On Avocados and Presidents

Life moves pretty fast

So, it happens that I was just checking out at the grocery store with my youngest daughter, Neve, by my side. While she danced around behind and beside me (literally), the checkout girl, who I could tell was quite green, asked if the bag of produce were avocados, “just to be sure.” My reply:  “Yep… they sure are.” I smiled warmly in an attempt to soften her subtle, but obvious discomfort in having to ask.

A nutritious, swollen botanical ovary makes its seed so irresistible.

A nutritious, swollen botanical ovary makes its seed so irresistible.


Meanwhile, my littlest one pulled her 3-4 year old frame (she’s rather tiny for five) up over the edge of the counter by her hands. With her lips barely perched atop the rim and her feet afloat above floor tiles, she said to the girl: “Avocados are a fruit. They’re not really a vegetable.”

The checker replied: “Oh yeah… how do you know that?”

Neve: “Well… see… they have a seed in them and that makes them a fruit. (significant pause) …Even though some people think they are a vegetable. They’re not really though.”

The checker looked up to me for what appeared to me to be a slightly sheepish content check. I’m not sure what exactly I did in response. Did I wink? No, I probably nodded. I think. Maybe. She then said to Neve: “Wow. How do you know that?”

Neve: “I don’t know… it’s just in my head.”

Checker: “How old are you… five? Wow. You’re really smart! Maybe you could be president some day.”

Neve: “Nahhh… I don’t think girls are presidents.”

My "doorman" …or, "doorwoman."

My “doorman” …or, “doorwoman.”


I had a bit of consulting to do after that last line. If you either, A) know me personally, or B) have read a bit of this blog, you can likely imagine our conversation in the car on the way home.* All of this has me wondering about the roots of empowerment. Do we really consider how early and deeply ideas become rooted in the brains of our little ones? When is “too early to matter?”


Actually, if you happen to be one of those die hards from the old days on the blog, you might remember a related story here: But Math is Hard. If you have not read it, you now have your assignment. And really, toward the end of the comments on that post, a rather beautiful thing was born. The web of links there will take you to a content area reading/writing strategy that I use to this day every chance I get. Now that I think of it, Miss Neve quite possibly learned that bit of history while observing the purely male string of presidents on Presidents Pro.

*These talks are usually the silver lining in the cloud of a 50 minute commute that is soon to come to an end. Why is this a negative thing? For one, I’ll just plain miss those long car conversations. Well, that and hearing her sing about 90% of the 96.5 The Buzz playlist from memory. (and yes, of course I have to switch to the iPhone playlist at times during The Church of Lazlo, she’s five.  ;)


-“inside the beast” by Darwin Bell on Flickr via CC
-“door opener” by me. 


EdWeekSJSD: A Litany of Thanks

The calm after the storm

I’m beat, but delightfully so. Deep learning is hard work. Designing an ecosystem in which others can learn deeply is even tougher. Teachers know this. I mean, pick your favorite food. Then eat five heaping plates of it. Back to back. If someone treated me to a week of epic seafood meals prepared by skilled chefs, I’d eat big every day. You don’t get that opportunity very often. Well…  we did that (again), and I’m tired. Next week I’ll revel in quiet solitude, no doubt reflecting on the intense social learning of the past week. This week was EdWeek.

EdWeekSJSD is but one small construct of the larger vision of professional development in our district. Sometimes in a large learning organization you design PD events where everyone sees, hears, and performs the same thing. You have to. There are times when we all need to be on the same crucial page. We need a core of common language around learning. We need a common vision at some level, and we need norms around the central mission of our schools.

Yet, like the students we serve, teachers are all individuals with differing needs and aptitudes. We could never meet the needs of 11,000 highly individual learners with a team of 900 identically-trained educators. In subscribing to that belief, on some level you must be willing to design constructs of learning that cater to these differences. EdWeek is one of those constructs. EdWeekSJSD is a series of day-long explorations into innovative and creative approaches to learning in a modern classroom. For more detail on the structure and happenings of this week, see the wiki from the past two years, as well as an explanatory post, There’s No Week Like EdWeek, I did last year in anticipation of our first experience of this type.

