A Great Literary Loss

Yesterday, January 27, 2008, I heard the news that America lost one of its cultural icons, and I lost my favorite author, John Updike. John Updike succumbed to lung cancer the day before. Much of Mr. Updike’s work would not be considered appropriate for school reading, but he could tell a story. His works, along with those of John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, and Jack Kerouac brought me back into reading for pleasure. I have read most of his novels and copies of his books hold prominent placement in my personal library. I own a few copies of his compilations of short stories and poetry, but I make it a point not to read much poetry for reasons that would seem bizarre to many, but not a subject for this entry.

To refocus myself…I realized after my undergraduate years that I stopped reading for enjoyment; I usually read books on history and politics, since I majored in Social Studies education. Most of my reading included note taking and referencing facts for later use in the classroom. The works of the previously listed authors brought me back to reading for the shear enjoyment of it. The desire to be well rounded culturally also played a role, but the works of those literary giants made my task one of enjoyment.

Many people can put words on a page, but John Updike was one of the few that could make the words come to life. Reading his work was like watching a movie in one’s mind. Vivid imagery of towns, people, and their actions played out as if they were being witnessed in the flesh rather than read off of a page. You were in the town he was writing about, witnessing the events, hanging out with “Rabbit” Angstrom and his dysfunctional family.

My best friend’s mother works at a local library where I grew up. Her book club read one of Mr. Updike’s novels, time has rendered the specific title into a forgotten section of my memory, but it is not important. After reading the novel, the book club sent a letter to Mr. Updike. He replied with a humorous note thanking them for their interest in his work and quest for “finding the great American Novel.”  He also added in a relaxed and what sounded to me in humorous fashion, and this is a paraphrase, that maybe he already wrote it, but it was not recognized as of yet. To me, that letter was the neatest thing, and further cemented my appreciation for his work.

The one thing my friends and I noticed was Mr. Updike’s picture inside the book jackets. The interpretation is just what we thought, and we may be totally incorrect, but this is what we noticed. His early books showed a confident, if not cocky, young man who seemed as if he knew the world was his to conquer. The pictures evolved, into a man around my current age, 40-ish, holding on to youth. I forget which book it is, and do not want to wake everyone up digging through my library, but this John Updike is pictured on a tennis court, ready to return a serve, not so youthful, but still full of vigor. I thought it odd to place that type of picture inside a book jacket. The pictures then became an even older John Updike, gray, smiling, seemingly content and relaxed with his accomplishments in life. As a “Twenty-something” at the time, I saw the progression of man that I did not truly appreciate until now.

I am no longer a youthful figure, but I still lead an active life. One day I hope to reach the age and stage of life where I can look back and reflect on my life content with what I have accomplished. John Updike was a literary giant in my eyes and an model to the stages of life in the minds of my friends and I. The loss to the literary and cultural world is great with his passing, but fortunately his works will live on.

Fireside Reflections

The recently completed “Fireside Chat” project seemed to be a success. It will need a few tweaks for next year as the “State of the Union Project” but things went well overall. My students procrastinated in a big way and many were afraid of Audacity as a program to use.

Once the sat down and used it they were amazed at how easy it was to create their assignments. Most were looking forward to creating more assignments this way, which they will have the opportunity to do.

I had a large number of students use webcams or cell phones to create their projects which was fine, I learned a lot about the cell technology from them. The technology will be another form they can use if their do not have access to updated computer technology.

The major change will be to set a cut-off date for helping them record in school. It will be especially important if CFF funds are cut off next year, since that would probably not give me any free time to work with students one on one. I can help them turn in projects the day they are due, but recording must be completed in advance.

Overall, the students did seem to enjoy creating a project like this rather than writng an essay. Most of the projects were of a good quality, only a few were “ast minute just to hand something in” types of projects, which unfortunately occurs with any type of project.

From Total Frustration to a Lesson Learned

Normally a post on this topic would be classified as a Rant, but I am adapting, so we will call it a lesson learned.

