Friday, November 22, 2013

History is the process of leaving things out

One of the first lessons I try to teach my students, and one they often have the hardest time with, is that history (at least modern history history) is the process of leaving things out.  For so many years, students think of history as a building process.  They add, add, add, knowledge by memorizing facts.  But eventually (for my students it's right around 9th or 10th grade) they hit the point where there is too much information to memorize.  They feel overwhelmed.  It's at this point that I start with the "History is the process of leaving things out" mantra.  Often they don't believe me.  But there's a fairly simple exercise to prove it.

About two minutes ago, give or take, you started reading this blog post.  Let's think about all the things that need to go into what would make for a complete history of that time.   There's you, reading the post.  And your internal monologue while you read it.  Ok, that's easy enough.  There was me writing the post.  That's still not too much information.  But you are reading it on the internet.  You found the post somehow.  You have to include that info.  And how did I come to have a blog?  And what about the history of the internet?  And of course, there is the whole intellectual history that informs this.  We've got a lot of stuff to think about now.  Too much.  We have to decide what questions are most important and limit the information we seek out to answering those questions. 

So in most of my 9th and 10th grade classes I'm trying to guide my students away from trying to get right answers to trying to get to the right questions.  If you have the right questions, the answers are relatively easy. 

This process tends to make my students very unhappy in the short term.  There are no study guides before tests (you need to make your own) and increasingly I don't even ask questions, I make them ask the questions.  They find it very frustrating.  And yet, as the year goes on they get better and better at leaving out the irrelevant, at focusing on key concepts and figuring out those concepts for themselves. 

Getting them to make that shift is hard, but it's worth it.

Unfortunately, a lot of teachers don't get this.  When I was on the AP World listserve there was a post that used to pop up about once a month that was some variation of this:  "Hi, What are the 100 facts my students need to know for the AP Exam".  And no matter how many people responded with "Make your students figure that out and justify their choices, it's excellent review" and other such kind suggestions, the query would come back again and again.  Sometimes from the same people.  They really believed there were 100 facts in World History that were the top 100.  They couldn't start with a question.  And their students will continue to think in terms of names and dates and stuff to be memorized.  Poor students. 

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Serpent and the Song or is Bobby McFerrin the Most Dangerous Man in America

They say Sunday is for Church.  They say Sunday is for making a joyful noise unto the Lord.  They say Sunday is the day when you get forgiven for your sins.  And although I have always been a Friday night/Saturday morning kind of guy, for once They might be right, because tonight I got to see Bobby McFerrin in concert at the Kimmel Center singing in support of his new album Spirityouall.[1]  If all you know of McFerrin is Don't Worry, Be Happy and his one man Oz and the Ted talk, you are short-changing yourself.  It's true McFerrin is a human freak with a musical range than encompasses not only octaves but centuries of music histories and genres.  He's a multi-instrumentalist who, in this concert, played keyboards, his voice, and on various numbers, the audience.

The new album is Americana and Gospel filtered through McFerrin's musicology lens.  McFerrin knows what the Gnostics knew, what so many forget.  There is no salvation without sin, no garden without a serpent, no Heaven without a Hell.  All these songs are about salvation, but the threat of sin is always lurking.  It gives the songs an energy and a vibrancy, and yes, let's say it, grace.  "He's got the Whole World in his Hands" and "Wade in the Water" and "Jericho" and a half-dozen other songs I knew from religious school, and well-intentioned elementary school teachers, and summer camp were reclaimed and reconsecrated.  The words spoke of heaven, but the music throbbed with temptation.  There's a reason why Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan brethren banned singing and dancing.  And there's a reason, too, why various churches brought it back.  To sing with feeling is it's own form of Pentecostalist snake-handling.  It's a dangerous act.  To acknowledge our sins and still seek redemption as individuals and as nations is a dangerous act.  It's why Jesus was a revolutionary and it's why Woody Guthrie sang about him.  It's what might make Bobby McFerrin the Most Dangerous Man in America.

At one point in the evening, McFerrin had the microphone tight against his throat, vocalizing heartbeats while one of the instrumentalists (was it the drummer or the bassist? in the ecstatic moment, I was mesmerized but now I can no longer remember) riffed.  And there McFerrin made plain what we all should know.  At the base of the music, below the rhythm, below the bass line, is the human heart itself throbbing with desire.  Sometimes it's the desire to do good.  Sometimes it's the other kind of desire. 

