The Last Eight Years – Part 3

(Part 1 and Part 2)

Year 17 (World History and Photo)
After a three year hiatus, I was back to the course that defined my first ten years – CP World History. The course was in dire need of an overall and I was able to implement a series of new tech projects, especially since my photo lab was available every day. My second Digital Imagery Pathway cohort finally got the luxury of a full lab and took great advantage of it. We officially moved away from film and pushed the digital limits. It included an amazing mix of talents who will do amazing things as seniors in the capstone pathway class.

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Year 18 (Photo and US History)
With my good friend Dave Burgess taking a leave of absence to tour the tour the world on the wake of his book, Teach Like a Pirate, I was able to grab a US History section with another fantastic group of student in what would be my final year. I started my career desperately wanting to teach my major – US History, but got locked out of it most of my years. It is fitting that I was able to enjoy it for my last eight weeks of teaching. My colleague, Jarrod Carman, and I threw everything out we had done in previous years and started completely from scratch. I have always loved the challenge of developing a class, especially when working with someone with the same mindset. One of my big take aways from this last 18 years is that I have been lucky to have had a series of amazing collaborative experiences. I am who I am because I worked with smart, motivated, and resourceful peers.

The most bittersweet part of my departure this year was leaving my cohort of senior pathway students. In many ways, it was like a family reunion. We formed a close knit community in my class two years ago. They spent last year with another teacher, some occasionally visited and I caught up with others in the hallways in between classes. Then they came home. It was eight weeks of educational and artistic bliss. No time spent building rapport or setting class norms. It was the most natural beginning to a class. We just started rolling. And then I left.

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So there we have it. A self-indulgent and nostalgic snapshot of a series of milestones that characterize my adventure in and around the classroom. It all came down to five words – students, technology, collaboration, creativity, and relationships. Ideas that I take with me into my next world.

And it is now officially added to the historical record. However, make sure to consider my POV.

Those 18 year will forever define me as an educator.

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Looking Forward?

I am a big fan of all of the ed tech visionaries out there. My Bloglines account includes the likes of Will Richardson, David Warlick, Chris Lehmann, Vicki Davis, and about 50 others. Plus, in the last few months I have grown fond of Twitter (other than it’s regular downtime) and have followed what I will call the “conversation” that drives the cutting edge of educational technology as it currently exists. I respect the insight and discussions about where we should go shared by all of the edubloggers in extended (blogs) and abbreviated forms (Twitter). However, in the last few months I have begun to start asking myself where are they/we all going. The need for change is blaringly obvious – to me and most of those who are part of that community, but for most teachers, I don’t think they even know there is a conversation taking place. You certainly have your exceptions – Chris’s Science Leadership Academy sounds like an amazing place to work. There are a collection of teachers like myself who integrate these ideas into our classrooms and then share those experiences with the world through workshops and our blogs, but it isn’t enough to change the world.

There is a great quote from the movie Gandhi that I have been thinking about for the last few months (I have done some research and haven’t been able to confirm if he actually said this, but I know he believed at least in the spirit of the quote that appeared in the movie). Here it is:

This Congress (the Indian National Congress) tells the world it represents India. My brothers, India is seven hundred thousand “villages” not a few hundred lawyers in Delhi and Bombay. Until we stand in the fields with the millions who toil each day under the hot sun, we will not represent India – nor will we ever be able to challenge the British as one nation.

The plight of education differs significantly from the independence movement in India, but there are some parallels (While I won’t delve into the comparison between colonial Great Britain and NCLB, let’s not overlook that fun observation). There are a growing number of us (educational technologists) both in and out of the classroom who are participating in this conversation about how to bring technology and skills that will be valuable in the coming years to the classroom, but despite the explosion of educators participating there are thousands who aren’t. Those thousands of classroom teachers are literally bound by state standards, limited/no access to technology, a lack of institutional support, little/no understanding of the importance, and even an outright reluctance to break with our industrial revolution model of education (it was good enough for me….). You start talking about blogs, wikis, social networking, and podcasts with educators in anyone of those categories and most of it will be lost (or at least filed away) when they return to their classrooms. I think in a lot of ways many of those who talk about Web 2.0 and widespread technology integration are as disconnected to the real situation that most teachers face as the British-educated Indian National Congress was to the rural population of India. I don’t know that we have Gandhi in our midst. Plus I don’t think hunger strikes will get teachers to start a blog, but hey – who knows? Any takers? I’ll write about it.

