Archive for May, 2005

Beginning Again

May 28 2005 Published by under borderland,education

I received a certificate this week because I’ve been teaching in the district for 20 years. You’d think that I would know what I’m doing after all these years, but as time goes by I feel less certain that I know how to teach.

Teaching is a complex profession. There are not very many jobs like it. During the busy active time, teachers are absorbed with the lives of their students. It’s a job that is hard to contain. You find yourself thinking about what happened in the classroom on and off no matter where you are, or what you’re doing.

The summer break is a time to reorganize. Teaching offers the dual promises of deliverance and redemption. In June we are freed from the responsibility to teach those individuals we came to know during the year (deliverance). But we also begin to think ahead and plan for the students we will meet in 3 months when we are reborn as active teachers once again. In the summer we try to anticipate the problems we expect to run into, and we think about ways to avoid or overcome those difficulties (redemption).

The problem with turning over these new leaves is that the kids who walk through the door in September aren’t the same kids who walked out the door in May. *They* may have done some thinking of their own over the summer. And it may not mesh with the teacher’s thoughts. It’s very easy to plan for theoretical kids. Much more difficult is the task of influencing real ones. Over the summer we tend to develop an agenda for the year to come – based on the kids who we’ve worked with. The kids, whether they know it or not, develop an agenda of their own.

The challenge of doing a good job is one of determining what these agendas are and looking for ways to negotiate them so that we can adapt ours to make it look appealing to the kids, and hope that they buy in. My point of view on this is not common, and I don’t work within the confines of educational or professional standards without some chafing. Flexibility is often mistaken for weakness, or some kind of personal lapse.

My advice: Go in with a plan and more than one backup idea. Don’t expect to accomplish what you set out to do. Look for surprises. Learn from others. Don’t leap to conclusions. Reflect on what happened.

Have a good summer.

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Student Blogs and Sovereignty

May 21 2005 Published by under borderland,education,technology

The end of every school year presents a change of workflow for teachers. Many things are required to bring closure to the academic calendar. Record-keeping especially rears its ugly head with permanent records, portfolios, and report cards all needing some attention. Additionally, the teachers at my school this year have the added challenge of boxing up every item in our classrooms for the move to our new building. We need to vacate the building 2 days after the last student contact day to accommodate the demolition schedule since our old school is being torn down in early June. Life has been hectic.

My students have been blogging for about 5 weeks. I wish I’d been able to start them sooner, but technical difficulties and getting an account on the district’s development server took some time. I think that for the kids this may be the defining experience of their year with me. They are ready learners, soaking up everything I tell them about web authoring. Topics covered have included what is private information and what can be public ( a difficult area for anyone who is beginning to publish personal narratives online), how to appropriately comment to other bloggers, how to respond to comments, how to use the strong and em tags, proper mechanics (ie. spelling and punctuation), diplomacy, and the use of emoticons .

The issue of diplomacy came up with a request for feedback regarding the classroom research project we did with Joan Parker Webster from the University of Alaska. She suggested the kids write about the research project in their blogs. She gave them some things to think about in the form of a series of questions. I projected the questions on the screen at the front of the room and we talked about them. The kids began to type. Normally they can write about whatever they choose, but this day was a bit different. They had an assignment. A few students composed thoughtful responses. A few wrote lists without any context (like a poorly done school assignment). And a couple of students wrote terse reviews that were blunt and uncomplimentary.

I didn’t want to approve any of the responses that were poorly written until the kids supplied some context in the form of a topic sentence, at least. I also insisted that if they made a generalization they should support it with an example – like any good writer would. I didn’t want to approve what I considered the rude responses at all. But my reaction to the writing made me think about the issue of control over what was and was not going to be published. When I began the blogging project I imagined that I would approve content once it was acceptably correct in a mechanical sense, and if it did not contain information that might compromise the kids’ privacy. I didn’t imagine that I would also be teaching manners. But that just shows how shortsighted I was because I spend a good part of the rest of my day teaching kids how to be polite. Why shouldn’t I have to teach etiquette with the blogs, as well?