The Kimmel Center is a cold and soulless building but tonight it was rather a warmer place.  

[1]  This was thanks to the lovely Loretta Witt and Janet Lippincott, my wife's bosses at the Witt/Lippincott team of Realtors who were celebrating the 10th anniversary of Witt/Lippincott by taking the team and their spouses out for the evening.  We enjoyed a lovely dinner, many gifts, including the gift of the company of the aforementioned Loretta and Janet, and the concert. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Oral History and the Vietnam War Pt. 2

Oral History and the Vietnam War Pt. 2

Now that we've established some of the theory of using oral histories, let's talk about where to find them.  There are three main ways to find oral histories.  First, you can pull them out of books like Bloods or Everything We Had.  Second you can find them in online archives like this one at Texas Tech.  Third, you can collect them yourself.

I'm going to focus on the third part here.  If you and your students collect oral histories you want to do it right.  That means following the guidelines established by the Oral History Association.  Briefly, there are three main things you should do:  1. get a release 2. record the interview in some format  and 3. make it publicly available for other researchers.    1 is pretty easy to follow.  You can find sample forms here or here.  You can strip them down to even more basic forms as found at the back of this guide.  2 used to be pretty complicated but is comparatively easy now.  You should not try to take notes.  Rather, record the interview using a cell phone or laptop.  (A digital video recorder is great, but if you don't know how to use it, it may not be worth it).  If you can get video do it, audio is fine though.  If you can provide a transcription, that's fabulous but raw footage is wonderful too.  After you or your students complete the interview, make it publicly available.  You can upload it to   Make sure you use useful tags. 

In doing interviews, it's best not to work with an interview schedule.  Instead, ask the subject open ended questions starting with some basic ones.  Where were you born, where did you grow up, what is your earliest memory.  Get them talking.  Gradually steer the conversations to what you are interested in.  Try not to ask yes or no questions.  Remember that you want the subject talking.  So "how did you come to be in the Army?" rather than "were you drafted."  It's the stories that make the difference!  

Monday, October 7, 2013

NEHTA: Part 1: Learn History by doing history.

Here's the quickie version of the NEHTA talk, with just the guts of it.

Stories are what we live in:  Oral History and the Vietnam War.

First:  Students learn history best by actually doing history.  Research, reading and writing are at the core of the discipline.  Using evidence to make arguments is the end product.

Second:  Oral histories are particular types of sources that require particular skill sets that need to be taught.

Third:  You can use oral histories that others have collected or collect your own.

The guts of the presentation:

That's me.  In all my internet glory.  Almost nobody uses any of that stuff.  But you can! 

With the above slide we are into the meat of the presentation.  Here, and throughout, I'm drawing on the insights from Allesandro Portelli's excellent The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History although they were confirmed by my own research.    The two stories aspect is one of the trickiest things about oral history.  Like memoirs, oral histories are always two stories at once  The are a record of the time period that the story is about but they are also a record of the time period when the story is taken.  Time, personal memory and collective memory intersect and we wind up with false stories or wrong memories.  It's these wrong memories that are interesting.

In order to analyze false stories, it's helpful to think about the teller of the story locating herself somewhere on the grid below.  On the y-axis is how close or distant the teller was the event in question.  Near the top of the axis the teller would know only of the event through sources such as movies or popular songs written well after the fact.  As we get closer to the bottom, contemporaneous accounts from newspapers and radio come into play, as well as gossip, family members' accounts until at the bottom we get eyewitness stories.

On the y axis, is the time of the event.  The event can be in the distant past or relatively close to the present.  False stories are generally interesting in two ways, although of course they can be wrong in other interesting ways as well.    Below we have the typical vertical shift. 

Here the narrator is moving herself closer to the event.  Let's take a look at this with a specific example: Woodstock.  A small vertical shift might be somebody who claims to have witnessed Jimmy Hendrix's Monday morning performance of the Star Spangled Banner when they actually slept through it or were getting breakfast or had already left.  Of the 400,000 or so people who were at Woodstock, only 30,000 to 40,000 stuck around to see Hendrix perform.  There are more people who claim to have been at Woodstock but probably were not there.  Because the performance was filmed and iconic it's pretty easy to understand how someone could believe they saw the Hendrix performance, even if they hadn't.  The film becomes the memory.  (That's true even if you were there:  people memories of weddings now are as shaped by the videographer as they are by their own memories of the event).    

