As 2016 arrives, so does education continue to shift.

Happy New Year!

I hope that all of you reading this enjoyed your celebrations to ring in 2016. I spent time with my friends and then parked myself on the couch to enjoy The Twilight Zone annual marathon. After two weeks off, back to reality on Monday!

Speaking of Christmas break, I did much thinking over the two weeks about the current state of education. In pondering the paradigm shift, I realized that students themselves deserve a bit of discussion as well, especially since the typical student has morphed over the past few years. Indeed, I can honestly say that most of today's students hardly resemble those who roamed the halls even a few years ago. Many reasons exist for that, and starting next week, I plan on devoting a series of entries to talking about the 21st century student. While I will not identify specific students I teach, I will rely on my overall observations and interactions with them to form the basis of my discussion. While various topics will be addressed, my overarching goal is to explain how today's high school (and college) students need more independence but fail to gain it for a number of reasons. Everything I will speak of comes from my own teaching experiences, so actual mileage may vary for you.

In the meantime, may 2016 bring you health, happiness, and a renewed spirit.

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New school year, new tech!

While it has been some time since my last post, I hope that all teachers out there have enjoyed smooth beginnings to the school year. Can you believe that we just finished Thanksgiving and are on our way to Christmas? I don’t know about you, but I’m already itching for that next break. The life of a spoiled teacher, right? 😄

In any case, I am always on the lookout for innovative technology to enhance my instruction and/or classroom management. For example, one struggle that many teachers face involves students failing to check homework sites for their daily assignments. Our school currently uses Moodle as its course management system; while I appreciate the ability to post assignments and other important information, I have noticed that Moodle has become a bit too big for its britches, so to speak. The result: students (especially when they are absent) do not log on to ensure they have completed the necessary work. Rather, they email their teachers to find out the status of missed classes and assignments. That said, they often do not check email for important information. Indeed, email slowly is going the way of the dinosaur. However, I read about a relatively new app called Remind (formerly known as Remind 101) that allows students to subscribe to text alerts sent by teachers. In my case, I use the app to remind students of upcoming large-scale assignments (essays, projects, etc.) as well as last-minute changes to coursework. Parents also can subscribe to get the alerts so that they know some of the major work being done by their children. The beauty of this app is that no phone numbers are exchanged! This ensures privacy for all parties and no hint of impropriety. I highly recommend Remind for anyone who works in a group setting and who wants to remind people of events without having to send out a mass email.

Awhile back, I wrote a post about how Google inconceivably broke apart Google Drive and spun off Docs, Slides, and Sheets into separate apps. In doing so, the company did not include basic folder access in the new apps, thus resulting in a great deal of app switching between Drive and Docs, for instance. For me, the grading process became more difficult, and I had thought about going to Office for iPad for the handling of all student work. After some time with Microsoft’s product (and a bevy of enhancements to it), I safely can say that Microsoft’s iPad suite officially is my favorite productivity bundle to use on my tablet. Microsoft has managed to take its full-blown Office suite and make it extremely tablet-friendly; this past Fall, it also made Office available for iPhone. Productivity fans rejoiced! Okay, that might be a stretch, but after it took the Seattle-based company some time to arrive at the party, Microsoft made great strides with its mobile products in a short amount of time. The most recent announcement involved allowing non-Office 365 users to create and edit documents on their iPads and iPhones, essentially rendering the apps free. I slowly am weaning my students off Google Docs and plan on embracing Office from hereon out. You should, too. Kudos to Microsoft for listening to their consumers!

My last tech note is somewhat of a plea: a plea for more teacher-centric apps, apps that make our job easier. For example, if there’s one app most teachers would want, it would be a calendar/attendance/lesson planning app. In all fairness, such an app already exists – it’s called iTeacherBook. I used it to help me track attendance for one of my sports teams but quickly found the app too buggy and lacking in updates. As you can see, the developers have not updated the app in over a year, instead spending their time on the student version (called iStudiezPro). While I understand the need to push the student app (a larger clientele means more money), teachers deserve just as much assistance with their daily tasks. While many corporate task managers are present in the App Store, how about one for teachers that hasn’t turned into a pumpkin?

