Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Constitution--Simplified

Constitution Video, Part 1 from Mr. Titzel on Vimeo.

Constitution Video, Part 2 from Mr. Titzel on Vimeo.

Making of the Constitution Video from Mr. Titzel on Vimeo.

Simplifying complicated concepts is an essential communication skill. With the advent of cheap video cameras, like the FlipCam that we use in class, and video hosting sites like YouTube and Vimeo, a whole new way of communicating is within reach of the masses. This new reality is changing what literacy means in the 21st century. To be fully literate in this new reality is to be able to use an interplay of images, music, and words to not only explain things in a new way but to also construct new meaning out of old knowledge. The ability to create these new mashups of media has become the new way to communicate in an age of accessible media hosting and creation tools.

The ability to master the creation of a media mashup in the current age of media saturation is equivilent to mastering the well crafted letter or written essay in the not so distant past. The importance of communicating through the written word is still essential; however, when the well crafted phrase is combined with an appropriate image and music the idea being communicated has gone from black and white to technicolor. The reality is more people will understand and be effected by the media mashup because it appeals to more of our senses and a greater portion of our brains than just reading words on a page or screen.

So, why don’t we all challenge ourselves to think about how we can change how we do school. Instead of thinking of that written essay, letter, or summary–how about thinking about how we can turn that writing into a Voicethread essay, music video letter, or video summary (like our Constitution VIdeo)?

Please check out Common Craft and their Electing a U.S. President in Plain English as superb examples of how well crafted words and images can be mashed up to effectively explain complicated concepts.

See this same blog post on my class blog Viva la Historia.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Learning Success Wiki

Teaching the skills that students REALLY need to be successful is getting a little easier with the creation of the Learning Success Wiki at Hershey Middle School.

Thanks to the guidance and assistance of Karen Fasimpaur of K12 Handhelds and numerous teachers, guidance counselors, and students a wiki has been created as a resource for students, parents, and teachers for developing skills that will help any student learn more efficiently and effectively. The key to the success of this resource is the involvement of all stakeholders in the life of students.
  • Students are involved in the development of the wiki by adding videos that explain specific skills and habits, such as organizing notebooks, prioritizing time, and asking for help.
  • Teachers and other support staff guide the development of the wiki to keep it in line with current research and the District's mission.
  • Parents are needed to ensure that students have access to the wiki and to help guide their child in using the ideas in the wiki to improve their learning skills.
Check out the Learning Success wiki.

I would love to read both positive and constructive feedback, but please remember this is a work in progress and the entire wiki is not complete.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"Rules of Thumb" for Student Success

This is the last installment of my interpretation of Alan Webber's "Rules of Thumb" from his excellent book Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your self. As I read this business book I quickly realized that it was much more than a business book. The "Rules" are a collection of common sense blueprints for success in almost any field, but strikingly relevant to the field of education. I connected how the rules relate to educational innovation and civic education in my last two blog posts showing how rules for business success can be applied to educational success. My last "Rules" post shows how five of the Rules of Thumb are timeless pieces of advice for students interested in real learning and success.
  • A good question beats a good answer.
  • Words matter.
  • Everything communicates.
  • Failure isn't failing. Failure is failing to try.
  • Stay Alert! There are teachers everywhere.
If we want students to become citizens who understand their role as a citizen then we need to teach them to understand and respect the power of questions. Correct answers may be great at temporarily solving many difficult problems or issues, but circumstances often require new answers to the same old problems. Without the freedom and courage to ask that paradigm shifting question then progress and innovation would cease to exist and we would become slaves to our past and out-dated solutions.

A thought-provoking resource for generating questions is the World Question Center at Most of these questions can be used with students as a way to start the thinking process and to demonstrate to students that teachers value the questions as much as the answers. I have found that students love answering these questions and become more reflective and inquisitive as a result.

The power of just one word can totally change the meaning of something as intrinsic as national identity. Prior to the Civil War people referred to the United States as these United States, reflecting the powerful idea of states rights and local identity among the people. It was only after the Civil War that a national identity took hold and people began to refer to the United States as a nation. "The" may be one of the most common words of the english language, but its use is as important in conveying information as any other word.

The more students have an opportunity to read, speak and write the more they are going to understand the power of words. As Webber states in Rules of Thumb, "You don't know what you think until you write it down." That is the power behind blogging. When students blog they refine their ideas by simply writing them down. But blogging takes the written words of the blogger and publishes it to the world for others to comment. The fact that blogs are public is the refiners fire that forces the blogger to reconsider every word prior to hitting the "publish post" button. The moment students craft words meant not just for the teacher and a few other peers, but for the wider world, is the moment students learn that a misplaced, mispronounced, or misspelled word has consequences far beyond a grade. These authentic learning opportunities are crucial to prepare students for the new realities of a more global and transparent world.

