Tag Archives: teaching with technology

Riding the Bus: a Path to Greater Diversity in Schooling Options


Recently, I was in San Francisco for the Learning and the Brain technology conference. While there, there was an accident involving Bart trains at the West Oakland station. Hundreds of people crowded the Powell street Bart station, eager to find a way across the bay. Finally, a train arrived heading toward Dublin. People crammed into the train, looking like pictures of train stations in Japan. I could smell the wool of the woman standing next to me’s jacket. We were close. The train moved two stations, to Embarcadero where the powers that be decided that the train was going back to where it came from. Everyone had to get off of the train. The problem was, though, that the Embarcadero station was crammed full of people. There was hardly enough room to squeeze off of the train. The roar of people made it nearly impossible to hear the announcements about what was happening. There was mass confusion and little progress.

Thankfully, I called my sister, who lives in the Bay Area, and she said I could hop on a bus four blocks from there. I was one of the first twenty people to leave the station and one of the first four or five to climb the stairs of the nearly empty bus. We were in Oakland within a block of our destination in twenty minutes. Every single person on the bus was exceptionally nice, helping others to find seats, locate their cars, call loved ones, figure out directions, make change, and pay fairs. Meanwhile, hundreds of people sat and waited in the crowded subway stations for upwards of an hour before boarding trains. We had breathing room, a happy, rather than frustrated, community, and arrived at our destinations instead of just going back and forth.

To me, this story is allegorical of the current educational situation. Many schools are on a path that seems to be “the better path,” the same way that most passengers would prefer to ride on trains than on buses, which are older and sturdier, but also slower and more individualized. The giant factory high school with lecture-based and content-driven classrooms moves quickly through the stages of education. It is educating the masses in a way that factories have shown is very successful at mass production. The problem is, our students, children and teens, are not products and are, for the most part, not entering a future that involves working in factories like those of the 1880s for which schools prepare them.

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Filed under Essays

An Achievable Model Classroom


This piece was written in response to a Slate Magazine contest in which readers were encouraged to enter their ideas a for a model classroom.

The success of a classroom has a lot less to do with the objects that are in it than with the people, but arrangements and teaching/learning aides can make a significant impact. For instance, I taught in a public high school for a year. My classroom was long and narrow with the board on a narrow end. When I had twenty-eight students, kids had to sit in the back row, which was about twenty-two feet from the board. I couldn’t arrange the desks in a “U” or a circle because of how many desks there were. Just the size and shape of the room were limits to the effectiveness of my teaching. Based on my experience at that public school plus my four years of teaching in private schools, I have designed the following model classroom.

Layout: The room should be a 20’X20’ square. There is no teacher’s desk. There are thirteen of these desk/chairs and thirteen bean bag chairs. (The Great Books Foundation recommends that, in order to be effective and all members to equally participate, there be no more than 12 participants in a discussion. Those twelve students plus the teacher make 13.) Sometimes these are arranged in a circle, for discussion, sometimes they are pushed to the walls, so students can be up and moving around in the empty space in the classroom. Sometimes, they are in rows, so the students can best see an area of interest. It is important that the chairs be comfortable because learning is hard work, and being comfortable can make participating in hard work more enjoyable. Also, students’ backs shouldn’t need to suffer from poor chairs. While I personally love carpet, this is to be an all-subject classroom, so it needs to have a floor that is very easy to clean. As such, it would be best if it were patterned concrete. This wood design would give the classroom a homey feel, but also be incredibly easy to clean.

One of the walls will have slim bookcases built into it. On these bookcases, each student will have a shelf. There, they will keep a small journal, any books they are currently reading, any necessary texts for the class, and resources they have found useful to their reading, writing, math, and science. The remaining shelves will hold free-reading books and teacher suggested resources. Another wall will be covered with cork board. Each student will have a spot to display his/her work. In addition, the teacher will have a spot to display his/her work and information that will be helpful to the students. The remaining two walls will be painted with idea paint, a new product that turns walls into white boards. It is better to use paint than actually have a white board because a) the paint can cover the entire wall and b) the walls can be repainted when the white board becomes un-writable because of all of the smudges from past work.

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The False Promise of Technology


This piece was written in response to a Slate Magazine contest in which readers were encouraged to enter their ideas a for a model classroom.