There remains no simple solution. Really widespread institutional change needs to occur within the educational system. I do not believe I will see that level of change in my career. We have too many standards, tests, textbook companies, federal acts, and even unions. So now what? We do the best we can. We recognize our limitations and work with them. We will not see these changes permeate all classrooms in the immediate future, but hopefully the movement will grow. Certainly it won’t be fast enough, but it will have to do.

I know this sounds a little pessimistic. As a history teacher I’ve come to recognize that many great ideas that should be implemented are often ignored, corrupted by politicians, or lost amongst bad ones. I have the spirit of an idealist and the mind of a pragmatist. Sometimes I hate myself 🙂

I have another post in draft form to follow up on what I think we should do.

Teacher of the Year Application

I was selected to represent my school at my districts Teacher of the Year competition, here is my letter of introduction. My interview is on Thursday.

I love history, from the broad historical trends that have shaped the various regions of the world to the personal first hand stories of struggles and triumph. History defines who we are as a nation and gives insight to the roots of our conflicts. For me, those connections are natural. I am intrinsically fascinated by history and the lessons that we can take from it.

But students, they have other things going on. They have MySpace, video games, texting, and all the other distractions that have plagued teenagers throughout the history of education. That’s where my love of history blends with my love of teaching. It takes more than me telling them something is interesting or important, I get them hooked and keep them engaged. I have to make the curriculum assessable while still maintaining high academic expectations. I have to get them to think about the French Revolution and the greater implications of the French Revolution when they just had a rockin’ weekend with their friends at the River or they have stayed up all night fighting trolls in World of Warcraft. I’ve never found that silver bullet solution, that one tried and true method that works for every student each day. Instead I have found dozens of techniques that I use to actively engage my students.

On any given day you may find my classes participating in deep discussions, dissecting primary sources, examining photographs online, reenacting portions of history, trying to solve a problem, analyzing art, writing poems, listening to music, empathizing with a specific individual from history, or playing a historical game. Students must understand the importance of different events and how most modern problems have deep historical foundations. History also serves as a tool to teach practical skills that will assist them long after the dates have faded from their memories. I craft my lessons so that students can develop a range of skills, from basic note taking and critically analyzing a source for bias to ultimately applying complex problem solving skills. The ability of level of each student helps determine the emphasis of specific skill sets, for instance AP students have much different needs than college prep students. I also create a balance between teacher-directed lessons and more constructivist student-center projects, providing opportunities for students to approach their learning on their own terms.

Over the years I have attempted to define my educational philosophy and found that I do my best work when not adhering to a rigid school of thought. I am always open to new ideas, theories, and techniques that better serve my objectives and the varying needs of my students. If I were to describe my teaching persona, I would say I am a history teacher trying to prepare students for the twenty-first century. That idea may be one of the most defining factors of my teaching career that has brought me extensively into the realm of staff development. I cannot imagine teaching without a computer or the Internet just a click away. Without getting on a soapbox, I do not think we can responsibly ignore the power of technology in the classroom. The American students of today get little or no academic direction how to responsibly use computers and the Internet in an ever-expanding global economy where there are significant potential long-term consequences. As a result, I have made it a priority to integrate cutting-edge technology-based projects and assignments throughout my curriculum. By the end of this year, students in my classes will have created digital video projects, completed WebQuests, mapped historical events in Google Earth, published their work on blogs, and used wikis to collaborate online.

Through my strong connection with the SDSU Department of Educational Technology, San Diego County Office of Education, GUHSD Technology Resources, and a strong Internet presence I have had the opportunity to help spread that message. In my 12 years in the district, I have had the privilege to speak to over 350 GUHSD teachers and hundreds more around the nation about integrating various forms of technology into their curriculum. Through these expanding connections I find myself part of a nationwide network of teachers and educational technologists who continually look to improve instructional strategies. At West Hills I have helped establish what I consider to be a model professional learning community for world history. Our five teacher team made incredible strides to enhance the course curriculum and provide equitable learning opportunities for all world history students, which resulted in a dramatic increase in subject SAT9 scores last year. We continue to bring our strengths together while still encouraging independent innovation.

