Why are we alive?

Listen first

“Daddy, you know what… I think the first bite of an apple is always the best.”

~Delaney, age 9

I’ve said it before. We need kids to teach us how to see the world anew in all its beauty. If you’re not listening, you’re missing out. This alone could easily have been the impetus to write.

Delaney Reading with Apple

See the icky wear and tear on that book? After once again questioning her (I have asked at least 4-6 times on previous occasions) she says she honestly estimates that she’s read it approximately 18 times. I actually believe this. After a more typical back and forth on the differences between Anomalocaris and Pikaia, and a bit of silence that followed, she added: “Here’s a question I think about a lot…  why are we even alive?

What works

The title of Delaney’s favorite book at this point in her life has clearly been “Evolution” by Hosler, Cannon & Cannon. There are a million reasons why this might be so. Included in these reasons are the facts that both Mom and Dad were upper level biology teachers for much of our lives, and that this book, among thousands of others, are titles that exist within our shelves at home. Beyond this, the answers are murkier. We never did ask her to read it. And yet, since age six, she has gone back time and time again to not only read it, but to talk about it… at the dinner table, on the deck during a 70 degree day in February, ad infinitum. Almost.

One could clearly and logically assume that the above interaction just “makes sense.” And it does. Children who grow up bathed in household discussions that revolve around the inner workings of the natural world might ask these questions. Yet, this leaves out a pretty crucial bit of the story. I would argue that the key element here is that over the past few years when she has had questions about the content of this book, she always finds one or two adults willing and able to carry on the conversation, and to poke and prod for further understanding and unanswered questions. This has led to a tapestry of questioning, understanding, reading, questioning, understanding, reading, etc. over a protracted bit of time.

Penrose triangle

The nerd stuff

Herein lies the key to deep understanding of some of the most profound discoveries of human history: it doesn’t happen in a “chapter,” a “unit,” or even the most carefully designed series of lessons in May just before culminating in state testing at the end of the year. There is a pretty clear reason we live in the most technologically advanced society in the history of the world, and yet we still have an electorate lacking even basic understanding of some of the key underpinnings of biology as we know it today. This is tough stuff. In the cacophony of tweets, Facebook posts of cats, Donald Trump election memes, competing state and national standards, and an externally-dictated, rapid-fire scope and sequence that pushes us to glaze over deep conceptual understanding… we miss it.

As a district administrator in academic services, I face a regular “Administrator Paradox,” as my former Superintendent, Todd White, referred to it. It is sometimes a “dual truth” that causes us to struggle with those things that lead to “performance” on regularly measured assessments of understanding vs. what we know to be a deeper truth on some level. I know the system needs to move along to achieve wins as agreed upon by state and national standards. Yet, I also know from a career of practice, that to achieve true conceptual understanding of the foundations of biology, we need longitudinal conversations with kids as they grapple with complex ideas at their own pace over time. We also need educators who understand this and are willing to adhere to external pressure, all the while staying true to what we know about children. And learning. And the struggles along the way.

We don’t face the same pressures at home. We don’t do benchmark assessments at home. We don’t do final exams. We don’t halt the conversations at agreed-upon artificial deadlines because we have to. As parents, we set up an overall ecosystem where learning can happen organically. We engage our children here and there and when they are ready. We don’t push when it isn’t necessary. We understand that the only true learning is that which is constructed in the minds of the little ones we are blessed to be near.

I struggle with this every day of my existence. As a school administrator, I am charged with fostering a program that delivers agreed-upon public measures of success. As a parent, I am free to act upon a lifetime of learning about learning. And as a thinking human being, I grapple with these dual truths. Not a single day goes by that I don’t try and try again to leverage my experience as a professional learner at home and at school to design the best system for our children. I listen long, and then act accordingly. I try to make the best of a complex understanding between what I can do and what I know should be.

In 2016, I know we need to break free from “third period;” from the Carnegie Unit. I know we need flexible systems that honor the fact that conceptual understanding doesn’t necessarily happen in a chapter or lesson, or even the most craftily-designed long-term unit. I know schools do not operate in a world apart from the learning that happens (or doesn’t) in our homes. Biology isn’t rocket science. It is messier.

