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Flaws in No Child Left Behind Act on Display in Massachusetts

Last July we featured the work of researchers funded by the Teachers College Campaign for Educational Equity at Columbia University. Expressing extreme criticism of the proficiency standard of the No Child Left Behind Act, Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen, and Tamara Wilder crafted an extremely provocative title to their study, “Proficiency for All Is an Oxymoron.”

SherSteveWhile the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) sets forth the standard that all students must be proficient by the year 2014, the Columbia Teacher College researchers insist that proficiency is not attainable by all. The researchers contended that not even 100% of middle-class students could reach a truly rigorous standard, not by 2014, not ever.

Yet, NCLB continues to be a driving force in educational reform and the push for higher standards is now wrecking havoc with public schools all across America.

Massachusetts Students High Performers
To see the problems created by a noteworthy goal that is simply not attainable, we turn to Massachusetts where considerable debate is emerging regarding the state’s testing system and the awarding of diplomas to students.

First, there appear to be many very positive academic strides being made across the state. Current data has Massachusetts students achieving at some of the highest levels in the country.

As but one example, the results of the 2007 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests in Mathematics for Massachusetts students at the eighth grade level reveal an average scale score of 298. The score was higher than the average of the entire nation’s public schools (280) and for the math exam, the Massachusetts results exceeded those of all of the other 51 jurisdictions tested.

In addition, with all NAEP results, Massachusetts is also showing steady growth, with scores increasing steadily over the past decade.

ACT.orgIn yet another arena, college bound seniors, Massachusetts ranks number one in ACT (originally the American College Tests) results with an average score of 23.5. However, only 15% of Massachusetts students currently take the ACT tests. Many more take the SAT (originally the Scholastic Aptitude Test) Reasoning Test where Massachusetts student averages totaled 1546 for the three tests, exceeding the national average by 35 points.

Further research yields similar results – Massachusetts students represent some of the highest achieving students in America. The state achieves these results despite being home to the pitfalls associated with a large urban center such as Boston.

Applying the NCLB Criteria
Yet, when the standards and criteria specified under NCLB are used the state appears to be a dismal failure. Current state Department of Education data indicates that one out of every two public schools in Massachusetts is now in the “needs improvement” category. Futhermore, a total of 277 public schools fit the performance criteria that specifies formal “restructuring” because of ongoing failures to meet NCLB test standards.

Adding to the complexity of the problem is the fact that Massachusetts ties a high school diploma to the results of their state standardized tests, the MCAS (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System). Students who complete high school and attain the necessary credits to earn a high school diploma must also pass the MCAS to receive that coveted piece of parchment.

Dept. of Education, MassachusettsIn a recent article questioning the MCAS, Scott W. Lang, the mayor of New Bedford, notes that “since the MCAS graduation requirement has been in place, 16,841 public school students have completed all state-approved local graduation requirements but have been denied a high school diploma because they did not pass the test.” Lang also notes that the number of students who have been denied a diploma will top 20,000 when the class of 2008 graduates this spring.

While these numbers are staggering (these are students who meet all high school requirements and do not include those who drop out along the way), there is now a move in Massachusetts to raise the “proficiency” standards further. According to the Lang article, state officials want to move the proficiency level another 20 points for 2014.

Lang goes on to note that those students lacking a high school diploma are destined for a difficult road in the world of work and family life beyond high school.

Confusion Abounds
As one of the highest performing states deals with large numbers of so-called ‘failing schools,’ it is easy to understand why education is in for a difficult road over the next several years. That road will be most challenging at the public school level where teachers are asked to educate all students, including children from impoverished backgrounds and those with special needs, to levels that even middle class students have been unable to attain.

Wesley FryerHere we turn back to the researchers employed by Columbia who noted that the goal of higher standards is a laudable one and the work being done to close the achievement gap among subgroups admirable. While those goals are worthy, those same researchers call the quest of “proficiency for all” untenable.

“Not only is it logically impossible to have ‘proficiency for all’ at a challenging level,” state the researchers, not even “the highest-performing countries come close to meeting the No Child Left Behind Act’s standard of proficiency for all.”

Those words help us understand the complex path that is currently unfolding in Massachusetts. Somewhere along the line wiser heads need to begin to see the No Child Left Behind Act for what it is, a set of unrealistic goals, even if noble in spirit.

Because as one can see with the developments in Massachusetts, a quest for “proficiency for all” is about to further increase America’s already exorbitant number of youngsters who lack a high school diploma.

Flickr photos courtesy of SherSteve and Wesley Fryer.

October 4, 2008   2 Comments

Edmodo – Free Microblogging Site for Educators

Over the past few weeks we have noticed that a new microblogging site for teachers has been garnering a great deal of interest. Edmodo represents the blood and sweat of Jeff O’Hara and Nic Borg, two techies who work in the field of education.

As has been my experience, even though teaching is a full-time job most who work in the profession take on additional school-related responsibilities, whether it be monitoring student organizations or updating district curriculum. Most do so even though there is no extra pay and the additional work adds countless hours to an already busy schedule.

So it was no surprise to find two young men, each with full time jobs, going beyond the call of duty to try to create a meaningful tool for teachers. However, we were even more impressed than usual as these two individuals were seeking to make their work available to educators beyond their home district, and doing so at no cost to users.

These two men have to be onto something since Edmodo has been featured on several tech-oriented sites including SomewhatFrank, Teach 42, and Reflection 2.0.

So we spent some time talking with Jeff to learn about their work especially the rationale for building a microblogging platform for educators. We present our information below in our traditional, unedited question and answer format.

Can you give our readers a brief summary of you and your partner Nic Borg’s backgrounds and how the two of you came to collaborate on the creation of Edmodo?

Both Nic & my backgrounds are primarily in the technology side of education.  Nic just graduated from Northern Illinois University with a degree in Computer Science but he has been working at Kaneland High School in Elburn, Illinois for the last 5 years, building web based tools for them.  He is currently employed full-time there.

I have been working at Community Unit School District 200 in Wheaton, Illinois for the last nine years in their IT dept.  I’ve handled everything from desktop support, managing Network & Server infrastructure, and the management of their web infrastructure. 

About 2 years ago I had the idea of doing a “Youtube for Education” and was thinking about how I would get the project off the ground.  I had been aware of Nic’s work as my wife teaches at Kaneland HS. I ended up contacting him to see if he wanted to work together on a project.  We did an initial meeting and he liked the idea but was too busy at the time to take anything else on.  I kind of let the idea linger, and about a year ago Nic contacted me out of the blue and said he was ready to start working on some projects together if I was interested.  We brainstormed for a few months just trying to see what we wanted to work on.  I had been using (a microblogging platform) a lot and thought something similar would be ideal as a learning platform. That’s where the idea for Edmodo was born.

Ultimately, what was the basic impetus for the two of you launching your own blog platform for educators and where did the title/name Edmodo originate? Were there not already many options available to educators?

I had been a little bored with my day job and though there were a number of cool web tools coming out in the past, there were not that many coming out for use in the classroom. 

The name Edmodo is completely made up, but is a slight play on, a very popular gadget blog. Ed obviously stands for education.  We wanted something catchy, easy to say and a domain we could actually afford to purchase.

What has been the source of funding for the start-up costs for the site? Are there costs for educators to implement the tool in their classrooms? Can you give readers a sense of participation rates?

Nic and I have been the sole source of funding for Edmodo.  Luckily funding a start-up is very cheap in today’s world if you already have the talent to accomplish what you need to do.  Nic and I have done everything ourselves and have not had any outside costs as a result of hiring any work out. 

Currently, there are no costs for Educator’s to use Edmodo in it’s current state and we want to keep it that way.  We are less than 2 weeks old and already have over 1700 user accounts created.  A lot of the accounts are teachers testing the system out and using it with other teachers, but there are quite a few that have already implemented Edmodo in the classroom which makes us very happy.