The Vietnam War era is interesting because we see the opposite shift as well.  People move further away from the actual event.  This came up especially in soldier's narratives.  Lots of soldiers oral histories indicate they knew about atrocities.  Almost no soldiers (and no oral histories that I'm aware of) admit to directly participating in atrocities.  In this case, the narrator moves up the y-axis, distancing themselves from events they directly witnessed or participated in.  Again, that's perfectly understandable.  It might even be psychologically necessary. 

The graph below indicates another type of shift:

In this Vietnam case, it's generally the opposite movement of the one described here.  People often push their opposition to the war back to it's earliest days.  Public opinion shifted over the course of the war but it's not at all uncommon for people who didn't oppose the war until 1971 to claim their opposition started much earlier.  Similarly, many people misidentify when they got a hold of Bob Dylan's second and third albums putting the dates much earlier.  Most people bought the second and third albums only after buying the fourth, and especially the fifth "Highway 61 Revisited" wherein Dylan had his first hit single that outsold his covers ("Like a Rolling Stone").  Prior to that, most people knew Dylan's songs from hearing other performers like Peter, Paul and Mary and the Byrds cover his songs on the radio.   If you collect oral histories, and have the chance to talk about a first Dylan album watch for telltale signs of shifting in descriptions.  Phrases like "I remember looking the racks at the college record store that were made out of milk cartons: no wait, that must have been for a different album because I bought the acoustic album when I was still in high school" are tell-tale signs that some sort of shift is going on.   The specific detail they remember conflicts with the perceived date of when they remember event. 

There are lots of ways to use already collected oral histories for assignments.  Of course, you can ask students to use oral histories as a component in a larger research project.  However, there are other types of assignments that use oral histories.  You can ask students to identify a shift and why they think the shift happened (to make the narrator look better, to conform to cultural memory etc.).  You can ask students to annotate an oral history and provide the historical context that makes reading the oral history more rewarding.  (Example:  Pick 5 events mentioned in the oral history and describe their significance to US History and to the narrator).  Or you can ask students to index the oral histories and defend their choices.

End Part 1.  

Saturday, September 14, 2013


I'm presenting at the NEHTA fall conference on Teaching the Vietnam War:  New Approaches, Perspectives and Resources. It's a great opportunity to talk about one of my favorite areas of historical research -- oral history.

When I taught classes on the 1960s in the US, I tried to incorporate oral history into the classroom in three ways.  First, I had students try to locate oral histories that were already available.  Second, I had students help collect oral histories.  Third, I had students use these oral histories to write research papers on the 1960s.  The first two steps here are comparatively fun and easy.  More and more oral histories of the 1960s are becoming available either as transcripts, audio files, or as video.  And parents and grandparents are often happy to come in and be interviewed, especially when they are told that their experiences will become part of a database on everyday life in the 1960s.

The last part is the tricky part.  As Allesandro Portelli showed back in 1991 in The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories, oral histories are difficult to work with but ultimately rewarding.  What Trastulli looks for are leakages or wrong stories, that is, stories that are factually wrong.  Stories are usually wrong in one of two ways, they either are horizontal shifts (that is dates are changed on the timeline) or they are vertical shifts (the teller inserts herself into or out of the story).  He then uses these leakages, which typically fall into specific repeated patterns, to learn more about the significance and meaning of the events to the tellers at the time the stories were told.  In other words, oral histories are typically as much about the time when they were told as they are about the actual events portrayed.  This can be tricky for anyone to navigate, but is subtlety that many high school students struggle with.  They understand right and wrong.  Many don't understand wrong in interesting ways.  But once they master the art of "but why is this story wrong?  how did it get this way?"  They can do some pretty powerful analysis.

One example of this that will come up at the conference is the "soldiers were spit on returning from Vietnam." It never happened.  Or maybe it happened once or twice.  But the stories that are told about spitting have shocking similarities.  They are so similar that they indicate that a larger something is going on than any individual story might reveal.  These spitting stories have become part of our collective memory. They tell us a lot about the time period when they first began circulating widely, but little about the Vietnam war itself.

I'll mostly be concentrating on some of the technical aspects of oral history methodology and research:  how to collect oral histories, where to put them once you collect them, and so on.  But at they'll be a hefty undercurrent of "wrong stories are interesting" in the background.  Because that's how I roll. 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

I Am Not a Bad Person (and other fallacies about public and private school dynamics).

