Stretching for Excellence

I think of posts all the time, the problem is time. Right, isn’t it for everyone?

As an Advanced Placement World History teacher, I expect excellence from my students. I require them to read, take notes, write essays, etc. Then when some struggle, I get the real story. They are in six classes and attempting to achieve excellence in all of them. Plus they play sports, volunteer, yada, yada, yada. I get it, but what is the alternative? If they don’t do well in AP World, then it will bring down your GPA or maybe set a precedent for future success in AP classes or affect their chances of getting into that premier university. Or what? I also know that if it wasn’t me, it would be another teacher. I do my best helping student try and figure out their priorities and focus their energies on what they need to do. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t. They are all stretching, stretching for themselves or his/her parents, or stretching for some idea or dream. Generally, it is all good. Sometimes a little misguided or misdirected, but who am I?

I’ve always been sensitive to this, probably because I’ve always done the same. I’ve stretched myself so thin that sometimes excellence is tough to achieve. I could live and breath AP World History or photography or this ed tech world (that I’ve removed myself from) or…. , but then I wouldn’t have anything left for all of the other things and, oh yeah, my family. (Which, for you young parents, gets even more involved as the years pass.)

Throughout the school year I always tell my AP students, if you try your best then you have to be happy with the results (good or bad). I try to live by that myself, even if I think I am coming up short in some areas. I’m stretching, but my perception of excellence is relative.

Off to grade some more AP essays.

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When Worlds Collide @ EDSITEment

Another version of my KCET blog post, more directed at teachers:

There are few absolutes in history. Yet, we often try to boil down events and ideas to a few simple explanations. As a history teacher in a public school, I have found that it can be tough to find the time to explore the complexities of many topics. We simply don’t have the time in the light of high stakes testing and other shifting priorities. However, I would argue that when students are provided with simple explanations, we paint an uneven picture of history that ultimately will distort their perception. We must find opportunities to bring them into the intricacies of historical stories.

Read the rest at the EDSITEment website (currently featured on their main page.

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PBS Documentary: When Worlds Collide

I just wrapped up another set of lesson plans for PBS. This time they support a great film called When Worlds Collide.

The film was produced by KCET in Los Angeles. They asked me to write a blog post about the lesson materials:

There are few absolutes in history. Yet, we often try to boil down events and ideas to a simple explanation.

When I was in elementary school, I remember learning about the brave conquistadors who braved long voyages across the Atlantic Ocean only to be confronted by hordes of half-naked savages. Victory was inevitable and ordained by God. Years later, I read another version of this confrontation that painted the Spanish as murderers and the ensuing events as one tragedy after another.

Read the rest at the KCET website.

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Hello, I’m Dan

It’s been almost a year since I last wrote. During that time, I wrote drafts of my last blog post any number of times. I never seemed to have the time to finish my thoughts. Almost six years ago when I started, there were just a handful of educational bloggers. It was fun, a smallish community that continuously bounced ideas and discussions off one another. Today, it has become an amazing vast wonderland of people sharing ideas, tools, etc. Then Twitter made it expand in an unbelievable way.

As it expanded and my time became more limited as I took on more responsibilities, jobs, and kids (up to three now), I didn’t feel I had as much to offer to this big conversation. I had wanted to do a weekly cool tool update, but weekly wasn’t realistic. I sort of got lost along the way of what I wanted to share. When it came down to it, I was most successful as a blogger when I wasn’t doing any real planning or trying to shape a specific message. I just wrote about what was going on – tech projects I was working on, presentations I was doing, cool lesson plans that worked, and any larger educational issues that were affecting the classroom. That was enough for me and anyone who passed through.

A lot has changed in the last year in education as a whole and in my little educational world (new principal, new classes, a stint as the accreditation coordinator, more PBS work, etc.). I think I could start pondering again out loud. I’ve scaled back my “outside” responsibilities and look forward to a summer thinking about what I’m going to be teaching. In the fall, I’m going to really get to focus on teaching my classes (AP World and Photography – added last year). Something I haven’t really had an opportunity to do in about three years.

So this is not the farewell I have attempted to write, but a reintroduction. See you around.

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Drawing the Social Line

I tend to blend my work and personal lives together. I have one computer that I mostly use. My living room serves as my main work, relax, and inside play area. I grade papers while the kids run amok. I will talk about my kids and share the highlights of my weekend with my students.

But I have always tried to draw some lines. I don’t share my political or religious views with my students. I certainly stay away from some of my wilder youth stories (if there are any).

The Internet has a caused me to reconsider some of the lines I’ve drawn over the years. Initially this blog had no name on it – while I didn’t hide my identity, I didn’t publicize it. I wrote about politics and made semi-veiled references to events in my classroom. Once Dan McDowell publicly became A History Teacher, those posts stopped. My audience clearly became other teachers and educational technologists. The more personal posts disappeared, or at least only made occasional appearances. I’m sure some students found and occasionally read a post, but I think most would have found them boring.