In my first year of teaching I attended a parent meeting for a student who often came to school with a faint smell of marijuana. The meeting was called because there was obvious concern the student was using drugs, even though the only evidence we had was the smell. The moment the parent walked in the room and the smell of marijuana reached my nostrils I realized the source of the difficulties. Everything communicates, especially the smell of marijuana from a parent at a parent-teacher conference about their child being on drugs. As it turns out the student wasn't doing the drugs. It's amazing how all of the teachers' impression of the student changed after that meeting.

Students (and teachers) need to understand that everything they do communicates, whether they know what they are communicating or not. Of course, peer pressure exhibits a lot of influence on how students communicate who they are by the choice of clothing they wear to the slang they use to the friends they keep. Once students really figure out who they are and what they stand for then they can more comfortably be themselves. However, an important social skill that many students have difficulty grasping is knowing appropriate social norms in various settings. For example, the clothing some students wear to school may be appropriate when they are at a pool party in the summer, but is not acceptable in a formal learning institution in the middle of winter (or any season for that matter). I seem to have this talk with students every year. Since everything communicates we need to teach students that in face to face interactions their words are just a small part of what they communicate to others. If a student goes to a job interview to impress their prospective employer with their experience, knowledge and skills, but failed to take a bath, or clean their glasses, or pull up their zipper...well, you get the point.

In the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, author and social psychologist Carol Dweck proposes there are two types of mindsets that people use: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. People who exhibit a fixed mindset are afraid of failure, and consequently, fail to try new things. However, people who exhibit the growth mindset see failure as a learning opportunity and are not as afraid to fail. Of course, people with a growth mindset are our great inventors and entrepreneurs; and even our great athletes, novelists and musicians.

How can we create schools in which a growth mindset is cultivated? Or, how do we organize a school where young Lincoln's, Einstein's, and Edison's feel valued and encouraged?

Anyone can be a teacher. Actually, that's not entirely true. Anyone can be a teacher... if you are alert and willing to learn from others. We need to teach students to be alert and willing to learn from sources other than textbooks. We need to teach students how to create and cultivate learning from a personal learning network, in order to extend the traditional capabilities of school from the limited hours of the school day to the unlimited hours beyond the school day. The informal classroom of life offers lessons far more valuable than the classroom if only we are open to learning from each other each and every day.

How do we teach students these important and timeless rules of thumb for success?

It could be that the answer is to have teachers who exhibit a growth mindset. Maybe the best way to teach these rules is through the day to day example of teachers interacting with students who ask more questions then they answer; love to read, write, and discuss; understand that students notice everthing they do; are not afraid to try new technologies or teaching techniques; and understand that learning does not stop outside the school walls.

So what do you think? What other rules of thumb should we teach students?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

"Rules of Thumb" for Civic Education

"Education: That which discloses to the wise and disguises from the foolish their lack of understanding." --Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

An important goal for teachers is to teach for understanding. However, if students understand something without an open mind they will ultimately fail to question their own understandings leading to a failure of civic education. Do we want citizens who understand a lot of things, but who fail to question the very things they understand? Education in the 21st century is not just about developing understanding, it is also about developing a frame of mind that values creativity, empathy and inquiry.

Teaching for understanding is difficult enough considering the demands that state standards and assessments place on the curriculum to deliver tangible evidence of "educational" progress. This "educational" data can measure a degree of understanding, but how can it effectively measure ones creativity, empathy and inquiry? Since what is measured is an indication of what is valued, teaching students to be creative, empathetic and inquisitive citizens has become more difficult in our data driven society.

Fortunately, there is a book that contains nuggets of wisdom that teachers and school leaders should consider. Alan Webber's business book Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business without Losing Your Self is full of wisdom for educators concerned with the "business" of education. The three most useful Rules from the book for teaching beyond understanding in order to prepare effective citizens upon graduation are:
  • Ask the last question first
  • Facts are facts; stories are how we learn
  • Knowing it ain't the same as doing it
"To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means that you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction" --Stephen R. Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

In explaining rule #3, Alan Webber states that, "If you have no clear definition of victory, how do you know when-or if-you've won? For that matter, how do you know why you're fighting in the first place?" For teachers this can be translated to, "If you don't know what the essential questions and big ideas are that you are teaching, how do you know when-or if-students have learned what you have taught? For that matter, what are you teaching and why are you teaching it in the first place?" Webber boils it down to a simple, yet difficult, question to answer--"What's the point of the exercise?"