So this nonsense is making the rounds.   And from the first few lines ("I am not an education policy wonk" means "I am talking out my ass without any actual evidence.")  it's pretty clear that this is going to be a train wreck of an essay.  The key assumption is here is that kids who go to private schools come from families that don't care about public schools.  If they went to public schools they would care, and public schools would eventually get better.   This is so wrong, that it demands a response.

Most private schools that have rich people in them, which is the focus of the article, are in cities.  Just like the private school, I teach in and my kids attend.    If that private school didn't exist and I didn't work there, I would live in the suburbs.  My kids would live in a suburb and attend a school that, in all likelihood, had fewer students of color and less economic diversity than the school I work in (30 percent of the families get financial aid, 30 percent are families of color.  No, they aren't always the same families.  But some of them are).  That would suck for the city of Philadelphia, which is already having problems funding it's schools.  The last thing it needs is even more families leaving. And if all the private school kids in Philly went to public school, they'd have so many more funding problems immediately that would crash the system.  But let's ignore that for the moment and focus on a different reality.  Urban private schools and urban public schools need each other.  Private schools with rich people (that are mostly in cities) need people that live in cities.  For people to move to cities, they generally have to believe that the public schools are good enough to make it work.  I need people to believe in Philly public schools because that brings people to Philadelphia.  If people move straight to the suburbs, they probably won't ever look my school.  If they are in Philadelphia and decide that their neighborhood school isn't good enough, or they didn't get into their preferred charter, or they realize that we can do a bunch of stuff that public schools can't, like have individualized instruction, or truly innovative programming, or attract non-traditional expert teachers, then they come see us.      We aren't a threat to public schools.  At my school, we have programs that train public school teachers in methods and content that we develop.  We volunteer at public schools and work with public school kids.  We need viable public schools because we love our city.  And our parents do too.  When we've established relationships with schools in Africa or Asia, we've heard from our parents, "don't forget about Philadelphia, our city needs us too."  

The central assumption in the essay is that private school parents would hold bake sales to make their schools better.  It's sort of like the Green Lantern theory of political leadership.  Or maybe it's the rainbows and unicorns version.  It's the idea that a small amount of effort by just the right person (or small group of people) is all that is needed to fix a complex problem.  If the President would just directly address the American people, we could have single payer health care, or if people just voted their class interests, we would have a more just society, etc. etc.  But reality is messy.  Despite what  you heard in the TED talk, the solution is more complex than just a better app, or the president speaking out, or everybody sending their kids to public schools.  

If you are really interested in fixing shitty public schools, we have lots of options.  We know that the single biggest difference maker in whether a kid succeeds in school is whether that child grows up in poverty.   We know that millions of tax dollars are being siphoned off through shell corporations by unethical charter school operators who are stealing public money and kids' futures.  We know that the virtual school movement has been a failure.  We know that a group of undemocratic ideologues are intentionally destroying public education because they believe education is not a public good.  If all the families that attend my school attended public school, it wouldn't change those realities.  It wouldn't stop teacher blaming and union busting; it wouldn't increase the per student budget of Philadelphia schools; and it wouldn't reverse No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top.  Those are decisions that require long term political alliance building, hard research work, old-fashioned politics, and tough structural reform.  Many private school parents are already engaged in that struggle.  We aren't the problem... or the solution. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Ed Tech start-ups, TED radio, and professional development

Rant the first:
Every time I hear about another ed tech start up I think of this: 

Notice that helping students is not part of the business plan. 

Rant the second: 
There is now such a thing as TED radio.  It's bad enough that TED seems to have taken over the market in public intellectuals but it's been a good seven years since Hans Rosling's talk, and four years since Bobby McFerrin's (which wasn't even a TED talk, but they appropriated it).  That shark has jumped.  However, NPR is now doing TED radio.  I shudder to think how silicon valley is going to try improve my world next.  NB:  Techies do much better at inventing things accidentally and then letting us put them to other uses as opposed to intentionally trying to change the way I do things.

Rant the third:
Twitter is a great for professional development if you already have an idea of what you want to do.  If you were clueless before twitter, getting on twitter is not going to make your pd happen.  And in the worst case scenario it turns into an amen chorus.  Actually, in a worst case scenario some Canadian guy begs people to follow you on your behalf. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Schools are really like...

