New != Good

I’ll cut to the chase: my integration of technology is fairly middle-of-the-road, but just because my teaching isn’t revolutionary doesn’t mean it isn’t good.

I started by brainstorming a list of all the technology integration examples I could think of from my ancient & modern world history classes:

Most of these are described on my Showcase page.

Not trying to do everything at once

I hit a fairly broad range of the SAMR components, and as Jeff says, not every example of technology use needs to be a reimagination or completely new way of doing things. Edutopia tells us that tech integration needs to foster “active engagement, participation in groups, frequent interaction and feedback, and connection to real-world experts,” and most of my activities hit the first three criteria. However, connection to real-world experts is not something I’ve managed to integrate. What would this look like in the real world? It should go beyond just research expert resources – that would fall in the “Substitution” component. My understanding is that kids need to interact with expert in order to move up to the Redifinition component. I don’t imagine too many history professors and think-tank members are going to want to interact with all six of my history classes. But what about armchair experts? Having kids add to Wikipedia entries or comment about current events on a site like the New York Times would expose them to authentic, content-related conversation.

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Whose job is it, anyway? NETS implementation proposal

So you’ve decided your school is into 21st century learning. You want specific, measurable, and achievable goals for your students; you want them to have a skillset that will enable them to be successful in the decades to come. In other words, you’ve decided to implements NETS.


So now what?

The fact is, NETS is not a set of standards for computer competency. They are a holistic set of habits and skills for the development of critical thinkers and independent learners that uses technology as a framework to develop the requisite traits. This means that implementing them is a shared –  though not necessarily equally distributed – responsiblity in a school.


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Transmedia Storytelling in History

The first I heard of transmedia storytelling – using diverse media including TV, Web, games, and print – to tell a story was The Matrix. The creators started off with a movie, but also released animated short films, a comic, and video games. Each of these contained unique clues and backstory to the Matrix universe, so to get the whole story you needed to process several mediums and use several skills (for example, to read the comic or beat the video game).

The discipline of history and social studies emphasizes using a variety of sources to get students to understand a theme. Transmedia storytelling is a perfect match for this.

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Infographics & Gapminder

It’s easy to speak of success in broad strokes: “America has a strong economy,” “America is powerful.” But how can we define success more clearly? This is an essential question of my World History courses, and to help students both define success and visualize what that looks like over time I use at the beginning of the year to introduce the question to them. Gapminder takes statistical data from the past 200 years and charts it two-dimensionally. It follows visual hierarchy rules by distinguishing countries by size and color, and can animate its charts to show how statistics change over time. Here’s a great demo:

In this exercise, students analyze visual sources and construct their own definitions about success. First, I demonstrate how to use the Gapminder website, then give students a worksheet so they can engage in independent but guided investigation. Once students have had a chance to look at various indicators, I ask them to define success – do we want a country with high literacy rates? Long life expectancy? A high GDP per capita, or a high overall GDP? A low corruption index? This is where having an IWB works well – students can pull up Gapminder at the front of the room and single out countries for the class to illustrate their point.

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Digital Historytelling

History is, of course, the story of human civilization. The core skill of explaining change over time – which brings in elements of context, causality, and chronology, whether you’re in AP World, DP History, or regular ole history – requires that you paint a story in broad strokes. The problem that I run into is that we cover so much history in a short time that we can rarely stop and smell the flowers. There are so many powerful stories in history that we don’t need to learn in order to understand the big picture. Digital storytelling could bring these to students’ attention, increase their engagement while harnessing their creative talent, appealing to their individual learning styles, and developing valuable technology and communication skills (The Educational Uses of Digital Storytelling).


Topic Selection

How would this work? First would be the selection of compelling stories that fit with the content. I’d leave it to the teacher to provide a short menu to the students, with a short (140 character?) teaser for each. For example:

  • Emperor Romanos IV’s crushing defeat at Manzikert
  • Genghis Khan’s terrifying response to the insults of the Khwarizmid empire
  • Emperor Constantine’s stunning revelation at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge
  • The Fall of Constantinople
  • The Storming of the Bastille

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Prezi Zen for Open House Harmony

Some rights reserved by fiddle oak

The only thing I love more than Japanese food and standup comedy is a good presentation, so you can imagine my delight at Course 3’s videos on Presentation Zen and Death by Powerpoint. Actually, I may have just now overstated my preference for the aforementioned foods and performances. Nonetheless, I’ve always been a Harvard Outline Notes kind of guy. They’re neat, sequential, and got me through six years of undergrad and graduate school at Northwestern. As a teacher, I constructed my Powerpoints from Harvard Outline Notes, pasting a few bullets (only two or three, honest!) onto a slide. My only homage to design was a plain black background and single image per slide, both inspired by Steve Jobs’ product announcement Keynotes. Thanks to Matt Helmke and Garr Reynolds, though, I’m now a Powerpoint ex-con – someone no longer dealing death by Powerpoint.

I took several of Reynold’s Presentation Zen principles to make a Prezi for last week’s Open House, in an effort that has set the tone for all of my future lectures and workshops.

  1. Planning unplugged: I work out a lot – powerlifting, swimming, and rowing – and I used that time to organize my thoughts and come up with a layout.
  2. Focusing on relevance: I came up with topics that I felt were important to teachers, like the behaviors and skills that students need to succeed in my class and the specific, everyday indicators that would demonstrate that success.
  3. Sticky ideas: my ideas were very concrete, especially my examples of how we would know that students were being successful in history class.
  4. Noise reduction: I didn’t include number, figures, or specific evidence that parents could find in the syllabus. Instead, I expanded on those cold prescriptions and made a relatable document.
  5. Simplification: I’m a kludgy, inelegant writer, so it’s a minor miracle my ratio of images to text

Take a look at the Prezis – embedded after the break.

