Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sharing Some Spring Break Reading

I rarely post Book Talks on the blog, but I spent a lot of my spring break time reading.  One of my goals this year was not only to read more consistently but also to share what I read with others, particularly my students.  I'll be Book Talking these four books tomorrow, so I thought I would share them here as well.  All of these books would be considered "young adult," but some appeal to a younger age group than others. I really enjoyed each of these books for different reasons.  Each of the book titles is hyperlinked to its page on Amazon, so if you think it sounds like a good read, buy it!

The first book I read what When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead.  Originally released in 2010, this book is about a young girl named Miranda and her journey to solve a mystery.  It's set in the 1970s in New York City, and Miranda and her single mom are trying to find their place in the world.  In between going to school, dealing with bullies, and coming to terms with changing friendships in her life, Miranda is helping her mom prepare to be a contestant on $20,000 Pyramid with Dick Clark.  This is a short, quick read, and just as the age of the main character suggests, the book is aimed toward a younger adolescent audience, probably 4th-7th grade.  However, don't take that to mean that the book is juvenile. It has a well layered plot and rich, complex characters that deal with real life problems.  I found myself thinking about how relatable these characters would probably be to my students. Stead does a great job of building suspense as Miranda unravels her mystery.  Another thing I loved about this book is that Miranda's favorite book is A Wrinkle in Time, one of my favorites and one of the books we read in my class. This was a great little read that would definitely draw in reluctant readers from the start.
The next book I read on my break was Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein.  OH MY GOSH I LOVED THIS BOOK! I don't typically get into historical fiction, but this book dragged me in from the very beginning.  It is the story of two best friends who meet in the British Royal Air Force during World War II.  I hesitate to say any more than that because the order in which information is given to the reader is part of what makes this book so awesome.  This book came out in 2013, and I noticed on GoodReads that it appears to be the kind of book that you either intensely love or don't like at all. I will say that while the book focuses a lot on planes and flying and used lots of technical language with which I wasn't familiar, I found myself focusing a lot more on the intimate friendship of the two main characters.  While the backdrop of this story is World War II, and it is obvious to me that the author did her research, I feel like this is less a story of war and more a story of the lengths to which we will go for the people we love and adore.  It's a story of loyalty and faith and goodness in the face of evil, and it made me cry a lot (in a good way).  I haven't read the companion novel Rose Under Fire yet, but I'm a little afraid to read it because I loved this book so much that I'm not sure the companion novel can live up to it. While I loved this book, I do feel like it was a little mature for some of my 7th graders.  I probably won't keep it in my classroom library, but I have a few students who are really interested in this time period, and I'll probably check it out to them.  
The third book I read was so much more than I thought it would be.  At first glance, Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi looks like a "boy book" through and through, especially with the brightly illustrated zombie head prominently displayed in the cover art.  This book is the story of three boys who discover a zombie apocalypse taking hold in their town and then take a stand for survival.  Because of the way the cover was illustrated, I thought this book was going to be written in the style of Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid series or James Patterson's Middle School: Worst Years of my Life. However, I found when I opened the cover that this book was all words and no pictures.  Despite the lack of pictures, this book reads fast and is full of action.  It would be a great transition book for students who are stuck on Diary of a Wimpy Kid or Big Nate books.  In addition to its place as a kind of transition book for reluctant readers, I also loved that this book was so much more than a silly zombie book.  This book tackles real issues, like immigration and food quality, and it does it in terms that a seventh grader can understand.  I also loved that this is a great example of true science fiction.  It's a story about human beings, solving a human problem that was created by taking science too far, and finding a human solution.  Overall, I was really impressed with this book and found myself having a hard time putting it down.  I think I'll probably have a hard time keeping it on my classroom library shelf, too. 
The last book I read over spring break was Hollow City by Ransom Riggs, the second book is the Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children series.  I read the first book in this series when it first came out, and I felt like it was good, not great.  Then, a few months later my book club read it, and they overwhelmingly disliked it.  When the second book came out in January, I was hesitant to buy it because I worried that if I didn't love the first book, I probably wouldn't love the second one either.  However, I decided to give it a try over spring break, mostly because middle schoolers love these books.  The creepy old photographs that correspond with the story are brilliant, and they keep kids so interested in the story.  Despite my skepticism, I feel like Ransom Riggs ironed out some of the imperfections of Book One in Book Two.  Hollow City picks up exactly where the first book left off.  The children are running away from their home to London in order to save the world of peculiardom and their beloved protector, Miss Peregrine.  Obviously, their journey is far from easy, seeing as it takes a solid 400 pages to tell the story, but the troubles they meet along the way are dangerous and interesting and kept me turning pages for two days straight.  I felt like the pace of this book was much better than the first one, but part of that was probably due to the fact that so much had already been explained in Book One.  A third book is coming out, so there isn't a lot of resolution at the end.  Instead, it takes a wonderfully unexpected twist, which I really appreciated.  There's no better way to keep a middle schooler reading than to leave them totally hanging at the end, and that is exactly what Riggs does. 

