Monthly Archives: January 2010

The Quest for a Quiet Mind

Its fourth period, about 10:45 in the morning. I have been at school for about three and a half hours and taught three classes. I ease into my desk chair as the last of my students file out of the room and into the hallway, with a mind for being as productive as possible in the 40 minutes I have without students. I no sooner uncap my trusty pen to begin marking, when my email alert chimes and I begin to read it. As I begin to read the email that has come in while I was teaching, Tweetdeck conveniently alerts me to a new batch of tweets from the people I follow. It turns out that there are some really interesting links in those tweets, which of course I click.

You get the idea. Soon, the plans that I had for the period have gone by the wayside and students are once again pouring into the room.

Certainly the positive and detrimental effects of multi-tasking have been discussed, and there is no doubt that in this case my productivity has been diminished. But today I made an observation about myself that I found alarming: its not just that I can’t just do one thing at a time any more, I can’t even just think of one thing at a time any more. Lately I have been catching myself checking email or Twitter while I am playing with my two year old son. I frequently will have multiple applications running on my laptop while I am watching the television. What’s worse is that even if I am not actually doing something else, I am thinking of doing something else. This issue reached a tipping point for me today when I caught my mind wandering to a future presentation while a student was delivering a speech in my class.

What happened to the quiet mind?

Something has changed in my mind, and I would be willing to bet that this is happening to others. I was once able to focus on a novel deeply enough to become completely immersed in it for hours. I have a distinct memory of reading Thomas Harris’ Hannibal in eighteen hours, stopping only for emergencies. Now I feel anxious after thirty minutes, wondering if there is something else that I should be doing, or my mind wanders to a blog post or website that I have recently seen. What does this have to do with education you might ask? Well, I am 34 years old. The Internet was not a truly viable thing until I was a sophomore in college, and this has happened to my mind. My students have never experienced a world without it, will they ever know a quiet mind? But maybe because this is all they know they don’t miss it like I do. How can this knowledge affect my teaching? Are there certain techniques that I can use and that I can teach my students to help with focus? Or perhaps it is me that needs to learn to cope with a mind filled with storms, and learn to effectively multi-task.

There are some software solutions out there to help you to concentrate on single tasks, here are a few highlights. All of these programs are for the Mac, sorry Windows readers.

  • WriteRoom ($24.95): WriteRoom is a word processor that blacks out everything else on your computer screen. More than that, it only types. It won’t add borders or images, it is minimalist in the best way possible.
  • Think (free): Think is similiar to WriteRoom in the sense that it blacks out what you are not working on, but it is not quite so single minded. While it is running, Think will highlight your current application but other applications are still allowed to intrude. Also, unlike WriteRoom it does not eliminate distractions that occur within the application.
  • Concentrate ($29.00): Perhaps the most intense software of the bunch, Concentrate will force you to concentrate by setting time limits, and blocking distractions (set by you). You may also launch applications or webpages from the software if you need them to accomplish a particular task.

Although these programs offer excellent support, the essential question still remains: will any of these things quiet my mind?

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Teachers: Go Back to School, In Your Own Building!

In this golden age of global communication and collaboration I sometimes forget that I teach in a very small district (except of course during gloomy budget meetings), with really great people. On Friday I did something that I have been meaning to do for a long time, but have continued to put off for one reason or another, I attended a class right in my own building. During my planning period I asked if I could sit in on a class that my neighbor, Mr. Sherwood was teaching about economics. Mr. Sherwood was very hospitable and enthusiastic about me sitting in and immediately the students took notice of my presence. It was great for me to see different content and teaching styles. This experience was so positive that I plan to attend at least on class per week if my fellow teachers will allow me to. I will even do the coursework when I can. Maybe I will learn even more than I intended to.

Here are the benefits as I see them:

  • You get to see what other teachers are teaching, and how they are teaching it.
  • You get to build closer relationships with your colleagues.
  • You can help your colleagues by offering possible technologies they could integrate.
  • You model lifelong learning for students.

Here are some possible pratfalls to avoid:

  • Don’t over participate. After all the students are there for a grade. Contribute to the lesson when it is appropriate.
  • Be careful about offering too much advice to colleagues. Here is where you are going to have to feel the situation out. The real purpose here is to build better relationships with your fellow teachers, not to make them do it your way.