Swimming hole - Evolve 2011

It doesn’t get easier

Seventy degrees in February. On the deck. Eating tangerines and apples. A little kid trying to understand how all of the bits and pieces of the opera of life come together. Our Daddy-Daughter conversation tonight ultimately ended with a short back and forth resulting from this question:

“Here is a question I think about a lot…  why are we even alive?”

The answer to this in my head is an essay. Many essays. I struggle to remember my responses to questions like this in the heat of the classroom. Tonight, however, I left it with a messy bit about how science doesn’t actually seek to answer the why of such things… but rather the how. That other schools of thought are best equipped to address the why. Religion. Spirituality. The interplay between the two, if you believe that exists, etc. My daughter and I had another in a long line of epic chats. As a science teacher, I understand the subtle differences between the scientific search for truth and other fundamental human quests for truth and understanding. Ultimately, I hope that in my lifetime we can find a way to ensure that as a system we understand these complex differences and their inherent challenges… but also that I’m guiding my little girls at home in the way they most deserve.

I know a bit of what works at home. I know a bit of what works at “school.” I wish the differences weren’t so stark. This is a paradox. Dual truths are apparent here. I wish for and commit to working toward a future where these two truths aren’t separated by an artificial wall of our own construction.


*My iPhone photo of Delaney on the deck tonight. Eating an apple. Reading some science. Talking some science. Asking some big, fat “why?” 

*Penrose triangle by Cabrera Photo via Creative Commons on Flickr

*Swimming hole – Evolve 2011 by sand_and_sky via Creative Commons on Flickr





Push the button

Beginning with the end

There…  glad I got that out of the way.  There ended the longest blogless period I’ve had in about three years.  Not that I’ve ever been that prolific.  In fact, I’m pretty satisfied if I get time to write one post a week.  I use Twitter for the smalltalk.  Blogging, for me, is about really exploring ideas from one perspective or another.  However, I’m a bit embarrassed to say that my last post was April 17th.  All that being said, it’s time to get back to the synthesis of thought that I only find through this approach.

For the handful of folks who read this blog, you won’t likely find much to chew on after this one, but at least I’ll get a few things off my chest and get back in the game.  I’ve been in a bit of a transitional period at school (yeah- both technically and mentally).  It might help to toss out a little historical perspective on my responsibilities since I became an educator.

Here’s my career timeline in a really small nutshell:

  • 1992: teacher: 7th grade science & odyssey (multidisciplinary gifted program)  also assistant wrestling coach
  • 1995: teacher: 9-12 general biology, honors zoology, honors botany, science investigations (independent research program under gifted ed.)
  • 1999: started Marine Biology program for upperclassmen in all three public schools.
  • 2004: moved to another SJSD high school to take head wrestling position with superstar brother as assistant.
  • 2007: began life as the generalist instructional coach for my building.  taught one period of Honors Zoology concurrently.
  • 2009: @erinlynnnash took the reigns of Zoology so I could switch to a Dual-Credit course with MWSU called Principles of Biology.  also moved toward a focus of technology integration within my building… a natural fit for me within our IC model.  (my 18th & last year as a wrestling coach)
  • 2011: move to a new district-level position, “Academic Technology Instructional Specialist” within the Curriculum & Instruction office of the SJSD.  this is a smart re-framing of resources for the future.  I will also continue as instructor of our Marine Biology program.

That makes it pretty apparent that next year will be my first year unattached to an actual building.  While I’m a bit misty-eyed at that prospect,  I’m also looking forward to the possibilities within this switch.  The pool of smart, energetic professionals I get to collaborate with just went from from about 70 to around 900.  Fear meet Excitement.  I think you’ll enjoy one another.


This little blogging project began as one small part of my firsthand attempts at understanding the wider ecosystem of the participatory web.  Specifically, what might this realm offer the student (or teacher) in seeking understanding and making sense of the world in which they are faced?  Because really…  at its heart, this is what education at this level should be.  Of course this is my opinion, but making sense of a very complex and changing world is what education in 2010 should be.  No?  I knew what I had been doing within my own classroom.  As an instructional coach, I got to see firsthand what was going on in other classrooms.  However, if I were going to help lead a school toward change in this direction, I had better get a broader view.


In this time, I have explored more cutting edge tools than I could ever highlight on this blog.  I immersed myself in the participatory web as much as seemed humanly possible.  I have made more national and even global connections than I ever thought possible.  Within the past year, I have begun to shake things down to what really works for me, all the while trying to stay abreast of the rest.  If we all learned the same way, this wouldn’t even be a challenge, right?

