Pineapples Don’t Have Sleeves

PineappleLast year, a nonsensical standardized test question about a talking pineapple was in the news, having a correct answer that was supposed to be “pineapples don’t have sleeves.” That story has been in my mind lately since my daughter recently grappled with one of the reading assignments she brought home. This particular assignment was a reading skills practice test that included an excerpt from the classic children’s tale Pinocchio, undoubtedly selected for its alignment with Common Core reading standards for 6th graders.

While the worksheet cited Project Gutenberg as its source, it didn’t specify exactly which Pinocchio e-book was used. Here’s an excerpt from the worksheet:

“A gentleman–you?” said the fox, and he began to laugh rudely and scornfully. The cat also began to laugh, but to conceal it she combed her whiskers with her forepaws.

“There is little to laugh at,” cried Pinocchio angrily. “I am really sorry to make your mouths water, but if you know anything about it, you can see that here are five gold pieces.”

And he pulled out the money.

At the sympathetic ring of the money, the fox with an involuntary movement stretched out the paw that had seemed injured, and the cat opened wide two eyes that looked like two green lanterns. It is true that she shut them again, and so quickly that Pinocchio saw nothing.

Now here is Question 1 from the worksheet:

1. Read this sentence from the passage and answer the question that follows.

At the sympathetic ring of the money, the fox with an involuntary movement stretched out the paw that had seemed injured, and the cat opened wide two eyes that looked like two green lanterns.

What does this sentence show about the fox and the cat?

  • The are very happy for Pinocchio that he has money
  • They might not be injured and blind, as they pretend to be
  • They have lost their money, and Pinocchio has found it
  • They are really boys, not a fox and a cat

Now here is the same excerpt from the Gutenberg e-book:

“A gentleman—you!” said the Fox, and he began to laugh rudely and scornfully. The Cat also began to laugh, but to conceal it she combed her whiskers with her forepaws.

“There is little to laugh at,” cried Pinocchio angrily. “I am really sorry to make your mouth water, but if you know anything about it, you can see that these are five gold pieces.”

And he pulled out the money that Fire-Eater had given him.

At the jingling of the money the Fox, with an involuntary movement, stretched out the paw that seemed crippled, and the Cat opened wide two eyes that looked like two green lanterns. It is true that she shut them again, and so quickly that Pinocchio observed nothing.

And here is a second version from

“You, a rich man?” said the Fox, and he began to laugh out loud. The Cat was laughing also, but tried to hide it by stroking his long whiskers.

“There is nothing to laugh at,” cried Pinocchio angrily. “I am very sorry to make your mouth water, but these, as you know, are five new gold pieces.”

And he pulled out the gold pieces which Fire Eater had given him.

At the cheerful tinkle of the gold, the Fox unconsciously held out his paw that was supposed to be lame, and the Cat opened wide his two eyes till they looked like live coals, but he closed them again so quickly that Pinocchio did not notice.

So let me see if I have this straight. The author of this worksheet (not my child’s teacher but curriculum “experts” at a well known educational publisher which out of charity I will not name here) decided that “At the sympathetic ring of the money” was an improvement over the original phrase of either “At the jingling of the money” or “At the cheerful tinkle of the gold“?

I seem to remember that “The Cat in the Hat” was originally composed by Theodor Geisel aka Dr Seuss as an effort to include a list of some 50 or so spelling words, so perhaps “sympathetic ring” is merely intended to satisfy some vocabulary requirement. But it is an awful substitute adjective; it makes no more sense than the notorious talking pineapple.

And another thing, in the original text the fox stretches out his supposedly injured paw and the cat opens & closes his eyes, but the sentence that was provided offered only the first and not the second clue to the correct answer. My daughter & I had a talk about that, and I suggested next time she go back to re-read around the sentence in question to see if she can get more information. But dad, she said, it says to read the sentence provided. Indeed it does. And kids her age are going to do exactly that, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it’s a shame my 6th grader needs to be coached on how to parse and read into poorly written test questions. I realize that this was only a practice test, but I have to wonder what the real one will look like, given the precedent that has been set.

This stuff is stressful to kids, and to parents as well if they are paying attention. I really think my kids’ teachers could come up with better reading activities and assessments if the powers that be would let them. But that’s not the world we currently live in.

Algorithmic Education

Any teacher that can be replaced with a computer, deserves to be. -attributed to David Thornburg

This is a favorite quote bandied about by many ed-tech specialists. It suggests that professional educators who cede their teaching responsibilities over to computer software are not doing their jobs.


Photo from Brad Flickinger

The other day, our local school district posted a picture on Facebook of students using iPads. (Please note that I don’t teach there, my connection with the school is that of a parent.) The caption announced that the kids were taking their accelerated reader tests with them.

