Building A Reading Community

Had the chance to hear Helen Reynolds, Teacher-Librarian of the Year 2007 in Australia, speak at the Australian school here in Singapore the other day. Though on the The Southport School library webpage her job title is listed as Senior Librarian, she says she was hired ten years ago as Director of Information Services. Instead, Director of Literacy might be appropriate.

Her talk was titled: Maintaining Momentum: Keeping boys reading in the middle school years, and she gave us an overview of her philosophy and practices behind the creation of an active reading community in a day/boarding boys' school with an enrolment of approximately 1400 preschool to year 12.

She swears by Stephen Krashen's The Power of Reading, Aidan Chambers's The Reading Environment, Young Australians Reading, and Knowing Readers by Susan LaMarca and Pam MacIntyre.

The key is getting the whole community involved -- a giant partnership -- which means not just the library and the English department, but all staff (even the cleaners) and the parents. The goal is an environment which legitimizes wide and comprehensive reading.

Some elements of her successful program:
  • * All students keep Reading Records -- lists of the books they've read in and out of school -- that follow them throughout their time at the school (so any teacher can see any student's reading history);
  • * Book reports are 40-second oral events, done at the end of term -- no long boring writing about what you've read;
  • * Book chat time -- lots of it -- in classrooms, in the library, in the hallways;
  • * Author visits -- as many as possible;
  • * Regular silent reading times throughout the school, e.g., every English class starts with 10 minutes of silent reading, and Grades 8-10 English classes come to the library every fortnight for a session of book talk and reading;
  • * Monthly book club (and newsletter), where students get the pick of new library books to read and review; she also takes club members out to literary festivals and any events related to books;
  • * Ongoing collection of data -- such as surveys to find out what the kids are reading and how they think reading helps them; this data is shared with teachers, admin, and parents;
  • * Tons of book displays, e.g., the first display of the year is of books which the students voted as their favorites the year before;
  • * 7-week parent program at the beginning of each year -- in which she teaches parents the same information literacy skills the kids learn;
  • * Big book collection, catering for all reading levels and a wide variety of interests; she said she buys for everyone (including parents); I like her attitude that she's about choice, not censorship -- she says it's not her job to censor what a child reads -- parents can do that by submitting a form;
  • * Supporting teachers as readers and getting them to advertise their reading to students, e.g., before every holiday break, she takes a stack of books into the staff room and passes them out, and teachers in all subject areas are encouraged to produce bookmarks of their recent reads and have them available in their classrooms for students to take;
  • * Reader's Cup (an annual competition in Australia) -- she always get a team to enter;
  • * Writing competitions -- she encourages students to enter any online writing competition and says some students have won money from them.
Three websites she recommends:
Given my current situation, I was particularly pleased to hear her say, of course, she lets parents borrow. And her response to my query about borrowing limits was, unlimited! (She did admit there are borrowing limits printed in some library policy document, but they are not enforced.) Letters about overdue books are sent to parents after two months and any financial reckoning about lost books is only done at the end of term. So reasonable...

I also noted her comment that circular tables in the library encourage social booktalking. Made me decide I must get to IKEA to replace a few of my dreary institutional rectangles with round colorful ones.

Social Software -- or the power and fun of collecting, organizing, and sharing information

Two major problems with the Internet are:
  • too much information
  • too many tools to choose from
Given that, it's best to think of an information problem as an excuse to play around with social software.

The problem Barb and I face -- with this workshop -- is how to organize the information we want to share with people while minimizing the "presentation" talking and maximizing the "hands-on" aspect.

For now, I'm going to blog about the kinds of problems social software has solved for me -- and we'll wait to figure out the best kind of online launch pad for the workshop.

PROBLEM: How to get photographs online -- to share with others or simply to store for personal projects?

SOLUTION: Use an online photo sharing site, like Flickr (see How to Select a Photo Sharing Site for Newbies). Flickr has a tour available on its home page, which is one place to start.

Another way is to just start searching for photos on Flickr, e.g., photos tagged "Singapore" or photos including the word "Hmong".

Flickr also allows you to put photos in Sets and then to put Sets into Collections. For instance, I have a Collection called UWCSEA Primary Library, which contains 8 sets, e.g., Writers' Camp 2007: Telunas Beach and 07-08 UWCSEA Primary Library Displays. It's my way of recording what I do in the library. I have another collection called Other School Libraries where I keep sets of photos of libraries taken on professional peer visits.

NB: I can control who can see any photo by specifying its privacy level -- public, friend, or family.

By becoming "friends" with people and adding them to your Contact list, then you can automatically see when they upload new photos. For instance, Barb just became a grandmother and when I login to Flickr, I can see the latest photos she's uploaded of the baby -- because she's one of my Contacts.

