Image fun from 2008 & BigHugelabs!

Holiday break, for an educator for sure, is a time to spend time with family and friends…  regroup, and just relax.  It is a time for reflecting on the previous year (if you haven’t already) and planning for the year to come.  It is also a time for indulging in fun.  Fun food, fun drink and even some just plain…  silliness.

So before I return to my three young ladies for the evening, allow me to introduce you to a very fun time-waster.  Really-  if you are a bit more motivated, this site could really even be a valuable marketing tool for your classroom or department.  As I said-  this certainly isn’t a post to turn your educational philosophy on end.  This isn’t definitely not a post that will add significantly to your pedagogical repertoire.  Forgive me, for I too, am on holiday break.  This post is to educational technology as cheesy spinach & artichoke dip is to nutrition.

If you have read this blog for even one day, you know that visual literacy is fundamental to my core.  I can’t write a paragraph without an image helping my cause.  Perhaps this is an homage to my realization that human words cannot do justice to a carefully crafted photograph. Perhaps as well, this marks one more post on this blog as of late that isn’t so grippingly “instructional” or “edtech.”  However, hopefully you have checked out my About page by now.  That  -in a very indirect way-  explains the hierarchy here.  I hope that works for most of you…


Enough blabb.  If you are unfamiliar, allow me to introduce you to the fun of BigHugeLabs as one last cheesy nugget of 2008.  Not only is this site a potentially fun time-waster, it can also be a valuable relationship-builder in the hands of the enlightened.  In fact, it can also be a “Christmas gift creation tool”  -if you have both the images and the verbal initiative to pull it off.  I say that with utmost cockiness after having delivered these two gems (framed) as Christmas gifts for my parents.  Toss in the birth of their newest granddaughter and you have the makings of a sweet little gift.  Seriously, would you not prominently display these?  Also-  have I yet mentioned how amazing my parents are?  They are.  To me, these images immortalize that fact.


I have used the BHLabs website in the past.  In the past five months, I shot the first two weddings of my life.  The fact that a good friend from graduate school and then her friend trusted me with their wedding day photography was…  frightening.  Conclusions?  I doubt I can even be a wedding photographer on the side.  Why?  1) Way too much stresss.  2)  I hate weddings.  (to clarify: marriage is treating me splendidly.  weddings are just most generally not a guy’s thing)  A million other moments are more important throughout the course of a life, and few hire a photographer for those.


That said, I used BigHugeLabs to add a sheen of fun to the disk of images delivered to my two new brides.  Whether highlighting the beauty of a bride in splendid excess, or laughing at a groom as sex symbol, all is great fun.  Whether it is the “motivator” tool, or one of the other “you don’t eeeeven need Photoshop for this” -style images, you will almost always find something fun and fitting.  I mean, hey-  not everyone loves me…  but foreign leaders somehow seem to.  Well, foreign leaders and models.

All of these images, as well as 95% of those I post on this blog to both highlight the ideas I am selling or to celebrate the work of amateur artists (usually both), are hosted on my Flickr site.  Flickr is currently the place to store your photos online.  At one time, I housed hundreds of photos at the now-defunct Clubphoto.  One fun day a couple of years ago, management walked into the offices and told folks to pack up their **it and *it.  I, of course, had backups of all images on my hard drives.  What I didn’t have were the countless hours of captions (lengthy explanations) I had invested in each image for many years.  I once used these as educational blurbs for my students, and especially for the parent of my students  -and prospective students of a very unusual and expensive class (for public school).

Happy New Year to you all.  May you find a thousand photographable moments headed your way in 2009.  By the way-  this marks the ninth year I have been disappointed by the “F” volume of the World Book encyclopedia from my sixth grade year.  I remember that future entry which showed transportation in the year 2000 to prominently feature svelte little rocket cars zipping about to-and-fro a la George Jetson.

Oh well.  You can’t win ’em all, right?  Right??

Gifts On A Dark December Day

On a day when the only thing bigger than the snowflakes is the deep gray loneliness of the sky, I bring you a minuscule chunk of one of my favorite Christmas gifts.