So there's my spring break reading in a nutshell.  Hopefully, my students will come back with book recommendations, too, so I'll know what to read next. Wishing everyone a wonderful week!

Sunday, March 9, 2014

SXSWedu Reflections: Finding "Ed" in "EdTech"

In an effort to write a somewhat cohesive and organized reflection on my SXSWedu experience, I decided to give myself a couple of days to just let the whole experience sink in and marinate in my brain.  I also had to catch up on a ridiculous amount of grading on Friday, so there's that, too. Over the past few days, I've read several other critiques and reflections on the conference, mostly written by teachers and instructional technologists, and the general critique seems to be pretty consistent; if you're going to call it an education conference, it should be more about education and less about the edtech business. 

In some respects, I agree with this assessment.  I definitely felt like, as a classroom teacher, I was in the minority at this conference.  I think there are probably several different reasons for that.  For one thing, SXSWedu is not designed to be a "teacher conference."  The sessions and panels aren't meant to provide you with a lesson or set of information that you can take back to your classroom and immediately put into practice.  Instead, they focus on policy and development.  These sessions, panels, and forums are meant to make you think.  And to be totally fair, not every teacher feels like they have time for that.  I actually loved that the focus was more on the conversation about where education is and where it is going and less on what I'm doing in my classroom tomorrow.  I found it refreshing.

Everybody has an opinion about education because most people have kids in the education system, and we are all products of the education system.  What I liked about SXSWedu was that they brought into focus the large variety of opinions regarding education.  Having the opportunity to hear Diane Ravitch speak and compare her views to those of Wendy Kopp, the CEO of Teach for America, and then go listen to Vivienne and Norma Ming talk about how the edtech industry is steamrolling education instead of supporting it was such a unique experience.  Instead of filtering the conversation to push a particular agenda, the conference just put all the opinions out there.  Personally, it was really eye-opening for me to hear so many different perspectives.  You only grow if you get out of your comfort zone, and I was definitely pushed to do that last week.

Even though, as I said, this conference was more about thinking and less about applying specific strategies to my teaching, I did set some solid goals for myself and my practice after this week...

  1. I want to redefine my practice.  I am so fortunate to have technology at my disposal everyday in my classroom.  I want to look at my current assignments and redefine them, so that I'm doing things I couldn't do without the technology.  On Friday, I took my first baby steps toward this goal by having my students screencast their Book Talks using Educreations. I'll post the best Book Talks on YouTube, so we have an authentic audience.  Be on the lookout for that!
  2. I want to create my own textbook.  I went to an awesome session about iBooks Author led by two Apple Distinguished Educators.  I've had this program on my Mac for about a year, but I haven't played around with it very much.  This summer, I plan to get serious about creating my own grammar textbook.
  3. I want to make my classroom an "incubator of creativity, imagination, and joy." This was my favorite thing that Diane Ravitch said in her talk.  This is what all our schools should be.  I know Benchmark is coming up and lots of people are stressed about how all the snow days might affect our students' scores, but I'm sticking with Diane on this one.  She said, "The trump card of American society is not the ability to fill in the right bubble. It's the ability to think outside the box." Man, do I agree!
  4. I want to make time to "unplug." It's probably weird that this was one of my takeaways from a tech conference, but I went to an awesome session with Carl Hooker, and it inspired me to take a timeout from technology on a more regular basis.  Even though technology has made our lives easier in a million different ways, it's also made it harder for us to connect with others on a deep, personal level.  I want to make sure I don't become a digital zombie, and I want to make sure my students can find that balance, too. 
Overall, I would say my first SXSWedu experience was a very positive one. It forced me to think a lot, and it made me want to strive to be innovative in my practice every single day.  I heard such a variety of opinions and ideas; some of them were frustrating, some were eye-opening, and some were affirming, but all of them made we want to be a better teacher, both for my students and for my fellow teachers.  We have to take risks if we want to keep making our profession look good. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Thoughts for my First SXSWedu

