Found on Flickr (by my students)

I have a Flickr account. I post most pictures I take to the account, and most are accessible to the public (Under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license, no less). I've knew by doing this it was likely that my students would eventually find my photos (and I take that into account when posting).'s happened. Actually, a student found it several months ago, but searching through Mr. W's Flickr page has just recently hit the mainstream. While I don't have any compromising pictures to worry about, I do take goofy pictures of myself now and then. Students seem to take great pleasure in seeing goofy pictures of me (this surprises me...they see me being goofy live and in person 70 minutes a day).

To clear the air (and show I have nothing to hide), here is a collection of many of the goofy pics I have of myself on Flickr:
Goofy Flickr Pics
I took these for a little slideshow I put on a digital picture frame I bought my wife this Christmas.

Some reflections on this recent development:

  • It feels a little weird to have students looking at personal pictures. I knew going in that it was possible, and I don't have a problem with them seeing the pics, but it still feels weird. I guess I've been used to compartmentalizing my life between school & not-school, and when they come together it feels odd.
  • Your students are checking you out. Whether searching for information about you online or offline, many students want to know more about you.
    • This can be a good thing. They may be able to see I'm a real person, learn about my interests, see places I've visited, etc. It may be a relationship building experience.
    • This can be a bad thing. It depends what you have online and accessible to students. If I had pictures of myself in more compromising situations, the effect may have been much more negative.

The overriding message I've gotten from my students: "We are watching you. We want to see if You-the-Teacher is the same as You-the-Person. We'll be disappointed in you if you've been putting on masks."

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Tropical Storm and Hurricane Frequency

September, 2005: The school year has just begun. The country is still reeling from Hurricane Katrina.

Instead of beginning the year covering plate tectonics (my original plan), I decide to start with hurricanes. As we learn more about Katrina and hurricanes in general, the question keeps coming up in class (and in the media): "Are we getting more hurricanes because of global warming?"

I struggled with how to answer that question. Reports from scientists were mixed. The most reliable sources (IMHO) never made a direct connection between global warming and the trend of more active hurricane seasons. They'd only go as far as something similar to, "hurricanes get their power from warm oceans. In theory, if oceans get warmer, it would make sense we'd see more hurricanes."

That didn't cut it for my students. 15-year olds don't have great appreciation for the subtleties and complexities of meteorological research. They wanted answers.

I stumbled across a website containing records of every reported hurricane and tropical storm from 1851 on. Aha! Oho! Forget the experts, let's track the trends ourselves!

I split the class into groups. Each group took a decade and recorded the number of hurricanes and tropical storms each year in their decade. Back in the pre-Google Docs era, we were forced to spend 30 minutes or so sharing data and entering into their individual spreadsheets. Today, just create a Google Doc spreadsheet (like this one!) and have each group enter their data (an example of collaborative online documents saving a huge amount of time & boredom).

Then comes the graphing! . I've found Google Docs graphs aren't too great at this now (they might get there soon), but exporting the data to Excel is easy enough.

We added moving average trendlines to see the trends. You can play with how long the moving average should be. We decided that 5-10 years seemed to give a good picture of the trends. The graphs below have trendlines with a moving average of 10 years.

The graphs:

Hurricanes by Year

Tropical Storms + Hurricanes per Year

Fun fact: The first time I saw these graphs was in class (and my students knew that). I didn't know what trends would emerge. My students and I were learning together, and they seemed to like participating in the discovery of something that wasn't pre-determined.

Good discussions that fit well with this activity

  • How valid are the counts and intensities for tropical storms before reliable weather satellites and radar were in use? Most storm reports back in the day simply came from ships at sea. How would the data be affected if several storms went unreported each year?
  • Does this information prove causality? (It doesn't) As much as it looks like it, there's no way we can say with any certainty that global warming has caused the uptick in tropical storms recently.
  • Would coastal development have occurred at the same rate the last 50 years if hurricanes were as frequent as they have been the last few years? Lots of good discussion can be had as to the wisdom of living on the coast, students seem to have strong opinions one way (you'd be stupid to do this) or another (It's way worth the risk to live on the ocean).

