Welcome VSTE 2007 Attendees

Welcome participants of VSTE Conference. If your looking for blogging resources connected with our presentation “Bob on Blogs,” you will find it here. Feel free to look around and comment while you’re visiting, and make sure you subscribe to or bookmark the blog. We update it several times a week.

FlashFace (aka the Literary or Historical Persona Creator)

flashface screenshot

My title makes it sound much more academic so use it in the lesson plan and flashface with your kids.

A fun way to get kids thinking about the characters in a novel or history. Send them to flashface and have them create their characters for use elsewhere (as icons for blogs). Bonus points for aligning them to the descriptions used in the work.

site found thanks to-
Ideas and Thoughts

Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia – Quotes for Education

I listened to Net@Nite today. They interviewed Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and it was pretty interesting but had nothing to do with education. That did not stop me from applying some of these quotes directly to what we do.

“This idea of- it’s not really about the software, it’s about the people. It’s about helping people find resolutions to problems and being supportive and loving and at the same time being firm with people who are trying to disrupt things. That’s really what it’s all about.” – Jimmy Wales
“Ask anyone who’s every tried this. This is a very difficult balance to strike.”- Leo Laporte

Leo’s preaching to the choir here. That line is very hard to walk and it sounds an awful lot like good classroom management- but with voluntary students. I always wondered would my students stay if they didn’t have to. Did I make their experience that good? Sometimes I did. I know I also failed at times and that’s where the next quote came in-

“A long term project of learning, experimenting, you know trying things.” – Jimmy Wales

To me that’s teaching. A long term project of learning, experimenting and trying things. If you aren’t changing and experimenting and learning right along with your students something is wrong. Several of my disaster lessons led to my best teaching ideas. You can learn a lot from falling down.

“The most important thing is that it is fun. Just the fact that you can come in and meet other smart people who are interested in what you are interested in, get into to interesting dialogs and debates that are hopefully a little less contentious and flame-warish than most places on the Internet and really kind of seek the truth and I think people really enjoy that.” – Jimmy Wales

That’s the goal isn’t it? Imagine students grouped by interest, conversing and debating on topics they care about. Seeking truth and really enjoying it.

Trying to create that kind of community of truth seeking learners motivated by joy is what drives me to change our school.

-These quotes are based on my dictating ability so assume there are some mistakes. I am not a stenographer.

Creative Communication

I’m going to be co-teaching a class for our county’s administrators on creative communication. The idea is basically that email is boring and often ignored so spicing things up really helps for important communications. You can check out some of the work of my co-teacher, Jen Maddux, below (a few more of her movies to follow later).

A Moment of Zen

I’m watching the Grammys and was moved to tears by Ludacris and Mary J’s performance of Runaway Love. It was about the hard life for girls in the ghetto. There was so much truth in the lyrics. I see it in my classroom. Their performance was followed immediately by James Blunt singing You’re Beautiful. Blunt’s ballad about a girl he sees once and immediately falls in love with is pure romantic fantasy. I could see nothing but two very different worlds in these songs. Placed back to back, they flooded my head with the faces of my students. These two worlds collide in my classroom everyday. We sit on a fault line where some students take a week for vacationing while others take a week for fighting. The dynamic is both exhilarating and exhausting.

This week I was found by a former student. She is 25 and thinking about a life of teaching. She wanted to know the truth, so I told her about the planning. The days where I never see the sun. The inspirational speeches. The glimmering eyes. The students failing because of their homes–not their heads. The rigged-up, shower curtain projection screen. The conversations about which foreign language to take or what it means to be a real man. The first time they laugh at my stupid jokes. The way they change when they realize I’m not going anywhere, and I deeply care about them. The parents who don’t return calls. The days where I remember why I show up each day, followed by the days where I pine for a job in retail, or fast food (usually as the “fry guy”).

I wanted her to understand that educators have to be the most forgiving people in the world, because students need someone who will give them a fresh start each day. She needed to know that we are justice workers. Our job is to help these kids realize they have value in a world that sees them as a commodity. In the end, educators walk the line between “the haves” and “the have nots,” and their ability to maintain equality in the classroom and a love of learning are their most effective tools.

She asked if she could call back from time to time, so I must not have scared her away.

Happy Monday. Keep fighting the good fight.

Mac Apps Roundup

I don’t believe I have publicly professed my devotion to Mac here, so this will make it official. After a week of tweaking our blogging presentation, I finally sat down in front of NewsFire to dig through my subscriptions. I found a few jems I would like to share in the software department:


First is Think from Freeverse. I realize our students love to multi-task, but there is value in being singularly focused at times. Think is a little app that blackens everything on your screen but the window you are working in at the moment. My first thought when I encountered this program is that it would be great for freewriting in the classroom. No distractions, just write. It may also be a tool to keep you kids from jumping between programs when you are not looking (seems harder to hide a screen while running Think).


Next is Pukka, a Delicious client. This little jem is my new favorite app. Pukka is an alternative interface for posting to Delicious. It gives you the freedom to manage multiple accounts (thank GOD), and caches all the tags from ALL accounts. If you highlight a section of text before clicking to post, the text is automatically copied into the description window.

I modified it with Growl so I’m notified of the successful post while I continue to work.

Finally, Peter Baer Galvin has posted a HUGE list of “essential” Mac apps. If you’re a Mac user and itching for a new toy to play with, this list is bound to have something fun to discover.