I should have been excited and supportive that family and friends were given a glimpse of what goes on inside of the classroom. It wasn’t too terribly long ago that my kids’ school was slow to adopt, and I suspect suspicious of the new social media tools. Like most schools, they were (rightly so) cautious about posting pictures of kids online. Now that they have overcome some of that fear and are sharing with us some of the kids’ activities, I really blew it.

Yes, messed up. I couldn’t resist. I saw those kids taking tests on iPads, and my immediate thought was “Looks like a waste of good mobile technology to me.” I debated in my mind whether or not to make a comment like that on the school Facebook page, and ultimately I decided that I wanted to make that statement, so I pushed the “post” button. I wanted the people at my school, along with other parents to know that test-taking on mobile computing devices is perhaps the least imaginative thing that they could possibly be used for in the classroom.

I am very frustrated with how the current experience of school centers on the almighty test. I am very frustrated with the very low levels of digital literacy in our schools. Learning how to type is an important skill, but if the main thing you learn about is word processing and slide show presentations, you are hardly seeing anything but the tip of the iceberg with regard to computing.

I could see the electronic jaws drop as my Facebook comment received replies like “Wow” and “I can’t believe you just said that.” It didn’t take me too long to see the problems with making that statement the way that I did in the place that I did, so I quickly apologized and withdrew my comment.

For starters, there wasn’t a proper context for my comment. It struck like a bolt from out of the blue. Years of frustration were sent out in a single sentence of electronic text. Yes, I do have a deep respect and admiration for the people teaching my kids. They are doing something I sincerely doubt I would ever have the patience to do. Teachers are already so embattled, and my little comment heaped additional hot coals on their already burning heads. They are doing what they can with what they have and I should have respected that more.

However, I know about the amazing potential of the new technologies, and we are barely scratching the surface. When we do acquire something cool like an iPad, we turn to the old standby – test taking. Ugh!

Here’s the thing about an automated system like Accelerated Reader. Yes, it can conform (somewhat) to the interests of readers, providing a bit of individualized instruction. However, as Douglas Rushkoff points out in his book, we must either Program or be Programmed. That is to say, either we understand the basic logic of how computer programs are made, or we are greatly susceptible to the influence of them in our ignorance.

The vast majority of people have no clue when it comes to understanding the inner workings of computers, and that doesn’t appear likely to change. Computer programming, as a school subject, is taught less often today in public schools than it was thirty years ago. (Did you know that the peak percentage of female college graduates in computer programming occurred in 1986?) Yet we turn over large portions of our lives to computers, without even a modest understanding of how they operate.

Computers use an intelligence – the intelligence coded into them by the programmer. You may or may not agree with the parameters of the intelligence of the programs you use, but you are susceptible to them. Most of the time, the parameters are not even directly knowable. But without some background in programming, we have no basis from which to even ask relevant questions.

Take for example, Google’s auto-suggest feature that automatically recommends search terms as you type in the tool bar. Have you ever wondered why that feature is there or how it decides what to put there and in what order? The Google engineers who wrote that feature has a big influence over our internet queries. They also decide what to show in the returning results, which is another huge influence. Having an understanding of computer programming enables us to notice such things, to ask these questions, and to consider alternative practices that may mitigate levels of influence we are not comfortable with.

When a school adopts a technology like Accelerated Reader, it is accepting the embedded intelligence and limitations of the computing environment used as well as that of the technology’s creator. There is nothing wrong with using a tool like Accelerated Reader per se, however I believe we run into trouble when we view such tools as a magic bullet that will solve the problem of promoting reading in the schools. What do we do with a student’s reading interests that fall outside of what is programmed into the system database? For example, most people today do a great deal of their reading from e-mails, websites and blogs. How can Accelerated Reader quantify and measure that sort of reading? In short, it cannot. But forcing a student into the AR box sends a message that the most common form of reading done by adults today has no value.

Another problem I have with AR, and it may just be the way our district implements it, is the rewards system that is used. In general, rewards systems develop and reinforce extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation comes from within and is far more sustainable over the long haul. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, builds up a desire for more and more external rewards, and can even become a source of de-motivation. If you would like a good explanation about the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, there is no better place than Daniel Pink’s book Drive.

So back to our original quote about teachers being replaced by computers. An irreplaceable teacher will use a tool like AR, but continue to teach as situations demand. That teacher will recognize and reward reading of all varieties, not just the kinds of reading that the “system” says are valuable. That teacher will find many creative uses of computing technology for the kids to use, not just using it to electronically administer tests. If the only thing computers are being used for in the classroom is to administer tests, then I stand behind my statement – it is a waste of good technology!