Cemetery Angel

My wife, Erin, has a thing for finding the perfect book to send me off on my April exploration of the Bahamian backwoods.  Normally, when I unpack the mystery book from my jumbled bag on board a sailboat anchored on Andros Island, I delight in the pen-sloppy scribblings just inside the front cover.  Last year it was Pablo Neruda.  What will this Spring bring?  Someday perhaps I’ll do a post on those messages.  Though parts, to be sure, will stay private forever for me.

Today’s words for winter:  by Galway Kinnell.  You (and I) can thank some nifty old guy on the east coast for this book.  He knows who he is too.  I’m glad Erin reads his blog as well, for she is an excellent gift-giver.

Cemetary Angels by Galway Kinnell

This verse is from A New Selected Poems from Galway Kinnell.  I feel OK about posting the words to this poem here in hopes that it will gain a larger readership.  I will, of course, retract if ever asked.

We humans do create fires here on Earth.  We create warmth in a universe where, aside from stars, cold is the norm.

Amazing words here.  Poetry compared to language is the inverse of DNA compared to a tree frog.  While poetry can be seen as shiny distillation of our daily talk, biochemicals tell little of the quickness of life.

Artwork thanks:  Cemetery Angel from Adam Selwood on Flickr.


My Daughter’s Favorite “Gift”

“Play game, ‘puter game… play ‘puter game… gaaaame… yayyy!”

My almost-two year old has a thing for letters and numbers.  That, of course makes me delighted because from there, many more things are exciting.  I spend my professional life trying either to help teenagers find excitement in the natural world or colleagues find excitement in refining their practice.  Those two groups of people in my professional life have little in common with preschoolers.  Yet, the content carrots I have to work with there are far more thrilling than the bare bones geometric shapes and associated sounds of letters and numbers.

read \'til you collapse

Now, it is here that I must tell you (as if you didn’t know) that I am no kind of authority on early childhood education.  I have spent nearly 18 years as a teacher or an instructional coach.  However, those years have been spent working in secondary education.  I have developed a really healthy love of the process of learning itself, but I first walked to the plate in 1991 swinging a love for science.  Now that I think about it, I suppose there would be a bit of overlap in a Venn diagram of those two entities.  I have now spent less than two years on a case study of early childhood education.  How could I not?  Instructional coach + new father = easy fit.  That said, I welcome the comments here of anyone and everyone who might carry a bit fatter portfolio of educating children.  Please allow me to extend the educational technology discussion down a grade level or ten.


So let’s get back to the leadoff quote.  Yes, that is exactly what our little beast now exclaims when either of us sits down by her with laptop in hand.  In reality, all it takes is the slightest hint.  What on Earth is she speaking of while in the throes of such excitement?  Starfall.  She is fired up about the online reading site at  This is not a new site.  It was founded well prior to the “Web 2.0” boom around 2004.  If you are an early childhood educator -and computers don’t frighten you- you likely already know about Starfall.  Since this is not my largest reader demographic, allow me to point most of you in this direction.  Even if you don’t have your own larvae at home, you can certainly share this link with friends who do.  They might just thank you.


At Starfall, you will not be blown away by slick graphics nor amazing audio.  What you will find is a rather engaging little site for curious tykes that seems to be very sound at what it does.  What does it do?  It provides a rather laid-back version of online reading instruction starting with ABC’s and moving on to various levels of early reading.  The ABC’s introduce students to the sounds of letters (phonemes).  Learn to Read teaches students how letters are combined to create words.  The simple animations associated here are quite good as the letters (always pronounced by a child’s voice) move closer together as they become a word.  The It’s Fun to Read section uses learning activities to begin simple sentence construction.  Finally, I’m Reading uses plays, myths and folk stories to increase fluency.