Last Monday, October 6, 2008, we had an in-service day in my district. We had grandiose plans, at least for us, to live stream our in-service training out to the Internet. The theory was that this would spark interest in our faculty and be great practice for some of our future plans.

I test broadcast over uStream.tv the week before in preparation for Monday’s event, all worked well. I advertised heavily on Twitter, posted to uStream.tv, and e-mailed most of my contact list in Outlook to get people to view in on Monday. Sunday night I was testing out a new USB microphone to get around an lack of audio when using my digital camcorder to stream video. That worked well and in the process I found that if I used IE instead of FF 3, my camcorder worked well with sound, BONUS!

Come Monday, I was ready, I made a few minor adjustments to my presentation, and headed out to a quick lunch. Before leaving we hit a minor snag, we had to override the network block on uStream and upload a patch to a colleague’s desktop for him to stream in from his room. No problem, we have done that before and I would be back with 45 minutes to spare before the presentation. During lunch however I was called several times in ten minutes, plans were changing and things were going wrong.

I returned to us scrapping the big uStream showing and just working with a minor in-house demo, because we thought I had the only computer capable of streaming in the district, and it was my own from home. I was getting angry, the thought in my mind was how had the last tech admin let us get so far behind. Our new director was letting us run with ideas and giving us the freedom to experiment with using new technology in the classroom, but hwo could we with the hardware we have?

Not at all happy with the plans being downsized I set up my laptop for the mini-broadcast, but figured I at least knew I would have to rely on my own equipment until the CFF hardware came in. I logged in to uStream and tried my colleague’s show, no luck. He has not broadcast anything yet, so I went to my next plan, have him broadcast over one of my channels.

I logged in and tried to broadcast…nothing. My channel was there, unblocked, but the broadcast pop up was blank. Total panic in the streets occurred at this point; we had started the second half of the in-service early and we had around 60 teachers upstairs awaiting this live stream.

Needless to say, we did not stream anything, however at it was now that I became quite calm. The realization that our computers could probably handle streaming, and it was more than likely the new filter we are using at school was the problem balanced the ship. We can figure out filter settings, but buying new computers is not an option.

I still do not like the filter at school, it is a very adversarial relationship. Often I can do something with my one of my classes out on the Internet, then later the filter deems that action unacceptable and blocks me. In my mind it is like HAL from “2001;A Space Odyssey” a calm voice comes over the computer, “I’m sorry Dom, but I feel that action is unnecessary. Do not try again, just accept that I do not allow you to access the Internet, go back to textbooks…” Then I mumble some school appropriate words to show my contempt for the new system and move on to plan “B”…again.

Overall, I know the filter will eventually be tamed by our fantastic tech staff, it is just brand new and we are not used to it yet. Our computers, though antiquated, but updated, can handle some of what we do until our CFF laptops come in. Most importantly, I have learned that I hold myself to a higher level of expectation when it comes to technology this year. Instead of shrugging off an issue as “oh well,” I believe I can fix it and move on with out veering too far off of my goal. So what at first was disheartening and frustrating turned into a realization that I am not too far behind the times, which is a good thing for the kids I teach and my daughter here at home.

uStream and the classroom

uStream.tv is a powerful tool for the classroom, it can allow the Community to connect with the STUDENTS, (capitalization is intentional.) This allows parents to see their children in action, it allows the community to see their tax dollars in action. In return the students get to see that others not only care about what they do in school, it gives them ownership outside of the physical school walls. Another benefit for students is that they learn how to act appropriately in an online environment.

I did not learn about uStream.tv on my own. A colleague of mine from Wisconsin, soon to be of Northern California, uses the site and I was intrigued by the thought of using it. I could also plug Eduwikius and my Twitter network here and the help they offer me, but I go back to my initial intent.

Another benefit of uStream is that it is free. Being a teacher in a public school, that is a major benefit. I am finding out that the free service works better with good equipment, along with user knowledge. This were I run into trouble…user knowledge. The concept is rather easy to get your brain around, broadcast a product or idea out over the Internet for others to watch.

Hopefully during the upcoming 2008/2009 school year I will be commenting about some neat projects oour students have created using this tool.