During the past few years, I sat side-by-side with colleagues as they willingly dove head-first into the realm of anytime, anywhere learning via digital technology. I have led professional development events at my school to bring all teachers into the fray.  I have led classrooms that, bless their hearts, have embraced the still-experimental nature of these tools of communication.  In chatting with my wife and teaching partner about the past few years, the role of reflective and authentic learning instantly came to the forefront of her mind.  Those two elements have truly been our focus.  I always wonder how that would have worked without such a prior grounding in instructional practice & action research.  Probably far less famously I suspect.  Of course, any time I ponder the convergence of the elements of pedagogy, content, and technology, I think of Dr. Punya Mishra and the TPACK framework he lined out with Dr. Matt Koehler at MSU.  I no longer make educational decisions of any sort without without running them through this filter.


As a baby step in engaging the whole of our local educational community, Dr. Jaime Dial and I created the Saint Joseph Digital Express as an adaptable structure for communication into the future.  Check it out.  This network was largely tossed out this past year as a potential learning sphere and will likely serve us well as we move into a more focused future on this front.  I’m also excited to have Will Richardson as a consultant and PD facilitator for the coming year.  He was my suggestion for getting things started and kick-starting the conversation.  Will will be working with local administrators, instructional coaches, and curriculum coaches to help us hone a mission for 21st Century instruction.  Will sets the tone well and sees the big picture of many of these current shifts that have potential to impact the world of education.  From my experience, he is an excellent facilitator and does a really super job framing tough issues and leading large groups in thought concerning these issues.  This work will certainly be translated down to the building level of the SJSD in various ways within the following year and as we move forward.

Might individual buildings move in different ways toward these new ideas?  You better believe it.  As our Curriculum & Instruction department in the SJSD believes, each child moves toward learning in different ways, so we believe in different learning communities moving in subtly different ways to tackle the issues of 2010 and beyond.  We have powerful instructional leaders in our building principals who will take this new learning and apply it as it fits to our schools.  Through our school improvement process and commitment to focused professional development in support of these plans, we all have made serious moves in positive directions in the past five years.


It’s hard to be perfectly patient and excitedly enlivened all at the same time.  Perhaps more than ever I’m happy to be a part of this district at this time. I’m happy to be a part of a public school district that keeps its eye on the ball with regard to instruction…  all the while fueling the innovation needed to stay relevant and authentic for today and into the future.

To my knowledge, in our district the word “technology” has never been included in any job title to date outside of our own Troester Media Center.  TMC is the physical brain of our Internet nervous system with all the associated services.  We have long enjoyed a powerful IT infrastructure with the foresight to deliver potential to each classroom and to deliver it fast.  We have owned our own gigabit fiber optic network joining more than 20 buildings since 1995.  Yes, I said it… fiber.  I’ve had nothing to do with any of those moves.  You can look above to see what I was busy with at that time.  And yet, I was always thankful for each new thing I was allowed to do during that time because of this technology.

Many changes have taken place regarding the world of digital communications since 1995.  Shoot-  many things have changed in the past year.  We are a district currently possessing more kit than 90% of public or private schools I have seen.  We have a K-12 instructional model that increasingly gives credence to a constructivist approach.  What we need now is to connect our gear with our mission.  We’ve had “T” in one silo and the “P” and “C” in another across town.  I believe we are well ready to aim toward true TPACK integration.  For so many years technology was used in large part to facilitate management and operations as well as a rather teacher-directed approach to learning.


Integration vs. transformation

However, in 2010, and for some time now, we’ve needed more.  Our kids need more.  They deserve to emerge from their school experiences tech-savvy and ready to take on the world like modern learners.  Delivering that requires a bridge connecting smart people who’ve been wanting the best for our kids for some time-  while speaking significantly different languages.  To do that we need well-supported tech-savvy teachers.  I’m looking forward to doing what I can to fulfill at least some small part of this effort into the future, for these challenges are certainly worthy. Sliding the title “technology” into any position within C & I is a significant move.  Significant in that it recognizes the importance of modern technology in making learning authentic in a world where information and communication comes increasingly digitally-flavored.  I would love to establish myself as a strong link between the world of slick gadgets and the world of differentiated, student-owned learning.  Instructionally, we are in a really good place-  particularly for a public school system.  Technologically, we have some of the best of the best.  The time is ripe for a marriage made in TPACK heaven.