Can you give our readers an overview of the concept of microblogging, specifically as it pertains to education? Are there specific advantages created by microblogging, especially as compared to other traditional blogging forms?

IllustirAccording to Wikipedia: Micro-blogging is a form of blogging that allows users to write brief text updates (usually up to 140 characters) and publish them, either to be viewed by everyone or if chosen by the user, a select group. We feel the ease of use that microblogging platforms provide makes it a better way to communicate with students than the tradition blogging platform.  Traditional blogging platforms are  designed to communicate long posts to a large group of people. Microblogging platforms are really designed for interaction and communication in short posts and we feel that is an advantage to a teacher in getting their students to interact in classroom activities. 

Can you give readers a couple of specific examples of how Edmodo can be of use in the classroom? Again, what about Edmodo gives educators additional tools over that of other blogging software?

Well my wife is a high school teacher and she just started using it with her students this week.  She’s been using it to post daily assignments and her students are using it to answer questions regarding the assignments.  I know she also plans on using it to have students submit their assignments through Edmodo.  My wife has also created groups for committee’s that she is the head of and plans on using it as a tool for managing communication with other committee members. 

As another potential use, a lot of teachers have students find articles to bring to class. Now a teacher could have the student submit a link to the articles in Edmodo instead of printing them out.  We know a lot of schools are trying to be greener and use less paper and using online tools can help with decreasing the amount of paper usage. 

We think there are so many other ways that Edmodo could be use and think every teacher using it will use it in a slightly different way.  We also believe that privacy & ease of use is the primary reason a teacher should use a tool like Edmodo over a traditional blogging tool for communicating with students. 

Is Edmodo primarily a tool for teachers or does the platform provide students additional options if their classroom teacher gets the ball rolling?

This is not just a tool for the teachers, it’s a tool for students to ask questions either within the classroom timeline or pose to the teacher directly.  Teachers can use Edmodo to have their students submit their assignments.  There is also a calendar that teachers can use to post events and assignment due dates.  Edmodo is designed with privacy in mind but it also gives the teacher the ability to make anything public at his or her discretion.  Another thing, Edmodo is not a finished product, we still have ideas to bring additional classroom features to the platform in the future. Things such as a grade system & parent interaction.  Grades will be a little tricky as we want to be compatible with other grade-book systems that a teacher may already be using.

What have been your most significant learnings as you seek to get such a platform rolling? Are there other benefits to the two of you beyond what you may have learned about creating a microblogging platform of your own?

We have learned so much technically & socially while working on Edmodo. Where do I start? I think one of the big things I’ve learned is you really have to engage teachers and find out what they are looking for in a tool while your building it.  We have gone to great lengths to find out what teachers want in an online tool.  Luckily even though Nic & I aren’t teachers ourselves, we are surrounded by them everyday and they have been an enormous help to us in building Edmodo.  Some other benefits have been all of the great and supportive people we have met along the way.  We would have never of met those people if we hadn’t thought of some crazy idea and decided to get the ball rolling on it.

Flickr photo courtesy of Illustir.

September 20, 2008   4 Comments

Free E-Book an Excellent Resource for Teachers Seeking to Be Technologically Relevant

Our good friend and fellow education blogger, Zaid Alsagoff, has authored his first ever e-book, “69 Learning Adventures in 6 Galaxies.” Available for free download at, the book brings together key “learning nuggets” as Zaid calls them with the arbitrary number 69 representing what he feels are the best learning chunks to appear over the past year on his blog, ZaidLearn.

Currently the e-Learning Manager at INCEIF, Zaid has extensive hands-on experience with e-learning in higher education. The educator also has done research in a variety of e-learning areas including educational gaming, role-play simulation, virtual classrooms, learning (content) management systems, e-learning standards, instructional design and courseware development.

Zaid’s blog caught our attention for a number of reasons. First and foremost, Zaid uses a measuring stick called learning juice to categorize materials that serve to inspire readers of specific materials. Second Zaid consistently searches the net for interesting web sites related to technology and learning so his blog features a number of compilation posts listing the latest sites worth visiting.

At the same time, what has always been critical for this writer is the amount of reflection Zaid puts into the role of teacher. He constantly reviews his own practices to determine the impact he is having on his students making him an outstanding role model for those aspiring to the profession.

Six Galaxies
To help readers, the good professor has divided his text into six distinct galaxies or sections: learning, teaching, stories, free e-learning tools, free learning content, and free edugames. Fellow educators taking the time to download the book will find a wealth of helpful information within each subcategory.

ZaidLearnAdding greatly to the appeal is a number of wonderful quotes from some of the greatest minds of our time. Zaid has pearls of wisdom from the likes of Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Victor Hugo, Tom J. Connelly, and William Arthur Ward (great teachers inspire).

Within the Learning Galaxy, the author begins by referencing the work of several other educators and writers. Alsagoff features “The Secrets of the Super-Learners” from Graig Lambart, “E-Learning 2.0 in Development” by Stephen Downes, “Learning 2.0 eBook – Free to Learn!” by Jeff Cobb at Mission to Learn, and “eLearning? I’ve had E-Nough!!” from Rozhan Idrus, the creator of the phrase technogogy.

The Teaching Galaxy features Zaid’s own “Coaching Critical Thinking to Think Creatively!”, the e-Learning 2.0 Workshop from Stephen Downes and Optimizing eLearning Strategy from Bryan Chapman. The section also offers up links to the great MIT Physics Professor Walter Lewin and links to two videos that reveal “The Secrets to Great Teaching.”

His Stories Galaxy includes Warren Buffet’s “MBA Talk,” Steve Ballmer’s “How Do You Motivate Staff?” and the incredible “The World Is Flat” from Thomas Friedman.

ZaidlearnHis final three galaxies represent a gathering of his collections of worthwhile sites. From the likes of “Peter’s Online Typing Course” to the “Visible Body” a 3D Human Anatomy Visualization Tool to Alan Levine’s “50 Web 2.0 Ways to Tell a Story, Zaid has the links to spur educators to explore new territory. In his sixth and final Galaxy, readers will find a collection of “75 Free EduGames to Spice Up Your Course!”

Licensed Under Creative Commons
Adding to the attractiveness for educators is that Zaid’s e-book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 License. The Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license means that readers are free to share (to copy, distribute and transmit the work) and to Remix (to adapt the work) under conditions of non-commercial use and proper attribution.

As with other creative commons licensed work, any alterations, transformations, or book redesigns may be distributed only under the same or a similar license.

To download a copy click here.

August 10, 2008   No Comments

Time to Eliminate Taj Mahal School Building Projects

As education expenses continue to grow, strapped taxpayers have begun pushing back on state and local governments. In the tiny State of Maine, many school districts are finding that passing a school budget for the upcoming school year a sincere challenge.

Even the tiny town of Monmouth, home to one of Maine’s finest public school systems, has seen such a rebellion, leaving school officials without a school budget for 2008-09. With another school year set to begin in less than a month’s time, Monmouth finds itself in an extremely challenging position.

Massachusetts Taking a Stance Regarding School Building Projects
One of the areas adding to the current budget issues for many school districts is the repayment of funds for recent building projects. As school buildings age and the respective operating systems become out-of-date, capital improvements have become a greater portion of local school budgets in recent times.

mass.govIn many states, such projects also create great financial stress on state tax dollars. In Massachusetts, State Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, is making a strong push towards ending what might be called an open-ended building environment.

Cahill specifically indicated he wanted to see an end to “Taj Mahal” high schools, a reference to local communities being unable to draw a line between what is truly necessary and what is a luxury or design for aesthetic purposes. As one method of limiting the state funding costs, Cahill wants to create a set of building designs that communities would have to select from. The treasurer asserts that such a step could help cut building projects by as much as 30 percent.

bloomberg.comGiven the recent stories of the new Newton North High School project, a $197.5 million building that easily created the aforementioned “Taj Mahal” image, it is easy to see why Cahill is taking such a stance. The Newton project clearly represents the fundamental debate point, a school community with a “wish list” of what parents and educators might want versus those items that are truly necessary or that a community can actually afford.

