy, or Simply Perceptive?

I just recently read an article on the New York Times Bits blog: Disruptions: More Connected, Yet More Alone by Nick Bilton (Sept. 1, 2013). In it he explores a YouTube comedy video that has since gone viral: I Forgot My Phone by Charlene deGuzman.

To be honest, it is “funny” in the same way that Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal was funny. Swift proposed cannibalism as a solution to the Irish dilemma of his time (way back in 1729 – yes, they had irony then). DeGuzman’s 2-minute film may not be as outrageous a proposal, but it is exceptional satire. I would call it poignant. Perhaps author Nick Bilton might agree.

The Case for Dystopia

I would make the case that we have done more than fall in love with our dystopias. We have become them. It is the literature genre that has become on-screen blockbuster.

Have you read or seen The Hunger Games? Katniss Everdeen has become a modern hero of mythic proportions. She represents the triumph of indomitable human will over the grinding of the machine. Few would argue that we really want a series of games that end in death matches, but then again, few might argue that it would be a hit reality series if it aired on cable or the web.

We have a strong history of dystopias in our literature and filmmaking. We have classic novels such as George Orwell’s 1984, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. We have movies like I, Robot (a concatenation of the robot books by Isaac Asimov), and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (made into the movie Blade Runner). We rarely see utopian myths produced except in cartoon versions. If they were to be written, then they would likely be dismissed as naïve. Have those dystopian societies become the cool lifestyle choice?

The Modern Classroom: Is It Cool to Be Smart?

Let’s look at the modern urban classroom. Young Black boys in America achieve at markedly lower rates than their counterparts in other races. Why? Rather than focus on race or poverty – both legitimate contributors – I would rather focus this blog on the stories we tell ourselves including our hero myths. For too many urban children, it is just not cool to be smart. Peer pressure can reveal itself as an ugly beast in this context. In my opinion, that is why many charter academies are well positioned to combat peer pressure. They create a new environment for status as well as learning. It is cool to be an achiever.

Madyun (2011) connected Social Disorganization Theory to educational outcomes for Black youth. What occurred to me was that the classroom was a type of community setting – a local extended family in situ. All the teacher has control of is how children interact. Lectures rarely work in this regard. However, the teacher can structure the collaborative norms so that students work with each other in learning activities and learn respect for each other.

The only thing to combat social disorganization is social organization. The only thing that can combat negative relationships are positive relationships. That is the instructional approach I advocate. Build a learning platform and a “story” for collaborative success.

Media Provides a Context for Understanding Ourselves

Stories – and that includes movies and YouTube – create a literary context to explore our current social dilemmas and the deeper questions that concern us. Satire is built on the belief that certain absurdities can be recognized as such is presented in the right way.  I Forgot My Phone is modern satire. It suggests an increasing awareness of self and others, of how we interact. It is instructive that people interviewed in Bilton’s blog referred to the video as “sad.”

How we communicate is part of who we are. Because we have changed many of the foundations of how we communicate, we have changed who we are. The very nature of the social flux that welds us together has changed in composition. Perhaps the new alloy will be stronger. One thing is certain: the social syntax is different.

Escapism or Paradox?

Of course, escapism does not necessarily equate with the desire to become. One can watch the Vampire Diaries or True Blood without wanting to become a blood sucker. It is important to differentiate our love affair with the darker side of human nature from our need to explain it. I am not a gamer, but I recently saw a review of the recently released video game called Grand Theft Auto 5. I wondered just how the myth of this hero plays out if extended to community.

Human nature is complicated. Perhaps – to quote Winston Churchill from a different era – it is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Yet we teachers are left to fathom it all. Our media selves.

How it relates to teaching and learning

This is now the essential question: How does dystopia and being alone together figure in the modern classroom? What are its implications for the modern teacher? When I first started writing this, I found myself going down a dark path, perhaps trapped by a device of my own making. I realize that one can not make a judgment about the new language except that it is occurring right now. In other words, we as teachers need to create a new Utopia for our students. As I went further down the path, I realized that the power of collaboration was malleable. It could be molded.

What? Doesn’t sound like a realistic plan? Of course it is! Teachers create a classroom environment everyday. I am reminded of a scene from an old movie favorite of mine, The Emerald Forest. It takes place in a South American rain forest. An engineer (Powers Booth) is searching for his son who has been abducted. He comes across a helpful tribe.  The engineer asks the chief why he doesn’t just order his tribe to do something they otherwise would never do. The chief responds, “If I told them to do things they do not want to do, I would not be chief for long.” That line always resonated with me.