Technology is amazing, hey? The fact that you’re reading this blog right now is nothing short of amazing. How many new tweets/blog posts/Facebook status updates have been projectile vomited into cyberspace in the short time it has taken you to read these three sentences? It’s like that scene in Stand By Me when Lard Ass Hogan barfs on four-time pie-eating champion, Bill Travis, and then “Bossman” Bob Cormier barfs on Principal Wiggins, and then Principal Wiggins barfs on a lumberjack, and then everybody starts barfing on each other all the way up to the Women’s Auxiliary barfing on the Benevolent Order of Antelopes. Which is all just to say—amazing!

No doubt about it—technology has revolutionized our world. Google is our collective hippocampus (how ironic that I just Google fact-checked that), and wireless broadband our neurons and axons.

But when it comes to school innovation, technology is a crutch. This isn’t to say that it isn’t good, or that it shouldn’t be a part of school innovation, but that too often it enables laziness on the part of school leaders. Rather than do the hard work of thinking about what will really make our students the kind of people we want to inherit the earth (or improve their test scores, if that’s your thing), we compensate for our lack of ideas by bowing before the altar of technology. Got a spare 100K? Build a new Mac lab, by God! Smart Boards in every classroom! Surgically implanted grammar chips!

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Filed under Essays

TV Hat to the Rescue!

Instead of putting a smart screen in every classroom, why not give every student one of these?

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Filed under Uncategorized

The Teacher, Revised Mixed Bag


A godsend of a day off here in Hayward finds me messing around on the Internet (of course). Here are the five best things I found:

1. An interactive feature in the NY Times where you can quantify the diversity of your school district and see how it compares to other districts in your county, state, etc. For four years I’ve been spouting off about the diversity of Hayward Unified and apparently it’s only the 14th most diverse district in Alameda County (which, by the way, is the 3rd most diverse county in the country). Also, it shows trends in demographics over the last 15-20 years: http://projects.nytimes.com/immigration/enrollment

2. A short video about progressive education in the 1940’s. Too bad standardized testing got in the way between then and now:

3. A Florida first grader is committed to a mental institution after a temper tantrum. Check the ridiculously long and detailed police report: http://www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/years/2010/0212102haley1.html

4. An article and video about the discrepancy between the way students use technology and the way it’s used in the classroom: http://www.edweek.org/dd/articles/2010/02/03/02kids.h03.html

5. A beautifully done audio slideshow about a student at Bronx Lab School in New York. Joshua’s story is exemplary of the complex and tenuous relationship many urban teens have with education. If you’re an urban teacher, you have to watch this one: http://www.nytimes.com/packages/html/nyregion/1-in-8-million/index.html#/joshua_febres

Happy President’s Day Weekend, y’all!



Filed under In The News

Keep On Bloggin’ In The Free World: The blog as instructional tool


I think I actually said this a year ago: “I would sooner take a shower with a rabid squirrel than stoop to blogging.” 

And after I said it, I snarled.

As for incorporating blogging into one of my classes… forget about it. What’s next, teaching my students to tweet? Where’s the educational value in that?

Yet here I am, one year later, happily sending my own musings into the blogosphere like so many red balloons. What’s more, my students have blogs. And I couldn’t be happier about it. Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.

Here’s why I think your students should have blogs too.

Don’t worry. I don’t think teachers must utilize technology in order to be good—even in this digital age. To appropriate a popular phrase: SMART Boards don’t teach students, teachers teach students.

But I do think there’s something to this blogging thing.

For one, students like it. Simple as that. They like it. As much as I may try to come up with fun/creative/relevant activities, it’s a rare assignment that transcends the damning ‘schoolwork’ label.  Miraculously, blogs approach those rarefied heights.

I can’t explain it really. Maybe it’s because blogging is MySpace’s slightly more respectable older sister, and therefore gets cool points for being in the same family. Or maybe it’s because, like a locker or a bedroom or car, they can personalize it. They can infuse it with their own identity, their own sense of style, their own 24 inch chrome rims.

To give you an example, here’s a screenshot from one student’s blog.


And get this—I didn’t even assign that entry. He just did it.

Which brings me to my most compelling argument for blogging as an instructional tool. Continue reading


Filed under Classroom Reflections