History is unavoidable these days in the classroom.

How I paused my lesson plan to address the war.

Photo by Kevin Schmid on Unsplash

Last week, I paused my lesson plan for a moment to address the war. My high school students (in a Writing & Publishing elective) had discussed a recent book, 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis. “Does this current crisis with the invasion of Ukraine seem like the next world war?” I asked them. I felt it was bizarre to go on with life, editing videos and writing stories as if this wasn’t happening. War is not always someone else’s problem, I added. In a globally connected world, especially in a world with hyper-connected media, it’s not something just happening ‘over there.’

Which led me to lean on a set of documents from Brown University’s Choices program. It’s got excellent discussion topics, and handouts like this for teaching with the news. I had them read the backgrounder, and analyze political cartoons for labels, symbolism analogy, irony, exaggeration and stereotyping. When you’re writing for the digital world today, you have to take into account the many facets of media — from Tik-Tok, and memes, to cartoons, which have served editorial purposes for as long as newspapers have been around.

Courtesy, US San Diego: https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb65537764/zoom/0

Political cartoons have a long legacy. There was Dr. Seuss, whose work included anti-fascist cartoons about Hitler and the rise of Nazism. There were those by Jerry Costello (‘Feeling the pinch’), and those like Punch cartoonist, Fougasse (Careless talk costs lives) who worked for the British ministry of information. Cartoonists, like writers are also journalists of a different caliber. The writer has a rectangle called a column. The cartoonist has a rectangle called a strip. Both must pack meaning into them.

Analyzing history through texts and events requires critical thinking. My colleague who teachers history class described how he was tremendously proud of how his students handled the discussion of the war in Ukraine. I’ll cite his description from a commentary he wrote in a school newsletter last week.

“Something marvelous happened in my classroom last week. Something that I have been waiting for my students to do the entire year. My traditional history class is going over American Imperialism right now, and the subject came up of when Americans should intervene in the affairs of another country. The class was saying what they believed I wanted to hear, namely “Mr. Klicker, this is a horrible thing that is happening, but that doesn’t mean we throw American lives away”. It was good, but their hearts weren’t in it. They were just saying words without any conviction behind them. So I decided to have a little fun. I was going to ‘poke the bear’ and see what I came up with.

“Well by THAT logic, class, I guess you would have stood by and let Hitler and the rest of the Nazis conquer Europe and complete the Holocaust!”

Normally, they just sit their in shock at the fact that I accused of being Nazis, or perhaps they’ll roll their eyes if they’re feeling especially sarcastic. But miraculously, for the first time all year, I heard the words I’ve been waiting to hear:

“Mr. Klicker!” one girl said, rolling both her head and her eyes at me, “You know that’s not true! You always do this and I’m tired of sitting here and taking it! This is way more complicated than that!”

He goes on to say that in a history class, it is far more important that he teaches them to stand up for their beliefs (even when they are attacked) instead of making sure they memorize all of the names and dates. He recognizes that critical thinking is a difficult thing to do — made even more difficult when called to disagree with a person you are supposed to admire and respect. “We have forgotten how to debate,” he says, “to stand up for ourselves and have conviction in our beliefs even when everyone else is telling us to stand down.”

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There are plenty of resources for fostering civil discourse in the class room. In times like this, no matter what the subject matter, we have to address the moment in which the lesson is taught. I’ll leave you with two resources. These are guaranteed to start a great discussion in class:

1. People, including children, are singing inside bomb shelters to raise morale. Worth watching this. Why are these images of war so radially different to what might be on cable news, or on social media?

2. A story of an Ukrainian vlogger, Volodymyr Zolkin, who takes it upon himself to call up, randomly, people in Russia, and provide them with a different type of news. Read about it here, in the New Yorker.

Unexpected Lessons. When my class turned into a ‘newsroom.’

Today, no sooner I got to school, I saw an email to staff about a coffee truck stopping by. A fundraiser for the school’s Cheer team. Not your common or garden food truck (a converted horse trailer) Exchange Coffee is a company with an interesting origin story.

So as my students came to class — my Writing and Publishing class –I nixed the day’s assignment on my lesson plan and asked them if they like to work as an impromptu news team. Grab a camera and some mics I told them. Someone needed to prep for the story, to look up some background information of the owners of Exchange Coffee. Another began to write down possible questions on a small white board while two others tested the audio, and if the clip-on mic units were charged. Clip-on mics aren’t the best for impromptu stories, so one student, adapted our ‘dummy’ mic to the Hotec clip-on, so that it communicated back to the camera. We rushed downstairs. I asked the owners (who also make and serve the coffee) if it was OK to do a story about them.

