Technology in the Classroom, a 180

There are few trends in education that generate more focus and discussion than the use of technology.  This is with good reason.  Technology is fundamentally changing the way we live and learn and this trend is only going to continue, if not intensify.  There is no lack of thoughtful blog posts out there on the benefits and uses of technology in the classroom by people much more knowledgeable on the topic than I so I will not even attempt such a post here.  What I want to do here is take a step back and look at the idea of technology in a broader sense.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines technology as:

  1. The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.
  2.  Machinery and devices developed from scientific knowledge.
  3. The branch of knowledge dealing with engineering or applied sciences. 

Think back for a moment to when I mentioned technology in the first sentence of this post.  What did you think of?  It was computers and Skype and blogs and… right?  It is funny how the everyday use of the word technology has taken on an additional point of definition not found in the  dictionary definition here.  Technology in the everyday use is positioned with an orientation looking forward, viewed as new technologies.  Perhaps we are orientated this way by the threads of the Enlightenment narrative of perpetual progress.

Here I want to ask, what happens if we go back to the dictionary definition of technology when we ask, what are the benefits of technology in the classroom?  What happens if we make a 180 degree turn and view teaching and exploring technology in the classroom as also having an orientation to the past?  Not in a sense that is pejorative towards new technologies, just in a sense that opens up new, or maybe I should say old, possibilities.

I will look at two examples, both of which I carted halfway around the world in my suitcase when I returned to India last August.  First a record player and second my parents old rotary telephone that they kindly lend me.   The  ideas here bare  some influence from the responses given to me by my P4 (Grade 1) students when I asked the same question to them.

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Record Player

  • Things can take more time.  The music doesn’t start with the quick click of a button.  You need to take the record out of the sleeve, place it on the turntable, start the record player, cue up the needle and lower it.  Then, and this always surprises the students, you can turn it over and repeat the whole process again.
  • You can see the science happen.  In computers and cell phones the science behind the technology happens behind a hard, shiny, tightly sealed case.  We essentially have to take it on faith that there is technology going on because we cannot observe any of the actions with our senses, other than the result of the music appearing.
  • Music/sound is vibration.  This is closely related to the previous point but deserves to stick out on its own. Grooves shake a needle, that shaking gets turned into sound.  Then you can crank the music up and put your hand over the speaker and, vibrations.  True, you can do this with computer speakers but it is just so much cooler with a record player.
  • Things are fragile.  Luckily, we have not learned this in a tangible way yet, no one has scratched a record – but we have come close.  Yes, an ipad that a six year old may play music from is fragile, but not in the same way a thin needle riding around in a thin groove is.  If a student is asked to flip the record, they need to slow down.  The fragility is also something for the teacher who has bought the record player and carted choice records around the word to remember.  How will I react if a student scratches my Nat King Cole album?
  • Music my Grandfather listened to is not so bad.  One of the highlights of the year so far was playing Benny Goodman in the background while the students grouped popsicle sticks into bundles of ten, as I walked by a six year old I heard her humming along, she new the song.  She said “my dad likes this.”  I envision a day when they are twenty and they hear  Louis Armstrong and pause, and have a momentary flashback to being six, then carry on.  I have to admit, one of the reasons I wanted a record player in my classroom was that so when the kids bound out for recess, I can pause, slow down, and listen to Fred Astaire.

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Rotary Phone 

  • Again, things take time.  I have borrowed my parents old phone and it still has a sticker on it with emergency phone numbers.  A student asked “why is 911 the number for an emergency if the 9 takes so long to dial?  Why isn’t the number 111?”  The best answer I could come up with was “because we didn’t think it took a long time to dial 9.”
  • Sometimes you need to remember numbers.  No speed dial here.  We all remembered seven digit numbers.  Do kids practise memorising numbers that long today?
  • When you talk to your friend, you need to stop and maybe even sit down.  I talk on the go.  In the cereal aisle, going up an escalator…  Does this make the conversations more functional, what if I stopped, would I talk, would I listen more.
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Teaching with an Invisible Basketball

This clip comes from the first movie in the Air Bud series.  The school’s basketball coach has been fired for being, well, a bully.  A new coach, the janitor, is brought in.  It turns out this new coach is a long forgotten NBA star.

What the new coach does next has become a go to for me when I want to bring a class of students from being focused on their own individual actions (as we all generally are) to being focused on the actions of others.  That is, when I want to work on building a community.  I have done this activity with students as old as Grade Five.  Today I tried it with a group of Grade One students.  Standing with the students in a circle I picked up my invisible basketball and told the students we were going to pass it around.  I find it works best if you ask the students to be quiet.  I then asked them how they would know who the ball is being passed to.  Eye contact would be essential we agreed.  I then asked them how they would know where the ball was going.  How they would know if it was thrown high or low or if it was thrown fast or slow.  Paying attention to the actions of the person throwing the ball would be essential we all agreed.

