Category Archives: Learning

Evernote: App Recommend

Evernote is an app that I use just about everyday. How’s that for a plug? Since I have it on my phone, iPad and computer, I can tag just about anything – whether its a picture, a website, a Tweet, a note I made myself or an audio recording. All of the notes are sortable and are easily accessible. I’m planning on using it for my students this year too. Here’s the App Store link and here’s the link for Evernote Schools.

The Swerve in the Classroom

I haven’t taught World History in about 10 years, and I miss it. Although there are times when I go back in the midst of teaching Multicultural Studies to the histories of different parts of the world, it just isn’t the same. There’s something about teaching the stories of hundreds of years ago in distant lands that almost makes me think I am dusting off some scroll somewhere.

That’s exactly what happened to Poggio Bracciolini in 1417.

He is the subject of a book I just finished reading called, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. It’s the story of a papal secretary who, after having his boss jailed, takes his time scouring Europe’s hidden monasteries trying to find, copy and share the writings of the ancient world. He belonged to a group of thinkers called Humanists, who all shared the same goals. Well, in 1417, Poggio stumbled across a scroll written ages ago by Titus Lucretius Carus, a Roman philosopher. It was called, On the Nature of Things – and surprisingly, the author of this book (The Swerve) came across Lucretius’s work in almost the same way, in a used book bin one day.

Greenblatt’s thesis is that the poem, On the Nature of Things, helped catalyze the changes going on in Europe during this period by challenging basic ‘truths’ that were violently enforced by Church dogma. Once other thinkers also read this poem, they were forced to look at the world in a different way as well. This meme would shape the Renaissance. So…

What does this have to do with the classroom?

In my time teaching, I’ve often wondered what creates that spark. What memes cross from me (or our research, lessons, activities, projects, debates, etc.) to my students? What ideas have the longest lasting power? Which ones stimulate the deepest pondering? What stories connect personally to students? Where is the swerve?

The title of the book was chosen to represent a central theme by Lucretius in his poem. He points out that the universe is made of invisible particles that do not move in a predetermined order. The smallest variations, combined and recombined infinitely, create what we know as free will. This swerve accounts for all awareness and wonder.

So, in the history class, is it justice? Does that idea move through students to focus awareness and wonder? Is it identity that personalizes the events and issues in history through the eyes of different, unique individuals? Is it the concept of time, binding cause and effect in a seemingly endless cycle?

Well, I’ve got some questioning to do. The wonder has begun…

#edcampss in Philly!

“It’s the best PD I’ve had as an educator.” That’s the way I like to begin explaining both Twitter and edcamps. For many people who have not been Twitterized, it may be a little difficult to understand, but the simple fact is that I enter a virtual conference of cool history teachers, engaged administrators and empowering thinkers every time I log on to Twitter. The same thing happens when I go to an edcamp unconference. I just walk into an actual room and am surrounded by the same people. It’s the best.

Where did I go?

Here’s the board. In the beginning of the session, the routine is that all of the interested participants come up and put a card on the time and the room they like. They host the sessions. Feet do the walking. You leave if you want to and no one’s feelings are hurt.

Teaching History without the Textbook

This was my first session. It was led by a Twitter colleague that I’ve never met in person before, @historyfriend. She has been a strong voice for innovative and reflective teaching on the #PLN (personal learning network on Twitter, specifically #sschat). Here are some of the notes I took on Google Docs:


  • Creating content is a powerful motivator for students.
  • Ask yourself what we are doing with textbooks that we can’t do without.
  • Using a textbook makes students dependent on the textbook.
  • Textbooks are written for general information.


  • Crowdsource history content from the web?
  • GilderLehrman site for online content
  • Zinn education project
  • Reading the Wikipedia page with the students (determining sources)
  • Screencasting sections of texts (getting a world perspective)
  • RAFT assignments? Maybe tougher with the higher grades.
  • Facebook pages for Negro League baseball players?
  • Template for using Google Docs to create a fake Facebook page.
  • Wikispaces (student wiki spaces)
  • Livebinder
  • Evernote
  • Portfolios/eportfolios

Recommended Books

How to Engage?

  • Are we preparing students with the skills necessary for college (notes, index, etc.)?
  • Are organizational issues a challenge?
  • Password protecting PDF’s? How to do this?