Once that was cleared, I got the students to shoot some B-roll. A school bus rolling in. A weird half moon was rising as the sun came over the Queen Creek horizon. An engine roared –possibly a train or a noisy aircraft from the nearby Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport. Sound engineer? Check. Camera person? Check. Reporter? Check.

As we began to roll, Don Meyer, an English teacher unexpectedly wheeled into frame, in full biking gear. Perfect! (I’ve featured Mr. Meyer on a podcast and blog post so I was confident this ‘customer’ would agree to being in the story.) The story was suddenly growing more legs. The ‘reporter’ began describing the scene, and got a interview with the owner/barista.

The audio quality turned out better than we expected. More than that, our reporter sounded like a reporter, despte just having 5 minutes of planning the story. The camera person got her right shots. Fifteen minutes to the bell, we switched off the tech and headed back to class to review the work.

NOW COMES THE LEARNING PART. I will play back the recording, and over the next few days and have the students critique their work. Could they have done anything different? What about lighting? What about camera angles? What if this was an ‘incident’? How would they handle it? Could they have interviewed customers? Could they have got a different camera angle – say from inside the truck?

Publishing in a digital world is tricky business. It’s never static. Stories, like lesson plans are always in flux. The best lessons are learned on the job. We are often poised at the top of the Bloom’s taxonomy pyramid, ‘creating original work,’ investigating, revising, reconstructing knowledge in the moment. Sometimes a coffee truck hijacks the lesson plan. You adapt and run with it.

Tomorrow I have invited an author, Jessica McCann, talk to the class about the writing craft, about fiction, and picking out details for a story. Does a video story or podcast have something in common with a novel? We’ll ask!

NEXT WEEK, my students will be working on podcasts. Who knows where this –and what unplanned events – will take my class. Stay tuned. Didn’t I mention – my class starts at 6:30 am? I might need more coffee!

What my students asked a Googler.

Yesterday I brought back our Technology Speaker series for the new semester.

What better way than to start off with a Googler, Patrick Krecker. It was timely as I had just completed teaching units on the roots in the Net. How none of what we access on the Web (or Google) would be possible if not for a man named Tim Berners-Lee.

Patrick Krecker, Google

Web history aside, Mr. Krecker responded students questions. Pointed questions that let him take on some hot-button issues that come up for discussion in my class. Such as What does Google do with our data? Why is there so much hacking these days? What’s ransomware?

Patrick talked about security holes, and the ongoing pursuit hackers and the role of ‘white hats.’ I was glad he personalized what coding in his job involves (He says has written about 200,000 lines of code) given that coding is making its way into many schools now, to get students better prepared for what lies ahead.

As for me, I learned new terms and concepts, too. Things like ‘double spend,’ ‘deprecated software‘ and something known as ‘cross-site scripting‘ which refers to the injection of malicious scripts or code into ‘trusted’ websites.

Patrick has a gift for explaining complex ideas with metaphors. If you like to listen in to his conversation with my students, here’s a link to the video, which is also on my class website.

Listen to the ‘Radio 201’ podcast of this event:

___________________________

Patrick and I used to work at Decision Theater, at ASU about 11 years ago. It’s wonderful to see how far he’s moved along into a field he was always passionate about. Thank you Patrick for this wonderful experience in my class this week.

Digital Learning Day – Flashback 2017

As Digital Learning Day came around in February I wondered if the distinction between digital and non-digital even exists.

I am old enough to remember when we actually celebrated an annual event called E-Day here in Phoenix, as part of the IABC. In the early 2000s, Business Communication then was pretty much analog, with smatterings of digital. Soon E-Day became passé.

Just seven years ago –a long time in Internet years! -at Salt River Elementary School, STEM had pushed its way through the door. Ed-Tech was a buzzword, as was digital learning. In my computer lab I was introducing students to Mars exploration, Robotics, VR and 3D Printing. With tremendous support from my colleagues at Salt River Elementary, Mrs. Decker, Mrs. Yurek, and Mr. Filhart –from Music, the Library and PE respectively – we created an entire day for this across K-6.

Today, digital learning encompasses almost every facet of what we do, whether it is in libraries or the gym. Online school has made the digital device a necessity, when it once was a nice-to-have. Platforms evolve, from Quizlet to Khan Academy; Grammarly to Google Classroom; Mindstorms to Scratch and so much more.  Students now create podcasts with a simple free AnchorFM app on a phone – intros, outros and all. Screencast-O-matic has taken the pain out of video-supported lessons for teachers like me, furiously posting them to Google Classroom. 