So, what is the point of school? It seems that the point of school is to pass the mandated state assessments, or other graduation requirements, that demonstrate the acquisition of basic knowledge and skills. Unfortunately, what is being measured is a decreasing part of the necessary requirements students need in order to be successful in the 21st century.

The following has changed what the last question needs to be:
  • The advent of the global knowledge economy
  • The saturation of immediate information, and communication access at our fingertips
  • the immense impact of media and technology on how young people live and learn
Educational consultant and author Tony Wagner provocatively points out in his book The Global Achievement Gap, that "Schools haven't changed; the world has. And so our schools are not failing. Rather, they are obsolete--even the ones that score best on standardized tests. This is a very different problem requiring an altogether different solution." Wagner's solution is to alter how schools function so that they teach, what he calls, the seven survival skills--Critical thinking and problem solving; Collaboration across networks and Leading by influence; Agility and adaptability; Initiative and Entrepreneurialism; Effective oral and written communication; Accessing and Analyzing information; and, Curiosity and Imagination.

So, what is the point of school in the new realities of the 21st century? Last question first--let's just ask the right last question first!

My answer is to prepare students to be knowledgable and skillful citizens on the local, national, and global level. For this to happen students need to be creative and empathetic problem solvers, who are able to understand how to ask the right questions. They are able to do this because they have had experiences in school working with people from around the block and around the globe on well designed collaborative and authentic projects. This may actually empower students and be an important step in reinvigorating failing schools, as well as schools that are viewed as premier educational institutions, but who graduate students adept at test taking and inept at communication and imagination.

"We are our stories. We compress years of experience, thought, and emotion into a few compact narratives that we convey to others and tell to ourselves. That has always been true. But personal narrative has become more prevalent, and perhaps more urgent, in a time of abundance, when many of us are freer to seek a deeper understanding of ourselves and our purpose." --Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind

Not taking away anything from the importance of facts, but stories are how we learn. Stories help us understand our world and ourselves. It is wired into who we are as humans. According to Daniel Willingham, a cognitive psychologist and author of Why Don't Students Like School?, "The human mind seems exquisitively tuned to understand and remember stories--so much so that psychologists sometimes refer to stories as 'psychologically privileged,' meaning that they are treated differently in memory than other types of material. . . organizing a lesson plan like a story is an effective way to help students comprehend and remember." O.k., I agree, but can stories do more than help students remember?

I believe that stories are essential in creating effective 21st century citizens who are creative, empathetic and inquisitive. Understanding how to craft a story to elicit meaning from data or images teaches students valuable communication skills, but more importantly it teaches students how one can easily craft a story that spins the truth to the liking of certain interest groups. Is there a better way to teach how to detect propaganda than to have students create their own propaganda? Is there a better way to teach students how music and images can tell a story that manipulates emotions than by having students match music and images to create a public service video ad for a cause of their choice? Teaching students to use the ever increasingly available data to critically consume stories is essential if we want students to be effective citizens in an age of media saturation.

Story is a powerful force in our lives. It may actually be gaining influence on how we think and live. We want to be entertained and we tend to believe stories that we want to believe. Therefore, we need students to leave high school who are not only media literate, but media savvy.

"We all love experts. They're so smart and reassuring to have around. But the problem comes inside companies when a culture of knowers overwhelms a culture of doers."
--Alan Webber, Rules of Thumb

Are we educating students to be knowers or doers?

Unfortunately, the evidence is plain to me that we educate students to be knowers. They need to "know" answers to get good grades on tests. They need to "know" how to write an effective essay within the lines provided to get a proficient writing score. They need to "know" how to answer a question in class so they don't look foolish in front of their peers. Instead, shouldn't we be educating students in a way that empowers and engages them in ways that make their time in class more interesting and relavent?

Is there a better way to groom an active citizen than by having them actually take an active role in making their community better through influencing public policy? The Center for Civic Education sponsors an excellent civics program, Project Citizen, that teaches students the various facets of public policy and then empowers students to use their knowledge to influence a public policy of their choice on a local level.

I have used Project Citizen with my classes and it has been the most important learning project for my students because it made them doers, instead of just knowers. One class chose as their policy a local smoking ban (this was prior to the statewide smoking ban). The students research was not contained in the school's library, but actually extended to interviewing local business owners and citizens, and in gathering information from other local smoking ban ordinances, various health organizations, and even tobacco companies. The research helped formulate their policy that was then presented to the Superintendent of the School District and two local Township Supervisors. The presentation went so well that the class was invited to a Township meeting to formally present their plan. At the meeting the students discovered that since there was a state smoking ban bill being considered in both House and Senate committees, the Township wanted to take a wait and see approach to instituting a local smoking ban, since the state could pass a comprehensive ban at any time. The students were hooked and didn't want the issue to die, so a trip to the state capital was arranged. The students lobbied for the passage of the bill with both House and Senate members and staffers, and even got to meet the sponsor of the bill on the Senate floor. Regardless of whether the smoking ban bill passed or not (it eventually did a year and a half later) the students learned more about how government works in the few hours they spent in front of the Township Supervisors and in meeting with House and Senate members and staffers. No classroom instruction could ever come close to having the same impact on understanding how our government works. Those students were doers, and not just knowers. And it is my belief that they are more likely to be doers because of that experience.

