Looking to the future

Hello, readers! I hope you are having a wonderful summer. For me, I’m down to the last week of vacation and decided I should probably catch up on some blogs. With the exception of my one tutoring session per week, I have managed to completely walk away from being a Spanish teacher and concentrate on being anything-but-a-teacher. I love my job, but thinking of Spanish education 24/7 gets pretty exhausting after 190 teacher days. I bought a house and discovered that I really enjoy gardening, even though I hate being hot, sweaty, dirty, or constantly attacked by bugs. Go figure.

I suppose this is when I should make some goals for this year or something, but instead, I am looking even farther to the future. The inspiration for this post came from something that Sara-Elizabeth recently shared on Musicuentos, the invention of the Babel Fish. She got a surprising amount of pushback on Twitter, because although she made me think about the topic (which is the point of blogs, right?)  I didn’t feel like she was attacking our profession. I have some disagreements, but I also think that she made an important point.

One thing that Sara-Elizabeth argues for is that Google Translate has gotten a lot better over the years. And it has. (I was in high school when the first internet translators appeared and I could only use them to get the gist of a passage.) However, I would argue that a practiced speaker of a language can still tell that it’s not normal speech almost immediately. For Spanish purposes, it will use the wrong past tense. It makes all ‘you’ into ‘usted’ even if the situation wouldn’t call for it. ‘Su’ is translated as ‘he’, even if the possessor is female. Every year, I have at least one student who writes ‘me gusta el partido’. A partido is a political party, not a fun-times party: that’s a fiesta. (And further baffling because seriously, who doesn’t know the word fiesta? I know they know it!!) In other words, translators are great for getting a basic message across… usually. I still wouldn’t trust one with say, my medical advice from a doctor. They’re still pretty terrible with slang, and they just can’t convey the same feeling, emotion, and flavor that a text does in its original language.

The other counterpoint I’d make is that, although I do believe teaching as we know it is going to disappear, I’m not overly concerned for language teaching disappearing altogether in my lifetime. It’s true that we finally have the first reasonably usable virtual reality headsets. (My friend has a VIVE and using it is really cool, but the user looks like a total dork.) My new phone has 70x more storage than my first computer from 1995. However, I am pretty sure I was promised a hoverboard and robotic cleaning servants by now. The so-called hoverboards that we have just catch fire and don’t even hover, and as for robotic cleaning servants, well…

So what I’m saying is… if we’re promised the technology by 2030, we’ll see some moderately usable form of it in 2050. I don’t know about you, but I plan to be retiring around then. The rate at which new technologies are created, tested, and applied can’t continue at a breakneck pace forever. On top of that, the biggest barrier is affordability.

Here’s the part where I agree 100% with Sara-Elizabeth: teaching as we know it is on its way out. I think traditional teaching methods where students are physically grouped into a building based on location are going to stick around much longer in urban areas, but in rural, less populated areas that are only shrinking… how much longer is it economically sustainable? When I started teaching at my school in 2010, I had a little over 90 students total. This year, I am currently sitting at 46. Our graduating class size, in just the last decade, has shrunk from about 30 to about 22. This year’s sophomore class only has 19 – assuming nobody moved over the summer. So it’s not that I’m scaring students off (in reality, I have far better retention rates than the Spanish teachers before me)… there’s just fewer kids to teach.

And that’s just the students. What about staff? I think that’s really the part that is going to be difficult. I work with a concentrated group of amazing veteran teachers. But in exchange for experience, I would say at least 1/3 of our staff is at or near retirement age, and I am honestly not sure what is going to happen if they all decide to leave at once. Who will replace them? Will we be able to get and keep quality teachers? What about the teachers who coach multiple activities? Our non-teaching staff is even more critical. I can’t imagine my school running without our three fantastic office ladies. We are in severe need of bus drivers and substitute teachers. It’s the typical small town scenario: everyone is aging out. Many of the kids are leaving and not coming back. It’s hard to face, but that’s the reality of the situation.