Be sure to thank whoever it was that let you participate, and then follow up with them at another time, and then don’t look now but you are talking about pedagogy. So I challenge each of you to try to do the same. If you have already done this, or if you plan to please share your experiences.

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Maybe We Need to Cut Our Administrators Some Slack

Almost enough for that 1:1 project

I often bemoan, if not openly criticize the seeming slowness with which administrators are leading (or not leading) the charge to transform our schools. From my perspective as a teacher, they are an easy target, having voluntarily placed themselves squarely in the bull’s-eye after all. But just the other day I had a conversation with my superintendent that gave me pause. My superintendent has been holding small, informational meetings outlining the status of our district within the current New York State budget crisis. He explains how New York has filled budget holes with federal funding that will expire in another year, and that when that funding is gone our district will have nearly a half a million dollar hole of their own to fill. He continues to outline the choices the district (he) will have to make if the governor follows through on his threat to withhold promised funds for the spring. These choices include whether or not we can afford to have any spring athletics at our school, and whether it would be better to cut two assistants back to half time positions, or to cut one completely. In a district of this size these are people we know, who’s kids are friends with our kids.

When the meeting concludes I hang back for a moment as I usually do to chat about the status of technology in the district. He asks me how things are going and about the progress of a couple of projects that are going on. As I am about to leave I say half jokingly: “Is this a bad time to bring up my 1:1 laptop program idea?” He grins and I follow up with: “What is your opinion about these programs?” He says in my aha moment of the day: “I haven’t.” Then he points back to the pie chart projected on the screen, that spells a possible doom despite its pastel colors.

It was only later upon reflection that I realized the gravity of that instant. How can we expect our administrators to be thinking about whether or not our students are learning 21st century skills when they are trying to figure out how to pay for heat? My Superintendent used to be a teacher, and from the little I know a good one. I know that he would rather be talking about these intellectual ideas with me but he just can’t when the futures of people we know hang so precariously on every decision he makes. Until the day that public schools are funded in a more equitable way situations like this one will continue to exist. Administrators, especially in small schools will be too preoccupied with counting beans to look much beyond the following year. So consider giving your administrators some slack. I know I’m going to.

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Interactive White Boards: Engagement Is Not Interaction

What are the other two kids doing?

Summer break has ended; you are feeling refreshed and renewed, ready to tackle the New Year and all of its new challenges. You enter your room after your morning meeting to discover an interactive whiteboard (IWB) hung neatly in the front of the room where your white board used to be. The district is involved in a grant to integrate technology into the classroom.

Immediately your mind begins to whir: “think of all I can do with this.”

Move forward in time to January and the IWB hangs there, appearing slightly tarnished. Oh sure, you begin your lessons with it, posting critical thinking questions for the students to ponder, and indeed they gaze at it longingly each day. You show them interesting things like sweet websites, or educational games. You have kids come up to the IWB to make sentence corrections or review for a quiz, you circle important parts of maps, or cells under a microscope, students move pictures around like the parts of the puzzle.

But somewhere something is eating at you, and you realize that your class hasn’t really changed all that much.

Last night #edchat returned to Twitter with a warrior’s cry as hundreds of educators from all corners of the globe debated whether or not IWBs were interactive. The debate spanned the gamut, from the perpetual class war that exists in public schooling to the very nature of interactivity. Many of my colleagues argued passionately against me, and my stance that IWBs were not interactive.

Here is where I stand.

  • IWBs are a great tool, but they are a traditional tool. Make no mistake; there is nothing revolutionary about what an IWB does for your instruction. IWB simply enforce the antiquated notions in education that have always existed, of one or few acting while the rest react.
  • IWBs are a good tool to get student engagement (which we all know is fleeting), but they are not interactive! Even the best technology will only allow two points of contact upon the board at a time. What are the rest of the students doing while one or two interact with the IWB. This is where my #edchat colleagues argued that the other students were brainstorming or doing other activities while one or two were using the IWB, and I reply loudly – then what do you need the IWB for?
  • In these times where public schools are crunched for money I would argue that an IWB is the last thing that districts should buy. Although they are something that is easy to take a picture of and put in the paper, they are not revolutionary. If anything they are holding us back.
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