While I’m leaving day-to-day contact with some really smart friends and colleagues…  I’m looking forward to working with another set of really smart colleagues and increasing friends.  One final thing is for sure-  I’m certainly glad I’ve spent the effort to cultivate a rich and varied personal learning network over the past few years.  Of course I’m going to need it.  I cannot imagine consulting on such a broad range of topics without all of you.  You might want to keep Skype running…



*”Push the button” by INoxKrow on Flickr
*”Moar Cute Duck Bum” by Duncan Rawlinson
*”Integration” by certified su on Flickr
*”go” by A_of_DooM on Flickr.

How do you spell constructivism?

Which letters to use?

Call it what you like: “problem-based learning”, “project-based learning”, “project-based science”, etc. Heck, use an acronym if you want to come off as in-the-know (or snooty depending on who you ask). Regardless of your fondness for the names or symbols, they all surround a solid educational tenet: learning should be experiential. If you cannot provide kids with a particularly valuable experience, then engineer one. Allow virtual experience. Create experience by proxy. Ideas experienced are far better than ideas discussed.

Bottom line in naming almost anything: in order to market something, you can’t just market “something”. Simple enough? I thought so.


In my district, an administrative push toward constructivism in our secondary schools has come complete with labels. It is important to note that I do understand the need to possess a common language. Getting to the heart of any issue is simpler if the involved parties do not have to talk the long way around issues. Get a common set of terms, figure out what they mean, inform all parties, stick with them. I get it.

However, I would assert the thing that gets lost in translation here is the commonality. Science inquiry, reading and writing workshop models, math investigations, and problem or project-based approaches in social studies…  are all learner-centered constructivist approaches. In reforming curricula for school toward the 21st Century, it is important -in my opinion- to focus on student ownership and engagement. Omission of these facets risks an educational system that is even more disconnected for future students than it is for so many today.

The rub

However, there are arguments that fly in from both sides on this issue and they can be quite direct at times. Even a quick search will net individuals and groups who contend that constructivist practices are the hope for the future, and at the same time, the bane of the current day.  Both sides of this argument hold merit.  How can this be, you ask?  Usually when pure arguments fall flat either way, it is due to the fact that the reality is far more complex.  I would go so far as to say that the only people likely failing our children today are delivering instruction in a completely laissez-faire or purely direct way.

If you could just sign the dotted line on your teacher contract and follow one or the other school of thought until the day you retire with little thought, then you could argue that teachers might be paid too much.  In reality, those reading this blog likely know that this is simply not the case.  Learning, and thus teaching, is an incredibly difficult and nuanced endeavor.  My biology background allows me to see human beings as the complex entities that they really are.  Perhaps that is part of my personal angle into charting a path for my students.

My personal approach

I would suggest that my classroom is as constructivist-leaning as possible in secondary science in my corner of the world.  We try to focus on process over content.  As a generalist instructional coach in a high school, I have been perhaps able to more quickly make a move further down the constructivist pipeline considering I have to prep for far fewer classes.  In fact, all you have to do for a glimpse of this reality is peek into a classroom reflection from October 24th.  To be perfectly honest, October 24th of this year marked the first day where what most would refer to as “direct instruction” was utilized in my classroom.

My students are “big kids” and I tend to let them in on these decisions.  It is interesting here to see how many of my students were huge advocates for the “direct instruction” approach to biological molecules.  Even kids who had been brought along this year with nary a hint of teacher-driven content still harbored a longing for it.  However, perhaps they just inherently knew that this was a curricular piece where they would have floundered at first on their own.  We talk about scaffolding in class.  They get it.  They also get those instances where the gap between the curricular goal and background knowledge is just too large to scaffold in an appropriate time period.

Speeding Bullet.

I would have to say that has been building for some time.  A favorite friend and coach (Jincy Trotter) and I, years ago, would lament how our practices at the beginning of the year would leave us “behind” most of our colleagues.  Though we knew we were bringing our kids into the fold the best way we collaboratively knew how, we still felt pressure to “keep up” with the curricular bullet train.

