Technology for Teachers – Key Concepts

I am currently revising a graduate-level Educational Technology class I teach at San Diego State University called Advanced Technology for Teachers. I spent a lot of time coming up with individual topics, but realized I needed some bigger topics that would define the key concepts I hope to get across.

After ditching my previous goals, I have come up with these defining concepts:

  1. Today’s students are shaped by the numerous technologies that are available. (Topics: Is Google Making us Stupid?, multitasking, digital citizenship)
  2. The role of social media in society and education should be addressed and utilized.
  3. Technology should not be treated as something separate or special, it represents a vast array of tools and strategies that can be integrated regularly. (Topics: Web 2.0 tools, Google Apps for Education, mobile technologies)
  4. A Personalized Learning Network (PLN) can change your perspective on professional development. A PLN can provide on demand staff development, amazing resources, and access to numerous teachers and experts willing sharing their expertise. (Topics: Twitter, Google Reader / RSS, and Podcasts)
  5. Technology tools can be used to help manage an educator’s professional (and personal) lives.

Anything missing? Any thoughts?

A Community and its Things

[This was originally posted on my school's staff blog, West Hills Stories]

One of the things I try to foster in my classes, both history and photography, is a sense of community. I believe in being a part of something whenever possible. I think the insecurities in all of us are bolstered and knocked down some when we come together. Within my classes, I actively and consciously put into play a few basic strategies throughout the year. I have a simple premise: if students feel connected to the class, they might care a little more and try harder.

What has worked for me isn’t anything special or crazy. I banter, joke, ask about their weekends, use Facebook to encourage participation, and I regularly let them know they are part of something special. For instance, I’m always changing things up, so I tell them we are doing something new or cutting edge. I also have projects and lessons that I’ve been doing for over ten years. For those, I tell them they are part of an ongoing tradition. These things might not be as dramatic as some of the lessons going on next door, but it is the same idea on my level. In photo, I’ve branded the room – Studio A3. I want it to be known as place where amazing creativity takes place. Over the years, I’m betting on this brand to help the Digital Imagery Pathway grow.

Another part of my community building involves occasionally letting students help guide the class. A couple weeks ago, I was just starting a lesson on industrialization and the rise of unions in World History. Up went a hand and a question was asked about Prop 32. I had planned to talk about the election the following week, so I asked if they wanted to swap days. We took a vote and had a spirited discussion of Prop 32 and presidential candidates.

Another example involves the People and Their Things project currently being completed by my Advanced Photography students. The original assignment asked them to photograph any two people. I offered a token amount of extra credit if they chose a staff member. After I printed the first 10 images and showed them to the class, one student asked if they could do more. I thought for a minute and asked if they wanted to do the whole staff. They responded with a resounding “yes”. It wasn’t another individual assignment, but something they all were working towards together. Another student chimed in that it would be cool to see all the teachers and a little about their personalities all in one place.

Yes it would be. It was the perfect convergence of ideas. My community of Advanced Photo students get to create something special that is going to help us as a school build a greater sense of community.

I wish I could say that I planned it that way.

[The photographs will be on display in the office after Thanksgiving. Click here for a preview of the ones that are already completed.]

ISTE Truths

After numerous formal and informal conversations during the Edubloggers Con, on the way to conference sessions, sitting the fringe of the Blogger's Cafe, and doing a pub crawl around Philadelphia, I've come to a few conclusions. There is great agreement amongst ed techy types about the need for change and the type of change necessary in the American educational system. I'd like to propose an set of Educational Technology / ISTE Truths. We need to start with the big one:

  • First and foremost, the current classroom model was devised for an industrial society in the 1890s. We are different now, we must teach and provide learning opportunities differently.
  • Here are some others.

  • Our brains aren't made to function in a classroom
  • Classrooms need to be student-centered
  • Hands on projects that allow students to do stuff to gain real understanding
  • Projects should be authentic, not just to get a grade
  • Teachers need to facilitate, guide, and partner up with students
  • Students need to collaborate with their classmates and with people in other places
  • So called "21st Century Skills" or the new literacies are just as important as content
  • Mobile Devices are the future, stop telling the students to put them away
  • Bring Your Own Device programs are the future, IT people – stop freaking out (a recent addition)

I'm sure I missed a couple, but you get the point. We are all on the same page. Or at least, ISTE or someone needs to send out a list of these ISTE Truths so people know that these are the educational, philosophical, and pedagogical foundation of the conference. Then we can move on and take the collective conversation about HOW get around the barriers and HOW we can make these changes happen in our schools. What upgrades to our curriculum can we make this year? Maybe some more specifics on WHAT it looks like in real classrooms (you know the ones with 35-40 kids packed into the them). There were some like that, I know. But, I sat in on too many sessions and conversations that ended with me wanting to say Amen without details. I enjoyed watching a couple of the Google booth sessions that showed me how to do something specific in a classroom setting. With all that said, the last four days were amazing. I have so many ideas to ponder and my classroom and the professional development I do will be transformed even more. Thanks ISTE and all the contributors to the #ISTE11 conversation.