Perhaps classroom management is similar. We need to be in tune with our students, speak some of the same language, and connect with them. Don’t confuse this with abdicating responsibility. Rather it is modeling, scaffolding and the social construction of an effective learning environment.


It’s About Relationships

The Truth About Teaching

Some think teaching is about conveying information. Some argue that it is about developing critical thinking. Others frame it is a means of fostering lifelong learning and a spirit of inquiry. Is there a best model? Teaching is about all of the above, but more importantly, it is about forging and maintaining relationships. It is what one might call the art and science of teaching.

Every morning a teacher looks out into the classroom. A few students wait expectantly. Some are talking with friends. Many are likely checking their smartphone, updating their status on Facebook, or jotting off a quick text – one of 3,000 that month. Student conversation is as likely to be electronic and face-to-face with what Zachary Taylor calls the last backpack generation.

In the modern classroom the push is for bell-to-bell instruction and active engagement. The teacher begins with a sponge activity, communicates the objective for that lesson, or starts with a quick-write. Class is in session. This is a generation of “connected” kids, we are told. Yet the first time one watches students work in collaborative groups, the critical teacher may begin to wonder, “Are they connecting to each other in the way that is best for learning? What exactly do I need to teach them to do?”

To answer that question, let’s look at two related frameworks for 21st century student competencies. The P21 framework complements and sometimes parallels the ISTE NETS Standards for Students.

rainbow_081110 The P21 Framework presents a holistic view of 21st century teaching and learning that combines a discrete focus on 21st century student outcomes with innovative support systems.The P21 Partnership talks about the 4 Cs of the 21st century classroom:

  • Critical thinking and problem solving
  • Communication
  • Collaboration
  • Creativity and innovation

Now let’s look at the ISTE NETS Standards for Students. The National Educational Technology Standards are often called NETS. ISTE  has created student as well as teacher and administrator standards.

isteNETS_s-indicator A look at ISTE’s NETS Standards for Students, a different model.NETS are “The standards for evaluating the skills and knowledge students need to learn effectively and live productively in an increasingly global and digital world.”The following six areas in NETS form the foundation of required skills for students:

  • Critical Thinking
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Research and Information
  • Technology operation
  • Digital Citizenship

In this blog, I want to focus on communication and collaboration.  ISTE joins them together as a single linked construct. What is the role C&C plays in education? How does one understand good teaching in the context of effective and caring relationships?

Cooperative Learning Under the Microscope

Let’s look at some of the key assumptions of cooperative learning:

  • Personal and social relationships are critical to the learning process.
  • Working in cooperative groups improves learning outcomes.
  • Verbal communication shifts between teacher initiated talk and student initiated talk.
  • The roles of teachers and learners are complementary.

Jerome Bruner, a cognitive psychologist, has been a widely known advocate of  social construction of learning model. As the name implies, his is a constructivist model of learning in which the individuals build knowledge with the scaffolding of the social group. The focus is on experiential or environmental factors in learning. What Bruner showed was that is was not just peer pressure that affected performance of the individual in the classroom, but communication with peers affected how concepts developed.

Nowadays one has to consider that the “group” of peers in which an individual students functions is not just those around him or her. It includes those with whom he or she is connected virtually in their social networks. Take away a smartphone from a teenager, and they may feel as if a vital appendage has been removed.

To be a good teacher

My thesis is that teachers need to embrace social technology. It does not mean that you, the teacher, have to have students follow you on Twitter, but you need to understand how central it is to their reality and cognitive process. I have come to think of technology as a “language” with its own syntax and transformative grammar.

These days teaching involves both understanding how cooperative groups work as well as how technology works in the learning and communication process.

Alone Together?

One of my favorite books is Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle (2011).

If you are more visual, then check out her TED video from 2012, Sherry Turkle: Connected, but alone?

Technology does not just change what we do, it changes who we are.


Vygotsky is the psychologist who popularized the concept called “zone of proximal development” or ZPD. The more common term “scaffolding” is often applied in classroom teaching and learning. The effective teachers scaffolds new concepts – makes them accessible – so that students can master them. Underlying this is the essential role of social learning in cognitive development. Stated another way, students construct meaning and develop competency more readily in social or cooperative learning groups. Those groups can be real-time, face-to-face or mediated in one of the social media venues.

