Saturday, July 5, 2008

Travels in India

Two of the highlights of the past academic year were my trips to India in July/August and again in October/November. This summer promises to be a lot more tame and my travel schedule includes a lone trip to Madison Wisconsin. It'll be a great trip, but India stands out as a highlight.

I'm including a link in this post to an old blog I kept during my travels in India. Take a look here.

If someone knows how I can easily transfer the info on that blog to my current blog, please let me know.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Iranian Bloggers

Global Voices Online has an interesting post about the Iranian parliament's debate over legislation to allow the death penalty for particularly upsetting bloggers. Depressing.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Plot

I just finished reading another really interesting graphic novel. The Plot was Will Eisner's last piece of writing before his death in 2005 and it's a history of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. That piece has been circulated as "proof" of a Jewish world conspiracy since its publication in the early 20th century. Eisner makes a good effort to show how the Protocols are a piece of plagiarism in a way that is understandable and convincing.

It amazes me that these sort of conspiracy theories still persist despite overwhelming evidence to show the fraudulent nature of their very sources. Eisner does a good job showing how these pernicious myths have a way of surviving even the most through debunking, however, so I'm not sure how or when such an event is likely to happen. For its part, though, The Plot does a good job helping out the cause.

I know that this book got mixed reviews at best, but I enjoyed it immensely and thought it was a fitting last work for Will Eisner.

Curriculum as Conversation

Curriculum As Conversation: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning by Arthur N. Applebee is not a great book in the sense that it's a pleasure to read. It's pretty turgid prose and full of all the eduspeak that embodies most educational writing. But the book is nonetheless great. It puts into words some pretty powerful ideas that create some really interesting potentials for education. The basic premise is that we've spent too long teaching what Applebee calls "knowledge-out-of-context". You know this term whether you've used it because most likely you've experienced it first-hand as a student and perhaps even unleashed some of it on students if you're a teacher (I have). This approach often goes under the name of "coverage" or "background information". Without it, the argument goes, kids will never be able to participate in meaningful conversations. The problem for Applebee is that this information remains "decontextualized and unproductive".

The alternative is "knowledge-in-action" which introduces students into meaningful conversational discourses about a given area. In other words, rather than having students learn all about the basic facts of a given topic, the teacher instead introduces the students into some of the more meaningful conversations that people in the field are having. Sure, students will make mistakes and stumble, but they're more likely to actually care about a given topic and even become engrossed in said topic.

The book is largely rooted in Applebee's research into English curricula, so there's a clear bias in terms of providing concrete examples. There's also a fair amount of theory thrown into the text that gets a bit dense and reminds me of my graduate school days. Mikhail Bakhtin is mentioned frequently, as is Thomas Kuhn and others of that ilk. Still, I found those sections enlightening and they provided some much-needed context to Applebee's premise. The style of this book will, I suspect, turn some people off, but I strongly recommend you read it and get into its core arguments. These are persuasive and worth the attention of educators and administrators.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Ten Cent Plague

David Hajdu, author of The 10 Cent Plague was recently on The Colbert Report. Hajdu's book is an excellent account of the comic book scare of the 1940s and 1950s. Comic books were alleged to corrupt America's youth and lower their intelligence, making them prime targets for leftist manipulation. Congress held hearings and, like the more famous HUAC investigations, ruined many talented artists. The parallels to the video game controversies are uncanny and equally preposterous.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Is Google Making Us Stupid?

The Atlantic Monthly has an article by Nicholas Carr entitled "Is Google Making Us Stupid". Essentially, Carr wonders what impact the new ways of knowing are having on our intellectual abilities. From the article:

Never has a communications system played so many roles in our lives—or exerted such broad influence over our thoughts—as the Internet does today. Yet, for all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us. The Net’s intellectual ethic remains obscure.
I think Carr's argument is more of the same that we've heard, but it is thought-provoking and worth reading. He's the only critic of the net that I'm aware of who acknowledges that similar arguments have been made against the advent of writing and printing, so that alone makes him worth paying attention to. And I do think that there is some truth to the fact that we are thinking differently than we used to.

