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.




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.

The Art of the Video Reply

Two years ago, when I began searching for students and classrooms on YouTube, I was amazed at the amount of sharing that was happening, often times without any adult knowledge or assistance. Even more amazing to me are the teachers who do make videos inside their classrooms and share with the world. Taking risks in education in the current climate is typically frowned upon, and in the most drastic situations can even result in teachers who do so losing their jobs.

But I think that teachers who are working on digital literacies with kids should be recognized and applauded. It is not easy putting yourself out there. Every once in a while I like to connect with these kids who are engaged and learning about life in the digital age. One group of kids I can always count on for having something fun and interesting to watch is the students of Linda Yollis, and this past week they did not disappoint. Have a look at their fun Valentine’s Day video:

Teachers who do projects like this despite the risks know what is good for their students, and they know what they are doing. The best ones secure buy-in from administrators and parents before proceeding. Better to educate and inform all of the stakeholders ahead of time than to try to explain or even apologize after doing something with kids online.

I was a little disappointed that comments were disabled on Mrs Yollis’ classroom video, but I completely understand that as a management decision. I would never recommend letting comments to a classroom YouTube channel belonging to children appear unmoderated. However, with comments disabled, it is not possible to do a video reply directly through YouTube, so I had to tweet a link to this video to Mrs Yollis, hoping she’ll see it and share it with her students if she sees fit to do so.

I think the video reply is an important and somewhat little-known aspect of internet video culture. The conversation proceeds along these lines. Someone has something to say and posts it on YouTube. Someone else sees the original video, and rather than leaving a text based comment, they reply using the same medium of internet video. Because this reply is left as a comment, the original video maker will be immediately notified, and others watching the conversation can see it play out as well.

One of my all time favorite video replies was made by YouTube user Mikeleh in response to a very popular video in education circles called An Open Letter to Educators. If you’ve not seen it before, it is worth a look…

It is an interesting perspective, and I sometimes share it with my own college students as a conversation starter about their own educational experience. But more interesting to me was the funny and wise reply by Mikeleh. In it he dismantles several of the original author’s statements, and gives us a very astute explanation of some of the changes occurring in the digital age.

I think the video reply is so important I suggested it as a DS106 Daily Create assignment that appeared yesterday. There were only a few takers on this particular Daily Create challenge, but I’m glad it made it in the cycle. If you don’t know what Daily Create is, it is a daily challenge that exercises your creativity.

If you do YouTube for yourself, or with students, you might consider the possibilities of the Art of the Video Reply.


Networks Have Layers

I redid the sound track on this scene from Shrek, to have Shrek explain the OSI model to Donkey. Networks are like onions – they have layers.

I enjoy doing voice work like this. I would like to do a whole series of scenes that could be used in a technology class, but I’ve never given this much thought. I should brainstorm about it.

Do you have any ideas of scenes I could do in computer and technology classes?

Perry’s Levels of Development

I first learned about William Perry’s
Scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Development
at a Wakonse Conference on College Teaching. Although I am now aware they exist, I’m not sure that I yet do a good job of considering them while teaching. This blog post will share the basics as well as reflect on ways they can be considered and utilized. If you work with students, maybe you will recognize some of these.

The first level is dualism. Knowledge is received and everything is black and white. Every answer is either right or wrong, and the teacher is the authority that will help the student to know what the right answers are. Does this sound familiar? It does to me. It seems that many college freshmen arrive with this mentality. Just give me the right answer, and I’ll give it back to you. The thinking at this stage fits well for the majority of what we experience as education. Find the right answer, score well on the exam, and both teacher and student did their job.

The next level is multiplicity. Knowledge is subjective and everyone’s opinion is of equal value. I’ve experienced this with students, particularly when working in non-technical areas such as visual literacy assignments. This drawing, this photograph is good for me; the teacher disagrees, but that is just his opinion.

The next level is relativism. Knowledge is relative to the context, and there are certain procedures to follow. As long as we follow the procedures, it doesn’t really matter what we think and learn.

The highest level is commitment. Knowledge is constructed at this level. We’ve bought in, and we are learning because we love it or at least find it interesting, not because someone is coercing or manipulating us into learning.

