Hollywood Cemetery – Preliminary Thoughts

Hollywood Cemetery

I’m pretty excited about a new project we’ll be working on this year. We’re going to look at a local historically significant, but still active, cemetery through a variety of disciplinary lenses. Hollywood Cemetery is the permanent home of two presidents of the USA (James Monroe and John Tyler) and one president of the CSA as well as a variety of other interesting local people. Dr. Ryan Smith from VCU’s history department has already had students doing quite a bit of work with local cemeteries. Back Story also recently republished a podcast (Grave Matters) which mentions Hollywood cemetery quite a bit and is all kinds of good. Even the Girl Scouts have some great information on Hollywood Cemetery1. So that brings up the question- What can we do that hasn’t been done and how can we make this something really valuable to the community- both locally and at large?

SA Lacy

The Players and Their Lenses

Looking through the lens of sociology, Dr. Susan Bodnar-Deren will be helping us think through work around mortality, social status etc. by analyzing the data from gravestones.2 Dr. Bernard Means will be bringing an archaeological3 and 3D imaging background4 that he has honed in VCU’s Virtual Curation Lab. Dr. Ryan Smith will round out our professorial group with his focus on history. I will be playing the motley fool who is trying to create workflows, repositories, and visualizations of these data that make sense and are useful. In the end we hope to have the potential for at least one, and possibly more, interdisciplinary courses that focus on Hollywood Cemetery. Additionally we will create an interactive, informative, and interesting way for a variety of audiences to interact with the information we gather.

Open to the  public

I think that universities should focus more on how they take advantage of where they are geographically and use their courses to create value for students and community members because of their location. It is rare for non-educational organizations to have the energy, people, and time to attack a project like this. VCU is only minutes from so many historic areas. We could do a lot of good. Location is part of what makes VCU unique as a university. Here is a chance, one of many, to create real value for scholars and community members while driving student learning in valuable and interesting ways. Win, win, and win.

SA Lacy


  • Name
  • Date of birth
  • Date of death
  • Implied/Defined Gender – guess based on the name or defined through statements like “wife of/husband of”

There’s the obvious data associated with grave markers (although even this varies a good bit).
From this we should be able to figure out the age at death and we should be able to divide the data by quarter decades and see it broken down by gender. I need to think through how make this most efficient technically. Currently, I’ve been playing with a Gravity Forms to WordPress post solution and then pulling the birth/death data from the Gravity Forms database. It may be more sensible to do that another way, maybe custom post types and custom metadata.

There’s also an entirely different world of additional data that reflects everything from the time period and religion to economic class and the age of the deceased. I need to consider the way this data will be used and the workflow in gathering it so that we get what makes sense with as little pain as possible. It is interesting how quickly I find I need better, more specific words than I currently have. Taxonomic considerations like this are always interesting. It may be that a chunk of these don’t matter but I find it helpful to start big and then slim down.

  • Type of marker – statuary? marker? mausoleum/shrine?
  • Construction material – limestone vs granite vs iron
  • Size
  • Iconography – engraved or the shape of the marker itself, same/different as other stones within the plot/locally
  • Stone location – family plot, top of the hill etc.
  • Epitaph
  • Descriptors – wife of, son of, etc.

The key is trying to think through how people will want to see and interact with this information. We have lots of audiences and I’d like to make a number of them happy through different interfaces but we’ll need the core data to do that. It’ll also be important to think through how to deal with incomplete data- grave markers without birth dates for instance.

Hollywood Cemetery Map

I can see at least three main interfaces – one would be focused on the grave markers themselves (something very visual with some sorting/filtering options), another interface would be built around an aerial view of the cemetery (current map is pictured above), and the third would be a data focused interface which may be modeled after GapMinder.

There would also be the possibility of writing posts that reference various grave markers in the collection. If we leave trackbacks on, we should be able to automatically interweave the resources (individual grave makers) with larger understandings/narratives simply by linking back to them in the larger analysis posts. I think that simple but also pretty interesting. It’d also be interesting to see how and how frequently different grave markers are used over time.

