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Flop of L’Enfant April 8, 2007

Posted by Michael McVey in Lifelong Learning.
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Joshua Bell   There was an intriguing article in the Washington Post entitled “Pearls Before Breakfast.” Imagine, if you will, a world reknowned violinist, Joshua Bell, playing his 1713 Stradivarius, but instead of a concert hall he is playing in the entrance to DC’s L’Enfant Plaza during morning rush hour.

Over one thousand commuters pass by, some toss money into his violin case, but only a very few pause long enough to take in Bach’s Chaconne or Schubert’s Ave Maria. It is a great article and the online version has three video snippets from the experiment.

There are two theories at work in the piece. One theory is that we are ignorant oafs who wouldn’t recognize brilliance if we shuffled past it on our way to work. The other theory is that context is everything. In one part of the article, an art curator from the National Gallery speculates what would happen if he pulled, say, an Ellsworth Kelly out of its frame and hung it up near the gift shop with a price tag of $150 on it.

Ellsworth Kelly, 1951
Ellsworth Kelly, 1951, Colors for a Large Wall

The effect, the curator speculated,  would be similar to the subway concert. Few would notice, few would be impressed.

So here is the question. Do we pass by our own genius every day? Do we stifle our talents and replace our dreams with our daily lives? Are we listening to ourselves? Are we respecting our thoughts and ideas? Perhaps context really is everything. If you believed you had a spark of the divine within you, a small glowing ember, would you feed it, fan it, and make it flicker aflame in the dark?

Even better, would you teach your students as though they each cradled within them a little spark of genius? Would you be more generous with compliments? Would you be more thoughtful about your comments? Would you bring your own dreams and energy into your classroom in the hope that you would inspire, feed, and encourage something much larger than yourself?

I was once invited to treat all students in my classes with honor and respect because there was no telling which of them was more brilliant, more sensitive, more aware, more in tune than I ever would be. It was good advice then and still is.


Science Fair 2006 March 24, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Lifelong Learning, Students.
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winners   Last night, the Tucson Convention Center hosted the grand awards ceremony for the citywide science fair competition.  The evening’s guests were students from kindergarten through fifth grade.  My daughter and her two friends decided to strategize this year and produced a team project.  Their thinking was that, as a team, they would have less competition and a greater chance for an award.

Their strategy paid off in the form of a third-place ribbon for each of them.  Of course, the down side of the team’s strategy is that individuals would not be eligible to attend the International Science Fair as observers as part of the discovery channel program.  The girls were willing to take this chance.

Their project consisted of an analysis of different insulating materials on the internal temperature of a hot box, which they created.  They monitored the temperatures on the inside of the box with electronic thermometer.  Just for fun, they placed a mouse pad made of neoprene in place of the other materials they were using for installation, and discovered that neoprene possessed tremendous insulating factors.

I believe that if the girls had analyzed the qualities of neoprene, perhaps under a microscope, or researched the properties of neoprene on the Internet, they may have placed even higher in the rankings.  As it was, they were quite excited to place at all and proudly walked across the stage last night.  They remain firmly convinced that any one of them could someday grow up to be an engineer or scientist of some note.

On the drive home from the ceremony, we were already planning the project for next year.

Math Confidence March 13, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Lifelong Learning, Students.
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Mathematics   Congratulations to Linda Griffin who is now living in Oregon and today became the newest holder of a doctorate in Educational Leadership. Today was the day of her dissertation defense and I was honored to sit on her team. Her dissertation was based on work that she did while she was a teacher in the Catalina Foothills School District and dealt primarily with what is known as the confidence gap that students sometimes experience in certain difficult subject matters.In Linda’s case, the subject was mathematics and technology for girls in the eighth grade. At the heart of her dissertation was the idea that sometimes, during middle school, girls lose confidence in their skills at doing mathematics. This confidence gap occurs even though the girls are not showing a lack of subject competence.

Linda was the able to analyze the influence and impact of a program designed to bolster the confidence of girls taking mathematics and learning how to program computers. Although the results of this particular study with this particular population in this particular program were not statistically significant, there was enough potential in the methodology to warrant further study.

As the dissertation team members posed questions of Linda, it slowly dawned on me that students who are well trained in the basics of mathematics and for whom basic arithmetic is almost automatic would have much greater confidence and a greater sense of self-efficacy than students who lacked automaticity of their basic skills.