Keeping on that same theme, I also have to take Blackbaud to task for its mishandling of an app for which I consulted. Our school uses Netclassroom and FAWeb, two products part of Blackbaud’s grading platform. While the web versions function pretty well, other companies have mobile apps that allow teachers and students to input information on the go. For example, if I was at a function and quickly wanted to input grades without turning on my computer, I theoretically could do so with other products, but not FAWeb. Last year, Blackbaud reached out to several individuals (I was one) and asked us to help them develop a mobile app, set to be released this year. Then, just as the app was taking shape, the company shelved it with no explanation or updates. In this day and age, every major educational company should have a mobile presence or run the risk of becoming yesterday’s news. Time to step up, Blackbaud!

Let the Christmas countdown commence…now!

O Captain! My Captain!

While most of my entries have been about technology, this one won’t have that focus. Instead, I want to reflect on and remember someone who influenced me as a teacher, someone who I never met but who brought out some of my best traits in the classroom.

Robin Williams.

And yes, if you guessed I mean his role as English teacher John Keating in the classic film Dead Poets Society, you are indeed correct. That role, that movie, profoundly influenced the teacher I am today. His energy, his flair for the dramatic, his humor in making a boring subject fun – fictional or not, Robin Williams played one hell of an English teacher. Who else could take Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” and make it so memorable? Ironically, one of the most moving parts of the film comes when Mr. Keating, along with his students, must cope with the suicide of one of his prized pupils. Williams’ character felt a sense of guilt for encouraging the student (Neil Perry) to follow his dream of acting, even though Neil’s father forbade it. That scene, among other ones, still gets me every time I show it to my students, and I have a feeling it will take on a greater meaning now.

Of course, there was more to Robin Williams than that one role. He was the actor who could make you bust a gut laughing in Good Morning, Vietnam or Mrs. Doubtfire, then bring you to tears in Good Will Hunting. Does anyone remember his portrayal of Popeye? Sure, the movie was iffy, but only he could even attempt to turn a cartoon character into a real-life, spinach-eating sailor man. The guy was pure genius, plain and simple. He had his share of duds, but who amongst us hasn’t experienced failure? I know I have, and I sure you have as well. Yet, for some reason, his failures ultimately led to the shocking news that he is no longer with us.

We have lost so many famous people over the past year, for all sorts of reasons. While I feel sorrow for any life lost, for some reason, this one has affected me more than others have. Maybe it’s for the reasons I stated above: his enduring presence in some of my favorite films. Or maybe it’s because he put on such a positive face in public when, in reality, he had been suffering from terrible depression in private, so much so that he felt trapped with no way out but one. Whatever the case, Robin Williams showed us happiness, showed us sadness, and – in his death – showed us his humanity, that even the best are, after all, human.

Carpe diem indeed.

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Going through a summer swoon? Turn to technology for a tune-up!

As is the case with most teachers, I have not given much thought to the upcoming school year. Okay, well perhaps a little thought – but not much! Teachers rarely have the time to decompress during the year, and despite what people think, we deserve every bit of summer break that we get. I have tried to make the most of this year’s vacation and began it on a great note with a trip to London in late-June. Of course, I found myself in Shakespeare heaven, with visits to Stratford-upon-Avon and the Globe Theatre. I also was amazed by Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey – what a sight! However, my three friends and I found plenty of time to sample delicious cuisine, imbibe some tasty drinks, and watch Wimbledon (live and in person!) and the World Cup. Far from being an edu-vacational trip, London afforded me the chance to get away and to enjoy life post-teaching.

