Friday, October 12, 2012

Why I Just Killed My Own Theatre Department

Thespian Troupe #2041's Charter
When I left the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival to work in public education back in 1996, I stepped into a thriving two-teacher department at my Alma Mater. I still tell people that if I weren't teaching at my old high school, I wouldn't be teaching: it's too hard. Antioch High has a rich 55-year history and our Theatre Department is no different. Our Thespian Troupe was formed in 1960 and alumni include such successes as two-time Academy Award Winner Michael Semanick.

Over the past 17 years (and many before that), our department has done countless musicals, straight plays, and student written & directed shows. Experiences during my tenure included everything from yearly fieldtrips to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to a student production as part of the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Today is our last day.

Things have changed over the years, and I'm not just talking about demographics. Both middle schools that feed into our school dropped their drama programs (Theatre found me in 8th grade) and their music programs are almost non-existent as well. Our ninth graders have increasingly been assigned required electives like Academic Literacy, Health, and Algebra Support classes. A few years ago, the district decided to start a performing arts academy without utilizing any of our currently-teaching performing artists.

And then the magic happened.

Technology is Communication is Theatre

I've been a technology enthusiast long before SF Shakes handed me my first pager that could text. I think that my training and work in communication is fed by the possibilities that technology presents us. One day three years ago, my Principal backed me up when I disagreed with a District-level colleague about an online grade-book communication system. Without going into the ups-and-downs since then, the entire district is now using the tool that I was recommending, I've been our school Technology Coordinator ever since, am now leading workshops on texting and mobile app design at conferences from Monterey to Florida, and am Director of Antioch High School's Media/Tech Academy. It's been a crazy three years.

Good Grief

At the beginning of last school year, my Principal offered me the choice to add an additional Acting One class (which would help build my program) or to put me in charge of a Cyberhigh class. I deliberately chose the tech class and quietly began the five stages of grief that I've had the last year to slowly move through. With the work of opening an academy and another place in the district that interested young performers could choose to go, I knew the end was near.

And then it showed up early.

Two weeks ago, the computer teacher in our academy announced her retirement. As of today. I knew that next year I'd be teaching tech classes and we'd have to decide what to do with the theatre classes (which were down to three), but with this news I was going to have to take over her classes: needed to - both for the academy and for the kids.... and probably for myself. I've never thought of myself as a career high school teacher (again, it's too hard). Instead I get to start a new career as a high school teacher. Subtle difference, but different nonetheless.

Good Bye

Today we dissolved the three theatre classes. Dissolved.
Just typing that was tough.

As for me, I have a part time job teaching theatre and directing at the local Community College; I'm not losing my art. As for the kids, there are a handful of my Advanced kids that are hurt because they're losing their home, but most of my students are just bummed that they're losing a "cool teacher." We'll still have the Thespian troupe meet after school, and if they want to do a show, we'll hire someone to come in and help.

But it won't be me.

Across campus there are 130 ninth graders calling.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Why I Love My School

I was crossing our main arcade a few minutes ago and happened to look up towards the office. Hidden behind the tallest stack of books I’ve ever seen was the smallest Freshman I’ve ever seen, inching his way down the hall. John Sisk, Custodian Extraordinaire, came out of a side hallway on his way to his next task that you or I would be loath to do but that he does regularly.
Without a beat, John shouted towards the well-hidden over-burdened boy, “You headed to 900?” The boy uttered what can only be described as a book-muffled “Yeah” as John approached him. By this time I was across the arcade and the pair were hidden from my view, but I stopped and waited. Not fifteen seconds later John and said boy passed by, walking side-by-side, sharing the oppressive load of academia that was previously the lone boy’s burden.

Thank you, John, for reminding me what it’s all about.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Failure Is Not An Option: It's Imperative.

This is a journal entry as part of my participation in the 3D GameLab Teacher Camp.

Prompt: How might a teacher apply even ONE characteristic of games and game environments (choice, progress bars, etc.)  to a typical unit or module of instruction?

Failure Is Not An Option: It's Imperative. 

Of all the various characteristic of gaming, I think the attitude towards failure is not only the easiest one to change, but will have the greatest effect on student performance. Think about the current classroom environment that is so focused on having correct answers that even teachers are cheating on standardized tests for students. There is no learning in knowing the answers: the learning comes with the attempts to find the answers. Let's pretend that the current educational environment will allow us to change this focus on "the right answer."

