Friday, 9 September 2016

Sharing Interests to Prompt Self-directed Writing

The idea of genuine communication and showing students teachers as people rather than representatives of the education system has appeared several times on the PLN lately.  Consequently, transitioning from summer to the school year has me overlapping my writing subjects.  This was originally published on Tim's Motorcycle Diaries...


I'm back in the classroom again and teaching English for the first time in more than a year.  I took a senior essentials English class mainly because few people want to teach it (teachers like to teach people like themselves - in this case academically focused English students), and it fit my schedule.  Essentials English is just as it sounds.  These are weak English students who are getting what they need to graduate and get out into the workplace, they aren't post-secondary bound and tend to find school pointless.

The trick with students this bullied and indifferent to the school system is getting them to read and write at all.  Rather than drag them into a text book or make them watch the department copy of Dead Poets Society in order to prompt some writing, I thought I'd introduce them to my insanity.  In a week where we're all getting to know each other it helps if students see what you're into.  Showing your hobbies and interests is a good way to have them become familiar with you and relax a bit.  If they get excited about the idea of planning a trip and it prompts them to write, it's a many birds with one stone situation.

With some support, students quickly
got into planning a trip.  28 days,
unlimited budget!
The plan was pretty straightforward: you've got four weeks (28 days) starting next Monday.  Assume you've got an unlimited budget for a road trip (gotta travel on the ground).  Where would you go?  What would you do?  On the second day I gave them some pointers on Google Maps and some planning tools like a calendar and how to make notes online and they were off.  At the moment it looks like I've got pages of writing from students who generally don't.  The research they've been doing also lets me diagnose their reading level.

Needless to say, I bravely volunteered to present first.  It doesn't feel like homework when you enjoy doing it, and mine was obviously going to be a motorcycle trip.  I probably could have gone more bonkers on bike choice, but I have a sentimental attachment and some practical necessities that prompted my choice (all explained in the presentation).  Rather than go for the South American adventure, I decided to focus on The States, which has tons to offer, especially if you aren't sweating the budget.

Norman Reedus' RIDE gave me an idea of where I'd like to go, the question was, could I get to the locations in the show and back home in 28 days?

Here's what I'm presenting:



I presented this to the class two days before it was due.  Seeing an example helps and gave me a chance to explain my own process in putting together the trip (deciding on a vehicle, breaking the trip into sections, etc).  Many of them had collected data but were having trouble formulating it into a written project or verbal presentation (their choice).

That photo I doctored of a VFR800 a
couple of years ago came in handy!
Another side benefit of something like this rather than a boiler plate reading and writing diagnostic is that is gives students a lot of control over the direction of their writing, which means I get to learn what they're into, which helps me remember who each person is as well as offering me relevant subjects I can insert into future projects.

I'm hoping they surprise themselves with the results.  If I catch some of them in the future staring wistfully at Google Maps instead of playing pointless FLASH games I'll know that they've been bitten by the travel bug too!


It's a lot to try and pull off in 28 days, but when the budget is unlimited, I want more miles!
Literacy weak students often have trouble with basic digital tools - they were all screen grabbing
Google Map images by the end of the first day though.  This'll help in all sorts of classes.
Into the Rockies ASAP, then down the coast, across the mountains again, and then up the Appalachians home.
Multiple destinations on Google Maps is a simple enough process if you know how.  Everyone does now.

Yellowstone!  Riding over a mega-volcano. No one in the class realized we lived so close to this
impending disaster.  It led to an impromptu Geography lesson.

Death Valley and across the South West to the Twisted Sisters on the way to the Big Easy.
Back north in the Smokey Mountains and Appalachians.

I was thinking maybe an H2R or RC213 in a trailer, but then that meant driving a truck and trailer all over the place.
Better to be on two wheels all the time, and on the descendant of my first bike crush.

Students were very curious about my choices.  How you travel says a lot about you.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Follow Opportunities, Not Dreams

I'm up early chasing through UK documents on their worrying lack of digital skills.  A typical UK worker falls behind many other country's workers in basic IT skills, and I suspect the same is true of many Western countries.  When the digital economy is one of the few bright spots, Western students seem to be turning away from it (unless it's video game design, everyone wants to be a video game designer - as long as it means playing video games and not actually learning how to code).
We can't fill jobs in computer related fields, but less and less students are considering the pathway.
One of the prime movers in this shift away from viable employment follows an idea on bad advice I saw from a tech teacher at our school:
"Just because you're passionate about something doesn't mean you won't suck at it."

As a general rule, parents and students are guided in school to do what makes them happy.  We fill up courses playing hockey, taking photos and give out credits for things kids are doing at home anyway.  It makes for shiny, happy, low stressed students and a great graduation rate, but none of it is really preparing students for the workplace.