In other words, teaching requires cultivating relationships both with students and between students. Cooperative learning is an extremely important tool in the teacher’s toolbox. How one cultivates these relationships – especially in the context of cooperative learning and modern electronic media – will be the content of the next blog.


Teaching is about relationships as much as mastery of knowledge and skills. Students will respond to those with whom they have a relationship more readily than one in which they feel no connection. There is art as well as science to teaching.

In the mind of the teacher is the world of his or her students. The teacher can never forget to ask, “Do I know who you are?” Not knowing, one must begin questing for the answer. In the journey lies the answer.

Teach flat, teach well.

♦ Visit edtune at https://edtune.com/

Is the world really flat?

Project Based Learning

Inquiry in the Classroom

With the advent of Common Core State Standards as well as the explosion of the flipped learning model, project based learning (PBL) has is becoming more of  a staple in modern classroom. It marries inquiry learning to to the ubiquity of modern electronic learning resources. What is inquiry learning? Is it different than the Socratic method employed for thousands of years? Does it abandon standards and fly in the face of No Child Left Behind?

One might say that inquiry is at the heart of all learning. The question for many teachers is just how to achieve that goal. Two instructional methods have grown over the past few decades: project based learning (an inquiry process starting with an open ended question) and problem based learning (more of a problem-solution model). In this blog I will lump them together.

How does one implement a PBL in the classroom?

The first step is to cut up or organize your school year into one or two “essential questions,” that is, high level, open ended, integrative questions. This term was originally popularized by Intel Teach to the Future, a program we ran in our district for several years when we first started to implement PBL. An example of an essential question for geography might be, “What is a healthy planet?” Or, “How does where one lives affect one’s quality of life?” Find good resource tools from Intel Education’s Tools for Student Centered Learning.

Then sub-divide the essential question or semester into driving questions. Look at Buck Institute of Education (BIE) Do It Yourself site for lots of resources. Or check out their free Tools. The term “driving question” was popularized by BIE. They must be open ended (no right or wrong answer), linked to academic standard(s), relatively high level (requiring critical thinking), and not be something that can simply be Googled. An example in geography might be, “How are the resources in developing countries different than non-developed countries?” Or “How does access to water affect the wealth of nations?” You might ask a challenge questions such as, “Should habitats be protected?” As PBL evolves in your classroom, and student internalize the rubric, you can give your students more and more choice in selecting the driving questions. It depends on your philosophy.

When you implement inquiry based learning or PBL, think large and inclusive, but also think measurable and manageable. Remember to construct an “entry event,” as BIE likes to call it. How will you introduce each PBL unit? I know you want to dive all in, but it is and often desirable to implement a hybrid PBL program in which you have one PBL unit per grading period in the first year, and use other types of teaching-learning activities in between. Then expand to more PBL units in the second year. You know your own tolerance.

Collaboration is a HUGE piece of PBL. Just be aware that students need to learn how to collaborate meaningfully and fairly. Avoid having one student do all of the work for a group. The mainstays for me in implementing PBL are:

  1. Some type of collaboration software: I recommend Google Drive as the foundation. It is the modern workplace collaboration and “sharing” tool that they need to learn to use. Students are required to have GMail accounts. Wikis are great for protected threaded discussions. PBWorks or Wikispaces provide free sites. You can also collaborate through Edmodo.
  2. Second, a learning management system such as Edmodo or Schoology (although Edmodo claims it is not really an LMS) is necessary to hold your assignments and shared resources. Creating YouTube playlist for your videos is good so students access from home. As you gather web based learning resources, you will find they proliferate. Keeping track can be a challenge. I finally decided to create my own website to organize them: https://edtune.com
  3. One thing I learned in implementing PBL was the importance of the role of assessment. This is the hidden beast. Students need weekly “formative” feedback on their progress. Helping them divide the larger PBL unit into meaningful and measurable chunks is important. Learning in PBL is as much about the process as the product. Many teachers I have worked with also designed rubrics around social and collaboration skills as well as content.

I have been using Camtasia Studio for my screen casts. It will get easier and easier. Most of my screencasts so far have been in the area of PD. I will be expanding, but right now the focus has been on the ed1stop portal.

Teach flat, teach well.

Part 2: How Does One Keep It Manageable?