One thing that can be expected is resistance or “push-back” when we challenge our students to move to the next level. If we are doing our job as educators, we are challenging our students and their accepted systems of belief. It is an uncomfortable position to be in, and to some extent even as a doctoral student I feel this friction myself between doing what is comfortable and moving to where I need to be. That’s one of the great advantages of being a student myself; I usually have no problem at all feeling empathy for where students are, and try my best to give them support as they struggle through the different levels.

In the book, “What the Best College Teachers Do,” by Ken Bain, he notes that the best teachers excel at knowing where students are within these levels of development, and how best to help them at each level. (pp43-44) Those at the dualism (received knowers) level should be encouraged to be precise in their thinking (what are the key facts and definitions?). Those at multiplicity (subjective knowers) should be challenged to use evidence and reason in their thinking. Those within relativism could be asked about their values and the implications of their conclusions.

At the highest level – commitment – Bain cites Blythe M. Clinchy’s “separate knowers” and “connected knowers.” Separate knowers will try to remain detached and objective with ideas, while connected knowers remain connected and deliberately biased but are willing to consider the merits of other ideas as well.

What is interesting to me is that these levels are not necessarily universal, and can vary according to interests and abilities. For example, students could be dualists in mathematics yet committed learners in music.

Bain also says that the best teachers respond to these differences with sympathy and understanding, recognizing

that students may experience feelings of resentment and hostility when they discover the truth does not reside in the heads of their teachers. They were familiar with the stages of intellectual transition and so understood when students responded strongly and viscerally to ideas and questions professors take for granted.

The most successful teachers expect the highest levels of development from their students. They reject the view of teaching as nothing more than delivering correct answers to students and learning as simply remembering those deliveries. They expect expect their students to rise above the category of received knowers, something they reflect in the way they teach and assess their students. They even draw clear distinctions between those students who “do the discipline” for the sake of the class (the procedural knowers) and those students whose ways of thinking and drawing conclusions are permanently transformed. (Bain, pp45)

I was reflecting on these different levels today, and experiences I have had with various students in recent years in my computer networking course. One student I had was a procedural knower. She was a straight A student, and was an expert at “playing the game” of school. In teaching the computer networking course over the years, I have finally abandoned requiring a textbook in favor of having students constructing and recording our knowledge in a class wiki. That simply would not do with this particular student. She needed a textbook as an authoritative source of information. How do you know all of the information in the textbook is correct? I asked. As our professor, you are supposed to pick a correct textbook, was her reply. Little does she know that few professors agree with 100% of the information provided in the textbooks that are used. In this particular course, after a decade of looking, I still haven’t found a book I am pleased to have my students purchase. I think we can find the information we need for the course for free online. But I relented and told her of the networking textbook that was on reserve in the library that we used to use as a required text, and she was happy.

I had another student who struggled in nearly all of his classes as an English as a Second Language student. He didn’t write well. He didn’t take tests well. But he was engaged in our class discussions. I saw him leading others in our lab activities and class simulations. He could solve the networking problems that were being posed to him. I believe he was a committed, connected learner. He barely passed the course, but if I were hiring a new IT person to work on my computer network, I would take the ESL student over the A student any day. The A student will likely never love computer networks – she told me so herself, but the ESL student was immersed in it. As teachers, all we can do is try to communicate our love and passion for our discipline. And love our students where they are.




Media Literacy of College Students

I’m reading a dissertation called, “MEDIA CREATION AND THE NET GENERATION: COMPARING FACULTY AND STUDENT BELIEFS AND COMPETENCIES REGARDING MEDIA LITERACY WITHIN HIGHER EDUCATION” by Hans Schmidt. It’s pretty fascinating to me because much of it confirms what I have personally experienced and have long suspected about so-called “Digital Natives” who are supposed to be experts in communicating with technology. He writes:

Despite the perception that today’s college students are digital natives, individuals of this generation typically lack the media creation competencies that are an important dimension of overall media literacy. Additionally, data suggest that, despite the perception that students should be learning about media creation, they currently rarely learn about this aspect of media literacy at the college level.” (Schmidt, H. 2010)

A year or so ago, I remember discussing this very phenomenon with Michael Wesch and we both agreed that it’s a mistake to assume that all young people are competent communicators in digital media. The ones that we take note of are indeed adept in their media savviness, but they are outliers, not truly representative of the entire population of the millenial or net-generation. Some young people are doing amazing things with technology, but most are picking the low-hanging fruit of social media tools like Facebook.

