media literacy: a quick introduction

Our school had a professional development half day in which teachers organized mini-workshops on any given topic. As I had been sent to the Media Literacy Conference last November, I was asked to present.

I had a dozen staff members, everyone from kindergarten teachers and lower school instructional assistants to upper school math and science teachers, and I had no idea what the collective media experience would be, so I took a very general approach. Here's what I went through:

As it turned out, the group was reasonably media-savvy -- everyone could claim some sort of productive participation, from blogging to posting YouTube videos to being active in chat rooms. One of the maths teachers is an active contributor to Wikipedia, and one of the assistants has been active at Thorn Tree for a decade. They both had a chance to talk about what they did and why they did it, which was fun.

During and after my presentation, we had an interesting conversation. Here are some highlights:

  • They found the the Harry Potter/fanfic/HP Alliance example impressive (as did I when Henry Jenkins presented about it), and they came up with several other examples of online communities making a difference, including Facebook users in Egypt and (hilariously ) Regretsy.

  • The New Media Literacies are fascinating, and we talked about lining them up with our MYP Approaches to Learning.

  • The perception that online relationships and communities were unhealthy replacements for face-to-face relationships came up. Most of us agreed that online relationships were usually additional to face-to-face relationships rather than a replacement, and the image of a lonely nerd in a basement was somewhat mythical. (My own sense is that people who successfully maneuver online communities usually have the skills to do so in their local communities as well.)

  • After looking at Shelly Blake-Plock's paperless Geography exam, which everybody loved, we had an interesting chat about the changing role of 'facts' in education; we decided that while knowing the facts wasn't important in the way it was twenty years ago, it's worth saying that knowing a few facts makes the synthesis and analysis of ideas faster and easier than looking everything up all the time. Being able to place events within a historical context is easier if one knows a few dates, for instance.

  • There was some talk about the marketing and commercialism that lies behind many social networking sites, and it is an aspect that sometimes gets overlooked.

  • There was interest in having teachers give each other training in media literacy. One staff member volunteered to demonstrate the intricacies of Facebook privacy settings next week.

  • Q: 'What about attention spans?' A: 'Maybe long attention spans are not as valuable as they once were, except to get through school.' (See this.)

  • We discussed at length the problems faced by educators in a culture of collaboration. I'm not sure we came to any conclusions, but it seems that the manner in which we examine students per the expectations of universities contradicts the realities of many aspects of a participatory culture.


who needs textbooks? war poem presentations

I do a quick unit on war poetry (partly as a follow-up to All Quiet on the Western Front). I put together a small collection of World War One poets for modeling and practice, and then I give them a chance to go find their own war poems for presentations.

For less-confident students, I suggest doing poems by the same authors we read in class, but most students go off to look at other poets, some using links I give them to get started. The range is exciting. Here's this year's list:

The presentations went fairly well. This kind of close-reading is a new skill, and they all at least had the right idea. This year I had a specific day on which I checked annotated poems and that paid off. I need to focus more or oratory competency skills, and some kids would benefit from a lectern I think.

On a side note, the PowerPoints were less offensive than usual, and several of them were actual artful and nice to look at. Way to go IT teacher!


nature writing: the winter visit

With my grade 7 class, I've been doing nature writing throughout the year, visiting a nearby forest between our other units. I developed the idea after having read The Alphabet of Trees: A Guide to Nature Writing, a collection of essays on nature writing experiences with students. I have consciously avoided giving the project any kind of slant, environmental or otherwise, instead focusing the experience of sitting alone in a forest and reflecting about what it is like to be there. We have collected some techniques in our literary studies -- imagery, simile, connotation, syntax choices -- and there has been some experimentation, including writing monologues from the point of view of trees and the use of some poetic techniques.

Students are given a specific task during the visit -- something to encourage observation and/or reflection -- and an assignment is due a few days later. Before we did the first one, I gave out some quotations about nature for us to reflect upon, did some in-class practice with landscape photographs and gave them  a sample of my own. We did one in August for summer and one in October for autumn: last week was the winter visit.


music of 2010

Last year, some students were debating the best albums of 2009 and asked me what I had liked, and I made a list which I emailed around. (Wasn't there even a mix cd made?) I was approached last week to do the same thing for 2010, and I've posted it here.

I am not claiming that these are the best albums or songs of 2010: these are the songs that were released this year that I liked. I have particular tastes and so the exclusion of swathes of genres should not be seen as a condemnation or even criticism, but should be taken with the realization that I am a guy of a certain age with small children in my house. I suppose some would call my taste in music folksy, but I prefer organic.

So, in alphabetical order:


book sale

photo0282, originally uploaded by mnkilmer.

One of the issues of living abroad is limited access to English books. Of the bookstores in town (and probably in the country), but only the downtown Akateeminen can be counted on for a full selection in English, and there one pays dearly imported books: paperbacks cost 12-15€. (I don't begrudge the Finnish books the shelf space or the price protection -- keeping a publishing industry going with only 5 million language users requires some sacrifice.) Helsinki has great second-hand bookshops, but they tend to have odd selections of English books -- lots of Leon Uris and Dick Francis. I go to London once or twice a year and stock up (Foyle's, Daunt, Oxfam) and the city library has a great English selection, but I also take advantage of the annual Akateeminen book sale. They have a catalog of books to choose from, including about 50 in English. This this year's lot, about 5€ each.

I've read The Bell Jar before but it was for school, and Androids I read when I was quite young and I'd like to have it even for reference. They all go into The Stack.


experiments in newspeak

Photo0280, originally uploaded by mnkilmer.

I was away today and had to leave a note for my grade 12 classes (IBD2). I wrote these instructions for them and posted them on the door. It says that I am absent and they should do the analysis work on the board. (It was a few quick discussion questions and a Google Docs page for collaborative note taking.)


New Year's Day

photo0273, originally uploaded by mnkilmer.

In the park near our house. The snow is beautiful but sometimes feels like it is taking over the planet.