In a constructivist classroom

*The following suggestions are from In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms by Brooks & Brooks, 1993, and were adapted by the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in 1995:

Student autonomy and initiative are accepted and encouraged.
By respecting students’ ideas and encouraging independent thinking, teachers help students attain their own intellectual identity. Students who frame questions and issues and then go about analyzing and answering them take responsibility for their own learning and become problem solvers.
The teacher asks open-ended questions and allows wait time for responses.
Reflective thought takes time and is often built on others’ ideas and comments. The ways teachers ask questions and the ways students respond will structure the success of student inquiry.
Higher-level thinking is encouraged.
The constructivist teacher challenges students to reach beyond the simple factual response. He encourages students to connect and summarize concepts by analyzing, predicting, justifying, and defending their ideas.
Students are engaged in dialogue with the teacher and with each other.
Social discourse helps students change or reinforce their ideas. If they have the chance to present what they think and hear others’ ideas, students can build a personal knowledge base that they understand. Only when they feel comfortable enough to express their ideas will meaningful classroom dialogue occur.
Students are engaged in experiences that challenge hypotheses and encourage discussion.
When allowed to make predictions, students often generate varying hypotheses about natural phenomena. The constructivist teacher provides ample opportunities for students to test their hypotheses, especially through group discussion of concrete experiences.
The class uses raw data, primary sources, manipulatives, physical, and interactive materials. The constructivist approach involves students in real-world possibilities, then helps them generate the abstractions that bind phenomena together

While Jincy & I were busy turning kids on to the beauty of science, assessing their prior knowledge and experiences, engaging them in collaborative situations to teach classroom procedures, and building rapport, our friends nearby were blazing ahead on the prescribed pathway.  Though we mostly caught up by year’s end, we preferred to err on the side of deep student engagement and learning as opposed to curricular coverage.

Original purpose

So perhaps the real bottom line here is that I suck as an educational blogger.  I have been doing this for so little time that whenever I want to drop a cool link on my readers, I end up attaching 18 years of experiential baggage.  Honestly, once again while I read the GenYES blog by Sylvia Martinez, I felt moved to write.  Her post entitled:  What Makes a Good Project inspired me to scribble a few lines in the direction of project-based learning.  Look at what that got me. I guess succinct is just not my style

So to cut to my original goal, the document Sylvia refers to is located here in .pdf format.  This document outlines “eight elements to guide great project design.”  I would have to agree that these are all solid things to consider when planning a project or problem-based learning experience.  The article references Seymour Papert’s constructionism.  This is a very closely-aligned idea in many ways.  The “questions worth asking” is also an important section, especially from the perspective of a coach.  Outside consultation is always a valuable commodity in any worthwhile undertaking.

The important thing to keep in mind here, which is one of the criticisms of “project”-based learning, is that often in these classrooms, the approach means less than the “product”.  If this is your hang-up, then be sure to key in on this quote while you take this article in:

“…artifacts are commonly thought of as projects, even though the project development process is where the learning occurs.”

To me, the bottom line is that this type of learning is often deeper, richer and more memorable than other approaches.  It takes longer to develop.  Even with a thorough understanding of the ways in which a curriculum can contain both coverage as well as depth, this is no easy task.  Our secondary schools largely contain content experts with a smattering of pedagogical input throughout their brief teacher certification experience.

fog birds telephone wire close


So to the millions of content experts without a background in curriculum, hang in there.  Creating a learning environment where the prior knowledge of students is honored is a big step.  Respect of student autonomy and initiative should be encouraged, as well as higher-level thinking and rich student dialogue about content and understanding.  If you are feeling frustrated about a curricular piece that doesn’t seem to fit this approach, it very well may not.  Our curricula have input from many outside influences and implementing one approach to solve all issues rarely works.

If you wonder where, when and how constructivist practices should be implemented into your classroom, find a consultant.  Find someone to help you reflect along the way.  Grab the shirtsleeve of your coach, call your curriculum coordinator, bug an experienced colleague.  Whatever you do, find someone.  Implementing engaging and rich experiences for our kids deserves the best collaboration and reflection you can get your hands on.

What do you call constructivism in your corner of the world?  How do you manage student vs. teacher generated elements of your practice?  Weigh in if you dare…


Schleisinger, Ariel. “”untitled”.” ariel.chico’s photostream. 15 AUG 2007. Flickr. 16 Nov 2008
<http://www.flickr.com/photos /71022595@N00/1125348677/>.
Barnieh, Edward. “Speeding Bullet..” Edward B’s photostream. 03 JUL 2007. Flickr. 16 Nov 2008
Sutherland, Zen. “fog birds telephone wire close.” Zen’s photostream. 01 NOV 2004. Flickr. 16 Nov 2008

Increasing Our Level of “Vitamin A”

Vitamin A?
For the purposes of this post, “Vitamin A” = administration.