I remember Mike emphasizing how important these digital media skills are to people living immersed in a digital environment, yet we continue leaving them to specialists. We don’t teach video-making as a necessary skill to all college students. Only certain majors are likely to ever have a video project required, yet digital online video is a huge part of almost every college student’s life.

I’m sure that our conversation came shortly on the heels of my first reading Elizabeth Daley’s paper on Expanding the Concept of Literacy, and I suddenly realized how these new media tools that I’ve long been fascinated with are actually the new tools of literacy. I was glad to see in this dissertation that Schmidt agrees with us.

Competencies associated with media literacy need to be possessed by everyone today, just as competencies associated with print literacy should be held, not just by professional writers and editors, but rather by the entire population. (Schmidt, H. 2010)

I decided to take a little break and jot down this blog post while I’m thinking about these things. Also during my break, I found this little animation, obviously made by a “digital native” who does have some skill in video-making through animation. I had to watch it several times, it made me laugh so hard.

So are the majority of your students making videos? Are they skillful at photography, graphics software, or other digital media? Or are they like what others and myself have experienced, with a few being extremely talented but the majority limited in what they can do? I think it’s really critical that we teach this stuff to all students, so I have digital media projects in all of my classes, including the non-digital media courses I teach.

***Edit*** Not two minutes after I posted this, a google alert came in telling me about a new HuffPo article entitled, “College Students and the Cacophony of Noise“.

Media and Technology Literacy must become a major part of every, single elementary-age curriculum. Teachers, parents, and politicians have to make an extra effort to explain that these machines are supposed to clarify information and not act as the prime movers and shakers for critical thinking.

I sense a new movement for media literacy forming!

Power of Playback Theatre

During the break, I took my first ever intersession course. I have often wondered how much can actually be accomplished in only a couple of weeks. Let me assure you, quite a lot can be accomplished in that short of a time with the right instructor and the right motivated students.

I had been talking with Sally Bailey, a Kansas State University professor in theatre and drama therapy about possibilities of incorporating elements of drama into my technology courses. She suggested I try the Playback Theatre course, a drama therapy course that emphasizes improv storytelling, so I signed up to audit the course. I also encouraged my digital media students to take the class since it would count as a humanities elective towards their degree. Playback Theatre was offered in Manhattan, Kansas and our campus is 70 miles away in Salina, Kansas so I didn’t expect many takers. However, one of my students actually did take it with me and it was a wonderful experience.

It didn’t occur to me right away that I had some prior experience with improv theatre in high school. I completely forgot that I went to the Kansas state forensics tournament in “Improvised Duet Acting” as a high schooler, but that was many years ago. In recent years I have also participated in three improv murder mysteries, but when I showed up in the course that first day the tension was palpable. I really felt out of my element.

Most of the students were theatre majors, and most had little experience with improvisation. Improv is really quite different from working with a script. I did see many similarities between what is required of an improv actor and being a classroom teacher. We always have to think on our feet, and respond to the unexpected.

We had four days of preparation before our first performance, not including the readings we did as a class in advance in online meetings. I should say the other students had four days; I had to miss a day which really hurt my understanding of how things were going to work. But I just followed along, and my classmates were really good about getting me up to speed.

There were three basic forms our improvisations took, the fluid sculpture, the narrative “V” and a long form story. The day I missed, they covered the details of the long form story and it took me a while to catch on. The fluid sculpture is basically a sculpture in motion, as a group, each actor responds to a word or phrase given from the audience. Here is a video example of a fluid sculpture. The narrative “V” is where the actors stand in a “V” shape (think geese flying in a “V”) and the lead actor does some expressive movements, along with some narration, while those upstage actors follow along with the leader. Here is an example of narrative “V”.

Forms of Playback.

The long form story is the most complex. After working through the shorter versions of improv storytelling, the audience is ready for a longer story. The “conductor,” in our case it is our professor Randy Mulder of  The Village Playback Theatre in New York,  does the interview and draws the story out from the story teller, helping to cast the actors into the story and giving the narrative some structure. The long form can also require a larger group of performers needed onstage.