 AP Social Studies

I stayed in the same room and began the next session with a great group of #APUSH teachers. The session was led by @Aaron_Eyler. He showed us his website and raised interesting questions about the philosophy and business of the College Board and its effect on student learning/test taking. We discussed depth and coverage, and it was a great exchange. Aaron demonstrated how he organized his Socratic Seminar, and that was really helpful.


The third session was on @Evernote. How to describe it? Evernote is a multi-device tool for recording information. It can be used in the classroom in a number of different ways. We brainstormed a few here:

Video record
Multiple tags
Text conversion
Document camera
Photos of student work
Collaborative emailing
Student emailing with subject tags/folders
Pushing content out
Distribution of materials with shared folders
Folder of students
Folder of classes
Folder of assignments
Save PPT as PDF for Evernote
Student taking notes by photo.

Shawn McCusker led the session. Truth be told, he was the second educator I found on Twitter when I joined about a year ago. I think it was one of the best ‘draft picks’ I ever made. He is an outstanding educator, an engaging leader, and a hell of a Words with Friends player. Greg Kulowiec was also in the session with us and he, as usual, brought up some very interesting comments about our practice and its purpose. He mentioned explaining ‘how’ before ‘why’ in classrooms with students, and also raised the question of whether it was a good idea for students to take photos of a notes board in class on Evernote vs. writing the information down themselves. Which is the better learning experience?

In all, it was a really good session. For me, one of the biggest take-aways was meta-tagging and how important it can be. How do I sort the information that I am bringing into my personal and mostly professional life? What are the tags and folders that I should use? I began, and still am, reflecting on this idea. Someday I may figure it out.

How can I help my students ask better questions?

Its hard to choose a favorite session, because they really are relavent and great, but this was a completely interactive session led by Mary J. Johnson, @JohnsonMaryJ. She brought out printed primary sources, such as photographs, songs, poems, diary entries, posters and more from the theme of westward migration in US History, and we broke up into groups following guidelines for asking better questions. While we were doing this, Mary had us reflect on how and why we were doing it – and what experiences this would mean for our students when they did this project in class. This is the photo my group and I explored:

We had a great time making observations, drawing inferences and then framing questions concerning the content of the photo. At the end of the session, we were allowed to take as many of the printed primary sources home. I grabbed a bunch. Oh, each of the photos also had a QR code on the back, which I thought made a lot of sense. Students could use their phones to scan the QR codes to get the Library of Congress website link to that particular document and instantly have the information about it for their use.

Project Based Learning and National History Day

The last session that I attended was mostly focused on National History Day. We looked at previous projects by students and heard stories of teachers working with their kids to complete the tasks over a series of months. We asked questions about the process of doing this event and some of the details (cost) and resources (travel) required. We also helped each other explore the idea of having something like this be mandatory or optional, since it requires a heavy time investment. It’s something that I have always been interested in trying and I am looking forward to bringing this experience to my students next year, whether as a club or formal class activity.

EdcampSS Ends…

The ending of the workshop was fun and engaging. If you’ve ever been to an edcamp unconference before, you know that the final activity is almost always a Smackdown. Participants get a set amount of time (about 1 minute) to explain something that they’ve learned or a resource that they’ve used, for the crowd. All of the participants gather and many are taking down websites as the line forms. It is always interesting! Finally, we had a closing activity from the keynote speaker to the conference, Kenneth Davis (author of the ‘Don’t Know Much About History’ series. He brought a timed buzzer game set with him to Philadelphia and asked teachers to become contestants in a quiz show. People volunteered and the game began! Many of the trivia questions were tough, but Ken explained each before moving on to the next. It was both educational and fun, and something he does when he travels to schools around the country.

As I left, I said goodbye to the many people I have been conversing with online for a year but never met in person. It was a lot of driving to go down on a Friday afternoon and night while returning Saturday afternoon and night, but worth every minute. I am truly glad for the experience and very thankful for all of the work of the organizers.

Edcamps rock! Next one is in Boston in one week!


Schoology has been one of the best additions to my teaching this year. It is a learning management system that integrates social media connections into classroom and flipped instruction. Let’s start with some of the basics. Schoology is free for teachers. Districts can sign up for paid services if they choose. You can create as many classes as you’d like. Students register with an access code and then log in as needed. There are iPhone, iPad and Android apps for students to connect on their mobile devices. Lessons can be designed in a number of ways. I’ve used graded online discussions for asymmetrical learning outside the normal classroom dialogue. I’ve also used discussions for students to collaboratively help one another with questions, comments and suggestions. There’s an online test/quiz feature that is very versatile. Teachers can also have students complete assignments using a dropbox feature, so that work can be done on multiple devices. Schoology allows teachers to take attendance as well as get analytics concerning student access, grades, and more. In essence, it has been a very useful tool, and even better, it looks just like Facebook, so students can intuitively grasp the format and functions.