main links @ Starfall

How well does it work?  I honestly have nothing to compare to.  I do know that my little girlie could identify all letters by sight when she was 18 months old.  She has actually delighted in the phonemes for each of the letters, and is starting to identify simple words.  Is this website the only thing she has explored in that time?  Certainly not.  Erin & I read a fair bit.  That’s a pretty common thing to happen in our family room.  Whether we are reading to ourselves, or to the babe, we read tons…  and much of it is online.  Our little bookworm even finds little corners in the house to hide away and “read.”

hiding and reading

Will Starfall raise a child through the screen of a laptop?  Not so much.  Will it help out in the early stages of learning to read?  I certainly think so.  It is a very cool part of the puzzle.  In fact, my wife just remarked about how she also first began to actually nail down colors and numbers as a side effect of several of the mini-lessons on the site.  I guess watching mom & dad work & play on laptops influences the way a child likes to learn.  Whether you see that as good or bad, in 2008 it just is.  She gets so fired up when we let her take center stage in front of the ol’ Mac and click her own way through the site.  No physical gift or toy we have yet given her has been met with the enthusiasm this website has, and continues to deliver.  Ok, maybe Discovery Channel dinosaur flicks.

just watching... or thinking?

Check out Starfall.  Copy the link to anyone in your world with small children.  Or really-  perhaps even older kids who struggle with reading.  I would be curious about that.  Are the animations & examples too young for somewhat older kids to gain from the program?  Or is this something that might be utilized in a school setting?  As I said above, my “expertise” with early-childhood education amounts to one case study with a 23-month old princess.  If you need a “testimonial,” link back to this page. Check it out.  Check back.  Let us know what you think here.

And oh…  Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and many others.  May you all glow in the warmth of any celebration of light in the middle of Winter’s darkness.


Writing online: what really changes?

You know you wanna

Before I roll out the details of this little mini-project, allow me to summarize.  This project was the first of many in an attempt to characterize the differences between online writing and more traditional formats.  Students in my Dual-Credit Biology course were divided into two groups upon culmination of a biochemistry unit.  Half of the class wrote a comprehensive unit summary in a traditional format which was turned in directly to the teacher.  The other half of the class composed a summary in an online forum for a much wider audience (Ning network).

Summaries were analyzed for word count, readability and effect on content-based exam scores.  Exam scores and readability were closely aligned.  However, strong differences were noted in average word count.  Students writing in online forums used significantly fewer words to achieve the same overall impact.  Implications of using online forums for future enhancement of student summarization are discussed.  My take?  Writing online is a potentially powerful tool for summarization of course content.

How well I could write if I were not here!

The set-up

A building-wide focus for instructional improvement in my high school this year, has been to launch and maintain an instructional technology integration initiative.  The school year began with a cohort of twenty teachers who were willing to engage in training above and beyond the professional development for all staff.  I began meeting with these teachers in mid-June for three-hour technology training sessions.  The first meeting consisted of a “care and feeding” session for the 15″ MacBook Pros, Olympus digital cameras and iPod nanos the cohort teachers received.  From that session forward, training sessions integrated this hardware, as well as emerging online technologies, with solid instructional best practices for classroom learning.  These twenty teachers have followed a prescription of immersion.  New technological tools were presented alongside potential uses in a classroom setting.  An online social network was set up to facilitate learning between face-to-face meetings.

I teach one course during the regular school day.  Principles of Biology is a course in which students earn 101-level college credit through Missouri Western State University.  This course is populated by students who enjoy learning.  Work conducted by these students formed the basis of comparison in this study.  Our course network is also based on the Ning platform.  Though this network features discussion forums as well as blogs, both are examples of online writing in some form or other. As you will see, in this class, I utilize the forum much more than the blog.  This will certainly have an effect on the results of this project.

The main event

What effects, if any, does a move toward online writing generate? Actually, little has been done to characterize the impact this new “genre” of writing is having on student achievement.  In fact, blogging has been said to be different enough as to warrant a new genre of writing called “connective writing.”  As Will Richardson has said:  it is

“…a form that forces those who do it to read carefully and critically, that demands clarity and cogency in its construction, that is done for a wide audience, and that links to the sources of the ideas expressed.”