I differ with Carr, however, in his qualitative assessment of the situation. He seems to think that the web is making our thinking more superficial and machine-like. I tend to think that the internet is actually liberating us from mechanical thinking and allowing us to be far more creative in how we apply and interpret and integrate all of that mechanical thinking.

Monday, June 30, 2008

If It's On The Tip Of Your Tongue, Forget It

ScienCentral News has an article on almost remembering things...

In a classic “Seinfeld” dilemma, Jerry draws a blank on his new girlfriend’s name, and the relationship has become too intimate for him just to ask. Throughout the half hour episode, Jerry’s various ploys to jog his memory bear no fruit, and the denouement comes too late to salvage the nascent romance. By the end of the show, the girlfriend has discovered his predicament, become irate, and stormed out of his apartment. And that’s when it hits him: Dolores.

Now, two psychologists from McMaster University are shedding light on the cause of Jerry’s mental block. According to a new study by Amy Beth Warriner and Karin Humphreys, the longer you try to come up with the word that’s on the tip of your tongue, the more likely you’ll be to get stuck on that word in the future.

For years, Humphreys herself endured a Seinfeld-like struggle with the word 'obsidian,' the term for black, shiny volcanic glass. Instead of saying 'obsidian,' Humphreys would think, “It’s like oblong, but no, it’s not oblong. I know that it’s not oblong but that’s the only word coming to mind,” she says.

Take a look at a video report on this subject here.

Teaching As A Creative Act

People sometimes ask why I teach. Since getting my administrative job, people sometimes even ask why I’ve decided to keep teaching. My answer is simple: teaching is a creative act; it is arguably one of the most creative human acts. Amidst all of my meetings and administrative details, the highlight of my day is still when I walk into my 9th grade Modern World History Class.

The idea of teaching as a creative act may seem odd at first glance. Art, music and poetry are all obvious forms of creativity. Scholarship is another form of creativity. While I was working on my still unfinished PhD, I reconstructed past worlds and revived dead men. The best historians are a miraculous combination of the scientist and the poet.

And then I gave up my scholarly creativity to teach high school in Manhattan. My colleagues thought I was insane. I was, in their eyes, an apostate who was fading into obscurity and mediocrity.

What does a teacher create?

The obvious answer is that a teacher creates students. A teacher shapes his students and changes their lives forever. That is also obviously the wrong answer. Students come to class with a whole set of ideas and notions that are completely unknown to me. I may teach them, but that does not mean that my students receive what I teach them in the way that I intended.

So does a teacher create? Not in the way that is traditionally associated with creativity. I cannot perform a composition on the piano or recite my latest poem. My “creations” are autonomous beings with a will of their own. They are not reflections of my creative genius. A sculptor, by contrast, does what he will with the marble. If his creation does not please him, the statue is no more.

It is otherwise with teaching. A teacher cannot merely discard a student’s personality and start from nothing (at least good ones don’t.) I do not work with inanimate objects.

Good teaching involves allowing a human being to create – it allows others to realize their humanity. Teachers open the gates to other ideas, other times, other thoughts. It is the student who chooses to enter. And while we may push or encourage them to walk in, they are their own masters. When they enter those gates, they may look back fondly at us, but they are gone and no longer ours. Teaching is a tragic combination of loss and gain.

My students are not my poems or statues. I am proud of them, not because they are my own, but because they are not my own. They are living, breathing beings that take what I give them and make more of it. They allow me to connect with something beyond myself in a way that other forms of expression and communication do not. Teaching is, in the end, an act of creative giving.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Students Teaching Teachers

Edutopia has an interesting video on a program in Washington State where tech savvy students are tutoring faculty in using technology in their classrooms. Take a look here.