Another great example of students being doers in school is the story of how the fifth grade students in room 405 of the Richard E. Byrd Academy in Chicago used Project Citizen to lobby for a new school. Check out their Room 405 website and I'm sure you will agree that despite their project being over the experience the students gained will stay with them long after they have left school. Instead of being powerless these students learned skills that enable empowerment and civic engagement.

Whether it's Project Citizen or some other authentic project that gets students to work on real issues, schools need to embrace the idea of students as doers. When students graduate they need to have had plenty of experiences with working with other people to creatively solve real problems in order to be prepared for a world teeming with real problems to be solved.

Teaching for understanding is just not good enough anymore. We need to be teaching beyond understanding to empower students with the tools they need to be active citizens in the 21st century. This should be the focus of every school. Every student needs to graduate with an open mind that is creative in its approach to solving problems, empathetic in its approach with dealing with people, and inquisitive in its approach to understanding knowledge. Asking the last question first, engaging students with the power of story, and allowing students to be doers rather than just knowers will go a long way in creating a citizenship laboratory instead of just a school --and we will all benefit from this shift in focus.

Next Post--"Rules of Thumb" for Student Success

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"Rules of Thumb" for Educational Innovation

"The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."
--Alvin Toffler

In the fascinating book Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business without Losing Your Self by Alan Webber, there are 3 insightful "rules" that apply equally to schools undergoing innovative change as it does to business innovation.

Before I continue I need to explain that ALL schools need to change from the 20th century factory school model that supports standardization and conformity to a more flexible, student centered and technology infused model that supports 21st century skills.

Three of the 52 "Rules of Thumb" directly relate to what schools need to do to change from the comfortable, tradition filled schools that we all grew up in to schools that will better prepare students for life in a more mobile, global, and competitive world.


What is the business of Education? Preparing students for work, college, citizenship, lifelong learning??? Whatever the answer may be is actually dependent on the customer, which of course, are parents. The reality is there are more options for parents to educate their children in the way they wish than ever before. Is the American public school system of today the American automobile industry of yesterday? The American automobile industry was unwilling (not unable) to respond to events in the world and failed to see the need to reinvent itself to keep ahead of foreign competition. This is what I fear is happening too often in schools today. Too many schools block YouTube, Wikipedia, and Twitter because of the fear that students may see something inappropriate (not that they won't see it when they are not at school). So instead of opening up the world to students in a supervised, educational setting the traditional "block it so we don't get sued" mindset of many school leaders prevents students from accessing and contributing to the collective wisdom of learning networks where students interact with experts and other students from around the world. It's just safer to keep the students walled into their classroom with their teacher.

So, what business should schools be in? To reframe the picture schools should be like Southwest Airlines who, as Webber points out, is in the freedom business. "You are free to move around the country," is a Southwest Airlines slogan that reframes their company from being about transportation to a company about freedom due to their low prices. Schools need to be about freedom. Every student needs to be taught and allowed to practice the skills and habits of mind that are essential in a free society. For this to happen schools need to embrace and encourage every student's freedom to explore and experiment, and maybe even to fail. To structure a school around freedom would mean:
  • giving representative groups of students real say in various functions of the school
  • allowing students to have access to the learning tools that they will use in college and the workforce, and that they currently use when not in school
  • encouraging students to make contacts outside of the limiting world of the school (like they do when they play video games, socialize on Facebook, or text one another)
Educational Innovation Rule of Thumb #1--Education is about Freedom


Just ask anyone who still works for a newspaper if they feel their jobs are secure. The newspaper industry is trying to reinvent itself because the marginal cost of producing news online is zero. The old game of news agencies monopolizing news coverage and distribution is gone forever. We now live in a world where free information is expected. Wired magazine's editor Chris Anderson's soon to be published book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price, details how new realities are demanding new categories for doing business online, like providing previously paid content for free.

So what are the new realities for education?

