Sunday, February 17, 2013

My Childhood "Gears"

Seymour Papert's "Gears of My Childhood", the foreword to his book Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, serves as our first LCL activity to share.  Briefly, Papert reflects back on his love of mechanical gears, viewing them as an adaptive model onto which he was able to overlay new and potentially difficult concepts in a familiar way. In his words, "[a]nything is easy if you can assimilate it to your collection of models."

Chaisson and McMillan
An astronomy textbook was my childhood gears.  No older than 6, I still remember being in the bookstore in the Meadows Mall in Las Vegas and finding the book.  I can no longer recall the title or authors, nor am I sure I even know where the book is anymore, but I was compelled at that moment in the mall to have it.

Thoroughly engrossed by the pictures, I studied every page of the book.  But I also read through it over and over again and was particularly fascinated by the planets.  I made "information" sheets for each of them and asked my mom to make copies, along with images taken from the book, which I then distributed to my friends, so that they could also become experts in one or two of the planets.  So, for Christmas one year, my parents bought me a telescope.  And in the middle of a cold winter night in 1986, my dad took me out to the mountains to look at Halley's Comet, which is still one of my favorite childhood memories.

This book fueled my love of science and astronomy in particular because, in retrospect, I was fascinated at how we could come to know about objects that were so far away from us.  I was fascinated by knowledge and the process by which we acquired it.  I was captivated by the challenge that we had to overcome to send probes into space that would send information back to us.  And most of all, I was infatuated by connected systems that influence each other and work together, not unlike Papert's gears.  On account of that, my love of astronomy transformed to a love of chemistry, physics, and then engineering; but everything came together when I found historical linguistics, studying languages as connected systems that evolve through time.  It's hard to believe, but there are quite a number of similarities between astrophysics and historical linguistics.  And thanks to my obsession with that book, I've been able to use these similarities to make more sense of the both of them.

Recreational Items from Unfortunate Events

The Hammer Museum in Westwood hosted an exhibition titled Recreational Items from Unfortunate Events that ended today.  It was centered around a collection of piñatas that were made by Sarah Bay Williams and based on a number of "unfortunate events", and the piñatas were on display in the museum until today, when they were ceremoniously smashed apart.  The bashing symbolized a catharsis, or a sort of letting go of attachment to the event each piñata was connected to.

Given how we're looking at digital storytelling in #ETMOOC, I wanted to share this with the class.  Though it's not technically "digital" storytelling, I enjoyed this approach to telling a story and engaging with it and think that it could lend itself to digital stories in interesting ways.  It's given me some ideas to think about, as I continue to develop storytelling as a tool, including the potential value of cartharsis in a story (especially for Classical myth!).

Thoughts on Interest-Based Learning

Our second session assignments for the MIT Medial Labs Learning Creative Learning MOOC is to, in part, read through some of +Joichi Ito's blog posts on learning and respond with our own thoughts about what we found most surprising or interesting, and offer disagreements or questions, should we have any.  Moreover, we're challenged to keep it short, so I'll refrain from delving more deeply into the ideas below.

The first thing that comes to my mind in Ito's discussions of "Formal vs. informal education" and "Reading the dictionary" is the debate between content vs. creation that I've been thinking about for a while (cf. a recent blog post on the question).  The formal system that the majority of schools currently work with certainly needs adjustment, but I don't think that the system alone is to be blamed for its inability to engage interest-driven students, namely, the students who enjoy reading the dictionary.  We've got to adapt and find new and interesting ways to motivate them.  When Ito wonders "how many people have personalities or interests that aren't really that suited for formal education, at least in its current form", I first read this sentence as a reference to teachers, rather than students.

I've recently picked up Susan Cain's Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking to help me to work toward an understanding of how introverted learners will be able to adapt in a more open, student-centered classroom (N.B.: that's not the focus of the book, but rather a question I have).  If we were to radically modify our system to the purely informal model, would we exclude all the learners who thrive in the formal, structured system (e.g. Ito's sister), like many of the introverts at our school?  Is there a proper balance between the two extremes, and if so, what does that classroom look like?