1 Warning- Word document

2 Already, I feel the need for better vocabulary. Grave marker maybe?

3 His Death and Burial course sounds pretty awesome.

4 Incorporating these types of files has led to all sorts of interesting 3D js library exploration.

Best Practice, Shared Resources, Tools and Community

Mike Caufield’s post made me realize I’ve done a pretty poor job of publicizing what we’re trying to do lately in good old HCPS1. So here’s my attempt to put this out there for people to spot holes, misdirection, etc.

Setting Best Practice

We’re turning to video for best practice more and more. We’re doing that for individual subjects, certain pedagogical techniques, major tools like IWBs (no luck so far) and for other things you might not expect like administrator training.

We have a whole series dedicated to illustrating the art of the post observation interview for our administrators. It’s a three step process so for some of them we now have the planning conference video, the class itself and then the post-observation wrap up interview. That allows administrators to see the steps of the process, put themselves in the classroom to gather data and then watch how that administrator wraps things up. This video series supports a larger web based structure that has different observational tools, process maps etc. We tend to use the videos when the administration is brought together. They’ll watch a video, break it down in small groups etc. etc. and then be directed back to the main site for the tools/process maps/documentation.

So that’s the relatively simple part.

Here’s where we’re attempting to merge a lot of things in a flowing loosely linked communal animal.

What we’ve had in the past are courses usually based on applications like this one I did on Google Earth many moons ago2. There’s some attempt there to provide content based examples but there’s lots of failure points. In some ways the discussion of the pedagogy gets in the way of how to use the application and vice versa. Additionally, there’s no way to communicate, rate or contribute anything back. People could find errors, crazy ways to make things far better etc. and I’d never know nor would anyone else. This is a dead site and there are many like it scattered across the HCPS intranets. They have additional problems like being hard to find, being rarely updated and often ending up off kilter in terms of best practice (both demonstrated and as examples).

So here are our steps to getting this right.

Step one – Set best practice district wide.

Framework – We’re doing this through the TIPC. It’s a mix of a condensed version of P21 and ISTE standards mixed with some student centered and constructivist beliefs. This provides a pretty decent tool for self-reflection and is extensible enough to be used to develop walk through tools.

Best Practice Examples – We’re taking this on in two ways.
Video – We’re video taping exceptional teachers and lessons and making them available in a variety of formats with and without annotations to illustrate key points. We’ll also be working on combining the video with the resources from the lesson when possible.

Content – We also wanted to reward and publicize the teachers who were creating exemplary lessons according to the TIPC. That led to the Henrico 21 awards. There will be 15 winners from k-12 who will be recognized publicly and given a cash prize3. Their winning entries will be published and shared according to some of the ideas I laid out here.

We had about 600 submissions to this contest with about 7GB of student artifacts as well- that doesn’t include a lot that was on linked web pages. We’re in the judging stages right now. It’s been very interesting to think about these submissions as a way to snapshot where we might be as a district in terms of understanding and implementing the TIPC.

How Do I? We have created modules for each category of the TIPC (they still need a lot of work but here’s one). These modules focus on why these skills are important, stress the conceptual understanding, and have some minor examples of how they might be used along with some basic tutorials.

Paralleling these modules we have tool based databases that tie the tool to the concepts and to tutorials on how to use the tools themselves. The databases also need some serious work.

So clearly there’s a lot of work still to be done and I haven’t even gotten to the interweaving portion yet.

Linking It Together Conceptually, I don’t think the majority of k12 teachers browse for information on increasing creativity in the classroom. They’re more likely to be looking for the things that the state says are important like SOLs. So we put up our best practice examples with SOL tags. Then the goal is to look at those lessons and see what the likely support needs for a teacher attempting these lessons will be. That’s where we link in the conceptual frameworks and the tool tutorials. We also want the reverse happening. If a teacher is participating in a course on creativity we want that module to link in the best practice lessons and have the tutorials available as well. Cross pollination is the goal both because it’s more likely to get teachers involved and doing things right and because we have too many pieces of content living on lonely islands.

The other aspect here is an attempt to create a community talking about these lessons and teaching in general. There will be commenting and rating for the elements. More importantly, I’m going to make a concerted effort to get people commenting. I feel this is key and can be an amazingly powerful aspect of a site like this. I also have no illusions about how difficult that is going to be.

Checking for Change So we need to see if doing all this stuff is making a difference and that is where the Reflective Friends process comes in. Despite the awful name4, it’s a pretty intense and powerful process. We did this for 3 high schools this year and will be spreading it to 7 or so next year. Basically –

General data collection about the learning environment and how well aligned it is with the T-PAC model and 21st Century classrooms.