In the spirit of the schools are like factories analogy, which seems to revolve around that both use bells, here's my analogy to replace it.  Feel free to ad more in comments. 

Schools are like boxing matches because:

...they open end close with bells. the end of each segment, you are judged on your performance
...not everybody finishes
...there's a lot of cheating that goes on have to do a lot of specific training to succeed
...many people believe that members of the opposite sex are an impediment to success in the endeavor or at the very least cause distractions that give you less chance at success.
...the person who isn't allowed to throw punches is outnumbered by the people who can
...somebody's always complaining about not being scored fairly
...state regulations regarding it vary widely
...the people engaged in the act of doing it are rarely the ones who make the real money involved looks better in movies than in real life

Monday, July 29, 2013

Schools Aren't Factories.... Yet

A couple of weeks back, I got into a twitter spat over the concept of schools as factories.  It's a fairly pervasive trope out there.  You can see it on full display in this Joel Rose article in The Atlantic from last year.  An even worse version is in this excerpt from the book Knowmad Society.  (I think I just threw up a little in my mouth after typing that.  Knowmad Society?  That's a bad Grateful Dead cover band name.  Do futurists really have that little imagination, sigh).  The Rose article at least has some subtlety to it.  The futurist/stoners  somehow draw a straight line from Prussia 1763 to today. This despite the fact that there was nothing that we could recognize as a factory in Prussia in 1763. 

The central problem here has to do with what goes on in a factory.  In a factory, machines do the work that used to be done by people.  Putting a whole bunch of people in a room making linen shirts out of linen cloth isn't a factory (although in the 1760s someone might have called that a factory, then again factory was also used as a term for a place where fur traders collected hides before shipping them east).  If however, you introduce sewing machines into the equation, you now have what we call a sweat shop, and the place where the cloth is made, if it's done on a machine, that's a factory.  Steel is made in a factory.  Automobiles are made in factories.  i-phones are made in factories.  In all of these places, machines do a lot of the work that used to be done by hand.  Factory work has some advantages: it standardizes output; it can mass produce things, dropping their price; and it requires less skill to make things.  It also comes with some costs.  If you've ever owned a pair of handcrafted shoes -or talked to someone who owns them - you know that handcrafted can mean high quality, customized goods.  Likewise, the boom of artisanal wines and beers emphasizes handcrafted products over those that were made in the factory. 

Currently, the educational model biases towards artisanal.     Teachers using knowledge and skills gained over a career try to teach students in fairly small groups pretty much defines education in the United States.  A lot of folks think this is old fashioned and they want to achieve economies of scale using technology.  In other words, they want to replace teachers with machines.  In other words, thew want to turn schools into knowledge factories.

So my first reaction to that is this:

Except of course, it isn't 1964, and educators have lost a lot of those battles over the years.  Ronald Reagan made attacking the UC system the cornerstone of his gubernatorial run in 1966. By the 1980s, the types of arguments about public education being a public good that should be paid for by the public were dying.  By the 2000s, lots of Democrats had gotten on the teacher bashing  band wagon that is the cornerstone of most current reform efforts.  And now Bill Gates et. al. want you to believe that schools are factories in a world where factories aren't relevant.  But herein lies the lie that's at the center of the pseudo-reform movement.  Schools aren't factories, they are centers of what Tim Burke calls handcrafted or artisanal education. 

So the question is really:  are you willing to pay more for high quality handcrafted shoe or do you want that cheap Bangledeshi knock-off?  And remember, education isn't just for next fashion season, it's for the rest of your life.  If Bill Gates et. al. get their way, schools will be factories. 

Pick of the week
Diane Ravitch:
Because as much as she would hate the comparison, she's the closest thing we've got to Mario Savio right now.  

Monday, July 1, 2013

The box of rocks problem. An excerpt from the ISTE talk I've never given.