The classroom needs to become a place to fail, not to succeed. For games, the challenge of discovering the answer is why we play: why we fight that fight over and over, try that race again and again, or keep doing that puzzle until we've solved it. Imagine an environment where we marvel at the attempts, not the final grade. Teachers become tools for learning, not dictators and police officers.

I've written about this before, but in theatre, the very nature of rehearsal is failure: you try things, some work and some don't. You go back and attempt to discover more things that work... celebrating your successes, sure, but using the failures as food for more attempts. I'm pretty sure if we turned the classroom into rehearsal for "performance" on the standards, we'd be taking a step in the right direction.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Too Late to Educate?

This is a journal entry as part of my participation in the 3D GameLab Teacher Camp. This particular quest had me watch the following video and reflect in a blog post.

Too Late to Educate?

Watching David Perry's TED Talk helped me define a feeling that has been growing in my gut for about three years. If you haven't seen it and have 20 minutes, here it is:

To give you a little context, I'm 41 years old but have a couple of things going against me:
  1. I'm a theatre artist. With degrees in Drama and Theatre Directing, I've been accustomed to the term "play" being a part of the fabric of my work and life. Communication is my forte, collaboration and performance-based assessment my norms.
  2. I'm a high school teacher. There's a passage in Frank McCourt's book Teacher Man: A Memoir (that I'm going to paraphrase until I can listen to the whole thing and grab the actual quote) about how after you teach high schoolers for a while, you become one of them... you're sort of trapped in their thinking and world of communication. I've always loved and identified with that idea and I think it's helped me get through times when my "adult" friends don't understand why I'm not thinking about the world in the same way they do.
  3. I hold three positions at the same school: Theatre Arts Director, Technology Coordinator, and Media/Tech Academy Director. I know, I know: "Just put down 'Teacher' and you'll feel better." Hardly.
What's happened lately is that despite my being "ahead of the curve" with regards to educational technology (and I'm reminded regularly: recently a national foundation asked to use my template from a popular Web 2.0 tool to help out their other members), I've been hit with bouts of melancholy with regards to my work. Nevermind that change happens so slowly in public education, nevermind that money and access DO have everything to do with it regardless of how innovative you are, and nevermind that we are moving forward despite all the challenges: 

We're too late.

That's not despair; I'm not that good a writer. It's just reality. My evidence? Anecdotal. Limited to my experience. But nonetheless relevant.

My acting classes are a hotbed of experimentation... of the technological kind. I try everything. How is it relevant? It's all communication, baby. I poll my students about things like what device they'd want to check out of the library instead of textbooks. Taking photos of things and tagging them properly is regular practice. Next month my acting students are going to make apps that collect information on their favorite performer so they'll no longer have to "Google" Justin Bieber and can learn a new medium of demonstration.


The problem is that I'm just trying. These kids are going to miss out. The seniors are going to be gone in two months and some will step backwards into a lecture hall where they won't excel either. When they say "Aw, that sounds cool! Why couldn't MY classes be like that?!?" as I explain how I'm going to work in these tools and techniques for next year's academy (at least as best I can given what I'm given), it breaks my heart.

Problem is, even the kids who do get to have "classes like that" will be behind the curve. Technology changes/grows/moves/progresses so fast that education will never be in front of it. We move too slowly, for various reasons that aren't all bad. Sure you have "Amazing Online School" here and "Smarten Up Through Gaming School" there, but as hard as I... we? ...we work, there will always be huge groups of kids that we miss. As sad as that sounds, the key is this: The fact that it's too late is the reason to keep going, not a reason to stop. I just have to keep telling myself that.

Spring break is almost over. Time for this teacher to get back to learning.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

No Such Thing as a Very Long Engagement

Bear with me...

A couple of years ago I started to use PollEverywhere in my classes, allowing the students to text in responses to questions, thoughts on topics we were covering, etc. It worked beautifully! Students were engaged like never before, I was getting instant feedback that I could use (and did) to tweak lessons in an effort to ensure maximum learning, etc. It was amazing.

For three weeks.

After a few days, participation waned. It got to the point where I'd have to say, "C'mon everyone: let's get out those cell phones!" knowing full well the vat of irony I was swimming in.