The VR glasses of yesterday are gathering dust on my shelf at Benjamin Franklin High school as the pace accelerates. Will Digital Learning Day become an archive of education too?

Split-screen? Lives in contradiction are the norm.

I’ve been curating front pages of the New York Times over the past few months, as a record of how how we are dealing with unfolding events during the pandemic. Some images are so grim that they could have been plucked from a newspaper in another country.

Take this one, for instance. Homeless shelter? Activists? People destroying incriminating evidence? Sadly it’s how people in one of the wealthiest states in the US are keeping warm, after the winter storm crippled its power grid, disrupted its water supply. This is in San Antonio, Texas. Boiling snow for drinking water became the norm.

Then there was this on the same day the winter storm hit – Perseverance of another kind, on a planet 30-plus million miles away. The Mars rover, named Perseverance, landed in the afternoon, Arizona Time. Even the search engine couldn’t resist a bit of exuberance as the page loaded. (that’s a screenshot of my Google search engine results for ‘Mars Rover.’)

COVID has laid bare our split-screen lives. Bitcoin made waves this week, but at the same time economists think the number of unemployed exceeds 10 million in the US. Those hunkering down, and those lifting themselves up are living side by side. The disgruntled and suspicious, and the hopeful move on. Those facing unbearable tragedy, sitting next to those who are building new lives.

When a green screen pops up in class

Sometimes a lesson plan needs to be revised on the fly. This happened today when one of my students brought in a green screen, so they could do trial runs of their TV news scripts in a Writing & Publishing class. I had planned to use a camera on a tripod and have them simulate a studio setting. I happen to have a 60-inch screen on the opposite wall, so with a bit of tweaking, it could be made to look like a backdrop of a scene for a ‘reporter’ to deliver his/her lines.

And then this happened.

Computer lab at Benjamin Franklin High School

As quickly as it was set up, we dismantled it. But I think it gave students a real world context of what they are actually working on – a story, that is not just an academic exercise but with an audience in mind.

I have to say this is a learning experience for me. [What’s that saying, “He who teaches, learns twice?”] I grew up using what we called a ‘blue screen’ as a chroma-key technique. I practiced this during a training stint in Coventry. My fellow student and I sent up this huge camera that weighed about as much as a microwave, at Coventry cathedral – the bombed out remains from the 1940 German air raids. We then took the ‘film’ to the studio and produced a news show. Now, some 33 years later all it takes is a pop-up screen, and a $300 camera slightly larger than a computer mouse.

This week I’m teaching myself to edit the footage on DaVinci Resolve. It’s not part of the lesson plan, for sure! But who knows. These things are not writ in stone. My elective class that I teach at 6:30 am each week day could evolve. I tell my students this is what a computer and tech lab should be – a place to experiment, to take things apart, and be ready for new ideas that pop-up. It’s one year since COVID made us discover new ways of teaching. It’s a lot of work, but it’s invigorating! Notice how everyone’s wearing a mask. No one’s complaining.

A flurry of writing in schools?

Is the pandemic a catalyst for creativity?

I’ve been teaching writing for the past three years as one component in my Computer class. I teach technical skills –formatting documents, and creating presentations — while always introducing current, big-picture issues in information and communication technologies, or ICT, and social media. You know, privacy, trolls, AI, disinformation…

BUT 202O DELIVERED A SURPRISE PACKAGE, besides a micro-organism that derailed us: An explosion of student writing. Fiction, mainly. The capstone project for the past three years has been an eBook my 7th graders research, write and produce. I noticed a sudden interest in fiction writing by last December, so I invited this semester’s students to consider a Writer’s Club. This week, the club is beginning to take shape. It’s fitting: Benjamin Franklin was a prolific writer, after all!

In parallel with this, in my other class on Writing and Publishing class for high school students, writing seems to come naturally. Which is why they take this elective, after all. But what surprises me is how much of writing they have already begun. Two students are already working on a book. Reading their assignments makes me wonder where these young authors have been hiding all these years. Has COVID been a catalyst for creativity? Somewhere, in some research department, there’s probably a study going on about how lock-downs and screen-time have driven young people to books again; how young adults are discussing issues not covered by memes and Tik-Tok.

AGAINST THIS BACKDROP, I INVITED JESSICA MCCANN, a Phoenix based author and freelance writer to talk to my class on Monday. Jessica writes historical fiction, and her story of how she researches her character, and crafts her story is inspiring. Her examples are what we writers could identify with such as taking on the mundane work (writing about topics such as ‘garbage’), editing work for a different kind of ‘reader’ (corporate documents), and a brush with law literature. The latter is what serendipitously led to her digging into a court case involving slavery in the late nineteenth century, which led her to a character who figures in one of her books.