So, I worry. We can’t really consolidate our school anymore – we already encompass about 100 square miles. Some of our students live upwards of 20 miles away from our main building. I am pretty sure it’s just a matter of time before schools like mine disappear and are turned into online-only education. I am against that for kids for a variety of reasons, but if that happens, will there be a place for me? What would I do if I couldn’t teach Spanish there any longer? I have plenty of talents but… I like what I do now. I like my students. I like my coworkers. I don’t want that to change. But, and I think this is the whole point Sara-Elizabeth was trying to make, is that we need to be prepared when – not if – it does.

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NETA 2015

As the year begins to wind down here in Nebraska, I finally have time to update my blog! The last few weeks have been a whirlwind of conferences and track meets. In this post, I want to tell you about my trip to NETA – the Nebraska Educational Technology Association. This year, it was held at the lovely CenturyLink Center. I’d been to concerts there before, but never on the conference room side. It was very nice!

Before outlining things I think might be useful for fellow language teachers, I have to say – it was nice to be around My People. In every session, people had tablets and phones and laptops for note taking. People took copious amounts of pictures. During the keynote, it was not just allowed, but expected and encouraged to tweet/blog/whatever about anything that came to mind. The two keynote speakers (Adam Bellow and George Couros) were fantastic. Adam made us laugh, George made us cry. But through the whole conference, it just felt nice to be around people who said, ‘We can do it! We have the technology!’ and then laugh because I don’t look old enough to get the reference. There were novice teachers and veteran teachers. There were digital natives and digital immigrants. Some were there because they wanted to learn how to use tech in the first place, some were there to push their tech use further. I also like how the presentations were by fellow teachers and techies that are in schools, in the classrooms, that run into the same problems that we all do – and maybe have a solution. I loved seeing everyone working together – the kind of stuff we dream of for our classrooms.

The first session I went to was on Minecraft. I don’t play it, nor do my students (this year’s big thing is Clash of Clans) because I’m pretty sure it’s more of an elementary thing. However, world language is weird teaching universe where we are essentially using elementary-level tactics to teach to a secondary-level group. The teacher demo’d some sample lessons for us. One involved exploring different biomes and then taking a ‘quiz’ through Minecraft using locked doors. Another sample lesson had students creating a setting for different civilizations. Since I teach an ancient civilizations unit in AP, I could easily adapt this to my class. I just don’t know if seniors would be interested. (They probably would… as long as nobody knew they were playing a kiddo game.) Another potential use is to have students design a house. In the language classroom, you could have a student describe the house they want and the second student has to build it to their specifications, then give feedback. Although my Parade of Homes activity isn’t going to be repeated (at least not in AP Spanish,) that would be a perfect unit to pair it with. If Minecraft sounds interesting to you, a good resource is MinecraftEDU.

Another session I went to was run by my amazing cooperating teacher, Janet Eckerson. She was fantastic to work with when I was still learning the ropes, and it was just as fun to see her teach again. She just has that shining enthusiasm and exuberance when she teaches, no matter which language she’s teaching in. As a veteran-ish teacher, I can now see how lucky I was to learn under her guidance. In any case, she touched a bit on Google Forms/Flubaroo for formative assessment, then on Google Voice to do speaking assessments that are low-stress and can be reviewed at the teacher’s convenience. Google Voice is a free internet telephone number that students can call if you are a lower tech environment. Personally, since I have the tech, I will probably choose to things like Vocaroo where students can re-record if they totally mess it up, but I think it’s a useful alternative for people who aren’t 1:1. Janet’s sneaky trick here was to push students into practicing their speeches. Most of us will ask our students to do some sort of presentation in their time with us, and this is a way to have them practice AND give the teacher evidence of said practice.

On the second day, I hit a session Zondle. Zondle came up in my blended learning conference a few weeks ago, but this was a bit more in-depth. Zondle is essentially a smashup of 123TeachMe/Duolingo/Kahoot. In it, teachers create assessments or activities, and students can play various games to practice. A nice thing about Zondle is that it tracks student progress. It’s a bit late to add Zondle to my repertoire this year, but it might be handy next year.

