Monday, December 24, 2012

Safe Sanctuaries or Armed Fortresses?

On Thursday, (Dec 20, 2012) the AFT and NEA put out a joint statement opposing the position of extreme gun advocates that calls for arming teachers in schools. A day later (Dec 21, 2012) the NRA said in a press conference that they encourage law makers to make more guns available to trained personnel in schools and across a wide spectrum of our society.

AFT President Randi Weingarten said in a press statement on Friday that "Schools must be safe sanctuaries, not armed fortresses. Anyone who would suggest otherwise doesn't understand that our public schools must first and foremost be places where teachers can safely educate and nurture our students."

How many more babies have to be killed before we have the courage to rethink the issue and enact strict gun control laws that at a minimum limit access to WMD-type weapons and volume purchases of ammunition.

Take a look at Japan in this Washington Post piece. Strong gun control laws, thorough background and mental health checks all contribute to making Japan's gun control laws the strictest in the world. In 2008, 11 people were victims of gun violence in that country, while in the United States more than 11,000 were killed.
Video games are not the issue because Japanese teens love violent video games as much as their American counterparts. The one obvious difference is that in America, we have access to guns.

During the last election cycle, I got two calls from the NRA who wanted me to know that they were endorsing a local candidate. I let the caller know the the NRA's endorsement was the primary reason I would never vote for their candidate. That wasn't entirely true, but I figured it would be one way to stop them from calling me again. By the way, the NRA endorsed candidate lost the election.

Perhaps thoughtful people should start considering NRA endorsements in the same way they would consider KKK endorsements.

As the news attention moves to the fiscal cliff debacle in Washington, I urge you to keep the gun-control momentum going and make sure you sign up on Facebook and "like" One Million Child March on D.C. for Gun Control, and sign the petition  that tells the NRA to stand down and endorses CREDO's emergency march on the NRA in Washington D.C. Sign on to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence that said in its press statement "The solution to protecting our children is not to place them in the middle of shootouts between “good guys” and “bad guys."

Contact your local representatives and let them know what you feel. It doesn't have to be a very involved message. Just let them know that you will be watching how they vote on the issue.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Sadness in Newtown, CT

I really don't want to add my voice to the expressions of horror and sadness the teachers, families and citizens of Newtown, Connecticut experienced at the Sandy Hook Elementary school. I think empathy and reflection are all we can do to help as we come to grips with the extent of the tragedy.

There are no immediate answers that can prevent this from happening again. There are simply too many guns out there, too many mentally and morally deficient people and too much glorification of violence in our society. Greater control of WMD-type guns would help, but that's not the only thing we can to do. Better understanding and treatment of mental illness and personality disorders would go a long way to prevent some of these situations in the future. Finally, it may be time to classify depictions of violence the same way we classify pornography--not fit for mainstream public consumption--definitely not to be viewed by children.

As an educator who served once as an ad hoc grief counselor in New York City after a student was assassinated in his classroom in front of his high school classmates, I can tell you that the psychological trauma experienced by the students and teachers was difficult to deal with. No one there was able to face the world and the school environment in the same way again. We tend to think that only little children will need our sustained attention and counseling, but even older children and adults need tender treatment and concentrated counseling.

The AFT has a series of valuable links that parents, teachers and student should find helpful when confronted with school violence. You can find them here in both English and Spanish. Here's a link from the Connecticut Department of Education. American Psychological Association has some very good information for dealing and talking about this kind of school trauma.

I call on the AFT and Connecticut Department of Education to offer the educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School the highest award for public service in their roles as "super heroes" who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect the children in their charge.

Let us reflect on thoughts of peace and kindness.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Will educators move to iPad technology?

Fraser Speirs, an influential Mac developer and a technology director at a Scottish school, recently wrote in his blog that “the iPad is not the future of education. It’s the present of education.” Apple CEO Tim Cook, who is promoting the use of iPads in schools, says his company believes that the tablet can “change the way teachers teach and the way kids learn.”

If they are to be believed, the iOS operating system used by both the iPad and the iPhone has the potential to usher in a post-PC technology future for schools that could change the working lives of teachers.

Technology support staff in schools would find their loads lighter with the adoption of iPads, since tablet computers require less additional investment in infrastructure or software and have fewer maintenance problems. No virus protection is required. Schools do not need to purchase expensive and complicated software because there are small, mostly free or inexpensive applications (apps) that allow teachers and other educators to do more than they ever dreamed of doing on their laptops or desktop computers.