Even more important than this, I watch my own daughter who dreams of being an engineer and wants to work on spacecraft or in the field of astronomy and I worry that the broad board of confidence she treads upon today will become increasingly narrower as she progresses through school. I want so much for her not to fall off and lose interest in math, or worse, come to believe that she cannot do mathematics.

I believe that as a parent I can do more than simply stand on the sidelines and wait to catch her if she falls.

Sundance and Films March 9, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Lifelong Learning, Literacy.
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sundance   Since I cannot get up to Utah to attend the Sundance Film Festival, I am doing the next best thing, watching some of the short films online. The motto for this year’s festival appears to be “Keep it free.? After the reminder from some of my blog readers that free software is the only way to go, I am even more delighted that the Sundance organizers have put so many short films and short documentaries online for the public to preview.

Actually, the short films have done something else for me. They have punctured my pride and, of course, we all need that. Yesterday, I put the final changes on a film I made for the staff at my College. It will premiere at the Staff Advisory Council awards luncheon in May and it is my little way of giving a little thanks to my colleagues for all their hard work. It consist of clips all chopped into a montage of their daily work lives. Some parts moved quite well, some were a little heavy handed, and I may have broken at least one copyright restriction, but my pride in my workmanship and editing prowess was taken down a notch or two after watching the excellent films on show from Sundance.

As I type this, I am watching Before Dawn, a winner at the Festival. The director shot the entire film from the perspective of a single camera panning and tilting from a single position. In a single shot and in fewer than twelve minutes, it wordlessly told a powerful story of desperation and hope in the hour before sunrise.

Inspiration March 7, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Lifelong Learning, Online Tools.
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inspiration   Today I introduced students to Inspiration, a remarkable graphical organizer tool. Sometimes I fall flat on my face when introducing this tool, but this year I put so much excitement into the presentation, I hope, that I think I made an impact.

The ability to make boxes and connect lines to them is something you can do with PowerPoint or even Word, but Inspiration does it brilliantly. In my own world, I have used Inspiration for studying for Comprehensive Examinations, outlining writing projects, and helping my daughter with her homework. One semester, my daughter’s teacher asked her to list everything she had studied in Social studies that year to date. The reaction was as expected; randomly remembered items tossed down in no particular order.

Using Inspiration, we did the same random recall exercise but noted everything on the computer screen in small boxes and balloons. My daughter’s job was to drag these balloons together to help her to organize and classify the topics under study. Once we did that, we developed titles for each of the areas such as American Politics, Presidents, and South American Civilizations. With a single click, we transformed the drawing into an outline, which she then fleshed out on the word processor.

I have been showing this program to teachers not for what it does but for how it empowers teachers to try teaching in new and interesting ways. I am anxious to see how my class tackles this particular challenge.

Boxed Scientists February 21, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Information, Lifelong Learning.
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Scientist   There is a neat little site on the web called “Who’s the Scientist?? in which seventh grade students describe a scientist and sketch one, then visit the Fermi Lab and meet working scientists. The descriptions shift from nerdy and geeky to cool and interesting.

I think that such a transformational shift is something that educational technology, specifically Information Communication Technology (ICT), can and should be doing in the classroom. When you can bring “in? to your classroom a scientist, explorer, politician, professor, executive, police officer, or actor using a web cam or e-mail then why not do it? The benefits to the students might be a slightly better understanding of a process, theory, policy, or career but the overwhelming benefit would be the opportunity to interact with a human being.

We tend to box people, staple labels onto people and ignore their years of life and experience to make the label stick and work for us. When I was a young teacher, I was Mr. Poetry then I began teaching a class in Science Fiction writing. I became Mr. Sci-Fi. When I began teaching more Special Education classes, I became Mr. Special Ed. It did not matter who I was or what I had been interested in, for people who were meeting me for the first time, they had to print up a mental label and pop me into the box. Now I am Mr. Technology. That is fine with me since the label allows me the opportunity to enter seamlessly conversations of my peers.

Students receive boxed and pre-packaged views of what people really are. They base these views upon what they do now and what we see of them. Get to work alongside a scientist for a while and you will see the person the scientist is. This theory goes for anyone. Work with a custodian and you will learn about that person. Work with a police officer, a doctor, a mechanic, an artist, and you will find out about the person. It seems basic, I know, and too simple a concept, but when students try to find their way in life they are always startled to learn that career people are not the career caricature promoted in the media. We cannot blame the media; the stereotypes are shorthand. They are colors in a writer’s palette. The simplifications help the writer to guide us to the message at the heart of the story faster.

