Thursday, October 4, 2012


I really enjoyed the webinar on NoRedInk, the website that offers engaging, effective grammar activities for teachers and students. Created by English teacher Jeff Scheur, a U of M alum, the website takes grammar practice out of the realm of the mundane. One of the cleverest things about it, I think, is that the activities are tailored to individual students' interests. They can plug in the music, books, or movies they like - they can even list Facebook friends - and the website will generate sentences about this subject matter. The sentences will contain errors, and it is the students' job to correct them in a fun, interactive way, by moving around words and punctuation marks on the screen.

One thing Jeff pointed out is that by using this site with their classes, teachers can easily differentiate instruction - they can choose to assign certain quizzes only to those who really need them, for example. This makes me think about the power of technology, in general, to help us meet the varied needs of our students. Technology has brought an incredible amount of personalization to the work we do and the activities we engage in, and teachers can take full advantage of this.

I was heartened to hear what Jeff had to say about "autograding." Someone in the webinar raised the concern that technology would ultimately take over grading entirely - that all essays would one day be graded by machines. Jeff pointed out that we write not just for a grade, but "for an audience," and it's vital that teachers maintain the personal connection to students that comes from actively engaging with their writing. Sites like NoRedInk, he argues, allow teachers to deal with some of students' lower-level errors more quickly, so that they have more time to spend on higher-level thinking.

It's inspiring to see all of the ways that technology is reshaping education, and I am particularly gratified to see former U of M students doing such innovative things in their field!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Farewell, 504

Last meeting of 504 for the summer term! Although it's been less than two months since we started, I feel like we've covered a whole lot that will be very useful to us starting in the fall. We've already learned about several technological tools that can improve our teaching, and we've read fascinating articles/blogs by some really cool, tech-savvy people. I want to thank Jeff and Kristin for their patience, expertise and positive energy- I've really enjoyed this course.

I thought that bringing back a panel of former MAC students was a fantastic way to end the class. I was struck by how capable, knowledgeable and professional they all seemed- it was really inspiring. Also, it was amazing to hear about the diverse environments these teachers ended up in, from a suburban prep school to an inner-city academy for pregnant and parenting teens. It's just so wonderful to know that MAC-ers are making a difference in so many ways. I'm getting all gushy. But it was really, really great to have them visit.

One of the issues we discussed with the panel was how to adjust our teaching for the digital age. We asked ourselves: in a time when students can look up any fact at the touch of a button, is factual knowledge still important to instill? We've learned from authors like Daniel Willingham and Anderson & Krathwohl that factual knowledge is essential because it provides a foundation for higher-order thinking processes. I really like what one of the presenters said, though, about how she feels about teaching historical dates. Rather than expecting her students to know that a certain event happened on January 14, 1682 (for example), she encourages them to develop a sense of chronology. It's less important to remember exact dates than to remember events in a relational sequence. That really makes sense to me.

Anyway, I thought the last class of the term was really rewarding, as the rest of the class has been. Thanks again to our professors! See you all in the fall.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Kindle Angst

So far, I've resisted the digital reading phenomenon. When the Kindle first came out, I was... maybe "horrified" is an overstatement, but I was pretty unsettled. The sensory experience of reading was so precious- how could anyone trade that in for a little gray screen? Who would want to curl up in front of the fire with an electronic device? Would I live to see the death of libraries??

Lately, though, I've started to come around to the idea that digital reading might not be so bad- at least in certain circumstances. On her blog The Unquiet Librarian, Buffy Hamilton addresses this in a post entitled "Sometimes I Need to Read the Print Version: When the eBook Doesn't Evoke the Same Reading Experience." In this post, she reflects on her own experience with both digital and traditional reading, pointing out that she prefers one or the other depending on the type of reading she's doing. For example, she likes reading "fluffy" or "light" material on an e-reader. "Not only do I seem to concentrate better on these types of texts in digital format," she writes, "but I also seem to read more quickly." She goes on to say that with nonfiction, she switches back and forth between printed and digital texts. She prefers print, though, when it comes to re-reading her favorite novels - she explains that this is probably because of "the sensory experiences... associated with previous readings."