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The Hook

Here’s a delightful image I use to introduce my lesson on the Black Death and 100 Years’ War in my Ancient World History class. I display it, without explanatory text, at the beginning of the class as a bellwork activity. The students try to guess what the painting depicts and who the figures are. With my predominantly Arab student population, most of them aren’t familiar with the idea of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but the kids display insight and creativity in coming up with responses. Through class discussion, the students are eventually able to identify the spectres of war, death, famine, and plague as issues that medieval Europe faced.

This is just one example of how my bellwork activities hook kids and introduce my lessons. Using an image or video is oftentimes more useful than a text: reading a text takes longer and appeals to a narrower segment. The barriers to entry of visual analysis are much lower, so even lower-level students are engaged. Furthermore, the kids do a surprisingly thorough job of teasing out the details and making inferences, although I sometimes have to guide them.

Some other examples of visuals as a hook for a lesson:

Thich Quang Duc for a lesson on the French Revolution

North Korean army parade for a lesson on Spartan militarism

Be a Scythe

Week 1’s readings gave me ideas about how to organize and distill my writing and standardize my blog’s appearance to make it more reader-friendly. With recruiting season beginning along with swim tryouts beginning on Wednesday, I’ll work especially hard to apply those prinicples in this first COETAIL Course 3 response.


  1. Writing style: chop, bullet, chop
  2. Since readers need to be hooked immediately, I need to continue writing in the “inverted pyramid” (or inductive) style: a few lines of introduction followed by a succint conclusion. Evidence should comprise the remaining body of my posts, and I should use bullet points to highlight key ideas.

  3. Content: Just the facts, ma’am.
  4. Readers are looking for original thinking, devoid of “marketese,” that gives them useful and relevant information. The point of my blog is to showcase my teaching and share my experiences integrating technology in an international classroom, so I should use anecdotes and conclusions from my day-to-day life rather than make broad proclamations and philosophical observations. I also need to give background and context to reach readers with less technology experience than myself.

  5. Blog Appearance: Bigger, smaller, more vibrant.
  6. The reading on visual hierarchy discussed how size and color could be used to indicate a hierarchy of ideas: main ideas larger/in one color, subtopics smaller/in another. My blog has some size issues: the social media sharing buttons are large enough that they immediately draw the eye, whereas they should be something that readers reach after scanning the title and introductory text. I need to make these buttons smaller. I should also choose a color scheme to harmonize the Twitter feed and Disqus comment sidebar panes to indicate that these have like importance. Finally, for consistency, I should standardize the width of images on blog posts since my post content is all at the same level of importance.
    It would also be nice if the post background were offset in a different color from the page background. I’ll look into editing the page template (update: the issue was due to my omission of CSS code when modifying the theme; fixed it though), or I may look into a different theme. My rationale for choose the current one was that it didn’t have a huge header image that obstructed the main post content, but Week 2 and 3’s readings are making me rethink the purpose of my site images.


  7. Powerpoint Principles: Imagify
  8. I’ve realized that the Week 2 and 3 readings address Powerpoint principles further, but the visual hierarchy reading has given me a foundation of how to make my powerpoints more user friendly. Instead of my current style of Harvard outline notes accompanied by a relevant image, I can use a mind map/graphic organizer style Powerpoint or Starboard canvas, using size hierachy to indicate main ideas and replacing most of the text with images. I could assign a color to each RECIPES component and even use that color as frame for each image. More on this later.

Think Before You Link

There’s a clip from the Pixar movie “Up” that really describes modern reading habits.

When applied to reading, this clip represents how hard it is for today’s students to get through dense texts, or even light texts, without being diverted. They don’t know how. Perseverance is part of the issue; another is resourcefulness – they won’t spend time thinking about unknown vocabulary in context, they don’t know where to look it up (I tell them it’s okay to use their smartphones, and my permissiveness excites, shocks, and/or stupefies them).

Why is this? According to journalist Nicholas Carr, the problem is the Internet. Continue reading

It’s because we’re a bunch of degenerates

In sixth grade, I was the victim of bullying. Looking back, I can kind of see why: I was unassuming, not terribly self-aware, I wore chunky black wraparound glasses that reflected my parents’ values of function over form. Not that this excuses the bullying. Thank god, though, that at that time the “internet” was accessed on a 14.4k modem that you used to login to a unix terminal and check email using pine. You couldn’t get into Facebook wars or anything of the sort. The bullying stopped when I came home.

Some rights reserved by Amy Fleming

That’s not the case these days. The Internet and cellphones mean that teenagers are always connected – to their friends, and to their bullies, and we don’t know what to do about it – call parent meetings? File lawsuits? Danah Boyd tells us: “No amount of legislation requiring education is going to do squat until we actually find intervention mechanisms that work.” Ah, intervention. In other words, trying to solve a problem after it happens. But as Boyd herself acknowledges later in her article,

The issues here are systemic. And it’s great that the Internet is forcing us to think about them, but the Internet is not the problem here. It’s just one tool in an ongoing battle for attention, validation, and status. And unless we find effective ways of getting to the root of the problem, the Internet will just continue to be used to reinforce what is pervasive.

“Getting to the root of the problem.” In other words, we should find the cause and prevent the problem before it happens. So how do we do that?

Continue reading