The key to timely feedback is the “timely” part. Keep each piece of weekly feedback discrete, targeted and – most importantly – manageable. In other words, don’t try to include everything in your weekly feedback or assessments. If you can feel overwhelmed, then so can the student.  To keep it simple, decide on a regular day, no more than once per week, when you will provide feedback. It can be bi-weekly. Provide a “grade” or points. If you have time, provide comments. Comment can be written or oral in conference. In the case of student conferences, you can rotate these because they are time consuming. In my experience, it is better to provide multiple but short grades to students rather than one extensive summative assessment when all is done. Grades can also be simple “did it and submitted it on Edmodo” or “didn’t do it.” You can do simple “tickets out” and assign points. Peer reviews can also count for credit. More in-depth assessment should be done by mid-project.

The key to keeping assessment manageable is in what I like to call “chunking.” Remember that for many students, PBL or “inquiry learning” is a brand new way of doing things. They are juggling the process as well as the content. When you require that they work on their projects collaboratively, that is an additional “process” ball to juggle. You will have to teach them the process and allow for fumbling along the way. Think of each project as a multi-course meal. Feed each PBL unit to the students in a piece by piece fashion, allowing them time to digest one course before moving on to the next.

Here is an organizational framework for planning PBL

Always have your “driving question” at the top of the hierarchy. Then clarify what the final student “product” might look like. Then organize the PBL unit by assessments. In the various graduate education classes I taught, I used to say, “Assessment drives instruction.” This is simply another way of conceptualizing “backwards design.” You design you project entry events and periodic assessments with the end in mind. These assessments act as benchmarks.

“Summative assessments” are for final project grades. “Formative assessments” go hand in hand with checking for understanding from the teacher’s point of view, and they answer the student question, “Am I doing this right?” In PBL a teacher is like a music conductor who keeps the orchestra playing together. It can be easy to forget that one key role of “formative” assessment is to provide information for mid-course correction. When I think of the broader meaning of “authentic,” I ask myself, “Is this working as it is, or do we have to tinker with it to make it work?”

Here is a summary. Students need to know what is expected of them, how it will be evaluated or graded, and when it is due. “Rubrics” are part of managing assessments, but you can also include quizzes, essays and other standard approaches. Peer evaluation can be included as long as it is moderated. Each formative assessment or piece of feedback ought to accomplish multiple purposes:

  1. Tell the student if he or she is “on topic,” that is, answering the driving question. Sometimes this is a process of successive approximations.
  2. Evaluate quality of work to date, but in a limited or targeted way. Do not try to evaluate every component every week. Authentic does not mean comprehensive, but it does means personal and genuine. When each step of work is completed, students get credit for it. This can be simple. Don’t try to make it to complex.
  3. Provide pacing feedback. Tell the student if he or she is on target to complete the project in the time allowed. If you have established and articulated “benchmarks,” then give students points when they complete that benchmark.

Rick’s Blog

A funny thing happened on my way to retirement in June 2012. My mind wouldn’t shut down. Not that such a thing was desirable. I had taught for 25 years. Being a teacher and administrator ingrains in oneself a sense of public service. Maybe it is more accurate to say that a deep sense of service motivates most who go into teaching.

My mind kept whirring, gears turning upon the possibility of new mechanisms, a clockwork of evolving dimensions. I had not always been a teacher, but it did seem to be part of my DNA. In my in-between life as a general contractor and small businessman, I learned what it was like to be independent. I had the freedom to create and build. I had the freedom to hire whom I chose. I could work or not work, if I chose. The money was good, but I missed teaching. So I returned to the classroom. It invigorated me. I spent hours upon hours planning. My mood swung upon the success or failure of the most simple lessons, a look of insight, or a smile upon a struggling reader’s face as he “got it.”

Teaching evolved for me. A natural progression is from classroom to administration, and that happened to me too. But perhaps one of the best things that ever happened was going back to the classroom for a year. Times were lean. (You remember, don’t you?) I continued as Coordinator of Educational Technology while I taught Multimedia to high school students. I would find myself regularly staying up until 11:00 PM lesson planning. It doesn’t matter how many years one has taught, a new subject is like being in a first year classroom all over again. Perhaps the classroom management is familiar, but everything else is a spiral between excitement, due dates and occasional panic. The following year the budget improved, and I returned to full time administration. However, I had grown during that year. inspired by the students in my classes.

Time moved on. As I approached the possibility of retirement, I started thinking about the things I wanted to create. A website was one of them, and obviously it was going to be geared to education. Teaching is about human relationships, not just about conveying content or using specific strategies. How would I convey that in my website?

That is the subject of this blog. I hope it will evolve as I grow. Old teachers never die, they just teach a new grade level or subject. It keeps them fresh.