Thursday, January 31, 2008


Miguel's response to my post about a good teacher provided more food for thought. He wrote:
But quickly, I believe that we've set teachers up to atrophy that creative engine of their's. Experience teaches me that it doesn't atrophy, but that you can lose confidence in your own ability...creative juices flow strong as ever, you just don't think they're there.
First of all, I think Miguel is very right about the creativity existing long after we have confidence in ourselves. I think of my own experience and know that. As a child, my brother was the artistic, creative one and I was the smart, studious one. I never thought I could be creative at all. But as time passed (and as we discovered my brother was smart and could be studious, too!) I realized that I was as creative as he was. But it took a long time for me to believe that.

I think this is really true for teachers. Teaching is a creative art. Every day we have to go in the classroom and respond to our learners and their needs. We have plans, the broad outline of the painting, but the details must evolve. That is where the creativity comes in. As teachers, we do this on a regular basis. We start a lesson, see it isn't working, and find a new way to present the material. I think that most of us do this even when we have a very rigid curriculum that we have to follow -- or maybe because we have a very rigid curriculum. It requires a great deal of creativity to make that kind of curriculum work.

But we do start to lose confidence in our abilities to be creative when people are second-guessing us, when we have to be too accountable.

Miguel also said:
Reflecting on instructional practice is the catalyst for change, not what you use to accomplish it...however, being connected via blogs and wikis helps accelerate that change tremendously.
I agree with that statement, of course. The connections that we make online can give us ideas we might never have had on our own. We are constantly challenged by the people we read and the ones who read us. We are inspired to action by the success of others.

Change is not easy. If our institutions are not open, innovative places, it is hard for us to find support for change there. The online community meets that need. I still struggle with the question of how to actually bring about the change I want, I but I know that there are people out there who will give me advice, who will let me learn from their successes and their mistakes.

Thank you all.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

An adult education resource

A while back I wrote that I wanted to write more about adult ed on this blog. I haven't been doing that (I'm not sure what I have been writing about lately really!), but I am about to correct that right now.

I have been reading a great adult ed blog, Adult Education Matters. The most recent post linked to a number of surveys they do with their students. They have also linked to their course outlines, their student self-evaluation forms for each level, and just about anything else you might be interested in.

This is a tremendous resource for a program like the one I teach in. I am especially interested in the needs assessment survey and their course outlines. There is a lot of information available on the site. It will take time, but I am determined to really look it over.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Three years of blogging

Clarence posted today about this being his third anniversary as a blogger. I was embarrassed because I thought he was much more experienced than I am. He is one of those bloggers I always encourage others to read. Come to find out, I started blogging 10 days before he did! My first post was dated January 19, 2005.

Who would have thought I would have kept it up -- to varying degrees, to be sure -- for so long?

In one of my two posts on that first day, I wrote:
I am glad to know that I am not expected to know all about blogging before I start, and yet this is one of the most difficult aspects of it for me. I don't like not knowing, not feeling confident in what I am doing.
I was amazed to read that. After three years, I look forward to not knowing, to learning about whatever the next challenge is. I do not need to always be in control. How much of that difference can I attribute to blogging? Quite a bit, I think!

Thanks to those of you who have been reading since that first blog post. Thanks to those of you who have been more recent readers. Thanks to those of you who have only stopped by once or twice to comment on something. I would most likely not have continued had it not been for your support and encouragement.

A good teacher is...

Thanks to Ewan's feed, I came across this article from the BBC about good teachers. Researchers were asked to pool their findings in an attempt to answer the question, "What makes a good teacher?" The results were interesting.

One researcher, Professor Patricia Broadfoot, was reported to have said that
the key ingredients of good teaching included: creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and fairness in the classroom, providing opportunities for "active learning" and humour to encourage pupil engagement, making learning interesting, and explaining things clearly.
According to the author, another researcher, Debra Myhill, reported that

The crucial ingredient... was a teacher's ability to reflect on his or her own performance and then to change it.

and that

teachers should neither passively comply with government initiatives, nor should they point blank refuse to implement them. Instead they should "adapt them creatively".