Improv really takes a lot of focus and concentration to get it right. Living in our digital world, these are traits I believe we need now more than ever. In the beginning, I continually felt myself drifting away as a storyteller would tell their tale. Not good. You won’t be able to play this back if you don’t get the details down right, I would tell myself. As time went on, I found that I could concentrate longer and not be distracted as easily. I suspect if I continue practicing and performing with the playback theatre troupe, my concentration will continue to improve.

A Student’s Perspective

During our break between performances, we were running through what went poorly, what we could fix, etc. The changes were beginning to overwhelm me. What do you think about dropping the planned form, fluid or narrative V, and just going with your gut? asks the professor. I start grumbling, these changes are too much. Randy sternly says, Bill, stay positive. It’s overwhelming, I say. Here is why I am suggesting this change, he says, and he explains his rationale. I start to breathe again, that won’t be so bad, I think.

I’ve just had another student experience, instead of my usual teacher perspective. That’s one of the benefits of taking a class every now and then, so you don’t forget what it’s like to be a student. I really enjoyed watching Randy teach. The lesson I learned here is when a student is resisting, it might be because they don’t understand what you are trying to accomplish and you need to explain further to re-establish trust.

Taking a risk, doing something a little outside of my nomal comfort zone is what taking this class was all about. Of course, I wanted to learn more about storytelling and I did, but mostly it was about stretching, improving, and learning some new things to help me be a better teacher. Hopefully, my efforts in this class will pay off in spades and we’ll see the benefits in the classes I teach.

Here is one other example of the “out of the box thinking” I experienced through working with this class. I noticed the folding tables of the classroom we were meeting in. We folded them up and created a large acting space we could use. I commented that my classrooms would never give this much space as we had non-folding tables. Randy said he would just flip one table onto another table and slide everything to the side. That’s brilliant, I thought. I never would have considered doing that. I have a computer class with plenty of active learning. In one review exercise, I have them milling around the room, with printed cards of terms & definitions they must know. Our space in the room is tight because of all of the tables, and it doesn’t work very well. Now I’m going to have them do the “flip and slide maneuver” and give us a lot more space. It will create a big spectacle, and send home the message we are about to do something very important, and very fun. I can’t wait to try it!

 Exploring the Room Exercise

In one exercise, we were invited to explore, communicate and interact with our classroom environment. It was a lot of fun, almost like Kindergarten. People were talking to the walls, the floor, the whiteboard, the chairs, even the air. We played on the musical instruments we found. People were crawling on the floor, it was chaotic but fascinating. However, I had just learned I was going to have to drop out of the class, so I just walked around the room sort of in a daze. I later wrote these paragraphs about the exercise on the class message board:

At the time, I didn’t really know why I did it, it just happened. I came to class yesterday with the knowledge that it would likely be my last day with you all and it made me very sad. I was, and still am in a situation that I have almost no control over. Unconsciously, I said a lot in that room exercise about how I was feeling.

I started out wandering aimlessly, but soon found myself scratching the blackboard with my fingernails. I don’t remember ever doing that in my life before. I knew the sound is obnoxious, but I don’t think I ever made that sound myself. Finally, I was regaining some control, unpleasant as it was, as I watched the group’s negative reaction to the sound. Pretty infantile, really. Definitely a reversion to childhood tactics of gaining attention when I was hurting.

Then I looked for and found a place to hide. I explored the acoustics under the table. I used to do this as a kid too. Hide in a closet. Under a bed. In the toolshed when the babysitter wasn’t aware. She’d spend hours looking for me. It was another way to gain some control in a life out of my control.

But I didn’t want to waste the day. I thought about quitting the class after coming home Thursday and learning I would likely not be able to continue with the performances. What’s the point of continuing? But I decided to come back and make the best of it. I’m not a quitter. I couldn’t stay hidden under the table. I had to press on, stay involved.

Shortly after my re-emergence, I noticed those chairs that had been halphazardly placed were now neatly aligned. That would never do. Someone had taken pains to put them like that. I could make some noise by flinging them into the center of the room. At first, it was like the chalkboard noise. Annoy, get some control. I even purposefully dropped people’s belongings off of chairs that I wanted, to see if there would be a reaction.