The #sschat PLC

SSCHAT stands for the social studies chat channel located on Twitter. Since April 2011, I have had the great opportunity to connect with other social studies educators from around the nation on a wide range of issues. Just now, as I am trying this, the most recent tweets on #sschat point to 1) 5 powerful strategies to empower students, 2) primary sources from Harvard University on women working from 1800-1930, and 3) a tweet on how to use Livebinders in the history classroom. In a nutshell, its the most empowering professional learning I’ve had as an educator in over 15 years.

The program I most use to access it is Tweetdeck. It’s very easy to use and is great at browsing while communicating with colleagues.

It’s also made an impact on some of my former students. After I invited him to ‘tweet in’ on one of our weekly tweet sessions (Monday nights at 7PM EST) one of them wrote about #sschat on his blog. You can read the post here:

The #sschat site has thousands of members. All of them use Twitter to connect, share lessons, inspire each other, provide classroom advice, collaborate on lesson plan feedback, and more. There are also hundreds of principals and other administrators there as well. In addition to the Twitter channel, #sschat has its own wiki page at  Click on the image below to go to the site.

I’m happy to say that there is a real world component to all of this online collaboration too. Edcamp conferences are held periodically all over the country, where members of #sschat can get together and see each other face to face. So far, I have been to four of them. Each has been better than the last. I am very excited to be traveling to Philadelphia in a week to attend the #edcampss conference!!

The professional learning community is a very strong, empowering, collaborative way for me to grow and share as a teacher-leader. I am proud to be a part of it. Come and join!

The Year So Far…

Vision is essential. It’s important to know where you are headed and why you are headed there. Figuring out how to get there is a process, but as long as the vision is guided by values, the methods may change. The goals don’t. So this school year, I set some goals for myself. I determined that I would 1) be healthy, 2) grow professionally and 3) empower others.

So, how am I doing?


With my students, I have worked hard to build relationships, demand rigor and make the learning relavent. I know these are catch words for the ‘buzz’ in education, but I really believe them. In my school, with so many institutional barriers and administrative failures to support this vision, it is not easy to do. Sometimes the punitive system that suspends students works against a  teacher who is trying to develop an academic relationship with an at-risk student. Sometimes the lack of enforced rules does the same. Its just not easy.

With my students, I have tried my best to be genuine. I don’t want to ‘cover my cake with frosting’ (if that makes any sense) in the classroom. If a student is struggling, I have done my best to let them know that I will always be there to help them. If someone is having a bad day, I have done my best to make sure the next day I do not judge them.

Again, it isn’t easy. Sometimes one or two students can make building this dynamic really hard. This year, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’ve tried to view the classroom dynamic as reflective rather than reactive. The tone set in the classroom reflects my ability to manifest my energy and create my day rather than reacting to situations as they come up. Getting to this point took a lot of self-growth, but it is worth it, even if I am not perfect in its application.

The other day I found myself with a ‘head down’ situation that I was not proud of in the way I handled it. I also confronted a student about skipping my class without fully checking to see if she was in the ‘in school suspension’ room, which she claims. I jumped to my own conclusions and reacted to a situation from my own feelings rather than the situation in front of me. Clearly, I still have a way to go. Teachers learn everyday too.


Growing professionally was my second goal this year. In some ways, I think that I looked at this simplistically at first. I thought that I would make a point of attending more conferences and contact more individuals in my (Twitter) personal learning network, so that I could stay abreast of the current pedagogical thinking. While it is true that I did go out of my way to schedule and attend the New England Conference on Multicultural Education at the end of September, and it is true that I have been continuing to engage my network of educators on Twitter, I am beginning to understand that growing professionally is not simply a matter of contacts and research. It’s being able to confront my fears about my own limitations and inadequacies and also being able to create and sustain a vision of why and how I want to grow professionally in the first place.

On a day to day level, this means that I have to live the vision with smaller, quicker decisions about how I act out my profession. I believe I am self-reflective, but am I willing to make the changes necessary to confront my fears and improve my practice? This year I am not so sure of the evidence so far, but I am becoming more open to looking for it in the classroom and in face-to-face interactions with students.