Because the iOS provides cloud-computing services, there is little need for local storage. That means there are no hard drives to maintain locally. Software updates come across a Wi-Fi network; therefore, you can add, delete and change information across the network no matter what Wi-Fi-connected device you use. For instance, if your school uses JupiterGrades, a Web-based gradebook, you can enter student information from desktops, laptops, tablets or smartphones no matter where you are.

Because it is easy to use, first-time iPad users quickly grasp how to navigate across the screen. The tablets are light and portable, unencumbered by keyboard or mouse or tangles of cables. On a full charge, battery power lasts about 10 hours.

The iPad changes the way we think about personal computing. PCs traditionally are “input” devices, while the iPad serves primarily as an “output” device or portable media player for music, TV, movies, games, books, presentations and Web content. But the potential of the iPad in the classroom is unlocked through the more than 500,000 apps available.

(A version of this piece first appeared in the New York Teacher )

Friday, January 6, 2012

Will textbook-laden backpacks be a memory?

The era of children bearing backpacks stuffed with heavy textbooks may soon be over. Instead, they will open their leather binders and flick their fingers across the screens of their e-book readers.

Those of you who already read using a Kindle, Nook or other electronic book reader understand the convenience, the interactivity and the easy portability of these devices. Now you can carry an entire home library with you wherever you go. In fact, one New England boarding school eliminated the physical books and shelves of its 20,000-book library and created a digital version from which students can “borrow” using their Kindles.

Once the investment in the e-reader is made, e-books are often cheaper than physical books and, in many cases, free to download. Publishers can easily keep e-books up to date and eliminate traditional complaints about outdated facts or maps.

Readers/students can highlight pertinent content, jot down study notes, take advantage of a built-in dictionary by just holding a finger down on a word, read PDF notes from teachers and even listen to audio versions of the books on their e-readers. Some models with WiFi access will connect the reader to the Internet, too.

School districts across the nation have begun to experiment with the logistics of using the technology. One e-book experiment in an Illinois middle school was so successful that the school district purchased Kindles for every 8th-grader in the school. Clearwater HS in Florida is another early adopter of the e-reader technology. This September, the 2,000-plus students at the school received their own Kindles, each loaded with books tailored to the student’s class schedule.

Since Amazon and Barnes & Noble designed the devices for the book-reading consumer, they are not fully compatible yet with the needs of teachers and students. For instance, early models lacked page numbers, which made it difficult to track progress and add assigned readings to the lessons. The early devices didn’t take into account the needs of the visually impaired, either.

However, manufacturers, listening to educators, made some changes to digital book formats and added audio for the visually impaired. The new generation of e-book readers will allow users to share notes and highlighted text with their classmates.

But the tug of war between the reading needs of the general public and students remains, as Amazon and Barnes & Noble reconsider how they approach providing content to the K-12 school market. Recently Barnes & Noble adjusted their group purchase plans to acknowledge the needs of school libraries and government funding streams. Amazon is still working on the licensing problem.

Pioneering teacher librarians have already produced lesson guides for using e-readers. “From the Creative Minds of 21st Century Librarians” for instance, contains a series of lessons and units that help integrate Kindle and Nook devices in classroom learning.

If your school is considering experimenting with e-reader technology, join the e-book educators’ discussion group at where teachers and librarians share their experiences with Kindles, Nooks and other e-readers.

Budget constraints in the New York City public school system will preclude a wide embrace of e-book technology. Nevertheless, several city public schools gingerly dipped their toes into the e-book environment recently.

It’s too early to know what impact the technology will have on teachers and students. One thing is for certain: If schools adopt e-reader technology, it will be a weight off students’ backs.

Reading websites for youngsters

The ability to recognize and process printed text is heavily dependent on comprehending spoken language. Fluent readers should understand the meaning of both printed and spoken language. That’s why teachers of our youngest readers should take advantage of Internet sites that offer interactive, read-aloud storybooks and language learning activities that foster literacy.

The following is a short list of websites that provide free interactive stories for preschool and new readers.

One of the most well-known sites is Storyline Online presented by the Screen Actors Guild Foundation that features streaming video of guild members reading children’s books aloud.