There are also Groups you can join. I'm thinking of joining the 365 Library Days Project -- where you are supposed to take one photo a day of your library for a year and post them on Flickr. Search for groups that interest you. Take a look at all these Singapore groups on Flickr.

How could Flickr be used in the classroom? Read about Photo Sharing in Education in the Teaching Hacks Wiki (which has enough material there to keep you occupied for another Saturday or two).

People are doing all kinds of fun stuff with Flickr. I like this "Spell with Flickr" application -- which takes text as input and gives you back photos that spell out the text, e.g.,:

F L I C K r

Social spots in Google's many products....

Seen a list of all the Google products lately? It's impressive. (Check out the [French] map of these products and how they relate to one another, though -- mind -- it's as enormous as Google's influence.... I prefer the more impressionistic (and English) map of Googleland....)

Maybe Google is taking over the world, but I'm still a happy user.

My favorite tools are Gmail, Google Reader, iGoogle, and Google Notebook.

I love Gmail with its ability to tag e-mails with multiple labels -- effectively allowing them to "live" in multiple folders -- makes managing the inbox so easy. (I don't know if any of you subscribe to multiple listservs -- but Gmail makes it easy to set up filters and automatically tag/label posts as they come in -- have a read here about how I manage my listserv traffic using a second Gmail account, if you're interested...)

Even if you don't use Gmail, you can still get a Google account and access their other products.

GoogleReader is hard to show off -- as you would have to be logged into my Google account to see my (170+) feeds and my pile of reading. But they now allow you to identify items for sharing. This is the public webpage of my GoogleReader shared items. They also allow you to post clips of your most recent shared items on your blog (so you should see them on the upper left of my blog page).

iGoogle is Google's home page option for you. Again, you can't see mine unless you log in as me. But I can tell you it's got feeds from my various social software tools -- my LibraryThing catalog, my account, my GoogleDocs, my Gmail, my GoogleReader, etc., plus a "to-do" list that I maintain.

GoogleNotebook allows me to make notes and mark websites for later reading/action. I can share these notebooks, e.g., Barb and I shared one in planning for this workshop. While we have read/write privileges, GoogleNotebook also has an option to make a notebook public -- so you can see what we have in our notebook called Social Software Workshop.

Will Richardson over on Weblogg-ed recently asked the blogosphere:
Seriously. I want to know. What do you do when you read a couple of sentences in a post or article that really resonate? How do you capture and organize those snippets? What tools do you use? How often do you recall those sentences, access them? How do you search for them? Is your process working?
Lots of people answered him -- and I couldn't resist adding my two cents:

Like so many others posting here, I’m a huge fan of Google Notebook, available wherever there’s internet access, from any machine. Definitely download the Firefox extension, so with one right-click, you can pop in a snippet and a link.
When I go through my Google Reader inbox, I make entries in my various Google Notebooks of things I want to follow up on or want to make notes on (though, yes, I also use to log websites, as well as diigo).
I maintain a number of notebooks and it’s easy to move notes from one to the other. For example, one is for “Books of interest” — definitely useful before heading to the library or bookstore. Another notebook holds my “Notes on books read”. Yet another is “Articles to think about”.
As a teacher-librarian, I work with a variety of classes on different units of inquiry — and I create a new Google notebook for each one. It lets me build up ideas, links, etc. to sort through later.
In a couple of weeks a friend and I are doing a short workshop on Social Software for fellow teachers and we’re using a “shared” Google notebook to log and comment on sites, ideas, quotes, etc.
My “General” notebook is useful for logging things like airplane ticket reservations (so I don’t have to wait for the confirmation e-mail to arrive in my in-box — I just clip the relevant information and feel safe to leave the ticketing webpage).
I use iGoogle as my personal homepage so my Google notebooks are readily available (along with my Gmail, my Google Reader, etc.) Yes, I’m a Google fan…

GoogleDocs is another way to collect and share information. You can upload text documents, spreadsheets, and powerpoint presentations -- and invite other people to become collaborators. Barb and I also use it frequently to give each other access to documents -- rather than attaching Word documents to e-mails.

Nov. 19: Just discovered that those clever folks at The Common Craft Show have produced one of their super-simple explanatory videos for GoogleDocs: GoogleDocs in Plain English
The folks at Google are constantly coming up with new ideas (during that 20% of their free-thinking time).

Google Custom Search Engines (though note, they're not the only ones out there) are a powerful tool, especially for teachers/librarians who want to enforce some quality control on students' searching. You get to specify exactly which sites and/or pages will be searched. I've already created several for my primary school students, e.g., Ms. Day's General Search Engine for Kids and an Aztec Search Engine. Both only search sites that I am confident have information at the level of primary school students.

Another more recent addition to the field is DeliGoo, a search engine. It's a Firefox extension that allows you to search just the websites tagged in a account, e.g.,

What is "Social Graph-Based Search"? -- and will it overtake Google?