It's ISTE time.  Audrey Watters already did her ISTE takedown here, wherein she discusses the bad corporate taste ISTE leaves in your mouth.  I joined in the fun on twitter (@DavidSalmanson).  I have my own ISTE stories to tell.  When I first started getting into ed tech in a big way, I applied to present at ISTE a couple of times.  My proposals were for papers that were pretty much like the over one dozen papers I've given at professional conferences elsewhere.  They identified problems and offered solutions.  They were academic in tone and interdisciplinary in outlook, but modified somewhat to reach an audience that might not be as steeped in theory as I am.  Most of all, these papers were critical.  In academia, being critical (or giving criticism) is a good thing.  You identify the strengths and weaknesses of an argument with the goal of making it better.  Collectively, scholars work to replace weak ideas with stronger ones, improve old theories, and create new ones.  We develop new analytic techniques or apply old ones in new ways.  This is what I thought I was supposed to be doing.  But after years of failed proposals, and after finally attending ISTE when it was here in Philadelphia, I finally realized what I was doing wrong.  ISTE isn't about criticism, it's about selling, specifically selling technology or at least a view point about technology.  Evgeny Morozov calls it "solutionism,"  I call it "technofuturism".  Whatever.  The point is, ISTE is not good at taking a critical stance towards tech ed.  They're boosters.   Since it's ISTE time, I'm posting a section of one of the talks I never got to give below.  It's what a critical take on tech ed looks like, an approach I like to call technoskepticism.

The Box of Rocks Problem

Back in the 1990s, I spent my summers working for an outstanding outdoor education organization based in New Mexico.  The organization, Cottonwood Gulch has been doing outdoor ed since 1926.  Over that time, they've collected for museums, run archeological digs, and hired a bunch of grad students in various fields who went on to national prominence.  The camp tries to get students from ages 10-18 to engage with the wilderness through the best scientific and humanistic practices.  Over the years, they've amassed huge collections of animals and plants, and most importantly for this story, rocks.  The camp museum had scores of samples of rocks collected over the years.  Igneous rocks and metamorphic rocks.  Minerals of every type that were found in the Southwest.  Each sample is identified with it's type and the location where it was collected.  Each year the collection was lovingly displayed before the camp season started and then carefully stored when it ended.  And then one summer, I showed up to staff training and walked into the museum and there were almost no rocks.  The museum curator, a crusty chain-smoking retired science teacher from Indiana, was wiping down the shelves where the rocks should be.  "Where are the rest of the rocks" I asked him.  "Well," he replied drawing deeply on his Parliament Light, "they're being used for erosion control up by the staff cabins."

I was baffled.  Surely this was heresy.  Decades worth of work had gone into making that collection.  "But why?" I asked.

"Because every fifteen years or so, we start over.  Kids have collected just about all the rocks they are going to find out here and it's frustrating for a new geologist to bring his find back to the museum to discover that we already have a sample.  This way, a camper can have the chance to make a new discovery."

And then I understood some important things.  First, that what drives self-directed learning is the joy of discovery, being under the illusion that you are the first person to think that thought, have that insight, add that rock to the collection.  Second, that this has to be age appropriate.  It's unrealistic for most kids to make a legitimate scientific discovery, but it's quite possible for kids to make discoveries for themselves (sometimes we call this inquiry based learning).  Third, sometimes you have to take the discoveries other people have made and throw them out so that kids can discover something for themselves.  You need to take the curated collection, and make it a box of rocks. 

In the internet age, when "everything is available online" it's increasingly hard for students to get that joy of discovery.  If your class documents everything it does and puts it on the web, you are going to run out of interesting insights pretty darn quickly.  There's only so many ways a fourth grader can look at the Civil War before you run out of things they can wrap their heads around.

So how do you know what you should and should not put on the web permanently?  Here are some guidelines:

Is it easily extendable?   Posting a project that has lots of new data coming in all the time is a good
use of the web.  For example, collecting pollution data from a stream year after year allows you to create a database that enables you to do more with the data each student collects by comparing it to previous weeks, months, and years.

Can others use this productively?  Oral histories are a nice example of this (and one I'll be using in my upcoming talk this fall on wikis for the New England History Teachers Association).  Oral histories are valuable documents that researchers can use.  Putting them into and other searchable databases enables people beyond your classroom to use the materials.

Are there finite answers to this?  If the answer is yes, it doesn't belong on the web permanently.  Most math proofs and essays don't belong on the web permanently (although a class Haiku site might be okay).  There's nothing worse than feeling like you've solved a very difficult problem and that you are the first one to do it that way and then realize lots of other people have done it the exact same way.