In many ways I consider myself an artist. The mechanics of my classroom are fluid and flexible. I constantly work to improve my instruction. I refine and at times redefine the lessons and dynamics of my classroom as necessary. As a product and now an employee of this district, I know the caliber of teachers found in the GUHSD. I am honored to be nominated for the Teacher of the Year award, and I appreciate your consideration.

Plagiarism, Just Fine

OK, it’s not. However, a group of students are suing for archiving their papers after they submit them so they can later be referenced. Make sense? If you are not familiar with, it is a service used by universities and high schools to check for plagiarism. A teacher sets up a class on the web site and requires students to submit their work through this site. Student then get to see the results of the plagiarism scan and resubmit if necessary. The teacher can also see the results of any paper officially submitted (although I think a student can have the paper scanned before he/she actually turns it in). The program checks the submitted papers against the Internet as a whole and thousands (millions?) of other papers submitted into the service.

The lawsuit alleges that the company is violating the high school students’ rights under U.S. copyright law. The students are required by their schools to submit some essays to, a Web-based service that compares the documents against a massive internal database and other sources to look for signs of plagiarism. It then places the student works in an electronic archive. (from Education Week)

Interesting approach. Actually, you could argue just opposite! By archiving student work, students can be ensured that one will take credit for their personal work. Buy, anyway…

Well I don’t specifically use (my school pays for the service, I just haven’t had the time…), I’ve caught too many students over the years plagiarizing information by typing in a particular un-student-like line of text into Google. Most of the time, that does the trick. Some inventive students actually pull resource from a number of sources and paste them all together, creating the Frankenstein of essays and term papers. Needless to say, these are particularly easy to spot.

However, over the last few years, I’ve changed my approach to academic papers. I no longer ask for the standard report or general essay on a topic. I force them to think about the information and do something with it. I’ve done many different versions of a WebQuest on the Industrial Revolution where students create a newspaper. In the original version, students had to do a short news story on an invention and/or an inventor from the era. Sounded good at the time and it hit the standards. What I discovered was that numerous students simply copied and pasted that section from a source I PROVIDED! The first year I caught almost ten students. Even the second year when I WARNED them I would be looking specifically for plagiarism, three students committed the same offense. The next year I reworked that section and instead of the bio/report, I required students to create an advertisement for an invention. A much more creative task where students demonstrate their understanding. Plus there are no advertisements “out there” for the spinning jenny or early steam engine.

With the massive of amount of information online and the numerous services that sell term papers, it seems we (the teachers) need to re-think the term paper. We have to get beyond the write a report mentality. We need to teach them to use the information out there in some way, not just regurgitate information on a topic. While there are elements of formal research papers that we need to teach, I believe the traditional term paper of my youth (80’s and 90’s) is dead. Yes, dead. We can get a dozens of these papers with a few directed searches, why make the students reinvent the wheel? Why tempt the students? Instead we need to find better ways to get our students to think about the material.

What do you do beyond the term paper?


Web 2.0 and Technology Education

I’ve been asked to take on our high school Web Design class next school year and I’m trying devise a class that addresses the changing nature of the web.  In the past it has focused on learning Dreamweaver, CSS, and html.   The class was also tasked with maintaining the school web site.

In short, I am trying to envision the Web 2.0 version of this class.  I want to move away from teaching traditional applications and code.   I have visions of digital media literacy, blogging about technology tools, and finding web applications that fit practical personal and education needs.

Can you help?  If you have any ideas, I would love to hear them – either in a comment or an e-mail (danmcdowell at gmail dot com).

I intend to use an open source CMS (Drupal or Joomla) for the backbone of the school web site, so that portion of the class won’t be as dominating.  I will have around 30 students with varying degrees of technology background.  We will be using Macs.



My Castle

Conditions in schools throughout the country are varied. While some have idealized conditions, some teachers attempt to create learning environments in buildings infested with mice and mold. It amazes me to hear that there are classrooms that don’t keep out the rain!

