Sunday, July 15, 2012

ELs in the NWP LCD session

Today, at the NWP LDC Cohort 2 meeting in Colorado, I attended Rebeca Garcia-Gonzalez's session about English Language Learners and the Common Core. Our group of 12 began by introducing ourselves, our educational contexts and our work with ELs.

We received tips from Rebeca for working with teachers in professional learning throughout our session. Here’s one she gave us: Teachers of ELs are a disenfranchised, historically underrepresented population. The first job in planning for their professional learning is to establish trust. Rebeca recommends that we begin by sharing with these teachers the one page PDF in the CCSS about language learners. “Give them a chance to be angry! They should be angry!” she said.

We entered our reading of a chapter from Pauline Gibbons’, English Learners, Academic Literacy, and Thinking: Learning in the Challenge Zone with some questions to consider:

1. Why do you think Gibbons selected these seven ideas as her basis for EL college and career readiness? ?
2. Is there anything you would add or take away?

Here’s another tip: When working with teachers familiar with the CCSS, ask them to contrast Gibbons’ ideas with the one-pager in the CCSS.

We read the Bunch Paper, “Understanding Language: Realizing Opportunities for English Learners in the Common Core English Language Arts and Disciplinary Literacy Standards,” which distills recent research about ELs” by Bunch, Kibler, and Pimentel.

Rebeca reflected upon her previous experience leading PD with these texts and shared that teachers never oppose the principles in theory but admit to struggles in implementing some. With that in mind, we read the article and considered this guiding question:
What would be hard to enact from Bunch’s recommendations and which of his recommendations would be easy to put into practice?

Finally, we reviewed the NWP’s approach to drafting modules for EL’s. We looked at key considerations about how an LDC EL Module would differ from a standard module before reviewing three skills clusters, informational, argumentative and narrative.

Rebeca asked us to reflect quickly on the “workability” of these clusters and how constraining they appeared to us. Since we enjoyed the first view of these skill clusters, she also invited us to read them closely and provide feedback in LDC Connect. Look for the feedback in the Language Learners space.

The above are my notes about how the session was conducted. I reflect that these conversations feel new and important today because of the need I feel to get smarter about how I work with both EL students and teachers of those students. I always feel lucky to be part of conversations with teachers about how we can help other teachers. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Access and activity

I’ll be blogging in response to a webinar series
offered by at the invitation of the National Writing Project’s Digital Is.

During S. Craig Watkins’ session, he explained that Black and Hispanic teens spent more time on mobile devices than White teens. Watkins, a principal investigator of the Connected Learning Research Network and a teacher at the University of Texas, called this a “mobile paradox,” a seeming contradiction to the digital divide. Though they are more likely to live in homes without broadband access, Black and Hispanic teens are bridging the access gap using mobile devices.

A recent  Pew Internet study reports the same:
Among smartphone owners, young adults, minorities, those with no college experience, and those with lower household income levels are more likely than other groups to say that their phone is their main source of internet access.

In the many links below the archived video of Watkins’ session on is a link to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Generation M2 study. As I read through that one, I found it curious that the study only categorized time spent with cell phone media three ways: listening to music, playing games, and watching TV. (Here’s the chart.)#

On the other hand, the study categorized computer use in eight ways. (Here’s that chart.)

This raised a few questions for me. First, why paint such a limiting picture of mobile media use on cell phones when these devices support all of the practices attributed to computer time? Just by approaching the different devices this way, the report suggests a disparity of media practices that may not exist.

I also wondered, looking at this pie chart, how can researchers make the distinction between “social networking” and these other media practices, many of which take also take place on social networks. YouTube probably qualifies as a video site, but it also is a social network. On Facebook- the social network- users play games, instant message one another, and create, edit and share photos and videos. “Social networking” is such a general verb, that it really only identifies the platform on which teens might interact with peers and media.

Especially as teachers endeavor to explore interest-driven practices of youth with digital tools, we can continually refine how we examine those practices.

"Digital Differences." Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project. Web. 03 June 2012. <>.

"Report: Generation M2: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds - Kaiser Family Foundation." Kaiser Family Foundation. Web. 03 June 2012. .