Robert Scoble, a well-known Internet guru, makes some strong arguments that Google is going to be left behind in terms of search (over the next few years) because its core strength is about search engine optimization techniques (i.e., how people can tweak their webpage to come out higher in the rankings because of knowing how the search algorithm works).

Instead Scoble believes social graph-based searching -- or tapping into people-based networks for information -- will reign supreme in the search world, and he discusses three in particular: Mahalo, Facebook, and TechMeme.

Watch these three video tutorials of Robert Scoble talking about "Social Graph-Based Search":

He talks about a fabric of trust -- makes me think of librarians as a reliable fabric in society, providing trusted information ....

Scoble asks, what if everyone has their own Mahalo? Our own network of "people-based systems"....

You'll probably have heard of Facebook (if not, see its Wikipedia entry -- and consider the fact that it has almost 50 million active users and Microsoft just paid $240m for a 1.6% stake in the company). TechMeme is more for technology addicts, while Mahalo, subtitled "Human-Powered Search", is designed for the general public.

I think Mahalo has a lot of potential. Their "guides" (as they call the people who put their pages together) are basically creating what librarians call "pathfinders" -- a summary of the best links on a particular topic. See, for example, Mahalo's School Subjects list. Students should find some of those pages quite useful, e.g., the page on Hamlet has everything you might need.... same goes for the page on Ian McEwan..... I know the book club I belong to would find the the Authors and Writers pages useful...

Mahalo also has some good intro "how-to" pages on technology, e.g.,
I read a recent article/interview with Jason Calacanis, the founder of Mahalo.

His plan was devilishly clever: He would create a human-powered search engine that builds out prefab responses to the most popular search terms. He would shoot for the top 30%, or about 15,000 terms, to effectively skim the cream from the entire search business. Mahalo would deliver results for searches like "Paris Hilton," "iPod," and "Bill Gates," but not for your local high-school football team or childhood sweetheart. And because those results would be prepared by humans, sifted and sorted and condensed for maximum relevance, users would no longer be faced with 10 million hits, as they are with Google, but with a few dozen. Mahalo would be a search engine for people who don't like to search.

Evidently Mahalo has about 60 employees so far.

Most of Calacanis's employees are young out-of-work novelists, screenwriters, musicians, artists, and actors--info addicts happy to earn $35,000 a year plus health benefits by searching the Web rather than shelving books at Barnes & Noble or slinging chai lattes at Starbucks. Calacanis has promised them 15% of the company when and if it goes public, with the investors getting a third and Calacanis keeping the rest.

(Why doesn't he try to hire librarians, who are trained in searching and evaluating information??)

Anyway, if you like Mahalo, you might also look at Squidoo -- which is openly social (like Wikipedia, meaning anyone can create pages). Here's how they describe themselves:

Squidoo is a website hosting hundreds of thousands of lenses. Each lens is one person's look at something online. Your take on football or business or the best thai food in town. Lenses are free.

Adult as Inquirer, or, where did those cannonballs come from?

Don't miss the three-part blog report in the New York Times by Errol Morris which documents his investigation into two photos taken during the Crimean War of "The Valley of the Shadow of Death".

“You mean to tell me that you went all the way to the Crimea because of one sentence written by Susan Sontag?” My friend Ron Rosenbaum seemed incredulous. I told him, “No, it was actually two sentences.”

So begins the tale of how Morris, a documentary filmmaker, is intrigued by a statement by Sontag and subsequently seeks to prove which of two photographs was taken first -- theorizing along the way how and why the photographer might have changed what the camera shot. Though it may sound boring, it's not.

It's also exactly the kind of dogged inquiry that we want our students to experience....

The Slow Blog -- comes to life

It's been months since I posted, so I guess I need to come up with an excuse. The frenetic summer of an expat teacher/parent ? (too much time traveling and socializing)... Returning to Singapore and immediately having to find a new place to live in a hot property market ? (downsizing is painful) ... Instead I'll suggest the tactic of slow blogging (cf: slow food and slow schools).

I certainly digest material slowly. There's that fear of being forever a lurker. Still learning, but not quick to interact. I'm reminded of an article (that I can't provide a link to at the moment) I had to read once about Aborigine children in Australia and how they prefer long periods of observing in the classroom before engaging. For them public mistakes are worse than delay or inactivity. Though the teacher might perceive them as dreaming or not on task, they instead act upon a greater requirement to survey what is going on. Slow but solid absorption.

However, the time to start writing is now. I've signed up to do a workshop at TeachIT with my good friend (and fellow teacher-librarian) Barb Philip. Just a 75 minute workshop -- but for our general international school peers (argh!) here in Singapore on a Saturday in November.
Social Software -- in school and life

See how two teacher-librarians have experimented with free (and almost free) internet software to help them collect, organize, and share information online -- and play with these Web 2.0 tools yourself. Guaranteed to get you thinking how you might use them in your classroom as well as for professional networking and personal projects. The sampler will include wikis, social bookmarking, online catalogs, blogs, RSS readers, photo and document sharing, and customized search engines.
It got a bit truncated in the official line-up, but that was our original description.