We then proceeded to pass the ball, to marginal success.  I have no doubt that our next try will find greater success as we all learn to pay better attention to what the other members of the class are doing.  As the coach in Air Bud says “before you play with [the basketball] you have to learn to play with your teammates.

I have also used this activity when coaching football (that is soccer for the North Americans.)  It is a great way to get the kids to focus on the other players.  To focus on what are they doing with their leg, what they are doing with their feet… and not just focus on the football.

Bloomin Questions

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People riding on a commuter train in Yangon, Myanmar  2012

People riding on a commuter train in Yangon, Myanmar 2012

Bloom’s Taxonomy or those six different categories of questions that are usually displayed in a pyramid, has been around since the 50’s.  As a result it is at least as disputed as it is accepted.

One can be wary of Blooms, and other taxonomies, because they can box or compartmentalizing ideas.  As the sometimes philosopher, Joni Mitchel has said:

Every bristling shaft of pride
Church or nation
Team or tribe
Every notion we subscribe to
Is just a borderline
Good or bad we think we know
As if thinking makes things so!
All convictions grow along a borderline

page0002Joni, from Borderline

When defining or categorizing something, in this case questions, we run the risk of cementing our habits and locking our definitions in between borderlines. The irony is that these borderlines around questions may deter our questioning of questions.page0003

The popularity of Bloom’s Taxonomy and the borderlines it has created around the space of questions means that it has played a part in defining how we understand and how we use questions.  Taking a post-structuralist view, language or definitions around words and grammar, create our page0004understanding and that understanding becomes our identity.

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Recently I was asked to give a talk for the PTA and decided to run with the Blooms.  The powerpoint along the side is the product of that and what got me thinking about Bloom’s recently.

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evaluation

Something not so Philosophical: Taking a Screen Shot and Cropping it

To balance the heavier philosophical slant that my blog posts have taken lately, I thought I would post this one.  Below I give instructions on how to take a screen shot and crop it.  This is an easy way to take an image from the internet and add it as a graphic to a worksheet, power point, blog post…  You can figure out the ethical/copyright stuff yourself.

I also teach this to my students.  On the obvious level, it is a useful tool.  On the maybe not so obvious level, it hopefully makes it clear to the students that nothing on the internet is confidential.  There is no such thing as some sort of lock so images or text cannot be copied.  It is as easy as pressing print screen (PrntScr) and then paste.  There is a risk that in teaching this to teens or preteens a few will go out and see what they can copy.  The reality is that most of them will figure this out eventually themselves whether we show it to them or not and by teaching it to them we get a chance to frame it in a space responsible action and respectful use.

  1.  When you have what you want on the screen, press the PrntScr button.  (You can use Ctrl + to make the image on your screen bigger and Crtl – to make the image smaller.) 
  2. Open the Paint program.  (If it is not in the programme list when you click on the windows icon at the bottom left of your screen, type ‘paint’ into the search bar and it
    will come up.)
  3. Hit Ctrl V to paste and a picture of the screen will come up.  You can use the – & + buttons on the bottom right to fit it to your screen.
  4. Click on the crop option on the upper menu bar.  Sometimes it is already set to crop. Crop the picture as you like.
  5. Press Crtl x to cut. 
  6. Then go to your email, blog, word document… and press Crtl v to paste it there.

 It Looks complicated because there are lots of steps, but is easy when you get used to it.

The Power of Stories

ImageSome years ago I was teaching in a small First Nations community in Northern Canada.  This community had no road to it and so the only way in or out was to fly.  It was during our time there that swine flu made the global headlines.  Early into this calculated panic, I received a notice in my classroom one morning just before lunch.  It went something to the effect that I was to inform the students that school would be canceled after lunch and that all teachers were to be at the local band hall by one o’clock for an important meeting to discuss how the community was going to prepare for the impending outbreak of swine flu. 

When I got to the band hall for 1 o’clock I sat there through a frenzy while we were told to volunteer for jobs that would be essential when the epidemic hit.  People who had their licence to operate heavy machinery were asked to sign up to dig the mass graves.  People would be needed to go around town and shoot the dogs since people would be too sick to take care of them.  Others would be needed to go through town and collect the corpses.  It was suggested that I be on a committee to request body bags be sent up by the federal government.  After the allocation of jobs, a message system was devised where a piece of green paper in your window meant everyone was fine.  Yellow paper meant there was at least one person in the house who was sick.  Red paper in the window meant that someone had died and their body needed to be taken away.