As the tools for networking continue to expand, so do the possibilities for greater and more varied connections. I use my Twitter and Flickr accounts for both professional and personal uses – even my 365 in 2009 images include a mix of images taken at school and at home. About a year ago I set up a Facebook account and connected to a handful of other educational technology types. Eventually some former students found me and I accepted their friend invitations. I rarely, if ever looked at it until about three months ago. Some old high school and college friends started adding me as friends. Then my wife got on it with her network of friends and before I knew it I had: educational technology contacts, former professors, teachers from my school, former students, family members, college friends, high school friends, and parents of my kids friends. All in the same room.

Now I only have about 50 friends in Facebook, but it is a diverse and high quality group. There might be a story or two (remember I said might) from high school or college that I wouldn’t want passed on to my family or former students or current co-workers. A friend (both in Facebook and real life) related to me a incident where he asked another friend to take down some college party-type pictures because he was concerned about his professional contacts seeing the images.

I already strictly adhere to the rule that I don’t friend current students, but this is now bigger than just sharing information with students. I’ve always had parts of my life compartmentalized with only occasionaly cross-over. To truely enjoy and continue some of these friendships in Facebook, I have to blur the lines I’ve drawn for my entire life. I am just grappling with how to do that now.

No doubt I am not the only one experiencing this, what are you doing about it?

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The conversation is stale, for some

Just read Will Richardson’s post, De-Echoing My Reading Practice…Help Wanted. As usual, he discusses some good points, most notably that great “conversation” in the realm of educational technology has stalled. He is looking outside the usual network, deleting all of his edublog feeds to try and get new ideas that can further the collective thinking of educational technologists and teachers.

I understand his perception – I love exploring new ideas, but like I mentioned in a previous post, some still don’t know about the conversation or are still trying to wrap their brains around it. I hate to say it (I hope the buzz word gods don’t strike me down), but we are in the midst of a paradigm shift. While we can’t stop looking forward, let’s not forget to help those still contemplating its importance, use, or even existence.

In August, this blog will celebrate five years of sporadic existence. The echo chamber back then was more like a small box. What we have experienced is a growth so large that the central “conversation” has been diluted. We have reached a scalability issue that promises to be a part of the conversation for years to come. There are now over 250 Google Certified Teachers. During NECC there are hundreds of people live blogging,Twittering, etc. all of the sessions. If we all try and participate in the same discussion, most of us won’t be able to get a word in or at least we will be repeating each other. Thus, creating that echo chamber. I see that vast chamber actually as a sign of the success of this movement because it means more people are participating. Sure there might be 30 people blogging about using Google Docs with their students – but that means those who exploring the potential uses of Google Docs with their students can see multiple examples from people with varied backgrounds.

We need to keeping looking for ways to increase participation. We have come so far, but this grassroots movement has only just begun.

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Selling my soul, or not

Over the last couple years I have found my way into endless discussions regarding the nature of assessment, the idea of common or equitable assessment, and impact standardized testing is taking on education as a whole. As my school attempts to recover from years of misdirection, we have had to explore these issues on a regular basis and really try and balance the idea that much of what we do with our students on a day-to-day basis cannot be measured on a 60 questions multiple choice exam. The notion that it can seems laughable. 180 days of discussions, projects, lectures, readings, etc. cannot be boiled down that far. Can it? Not only that, but are those intangibles and learning opportunities actually more valuable to the students as they progress through their education?

What is more important? That the student memorizes the dates and specific facts of a historical topic, or that he or she learns skills that might allow them to understand similar situations there (here) in the real world. Do we sacrifice lessons with that push critical thinking, public speaking, debate preparation, and technological literacy in favor of facts. The answer is obvious, right? But, we still have that darn state testing. And it looks like it isn’t going away any time soon.

This conversation has been going on for years. It is really old news, I know that. But for me, there is another side to it. What about AP classes? I love my AP kids, but in the end, I teach to the test. In AP World History, we are on a forced march across the ages and through a laundry list of skills (many of which important “big picture” skills that will help in life). I specifically address the types of essays they will be writing and how to do well on each one – sometimes at the expense of a more holistic approach to writing. I guess the main difference between AP tests and state testing is that the AP test directly helps the student. I guess that is enough. For now at least.

I do know that if I had taken AP history classes, I might not be here. The spark that ignited my love of history (and then teaching) was based in projects and discussions. I don’t remember the tests, though I’m sure I had them, but I do remember thinking and obsessing over skits, video productions, art projects, short stories, and debates. These ideas defined continue to My goal has always been to bring smaller chunks those types of lessons to AP, but is it enough?

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