The final session worth noting was a session on videosmashing – how to make watching videos more interactive or interesting for students. The first part discussed the differences between Edpuzzle, Educanon, and Zaption. All three are basically video programs that allow you to stop and ask questions as you go. Edpuzzle seems like the most adaptable for our use. The other one I really liked but never heard of before was Videonot.es. This app is attached to Google Drive and it’s super cool – the student loads the video on the left, and take notes on the right. The notes are automatically timestamped, so when students go back and select that particular note, the video also jumps to that spot. I do a lot of video+’write down what you hear’ activities to work on listening comprehension – novices certainly aren’t going to catch EVERY word, but they can catch a lot! Sadly, we found out that if Youtube is blocked at your school, Videonot.es is unable to load the video as well. Maybe next year.

There were a few other sessions I visited, but the only other one I really took something from was the women in tech conversation session run by Beth Still. Long story short, things are not always so rosy for women in technology. I am very lucky that my administration has been supportive and I haven’t received any discrimination from my coworkers, but I was joined by a help desk operator at a local community college, and three women who worked as IT support in a large school system who all had some disgusting stories of sexism directed at them in the workplace. Although we didn’t cover any new territory – we’ve all been down that road – it was nice to share some moral support with other women and a hope that someday, our work will lead to a different future for the women who follow behind us.

I really enjoyed my time at NETA and although I’m not sure I’ll go next year (I don’t like missing so much school), it was a worthwhile experience and I would encourage you to visit tech conferences, whether in Nebraska or any other state. And of course, blog about your findings! Let’s share our knowledge!

Blended Learning Conference (Institute for Educational Development)

So it’s that time of year where I feel I am utterly overwhelmed with all the things I need to do… and also have a lot of free time due to the scheduling of school activities and a lack of students left to teach! Blogging is one of those things that I think, ‘Oh, I’ll get to that’ and then never do, until I have something to trigger me.

In this case, I went to a blended language learning conference in Omaha yesterday. I was a little worried at first because I couldn’t find much information on the instructor, Debbie Roberts, or on this particular conference. Since I was paying my own way and taking a precious spring day off of work, I was hoping it would be worth my time. Considering I am someone who is pretty well versed in technology, I was also concerned that it would be similar to the PD we’ve had here at my school about app/web basics like Google, Evernote, Prezi, Kahoot, (Duolingo and Quizlet for language teachers), etc. I know about those – I was looking for something more.

Thankfully, the conference exceeded my expectations. It turned out that there wasn’t much information on this particular conference because it was the first time our instructor had presented! (She did have extensive presentation experience on general ed tech as well as being a master language teacher.) I also really liked the fact that she is someone who is still an active teacher. I feel it gives more credence when someone can say ‘I did this lesson on Thursday’ versus ‘I did this lesson 5 years ago’.

In any case, here is a summary of my favorite new ideas. This blog post is coming from a perspective of someone who is handy with technology and is looking for some new twists on old ideas. (After all, solid teaching is solid teaching, with or without tech.)

Slidesnack – Last year (when I still gave grammar notes) I used a regular powerpoint + screencast-o-matic. Although SOM is a perfectly fine tool, I felt it was a little unwieldy when trying to use it to record a verbal lecture at the same time. Slidesnack basically does the same thing (allows you to record over a presentation) but I wonder if it’s more versatile.

Powtoon – I’m already familiar with Powtoon, but it warrants a mention because it is a wonderful storytelling tool for both teachers and students. When students get bored of the regular text stories, sometimes a simple Powtoon spices things back up. Here is an example of a story I wrote for Spanish 2 to practice the present perfect.

Fotobabble – Fotobabble is like a simplified Voicethread. You can take a photo and record your voice. This would be great for narrating a story, or simply describing the picture verbally (and still allowing the teachers to have a record of what was said for assessment/credit/whatever).

Big Huge Labs – Big Huge Labs is a website with tons of options to create stuff with photos. Debbie showed us how to make a movie poster, but there are many options that could be easily transformed into language activities.

Sock Puppets – This is sadly only available as an iOS app, but could be great for those who have iPad carts or BYOD. This basically allows students to narrate skits and the sock puppets move their mouths to match the words (plus silly voice changing).