Whew. I'm feeling a bit like this guy. What can I say? I'm a fan. Comment it up!

Image credit: NOAA via on Flickr

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Getting to the Point (#2)

When I started this blog, I intended to use it to communicate two things:

  1. My thoughts and and reflections on technology in the classroom
  2. Lessons and examples from classes I've taught

In reviewing my posts, I realized I haven't really done much of #2. My posts have all been #1's. So starting today, I'm going to try to add at least one post a week of actual examples direct from my class.

I want to share this information because: 1) Maybe you'll find it useful for classes you're teaching, or 2) I'd like feedback on extensions & ways to improve what I'm doing.

Don't be afraid to leave (constructive) criticisms in the comments. You're always welcome to leave comments that tell me how wonderful I am.
(isn't that the point?)
Image by Placbo, via Flickr

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Scarcity and Collaboration: An argument for 1:1 initiatives

A couple of weeks ago Kate Olsen posted on her blog about getting hassled by one of her colleagues. Part of the hassling included a mention of her hogging the computer lab so others couldn't use it. That touched off some thoughts that had been floating around the back of my head for awhile.

Following is an excerpt from my comment on her post that briefly summarized my thinking:

Two years ago I was one of very few teachers who used the laptop carts on a regular basis. As a result, I could get them whenever I wanted (they even let me store a cart permanently in my room). Now there are 5 or so teachers that regularly use computers in their classes. While there has been a little increase in the number of available computers in the past 2 years, there is definitely more demand on the computers.

[...] The big problem I see is that the limited supply of computers with increasing demand may prevent tech-savvy teachers from sharing their expertise with those less familiar with technology to keep the demand for computer resources lower. This is simply unacceptable. Who benefits from this arrangement? It certainly isn’t the students.

One of the best sources of knowledge available to teachers who might be interested in integrating technology are other teachers who are already actively using it.  However, in schools with fewer computers available than students, for a tech-savvy teacher to share their knowledge means they run the risk of reducing the amount of time computers will be available for them to use. One of my primary concerns when planning lessons that require the internet or online tools (other than the school filter)  is that other teachers will sign out all the computers during the time when I need to use them.

Can I really be upset at these teachers for using technology? No. Should I withhold my expertise from them for selfish reasons? No, and I hope I haven't consciously done this. However, if each teacher at my school wanted to use the laptops even just once a week, there'd be a major fight over who would get them.

Aren't we in the business of supporting educators in the teaching of 21st century skills? The scarcity of computers in most schools (in my opinion) serves to prevent all teachers from utilizing technology. It seems to me the logical conclusion is to provide a laptop for each student. Known as a 1:1 program, many schools across the country are getting great results from it being thoughtfully implemented. I'm not purporting to be a 1:1 expert. All I'm saying is that if we want schools to be places where students learn to be competent citizens of the 21st century we need to provide them with the tools to do so.

What to do? I'm a bit of a lame-duck at my school (I'm moving to Connecticut this summer), so I feel my power to effect change has been diminished. However, we can all do a little to support these initiatives.

  • Teachers: talk to your principals, tech directors, school board members, etc. about the importance of teaching 21st century skills. Also, if you're not sure how to utilize technology, demand professional development time. This doesn't have to be an expensive keynote speaker, it could be a workshop by another teacher in your district.
  • Students: demand your teachers and principals provide an environment where you have the opportunity to learn and exhibit your 21st century skills. If your principals hear hundreds of requests for more technology to facilitate learning each week, then they're going want to take action.
  • Parents: talk to your students' principals and school board members about the importance of providing environments that prepare your children for their future. Again, if the school board hears several requests every week, they're much more inclined to "find" money to fund it.

For further info on 1:1 initiatives:

How do you use web 2.0 in the classroom?

