Keeping my mouth shut

Sam Houston

Sam Houston

Yesterday, our son was reading a caption of a photograph of Sam Houston from his history textbook and exclaimed, “Texas was its own country?! And this guy Sam Houston was its president?!” I started to open my mouth, to talk about the Alamo and Texas’s independence from Mexico, but I stopped and repeated to myself my mantra for this school year: Keep your mouth shut. “Hey,” I instead said, “Look up Texas in your book’s index or see what you can find via a Google search.” He did, did some reading, and then went off to finish his math homework. (You can read more about Sam Houston and the Texas Revolution here.)

In the past, the teacher side of me has been way too eager to answer his queries, about the branches of the federal government to the Pythagorean theorem to the definition of a gerund. Sure, it’s great to interact with our son over the scintillating topic of gerunds – and my goodness, gerund phrases! – but it does him a disservice. He has at his fingertips, with his phone and laptop, everything that he needs to discover information on his own, and we need to encourage him to do just that: To use the unlimited resources of the interweb. To be his own searcher, discoverer, miner, digger, etc. (Feel free to devise your own metaphor.)

I’m often surprised that that searching is not second nature to him, but that might be due to a combination of several things: (1) My previous enabling. (2) The belief that his phone and computer are for watching YouTube videos and other entertainment. (3) The lack of training that he’s had when it comes to searching the internet, both from us and from school. Given all that, it was interesting to go back to this 2012 report from the Pew Research Center, called How Teens Do Research in the Digital World, and look at its findings in the context of our 13-year-old. Here’s what jumped out at me:

  • 64% of teachers surveyed said that today’s digital technologies “do more to distract students than to help them academically.”
  • 76% of teachers strongly agreed that “internet search engines have conditioned students to expect to be able to find information quickly and easily.”
  • 83% agreed that “the amount of information available online today is overwhelming to most students.”
  • Many teachers suggested that their “students are surprisingly lacking in their online search skills,” with 43% of teachers rating students “poor” in “patience and determination in looking for information that is hard to find.”
  • Lastly, when asked about curriculum changes in middle and high schools, 91% of surveyed teachers “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that “courses or content focusing on digital literacy must be incorporated into every school’s curriculum.”

Sure, take a look at the full report, since I cherry-picked some of the more ugly findings. I find the last two bullet points interesting and relevant to the issue here at home – this lack of “patience and determination” and the need to teach digital literacy – not just at school but also here at home. We can’t just assume that it comes naturally; these “digital natives” (how I loathe that phrase) need much guidance and training, no matter how confident they might feel at their ability to text, to scroll through an Instagram account, or to watch and comment on a video about dogs sitting on cats.

That guidance and training is even more critical during the middle grades years, when significant brain development and sculpting is happening – see this past post – and the influences of teachers, parents, society, and technology are critical to that development and sculpting. It’s not enough then to simply keep my mouth shut and leave our son to his own devices (so to speak). Just as important is the help that I can give with the search and with the review of what was found, keeping in mind that this is a process, that one successful Google search does not make for an effective researcher and learner. We’re building a set of skills, and that takes time and effort.

So maybe a new mantra: No easy answers from me. Offer help with the search. Repeat.

I got the pic of Sam Houston here.

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Our son the maker

selbitOur 7th grader was up early this morning, to finish studying for a Chinese language quiz this afternoon, and at one point, he dashed upstairs for what I thought was more blank flashcards but then came downstairs to ask, in all seriousness, “Do we have any beeswax?” Yes, studying was over for the time being, and we were on to building a new magic trick. Our son the magician; our son the maker.

OK, some background. He got interested in magic several months ago and has been feverishly pursuing its study. When I was a kid, I remember that learning card tricks or sleight of hand was through books, but nowadays, as with everything else, people learn magic through websites such as Theory 11 or Ellusionist, online magic shops that offer books and card decks and DVDs, but from which you can also purchase for immediate viewing a video of a trick, to study and learn. Here, for example, is the preview video to sleight of hand effects by magician Dan Hauss:

Pretty cool, huh? (Pretty slick video, too, huh?)