Concerning administration, I have a harder time. I have lost a lot of trust in many of the people who supervise me (or don’t, for that matter). I do not have any evidence that they share the same vision or even understand how to implement , articulate, or understand its basic concepts. This is not true of all administrators, but my experience with school policy reform and restructuring has left me bitter and biased. In order to grow professionally, I now understand that I have to move beyond those feelings, or I have to move beyond this particular school. Stating those realizations is a first step, but I have to do more. I hope to report on more progress in this area with future reflections during the school year.


On this front, I believe I have made a good deal of progress. Boundaries are good, and although I have had my challenges in holding myself to them, I believe I have become better at seeing them, if not reinforcing them when confronted with situations that put them into play. My toughest boundaries are not with students, but with administration. I am learning to set them, but following through has not been easy. On both occasions of professional development days (in September and November), I did not follow through on my own boundaries set in the morning before going to work. I found myself calling out incompetence when I saw them and asking deeper questions about the meaning and vision behind tasks, when I suspected they were not there. This isn’t my place. It’s not my job and it only makes professional relationships more difficult to maintain. It’s also snarky and immature, based on my previous failure to succeed in school redesign initiatives. Bottom line? It’s not healthy. I’m looking forward future posts that reflect growth on this issue.

On a more basic note, I have been dealing with stress, diet, and exercise in a somewhat consistent way. I’ve been making better choices about free time and better decisions about my  own priorities as a person before being a teacher. I wasn’t always this way. The situation used to be reversed, and I am grateful it has switched. I need to keep myself on the healthy path in order to keep myself a healthy person.


Of all of my three goals, this is the one I am not as sure about concerning results or even progress. I know that my posts on Twitter have created in me a sense of ‘giving back’ to the education community, no matter how many people read or respond. With my colleagues, I have not sought to put myself in a training or sharing role, as I expected in the summer, and that is something that I want to reflect on. Because my PLN on Twitter and in the EdCamp conferences have inspired me with more professional growth than I’ve had in my previous 15 years of teaching, I expected that I would become a voice for those opportunities in my school. That hasn’t happened. I haven’t stepped out of the crowd in the way I had expected. Maybe this is a response to my ‘low profile’ mode, following the failure at school restructuring. Maybe I’ve tired of challenging the administration, by demonstrating what leadership opportunities they are not taking. Perhaps I’ve simply considered the mountain too big to climb. In any case, I am disappointed with myself for not living up to my own expectations concerning ‘being the change I want to see in the world’. This is something I want to think more deeply about and re-examine at another point. Maybe there’s other perspectives I haven’t considered, in my school and in myself.

Empowering students is a whole different context. I’d like to think that my ‘teaching style’ is one that encourages students to think deeper about the issues, events and individuals we’re studying. My unit and lesson goals are designed to do this, and my personal pedagogy reflect this basic philosophy: it is better to have more questions than answers. I have sought student feedback at different points in the semester, and will do so in the future. My teaching strategies and tactics have to be self-correcting. If I want my students, as I do, to be critical thinking participants in their world, I need to focus my classroom instruction on those goals, not simply covering content. Have I become the my own victim of bad teaching? Yes, there have been times this semester where I have put content over understanding. Looking back, I can see that I’ve slipped in my vision of empowering students from time to time. While each day, and each student (at times) is a new challenge, they are also new opportunities. I can do better.


This is the first time I have posted reflectively my vision, goals, and reflections on how I’m doing actualizing them.  At first, it was a little scary putting my thoughts out there. Will the Superintendent read my post and think that I’m a threat because I still have boundary issues calling out administrators on perceived short-comings? Will my colleagues think I’m a circle-spinning wordy nutcase? Will my students think that their teacher doesn’t have it all together?

I know that through the process of writing I have answered those questions already. Reflection has given me the confidence to challenge myself. I truly do want to 1) be healthy, 2) grow professionally, and 3) empower others. There’s nothing wrong with that vision and the process of writing about them has only made me stronger. I look forward to my next reflections.