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Two sites, two opportunities

  Recently, in a 12th grade English classroom, I asked students to navigate between two different types of sites while researching to prepare for debates. I wanted them to begin their research on the New York Times Room for Debate page, so I showed them how the site worked and asked them specifically to read the introduction of a high-interest topic. Next, they had to read each of the expert articles associated with the topic. A week or so later, I sent them to a different site, This time, I asked students to find examples of strong and weak online debates. Instead of explaining how the site worked, I asked them to explain it to me.
I liked the assignment because it moved us away from the familiar discourse about these types of sites, where we identify one as informal, and therefore bad, and one as a formal site from a reputable publisher, therefore good. Certainly, we needed college-bound seniors to know that they cannot cite in their research papers. Also, they had to know that the authors selected by the New York Times had a certain amount of credibility deriving from this publication, if not for their credentials under their bylines.
     Rather than stopping here with our consideration of the sites, though, I hoped they would see that Debate.or is a social network where people engage in competitive debates of varying seriousness and political correctness. The New York Times, of course, is the New York Times. This online, 21st Century version of the venerable newspaper is increasingly participatory and has many elements of a social network, too. In the 12th grade classroom, we wanted students to see that the sites differ in the level to which they invite participation. If I read the New York Times and do not comment, vote or debate, I'm a reader. If I read and I don't debate, comment or vote, I'm a noob, or a lurker.
    Something these seniors and I obseved in our work is that some participants on formulate better arguments than the experts invited to write for the Times. Students would read some expert articles and come away with no more information about their topic. Ironically, some of the arguments on proved to be models of strong inline citation and link students to credible research about their topics. Readers have to filter more strategically in, lest they spend their time reading an informal debate that consists entirely of “Your momma” jokes. So, filtering strategies were key, as indicated in the reflection written by Jacob, a student who successfully navigated the site. He wrote:

While I was siphoning through the challenges, I have acquired a basic working knowledge of how the site works and what can be done with the site. During my search the most well supported debate was a debate arguing whether or not the Muslim religion endorsed terrorism. The least supported debate was a joke debate that lacked any real knowledge of the subject to be funny.

    His critical thinking helped me decide that the exploration of a social network had benefits and I was glad that our research and preparation for class debates took students to a virtual space not normally travelled in an English class.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012

3 Challenges for a game design school

I’ll be blogging in response to a webinar series offered by at the invitation of the National Writing Project’s Digital Is.

Maybe the most inspiring thing about listening to Antero Garcia, a young teacher who has pushed on the boundaries of pedagogy in a very difficult teaching environment, is that words like “problem” and “challenge” seem to have only the best connotations when he says them.  In this week’s webinar, Garcia detailed some projects he has lead in his high school English class in south central Los Angeles. He shared his thinking about technology in schools and participatory learning. He also described a detailed game his students played which they later opened up to the larger community. After he did all of this, he asked a question:

He asked the connected learning community, "How do we do this with teachers who aren't necessarily oriented toward (game design) practices?" Garcia explained that he’s helping plan a new public high school in South Central Los Angeles, the Critical Design and Gaming School. His concern is that the school will be staffed with veteran teachers who might not have any interest in the type of pedagogy the new school hopes to employ.

As fascinated as I was by the air quality problem he posed to his English class, this problem- starting a school- strikes me as infinitely more interesting and exciting- not to mention difficult- than solving air quality problems in LA.  

Here are three ways I would frame the challenges he faces: 

1 H
ow can you incorporate game design into professional learning, instructional planning and community development so teachers begin to connect game design with tangible learning? For teachers who have never attended schools built on game principles, applying game theory to teaching will be very hard, especially if they have not learned a great deal in their lives from playing games. Since opening a new school will be a huge learning experience for every staff member involved (just ask someone who has opened a school), this is an opportunity to put your pedagogy to the test with adults.

