Saturday, July 16, 2011

An International Conference

For the last two days of the school year and the week afterward I spent some time in Europe attending and presenting at the ED-MEDIA conference in Lisbon, Portugal.  To say the least, it was quite a nice way to finish out the year.  Instead of dealing with the end of the year wrap up/procrastination/drag the feet nonsense, I pulled down my classroom and wrapped up what needed to be finished about four days ahead of schedule and then hopped on a plane to Europe.  The kiddos were just fine- they don't report unless they're taking state exit exams or, in the case of the eighth grade, going to our eighth grade graduation ceremony.

Experience of Attending the Conference
This conference had a drastically different feel than the NCSS conference I attend each fall.  Instead of several thousand attendees, there were only 1,500.  Additionally, the conference is really designed for professors doing research in the field of educational technology to stand up and give a short spiel about their research piece.  While some presentations were up to an hour or more, the vast majority were twenty-minute PowerPoints blasted to the other attendees. Another difference was that in spite of trying to sift out the decent ones from the program, we attended some that were literally painful rather than just boring. 

Keynote Speakers
Each morning we got up early to make it over to the university to grab the free breakfast (amazing pastries and fantastic espressos) before the keynote speakers.  The major theme they spoke on was the idea of openness.  While beginning with the things like open source software and systems, the main message came across that teaching and learning should be open to all.  This means that university professors and teachers- those paid by the public to provide the public with valued services- should be extremely open about it, giving their findings, experience, curricula, and abilities over to the masses for their betterment.  

Dr. Alec Couros from the University of Regina in Canada was the speaker that most caught our attention.  Here's some of his writing that he does online.  He also created a list of resources, which was the first thing he gave out.  Finally, he invited people to take part in his open class, which is structured to allow for anyone in the world to take part in it.

Session Tidbits
Here are some things we heard while attending the various sessions:
  • Pecha Kucha- This is not new, but I'd not seen a presentation on it before.  Basically, it's a twenty slide PowerPoint wherein the presenter only speaks for twenty seconds per slide.  It creates a very concise, neat presentation. 
  • The perceived usefulness of weblectures greatly affects their perceived usefulness.  Not surprising.
  • Student use of the internet (not just computers) correlates with increased reading levels.  A professor at Michigan State wanted to track students' perception of their interactions with their parents, but the main result was data on this correlation.  Unfortunately for some groups (the most affected being African American males), their use of computers is almost exclusively for gaming.
  • We heard about the collaborative efforts of a professor and tech guy in creating a history class that was in fact a simulated radio station- all the way down to the format of writing a 30-second radio spot and building a faux station in their classroom.  This was probably the most useful of all the sessions for my own classroom.
Our Presentation
Since I graduated from my delightful Midwestern state school, I've worked with my former professor on an expanding piece of academic work.  This started as my master's thesis in my first year, involving eight kids in an after-school program, and grew to a much larger collaborative effort involving four schools, three hundred students and the backing of a public university.

In as small a nutshell as possible, the work we do is intended to promote healthy online social practices and collaborative skills in middle and high school students while at the same time supporting the state and national history standards with which all teachers are grappling.  Using, students engaged in live online discussions about what justifies war once a month with their peers in several schools across the country. This theme allowed us to support standards in a number of states while at the same time discussing material that students generally find pretty interesting: wars.  For the culminating project, we solicited the help of several additional teachers who acted as a "U.N. Security Council", helping to facilitate the students' live discussion about events happening during the Arab Spring this year (Yemen and Bahrain specifically).  During that discussion the students showed their knowledge of what does and does not justify war as well as their ability to discuss things in a respectful way online.