So that”s the magic world these days: Go to an online site, find a trick you like, purchase the downloadable video, and learn it. And while some tricks rely on a ring and a coin – as with Dan Hauss’s – or just a deck of cards, there are others that require assembly. Hence, the request for beeswax this morning or for the variety of other items we’ve gone off to the hardware store to search for, as he comes up with his own ideas for tricks and illusions and needs materials to build them. There are times when his desk looks laboratory-like – bent paper clips, loose change, thread, Super Glue, Magic Markers, etc. (I will not give a ton of detail; I don’t want to betray his magical work.) Looking at that desk last week, I got to thinking: This kid is a maker too.

Do you know this whole maker, DIY ethos? See, for example, this video of the World’s Greatest Paper Roller Coaster, by Andrew Gatt, a middle school science teacher:

Andrew the middle school science teacher is a great maker to highlight – see his paper roller coaster website here – since I’m interested in the maker-related events that happen with or at schools, such as the Mini-Maker Faire that ran in Charlottesville last October and was partially sponsored by the forward thinking Albermarle County Public Schools. The folks at Albermarle schools get it: Some learning needs to be hands on, and this maker/DIY movement is a great way to bring hands on learning into schools and the classrooms. Build huge paper roller coasters, like Andrew Gatt, and learn about physics and mathematics and those “soft skills” like working with your peers.

I know that I’ve squawked before about classroom instruction and its, at times, narrow approach: Textbooks, kids at desks, teacher at the classroom’s front, discussion, homework and assessment that is paper and pencil. And, yes, full disclosure: When I taught, I did so rather narrowly too. Well, I’m squawking again, for that question from our middle schooler – “Have we got any beeswax?” – encapsulated so much for me about him and his learning these days. He was out of his chair, the textbook pushed aside, pulling together materials for a new trick. In fact, I wonder what he might’ve learned if we had beeswax. Its melting point. It molding properties. What does it stick to and not stick to? Sure, he needed to study Chinese for the quiz, and I will admit that I was a little anxious about that studying getting done. But chill, Dad: It got done. and his question made me realize that this kid needs more opportunities to learn in the manner that he’s learning magic. He’s learning it by doing, by trial and error, by creating stuff with his hands. And by performing.

OK, now where can I find some beeswax?

I got the Selbit image here.

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The Graphic Novel: An Interview with Michael Chaney

Dartmouth's Michael Chaney

Dartmouth’s Michael Chaney

I initially wrote the below for the newsletter that goes out every other month to my former college classmates, and one of them, Ann Jacobus, who writes for and teaches writing to children and young adults, said that others might be interested in the below. Good idea, Ann! (By the way, read more about Ann and her work here.) So here’s a slightly edited version of that original article – and you can read more about Michael and his work here. He’s an Associate Professor of English and the Vice Chair of that department at Dartmouth College, and among other classes, he teaches one on graphic novels. Now what graphic novels are you reading?

Tell us about your background, Michael.

I’m originally from Ohio, Cleveland Heights, OH. I realized after a while that we lived in that town specifically for a strange set of enormously complicated historical and political reasons. My grandfather was a black American GI and my grandmother was a German. My mother grew up a mixed race occupation baby in German and sought to find her biological American father, who was then living in Cleveland Heights – a town that had been known for its lenience towards miscegenation since at least the 1930s. I grew up, therefore, having a deeply experiential understanding of what today’s literary critics and theorists would call hybridity. It was a fetching concept for many, but a way of life for me. This made my impressions of literature seem original, I suppose, to many of my high school teachers of literature, who encouraged me to pursue my passions for literature in college. In terms of professors, I would place a lot of the blame for my becoming a professor on Dewey Ganzel at Oberlin College. I remember well an American literature course he taught, discussions were always on Friday, and we students would have it at his house. He always had cookies for us. We’d collect in his study, surrounded by books and quietly turn over all the tiny threads of implication in novels by James and Twain, Howells and Chopin. I was truly converted during those discussion sessions.