What are some ways you can temper your commitment to the project- and to change- with a gentle voice and and a welcoming ear that honors the experiences of veteran teachers? In his book Instructional Coaching: A partnership approach to improving instruction, Jim Knight compares the delicate task of asking teachers to change with going over to your sister’s house and asking her to change her parenting. Your new school will symbolize in many ways the idea that teaching practices ought to change. This will sound like a criticism to many. How can you keep those folks involved?

Can you solicit dissent to better inform your overall design? Since you endeavor to rethink pedagogy and reform education, you need everyone’s best thinking, not just the small group of technophiles, or the passionate gamers who may teach in your school. How can you keep critical thinking at the forefront of your work with staff?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Three wishes for Mozilla Open Badges

I’ll be blogging in response to a webinar series offered by at the invitation of the National Writing Project’s Digital Is.

After watching latest web session on in which Erin Knight of Mozilla discussed the company’s vision for their Open Badge infrastructure, I discovered that Knight’s guarded optimism about the project was contagious. Here are three reasons I can get excited about open badges:

Badges might help us rethink motivation and learning

    Knight commented in the web session that the binary view of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is too restrictive for learning. By recognizing interest-driven learning through badges, we can study motivation in spaces where learners have a great deal more time, autonomy and support than schools can provide. This new conversation about badges could spark a new conversation about learning and motivation.

Badges might help us recognize the learning students do outside of the classroom and employ meaningful measurements

    Students learn a great deal in spaces outside of the classroom and often do not see those as important learning experiences. A badge system might help students see themselves as learners by calling attention to learning that occurs in after school clubs, hobbies or recreational programs.
    Additionally, by inviting adult experts to use alternative measures to assess learning in a variety of places and spaces, we invite communities to think with educators about meaningful assessment that matters. At a time when people have ready access to the grades for their local schools determined by standardized tests, badges provide a welcome opportunity to rethink assessment criteria and learning. Might badges open the door for communities to think about qualifying the learning kids do rather than quantifying it?

Badge may popularize PLNs

Badge programs may help to popularize personal learning networks (PLNs), an emerging concept in online professional development for educators. More and more teachers have embraced online networks as powerful collaborative learning opportunities. By working online, teachers connect with colleagues and experts around the world to pursue learning that is relevant to them. A badge program like Mozilla’s may be a tipping point that allows educators who believe in self-directed, collaborative learning to open students’ eyes to a new approach to interest driven learning.   

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Leave the essay grading to the machines...

Grading essays is easy. Over the years, I have laid out anchor papers for each grade category in my four point scale, 4-1, for our local standardized test in order to illustrate for my middle school students the characteristics of papers in each category. They generally pick it up pretty quickly. My 7th graders can tell me which papers have strong word choice, a variety of sentence types and  descriptive language. Forgive me if I don't panic at the news that computers can do this well.

Let the machines have the grading. Grading essays is easy. Preservice and novice teachers can identify errors and assess the readability of a student paper with very little support. Grading isn't the hard part and it is better left to AI. As a teacher, I don't want to take up my pick axe and try to race a steam shovel. I'm much rather focus on helping students do the things that only humans can do. 

In Results Now, a book about the rich potential for improving outcomes in schools, Mike Schmoker argues that students should write more in schools and teachers should grade less in order to improve literacy development. Basically, the argument sounds like this: teachers can focus too much time on providing feedback to students who do not have sufficient time to practice the skills and tasks the teacher is assessing. Students can become overwhelmed at best, and discouraged at worst, in their writing practice. Professional writers will tell you that writing requires regular daily practice and routine setbacks. Traditional grading and feedback can interfere with the development of young writers. 

In her book Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing, Constance Weaver argues in favor of a generative rhetoric in writing instruction rather than a corrective rhetoric. Simply put, she suggests that we ought to teach students how generate strong writing, instead of teaching them what not to do, a commonplace approach to working with developing writers. We need humans to establish a generative rhetoric in schools. 

 The hard parts are the things we need humans to do. We need humans to create a community of writers who share their work and respond constructively to each other's work. We need humans to teach and support processes for generating ideas, planning and drafting. Humans can help humans think through the purpose and audience for written work and help students revise with those essential pieces in mind. Humans can expose students to different genres and written structures. Humans need other humans to learn how to generate strong writing. Let the machines highlight errors. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Game design and rethinking failure in school #change11

I’ll be blogging in response to a webinar series offered by at the invitation of the National Writing Project’s Digital Is.