Breaking the Paradigm

Talking with many people that I know, the general consensus is that they do not have time to blog. I usually can agree with that statement. I have several posts that are saved, but unfinished and unpublished. I believe it comes from how I was taught to write.

As a child growing up in the 1970’s and high school in the early 1980’s, the process was drawn out as: rough draft, edit, good, copy, edit, turn in. That mindset does not allow for short quickly written notes or posts to be published on the Internet. I write this as my post is growing longer than I expected and hoped it would be.

If we can realize that is no longer the necessary process, maybe some of us can contribute more in the future…not that that will be a good thing. It just will be…

Mac Convert

I have used Gateway computers for over eight years, PC’s since my first stint in Grad school way back in the early 90’s. After two days of training, I have changed my ways. I recently attended Mac Training at Ellwood City High School, I was graciously invited even though I am not a teacher there. I found that for implementing multimedia projects in my classroom, you can’t beat a Mac. The software is much easier to learn that the programs that I currently use with my PC. Being able to focus the students on creating projects instead of learning programs is the benefit with a Mac.

I have spent a lot of my own money on programs for my PC, which are actually included with the Macs. And truthfully, the Mac programs are just as good and in many instances better than what I paid for.

I am looking to buy my first Mac later this summer, making the leap if you will. I will still use my Gateway laptop, it has been faithful to me in my endeavors of expanding my online knowledge and building my classes in the virtual world. But I must admit that I am looking forward to the leap forward with a Macbook that will enable me to do what I currently do, but with greater ease.

Packrat

Hello, my name is Dominic, and I am a packrat. I have been for many years, and although I admitted this before, I am finally working on doing something to “fix” the situation. The other day while working on some online tools for my students, my Twitter network, names will remain anonymous just so I do not become a name dropper,  ran amok with discussions on educators who have way too many paper files around the home and classroom. I jumped in whole-heartedly, gleefully if you will, at the thought than I now have evidence that I am not alone in my predicament. The issue was possibly a continuation of a post brought up earlier in the week when a contact mentioned that he was scanning all of his hard copy documents into electronic .pdf files.  The idea hit me that my attempts to convert my hard copy files by typing is a futile endeavor, I never paid attention in 9th grade typing class…scanning will be the way to go.

This is not a cop-out, but I have reasons for  being this way. I am a second generation Social Studies teacher, I inherited my father’s file cabinet and added a couple of my own. I was brought up seeing how Social Studies teachers collect information. Later in college, my professors embedded the concept of “you never know what your budget at school will be, so collect all you can while you can!” Reinforcement at it’s best…I am a digital immigrant, I remember my first stint in grad school, we took notes on this new tool, the I-N-T-E-R-N-E-T. In fact I know I still have my notebook from that class with my notes on how to search this new tool. It contains all of the helping and control words necessary to search correctly.

This brings me to something that made me laugh yesterday in class and unfortunately disrupt my intern’s class. I had a student cleaning out my book cupboard to make space for my Econ books. No big deal, student did not want to stay in study hall and asked to help. The student came across a notebook from 1986, it contained notes from when I was my fraternity’s contact for the homecoming parade at IUP. Names and numbers leapt from the pages, which brought back a bunch of thoughts I don’t normally keep active. They were great times, but it is not efficient to have those thoughts active with everything else going on in life…22 years later.

The last example I have is one I use with my senior Econ classes. It deals with opportunity costs and how personal the concept is. When I was around 6 or 7, my Grandpap gave me a little pen knife, maybe it is an inch or so long, along with one he got for working at U.S. Steel in Duquesne, PA for many years. It is about the same size. I was so proud of them until I hit adolescence, then they became just toys. I wanted bigger knives like my friends had so my Grandpap’s presents to me were relegated to a drawer in my room.