I enjoyed "Dubai and learning about the unknowable", partly because I'm currently reading Watts' Way of Zen, and partly because I've tried to build mindfulness and self-reflection into my daily routine, not only in teaching but in everything that I do.  In fact, I had a chat with a colleague about the need for us to continually reflect on why we do what we do with technology throughout the process of integration.  Given how "traditional" and content-based our school is, leaving us with little time to reflect back on everything we do in a given academic year, it's the perfect place to learn to "meditate" on these questions.  Once we're comfortable knowing that we don't know all the answers and definitions of the pedagogical "buzzwords" that we've been throwing around lately, we can relax and start moving forward.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Digital Storytelling and Narratology

We've been experimenting with digital storytelling in #ETMOOC over the past two weeks, so I've been thinking about ways to incorporate them into my Latin courses.  Some closing thoughts, before we move on to digital literacy:

Today, I introduced the Latin IBs to Project 3, our digital story.  They're asked form a group of 2 or 3 and record a video dialogue.  I've suggested that they use the Oxford Latin Course story as a point of departure and build a side story around some of the main characters.  Alternatively, they can build on some of the myths we've read together or even just make up an entirely new story.  First, they'll work through their script using a Google Doc, before beginning the video recording, which should also help me to keep tabs on their progress.  I've shared with them a few of the video tools I've been exploring, but I think that video may be easiest to record using YouTube Capture, given that most of our students have iPhones, but we've got cameras for loan in our library too.  All video editing can be accomplished within our GAFE YouTube account, though I think kids will default to iMovie or MovieMaker.  Finally, they'll share the video by uploading it to YouTube and submitting the link to me via a Google form.  Fortunately, they were really into it, and I'm looking forward to watching the finished products (they're due Wednesday, 3/13).  I'm holding out hopes, though, that a few groups will do Latin animations with GoAnimate.

In Latin III, we're currently reading through Apuleius' Cupid and Psyche myth, and I'd like to build a deeper understanding of the myth by thinking about story in a different way.  Earlier in the year when we were just getting started with CP, I introduced Vladimir Propp's conception of narratology and his 31 "narremes" to them, which is always fun.  And now that we're near finishing it, it's time for us to do more discussion of its structure.  They've been recording their nightly reading notes in a blog that's helped them to collaborate and interact with each other (more than I anticipated too, which is another post for another day), and I've asked them to blog some questions over this long weekend, including an option on narratology:
  • Within in the list of 31 narremes, where are we in CP right now? 
  • What do you expect will happen in the rest of the story, based on what has already happened?  
  • How well does Propp's system work for CP and why or why not?
Later next week, I'll ask them to respond to each other and put their thoughts to the test, and when we finally finish the story, I'll have them look for parallels in modern stories.  While this exercise doesn't involve digital storytelling in and of itself, they're still engaging with the story in an active way, intuitively thinking about where the plot will take them.

I'll test out a smaller project to do with my Latin I class (Blabberize?  An animated GIF?) later this spring so I can start to imagine how they can do this kind of work during class, when our 1:1 program begins next fall.  These short stories should be perfect for in-class exercises.

To be honest, I thought students would enjoy these sorts of projects, but I've been surprised at just how enthusiastically they have embraced them.  Not only does the technology make it relatively do do digital storytelling projects, but they really help students to do things with the language in fun and engaging ways.  It's win-win for all of us.

What's the Value of Foreign Language?

Bolchazy-Carducci is one of the more prolific publishers of Classical texts, and they've done a lot of great work for Greek and Latin teachers that has helped to make our jobs easier.  In their February eLitterae newsletter, Sherwin Little's Little's Bits column "A Latin teacher wears many hats..." addresses the complexities of a Latin teacher's job, which often requires us to serve in part as a "public relations specialist" to help keep our numbers strong.  Now that it's time for students to start signing up for next year's classes, the question of why one should choose to study Latin is again placed under the microscope, and the recent news that the Pope's resignation was delivered in Latin has been in wide circulation as more proof of its importance (no fewer than 5 colleagues have independently emailed me news about this in the past week!).  I certainly do believe that PR is a big part of game in this field, as anyone who does JCL club work knows all too well.

At any rate, Little's column today reminds me of an article a few colleagues and I read last summer, Bryan Caplan's "The Numbers Speak:  Foreign Language Requirements are a Waste of Time and Money".  In short, Caplan argues that learning a foreign language is irrelevant and unnecessary in this day and age.  He backs off somewhat at the end of the article, confessing that he actually "got a lot of value" through his German studies, but he thinks that the majority of Americans don't have the same experience (if interested, I suggest reading through the comments to the article for a myriad of varying opinions).  It's a preposterous argument, but it also raises some very interesting questions about the state of affairs in foreign language vis-à-vis the growing importance technology in education, and it's clear that it's not just Latin that's under fire.