That said, I would be foolish if I said that I have ignored education completely during the summer. As an English teacher, I always am thinking about what I can do to make the subsequent year a more successful one than the previous one was. I don’t want to inundate myself with new material over the summer, so what’s the solution? Technology. Most teachers use technology to some extent in order to improve their lessons or to perform intense research for a given topic. While that works fine, how many of you use Twitter to catch up on educational ongoings? What about Zite or Flipboard to read articles about teaching and learning? Those apps (and many more) allow anyone with a computer, phone, or tablet to keep up with any topic, any time, any place. I have two Twitter accounts: one for my life outside of teaching, and one solely devoted to teaching and education. Having such an account really has come in handy; for example, because I follow Trevor Packer (the College Board AP supervisor), I was able to learn about the release of AP scores for my class. Zite – an app that allows uses to subscribe to various news sources – delivers fresh education news to me several times a day in an easy-to-read format. (Flipboard does the same.) Basically, teachers can stay engaged when it comes to education without being overwhelmed by technology.

Technology has become an increasingly vital part of teaching and learning over the past few years. Many schools (including mine) allow students to use laptops or tablets in the classroom, and teachers constantly deploy social media and other student-friendly technology pieces to make the lessons more engaging. While most of us need a tech break over the summer, we at least should turn to it to keep our saws sharpened – if for no other reason than to lessen the “shock” of returning to the classroom!

Having said that, don’t forget to give yourself time to enjoy the summer. Like I said before, we’ve earned it!

The two photos below: a Nutella milkshake, and a crispy bacon and spinach pancake crepe. I enjoyed both at My Old Dutch Pancake House (the Kensington location) in London. Delicious!

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The Changing Literary Canon

As an English teacher, I often get bored teaching the same books year after year. Sure, students need to know the “classics” from various genres, but will their lives really suffer if they don’t get the chance to read The Scarlet Letter? (For the record, I do enjoy teaching Nathaniel Hawthorne’s masterpiece.) Some teachers would answer “Yes!” to the preceding question; in their minds, students need exposure to great works of literature in order to appreciate many of the books they read for pleasure.

The aforementioned falls under the much-discussed idea of a “literary canon” of novels, plays, and other works. In short, the canon consists of the “best of the best” in literature. But who determines the canon? That’s a difficult question to answer because so many scholars have opinions on what constitutes literary merit. For example, most would agree that Hawthorne’s work belongs in the canon, but why? Memorable characters? A rich storyline? A lasting influence on society? (Think about the scarlet “A” as a pop culture icon.) No one really knows, and those that say they do likely are putting forth their own opinions and not those of their contemporaries. The thought still exists among many English teachers and literary scholars that the literary canon cannot possibly include mass-market fiction, books that any average person could purchase in the Barnes & Noble bestseller section. However, while I respect literary traditionalists, I must disagree with their narrow-minded viewpoints toward the canon. The time has come to re-evaluate how we define a work as canonical. As Bob Dylan sings, “The times they are a-changin’.”

Case in point: this year in my AP Literature class, I taught a book that came out less than three years ago and that was written by one of my favorite modern authors. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini tells interlocking stories focusing on the lives of two young girls growing up in modern-day Afghanistan. The novel, a follow-up to his world renowned work The Kite Runner, instantly became one of the most successful books I have ever taught in ten years of teaching. The students, some of whom previously had read it, became attached to the characters, ideas, and themes like no other book we studied last year. The novel might not be difficult to read, but Hosseini takes his readers on a rollercoaster of emotions that leaves them much more knowledgable of life in Afghanistan. Not many resources (in terms of lesson plans or scholarly criticism) exist in connection with the book, but that just empowered me to come up with meaningful methods for approaching the book. My students enjoyed the book so much that many of them used it as their “work of choice” in the AP exam free response question.

Despite the positive reception, however, some (including in my own school) have refused to recognize the quality of Hosseini’s work. They see his novels as nothing more than fluff with no substance. Unfortunately, the detractors fail to grasp the true impact that such writing has on those that read it. Let’s go back to Hawthorne and the questions I asked about The Scarlet Letter, applying them to A Thousand Splendid Suns. Does Hosseini’s novel contain memorable characters? A rich storyline? Yes, and yes. Does it resonate with the public? Absolutely. Oh, and was The Scarlet Letter once a mass-market book designed to appeal to the public? Yup. Why, then, should Hosseini be left off the canon? Because he still is alive? Because his novels are much more modern? If you answered “yes” to either question, you need to open your mind and realize that the age of literature has nothing to do with whether or not it is canonical. Plenty of old works exist that are utter rubbish! My point is this: literature doesn’t have to move you to tears or make you ponder life’s existence in order for it to count as canonical.