We are frequently updated with the number of students from our school who have been accepted to university (only university, the rest don't matter).  We never see any stats on how many of them finish the degrees they were accepted for.  I suspect that stat isn't very flattering.  An even less flattering stat would be an income check at the age of thirty.  I wonder what the employment prospects for those university bound students are.  What is their quality of life trying to pay off debts larger than they've ever been in history?  Yet that's where all our 'good' students are directed.

I dropped out of high school and became a millwright because I had smart hands and the apprenticeship fell into my lap.  When I didn't feel like that was intellectually stressful enough I tackled university and then chased the opportunities that arose from it.  I didn't become a teacher because it was some kind of magical calling, I became a teacher because I was chasing opportunities.

Much of the advice students get in school are from life-long academics.  People who went to school, attended university, and then immediately became employed for life at school again (sometimes the same school they graduated from!)  These people with their carefully proscribed lives don't experience the world the way the rest of us do.  When I see them telling students to 'do what makes you happy' and 'follow your dreams!', I cringe.



My son has recently been wondering about getting a job so he can manage his own money, he's eleven.  I told him, 'do you know why they call it work?'  He looked at me for a moment and then said, 'because it isn't for fun?'  Out of the mouths of babes.  I only wish school guidance would realize that basic truth.

You can derive a great deal of satisfaction out of your work without it being some kind of romantic calling.  Few people live the lives of celebrities, playing a game or making art and wallowing in the money derived from it.  Insinuating that kids could be that person is dishonest at worst and deceiving at best, but how would you know if you've never had to struggle for work?  We can all find satisfying and challenging work if we push ourselves and chase opportunity.  Train yourself to better chase opportunity and you'll find your circumstances will continue to change and improve.  One day you might find yourself in a well paid, challenging profession that you'd never have predicted for yourself.




Or, you know, maybe making a living...

Quinn Norton gives the blather some context.  Hobbies are for fun, your career
is probably not your hobby, and that's fine, it's how the world works.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Troughs of Disillusionment

It might seem a bit negative, but this process is anything but.  Adopting disruptive technology is a difficult business, those inflated expectations create a lot of hope and enthusiasm (not things we like in education).  With experience comes rationalization and a better understanding of how new technology can actually help.  It isn't all sunshine and flowers,but without a bit of heedless optimism, this kind of adoption would be too difficult for most to consider.
Alanna recently put me onto this idea of how the innovation adoption cycle actually works.  It's an interesting way of understanding how innovation ripples across established practices.

Though it's business focused, it demonstrates how even flexible businesses have trouble effectively adopting and harnessing technological innovation.  Education is much more conservative and inflexible, so this process is weirdly distorted in ed-world where many people still think that a chalkboard is sufficient.  

In ed-world that technology trigger is usually ignored, along with the hype, excitement and enthusiasm.  A kind of wilful ignorance blinkers many educators from even looking at technology, it's all just a fad.  What finally drags them into it is the fact that what they're doing in the classroom is sadly out of touch with what the rest of the world is doing.

While teachers complain about lining up at photocopiers but won't consider alternatives, the rest of the world got excited about cloud based documents and moved online.  Even as school departments worried over photocopying costs (and forests moaned under the weight of learning the way it has always been done), tech-hype excited businesses were frantically connecting up cloud based solutions and searching out efficiencies.  In business, management is often the most agile, forward looking part of the enterprise; the early adopters.  Business's willingness to adapt and seek out efficiencies is usually a lead by example process.  Educational leaders tend to get there by towing a conservative line, they're not interested in actually changing anything.

Without the lead-by-example business approach, technological change in education only seems to happen when there is no other choice.  When a disruptive technology is finally so overwhelmingly apparent that educational management is forced to consider it, they aren't leading by example and the vast majority of the people within their organization don't want it either.  Status quo rather than improvement is the point of education.

When it comes to education, we begin in the trough and usually don't get out of it:

We ignore the trigger and have none of the hype that encourages people to experiment and explore possibilities, there is no hope for new technology in the educational apparatus.  Beyond the classroom there is hope, excitement and possibility before finally dropping into the trough of disillusionment.  I'd argue that this range of emotion when exploring new technology allows early adopters a better chance to grasp what a new technology is capable of and allows them to eventually optimize their plateau of productivity.

In education we grudgingly begin in the trough, grumble about the entire process and then pick it up as poorly as possible, never exploring it, never revelling in the possibilities it might offer.  When it gets difficult we drop it, having never wanted to do it in the first place.  The poor support around embracing new technologies is just another symptom of this.

