Journal: Snow Day Victories

Well, it turns out that a scant inch of snow is enough to delay my place of work from opening until noon.  Since I have a morning class, that means a snow day!

I was of course uneasy about the possibility of my students coming to class to find nobody there, so I called everybody.  I also told every single person and voicemail I spoke to that in the future I would not be calling. See the homework blog for more details.  I’ll have even more options for them in person tomorrow, but I’m not posting them because they highlight where exactly I work.

Victory #1:

I spent the morning registering for a class for my own professional development as an ESOL teacher.  Yay!  It starts Monday and will meet weekly all the way through mid-May.

Victory #2:

high five? by StephVee on Flickr
high five? by StephVee on Flickr

I also spent time getting my work email to run through Gmail instead.  Success!  My mistake from Monday was trying to accomplish what I wanted through the college email system instead of through Gmail.  Maybe tech support could have pointed me in that direction instead of just saying that my request was “impossible,” but I got there eventually.  🙂

I’m so excited about this change for these reasons:

  • General annoyance: Gmail’s interface is just better from log-in to reading to sending.
  • Gmail has a SPAM filter.  I see no evidence of one in my work email.
  • Personal boundaries maintained: I set up a new work Gmail separate from my personal account.
  • Inbox overflow issue solved: messages will only stay in my work email for a moment before flying to my new, huge work Gmail.
  • My replies will be faster: I’ve set up filters in my work Gmail that will forward important messages straight to my personal account.
  • More flexibility for me: I can now email my colleagues from my personal account but have it look like it’s from my work account.

In other words, I’m in charge now, not the email system. It’s a good feeling!

I’m not going to do a complete email victory dance until I’ve seen my set-up in action for a week or two, but I’m very happy with my progress!

Happy snow day to all!

PS – Yesterday: 20 students, engaging grid activity warm-up about the students’ exercise habits, beginning of the Getting In Shape unit, reading charts, talking about the calories that various activities burn.  Very fun!

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Journal: Campus Email

It was a good class.  There were 18 students, even though it was a freezing cold (for Maryland) Monday!  We did lots of varied practice around the same grammar point, including writing, talking, and filling in blanks.  I was pleased with my planning and execution, and I feel good about my direction for the rest of the week.

I’ve had some ongoing frustrations with my campus email, but today I had a real problem: I got a gmail note from one of my colleagues that her messages to my work email were bouncing back.  I cleared out the few offending medium-large (they were by no means huge) messages that I’d received late last week and into the weekend.  Since gmail doesn’t have that kind of a bounce-back problem, I decided I’d quick set up email forwarding to run my campus mail through gmail instead.  The system said to call tech support to do so.  When I called tech support, they said it was impossible.

I don’t believe that forwarding email is actually impossible, so I’m spending today’s post-class time working around the restrictive email system (I’ve got several ideas for at least partial solutions, and am testing one right now).  I normally use this time for my lesson reflection, planning, and prep.  I guess all of that will have to come later on in the evening sometime.

When I have prohibitively dull tools, I have to stop my real work to sharpen them.

“Tech or Die:” A Response

Dangerously Irrelevant, a technology and education blog, posted a strong opinion that we should not just accept that some teachers eschew digital technology because they are either oblivious to it  or choose not to embrace it. 

To the post itself, I reply that I agree with the sentiment that digital technology is imoprtant to teach.  I have to admit that I did not appreciate the slightly over-the-top tone.   The conversation in the comments is frank and nuanced though – I highly recommend spending a few minutes reading (and joining) it.

For me, a huge problem with using digital technology in the classroom is Plan B.  Specifically, Plan B is extraordinarily difficult.  If my pencil breaks, I can sharpen it or use a different pencil.  If I suddenly can’t get onto the internet, there aren’t usually options; I don’t generally have a spare router in my purse.  I either wing it or use the analog activity that took an additional, unrelated two hours of prep to create “just in case.”  (Note: prep time is often uncompensated.*) When you look at it like that, it’s a major drawback to even starting to use digital technology in the classroom, let alone relying on it.

Support for lessons like the one I taught Monday tends to be quite weak, and that’s problematic.  Teachers don’t have to go find and haul their own textbooks.  They don’t have to change the fluorescent lightbulbs in their classrooms.  But they’re apparently supposed to keep their class moving forward while fixing the networking problem** that’s causing hotmail to think that one person is trying to sign up for six email addresses at the same time.  It seems out of sync with other expectations.

No, teachers should not be allowed to pretend digital technology doesn’t exist.  But education systems and reformers should not pretend that unpredictable SNAFUs don’t happen all the time with digital technology.  Steve Jobs of Apple had major technical difficulties while unveiling iPhone 4 a few months ago (scroll down to 1:44 and 2:05).   Even in a high-powered professional setting, technical difficulties and the efforts to fix them were noted as being “awkward.”  Imagine if Jobs were less savvy, and if he didn’t have a team of experts working with him to fix the problems.  “Awkward” would have become “total and prolonged waste of time” – which, incidentally, is the teacher’s nightmare.

Sadly, teachers don’t usually have a team of experts dedicated to just their classroom.  They and/or their tech support are generally not able to rapidly fix problems.  Rapidly switching to a similar digital alternative is also generally impossible.  In my experience the other choice has been to move to a non-digital activity while the tech problem is resolved or given up on.   