  • Globalization coupled with technological advances has created a world more connected than ever before. American students today will be competing for the first time in history with students in India, China, and Ireland for jobs that do not currently exist.
  • Choice in education is here to stay. Homeschools, cyber-schools, and various private schools are not going away.
  • There is greater access to information online than ever before and this access will continue to grow.
So what should be the new categories for education in light of these new realities?
  • Every student needs a Personal Learning Network(PLN) so they can take advantage of the social aspect of the new technology for learning and not just for play. Plus, communicating with and learning from other students and experts from around the world is the best way to prepare students to become global citizens.
  • Schools need to become more experimental to encourage finding better ways to train teachers, schedule students, and ultimately, to teach students, so that schools are relevent in the 21st century reality.
  • Reading, Writing, and Arithmatic are not the only literacies anymore. Digital and Civic literacies are more important than ever due to student's access to information. Students need to know how to appropriately and effectivley use and organize digital information and media since they are all part of a global online web.
Educational Innovation Rule of Thumb #2--Schools need to embrace the wider world


This rule is actually more personal than institutional. Basically, we all need to be open for new experiences and willing to say yes to proposals outside our comfort zone. However, the reason there is a need for this rule is that successful people rarely want to deviate from their normal routines because their routines are probably what got them success in the first place. Webber writes that, "Important, busy people live in bubbles. The more important and busy you are, the more time you spend in your own private world."

Recently, I was at a conference where Alan November provocatively asked if we were desperate. His point was that we are just too comfortable with our perceived successes and not willing to use technology as a disruptive tool, like many schools are doing outside the United States. School Change consultant Tony Wagner writes in his book The Global Achievement Gap, that even "successful" schools that offer a wide array of A.P. courses and send large percentages of students on to prestigious Universities fail to teach the skills wanted the most by employers. So what's up? Could it be that we are living in our own protective bubble of success?

We need to burst the bubble and be willing to say yes to educating students in the new reality of globalization, choice, and access to information. Instead of cosmetically changing to make it look good for press releases schools need to truly overhaul the system to ensure graduating students are prepared for a world more connected every passing day. Hopefully, we are willing to respond to the new reality of the world and change according to this new reality (unlike the automobile industry).

Educational Innovation Rule of Thumb #3--Schools need to change for their very survival

Next Post--Rules of Thumb for Civic Education in the Classroom

"Rules of Thumb" for Educators

I recently read Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business without Losing Your Self, by Alan Webber, the co-founder of Fast Company magazine. This book has received rave reviews from the likes of Daniel Pink, Chris Brogan, and Tom Peters, but more importantly for me, it is written with short chapters and in a jargon free way that made it an easy summer read (hey, I'm not a speed reader). Interestingly, while browsing through the 52 rules of thumb I found myself thinking how many of these rules apply to the world of education. As I thought about the rules I determined there were 3 categories that the rules fall into for educators. There were rules about Educational change and innovation, best practices for the classroom, and practical advice for students (and the rest of us).

So, instead of writing one long blog post I have decided to write 3 smaller posts focusing on how the rules relate to educational innovation, best practice, and advice for students.

"Rules of Thumb" for Educational Innovation
"Rules of Thumb" for Civic Education
"Rules of Thumb" for Student Success

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How I Built My Personal Learning Network

Two years ago my Personal Learning Network (PLN) was totally offline and practically nonexistent. Today I have a PLN that I am connected to through this blog, Twitter, and a few other social media sites. I have learned more about effective teaching practices, learning technologies, and the teaching profession in the past two years through my PLN than I learned in the previous 15 years of teacher inservices, graduate classes, and faculty meetings. The biggest problem now is managing the time to effectively maintain and contribute to my PLN. However, the benefits of my PLN far outweigh the problems. For example:
  • At any time of day I can learn about new strategies, tools, or ideas that could positively impact my classroom instruction.
  • If I have a question I can rely on my PLN for an answer within minutes (sometimes even seconds).
  • I have connections with teachers, administrators, professors, and educational and technology experts from around the world. In the past school year I have communicated with and learned from people in my PLN from not just the United States and Canada, but also New Zealand, Australia, England and Singapore.
Thinking back about how my PLN started I realized that this blog was its foundation. When I started American Cultures 2.0 in the fall of 2007 I really had little idea about how to blog, let alone how to develop a PLN. Reflecting on the last two years I realize that there were three stages I went through to get to the point where I am now.