Katie Salen, executive director of the Institute of Play, offered principles for instructional designers to use in order apply the theories of game design in schools in this web session on Though the session title indicated there were six principles, I got four:

1. Create a need to know

2. Create a space of possibility

3. Create opportunities for authority and expertise to be shared and reciprocal.

4. Multiple, overlapping paths to mastery.

From failure to iteration and prototype

In her explanation and exploration of the fourth point, she made the observation that game designers have to construct games in a way that participants can find success. A game designer has executed a poor design if players cannot find success. This is a distinct contrast from traditional classroom settings, she noted, where the instructional design suggests that not all student will find success and when students do not, schools blame the students more than they rethink design.

Participants in the web session asked Salen how schools built on game design help students with the routine failure that players experience to learn in game settings. She explained that gamer view failure differently. In the schools she works with- one in Chicago and one in New York- educators intentionally talk about failed efforts as iterations, prototypes and proof that approaches do not work. The hope is that students see success as possible. They, like players in a game, learn that risk and experimentation pay off. When students try and do not succeed in game design schools, they can trust that there is a pathway to success and that they are in the process of finding it.

My own failure

During the recorded web session, I paused the discussion to do a little research when I heard a mention of the game Minecraft. Having read recently about classroom implications for games like Gamestar Mechanic and Little Big Planet, I wanted to familiarize myself with Minecraft, a title I’m encountering more and more in my online reading about games in education.

In minutes, I downloaded a free app for the pocket edition on my smartphone. In no time, my little avatar was running over the block landscape and stopping to stack blocks. I had to build a structure that would protect me after nightfall. Entirely too soon, night did fall and hordes of monsters came out of nowhere and destroyed me.

With my short experience with Minecraft, the pocket edition, I gained a new appreciation for the term my students use more and more: “Epic fail.” My epic failure may have hooked me on the game, though. Failure gave me a few objectives for my next experience, too. I know now that I will probably have to explore the terrain more, and figure out how to stack these blocks where I want them to go. Once I learn how to navigate and build, I will need to figure out what kind of structure will impede the murderous monsters. I’m probably going to fail, like, 10 more times before I develop the competency to advance in this game. Luckily, this is a game, though, so the learning is probably going to be fun.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Touring a virtual classroom #change11

I’ll be blogging in response to a webinar series offered by at the invitation of the National Writing Project’s Digital Is.

Last night I had an interesting, 21st Century choice to make: read my newest e-book, Net Smart, by Howard Rheingold, or watch Rheingold’s webinar on

I stopped and thought about how I wanted to learn about technology and education.

As a lifelong bookworm, I have always enjoyed the reading I choose outside of school over assigned reading at an assigned pace. The choice I make to hoard books and binge on texts is constructive personal foible that leaves me in a house with an overflowing bookshelf or book basket in every room. When I choose to grab a book and settle in, I make a familiar choice.

Increasingly, I have a new, less familiar option. With the time that I used to devote to personal reading, I can choose to join, observe or facilitate online learning conversations, reminiscent of class discussions. And I do. More and more, I log in to webinars and find myself using a different implement to scratch a personal learning itch.

So, I might have settled in with a good book and read Rheingold’s latest. Instead, I watched a webinar recording and found the author, the regular host of these sessions, in the role of the subject, talking with a panel of educators, with Mimi Ito facilitating the conversation. He shared the work he is doing in his Social Media Classroom, explaining the way he facilitates cooperative learning.

Watching from the comfort of my workstation at home, I toured his virtual classroom, detailing how these learners collaboratively construct mind maps during their online sessions, sometimes refining these maps individually after the session. Each part of the virtual space has a thoughtful, experimental purpose. The group uses a wiki to define terms and develop a common language. Discussion forums house the questions the group values, while blogs are spaces of personal reflection for the learners, and all the spaces invite participation. In this virtual space, Rheingold experiments online with cooperation and learning. He calls it “peeragogy.”

