Friday, November 16, 2012

Hanging Out with Google +

I have a history of eschewing social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace and even the long-forgotten Friendster. The platform never really appealed to me, and once I became a teacher it seemed even wiser to avoid public profiles of this nature. However, Google+ has an amazing feature going for it, a feature that may have very well turned me from a social-networking hater to a true believer. The Hangout.

I had my first Google+ Hangout a few weeks before the Google Teacher Academy, and the ease with which I could connect with my teammates from all over the world (indeed, we were hooked up between Singapore and across the US) was instantly appealing. Video conferencing has always seemed difficult to set up and impersonal, wholly unappealing. Even iChat struck me as more trouble than it was worth. But a Hangout is easy! Literally the click of a button had me sitting at my computer, face to face with Team Goldberg (Go Team!).

Last night, after a stream of melancholy, withdrawal themed tweets, a few pals from GTANY and I organized a reunion Hangout. I volunteered to set up the event, and it was as easy as sending a group email (Note to Self: Next time choose the "On Air" option to record the conversation). And oh, the delight I felt when I joined the Hangout and saw Brent (@catlett1), Tanya (@edtechschools), Sean (@remedy1978), BA (@bafish10), Linda (@lindayollis) and JR (@gochemonline) chatting away in real time. If you had any doubt about the lure of the GTA and Google+ Hangouts, look no further than Fiona (@fibeal) who deserves an MVP award for waking up at 3am to join our conversation from Fish Hoek, South Africa. That is some serious commitment.

It was nourishing for both mind and heart to spend even a short time with these lovely folks from around the globe. We chatted about our ideas, our families, our classrooms/schools. We were impressed by Cat's early Christmas tree (lit up on November 15th!), JR and Linda's virtual classroom collaboration, and, of course, the Google Effects extension that provided us with tiaras, party hats and snorkeling gear.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Making Meaning Whenever We Can

I did not anticipate using this blog to catalogue the public art installations of New York City, but I think having a place to jot down a few notes about anything I want has made it easier to write. Ideally most of these posts will be about education, my classroom and my ideas about teaching, but, on the advice of a fellow educator, I'm writing whenever the mood strikes me, whether my subject is education or just learning in general.

Last night I visited Leo Villareal's BUCKYBALL, a 30ft tall geodesic sphere (technically two nested spheres). I had passed by the installation in the light of day, but evening is really the best time to appreciate the constantly changing color patterns of the LED tubes that make up the spheres. The piece is surrounded by Villareal's 'zero-gravity benches,' surprisingly comfortable wooden couches that allow spectators to recline and admire the light show.

I spent close to 20minutes on one of these benches with my companions, and as we watched the patterns of color change, sometimes slowly, sometimes frenetically, we started to imagine the story these lights might tell. To one friend a moment of flickering white was the build up to a frightening climax, while another interpreted the same instant as celebratory excitement.

Despite the informational placard which implies that the LED display is random, the friends I was with felt convinced that the patterns of light told a narrative, perhaps proving that it is deeply ingrained in human nature to make meaning whenever we can.

Maybe this post is about teaching after all. I think it would make for an amazing field trip to bring students to Madison Square Park and ask them to write a story inspired by the evolving light show that is BUCKYBALL. I think they, like their teacher, would find meaning and intention in the way white light slowly creeps along the facets of the sphere before flickering and transforming to orange, pink and blue.

Friday, November 2, 2012

In the Wake of Hurricane Sandy, Virtual School

On the afternoon of Sunday, October 28th, members of my school community received a voice mail alerting us that school would be closed on Monday due to Hurricane Sandy. I am confident that students and teachers alike felt that small thrill of stealing an extra day off, the excitement of an unanticipated three day weekend. What none of us realized then was that the effects of Sandy would be severe enough to keep all schools in the city closed for the entire week. Without a functioning public transportation system, most of our faculty and staff were unable to get to school, preventing us from opening our doors to students.

Monday and Tuesday were filled with a sense of freedom as I slept late, watched TV, finally read an adult novel after months of a strict diet of YA Fiction. But by Wednesday, our third consecutive day without school, my teacher brain started to flare up. There were texts to read! Essays to grade! Students to conference with and conversations to be had about great literature!

Being stuck at home meant that I was unable to proceed with my lesson plans, but on Thursday of "Hurricane Sandy Week," we launched a 'virtual school day,' and I immediately took advantage of the fantastic (and free!) internet resources available to teachers and students. I created a short video message to my students on YouTube, linked it with my written assignment sheet, and posted everything on our school Moodle. I asked my students to write up a personal narrative of their hurricane experience in a GoogleDoc, which they then shared with me via GoogleDrive. In class we were already deeply engaged in writing about personal experiences and using meaningful, descriptive language, so this virtual assignment was completely in step with our existing curriculum.

As I had recently launched a classroom Twitter account, and was using Twitter to keep up-to-date with Sandy-related events, I also asked students to compose a tweet about the hurricane. Some students used the opportunity to share their personal experiences, while others tweeted photos or linked to articles and news items.

While 'virtual school' is no match for the real thing, it was a much needed stop-gap as NYC worked on righting itself after the storm.  As I read over each piece of writing a student submitted to me, I had the dichotomous experience of feeling connected to my kids but also kept at arms length. I am eager for students to return to the classroom, where lively conversations and intimate interactions occur daily. However, it is undeniable that in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the spheres of cloud computing and social media made learning possible.