In your bio for Dartmouth’s English Department, it says that you study “the interrelationship of literature and visual culture.” What does that mean and how does that show itself in the 21st century?

I was an artist for some years before going to grad school – an oil painter and a muralist – and I was drawn to the different ways that pictures make meaning from written texts. I became very interested, for example, in the implicit visual imagination readers might sense in the poems of Emily Dickinson – how her writing depicts a world that is felt as much as it is seen. And this interest led especially to my interpretations of, among other things, the visual imaginary in antebellum slave narratives and the complicated tensions between words and images in contemporary graphic novels and comic books. Other researchers in this field, which some call visual culture studies, look at similar signifying tensions in digital art, the internet, TV and cinema, and advertisements, but I’m committed, of course, to studying how they play out in literature.

I know that you will teach a class on the graphic novel. When I was a kid, I holed up at the public library reading the Tintin and Asterix series, a precursor to what is now called the graphic novel. Now, my middle school-aged son can go to the library and pick from an entire wall of graphic novels. What drew you to this genre? How has the genre changed, evolved? Do you see it as becoming more and more mainstream – and, if so, why?

I was a fan of the X-Men as a kid – a multicultural “family” of outcasts with special but misunderstood abilities. That comic sounded only one allegorical step removed from my own family, so I was a fan after reading the first reading experience of that comic. I remember, too, encountering words that I had never heard of before (I was maybe eight years old), words like sibilant – as in, “The alien tentacle emitted a sibilant hiss as the laser struck it.” I was a logophile from an early age, and these comics from that period got my attention and didn’t let go for nearly a decade. The changes in graphic novels are global and sweeping. The giant of US superhero comics was dwarfed in the 1990s by a collision with Manga and then later modified considerably with the rise of 1960s underground comix, culminating in masterworks like Spiegelman’s Maus and Satrapi’s Persepolis (both of which owing much to my home town hero of Harvey Pekar! – another proud resident of Cleveland Heights). Graphic novels can be literature these days. I almost never have to explain that to people anymore, not like I used to back when I started teaching them ten years ago.

When it comes to graphic novels, there are the more obvious and famous – Maus and Persepolis – but what others might you suggest that people read?

My reading list contains some of my favorite examples of the form – the autobiographical stand-outs like David B.’s Epileptic, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, and Lynda Barry’s One Hundred Demons. It also has Alan Moore’s wildly popular Watchmen, which is a post-superhero-meets-the-Ubermensch story, as well as one of the most philosophical texts on identity you’ll ever want to read in David Mazzuchelli’s Asterios Polyp.

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Cybercivility: An Open Letter from MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr

twitter logoAn important letter from Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools superintendent Josh Starr, that I thought I’d put up on the blog, since it’s not just an issue for MCPS parents but for all. You can also read it here.

Dear Parents,

Since becoming superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, I have spoken at length about the importance of social emotional learning—essentially, giving our students the skills they need to navigate their lives in a healthy, positive way. And that is why I am writing to you today.

This week, the wintry weather required us to go through our normal processes to determine whether we should delay or cancel school. It’s not an easy decision and involves staff working at all hours to monitor road conditions and weather forecasts. As we were in the process of evaluating the situation, students started contacting me on Twitter. Some of these “tweets” were clever, funny, and respectful, pleading for me to cancel school so they could sleep in or have more time to do their homework. Many of these tweets, however, were offensive and disturbing. Some were threatening to me and others. A few referenced my family. There was rampant use of racial epithets and curse words.

This activity on social media caused me to reflect on my responsibilities as a parent of three children and the superintendent for 151,000 children, and what our role is in ensuring that our children are using technology appropriately. This is especially important as we increase the use of technology in our schools, including full wireless access and bring-your-own-device possibilities for our students.

As superintendent, I have the legal responsibility of in loco parentis, meaning that I and other educators are supposed to serve as “parents” in the school building. Some of the tweets I received were so disturbing that my staff reported them to the school principal and our security team. This may seem like an overreaction to some, but it is our legal responsibility to do so, and we take it very seriously.