The Laptop Project

All of last year and most of this summer, I have been working with others (both inside and outside NBHS) to find a solution to the problem of having a laptop cart at the high school that has not been used at all in over 5 years. Their assistance has been invaluable and is truly appreciated. So, here’s the problems we faced:

This is not an image of the exact cart at NBHS, but it basically the same. The cart holds 30 laptops and can be locked. It serves as an access point for wireless internet connections, meaning you wheel it into a classroom and students take the laptops to their desks and connect to the Internet.
  • The cart had an electrical shortage, so that it would no longer charge the batteries of the laptops.
  • The laptops had been re-imaged, along with all school computers, which erased drivers needed to network and connect to the internet.
  • The password to the hub on the mobile internet laptop has been forgotten. Although the hub sends out a wireless signal, no wireless device can connect to it.

Our solutions:

  • Remove all of the laptops (and their power cords) from the cart. When plugged into an outlet, the laptops charge perfectly.
  • Replace Windows ME with Xubuntu (a free open source Linux operating system). Since the laptops are Dell Inspiron 4000’s, their memory and storage capacity is very low. They have 128MB RAM and about 5GB HD space. Using a couple of laptops for parts, we were able to determine that 256MB RAM is good enough to run a free web browser (Firefox or Google Chrome).
  • The IT department at NBPS stated that the hub can be reset to factory settings and then will be able to set up a network for the laptops to connect to the internet.

The Plan (and what’s needed)

  • Right now, there is a plan. As of Sunday, September 4th, we have one working model of Xubuntu with 256MB RAM. This will be the image from which the others will be copied.
  • The headmaster of NBHS has given permission to re-image the laptops with Xubuntu, so that the laptops will once again be operational. This will take manpower and time, but both are very doable.
  • With 30 laptops at 128MB RAM each, we can remove 15 of the 128MB RAM sticks to get 15 working laptops with 256MB RAM. These will be able to connect to the internet and run modern Javascript for Web 2.0 programs. As they are now, Windows ME does not have the capacity to do so (and is blocked from doing so by not having the right drivers).
  • To get all 30 laptops fully functional, the school needs to purchase 15 more sticks of 128MB RAM. There is a supplier in Marlborough MA who has them and is willing to sell them for $10 each. For $300, the school could have a fully functioning laptop cart.

Classroom Use

  • I have discussed using my classroom (4-112) as a laptop lab with the headmaster of NBHS. This would serve a number of functions, both collegial and formal:
    • A pilot literacy program integrating Web 2.0 tools with historical content. Over the summer, I have gathered over 750 different resources (in Evernote) from teachers, principals and superintendents that I have connected with via Twitter. I have attended 3 conferences of this PLN (personalized learning network), moderated online discussions, and received a great deal of help, feedback, and collaborative instruction from this growing educational resource.
      • Google Docs
      • Wordle
      • Evernote
      • Socrative
      • PollEverywhere
      • Schoology
      • Mind Map
      • Wolfram Alpha
      • Twistory
      • Edmodo
      • Tiki Toki
      • Producteev
      • Twitter
      • Livebinders
      • Google Lit Trips
      • Gapminder
      • and more…
    • Free instructional technology training (for teachers) after school on a weekly basis
    • Use of my classroom during my prep period for teachers interested in modeling lessons with a technology integrated focus.
    • Mobile access to surrounding classes on the 1st floor of Blue House (currently no access)
    • Online collaboration with teachers in Baltimore, MD and Birmingham AL on a common history unit (Defining America through Historic Study)
    • Skype access and online communication and support from almost 20 different history scholars, published authors and organizations dedicated to the teaching and learning of history.
  • Right now, I have 5 desktop computers in my classroom. None are fully functional. They are Dell computers new in 1998 and also have Windows ME on them. I currently have a blue line (ethernet cable) to my classroom. Currently, there is little to no online access for students in my classroom. The situation in other classrooms is similar.

Support and Reasons from the NBPS 2009-2012 Technology Plan:

  • Support: “The district will continue to provide access to portable electronic devices to support academic needs and expand portable wireless technology to allow computer access when needed.” Source: 2009-2012 New Bedford Public Schools Technology Plan Page 20
  • Support: “Wireless technology will be utilized when necessary.” Source: 2009-2012 New Bedford Public Schools Technology Plan Page 22
  • Reason for change: “The district does not currently have a computer replacement cycle of 5 years or less” Source: 2009-2012 New Bedford Public Schools Technology Plan Page 21
  • Reason for change: “Presently NBPS does not have procurement policies for instructional and information technologies to ensure usability, equivalent access, and interoperability.” Source: 2009-2012 New Bedford Public Schools Technology Plan Page 21

The potential for greater academic achievement with a focus on specific writing and literacy goals is clear. The plan to make these laptops operational and networked is also clear. All that is needed is the will to make this happen. We can demonstrate innovative solutions to old problems right now, and demonstrate that we are finding new ways to meet the individual learning needs of our students. Thanks.

