The Humanity of a S.S. Officer


When I taught The Cage by Ruth Minsky Sender over the past few years, my students found it difficult to understand the compassion of one of the guards in the story. They couldn’t see these beastly men and women in a kind light. We had wonderful conversations about how someone could be both joyful and monstrous which helped my students to see the complexity of the war from an individual’s perspective.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is currently featuring an online gallery of photos of S.S. solders in casual settings. The pictures, from a 60-year old photo album, are a powerful illustration of the human side of these men and women. Seeing them laughing, posing, and celebrating will surely spark some interesting discussion.

via Boing Boing

Rap for English

I’ve been playing around with the idea of doing a blog for my middle school focusing on using rap lyrics to get at daily oral language and to build vocabulary. I think the potential is definitely there. I’m worried about two things. Can I come up with material consistently enough to make it worthwhile for the students? Secondly, can/should I use an appropriate portion from an inappropriate song? These are middle school students so it gets a little iffy and the county I’m in is pretty conservative. That being said they are having a Souljah Boy dance party at our school and played a clip from the song today on the intercom. So maybe I could pull this off.

I’d love to use lyrics like the ones below from TI’s “You Don’t Know Me”

You gone make me bring da chevy to a real slow creep
My Partner hangin out the window, mouth fulla gold teeth
When the guns start poppin, wonder when its gonna cease
choppa hitchu on the side and create a slow leak
We can end the speculation cuz today we gone see
What’s the future of a sucka who be hatin on me
i don’t care about the feds investigation on me
I don’t care they at my shows and they waitin on me
Ima keep a flossin poppin long as Toomp is on the beat
Tell police that I ain’t stoppin Ima keep it in the streets
Contrary to yo believes, im as real as you can be

You’ve got great vocabulary in there and you could come at this two ways- have them “translate” this into formal English or write it in formal English and they have to figure out which song it’s from. I’d probably use the former more but the latter would be nice for a change every so often.

The formal version-

Sir, you are going to force me to drive by you slowly in my Chevrolet.
My friend will be leaning out of the window. You’ll notice his teeth are covered in gold.
When the firearms begin to fire, you’ll likely wonder when they are going to cease.
If a bullet impacts your lower abdomen you’ll start to bleed slowly.
There’s no need to speculate because today we will find out for sure
what will be the fate of the unfortunate individual who covets my stature.
I am not concerned about the ongoing federal investigation of my person.
I am under surveillance at my performances and they are waiting for me yet I remain unconcerned.
I will continue to seize life with a joie de vivre as long as the music continues.
Inform the police department that I will continue to be true to my self.
Contrary to your beliefs, I am a forthright and honest individual.

It’d be hard to keep it up on daily basis but even if I had to avoid violence I could probably dig up older stuff. I know I’d have to get it started with new songs though- get some momentum going.

What do you think? Doable? Worth the time/effort? or am I just amusing myself?

A 6 Word Story and A 4 Slide Sales Pitch

I heard an amazing graphic designer say something about loving restrictions because they force creativity (a great podcast from SXSW). That’s something we ought to use, as well as do, in teaching.

So let’s start by restricting the students . . .

6 Word Stories
This is a great way to get students focused on story elements and on clear, concise language. They’d also be great writing prompts. This link is to Say It Better where I found the post and this one is to a much larger list of 6 word stories at Wired. Some of the examples have non-school safe language so you probably won’t want to send students right there.

My favorites-

With bloody hands, I say good-bye.
– Frank Miller

Machine. Unexpectedly, I’d invented a time
– Alan Moore

This assignment forces a lot of deep processing and creativity. You could also use it as an option for your vocabulary work with bonuses for good “stories” with more than one vocab word in them (used correctly of course). You might want to expand the word limit but make things hard for your students. Difficult and creative is the opposite of boring.