Such steps have already been put in place in the South (Florida, for example). The practice not only creates new school buildings in a cost effective manner, the result is a building that has been previously tested for functionality.

Consequences for Communities
One issue that will create a problem for Cahill is site choices. Whereas Florida offers a flat, ledge-free building environment, northern lands often represent unique challenges requiring buildings that must conform to site demands.

Still, Cahill believes a number of plans could be drawn up for suitable sites. Then, if communities were to apply for state funds, they would need to select one of the pre-approved designs to receive financial backing.

Towns refusing to select from one of the designs could face two distinct consequences. One might be simply a refusal from the state to help with funding the project. The second option for those communities refusing to select a pre-accepted plan could be the demand that schools renovate their existing facility rather than build new.

Bloomberg.comNot too surprisingly, Massachusetts’ architects have come out strongly against such a plan. Phrases such as cookie-cutter and one-size fits all have been thrown around liberally. Many have insisted that there is no such thing as a prototypical site and such a practice would eliminate the individual character that defines a community.

Those same opponents also question whether there would be any real savings.

Time Has Come
With architectural fees running around 10 percent for each project, it is easy to see that the school design business is a lucrative one for firms. And when a school district initially planning a $100 million project instead pushes the cost out to nearly $200 million as Newton did, the final building represents $15-$20 million in architectural fees alone.

Limiting the total structure to ensure that a project does not double in costs because of local desires is a must in today’s tax climate. A tremendous concern for taxpayers as well as for government officials is the fact that one is not looking at only repayment of the initial construction costs with such a project. These buildings must be heated, cooled, cleaned and maintained for many years to come, making the actual costs of such “Taj Mahal” designs a challenge for taxpayers for many years to come.

Providing sound designs that do not shortchange the educational environment for students isn’t just a prudent step for state officials, it is an essential one to ensure continued taxpayer support for education.

July 30, 2008   1 Comment

Patton Oswalt’s Brilliant, Politically Incorrect, Graduation Speech

As a former principal, I always had great concerns at graduation time about the contents of the speeches of those given the opportunity to speak. Having heard numerous tales of irreverent and inappropriate diatribes ruining the evening of many a ceremony, this culminating event to the school year always came with a sense of apprehension.

Would this be one of the years where one of the chosen few would stray from the script, set aside their pre-approved, typed speech at the podium, and begin to deliver an impromptu talk that would raise the hair on the back of a principal’s neck? And if so, at what point would I dare intercede, knowing full well that a power struggle in front of a crowd did little to help anyone’s image?

A Few Nervous Educators
The teachers and faculty of Broad Run High School, and most certainly, the school’s principal, had to be feeling some of those very concerns when guest speaker Patton Oswalt began delivering his oration at this year’s commencement.

One of the most famous graduates of the school was a natural choice to address another generation of Broad Run seniors. But this, according to his own web site, is how he began addressing his audience:

“First off, I want to thank the teachers and faculty of Broad Run High School for first considering and then inviting me to speak here. It was flattering, I am touched and humbled, and you have made a grave mistake.

“I’m being paid for this, right? Oh, wait, there’s some advice, right off the bat – always get paid. If you make enough money in this world you can smoke pot all day and have people killed.

“I’m sorry, that was irresponsible.

“You shouldn’t have people killed.”

Those concerned about the messages we give to our youth had to wince as he continued, even if it was meant to be humorous:

“Boom! Marijuana endorsement eleven seconds into my speech! Too late to cancel me now!

“It’s dumb-ass remarks like that which kept me out of the National Honor Society and also made me insanely wealthy. If I move to Brazil.”

And for those who are concerned with being politically correct, Oswalt soon sent a message that he was unconcerned about such matters.

“I graduated from Broad Run High School 21 years ago. That means, theoretically, I could be – each and every one of you – your father. And I’m speaking especially to the black and Asian students.

“So now I’m going to try to give all of you some advice as if I contained fatherly wisdom, which I do not. I contain mostly caffeine, Cheet-o dust, fear and scotch.”

Getting One’s Attention
Of course the first key teaching point for any speaker is to be sure to gain the attention of your audience. Given that criteria, we suspect the comedian had the attention of every one seated, students, parents, teachers and administrators.

Some might have been simmering but they no doubt had to be awaiting what would come next. It was yet another attempt at outrageous humor.

“The week before graduation I strangled a hobo. Oh wait, that’s a different story. That was college. I’m speaking at my college later this month. I’ve got both speeches here. Let me sum up the college speech – always have a gallon of bleach in your trunk.”

At that point, the principal in me wonders what he might have done had I been seated there. But, oh what a speech was yet to follow.

Lessons Versus Advice
The comedian then got the ball rolling, beginning with a story of a scholarship banquet when he was about to graduate and his being given some advice by a banker at his table. Oswalt’s frank acknowledgment of his own self-absorption and his description of the “myth of myself” is such a dead on descriptor of how our youth conduct themselves had to have the adults nodding in agreement.
He recites the man’s advice:

“And then this banker – clean-shaven, grey suit and vest – you’d never look twice at him on the street – he told me about The Five Environments.

“He leans forward, near the end of the dinner, and he says to me, There are Five Environments you can live in on this planet. There’s The City. The Desert. The Mountains. The Plains. And The Beach.

“You can live in combinations of them. Maybe a city in the desert, or in the mountains by the ocean. Or you could choose just one. Out in the plains somewhere, perhaps.

“But you need to get out there and travel, and figure out where you thrive.

“Some places you’ll go to and you’ll feel yourself wither. Your brain will fog up, your body won’t respond to your thoughts and desires, and you’ll feel sad and angry.

“You need to find out which of the Five Environments are yours. If you belong by the ocean, then the mountains will ruin you. If you’re suited for the blue solitude of the plains, then the city will be a tight, roaring prison cell that’ll eat you alive.”

Oswalt insists the advice was sound:

“He was right. I’ve traveled and tested his theory and he was absolutely right. There are Five Environments. If you find the right combination, or the perfect singularity, your life will click…into…place. You will click into place.”

As he continues to mix in references to his extreme self-absorption, he certainly offers lines that a student or two most likely repeated later.

“I got ripped on absinthe in Prague ….. sank a pint next door at The Ten Bells ….. I cried my eyes out on the third floor of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam …… have eaten crocodile in the Laneways of Melbourne Australia …… been to hidden, subterranean restaurants in New York with the guys from Anthrax …… eaten at L.A. taquieras with “Weird” Al Yankovic …… held the guitar that Hendrix torched at Monterey Pop …….. watched Woodstock ’99 burn to the ground.”

However great his examples, my fear is that he lost the students as he offered his real message, one that was fraught with a need for experience and a knowledge that the world does not revolve around you alone.

“I missed the banker’s lesson. 100%, I completely missed it. In my defense, he didn’t even know he was teaching it.”

Oswalt goes on to explain the difference between advice and a lesson.

“Advice is everywhere in this world. Your friends, family, teachers and strangers are all happy to give it.

“A lesson is yours and yours alone. Some of them take years to recognize and utilize.

“My lesson was this – experience, and reward and glory are meaningless unless you’re open and present with the people you share them with in the moment.”

The Lesson Learned
Oswalt delivers his personal lesson eloquently, one that a trip into adulthood may be required before it can truly be grasped:

“I completely ignored the deeper lesson which is do not judge, and get outside yourself, and realize that everyone and everything has its own story, and something to teach you, and that they’re also trying – consciously or unconsciously – to learn and grow from you and everything else around them. And they’re trying with the same passion and hunger and confusion that I was feeling – no matter where they were in their lives, no matter how old or how young.