In the spirit of raising awareness to this national problem, I am participating in the AFT’s Let’s Get it Right open house. AFT (American Federation of Teachers) recently released a report documenting some of the conditions (many of them horrible) found in our classrooms. In addition to the report, the folks over at the NCLBlog are asking teacher bloggers from around the nation to share their teaching environment.

Classroom Photo

I have to admit I am lucky. My school is just turning 20 and while there are some run down qualities throughout the campus we are in pretty good shape. No doubt a harsher climate then southern California would take a higher toll. Other then a slight odor in my room (some days it is more slight then others), I have few complaints. I did find a mouse trap in the ceiling over the summer when I moved into the classroom with three decaying bodies, but they were small and I haven’t seen any other signs of them.

I have new carpet, air conditioning/heat most of the time, seven good sized cabinets, a long counter, an office that I share with a colleague, and now a telephone in the room. My only complaint is that my department has been trying to get our video projectors mounted for closing on three years – I have part of the mount hanging about six feet about where my projector sits on a rolling cart (complete with three long cords connecting it to the computer, DVD player, and wall). But compared to many teachers out there, I’m just spoiled.

Other classrooms in my building (including my previous one) have carpet coming off the floor, but that is the worst of it.

I have had my own classroom for all but one of my 11 years teaching, so I’ve had a chance to settle in and create an environment that I think best suits my teaching style. For the items I used the monies passed down by the district, written grants, and even spent a decent chunk of my own money.

Some of my classroom customizations include:

  • A nice stereo (grant money) with six speakers (personal money) to create the full surround sound experience
  • A large desk (given to me by another teacher) completely covered in papers.
  • Plants (personal money – they’ve lasted almost five years now!)
  • Video projector (grant money) and large projection screen (department money)
  • New laptop (district money)
  • Posters – a different set for each semester (district money)
  • Extra file cabinet and small couch (personal – old furniture)
  • Lots of books (district and personal money)

Everything was arranged and installed on my own personal time. Having all of this stuff really makes it so I don’t have to worry about my classroom (other then a little organization). The students are comfortable. I’m comfortable. It is too bad that this isn’t the rule. How can we (the American people) allow poor conditions in our schools?

Great Lessons Left Behind?

I will not claim to be an expert on No Child Left Behind. I know enough that it doesn’t seem to be solution to an expanding educational crisis in many schools AND the challenges of a globalized economy. It seems to work against the latter. Call me a bad teacher, but for the last ten years, I have not thought about how my students have performed on the standardized tests given by the state of California. Instead, I have spent that time focusing on developing curriculum and teaching core concepts and skills that will help my students understand the world around them, prepare them to be global and American citizens, and succeed “out there” in the “real world.” Generally, I believe I have been successful. However, in the last three years the results on the social studies portion of the California exam has decreased – as have the school’s API score.

Now it doesn’t matter that the manner in which the scores are weighted changes from year to year – even the literature provided by the state clearly states that these scores cannot be studied longitudely. It also doesn’t seem to matter that last year all of the sophomores were piled into the gym (400+) students to take the exam to a take a test they know didn’t matter to them personally (in contrast to the CA High School Exit Exam). Nor does it matter that California has left its proficiency level at 62% while Texas lowered its level to somewhere around 50%.

As my school starts to examine ways to improve measurable school achievement (which really takes the form of D/F rates and/or scores on the state tests) and my district is pushing us towards Professional Learning Community which seem to have a data analysis emphasis, I am finally thinking about standardized tests. While I always considered the standards (specific content and generalized skills), I used them as a guide, not a map. As the content matter expert and the teacher in the classroom, I make judgments as to what areas need the most emphasis. For instance, the Holocaust is just a single point in the CA world history standards, but I spend three weeks on it. Why? Well, the community in which I teach has issues with tolerance and racism. I once had a student question the validity of the Holocaust IN CLASS. I need the students in my classes who live in this community to all understand the seriousness of the issue of tolerance.
This year, I (and the other world history teachers) have decided to move the Propaganda Video Project, which has been a part of the world history curriculum for years, back until after exam season so we can get through more content before the test. No matter that the project served as an anchor for the Rise of Totalitarianism unit or that it teaches important skills like video planning and production, group work, and recognizing media manipulation. The independent teacher in me is angry. I don’t think this is the best solution for my students, it fits here – not there. However, the rational, level-head pragmatist in me recognizes that preparing students for these exams is part of my job description. Those scores help determine how others see the school. In the private sector, I couldn’t just blow off an element of my job because of philosophical differences with my boss. The hard part now is trying to find that balance of doing what we think is best and what politicians think is best. I just hope I get to keep most of my soul.