I’m not sure what the background is for most of my fourth graders where the internet is concerned. But it seems safe to say that at least some students are familiar with chat conventions such as “OMG” and “LOL”, and the smiley icons because I see that they are using them without any prompting from me. Most fourth-graders are entirely naive about the web. All of them are naive to some degree. It is important for us to begin teaching kids about internet usage in school because many are already using the net for personal communication with little or no guidance. Kids are already there. It’s time for us to formally acknowledge that online authorship is a fact of life for kids in 2005.

So here I am, the teacher, taking control of the students’ blogs, which means the blogs aren’t really theirs. The point is that even though school blogs are an expressive form, they are not and should not be considered a free space for kids to publish whatever they choose. We need to keep an eye on them and teach them the same kinds of writing lessons we would teach if they were writing conventional essays. And we also need to teach etiquette where social conventions apply. Socially enabled software makes these lessons critically important. The writing kids are doing when they are blogging is not just an exercise. It’s not simply to demonstrate their knowledge of a subject. It reaches a potential audience far beyond their awareness. It may have an effect on people we don’t necessarily intend. Just like taking kids on a field trip, we expect them to behave themselves in public. We have to manage their behavior as well as their writing. And for that reason we must guide them in the process of becoming competent with this powerful expressive form. As I mentioned before, they’ll be doing it with us, or without us. We need to teach them how.

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Blog. Students, Teachers!

May 11 2005 Published by under borderland,education,teacher research,technology

I’m learning from my students, and I’m learning from other teacher-bloggers. I want to recognize the valuable work that Bud Hunt and Susan Sedro are doing to support the efforts of teachers who are exploring issues that arise as we open our classrooms to socially enabled software. Bud’s idea of creating a repository of our collective thinking is a good one, because I see from both him and Susan that we are asking similar questions. Susan’s reactions to her students’ comments on each others’ blogs, and her search for a feed aggregator mirror my own thoughts in recent days. Bud’s point about sharing teacher knowledge is not new, or limited to IT issues. Teaching is a profession that has traditionally been practiced in isolation. We are constrained by time, institutional structures, and issues of confidentiality that prevent us from sharing valuable lessons with each other.

Bud’s idea of using a wiki for teachers to pool their intellectual and technological resources is right on the money. But how do we begin? A few at a time, to be sure. At my work location I am not making a lot of noise about my student bloggers. My reasons for flying below the radar are mixed. The main thing for me is that I want the freedom and flexibility to make mistakes. I knew going into this that there would be technical snags, and that classroom procedures would need to be streamlined.

The question that Chris Lott, Bud Hunt , Will Richardson, and many others have asked about the nature of blogging itself is altogether fascinating. What should students write about?

The point that Chris makes about the power of blogging as a practice that promotes self discovery is for me the most compelling reason to explore its potential as a classroom resource. If not for that reason, then I must ask myself why we are doing it at all. Certainly there is value in providing windows into our students’ worlds. But is it our job, or our right to do that? We are charged with the task of teaching students to write and read, certainly. And blogging most definitely qualifies as an activity that supports that goal. But do our students need to express themselves publicly to such a broad and random audience to accomplish that? The answers to these questions, it seems to me, are “No.” These are not sufficient reasons for keeping a public weblog. What is making a difference for my students is the comments feature of the blog. This is something that is only now becoming meaningful for them. And they are beginning to check to see if they are getting comments.

Joan Parker-Webster, my good friend and colleague from UAF, is doing a research project in my classroom this week. She was looking at our blogs and writing comments to the kids on one of the computers in the classroom. Darren sat next to her as she wrote him a comment.

We went to Nulato to dance with old people and we got to eat food. We got to go hunting bear to eat, and moose too. We got to go fishing to eat it. It was school tomorrow at 8:00 o’clock. We got to school at 7:45.

Hello Darren, this is Joan. You are lucky to be able to go to Nulato and see elders dancing. Can you dance too?

Darren got up and walked back to his desk. With a big smile he told the kids near him, “I got a comment from Joan.”

Another student, Alex, began writing humorous advice pieces. These are truly original and very apt observations on the world around him. I couldn’t have ever made an assignment for the kids to write anything like this. When I recognized the genius of these posts I asked him where he got the idea, and of course he didn’t know. He has imitators in the class now. But none of them are quite as sharply perceptive as his are. For instance

5 Tips About Getting A Girl Friend
05/03/05 @ 09:02:19 am, 76 words, by Alex

HI, I’m Mr. Sho Sha, and I’ll be giving you 5 tips about getting a girl friend.