But this is more than just a challenge at the office. My wife and I find ourselves in a daily conversation with our children about the appropriate use of technology. How long can they use a device? How often during a day? What are they allowed, and not allowed, to take pictures of? They don’t have internet access yet, but I am already imagining what it will be like when they do. How will my wife and I ensure that they are being safe online, while allowing them to access the many positive aspects of the online world and social media? How will we ensure we have the right controls and oversight so they are doing so in an appropriate way?

I don’t have all the answers in my home or in our schools. But I know it takes deliberate and tough conversations within families and communities to help kids understand how to use technology and social media appropriately.

I’m sure that most of the students who posted inappropriate comments to me on Twitter were doing so without thinking. In fact, we know that the adolescent brain isn’t equipped to think long term and doesn’t calculate risk/reward ratios in the same way that adults do. I’d like to think that they wouldn’t post such things if they understood the consequences of their actions or if they knew that I’m legally responsible for reporting threats to the police and to their parents. I’d like to think they wouldn’t post such things, especially if they understood that these posts are permanent and can follow them and impact college acceptances, job opportunities, and future relationships.

I’m writing this letter to start a conversation about how we can support our children in using technology in a way that is healthy, productive, and positive. Cyberbullying is a real issue among children and adults. We not only have to teach our kids how to handle new technologies appropriately, but we also have to model that behavior in our own communications on social media and email. We need to talk about “cybercivility:” how we can help our children grow into responsible and caring adults who interact with one another in a civil, respectful way. I have asked my staff to develop some materials and methods to help schools and families navigate these conversations, so look for more information about this in the near future.

In the meantime, I urge you to talk to your children on an ongoing basis about what’s appropriate and not appropriate to do online. Also, remember, if your child is under 13, do not allow them to use social media—they aren’t ready for it and it is a violation of the user agreements or guidelines for nearly all major social media sites. If your child is 13 or older, please consider whether they are ready to use social media. Set limits and talk to them about the appropriate use of social media and mobile technology. And make sure you are monitoring what they post online.

Our website has some resources that you can use to talk to your children now and we will be adding more resources in the near future. If you have any thoughts or ideas to help further this cybercivility dialogue, please do not hesitate to email me at or contact me on Twitter at @mcpssuper.



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Too fast with tech in the classroom?

ipadI got this great email from a great friend, whose daughter is in 5th grade. Here goes:

Her “school, and her 5th grade teacher in particular, are really big on ‘preparing kids for the new globally networked society’ – blah, blah, blah.

“As a result, parents of 10-year-olds are effectively forced to give their kids email addresses, laptops/iPads, sign them up to various online platforms (e.g., Collaborize Classroom), etc., whether or not the parents think that kind of ‘connectivity’ is appropriate for their kid at that age.

“Plus, personally, I don’t think it’s all that critical for kids to be using connective technology; a well-educated kid who is numerate and literate will have zero problem figuring out how to use connective technology a little later in life (like maybe as a [high school] sophomore…). I’d much rather have [my daughter] spend more time on basic math skills and developing face-to-face social skills than ‘collaborating with her classmates on an online homework assignment’ using an iPad the school forced us to buy and an email account we don’t want her to have.”

Now, keep in mind that my friend is as technology-literate as they come. He’s worked from home for years, using all of the technologies that come with that, and he’s also not a grump – but I get where he’s coming from. In fact, when he and I talked on the phone after he sent me this email, I too got grumpy. I asked: Does the school or the district have a plan for this technology roll out, something that lays out long-term goals and objectives and activities to meet those goals and objectives? Unsure, said my friend, as nothing’s been articulated to the parents. I asked: How about the teacher – what kind of plan has he laid out for parents, so that the use of these tools builds towards long-term outcomes for this classroom of kids? Again, unsure. My friend’s seen no sign of a plan.

Well, I’m gonna stick my neck out and guess that he’s seen no sign of a plan ’cause there is none. Nada.

