Thursday, June 24, 2010

Thoughts and a question


My apologies for not blogging as much this year as in years' past. Much of that had to do with a very tough set of classes this year, including one which I felt very unqualified to teach. I was definitely out of my comfort zone for September and October. The addition of a wonderful Special Ed. teacher into the class helped in so many ways it would take an entire blog post just to detail them. Suffice it to say he taught me much and I am a better teacher for the challenge.

That said, this has been a year of technological growth for me in several areas. While cell-phones and all electronic devices are still banned from the classroom (despite my pleas to the contrary), a technology more trusted by the administrators has been established in my classroom: a SmartBoard!

I'd been asking for this particular type of technology for over a decade, so when the district finally bought into it and purchased/leased several, I hoped to be one of the early adopters (can you call someone an "early adopter" when the technology is so old?). I got my board in April and couldn't wait to make it do tricks.

What I'm finding, however, is that it isn't nearly as student-interactive as I'd like it to be at the high school level. We need to get the software onto student computers so they can create cool presentations, too. While it can do a few more fun things than I could do with my tablet and the projector, it's seeming to be a case of too-late-technology arriving after more spectacular changes have taken place (have you seen Prezi?)


Has anyone else noticed a new phenomena when it comes to technology and schools? I had several students this year who had either Smartphones or had a satellite uplink for their laptops. They didn't need to worry about our 'Net blocker -- they simply ignored it on their way to the Internet Superhighway. I have said for years that we need to teach responsible use -- that banning electronic, hand-held devices in the classroom only sends the kids' use underground -- and we can't teach them there. How are schools going to regulate these devices -- and should they?

Till later,

Friday, May 28, 2010

Web Resources

On June 7th I'm presenting Second Life to a group of folks from districts all over our BOCES area. As part of that presentation, I want to direct them to some websites. So for all of you from the workshop, here you go!

Daden white papers -- Daden is a research company that has done several studies on the use of virtual world by various populations. This is the paper I talked about at the workshop (Or I hope I will, I'm writing this before I actually give the workshop!)

Virtual World News -- a blog directed primarily toward IT professionals on what's new in the various virtual worlds

Second Life's homepage -- a great place to explore, an easy place to get lost in...

Second Life wiki -- SL's official wiki, where you can get all your questions answered. And if the answer isn't there, there's a spot to ask the question.

The State of Play -- this is the book I referred to at the start of the presentation. My students each took a chapter; chose three quotes from the text and held a discussion with the class based on those three major points.

Virtual Worlds Wiki -- this is the wiki I use with my class. Come on over and take a look. Just remember, this is primarily student-written and developed. Under the Resources link on the first page you will find student-centered resources; under the Articles link you'll find articles I've required them to read and discuss in their journals.

Second Life can find in Niche Virtual World Events -- article detailing how SL still has a place among other, growing, virtual worlds (the statistic about the number of schools using SL came from this article).

PowerPoint slides from the presentation -- If you'd like to refer to any of the slides I showed during the presentation, here they be!

To those of you joining me for the first time, welcome! Hope the above links prove useful :).


Monday, May 24, 2010

The Year in Review

The Virtual Worlds course began its second year in September with 17 students. Because our islands were all set up from last year and our administrator had a year's worth of experience under her belt, the kids were able to get inworld the second week of class instead of the third month of school. We spent only about a month on the task list since I had four returning students. They acted as mentors for the newbies which meant instead of just me teaching, they took over. Wonderful!

We also created our own Burning Life exhibit this year. I shared with them the concepts of the Burning Man festival and when SL held Burning Life, we did, too. There were some great creations. You can view pictures here!

One of the best pieces we did came from an administrative snafu here at the high school. I had ordered two dozen copies of The State of Play; Law, Games and Virtual Worlds, edited by Jack M. Balkin and Beth Simone Noveck. When the books weren't in two weeks after school started, I investigated and discovered the paperwork had never been sent. The books were never ordered. It was time to fall back ten yards and punt.

There are seventeen chapters in the book, each one written by a different expert, each one exploring a different aspect of the law as it applies to virtual worlds. I assigned each student a chapter and then we round-robined the book for the next seventeen weeks. Each kid read his/her chapter, chose three quotes from the chapter that held important concepts and then we held discussions each Friday about the chapter of the week. I am SO glad the office goofed up! This worked beautifully and I'm adding it to my teaching toolkit. When the kids can teach each other, it becomes SOOOO much better.

Our Civil War build came next and this was decidedly mixed in the kid's eyes. They all seemed enthusiastic at first; we chose the Battle of New Market because it's a little-known battle and "would give a greater opportunity to teach other students who came inworld" (their words). It required a great deal of research and I found their research skills to be abysmal. Hence it took a lot longer to get the information than any of us thought it would. Once the building commenced, some finished their tasks in a week, others took nearly four to get their projects done. I'm not entirely happy with the result. This group never came together as last year's class did.