1st Stage--Getting Organized & Gathering Information
2nd Stage--Joining, Reading, and Commenting
3rd Stage--Creating & Sharing

These stages did not occur disconnected from each other, or in a lockstep order, rather they overlapped each other. I began reading blog posts related to teaching by subscribing to rss feeds directed to my Google Reader at about the same time I began American Cultures 2.0. My method of trying new things is typically to just do it (thank you Nike!). I have certainly learned, and continue to learn, from my mistakes. What I refuse to do is to not try something because it might not work, or because nobody else is doing it, or because it is different. The three stages occurred pretty rapidly for me because I jumped into using technology. I decided that I wanted to teach using technology, so I figured I better learn how I could personally use technology to learn if I wanted to use it to teach students. Now that you know my motivation for developing my PLN, here are the tools in my PLN tool belt:

Getting Organized & Gathering Information
  • Delicious (atitzel)--My primary social bookmarking site currently has 634 bookmarked websites, blog posts, news articles and wikis that I find most interesting and relevant. Most are directly related to some aspect of teaching. My Delicious network is small, since I am only networked with 14 other people, however, I find that the quality of the people is more important than the quantity.
  • Diigo (atitzel)--Another social bookmarking site. I primarily lurk on Diigo. I know I should be contributing more, but you only have so many hours in a day. I have subscribed to 4 Groups on Diigo (Classroom 2.0, Educators, Social Studies, and NCSS History) that I get a weekly email with shared links. When I have the time to peruse the links I am guaranteed to find several gems.
  • Google Reader--My online personalized magazine of anything that I am interested in reading or seeing (I even subscribe to Flickr feeds). Any blog that I run across that seems interesting and relevant to teaching goes into my School folder. I also have a Technology folder, Delicious feed folder (you can subscribe to individual tags on Delicious!), wiki edits folder (yes, you can subscribe to edits on wikis), and a Hershey Blog folder (for teacher and student blogs at Hershey Middle School).
  • iGoogle--I really don't use my iGoogle start page that often, but I know a lot of people rely on iGoogle or Pageflakes to organize their blogs and other info (news, weather, quotes, etc...). It is nice to have everything you need on one page.
  • Google Wave--This much anticipated, game changing Google platform will be released later this year and could change the way we organize and communicate with our PLN. Here's a recent blog post about Google Wave.
Joining, Reading, and Commenting
  • Classroom 2.0--The mother of all teacher networking sites. This is the place to ask that question related to teaching, since there are thousands of educators of all stripes who call Classroom 2.0 home. This is another site where I need to become more involved. I have already posted a couple of questions and have been impressed with the response.
  • Diigo Groups--I discussed the value of Diigo Groups above. Diigo is another great place to get connected with other teachers.
  • LinkedIn--Although this is primarily a business networking site there are educators who are active on LinkedIn. I created a profile, which is like an online resume, and joined the Edublogger group. Although I am not very active it is one more site that I can immediately become active and learn from at any moment. Plus, you never know who will read your profile.
  • Alltop--Probably the best place to find quality blogs related to any number of topics. Alltop only select the most credible blogs to include on their site, so the edublogs included in Alltop are excellent blogs to start subscribing to in your Reader.
  • TED and excellent websites that contain fascinating videos from fascinating people talking about fascinating topics (including education). One of my favorite bloggers, who is actually a friend and colleague of mine, cataloged dozens of TED Talks related to education on his blog post: TED Talks Demystified for Teachers.
Creating & Sharing
  • My Blogs (American Cultures 2.0 & Viva la Historia)--The two blogs that I write are a reflection of what I read. Each has a focus and a purpose. American Cultures 2.0 is my personal journal focused on what I have learned related to teaching with technology. Viva la Historia is my class blog intended primarily for my students, although I hope Viva is an effective communication tool with parents and is seen as an example of how one social studies teacher uses blogs with his students. It is my hope that each blog will evolve and continually get better since they are both my creations that reflect what I have learned from my PLN.
  • Twitter (titzel)--My primary way to communicate, share, and learn from my PLN. It took me a while to get Twitter, but I learned that the more quality people who you follow the better. I can go onto Twitter at any time and find something of value within seconds. Twitter has become one of the sites that I check out on a daily basis. Besides getting and sharing teaching tips and tools, I get breaking news headlines, current weather, and up to date traffic. Here are some excellent links about Twitter (How to find local tweets, 100 Excellent, Educational Twitter Feeds, 9 Great Reasons why Teachers Should Use Twitter, A Teacher's Guide to Twitter, and Twitter4Teachers).
Another great benefit I get from my online PLN is that it helps my offline PLN. The teachers I teach with were the original PLN and now the great tools, strategies and ideas are being shared and used in the classrooms at Hershey Middle School. As more teachers develop their own online PLN the benefits for everyone will multiply.

As I was pulling together my collected information on PLN's for this blog post I discovered David Warlick's CoLearner's wiki that has an excellent page entitled, The Art & Technique of Personal Learning Networks. The page is used as a resource at conferences where Warlick presents on PLN's. Enjoy it from the comfort of your home!