A third researcher, Mary James, said that

the teacher should "promote the active engagement of the learner".

and the author stated:

She noted that teachers liked to be given practical guidance on how to improve their teaching, yet what they really needed to develop was their own judgment of what works and what does not work in their own teaching.

The author of the article, Mike Baker, then goes on to say
The big question now is whether - after 20 years of being told exactly what and how to teach - there are enough teachers ready to be "creatively subversive"?
Also, after years of being told in precise detail how to teach, will teachers feel ready both to devise their own way of teaching and engaging students and also constantly to evaluate and adapt their own teaching methods.
These questions are good ones, I think. I have seen my K-12 teacher friends struggle with mandated curricula that, in some cases, tell you what page you should be working on if today is January 29.

I think, though, from talking with other teachers, from reading the blogs of some really great teachers like Darren, Clarence, Jo, Graham, Eric and a bunch of others that there is, indeed, hope. There are a lot of good teachers out there. And those of us who aren't as good as we would like to be have tremendous opportunities to learn. We can all learn from each other.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Playing around

In doing some of the tasks for the EVO session on Social Media in English Language Teaching, I started playing more with my blogs, to see what I could do to the way they look. I ended up adding a feed to my other blog (Moving Along here; Random Thoughts there) on each of the two I maintain. This has been interesting because it lets me kind of compare the two, see where I am at with each of them, without navigating anywhere.

I don't know why I worry about how the blogs look, but I do. I like adding to them, to the way they look. Now, if only I worried as much about the quality of the posts...

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Guerilla Season Book Blog Project

Eric Langhorst has a notice on his Guerrilla Season Book Blog that the 2008 project will take place March 3 - April 4. If you want to participate (either as an individual or as a class), all you have to do is write him. The details are on the blog.

I hope to participate the project again this year. I read the book and participated to a limited degree on the blog last year, and it was a great experience. The author, Pat Hughes, interacted with Langhorst's 8th grade students on the blog. This year he is promising new features, and I am sure they will be exciting!

I would encourage you to follow the project even if you don't want to participate. (The book is very interesting, though. I really enjoyed reading it.) The blog they will be using this year is It isn't really up and running yet, of course, but it will be before long.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Creating an audience

Reading a post on one of the blogs for the EVO session Social Media in English Language Teaching, I came across this:
I have used blogs, wikis, 43 places and things to some extent and I enjoy using them, however, I have not had much luck in creating any communities or an audience for what I have added to these platforms.
Creating an audience is a challenge for a new blogger. I remember my early days and not even being sure I wanted an audience, much less having a clue about how to develop one. With time, though, an audience developed.

It seems to me to be a question of commenting on the blogs of other people who share your interests (or not). I can't think of any other reason that most of you are reading this -- assuming you are. But maybe there is more involved. What advice would you give new bloggers?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Another example of not getting it?

I have written before about how it isn't enough to use these exciting new tools to do the same things we have always done. So, I had to stop and think when I read Karen's post about the EVO session she is doing this year: Research and Web 2.0. She makes what was for me, a very startling statement:
For starts, I got kind of hung up on the doing of things the same way…. that is… ok, let’s start with introductions.
And in her introduction she said
I’ve been thinking during this week about this course and wonder about the function of introductions in this setting and the best use of web tools for that.

What was startling? Well, I am a co-moderator of an EVO session called Social Media in English Language Teaching. And we began by asking out participants to introduce themselves. It never occurred to me, at least, that there might be an alternative. Actually, that isn't exactly true. We also had Charles Cameron set up a HipBone game that was supposed to get us in different groupings for deeper conversation than the traditional intro. And that worked. But I would
never have thought not to have participants introduce themselves in a forum-type post. After all, that's how I always begin my classes: We go around the room introducing ourselves to the group.

The question, then, becomes, "What else could we have done?" That's what Karen is asking. Unfortunately, I don't have any answers.