1. Never ask their weight.
(They will smack you)

2. If they are drinking a soda do not ask if it is Diet.
( Kay)

3.Prepare a speech before you talk with her.
(Make it good)

4. She likes you. The first date should be simple.
(I’m not sure)

The thing you should always give her.

5. Get her some chocolate.
(She’ll fall for it)

Darren comments

This is darren tell more thing how to get a girlfriend

So Joan was reading Alex’s work when she was there and he told her that he would write her some tips about being a professor.

5 Tips About How To Become a Professor!
05/10/05 @ 02:32:15 pm, 78 words, by Alex

Hi, I’m Mr. Smarty Pants and I’ll be giving you 5 tips about how to be a professor.

1. Get a pair of glasses.
(they make you look smart)

2. Get a nice note book.
(You’ll look smarter)

3. Take notes of just anything. For example: I’m taking notes.

4. Interview people that don’t want to be interviewed.

One of the best tips of all,

5. Chew some bubble gum. Professors like to usually chew on something when they’re working.
(All right)

Joan was charmed. From her office, she wrote back.

Hello Alex, this is Professor Joan. Thanks for the tips. I am going to the store to buy bubble gum today. I already have the glasses and notebook. When do you want to be interviewed?

Alex read her comment and he told me all about it. Then he said, “She wants to interview me.” I said, “You know that’s what professors do. He pumped his arm and said, “Score!”

Can it get any better than this? Maybe. But this is more than I hoped for after only a couple of weeks.

I would just like to conclude by saying that as I think about this experience we are having – my students and I – I have to recognize that I might not properly value the social dimension of blogging if I did not also keep a blog myself. Anyone reading this can see that my participation in this literary form is still somewhat recent. I, too, enjoy the opportunity of having my contributions recognized by people outside my immediate sphere. I believe that teachers who ask their students to blog must also do so themselves. How else will they know what it is about? The tension between private and public information, the joy of discovery, and the risk of embarrassment is all personal knowledge that can not be understood by mere observers.

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Case Closed

May 11 2005 Published by under borderland,education,teacher research,technology

The Wikka crew helped me out on the IRC #wikka channel the other day with the ‘friendly urls’ / mod_rewrite problem I had on the TrueNorth wiki. I can put this discussion to rest (on this blog, at least) by way of documenting the cascade of errors I made which caused the problem and maybe save someone else the trouble of stumbling around through tall brush as I did. I will try not to say too many nice things about Wikka and embarrass anyone, but I do appreciate the help they gave me. And I don’t mind letting people know when they make a difference one way or another.

Last Fall I discovered an FTP client for mac os x called Transmit. It’s a great tool, and I will continue to use it. What I didn’t know, though, was that there was a preferences setting under the Files menu for “show all hidden files” that needed to be enabled. Since I didn’t know about the need to set that preference, AND I didn’t know that an FTP client will only send the files it can *see,* none of the .htaccess files that need to be included for Wikka to do it’s mod_rewrite business were uploaded to the server. I thought that if I put the directory somewhere, everything in it would also go there. But I learned otherwise.

JavaWoman documented the function of those .htaccess files, and explained where they should be found. If my first mistake was ignorance (the Transmit preferences), the rest belong in another Class – one that I regularly see in my students during math lessons. Even though I read through the documentation while I was trying to figure out why I got the /wikka.php?wakka=WhatEver url’s, I completely ignored any information that didn’t seem to make sense. This, of course, is a strategy for problem solving that is only useful when you are dealing with dogs or people. Computers do not usually tolerate such sloppy thinking.

Example 1: The Wikka HtaccessConfigInfo page says

Wikka installs a number of .htaccess files. These will be effective only if:

1. Wikka is installed on an Apache server
2. The server is configured to allow the use of .htaccess files for the directives we use here. (If not, you may try convincing your host to allow it for you, armed with the documentation on this page to convince them why it’s important. See the ‘Prerequisite’ boxes for what is needed in the main Apache configuration.)

The .htaccess files distributed with Wikka

As of version Wikka installs the following .htaccess files:

And then the code is provided with detailed explanations and explicit references to the directories where each file is located.

