Smart phones, dumb fingers and nimble minds

I recently read this email from a colleague:


Here is a absurd devoted to PLCs.  For those of of yo engaged in PLC work you might find some good ideas or resources.  Supplement to all things PLC site.

An apology email followed in short order, unable to explain how his intended message (Here is a website devoted to PLCs. For those of you engaged in PLC work you might find…..) could have gotten so mangled.

It turns out this colleague just got his hands on an iPad and was having some issues with on-screen typing (don’t we all?).  Rather than an apology, I’d like to give my colleague a virtual high-5 for illustrating an incredible by-product of digital communication.


Since computing is the process of translating code into meaningful language (literary, mathematical, etc.), there exists a certainty that from time to time code will get entered incorrectly, resulting in a garbling of the intended message.  In the pre-digital era, this often occurred in case of misspeaking. Whether speaking in one’s native tongue or in a second language, the errors are usually forgiveable or contextually identifiable.

She left her house at home (instead of “purse at home”)

When the error results in a humorous confusion or suggestive entendre, we call that a malapropism (for famed Ms. Malaprop).

The widow was prostate with grief.

Since the syntax of digital code has nothing to do with the syntax or etymology of language, errors often seem random, undecipherable, even grotesque.  Which is why I choose to refer to my colleague’s error as digital transmogrification.  Can you figure out how website somehow turned into absurd?


Look at the keystrokes involved in the typing of the word website.  The a is precariously close to the w and not that much farther from the e.  The i is practically spooning with the u.  Same for the t and the r as well as the e and the d.

I decoded his intended message within seconds, yet absurd and website share little resemblance phonetically and are perfect strangers in morphology and etymology.  Yet I bridged that gap with little effort.

In the previous (linguistically based) errors, the connections are evident.  House and home are linked contextually and prostrate and prostate phonetically.  But absurd and website don’t share that cozy connection.

Fortunately for us, programmers re-route us from the REALLY ugly results from bad code translation–more often than not we just get

Code 404: Page not found.

The often disjointed and incomprehensible errors that result from code translation is obviously one reason that my decodifying chops are so tuned.  Predictive texting, which became available on smartphones and dumbphones a few years ago, brought the likelihood for miscues into daily, almost constant occurrence.  So, should we curse our keyboards and keypads and glass screens and poor cut n’ paste abilities for filling our lives with a steady stream of confusing messages?

Quite the opposite.  We should thank them.  They are the Jack LaLanne (or do you prefer Gilad?) for our sleepy, auto-pilot, pattern-predicting, logic-addicted brains.

I believe that the constant decoding that I do as a digital navigator has equipped my mind with a degree of versatility that previous generations may not have enjoyed. I have no other proof of this.  In fact, this is a really reckless statement, given the absence of research.  But this is the internet.  Just by writing it most people will consider it true!  Besides, I coined the term digital transmogrification!  That’s gotta be worth something!

My 20-minute learning

Today my classes began the so-called “20 minute experiment.” (read about it from @jgough and @boadams1).  In the experiment, my class takes a break 20 minutes into the lesson to summarize or synthesize the learning that’s going on in the classroom (at some point I hope that they add “hypothesize” to that list) and posting that summary/synthesis on Twitter using the #20minwms hashtag.

In class today we’re recapping the first three chapters of a book (a reader about two Spanish teachers traveling throughout South America) by collaborating on small-group summaries.  This intro-level Spanish 2 class is taking a story written in the present and future tense and summarizing it in the past tense–a good way to start off the new semester, not to hard, but the task involves a lot of processing.

I feared that taking a break after 20 minutes might derail them.  I was delighted to see them eagerly turn toward the SmartBoard to make their Twitter entry, then redirect without prompting from me back to their assignment.

After 5 days of school cancellations, I expected serious attention deficit problems in even the most disciplined students–today of all days, their first day back.  But I seriously underestimated my students.  Or did I simply misunderstand how they handle certain tasks?