Thanks are in order:

We have so many thanks to give for the success of the past week. For one, if you were there at all, thank you. Trading in an off-contract day of basking in the summer sun is admirable. If you showed up at all, I salute you. Thank you for making all of the planning and preparation worthwhile. If you showed up for all five days, I am deeply humbled by your professional commitment and love of learning and sharing. I could go on and on about each of the past five days. The new things I learned, the collaboration I witnessed, and the open and public sharing that was done. Many of those details already exist online in reflective posts by my colleagues. Do me this favor, please post links to your work in the comments below, and I will embed those directly in a future edit to this post. For sharing in a collective reflection of this week, I thank you. I’ve already read many of these posts, and I couldn’t possibly detail those days any better. Nice work, Mike.

Digital writing matters

Troy Hicks, author of The Digital Writing Workshop, and Because Digital Writing Matters, took us on an exploration of the broader meaning of literacy on day one. Troy challenged us to see literacy as not only the ability to make deep meaning from reading and writing text, but other forms of rich media as well. For me, he drove home the point that literacy instruction in the classroom of today must make efficient and creative use of the many forms of media that blanket our lives like never before in our history.

Silvia, I thank you again

Joining us again this year, Silvia Tolisano reminded us that any approach to innovation with technology must begin with a focus on learning first, followed by careful selection of modern tools to do the job. She pushed us to consider uses of technology beyond the automation of substitution of current tasks. We both share the belief that using technology to maintain the classroom status quo is a prohibitively expensive proposition. What is beyond mere “integration” of digital tools? Using them to transform learning events into something that would not have been possible otherwise. A wiki that includes resources addressed that day gives you an idea of the broad scope and detail of those explorations. We’ll certainly soon be seeing some amplified classroom experiences for our children.

Learning to be

Our next two leaders were neighbors from the North. Darren Kuropatwa joined us this year from Winnipeg. I deeply admire approaches to learning that are multimodal and which feature rich instances of story. I especially appreciate these things when they arise from a career of motivating students to study mathematics in this way. He’s the math teacher I always wanted. He challenged us to create an environment where students aren’t merely doing math, or history, or science. The set of resources Darren thoughtfully planned to support our day is found here. He deftly made the case for empowering students to be… a mathematician, a historian, a scientist,  a writer. Thank you, Darren.

The seriousness of silliness and play

Dean Shareski made a return trip from Saskatchewan to Joetown this year with his fun and serious allwrappedintoone approach to learning and exploring media and ideas. You can’t spend professional time with Dean without making things. Experimentation and play was the theme of the day. We created artifacts, quickly, shared them widely, and debated where the learning lies within each. Check out the seven different forms of exploration from our day together. You can’t attend a session like this without re-examining your classroom tone, nor without acquiring new lenses for seeing the seriousness inherent within play and exploration. Dean- again, many thanks.

Now batting cleanup:

Diana Laufenberg. Diana brought the perspective of a powerfully creative teacher into our little meeting room…  and allowed us to swim around in it for a day. During the first half of the day, teachers found the tables turned as they took a reflective trip through what it feels like to be a student in her classroom. Diana helped us close out the week with a close examination of the architecture of and for learning she builds into her classroom. We also explored the benefits of participatory learning in a technology-savvy way and the crucial role of failure in any approach to learning. I’d be shocked if there was a single attendee who didn’t secretly wish to have experienced a government classroom that felt the way our room felt today. Thank you dearly, Diana.

Learners AND facilitators

Participating the entire week, and helping to facilitate it is a monster. You want to dig in and explore every single challenge. And yet, your role is also to help support a diverse room full of teachers with different needs. Just a short year ago, I was the lone instructional technology specialist in the room. With a massive bloom from four to fourteen 1:1 schools, we now have a real team to tackle our district’s burgeoning needs in this area. I can’t tell you how good that feels. We are gelling as a team in short order, and will have much to offer both individually and collectively as the coming year unfolds. Participate, facilitate, participate, facilitate. Focus on the task. Bounce about the room. Support. Comfort. Archive everything. Knowing just how difficult this is fills me full of appreciation of the work of Melissa CoreyTerri Johnson, and Jennifer Gatz. You were great this week, it wouldn’t have worked without you.