Autorap – Another app that allows you to record spoken text and then play it back with a sweet beat. I think kids could get a kick out of working on pronunciation and then playing it back in this silly way.

Besides these useful tech tools, Debbie’s workshop packet (book, really) has example lesson plans, rubrics for assessment, examples of IPAs (integrated performance assessments), and ideas for differentiating learning through tech. Although these ideas could be used for an entirely flipped classroom, everything I learned could be applicable in a traditional+tech, blended, or flipped environment. They also work for the entire range of classroom and teaching styles (grammar-based to pure input). This post is just a taste of what we covered – I would definitely recommend this conference to all of you!

The irony of technology

It’s no surprise that I am a huge fan of technology. I’m on twitter, I’ve got this blog, I have a blended classroom, and so on. I am literally a child of technology: I wasn’t exactly the most popular girl in middle school. (For some reason, people don’t really care for nerdy, obnoxiously smart and snarky young women. Hmm.) So I turned to this new-fangled internet thing and wow! There were losers like me on there! We could be losers together! And so began some of my life-long friendships; people that I have never met in person but I have known longer than any ‘real life’ friend I spend time with. Suffice to say, I am a little biased towards the good that technology can do for people. Don’t get me wrong, there is an incredibly unpleasant downside (online bullying, #gamergate, doxxing, etc.) but the internet is also a wealth of amazing information, opinions, and ideas that can revolutionize what we do in our lives. The internet helped me through the worst parts of my social development when I was utterly shut down to the rest of the world around me. It taught me how to build my own computer. It continues to help me with developing my expertise as a teacher.

I also feel that technology in the educational world is a very divisive issue. I am struggling with this in my own school. We recently went 1:1 with laptops and I am loving it. There are challenges, to be sure, but I have the skills and tenacity to overcome them. I have my room set up in fashion that encourages communication (both face-to-face and online) and where I can freely move about the room. I understand that my students, for the most part, have used technology as an entertainment device for most of their life and not as an educational device. In this 21st century skills world (or as I like to call it, the world), I consider it a part of my job to teach students to use technology appropriately. And like with any other new skill, they aren’t very good at it. I have to correct my students a lot. But I have to correct my sophomores less than the freshmen, the juniors less than the sophomores, and I pretty much let my seniors make their own decisions because: holy smokes, they’re almost full-fledged adults who need to know how to make the right decision without my hovering. I also understand that there are teachers who struggle with all of these things, and I can be a leader to show them how to manage behavior in a digital world. [Edited to add: After I originally wrote this post, I spent a portion of my day helping another teacher who is, in her own words, ‘terrible with technology but needs to learn about it’. I was happy to spend the 15 minutes it took to walk her through how to set up stuff on planbook.com. I like helping others have a good experience – I practice what I preach.]

But then there are things that outright irritate me, and this cartoon is one of them. I saw this posted on my twitter feed a few weeks ago, and it made me think.

cellphonesuntanThe irony of that cartoon, of course, is that it was shared on a social media platform. It probably wasn’t shared from a beach, but it was very possibly shared from a phone or tablet (considering that 80% of twitter’s users use a mobile device to access it). The people depicted in the cartoon are kids and teenagers, even though 90% of American adults have a cellphone, 58% have a smartphone, and approximately 50% or higher use their phone for entertainment purposes. For some reason, even though the vast majority of Americans have access to technology, using it frequently is considered something for ‘kids these days.’ The perception of people – especially young people – using their cellphones to do something besides make an actual phone call is widely negative. I often hear things like ‘lazy’ ‘only motivated by games’ ‘can’t function without technology’ or ‘why don’t they read a book?’

Here’s the reason this cartoon really bothered me: if I were a person, sitting on the beach, reading a traditional book, no one would make a comic about that. If I was reading a book on my beloved kindle, that’s probably not comic-worthy either. But being on the beach, reading a book on my phone? That’s worth making a comic about; the tragedy of being unable to function without my smartphone. And while we’re at it, why is reading books considered a more worthy pastime than playing a game, or watching tv? I think we should judge media by the story that it tells and the thoughts it provokes, rather than the platform by which it is consumed. It would be pretty difficult to explain to me how 50 Shades of Grey is superior to Guardians of the Galaxy in terms of story and pro-social ideas, even though 50 Shades of Grey was originally a book (and Guardians of the Galaxy a comic – possibly the only art form more widely derided than video games).