Spring-Board Into Summer
After my first two years I was so tired and numb by the end of June that I had to have several weeks to recover.  While traveling around Portugal was certainly a different kind of exhausting, it was a nice break.  Additionally, the conference got me thinking about what I can do to improve my own practice this year.  A couple things I intend to do are:

  • Reorganize my class website to display standards with the lessons and to make it more user-friendly
  • Have students create their own Google Sites as online portfolios of their work- functional and helpful for everyone
  • Create a few more simulation activities for the kiddos
  • Use Pecha Kucha as a presentation option when we write speeches this fall
Overall the conference was rather successful.  While most people attending these things are there in large part to add to their curricula vitae and/or present the work they're doing out of a university, conferences such as these a great opportunity for K-12 teachers to learn about what's going on in the field.  Based on many of the presentations we saw, many K-12 teachers working even somewhat extensively with technology in their classroom have a shot at being accepted to ED-MEDIA and a number of other conferences as well.

I highly recommend it.

Friday, July 8, 2011

35 Teenagers in Washington D.C.

At the beginning of this past year our eighth grade team decided to up the ante on the our annual trip.  Instead of taking a day trip to an amusement park in Pennsylvania at the end of the year, we decided to look into an overnight trip to the nation's capital.  The previous year I took on the planning for the day trip and so decided to move forward with this one after the team expressed an interest, trying to determine how to get a busload of teenagers to and from the nations capital in 36 hours without too many shenanigans.

Planning the Trip
The first logical step was to see if it would be feasible to plan everything myself- hotel, travel, exhibits, etc.  It became abundantly clear after about fifteen minutes that my ability to reserve rooms for me and a friend in hostels across western Europe was not quite enough preparation to be able to plan an overnight trip for our eighth graders.

The next step was to ask around and see who had actually done overnight trips like this before.  My principal always seems to have done the things I'm interested in or at the very least knows a solid contact to make things happen, so I spoke with her about it.  She'd in fact taken the exact same trip a number of years ago and so recommended the tour company with whom she'd worked.  l looked them up, as well as a couple of other companies and got a few quotes, which were all startlingly similar.  After speaking with several sales representatives and knocking around pricing,  I got from one of them what I believed was a great package at the best price.  

On the afternoon I sat down to seal the deal, I called up a number found in an email and started chatting the lady up about the travel specifics, just to review them.  We went through the entire itinerary, talked about the hotel accommodations and I mentioned that the nighttime security provided by the company to monitor the hotel hallways for children really put us over the top (my team practically started cheering when they heard it was included).  

Then the woman on the other line informed me that it wasn't included.  I asked if I was speaking to the right company and she said I was in fact not, which caught me off guard, so I asked if I could call her back.  I went back through every email in my inbox from tour groups and found that I'd actually been dealing seriously with three companies instead of two.  The itineraries proposed by two companies were so similar- right down to formatting, font choices, and color schemes on their proposals- that I'd mistaken them to be the same.

I was on the phone again immediately with the company recommended by my principal, who had assured me that their tour was the best bang for the buck- including things like a sit-down dinner instead of fast food.  By the end of the conversation she'd agreed to throw in the nighttime security, which she'd not included before, and one day and three phone calls later the price had come down from $213 a head to $190- a total of $1150 off for our group.

Not bad.

Even with the reduced price, bringing a busload of students from the nation's financial capital to its political capital for a single night and whirlwind of tours costs almost $10,000.  Our students generally pay $75 for an end-of-year trip with everything included, totaling $3,750.  This called for a significant change to our fundraising approach.

With that being clear, our team hit the ground running last fall to reduce the price.  Our former math teacher was extremely enthusiastic about it, selling pizza during lunch and coming up with the idea of the pie in the face fundraiser.  We also sold candygrams around the holidays, bringing in a few hundred dollars.  The biggest fundraisers, however, were the bar fundraisers, which brought in two grand.   

All in all, there was a lot more work up front and a ton of generous people- many of whom were family and friends of our team and our team itself- donating to the cause to bring the price within an affordable range for the kids.

For the cynics, the question was posed by a good friend of mine about whether or not the kids were raising enough money themselves or if they were just getting a handout.  As we approached the end of the year, we saw both ends of the spectrum.  Some families knew how much effort was being put into the trip and were extremely appreciative.  Some kids couldn't afford the trip at all and were extremely thankful when they were given full sponsorship.  A very small minority of parents, on the other hand, got snotty near the end of the year about the price of the trip- one even going so far as to say the trip and formal dance should be free, as there had been "enough" fundraising for them.