The die-hards

They just kept coming back. Just over one hundred teachers, coaches and administrators took part in the week’s festivities. An untold number lurked along via Twitter, Ustream, or Today’s Meet. A total of 38 participated in even more than one event. A few came back… every. single. day. What if you took them all to a conference like ISTE, and assuming the experience was equal to such a conference, (which is severely lowballing it) think about what that would cost. Do the math. Of the 38 repeat customers, 11 completed the full meal deal. Other than those of us who were participant/facilitators, there were six die-hards. Mike DialCindy FaucettErin NashMandi TolenJason Tolen, and Chantelle Schwope attended EdWeek in its entirety… all five days from 8am to 3pm. Epic. That is not easy. I have homeland knowledge of the fact that one of these folks was also simultaneously juggling two online graduate courses.

Opt-in professional learning, off-contract and in the summer. I begged for this two years ago. Not everyone believed this would fly. It was possible that no one would attend. It works if the design is right. Thanks to Dr. Dial’s trust and willingness to carve out a chunk of resources, it finally happened for the first time a year ago. This past week, EdWeekSJSD happened again; a hypodermic shot of innovation and creativity in an increasingly standardized world. Like I said, I’m beat, but delightfully so.


*”Twins” by Jon Smith via Creative Commons on Flickr
*The remainder were taken by either Jaime Dial or I.



When A Screen Is No Longer Just A Screen

Ever find yourself beginning a blog post in an atypical place? Ever write an email to a friend only to later complete the reflection on your blog? Ever tap out the seeds of an essay while posting a photo online? I’ve done both many times. What about while tagging something to read later in a social bookmarking site? No? I hadn’t either… until quite recently.

Yesterday this little bit of text floated by in the stream and caught my eye on a very busy day. It was a nod toward an article by Bethe Almeras via the Twitter:

Bethe Almeras tweet

The piece in question is an interesting one. Perhaps it is even more than interesting for a parent of two little girls. Give it a read. To cut to the chase, the author points to the debate emerging among pediatricians, parents and others about how much “screen time” is healthy and wise for toddlers.

For the love of screens

This issue has been around as long as television itself. Smart doctors and smart parents alike soon recognized that staring passively at moving pictures could quite possibly do some rather unfavorable things to the emerging brains of children. That argument soon became bastardized by those who believed Wile E. Coyote being bashed by a fleet-footed bird would create a wave of violent adolescents. Still, there is little doubt that our brains weren’t wired for such rapidly-blinking stimuli, especially during crucial formative stages. Perhaps most importantly, when little ones should be acquiring the foundations of literacy skills, an imagination,  and, well… the roots of real interaction with other warm, mushy humans in the household… TV gets in the way. The small bit I know about biology leads me to that understanding almost immediately.


The article asserts that while these realities no doubt exist, very recent advances in technology that allow child-paced interaction via the touch of a finger, might change this “screen time” equation. This is something one of my favorite board-certified pediatricians and I have batted back and forth before. The comment thread on this related post was a fun retro read today.

From my notes in Delicious:

Much as I have long-suspected, even careful folks will eventually warm to the idea that 80% of the problem with TV or computer use by toddlers is the mind-numbing passivity of it all. True interaction, where children are pointing the way and making independent choices -particularly within experiences designed to boost pre-literacy skills- can be positive time for even young children. We’re very judicious about how our daughters actually use a computer. We wouldn’t dream of employing one as digital babysitter.

I’m betting there is a significant correlation between toddler time in front of television and a litany of anomalies such as ADHD. The intensity of such rapidly changing imagery coming in at a speed the developing brain has likely not evolved to handle is, in a word, scary. And yet, from where I sit,  there seems to be something fundamentally different about a child touching a screen to make choices and to learn cause/effect on their own. Though quite different from the 3D real-world wrangling of stacking blocks or poking tadpoles in a shallow pond, it can allow child-paced hand-eye coordination while developing pre-literacy skills, etc.

The Spiders Create Tightropes from Bulb to Bulb

The final qualifier

Life is complex. The key word here is balance. The electric lightbulb has caused almost immeasurable changes in the course of human history. Some of these are desirable, some are not. The development of that technology was an arguably inevitable event in the annals of our species. Television happened later on down the line, as did computers, video games, and now touch screens. At some point this new technology will do the same as artificial light; reach ubiquity and fade into the fabric of who we are. There will be good in that. There will be bad in that. It seems to be the way of things.

