Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Japanese Sex Scandal... And No Shades of Gray

One of the steamiest, most widely read novels of love, scandal, sex, and betrayals in world history has nothing to do with shades of any color - not even gray.

In Heian Japan, court society placed a heavy weight on obedience to rules of behavior and class.  People who did not appreciate the value of life, beauty, and education were out of sync with their society.  In the midst of this world, the first ever novel was written - by a woman, for women - about living life in a way that is good while enjoying the pleasures that tempt evil.

The Tale of Genji

You MUST watch the video at this link to catch a glimpse of the scandal, gossip, romance, and drama that unfolds in the novel.
Visits from spirits are a metaphor for the lovely world readers visit when they read The Tale of Genji.Courtesy Library of Congress Digital Collections
How could I have ever taught the Heian Period in Japan without having my sex-crazed teenage students read excerpts of this novel?  I've certainly taught them that it existed and that it was read voraciously as an entertaining guide to court life.  But the text itself would undoubtedly hook them with its scandal, and they would come to know Heian Japan with the themes it reveals.  Of course, they must see the text as the Japanese read it a thousand years ago.  Thanks to the Library of Congress, they can.
From the Japanese Rare Books Collection, Library of Congress
Against the backdrop of the amazing arts of the Heian Period, the Tale of Genji provides context and fascination.  After teaching my students about:

...I think the Tale of Genji would help them understand how people of the court were expected to act and reflect on such beauty in their daily lives.  Although it is a bit over-dramatic (so is our reality TV), it is something they could engage with.  They might be offended at the choices in bedfellows, or be heartbroken for some of the characters, or even feel as though the story could have happened today to our own American version of royalty... whatever that may be.  Perhaps the way to reach some students would be to introduce some of the Manga versions of the story.

I can't imagine that I'll ever teach the Heian Period again without a more in depth consideration of the Tale of Genji.

This post is a reflection based on the author's coursework through Primary Source in an online class called Japan and the World.
For more information, listen to an NPR podcast here.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Diving In

The end of 8th grade is an important milestone.  It's a sign that adolescents are now teenagers, that they are ready to take on a more active role in their own educational experience, and that they have mastered the basic skills of reading, writing, reasoning, and mathematics.  In high school they will refine these skills and start their journey toward adulthood.  But, before they dive into the new challenges and opportunities that high school will offer, they deserve to dive into a few pools this summer.

I truly hope the 8th graders of Walter S. Parker Middle School, the intelligent, funny, and talented young adults I had the pleasure to spend each school day with this past year, will enjoy a well-deserved safe and fun summer.

Here's a short video of their last days in middle school.

Monday, June 17, 2013

#BYOD for Dummies (No, I'm not calling you a dummy)

Smart phones and mobile devices are a seamless part of our children's lives.  Why shouldn't they be a seamless part of the school day?

I happened to have had lunch and recess duty today with the 8th graders at my middle school.  I brought my iPhone and started snapping pics of a few of the phones and devices that were either on the cafeteria tables or were being used casually by students as they ate.
These kids were doing nothing wrong and I had no reason to be suspicious of them.  Their devices are simply a part of the way they function.  Heck, my iPhone is a part of the way I function, as evidenced by my method of gathering information (taking pictures with my phone) and compiling it for this post (using a collage app called Pic Stitch).

In EdTech, a magazine dedicated to technology integration in K-12, a recent article claimed "Parents Agree Mobile Devices Can Make Learning Fun."  But I think that was only half the story.  Mobile devices should not just be used in school to make learning fun, they should be there because that's how our children are learning.  The infographic from the articles helps paint a vivid picture of how important mobile technology is for our students and their families.
Click here to see a larger version 
The most interesting findings from the study are at the bottom of the infographic.
  • Parents recognize that mobile devices open up new learning opportunities that weren't available before, but they want schools and teachers to show them and their children the best apps to take advantage of these opportunities.
  • Parents worry about expensive devices being stolen at school, but they still think schools should make more use of them in their children's learning.
  • Parents realize that mobile devices can distract from learning, but they want teachers to play a role in teaching their children how to use the technology and apps safely and productively.
Using mobile technology in school is no longer optional.  Our kids are already doing it and parents are coming to expect it.  Here are 3 easy ways to get started in your classroom:

Easy BYOD #1: QR Codes
Create a QR code that kids can scan to bring them directly to your class website or to essential resources for an ongoing project.  Apps like QRReader are free and easy to download and use.  The same app can scan and create codes.  Here's an example of one that is up in my classroom. It links to videos and resources for our research project on the Aztec and Inca Empires.  The link is also available on our online calendar for students who don't have devices.
If you scanned it, you would see these resources.
Easy BYOD #2: Self-Paced Learning
If you want your students to read online texts or watch online videos at their own pace and laptops are at a premium in your school (as they often are in mine), give them the option of using their own mobile devices.  You might be surprised how many choose their smaller screen over the laptop.  They are used to viewing information that way.  Also, they might actually go back to it on their own if the window is saved in their device's browser.  Check out these pics from my classroom to see laptops and mobile devices being used side by side.