It's a deja-vu experience for me, as that's what I did 18 months ago with Beth Gourley. We signed up to do a workshop for fellow teacher-librarians at EARCOS 2006. You never learn anything until you volunteer to present it. Beth and I threw our combined learning into a wiki, which is still out there -- LibraryTails -- and surprisingly not that out-of-date. Barb and I agree we definitely need to pool our content online beforehand. This workshop will be better than the last one in that it's hands-on. So we just need a launchpad so people can start playing. Barb's going to set up a MySpace for us, while I'm going to use this blog to focus on some of our experiences and ideas.

Poem I read recently -- by Eve Merriam:

A Lazy Thought

There go the grown ups
To the office,
To the store.
Subway rush,
Traffic crush;
Hurry, scurry,
Worry, flurry.

No wonder
Grown ups
Don't grow up
Any more.
It takes a lot
Of slow
To grow.

Libraries and/or ICT?

At the IBAP teacher's convention, each thread of the conference (e.g., Library, On-line Learning Communities, Applied Technologies in Instruction & Assessment, etc.) had a forum where we were asked to evaluate the ongoing issues in our area.

In the Library forum one outstanding issue raised was the relationship between school libraries and ICT. Separate but equal? Collaborative partners? One and the same?

So it was nice to have Stephen Heppell (the man who is said to have put the "C" into ICT) rave about the importance of librarians in 21st century schools.

Librarians are clearly more important than head teachers.

Librarians are needed to thread and guide the components of the learning (because the ability is build a thread is what's valuable, it's about narrative connecting stuff).

The Internet is built all wrong -- it's focused on stuff, not on people. What's important about a library is it's where people come together. The staff are the asset, that's why the librarian is far more important than the books in a library.

On his website he has a page devoted to Learning Places and Spaces -- virtual and actual. There's a lot there for anyone designing a library in the future.

Local to global? Or global to local?

You hear it over and over again. Learning must be relevant to kids' lives. I completely agree. But sometimes I feel too little credit is given to the power of how we -- as teachers -- can make something non-local relevant to kids.

At a workshop I recently attended my table was supposed to be coming up with sample research paper assignment questions which would force kids to go beyond the basic instruction to "Write about a disease." We proposed a series of increasing challenging questions, from "what is disease? what diseases do I know?" to "what are the most deadly diseases in the world for which we don't have a cure?" to "if I had to write Bill Gates and convince him to give money [or raise money myself] for research into one deadly disease, what would it be and why?". The workshop leader was gently trying to get us to come up with questions more based in the kids' everyday reality, e.g., what diseases are in my community and what I can do about it?

But what if malaria isn't rampant in our community? Does that mean we shouldn't encourage kids to learn about it?

As Rischard said at some point in his talk, we must get people into the mindset of the question,
How can I be first a global citizen, second a national citizen, and third a local citizen?

Which makes me think of Kieran Egan, one of my favorite educational theorists. In an article back in 2003 in the Phi Delta Kappan, he asked if we should, "Start with What the Student Knows or with What the Student Can Imagine?"

While starting with what the child knows works with some subjects, e.g., material ones, it shouldn't be a rigid rule. He bemoans the limitation of the social studies curriculum which annually expands from the family to the community to the state to the country to the world. It can take forever to get to that world perspective. Perhaps that's where we should be starting...

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Networking about pressing global issues

Continuing on re Rischard and his book High Noon.... (see previous posting)

The 20 most pressing problems, according to Rischard:

Sharing our planet: Issues involving the global commons
1. Global warming
2. Biodiversity and ecosystem losses
3. Fisheries depletion
4. Deforestation
5. Water deficits
6. Maritime safety and pollution
Sharing our humanity: Issues requiring a global commitment
7. Massive step-up in the fight against poverty
8. Peacekeeping, conflict prevention, combating terrorism
9. Education for all
10. Global infectious diseases
11. Digital Divide
12. Natural disaster prevention and mitigation
Sharing our rulebook: Issues needing a global regulatory approach
13. Reinventing taxation for the 21st century
14. Biotechnology rules
15. Global financial architecture
16. Illegal drugs
17. Trade, investment, and competition rules
18. Intellectual property rights
19. E-commerce rules
20. International labor and migration rules
[both images, above right, taken from]

Rischard stresses that these problems require long-term thinking and commitment, something democracies cannot easily deliver (due to electoral pressures). Nation-states, territorial by definition, are also inadequate, given the inherently global nature of the problems. He proposes the establishment of Global Issues Networks, consisting of experts from various countries appointed by world leaders. These experts will work to extract rough consensus for norms and standards for all countries to adhere to in the interest of the whole world.