Is there a way to get people to know each other and to begin to develop a sense of community without introductions? Do we actually need to develop community from the beginning or could we allow it to develop over the course of the 6-week session? I don't know. But I want to think about it.


Reading an old post on Sarolta's blog, I found a link to Visuwords. It is a visual dictionary/thesaurus that shows part of speech, definition, and the relationship between that word and others.

This is an example of what it produced for the word connection.

Sarolta says she as begun preparing activities for her students using this site. I can see lots of potential.

Friday, January 18, 2008

VoiceThread for K-12 Education

Listening to Wes Fryer's Podcast 218, I learned that VoiceThread is coming out with a special site for K-12 education. It will be restricted to K-12 teachers, students and administrators, providing a more secure environment for teachers and students. According to the podcast, it was to be up and running today, but when I checked tonight, the notice said they were running late and it would be up and running on January 22.

I love VoiceThread, even though I don't use it much, but I think this new site will make it even more useful for K-12 teachers.

(Cross posted at Moving Along)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

HipBone games

I finally got around to playing a HipBone game with my adult ed students. It was wonderful -- as I knew it would be. I have used the games with my students for years but I had not used them with my adult immigrant students until this evening.

For those of you not familiar with HipBone games, they based on Hesse's Glass Bead Game. They are games of connections. Beyond that, they are totally flexible. With students tonight and usually with any group of students, I begin with a very simple vocabulary game. Tonight we formed three teams of 4. Each team got to draw 7 slips of paper into which I had written the vocabulary words from the story we just finished reading. Because I have a very low-tech classroom, I had drawn a Psyche Board on the whiteboard. (I have been trying to upload a picture here, but for some reason I can't.) Each team played a word and then made a sentence with it. As the baord filled up, they made sentences with their word and the other words connected to it. We kept score. Students loved it.

I copied the board onto paper when we were done. I don't have access to a scanner right now to upload a copy of it. When I can, though, I will do that.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

2008 Education Blogosphere Survey

The 2008 Education Blogosphere Survey is open and runs through January 26. Please take a few minutes to participate. You can find the link here on Dangerously Irrelevant.

Download Lessig's "The Future of Ideas"

Thanks to Vicki Davis' account, I discovered that Lawrence Lessig's The Future of Ideas is available for download. The link is here in Lessig's blog. His publisher, Random House, agreed to a Creative Commons license. How cool is that?

Obviously, I haven't read all 368 pages since I downloaded it a few minutes ago, but I think it will be fascinating. Quite possibly, as Vicki suggested in her comment on Lessig's post, reading it or parts of it this way, will push me to go out and buy it.

Thanks, Vicki, for the tip!

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Can we really eliminate worksheets?

Thanks to Jo, I came across Woody and his post about eliminating worksheets. He says, among other things, that using worksheets:
1. Uses an unspeakable amount of paper. ...
2. Creates teachers that begin to rely on a 1-dimensional teaching method. Introduce... teach... have them fill in the blanks.
3. Creates dependent learners. ...
4. Creates a sense of monotony and boredom amongst most students....
5. Dilutes creativity. ...
6. Creates a stack of graded worksheets that is taken home and thrown away. ...
I am fighting a worksheet-driven curriculum at work. We use worksheets and test according to what is on the worksheets. I use worksheets -- but not fill-in-the-blank ones if I can help it. My students write sentences and paragraphs. They read stories. But they aren't always able to transfer that knowledge to the tests. I wonder if they wouldn't do better on the tests if I gave them more fill-in-the-blank worksheets.

That isn't to say that I am thinking of changing the way I teach to include more worksheets. But it does mean that I have to find a way to prepare students for the kind of testing that they will be forced to undergo. I have no say about the testing that is done; I am expected to use the same test everyone else does. So somehow I have to find a way for it to work for my students while not watering down the way I want to teach. I have been spending a lot of time thinking about this, and I don't know if I have reached a conclusion or not.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Well, it isnt every day, but...