Update (March 2012)

It’s been months since I have last posted here. There has been a significant problem getting the Xubuntu OS to allow the laptops to connect via a WEP/WPA2 network. I’ve had three networking and Linux experts working on the issue, but there’s been no breakthrough so far. I have the Xubuntu laptops, but there’s no internet access – rendering them severely limited in function. To make up for the lack of net access, I’ve brought in an old desktop, printer and laptop from home. That’s been keeping us going for a bit of months. Recently, an local non-profit donated 7 iPad2’s to the high school, and I just used one in the classroom last Friday (March 16th). It went great. I’m going to work on expanding wireless access through mobile devices in the classroom while I am still working on getting the laptops functional.

Scan-4112 (a proposed hand drawn sketch of 4-112)


In the Garden of Beasts

The new book by Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, is a compelling summer read.  It portrays a seminal moment in the history of the 20th century through the eyes of an unassuming college history professor who becomes the ambassador to Germany in 1933.  Many in the State Department have low expectations for Ambasador Dodd, and in the beginning, he strictly adheres to objective protocol – taking no sides in the growing chaos of the NAZI rise to power.  Over time, however, his views evolve.

He makes the decision to bring his family, as well as his beat-up Chevrolet, to Berlin. Finding a house along the main park in Germany – the Tiergarten (loosely translated as the place of animals, or the garden of beasts), Dodd begins to assume the roles of a diplomat, but his 23 year old daughter has other ideas. She is fascinated by the changes in Germany and the extravagance of the NAZI’s.  Initially, she gives the Hitler salute for fun, and begins to mesh herself into the social circles of the ruling military elite.  She dates NAZI’s, and is known for her sexual flings, but as time goes by, she looses the glamour of her initial assumptions.  This happens roughly at the same time as Dodd begins to see that there can be no impartial observation of the NAZI regime when there is deception, terror, and death pervading the streets and homes of people living in Germany.

Larson uses a familiar approach (to those who have also read his other best sellers: Isaac’s Storm, Devil in the White City, and Thunderstruck) in crafting his historical tale. One friend described it as narrative historic non-fiction. In this, Larson uses only primary sources for his dialogue in the tale, although he does not cite his sources while telling the book. Larson’s writings weave a story that is primarily based on the identification with a protagonist, not a chronological set of events. For the non-historical reader, it is much easier to identify with the emotions and conflicts that individual characters face than it is to go through a deeply contextual telling of events and the issues that form them, especially when footnotes become exhaustive.

While I am comfortable with the later, I find myself drawn to Larson’s method more and more. Perhaps with the advent of social  media and collaborative networking, we as an interconnected society are becoming more self-centered in our literature than the long and prominent ‘life work’ publications of historical non-fiction. Ironically, as a former college history professor at the University of Chicago, Ambassador Dodd’s sole life goal is to finish his multi-volume history of the Old South. When President Roosevelt gives him two hours to get an answer from his wife about accepting the position in Berlin, Dodd is forced to choose to surrender his academic life-long pursuit of researching and writing to become a figure in the center of a maelstrom building in Europe.  He embodies the shift from an esoteric writing of the past to one that places him in as the main character in a huge tragedy, even for himself personally.

Finally, it is a very compelling book about appeasement and terror. One does not have to wonder far about the connections to the present day. We live in dangerous times. Can the compelling stories of average people become the stuff of plot-driven narrative historic non-fiction? Time will tell.

To End All Wars

I am a prisoner of the Great War.  I am terrified by the magnitude of suffering, but also humbled by the individual stories of character and integrity that is demonstrated by the most common soldier.  I am more angry at this war than any other.  The futility of direct assault and the crime of attrition seem to me to be dangerous indicators of humanity’s basest weakness: man’s inhumanity toward man.

My feelings about World War 1 were validated in a new book by Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion 1914-1918.  In reviewing the book, Christopher Hitchens writes in the New York Times Sunday Book Review,

“In his previous works, on subjects as diverse as the Belgian Congo and the victims of Stalinism, Hochschild has distinguished himself as a historian “from below,” as it were, or from the viewpoint of the victims. He stays loyal to this method in “To End All Wars,” concentrating on the appalling losses suffered by the rank and file and the extraordinary courage of those who decided that the war was not a just one. Since many of the latter were of the upper classes, some of them with close relatives in power, he is enabled to shift between the upstairs-downstairs settings of post-Edwardian England, as its denizens began in their different ways to realize that the world they had cherished was passing forever.