In this option, data collection tools will be used that look for the presence of the following indicators:

* Student centered learning activities
* Critical thinking and problem-solving embedded in the learning activities
* Opportunities for communication and collaboration in the learning activities
* Learning activities that foster student creativity and innovation
* Opportunities for students to find, evaluate, organize and synthesize information
* Use of technology as a tool for meeting all of the above indicators

These data will help school faculty and staff determine their baseline level on each indicator and identify areas for future professional development and training.

Data are gathered through classroom observations and teacher/student interviews. That data is compiled and shared with the administration. We then meet to analyze the data and discuss next steps. It’s really an interesting and intense process.

The results of the Henrico 21 submissions next year will also help us gauge where we are as a district.

I think it’s time to stop now. I’m not sure how clear I was but it feels good to get a chunk of this out of my head. It’s a lot to do and think about that’s for sure.

1 When I have to leave Jim Groom length comments there’s a problem.

2 Yes, it makes me cry too

3 Yeah, I’m not sure money is the right path here either.

4 Critical Friends was seen as too intimidating. Seriously.

Plague: Romeo & Juliet Poster

How do you make people want to know more before you start a topic1?

I liked this whole series done for Science World by Rethink Communications. Think of this idea as visual pre-reading. The posters get you curious. Curiosity is good.

I’d like to make a series before starting novels and post them around the room. It’d work nicely for history as well. The key, in both cases, is to focus on what would capture the interest of your students and make a strong connection to something they do like and understand2. It’s likely you and your English teacher friends are not like most people. You’re going to like oblique references to Kafka- your students, not so much. Remember to think about things normal people like. This is another reason it’s good to know your students and to pay attention to the many realms outside of education.

A quick mock up of a poster for Romeo and Juliet.

Rationale – Remember this isn’t meant to strictly portray what happens in the play but to get students curious and interested in what might happen. The line has been beaten to death but it seemed like portraying it more literally and with a dystopian-future twist would capture some attention.

It also has a chance to resonate because of all the terrorism and killer virus scares going on. The biohazard sign is shaped like an “A” so I left that out of the quote. Leaving out the “A” also increases the focus on the fear word – “plague.” “O both your houses” kind of reminds me of “all your base are belong to us.” I may be the only one to think that but it amuses me.

The students may or may not recognize the biohazard symbol for what it is but I think they’ll understand it enough to draw them in. I believe there’s a fine line between hitting their interests, being patronizing, and doing things that are played out.

I’ll probably get around to making a few of these for some other pieces of literature and maybe some historical figures as well.

—Advertisement found via Ads of the World which always has interesting stuff.

1 I’m going to pitch this from the teacher does the work POV but you could just as easily work the idea into student projects based around lines or facts.

2 Note to self- There’s a big difference between making something less sucky and actually making it interesting.

Sharing Ed. Content In Ways That Don’t Suck

I work in a decent sized school system. We have 69 schools and about 50,000 students.

That means we have a lot of teachers, a lot of teachers teaching the same content, a lot of teachers struggling with the same problems, a lot of teachers re-doing work that’s already been done.

At a district level we spend untold hours and untold amounts of money trying to provide support for teachers and trying to promote best practice. We have teachers who exemplify the concepts we’re trying to share but they are, too often, unknown outside their school, or their grade, or their subject, or their classroom.

So our current goal is to end anonymity, to effectively publicize best practice on a global level. One of the ways that we’d like that to happen is through online content distribution and building conversation around that content. The ability to put multimedia content online is nothing new. What has changed is the facility with which it can be done and the ability to easily have conversations1 around very specific pieces of media.

Changing the concept

It’s important to look at how educational content sharing has failed in the past and present if you’re going to try to get it right. I looked at as many different online sharing options as I could find.2 I’ve also been on the user end of a number of systems.

I think we can go ahead and skip the file hierarchy systems. They suck in such a huge number of ways. There’s no visual, no readily available meta data etc. etc. Their one benefit is they’re easy to publish with but that’s not much of a benefit when no one bothers trying to use them.