4 Slide Sales Pitch
It’s similar in idea to dy/dan’s four slide sales pitch.

how well you can sell yourself in four (4) picture-only slides. No audio, no video, no hyperlinks, no multimedia miscellany. Just pictures and text. Make us want you.

This is another great way to get students (and teachers) thinking about economy in how they present information. This is really higher level thinking and I like the combination of visuals and words that the presentation option allows.

There are lots of ways to use this and focus it on content as well. A four slide bio of Ghengis Khan. A four slide summary of whatever. Then you can embed the slide shows or stories in WordPress blog posts with the star ratings plugin and let your kids vote on their favorites- instant interaction, real world audience and content review, mix in some comments and you could even get peer editing going on.

You could even combine the two and come up with a four picture 6 word story (or go crazy and give them 10 words). Maybe one week you pick the pictures and the next week the student who “wins” the contest picks them.

Wikipedia Mindmap – more data visualization!

Wiki mindmap fish

Wiki Mind

This is a really cool free site that’d be great to use in the classroom.

You pick a topic from wikipedia and it creates an interactive mind map of the content. Click on the pluses and topics expand. You can even change the “center” topic of the map on the fly. Lots of cool stuff you could do with this and it’d be a great way to get to those visual learners that don’t respond well to outlines or even static mind maps.

Too bad you can’t point it at any mediawiki site. That’d really open up some interesting options in the classroom.

Exhibit and Data Visualization

Exhibit V2

The kind and brilliant folks at MIT have come out with a new Exhibit API that allows for more flexibility and power. The bonus is that it looks good doing it. I’ve now revised my Google spreadsheet fed history example to use some of the new power. It’s here if you’re interested.

In the end I opted to mimic their new presidents layout (much like I mimicked their old presidents layout). This time I had a better reason than pure ignorance of the API (I now have impure ignorance after all). Their new layout is really right in line with what I’d like to focus on this year- data visualization/interaction. The new layout has the map right their with the time line. I like that. Time and location on one easy interactive page. Add in their option to sort and hide/expand sets based on the data you define and you’ve got something really powerful that will help students make connections.

A simple example is if I restrict my set to show only “explorers” then suddenly in the map and the time line things change. I notice explorers were mainly earlier and than none were born in the Americas (obvious to you and I but maybe the spark some kids need). Then I switch map views and I see that explorers did die in the Americas which leads into a conversation about the dangers of exploration and their root causes, motivations for enduring the dangers etc.

In the end, I feel I’m getting closer to Hans Rosling (I didn’t say I was there). My goal is data that is powerful and interactive. That’s what I feel is most impressive about what he shows. He gets data moving and that helps you see trends. Now if we could manipulate that data it’d be even more impressive. We need things like that for students. Exhibit is a big step in the right direction with the added bonus of being free and driven from a spreadsheet it becomes nearly irresistible. With the multiple authors that Google spreadsheets allows it can basically become a really interesting wiki interface driven by material your students create.

I’m working on re-writing the tutorials to reflect the new version. I’m not quite smart enough to follow the simple upgrade instructions so I figure some others are in the same boat. Maybe there’s a reason I didn’t go to MIT . . .

Magic Bullets Don’t Exist

Techlearning has an article that was passed around our school email celebrating Eight More Reasons for Technology in Education. After reading it, I’m feeling a little like the crab in the photo above.

Now you may have noticed that I?m a fan of technology in education but I feel this list is, for the most part, the kind of thinking that leads people down very wrong roads. We’ve been looking for a savior for education for a while. It’s time we started realizing the savior of education must be the teacher- use all the tools available but it’s really up to them/us/you.

You can read the point by point below or my summary here.

Technology does nothing by itself. Technology doesn’t change teachers or how teachers teach. It simply makes certain changes easier. The sooner we stop celebrating magical techno things that don’t happen the sooner we’ll have real conversations about what needs to happen in school. Teaching with technology takes just as much work and planning as teaching without it (if not more in many situations). This is no Utopian ideal. Teachers need staff development, planning time and lots of hard work to start integrating technology into the classroom in the ways described below. Technology doesn’t make it happen- teachers do.

