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?

The conversation is stale, for some

Just read Will Richardson’s post, De-Echoing My Reading Practice…Help Wanted. As usual, he discusses some good points, most notably that great “conversation” in the realm of educational technology has stalled. He is looking outside the usual network, deleting all of his edublog feeds to try and get new ideas that can further the collective thinking of educational technologists and teachers.

I understand his perception – I love exploring new ideas, but like I mentioned in a previous post, some still don’t know about the conversation or are still trying to wrap their brains around it. I hate to say it (I hope the buzz word gods don’t strike me down), but we are in the midst of a paradigm shift. While we can’t stop looking forward, let’s not forget to help those still contemplating its importance, use, or even existence.

In August, this blog will celebrate five years of sporadic existence. The echo chamber back then was more like a small box. What we have experienced is a growth so large that the central “conversation” has been diluted. We have reached a scalability issue that promises to be a part of the conversation for years to come. There are now over 250 Google Certified Teachers. During NECC there are hundreds of people live blogging,Twittering, etc. all of the sessions. If we all try and participate in the same discussion, most of us won’t be able to get a word in or at least we will be repeating each other. Thus, creating that echo chamber. I see that vast chamber actually as a sign of the success of this movement because it means more people are participating. Sure there might be 30 people blogging about using Google Docs with their students – but that means those who exploring the potential uses of Google Docs with their students can see multiple examples from people with varied backgrounds.

We need to keeping looking for ways to increase participation. We have come so far, but this grassroots movement has only just begun.

Selling my soul, or not

Over the last couple years I have found my way into endless discussions regarding the nature of assessment, the idea of common or equitable assessment, and impact standardized testing is taking on education as a whole. As my school attempts to recover from years of misdirection, we have had to explore these issues on a regular basis and really try and balance the idea that much of what we do with our students on a day-to-day basis cannot be measured on a 60 questions multiple choice exam. The notion that it can seems laughable. 180 days of discussions, projects, lectures, readings, etc. cannot be boiled down that far. Can it? Not only that, but are those intangibles and learning opportunities actually more valuable to the students as they progress through their education?

What is more important? That the student memorizes the dates and specific facts of a historical topic, or that he or she learns skills that might allow them to understand similar situations there (here) in the real world. Do we sacrifice lessons with that push critical thinking, public speaking, debate preparation, and technological literacy in favor of facts. The answer is obvious, right? But, we still have that darn state testing. And it looks like it isn’t going away any time soon.

This conversation has been going on for years. It is really old news, I know that. But for me, there is another side to it. What about AP classes? I love my AP kids, but in the end, I teach to the test. In AP World History, we are on a forced march across the ages and through a laundry list of skills (many of which important “big picture” skills that will help in life). I specifically address the types of essays they will be writing and how to do well on each one – sometimes at the expense of a more holistic approach to writing. I guess the main difference between AP tests and state testing is that the AP test directly helps the student. I guess that is enough. For now at least.

I do know that if I had taken AP history classes, I might not be here. The spark that ignited my love of history (and then teaching) was based in projects and discussions. I don’t remember the tests, though I’m sure I had them, but I do remember thinking and obsessing over skits, video productions, art projects, short stories, and debates. These ideas defined continue to My goal has always been to bring smaller chunks those types of lessons to AP, but is it enough?

Seven Things

Adina Sullivan over at How Do We Get From Here to There tagged me to do this Seven Things thing.  Having a moment to breathe, I decided to do it.

Here are the rules:

  • Link your original tagger(s), and list these rules on your blog.
  • Share seven facts about yourself in the post – some random, some weird.
  • Tag seven people at the end of your post by leaving their names and the links to their blogs.
  • Let them know they’ve been tagged by leaving a comment on their blogs and/or Twitter and/or Plurk.

Here are my Seven Things

  1. I first decided to be a teacher in elementary school when I took an extra copy of a worksheet home to store it safely until I became a teacher. When my parents finally told me to move all of my stuff once I graduated from college, that paper and a few others were still in pristine condition, complete with the purplish ink.
  2. In college I was a history major, but I spent an equal amount of time (if not more) working as a photographer for the UCSD Guardian. I even did a couple internships at a couple of the smaller local papers.  I considered photojournalism as a career – everyday provided a vast array of great experiences where I got to see parts of the school and the local communities that I would have otherwise, both the high and low moments.  After going to a hit-and-run accident that involved a seven-year old on a bike and seeing the distraught parents, I decided that the I just couldn’t do it.  So I switched gears and turned my photography obsession into a hobby.
  3. I have terrible organization skills.  It is a curse.  Drives my wife crazy.  Drives me crazy much of the time.  I have the desire, just not continuous ability to follow through.  Not to say that I don’t know where everything is – I know exactly what pile or folder to find everything!  Plus, I always get what needs to be done, done
  4. I am a music freak.  I always have been.  I started with a tape and record collection, moved on to CDs, and now I fill my hard drive with mp3s, etc.  Back in college, that newspaper photographer position got me into just about every show I wanted to see.  That got me hooked on live recordings of shows, which only has made the collecting of music more intense.  Some of my favorite bands include U2, the Decemberists, the Cowboy Junkies, and the Grateful Dead.
  5. I used to really want to spend some time traveling through Europe, but in the last few years I’ve really been more interested in Indian and Chinese history.  After working on the Story of India project, India currently sits at the top of my must-visit list.  It will take a few years still.
  6. I have braces, again.  I had them when I was younger, but some severe TMJ pain has forced me once again to be metal mouth.  I could have worse problems.
  7. My family is everything.  While the kids occasionally drive me crazy or keep me from getting any real sleep, they are my world.  My wife and I make an amazing team, don’t know where I would be without her support on a day-to-day basis.

Hmm.  Who do I tag?  I’ve been somewhat “out of the loop” for the last couple years, so I’m not going to tag anyone.  If you want to do it and haven’t been tagged, leave a comment.

Media Infusion Blog – January 2009

Teaching World History in the Digital Age

Like so many other Americans, my early perception of world history was focused through American and European lenses. The civilizations that shaped the West were considered to be more deserving of our attention than those that had fallen under the boot heels of European imperialists in the 18th and 19th centuries. This attitude was certainly a reflection of the times. Throughout the 20th century, Western civilization dominated world affairs, caused the bloodiest conflicts in human history, and pushed forward some of the most innovative technological advancements ever seen.

Read the rest at the PBS web site.

Should Have, Would Have, but Didn’t

The emptiness of this blog gives me some guilt. I have great intentions, but something else always comes first in my constant shifting of priorities to get what needs to be done today, done. So here are three ideas that I have jotted down – in some cases even started, but never finished…

  • And the winner is…. Not me! While I was selected as Grossmont Union High School District Teacher of the Year (a great honor in itself), I was not selected as San Diego County TOY. I thought I had a good shot, but in the end it didn’t happen. Maybe I sold my staff development training experience too much, let my introverted person-to-person personality show through too much in the interview (as opposed to my in front of the class personality), or those who did win were just better (and they were inspirational). While disappointed, there was an upside, I got to get out of the spotlight and get back into all of the other priorities of my professional and personal life.
  • Drinking the Google Kool-Aid – Back in 2006 I did become a Google Certified Teacher, but since last spring I’ve been living la vida Google. I’m sure I’ll revisit this…
  • Accreditation Coordinator – I took over as our WASC Coordinator this year, got a little more than expected, but have used Google tools to organize it.

There were more, but I want to move on.

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.