Given this equation, you might assume that I am about to promote an increase in administrative positions.  No.  Then perhaps more administrative oversight in education?  No.  Then what?  Have patience, this one requires a bit of setup.

If only it was that simple

The shift
I have personally witnessed a massive paradigm shift in administrative roles since I began my career in education.  Many of the school administrators I first worked with were picked first and foremost as strong managers.  It is pretty obvious from where I sit that the recent focus has shifted tremendously toward administrators possessing strong instructional roots.

I would argue that this is absolutely one of the best things to happen in the recent history of education.  I, for one, applaud this change of tack.  I don’t really have to look too far into the past to find a former administrator of mine who was fond of openly professing the fact that he was not a very good teacher when he was in the classroom.  I really don’t think I want to say much more about that here, nor do I think I really have to.  I am sure the shift toward a standards-based system was the driving force behind much of this.  However, here locally, I really do think this shift happened purely because it is the right thing to do as much as anything else.

So assuming you agree with this premise, let’s do a quick review of what this shift has delivered to this point:

  • School administrators have long been expected to be strong managers of the people as well as the “stuff” of education.
  • Administrators with proof of strong instructional roots are now being sought for even lower-level administrative positions.
  • School and school district administration now tend to possess a stronger command of pedagogical skills.
  • School and district administration are now in a better position to not only oversee best practices in education, but to model and assess these skills.
  • In a secondary school, this equates to an administration ably equipped to monitor and promote strong instructional practice to go along with the solid content knowledge our teachers tend to possess out of college.

So here is the bridge to this argument, and it has two parts.  In my opinion we are much better off than where we have come from in the very recent past.  Of course I am speaking for my own district here, and any attempt to extrapolate outward might not fit so well.  However, I think this is likely to be a nationwide trend.  I would love some feedback from my out-of-district readers in the comments below.  Is this true in general?

However, we still have another shift that needs to happen in short order.  Our world is flattening fast and economically we are faltering in many ways as a nation.  We need to release graduates in May who are equipped to deal with a rapidly advancing technological landscape.  They need to be 18 year-olds who are ready to learn, unlearn and relearn.  They need to be flexible to roll with each technological punch the world throws at them.Firehose Training

Some of us who work closely with kids today realize that our “digital natives” possess a high comfort level with emerging technologies.  However, most lack any depth of proficiency in managing the firehose of information these technologies make available to us.  Most here also lack the attention to a framework of ethics that is essential to the widespread use of these now-ubiquitous technological tools.  They lack these skills because the vast majority of their experience in learning technology comes with little or no guidance…  and it rarely comes at school.

Innate comfort builds strong familiarity with some web common web tools.  It can also build enthusiasm toward a digital world.  However, what it does not provide from the outset is an organized and purposeful approach to the skills and ethics required for life in our increasingly digital age. Our kids get basic content. Our kids nail down the cell theory, figurative language, the civil war and basic mathematical expressions.

But can they efficiently and effectively use the digital tools they already prefer to use?  Perhaps more importantly, do they possess a nucleus of transferable digital skills that will allow them to roll with the “technological punches” of even the near future?  As Will Richardson asks in his article in the latest issue of Ed Leadership, “will they be Googled well?

Rumblings of hope

There are strong rumblings finally taking shape in our district.  A few teachers are finally taking the first steps in mobilizing their classroom toward the simplest of these goals.  The senior students in their classrooms will now leave school in May with at least enough of an exposure in using emerging web technologies to facilitate their own personal learning.  (I suggest David Warlick’s posts on why PLN’s are important – here is one sample.)


I believe that if we continue to offer basic support for these early-adopting teachers and their subsequent students, we will see many more technology-proficient students in our neck of the woods in the future.  But please allow me to suggest that this is not our answer.  This is far less than we need.  This is far less than our children deserve.  Our children deserve the same purposeful attention to technology that we are now systematically providing for pedagogy.