Rischard said you'd have to tell these experts that they were working for humanity with an eye to each of them winning a Nobel prize for their work. (I love that idea of appealing to their pride!)

The other thing we'd have to do, he said, is to work towards developing the mindset of global citizenship -- which is where education steps in.

There are several educational projects, based on Rischard's book and his advocacy, now in place, with more likely.

In the US, the NAIS (National Association of Independent Schools) has a program called Challenge 20/20, which pairs schools in the US with a school elsewhere in the world to work on creative global problem solving.

In Europe there are GIN (Global Issues Network) groups starting up in international schools. Clayton Lewis, head of the International School of Luxembourg, has been working with Rischard and a GIN conference is planned for next year.

Here in Asia WAB (Western Academy of Beijing) has a program in place called GIG (Global Issues Group) and they are planning to host a (student?) conference in March 2008.

Rischard said he is also meeting with the IBO to discuss how his framework could be spread throughout their school network.

It's all exciting stuff. Our school already has a well-developed Global Concerns program, but I can see the benefit of becoming part of the Global Issues Network.

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Questioning projects and assessments

The importance of generating good, meaty, essential questions, especially for student projects, is something everyone agrees on. However, those of us in a school with an explicit inquiry-based learning framework in place often feel ahead of the game.

For example, at Doug Johnson's EARCOS 2007 pre-conference workshop for teacher/librarians on Designing Projects Students (and Teachers) Love, those of us at PYP schools felt his 4-level Research Question Rubric -- where Level 1 asks for simple recall, Level 2 asks a specific question, Level 3 asks for personal response, and Level 4 includes a call for action -- simply reflected different stages in the inquiry process.

Using Kath Murdoch's inquiry cycle model, a Level 1 question is equivalent to Tuning In, a Level 2 question might be Finding Out or Sorting Out, a Level 3 question reflects Going Further or Making Conclusions, and a Level 4 question falls under Taking Action followed by Sharing/Reflection. So, while he was trying to get us to generate a Level 4 question to assign to students, we all felt the rubric was just a spiral students would move along themselves in any one project or unit of inquiry.

When the question of appropriate assessment (or assignments) came up at the IBAP conference, Prof. Stephen Heppell had a few great substitutions he threw out to us (likes scraps to hungry animals) -- especially after the IB Diploma students participating in the forum complained about two years of effort being assessed in a 2-hour handwritten exam worth 80% of their grade.
  • ~ instead of an 80% exam, why not require a 3-nation collaborative task for students?
  • ~ instead of assigning a 1,500 word essay, why not require either a) scripting and posting a 3-minute podcast, or b) managing an online discussion for a week, or c) annotating 10 website links?
  • ~ instead of bemoaning the availability of "free online essays" for students to pinch, why not assign the task of choosing 4 "free online essays" and critiquing them, and then improving on one of them?
I mentioned this to my daughter and a friend, both of whom are about to take the IGCSE/GCSE exams, and they leapt onto the last idea, saying how useful it would be for them to critique other people's essays -- to internalize the examiners' rubric and understand more fully what it is they are being asked to perform.

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Pre-search, or look before you leap

  1. The initial, guided investigation of topics, themes and main ideas for schoolwork before delving into the deeper research process.
  2. An activity sincerely appreciated by overworked librarians, offered by

This is clever marketing aimed at librarians on the part of

"Presearch" isn't a term explicitly used in well-known research models like the Big6 or the NSW (Australia) Information Process, but it was definitely a focus of attention in several workshops I attended at the EARCOS and IBAP conferences (see previous posting).

Most people agreed that "Define" as step one implied a big first step that students find daunting. They need to be encouraged to take their time.

That's why I like the first step in Kath Murdoch's inquiry model -- which is called Tuning In (followed by Finding Out, Sorting Out, Going Further, Making Conclusions, Taking Action, and Sharing/Reflection).

Tuning In is also more in line with the first step of the revised Bloom's taxonomy (in which Remember replaced Knowledge as the lowest level; another revision was to switch the positions of Synthesis and Evaluate -- putting Create as the highest order):

1. Remember
2. Understand
3. Apply
4. Analyze
5. Evaluate
6. Create

Remembering is a good way of tuning in -- asking what we already know before we start finding out. It also reflects the level of just being able to spew out undigested facts.

At the IBAP conference, Cathy Hill and Yvonne Hammer introduced me to a new model: Parnes' Creative Problem Solving model (which they say is frequently used with gifted and talented students, based on the belief that creativity is a set of behaviors that can be learned).