So, I wonder now, what *was* I thinking to ignore the fact that I didn’t have those files in my installation? Psychologists no doubt have a clinical term for this phenomena that is preferable to the more colorful and descriptive, “thickheaded,” which seems fair to me from this vantage point.

Without going into an excessive amount of embarrassing detail (if that is even still possible), let me add that I not only ignored the initial nagging question, “Why don’t I see any .htaccess files?” but also disregarded the documentation that details the function of the .htaccess files in the subdirectories.

Example 2: The Wikka HtaccessConfigInfo further explains

When a browser renders a page, it will first request the URL for the page from the server, and then does an additional request for any files that are embedded or needed for rendering such as images, stylesheets, JavaScript files and applets. But because we are rewriting the URLs the browser requests for these extra resources will also get treated by the rewrite engine.

If we don’t prevent this from happening, the rewriting will result in URLs that no longer point to the actual files (when they did in the first place). We must tell Apache to not use URL rewriting for these files. This is easy, since they are in separate directories: the .htaccess file placed in these directories simply tells Apache to turn off the rewriting engine….(again wrapped in an appropriate IfModule section so that the statement will be executed only if the mod_rewrite module is actually enabled). URLs pointing to files in these directories now won’t be rewritten.

I paid no attention whatsoever to that and instead simply noted that when I used the .htaccess code in the main directory, I lost all of the CSS formatting. It makes sense now. I freely admit that I do not have a technical disposition, and rely on simple stubborness and a reckless indifference to the consequences of implusive decision-making. In other words, I seem to learn best from my mistakes, and I may be destined to make every single possible error on the path toward competence. It is the path of an adventurer, not a craftsman.

But all is well with my little wiki project. Now I need to work on building the community that can put it to use. The Wikka folks will undoubtedly hear from me again. I have a plan to use this wiki application to improve b2evolution as an educational blogging tool. I think I can partner Wikka and b2evo to make blogging easy for teachers and available to large numbers of kids on a single installation. The RSS action is key. More on this as I get some time to work it out.

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May 05 2005 Published by under education,teacher research,technology

I think commitment is a mark of character and the prerequisite of success with any meaningul goal, and I would just like to give one more nod to the developers of Wikka Wiki for taking an active interest in my satisfaction with their product. Wikka Wiki has my vote for “wiki engine of the year.” It is truly The Little Wiki That Could. A powerful little tool that comes with a full set of features and a development team that is working hard to make it even more powerful and easy to use.

JavaWoman offered to help me with my mod_rewrite trouble, and she will probably hear from me on IRC #wikka channel on freenode (Thanks, Chris, for showing me how it works) in the near future because nothing I try with .htaccess seems to help generate the friendly URLs that I would like. It’s not a big problem, but it doesn’t seem like it should be hard to fix, either. I made a user page at the Wikka development site to help me learn more about how the software works. I find their site to be informative and welcoming. In addition to JavaWoman’s comments, I got a message from someone with a colleague in New Brunswick who is setting up a site for teachers similar to mine. A most excellent welcome, I’d say. I think if I spend some time digging aound on the Wikka site I may even build on my scant knowledge of PHP and learn to do a few more things.

Wikka Wiki seems to be the perfect solution for what I need to do. It

  • has an RSS capability which allowed me to display my delicious links to Wikka’s relevant support pages and create a custom support page;
  • allows users to lock down any pages that they create, limiting read, write, and comment privileges – which may appeal to people doing educational research for a variety of reasons;
  • presents a very simple interface and allows for categorization of content, making it easy to search; displays images, flash files, and also supportsFreeMind mind mapping software.

There’s more, too. Take a look at the full feature list.

I made a couple of changes to the TrueNorth site. One of the things I did was to reinstall the software on a new subdomain that has a name that is more descriptive than “wiki.” I left a header redirect in the wiki directory pointing to the new subdomain so my few remaining stray links will still work. It was really no big deal to copy and paste the dozen pages I’d made into the new location. It was not an elegant way to do it from a programmers perspective, but I’m not a programmer, and I’m not elegant. ;)

The reason I could get away with moving the site to a new domain like that is that the only other person who’d been into the site hadn’t done anything with it yet. That’s going to change this summer. Joan asked me to teach a group of teachers in the Alaska State Reading Endorsement Program how to use the wiki for a project they will be doing. My other good idea for the wiki as a research tool is to create bibliography pages. Researchers who plan to publish have to keep track of their sources, and the ease of linking and annotating references would make writing research reports much easier than a pile of note cards or a directory on a computer hard drive.