The problem with stereotyping is that there is less “gray? and more absolute. There is one opinion and there is the opposite opinion. There is very little “in between.? When you enter for the first time the world of the caricatured scientist or career person, you have cognitive dissonance and you try to match your preconceptions with the new data hitting your senses and your mind.

When you think of the act of bringing in a guest speaker from that perspective, it makes the Adopt a Scientist programs [more links here and here] even more important. You may be cracking a young person out of a stiff and distorted view of the world and making those young people a little more sensitive to new ways of thinking and giving them the opportunity to use their brains.

Seeds in Winter (Part Two) February 20, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Information, Lifelong Learning.
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 Part Two of a Commentary for Education Week (continued from February 19, 2006) 

The best example of this marvelous integration of insight and inspiration with creativity and curriculum occurred at an Open House one winter. Teachers invited students to take 16-millimeter movie film that they had chemically stripped of images so it was just clear acetate. We students then took markers and dabbed dots of color in the blank frames between the film’s sprockets. After some minutes of filling the frames with dabs of color, random dots, and heavy lines, the teacher ran the film through a projector and played, as accompaniment to the riot of colors, an Invention by J. S. Bach played on the Moog synthesizer, an invention that was also quite new and radical at the time. It was wonderful and it was eye opening. Years later, I am able to describe the moment as a transformational experience.

My head spun for weeks at the idea that performers could modernize classical music and we could synchronize it with our random splashes of colors. Since then, I have heard Bach played in huge symphony halls on priceless instruments and I have heard him played in small rooms on instruments as humble as a harmonica and a saw. Musicians have interpreted his work for jazz quartets, acappella singers, and even highlighted it with traffic sounds. Every one of these joyful experiences and experimentations began with notations on a page of music and my enjoyment of it all began that snowy night.I was also impressed with the technique of physically drawing on film.

This technique, I learned later, was homage to Canada’s own Norman MacLaren, a superb experimental filmmaker who took film and manually added colors and scratches to great effect. MacLaren’s deconstruction of film and filmmaking led to my own experiments with the adaptation of story to film and later to powerful ways of teaching poetry to adolescents. My teachers showed me that the finished product is, in reality, the starting point. We climb on the shoulders of those who went before us. We use their vision as our tools for exploration and we press onward. What I learned from that one brief experience at an Open House on a snowy winter night in 1973 was that curriculum is simply the leading edge of a powerful process. On that evening, teachers planted seeds for a lifelong interest in my own exploration of the limits of technology in the classroom. From that humble seminal experience, I learned enough about experimental films and music through that single demonstration to propel me forward and begin my own educational journey. That was enough to start me on a path to learning about the physics of animation and color, of music and dance, of writing and beauty.

Most importantly, I learned that curriculum was then and is now a starting point to an adventure. I examine new curriculum and new technological tools in the light of the tension between what is instrumental and what is aesthetic. In the development of curriculum, there should always be the question of whether the objectives inform and inspire or dictate and depress.

Thus it was that one recent February evening, I sat, a little uncomfortably, behind a desk in a middle school classroom my daughter would attend next year and listened closely to the words of her future teachers for signs that they, too, understood that curriculum was just the beginning of her great adventure.

Seeds in Winter (Part One) February 19, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Information, Lifelong Learning.
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Part One of a Commentary for Education Week (continued on February 20, 2006) 

In the dead of winter, inspiration can blossom. The first visit to my daughter’s future middle school last week reminded me of a similar Open House years before and focused my attention on the nature of curriculum in general.

Before becoming Director of Technology at a College of Education, I was first a classroom teacher of English Literature and Special Education. Over the years, it has become my role in both the college and community to advocate for educational technology, to rail at congress for cutting funds, and to share not only the newest tools but also the best practices of using technology in the classroom. My fervor and fascination with educational tools and teachers who use them comes from almost three full decades of teaching. I feel a special bond with teachers who see potential in a machine because the machine, they know, may help students see the potential in themselves. It might come as a surprise that my earliest formal training in educational technology was a hands-on session on how to thread a 16-millimeter film projector. That was it. That session was a requirement of all graduates from the College of Education I attended.

A guiding assumption about the nature of curriculum informs my work and that assumption began to take shape after one particular event during my high school education. Even in that technology-light teaching and learning environment, teachers were still using overhead projectors and reserving reel-to-reel audio dramatizations of Twelfth Night and King Lear. After years of experiencing the words of Shakespeare in text and spoken word only, you might imagine the thrill both students and teachers had in experiencing the bard’s work in a live performance.