Pukka from Code Sorcery Workshop
Think from Freeverse
via TUAW

The Outsiders Vocabulary Blog


I know how tedious vocabulary can be–I’m an English teacher. I have a list of 60ish vocabulary words for the novel The Outsiders (Do it for Johnny!). In previous years I have handed out the list, sorted by chapter, and asked the students to define them. I would put a selection of words on the test to ensure the kids did the work, and hoped that the words would stick. I’ll be honest with you, we would be lucky if they remembered a third of those words. I wasn’t happy about this.

This year, I decided the vocabulary needed to have more value. I asked Tom to talk through it with me, and we came up with The Outsiders Vocabulary Blog. The students had access to create posts–as opposed to simply commenting on my posts. They drew one word out of a hat and completed a word study on it. The posts were sorted by chapter and part of speech. The result is a comprehensive vocabulary database for the students, and another vocabulary tool for teachers. Two classes worked together to create this glossary. They began to see the benefit of collaborating. By breaking the list down, they were able to get more out of the work.

Along the way the students received mini lessons in citing sources, scanning a text for specific content, etymology, and web publishing. WordPress blogs have a wonderfully tired system of access, so though students could create posts, they could not publish them.

I gave the students time in class to work on this project, and I had zero unfocused students. Classrooms of students engaged with the content while seeing the benefit of community.  I go back to the blog to talk about parts of speech, or my students are pointed to the blog to discover new words to use in their writing.

Audio Book Reviews

byrd books

Way, way back in May of 2005 I had the following idea-

Audio book reviews-
This is something Steve Dembo of Teach42 and I discussed. I’d like to see short podcast book reviews attached to the school library database and in RSS feeds. How cool would it be to look up a book and be able to listen to the reviews of other students. Having a RSS feed for various types of literature would also be good. This would seem to encourage both more reading by listeners and more reading by those wanting to make podcast reviews.

That idea is (at least partially) coming to fruition now. Mainly because our librarians and another teacher I work with frequently came up with it on their own and got me motivated. It’s odd how circular somethings are.

We’ve started a Byrd Books blog with audio, video or text reviews of book submitted by students. The posts and thus the books are also rateable by other readers through a neat ajaxy star system.

I’m going to work on creating dynamic pages and feeds based on book type and reviewer so you can subscribe to just the book type you like or to the reviewer of your choice. I also need to install a tagging plugin. I’ve been really happy with the flash player plugin. It’s just slick looking.

I’m working on getting it integrated with our library database (at the very least linking directly to the book’s page in our online catalog- a big hassle so far) but to be honest I don’t see that that happening anytime too soon.

Of course it won’t matter if no one busy in but I have high hopes (as usual). I really see this site as having the potential to become part of the community with parents and teachers submitting quick reviews as well as students.

Tagged- How Do I Write?

Pete Reilly (tagged by Miguel Guhlin, who was tagged by Brian from Bump on the Log) tagged me with the “How do you write?” meme. It’s been a long time since I’ve been involved in one of these (May 24, 2005 to be exact).

I’d say I write based on glimpses I see of possibilities- mainly ways to make aspects of learning fun and interesting that I’ve seen taught (or have taught) in ways that bored both the students and teacher. I get them from boingboing, podcasts, rap songs just about anything.

While I don’t have Pete’s eloquence, why I do this might be a little more interesting. That’s what these memes are really about after all, a deeper look at all these people who are your friends, collaborators and colleagues but who you often know surprisingly little about.

I have a decent IQ. I test pretty well. There were lots of reasons I should have excelled at school. I didn’t. I did middle of the road work and took middle of the road classes. In high school I mostly slept. My mother was constantly asking me why I didn’t take more advanced courses if everything was so boring and easy. My reply was that I was not in the market for a greater quantity of boring work and that was all I saw occurring in so called AP classes.

College was a repeat of high school in many ways. The majority of professors sat at the front of the room and talked for the majority of the class. You then turned in papers or took tests. There were some exceptions but that was by far the majority. I was not surprised or even angry as I really hadn’t seen many teaching styles that were radically different.

I never considered education as a career. I was planning to be a lawyer. I visited a law school and decided that was not for me. Four years later, I started my third career as a History and English teacher for 6th graders at an “alternative” school. I had never taught or so much as taken an education class. I was replacing a veteran teacher who quit two weeks into the school year. I was terrified. The night before my first day I really felt I’d made the worst mistake in my entire life. It was absolute insanity for quite some time. No one checked in, no one observed me. It was a sink or swim situation.

I learned as I went and leaned on my wife (Masters in Education). I didn’t use text books and I made virtually everything we used from scratch. As I was a terrible disciplinarian, I had to focus on getting their attention and maintaining it. I couldn’t do that with textbooks and worksheets. I focused entirely on taking what they were interested in and figuring ways to use that to teach the state curriculum. We did rap lyrics for DOLs and played the songs if they answered them correctly. I had whole units centered around animal attack stories and UFO abductions. We had iBooks and we used them all the time. It was crazy and exhausting but I ended up loving it in ways I would never have guessed and can’t really explain. I passed on taking my current dream job mid year because I didn’t want to leave these kids.

So the short version is I write this blog because I had/have no use for the traditional school model. I write because I was forced to teach in a different way, a way that I think will reach more kids. I write because I love the moment when you can see a different way to teach something. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t but there’s that shining possibility out there and I want to share these ideas in the hope that maybe I can make a change. I guess that’s the bottom line. I want to change things. I want school to be different. I’d like school to be a place where students and teachers are excited and interested in what they’re doing each day. Arrogant though it may be, I think I can play a role in making that change.

Oh yeah, and I tag Ben and Todd.