The TotalPACKage
Is one less important than another?  Is rich content less important than skillful pedagogy?  Is technology less important than either content or pedagogy?  I say no, no, and no to these questions.  I am certainly not the only person suggesting this either.  If you have not at least briefly familiarized yourself with TPCK, or TPACK as it is now often tagged, then you owe yourself a read.  Mishra & Koehler first proposed technological pedagogical content knowledge as a real and viable framework for best instructional practice.

In a nutshell, the best teaching and learning take place when an instructor possesses strong skills in not only content and pedagogy, but also in the technology that is related to both.  I scribbled a few words about this here in a previous post. Technology treated as an extra in education is a faulty approach.  It has been a faulty approach for decades and I would suggest that it is an increasingly faulty approach now.

New framework for PD
So how do we get systemic attention to technology in education?  I would assert that this level of attention can only come from the top => down.  We no longer toss out infrequent PD plans toward effective instructional skills hoping they stick.  The “spray and pray” method of PD is slowly being abandoned for more job-embedded approaches to pedagogical revival in our secondary schools.  If it is essential, we build it into the day-  over and over again.  We look for it.  We assess it.  We empower its spread.

I believe that we need a similar approach to educational technology integration.  If you are reading this from an administrator’s desk you may ask yourself “we hardly have time for the learning we now stuff into the school day and the overburdened teacher’s mind…  how can we add this too?”  Here is where I suggest how an investment in increasing the technological proficiency of our instructional staff will pay real dividends across the board.

With a technologically-proficient staff and frameworks to facilitate further learning such as online professional networks, we can build a system that will catalyze PD in all areas.  I believe that arming teachers with the tools for anytime, anyplace learning -and the essential training required to jumpstart the system-  is the way to begin.  This model of PD is producing quick successes on a smaller scale at my school where just this year, we launched a technology-integration cohort of 20 teachers.  I contend that when the remainder of our staff comes on board this next year, we will grow exponentially as a staff.

A call to action
In my building we have enthusiastic leadership toward this initiative.  I believe we have similar enthusiasm elsewhere in our district.  In fact, I know we do.  The “Vitamin A” that we really need now is for our building and district administrators to truly commit to the guidelines set out in the NETS standards for administrators (NETS-A)*.  We need administration that not only advocates technology within curricular adoptions for students (standard II), but also that models technological approaches to enhancing productivity and learning new and emerging technologies (standard III).

These standards were adopted in 2002.  This was really before Web 2.0 tools were widely available.  The NETS standards go through regular revisions.  The student standards were updated in 2007, the teacher standards last summer at NECC 2008 in San Antonio, and the administration standards are set for a big refresh this coming summer in Washington D.C. at NECC 2009.  In my dreams, this post would be a call to action.  It would serve as a gentle suggestion that this conversation needs to flow in both directions.  Not only do we need teachers and students making suggestions upward on the chain of command, we need some vitamin A providing nutrition of this type in the opposite direction as well.

Sign up.  Plan now to go to NECC 2009.  Plan to study this idea enough to make you dangerous (and particularly receptive) when the new NETS-A standards are unveiled there.  Blog your experience.  Join the conversations.  They are happening all around us right now, but in wireless waves encircling our heads.  Join these conversations that are occurring among passionate folks at both national and global levels.

As teachers, we are taking the first steps toward building our “technological health” from the ground up.  We are in need of some good, solid vitamin A from above.

*The current NETS-A standards as of September, 2010 can be found via this post: The NETS-A Refresh.

Artwork thanks:

Chelsea. “”If only it was that simple + 39/365″.” zerba.paperclip’s photostream. 13 NOV 2008. Flickr. 13 NOV 2008 <http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3028/3028300500_cc6e93e0e6.jpg?v=0>.
White, Matthew. “FIRE HOSE TRAINING.” US DOD Homepage. 23 APR 2008. US Department of Defense. 13 Nov 2008 <http://www.defenselink.mil/dodcmsshare/homepagephoto/2008-04/hires_080421-N-1251W-006c.jpg>.
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Blogging: Building Bridges Within The Brain?

If the act of web surfing might keep dementia at bay, then blogging might just allow your brain to outlive your body.


The Context

I found this brief, but intriguing article from MSNBC interesting enough to engage a read-aloud with my Dual-Credit Biology class this past week.  This classroom of curious minds is full of nascent bloggers.  We have begun our journey into the blogosphere within the relatively safe confines (if the global web can be seen as “confined” in any way) of a classroom network on the Ning platform.  Here we have recently dabbled with  online discussion forums, mini-project publishing and blogging as it relates to the dynamic nature of science in general.

