Archive for March, 2008

What now?

Mar 31 2008 Published by under borderland,complexity,technology

Maybe I’ll have ‘What now?‘ carved into my tombstone. It’s an ever-relevant question, and someone might even smile at it if they thought it was the last thing some dead guy wanted to know. Which it would be.

Now, after Doug Belshaw’s post – maybe even partly because of his question, Is Twitter Bad for You? I’ve opened a twitter account. This marks an about-face for me, based on a previous declaration, and a comment I left on another of Doug Belshaw’s posts about the changing face of the edublogosphere a couple of days ago. First, I don’t think Twitter is bad for people. But it might be a major distraction for me – which has been my main point of reluctance.

The interesting thing, and the thing that moved me to set up the Twitter account, was that with the Diigo stampede, Graham Wegner’s post about edublogging and the bigger conversation, this post about filtering Twitter so that it works more like, and Miguel’s expansive vision for using Diigo to build a multipurpose networking application, I began to give some more serious thought to what seems to be a changing blogscape.

A lot of people have written about this in the last several months. And I have nothing profoundly analytical to add, except to share this post from Bruce Sterling, Beyond Blogs: The Conversation Has Moved Into the Flow that I found today, in, which finally tipped me off the fence I was riding with Twitter. Sterling was quoting Stowe Boyd:

Basically, conversation is moving from a very static and slow form of conversation — the comments thread on blog posts — to a more dynamic and fast form of conversation: into the flow in Twitter, Friendfeed, and others. I think this directionality may be like a law of the universe: conversation moves to where [it] is most social.


Twitter and other similar apps are based on the web of flow: information of interest comes to us, not the other way around. And it flows through people, through relationships: it’s not a bunch of clicks on URLs, scrolling, and so on. It’s a move away from hunting and gathering and into relationship agriculture: information grows in our flow applications instead of us spending time hunting it down.


The way I am getting tugged to blog posts is increasingly as a mention within a conversational bite in Twitter or Friendfeed. I then click out of the flow to see the larger post, and offer my view in the flow — not on the blog — and then I return to the flow, where I will be spending most of my time.

This makes sense: I want to talk about the blog post with the person who brought it to my attention, more so that with some group of strangers at the blog, or even the author, who I may not know at all.

I also don’t think we can expect the fragmentation of the social experience to slow down: it will get a lot worse before it gets better.

So I’ve jumped into the flow. Things change.

15 responses so far

Migrating to Diigo

Mar 29 2008 Published by under borderland,technology

Ryan Bretag’s post with the vs. Diigo comparison table caught my attention. I looked at Diigo several months back, and I didn’t see it as substantially better than, which has a large user base. But I’m rethinking that now, since Diigo has new features. Read about Dean Shareski’s headache (all of it) if you decide to join. The headache thing was kind of funny because I read only the first part of Dean’s post before I raced off to see who, in my gmail account, was already using Diigo. And then I almost sent my entire list of email contacts an invitation to join – like Dean did – except that I got a warning that I was about to send a message to 132 people, prompting me to uncheck a box so only a couple of folks got the “befriend me” message.

Using regularly for a few years, I’ve built a monstrous pile of links. Today I moved 5,587 of them to Diigo. I’m not familiar yet with Diigo, and this is not a review of its features set. A couple of things didn’t turn out quite the way I would have liked. I expected that my tags and notes would import. But they didn’t. So now I’ve got several thousand untagged and unannotated links in my Diigo account. Searching them is not real smooth, and neither is deleting them. Unlike, there doesn’t seem to be a way to edit tags as a batch, sitewide. So to change something, it seems that you have to page through all your links. This bugs me. And without tags or notes, with that volume of material, I don’t know….Is there a way to fix this? Maybe I’m not so dissatisfied with, after all.

But the networking features in Diigo might make using it worthwhile. What to do?

Anyone who cares to join me there, let me know. I’m open.

12 responses so far

Accommodating Student Weirdness

Mar 27 2008 Published by under borderland,education,politics

Susan Ohanian:

The important things a student gets from school are elusive. The so-called value added system does not and cannot measure the things I value as a teacher. Instead of spending their time trying to measure corporate imperatives, teachers need to learn how to accommodate student weirdness.

This is my job, plainly put.

7 responses so far

Fault Lines

Mar 27 2008 Published by under borderland,complexity,science

Artichoke’s post about metaphor and education, and creativity, has me thinking about the lines and tensions in teaching. She notes the contradiction for art teachers working in schools with “The emphasis of verbal communication in a subject which is often about an individual language that has nothing to do with words.” Her post was provocative, as usual.