I forgot about them until much later in life. I did not remember seeing them when I moved to my own house. My Grandpap was much older and for some reason the thoughts of those knives hit me. At first I thought they were gone, one of those spiteful adolescent purges when told to clean your room. It took awhile, but after some time I found them. They were then moved to the bar my Grandpap gave me when I bought my house, it too had been his. After realizing how important those items are to me, I would not let go of them for anything in the world. When I tell my students about the knives, they laugh I could not even sell them at a garage sale for $1.00, but they mean a lot to me, even before my Grandpap left us a few years back.

Because of this incident I was unrepentant about compulsion to be a packrat. Now I realize I need to tier my compulsion, personal mementos, no matter how corny will be kept, information that can be digitized will be sent into the great digital cloud of information that now surrounds us all. My only question now is, what will I do with all of the flash drives I will need?

Thinking of Lessons Learned.

As usual with my writings, this post has sat collecting dust in a virtual file for several weeks. The topic is still relevant and was brought to the forefront just now in a hall duty discussion about Hunter S. Thompson and then rolled onto Warren Zevon, two great creative minds who left us within the last several years.

I was listening to music over the weekend and introducing various artists to my daughter, she is seventeen months old, for those of you who are unfamiliar with me. I have a very eclectic taste in music, from classical to punk to rap to country and many places in between. I do not like all music of each category, but I like songs or artists of many categories. I hope this trait is passed on to my daughter.

I am getting off topic, surprise, surprise, so let me reset. I came across a song by Warren Zevon, “Keep Me In Your Heart,” not necessarily a sad song, but it hit me pretty hard. Knowing the circumstances of when it was written, after Warren had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, Mesothelioma, to be specific. For more information on what happened you can find it at his official site http://www.warrenzevon.com/.

What hit me was the fact that this Warren passed on treatment so he could continue doing what he loves best, creating music. He was told that there was nothing that could be done about the disease since he had waited too long to get a check up and find out why he was sick. Treatment would have prevented him from being able to continue recording or doing much of anything.

I am healthy, as far as I know, so that is not what struck a nerve, it was that he had the strength to continue pursuing what he loved even knowing he had limited time left. How many people lose site of their passions because life gets in the way? How many people have something great to leave those who stay behind? The song itself asks those Warren left to remember him fondly while they continue onward. It is almost haunting to listen to the words and realize what is being said. Maybe having a little girl, I hope that she will one day remember the things we do as a family with a smile on her face and a warm spot in her heart. In any case the wishes of the song are something to hope for…

Good news for the South Hills

This is great news. I used to go to the Denis on occasion when I lived in the South Hills. Way more offerings in off the beaten path art down there. It is nice to see people stepping up to renovate and invest in the area. Independent and classic cinema are way better than mass production. I wish there were more opportunities up my way, may be I am just not looking hard enough for them.

Next Year’s English Project…if I can get an English teacher to help…

I was watching “Classical Baby, All grown up'” with Arianna, my daughter this evening. They were reading poetry to images with some of the readers being the authors, others stars, and even children reading poems and giving their ideas on the poems. It was really cool, some of thekids were very young, but they seemed to get it. I do not know how much was scripted for them and how much was their own, but it was cool and believable. Next year I think it would be great to do something like that in our district, but expand upon it.

When I was Title I teacher in another life we had some of the better readers record stories for the not so good readers to use if they were reading on their own. I have no idea where the tapes went, but they were made. I think the Classical Baby” idea would be great with the expanded addition of original student poetry read over Ustream. The work can be archived and shared with the Middle and Elementary Schools. The original work can be from all grades since our District writes at most levels, the kids would love it. It is authorship beyond the classroom or school walls.

As for using published work by other authors, maybe private sites can hold the recordings for the younger students to use as a guide to reading. The kids like working with the other levels and all would benefit from the experience. I would have to look into copyright issues, but fortunately an associate I met on my online network at Eduwikius.wikispaces.com, has done a lot of research on the topic. Eduwikius is an entirely different post, for another time, but they are an excellent network of very helpful professionals.

Since I now teach Economics/POD and American Civics I would need to pull the English Department in on this endeavor. It will be much easier to accomplish if we get the Classrooms for The Future grant. I was chosen to be the coach and would have more time to help implement his idea if everything falls into place. Here’s hoping for the plans to fall into place.