One must also be aware that these forms of learning are quite novel at my school of around 900 students in Saint Joseph, Missouri.  I, along with a small cohort of teachers at Benton High, have taken a step into the world of online interactivity and publishing within the standard curriculum of our courses.  After just a month and a half, we have realized the fact that the doors of our classrooms no longer lock tight at 3:00pm.  During even late nights throughout the week, many of our classrooms are still abuzz with content discourse while the mice come out to frolic in the hallways of our aging school.

I have to say, my students have bought in.  I have tried to deeply embed the daily work we do in class with the digital tendrils that run throughout the global web.  It is fun to think of these conversations happening invisibly about our heads as radio signals.  For years I have peppered my classroom mission with this ideal, but this year I have taken a full windward tack toward digital conversation.  The experimental nature of it all tends to dovetail well into the two science classes I teach (Dual-Credit Biology and Marine Biology).  Students seem to come to these classes fully prepared to confront ideas and phenomena they have yet encountered.  I have never taken that mindset lightly in what I do on a day-to-day basis.

The Article

So it is within this framework that a little article like this can get some serious play.  The suggestion that web surfing itself could prolong the cranial excitement that leads to long brain life is powerful.  The main detail that stuck out to me is the fact that fMRI scans of subjects surfing the web were more diverse than a control group who were merely reading books.  In this study, the book-reading participants showed significant brain activity in the temporal, parietal and occipital lobes of the brain.  As the article states, these regions are involved in controlling language, reading, memory and visual abilities.  This surely comes as no surprise to any reading expert as many of our current comprehension strategies are designed to take advantage of this.

However, the brains of those participants who were web surfing showed the same activity.  What is more is the fact that they also excited the frontal, temporal and cingulate areas of their noggins.  These areas of the brain control decision-making and complex reasoning.  More still is the fact that this effect was only noted in those subjects who had prior Internet experience.

“Our most striking finding was that Internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading.”

If ever there was a solid suggestion that a non-webbite should get on the Internet…  and now…  this could be it.  The fact that a discussion of these ideas can take place for fifteen minutes in the lives of open-minded teenagers is pretty stimulating.  To know that what you do now can effect the neural wiring of your future brain is pretty compelling.


Going Beyond

If mere web surfing can be such rich exercise for gray matter, then the act of blogging just might build the kind of active brains we strive for in education-  for blogging, is not your garden variety writing exercise.  My first experiences with blogging last March were personally empowering for many reasons.  Not the least of which was the fact that I soon felt like I was engaging in a type of writing that went way beyond anything I had done to date.

After authoring a few trial pieces to see what the phenomenon was all about, it occurred to me that I was engaged in far more than I had ever been while solely journaling.  I remember talking this out with several of my closest educator friends.  I remember making a comment that what I was doing felt like some type of “connective” writing-  perhaps even a different genre.  Of course, what felt like a shiny new endeavor to me was already a published entity.  In fact, in Will Richardson’s 2006 book, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms, “connective writing” is mentioned as somewhat of a new genre starting on page 30.  Finding this little gem made me feel a little less of an explorer, but was certainly validating.

Richardson describes this type of writing as being, “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.” He goes on to drive home the point that good blogging requires far more critical reading than might be immediately noticed by the casual reader of a blog.  There is far more rich goodness in this chapter than can be related in this post, and I highly recommend the book to anyone looking to engage students in the pedagogy of blogging.

Bottom Line

Academic blogging is rigorous synthesis.  It is an activity than can certainly enhance your classroom, and potentially extend the life of your brain.  As I finish up this post, my wife @erinlynnnash just chimed onto the Twitterverse with a somewhat-related line from a Flobots song:  “There is a war going on for your mind.  If you are thinking, you are winning.”

Perhaps this is a better mission statement for our school than the one we last authored.

Artwork thanks:

Mao, Isaac. “Brain.” Flickr. 13 June 2005. 18 Oct 2008 <http://flickr.com/photos/isaacmao/19245594/>.

“tmcnamee”, “Old World Brain.” Flickr. 03 APR 2007. 18 Oct 2008 <http://flickr.com/photos/mcnamee/445793409/>.