Unfortunately for that parent, tour companies don't dish out the school's sweat, gold stars, and happy vibes to their employees.  They actually have to be paid with greenbacks, which she did end up forking over.

Our Time in the Nation's Capital
The trip began on a warm spring morning in the Bronx.  The students showed up almost completely on time.  The teachers also showed up almost completely on time and we were off a couple minutes before scheduled- much to our surprise.  While grabbing a coffee and boarding as the last passenger, I was accosted in a not so abnormal way by a man who looked as though he'd spent the night out under the stars just in front of our building.  He was rather disgruntled that a co-ed school was only sending girls on what was clearly a fancy overnight trip.  I informed him that he'd missed the fourteen boys joining us and then, feeling the trip had been properly christened and leaving the man speechless, jumped on board the bus for the departure.

The bus rides to and from were pretty uneventful, which was entirely optimal.  It's incredible how putting a movie in calms the kids and makes them quiet.  Seeing the trick work on thirty-five fourteen year olds made it a bit more clear why more and more parents are plugging their young children in for hours at a time (much to the kids' detriment).  Fortunately for my conscience, I don't think the time could have been used much more productively.

Some amount of complaining was expected from the students on trip, especially given the long bus ride. There was, however, no groaning by any participant until we arrived at Arlington National Cemetery.  Once we'd joined the tour guide and used the facilities, we started marching toward JFK's grave in the 100 degree heat and near complete humidity.  Our kids lasted about six and a half minutes before the whining opened up like a fire hose.

In spite of a heat, however, the students continued on to all of the major sites in Arlington before we went to see a small installation at the Holocaust Museum, which gave us the opportunity to cool off.  What was unfortunate was that we'd anticipated seeing the permanent installation, but were only scheduled to see the small temporary exhibit, which takes less than half an hour to view.  This left a couple hours before our appointment at the National Archives and so it was back out into the heat with the children.

We marched straight over to the Mall and took in the sites, working our way from the Washington Memorial to the Lincoln.  The number of water and ice cream vendors along the way was astounding, as were our efforts to avoid losing ten students each time we passed one.  To satiate the unhealthy appetites for refined sugar, we did make a pit stop after the WWII memorial to cool down with various sugar/ice cream products in the shade before proceeding to the Vietnam and Lincoln Memorials.  One of our team's favorite students had made it known the entire year how in love with Lincoln she was, so when we arrived at his memorial I was only partially astounded to see her bound up the steps like a gazelle- shrugging off the oppressive heat that nearly prevented the rest of the group (chaperons included) from tackling the stairs- a veritable a mountain at the end of the National Mall.

By this time the entire group had sweated through every inch of clothing on us.  Once the afore-mentioned student stopped providing entertainment by dancing in front of Honest Abe, they all sat down inside the hall for a breather before heading back out to the Korean Memorial.  Because the bus was in sight and the heat was finally taking a toll on the chaperons, we did not spent much time at the Korean War Memorial before boarding the bus, which was unfortunately ironic, given the war's nickname- "The Forgotten War".

The irony lost on them, the students couldn't have been happier to board the bus, which had an air conditioning unit.  Unfortunately for them it had broken while we were marching around the Mall (though we were under the impression that it was just taking a long time to cool down).  The drive to the National Archives reminded me of sitting in a canvas tent at summer camp in southern Missouri as a kid, where the heat index at times reaches 130 degrees.  My assurance that they were actually going through an educational experience that was healthy did little to comfort our young charges, who had plenty to say about the condition of the bus.  That said, their complaints about the heat were not, in my opinion, over the top, though with the heat and the noise of children the bus ride might have been designed as a fun afternoon activity in purgatory.