Most notably, this time, she sent her readers off to read a deliciously descriptive story, Lost in the Sahel, in which Paul Salopek tells about a journey to Africa. He wrote:

The Sahel is a line.

But it is also a crack in the heart"”a tightrope, a brink, a ledge. See how its people walk: straight-backed on paths of red dust, placing one foot carefully before the other, as if balanced upon a knife edge. The Sahel is a bullet"™s trajectory. It is the track of rains that fall but never touch the sand. It is a call to prayer and a call for your blood, and for me a desert road without end.

The Sahel is the transitional region between Africa’s Sahara, to the north, and the savanna to the south. It’s a troubled and troublesome place that embraces both beauty and brutality. It’s a boundary, a borderland, a place that is home to “Arabs and blacks, Muslims and Christians, nomads and farmers, a landscape of greens and a world of tans. Some 50 million of the world’s poorest, more disempowered, most forgotten people hang fiercely on to life there.” Read this piece. Thinking about lines, tensions, and metaphors, it evoked some connections with school for me that I want to record here.

The classroom is also a line. Lines separate as well as join. In school we divide knowing into discreet subject areas, and we move from one to another on a schedule defined by the clock, and signaled with a bell. Curriculum is also a line. It has a scope, and a sequence. It defines a finite body of knowledge to be presented for consideration and consumption by students in the various grade levels, which are likewise linearly ordered. And evaluation, that is also a scheme in which graded judgments are attached to student performances in order to report and record their “progress” down the line.

Lines impose structure and order. Cause and effect, too, is a linear kind of knowing. Lines are used to explain and to predict as we come to recognize patterns in sequences of events.

There is a line, too, between the left and right hemispheres of our brains. And this line is a boundary that, like the Sahel, both separates and unites. This point was eloquently made by Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroanatomist who describes the neural meltdown she experienced on a December morning in 1996 when she had a stroke.

Taylor explains how the right and left brain hemispheres are very different places. The right hemisphere is about the present moment. It thinks in pictures and sensations. It is conscious of the energy that flows throughout the universe. The left hemisphere organizes that information by associating it with everything we’ve ever learned, and it uses language to do its work. It helps us to construct the common shared reality that we use to orchestrate events in the world, creating meaning from sense impressions. Taylor tells what happened when the chatter in her left brain went silent, when she said goodbye to her life, and experienced nirvana. Her realization that this experience is a gift within the grasp of each of us at every moment motivated her to recover and encourage people to “run the deep inner peace circuitry of our right hemispheres” and perhaps create a more peaceful planet. Her message is a powerful story of transformation and a window into a frontier that the world desperately needs us to explore and navigate.

This line, the fissure that divides our left and right brains, I see now, may be the most important boundary in all of creation. For teachers it is a zone of vital importance. We need to learn as much as we can about this place, and how to navigate it, because too much of our work is located in left brain isolation.

A good place to begin would be the Brain Rules principles described by John Medina. “If you wanted to create an education environment that was directly opposed to what the brain was good at doing, you probably would design something like a classroom.” – John Medina.

Medina says that schools are designed so that most real learning has to occur at home, and when I think about what “home” is for some kids, it’s scary to think about what that might mean. The Brain Rules site is a promotion for Medina’s book, but it is also exceptionally informative. He lists 12 “brain rules,” or principles derived from brain research, and each principle is linked to a short video. The topics he discusses include exercise, attention, memory, sleep, stress, and exploration, among other things. Kids would enjoy this, teachers should be familiar with this research. Good lessons for us all, as we work to make classrooms interesting and engaging places for kids to learn things that matter.

I’m also thinking that compassion meditation is something to begin learning more about as we explore the possibilities for running that “deep inner peace circuitry.”

One response so far

Opportunistic Teaching

Mar 18 2008 Published by under borderland,literacy


There’s a lot going on at once. Thankfully, there are two teachers in the room – one of the best things to come from Title I grant money is that I now enjoy regular backup from a retired English teacher, working as an aide. We conference at random with whoever seems to have a need.

Because of events beyond my control, an essay writing contest offered by our school’s community business partner, a local bank, pops up on the radar just before spring break. Now we’re back, and with only a few days before the deadline. The principal “suggested” that my students participate. Yes, we’ll do that. But we’re also writing letters to the Supreme Court about the Exxon Valdez damages hearing.

I introduced the kids to the I say… / They say… format for the contest, “Why I am Proud to Be an Alaskan.” And I suggested that they might begin with something like “Many people believe that Alaska is…… but I know that….” I suggested a few different options. We brainstormed the up-sides and the down-sides of living in Alaska – and they were off and writing.