If you wanted a perfect example of how not to effectively integrate innovative technology, you need look no further than the education system.  There are outliers within the system who push against the morass of conservative norms that manage and run education, but they struggle to find support, often having to find indirect ways to explore and integrate new technology.

As long as schools are administrated by the most conservative elements in education (academia loves conservatism), we will always struggle to stay abreast of innovation, whether it be technological or otherwise.

Two Recent Examples

#1:  I got an HTC Vive virtual reality headset for the computer lab.  It's an uphill struggle to get any staff to try it (students? No problem).  The general comment I get is, "what did that cost?"  My standard reply is, "less than your photocopying budget."  The Board is unable to connect the SteamVR software needed to update the drivers and programs on the headset, so I'm trucking the desktop home each week to update it at home.

Even during those rare moments when we do get current technology in, there is no hype, only criticism and doubt.  For someone who gets excited about the possibilities of technology, this is a very exhausting environment to be in.

#2:  We requested a Glowforge desktop 3d laser cutter in for the tech-design lab.  Even though it comes equipped with Hepa air filters and doesn't require any exhaust, we were stymied by board safety people whose default position is 'no', regardless of any facts we could produce.





Sunday, 3 July 2016

Perception is Reality, except when it isn't

When I'm packing up the computer lab at the end of the school year I usually do it imagining that I won't be back.  For an introvert like me, teaching is an exhausting business.  I don't get recharged by people the way others seem to; people drain me.  The thought of disappearing out the door and not returning is a happy one.

As the year wound down I came to realize that information technology has become like plumbing or electricity: no one thinks or cares about it unless it doesn't work.  Fortunately I'm good at IT and get a a lot of satisfaction out of solving problems in it (not to mention my staying sharp in technology allows me to teach it better), so even though it is nothing I'm contracted to do I still beaver away in the background trying to create a more accessible, current and consistent educational technology platform for our teachers to use.

I find the year end back slapping tedious at the best of times.  Everyone gets well paid to do their job and no one I know in the building stops there, but what some people do above and beyond is considered more important.  While some were having meetings and planning presentations, I was hand bombing over a ton of ewaste out the back door of the school to a local charity.  They have DD adults dismantle electronics and then make enough recycling it to pay for their charity work.  It isn't attention grabbing, but it matters.


The energy other people are willing to spend in order to shine a light on themselves obviously pays off, I'm just not interested in it.  Fixing things that are actually broken holds much greater interest for me.  Changing people's minds is exactly what I don't like doing.  People should be able to make up their own minds based on the facts, not on how convincing I am.


This year has offered me some wonderful moments.  By far the most positive experience was our run at Skills Canada this time around.  Seeing my student's surprise at winning provincials and then our experience at Nationals was awesome.

Another powerful moment was seeing software engineering actually produce viable projects this time around.  That class offers students a chance to experience team based software development and then publish code while still in high school, and it has improved dramatically year on year thanks to a lot of curriculum building.

The least professionally rewarding part of my year was participating in the school leadership team.  The work done seemed pointless and time consuming, and seemed to follow a predetermined process rather than actually being creative and meaningful in any way.  A colleague dropped out of leadership a few years ago and she claims it frees you up to spend your energy on more productive things.  I think I'm following her approach when my headship ends this year.

The summer is for finding my mojo again, and then refocusing on what works best for my students in the fall.  A list is already forming:

  • Continue developing curriculum that still challenges and differentiates even when I'm regularly expected to teach five sections of class each semester.  Skills Canada plays a big part in that, allowing exceptional students a chance to see just how good they actually are.  Skills preparation also directs all students towards higher standards.
  • Getting equipment in that allows students to learn hands-on, even when I have classes of 31 students in a room.  Have you ever tried to set up a classroom with 31 computers and then arrange additional space for students to safely solder, build electronics and dismantle additional machines with hand tools?  It requires fore-thought (and perhaps some kind of time and relative dimension in space device)
  • While all that is going on I'll continue to apply my senior computer engineering courses to school IT support.  This year we repaired 26 chromebooks that would otherwise have been chucked (repair costs were $1250, replacement cost would have been $9100),  Having a genuine engineering challenge in front of students is invaluable to them, saves the school board thousands and keeps the teachers they are supporting in working tech, even if it is thankless work.
  • Windows 10 free upgrades end before August, so I have to get into school at some point before July 26th and update all the student PCs in my lab.  Having a DIY lab is a lot of work, but it offers students unique access to software in a building otherwise tied down to out of date board software.  It's $135 a PC otherwise, so I'll go in during the summer and save the board another four grand.
But first, some summer...
Note:  I usually write a draft, edit it once and then publish it on Dusty World.  This got heavily re-written three times with an eye to repairing problems rather than just complaining about them.  The end of the school year often gets me into a rather negative state of mind.