What's interesting here, to my mind, is the perceived value of foreign language in our culture.  Foreign language teachers can easily, even if not effectively, dismiss a poor argument like Caplan's from our point of view as language teachers, but it also underscores the challenges that we face in creating a valuable classroom experience for our students.  I read Caplan's article as a call for foreign language teachers to defend why we believe that what we do is important.  If we accept the challenge, it's a great exercise for us to do some self-reflection and actually articulate these reasons, rather than simply dismiss Caplan's claims, without further thought.  Cf. a similar challenge issued by Andrew Hacker in his article "Is Algebra Necessary?" in the NYT last July that math teachers have taken up.

In the comments, several people have asked if Caplan's argument applies to all academic subjects in our schools, like algebra and science, given that most Americans don't use them on a daily basis.  I don't think so, though.  Math and science are privileged right now (and being a former engineer I'll never say that they shouldn't be), and as such they receive quite a deal of publicity, especially at our school, which held a very public STEM day last year, complete with all kinds of interactive events and activities.  Even the arts have frequent public showcases and special assemblies here, but foreign language (and indeed the humanities in general!) has no such days for public celebration, where kids get to share their work pridefully with the community.  And though kids do enjoy their foreign language classes, in general, this very culture that promotes science has also taught our students to undervalue language study, in comparison to the more "popular" subjects.  I suffered from this myself in in high school, when I loaded up on math and science, while loathing my Spanish classes, since I saw relatively little value in it.  Thanks to the growing popularity of STEM work and now President Obama's endorsement of STEM education, administrations aren't going to automatically put foreign language departments on equal footing with the math and science anytime soon.  The burden, then, is on us to make language study more worthwhile.  We have to do a better job of earning attention and making students want to take more languages classes for reasons other than financial gain or status.  Even the Yudhijit Bhattacharjee's NYT article on "Why Bilinguals are Smarter", though insightful, is pragmatic and so doesn't do much to bolster the intrinsic appeal that language study can offer.

Ultimately, though, pitting physics against Spanish and chemistry against Latin is a loosing battle, not because the languages can't win, but because education shouldn't be about competition. Where Caplan's argument fails most — and even where much of the argumentation for taking Latin errs, I think — is in the compartmentalization of academia, in treating foreign language in isolation from other subjects.  Language study will not evolve, unless we change our approach for teaching and learning them.

Caplan's compartmentalization doesn't facilitate community, which languages necessarily depend on.  The trouble that language programs have found themselves in, whether now or in past generations (e.g. Latin in the 1960s), seem to be a direct result of the lack of a strong communal focus that leaves students feeling unengaged and unfulfilled.  Today, there are a number of great tools that can help us to strengthen them within the classroom, e.g. PLNs, blogs, digital storytelling, and I'm sure there exist other ideas to explore that I'm not even aware of.  I see no reason my foreign language courses can't work beside English, history, art, and even math and science courses to do more connected work through the use of these tools.  Despite the fact that we don't teach Latin as a living language (though there are arguments about oral Latin), we derive the strength of our program from the strong community of students and teachers here.  I don't expect many of our students to pursue advanced degrees in Classics or linguistics, but I'm confident that the majority of them won't believe in 20 years that what they're doing right now is is pointless.  In fact, a significant fraction of our Latin students begin study of a third language in 9th grade solely because they've enjoyed learning how language works.

Several colleagues at our school have questioned the technological directions that we're taking, but for me, that's really what all this "technofuss" is about:  community and interconnectedness.  Or as Little put it, creating a "buzz" in our classes.  Having to have relied on the strength of our community for the sake of numbers in the past, I'm a big believer in its importance for engagement.  With all the new tools at our disposal now, we can build the kinds of communities that we never imagined in the past.  We've necessarily had to adopt various strategies for creating a strong Latin culture within our program without technology, and now that we have new tools, we can do an ever better job on an even larger scale.  I'm excited to put on yet one more hat, and I hope that others do the same.