Like I said, there is a lot going on. Some kids are writing in notebooks, and some are at computers. It’s pretty businesslike, and I’m reading some of the contest essays, and a few of them almost bring me to tears (no kidding) they’re so heartfelt. I say how moved I am, and somebody comments that they didn’t know I was so sensitive. Sometimes I surprise even myself. But I let the kids know when their writing affects me. These little meetings are powerful.

When they were done with the contest draft, a few kids asked if they should finish typing their letters. “Sure, you bet.”

I was walking by one youngster at a computer, and I noticed her scrolling through a long, almost two-paged letter to the Court, and down near the bottom where it says, “Respectfully,” she wrote “I think Exxon should pay punitive damages.” And then, while I’m watching, she deleted “I think.” So it just says, “Exxon should pay punitive damages.”

Why’d you delete that? I asked.

It sounded better this way, she said.

I was blown away that she figured that out on her own. You’re right, I told her. Your opinion has more punch without the “I think.”

She smiled. I moved on, smiling also. She was really thinking this through, making her argument stronger. I’ve never seen elementary students pay that kind of attention to their writing.

Sometimes our best teaching amounts to telling students, “That’s right! Way to go!” because we can’t anticipate how their genius might emerge at any moment. And, of course, we have to give them opportunities to soar. I don’t know how to package this.

10 responses so far

Critical Moves

Mar 16 2008 Published by under borderland,education,literacy

Because I teach writing, and because my students publish some of their writing to the Internet, I’ve been thinking about the differences between blogging effectively, and simply writing online. This is a question that Bud Hunt explored recently, and he sees hypertext links as the essential difference. But I’m sure that Bud would agree there’s more to blogging than just adding links to our writing. Yes, linking matters in important ways. Mainly, it allows us to extend a conversation by connecting one source with another (like I’m doing here, now). Doing that requires us to make judgments about how texts are related, and to take a position relative to one or another. But that doesn’t happen just from the linking. The linking, as I see it, facilitates criticism.

It may seem obvious, but to contribute to a conversation, the writer should have something more to say. This is a point that Gerald Graff and Kathy Birkenstein make in a little book that’s been called “the Strunk and White of academic writing [pdf review]. The book is a how-to for academic writing, making the point that there are certain fundamental “moves” that a writer needs to make in order to interest anyone in what they have to say. Our writing, the authors argue, has to be connected to a larger conversation, and it is up to us to frame the discussion for our readers so they can see our point of view relative to someone else’s. “Otherwise,” they point out, “what you’re saying might be clear, but why you’re saying it won’t be.” Here is a lecture they gave on the material covered in the first chapter of the book [pdf sample chapter].

What sets this book apart from other writing manuals is that it provides dozens of templates for the writing conventions that writers use to frame their arguments. It seems contradictory to offer cookbook recipes for critical thinking, but after looking through the book, and considering the difficulty some students have with the concepts involved in summarizing and responding to texts, I think this book may have something valuable to offer writing teachers. The most basic form is the one that the title of the book is taken from: I say…. / They say…. I believe this is going to be a big help for my students, whose writing tends to be monologic and self-absorbed. They really don’t get commentary, which is one of the big difficulties I’ve run into trying to help them learn to blog about their online learning. A side-benefit may be that students, once they learn to spot these discourse patterns in other people’s writing, will be become more critical readers. With practice.

Graff and Birkenstein feel that it isn’t enough to say true things that conform to a thesis statement, and support it with evidence, which is how the essay form is conventionally taught. They remind us that in the real world, people don’t usually express themselves without some provocation. Our writing is improved, they say, when we include the voices of the provocateurs in what we have to say. Blogging, like academic writing, is a conversation. Isn’t it?

I’m not alone with my frustrations as a writing teacher, I know. And from what Gerald Graff has to say about working with university level students, the problem isn’t necessarily that my students are too young to learn how to react meaningfully to text passages. Graff makes the case that the job of schools is to induct students into the intellectual world of academia. “If they don"™t talk our talk or have a sense of what our issues are,” he asked, “then in what sense are they being educated?” He explains that all of the academic disciplines are mediated by the talk of scholars, and that the job of teachers is to help students learn how to participate in that discourse. He is dismayed at how few college students are prepared “to take part in the literate discourse of their culture about important issues.” They Say / I Say is part of his answer for the problem.