Twitter Overload?

First, one of the many ISTE / Ed Tech Truths out there, for now at least, is if you want to stay on top of the latest developments you have to be on Twitter. If you can join, follow, participate – great. If not, don’t worry you can still use it. Follow hash tags or one of the many educational “chats” that take place on just about every subject. You don’t even need account.

Now over the last five days, I’ve lived and breathed ISTE. From the Edubloggers Con on Saturday to the train ride to Washington DC to visit my sister (as I write this). And throughout all that time, I was always checking my phone or computer for #iste11 conversations. I think I’m going a little cross-eyed over it. There were times that hundreds of tweets were flying by in short bursts. Next to impossible to track, let alone catalog the amazing links and ideas.

In comes the tool that can help with all that. This delicious-like tool scours your Twitter feed for links. So, over the course of the last five days, when I didn’t have time to open up a link OR I opened it up and said WOW I need to keep this, I re-tweeted it. snaps it up and later I can catalog or delete as necessary.

In Memoriam

Last week I was told that a former student had recently died in a car accident. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time I’ve gotten news like this, but this time it is different. He was a student who entered my class some 11 years ago with a major chip on his shoulder. However, by the time he left my class he was starting to turn things around and over the next couple years was able to recover from a disastrous start in high school. He gave me part of the credit for turning his life around – an honor that grew with time as he traveled through his life and made occasional visits. He told me it was that I didn’t give up on him, I didn’t just throw him out class when he said something stupid (he had his moments!), and that I made world history interesting. Ultimately it was a single assignment that created that change in my class, a poem written from the perspective of a soldier in World War I (I wrote about it in a 2006 post here). Even after he submitted it and brought the class to tears when he read it, he continued to work on it and refine it. He would bring the new revisions to me to read, but he kept the original with my comments in his binder during his junior and senior year.

When he graduated (on time), he joined the Marines. I think he saw himself as the tragic soldier he envisioned in that poem. After he graduated he visited me four times. Before and between each of his three tours in Iraq. He was a changed man with each visit. Before he went he was excited. After his first tour he was empowered and ready to go back. On the third visit he introduced me to his pregnant wife and he lamented returning to Iraq.

He limped in on his fourth visit. His third tour was cut short when he nearly died in Iraq. He also told me that right after he was hit and though it was the end, he thought of the poem he wrote. It ends like this: But in the end I shall fall like the rest. This time he introduced me to his baby girl.

As I go back and read it again now, it is these lines that strike me the most:

Looking at pictures of my wife and kids.
Leaving them will be the hardest thing I ever did.

He was one of those students who helped me early in my career define what type of teacher I was going to be. While I have seen others turn their lives, he was the first and the most dramatic.
A few weeks ago he died in a car accident. He survived a troubled youth and three tours in Iraq. I am honored to have been part of this brave soldier’s path through life and deeply saddened by his loss.

Rest in peace Donald.

Stretching for Excellence

I think of posts all the time, the problem is time. Right, isn’t it for everyone?

As an Advanced Placement World History teacher, I expect excellence from my students. I require them to read, take notes, write essays, etc. Then when some struggle, I get the real story. They are in six classes and attempting to achieve excellence in all of them. Plus they play sports, volunteer, yada, yada, yada. I get it, but what is the alternative? If they don’t do well in AP World, then it will bring down your GPA or maybe set a precedent for future success in AP classes or affect their chances of getting into that premier university. Or what? I also know that if it wasn’t me, it would be another teacher. I do my best helping student try and figure out their priorities and focus their energies on what they need to do. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t. They are all stretching, stretching for themselves or his/her parents, or stretching for some idea or dream. Generally, it is all good. Sometimes a little misguided or misdirected, but who am I?

I’ve always been sensitive to this, probably because I’ve always done the same. I’ve stretched myself so thin that sometimes excellence is tough to achieve. I could live and breath AP World History or photography or this ed tech world (that I’ve removed myself from) or…. , but then I wouldn’t have anything left for all of the other things and, oh yeah, my family. (Which, for you young parents, gets even more involved as the years pass.)

Throughout the school year I always tell my AP students, if you try your best then you have to be happy with the results (good or bad). I try to live by that myself, even if I think I am coming up short in some areas. I’m stretching, but my perception of excellence is relative.

Off to grade some more AP essays.