To their credit, the College Board has begun to modernize its list of works considered of literary merit, indicating a shift in thinking when it comes to the canon. That shift needs to continue and to make its way into the minds of those with literary tunnel-vision. I once heard a radio station ad that went: “It doesn’t have to be old to be classic.” I hold that the same applies to literature.

 

Google Drive shifts into reverse.


Teachers of the world, let's face it – technology has made our jobs much easier. While I admire those who still record their attendance in a paper book, I absolutely do not miss the days of hard copy grade books and planners. My appreciation of technology has increased over the years, especially as it has helped me grade countless essays on a regular basis. I love teaching English but, until technology intervened, shuddered at the thought of taking a stack of essays home and grading them. Several years ago, I moved to electronic essay grading, having my students upload their essays via Moodle (our course management system) and then returning the essays using the comment feature in Microsoft Word. That method worked very well for awhile, but I soon wondered if there was an easier way to accomplish my task.

Enter Google Drive.

Beginning as Google Docs/Slides/Sheets, Google Drive appeared to be everything I wanted in an online writing system: easy, convenient, and most of all, fast. Because our school subscribed (and still subscribes) to Google Apps for Education, our students have access to Google Drive and can compose and share documents in no time. What does that mean for me? Well, rather than downloading and uploading 30 essays, I could have my students write their essays in class (or at home) and then share their essays with me so that I could grade them. No downloading, no uploading, no problem! As if that wasn't enough, I also could grade the essays on my iPad (or my iPhone, if I desired) and avoid having to haul my laptop around with me. Talk about convenient, right?

Then, Google Drive changed. And the world wept.

Okay, the world might not have wept, but I (figuratively) did. Last week, Google announced that it had spun off Google Docs, Sheets, and (coming soon) Slides into separate iOS and Android apps. What did that mean? Simple: rather than go into Drive to compose an essay, a student might open Docs, type the essay, and then “save” (it autosaves) it to their Drive. Without a doubt, this was Google's response to Microsoft releasing Word, PowerPoint, and Excel as separate Office apps for the iPad. Fine, Google was copying Microsoft. What's the problem, you might ask?

While Google emulated Microsoft in several ways, the one thing it did not do was port the folder hierarchy to Docs. While Microsoft baked in OneDrive access in each app (Word/PowerPoint/Excel), Google failed to do that for Docs, Sheets, and (I assume) Slides. For me, then, if I wanted to grade on my iPad, I could not go to my Drive folders in Docs and grade essays. Rather, I had to go to Drive, open the folder, choose a document, and then wait for it to toggle to Docs. Yes – I would have to repeat this 30 times if I had 30 essays. No more smooth opening and closing in Drive.

For the first time in recent memory, I have a serious problem with one of Google's products, a problem that might force me to re-evaluate whether it is worth it to use as my primary online essay source. After all, now that Microsoft Word comes on the iPad, I can instruct my students to share their Word documents via Office 365 and then grade them on the iPad without having to upload and download. Word for iPad also works very well, and while many have complained about the need for an Office 365 subscription, I have found it to be well worth the price – and so have 27 million others. Office always has been the gold standard when it comes to productivity, and now Microsoft can boast a smoother and more fluid document management system than Google. Whoever thought that would happen, right?

My hope is that Google realizes the error of its ways and, at the very least, improves the functionality of its individual apps. They really are great for students and educators alike in that they offer superior collaboration opportunities and great ease of use. However, if no changes are made, I likely will go back to old faithful and make Office for iPad my suite of choice. Google, you're officially on notice.

I'm interested to hear from other educators who may be using Google Drive and/or Office for iPad. What are your thoughts on the changes? Does anyone use other products besides the two I mentioned? Sound off in the comments!