Actors such as Betty White, Melissa Gilbert, James Earl Jones and Elijah Wood perform these readings for children. Jason Alexander reads his own book “Dad, Are You the Tooth Fairy?” and even Al Gore reads from William Steig’s “Brave Irene.”

“Enemy Pie” by Derek Munson, as read by Camryn Manheim, will please readers of every age. Review the stories before you ask children to listen to them to make sure they are age-appropriate for your class and to plan your lessons.

Each story comes with an activity guide that can help promote a deeper understanding of the contents. For instance, the activity guide for “Enemy Pie” suggests that the students retell the story in their own words and tell and write about their own experiences working out differences with other people. The guide also includes a host of cooking, drawing and writing activities around making cherry pie. It also points to four websites that discuss ways to be a good friend.

The Starfall website ( teaches children to read with phonics using simple video graphics in what the website calls “an educational alternative to other entertainment choices for children.” Students explore and interact with speech sounds in every book and game as they develop a basic understanding of letter-sound relationships.

The youngest children start getting ready to read by learning the letters of the alphabet and the sounds associated with each letter. They then progress to more complicated sounds like blends and then to whole words in sentences.

Every step of the way, students interact with the lesson by responding to questions by clicking the cursor on letters and words on the computer screen.

In an “All About Me!” section, children make choices to create an online persona and then interact with their pet and a favorite toy in the scenario of their choosing. As students become readers, they can read short vocabulary-controlled tales and stories and then listen to them read.

Most of the materials you will need are free, but if you should want more, the Starfall store sells games, books paralleling the website, worksheets and CD-ROMs for classrooms without Internet connections. Current reading research informed the development of the website’s content, which is aligned with current standards.

The PBSKids website has an abundance of learning resources and activities for children. At, you’ll find interactive games that help students develop reading, letter recognition and literacy skills.

Each interactive lesson features popular characters from PBS educational broadcasts like Elmo, Curious George and Martha the speaking dog. Each activity is so entertaining that children won’t realize that they are learning.

All learning activities presented by PBS include teacher and parent guides. The speed of the Internet connection may be an issue for some households, so check before you suggest any assignments for your students to do at home.

The Scholastic website for kids also has some interactive reading activities and games to promote literacy. At, you will find read-aloud versions of stories from the popular “Clifford” series, for instance, as well as related crafts, activity sheets and printables. Many of the resources on this website are free, but others must be purchased.

With budget cuts limiting the availability of new materials across grade levels, these free resources on the Internet can help bridge the gap and meld reading instruction and computer literacy.

The octopus paxarbolis: Developing information literacy

Time is running out for the endangered Pacific Northwest tree octopus. This rare creature (octopus paxarbolis) found only in temperate coniferous rain forests of the Olympic peninsula is threatened by loss of habitat and decimation by feral cats, bald eagles, poaching, and some say, sasquatch. Even though awareness of the tree octopus problem is growing, the federal government refuses to list the gentle creature as an endangered species and some environmentalists claim that the lumber industry heavily influences that decision.

Students assigned to research the problem found information on the tree octopus website and were prepared to spring into action to prevent the impending extinction of the creature. However, octopus paxarbolis is a hoax perpetrated by Lyle Zapato to test the credulity of readers.

Researcher Donald Leu used the website to test seventh-grade students’ information literacy skills. His findings (on the University of Connecticut website) revealed that students did not have the tools to evaluate information they found on the Internet and in this case continued to believe the information about the fictional octopus even after they knew it was false.

“These results are cause for serious concern,” says Leu, “because anyone can publish anything on the Internet and today’s students are not prepared to critically evaluate the information they find there.”

The American Library Association (ALA) recognized the problem as far back as 1989 in a white paper, “The Importance of Information Literacy to Individuals, Business and Citizenship.” The authors wrote, “To be information literate, a person must be able to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information.”

Information literacy includes knowing how to use computers to find information and then having the skills to evaluate it in its context. It is vital to know how to find information, but that is insufficient if you cannot recognize propaganda, distortions of facts and other misuses and abuses of information. How we make sense of it all and cull the wheat from the chaff is crucial to becoming an informed citizen and maintaining our democracy.

The importance of developing critical thinking skills predates the computer, of course. Carl Sagan suggested that everyone develop a “baloney detection kit” by applying scientific reasoning to every claim or opinion. An updated kit by Michael Shermer and Pat Linse is available on the Skeptic website. The 16-page booklet includes suggestions on what questions to ask and what traps to avoid, and contains a how-to guide for developing a class in critical thinking. An entertaining 15-minute video by Shermer summarizes the 10 questions that skeptics should ask as they evaluate the trustworthiness of any claim.