When Worlds Collide @ EDSITEment

Another version of my KCET blog post, more directed at teachers:

There are few absolutes in history. Yet, we often try to boil down events and ideas to a few simple explanations. As a history teacher in a public school, I have found that it can be tough to find the time to explore the complexities of many topics. We simply don’t have the time in the light of high stakes testing and other shifting priorities. However, I would argue that when students are provided with simple explanations, we paint an uneven picture of history that ultimately will distort their perception. We must find opportunities to bring them into the intricacies of historical stories.

Read the rest at the EDSITEment website (currently featured on their main page.

PBS Documentary: When Worlds Collide

I just wrapped up another set of lesson plans for PBS. This time they support a great film called When Worlds Collide.

The film was produced by KCET in Los Angeles. They asked me to write a blog post about the lesson materials:

There are few absolutes in history. Yet, we often try to boil down events and ideas to a simple explanation.

When I was in elementary school, I remember learning about the brave conquistadors who braved long voyages across the Atlantic Ocean only to be confronted by hordes of half-naked savages. Victory was inevitable and ordained by God. Years later, I read another version of this confrontation that painted the Spanish as murderers and the ensuing events as one tragedy after another.

Read the rest at the KCET website.

Hello, I’m Dan

It’s been almost a year since I last wrote. During that time, I wrote drafts of my last blog post any number of times. I never seemed to have the time to finish my thoughts. Almost six years ago when I started, there were just a handful of educational bloggers. It was fun, a smallish community that continuously bounced ideas and discussions off one another. Today, it has become an amazing vast wonderland of people sharing ideas, tools, etc. Then Twitter made it expand in an unbelievable way.

As it expanded and my time became more limited as I took on more responsibilities, jobs, and kids (up to three now), I didn’t feel I had as much to offer to this big conversation. I had wanted to do a weekly cool tool update, but weekly wasn’t realistic. I sort of got lost along the way of what I wanted to share. When it came down to it, I was most successful as a blogger when I wasn’t doing any real planning or trying to shape a specific message. I just wrote about what was going on – tech projects I was working on, presentations I was doing, cool lesson plans that worked, and any larger educational issues that were affecting the classroom. That was enough for me and anyone who passed through.

A lot has changed in the last year in education as a whole and in my little educational world (new principal, new classes, a stint as the accreditation coordinator, more PBS work, etc.). I think I could start pondering again out loud. I’ve scaled back my “outside” responsibilities and look forward to a summer thinking about what I’m going to be teaching. In the fall, I’m going to really get to focus on teaching my classes (AP World and Photography – added last year). Something I haven’t really had an opportunity to do in about three years.

So this is not the farewell I have attempted to write, but a reintroduction. See you around.

Drawing the Social Line

I tend to blend my work and personal lives together. I have one computer that I mostly use. My living room serves as my main work, relax, and inside play area. I grade papers while the kids run amok. I will talk about my kids and share the highlights of my weekend with my students.

But I have always tried to draw some lines. I don’t share my political or religious views with my students. I certainly stay away from some of my wilder youth stories (if there are any).

The Internet has a caused me to reconsider some of the lines I’ve drawn over the years. Initially this blog had no name on it – while I didn’t hide my identity, I didn’t publicize it. I wrote about politics and made semi-veiled references to events in my classroom. Once Dan McDowell publicly became A History Teacher, those posts stopped. My audience clearly became other teachers and educational technologists. The more personal posts disappeared, or at least only made occasional appearances. I’m sure some students found and occasionally read a post, but I think most would have found them boring.

As the tools for networking continue to expand, so do the possibilities for greater and more varied connections. I use my Twitter and Flickr accounts for both professional and personal uses – even my 365 in 2009 images include a mix of images taken at school and at home. About a year ago I set up a Facebook account and connected to a handful of other educational technology types. Eventually some former students found me and I accepted their friend invitations. I rarely, if ever looked at it until about three months ago. Some old high school and college friends started adding me as friends. Then my wife got on it with her network of friends and before I knew it I had: educational technology contacts, former professors, teachers from my school, former students, family members, college friends, high school friends, and parents of my kids friends. All in the same room.

Now I only have about 50 friends in Facebook, but it is a diverse and high quality group. There might be a story or two (remember I said might) from high school or college that I wouldn’t want passed on to my family or former students or current co-workers. A friend (both in Facebook and real life) related to me a incident where he asked another friend to take down some college party-type pictures because he was concerned about his professional contacts seeing the images.

I already strictly adhere to the rule that I don’t friend current students, but this is now bigger than just sharing information with students. I’ve always had parts of my life compartmentalized with only occasionaly cross-over. To truely enjoy and continue some of these friendships in Facebook, I have to blur the lines I’ve drawn for my entire life. I am just grappling with how to do that now.

No doubt I am not the only one experiencing this, what are you doing about it?