“Please don’t mistake miles traveled, and money earned, and fame accumulated for who you are.”

And just once more to reiterate his lesson regarding the self-absorption of youth and the real meaning of life, he states:

“First off: Reputation, Posterity and Cool are traps. They’ll drain the life from your life. Reputation, Posterity and Cool = Fear.

“Let me put that another way. Bob Hope once said, ‘When I was twenty, I worried what everything thought of me. When I turned forty, I didn’t care what anyone thought of me. And then I made it to sixty, and I realized no one was ever thinking of me.’

“Secondly: The path is made by walking. And when you’re walking that path, you choose how things affect you. You always have that freedom, no matter how much your liberty it curtailed. You…get to choose…how things affect you.”

PattonOswalt.comHe finished in superb form:

“And lastly, and I guarantee this. It’s the one thing I know ‘cause I’ve experienced it:

“There Is No Them.

I’m going to get out of your way now. Get out there. Let’s see which one of you is up here in twenty years. If you’re lacking confidence, remember – I wouldn’t have picked me.”

Education, Wasted on Our Youth
There is a notion among the adult community that perhaps education is wasted on our youth. I couldn’t help but think of that expression as I contemplated the amazing words of Oswalt.

But I wondered about the students and whether or not they were able to grasp the profound message of what the comedian had to say. Would the throwaway lines, unfortunately, form the major portion of what each student took home?

I also wonder how I would have felt had I been there, how I would have handled the irreverence, the politically incorrect sentences and those throwaway lines. I also thought long and hard about how the other adults in the audience likely reacted, especially the grandmothers and grandfathers, debating to myself whether they could dismiss these troubling aspects so as to be able to hear the message delivered.

Learning of the speech over the Internet, reading it slowly and digesting it, is certainly not the same as sitting and listening to it as it is delivered. And not being able to gauge audience reaction also leaves one wondering.

Reading it, there were many times the speech made me wince. At the same time, for every time I cringed, there were at least three occasions where I nodded in agreement. When I was done digesting, I had to say that Oswalt, at times extolling messages that an educator would prefer he not mention, may have actually given the speech of a lifetime.

July 17, 2008   4 Comments

Urban Schools Deserving of Far More Credit than They Receive

We have often quoted Mark Twain when it comes to the use of statistics.

Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.”

While most have heard that expression, Twain is also said to be the author of an even more telling summary of the world of statistics.

Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.”

The Poor Educational Performance of Urban Schools
The statistics indicate that urban schools perform very poorly on national tests. If one takes a composite look at test results, one will note that DC, New York, and Boston all perform collectively far worse than the national average on various standardized tests.

As Matthew Yglesias notes at, the data reveals a classic “big city, bad schools” association.

But Mr. Yglesias goes on to do a little more in-depth analysis of the performances of urban schools and in doing so, reveals that some big cities actually exceed the national average when poverty figures are taken into account. Not all big cities mind you. But two that perennially take media hits, Boston and New York, are definitely given an unjust rap about the performance of their students.

Controlling for Poverty Factors
Yglesias provides helpful charts, the first noting the initial basic data that demonstrates that Boston, New York, and Washington D.C. all saw a higher percentage of students perform below basic on the 2005 NAEP math test than the national average. New York and Boston appeared to have at least 30% more low performing students while DC had more than double that of the national average.

But Yglesias continues onward to examine those substandard scores in greater depth. Prior to his charts, the writer notes the longstanding impact that demographic factors have on school achievement. Yglesias asserts, “Big city school systems tend to contain a higher-than-average number of poor kids, and poor kids tend to do worse than middle class kids, so cities wind up with bad test results.”

He then backs his premise by restricting results so as to really compare apples and oranges. He breaks the data down so as to contrast school performances for all kids from economically struggling families. His criteria for poverty is to compare the students eligible for federally subsidized school lunches.

Steve and SaraThe resulting impact totally contradicts the urban myth that inner city schools offer a substandard education. In fact, when eighth grade math scores are compared, Boston and New York schools actually do a better than average job educating our nation’s
economically disadvantaged children.

Yglesias notes the difference between facts and statistics. The ‘big city, bad schools’ label is simply a result of the fact that the overall numbers of these inner urban school districts “are pulled down by their larger-than-average number of poor kids.”

In other words, big city schools have more children in poverty and these children score poorly on the exams. More kids scoring at lower rates brings the averages for inner city schools below that of the nation as a whole.

At the same time, it must be noted that taking the data apart does not help the DC school district results. DC has a large number of economically disadvantaged children but their data does not change when adjusted for poverty.

Yglesias pulls no punches.

“DC, by contrast, does have a challenging population, but also is doing a crappy job relative to the challenge.”

Reversing the Focus
Adding support to the assertions of Yglesias is the fact that he also takes time to reverse his performance focus. He moves on from his comparison of those who scored below basic to examine the percentage of students who scored proficient.

Once again, New York and Boston matched or exceeded the national average when their non-federally lunch eligible students were compared to those nationally. And once again, sadly, DC’s results remained typical to the public viewpoint of urban school districts.

The writer concludes:

“All across the United States we have a problem with kids from disadvantaged backgrounds doing poorly in school. We also see kids from disadvantaged backgrounds overrepresented in urban school systems. Consequently, average results from city school systems tend to be below average.

JonkSome cities — i.e., Washington DC — really do have sub-standard school systems and would do well to implement reforms that made DCPS get results more like what you see in Boston or New York. But even if all cities did get the level of performance that you see from the best cities, there would still be a problem insofar as poor kids tend to do badly even in ‘good’ schools in the United States.”

Statistics Versus Facts
We have to believe that such analysis is the basis for Twain’s “facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.” Statistics can be used to create the impression that our urban schools are doing a poor job of educating their students.

At the same time, it is a fact that both New York and Boston, two of our largest urban school districts, score lower overall on national tests. But when one peels back that initial set of data, one quickly sees that these two cities do a better job with the student population they have been given than does the rest of the country as a whole.

And that leads to one last critical fact: our urban schools are deserving of far more credit that they receive.

Editor: New York public school photo courtesy of Steve and Sara, Boston public school courtesy of Jonk.

July 10, 2008   3 Comments

Media Literacy – A Compelling Curriculum Topic in Today’s Digital Age

There is little doubt that the issue of media education is becoming a compelling one for schools to consider. In fact, the concept is considered so important it has been dubbed media literacy by many experts.

For a succinct explanation of media literacy we turn to the web site, the Media Awareness Network, for the following definition.

“Media literacy is the ability to sift through and analyze the messages that inform, entertain and sell to us every day. It’s the ability to bring critical thinking skills to bear on all media— from music videos and Web environments to product placement in films and virtual displays on NHL hockey boards.”

To further understand the importance of media literacy, we turn to “Confronting Challenges of Contemporary Culture” from the MacArthur Foundation as referenced on the Alliance for a Media Literate America web site.

iStock_000003759439XSmall“Media change is affecting every aspect of our contemporary experience, and as a consequence, every school discipline needs to take responsibility for helping students to master the skills and knowledge they need to function in a hypermediated environment.”

A Hypermediated Environment Indeed

Consider the following statistics.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2005 the average 8-18 year old in the United States spent about 6 1/2 hours consuming media in a typical day. Such consumption is aggregated and includes watching television and movies, and playing video games.

Specifically, when it comes to watching television, it is important to note that only 9% of U.S. households owned a television in 1950 according to the Television Bureau of Advertising. Today the American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that 68% of 8- to 18-year-olds have TVs in their bedrooms.

The same pediatric group also estimates that by the age of 18, the average American teenager will have spent roughly 25,000 hours in front of a television set. That number of hours is more than the same child will spend in the classroom. That also means that children spend more time watching television than they spend doing anything else except sleeping.