Even if all we had today in the classroom were tape recorders, film projectors, and oversized and overweight opaque projectors, there would still be teachers pushing the limits of these tools and I would be one of them. A few well-placed holes in construction paper taped over an opaque projector will provide a low cost planetarium. Several sheets of acetate and an overhead projector, in the hands of a creative teacher, will evolve into a crude animation to demonstrate a tricky concept. We used what we had.

In my high school, I had the honor of having classes with several excellent teachers who pushed the limits of the tools. As individuals, they tried very hard to bring literature to life and by the time my high school career ended, they had inspired me to follow their example. These teachers encouraged me to examine things I might have taken for granted and use them in new ways. The formal curriculum, for them, was only a part of the journey and the wisest of my teachers knew this. Focusing on a narrow strip of skills they could assess on a summative evaluation was a domain reserved for teachers new to the profession, for teachers with little life experience, and for teachers devoid of creativity in their own lives.

Continued tomorrow . . .


Skills for the Next Century February 6, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Information, Lifelong Learning.
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amy As you may recall, last week I participated in the Twenty-first Century Skills Committee at Catalina Foothills School District. The campus of Esperero Canyon Junior High School is unparalleled. It is a beautiful building set against the Pusch Ridge north of Tucson.

Invited participants included several administrators, teachers, students from the high school, a reporter, a few professors, a network administrator, a pilot for Southwest airlines, parents, and a few researchers. When you get that many people together to brainstorm, it is a matter of tossing everything into the pot in a controlled manner then looking for trends that are emerging.

Esperero Canyon Junior High

The question at hand was “What are the skills and knowledge students in the twenty-first century will need?? We divided into four groups, brainstormed, recorded, then ranked our output. In a few weeks we will have a chance to see what trends emerged from the other groups. Of course, we each had a little axe to grind which we brought to the brainstorming session. We were not asked to argue for our particular skill set, which was a good thing or I think some of us would still be there. It was an opportunity to set up the parameters for a future discussion.

The only surprise in the collection of ideas, was just how valued “personal health awareness? was in our list. It was generally understood that to be a healthy learner you had to have a healthy body and a good sense of what a bad health choice was. Of course, in addition to the stress on learning keyboarding and other essential technology tools, it was generally understood that technology can play an important role in collaboration. We did not have time to flesh that one out, but I am sure we will.

At some point, I am going to try to explain my position about changing the existing culture in a school so that new doors can be opened and teachers will be able to recognize the twenty-first century skills when they make themselves apparent. I did notice some talk about parceling out the skills. It looks like we may have forgotten that integration is still an excellent way to accomplish the learning of some complicated sets of skills.

New Century; New Skills February 2, 2006

Posted by Michael McVey in Lifelong Learning, Literacy.
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21st   It was a good morning since I was able to remove four versions of the STINX Trojan from one computer, got the machine back on the network, installed anti-spyware (because I did not trust the user to do it herself), and clean out the registry. That whole operation took about an hour. If that happened with any great frequency than once a day, it would take a real bite out of my schedule.

Today I am traveling to Catalina Foothills School District to be a part of their Advisory Committee on Twenty-first Century Learning. While waiting for the computer to disinfect, I read the small stack of materials the Assistant Superintendent sent me. One of the articles contained an interesting chart from enGauge Twenty-first Century Skills. I will add a link to a good version of the chart when I can. 

What strikes me as interesting about the chart, and I realize it is just an overview, is that schools can rally for Effective Communication and Inventive Thinking and so forth and spell out what it means to be inventive or communicative, but these sort of movements seem to stop there. The real issue for administrators who really believe in Twenty-first Century Skills is that it is a matter a changing an intractable culture in schools. I have attended in-service workshops where scientists have discussed brain based teaching then demonstrated incontrovertible evidence showing improved learning from certain techniques. Immediately after the workshop, I have heard the same teachers toss the entire set of concepts out the window calling them “new age? or “ridiculous.?

Today we will hear from Ken Kay about the benefits of this skill set in the Twenty-first Century, but my concern is going to be the challenge of getting teachers to recognize inventive thinking when they see it. I want teachers to be able not only to use the new tools of communications in their classroom, but also to use them in their personal and professional lives. The best teachers, I have found, are constantly learning new things.

Teachers and administrators should be encouraging students to interact with others around the world, the tools are available and the support is there. I am concerned that teachers are feeling so locked into test preparation, annual yearly progress, and addressing standards in ways administrators can see they are addressing them, that so much of this drive to develop new skill sets will simply evaporate.