Arriving at the National Archives, there was another remarkable switch.  We entered the amply-cooled building and immediately the students recognized that their harrowing journey down the Mall and on the bus was perfectly survivable.  Even the largest groaners realized this and very much looked forward to seeing the documents that form the bedrock of our society.  As we entered the hall where the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights reside, the students grew calm and attentive as they rarely do, seeing clearly that they were in a place of reverence.  The fact that we had the hall to ourselves - something, the tour-guide pointed out, that is incredibly rare- helped to imbibe the desire to know more about those documents, which caused the students to gather around every adult they saw as an authority on them (to my relief I was counted among that number).  

After tooling around the gift shop for quite some time and buying a wicked pewter musket ball, the tour guide confirmed that the bus was busted and had been taken somewhere to be checked out.  To this point the whole day had been defined by our flexibility to continue forward with our agenda and make the most of our time, so we continued on by scurrying over to the Museum of Natural History for a few moments before heading to the White House for a view of the South Lawn where the students quickly organized groups shrieks of, "OBAMA!" to get the man's attention.

Sadly, they failed.

Now, part of the wailing that had been drilling into the skulls of the chaperons for hours at this point came from the pangs of hunger the students were experiencing.  They'd been told to eat on the bus before arriving at Arlington, but many have trouble following directions that are not blown over a loud speaker and through their headphones, accompanied by neon signs and fireworks, and sent both by regal gold-leaf invitation and email.  Because these things had not happened, many were left a bit hungry by six o'clock.  The remedy for this was something akin to an Old Country Buffet.   

The Bronx Meets Suburban Midwest
Up until this point in the trip our group had had very little contact with other tour groups.  While we were the first group into the buffet, two more middle school groups quickly followed.  It was clear that they were not accustomed to seeing a group like ours at their normal dining establishments.

A simplified comparison could be highlighted by the following:
  • The volume level- Our group had a higher decibel level than the groups from the suburbs.  While I felt it was still an acceptably respectful level, there was a stark difference between our kids and the long table of fourteen year-old girls seated adjacent to us from suburban Illinois.
  • The clothing styles- In particular the choices made by a young man I lovingly refer to as "McGrill."  He has a pants problem that was corrected many times during the trip and during that dinner in particular.  In between corrections, however, he horrified the entire table of Illinoisans. 
  • The pudge factor-  Suburban kids seem to have this prolonged baby-fat/softy period in middle school that doesn't let up until they're around fifteen or sixteen years old.  If our kids have weight it almost always has a more refined sugar, life on the block glean to it. 

As we left the restaurant in an orderly fashion, the Illinoisans looked on in a remarkably stupefied manner that, perhaps leaving McGrill's pants problem aside, was fairly uncalled for.  I left hoping that I had never done such a thing after seeing a group of city kids when I was a pudgy suburban child in the mid-nineties.  Luckily, I don't think our kids noticed one bit.

Crazy Awesome Sleep-Over
From the restaurant we headed to our hotel to check in for the night.  I had kept the students' roommate assignments secret, which had created incredible anticipation on their part.   This was done because the list was established in April and in middle school, as most people know, there is a mind-numbing amount of adolescent drama that plays out literally at the speed of sound.  By keeping the list secret, we both prevented drama that would be rooted in the room assignments themselves, and allowed for all of the spats between the girls to begin and end right up until the trip, thus giving the chaperons a final idea of who should be in what room.  

The list was also a bargaining chip at that point.  The students were told they had to be silent for five minutes on the bus before they would hear the list- a move that got us nearly to the hotel in nearly complete silence.  I assure you, there is no better way to travel on a bus/in an oven with thirty five kids.

Once into the rooms, the six chaperons plopped down in the middle of the hallway our group had occupied to watch the students come and go as they bought about $10,000 in chips and soda from the hotel front desk, apparently preparing for either what they thought would be the party of their lives or the armageddon (maybe both).  Spun into this was the fact that the vast majority of them had never spent a night away from home and were extraordinarily confused about how they should act.