Watching Rheingold’s tour of his virtual classroom and hearing his discussion with the panel, I was reminded of the 21st Century choices I have when I leave the comforts of my personal space and go to work in schools. I get to decide about how to approach learning with colleagues and students. I, too, might engage with learners in some of the ways he modelled. My colleagues and I might construct our own mind maps, engage in asynchronous discussions and publish our reflective writing online for a larger, global audience.

As these 21st Century choices start to add up, I think about another affirming choice I have: How will I frame my own experiments in rapidly-evolving contexts like the Internet? (And school.)

Saturday, April 7, 2012

An elephant of a sandbox #change11

I’ll be blogging in response to a webinar series offered by at the invitation of the National Writing Project’s Digital Is.

In last week’s webinar, Philipp Schmidt, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Peer2Peer University (P2PU), spoke with host Howard Rheingold and a small panel of doctoral students who study connected learning.

P2PU, a grassroots online open education project, strives to provide high-quality, low-cost educational opportunities. Currently, P2PU offers a myriad of free, online courses.

Schmidt offered three questions to begin the discussion about scaling online learning:

How do you scale online courses that don’t stink?

What are new ways to recognize achievements?

How do you assess 21st century skills?

Now, days after the webinar, having viewed the archived session and consider these questions, I have the found the answers and they are ready for publication in this blog.

The correct answer to all these questions is: YES! (Any lower-case response, or response not in bold should receive only partial credit.)

My confidence in this answer comes from hearing Rheingold say to Schmidt about learning online, “It is still early.” 

It is worth noting that someone of Rheingold’s long experience hesitated to draw conclusions about online education. At this stage great questions serve to guide thoughtful inquiry.

The interchange made me remember the tale of the blind men and the elephant. In the old Indian tale, each man touches only a small part of the elephant, and therefore describes the elephant as something consistent with the part he can feel.

Having completed my second P2PU course in their school of education, I can look back at my experiences in those courses and talk about the excellent facilitation and the community building I experienced in the courses online sessions. To me, that is online learning.

Having participated in a couple of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), I can point to those experiences, all exploratory and positive, and say “that is online learning.”

But it is early. So, I remember the blind men and the elephant. In my passionate interest to explore and discuss online learning, I may just have a hold of this elephant’s tail.

Still, from my vantage point here at the tail, I  found myself disagreeing with the doctoral students in the discussion when I watched the archived web session. One of the participants made the claim that unless the courses offered certificates that academic institutions or employers recognize, time spent in open courses is akin to time spent watching soap operas. This is certainly not the case from my side of the elephant. The doctoral students in the webinar have their own position on this elephant of open online learning. Whatever appendage of the beast they have their hands on, the student researchers in the discussion seemed to think that certification is the most important thing in online learning. I feel confident that many of my “classmates” in the #change11 MOOC and my most recent P2PU course would disagree.

Maybe these doctoral students, working to complete their own certification requirements in varying education contexts, have a view of the world right now that says learning is pursuit of certification.

In the web session, Schmidt acknowledged the importance of thinking about learners and their motivations and pushed back on the notion that open learning must yield tangible rewards, saying, “It is great to be a sharer.”

Here are some other questions Schmidt posed for the group’s consideration:

What are good pathways from interest to learning?

What support mechanisms are needed?

What is the role of content?

The challenge for educators exploring online learning is to answer these questions by asking question. When I begin to draw conclusions, I will remember that it is still early. Again, a correct answer to these questions is “YES!”

The great invitation of online learning, especially in open virtual spaces like P2PU, filled with discussions, challenges and communities, is that the whole thing feels less like the elephant of traditional education and more like a sandbox. Educators can take their questions about online learning into the Schmidt’s sandbox where, through play and exploration, they might arrive at some answers. Or maybe better questions.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Reconceptualizing the library #change11

I’ll be blogging in response to a webinar series offered by at the invitation of the National Writing Project’s Digital Is. In this week's session, hosted again by Howard Rheingold, we heard from Buffy J. Hamilton, The Unquiet Librarian, who engaged in a discussion about libraries and learning spaces.