And in case you think I am bagging on the reading teacher, I am not. I’m using this example to illustrate a point. Testing has become so ubiquitous in our educational institutions that the same problem is everywhere. It long been true if it is on the test, it is valuable. If it is not, we can forget about it. That is a sad state of things. We should be experiencing a renaissance in education with all of the technological possibilities that exist, but it seems to me that education is in an ever-tightening straight jacket, constricted by more and more rules, regulations, and tests.

The job of teacher has become less a creative pursuit, and more of a prescriptive one, with the prescriptions for how to do the job coming from further and further away from the classroom. It appears that teachers have lost practically all autonomy in decision making on how to teach their students. As automated systems take a greater role in the teaching environment, teaching could continue to be even less a personalized pursuit. Instead of knowing each student personally, teachers will rely ever more on the system’s recommendations.

I fear this same problem could arise in other professions as well. In healthcare, doctors could be limited in available treatment options by a system that moves decision making far away from the examining room. In general, problems are always best solved by those closest to the problem. In our quest for efficiency and cost savings, we tend to push decision making further away. This may be the less expensive option, but it is never as good as the one to one relationships of teacher and student or doctor and patient.




A new word and a new pope

In case you missed it, the word “selfie” was recently added to the Oxford Dictionaries Online. Selfie is defined as:

a photograph that one has taken of oneself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website

Jeff Miller, blogger-in-chief at The Curt Jester blog posted a picture of the recently elected Pope Francis posing for a “selfie” with a group of young people. Jeff argues that this picture depicts a “groupie” not a “selfie.”

Pope Selfie

I think the picture stored on their cell phone is the “selfie” and this photo of the moment is a picture of a selfie being made. Like everything else being made up on the fly in our digital culture, I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules about who can appear in a selfie, so long as the photographer is in it. Photographers normally don’t appear in their own photos, but new mobile devices typically have a rear-facing camera so one can both view the screen and be in the photo at the same time. Since these devices are everywhere, it is automatic that once in a lifetime events like meeting the pope are documented.

To me, the word “selfie” connotes a self-involved, narcissistic point of view. But, come to think of it, not too many years ago the word “blog” had the same ring to it for me. Blogs don’t have to be narcissistic, nor do selfies. What a joyful moment for those young folks!

25 Things Every Young Professional Should Know by Age 25

I love this list of 25 Things Every Young Professional Should Know by Age 25. My favorite is #20

The days of a college syllabus are long gone. If you’re waiting for someone to give you direction, have a seat. You’ll be there a while.

I am often frustrated by the attitude that my students can’t accomplish anything on their own without clear and explicit directions. Maybe it is simply my own inability to articulate precisely what it is that I want, and maybe it is that I simply want to prepare you for the real world by leaving some things ambiguous. In any case, it is good practice for what lies ahead. In the mean time, I will continue honing my explaining skills to try to meet you in the middle.

Dear TechIntersect…

A student seeking advice writes:

Dear TechIntersect,

Have any of you ever hit a block in your schooling career and are no longer happy with the degree you were once striving to get? What did you all do in order to remedy that? Did you simply change degrees? Go to a different school? Drop out? How did you learn what was right for you that would make you happy in the world of academics?

- Looking For My Place

Dear Looking,

I know this place you are in well. I have changed career paths and college majors many times. It is a frustrating and often soul-crushing experience to have the feeling that you should be doing something else. Indeed, it is the condition that Henry David Thoreau describes:

Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.

The last thing I want for you dear Looking is for you to complete your college experience having your song still left inside of you begging to get out. God has placed within you certain talents and abilities in a unique combination that no other person in the past, present or future will ever have. You were put here for a purpose and it is up to you to explore and develop these gifts by becoming the best version of yourself.

Let’s keep something important in mind here. It’s college. Yes, it is your life right now so you should try to make the best of it while you are in it, but at some point in your life, college will become a distant memory. College is meant to be a formative experience in which you develop new attitudes and insights that will serve you well for the rest of your life.

Some people have the idea that college is where you will learn all of the things you will need to know in your future career. College is a place to learn and grow as a person, but it is only a beginning not an end. Surprisingly, to many employers it doesn’t matter what you major in if you have the right skills and attitudes. The subject matter content learned is less relevant than the foundational concepts you master and carry forward. This requires having an attitude of being a life-long learner. An attitude that no matter what comes my way, I am competent and capable of solving problems that I don’t necessarily know the answer to. That point is the key to your dilemma, Looking. Whatever your major is, if done right, it will expect you to solve problems that you don’t know the answer to when you start. To me, that is the very purpose of attending college, developing that attitude.

Many people wind up doing work outside of their college major. Often this is because they majored in something they love, only to find that the job market has few opportunities available in that particular area. According to a recent Forbes article, most of the college majors that are least likely to have jobs available are found squarely in the arts and humanities. This stands in stark contrast to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math degrees, which are booming.