I believe that we should try to encourage this kind of writing and reading at every level, and I join Deborah Meier in contesting the idea that “academics” are beyond the reach of disadvantaged students. This book offers an approach for teaching what Will Richardson has called “connective writing.” I’m going to give it a whirl, and read some more of the book. I’ll get back to you on it when I have more to report.

15 responses so far

The Science of Reading is “like deja vu all over again”

Mar 14 2008 Published by under borderland,literacy,reading wars

Yogi Berra was right, It’s like deja vu all over again. Marc Dean Millot at Edbizbuzz links to a dogfight between the Fordham Institute, Robert Slavin, and the federal government over a funding cut to the Reading First program, a major mess. See Gary Stager’s summary of the report by the Inspector Generals’ office, in case you forgot what it was all about. Were specific reading programs promoted by government officials with conflicts of interest? And are those programs responsible for raising test scores?

One of the enduring accomplishments of the Bush administration’s education policy is that they’ve propagated a belief in a so-called “science of reading” which is not based in science at all. Ken Goodman counted 120 repetitions of the phrase, “scientifically based research” in the No Child Left Behind law, commenting:

…the phrase "œScientifically Based Reading Research" was put into NCLB over and over as a code phrase for a particular view of reading instruction advocated by a small group centered at the University of Oregon around Distarr, a forty year old behavioral synthetic phonics reading program originally authored by Sigfried Engelmann. Under its current publisher McGraw Hill it became Direct Instruction Reading.

Having a legally encoded “science of reading” matters to publishers because it makes some programs more attractive to consumers, as it eliminates the competition by taking many programs off the shelf entirely. And the very mention of “scientific” research is a redundancy that should make people wonder, as Goodman does, “Isn’t research by definition scientific?”

Joanne Yatvin, a member of the National Reading Panel, the people who defined the science of reading, published a revealing tale about how she came to write her minority report in response to the panel’s conclusions. In it, she described the reading panel’s decision-making process, and how they came to use a hierarchy of skills model to define reading. I’d long assumed that an investigative process led the panelists toward this definition. But Yatvin reports otherwise:

All the scientist members held the same general view of the reading process. With no powerful voices from other philosophical camps on the panel, it was easy for this majority to believe that theirs was the only legitimate view.

Without debate, the panel accepted as the basis for its investigations a model composed of a three-part hierarchy: decoding, fluency, and comprehension.

She observed, “For scientists to take such a quick and unequivocal stance was disturbing, since there are two other models of reading that currently claim legitimacy, each with numerous adherents.” She mentioned a psycholinguistic model, and a simple decoding model that were never considered. Yatvin claims that the panel’s report, the basis Reading First program selections, was hurriedly thrown together and “carelessly read and misinterpreted on a grand scale” by journalists and policy advocates who claimed that 100,000 studies were analyzed when the real number was actually 38. For a critique of the research methodology see Elaine Garan’s Beyond Smoke and Mirrors.

What brings this all forward from me at the moment is Lou Anne Sears’ Short History of United States Reading Research. It’s a paper I found on the International Reading Association’s new History of Literacy site, and it reminds me that this debate is not going away any time soon, if history is any indication. The science of reading is not a new idea. Remember Thorndike, the father of psychological testing? We’ve been at this for a century. The difference now is that one segment of the publishing industry has a regulatory edge over the competition.

People should give some thought to the idea that science is built on inquiry, not settled opinion.

6 responses so far

Alltop and Blogged

Mar 13 2008 Published by under borderland

Angela Maiers put out a notice the other day about Alltop, an new blog listing service, which Guy Kawasaki officially announced today. Guy notified me yesterday by email that Borderland is listed in the education blogs section. Fantastic!

Alltop is actually an aggregation site, which Guy compares to an “online magazine rack” for people who don’t use RSS readers. Well…I don’t know if I or most of this blog’s readers would qualify, but I do like the mouse-over preview feature. As far as the selection goes, I see many of my favorite blogs listed there, and some that aren’t. Several institutional blogs. Considering the heavy-hitting company I’m keeping, I wonder what the selection process was.

And speaking of selection processes, I was notified yesterday that Borderland was “rated” by, and was given a favorable ranking. Here’s to being counted as a worthwhile education blog!

I am not good at self-promotion, but I want to acknowledge the consideration that’s been offered me, especially since my technorati rank has plummeted in the last several weeks.

What a head trip!

Thanks, everyone.