In addition to worrying about the sedentary nature of so much viewing, experts are concerned with the specific content children are exposed to. One specific concern is the level of violence children witness within the media they consume. A 1992 study by Huston et al indicates that by the age of 18, the average American teenager will have seen the equivalent of 200,000 violent acts and 40,000 murders.

In 2000, Nielsen Media Research indicated that MTV was the most recognized network among young adults ages 12 to 34. At the same time, a 1997 study by DuRant revealed that nearly one-fourth of all MTV videos portrayed overt acts of violence. The American Academy of Pediatrics goes even further stating that more than 50% of the videos on MTV involve violence. The academy also notes that more than 75% involve sexual imagery and that 80% combine violence with such sexual imagery, possibly suggesting violence against women.

Adding to the concerns about such violence is the increased attention to violent video game play. By 2005, the Kaiser Foundation indicated that 83% of 8- to 18-year-olds had a video game player in their home. A 2001 study by Anderson stipulates that 59% of fourth grade girls and 73% of fourth grade boys say that the majority of their favorite video games are violent.

A second area of concern to experts is of course the level of advertising children are exposed to by virtue of our hypermediated world. According to the web site, “the average person sees between 400 and 600 ads PER DAY – that is 40 million to 50 million by the time s/he is 60 years old.”

The site also notes that “one of every 11 commercials has a direct message about beauty.” That overt message is seen by many experts as the reason so many youngsters today have negative images of their personal appearance including body type.

Another key fact that demonstrates the power of advertising involves the use of tobacco. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the three most heavily advertised brands of cigarettes, MarlboroTM, CamelTM, and NewportTM, are the three brands chosen by 90% of all kids who smoke.

Web Sites Focused on Media Literacy

Fortunately, there are now a number of excellent web sites addressing this important notion. The aforementioned offers a wealth of material for educators interested in the topic. A very catchy video begins automatically upon reaching the site, a video that perhaps rhetorically asks the fundamental question regarding the topic of media literacy.


The site features a couple of provocatively entitled videos called Get Naked and CTRL+ALT+DELETE designed to get kids thinking about the hypermediated environment surrounding them. The site also offers some very interesting curricula ideas including Flipping the Script and Hidden Heroes. Virtually all of the statistics we quoted above come from this site’s Quick Facts page.

In addition, teachers can turn to sites like the Center for Media Literacy for curriculum materials. The CML MediaLit Kit™ Framework features the components of an inquiry-based media literacy program using the concepts and key questioning practices to be able to construct and deconstruct various media. The site also offers a wealth of links to many of the agencies noted above due to their interest in the topic of media literacy.

The site offers a number of materials including the ability to focus on web pages devoted to Advertising & Consumerism, Global Media Issues, Health & Behavior, Kids, Parents & Media, Making Media, Media Ecology, Representation, Religion & Media, and Visual & Aural Literacy. The site also offers a page devoted to free fact sheets, discussion guides and other media literacy materials. is the site of Peter DeBenedittis, Ph.D.. Dr. DeBenedittis offers the following sub heading on his site, Media Literacy For Prevention, Critical Thinking, Self-Esteem. Such a slogan summarizes best the overall view of how powerful a hypermediated environment can be. The site also features a wealth of materials including links to some excellent documents, “Core Values: What Motivates Youth” and his own, “Seven Progressive Steps to Protect Children from the Harmful Effects of Media.”

PBS.orgPBS also offers a site devoted to the topic that includes a link for activity ideas to integrate media education into many aspects of the current school curriculum, including the arts, reading & language arts, social studies, math, science & technology, health & fitness, and early childhood education. Another page, “Don’t Buy It, Get Media Smart,” features some very interesting materials including the secrets behind being a magazine cover model.

A Compelling Topic
A quick visit through these sites certainly will get any classroom teacher’s creative juices flowing. In addition, those choosing to take a more in depth look at the statistical pages included will no doubt be convinced that the issue of media literacy has a place in their classroom.

We recognize that every school day is already filled with incredible curricula demands making the notion of media literacy a difficult one to find time for. However, with the aforementioned web sites as resources, there are plenty of opportunities for teachers to work this important topic into some of their current lesson plans.

Given the current statistics, teachers owe it to their students to find ways to bring media literacy to their respective classrooms.

June 23, 2008   2 Comments

Award-Winning Teacher Utilizes a Wealth of Classroom Technology

We have noted in several posts the role technology could have in enhancing education. Today we offer an interview with elementary teacher Tim Thompson, an educator who has indeed utilized technology to bring his second grade classroom to life.

thompson.jpgMr. Thompson recently received the Patience Norman Prize, an award presented annually to recognize an outstanding teacher within School Administrative District #52. Mr. Thompson’s principal, Thomas Martellone, notes in glowing terms this teacher’s innovative techniques. Notes Principal Martellone, “Tim has a thirst for using technology, both in and out of the classroom.”

A thirst indeed!!

In his classroom, Mr. Thompson has been using blogs to communicate class activities to parents and SMARTboard technology to have students create powerpoint presentations. In addition, Mr. Thompson utilizes movie technology for both classroom lessons and student products. This caring and dedicated teacher even provides “Podcasts” on his web page that give verbally recorded instructions for parents on how to help children with their math and reading instruction.

Below we present our interview Mr. Thompson in question and answer format. We have included numerous links to his classroom materials including “The Morning Work Show,” “The Literacy Fastbreak,” and his classroom web page.

We think teachers will find a wealth of classroom ideas as well as an inspirational dose of optimism.

Congratulations on winning the Patience Norman Prize for Teacher Excellence in your school district – my understanding is that you received a $5,000 cash prize in the process? That had to be pretty sweet?

Thanks. It’s certainly been a wild ride so far. When you’re a regular guy, who leaves a small island community to study elementary education, you’d never dream of winning an award for your everyday teaching efforts. I’m still awe struck, to tell the truth.

Can you give our readers a sense of what it felt like to be selected? Were you even aware that you had been nominated?

It has been an unparalleled honor and an extremely humbling experience to win an award like this. There are so many truly gifted educators, especially here in MSAD #52 and to be counted among some of them is unbelievable! When our Superintendent of schools announced my name as the winner, in front our entire student body it felt like I’d won an Oscar! I told my mother and father that this was the first standing ovation I had ever received. I honestly just stood and basked in the glow as long as I could. It took about a week to wipe the grin off my face. So many educators work so hard and to actually receive this kind affirmation for all the hours of preparation and planning is more than I could ever hope for.

What did your students have to say when they found out you had been selected? How about your colleagues?

My students were so proud! A young gentleman in classroom actually came up to me afterward and very formally offered me his hand and congratulated me. I also had one little girl who was so overwhelmed she burst out in tears saying, “I’m just so happy for you!” My favorite moment of celebration with my students came in the form of a phone message. After my wife and I arrived home, on the night of my award I had a message from a parent of one of my students. She related to me that her son had come home all excited telling her, “My teacher won five thousand dollars for being the best teacher in the world!” This parent, obviously very emotional, told me she was “So proud” to have me as her son’s teacher. Needless to say, that phone message has been saved!

According to Principal Martellone, you utilize a wealth of technology in your classroom – blogs, SMARTboards, and podcasts among other things. Could you give our readers some concrete examples of some of the technology you do use and how it relates to the second grade classroom curriculum? And are there some links our readers can check out to get some ideas of the products your students have produced?

It seems I’ve tried so many different possibilities in the realm of technology it’s so hard to know where to start. One of my most favorite is a new initiative into video production. I’ve found that my students respond so well to anything presented in a visual medium. Early on this year I created a daily show called “The Morning Work Show.” My students would come into the classroom first thing in the morning and gather at the white board with paper and pencil in hand. I would create a three to eight minute show that practiced skills previously taught in class. Students would watch the show and respond to written activities while it played.

twin_day_0051.jpgThe Morning Work Show has since evolved into “The Literacy Fast-Break.” Students work daily at our classroom computers with headphones to watch and practice literacy skills. These shows are also available for students to review online and often are sent home on video compilation discs I share with the parents.