O.k., now I need to begin reading Why Don't Students Like School, by Daniel Willingham for the 2nd annual CASTLE book club. By the way, I learned about this opportunity to read and discuss this book about how students learn from a tweet by Dr. Scott McLeod, an Education Leadership Professor at Iowa State University and co-creator of the viral video Did You Know 2.0.

Now do you see how I have learned more from my PLN in 2 years than in all the inservices and classes combined over 15 years?

Image Source: Clix on Stock.xchng

Friday, May 1, 2009

Teaching Students Self- Branding (If not now, then when?)

As educators we need to begin to teach students about branding...NO, not that kind of branding!!! To clarify, students (and teachers) need to be aware that their online image is an important part of being an effective communicator and participant in the digital age.

Jeff Utecht of The Thinking Stick blog recently wrote a blog post entitled, "When to start teaching self branding," about the importance of teaching students to consider their online image. I agree with Jeff that these are the conversations we need to be having with students. Since information on the web is persistent (it stays around a long, long time) and searchable, students need to consider what they write and produce online is an extension of themselves that will be around for a long time and be findable by people that may play an important role in their life (future bosses, coworkers, and friends).

The persistence and searchability of the web is a powerful argument for why schools (and parents) need to be discussing with students how they portray themselves online. This portrayal, or branding, begins with a safe, consistent, and simple username. Next, any image associated with them should positively portray their individuality. Keeping a consistent username and profile image makes it easier for people to identify with them by making it easier to find and remember their work.

Of course, the openness of the web creates concerns for schools to protect the identity of students. The tension between protecting student identity, while having students create authentic work that is public and theirs is becoming more real. Schools can partly get around this issue by creating generic usernames incorporating a student's first name and other identifiable information, like graduation year. This will at least allow students the opportunity to create school assignments that are published to the web. This published content can then become a student's public learning portfolio that can be used to show future schools and employers how they have used their writing and creative skills to lobby local officials to build a nature trail, or how they collaborated with students from around the world to assist in tsunami relief efforts in Asia, or simply to design an effective video demonstrating how the pervasiveness of modern-day slavery.

Just think how effective a consistent and positive self-brand can be if the nature trail, tsunami relief, and video were packaged in such a way that made the anonymous student a real person with a consistent, simple, and unique online image (or brand)?

This all leads to another interesting question that was asked by Jorgie in a comment on The Thinking Stick blog post, "(Students) want to be recognized and heard and be noticed, but what if they are recognized and noticed?"

Where do we draw the line between student self branding and online safety?

When and How do we teach self branding?

Photo credit: Keeshu, at Morguefile

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Text Flow: A way to read digitally

I just found out about Text Flows from the weekly email from the Educators Group I belong to at Diigo. Text Flow has a collection of speeches, poems, and other written works. The beauty is that lines of text appear on screen at the rate that you want--15 words a minute, all the way to over 500 words a minute. The ability to introduce great works of literature to students and have them read it digitally at their own pace, or pause it at any time, seems like a great way to adapt instruction to the individual reading level of the student.

Here's the Gettysburg Address in Text Flow:

What do you think? What ideas do you have for utilizing Text Flow in the classroom?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Backchannel Engagement in the Classroom

Backchanneling in the classroom seems to be a hot topic recently. A March 18th blog post entitled Backchanneling in Middle School Social Studies caught my attention because 1) I teach Middle School Social Studies, and 2) I just had my students backchannel for the first time during a movie.

My main concern about having students chat during class is that it could divide their attention and cause students to miss important information. According to Dr. John Medina people are incapable of effectively multitasking. Medina's Brain Rules book and website illustrate that multitasking raises error rates. If this is the case then should we even consider having students backchannel chat during class? Another point that Medina makes is that people do not pay attention to boring things. My question then is--Can backchannel chats in the classroom help prevent boredom by engaging students in thinking about class content as it is presented?

To determine if backchannel chat will work I used it with the movie Great Journey West about the Lewis and Clark expedition. Instead of forcing students to backchannel during the movie I let it be an option. This allowed me to see how many students would freely participate, as well as to allay my concern about students dividing their focus. My observations show that some students are more adept at dividing their attention and being able to refocus than other students. I also have a concern that students who have poor typing skills will spend an inordinate amount of time typing to the exclusion of actually watching the movie. I used Coveritlive as the platform for the backchannel chat since the students and I were already familiar with how it works. I created a couple of polls and found a link to the Journals of Lewis and Clark prior to the event. My only instruction for students was to use Coveritlive to ask questions they did not understand during the movie.