Add to that situation the typically outdated equipment and rampant understaffing schools of all kinds face, and we are just not setting up teachers for smooth or succesful tech-based lessons.  No wonder so many want to avoid it.  There’s a great potential for a huge mess, we will almost always face the mess without adequate (or sometimes any) help, and we will be held accountable by our students and our managers for the learning that is not happening while the computers unfreeze.

Is this enough reason to just not “do” digital technology in the classroom?  No.  It has a lot to offer, and as I said Wednesday, I think it’s worth the headache.  But we need real, constant, broad support, not just “should.”

* I know that students come first, but one reason we have trouble recruiting exceptionally talented folks to be teachers is that we don’t respect teachers’ time and skill with an adequate paycheck.

**Really, the teacher would probably not have the permissions to fix the networking problem.  The way I see it, (s)he would have two choices:
1) wait for the overworked tech staffer to get to it and go analog in the meantime, or
2) hack into the system to fix it her-/himself, risking termination and imprisonment but keeping the class on task.
OK maybe that’s a little overly-dramatic, but the point is that there is a LOT outside a teacher’s control even when the teacher is a serious computer expert
.

Tech Confession and the Purpose of a Teaspoon

Confession: I manage my volunteer mailing list on a Word document.

Glue Henge by sappymoosetree on Flickr
Glue Henge by sappymoosetree on Flickr

It’s true.  Even though I enjoy Excel formulas and mail merges, have harsh words for presenters who don’t know the ins and outs of PowerPoint, have actually built more than one relational database, and love to find the optimal information tool for a given task.  I am that person, and I copy and paste my mailing list from a Word document.

It didn’t used to be this way.  In my old job at the main office, my Outlook contacts list was a well-organized-frequently-mail-merged thing of beauty.  But when I got to my new job at the learning center a little over a year ago, I only had Outlook Webmail.  Managing contacts solely with webmail is pretty much impossible.  Word was there, I used it, and it worked.  Months later, my nonprofit helped me install real, actual Outlook Anywhere on the learning center’s laptop (I’m unable to install anything on the main computer, which is library property).  And months after that, I have yet to rework my emailing system.

Three thoughts on this:

Spoon theory by scribbletaylor on Flickr
Spoon theory by scribbletaylor on Flickr

And now to the teaspoon:

This type of situation leads me to think broadly about the fact that people need more than initial training and ongoing Q and A to work effectively with digital technology; we need support in the form of quality tools. Even the people who “get” digital technology are severely hampered by slow, outdated, and/or limiting applications and hardware. When we have to figure out how to make our antiquated or locked-down equipment be good enough “in our spare time,” it either just doesn’t happen or it happens at the expense of the rest of our jobs.

I wish that the demands put on educators, especially in this age of obsession with computer-based and distance learning, could be accompanied by thoughts like, “Do they have the tools to accomplish this well?” or even better, “We should ask them what tools they need to facilitate these desired outcomes and then follow through.”

If all I have is a teaspoon and you’re surprised I’m not hammering nails with it, there’s a problem and it’s not with me.

Preaching to the Tech Choir

The blog Dangerously Irrelevant compares the phrases “I’m not good at math” with “I’m not good at computers” and wonders why the second one is so much more acceptable.  I concur.

I’m completely boggled when I meet fiercely intelligent, energetic, involved, interested, and interesting people and then hear them say something like “I don’t do computers.”  Boggled.

boys choir by saikofish on Flickr
boys choir by saikofish on Flickr

When I hear something to the effect of, “I’m over 30, I’m not a computer person,” it translates into two messages:

The first says, “I make excuses,” and it’s disappointing.

The second says “I don’t value anything you say via computer or about computers,” and it’s insulting.

I’m smiling at the irony of posting this on my blog.

Lessons from Clothing Donations

notice the restless bag of clothes by revecca on Flickr
'notice the restless bag of clothes' by revecca on Flickr

I have had bags of clothes sitting in my apartment waiting for me to donate them for something like a year. Maybe longer. And last week, I finally donated them.

It was one of those unfortunate tasks that was neither important nor urgent but that would take more than a few minutes.  So I just sort of stopped seeing the bags of clothes being slowly shredded by my cats.  When I did occasionally notice them, it was never a good time to dive into such a big project (?) so I left them for “later.”

Lessons learned:

The factor that started me tackling this silly little project with its surprisingly large impact on my living space was a conversation that became a plan.  Those things are powerful.

Please Close Your Laptop

I have to go to bed soon, but I wanted to quick note a challenge that I faced in my diligent note-taking that surprised me.

I was at a presentation at which laptops were provided because part of the agenda was to have us explore a particular online course. I decided to just use that computer for my notes instead of the one I brought.

So I popped it open and started myself a word document. I happily took notes for a few minutes, then we did an interactive activity. When we came back and were regrouping, I opened up the laptop to get ready to take more notes. The presenter came over and very kindly and with no edge at all asked me to keep it closed because they were going to start again.

When I said I was using it to take notes, she thought for a beat or two and then said ok. I kept it closed anyway though. I thought that despite whatever assumptions she had made about what I was doing on the computer that she treated me with respect, and the best way I could think to repay that respect was to not be on the computer while she was talking.

But as a result, my notes are less detailed and much less accessible to me. I’ll need to spend some time keying them in.

Is this a common phenomenon? And how do you feel when you’re presenting to people while they are actively using laptops?