Learning is Like Breathing

I’ve always believed that learning is like breathing. Quite frankly, if you walk around inhaling oxygen and  never exhale, you won’t get very far. Likewise, acquiring new information without making regular opportunities to reflect upon it  just isn’t very wise at all.

With that in mind, take an opportunity to brainstorm how you and your students might use  the resources that we’ve been exploring together (blogs and wikis). How might you use these web 2.0 tools to provide opportunities for your students to develop their critical reading and writing skills? How will you use these tools to help students learn your content?  Share some of your ideas with the group as a comment…

Digital Native? Digital Immigrant? Or Digital Refugee?

I contend that self reflection is an essential habit for any teacher. Who we are, to a great extent, determines how we teach. While some may argue that our teaching style may be consciously and deliberately crafted, few would argue that a teacher’s self-identity plays a large role in shaping his/her natural inclinations in the classroom. With this in mind, I invite you to engage in some self-reflection….

In his article “Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants,” Greg Cruey refers to the aforementioned analogy (see title of post). Consider the following three analogies and identify yourself:

Digital natives “were born into this technological world and have never known life without a keyboard. They don’t remember telephones that had to be attached to the wall by a cord. They’ve never waited for their pictures to be “developed” and they buy their music one song at a time over the Internet.”

Digital immigrants have adapted along with the technological advancements of our times. While they grew up without an email account, they now surf the web, use a Blackberry and are proficient in using Microsoft Office tools (Word, PowerPoint, Excel).

Digital refugees are those who are rather unfamiliar with (and sometimes resistant to) using the latest tools of technology.

How would you classify yourself? Are you a digital native, a digital immigrant,  or a digital refugee? Also, please tell us what you are hoping to learn more about in the technology arena? Finally, tell us about an idea that resonated with you during the course of the workshop session this evening…

What’s It All About?

I imagine that every blogger–every writer–develops  a bout of writer’s block every now and then. When my undergrad students tell me that they’ve hit a wall in their writing, I tell them that they haven’t been reading enough. I believe that. When I hit a wall in my blogging recently, however, this explanation didn’t seem to capture the complexity of the problem. In my case, it wasn’t that I lacked fodder for analysis and insightful discussion; indeed, I had been reading plenty. Reader’s block could not neatly explain my writer’s block.

In my case, it was that I felt self-conscious about the content of  my blog posts. I felt that I had hit a crucial crossroads in my blogging. Should I continue writing about what I know best–education–and risk boring the life out of my readers? Goodness, after a while, wouldn’t I run the risk of sounding incredibly repetitive? Or, should I branch out and begin to write about other topics that interest me? And if so, would anyone care to read those parboiled ramblings on those subjects which I didn’t have as much of a handle on? What was my focus? I was in clear need of recentering. Fortunately enough, I came across this article in the NY Times:

Task to Aid Self-Esteem Lifts Grades for Some

Check it out. Social Psychologist Geoffrey Cohen of the University of Colorado had seventh graders write about which values were most important to them. The students were chosen at random and asked to complete such writing assignments 3-5 times throughout the school year. The results of the study were significant. Students who completed the writing exercises enjoyed almost a half point GPA boost.

For me, the results of this study were more than signficant. This study reminded me of the importance of reflecting upon what one values most. There is great merit in making time for self-reflection. For me, writing–blogging–provides an invaluable opportunity to do so. So, while I haven’t arrived at a concrete decision about what the content of this blog will be, you can rest assured that I will remember to use this writing space as an opportunity to refocus, recenter, and ultimately recharge. In my view, the reflective writing assignments did just that for the students who participated in this study.  Hopefully, I will enjoy a similar boost in productivity and sense of self-efficacy.

Where’s The Beef?

Dudley Field Malone, one of the lawyers who defended biology teacher John Scopes in the famous “Monkey Trial” in 1925 on academic freedom uttered the immortal words, “I have never in my life learned anything from any man that agreed with me.” This quote has always resonated with me. As a history teacher, this was a mantra of sorts for me. Long before I read James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me, I believed wholeheartedly in underscoring the controversy in the study of history, or the study of anything for that matter. Loewen was preaching to the choir on that one.

I was reminded of this quote earlier this afternoon as I sat on the couch in my family room, reviewing my undergraduate students’ research talk topic proposals. Let me explain. The best way I can do justice to this is to share a few of the proposed research questions with you:

How do we define art?

What were the first weight classes in the sport of wrestling?

Who invented basketball and what were the early rules?

What inspires artists to create works of art?

Do humans fear all that they do not understand?