Dr. David Preston’s high school class “hung out” during the webinar and asked a big question: "What [does] the future of libraries look like, considering the rapid growth of reading technologies such as the Kindle and the iPad?"

A great question by itself, this inquiry only gets better when you consider the context: from their classroom in California, this group of students asked this question of Buffy Hamilton an innovative librarian in Georgia, Howard Rheingold, prolific author and a teacher at Stanford, and a live stream audience of educators. It appears these students came to the right place for answers.

In her opening remarks, Hamilton hinted at the work that educators will have to do to answer the students’ question. She challenged her audience to “reconceptualize the library as a place that is a shared composition.” She said educators have to collaborate with the students they serve to “compose and construct the story of library participation,” with the goal of developing responsible, agentive students who learn what education can be in a lot of different spaces.

Where do we even begin?

Well, we might begin here- Librarian 2.0. It’s Rheingold’s 2010 interview of Hamilton. When I read this the day after the web session, still thinking about connected learning, I stopped only for a brief moment to name what I was doing.

I’m looking at exemplary student work that came from an nationally-recognized librarian’s collaboration with a classroom teacher, mediated by the writing of an expert on the Internet and learning. (And I’m in my pajamas!)

I poured through some student projects, and I read for a while on each of the two blogs I found that Hamilton offers, The Unquiet Library, The Unquiet Librarian. (I found three or four other virtual platforms for the work she does with her school, and skimmed those, too.)

I think I got a glimpse of the future of libraries, which is what those students in the web session asked about. I saw pictures of a dynamic physical space and I toured an unbounded virtual space.

During the web session, Hamilton spoke about her work with students and Personal Learning Environments (PLEs), remarking that asking students to work in public, virtual spaces was asking them to take a “leap of faith.” Hamilton’s own work demonstrates for students and teachers alike the benefits of this leap. By publishing her work to the web, she gives us all access to her joyful approach and her strong thinking about physical and virtual spaces which promote inspired learning. By sharing in this way, she encourages other educators to take the leap of faith, to share and think with a larger community focused on answering tough questions.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What am I doing in this MOOC? #change11

I read Stephen Downes’ address at EdgeX2012, highlighting the parts that were meaningful to me. Here is the annotated link in Diigo that shares my highlights. They might be useful to you if you’re pressed for time and find yourself wanting to skim the long post. I affixed to the digital text a virtual sticky note which reads, “When online begins to outperform face to face.”

After reading Downes’ address, I thought about his assertion that MOOCs aren’t about content, they are about doing. Here are some of the things I’ve done in this MOOC to date:

Annotated and shared those annotations

(See above.)


I wrote informally about the speakers, the content and the experience of this MOOC.  


At one point during my participation in this course, I made my own rule that if someone commented on my blog, I would comment on theirs. Interesting stuff, this rule-making in an open online context. I would also like to do a better job of following those who comment on my writing and I try to “pay it forward,” reading the latest blogs to help myself feel current, but also to encourage recent participants.


In the backchannels of the web sessions, I chat frequently and furiously, at times losing track of the speaker’s presentation. I’m fascinated by backchannels, their role in the session and the tangents and trails they take. I like to catch up on sessions I miss in the recording, taking notes online to record my thoughts and support my reflection, but without the live backchannel, the recordings are not nearly as engaging.


I pose questions in chats during online sessions, and I pose them in the comment fields below participant blogs. My questions also leak into my own blog posts.


In a previous blog post, I shared a workshop activity which invited readers to add their ideas to a Prezi I created. I was delighted to see a few additions from other participants.  


Recently, during the “lull” in this MOOC, I co-facilitated a three-week open course through Interestingly, in our discussion threads for that course I connected with (at least) three other participants from this MOOC.

When I think about the connections formed in a MOOC, I think about the common experiences of participants who have navigated, consumed, published, lurked and Tweeted as part of their participation in #change11. What changes? Our work? Our expectations? Our skill learning online?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Watch the geeks

I’ll be blogging in response to a webinar series offered by at the invitation of the National Writing Project’s Digital Is. I highly recommend the archived session hosted by Howard Rheingold in which Mimi Ito lead a discussion about connecting interests and achievement with a panel of librarians, teachers and parents.