“Technology is us. There is no separation. It’s a pure expression of human creative will.”  ~David Cronenberg

Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure there are tens of thousands of kids being pacified by handheld computer screens as you read this. Let it be clear that this is absolutely not what I’m advocating. Whether it’s a plastic nipple, an iPhone, or a wall-sized television, isn’t too much of just about anything detrimental?

I dont have a formula for this. I don’t have a formula for most things I do as a parent. It’s tough to choke something as complex as parenting into a set of bullet points declaring what to do or not to do. I tend to agree with the Minnesota parent in the aforementioned article who suggests screen time limits are “an easy out for parents.” This is not to say that I don’t make decisions based on research and the wisdom of those who have gone before me. It just means that I’m a rather right-brained chap who tends to focus on the big picture and make informed decisions as they are needed when and where along the way. Therefore, in the course of providing a warm, caring, and appropriately-stimulating environment for my children, I sometimes allow them to engage in self-directed play on magically-glowing touchscreens from time to time. I think I’m doing right by them. Time will tell, but hey, it’s an uncontrolled experiment. Isn’t life in general?

So yes, the bottom line as I see it… is balance. Our oldest girl reads almost frighteningly fluently as a three year old. She’d rather be outside digging in the soil of our garden. She loves the tickle of caterpillar’s feet upon her fingers. She’s funny. She’s compassionate. We haven’t damaged her too badly just yet. It’s still early. Balance.

Delaney before naptime during a Summer vacation trip.

before naptime during a summer vacation trip...


*Image of Wile E. from Wikipedia. I might be a tad bit off on fair use of this one, but I like the rationale they list here. Surely I’m as solid as Wikipedia, right?
*”The Spiders Create Tightropes from Bulb to Bulb” by Nicki Varkevisser on Flickr.
*Image of adorable child + iPad is all mine. However, I credit most of the genes for that beautiful face to her mother.

I Am Network Literate

I am “network literate,” and thus, I am far less limited as a learner. I am not limited by my personal knowledge and skills, nor my personal affordances of time and or money. I am at the shifting center of an ever-changing, loosely-tied hub of humans and their products. Humans with varied backgrounds, interests, and perspectives.

Look up

I cannot know everything. I cannot even hope to know most things. The flow of human technical knowledge is said to double now every few days. And yet, our schools and our curricula are too often set up to rely on the teacher to be just that: the expert. Statistically-speaking, likely hundreds of books were published during your read of this blog post. If connecting to others has always been a human need, then what, if anything, has changed for the positive in the rather recent past? I suggest that it is a relatively dry tipping point in the construction of digital communication frameworks, tools and their subsequent adoption. The sheer speed and efficacy of digital communication turns this seemingly uninteresting milestone into a communications environment none of us were prepared for. It seems that the old adage “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” has finally found teeth in something other than a political sense.

Tree huggers in the most literal sense grab the critter by the trunk and hold on. And yet, the most interesting work is being done around the periphery, in the luminous green leaves at the tips of its existence. Each one stretching itself closer to the sun. I could go on and on with this rather imperfect yet interesting metaphor, but I have recently sworn to smaller posts. So let’s cut to the chase…

You are likely a node in my network in one or more ways. I read differently because of you. I think differently because of you  I likely even act differently because of you. Perhaps network literate is now merely a subset of literate in today’s world. Does that discount being able to digest rigorous text and ideas? Nope. Does that discount being able to craft a cogent argument? Nope. Does that discount the sense of knowing when to say what? Nope. Does it mean that all of this now happens at an exponentially fast pace in the real world? Yep. At what pace does real human discourse happen in our public schools? Has the process of how our students make meaning of the world changed? Should it have?

the worlds network

I am network literate. At least I think I am. Maybe not. Perhaps I’m overstating the magnitude of this shift. Thoughts?

Are you “network literate?”  Does it matter?


*”Look up” by James Thorpe on Flickr

*”the worlds network” by saschaaa on Flickr


From Day One: Information Literacy In Core Content

Establishing tone

I believe information literacy is the responsibility of all content teachers.  The following piece is a bit about how I tend to kick off a new year, and how to easily aim at info literacy from very early on.  As I have said here before, I do not like to go shy into the new school year.  Our students are learning from us every second of every day.  The real question then is what are they learning.  As the lead learners in the classroom, this is under our control.