In fact, I mentioned this idea earlier this year in this post on blogging.

How was this done?

This project began at the culmination of a biochemistry and nutrition unit.  Class sessions throughout were widely varied and ranged from cooperative work in small groups, guided webquests, lecture and discussion, and wet-lab investigations.  The final strategy prior to the unit exam was to have students engage in writing a comprehensive summary of their learning throughout the unit.  Students were randomly divided into two groups.  They were then informed that they would be doing one of two types of comprehensive summary.

The only difference between the two groups of students was writing “environment.”  The “odd” group was to compose the summary on a word processor, and then print as well as e-mail the final copy directly to the instructor only.  The “even” group was to write their summary online, as a blog post, to our classroom network.  Based on previous work with the online class network, these students knew that their work would be accessible online to virtually anyone.  This group of students knew that they were writing for a potentially wide audience, while the students of the first group were writing for me alone.  Since this class is largely an inquiry-based biology class, data was analyzed by the students themselves.  Students were asked to infer from the data and make conclusions online based on the findings.

So what happened?

Overall, 20 students participated in the study- out of a total of 20 enrolled in the class.  Each student in the table is listed only by initials in order to preserve anonymity.  (Table 1) Students who constructed a comprehensive summary of nutrition unit via online blog post for a wide and potentially global audience (even group):

(Table 1)  Students who constructed summary via online blog post for a wide and potentially global audience (even group):

(Table 2) Students who constructed comprehensive summary of nutrition unit via MS Word document handed in directly to teacher (odd group):

(Table 2)  Students who constructed comprehensive summary of nutrition unit via MS Word document handed in directly to teacher (odd group):

An examination of the data will show average exam scores differed less than one-half of a point across the two groups.  Average readability was also comparable, with the average score differing less than one Flesch-Kincaid grade level.  Easily the largest difference between the two groups was the average number of words used per summary.  Students writing online summaries used an average of 239 words less (399 opposed to 638) than those writing in Microsoft Word for me alone.  Variability in all data seemed fairly low for human studies.  Word counts were tightly clustered around the mean for online writers.  Though the results here seem fairly simple to interpret, there are many factors that must be considered in any analysis and subsequent application.


In this study, students were instructed to create a comprehensive summary of a unit on biochemistry.  The only instructions given were that the summary should provide an understandable context for the main topics of study, and that any source used should be cited.  It was also suggested to students that the mere creation of this summary would help to prepare for the upcoming exam.  Therefore, the only difference between the groups would truly be whether the summary was composed in an online forum or in a word processor.  Also- the online group knew their summary would gain a potentially global audience while the MS Word group knew that their summary would be read only by me.

Before extrapolating too far, it is important to note that when planning to implement any new teaching strategy, the first consideration should be to do no harm.  With that philosophy in mind, the data in this study immediately suggests that when students worked online, they certainly performed no worse than their counterparts who spent their time offline.

With that in mind, the fact that both groups showed no measurable difference in exam scores, is encouraging.  Therefore, even if an instructor wanted to use online writing as nothing more than a novel approach that might excite a few reluctant learners, they would likely do no harm toward content achievement.  I had initially hypothesized that due to the connective nature of this form of writing, students would better assimilate the content of the unit and show higher exam scores.  When considering this initial study alone, that hypothesis was not supported.  Though it is also important to note that the individual classroom climate and culture could impact these results heavily.  Not only would the feel of a classroom influence these results, it is easy to see how previous instruction could change things to a large degree.

To this point, few significant differences have been shown between the two study groups.  However, when looking at raw word count per summary, things quickly diverge.  It was anticipated that the group engaging in online writing would be stimulated to write a higher volume of words.  Hey-  it’s a novel approach.  Writing online is in contrast to a traditional approach where the work is done in isolation from start to finish.  In fact, this is the opposite result seen in the trial.  The group writing online submitted a much lower word count (avg. = 399) than the word processing group (avg. = 638).  This is no small difference and would certainly register as significant on any statistical test.