2 responses so far

Learning to Fall

Mar 12 2008 Published by under borderland,education


For the record, I am not a good skier. I learned to ski with cross country skis on a frozen lake after I moved to Fairbanks, when I was 30 years old. I did a lot of stumbling and shuffling before I began to approximate the fluid motions of the more expert skiers I saw gliding past me. Eventually, I managed to get (marginally) good enough to go out into the mountains with a pack, and ski across crevasse-riddled glaciers and up on high windy ridges. But I was never confident, and adverse snow conditions (wind slab, ice, sastrugi) coupled with steep rocky terrain never fails to stall me out. More than once I’ve resorted to carrying the skis and climbing down steep slopes with crampons rather than risk a catastrophic fall.

Years later, with my family at the ski resort, it is obvious that my kids are, in a sense, “born” skiers. How could they not be? Their mother loves to ski. She practically grew up on skis. We bought little skis for the kids as soon as they could walk. They used to wear them inside our cabin, when our house had just three rooms, playing on them like they’d play with any other toy. They rode on Mom’s back in a pack while she skied before they could walk. They got to be very good little skiers, and eventually they all took up snowboarding. I decided that I’d never be a good enough skier to deal with resort crowds and steep ice, so I decided to follow the counterintuitive strategy of learning to snowboard, as well. By all accounts, I am now a better snowboarder than a skier, but that doesn’t mean very much, considering my skiing ability.

My biggest accomplishment as a snowboarder, I think, is that I’ve learned how to fall. Falling on a snowboard is really hard on the upper body if you use your arms to break the fall. My wife observed the other day that I’m very good at acrobatic falling. What I’ve learned, apparently, is how to roll through the falls and stand up again without losing too much momentum. She said it looks like a deliberate trick. Hardly! The bad thing with falling, you see, isn’t the fall itself; it’s the sudden stopping. And the getting back up. And the starting over. I figured out that it is much easier if I just keep on going, so I roll, stand, and go without taking that break in the middle. I’ve learned to make it look almost graceful. Except for Monday, when I went down backward on a steep hill and slammed my head (helmeted) on the ice.

Learning to snowboard in my 50′s has been an exercise in humility and frustration. But it’s also been an example of the power of persistence. A lot of skiers my age tell me, “I tried snowboarding – once.” I envy them their comfortable competence on skis. I never had that. I hung in with snowboarding because I had nothing much to fall back on. [Ouch!] For me, persistence has yielded progress, though not as much as I’d initially hoped for, and certainly not as much as the kids, who are now going off big jumps and down heart-poundingly steep chutes.

I’ve learned some things about learning, too. I’ve learned that new skills come with a risk of failure, that persistence is necessary when things don’t come “naturally,” that the best learning takes place when the level of challenge permits fluent practice, that I have to feel comfortable with the level of challenge, that I have to chose my own path, that occasionally raising the bar is a good thing. Occasionally. And I’ve learned that falling gracefully makes the whole process more fun and less threatening. I’ve also learned to set realistic expectations for my own progress, and to be satisfied with what is right for me so that I don’t feel too disappointed when everyone else is off doing more interesting things. That is the hardest lesson. Today I’m on injured reserved, headed for the hotel hot tub after my ungraceful fall on Monday. Even with falling, it seems, there is always more to learn. And minimizing it is, naturally, high on my agenda.

I believe that teachers should try to learn something that’s hard, every once in a while. And maybe even scary. It gives us some appreciation for what many students have to routinely deal with. But, of course, it should also be something that you really want to do, or why would you bother? And how often do students get to make that choice? Fear of falling is a poor excuse for not trying. You might also learn to fall, while you’re at it.

image: ‘Sastrugi
by: Martin Naroznik
Released under an Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

3 responses so far

Meme: Passion Quilt

Mar 10 2008 Published by under borderland,complexity,education,politics

Social Justice

Social Justice

All for the Common Good, each according to their abilities…

Miss Proffe linked to me from her passion quilt meme post. I don’t always respond to these things, but I liked hers so much that I decided to join it.

The caption appears with the photo on flickr, but in Portuguese, and I discovered a translation feature for Google searches when I tried to find out what it means. Very cool. I don’t know if I got it right, though. Anybody who cares to help with that, feel free to jump in.

This is right on target with how I feel about public schools.

Here are the rules for the Passion Quilt Meme:

  • Post a picture or make/take/create your own that captures what YOU are most passionate for kids to learn about.
  • Give your picture a short title.
  • Title your blog post, Meme: Passion Quilt.
  • Link back to this blog entry.
  • Include links to five or more individuals in your PLN (Personal Learning Network).

Got that, Alice, Angela, Michael, Graham, Nancy, Michaele? You are the last 6 people besides Miss Proffe to have left comments here, which is the best way I could think of who to pin this one on.

photo credit: SantaRosa Old Skool

11 responses so far

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