With this in mind, it is my goal to have my students leave the room on that first day with a few things spinning around in their heads like…

1.  “Wow. This class is active.  I was working with ideas and classmates the entire period.”

2.  “This guy means business.  He is infectiously passionate and serious about this class, and yet has room for humor within all of the intensity.”

3.  “He seems to have a longview for us in the class.  I can tell he has plans for us and cares that we are “in” as much as he is.”

4.  “I might be headed for a music major in college next year, and this will likely be my last formal science course, but I am actually thinking this class might be built with people like me (as well as the biology geeks) in mind.”

5.  “I had better get used to sharing my learning.  This class is open.  I will certainly have to step out of my comfort zone a little on this one.”

6.  “Not sure how I feel about construc…. whatever he called it…  but if it means I won’t have to sit while he talks all period, then I’m for it.”

I obviously believe in creating the ultimate mental model, and then working from there with my planning framed by those ideals.  This year we started the school year with built-in early release days and short periods.  Last Wednesday was our first full period of instruction.  I just don’t believe that on that first day you can just go gently into your course.  It is my philosophy to swing hard from day one.

So how can you teach your students who you are, what to expect, what you stand for, what and how they’ll be learning during the year…  all in one day?  As usual, I’m still debriefing the success of this one lesson, but I do believe that all of this is possible.  Stick with me on this one.  Here in a bit, I’ll ask you to help me assess some of this by scanning through the pages of online student writing about this lesson.  Here’s a small sample as a preview:

I believe this type of learning is important… the activity split up our class in two sections making each side work together in a very short amount of time. This helps build chemistry between everyone in our class which I believe is very important since we’ll be around each other for a whole year. It was also important, because it made all of us think and learn about a topic we most likely hadn’t heard anything about. Science has a lot to do with the unknown and I believe this issue on shark cartilage really challenged us on something we had no clue about. We had to work to decide whether or not the shark cartilage was effective and for that matter whether or not the information we were given was reliable.” ~Kerstyn Bolton

Day one

I don’t do stand-alone “ice breakers” any longer.  That’s not a criticism of those who do, but in my thinking that says to the students:  “we had to construct a special event outside of our normal work in this class in order to talk to and learn about one another.”  I design my first day to be authentic collaboration and sharing among students where classmates must rely on one another to complete a content-related task, or solve a content-related problem.

My learning goals for the day were rather broad.  It was day one.  They were as follows:   1. Setting classroom tone.  2. Building the foundation of a learning environment.  3. Proving the concrete, daily value of science.  4. Team-building.  5.  Evaluating and debating a scientific assertion in the field of medicine.  6.  Establishing an academic spirit for our first online work at Principles of Biology.

Principles of Biology

Shark cartilage?

So, to trim down a rather complex story…  We divided into two large groups (10 students each side) to examine the idea that shark cartilage supplements can be used as a safe and effective treatment for some types of cancer.  This is fringe alternative-medicine stuff.  There is a ton of web chatter on both sides of this issue.  Though the medical community is rather aligned on this issue, as with any “natural” treatment, there are many proponents on the fringes.  The data found on the web is, in short, a big area of gray to most people.

The information on this issue is all over the board.  There are a few freely accessible journal articles on the web, there are terribly crackpot e-commerce sites, and there are hundreds of examples in the gray area between the two.  Because I had to have a brisk pace to finish in one period, I constructed two packets… one for each group.  One group of ten got a packet full of public websites representing the “for” side of using shark cartilage supplements as a treatment for cancer.  The other group of ten were given a packet representing sites that represented the “against” side of the issue.

shark cartilage

With no formal instruction on argument nor debate, the students were led through a protocol to digest the content of the packet in short order and prepare a speedy argument aligned with their given viewpoint.  I led them through a series of skimming, compiling, active reading, and sharing tasks to help them build structure for an argument in about 20 minutes.  Considering this was a group of ten working with a subject they knew nothing about, that is saying something.  The action was fast and furious.  Frankly, they ended up engaging in a better debate than I had even anticipated.  Battles over sources cited and inherent biases came out without being prompted.