The results impressed me. I had about a 1/3 of each of my classes actively asking questions during the movie. All of the questions were genuine and were answered right away either by me or another student. A majority of my students participated in the polls, while nearly all my students at least kept track of the chat periodically while they watched the movie. Some of the deeper questions that were asked during the chat were then discussed as a class after the movie. These class discussions led to the students asking even more questions. I have not had the chance to backchannel during a movie since this time, but I have had a number of students ask when we can do it again.

Whether one can effectively multitask or not I believe that it does have a place in the classroom. If done properly I believe it can lead to students becoming more engaged in the content by being encouraged to ask and answer questions in real time. This real time, active participation by students is what they do in their own time when they IM and text, so why not incorporate it into the classroom if you can. With every student having a computer in my class every day, I have the ability to use this technology to encourage students to think in a way that is natural for them.

I would love to hear other ideas for using backchannel chat in the classroom to engage students. What ideas do you have???

photo credit: serkaner at stock.xchng

Thursday, February 12, 2009 My New Favorite Thing

I love TED, but my new love is FORA (as in Now before anyone gets any weird vibes, I am not referring to people. Of course, TED is the website that shows videos from the annual TED Conferences that brings together the world's greatest minds in technology, entertainment, and design. Well, move over TED (I still like ya), but FORA has some of the most interesting, intellectually stimulating, and entertaining talks on the web. The talks are wide ranging and are hosted by various organizations. I showed the following clip to my students that elicited a wonderful discussion about what should and should not be posted on the internet:

Another part of FORA that I like, which is temporarily unavailable, is the myFORA and ThinkTank sections of the website. You can save videos and invite others to see your favorites in the myFORA section. The ThinkTanks allow you to create a playlist from various videos related to a certain topic. For example, I could have a ThinkTank on talks related to social media, or American history, or any number of specific topics. Hopefully, FORA will reinstate those features soon.

I will end with one of my favorite talks. Mike Rowe, the star of the Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs, gave a talk entitled, "Reclaiming Our 'Dirty Jobs'--Discovery, Realization, and Lamb Castration" about how modern society has a lot to learn from ordinary people who work unglamorous "dirty jobs". I did not show this to my students, even though it has a great message.

Check out You will not be disappointed.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


Four of my students took part in the Student Showcase at PETE&C today at the Hershey Lodge and Convention Center. They demonstrated a project entitled Writing4History. W4H is an attempt to get my students to:

  1. WRITE for an authentic audience.
  2. CREATE something so interesting that someone (other than just their parents) will purchase it.
  3. THINK creatively and be persistent in solving ambiguous problems.
  4. COLLABORATE with their classmates so the collective talents of the class allows the creation of something that no one student, no matter how talented, could create on their own.
  5. OWN the process and outcome.
  6. BENEFIT others by contributing all proceeds to charity.
Now, understand that I realize that#2 is a lofty goal. However, we need to have teachers and students THINK BIG.

If only parents and grandparents purchase the books then at the very least students will get a sense of accomplishment for publishing their own book, the book will last years longer than typical school work, and a charity will get a few extra bucks from the mental perspiration of teenagers.

Here is the slideshow that was used at the Student Showcase.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

See You at PETEandC

I'm looking forward to learning and networking at the PETE&C educational technology conference this week in Hershey.

Monday will be my day to attend sessions. I am particularly looking forward to seeing how I can better use Moodle and other free Web 2.0 tools in my classroom. I am hoping to find a gem or two from these sessions. A session that I will be attending virtually will be the "Results of Web 2.0 Tools in the Classroom" session about the Harrisburg University class I took this summer. Andy Petroski and Jim Gates will be using parts of a video I made with my responses to questions related to the course and how I have implemented web 2.0 tools in my class.

Tuesday will be the day that my students will participate in the student showcase from 9:45 to 12:00. They will be showcasing their collaborative writing project Writing 4 History, where they are currently in the process of finishing four books to be published on My day will be spent with the students, so I will be unable to attend any sessions. Besides the student showcase, the biggest highlight for me on Tuesday will be the Opening Keynote by Daniel Pink.

Between 9:45 and 10:45 I will be helping with the session "A Journey to Improve Teaching and Student Learning" in the Crystal A room. This session is about how Hershey Middle School is implementing a progressive technology initiative by facilitating technology coaching, professional development, research based teaching strategies, and open source tools with 1:1 classrooms to improve writing and thinking across the curriculum.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Tell a Story in 6 Words

Interesting idea for student summarizing practice.

Ideas for history classroom? There's many.

America's perennial question: Liberty or authority?

Much thought goes into simple things.

Check out website. Won't be disappointed.

SmithTeens: 6 word storytelling by teens.