My own passion for making movies has taken root in my students as well. The students love to create movies based on the content they are learning. We take small steps with these types of projects. But before long students are writing, creating slides, and voicing their own productions. Often these videos relate to a content area such as science or social studies. We began the year by studying the solar system in science. Students did basic research related to their space topic and made slides for a simple space movie. Students worked with me to create digital photo stories to exhibit their work. It is extremely gratifying to see enthusiasm spring up in students as they explore new frontiers and learn new skills.

Students are now working on cloud movies. We are using video clips from Discovery Education’s United Streaming web site. Many of these Discovery videos contain editable clips. Students are using these clips to write “voice-over” scripts that can be added to professionally produced videos. I have asked students to apply what they are learning in science class about weather and then produce a quality written script to show what they know. Discovery EducationTheir digital recordings will become mp3 files and we will work with the Windows Movie Maker program to produce student made movies. I’ve gone on and on about videos, but that’s my passion at this moment. I do still use blogs, wiki pages and other web 2.0 tools in the classroom. But the greatest spark lately has come in the form of multimedia education.

Engagement of students has been the driving force in this area for me. I desperately desire the percentages of actively engaged students to increase day-by-day… hour-by-hour… moment-by-moment… Once a former Superintendent of mine inspired us to reach not just student number one, two, and three on our class-lists… but all students… numbers seventeen… eighteen… right down to the bottom of the roster. This charge has stuck with me. Having all student’s senses fully engaged has begun to achieve this end.

When most people think of the second grade I am not sure they would immediately think of using technology to such an extent with students. Where did you come up with your ideas?

I’ve found that the most beneficial strategy in finding and choosing new classroom technological initiatives is to try them myself. Whenever the opportunity arises I sit in on our school district’s technology seminars and classes. Without fail I always hear of something new to try. After I first give it a try I am much more apt to give it a go with my own students. As educators, we ourselves never want to lose that sense of wonder. When we are open to new ideas and processes our students will be too. There’s nothing wrong with getting wrapped up in a new technique or web-tool and letting our imagination run with it.

twin_day_0071.jpgWhen I start asking myself questions like, “How can I use this with my students?”… “What can my students do with this tool?”… “What are the possibilities?” Then and only then do we really get rolling.

I think a key issue at this age has to be how to assess the process of learning and manage to keep the final product from being the key focus of your assessment. How do you manage to do that?

These words constantly come to mind: explicitly model, guide, practice, support and modify. It is so true, the process is of vital importance with younger students. I have found that when students undertake a project like research and movie making. I save piles and piles on work from each student, this document, that document, all their work along the way. Students love to look back on notes, templates, organizers, and drafts they have done throughout the course of a project. These little pieces really exhibit to me just what students are able to do. The final product pales in comparison to the mountain of work the students did in preparation for that product. I do consider myself like an editor at a publishing house. And any polish or surface work students were not able to do on their own comes from work the student and I do together.

I remember some animal reports and movies my students made last year. At the end of the project I put together a manila envelope for each of my students. Their envelope contained every piece of work they completed as they made their final movie. My assessment of their work was a narrative letter with my observations of their strengths and needs. My hope is that students and parents will take the time to reflect on and celebrate all the effort their children put into their learning.

A topic that is being raised more and more in education is the teaching and fostering of creativity in the classroom. The idea is that there is no way for any of us to truly know what the world will be like for our children in the near future so creativity is now a critical component of the teaching process today. Do you agree with that notion and if so how do you go about fostering creativity in your students?

I agree whole-heartedly that creativity should be a major ingredient in any learning project we undertake. Creativity can take so many forms for so many different people. It can be flashy and glitzy. Or it can be quiet and consistent. As long as the product shows a little piece of who you are and what you care about I think creativity shines through. When students are invested in and excited about what they are learning they can’t help but be creative.

Two themes run constantly in my classroom: This activity matters and you can do anything you set your mind to. When we show students what we expect them to do, and then guide them in the steps of how to do it… They can do whatever we ask them to do. It doesn’t matter how young or disadvantaged they appear to be… all students can participate and achieve. I remember dreaming as kid of making a TV show or starring in a movie or a concert. My friends used to pretend to do this and have a great time doing it. The amazing thing is that today students have access to simple technology to actually put together a product on par with Hollywood. Instilling kids with a “Can-do” attitude goes a long way in today’s day and age. Because we all have access to the tools to help them do just that!

My sense is that your approach to teaching is enormously time consuming – how much time do you spend each week preparing instructional materials, teaching students, and assessing their progress?

Doing justice to the amount of time I put in is hard. The hours are many, let’s just say that. Teaching is not a nine to five job. Most of us know that. It is an all-consuming lifestyle. It’s all about commitment. How committed are you to providing your students with quality learning experiences? You can do that without technology, but using technology makes it a whole lot of fun. My wife is an educator as well, so we constantly talk-shop and bounce ideas off of one another. Our lives are wrapped up in our classrooms and for us that’s okay.

Being on the cutting edge obviously involves taking risks – was there ever a time when you tried to implement an idea that simply flopped? If so how did you handle that with the kids? From you experiences, is there some general advice you would give to other teachers about implementing technology in the classroom to protect them from possible failures?

Try to get over the fear of failing. I’ve learned that when you try something new in technology you more than likely will fail at one time or another. And that failing isn’t because of you necessarily, it is more than likely because of the quickly paced, very fluid, constantly evolving learning curve related to technology. I have a Garfield poster on the front of my desk at school. It says, “We must all learn to laugh at ourselves.” Letting students know that failure isn’t actually a bad thing but a great opportunity to learn is paramount. This is especially true when it comes to using technology. I’ve found that it’s great for myself and students to make a mistake, learn how to work our ways back from it and then discuss how it will help us in the future. My hope is that this approach and class attitude permeates all that we do as we set out to learn together.

For teachers interested in greater technology implementation in their classrooms yet not feeling fully confident of their own technology knowledge, what suggestions do you have for them?

Get out there and explore! Visit your building and school district technology leaders ask them what they are using. Find out what programs and web 2.0 tools your school is using. And give them all a try. I find that educational web sites like TeacherTube and EduHound are especially interesting. Seeing what others are doing can really peak your interest and inspire new ideas. Eduhound.comI love the web 2.0 features that Google is implementing and have often used one of their tools to drive my own technology work. Google labs is a wonderful place to see what’s out on the cutting edge for web tools. Blogger has been another excellent tool for my classroom. The key is to stay aware of what’s going on online. If you hear a techie buzz word being used a lot or something new you’ve never heard of check it out. You never know exactly what might be of use to you down the road.

March 27, 2008   4 Comments

Author Reveals “The Surprising Truth About Violent Video Games”

An interview with Dr. Cheryl Olson,
author of Grand Theft Childhood

In my previous post, I acknowledged a long-standing personal concern regarding the potential detrimental effects of playing violent video games, especially the impact such play might have on teens. That stated, in our prior piece we referenced the latest research from two Harvard professors, research that quite frankly contradicts some of the long-standing thoughts of this writer.
In this post we talk with Dr. Cheryl Olson, one of the researchers of a ground-breaking study and a co-author of the book, Grand Theft Childhood. Her research and subsequent text call in to question many of the beliefs held as universal truths regarding this issue.

Dr. Olson takes a head-on approach to challenging the core beliefs of educators like myself. Acknowledging the complexity of the issue, I was very impressed by the fact that Dr. Olson’s work does not attempt to either simplify the question or the answer.

We present our interview here and then follow it with some of the statements often held as universal truths regarding this issue but that are instead deemed as myths by Olson and her co-author, Dr. Lawrence Kutner.

