Thursday, April 30, 2009

Great Expectations

So, here’s the problem. Once your students find out that we have the capability to blog and/or videoconference with authors and professionals from around the world, they think we should do it all the time. Imagine that.

I blogged earlier about needing virtual school board members, as our students will be making their cases about whether certain controversial books should be approved – or not – by the school board. (Again, to review, this is simulated, they are not actually taking this to the school board, we’ve just invited our school board – and some of you as virtual school board members - in to be an authentic audience, and most of these books are on our approved reading list already.)

One of the books the students chose was Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow (some of you may also know him from Boing Boing). It goes along nicely with other books they read as part of our curriculum (1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, etc.). Well, one group of Anne Smith’s students promptly emailed him to ask him some questions about aspects of his book that might cause a school board not to approve it (underage drinking, drug use, a sex scene, conflicts between adults and children, etc.). Mr. Doctorow replied with several thoughtful paragraphs about each of their questions. They replied back to him, thanked him, and then said, “Oh, by the way, any chance you’d like to Skype with us?” (Well, okay, they said it more formally – and much better – than that, but you get the point.) As you might suspect, since I’m blogging about it, he said yes.

The only catch was finding a time that worked for everyone (our students’ schedules, his schedule, the fact that he’s in London – seven hours ahead of us, our final exams are coming up, etc.). We finally came up with May 18th, at 9:15 am Mountain Daylight Time, UTC/GMT -6. Oh, you’re welcome to join us (assuming all the tech works), as he gave us permission to ustream it as well (primarily for parents to watch if they want, but you can as well on our ustream channel).

I really like this on several levels. First, obviously, the ability for students to converse with an author about his work is powerful. Second, it demonstrates how easy it is to connect with others, no matter where you – or they – live. But third, and perhaps most important in the long run, I love the fact that these students knew a capability existed, assumed it was their prerogative to take advantage of that, and then took the initiative to contact Mr. Doctorow. If we not only enable our students to be connected learners, but also change their mindset so that they expect to be connected learners, we’ve done a good thing.


  1. awesome. totally awesome.

    usually we only get to interact with authors at a book signing in a formal q&A or in with a quick comment as they sign their name. This is a great opportunity for students to engage in meaningful dialogue with an author. congrats.

    on the other hand will this bias students against reading "dead white guys" because they won't be able to interact with them after they've finished reading them?

  2. @Mr. Steve - That's always a possibility, but I don't think so. I think we - as educators - can make a case for why we should read authors that are no longer with us (or who are, but who we can't connect with). And, if we can't make that case, perhaps we shouldn't be reading them.

    Of course, I'm sure Google will be releasing GoogleSeance pretty soon . . .

  3. Truly awesome :) You've all empowered them!

  4. That is amazing. And for them to begin advocating for themselves is a goal that all educators should be aspitring to. That is brilliant. I am looking to get my kids to start thinking like it is their perogative to speak with authors and experts.

    I set up a wiki for a debabte class I am teaching this quarter. Students construct their arguments on their blog page and I invited 2 practicing lawyers, a philosphy professor and a judge to be a part of this wiki. They are able to guide and help students with their reasoning and evidence. It has been tremendous, but I would love for students to begin seeing the world more "flatly" like yours do. Outstanding work!

  5. Add to this anecdote to the ever-increasing list of reasons why teachers need to step away from the podium, stop spoon feeding, and allow kids to truly discover.

    I'm starting to feel guilty for all the times I did all the thinking and learning for my students.

    The ed tech revolution is eradicating the need for middle-men(teachers) like myself.

  6. Super job, Karl! How amazing that you're changing student expectations of engagement and interaction like this for their learning at school.

    If possible please record this conversation with Cory and post it... I'm sure many others would love to hear his thoughts and responses to your students' questions!

  7. @Wesley Fryer - If all the tech works, it will be ustreamed, which will then be archived (if my brain works and I remember to click record).

  8. This is all good. I think students should be empowered to seek expertise. I've long done so myself and so have my students.

    I would be concerned if students developed a sense of entitlement that anyone should talk to them any time or that books will be assigned only if the students can "talk" with the author.

    BTW: The only scheduling conflict that should matter is the schedule of the expert donating his/her time and expertise. The fact that your school needed to worry about exam schedules, class periods, etc... are symptomatic of a dysfunctional school system. (IMHO of course)

    By the way, is stuff happening of this energy level in other departments of your school?

  9. Karl,

    I would also love to discuss with you and your colleagues ways in which these experiences might be even richer.

  10. @Gary - I certainly don't want "entitlement," but I don't see that here. I very much see empowerment, and I do think they should feel "entitled" to seek out folks, as long as they don't expect that they'll always be available.

    As far as only being assigned books where they can talk with the author, see my comment to Mr. Steve above.

    Agreed on the schedule issues, but we're working with what we've got here. And I'm struggling with the 'H' in your IMHO . . . :-)

    In other areas of our school we are starting to make some progress (Bio teacher connected with a college Bio professor to do a CoverItLive on evolution, several folks have brought in local "experts" to speak with students), but not nearly as much progress as in a few Language Arts teachers' classes. But it's a start, and it provides some proof of concept to other teachers that might have been wary to try something like this.

  11. Karl,

    I'm with you. I agree with 99% of what you said.

    I find that I have to explain to grad students that not every author uses a computer or can use Skype or wants to be uStreamed. That doesn't make their work or expertise less desirable.

    I was (IMO) pointing out the obvious obstacles that school poses, even when trying to do something simple or wildly educational.

    Your observation about momentum in your school MAY be evidence of the following phenomena.

    1) Most current edtech is concerned with language arts. That's what schools DO with computers. No surprise since language arts is the content area that dominates most of schooling.

    2) Web 2.0, in particular, may be especially suited to language arts. Other technology may be needed to awaken the other disciplines.

    I'd like to share a suggestion or two for enriching the book discussions, but don't wish to engage in combat to do so.

  12. I love what you are doing with trying to provide a connected learning experience to reinforce the things you are teaching to your students. I only hope you don't end up like Mr. John Gatto (the sort of John Galt of the education world, who decided to stand up and be the heretic monkey.) Anyways, you probably already know about him and probably have something to say on the topic?

  13. Remind me to tell you about my close encounter with John Taylor Gatto sometime.