And now they're bored. We're alone in world and frankly, they're tired of each other's company. We really need other schools to come in and be with us. Unfortunately, because of staff cuts, this class is in jeopardy and may not fly next year. I'm thinking of offering an after-school option just to keep our hand in until budgets get back on track. To alleviate some of the boredom, we're planning an end-of-the-year showcase of the things they've created in the past month. One student created a stage, another has made a scavanger hunt of roses, a third created "Poe's Corner" in the library featuring the works of E.A. Poe. Two other students have created several dresses; one of them has begun work on creating hair. The rest of the seventeen are totally disinterested, unfortunately.

So that's the year in a nutshell. Personally, this was the roughest start to the school year I've had since my first year of teaching, and probably accounts for the lack of posts. My teaching assignment included a class I've never taught before with students who have emotional and learning handicaps. Let's just say that one class has taken up most of my planning time this year and leave it at that. Next year will be better. It has to be!

Take care,

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Go paperless for Earth Day!

Been meaning to do this for a while, but finally did it today. If you don't follow this blog, you should. Shelly is an active advocate for teaching with technology and has some wonderful ideas. This year, he's encouraging teachers to go paperless for Earth Day. You can sign up to take the pledge here.

For the record, I'm an English teacher by certification and by assignment. I teach a LOT of literature to students. I also help them develop language skills in both expression and decoding. Paper, in the past, was a HUGE part of my job.

Notice I say, in the past. Since I've discovered wikis, life has become so much less cluttered. It wasn't uncommon at all to see piles of papers to be corrected on my desk that reached six, seven, eight inches high. And when research papers came in? You couldn't see me for the mound of work on my desk.

But then I started having kids email me their papers. I told them, the emailed papers get graded first and for my motivated kids, that was a great carrot. The paper load on my desk diminished greatly, the turn-around time was quicker (I found it faster to read and comment using Microsoft Word than paper and red pen), and we all felt better about the work. The kids didn't mind doing a rewrite when it was only a matter of editing using the word processor and I didn't mind reading again when we could track changes and I could easily see what had been changed.

I went to the wiki next, having the kids post their work with me editing via the wiki. Unfortunately, the wiki tools are not really conducive to that, so I'm thinking next year I might go back to emailing. Or maybe using Google Docs. Only the final draft would get posted on the wiki. I also want more conversations about the work to flow from student to student rather than just teacher to student. The wiki will help that.

So...go paperless for Earth Day!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

and the up side

This is part two of a two-part post:

The sims we work on are owned by the Wayne-Finger Lakes BOCES district. Yesterday, the BOCES administrators had a meeting at which they saw a presentation on SL. Lynn (SL name)asked me if some of my students could come inworld so she could relay questions to them from the admins. Because of the timing of the meeting, I was only able to have three students there (one for only 15 min).

At her end, Lynn projected the SL image on the large screen so everyone in the room could see. She and her assistant (whom I've never met in RL, but have met in SL several times) split the duties, with Emilie asking the students questions and Lynn asking me the teacher-directed questions in IM so the converstations would be easier to follow.

Let me say right now, that when you give kids real-world tasks and ask them to step up to the plate...they do so with a panache that makes one proud. In the classroom, I was dealing with three different converstaions at the same time: the IM with Lynn, the kid's conversations in general chat and the rest of my regular classroom that had never seen SL before. Needless to say this latter group was enthralled by the fact that we were in a meeting with a group of people thirty miles away while still sitting there and talking to them at the same time. And to see their fellow students simply and easily step into these roles impressed the heck out of them.

Two things impressed me on the kids' end. The first deals with a student who, quite frankly, isn't all that interested in anything I have to teach her. She's unfocused and not always willing to do what needs to be done. But her demeanor and answers in that meeting bespoke a higher level of maturity than I'd seen in her before. Getting to see her in the role of teacher to the admins was an eye-opener for me.

The second dealt with the secret two of us had. I'm a female teacher, but play a male avatar. Reason? I was curious to see if the kids responded differently to me inworld than in RL. One of the students who partook in this conversation yesterday is a male student who has created an absolutely beautiful female avatar. Reason: it's role playing and he wanted to explore that part of his personality.

Partway through our coversation, it dawned on me that these administrators would have no idea of who was behind the computer. They wouldn't know our true genders. I brought this up to the three of us left in the classroom (my class had been dismissed for lunch and one of the students in the meeting had to go to geometry). We got a chuckle over it and continued to play our parts and answer questions.

At the end however, I asked them, in chat, if we should reveal our secret. Of course, the admins now all wanted to know what it was and my male student grinned in RL and said, "You bet!" So I told them I am actually a female teacher. That got a laugh from them and when I gave my reason, they thought that a cool experiment to undertake. Then my male student revealed his gender and Lynn told me later she thought they were going to fall out of their chairs. She said they roared and couldn't get over how they'd made assumptions based on what they saw on the screen. A good teachable moment that she used to great effect.