The place I’d like to focus is on the database backed web content creation systems. I think it’s key to have them on the web and open to anyone who’s interested and it’s key to have the database backend to prevent needless duplication and other hassles for the creator and consumer.

There are two big places these systems tend to fail. They can fail to provide what the consumer needs and/or they can fail to facilitate the creation of content on the producer end. I’m arguing that these two aspects are more tightly linked than it might initially appear. I see both issues stemming from a misunderstanding about what teachers want out of these sharing sites. Most sites focus on providing a highly structured and rigidly standardized lesson plan format. Essentially, ‘Here is your lesson in a box.’ I don’t think that’s what teachers want and it’s certainly not the way you get teachers thinking about changing practice. The other path for these sites is ‘Here’s your widget to add to your widget collection.’ The most interaction either option tends to give teachers is the ability to rate the content.

I think we’re pitching the wrong content and doing it in the wrong way. “This is perfect. Download it and follow the directions. We know what’s best.” is not a message that works. People drop in, they glance around and if they don’t find engaging content before having to go download a file, they leave.

My Pitch

So here’s my pitch on how I’d like to see this system work.

Philosophy: Teachers are looking for inspiration and community as opposed to directions. This is as much about the conversation that occurs around the content as it is about the content itself. As a result –

  • loosely structured narratives should replace highly structured lesson plans
  • content should be housed in a way that encourages conversation to occur around it (as opposed to elsewhere)
  • it’s not just about perfect finished products, this is a valuable space for exploring ideas


Main Page: On the consumer end, you have to make this content look interesting and keep it fresh. What shows up, as well as how it shows up, is absolutely key. So my main page would be very similar to the way a number of consumer sites work. I think those sites have quite a lot to teach in terms of what people expect and want when browsing for content online. I think iTunes is an interesting model to look at. It has a wide user base and I think it does a good job of displaying content.3

Picture 4
We’re not talking rocket science here. Many blog themes also echo this display format. Essentially, you’ve got a larger box that is animated and shuffles editor designated content. Then you’ve got some content showing up based on user interest and activity. All of this is visual and allows the user to drill down into more specific detail. It is simple but it’s also the opposite of nearly every education based website I could find that shares content. Apple’s Learning Interchange gets close on the display side. I also really liked the revamped look of the CUNY Commons site. Compare these initial interfaces to sites like Merlot, Lola or the OER Commons. I’m not arguing content, social purpose etc. here. I just want you to look at the page and compare how you feel viewing it.

Search: The next place people will end up is the search page. There are so many ways this is done in unpleasant ways. I’ll use the Merlot example below because it’s actually one of the better options but suffers from pretty universal flaws.
Picture 5

The only image on the page is the “Editors’ Choice” badge. The data is laid out in ways that don’t really take advantage of the space, nor do they use formatting to help make the data more legible. I found the dual star based review systems somewhat unpleasant and for some reason it was hard for me to count the stars. What data is present in this view should also change pretty radically if it doesn’t function as a link to other information in that same category.

I remade it with the same essential information below.

Picture 8 4
or alternately
Picture 9

In a perfect world, I’d probably have a number of things activate based on mouse overs. So you could get a better description if you wanted it but a lot of the initial interest would be based on the look, title and metadata regarding ratings and conversation.

That’s probably enough for now. Next time around I’ll get into tagging, searching, aggregation and what the content and conversation might look like.

1 I’m defining ‘conversation’ pretty loosely here.

2 Feel free to send me any good examples you’re aware of. I have no need of additional bad examples.

3 Music is not an inherently visual piece of content but album art has played a major role in its packaging for some time. iTunes certainly takes advantage of that.

4 You may say that image sucks and has nothing to do with the content. I’d agree except it’s from the content which sucks in ways I have a hard time explaining.

Tolerance Interview

This is an interview with Wiley Hunnicutt who discusses a unit she did on tolerance with 8th graders at Byrd Middle School. This particular version is for a PTA night there having that focuses on 21st century skills and technology integration.

Wiley1 is an amazing teacher and speaks passionately and intelligently about this unit. I’d be happy to have my children in her class.

Tolerance Unit from Tom Woodward on Vimeo.

Things about this video that I don’t like.

The sound is all jacked up. We had to shoot this in a room with multiple servers running and it was incredibly noisy. I tried dropping it out but the result is pretty tinny and slightly mechanical sounding. Additionally, I learned that if you edit the audio after clipping the video it won’t apply across clips and you’ll have to edit each clip individually. I do not recommend this.