Hilarity ensued.  The boys, both eager and terrified to show the girls their blossoming masculinity, began peaking their heads out into the hallway.  With the six chaperons keeping order simply by sitting in the center of the hallway, the more daring of the boys leaned shirtless into the hallway, hoping to be seen and admired by all, but instead to be, tragically, gently chided by the adults for being ridiculous and sent back in to clothe themselves. The girls were soon in their pajamas and used every excuse to march up and down the hallway- to get ice, to talk about the epic party that was going to happen (apparently), and simply to be seen themselves.  

This odd parade went on for about an hour before one chaperon, in order to stop the madness, demanded all the boys join him for the NBA finals.  Soon afterward there seemed to be enough snacks on the floor and we told the students to get in their rooms, after which the peaking out of doors continued for a while longer.  Sadly for them, the monstrous party they'd expected never materialized and most simply went to sleep, exhausted from the day's events and the heat.

Day 2- Capitol and Smithsonian
In the morning, with the bus fixed thanks to our bus driver and a pair of late-night mechanics, we got onto the air-conditioned bus to the Capitol building, where the students got to see the innards of our country's legislative branch. With headphones connected to our tour-guide's mic, we marched around much of the building and, so it seemed, many of the students "got" how massive not only the building is, but how very large many of the personalities in United States history are.

From the Capitol Building, we walked down to the Air and Space Museum, sweating less than the previous day as the temperature had subsided ten degrees, and broke into individual groups to take in the most visited of the Smithsonian museums.  This was my favorite part of the trip, as I'd taken a few of my most-often engaged students on as my group and they were supremely fascinated by the exhibits, rivaling my own knowledge of WWII aircraft and weaponry (thank you Call of Duty).

The Epic Return
The return-trip was also non-eventful.  We actually left a couple hours early to avoid the intense traffic that happens every afternoon, but especially on Fridays, in D.C. after 3PM.  Had we waited until our scheduled 4:30PM departure time, we might not have made it back until after midnight.  Given the fact that the school would be locked at that point and our corner is one of the most dangerous in the city, that could have ended poorly.

Because of the early departure, we had the students call their parents to make sure they were aware of our arrival two hours early.  As in the classroom, we didn't just tell them to do this, but demonstrated how it is done.  I dialed my own mother to say hello and update her on our progress and then had the lot of them scream "Hello Mrs. James!!!!", which in retrospect was not the best idea given the fact that the bus driver was changing lanes on the New Jersey Turnpike in heavy traffic. 

Ah well.  He got a tip for a reason, right?

Once back to the school, there of course was a last nagging hold-up to the teachers' departure.  One student had simply not called her home to let her mom, who was now unavailable, know that we were returning early.  With the attitude of a mule, the young lady told us she had no house key and did not know her phone number.  After yanking her contact information from our online system, and her medical form and contract for the trip, we placed half a dozen calls and, 45-minutes later, got her newly-assigned baby sitter to the school to pick her up.

And so ended the trip.

In Conclusion
Overall the trip was quite a success.  The kids, in spite of the heat, enjoyed it a ton and I think the chaperons even enjoyed it.  When polled during lunch at the Smithsonian, the kids all had different favorite things about the trip and seemed very sincere and enthusiastic about them.

We've yet to decide as a team whether or not we'll take the same trip next year.  Over the summer the difficult parts of the trip will hopefully be muted in our memories and in the fall the new class of eighth graders will hopefully show us they are capable of attending such a trip.  While the benefits may not show up on all of our standardized exams, I believe the experience was invaluable and should be offered to every eighth grader who can handle it.

At this point, I'd like to extend an extremely large THANK YOU to everyone who supported us in taking the trip.  Without the generous folks who contributed monetarily and otherwise, many of our students would have been priced out of the trip and it simply would not have happened.  You have our very sincere thanks and gratitude.

Post Scriptum
This trip got me thinking of a much larger endeavor- a trip to the "fatherland" with the Germans. That will of course take three times as much planning, much more fundraising and a ton more parent involvement.  Even still, I think it will be possible, if a bit nuts.