My typewriter, a Corona

My typewriter shuttles between home and my computer lab. So when I brought it back from school last week I was surprised to see it was a Corona.

The company that made these marvelous machines was actually Smith Corona. This model goes back to 1935!  I love the sound of the keys as I type. Interestingly I use it in demos when introducing keyboarding in class each semester. You should see the rush of students waiting to use the clickety-clack machine –in a class filled with 34 computers!

On an interesting side note, you should watch this TED talk that I had referenced some time back. It’s how a technology innovator names Aparna Rao, hacked a typewriter to enable it to send email! Why? Because it helped her uncle feel he was typing a letter, and still give him the ability to email. Fast forward to 1 min, 14 secs for this segment.

Photoshop, Photography and Web Design in final week of school

This was indeed a weird semester! So to end it on a high note, I taught classes on image manipulation, digital photography, and Web design on three consecutive days. Using Google meet, of course.

Photoshop was something all my students had asked for. It’s an opportunity to also connect it to real-world issues such as doctored images in news –a blood relative of ‘fake news’ — digitally altering historical figures –Churchill without a cigar, MLK at a cleaned out podium on the Mall — and simply knowing how to be aware of what could be Photoshopped.

Photography may not seem related to a computer class, but we all know that taking pictures, editing, and sharing is now a given in a young person’s life. Any device is now a ‘camera.’  To make it more interesting, I invited a photographer from Sri Lanka to co-teach the class. (This is distance learning after all, so what’s another 10,000 miles?) Nazly Ahmed, a photo-journalist uses various cameras, spoke of lighting and composition, depth of field, framing, why aperture settings and ISO are important.

As for web design, the goal for the class was to give students an opportunity to design a site that could be home to their digital portfolio, or even a rudimentary business.

I also added a photography contest, so that students could go and use the techniques they learned. The winners are announced on my class website, here.

Alone Together – How teachers deal with virtual school

During these days of isolating and distancing ourselves from our colleagues and friends, I have reminded of the title of one of my favorite books, by MIT professor Sherry Turkle. Alone Together.

Granted the book was about technology and robotics, but also on the ‘illusion of intimacy’ as technology was slowly polarizing us. It was a contentious topic whenever I brought it up, having  having once been a cheerleader of social media as encapsulated in my 2013 book, Chat Republic.

Photo by Chris Montgomery, Unsplash.com

But today, we all turn to the very technologies that glue us to screens, to reconnect in very unusual ways. My wife, for one (who usually advocates no screen time or very limited screen time for her young preschool students) took to Zoom. To get a 3 year-old to be in on a ‘conference call’ is a challenge for any teacher, and at odds with Montessori education.  This Monday her learning packets (left outside on Mondays for parents to pick up) included seeds, a bio-degradable pot and and dirt, with instructions they will use in the Zoom class. Montessori involves a lot of sensorial learning and ‘practical life‘ – it was Earth Day yesterday, after all. Yes, we are all learning on the job!

As for me, I have had to come up with creative ways to engage my students – weekly, daily, hourly – to keep them  on track with ongoing projects. We are ‘together’ but by appointment only whether it was via Google Meet, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or Webex. I’ve been using Google Forms embedded into a Google spreadsheet. (The first was about how two of Google’s ‘moonshot’ programs are being revamped as tools to assist during the pandemic.). My students are working on a COVID-19 Report, analyzing data (and thereby understanding spreadsheets) formatting the document in real-time with me during our Wednesday Google Meet calls. This requires me to have to generate PDFs and data sets on the fly, when my online explanations fall flat. Just because we all have mics and cameras don’t solve the problem of not being face-to-face.

Online education is a lonely endeavor. You get to sense it after a few weeks of not hearing voices down the hallway, not being in an unplanned meet-up over a paper-jam in the teacher’s lounge, not being asked to fix a colleagues overhead projector, and thereby seeing something on his wall that gives you an idea for next week’s lesson plan, not being at the daily school assembly and hearing something about the volleyball team that makes your heart soar.  Facebook and Instagram (in my book, Fakebook and Instabrag) can only give you so much.

My school is trying to fill the gaps. We still continue with our Benjamin Franklin Semper Sursum awards. Our weekly conference calls are lively and inspiring. I still visit the school parking lot now and then to meet a colleague and purchase free-range eggs from her farm. My wife and I one day took a long walk and made an unannounced home visit to one of her students, at whose home we dropped off some curry leaves. We both call our students’ parents, and keep fine-tuning our teaching methods to suit the moment.

On a separate note, I am also following an online class at the University of Phoenix. Being a student and a teacher at different times of the day is odd. But everything’s out of whack, and this is, to use a tired phrase, our new normal. We will survive!

Fascinating titles as students publish eBooks

As a final project to wrap up their mastery of layout and editing tools in Microsoft, my students created a 22-page book. Each book was published as an eBook.

To kick it off, they brainstormed themes for their book. Followed by a unit on creative book titles, I was fascinated to see them come up with titles such as these:

  • Is Amelia Earhart Dead?
  • Oh, the Creatures You’ll Find!  – Mythical creatures
  • A Helping Paw   – On dogs that risked their lives for humans
  • The Ultimate European Bucket List – no explanation needed
  • A Pigeon’s Eye View of Europe
  • Johnny B. Goode Tonight   – Classic rock songs
  • Tragic Waters   – The most disastrous storms
  • Geek out with Dragons – For readers with a serious Harry Potter obsession

More than a 100 books are being uploaded today and tomorrow! Here are two. Click on images to launch the books!

What should schools really teach?

With schools in session, tests and test preps take up a lot of time. From AP test registration, PSATs and benchmark testing. A necessary evil?

Peter DeWitt, a school principal who blogs about leadership issues, (in Education Week), talks about Social & Emotional learning that gets downplayed as a result. He believes that schools should not lose sight of what’s as critical as the ‘data’ they are after. “For too many years, the focus has been on standardized testing and international comparisons of student performance with little attention given to helping students deal with the trauma they experience,” he writes.

Others take a different approach – that education is not something you do from the neck up. In the trend to prime students for colleges and careers, schools are driven toward short term results. just to have a scorecard to brag about, after all. Social and emotional learning doesn’t have a rating scale.

My principal, Mark McAfee, puts it this way:

The richness of a classical education…does not show up on a standardized test or that which is impossible to test. Namely, and among other things, works of literature for the sake of their beauty and effect on the heart of students; rhetorical skills; the soul-shaping effect of the arts on our youth; the physical courage, teamwork, trust, and hard work learned by our athletes on the field of play; the teaching of virtues, a thorough understanding of the chronology of ideas and the history of Western Civilization and our country’s founding.

For this reason at Benjamin Franklin High School, we have a daily school assembly, an ‘Opening Ceremony,’ during which students hear about anyone from C.S. Lewis to Machiavelli. The study of leadership and character through great men and women, and things such as music, art, philosophy, dance, are (at the heart of) our school curriculum, and pays great dividends.