I am really enjoying writing here regularly again. I find it gives me a sense of tranquility that I had been missing. Writing has always done that for me, but sometimes I get so busy and life gets so crazy that I lose site of the importance of regular writing.

For the next 6 weeks, though, I will be struggling to post here and on my other blog, Moving Along, as the 2008 EVO sessions have gotten underway. That is the blog I started last year for the 2007 EVO session (as opposed to this blog that I started for the 2005 EVO session!) and will use this year as well. But I hope to post here regularly, too, regardless of what else is going on.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

It's getting hard to believe

The other day, my daughter who lives in Oakland called and told me her laptop had died. What is it with McKeand family computers? She needs a computer and access to programs for work, so I suppose she will go out and buy a new one, but I don't know for sure. But it really seems almost impossible that in the space of 6 weeks or so we could have 6 computers go bad.

Friday, January 11, 2008

PCLinuxOS 2007, again

I know I keep talking about it, but I can't seem to stop! If it didn't make Linux so easy, I wouldn't have to talk about it!

The other day I was talking about my husband's laptop problems. After trying Debian, which he is running on his desktop, and PCLinux Gnome, my husband is back running PCLinuxOS 2007, the KDE version. Nothing else would allow him to set up his wireless card. Or at least, nothing else recognized it even halfway easily. He actually couldn't even set up a wired connection on anything but the KDE version of PCLinux. So, despite his reference for Gnome, my husband is again using KDE -- and learning to love it.

Seriously, if you are even remotely curious about Linux, give PCLinuxOS 2007 a try. You can find links here to either download it or, if you prefer, purchase it on CD for $5.99. Either way, use it off the live CD without installing it. Give it two weeks and see what you think. If you try it, I would love to know your reactions, so feel free to come back here and let me know.

Note: I am still running Ubuntu on my other machine, and I love it. And, as I said, my husband also uses Debian. I don't know if I will ever switch both my machines to the same OS. I like things about both Ubuntu and PCLinuxOS, and there is no reason to limit myself to one! (More free software culture thinking, I guess!)

Free software culture

Last night I was too tired to really comment on the the idea of a free software culture. But the idea is worth more than a few comments.

I have really noticed a change in myself since I started using Linux. Of course, I had been using OpenOffice for a long time before switching to Linux, so the changes had probably been occurring gradually over the space of a couple years. As Byfield's article says,
A Do-it-yourself philosophy runs deep in almost every free software user. The longer they have been using it, the deeper it runs.
I know that I am constantly tinkering with my computer. I download new applications, try them out, switch to them or reject them as I see fit. I can use KDE programs and Gnome programs interchangeably; I am not locked into choosing one or the other. I use different applications for different purposes. I like that freedom to make my computer mine.

I constantly turn to forums for answers. And it doesn't end with forums about my particular software. I look on forums for answers to everything. I know that I can go out and get the answers to almost any question from someone who has actually had the same problem I am having. And if I don't understand the answer, I can ask for clarification. When I do that on a software forum, I have to be prepared to provide information about my own system. I have to go t the command line and get that information. But if I do my part, I can get the answers I need. And it doesn't cost me a penny.

All of this, though, makes me think about the importance of free software in education. This culture, it seems to me, should be the goal of education: individuals who can explore, investigate, ask questions, learn, share their knowledge, and apply what they learn to their own situation and to the situations of others. It is a mind-set that I think schools should want to encourage.

So why is it so hard to get schools and teachers themselves to change?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Free software users

Thanks to LXer, I found a great post by Bruce Byfield, 9 Characteristics of Free Software Users. I found it to be a very interesting list. And a pretty accurate one. Among the 9 are:

3) Free software users expect to work the way they choose

Switching from Windows to GNU/Linux, the first thing that users are likely to notice is how many customization options are available ...

These options are a direct result of the sense of control that free software encourages in its users. Not only do they expect to use menus, toolbars or keyboard shortcuts as their preference dictates, but they expect to control the color, widgets and even placement of desktop features easily and efficiently.