Speaking of craft, Jessica talked about the need for a writer to capture and convey the sensory experiences of a scene or a character, whether it is interviewing a celebrity or an anonymous figure in history. [Her books areA Peculiar Savage Beauty” set in the 1030s Dust Bowl, and “A different Kind of Free” set in the pre-Civil War era. Having always leaned toward Sci-Fi, I’ve never read much in the historical fiction genre. I’m sold now!

My students this week are working on a blog post. In a few weeks they will create and produce a podcast, and then a newspaper. Elsewhere, and anecdotally I hear that interest in journalism is on the rise. Does that mean a return to long-form journalism, and greater value placed on writers across all genres? I hope so.

In this COVID economy, my students’ eBooks shine a light

This year too I am so inspired by the work that students in my computer class have produced. Their capstone project is a 24-page eBook, and this year I relaxed the guidelines and let them choose any topic. I wanted to see how they use this moment in time to come up with ideas, rather with no boundaries.

I wanted to see what has been brewing in the minds of young people. I was in for a shock! This semester, I noticed more fiction emerging than all the semesters before, combined. Even the non-fiction was telling. Topics include, “The most tragic events in history,” the solar system, and one on somewhat gruesome events of World War II. But the outpouring of fiction made me have to allow them to go beyond the 24-page requirement.

Here are some of the topics:

The Mind Traveler,” “The Girl Astronaut,” “A Vacation in the Woods,” “The Mystery Letters.” Two books on Softball as a backdrop to drama, two on dance techniques, a romance, one on the harmful technologies affecting young people, and one two on mental illness. There’s more….

My students design the front and back covers using only copyright-free images, they control margins, and on my insistence, ad nauseam, use plenty of white space. Take a look at these, and let me know if what we are seeing an explosion of creativity in 12 and 13 year olds. Perhaps this year with so many ups and downs has rekindled the urge to read, imagine and tell stories. I hope I am right.

It makes being a teacher so rewarding!

Click on the images and they link to actual eBooks.

Cheeseburgers and Socrates – How we engage students during COVID

One of my colleagues at Benjamin Franklin High School, is a pro at the Socratic seminar. The onus, he says, is on us teachers to make sure we aren’t just encouraging idle passengers on their educational journey. There needs to be a ‘method’ to help them interact with the material we teachers present.

That method, says Jason Klicker is the Socratic seminar. Here’s his fascinating example, Klicker-style:

Image, courtesy Jordan Nix, Unsplash.com

“A student wants to know how to make a grilled cheese sandwich. Instead of telling them how to make (or even worse, just making it for them), I ask them if a grilled cheese sandwich is like other sandwiches they know how to make. When they say yes, I ask them what is similar and what is different. Over the course of the discussion, the students learns for themselves how a grilled cheese sandwich is different from a BLT, and knows how to make one. After they think they are ready, I watch them do it, giving them pointers along the way. The sandwich might not taste delicious the first few times they try, but their knowledge allows them to have confidence to try in the future.

“While we don’t discuss grilled cheese in my class, we do ask questions like “what is justice?” or “how do you secure your freedom that you have been given?”. Both are important questions for important times. It’s frustrating for the student at first, as it should be. I’m not giving them the answer, they have to find it for themselves. In the end, They have a deeper understanding of justice or freedom than they could ever get if I just simply lectured at them.”

Most importantly, says Mr. Klicker, “They have taken charge of their own education because they were in the driver’s seat instead of being an idle passenger. They are also much better people for it.”

Despite the disruptions we have had since March this year –indeed because of the having to adapt to COVID — all teachers have had to turn up the creativity thermostat in how we engage young people. Many of my students in the computer lab are remote, or have moved between in-class and online. Using higher order thinking and engagement techniques are di rigueur. Nothing like a 2,500 year old technique to motivate the mind.

Drone surveillance in Sri Lanka raises deep ethical questions

Worth listening to Prof. Rohan Samarajiva break down the pros and the cons of drone use – and related sticky issues around big data, anonymization and machine learning this brings up.

This month, Sri Lanka’s army set up a drone regiment. Terms such as ‘organic aerial reconnaissance’ and disaster response are being used. But are we know with any technology, they come ‘locked’ with ethical and social dilemmas which go unnoticed.

This kind of deep discussion that professor Samarajiva brings, around whether citizens approve or recognize the privacy they forfeit for convenience, should be asked all the time. Otherwise, just as how the data mining companies are allowed to exploit us, a new technology could do the same until it’s way too late.

We love our machines – until we begin to see how they conspire against us.