As strange as it sounds, it had never occurred to me that someone might choose to read digital text for one genre and print for another. I had always seen this as a black-and-white issue - either you were on board with electronic reading or you weren't, and I had decided I wasn't. I was going to be the defender of bound volumes of paper with words on them, and I wasn't going to give in to this electronic silliness. But if enough of us feel the way Ms. Hamilton does, maybe there isn't a need to "defend" printed books against the likes of the Kindle. Maybe there is, and will continue to be, room for both. A while back, my brother's fiancée (an avid reader and soon-to-be elementary school teacher) explained to me how she had finally given in and bought a Kindle, in spite of initial reservations. "You really do get lost in it," I remember her saying, "just like in a real book." And I guess that's what matters- the experience that happens in your head, not in your hands.

It will be interesting to see how my future students feel about digital vs. printed texts. Over the past few weeks, I've gotten myself totally acclimated to doing my school readings digitally- I love being able to highlight and annotate using my keyboard, and I find that I'm much more efficient that way. I imagine that's the kind of reading many of my future students will grow up with. But I hope there will always be a place for the tangible kind of book, too.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Diigo and Dropbox and Skype, oh my!

I really liked the format of today's class. As preparation for class, we each had to prepare a "how-to" handout for one of four technological tools: Evernote, Diigo, Dropbox, and Skype. We then spent most of class in small groups, teaching our peers about the tool we had studied and learning about the other three. I thought this was a great way to cover a large amount of information in a short amount of time.

The site I studied was Although I hadn't heard of it before this course, I think I will use it in the future. It's a great way to save bookmarks online so that you can access them anywhere, not just on your home computer. It also makes it easy to highlight and annotate online articles. Since so much of the material we read in this program is electronic, I think it will be really useful to have a way to store our highlighted material and notes online. One advantage of tools like this is that they make us less likely to print out online articles just so we can make notes on them. By doing it online, we conserve resources.

I really enjoyed my classmates' presentation of their tools, as well. Although I had already been a pretty regular Skype user, Colleen M. made me aware of some really interesting features I hadn't known about. One example was the "Skype in the Classroom" tool at This feature provides a way for teachers to connect with experts in their field. Stephen, who researched Dropbox, gave us a great explanation of how we can share files and sync folders with our classmates using that program. Kathlyen explained Evernote, which is a really cool way to organize notes and save "clippings" like images and text from the web.

I thought that the small-group presentation format was really effective. It gave us a thorough overview of several different tools that will be helpful for us throughout the MAC program and, ultimately, in our teaching careers.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Class at the Duderstadt Center

In spite of the nagging fear that my car was going to be towed because I'd parked illegally, I really enjoyed Friday's class. We started off the session with an exercise in "decoding," in which we attempted to translate a series of fairly well-known symbols into a verbal narrative. I noticed that this exercise made me feel sort of mentally sluggish- even though I recognized most of the symbols (stick figures, airplanes, "no smoking" signs), it made my brain hurt to try to string them into coherent sentences. It was interesting, though, to hear about the different strategies my classmates used to derive meaning from the series of symbols, and to note that we were all eventually able to understand this unusual "language".

I also really enjoyed the presentation of former MAC student Tom Ward, who explained how he incorporated the Angry Birds game into his math class. I thought that was a really creative idea, and I was impressed by his willingness to be flexible enough to set aside an entire day to playing a real-life version of the game. He mentioned part of the reason his school was supportive of this was that it was an "independent" school, and thus it did not have to focus so rigidly on meeting imposed learning standards. There was freedom to explore since, as Tom put it, it was "not imperative that students learn parametric equations that day". Something to think about as we decide what kind of environment we'd ultimately like to teach in.

In the last part of class, we focused on setting up individual "teaching portfolio" websites on Weebly. I was really glad to be introduced to this site- I loved all the templates that were available and the user-friendliness of the features. I didn't know it could be so simple to set up a website, and I'm excited to have a space in which I can share the work that I do throughout the year. 