From the beginning of the class, they were in charge.  My instructions were spartan.  I lingered about helping them recall a word or phrase, but they led the activity.  After I explained the Twitter experiment, I gave them control of the Twitter feed.  After they agreed on the tweet, they hit Submit and went back to their task.

My 20 minute learning for today: when the student has ownership of the activity, the impulse to abandon it is not nearly as strong as when they’re simply “carrying my luggage.”

The school as PLC

Aside from the scuttlebutt about school cancellations for Monday’s incoming weather, Friday January 7 at Westminster started off as an ordinary day.  When @jgough sent around her email, which I have copied below, she probably didn’t expect much more than a fun experiment among a few already forward-thinking teachers/tech-nerds.  What actually happened, however, is something that I think cannot be overstated.  Our school became, in and of itself, a professional learning community.

For four months I have been part of a Professional Learning Team of Spanish teachers.  Since I facilitate this PLT, I’m also in a PLC of other PLC facilitators.  In addition to these two communities, there are a half dozen more PLC on campus spanning disciplines and divisions. To what end, though?

I suspect that the leaders of my school as well as the grassroots proponents of PLCs would agree that the overarching purpose for forming compartmentalized PLCs is that as teachers learn to make collaboration a part of their daily practice, the walls that separate PLCs will begin to dissolve.  And in doing so, the walls of the egg crate school culture, as @boadams1 likes to say, will become more permeable.

First, here’s @jgough‘s email describing the “20 minutes” experiment.

Hi… I’m hoping you’ll be willing to experiment with me experiment with something that we are learning in the Faculty Cohort. This year we are using How the Brain Learns by David A. Sousa as the foundation reading for our work. We been working on a practitioner’s corner about primacy-recency. (An exerpt from the chapter is linked .)

Will you consider taking a quick break at approximately 20 minutes after class begins to take 2 minutes to tweet what is being learned in your class?

“This research indicates that there is a higher probability of effective learning taking place if we can keep the learning episodes short and, of course, meaningful. Thus, teaching two 20-minute lessons provides 20 percent more prime-time (approximately 36 minutes) than one 40-minute lesson (approximately 30 minutes). Note, however, that a time period shorter than 20 minutes usually does not give the learner’s brain sufficient time to determine the pattern and organization of the new learning, and is thus of little benefit.”

How the Brain Learns, David A. Sousa

If you are willing to participate, could we try this next week. Could we try the following?

1. Pause at approximately 18-20 minutes and ask our students to do a quick write about what they are learning or doing in class. (a form of self-assessment; do I know what I’m supposed to be learning?)

2. Let them quickly share what they wrote. (a form of formative assessment, are they learning what I intend?)

3. At from your computer (displayed for Ss to see) tweet a summary of what is being learned or done using the hashtag #20minwms. (this models using social media for learning)

4. Follow the tweets from this hashtag to be more informed about each other and what we are learning/doing in class to possibly find curricular connections and common ground.

If you lead learning for students older than 18, will you tweet too?

We have found that asking the kids to help us pause for this break works really well. Will you forward this to other WMS colleagues that tweet? What do you think? thanks…. @jgough

use #20minwms as the hashtag.

You can also read about Friday’s practice in three different blogs!B121cf29d70ec8a3d54a33343010cc2

Read Learning by Doing and It’s about Learning to get a point by point description of the value added of the day.  They are impressive. Also, read Bo and Jill’s comments attached to those posts from 1/7 – 1/9.

I’d like to add to this list something that happened in the Spanish PLT.  Throughout the first semester the Spanish PLT we collaborated on a presentational speaking rubric.  Throughout our discussion the question of grading loomed over us–an issue not easily or lightly addressed.

Now into the second semester, we are ready to begin piloting the rubric in our classes.  But first, we must answer the question How will our four point rubric translate to a 100 point grading scale?