But then I realized that I could make a really cool sculpture out of these chairs. I could show the “order” people that chaos can also be beautiful. I wanted to pile them up to the ceiling, making them jut out in odd juxtaposition. The artist in me was kicking in. I wanted to do something over the top and amazing. Something that said: I enjoyed my brief time with you so much; please don’t forget about me.

I wish I had made a picture of what happened next. I did pile up around 15-20 chairs in a “sculpture form.” Several people were really surprised by my sculpture. One student walked around it muttering, “this is against the rules… this is against the rules…” Another decorated it with brightly colored fabric. When it was all over, people were curious about why it was made, but I wasn’t ready to talk about it. It took me a day to come up with the written explanation that continues:

loved the post-discussion and everyone’s reaction to the chairs. How Sarah had to “become one” with the sculpture to tolerate it’s presence. How Trecena was at first unsettled by how her neatly aligned chairs were moved and repurposed, but she grew to accept it and even added a dash of color to it. How Ross (wasn’t it Ross?) was so involved in other things that one moment the floor was empty and the next moment – boom- it was there!

This is why we are all artists and performers, isn’t it? To both offer an expression of ourself, and to take in the response of others?

As it worked out, the family emergency that would force me to drop out of the class was being resolved differently so I was able to return to the class for the performance days. And what wonderful experiences those would prove to be.

The Prison

Our first actual performance was at a women’s prison in Topeka. First we took a really long tour of the facility that included minimum, medium, and maximum security areas. Since most of the class had not ever been inside of a prison before, it was pretty fascinating. I remarked to Randy that the minimum security area reminded me more of a school than a prison. He said they even refer to the area as a campus, and the housing as dormitories.

My only other experience of being inside of a jail was when I was temporarily assigned as a guard in my ship’s brig back when I was in the Navy. It is an unsettling experience, even for a guard, knowing that you can’t come and go as you please. I also felt that being on a ship deployed at sea was something like being in a prison, in that you couldn’t leave even if you wanted to. There were times during the 1991 Gulf War when I might go for days without seeing daylight. I wasn’t sure that my analogy was even close to their experience until one of our early short-form stories, when an inmate shared her happiness at receiving two letters from home. I knew that feeling! I was a sailor before the days of e-mail. One of the greatest delights were those delicious words – “Mail Call!” I shouted them out, dancing around in our fluid sculpture, and the audience roared their approval. We connected! I knew how they felt, and they knew it!

The thing that I was most struck by in the prison was the genuine empathy and concern shown by the mental health professionals working there. You could tell that they really cared.

The High School

Our second day of performing was at a local high school, for three drama classes. The most dramatic & powerful experience of any acting performance I’ve ever given happened in this unforgettable long-form story:

Kyle (not his real name), an 11th grader, described developing friendships in Tennessee over a six year period of time and how difficult it was to move. He was in his current school in Kansas for four years, and became distraught as he revealed to us and his classmates that this would be his last year at this school. He talked about being a military dependent, always moving every few years, and how difficult it was to make friends. As he told us a bit about his personality, it was just as described in our textbook; I knew he would pick me to play him because I had also moved a great deal and found it difficult to make friends on each new move. I didn’t particularly want a lead role, I was content to be a supporting character, but as he told his story, I knew I was the person for the job. How he was able to choose me for the role, I don’t know, but it was almost telepathic. Randy says it always happens when actors listen with empathy to the teller’s story. Somehow, some way, the teller knows who will be the best person for the part. It felt like a scene from the Twilight Zone when it happened to me. It was surreal and almost eerie.

When the play began, I could have begun instantly as I already knew how to play the role. However, I simply waited for a time to allow the other performers to think and prepare. I walked on the stage, and began my monologue, and the other actors just played off of me. I described my feelings of unfairness at the situation, how hard it was to make friends, how everyone thought I was weird, how just as I started to fit in, I would be uprooted once again. Now, as an 11th grader, I was going to be asked to move again, to finish my last year of high school in a strange new place. I completely knew how to play the role, because I had lived it. The only thing I didn’t personally experience was moving in my 12th grade year. At least I was permitted to attend all four years of high school in the same school. bu I knew how crushing of a blow it must have been for this young man.