All in all, a very interesting and productive class. (And my car was still there when I got back. Yay!)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Virtual Insanity

"We're witnessing what amounts to no less than a mass exodus to virtual worlds and online game environments." -Edward Castronova

Yikes. I had a really hard time with the TED talk assigned for Friday's class. Although I appreciate Jane McGonigal's enthusiasm and her desire to use gaming skills to solve real-life problems, I really can't accept that what we need in the world is more gaming. I keep thinking about the picture she showed of the boy with the "epic win" face. According to McGonigal, that face represented the kind of deep concentration and optimism we should all aspire to. All I saw, though, was a pale teenaged boy sitting by himself in the dark, the picture of loneliness. I think there's a real danger in advocating that we devote more of our time to playing video games. Although technology does offer us novel ways to connect to other people, I think we're fundamentally more isolated than ever before. I have these horrible visions of a dystopian future in which everyone just "plugs in" and lives an entirely virtual life. The more realistic video games become, the more I worry that it would be all too easy to slip into a future like that. 

So the TED talk got me pretty anxious. I started breathing normally again, though, toward the end of the video, when McGonigal explained that while the increase in gaming was "rational for now," the ultimate goal was to take what we've learned from gaming and use it to enrich the real world. (I also dug the Herodotus story.) I can understand the point that was made in the TED talk, as well as in the Gee article, that we can learn something from games in terms of how to create stimulating learning environments. I liked Gee's phrase "pleasantly frustrating"- this relates to what we've been learning in our 606 class about the "zone of proximal development," where learning is challenging but not impossible. When we tackle a problem in that "sweet spot" of difficulty, we really enjoy it, and it doesn't feel like drudgery. I think that is a great thing to keep in mind as we prepare to become teachers.

I'd like to hear our professors' take on the relationship between video games and learning, and I'm hoping to learn more about the online portfolios discussed in the Niguidula article. I'm interested to see what kind of discussion arises in Friday's class- it should be a good one.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Soda Ban- the Remix

I went into Friday's class with some trepidation. It would be a double session- 6 hours of one class- after a pretty exhausting week, and I'd been told that we would be working in groups to discuss how to incorporate the NYC soda ban into a lesson within our respective disciplines. I had thought a bit, while writing my last post, about how to work the ban into a French class, but I wasn't entirely confident that I had enough to build on- trying to plan a French lesson around soda had felt sort of awkward and forced. (And I'm betting our professors expected that result- I'm sure they understand the merits of making their students a little uncomfortable at times!)

When we were assigned to our groups, though, I discovered that I'd been put with the English majors (English is my minor). Honestly, I was a little relieved. I thought that the discipline of English would lend itself fairly easily to a lesson on the soda ban, since it incorporates broad and flexible topics like oral and written communication. (French involves communication too, of course, but before a certain level, it's difficult to get students to discuss complex ideas like the ones brought forth by the soda ban.) When we started our small-group discussion, though, it turned out to be more complicated than I'd imagined. All of my group members had come prepared with really interesting ideas, but we initially had trouble narrowing our focus for the purposes of constructing one specific lesson. Another complication was presented by our varying perceptions about the assignment itself. Kristin had started out the day by explaining that the process, rather than the product, would be the focus of this exercise; still, we had trouble letting go of the idea that we had to create something solid, something that we could present in a formal way.

Those complications aside, however, we had a really interesting discussion. We ultimately came up with the sketch of a lesson that would incorporate research as well as oral and written communication skills. The first thing we would do is ask our students to find articles related to the soda ban, encouraging them to consider bias and the credibility of the source. Then we would arrange interviews, to be conducted via Skype or Google+, with people having varying perspectives on the soda ban (a street vendor, an intern at Mayor Bloomberg's office, an FDA representative, etc.). Finally, we would have students write "letters to the editor" about the soda ban; these letters would be posted on a blog or wiki page so that other students could respond to them.

It was interesting to talk about the ways we could incorporate technology in our classroom, and the media specialist we worked with was a big help. She encouraged discussion of when technology might or might not be appropriate in the classroom, informing us of several helpful resources (including, a really cool blog about integrating teaching and technology).

All in all, I think the work we did in our groups was really beneficial- and it gave us a glimpse of what it will be like for us in the field, when we're planning with our fellow teachers.

And in the end, the double session I'd been so daunted by actually went by pretty quickly- it didn't hurt that we got to play around with podcasting for a couple of hours in the afternoon!