Easy BYOD #3: "I Lost My Agenda!"
At our school, students call their homework calendar book an "agenda" and over the course of the school year MANY are lost.  We have found that the easiest way to teach students to cope with a lost agenda is to replace it with technology.  Encourage students to use their camera app to take pictures of the homework board in each class.  As long as they know how to take a clear image, and most do as evidenced by their posts on Twitter and Instagram, they will have a record of their homework assignment.

Once you get started, think about how you use your smart phone, tablet, and other mobile devices every day.  Why shouldn't your students have the same opportunity to use theirs both personally and professionally (as professional students)?  If we don't teach them how to use it properly, they will teach themselves and the lessons might not be proper.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Vine: A Sign of the Times

Vine, an app that Twitter dropped on us mere months ago, is a massive success.
It's not clear that Vine is the answer to the social media video problem, but it does appear that the service has solved a number of obstacles inherent to video that have traditionally kept it from mainstream success... The genius with Vine is that you can upload only six seconds of footage.  Six seconds is nothing - more like an animated GIF. And Vine's editing process is stupidly simple.
-Eliza Kern, GIGAOM 
It is so easy to use and attractive to social media consumers that Vine posts to Twitter outpaced Instagram posts to Twitter last week.
On June 7, four days after Android released a version of Vine, Topsy Analytics, a San Francisco company that gathers and analyzes tweets, reported that the six-second video application had garnered 2.86 million shares on Twitter.  This number of Twitter shares surpassed those of Instagram, which had roughly 2.17 million shares.
-Alana Abramson, ABC News Blog 
Almost as soon as Vine was released for iPhone in January, my 8th graders were joining, posting, sharing, liking, and commenting.  The subjects of their 6 second videos were sometimes cute and innocent (pets, younger siblings, eating ice cream with friends) but also sometimes disturbing (a record of mean comments to peers at lunch, a barrage of swears, a post of a peer who didn't know he/she was being filmed).  Our school administration addressed it immediately and made sure students were informed that, according to the regulations set up by Vine, they needed to be 17 to use it and that we could track their posts.  Mostly, the posts that are in poor taste have been taken down or stopped.  But the reality is that all of the students who were on Vine before are still on Vine, even though we've advised them to abide by the age 17 limit.

I decided to take a different approach with my own 8th graders:
  1. I started commenting to them in person about videos I saw on their Vines. They were shocked I'd seen them, but they understood that I was able to because a Vine is open to anyone online.
  2. In situations which seemed to be ripe for inappropriate Vine posts in the past, I made a point to say that I did not want to see anything on their Vines that recorded that experience.  This means talking to students while I was on lunch duty or while I was supervising unstructured class time when students are given choices between activities.
  3. I started posting on Vine.
The philosophy for #3 is the same one that is behind my choice to be on Twitter.  If my students are going to use these types of social media, I should be there too, modeling proper use.  I'm not going to go out of my way to follow them, but they are welcome to follow me.  This way I'm teaching them with my actions and choices online.

So today I recorded our field trip to a local neighborhood elementary school to read children's books about science concepts, written and illustrated by our 8th graders, to 1st graders.  My students knew I was Vining, they knew why, and they will likely look up my posts later today.  When they do, this is what they will see.

Reading Practice Before We Leave


Walking to the Elementary School


Waiting to See the 1st Graders


Reading to the Little Guys

Monday, June 10, 2013

Teens Tussle Tech-Style

Maya city of Palenque
The Maya were an impressive people.
  • They built massive stone pyramids and temples throughout huge cities without the wheel or beasts of burden.
  • They organized and conducted commerce via a complex system of roads throughout their geographical area of the Yucatan Peninsula and beyond.
  • They used terracing, raised crop beds, and slash and burn to grow plentiful crops to feed a growing population in less than ideal agricultural conditions.
    Maya number system
  • The created a complex calendar that calculated the 365 day year and used a combination of math, astronomy and science to be more accurate than any civilization on Earth at the same time.
  • They were the first to contemplate and use the concept of "zero" in their system of mathematics.
But which achievement is the most remarkable?

Using the Document Based Question information from the DBQ Project and my own knowledge of technology, my students presented their arguments tech-style.

Each class was divided into 5 groups and each group was charged with arguing that their achievement was the most remarkable by touting its importance and downplaying the significance of the other four.  They also had to use the rich images and video available to them online to make their argument more engaging than a typical DBQ essay.  Still, they used essential DBQ/Common Core skills like making connections between different pieces of evidence, analyzing documents with conflicting claims about which achievement is the most remarkabledeciding which presentation tool was the best fit for them, and organizing their presentation in a logical way.

The three Web 2.0 tools students learned to use as they put together their presentations were:
A combination of reading, analyzing, writing, and web 2.0 skills ended with decent results.  Some, of course, were mediocre but the majority of students put together a project that they would not have been able to when the school year began, or even a month ago. Here are a couple of the highlights:

This Weebly was well-organized, used text in a limited way, and students successfully integrated helpful images and video clips, using TubeChop and HTML embed code, to structure their presentation.
This Prezi used enticing images, an organized structure, and impressive path animation to put together an effective argument and presentation.  They even had background music that set the mood without being distracting.


The combination of a year's worth of reading, writing, and technology skills worked out pretty well.  They helped each other figure out the web 2.0 tools, they worked through the documents, they went online and did additional research to fill the holes they found, and they presented in an organized professional manner.  Not bad for June, a time of notorious apathy.