It turns out that everything has a shelf life. For today's students, you can't have engagement without change. I bring this up here because I sort of had the same thing happen with my 3D GameLab experience. I'm sure if you checked my time in the system on Monday, you'd think I was off work. On the contrary, I was doing many of the first quests on the projector in front of my classes to demonstrate the new environment I was exploring. I was thrilled with the system and my mind was abuzz with ideas for adapting lessons into quests. Over the last three days, I've been online significantly less. There were a couple of factors contributing to this (workload, week before Spring Break, large grant to finish writing), but it made me think of my PollEverywhere epiphany.

I'm now thinking about use of the 3D GameLab system itself and how it's definitely another tool rather than a complete learning environment. This sounds like a no-brainer in hindsight, but an important point nonetheless.

What are your thoughts? Can you see students coming into this environment for all of your classroom work over the course of a semester or year without becoming as jaded to the technology as with anything else? Can we make our quests engaging enough to avoid drops in level of participation? Maybe there's a balance that we'll have to discover with each class that participates...

I'd be interested to see the results of student feedback after a few weeks in the GameLab...

This is a re-post of my journal entry as part of the 3D GameLab Teacher Camp. There are some great comments in the forum where it's originally posted, but unfortunately I can't transfer them here.

"Cool! It's a game? ...So it's NOT a game?"

This is a re-post of my journal entry as part of the 3D GameLab Teacher Camp. There are some great comments in the forum where it's originally posted, but unfortunately I can't transfer them here.

This is a reflection on something that happened last Monday when I started exploring 3dGameLab in front of my students. Their first reaction was positive: they were fascinated by the gamer aspects of the environment. The question was: "So it's a game?"

When I started doing some of the quests, the general attitude changed to "So it's not a game," with the appropriate air of let-down that teachers know as the doorway to disinterest.

This got me thinking less about the GameLab environment and more about my own assignments. Do the potential quests I have in mind match the potential established by the online environment? Will my students be disappointed to find "just another journal-entry quest?" (Don't get me wrong, I personally love being XP-Paid to write a journal because I never take the time to otherwise.)

Those of you that have been using this with students: have you had to step up your assignment "game" or is this just the result of my demonstrating the platform on a projector and students not actually being in the system yet?

The Game's Afoot...

So I'm doing some professional development on quest based learning and gamification and one of the recurring quests is to journal. I'll probably cross-post a lot of them here. Hope you find them interesting!

Thursday, January 26, 2012

My First 15 Minutes With Google's Chromebook

First of all, I need to thank Google and FETC for the Chromebook that I won Wednesday morning. Aside from all the amazing professional development that I've been receiving at this conference, I get to walk away with probably the one item that I'd have chosen to take if you'd asked me. While I'm at it, thanks to my Principal for sending me.

There are a bunch of reviews and first impressions of the Chromebook out there, but I was struck by a couple of things and felt obligated to share them. Don't misinterpret: I love this thing.

Un-boxing a Chromebook is anti-climactic because of its brilliance. 
You know when you get a new toy (electronic or otherwise) and you have that excitement that builds before you open it and then carries through the removal of the parts, possible construction, and finally the discovery of its features? Heck, sometimes you even get to remove bloatware and customize a new device after you get it up and running. 

Well, the Chromebook is already your Chromebook. 

Once you sign in, if you're already syncing your various instances of Chrome across devices all the familiar stuff is there for you. 

Super cool. 

For about 5 seconds. 

There's nothing to play with. Don't get me wrong: the Market is fun to browse, but you can do that anywhere... In order to satisfy my New Toy urges, I had to turn the device on and off 10 times in a row. The 8 second start up time is almost cool enough to make up for the fact that I don't get to play around with anything else.

My Lonely Mouse
This is a hardware thing, but my Samsung Chromebook doesn't have Bluetooth. I can't use my mouse. The touchpad is fine (although I can't count the number of times I've accidentally right-clicked because I'm too lazy to lift my fingers off of it). Somewhere I've got a USB stick at home that I now have a use for. The trick is finding it. Let's chalk this up as a problem for old-school users... unless you start to think about Bluetooth headsets....

Screen Captive
When I get questions from teachers about how to do something, I usually answer with a video. Evidently, there's a Chrome app for screen-shots, but not for video recording of the desktop. So for now I'll either have to stick with my other laptop or use my a webcam aimed at my screen.

Split Screen
For a bit I was worried that I couldn't split the screen and show two tabs at the same time. Turns out that there are keyboard shortcuts for that.

I'm still learning about the Google Chromebook, but I can tell you that the Chromebook experience isn't about the device: it's about what you do with it.

What are you doing with your Chromebook?