* Clarification stage:
1. Mess Finding (e.g., brainstorming)
2. Data Finding (collecting the facts, acting as a camera while looking at the "mess" -- a major evaluative tool)
3. Problem Finding (prioritizing options, speculating, focusing, and finally forming a statement or question)

* Transformation stage:
4. Idea Finding (generating ideas and feeling responses, elaborating, more brainstorming)

* Implementation stage:
5. Solution Finding (evaluating, re-examining the focus, identifying leads, and analysing views of the problem)
6. Acceptance Finding (considering the audience, target the priorities, developing a plan of action, editing, presenting work)

I particularly like the word "mess" as the place to begin -- because that's exactly how I feel when I start off on a new project. I create a big mess of information and have to sort through it.

Perhaps "digging in" is a better phrase for that first step -- as it combines the idea of "tuning in" and making a "mess".

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Embarrassing to be an American

Watched three documentaries with my three teenagers over the past 24 hours.

Hacking Democracy -- about abuses in voting machine counting in the past two presidential elections (wonderful story of how one woman started asking questions and it led to years of her life becoming absorbed in the inquiry process...)

Who Killed the Electric Car? -- about the various powers-that-be crushing the energy-efficient electric car a few years ago (though there is better news since the documentary came out) -- again, the story of dedicated individuals getting to the bottom of an unsavory situation

The Most Hated Family in America -- mind-boggling BBC documentary about an uber-religious cult family in the States who "hate America" (and gays and Jews, in particular)

Oh, and we also watched Richard Dawkins's documentary on The God Delusion, featuring many overly religious Americans, including Ted Haggard, the prominent evangelical minister, now defrocked for regularly privately paying for gay sex (and crystal meth) while publicly preaching/campaigning against gays.

My kids have never lived in the States, and, I must say, from the outside it looks like a very dubious place...

Abolish school!

I just love to read calls to abolish schools. If only we had to courage to do it.

Robert Epstein, author of the recently published The Case Against Adolescence: Rediscovering the Adult in Every Teen, openly argues for it in his article "Let's Abolish High School" in Education Week. Just as Alvin Toffler explained why we need to shut down the public education system in the Feb. 2007 issue of Edutopia.

It's what Prof. Stephen Heppell was suggesting at the IBAP conference: instead of schools, what if we could measure what people know and offer a free, global model of recognition of accomplishment? A kind of YouTube for learning outcomes, as he said.

During his talk, Heppell showed us several examples of work by "researchers" (as students are called, to distance them from traditional school language) participating his project. These kids, excluded from traditional schools for some reason, are given a brand-new Macintosh computer, a broadband internet connection, and mentors -- and the learning begins. The program has exceeded all expectations. (See this report on the Apple Learning website.)

Heppell was also instrumental in the establishment of Ultraversity -- a degree course now offered at a UK university, where people can work full-time and study full-time -- by learning about the work they're already doing. (See this 2003 Guardian (UK) article on Ultraversity.)

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Global visions of the world

How can we convey global visions of the world?

A fantastic visual tool I've started using with my primary students is worldmapper: the world as you've never seen it before - a joint project of the Univ of Sheffield (UK) and the Univ of Michigan (US).

Statistics about the world are presented on a world map where each country or area swells or shrinks in proportion to the data being represented. A picture is worth a thousand words -- start with the basic land area, then move on to population, then look at the estimates of the distribution of the world's wealth in the year 1 (yes, 2000 years ago) and in the year 2015. There are 366 maps so far, covering pollution, disease, resources, violence, education, etc. It's a site to watch.

Then there's the Breathing Earth website which shows you births, deaths, and carbon dioxide emissions in real time around the globe.

On a more artistic note, see Jonathan Harris's Universe project which "reveals our modern mythology" using input from the news portal Daylife.

The form & content of the future

For all the virtues of virtual connections, there's nothing like a few days of face-to-face with large numbers of peers for some mental and social expansion.

Last week I had two such valuable experiences at overlapping conferences:

[The EARCOS one is listed on Hitchkr (a compendium of blog postings on different conferences) but not the IBAP one. As for handouts to download, the IB ones are listed on the conference website given above, but for the EARCOS ones you have to drill down into the sub-pages, e.g., the Workshop Presenters page, and look under each name.]

I'm writing up my notes here and here, but the focal point of both experiences was on the form and content of the future that educators, in particular, need to start acting upon -- and each conference provided an excellent guru.

Technology is obviously the form, but while anyone can get up and rant about exponential growth and the need to embrace change, not just anyone can show us workable paths and original thinking.

At the IBAP conference, Stephen Heppell (check out his bio, if you've never heard of him) pulled up example after example from his crowded Mac desktop screen showing us how he's involved in getting students and teachers to learn collaboratively using the latest technology (see,, the learnometer project, the "be very afraid" film series, etc.). His presentation lived up to the tags on his website: learning, ingenuity, research, policy, design, technology, and delight. (I'll blog more about his ideas in a separate posting.)