If you want to have students practice their baloney detection skills and have a laugh, too, you can direct them to several hoax websites and ask them to find evidence that the information presented is not real. A few good examples: the British Stick Insect Foundation, Clones-R-US and the dihydrogen monoxide website.

Hoax or Not?
Chris Clementi has developed a WebQuest called “Hoax or Not?” in which she gives students the opportunity to investigate the veracity of several emails and websites by doing a thorough search on Google or another search engine. This is a good framework if you have time to assign a WebQuest. Make sure you are using age-appropriate materials to tailor the task and the process to your students and the opportunities for Internet access at your school.

Hoax websites are the extreme end of the spectrum; misinformation can take many other, often more subtle forms on the Internet. You’ll find helpful summaries of several approaches to evaluating web content at Education World’s “Fact, Fiction, or Opinion? Evaluating Online Information.” “Kathy Schrock’s Guide for Educators” offers a portal for almost everything you ever wanted to know about thinking critically about online content.

A brochure from the New York Library Association outlines standards for digital learning that can help you construct a classroom environment that will foster life-long learners who are critical information consumers.

Teaching students to question everything is the first step in helping them separate fact from fiction. Just asking “What is dihydrogen monoxide?” will reveal the truth about the compound and cut through the distortions on the website.

More Web-based tools for teaching

Free Technology for Teachers ( is a must-see for teachers interested in integrating technology into their classroom practice. The blog by Richard Byrnes, a Maine social studies teacher, is chock full of the latest and greatest Internet tools for teachers. He explores obvious Web services from National Geographic and Google to less-known sites such as Starfall where younger readers can participate in free interactive activities that can help them improve their reading proficiency.

Besides all the professional development resources listed on the site, Byrnes provides links to Web-based tools that teachers can integrate into their lessons or Web resources that can enrich the topics they teach. For instance, in teaching about hurricanes, you can access information that will help students track storms with Google Earth or on the National Hurricane Center (, or the students can watch videos from National Geographic called “Forces of Nature” ( or learn about “Ten Freaky Forces of Nature” from National Geographic Kids (

For students who have some knowledge of earth science and geography concepts, Byrnes recommends a game called “Stop Disasters” ( from the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction. In this game, students confront natural disaster situations and come up with plans to mitigate the damage and prevent loss of life.

Teachers of younger students are not neglected either. For instance, type “reading” in the search box at the top of the page and limit the search to the blog. The results show that Byrne has reviewed hundreds of websites that help students with reading. Try Starfall ( for younger students as it allows them to listen to animated characters tell stories and practice reading short stories in the “I’m Reading” section. If they are stuck on a word, students can click on it and hear it pronounced. Another site is Guys Read ( dedicated to promoting reading and literacy in young boys who are reluctant readers.

Byrne also found another useful site that helps determine the readability of material found on the Internet. Twurdy ( is a search tool that helps determine the basic readability of your search results. There are three types of Twurdy searches: Just Twurdy, Simple Twurdy and Twurdy with Pop. Twurdy with Pop is the most thorough but slower search algorithm, which teachers can use to match the reading level of their students to the difficulty level of their search results.

Many school servers usually block access to YouTube, so Byrne came up with “47 Alternatives to Using YouTube in the Classroom.” Just go to his “Favorite Resources” at the top of the page. His choices include School Tube ( where students and teachers can share videos online. Teacher Tube ( provides teacher-created videos as resources for other teachers. Vista ( is a non-profit website that contains videos that teach you to do something or explain a concept. How Stuff Works ( is filled with excellent educational content on almost every subject.

“My Fake Wall” ( is a fake Facebook page where teachers can ask students to create fake profile pages for historical figures or characters in a book. You can upload images, write wall posts, add comments and “likes” and “dislikes.”

If you click on the link to Free Downloads, you’ll find “How to Do 11 Techy Things in the New School Year.” This is a free primer for teachers who want to try using more technology in the classroom but aren’t sure where and how to start.

If you want to keep abreast of the new material that Byrnes finds, you can friend him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter (!/rmbyrne) or sign up on his website for updates via email and RSS feed.

This and more articles can be found on the UFT website.