I'm currently taking a Educational Media & Technology class in my master's program called Virtual Worlds and Social Networking in Education. A project for the class involves setting up a social network through some web 2.0 format and utilizing your network to try to accomplish a chosen goal.

eBoy FooBar CityI (of course) asked if I could utilize Twitter as the centerpiece of my network. I already had a quaint Twitter network, and had been thinking of expanding it. I have also been interested in how educators are effectively using blogs, wikis, social bookmarking tools, etc. in their classrooms.

As a result, I've actively been following new people in education on Twitter and finding that the vast majority of people I start following follow me back. As a result, my Twitter followers have expanded from 28 or so to 67 at the time of this writing (3/19, 10:03pm EDT). I've been amazed and thankful at the willingness of other educators to include me within their pre-existing networks. If you like what you see on this blog (or not), feel free to follow me (I'm WillyB). I'll follow you back. 🙂

To tap into the vast experience of that network (which if you're reading this includes you!), I've created a Google Form asking how educators are utilizing blogs, wikis, or social bookmarking in their classrooms. If you'd like to add your expertise, go here and add it! I thank you in advance (and greatly appreciate those that have already added their knowledge)!

The information provided will be summarized in a wiki I've recently created, and I'll also be sharing the results on this blog once I feel I've gotten a good number of responses. I've been wowed by the power of the network in the past, and I'm hoping I'll be blown away in this experience as well.

When I think back to when I wrote this post, I find it amazing that a few short months later I have a pretty vibrant personal learning network of my own. Nice!

Image credit: eBoy's FooBar Poster

Learned selfishness

A little background: This year, I essentially threw out all large tests in my classroom. I still utilize small quizzes, but I wasn't feeling the validity of large tests. Instead, I developed what I call "artifacts." Essentially I have the students create something (a book, song, comic, presentation, etc.) that demonstrates their knowledge of the content area. I give them the ability to choose the format in which they will display their knowledge, but give them a rubric (I know...not everyone's favorite) that describes what content their artifact should include.

For my second semester Earth/Physical Science class, when I started thinking about designing their final exam project (as opposed to a formal written test), I had what I thought was a great idea: I'd have them design it themselves from the ground up. I figured they'd created multiple artifacts by this point and are familiar if not comfortable with the format; why not let them design the rubric?

I put them in groups and assigned each a different section of the trimester to go over and decide which parts were important enough to be included in the final exam project. I gave them a pep talk about collaborating together to create something useful for the entire class.

Noncommunicative At best, this is how they worked.

The normally very chatty class was the quietest it may have ever been during that time of "collaboration." Quite frankly, there wasn't any collaboration. Indeed, there was very little cooperation. It was essentially groups of individuals working independently of one another.

After that class period, I had time to reflect upon the utter failure I had just experienced. I was at first upset with the students for not trying to work together, then with myself for not structuring it well enough. However, in the end I realized the problem was much bigger than any of us.

Our entire educational system is based upon individual achievement. Sure, students are exposed to group work, but in the end it's always their own grade their worried about. Grade conscious students are essentially taught to take over groups to ensure they get a good grade, while less motivated students quickly learn ride the coat tails of those who will do all the work for them. The problem in my class was that these students do not know how to collaborate. The concept of completing something for the good of the community (rather than the individual) was foreign to their school experience.

I decided to take a few steps back with them to explain why I feel collaboration is an important skill, and then explain what it means to collaborate in the classroom. I showed them the Did You Know 2.0 video. I explained how I (and a multitude of others) feel that collaboration is an important 21st century skill. I explained how I felt their lack of collaboration was as much the fault of the system as it was their own.

I then set them up in new groups, and asked for essentially them same thing, but now with a little more background and clarification. I got a little more collaboration, but it was high maintenance. In essence I felt like I had to drag the collaboration out of them. I suppose that should be expected after 10 years of being taught selfishness at school.

This opened my eyes even further to the shortcomings of our current school system. What type of system encourages people to shun others for their own benefit? To not share their knowledge base lest someone else gain from it? I don't feel like I was throwing away much of the current "schooliness" in asking students to collaborate in this way. I felt like it was just a baby step toward a better model of school, yet it took a huge amount of energy for me to communicate what is essentially "sharing."