So what are creative people to do? You are visiting with someone who has always loved the arts, particularly music, theater and the visual arts like drawing and painting. But according to the advisors of my youth, it is very difficult to make a living doing those things, so I chose to train for something more practical, computers. The amazing thing is that the practical thing I do – computers – in recent years has converged with the artistic things I love. Finally, I get to do both and I couldn’t be happier.

I have always advised my students to marry whatever it is they love with computer technology and you can’t go wrong. That technology expertise acts as an insurance policy that insures you will never go hungry. But when the conditions are favorable, you get to do what you love as well. That, in a nutshell, is why I helped to develop the Digital Media Technology degree at Kansas State University – Salina. Now I get to do what I love, and as the program grows I envision that I will be joined by other creative faculty members who will help us to expand in directions we could never imagine.

So back to your original questions about being happy with your major & your life. Happiness comes from attitudes inside of you. Take it from someone who has spent years trying to rearrange external things to be happy; if you depend upon external circumstances to be happy, you will be continually discouraged. There are four levels of happiness, and it is the lowest level that depends on things outside of yourself. The rest come from within. I wrote more about finding happiness a few months ago and I encourage you to take a look at that as well.

My best wishes to you, Looking. I know there is a song inside of you begging to get out. The question is whether or not you will find ways to let it out where you are, or if you will keep looking for better and better places to have that happen.

Thunder Rolls Literal Music Video

My former student Trista Bieberle made this parody music video of The Thunder Rolls as a digital media project. She posted it to YouTube and it amassed over 45,000 views before it was administratively removed. I am not a copyright attorney, but it was my understanding that parody is a protected form of free speech. However, YouTube tends to err in favor of copyright owners, not pranksters trying to have some fun at the copyright owner’s or original artist’s expense. So she uploaded it to Vimeo and shared it tonight, and I am pleased to see it online again. Someday, I will explore further the issues related to Fair Use and Copyright on this blog, but for now why not just enjoy Trista’s fun video and read about how she made it?

The Thunder Rolls – Literal Video from Trista Bieberle on Vimeo.

About the time this video was made, I had come to the realization that I once enjoyed singing, but I rarely sang anymore. So I collaborated with her by singing the vocals. It was fun for me and a wonderful digital media project for her to work on. She had plenty of technical challenges to overcome like removing the original vocals from the music track and mixing my voice into the new song. Then she had to get the sound synched up with the video, and add the subtitles in. But she was up to the task.

It all began with a research assignment I like to call “Working Digitally.” Students are to find a type of work that was not possible to do before computers and the Internet. Trista decided to explore the Literal Music Videos phenomenon. One of the most famous from the genre is a spoof on Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart. (Note, the link doesn’t go to the original video on YouTube, but to a mirror site as this video was also yanked from YouTube.)

Trista decided to try to contact David A Scott, the creator of Total Eclipse Literal Version that was even featured on CNN by making this video:

In a tremendous act of generosity, he kindly responded and answered her questions:

She was then able to put together her questions and his answers into her Working Digitally video project that explains what the heck a literal music video is:

Isn’t that great?

I would suggest that this project represents some of my best teaching work, except all I really do is provide an environment where greatness can happen. You can see some of the other Working Digitally videos on this playlist.


Superhero Proportions

A couple of years ago, an amazing friend from my PLN, Malyn Mawby wrote about her fun Math assignment on the topic of ratios/percentages/fractions using DaVinci’s Vitruvian Man. Her assignment reminded me of what I had learned in art class about drawing people 6 or 7 heads high. Back then, I also learned that comic book heroes are drawn with bodies 8 or even 9 heads high, to make their physique appear more massive.

I left a comment on her original post about this, with a link on Scribd to a page from Christopher Hart’s How to Draw Comic Book Heroes and Villains that describes this concept. Unfortunately, the book was removed for copyright reasons, so I ordered myself an inexpensive used copy of the book, and scanned the pages in myself. (The copy I received appears to be brand-new, and the book itself is really awesome!)

human proportions
human proportions

For example, consider the Incredible Hulk (as opposed to the Credible Hulk, which is a topic of discussion for another day.)

Hulk stands six heads tall, but he is always hunched over. If he would just stand upright, he could easily add a seventh head to his height. But alas, it isn’t easy carting all of that bulk around, fighting against gravity all of the time.

Spiderman & Superman are both seven heads tall.
And this drawing of Batman shows him nearly 8 heads tall.
And look, even Wonder Woman is 8 heads tall. I guess the standard holds for female superheroes as well.

I think this would be a really fun assignment in a math class. Get pictures of superheroes. Measure the hero’s head, and find out what percentage of the whole body is the head. What is the ratio of head to entire body? Which heroes have the most exaggerated proportions? It might even be fun to send kids home to take pictures of the adults they live with to see how their head to body proportions measure up with the superheroes.