It’s not bad for one camera man (me) shooting from two cameras but it’d be nice to have some B roll to mix in. I didn’t spend as much time as I should have balancing the look of the two cameras either. The levels are not the same and that’s irritating. One of the issues is that any time I do anything to the clips shot on the 5DMKII I have to re-render and that is incredibly annoying and time consuming. That’s one reason I went with black and white. It was easier to get similar looking colors and I figured it was appropriate given the somber subject. I worry that it’s a little melodramatic though.

In the end what I really want is to splice student work, classroom shots from the project and interviews of the teacher and students into a more complete picture of the unit. That’s our next step with these videos. We’ll then put them on the web with student work samples and tag them so they fit in with our 21st century skills modules.

1 For those who’ve been around since the Bionicteacher days, Wiley was one of the teachers who did the Richard III blog with me back when I worked at Byrd and actually saw students occasionally. The other teacher was Jim Coe, who used to write on this blog before retiring.

Conan the Barbarian Has the Answer

You probably don’t remember the scene. It’s below. Very short. It came to me this morning.

“What is best in life?”

Such a perfect question with which to plumb the depths of historical or literary figures1. English and History uses abound2 Don’t play it seriously. There’s a reason to use a cheesy Conan quote to introduce this. It ought to have some humor. As always, your example will be key. Make it good and then break down with the students why it is good.

  1. The simplest thing is to play the clip. Discuss it. Now the students assume whatever persona and write the three3 things that person would say are best life. The things that are best have to be concise and quick. I’d probably have them write explanations for their choices for proof of processing/show your work purposes.
  2. More – Students work together in groups to write the “best in lifes” for a number of figures with another figure as final judge of what is right.
  3. Even more – The class votes on the best answer and mash it into the original video. I’d probably do this with every major section. These videos then become a collection for later review. You’ve got two choices here. You could just dub your best Conan impersonation into the video as is or you can make your own yurt set and film your students doing the lines dressed as the persona.

Note the image below is a crappy 5 minute example and a bad summary of their positions. This is a difficult activity to do well. It takes time and a deep understanding of the individuals to do it properly and that’s exactly what makes it good. The image does do a decent job of showing how you might use other media types if video doesn’t interest you or isn’t an option.

what is best in life IM chat

1 Imagine it’d work for scientists or mathematicians

2 It also gives me a chance to do my Arnold impersonation.

3 Number of your choosing. 3 is a good number but make sure you keep it limited.

Looking at Poetry Through Wordle

I know, late to the party, but I wanted to do a little more than say “Hey, wordle is pretty cool and stuff. You should use it.” So here’s how I’d use Wordle to attack poetry.

Take a few poems from the poets you cover, mash a few of the poems together, and create a wordle for each poet. Then have the students match them to the author.

The Stevens one is pretty obvious with blackbird standing out that way but the other two will require a little more attention. The key is to make them identifiable but difficult. Too easy and it’s useless. If you presented these as problems to be solved at the beginning of the unit then you’d be able to get some interesting conversation going1. I’d post them on the wall as big posters and maybe let people put their votes as to the author under each. Then they move their vote each day as students find out more about the poet and their works.

So for Wallace Stevens I picked the poems available in Wikipedia – “Anecdote of the Jar,” “The Emperor of Ice Cream,” “The Idea of Order at Key West,” “Sunday Morning,” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

And I did a few Richard Hugo poems as well- “Death Of The Kapowsin Tavern,” “Degrees Of Gray In Philipsburg,” “Farmer, Dying,” “The Church On Comiaken Hill,” and “Underwater Autumn 2.”

And finally, some Marianne Moore poems.

Maybe you end it with the students creating their own wordle based on their favorite works from their favorite poet. They pick and justify the font, orientation etc. of the wordle they create for the poet based on his/her personality3. If you’re looking for a paper, the student could also explain how the wordle accurately/inaccurately portrayed the poets work.

Alternately, it’s not a bad assessment. You can have students ID the author based on wordles you create showing their understanding of the poets and the vocabulary and subjects they tended towards. Or go to the next level and have students hand create4 wordles for poets explaining how and why they made certain decisions.