Halfway through writing this post I happened upon Clay Burell's post attempting to define what he commonly terms as "schooliness." In it, I see much of the frustration I've been feeling towards the system that tends to punish community, collaboration, and independent thinking. Surely we can do better in our schools. Our students deserve it.

Photo credit: Bright_Star via Flickr

As promised: Presentations Before and After

As promised in yesterday's post, I've posted my before and after presentations that I made to go over basic Earth structure with my Earth & Physical Science classes. I've already used the updated presentation, and the students seemed to enjoy it better than the overly bullet-pointed first version. You may not be able to follow the content without the narrative on the newly designed presentation, but that's somewhat the point, no?

There were several students that expressed regret at the demise of the bullet points. It's easier for them to just copy down exactly what it says (of course it is, they don't have to actually pay attention or comprehend to do that). How well they've been trained by their past experiences!



These presentation design upgrades seem to be all the rage. Since my last post I've found two new (to me) posts by edubloggers discussing (and even sharing) good design in presentations. And I thought I was ahead of the curve on this one...

Check them out:

I welcome your feedback on my presentations. I even look forward to constructive criticism!

Design, presentations, and the power of the network

Dread! It all started with dread.

The last week or so, my classes have been covering material that I made PowerPoint slideshows for several years ago. While at the time, I put in lots of images and even embedded some video, I found myself dreading to give those presentations to my classes. I started pondering whether there wasn't a better way to utilize slideshows than what I was doing. I became discontent with my presentations

As if the heavens could hear me, wisdom rained down upon me.

Wisdom Bit #1: This fall, I happened upon Lawrence Lessig's talk on copyright at the TED conference. While the subject matter was interesting, I was enthralled (& engaged) by his simple use of visuals and high-contrast text. It made me want to go design my own presentation right then and there (it was a pretty busy time for me, so I didn't). As I became discontent with my presentations, my thoughts went back to his presentation.

Wisdom Bit #2: On a tip from Wes Fryer on his blog, I've subscribed to the Practical Principals podcast. In the first installment I was able to catch, Scott Elias discussed a presentation he gave on how to give engaging presentations. In the show notes, a link was provided to his presentation. I checked that out, and liked what I saw. The wheels were turning...

Wisdom Bit #3: Wes Fryer wrote a post discussing digital storytelling and dual-coding theory. Essentially, dual-coding theory states that when a speaker reads information off of a slide, very often the audience can become overwhelmed because there are two images to pay attention to (the speaker and the projected text). I found this very interesting, as I had previously been under the assumption that reading and projecting the text was helpful to students, as it provided both a visual and auditory pathway for the information. It's funny what information we believe that isn't really true.

Wisdom Bit #4: Clay Burell shared a presentation he gave and also wrote a bit on good design in presentations to boot. I especially liked his tip to include a "narrative thread" in presentations. It provides a something for people to grab onto, and combined with slides with relevant images (and very little text), people have to listen to hear the story.

Wisdom Bit #5: At the end of Clay's post, he provided a link to Dan Meyer's blog post on how to present. He pretty much reiterated what I had already heard and read from Scott, Wes, and Clay; but it was an excellently written post with great examples. I think what I took away most from this post was his statement: "If I can look at your slidedeck and determine the full content of your presentation, it's carrying too much information."

Direction! Finally, I had direction.

I think what struck me most about this process went far beyond my integration of a new and improved method. The online network that provided the wisdom is the big story here. Though no one whose wisdom was included in this post put their content online with the specific thought of helping me escape the doldrums of antiquated presentations, the simple task of accessing distant knowledge is pretty amazing in itself. The sources of my wisdom were located in California, Oklahoma, Colorado, Missouri, Korea, and California again. It was totally asynchronous, and exactly what I needed. I don't have a well-developed edtech network yet, but just because I can't tweet a question and get back 50 responses yet doesn't mean I can't take advantage of the network.

Yay, Network! Thanks, network. You're the best!

Stay tuned. I'll post my old presentation compared to the new one.