Although this issue is more pronounced at my school due to our heavily veteran staff, I expect other schools are experiencing the same push and pull of technology in the classroom. That’s normal; it’s how progress is made. But by depicting mobile tech users as clueless and crippled by their need to have their phone at all times, we’re doing our students a disservice. Like it or not, this is the world they – and we – live in. We need to put away the prejudices and meet the challenge with an open mind. That doesn’t mean using tech for tech’s sake, but rather using it in a directed and meaningful way. What can you do to show your students how to use their technological powers for good and not evil? How can you encourage your students to make good tech choices?

Failing forward

This summer, I’ve been bitten by a bug. The technology bug. You see, not only am I a teacher by day and derby girl by night, I am a geek gamer girl at all times. I’ve been playing games since I could hold a controller, and been on the internet since it was barely a thing. I bought my last computer in 2009, and I’m reaching a point where my current setup is getting a little creaky for even simple things like opening Firefox, or saving a document. Loading Skyrim is a chore, and Civilization V? I might as well go make a sandwich while waiting for the loading screen. Buying a new computer is so expensive… but you can also save a boatload of money if you do the labor yourself.

If you’ve never built a computer before, it’s rather simple yet terrifying. To learn how to put together the actual components, all you have to do is wander over to Youtube and search ‘how to build a computer’. (I used Newgg’s PC build video, because knowing computer parts is kinda their thing.) The terrifying part is, if you do something wrong, you are potentially out a hundred bucks or more. I’ve upgraded my computers before, but by ‘upgrade’ I mean putting in new RAM (which is nearly impossible to mess up) or getting a new keyboard. Anyone can do that stuff. But to put together my own gaming computer, now that is a point of pride!

So why am I blathering about building computers in a teaching blog? It’s easy: I failed. Fail is a word we use a lot in the education world, and I’m starting to get frustrated with it because it has a double meaning. The first one is FAIL as in YOU ONLY GET ONE CHANCE AND YOU BLEW IT. And then there’s FAIL as in First Attempt In Learning. I am trying to use it more as the second one (which implies that you can and will get more chances to practice) but students, parents, and other teachers are far more attuned to the first usage. Students, sadly, also tend to equate ‘you failed’ with ‘you’re stupid’ and withdraw rather than giving it another go, whatever it is.

Today, I got all my parts ready. I made sure to discharge my static repeatedly. The hardest parts for me, ironically, were placing the CPU fan (it required more force than I expected) and removing the front bay window to install my CD drive. I assembled the main components, did my test boot, everything beeped properly, hooray! Then I put the rest of it together, and tested again. More beeps, hooray! Then I inserted my Windows disk, walked away for a moment to clean up while the boot disk loaded, and came back to a dead computer.

I don’t know what what happened. Things were going so well, then suddenly I can’t even get it to pretend like it’s functional. I failed somewhere. But the second type of fail – First Attempt In Learning. I’ve never put a computer together before. There are a million little things that I could’ve messed up. I could’ve screwed something into the wrong place, connected something incorrectly, or touched a contact with my sweaty, nervous hands that made the connection short. Worst case scenario, something got fried, but I can replace it under warranty.Tomorrow, I’ll have to try again. Like my students, I got too frustrated to continue today. It’s important for us (both as teachers and students) to know when to keep pushing, or when to take a break. I suppose I could declare this project too hard, and enjoy my $700 paperweight/cat condo. So try again it is, and things will go faster tomorrow, even though I have to take the whole thing apart and put it back together again, possibly more than once. I may have failed at the ultimate goal today – a functional computer – but I definitely learned lots along the way. Maybe it won’t be working by the end of tomorrow, but I bet I’ll know even more. Someday I’ll get it working properly, and then I can have something to be truly proud of.