  1. Using technology involves the student in the learning process. Students using technology become active participants in the learning process instead of passive listeners.—- Technology doesn’t do this. Good teaching does this. Technology often makes this easier to do and leverages student interests but ask anyone who’s had to sit through a two hour Powerpoint if the technology engaged them in the learning process.
  2. Using technology eliminates most discipline problems. When the student is involved in the work, there is little time for trouble.—- It’d be interesting to see how many teachers with one to one laptop programs would agree. Technology does nothing to eliminate discipline problems. Technology does, once again, help you design engaging lessons which do decrease discipline problems but not because of technology.
  3. Using technology allows students to take ownership of the project. When the student is empowered to find his/her own answers, the learning process becomes much more interesting.—- A well designed lesson gives students ownership. Technology can’t do that. That has to be done by the teacher in partnership with the student. You’ll find the student can find their own answers in books, from people or on the Internet. It’s not about the technology, it’s about the ownership.
  4. Using technology transforms the teacher from authority expert to facilitator.The teacher becomes more of a participant than authority expert when the students use technology to find answers online.—- Bah- technology doesn’t change teachers. Having students find answers online doesn’t change a teacher into a facilitator any more than having a student find answers in books. Changing your teaching style to take advantages of the increased access the web gives you might transform a teacher but it’s a change in mind set not in technology usage.
  5. Using technology is familiar to today’s students. Technology use is part of the normal learning process for students; it is in their “comfort zone” and teachers often learn new technology programs along with students.—- I’m game up until the part about teachers. I don’t think teachers commonly learn new programs with students. I’d love for that to be the case but it doesn’t really seem to be what happens in real life.
  6. Using technology reduces the workload on the teacher. Technology as a tool enhances, and replaces, text, paper and pencil because students can use technology for both reference and presentation.—- I’m not sure about this connection. Because students can use tech for reference and presentation then the teacher’s workload is reduced? It might reduce the student workload but I don’t really agree with that either. It can change what they spend time and energy doing.
  7. Using technology allows for a smooth transition from school to work and school to college . Technology is used everywhere – in math, science, engineering, transportation, manufacturing, and every business application you can think of. From sales transactions and inventory control, to e-commerce, the uses for technology are limitless.—- I agree with this with the caveat that technology is used in relevant and real world ways. That’s certainly not always the case in schools.
  8. Using technology allows for the free exchange of information. The widespread use of compatible word processing and graphic software programs allow information to be exchanged easier than ever before.—-
    Well, technology allows for this. Too often schools often go to every length to make that exchange impossible.

Mock Powerpoints

I don’t know who did it but there’s a great bad powerpoint version of the Gettysburg Address. It summarizes the points in an effective, and humorous way.

The students would create the notes the speech makers would need, set the agenda etc. Everything a really bad business powerpoint user would need. This is a great way to really explore a famous speech or historical document. You’d have to really examine the document/speech, the speaker etc. The key would be NOT to have them present for real but demo the presentation to the class explaining why they chose certain aspects of the presentation etc.

It’d be a lot of fun and require lots of deep processing to make it funny. I’d love to see a bad powerpoint version of Macbeth’s soliloquy or The Constitution etc.

Google Earth – The Next Level


I found this KMZ file the other night. It’s really the greatest Google Earth file I’ve ever seen.

It’s tracking bird flu but it’s doing it through, time, space and evolution. It creates a three dimensional representation of the changing aspects of the virus as it moves from carrier to carrier and place to place.

There’s a video showing what it can do and explaining things here.

The source file is over here.

Why am I so impressed? Mainly because it’s a perfect representation of data visualization. It shows a completely different way to use Google Earth. Who would have thought to use a geography program to track the evolution of a virus?

This kind of convergence is amazing and examples like this can lead to some amazing connections. It can also lead the way for other creators to start using this application in different ways.