1 Especially if you were say looking at poets from the same genre as opposed to my odd personal selections.

2 Believe it or not, I did my first web project on Richard Hugo in grad school during a brief flirtation with a Masters in Liberal Arts which ended when the free classes did.

3 Hugo’s wordle should have had pretty depressed, muted colors for instance.

4 adding the words they see as representative as opposed to creating them by cutting and pasting poems

Honda’s Musical Road

The Santa Monica ad agency RPA cut half-inch grooves into a quarter-mile stretch of Avenue K, in the exurban L.A. desert city of Lancaster. The grooves were synched in such a way that driving over them at precisely 55mph caused Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” — a.k.a. the Lone Ranger theme — to echo in the air around you.

So how cool would this be for physics, science and math? Lots of concepts to explore in a simple entertaining little Youtube clip.

Wonder what it’d take to make your own version? Not necessarily with a real car- maybe a remote controlled model?

Passive Aggressive Learning and Other Drivel

These things are less techy and more inspired by pop culture once again but I thought they were worth remembering.

RSS, DIY, Technology, RSS and Passion
Scion Crest Generator – While the choices aren’t unlimited, this nice flash interface will help you make a lot of different crests. The real power would be in requiring logic for the various choices and in that way the restrictions almost work for you- less time in building and more time spent on why your choices make sense. You could do this with just about any character or historical figure. The really nice thing is the image sizes are really good- up to 2048×1536 so you could print them out and do other things with them or just use them as a starting point in Photoshop or some other image editor.

For instance, I made the crest above for this blog. The wrenches on the left to represent the DIY ethic of much of the stuff I like. The circuit board patter on the right to represent the technology. Then the broadcasting icon represented RSS to me and the fire is for igniting a passion for learning. The wolf is because I like to bite people. I just liked the wolf, a little gritty and banged up from the real world. Corny, I know, but you get the idea.

It’d also be a fun first day, get to know each other activity for younger grades.

Passive aggressive notes via Mental Floss – I can just see all kinds of fun with this concept.

There’s the semi-obvious W. C. Williams “This is Just to Say” poem option. Then you have the students write similar passive aggressive poems “apologizing” for things in the style of other poets.

You could warm the students up by having them write passive aggressive notes first in the style of current pop culture icons. Not exactly current, but Mr. T keeps springing to mind.

I pity the fool
that left those plums
in that icebox.

I won’t spit
no jibba jabba
about being sorry
I ate them.

Mr. T’s gotta eat too.

What kinds of passive aggressive notes would various characters/historical figures leave for one another? You could even get into what they’d write on/with and why. What would their handwriting look like? You’ve got some flexibility in terms of using scenes from the play or real life set ups (Marc Antony and Brutus are sharing an apartment for example).

Take for instance in Julius Caesar, Marc Antony leaves a note for his roommates-

Friends, roommates, countrymen,

Someone has borrowed my car without asking and only one of you has the spare key and that person is Brutus.

I know Brutus would never, ever borrow my car without asking. And if he did, as a “honorable man,” he’d at least have the decency to fill it up with gas when he brought it back because after all he is an “honorable man!”

from Act 3. Scene II of Julius Caesar

And just for fun . . .
Nature abhors a vacuum – the perfect shirt for your favorite science teacher

Pop Culture and Education Omnibus

A few odd educational goodies from today’s RSS soup. I lay them out here for your dining pleasure.

Mental Floss serves up Monte Python clips referencing all sorts of classic literature. References include- Proust, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, Dickens and others. A great way to start of a class or provide a little levity when things are rough reading.
They’re linked through on YouTube for your use but if that’s blocked don’t forget about Vixy.net to download them.

Boston.com’s “How to Nap” infographic
would be a great way to re-think a project or report. Check out just how much information is crammed in there. You want some deep processing? Get your students creating something this dense in a way that’s visually pleasing and doesn’t feel oppressive.

Crop Circle
The Pi Crop Circle via the Uri’s Eso Garden Blog
makes for some really interesting math related conversations and possible activities. Give them the image and tell them it is a code for pi and see who can figure it out. You could make one about pi or any other significant number or date. There would be lots of hands on measurement (angles, lines etc.) and thought involved (use chalk on the parking lot if you’re fresh out of local barley fields or maybe you’ve got a local field of tall grass).