I'm going to leave you with one final anecdote.  A few years later, I worked with a camper who was a teenage geologist.  Note how I wrote that. Not a teenager interested in geology.  A teenage geologist.  The kid presented at academic conferences and corresponded with professors in the field. He had the equivalent of a BA in geology or maybe an MA.  He found stuff that other people missed.  We arranged special trips for him to collect samples of carnotite and uraninite on private land for his personal collection.  He desperately wanted some pitchblende.  Those are all radioactive minerals, by the way, so this kid was hardcore.  He didn't need the museum to be turned into a box of rocks.   The world was his collection and he was going to label each and every inch of it.  And that's a great project.  But it's his project.  If we inspires a few other people to help him out, great.  Our goal as educators isn't to create those projects.  Our goal is to help each student find a project that is theirs.  And sometimes that means taking our carefully curated collections of knowledge, and turning them into a box of rocks.  

Sunday, May 5, 2013

On Connected vs. Connecting

            We teachers, these days, talk a lot about using technology to get connected.  In general, I’m all for it.  When developing new courses, revising old ones, or brainstorming new assignments, I usually put out calls on Facebook for help.  But getting connected means nothing, if you aren’t connecting.  I have a few folks that I’ve never actually met in person who I’ve come to know virtually and eventually even sometimes had voice conversations with.  Others have remained folks who remain as only virtual entities, just bits and bytes and blog exchanges in my memory and the wayback machine.  Some of these folks, I might have met along the line anyway, but many are the types of folks who I just never would meet in my real life but they have made my teaching and my world richer and more full.  Russell Arben Fox, for example, is someone who I first crossed paths with back in the days of Invisible Adjunct’s blog in 2003-4.  Russell and I, it turns out, lurked about the same early corners of the internet.  We both read Tim Burke’s Easily Distracted.  We both played D and D as kids.  Russell is a Mormon fascinated with Jews (and all world religions).  I’m a Jew whose intellectual work required me to immerse myself in the worldview and culture of the Latter-day Saints.  We were a match made in heaven (or the celestial world?).  I know how old  Russell’s daughters were when the read each Harry Potter book.  I know his atrocious taste in music.  But outside of one long, desperate phone conversation several years ago, we’ve never spoken or met.  In short, over the last ten years, not only did I get connected with Russell, I’ve been connecting with him – on a personal and professional level ever since. 
            This last week, I made a new connection.  My school was fortunate enough to host Miss Navajo Nation, Leandra Thomas.  Ms. Thomas won her crown (which is handcrafted silver and studded with turquoise and coral), by winning a contest that required her to, among other things, butcher a sheep, speak to judges solely in Navajo, and answer complicated questions about Navajo history and government (in both Navajo and English, but not at the same time).  She spoke with kindergartners, fourth graders, fifth graders, and tenth graders.  Over the two days she was visiting, she was greeted and hugged.  For many students, she was the only Native American they’d ever met.  For others, she was a charming young woman who successfully pursued her dream.  And to all of us teachers, she was a reminder that there is always something besides teaching. Prior to winning the title she taught elementary school in Flagstaff, Arizona.  We could have had a virtual visit or two with Ms. Navajo, but it wouldn’t have been the same for mostly white, mostly privileged students.  Nor would it have been the same for Ms. Navajo.  Seeing our school, our students, and our teachers led to her asking us almost as many questions as we asked her.  I look forward to working with Leandra in the future when she returns to the classroom.  Over the course of the two days, we didn’t just get connected, we were connecting. 
            Too often the technofuturists gives us a vision of technology that is all about getting connected and not about connecting.  The dismal educational experience envisioned by Salman Kahn and advocates of robograded MOOCs sees getting connected as an end in of itself.  They’ve lost sight of the true end of education, to learn the art of connecting: between peers, between teachers and students, between parents and teachers.  And yes, even connecting with administrators.  Because if we connect just to connect, we forget our connections to the worlds around us.


My picks for best read(s) of the week. 

This week via Alec Couros, I read this magnificent tirade:  warning contains strong language:  It’s a compelling discussion of the history of MOOCs and why that history matters to today’s debates.

Also Tim Burke’s lovely column on why the humanities matters:The Humane Digital  

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Should Any Child be a Brand?