Our Interview

On your web site, a summary sentence states, “What they found surprised, encouraged, and sometimes disturbed them.” During your research, what was the biggest surprise for you and why was this so surprising?

A number of our findings went against common wisdom. One surprise was how many preteen girls played M-rated video games. About a fifth of girls rarely or never played video games. But another fifth had played Grand Theft Auto “a lot in the past six months.” Based on some of their comments, we suspect that girls play these games differently and for different reasons than boys. Since we bought into the myth that girls don’t like violent games, we didn’t recruit them for focus groups in this set of studies. We hope to talk with GTA-playing girls in future studies.

What did you find most encouraging and why did this leave you encouraged?

One very encouraging finding was how sophisticated middle-school boys were in their understanding of violent games. They could enjoy playing bad guys without wanting to be them. As one boy told us, “When I play violent games like (Grand Theft Auto) Vice City, I know it’s a videogame. And I have fun playing it. But I know not to do stuff like that, because I know the consequences that will happen to me if I do that stuff.” We were especially struck by how protective these boys were of younger kids; in fact, their concerns about video game influence were almost identical to those expressed by parents. But their biggest concern was not violence; it was “swears.” Another boy said, “I don’t like my little brother or sisters to watch me play Vice City because they might swear at other people, ‘cause of how they do in Vice City. They always give people attitude and take swears at other people. That could make my family look bad, like my mom isn’t raising us regular.”

And what was the most disturbing finding and why was it so disturbing to you?

One disturbing finding was the correlation between playing M-rated games and bullying. Boys who had more M-rated titles on their most-played lists were more likely to report bullying other kids. But even so, most boys who play M-rated games are not bullies. And this was only a correlation; it’s impossible to show cause and effect from a one-time survey.

Game Ratings
Would any of these reactions be different if you spoke first as a parent instead of as a researcher?

As a parent, this did not lead me to restrict my own son’s M-rated game play, because I know what kind of kid he is. As a researcher, I’d like to study this further – and I’m concerned that people will jump to the unsupported conclusion that playing M-rated games promotes bullying.

In your article “Children and Video Games: How Much Do We Know?” for the Psychiatric Times you state: “We found that 68% of boys and 29% of girls aged 12 to 14 years included at least one M-rated (for those aged 17 years and older, often because of violent or sexual content) game on this list of frequently played games.” I was surprised to learn that such a high percentage of young adolescents had access to games rated mature. Are parents unaware of this or have they given implicit agreement to allow these early teens to experience these games? And how important are these ratings for parental decision-making processes?

Among parents we surveyed, ratings had the most influence on their decision to buy or rent a game for their child. As one focus-group parent said, “I see the ‘E,’ I know it’s for everyone. When I see the Teen, I know the 10 year old, he can’t have it. Then I see Mature: that’s when I say, ‘Okay, I’m going to read to see exactly what’s going on here.’” Parents were less clear on the details of the rating system.

Several things probably drive the high rate of M-game play:

· Young teens play the games when parents aren’t around – at a friend’s house, or in their bedroom.

· Not all violence is equal in parents’ eyes; for example, they are less concerned about shooting “trolls” or aliens than realistic-looking humans.

· Many (but not all!) parents see game violence as a bigger risk for other people’s kids. One mom said, “I know that there are a lot of kids out there that do act out – I’ve read anyway – from movies or games. I don’t have any fears of my son going out and doing things that’s in the game. I talked to him about it in the past, and he’s like, ‘I’m not that stupid.’” And she is probably right.

GrandTheftChildhood.comIn that same article, you state: “a child plays basketball or plays the piano for 4 hours a day, we may describe him as a dedicated athlete or musician. But if that child takes the same approach to playing video games, spending hours each day at the computer, and reveling in the details and strategies of play, we may worry about an addiction.” Can you categorize or summarize for parents what might be a healthy versus an unhealthy (an addiction) approach when it comes to video game play? Is this a function of time, of the type of game played, or something else?

To put it simply: If your child is doing well in school, has friends, does his chores without too much fuss…he probably needs few restrictions on his game play. If he stops spending time on other activities, has a drop in grades, is increasingly isolated, plays games instead of sleeping…this needs looking into. The video game play may be the cause of problems, a symptom of problems (such as depression), or a bit of both. Talk to a pediatrician or mental health professional.

Ultimately, in your research did you find any pluses from video game play, specifically those violent or shoot-em-up games that concern parents? If so what were those pluses and did they help adolescent’s in some ways in dealing with the difficulty of teen years?

There are a number of potential pluses. Here are just a few:

· Some violent game play seems to improve visual-spatial skills – but it’s the fast, unpredictable action, not the violence, that does it.

· Video game skill can give kids social status; this is especially valuable to kids who have disabilities or ADHD.

· Games help some kids cope with negative feelings. As one said, “If I have a bad day at school, I’ll play a violent video game and then, it just relieves all my stress. If you ever got a bad test grade or had a fight with a friend or something, my advice would be, play a violent videogame.”

Lastly, why do you think so many adults (politicians included) are convinced that these games have to be detrimental to the mental health of teens? Is it an aversion or fear of the specific content? Is it a lack of understanding as to why kids like the games? Is it just a simplistic response to try to explain away other societal issues?

All of those play a role. It’s upsetting to see a group of boys laughing as they watch one game character literally rip the guts out of another. But when you know more about the context, motivations and other factors involved, you may see this differently. Also, for politicians it’s an issue that they can campaign easily on, even if the scientific data don’t support their claims.

Exposed Myths
Dr. KutnerIn addition to our interview, we offer here excerpts from the web site of Grand Theft Childhood. One of the most interesting aspects of their site is the author’s findings relative to several statements held by most people as factual. Kutner and Olson insist many of these statements are in fact “myths.”

One such statement or myth is that the growth in violent video game sales is linked to a growth in youth violence across the country. According to Kutner and Olson, the fact is that “Video game popularity and real-world youth violence have been moving in opposite directions. Violent juvenile crime in the United States reached a peak in 1993 and has been declining ever since. School violence has also gone down. Between1994 and 2001, arrests for murder, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assaults fell 44 percent, resulting in the lowest juvenile arrest rate for violent crimes since 1983.”

A second such myth is that Girls do not play violent video games like Grand Theft Auto. According to Kutner and Olson, the fact is that “Our survey of more than 1200 middle school students found that 29 percent of girls who played video games listed at least one M-rated game among the games they’d ‘played a lot’ during the previous six months. One in five GameSpot.comspecifically listed a Grand Theft Auto game. In fact, among these 12- to 14-year-old girls, the Grand Theft Auto series was second only to The Sims in popularity.”

Yet another purported myth involves the 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech that sought to link Seung-Hui Cho’s violent behavior to video game play. Note Kutner and Olson, “Media darling and pop psychologist Phil McGraw, appearing on CNN’s Larry King Live, stated, Common sense tells you that if these kids are playing video games, where they’re on a mass killing spree in a video game, it’s glamorized on the big screen, it’s become part of the fiber of our society….The mass murders [sic] of tomorrow are the children of today that are being programmed with this massive violence overdose.” According to Kutner and Olson, “The official report of the Virginia Tech Review Panel specifically dismissed the purported links between Cho’s use of video games and his extremely violent behavior. In the chapter on Cho’s mental health history, video games are mentioned on only three pages. When he was nine years old, he was enrolled in a Tae Kwon Do program for awhile, watched TV, and played video games like Sonic the Hedgehog.”

And yet another myth debunked is that school shooters fit a profile that includes a fascination with violent media, especially violent video games. According to Kutner and Olson, “The U. S. Secret Service intensely studied each of the 37 non-gang and non-drug-related school shootings and stabbings that were considered ‘targeted attacks’ that took place nationally from 1974 through 2000. (Note how few premeditated school shootings there actually were during that 27-year time period, compared with the public perception of those shootings as relatively common events!). The incidents studied included the most notorious school shootings, such as Columbine, Santee and Paducah, in which the young perpetrators had been linked in the press to violent video games. The Secret Service found that that there was no accurate profile. Only 1 in 8 school shooters showed any interest in violent video games; only 1 in 4 liked violent movies.”