I sat there swinging back and forth between the emotions of shock, disbelief and humour.  From my calculations, the fact that we were flying into the community on 25 year old airplanes in minus 50 degree Celsius weather and landing on gravel strip runways, was much more of a concern than was the remote possibility that swine flu would cause an epidemic that would wipe out a portion of the community.  A few years earlier I had been living in Asia when SARS “swept” through and no one I knew even got a head cold.  What were the people of the community thinking?  How could they get so carried away with irrational fears?Image

As per the native tradition, in a community meeting everyone has their chance to speak and say all they have to say.  Therefore meetings can go on for hours and often well into the late evening.  As the meeting continued people took turns speaking of their concerns.

Towards the end, an elder who I had never seen before or after, was brought forward in his wheel chair and was given the microphone.  His words were translated into English, mostly for the benefit of the teachers in the room, who were largely from outside of the community.  He began by speaking of his early childhood living semi nomadically on the land and of the days during WWI when Spanish flu had come through the communities.  He began to speak of his vague memories from the time of early childhood when so many of the people he knew had succumbed to the flu and passed away.  I sat there and listened and watched the room, I could feel myself straining to understand the roots of the narrative.  The story was not unheard of by me but I had only heard it as background or context to other stories.  In contrast to me, I came to notice, the community members sat there nodding in agreement moments before an important point was made.  They had all heard this story before and knew what the next point was going to be. 

It was then that I understood the panic and the sense that this flu emanating out of Mexico really could be impending up on the shore of a frozen lake in the Canadian sub-arcticThe community members were coming into this meeting with a different narrative than I.  I was raised in the narrative of the wonders of science that can control and concur nature.  The community members I was among share some of that narrative and they are also members of a different narrative, a narrative of which the Spanish flu is only one chapter and a later chapter at that.  It is a chapter that had its start in 1492 with first contact of Europeans to the Americas.  Though first contact that far up north came centuries later, the proto contact period where European disease spread from tribe to tribe was the foundation of this narrative that was the fuel to the panic of that meeting.

ImageThis is one particularly poignant example of the power of narrative.  It raises questions that I find myself coming back to again and again as an international teacher.  You have great power to influence and shape narratives.  The subtle but influential undercurrents that sculpt the ways we understand and interact with our world.  To be honest, I had found that meeting in the band hall, humourus, I was sure the community was overreacting in the extreme.  Had the elder never asked to speak I would never of had the ah ha moment and I probably would be telling this story differently, about the community that was out of touch.   What other times, having taught in Thailand, India and Myanmar, have I missed the narrative?  Laughed or brushed of a comment.  What does that do to the students, competing narratives, one emanating from home, one from the classroom? 

This could be a good place to collect more stories of divergent or unseen narratives.  We all know they are there, but how often do we see them?  Feel free to post your stories.

My Favourite Metaphor

ImageThis is not an original metaphor.  I don’t remember where or when I first heard it nor do I know who first came up with it, but it has become a favorite.  I introduced it through the first week of school and come back to it again and again through the year.

It is a metaphor of an iceberg.  The iceberg we see is huge, majestic and foreboding, all at the same time.  That iceberg that we see, is only 12 % of the iceberg that is there.  The other 88% is resting silently and hidden under the water.  (The science behind it is explained well here.  http://www.bsharp.org/physics/icebergs)

This image of an iceberg becomes a metaphor when you think of it as an idea, a thought or an argument.  The portion above the surface is the obvious part, but the majority is hidden, the depth of it is not obviously visible.  When a student offers me an abviose answer I often just ask, what’s below the surface? or, think deeper.  It becomes our own little key word to trigger a habit of looking beyond the obvious for the underlying assumptions.  It has obvious implications for TOK but I use it in grade 5 and grade 2.

The Wandering Teacher

The Wandering teacher quote-page0001-1

I’m very much a wMountain Walkinganderer.  Teaching has brought me to the Canadian arctic, to Thailand, to India and now to Myanmar.  I am afflicted by that curiosity to always see the next mountain, next sea, next river and, when I can make it out of the cities, to see the motion of the stars.

As much as I love this quote and have carried it with me for years, I find the applied conclusion unsettling, that wondering and wandering are to separate endeavors.  It has been the act of heading out to see the next mountain, the next sea and the next river that has afforded me the wealth Beach Walkingof experiences to wonder about.  The wandering has been the greatest source for my wondering.  I will take Augustine’s quote not as a description of fact, that you wander without wondering, but as a warning or cautionary tale, to not allow oneself to become engrossed in the wandering and let the wondering be set aside.

My wandering comes with me into the classroom.  That desire to not use last year’s lesson plans, to aim for a different destination.   This blog, the Wandering Teacher is where I will do my wondering, born out of my wandering.  It is a place to collect my thoughts, it is an attempt to not pass myself without wondering.  It is a place a place to collect and connect my thought on teaching, on the art and the practice of it, into a body of ideas more layered and eventually more evolved.