      You know things are bad when even normally even-keeled ed tech writers like Will Richardson are losing their way around an issue.  Richardson is on the right side of most issues.  He's anti-testing, and pro-art and creativity.  But when it comes to theorizing about kids online and the future, he stumbled badly in this recent blog post.  In the post, he's arguing that students need to create and manage their "brand" online.  From the use of the scare quotes to the backtracking in the comments it's clear he's not entirely comfortable with this idea.  It's also clear, he doesn't see a lot of other options.  This is, however, one of those moments where taking a step back and thinking through the implications of what he's proposing is going to be beneficial for everybody involved, especially the kids.
      Let's start with what a brand actually is.  Advertisers and entrepreneurs created brands as we know them in the late 19th century to help distinguish products in a national market place.  No longer did buyers (who are transforming into modern consumers as part of this process) make their purchases based on local reputations and knowledge bases.  You weren't buying Farmer Joe's milk or Baker Mary's biscuits.  You were buying Carnation Milk ("best in the land, comes to your table in the little red can" as one jingle writer put it) and Nabisco's biscuits.  To distinguish these products, the advertisers and industrialists created brands that turned commodities (like milk and wheat) into goods. 
     If we are branding children, we are treating them like commodities.  We all know what happened the last time we treated people like commodities, right?  Let's have a quick reminder shall we?

The issue isn't that Richardson wants to commodify kids.  The problem is he can't see anyway out of it.  As a historian that rings some bells.  He's like Thomas Jefferson flailing about for some solution that he can't see to a problem that he wishes he didn't have.
     The problem here is the way we think about education.  We no longer talk about education as a social or moral good.  We talk about it almost exclusively as an economic transaction.  In so doing, we dehumanize the very people who are most vulnerable.  Students become the dollars spent on them rather than somebody's child; teachers become their retirement packages rather than experienced, knowledgeable professionals; school buildings are no longer community centers but fixed costs.  
       We can think our way out of this, of course.  But it starts with us thinking of education not as an economic transaction, but a social one. 

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Technofuturism, technophobia, and technoskepticism

        After a not so brief hiatus as a blog writer, and a rather extensive career as a commentator at a couple of blogs, I’m returning to blogging full time.    If you don’t know who I am I once wrote posts like this:  Yes, I spent a week crafting a post decrying the lack of a historiography of the tampon.  And while I will continue to decry historiographical gaps when I see them, I don’t intend to focus this blog on that.  
      Instead, my main topics will be on the discourse around and practice of teaching World and US history specifically, teaching generally and more often than not, teaching with technology specifically. It’s this last theme that I’ll be ruminating on today. 
I’m going to discuss three key topics that help guide my understanding of how to use technology in the classroom.  Technofuturism is a willful belief that technology a) always makes the world better b) has no major costs or trade-offs associated with it and c) is essentially value neutral in terms of who it favors and who it harms.  Technofuturism  is evident in those who see MOOCs and fully wired campuses as the future of high school and undergraduate teaching.    As a teacher/historian I find this really frustrating.  Every claim for the MOOC has been made for radio, movies, filmstrips, and television.   The central assumption of technofuturists is that knowledge and content are relatively equivalent, that expertise is easily translatable and that the only things worth knowing are right answers.  Technofuturism is an ultimately depressing ideology built around the deskilling of teaching and the concentration of power and prestige into a few highly paid individuals via the privatization of education.  I have absolutely no desire to take part in manifesting my own technological obsolence, especially when it appears to offer no tangible benefits to my students.  
      The second term is technophobia.  A lot of scholars and teachers, but fewer everyday, are hesitant to use modern technology in the classroom.  But few of us are doing so in ways that are helpful to students.  Sure your syllabus and assignments are online, but how else are you using modern technology inside and outside the classroom?  Technophobia is marked by tendency to reject technology until it’s benefits are so overwhelmingly obvious that the decision to use the technology is a no-brainer.  Or, in fancy language, technophobes wait until the adoption of technology appears to be a natural decision because the technology is so thoroughly assimilated that all countervailing discourses have disappeared. 
     Finally there is technoskepticism.  If you didn’t see it coming, this is my preferred platform.  Technoskepticism asks a set of questions any particular technology, be it hardware or software or cloud.   What does this technology allow me or my students to do that they couldn’t do without it?  What costs in terms of dollars and time are associated with this technology?  What am I giving up in adopting this technology?  Lest you think that I’m using technoskepticism as cover for technophobia here is a partial list of programs and applications I’ve used with students and colleagues in the last few years that have passed this test:  wikispaces, Twitter, Smart Ideas, Smart Notebook, Sketch Up, a wide variety of apps that are now under Google Drive, Blogger, Google Earth Tours,  GarageBand, and iPhoto.  
     The point of being a technoskeptic isn’t to say no to technology, it’s to say no to crappy technology and to say yes to good technology.