Global issues are the content. The appearance of Jean-Francois Rischard, author of the book High Noon, at the EARCOS conference was very timely. Consensus on the pressing problem of global warming has coalesced (thanks in part to Al Gore's movie) over the past several months, so it was wonderful to hear from someone who has been thinking seriously about the problem -- and even bigger ones -- for several years.

His overall message was that we need to come up with a new methodology of global problem-solving because the problems now facing the world must be resolved by countries working together. Like Heppell, Rischard is someone who has been involved in the system he's critiquing, as he used to work for the World Bank and is very knowledgeable about the current international organizations available. (I'll blog more about his ideas in a separate posting.)

The popular meme that was killed for me, thanks to these conferences, was Marc Prensky's digital immigrant/digital native divide. I've been guilty of spreading it myself, but, I'm sorry -- given the rate of change, doesn't the divide continually shift? Is it meaningful? Each cohort born will be exposed to some technology at a younger age than those born a few years before. There was a "Student Perspectives on IT and Education" forum at the IBAP conference and the teens who participated (from two different international schools in Singapore) admitted they marvel at how younger kids are utilizing technology at a younger age than they did, e.g., mobile phones. The term "digital natives" did not resonate with them, though they did gripe that many of their teachers were not as digitally fluent as they were. I much prefer the idea of a digital literacy or fluency continuum, regardless of age.

A focus on an age definition of "digital natives" (e.g., born after 1973 or whatever the current year-marker is) also ignores the very real economic digital divide. To speak sweepingly of a whole digital generation, when many children have yet to touch a digital device, is misleading.

Brain research is strongly linked to this concept of "digital natives" and "digital immigrants". I must go back and review the latest reports because almost every speaker (especially that stand-up comic/evangelist preacher Ian Jukes) made it sound like kids' brains have eternal neuro-plasticity while ours are hopelessly hardwired. I'm sure I've recently read about the window of neural-plasticity staying open (longer), e.g., that the elderly can even continue to build new neural pathways if they keep mentally fit (the old 'use-it or lost-it' saying). Anyway, something to look up later.

As I've mentioned Jukes, I also want to point out something that strikes me as odd about his blog. I've clicked on at least six different postings (see, for example, Video Games Focus on Exercising Brain and The Handwriting is on the Wall) and they appear to be his comments on an article, for which he provides a link at the bottom of the posting. BUT, when you go to the article, it's word-for-word the same as his posting. So he seems to be posting whole copies of article texts on his blog with no attribution (neither publication nor author) on the blog itself -- though he does provide a link to the article (which doesn't always work though -- e.g., several link to expired articles (Students use IM Lingo in Essays and Shoes Track Children Using GPS) and one posting appears to be an image so you can't actually click on the link (1867 Nanomachine Now Reality)). My impression of him was as an energetic re-packager of ideas (I had heard them all before from other sources) and his blog makes it look like he doesn't even do that very well.

Would we really let students copy an article on their blog without indicating that it was NOT their own words in the posting, even if they did provide a link at the end to the real article? Must review online ethical etiquette sometime...

More thoughts in separate postings...

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Scanning the literate lunatic aka genius fringe

Scanning is a common cognitive exercise I focus on as a teacher-librarian, but it's also something I do as a mental magpie, so I was interested to read about scanning in the context of futurist studies.

Yes, I'd read the OCLC's Environmental Scan (re the future of libraries) a few years back, so knew what one generally consisted of, but when I checked out Dr. Wendy Schultz's website (a result of reading her recent delightful offering in the OCLC newsletter re her vision of Library 4.0 as mind gym, idea lab, art salon, and knowledge spa), I was interested to find an essay on the concept of "common, or garden variety, environmental scans", as practiced/professed by futurists like Schultz.

Schultz has her students do what she calls "360 scanning" of anything touching on STEEP (social, technological, economic, ecological, and political) environments. They start by scanning an entire set of (hardcopy) periodicals in a library, no matter what field they are in (e.g., engineers are instructed to not overlook Women's Wear Daily or Art in America), looking for patterns of themes or topics relating to change and new innovations. Then they move onto online resources (and she provides a good list), again, across a wide range of interests.

This type of scanning outside one's forte is exactly what I think all those involved in education should always be doing.

I particularly like her recommendation: "Another strategy is identifying the websites of the literate lunatic fringe -- or genius fringe -- and monitoring their blogs (weblogs)."

Yes, checking out the edge is always interesting. So what websites qualify as the literate genius fringe in the field of teaching and librarianship?? A good basic list of cutting edge mavens in the field of educational technology is on edtechnot. For social software + political philosophy there's Ideant, the blog of Ulises Ali Mejias. In terms of "the book" and adventurous speculations about its future, I love if:book. Of course, for a good collection of geniuses, you can't do better than Edge: The Third Culture.