6) Free software users expect to help themselves

Free software users ... are far less likely than proprietary users to expect formal technical support. Instead, what they expect are the means to help themselves .... A Do-it-yourself philosophy runs deep in almost every free software user. The longer they have been using it, the deeper it runs.

The whole post is great, but what actually struck me most was his introduction, in which he talks about helping family and friends with their Windows machines. He said:

...I was able to solve problems that baffled the others -- not because of any technical brilliance, but because the free software culture in which I spend my days made me better able to cope.

I believe what he is saying is true. I also think it extends far beyond the questions of computers and software. But that is another topic for another day perhaps.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

In answer to the question...

Miguel asked how many machines we have running PCLinux 2007 now. It is up to 4, but my husband is having some trouble with his. He was running PCLinux and everything was fine. He went to bed the other night after being online on the laptop and woke up with no internet access on it at all. I wouldn't connect wirelessly or even wired! He is trying to download PCLinux Gnome now to see if he can get it working that way. (He is more attached to Gnome than I am.) If he can't, he may switch to something else. He told me the other day that he misses the Ubuntu documentation, so he may head back there. We'll see.

My laptop came back from the repair shop, so I am back on PCLinux. I had been using my other computer with Ubuntu on it in the meantime. It is going to take a little while to get back in the swing of things here, I think, but it is nice to be back.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Give them space to learn

Tim over at Assorted Stuff has a post that I have to comment on. He is talking about some reading he did over the break, especially the book What is Your Dangerous Idea?. He was especially talking about the dangerous idea of Roger Schank. Schank writes:

My dangerous idea is one that most people immediately reject without giving it serious thought: school is bad for kids — it makes them unhappy and as tests show — they don't learn much.

Schools need to be replaced by safe places where children can go to learn how to do things that they are interested in learning how to do. Their interests should guide their learning.

Tim says he finds himself wanting to argue but agreeing with a lot of Schank's reasoning.

I understand that well. I was a public school teacher when I pulled my children out of school to homeschool them. I was sure it was the right thing for my daughters, but it was hard to explain to my co-workers. Today, one of them is an RN with her Bachelor's degree in nursing and the other is an attorney.

My son, who was born while his sisters were being homeschooled, was the real test of this, though. He never went to school except for brief spurts when we lived overseas. His education was largely self-directed. He was, as a friend of mine pointed out, "unschooled", not homeschooled. And he is doing just fine as a young adult, thank you. He is fascinated by everything from ancient Japan to cooking. He hasn't found what he wants to pursue as a career yet, so we don't have any final answers on him, but I am not worried.

When children are allowed to pursue their interests, they learn. It does not match any state-mandated curriculum in terms of its sequence, and it may not be covering exactly the same material, but it is a valid education. And I believe it serves them better than what is forced on them by others.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Another convert

Today was spent helping my daughter get her computer up and running again. She had wanted to install Ubuntu until she saw Linux Mint. Then she wanted Mint. She installed it and was happy -- until she tried to connect to the Internet. See, she has the infamous Broadcom 4318 chipset in her Linksys wireless card. Now, I have the same chipset in my Compaq, on which I am currently running Ubuntu Gutsy. It was a hassle to get the wireless to work, but I have done it a couple times. I have the drivers. I put them on my daughter's machine, to no avail. I tried with Mint and later with Gutsy. No luck either way. Then I tried PCLinux, used the same drivers I had tried with Ubuntu and Mint. Aside from telling the computer which .inf file I wanted it to use, I had no trouble at all connecting her to the Internet. Needless to say, we installed PCLinux on her machine. She is happy, and so am I. Now, if she could just figure out how to use gnucash...