Mimi Ito studies geeks.

It takes one to know one!

The geeks, she reports, are highly interest-driven and immersed in technology. Ito says geeks use different media platforms than other students because they put their interests first and friendships, while important, come second. To me, that means they might prefer to Facebook, for example.

I share Ito’s interest in geeks and I like to conduct my own informal studies on them.

It used to be easier to spot geeks. They were the ones wearing glasses, reading books. They were the only ones who knew how to use a computer, before using a computer became so social. Now everyone’s on some kind of a computer and you have to really look closely to see which kids are pursuing their interests. It is harder to know who is hanging out, who’s messing around and who’s geeking out. Before, you could stake out a library and find the geeks. Today, even if you go to the library, you’ll see a bunch of kids on computers. You have to sneak up behind them to figure out who the geeks are.

I like to sneak up behind the geeks because I’m a teacher and I have a sneaking suspicion that studying the geeks a little more closely will suggest possibilities for a way forward in education, especially in an era of increased accountability and emphasis on measuring educational outcomes. Schools can no longer take geeks for granted. We really ought to poke and prod them, prick them with pins, find out how they tick.

When I find a real geeky geek, about 11 or 12 years of age, and I poke him real hard, he gives up his secrets! “School is easy, when it isn’t too boring,” he wails. “Some classes are fun, when we get to do cool stuff, or when we read, write and talk about cool stuff.”

Geeks might not like homework, but if I prick them with a pin, they’ll tell me their ten favorite homework assignments. I record the answers in my notes because I think it will help us find a way forward in education.

Here’s a thing I’ve noticed: when you leave a geek to his own devices, he makes up his own homework, and he enters into his own intellectual discussions. Geeks use the Internet for this all the time. You basically cannot click twice on the web without encountering a geek collaborating with other geeks.

Geeks interests change all the time, but we can learn a great deal by studying how they pursue those interests.

To help in this effort, I’m growing my own geeks.  

The biggest one is six and her interests are as follows: dinosaurs, roly polys, dogs, singing, and animals.

Her mother won’t let me prick her with a pin, so I have hang out with my little geek and make careful notes about her interests. I recently took her to the local library. She’s learning to read, so it is an opportune time to watch this geek blossom.* I watch how she walks through the bookstacks, introduces herself to other kids and explores. It doesn’t get interesting until I start picking out the books.

I’m an English teacher, so I have an agenda.  My approach is complex- I look for books on her instructional level, but I also want high quality literature. I look for author’s names: De Paolo, Fox, Carle, Pollaco, and Yolen. Pulling books from the shelves, I look at the sentence structure, the patterns and the ratio of text to picture support. I find the perfect books for this reader's development and then things get interesting.

"No, Dad. I only want dinosaur books."

Despite my  assurances that she will love the books I have chosen, the little geek, unyielding, insists on a new search strategy for me, the reading "expert." Not only do I have to reshelve the instructionally appropriate materials, I have to find dinosaur books. Not real dinosaur books, I’m told, but dinosaur books where dinosaurs talk and play. We find about 10 and when the little geek concedes that dragon books will work, too, we check out 13 in total.

I record my observations.

Our oldest geek rejects expert-selected, instructionally appropriate materials in her zone of proximal development. She demands to focus on a topic and style of text. In the weeks following our trip to the library, she independently increases her time on text with the self-selected materials. Her method of reading practice, while different than the work I might have prescribed, increases instructional opportunities to model and mentor reading strategies.  

During her recent discussion on, Ito asked a small panel of parents and educators an important question, “Have you seen in your own work some potential for interest-driven work with students?”
So, I believe Mimi Ito is onto something when she asks about the potential for interest-driven instruction. I also believe we can ask educators another question: Have you seen in your work the negative potential of continuing with a course of instruction that did not interest students?

*During the writing of this blog post, my oldest geek walked by and told me, “Don’t forget your periods at the end of your sentences, Dad!”