So as frustrated as I get with them sometimes, when it's truly important, the kids step up and make me proud. We had a good time with admins yesterday (turns out to be mostly Superintendents, Assistant Superintendents, Directors and various principals). It sounds as if they had as much fun as we did.



This is the first part a two-part blog post:

I haven't been keeping up with the blog because, quite honestly, I've been disappointed in the way this year's class is working. Or not working, to be more specific. Where last year's group hung together and created the Drop In, working on their own within the groups, this year's class has fragmented, with several more intent on playing and making attempts to create their own little kingdoms than with working on the class projects. I've had to delete several of these "homes" more than once and am close to shutting down the entire project because of their lack of cooperation.

I can kick them out of SL entirely, and if this were the adult grid and I had tenants who so blatantly ignored the rules, I wouldn't hesitate to ban them from the sim. But this is a classroom and as such, I've been trying to teach and model the behaviors I want them to follow. So I delete and redirect -- over and over again.

We're working on a Civil War build as a class. They've chosen a relatively obscure battle on the theory that everyone already knows about the famous ones. This way others will be able to learn something they might not find in their textbook. We're recreating the Battle of New Market, specifically the Bushong farm and the Field of Lost Shoes. As I said, this is an uphill battle to keep them on task, but we're getting there.


Thursday, September 24, 2009


(The following was written outside, then transcribed here afterward)

Today was an experiment for me. I haven't taken kids outside for class in decades (yes, I've been teaching for decades. Plural.). Recently, however, I've been thinking that taking a group outside would be fun -- it's just been a matter of getting up the nerve. My Creative Writing class is small and filled with upperclassmen, so a good opportunity to let the squirrels scold and the ants explore us.

Of course, I wore my white pants today -- and I gave my two car blankets to the kids. So I'm sure I'll teach the rest of the day with grass stains on my rear end.

Interesting. Two students immediately separated themselves and headed away from the group to write. One of the others made note of it and called them "the real writers." The stereotype of the solitary writer haunts even these 17-year olds. Another girl is near me, but faced away from the group in a world of her own creation.

The others have all clumped together, but even there the dynamics are interesting. The two boys who do not feel creative or comfortable are sitting on the rocks together in conversation. There's a girl sitting somewhat solo, facing another group of three and who is regaling them with stories -- not realizing she's actually involved in creative storytelling by her very nature. Two others sit with their backs against different sides of the same tree, listening, writing, looking, writing. In the midst, yet separate. Jouralists in the making.

So why do I find myself sitting in the sunshine on a beautiful late summer/early autumn day writing about them instead of starting my own story? Because as a teacher, my attention is divided. To my left my solo two -- to my right all the others. They are my responsibility and while I'm not worried they'll escape on me, it's still my duty to be aware of their existence. But when I write fiction, I notice so little of the world around me. I get so involved in the story unfolding inside my head, letting the words flow down through my hunched shoulders and along my arms to emerge on the computer screen via my flying fingers, that it, in fact, takes a scream from one of the girls to bring me back to their fears of a creepy-crawly that turns out to be an ant.

The other reason I can't write fiction lies in the fact that I have no computer in front of me. I'm writing long-hand and I've long since lost patience with how long it takes for the words to get out of my head and through the pen/pencil. And why no laptop? It wouldn't be fair to the kids. I didn't let them bring out the school's laptops as they can't save anything this far from the server and I don't trust the batteries. And its hardly fair for me to sit here with one and not allow them. So I'm writing the old-fashioned way for an hour or so of time.

Okay, so what does all this have to do with virtual worlds? I posit the question, what are stories if not the original virtual worlds? The stories told around the fire centuries ago are no less and no more real than the worlds we create inside a computer, for all our modern stories are written with zeroes and ones. The stories have meaning in both media -- and so my Creative Writing class is as much a class in virtual worlds as my Virtual Worlds course in Second Life.

Funny, I'm getting flack from three students who don't want to be out here. Have I moved them too far from their comfort zone? Do they not like the ants or the fuzzy catepillers? My upbeat mood is rapidly deflating. Only three of them seem to have gotten any inspiration -- or even tried. The remaining six are just glad I'm not watching them too closely and are enjoying their conversations. I'm thinking I have to call this experiment a failure.

(back in my room, having posted and asked for feedback from the kids)

I'm not far off. Most of them enjoyed the opportunity to get out of the building and enjoy the weather. Only a few found it conducive to writing. Of the three who expressed dislike outside, one said he finds it difficult to write with a pen (a physical difficulty) and would enjoy it if he could take a laptop out with him. One of the girls said she would like it if she could sit somewhere other than the ground. Picnic tables were mentioned as a solution. So not as much of a failure as I thought. I might do this again...