Friday, January 04, 2008

We could do it

Another post from Technology for the Adult Education Instructor. She calls for: educational revolution. Evolution is common in education. We are reactive rather than proactive, based on the conditions that surround us.
My boss yesterday was telling me of the push at the state level for distance education, but all she could see were the problems. I think, though, that it isn't as tricky as she thinks. I need to talk to her and lay out some ideas I have. I would love to see us develop a website that students around the state could access. We could set up regular courses using Moodle, and we could track enrollment and progress. Maybe we need satellite locations to provide basic computer familiarization and, if necessary, access to computers. I don't know. I know that many of my students have computers but, as one told me yesterday, so far it sits in the corner as a decoration because she is afraid to turn it on.

I am excited about this prospect, more excited than I have been in a long time.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The heart of the matter

I said a while back that I wanted to focus on adult education in this blog, and I have attempted to do so -- without a lot of success. But I started reading adult ed blogs at least. A post on Technology for the Adult Education Instructor today caught my attention today. What it says is applicable to all levels of education, I think, but it is definitely true of adult ed.
Of course, schools have evolved. But has staff evolved as well? To some extent, yes, but is it enough? From the iPhone to Wi-fi to the Wii, technology is part of daily life for students. Yes, there are pockets of educators creating innovative 2.0 interactive Websites and Podcasts, but it is hardly a universal phenomena. The average instructor is satisfied with accessing 20th century technology. Many have changed (usually reluctantly) to LCD projectors and PowerPoint presentations but I am sure that in most every school there are still those using the overheads with abandon....

A lot of people have been saying this: that the problem is the current staff/ employees, not the difficulty in transitioning to whatever the new thing is. And I agree. It is the reluctance of teachers to change and our inability to envision a new way of teaching that slows us down. The technology is out there waiting for us.

And yet, I think about my own situation at the moment. I would willingly teach with all kinds of technology if my students had access to it. I would happily use the most modern and up-to-date gadgets if I had access to them during class. But I don't. So what do I do? How can I exploit technology if I have only a chalkboard?

There are still ways to include technology in my teaching. My students, unfortunately, do not get to participate in it, but they can benefit from it anyway. At the very least, I can avail myself of the wealth of information that is out there and inform my teaching accordingly. I can provide my students who have Internet access with web addresses of sites that might help them with their study of English.

Something else that I can do, and something that intrigues me more than these other options, is to try find low-tech ways to enhance my students' learning. What I am looking for are ways to encourage student investment in learning, connection both with the topic and with each other, and deep thinking. One tool that immediately comes to mind are HipBone games. There are others.

I think, then, that it all comes back to the teachers. Are we willing to change? I don't think that technology will save us if we are unwilling to examine our own classroom practice and its suitability for our situation and our students. I think that there are times and places where overhead projectors are just fine -- better than LCD projectors even. And I can use PowerPoint all day long, but it won't help if the lesson I am teaching with it isn't relevant to my students and their lives. It isn't the tool as much as what we do with it that matters.

I believe that we, as teachers, are at the heart of education. We shape what happens in our classrooms by our action or inaction, by our creativity or lack of it. And that is where I see technology as critical. We can get our encouragement and our ideas from what others are doing. Technology gives us access to classroom practice in hundreds, if not thousands, of classrooms around the world. It gives us access to teachers who may be more creative than we are or who, at least, are ahead of us in learning about some of the options that exist. No other form of professional development is as personal and as universal at the same time.

The tools are out there. The knowledge exists. What remains to be seen is what we do with them.

That time of year again - EVO 2008

It's that time of yar again when I plug TESOL's Electronic Village Online sessions. The info on this year's sessions can be found here. It's free. You don't have to be a member of TESOL to participate. You don't have to be an English teacher. Check out the offerings and see if there isn't something that interests you.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Nothing much...

That's what I have to write about today. I have just returned to New Mexico and am trying to get back in the swing of things here. I have read a lot of interesting posts today - like Miguel's post yesterday on the importance of libraries and Jo's post where she talks about connecting to people around the world, but nothing is inspiring me to write. I am not ready for retrospection or for looking ahead. I guess what I am doing is all I can do today. Maybe tomorrow will be better.