Over the next few months, I plan on detailing some of the new directions with technology that our department would like to take, as we plan for our 1:1 program in the fall.  But for now I welcome others to share their own ideas for developing stronger communities and promoting more engagement between students and even classes.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Connected Learning and Blogs

Though we've been using the "CMS" (course management system) since grad. school, the concept of "connected learning" still seems relatively new to education.  It's only about a year ago that our school began to pursue options for what we now call an "LMS" (learning management system).  Until this fall, only about 10% of faculty regularly used Moodle pages for their courses, and we wanted improve on that.
After evaluating the available options, we decided to adopt Instructure's Canvas as our LMS.  Unlike Moodle, which most faculty disliked for a multitude of reasons, we are all now strongly urged to maintain a presence on Canvas, affectionately called "the Hub" on our campus.  Canvas offers many features, which has been both good and bad for us.  It's good, in that it allows each faculty member to develop each course in a way that best suits them; but that's also bad, since students are then required to use each course page in different ways and have spent quite a good deal of time simply figuring out how to navigate each course.  For example, one teacher's "assignments" are another's "announcements" and another's "discussions", etc.  After initial discomfort, though, our students have adjusted.
In addition to the Hub, we've also become a Google Apps For Education (GAFE) school this year.  Initially, most faculty avoided GAFE, while they were learning how to manage the Hub, but lately and for several reasons namely, the fact that materials are easier to share more faculty (fortunately!) have embraced Google's tools, especially for school administration, and it seems that we've enjoyed a higher level of productivity, thanks to them.

Our school is large, at least for an independent school, and because our faculty have been creating their own PLNs, our system looks chaotic right now.  I can't say that we currently have a pervasive PLN that promotes connected learning in an efficient way, but we're on our way.  This tells me that we haven't yet embraced connected learning as openly as we could (and should?).  In the #ETMOOC description for topic 1 on connected learning, some great discussion questions on this topic are asked, and three questions in particular strike me as most important in our stage of techno-curricular development:
  1. How important connected learning is to us?
  2. Can our institution support connected learning, and if so, how?
  3. How can we spread these ideas among our faculty?
I'm, of course, a big believer in connected learning, given that the idea of sharing has always been one of my great motivations for both learning and teaching.  I've been doing various things to advocate it this year, and the most interesting and useful tool I've started using is the blog.  My Latin III students have always had to keep a "Running Latin Commentary" or "RLC" in my class that's used to record notes on vocabulary, grammar/syntax, style, and plot, including anything else of interest that strikes them.  They work on these notes at home on their own, then we add to them in class.  It's a tough skill to learn, but it also approximates the sort of analytical work that we do in the professional world of Classics.  Each night, they record their reading notes and thoughts in a blog, rather than keeping them on paper, and we then work from them in class together.  I'm more easily able to monitor their work and give them feedback, and they're more easily able to keep their work for the course organized.

The experiment has been going very well, and I will continue to use blogs at our school.  I believe commenting is important precisely because it has the potential to promote the high level of connected learning that I'd like to see among my students by improving the quality of their own commentary, creating more lateral dialogue, and getting students to communicate more with each other.  I've been surprised, though, at how reluctant they are to read each other's blogs and offer commentary.  It's almost perceived as a point of pride to avoid looking at their classmates' work.  Hence, I too am confounded with the question of the value of commenting and have been thinking of ways to increase blog reading beside writing (cf. +Sue Waters' questions on the value of blog commenting).

I've still got work to do to increase the level of connected learning, both in my classrooms and across our two campuses in general.  Question 1. above is partially answered, but that leaves the second and third to address.  I believe that all schools can empower connected learning, and, to my mind, we have to accomplish it through leading by example.  We can't simply tell faculty what to do or even how to do it, but rather show them why connected learning through PLNs is important with clear examples of it.  Am I wrong to think that connected learning starts from the ground and spreads up, revealing that it's the students and teachers who spread support effective PLNs instead of the institution itself?  We've just got to find creative ways of inspiring students to engage with the PLN, and I'm excited to continue to experiment with blogs and discover new ways to accomplish this.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

#etmooc Six-Word Story

As part of the #etmooc topic on digital storytelling, we've been challenged to publish our own six-word story.  Because I plan on doing this sort of project with Latin students, I thought I'd offer my first story using a famous line from Vergil's Aeneid, where Aeneas needs to console his men and give them strength during their hardships:  forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit (Aen. 1.203), which translates to "perhaps someday it will be pleasing to remember even these things".

image credit
We're soon to begin the implementation of a 1:1 program at our school that's certain to create anxiety and headaches, while we take our time to work out the kinks.  One of our most immediate concerns is the need for printing, including the question of how to avoid printing altogetherPerhaps in a few years, though, we too can look back at these printing issues with fond memories, in comparison to the alternative in the story.  I made his meme with Mozilla Thimble, but I welcome any comments on other meme tools.