Must go through my blog list and see who else I would include... Maybe I should make a new category in Bloglines -- "Genius fringe"...

How can stories can save your life?

In my school library I put different quotes related to reading and books on shelfmarkers, hoping the kids will stop to read and think as they browse. Late Friday afternoon a 5th grade girl caught me as I was rushing from one task to another and said, "Did you make those shelfmarkers?" "Yes," I said and started to move away. "But, what about this one that says 'Stories can save your life'?" she continued, "How can that be true?" I stopped. My brain was really on something else and I searched for the simplest answer. "Well, of course they can. Maybe you read a novel about survival and you learn something that later helps you survive. And think of all the non-fiction books that have important information in them." The look on her face told me she wasn't completely convinced, but I moved on, even though I knew I hadn't handled the moment well at all.

Then today I happened to read Judith Ridge's article in the March 2006 issue of the Horn Book on the books of Boori Monti Pryor, an Aboriginal, and his white partner, Meme McDonald, in which the power of that quote in the context of Aboriginal storytelling was addressed.
It’s a fascinating concept of story — that what is most powerful lies in what cannot be said. The experience made Meme realize that “stories are our lifeblood — they instruct us how to live and how to be and what visions to hold true. They’re fundamental to the happiness of our lives, so they’re very precious. So in that sense, I think if you start to regard stories as an absolute essential of life, rather than a distraction from life, then how you evolve them and in what context, what respect you have for the source of that story, becomes very important whatever culture you come from.”

The point of all of this, of course, is that this new — or, rather, most ancient — way of creating stories isn’t just an issue for Aboriginal people. In fact, it’s not even just about story — it’s about life and culture and creating a society based on principles of respect and collaboration.

As for the quote, "Stories can save your life", one frequently cited source for it is Tim O'Brien's book "The Things They Carried", though of course Sharhazad in "1001 Arabian Nights" is the best example, as Susan Fletcher discusses on her website in connection with her book "Shadow Spinner".

I can't wait to get back to school and find that girl again. I need to talk to her...

Holons, or Organic Education...

Having just read Michael Pollan's "The Omnivore's Dilemma" (see previous post), I can't help but think about how the comparison between the industrialized food production cycle and the nature/organic/localized one can be made re education, especially in the US at the moment.

The industrial model pursues efficiency via standardization and (over) simplification, while in natural systems efficiencies flow from complexity and interdependence.

Pollan cited one 'beyond organic' farmer who described how he stacked enterprises, layering diverse and interdependent activities on one piece of land. The farmer called each of his stacked enterprises a "holon", a word (Pollan explains) originating with Arthur Koestler and meaning an entity that is both self-contained and a dependent part of a bigger system.

For example, one holon on his farm is to have cows graze a new pasture every day, with another holon being to have chickens feed in that same field three days later in order to eat the larvae just hatched in the cowpats. The farmer described himself as the orchestra conductor, "making sure everybody's in the right place at the right time".

I'd like to think of the school library as a holon -- just as every primary school classroom and the other specialist lessons are holons -- each self-contained and yet part of an interrelated system, with collaboration and communication between teachers and teacher-librarians necessary to make sure that the flow of intellectual nutrition is gathered at exactly the best moment.

So who's the orchestra conductor? The curriculum coordinator? Better yet, the teacher-librarian...

The Omnivore's Dilemma as Inquiry-Based Learning

"What should we have for dinner?" is the essential question driving Michael Pollan in his latest book, The Ominvore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. His narrative of how he explores that question is an excellent model of inquiry-based learning -- in adults, in the real world, on a topic that definitely addresses the big 'so what?' criterium.

Did you know that food production burns almost 1/5 of the petroleum consumed in the US? Just as much as cars consume... "And how could it come to pass that a fast-food burger produced from corn and fossil actually costs less than a burger produced from grass and sunlight?" By the way, his website provides access to all of his articles over the years, many of which contain ideas pulled together in this book.

I would love to see such a book re-written for upper primary and middle school students (much like Eric Schlosser took his Fast Food Nation and re-wrote it as Chew on This with Charles Wilson -- not to mention the movie just coming out).

Pollan tunes in, finds out, sorts out, goes further, make conclusions, takes action, and then shares and reflects -- in continual loops (to use Kath Murdoch's model of inquiry -- though any one could be used, e.g., the Big6, PLUS, etc.) -- about food chains, a topic included in many curricula.

Having kids see that adults get excited about big questions and pursue them is so important. Unfortunately, I haven't seen all that many primary school teachers who are committed to inquiry projects of their own -- or perhaps I should say I haven't seen many teachers share their outside passions within the school. Perhaps in my new school come August I'll provide display space in the library for teachers to do just that -- share their reading interests and personal ongoing inquiries.