I go into schools from time to time that suffer from the same ailment: Edtechnophilia. Interactive whiteboards abound, for example, but teachers use them like old-fashioned whiteboards, simply as a way to present information to a class of kids sitting at their desks. There’s nothing interactive about what I see – particularly those teachers that actually never turn on the digital/projector side of this technology and just write on the board with dry erase markers. A few questions at these schools make it obvious to me that the school or district bought and installed this technology without any long-term plan, without goals related to curriculum and instruction, teacher training, and student learning.

So, I’m with my friend: No putting the technological cart before the horse. What’s the plan for any technology’s use, not just for the classroom but for the school and/or district? How will a technology aid teaching and learning – and why’s a certain technology more effective than no technology? And, please, no more of this “digital native” explanation, as in, “Well, these kids are truly digital natives and so, naturally, digital tools are their milieu.” No, no, no: What is the plan to capitalize on these tools? In fact, which tools and when and how? And how will effectiveness of their use be measured – and compared to when not using the tools?

A lot to ask, I know, but a lot was being asked of my friend and his wife, with little to no explanation. Let’s begin with the explanation, not the iPad.

I got the above picture here.

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Dubai, its schools, and the Common Core

Playing outside at the Nibras International School

Playing outside at the Nibras International School

I was in Dubai for a week at the start of November, presenting at a conference and visiting several private schools in that emirate, and before it gets too deeply lost in my memory, a few thoughts on that experience:

I presented at a conference – the MENA Common Core Conference – that was on the US’s Common Core State Standards. Yup, that’s right: A conference in Dubai on the Common Core. In the MENA region – Middle East and North Africa – there are many private schools that follow an American curriculum. In just Dubai there are 32 schools – see the list here – that align classroom practice to a set of American standards, and with the advent of the Common Core, these schools need to ensure they’re aligned to it, as the organization that inspects all Dubai schools – see here – wants to see that alignment.

The entrance to the Dubai Arab American Private School

The entrance to the Dubai Arab American Private School

The conference was incredibly invigorating – to present on some favorite topics of mine – you can see them and my materials here – and to meet many new school people and hear about schools in that part of the world. In many ways the challenges of those schools are no different than challenges here in the States. During a long and thoughtful conversation with the leaders of one Dubai school, for example, the four of us discussed the level of preparation that many of their students lack when they enter the school, making it hard for these students to meet the Common Core’s demands. We discussed uses of time to try and make up this deficit – summer school for those that are the most behind, a longer school day, etc. It all sounded very familiar, even 7000 miles away from home.

I stayed on for a few days after the conference and visited several schools that ranged from one end of Dubai to the other. (The Dubai metro is the bomb – a great and inexpensive way to get around.) All five schools were private schools that focus on American curriculum; there are national Emirati schools, like the US’s public school system, and I hope to visit some the next time I’m there. Interestingly, I heard a statistic that some 80% of Dubai youth attend private school, a higher percentage when compared with other Emirates. No doubt it speaks to the many non-Emirati in that part of the U.A.E., who want a school that reflects the curriculum of their homeland, and also to the money in that still growing economy, as people are able to pay private school tuition.

The view from the Jumeira Baccalaureate School

The view from the Jumeira Baccalaureate School

Overall, it was a professionally and personally exhilarating trip, the kind of travel that I’ve not done for a long time. The international school scene is diverse and growing and filled with thoughtful, passionate educators; a fairly wealthy, metropolitan place like Dubai is a hothouse for schools, with new ones starting every year. It’s believed that if Dubai is selected as the site for the 2020 World Expo, even more money and people will flood that region – and even more schools will start up.

It’s also good for me to get out of my basement office, to shake it up a little – to shake it up for big reasons, like meeting new people and seeing a new and very different place, and for smaller (but still kinda cool) reasons, like eating good food, figuring out a new metro system, strolling along the Dubai Creek, and hoping each flagged-down taxi takes me to the right school. (Taxi drivers in the U.A.E. do not use addresses when you tell ’em where you wanna go. They ask for landmarks, like, “It’s the school near the new Carrefour Market in the Dubai Investment Park.” For map-driven me, it was maddening – but I did get to my destinations.) Now, that I know the place, I need to get back – and find other cities in that region to explore.

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