I wish I wasn’t so busy with my own job. I’d have a lot more time to mess with this stuff. There’s a pile of papers on my desk to wade through because I’ve been sitting here after school all afternoon typing. I’ve been too busy to even log my activity.

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Unsolved Mysteries

May 02 2005 Published by under teacher research,technology

Update: 12/02/05 I discovered a broken link (to the Wikka Wiki site) in this post, which is now repaired.

I appreciate the comments I got today from two of the Wikka Wiki developers, Nils Lindenberg and Marjolein Katsma. They responded to my April 26 post about some problems I had working with the Wikka Wiki software. They were naturally curious about my comment that working with the program hadn’t been easy, and they offered some suggestions to help me work out some of the problems I encountered.

I need to say a little bit more about this. First of all, a direct response to my blog post with an offer of support is very encouraging, and reassures me that I made a good choice to install this package. It was dead simple to install. The problem that I had with the comment form not displaying was resolved once I got home and away from the school district’s demonic filter. I found the answer to the problem with the comment form on the FAQ under (what else?) Comments:

* When I click on the [Add comment] link, wikka asks me, if I want to create this page instead of showing the comments-form
o Look into your wikka.config.php and set the entry ‘rewrite_mode’ => ’1′, to ’0′. That should solve the problem .

That did fix the comment form situation, but I still can’t get the friendly URLs I was looking for. They all say “wikka.php?wakka=” before the page name. I wanted to get rid of that, which is why I had the rewrite_mode variable set to 1. I don’t understand enough about Apache and .htaccess to know what I’m doing – not that it stops me from trying – but it’s hit or miss. Miss in my case. And I don’t understand enough about what I’m dong to know how to refine my troubleshooting procedure. The best I could do was to put a .htaccess file in there that DIDN’T do anything. The worst was when I just got error pages.

I tried the workaround today, as suggested. And I got a page that had no CSS formatting, along with the same funky URLs that I was trying to avoid. My solution now is to redefine the problem as not significant and move on. Retreat, when you are fighting a losing battle, and prepare for a counterattack another day.

I really like the Wikka Wiki software. It is easy to work with and I’ve been having fun putting my teacher research project pages together. I got an email message from my UAF professor pal, Joan, tonight. She was supposed to be working on this wiki with me. I wanted to get her familiar with wiki collaboration so I suggested we do this research project on the wiki. The message that I got from her was basically an SOS. She got stuck at the login page. Nothing was wrong. She just didn’t know what to do. She saw the form and freaked out. I went back and put more detailed instructions on the front page of the wiki, and emailed her letting her know that she should try again. It is difficult to know where people are going to stumble when you put something together. I have it set up to require a login to write, but not to read or comment. I don’t think that is a mistake because I don’t really want this to be a huge wiki. I didn’t mean to intimidate people though. I’m glad she is doing this with me because she will help me smooth the rough edges. I’ve signed up for so many accounts on the internet now that to me it’s nothing. But I have to remember that isn’t the case with everyone.

More difficulty this evening came when I had the great idea to include an RSS feed from my student bloggers onto the wiki site. It should have worked like a charm. But it doesn’t. And I don’t know why. I believe it has something to do with the server that the blog is on, but I can read the xml document that gets generated, so I’m not sure. But what I do know is that every other site’s feed that I pasted into the wiki displayed the feed quite nicely. My students’ blog page, though, had an error message at the top of the page. The message said that there was an

error on line 130 in …wiki/3rdparty/plugins/onyx-rss/onyx-rss.php: The specified file could not be opened.

I spent a long time trying to understand this. I can’t. I feel like I wasted another evening banging into a wall that I can’t even see. As I said, I can use any other feed and get it to display beautifully.

This rss experiment wasn’t a complete bust. It was actually part one of a plan I came up with to write content on northernattitude for the Alaska wiki that I would feed to the wikicity. I need to look at the templates system they have set up there. I saw some documentation on it the other day and I’m going to explore that a little more soon. I know now how to write an rss action for Wikka Wiki. I just don’t know why it wouldn’t work with my students’ blogs…

More on the school district’s paranoid security policies soon…

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