Why so many fewer words per summary when writing online?  Many of the participants had an idea about this when analyzing the results after the fact.  The following statement by student “RH” typifies a common student response:

“It appeared that the papers had a higher readability and word count, which I kind of expected because I think people tend to write more formally on papers, whereas the blog posts tend to be more opinion and informal writing.”

The aspect of formality is something that was not considered to be a factor prior to the study, and yet it makes solid sense.  The type of online writing these students had engaged in prior to this study was largely of a reflective nature.  Our work online has tended to center around written reflections that helped to synthesize classroom sessions.  A more formal approach to blogging has simply not been utilized as of yet with this class.  This is something that could certainly affect the results of this study.  Online writing has been approached in many ways for many different reasons in classrooms across our building this year.  It is very interesting to think about furthering this study to investigate the details of this interaction between instruction and writing.

First phase data is soon due in from three other participating teachers.  In contrast with the class in this study, several of the other participating classes feature some “reluctant” learners.  It will be interesting to see if the results of those trials differ from these in any way.  I would guess that they will.  The analysis of this new data, will certainly provide a jumping off point for the next round of research in our school.

Wheww… finally

To conclude, this brief study demonstrated several things.  For one, the mere act of writing of a comprehensive summary prior to a unit exam seems to be an effective strategy for a class of mature high school students.  Furthermore, the nature of this summary did little to affect scores in this study.  Students writing in online forums showed an average score almost exactly equal to that of students writing in a more traditional (printed) format.

The most signficant result of this study was the analysis of word count between the study groups.  Students writing online submitted significantly more concise summaries with smaller word counts.  The implications of this data are very interesting.  Furthermore, students who wrote less (when writing online) performed equal to those students who wrote many more words.  This could directly point to the power of online writing in helping students to summarize effectively.  This is no small feat considering the difficulty many of today’s students tend to have with summarization.  Hotshot ASCD guru, Robert Marzano, makes the case that “summarization has a robust and long history of research,” and is one of the “nine most effective instructional strategies a teacher can employ.”  These final results will likely have implications for not only future research trials at our high school, but for immediate classroom action in the area of content summary writing.


What do you think about writing online?  You obviously read online.  You likely even write online.  We would love feedback about what goes on in your mind when you write online in different settings.  What happens when you blog?  How are discussion forums different?  What difference does a global audience make- if any?  Weigh in.  What does change when you write online?

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: students pedagogy)

Artwork thanks:

*”How well I could write if I were not here!” by Esther_G on Flickr.
*”Live Blogging at Woolfcamp” by Sue Richards on Flickr.
*”WORDS” by Feuillu on Flickr.
*Remainder:  me.   😉

Out of the mouths of… Google?

Here begins a new post category.  We could call it “stupid things found on the web.”  Or perhaps “computers ain’t as smart as people.”  Call it what you will- here it goes:

What do you think?  Don’t see the humor?  Keep looking- I have faith in you.  See it now?  Seriously, how great is that?  Now that couldn’t be secretly purposeful could it?  Ahhh, the perils of abbrev.  😉

It actually reminds me of a post I made back in June on our Marine Biology network at Ning.  It is a quick story about how Google’s AdSense ads (now removed from education networks @ Ning) can unknowingly juxtapose some really conflicting ideals.  We spend page after page of our site extolling the beauty and wonder of living coral and the ecosystems they inhabit.

introducing coral paint!

So, when ads for what seem to be unethically-harvested coral began running on our page, the irony was thick.  Now those Google ads are gone.  I soon found out from Steve Hargadon that Ning was allowing educational networks (aimed at grades 7-12) to run ad-free upon request.  Of course COPPA requires that students under 13 not be allowed to use social networking sites for security and privacy issues.

And thus-  with COPPA, this post comes strangely full circle.  Wow.  I think perhaps I stumbled upon a vortex of web weirdness on this lovely winter day.

Artwork thanks:

*“introducing coral paint!” by muha… on Flickr.