Students Choose Their Own Adventure

After three years of teaching photography in a "traditional" manner, I needed to change something. Basically, I assigned all the students the same assignment and gave them two-three weeks to complete them. There were a handful of other smaller assignments thrown into the mix, but the end result was that many of the students wasted time. This year, I got a full lab of computers, up from 20 last year, which was up from 10 the year before. This was going to allow me to move away from film and focus more firmly on digital imagery. This was my moment to take it to the next level.

The first thing I did was meet with a Digital Arts jedi over the summer (no matter who are, there is always an expert out there to help you along). We talked philosophy and some logistics. However, I didn't have his foundation, yet. And photography is just different enough from digital arts, that I needed to find my own path.  I did some changes at the beginning of the school year, but I still got a little hung up on some of the fundamentals of photography and my WordPress multiuser site was hacked and all my student lost their blogs. Then a few weeks ago, as I prepared for the second semester in (and battled the flu), it came to me. Some clarity in a fevered state.  This is exactly where I wanted to go for years now. I just didn't know what it looked like.  

Here is my revised syllabus:

Studio A3 Expectations

  • If you try, you will succeed!

  • Push yourself creatively and technically.

  • Respect Studio A3, yourself, your work station, the class resources, and everyone around you.

Updated Format of the Class
There are a wide array of skills you can learn in photography.  During first semester, most of our time was spent learning the basics of compositional styles, the camera, Lightroom, and Photoshop.  As we enter second semester it is time for a structural shift.

While we will continue to learn the fundamentals of essential topics, we will also many opportunities for you to explore the side of photography that you find most interesting.  If you love shooting, you can take more photos. If Photoshop is your happy place, spend more time there.  It is up to you.  

This is all based upon an idea I learned when I did a training at the Google office in Santa Monica in 2008. They call it 20% time. Basically, for 80% of a Googler’s work week, they do their assigned job.  Then, one day a week, they get to explore their own passions. Some great ideas have filtered up as a result, because when people get to choose what they work on, they generally are more engaged and work harder. For this class, these opportunities are called Challenges.  I have provide a long list of ideas to start with, but I am more than happy to let you go off the map and explore something of your choosing – as long as you give me some justification and show me what you are doing as it unfolds. As the semester continues, I will add more Challenges to the list.

Now this isn’t a free for all. In order to better track your progress, you will complete a Weekly Photography Goals and Accomplishments chart that will be set up in class. You will be responsible for updating this chart at the beginning and end of the week.  This will help you plan your week and ensure that you have time to complete the required elements of the class and any challenges you choose to complete. It will also let me see more clearly, where you are at any given time. Don’t worry if something changes mid-week, just report what changed and what you did instead on Friday.  You might even spend some time stewing over an idea, that’s OK too! We have a couple big conceptual projects in the next few months, I want you to spend some time pondering your way through the creative process.

Images of the Week
Additionally, every two weeks you will upload your best stuff to the appropriate Picasa Album. Not only will everyone else see what you are doing, but I will print a few of them to put up in the classroom.  When I trade them out a couple weeks later, you get to take nice 11×17 prints home!


It goes on, to describe my grading policy here.  The class website can be found here.

Putting Yourself Out There

As I get ready to share the power of Twitter and a PLN with a new crop of SDSU Ed Tech students this week, I am preparing for the standard reaction I always get – I don’t have anything to say.  Part of the issue that many face when they explore the nature of a PLN is that people feel strange putting themselves out there. Who am I to say things publically about education? What can I contributed? My response is that you need to develop and explore what it can be for you. Not every tweet has to point to a golden resource or encompass that perfect moment of zen. Make it what you want it to be and then when you are comfortable, push it a little further. This all part of the beauty of the democratization of the web, we get to lurk or contribute, but the greatest rewards come with our interactions. The strongest PLNs are social. They aren’t just a collection of resources, but people. And to maximize this potential, you have to put yourself out there.

This didn’t come easy or naturally for me, but it dramatically enhanced my professional life.

It is hard to believe that I started this blog in August 2004. So much has changed and evolved since that time, both in my life and in the educational technology world. Back then just handfuls of edubloggers existed, we had our own little PLN going. Some of today’s big fish, were just swimming with the rest of us at that time (I remember Chris Lehman blogging about teaching English, he even commented on my blog a few times).

That’s when I started to really put myself out there. I had already presented at workshops and some conferences, but getting a regular online presence and laying down some of my thoughts and classroom practices for all to see was a big step.  But, it wasn’t one that I did without caution. In the beginning, I didn’t have my name attached to my blog. I was an anonymous history teacher. Plus, I never talked about it to my face-to-face colleagues, even after I put my name on it. Who was I to blog about what I do? How am I any better than anyone else? I am certainly not a better writer than most.

But, I did it for a different reason. Right off the bat, I saw the value of reflection – probably the introvert in me. I think I do a lot of things pretty well, but they can always be better. Or maybe even changed all together for a superior idea. Plus, this crazy thing happened along the way – I became part of a community that was enriching, supportive, thoughtful, collaborative, and inspiring.

Along the way, Twitter happened. That group of edubloggers moved into this new realm, where the conversation expanded exponentially. Life and work pushed me away from regular blogging, but the community that I had come to rely existed in a medium that I allowed me to remain active on my own terms. While I crave reflective time to blog, I can always seek inspiration, ask questions, and participate in the ongoing discussion about the educational world in Twitter.

I think the benefits of opening yourself up and building a network of people that you can reach out to, is well worth the initial anxiety and apprehensions. Like most things in life, it is a process that takes time, but the rewards can change your life.

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.