Photo credits: Medo/Fear by xaimex, BLESSINGS FROM THE SKY by dharmesh, Map and Compass by Inky Bob, and Be Positive by José Miguel Serrano

Visible Body: The best thing since Google Earth

I subscribe to's RSS feed because they have lots of little bits about interesting and fun graphic design stuff, which I enjoy. Their feeds are quick to go through and sometimes I find some interesting stuff. Today as I was quickly going through my NOTCOT feeds, I saw this headline:

"Visible Body ~ Travel by the human body into a model interactive, 3D, detailed and understandable. It's like "Google Earth" Human Body!"

I love Google Earth. It's amazing. I use it all the time in the classroom, and would probably use it more if student computers could download it. I headed out to the Visible Body website to see what the fuss was all about.

Turns out Visible Body is a free, online, tool that allows you to manipulate a 3D model of the human body. Want to see just the digestive system? No problem. Want to see the position of muscles over the skeletal system. Easy! Just select both systems and then make the muscular system transparent. Now you can see how the muscles sit on the bones. Better yet, you can zoom in and rotate the model to your heart's content (if you're familiar with Google Earth, you'll have no problem with the controls. If not, it'll take you only a few seconds of playing to get it going). You can also click on part of the model, and it tells you what you just clicked on. You can also search for names of nerves, muscles, organs, etc. and it'll show you where that is on the body.

Here's a screenshot I just took while playing around (and yes, that is the right Musculophrenic Vein highlighted in teal):

The features (as I've found in my short time playing with this tool):

  • It's free. You just need to create a login.
  • No program to download. I did have to download an Anark plug-in. I was even able to do this at my school, where lots of download-able content is blocked.
  • Total control of 3D model manipulation.
  • Your choice of what systems to show. You can even hide certain organs to get a better look at something underneath.
  • Search for a part, and it'll show you where it is.
  • Click on a part, it'll tell you what it is.
  • Downside: it currently only works with Internet Explorer. I didn't see any talk on the website about future versions compatible with Firefox, Safari, or what have you.

What a great tool for the classroom! Anatomical models are expensive, and then you only have one to show in front of class or pass around. Here, each student could be manipulating their own, extremely detailed model.

Quick note: While I was playing with this tool, I added the Integumentary system to the model, being unsure of what that was. The Integumentary system, it turns out includes the skin, hair, nails, etc. covering the exterior of the body. So, suddenly I had a very accurate model of a naked woman on my desktop. Please don't let this stop you from using this tool; just a warning so you're not surprised. 🙂  The FAQs do mention they're developing a "G-rated" version for younger users.

Authentic learning without technology? No way!

Walden PondThere' s a school in them there Woods. Matt Schlein raised the funds to purchase 260 acres of land and open the Walden Project- an innovative high school where class is held outdoors (except for when they have it in a motley-looking tent). The curriculum is based around Thoreau's writing, but by no means is no means limited. The NPR article notes:

"There's no need to go out in the hall or grab a new book. That's because everything is related, so class discussion about the recent primary vote in neighboring New Hampshire is just another aspect of the school's simple mission. Like Thoreau, students are supposed to be exploring their relationship to self, their relationship to culture and their relationship to the natural world."

This sounds quite similar to all the edu-talk about creating authentic learning environments through the use of global personal learning networks and other technological tools. The Walden Project doesn't utilize technology (though, as a joke, their tent has a satellite dish), but yet it sounds like authentic learning is taking place. One student is managing a corner of the forest. He's selectively culling some trees to determine if he can increase the biodiversity of plant life.

Personally, I'm drawn to the Walden Project model- I love the outdoors and would love to get to spend my days teaching in such an environment. I realize this isn't a feasible solution for the vast majority of schools and students. However, I do find it interesting that while many of us edu-bloggers are talking incessantly how technology can create authentic, interconnected learning, here's an example of a completely different solution that seems to basically have the same goals in mind. Perhaps technology is just a filler for those of us who don't have 260 acres of land to teach on...

From NPR :: via Treehugger

Photo credit: Storm Crypt via Flickr