To assist us, the coordinator for PLCs and veteran math teacher Jill Gough introduced us to power functions and logistic functions.  My grasp on them is tenuous at best, but by the end of only 20 or so minutes, we had arrived at a logistic function that, we feel, accurately links language behavior and performance to an fair, if not palatable grade.

During this meeting a math teacher taught language teachers how to use a graph to predict grade-point values given a certain rubric-based outcome.  This conversation was not a mandate from someone higher up (in fact, the principal was in the room, just as giddy as we were that this kind of collaboration was going on).  It was simply the intersection of a need and a competency.  We were in great need of understanding how to use math to make an apple equal an orange.  Since Jill recognized herself as a part of our community, it was only natural to provide clarity on just that topic.

Change can happen in broad, sweeping top-down reforms, or in small, bottom-up bursts.  Friday’s S-PLT meeting was just such an occasion.  Change is here.  These types of intersections will continue to happen–sometimes by accident and at times by design.  But now that this small constituency recognizes the interconnectedness of our work, it cannot be unrecognized.

My school is well on its way to becoming a PLC.

“The world they live in”

As I read Don Tapscotts’s piece on Huffington Post (“New York Times Cover Story on “Growing Up Digital” Misses the Mark,” November 23, 2010), a loud gong sounded behind my ears, in particular after this passage:

Kids who have grown up digital expect to be able to respond, to have a conversation. They want a choice in their education, in terms of what they learn, when they learn it, where, and how. They want their education to be relevant to the real world, the one they live in.

The world they live in.  Tapscott and Richel can debate neuroscience all they want–I can’t contribute to that conversation.  However, in all the talk of the past several years about how kids  learn, what makes “them” different from “us,” Tapscott’s few words strike an unfathomably loud chord.

The kids that I teach and coach, 11 to 14 year-olds, live in today’s world.  The immediate, infinitely interconnected, interactive and always accessible world has awoken with them every day of their lives.

When I was a kid, the “world” in which I lived was confined to my neighborhood in Mountainside, NJ, Echo Lake Park which covers a few hundred acres, and the general path that could be traveled on bicycle between my home and Deerfield Middle School.

When I was at home, my world accessible through technology consisted of situational comedy, Masterpiece Theater (which I tried my best to ignore), and the nightly news.  I can recall perhaps a handful of times in the 70’s and 80’s as a teen sitting down to ask my parents about a story being reported through the filter of Ted Koppel or Jim Lehrer.

Almost every advertisement I saw on television made me salivate with envy, whether it was Stretch Armstrong or a Huffy bicycle with mag wheels.  30-minute programs contained a handful of such adds.  I oohed at the weekly JCPenney circular toy section, and I practically went ballistic when the Best Products catalogue, hundreds of pages thick, arrived at our house a few months before Christmas.

In short, if I wanted to encounter the world, I had to go looking for it.

How, then, am I to interpret a typical 14 year-old’s daily journey through their world?  Local and global events stream through the home page of their email account (when they bother to check email), even the briefest of internet use is laden with innumerable pieces of data, and the 24-hour news cycle insists that all news is breaking news, lest viewers tune out.

I read recently that we are confronted by 250 pieces of advertising in a typical day (seemed small to me).  At the end of that typical day, I probably wouldn’t be able to recall more than three of them.

In just the last few years, students have been exposed to the latent socioeconomic and racial divides amplified by Katrina, natural disasters that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, multiple wars being endlessly debated on TV and on the web, and a baseline level of sexuality in pop culture once thought unimaginable.

Add to this the fact that we are learning that the human brain needs to develop into it’s mid-20’s before becoming truly capable of processing some to the things that our kids are being asked to process, either because we’ve worked it into the curriculum or because they can’t avoid not seeing it on their TV/computer/mobile device/web-enabled nav screen in their car/TV-enabled touchscreen in their refrigerator door, etc.