Next up, given the findings of Kutner and Olson, what advice do these experts provide parents and educators regarding teens playing violent video games.

March 17, 2008   8 Comments

The Open Digital Commons – A Truly Endless Array of Success Stories

We found that trying to concoct one list of the digital commons success stories was simply beyond the scope of our small site. The number of truly noteworthy developments is large and growing more substantial by the day, each new venture seemingly offering yet additional opportunities for further growth.

In fact, it is precisely as Larry Lessig writes in The Future of Ideas, “Philosophically, if the Web was to be a universal resource, it had to be able to grow in an unlimited way. Technically, if there was any centralized point of control, it would rapidly become a bottleneck that restricted the Web’s growth, and the Web would never scale up. Its being ‘out of control’ was very important.”

Out of control it has been and here are at least some broad categories and central themes that represent a partial list of the commons success stories. We have called it an endless array because of the sheer volume and the interconnectivity and layering that occurs over the numerous developments.

Online Resources/Collections

wikipedia.orgOne could not create a list without the mention of the Wiki concept and the top Wiki dog, Wikipedia. We understand the issues that user editing can create. But the user editing feature is precisely why this online encyclopedia offers its immense depth and breadth in more than 15 languages. And yes, we understand that too many students rely on Wikipedia exclusively despite the fact that every teacher in America tells students the site is only a starting point.
When it comes to Wikipedia, we think that Bill Van Loo of states it best. “Wikipedia is one of the most successful proofs of an open, community-contributed way of building a base of knowledge and ideas. Even with its drawbacks and critics, it’s hard to overlook the sheer size and breadth of the information contained there. The fact that a student can type in almost any historical name, place, event, invention, theory, or person and get back at least some information almost instantly is pretty remarkable, especially looking back 10 years.”

We have to agree – as we prepared our work for the digital commons series, we researched the likes of Garret Hardin, Daniel McFadden, and Larry Lessig. We researched more technical concepts like php and MySQL. We challenge anyone to find one existing tome or web site that could give novice folks information on as many disparate categories as the Wikipedia site.

The concept has spawned Wikiversity, Citizendium, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP), eXtension, Rice University’s Connexions and countless others. The difference may be a focus, it may be possible contributors, but the concept is always similar. The movement has lead to another generation of sites, examples such as Ref with a devotion to fact checking and Intute for those who want to research the truly technical with citations (now you can get real insight into php and MySQL).

For pure collections,there are those sites like the Yale University Art Gallery, Picture History, the University of Michigan’s Mother of All Art History, and the Picasso Exhibit from Texas A&M. Want to visit an anatomy collection, go to the University of Michigan’s Medical School site; for a biodiversity exhibit head to Louisiana State University’s Herbarium. For the physical sciences try the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Arizona University’s Themis (Mars spacecraft data), the University of Arizona’s Phoenix Mars Mission and HiRise. TalkingHistory.orgFor history, how about the Talking History from the University of Albany, a collection of audio documentaries, speeches, debates, oral histories, conference sessions, and commentaries, or Historical Voices which seeks to create a fully searchable online database of spoken word collections spanning the 20th century.
How about Project Gutenberg which will eventually fall by the way side considering sites such as Google Scholar Beta though the site still reportedly sees over two million downloads per month. The Internet Archive provides open access to anyone while the Directory of Open Access Journals is a free, full text, quality controlled scientific and scholarly journal search engine.

metafilter.comThen there is the popular, How Stuff Works, the Merriam Webster Dictionary site and Metafilter, a “community weblog” featuring all fields including politics, art, culture, and technology. The Ask Metafilter is a standby for many.

Transforming Teaching and Learning
For transforming education at the elementary level, the possibilities are so endless that teachers may likely find the options overwhelming. Perhaps here we must bring in McFadden’s notion of the need for greater cataloging. That said, teachers can now turn to wikis, blogs and a host of sites that enhance reading and writing while possibly reintroducing the age-old stalwart, storytelling.

The site offers a service where students can now post a photo or video and then proceed to add narration to it. As a key component, students may of course share them with other students via the net. There are sites like Blabberize, Bubbleshare and Joomla – all of these allow for student collaboration, bringing potential teamwork discussions to the academic classrooms.

There is YouTube and TeacherTube along with sites like Open Culture that then point readers towards the best such videos available. teachertube.comThere is site called pageflakes where each student in the classroom could have their own blog. One site can contain a class and house all blog. Melanie Lewis, the Instructional Technology Resource Teacher for Amherst County Public Schools offers, “Just think, as a teacher, you could see instantly who had updated an assignment!”

Transforming Education, Secondary, Post Secondary
Moving up the ladder teachers can turn not to educational podcasts at UC Berkeley or Stanford. There is the amazing Scratch which is “designed to help young people (ages 8 and up) develop 21st century learning skills” as well as Carnegie Mellon’s Alice, the free 3D interactive programming environment for teaching introductory computing.

The so-called Open Educational Resources (OER) movement continues to be one of the major success stories of the open digital commons. Thanks to one of the premiere universities in America, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) there is a movement to make college level materials free to anyone signing on to the Internet. MIT began this movement when Provost Robert A. Brown asked a committee of MIT faculty, students, and administrators how to best serve “the nation and the world in the 21st century.”

MIT began providing open access to class syllabi, lecture notes, exams, reading lists, and some video of lectures. Since the movement by MIT, other U.S. colleges have followed suit. Schools such as Johns Hopkins, Tufts University, the University of California, and Notre Dame have since followed suit. Unlike the online college concept, these materials do not carry college credits or degrees. But they do provide the materials to help other professors design courses as well as the material that would accompany a course at one of the premier institutions of learning. Current workers who want to brush up on a course taken years ago find these offerings perfect, conveniently accessible and legitimate in their depth of academic rigor.

Operating Systems/Software
The Linux story has been well told but according to the experts we will soon see Ubuntu and Edubuntu as analogous up-and-coming success stories. These packages have served to wean users from the very costly proprietary systems (Microsoft Windows or Mac OS). On the software side, we turn to and as enormous steps in a similar direction. Given the enormous costs associated with proprietary site license expenses, SakaiProject.orgmany schools have struggled to maintain both up-to-date hardware and software on limited budgets. However, the software and operating platforms transition easily from education to business applications. There is, of course Mozilla, Sunbird, Thunderbird and another project called the Sakai Project (educational oriented software).

We also have Moodle, the free software e-learning platform designed to help educators create online courses. Moodle transformed the initially stale online educational environment by allowing for much richer interaction. ZaidLearning lists the New Zealand OER Project as a Moodle site worthy of mention to readers. And there is the blog WordPress, a publishing system written in php and backed by a MySQL database, that is taking the blogging world by storm.

Social Networking
LiveMocha.comThe area of the future may well be the various social networking sites. We have Facebook, MySpace, and the latest social interaction sites like Twitter or Tumblr. Schools currently block all of these sites insisting they have no learning value whatsoever. Technology teachers think otherwise and see the sites as potentially revamping how schools provide homework help as well as opportunity for group learning to extend outside the school building and school hours. Throw in the newer ideas like LiveMocha that combine the social networking with learning a language and we begin to scratch the surface of what such sites may do down the road.

We know that this list is non-exhaustive. We found that trying to create a list of successes within the open culture would actually be a relentless task; no list could stand for more than a day or two before a shift in the importance of one site versus another is followed immediately by a new idea pushing aside a prior top dog.

In fact, it was in trying to create a finite list of success stories that we realized just how right Lessig and the Creative Commons folks are on this issue.

February 26, 2008   No Comments