I am excited to say that I'm currently sitting in Austin waiting to kick off my first SXSWedu experience by listening to Diane Ravitch speak. I feel like there's a certain irony in that statement--the juxtaposition of someone very anti-privatization and commercialization of education kicking off a conference all about the EdTech startup.

Yesterday, as I was traveling to Austin, I had a very different set of thoughts than I did back in November as I traveled to Boston for NCTE.  In Boston, I was surrounded by other teachers, learning from other teachers, and sharing with other teachers.  When my team presented at NCTE, I was so nervous  because other teachers were judging the merit of what I had to say. A jury of peers is always more daunting than any other.  They know what you're supposed to be doing, and they probably think they know how you're supposed to be teaching it, too.  Let's be real, we're talking about teachers.  We all like to be right.

Anyway, in November it turned out that all my worry and stress was for nothing.  People actually showed up to listen to us speak, and seemed to be excited to hear what we had to share! As I headed to Austin yesterday, I realized I didn't have that same nervous feeling.  I think part of that is that I'm not just speaking to teachers here.  I'm also sharing the story of my classroom with developers who want to understand the "human element" of implementing 1:1 technology in the classroom.  I can imagine that when you spend your days with computers and adults, it might be hard to predict where problems could occur.  

Yesterday, I was talking to Dr. Michael Mills, who very kindly invited me to be at SXSWedu and who has co-taught several BYOD lessons with me in my classroom, and we realized that we've never taught a 1:1 lesson that has followed the lesson plan.  I wrote about one of our edtech fails last fall.  While this may not sound like a positive to some teachers, I reflected that those "fails" or "monitor and adjust moments" have actually helped my students learn more than they would have learned had we only been teaching the stated lesson objectives. By learning with and grappling with technology, my students are learning flexibility, patience, and creativity.  They're also learning to see their device as more than just a toy or a distractor.

The thing about the generation we're currently teaching is that they've been taught since a very young age that a phone or a tablet is simply a tool for their parents to keep them occupied or a tool for them to drive away their own boredom.  By the time students get to me in seventh grade, they're just starting to realize the social potential of their devices.  I really believe that it's my job as their teacher to help them find the purpose of a personal device as a "life tool." In addition to teaching traditional literacy, I think it's important for me to teach digital literacy skills, like effective search terms and website reliability. 

Now don't get me wrong, I fall into the same routine as my students when it comes to using my device as a time waster.  Yesterday, I watched "30 for 30: The Tonya Harding Story" on my iPad during my layover at the airport (it's awesome, in case you were wondering).  I checked Twitter constantly and kept up with my dad's progress in the Little Rock Marathon via Facebook.  There are a lot of times when I'm worse than my students when it comes to technology addiction.  I feel like that's ok sometimes.  lt gives us a place to "connect," both in conversation in the classroom and to extend the classroom conversation beyond the confines of the 50 minutes I spend with my classes each day. 

I'm excited to be at SXSWedu to share my perspective and personal experience with edtech, but I'm also really excited to learn from lots of people who have lots of experience that will help me grow in my work as a teacher. I'm looking forward to sharing my learning and my teacher tech goals at the end of the week!