“I LOVED learning like this because I think it gave everyone a chance to teach everyone else.” ~Hannah Rush

Ultimately, they were to take their thoughts from the day and reflect on both the content learning as well as the process of the day’s learning events.  To me, I never go a day without sharing the strategic purpose for that particular event.  If I don’t have a best-practice reason for doing what I’m doing the way I’m doing it…   then I (and they by default) would quite possibly be wasting time.  This keeps us all on our toes and makes the “game of school” completely transparent within my class.

So let’s see where the rubber meets to road on this one.  If you haven’t been tempted to click through to the discussion thread on this already, please do so now.  I think you’ll be pleasantly impressed by the willingness to dive head first into this one and really discuss the issues.  As of this morning, there are seven pages of student discourse.  I think you’ll appreciate this look into how students approach the task of reflecting deeply over their learning in this class.

“I really thought what you said about “You learn only 10% of what you read, but you learn 95% of what you teach” was very interesting…  …This makes our activity in class so much more exciting to me! I remember a lot of what my section said about shark cartilage and that’s because I had to, because my team needed me…” ~Kerstyn Bolton

My LMS can beat up your LMS

Not only should information literacy not be an add-on, nor should your Library Media Specialist.  At Benton, we are undergoing a true paradigm shift in library media services.  By hiring Melissa Corey, we have in the span of a summer updated our services to bring the library’s digital tendrils into every classroom in our building.  Last year, the physical space of our library was scrapped for a full redo to bring it up to date as a learning space for 2010.  This year, we have the personnel to put the plan into action.

As this lesson was unfolding, I realized that I was setting up our new Library Media Specialist to fly in the next period, cape and all, to deliver the way to a more rigorous online research process.  What I didn’t know is how personalized this service would be.  Boy-  were we in for a surprise.  For starters, here is the slide show she used to help deliver our learning for the day:

What is amazing about this interaction was not the beautiful and informative slide set, nor her thoughtful and pleasant presentation.  What was inspiring is the fact that she stayed up the night before to craft an absolutely perfect example of “just in time learning” for my students.  Slides 4 through 7 show screenshot examples of the actual resources the students had used in this exercise on page after page of our discussion thread.  These resources are marked up and annotated with questions aimed at the authority, accuracy, currency and content of the piece.

The students were then led through a lesson on the peer review process as well as online database searches through peer reviewed material.  They were then to go back to the same thread and post some follow-up commentary after this latest search experience.

Extensions and infiltrations

As if polishing our lesson to a fine shine were not enough, Mrs. Corey (who as “BHS LMC” is a direct member of our classroom network) also took the time to post follow up connections and extensions to the lesson in the form of a blog post.  She also took a spontaneous conversation from our day…  discussion about a group of crows that were supposedly using cars to crack nuts… and created a completely separate extension in the form of a media-rich blog post (along the lines of info literacy in science) for our network.

screenshot from biology network

I cannot tell you how exciting it is to have such a partner in crime in my own building.  Forget the archetypal image of a librarian still etched into your brain.  Rather than archiving books and telling students to “shuuush,” my LMS is deeply passionate about pushing out into classrooms to help our students find, evaluate, and manage information in all subject areas.  My students now not only feel like they can walk to the library to visit our new librarian for help…  they know that within a single click on our classroom network, they can tap our building’s very own information specialist.  Did I mention the fact that she’s been working with students and staff here not for just two weeks?

Our “library” was until very recently defined as a “remodeled room in the annex… with books.”  The following image now better represents the effective size of our LMC:

Benton High School  --  CLOSE

Pretty stately-looking library for a public school, eh?  In reality though, like anything really useful…  it is becoming invisible.  Our media center and staff are now as ubiquitous as our student laptops.  Once they begin to follow our students home, we will extend the reach of our learning environment even further…


*Lattice by Todd Huffman on Flickr.
*Shark cartilage image courtesy of The Vet Shed.  Apparently, dogs eat this stuff.
*Image of Benton High School:  me.
*Student comments (featuring Kerstyn & Hannah) courtesy of our class network.
*The collaboration of Melissa Corey, LMS at Benton High School, in Saint Joseph Missouri.