The other students were shocked when he revealed that he would be leaving. Most were unaware that this was weighing heavily on his heart. Some of the students had been treating him badly. I even heard some digs and disparaging comments from classmates while he was telling his story. You could tell that while he was mostly accepted, he wasn’t terribly popular or well-regarded.

So while I’m telling the story, I’m feeling his anguish myself and I have to fight back real tears. Looking back now, I probably should have just let them loose. When I was 17, I would have undoubtedly cried and it was only my hardened, 40-something self that was able to contain them. There was nothing fake or disingenuous in my performance, because I wasn’t really playing a role, I had already lived it and was just playing it back. I felt so badly for him, and I know I felt what he felt. By this time, the audience, and many of the cast members are also in tears. It was easily the best acting performance of my life.

I left the stage emotionally drained, relieved that my group’s set was finished. I couldn’t believe what had just happened and was grateful to have some time to process & recuperate. Our post-performance comments kept returning to this particular story. I don’t tell you all of this to boast or to try to convince you that I’m some kind of wonderful performing artist, but merely to drive home the point of how powerful the medium of playback theatre is, and also so I never forget the lessons myself.

Lessons learned

Here are some things I learned about improv that I think I can use in my teaching:

  1. Don’t second guess yourself. If you’re feeling it’s right, just go with it!
  2. Exude confidence. Lack of confidence ruins the story and the audience’s faith in your ability to do the job.
  3. When you screw up, don’t let on that you’ve screwed up. Think Pee Wee Herman’s bicycle crash- “I meant to do that!
  4. Asking questions implies there is a right & wrong answer. Making statements and affirmations gives them a chance to confirm or deny that you are understanding what they are saying.
  5. Be an intense listener and really care about what they are saying.
  6. There is nothing more powerful than a story.

Can you imagine a computer technology professor putting this sort of knowledge to use in technology classes? How strange, how wonderful! That’s why I do it. A few years ago, I made a decision that life is too short to be too uptight about what others think of me. Of course, as a kid, I struggled with having few friends and behaving in ways that nobody appreciated. There has to be a healthy balance between going your own way without regard for others, and between conforming yourself to social norms that might make you fit in better, but also inhibit you from being yourself. So I began to sing more and to get involved in things like theatre more because those were things I enjoyed as a kid and knew I would enjoy them as an adult. I went two decades without those things in my life, but I’m glad I’ve brought them back into the mix. I’m happier, and I believe a little better now for doing it.



P.S. – For an entire book about how the attributes that make you an oddball as a youth will become the very attributes that make you sought after as an adult, please read The Geeks Will Inherit the Earth by Alexandra Robbins. The book really resonated with me, and I hope Kyle will get the chance to read it someday as well.


Bill O’Reilly on mobile technology in the classroom

Watch this segment from the O’Reilly Factor on Cyberbaiting Teachers and let’s discuss…

While I’m glad to see main stream media giving the subject attention, it probably goes without saying that Bill O’Reilly is confused on this issue of “cyberbaiting”. He thinks that banning cameras and cell phones from the classroom will solve the problem. That’s a band-aid solution, treating the symptom instead of the disease.

Most people are simply not aware that digital media technologies are the new tools of literacy and self-expression. Banning digital tools forces kids to learn to negotiate using those tools on their own, and that is wrong. It is ignoring the main issue, which is about empathy and respect for other human beings.

I think cyberbaiting is a form of cyberbullying, only aimed at the teacher. Most schools have anti-bullying policies that could effectively deal with this situation when it occurs.

One thing that O’Reilly gets right in this piece is that we always need to consider the context. The first thing I ask myself when I see a teacher in a video going berserk is “what happened in that room before the recording began?” I’ve been writing and giving talks on this issue for a couple of years now. Teachers really need to know what is possible, and what is already being done. A good place to start is my documentary of YouTube in the Classroom, seen below:

Teachers need to know whenever students are acting out and provoking a response, there is a good chance it is all being recorded, and if it is interesting enough it will wind up being published on the internet, with or without the teacher’s knowledge or consent. If we included more digital media in our various curriculums, the issues around surreptitious recording, privacy, respect, and so forth could be addressed.

As it stands for most students, they are simply told to put the camera/phones away and don’t use them. Phones are viewed a distraction to getting an education. In my opinion, they should be at the center of getting an education because they touch on the very relevant issues of what it means to be a human being in the 21st century.