As I want to continue to try new projects and technologies with my students, I now have to consider if they cover the standards. Does it hit all of the fine points of industrialization in England or imperialism in India, Africa, and Hawaii? Can I really spend three days on a WWI Poetry Wiki mini-project? (The answer to that last question is yes). It is no wonder some teachers won’t/can’t put in the effort to explore new technologies and skills related to these advancements. While they are important to our student’s success, there is little time and resources available AND they won’t be on the test. Online collaboration, video editing, and critical searching for digital resources are never going to become core curriculum until our priorities shift.

It’s too bad the pendulum never really sits right in the middle, it always has to swing too far to one side or the other.

Save MLK

One of the examples many presenters use to show how important it is for students to understand that Internet content needs to be critically examined for reliability is a site that run by a white supremicist group that negatively depicts Martin Luther King. As Tom at Tuttle SVC points out, some of those presenters/writers out there don’t understand how Google and other search engines work, because they actually link to this web site. Essentially, the more web pages that link to a specific web site, the high up in the Google ratings it appears. So while these people are actually working against this web site, by linking to it they are promoting it.

So while I may not be a big gun ed-tech blogger, but I’ll join this effort to push other legitmate MLK web sites up in the rankings and hopefully move the less desirable one down. All of us can help do this by participating in a Google Bomb. Essentially, if we place these links in our blog, then we can manipulate the Google rankings. It does seem a little subversive, but it is for a good cause!

Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.

Want to help? Go to Tuttle SVC then copy and paste the code he provides into your blog!

UPDATE: Tom has taken this campaign a step further and has asked people linking to the site to stop.

They Don’t Get It, We Can Help

Each year I spend the first couple weeks of my college prep world history classes looking at why history is important and the process of creating histories. During my Evaluating Evidence lesson I set up a criteria that historians and students need to consider when using a source. I really focused on point of view and bias. Then I started talking about the Internet. Our students now turn to the Internet for information first; few make special trips to the library to find something out. As I started talking about having to be very critical of the sources we find online, I got a lot of blank stares.

I started getting concerned, so I conduct a quick, informal survey (which I would repeat with my two other college prep classes). The results struck a cord. Most claim they don’t consider the source. If it shows up in Google, they are good to go. I mentioned the Martin Luther King, Junior page that use to show up in the top ten of Google searches on MLK which was really a skewed attack clandestinely sponsored by a white supremacist group (I believe Alan November used this example for a while). They were a bit shocked.

As this conversation developed in my first class, I decided that I would take them over to Wikipedia. About half of the students had been to Wikipedia, but only a handful actually understood it. Several mentioned that it was a cool place to easily get information. One person across three classes claimed he had contributed. When I clicked on the edit this page tab, I saw mouths drop open.

“You mean anyone can edit it?”
“Can you change it now?”
“Wait, it only changes it on your computer, right?”

The history tab (where you can see the past changes) surprised almost everyone. They have a good concept of creating content on the web (no doubt many of them have a MySpace account), but they were having trouble wrapping their head around the central concept of Wikipedia and wikis in general. When we got back to our discussion on evaluating evidence and examining information for validity, they seemed to get it a little more. We will certainly work on it all year.

It seems like no really owns teaching these skills. Who should do it? English teachers? Social studies? Technology classes? Everyone? I’m sure there are schools and districts that have made the effort and passed the policies to incorporated them, but I am betting a vast majority do not. We already have too much to cover and do. Throw in the issues I discussed in an earlier post and the problem becomes even more complex. It seems like technology is evolving so fast that education simply can’t keep up.

Perhaps, like wikis and blogs, it has to be bottom up. Squeeze it in between lessons or build a skill builder into an existing unit. They don’t get it. I can help my students. Can you help yours?