Content vs. Creation in the Classroom


I remember an undergraduate survey, when I was a TA in grad school, asking them what they thought made a TA great, in their opinion.  To my surprise, it wasn't how much their TA loved what they taught or how dynamic their classrooms were that mattered most, but rather how well they knew their subject matter.  In other words, undergraduates wanted masters of content, which has become a hotly debated word in education.  There are several ways to explain the survey results away, including the fact that the students simply cared about getting the highest grades possible.  But it's an important statement that deserves more thought in light of the growing criticisms of classrooms that excessively focus on content.

Mitchel Resnick's "All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten" (found in the course syllabus) is first reading in the MIT media lab MOOC I'm taking.  It's a great read on the need for more "creative-thinking skills" in modern education, and I'm certainly in agreement that we need to move our classrooms toward this goal, with the help of various digital technologies.  But I already know how this argument will be perceived, at least at a school like ours, where academic content is privileged above everything else.

Our Foreign Language Department is in the middle of an internal review, for which each language invited a visitor to observe and evaluate our program.  Latin invited Prof. Robert Cape, the chief reader for the AP Latin program, and after extensively talking with him, I, who have been as critical of the AP system as anyone and hopes that what Dartmouth is doing only spreads, came away with new-found respect for the exam.  Rather than representing the ultimate goal that students should aim to achieve, Cape, a trained Classicist, adamantly argued that he sees the AP exam as representing a baseline of skills that should then enable Latin students to do more advanced work after the exam, or what most educators would now call inquiry-based learning.  I was very happy to hear him say this, since, without a set of content-based skills, students are unable to do the kinds of analytical work that the field of Classics is built upon.  Having gone through a PhD program myself, I also firmly believe in the importance of content mastery and skill-based inquiry.  This view of the AP exam as merely a doorway to future study isn't prevalent everywhere, however, especially among the crowd that places content-driven AP exams as the goal of study rather than a means to further study, and this is a problem.

With that in mind, colleagues have and will continue argue that "kindergarten approach" to learning cannot help students to learn the required AP content and skills and will thus quickly dismiss Resnick's argument.  Both our faculty and students are so under the gun to perform on AP exams that there's no time for creation and playing with technology, they maintain.  Moreover, the body of literature advocating creation over content is growing, and nearly every argument I've seen recently in favor of pushing for more creativity criticizes the "failures" of the current system, including Resnick himself, who argues that "today's schools are out-of-step with today's needs".  The majority of this literature, however, is unable to offer very specific and concrete examples of using creative methods in content-driven curricula, which only strengthens the "content" argument.

So, that's where I am right now.  I fully believe in Resnick's plea for the need for creativity in the classroom and I am a firm believer in the power of technology, but I also appreciate the fact that skills and content needs to maintained, in order to teach the next generation of inquiry-based leaders.  And I don't think that the current system, however traditional, is necessarily broken.  There are certainly some deeply-rooted problems in education today. but we're also doing some good things that should be more often identified.  In my own field, at the very least, Classical scholarship cannot continue without mastery the rigorous skills needed to understand and really engage with the material that we study.  But we also need creative thinkers who can look at ancient texts and think about them in new and exciting ways, hopefully asking new questions seeing things in them that no one has hitherto noticed.  The question at hand, now, is how to preserve content, while also embracing creativity and technology not in random games and projects, but as a pervasive feature of the curriculum.  I don't think anyone has seriously addressed how to do this, and that's a big reason why not everyone has warmly embraced the kinds of creativity that using technology can offer.  Blamed for current methods and already skeptical of new ones, they're left to come up with ideas on their own.

Content is important.  Creativity is important too.  I think that there's should be some ideal mix of the two that will look different in different classrooms.  I also think that educational literature that is quick to dismiss tradition and content-based learning, however broken, is ultimately unhelpful and only serves to widen the gap between sides.  Likewise myopic is the claim that using technology to create more opportunities to play can only be accomplished at the expense of content.  Ultimately, it's not the content or the creative technology that matters.  The single most important factor in quality education is the teacher, and I fear that too much of the pedagogical literature being shared right now fails to focus on this fact (cf. ASCD "21st Century Skills" for a good assessment of this).

In addition to MIT's LCL MOOC, I'm also participating in #ETMOOC, which has been fantastic.  Though I started the course almost two weeks late, I've already learned a lot about digital storytelling and have been thinking through some ways to use it to enhance the content that I'm teaching in my Latin courses, perhaps embracing some of the principles of "rhizomatic learning" (which I don't fully understand yet).  And as our school embarks on a 1:1 program next fall, that's what I want to get out of my participation in the two MOOCs, namely, find my own balance of content and creative learning:  not tools that will make be better at technology or smarter in content, but a balance that will help me to become a better teacher.