And then they come to school.  A teacher hands them a textbook and, in well-manicured language, tells them that course content will not necessarily extend beyond its outer covers.  A world that they have been habituated to interacting in is traded for a 7 year-old book heavier than their iPad…so heavy in fact, that it acts like an anchor, keeping them from within reach of learning in the world they live in.

If I wanted to interact with “the world,” I had to go in search of it. The kids I teach have “the world” broadcast to them every time they pick up an electronic device (thanks for scaring the crap out of me, Nicholas Carr).  I have a few questions:

Can I make an elementary/intermediate Spanish class as relevant as the world they interact with every day?  Is that my responsibility of an educator in the 21st century?  If so, will you help me?

Am I doing a disservice to students by trying to make my classroom mimic the real world?  The real world, after all, can be a pretty depressing place.  Is there value in making the classroom an idyllic place, sterilized from the “realness” of human events?

I’ll close with two hypothetical assignments to illustrate these questions.  Which would you rather engage in?:

This one?

Your connection to Lima has been delayed, leaving you with a few hours to kill in the Mexico, D.F. airport.  Engage your partner in conversation.  Talk about where you’re from, where you’re going, how often you travel, and what you like and dislike about travel.  Remember to use expressions of formality with strangers!

or this one…

An ambitious Political & Criminal Science student, you’ve earned a grant to explore the fútbol stadium in Santiago, Chile where in the 70’s Augusto Pinochet’s regimen detained, tortured, and murdered thousands of citizens who stood in opposition to his policies of privatization, deregulation, and market manipulation. Today is your first day and you want to make a good impression.  Introduce yourself to your new colleagues, describe yourself personally and professionally, and ask them about their interests.  Remember to use expressions of formality with strangers!

Hark, the research speaketh

I just spent an hour with Megan Howard (@mmhoward) and Alicia Andreou from the Trinity School.  They shared with us the redesign of their World Language program as a student-directed, formatively assessed, pan-lingual approach to learning a language.  Teachers become facilitators of the learning process, not the authors, designers, and assessors of it.

In all it was a marvelous, well-expressed presentation.  2/3 of the way through it a teacher thundered away about research on language acquisition in a way that began as authoritative and finished almost combative.  I tried to offer up this counterpoint, but time got the best of us and I wasn’t able to offer this perspective.  So I offer it now.

But first, here’s my paraphrasing of the contrarian teacher’s remarks:

All the language research tells us that efforts at language acquisition fail if they are not reinforced by one-on-one, student-to-teacher communication…I challenge you to make this work.

Point #1: Research is ironclad only as long as circumstances remain the same

Every word of protest was true and cannot be refuted.  The research, I assume, tells us that kids dabbling with a language in isolation will not work.  However, the world has changed significantly since the 1960s-80s when this research was conducted.  Websites like LiveMocha offer free or fee-based opportunities to engage in self-directed, peer-corrected language practice.  And this is just one.  I shutter to think of all the opportunities for peer-to-peer online language practice.

As the protester argued that a child at Trinity taking Filipino will fail in her efforts because her teacher and parents don’t speak Filipino, I logged on to LiveMocha and found a conversation partner that will help me learn Filipino.

Tingnan kung paano madaling na! (See how easy that was!)

So, my first point is this.  The research she quoted no longer needs to spell out our infinite doom if we cultivate self-directed learners who seek out people to learn from (which, I suspect, is one of the objectives of Trinity’s language program)

Point #2: Treat the cause, not the symptom

What does it say about our mindset as educators that we have so completely innoculated our students from extrapersonal language practice that we GUARANTEE FAILURE if a teacher is not around to point out corrections and model proper usage??  Skype has been around for five years??  Why have we not blazed a trail to online bilingual communities that can help broaden our students’ language practice and deepen their cultural understanding?

In the end, there’s one truth that we can all agree on.  If we tap student excitement, and make every effort to put that child in a position where success is possible, we are fulfilling our role as educators.

Salamat sa iyo para sa pagbabasa!