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For those of you who have seen my Twitter account, you’ve probably glimpsed the occasional tweet about my “borrowed” SmartBoard. We were lucky enough to use it in our classrooms for about a month, and despite the steep learning curve and lack of formal training, use it we did! At first it was an “endless whiteboard,” a space to store a few lessons, a picture or two, and our thoughts and ponderings. Eventually, though, we really began to use it to make the teaching and learning by both teacher and students more dynamic, interactive, and, dare I say, fun.

We even did a quick video on the first day the students learned about rotational symmetry. While it’s not perfect, neither the video, nor their understanding, it was a huge step forward in terms of the possibilities. With this in mind, we’d like to share this video with you.

Alas, budget constraints brought this experience to an abrupt end. We’ll go back in January to our chart papers and static whiteboard, but the heart of it, the interactivity, was not lost on me. And perhaps that was my most important reminder of all.

We’ve had a class blog now for a couple of months, but I’ve noticed something recently. I was still the “sage on the stage.” I posted, the students responded. I responded to their response. No one responded to me.

Obviously, something was not working. I could do the same thing with student journals. Yes, the blog made their writing more visible, more public, yet it wasn’t anything that they truly cared about. In order to do this, I needed to turn the blog over to them. Once I had this revelation, I needed to find models of student blogs that worked. Blogs that mirrored the students’ passions. While trolling through twitter, I found one such blog in the Digiteen Dream Team.

To make a long story short, the Dream Team found an incredible learning tool in Lively, Google’s online virtual world. They have created their avatars, performed plays, and even “built” a virtual school. Unfortunately, this tool is being shut down on December 31, 2008. Needless to say, the students are upset. And they’re not taking it lying down.

Matty Bear

Lively Avatar - Matty Bear

The Dream Team is blogging, using wikispaces, and continuing to use Lively to organize protests. The most incredible thing is, unlike the vast majority of people (adults included), they are doing this in a way that is respectful of others, including the corporation involved…Google. Their most recent post shows thoughtful, carefully crafted ideas that demonstrate their thorough grasp of the big picture:

• For-profit companies need to make money from their products.

• Google is a  for-profit company, Lively is their product, therefore Lively needs to make money.

• Solution – Let’s bring money-making ideas to Google.

The most recent post on the Digiteen’s blog is a solution; suggestions on 10 ways that Lively can make money for Google. Their suggestions run the gamut from t-shirts and avatar clothing to charging for company rooms to asking for donations. However, their “pay for eyeballs” idea is the most innovative I have heard of in a long time. Internet marketers, look out, because these students are your future competitors!

Pay for “eyeballs” – Let users “pick” their advertising “bling” of the day — what they support and like — then, the advertisers pay google for each avatar that picks their bling and pays by how many other avatars “see” the advertising “bling” — literally paying for “eyeballs” — something that cannot be done in the real world.

Is this a David and Goliath story? Probably…hopefully…But no matter what the outcome of this particular fight, these ninth graders from Georgia are mobilizing people à la Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody.

Now that’s real learning…and real power.

I promised myself this school year that I would move forward full speed ahead into the 21st century, use technology to provide students with a wider audience than their teacher and parents, and find ways to present content that was both meaningful and relevant. I have not gone back on this promise, but neither do I feel like I’ve moved as much as possible. Will Richardson might call this a “Yeah, but…” post, and it’s a reality that many teachers, with very good intentions, find themselves mired in.

Just some examples…
• iBook mobile lab: keys missing, dead batteries that no longer hold charge, newest iBook is 5 years old, oldest is 7
• 6 mac minis to be shared among 40 students in an open classroom, only 5 actually working (did I mention that they have different versions of various software and just recently had the same OS installed?)
• 1 video camera (yay! this one works! but keep in mind that the equipment is shared among the grade level — 4 classes, 80 students)
• 2 still shot cameras (again shared among the grade level)
• A school lab with 10 eMacs and 10 mini-macs which have been pulled from various classrooms who are awaiting updates

All this in a school whose mission is to “prepare children for the 21st century.”

I’m not bashing my school. Really. I’m not. (totally sans sarcasm here) There are many reasons why technology is not at the top of a school’s priorities. The pie is limited, and everyone wants their fair share. Truly, at this point in my life, there is no where else I’d rather work. Part of the reason I love this school is that teachers are encouraged to dream big, to be innovative, to teach in ways that honor each child. And yet, when it takes the students 15 minutes to log into their wikispace because supposedly its been un-blocked (interject sarcasm here), but they get stuck in a vicious loop of logins and DOE error messages, I just want to scream. Then they finally get to start a post, only to have to logout because our lab time is up. In the meantime, the other half of the students haven’t even touched the keyboard…again…

So I know all the pat answers.
“Put the computers in a learning center rotation.”
“Make a schedule.”
“Connect the computer to a projector.”
“Teach the students typing skills so they get done more quickly.”
“Assign the students roles (i.e. spell checker, typer, reader) to facilitate sharing of the responsibilites.”
“Use the computer as a teaching tool.” (read…the students never touch the computer)

At best, these “solutions” are antiquated answers, no longer relevant in a 21st century curriculum. At worst, the computer is rarely used by the students in any meaningful way. This cannot be allowed to happen in our schools. The machine that is education in the United States cannot continue to churn out students who are prepared for jobs that are either outsourced or no longer exist. Why sort and select students instead of providing opportunities for all to succeed? Why indeed?

In answer to these questions, teachers are making a difference in their own quiet way, in their own individual classrooms. Despite the many technical difficulties, the students plug away, using edublogs and wikispaces, communicating with their teachers via email, creating portfolios to demonstrate learning, and, hopefully, finding an audience to share their thinking and learning.

Maybe, for now, this has to be good enough.

“Is preparing students to enter a system that is at war with itself really preparing them for the future?”

This is just one of the thought-provoking questions asked in this viral video. To describe it further would do it injustice. Watch and judge for yourself.

Beyond “Did You Know?” A Video for Viral Times: “Did You Ever Wonder?”

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