As you can see, some of the questions generated by students are a clear invitation to engage in higher order thinking, while others are an invitation to a quick, painless Google search, or worse–to boredom. My review of my students’ research questions forced me to confront myself as an educator with a very important question: What exactly am I looking for in a strong research question? And further, how will I communicate what I am looking for to my students? As I thought about it, these question were even more critical than I first thought. After all, I am teaching the future educators of the U.S. If I send them out of my classroom without the ability to generate questions that stimulate higher order thinking, how can I realistically hope that they will be able to empower their future students to think critically? Clearly, the stakes are high.

After some deep reflection on the nature of the more thought provoking questions that my students posed, I arrived at the conclusion that all of the most thought provoking questios were quite meaty; that is, their open-ended nature left room for “a beef” or a conflict of ideas if you will. And this is when I reached my conclusion that, much like a story,  any good lecture, talk or lesson should include some semblance of conflict. If not, then we don’t invite the listener to question. And where’s the fun in that? More importantly–as Malone would say–where’s the opportunity to learn and grow from that? This is the reason that Oliver Stone’s JFK is so much more interesting–whether you appreciate his views or not–than a documentary that puts forth the lone reported explanation for JFK’s assassination. This is the reason that more people prefer to get their political news from unashamedly biased sources like The O’Reilly Factor and The Daily Show With John Stewart than from the more objectively reported network evening news. We find controversy interesting. It stimulates thought, and when used effectively by teachers, it can provoke our students to think critically. And isn’t that the name of the game?

This internal dialogue resulted in mypersonal reaffirmation to always include conflict–conflict in opposing ideas– in any lesson or workshop I facilitate. Whether my audience agrees with me or not, at least I will inspire–or provoke ;)–critical thought.

On Shining Eyes

I had never heard of Benjamin Zander before I came across this video on TED.com:


This talk represents what education should be all about: inspiring and empowering youth to find their voice so that they can use it to change the world. TED’s mission statement boldly puts forth its belief in “the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world.” What a powerful idea this is! Think of how dramatically teaching and learning would change if all teachers believed that each student has the opportunity to contribute something unique and valuable to the world, regardless of their area of interest and expertise. TED honors this notion.

For the past few months, this has been my go-to spot for quick inspiration and thought provoking ideas. I recently shared the Ben Zander talk with 28 teachers in a workshop I provided on content area literacy and it was met with enormously positive reviews. It inspired the teachers in attendance to reaffirm their commitment to making their instruction relevant and engaging for students by establishing connections to enduring, universal themes present in all areas of study. It also caused many in the room to reassess their commitment to teaching listening and speaking skills. I hadn’t planned to use the video clip in my workshop, but I got confirmation that doing so was worthwhile when one teacher wrote the following comment on their exit slip: “Always use that opening video.”

Hidden Intellectualism

Can virtually ANYTHING become fodder for intellectual discussion?  Baseball? Hip hop? Even spaghetti sauce? I think so.

A few years ago I came across an essay entitled “Hidden Intellectualism” written by Gerald Graff. Graff, a former English professor at the University of Chicago, railed against our schools’ propensity for labeling anything outside of the curriculum proper as “anti-intellectual” and “nonacademic.” He makes the case that teachers need to tap into students interests (esp. in popular culture and sports) and bring these into the academic realm to inspire students to engage in higher order thinking.  If you know anything at all about me as an educator, then you know that this resonated with me in a tremendous way. I immediately shared it with the members of my English/World Languages department at my school and I still use this essay to discuss these issues with the undergraduate education students that I currently teach. The first time I discussed the article with my undergraduates two years ago, I was shocked to find that these ideas didn’t resonate with the majority of students instantly. They were the product of the standards based movement, I think. In the semesters since then, Graff’s ideas have gone over more positively. I attribute this to the students’ awareness of the 21st century skills initiative. The notion that educators do not exist merely to transmit content to students seems a bit more palatable to my current students.  They seem to understand the reality that we live in an age where information is more cheap and easy to come by than ever. It is the higher order thinking skills that are more valuable than ever.

Graff argues that anything can be brought into the realm of the intellectual, and that everything SHOULD. So this should explain, why when I came across Malcolm Gladwell’s video on spaghetti sauce (of all things), I couldn’t wait to view it. I think you’ll find it interesting as well:


Let me know what you think…

Shift Happens

A few months ago, my boss and mentor turned me on to this video on globalization and its implications for education. Check it out:

For me, the most salient point seems to be that teachers are preparing students for a jobs that do not yet exist.  The startling reality is that by the time students graduate and get an opportunity to apply the knowledge and skills they acquired in school, it will most likely be obsolete in the workforce? Cathy Gonzalez refers to this phenomenon as the half-life of knowledge. How exactly can teachers prepare students to thrive in a world that does not yet exist? The answer lies helping students to develop a set of skills that have always been invaluable: critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, collaboration, communication and information literacy skills. These skills have the potential to help our students thrive in the face of any seismic shifts that may come.