No single narrative can do justice to an inferno whose victims still remain uncounted. Hochschild tries to encompass the global scope of the disaster, and to keep us updated with accounts of what was occurring at a given time in Russia and the United States, but his main setting is England and his chief concern the Western Front. In this hecatomb along the minor rivers of Flanders and Picardy, the British people lost the cream of their working class and the flower of their aristocracy. The poems of Wilfred Owen and Rudyard Kipling, in their contrasting ways, still have the power to touch the tragic chord of memory that Hochschild strives to evoke.

Part of this is the chord that I try to evoke myself in the classroom when teaching the Great War.  I use clips from the powerful documentary, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, to provoke ethical problems to address as well as practical military strategies to resolve, but the war is so encompassing that I almost never feel I do it justice.  One of the most thought provoking narratives that Hochschild highlights is that of the dissenter, specifically English anti-war activists and conscientious objectors.

On a few occasions, I have moved in this direction, by having students focus on the reasons for war and its negative impact on the individual by using segments from the documentary, Soldiers of Conscience and its POV coverage (with lesson plans), which addresses current soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who have chosen conscientious objector status.  On other occasions, I find even myself trapped by the excitement of the war.  Gas attacks, new weapons, aerial bombardments, and epic battles almost intoxicate me.  In the words of Australian soldier Cyril Lawrence, I see this same sentiment when he reflected powerfully in his diary…

“This is a marvelous war, you know, when you think it over.  Life will be awfully tame afterwords.  Really, I do not know what we shall do for excitement.  Where shall we see such things as a bombardment at night, with a thousand of gun flashes stabbing the air everywhere?  The indescribable din and noise, the thrill that comes with the sight of a balloon coming down in flames, the excitement of a gas attack, when you spend hours in a helmet and the whole atmosphere is deadly, the awful mud and the constant struggle against difficulties, danger and death.  I can never forget that none of us when we went on leave could sleep that time. The quiet disturbed us.”

How much of any lesson on war in a history class reflects this dichotomy?  Hochschild does begin a debate on the balance of dissent in war, and I applaud him for his careful and complete research on the subject, but I struggle with these same questions when facilitating any instruction on war in my class.

And then there’s my students.  Does the quiet of their life disturb them now?  Is this one of the reasons we, as an aspect of our common humanity, are drawn to conflict, as well as its resolution?

I have many questions to ponder, but for me and my teaching philosophy, I would have it no other way.  That is what I bring to my students.

eLearning by Doing

I’ve been an avid Twitter user in the last couple of weeks.  Through it, I have met and learned from some dedicated educators, authors, journalists, and others.  I have learned about the growing potential to focus on building 21st century skills in practice, not theory.

Once in my teaching career, around the end of the 1990’s, I felt as though I was on the edge of something new.  I was experimenting with technology integration and the internet.  Now I feel as though I am rediscovering it again.

Google Docs

A few years ago, in the midst of teaching AP US History, one of my students introduced me to Google Docs.  I have to rewind a bit, though, and openly state that for years I had thought of myself as a teacher on the ‘cutting edge’ of technology in the classroom.  I was wrong.  By focusing on the content of teaching an AP course, as well as getting involved in school restructuring and teacher-leadership efforts, I had dropped the ball.  Now, I was being led back – and appropriately enough, by a student leader who was sharing her techniques for effective online learning strategies.  Now, after having attended the edcamp Boston conference in early May 2011, I have been filled with many ideas for using Google Docs as a collaborative writing tool for students, a powerful peer editing tool, an efective way to provide feedback on student work, and a way for students to share in the note-taking process in class by dividing roles among students.  I have been incredibly impressed by the lesson sharing power of Google Docs on Twitter as well.  Google Docs is also a presentation platform as well as a place to create and share spreadsheets.  The potential seems endless.  If only I had a classroom with 30 laptops for all students to have access.  The only drawback here is the equity issue in my urban high school.  I plan on surveying all of my students at the end of this year and spending a good deal of time getting formative assessments about effective use and equitable access to technology in the classroom.  Next year, I plan on hitting the ground running.  I can’t believe how many good ideas I have learned of lately, which brings me to my next great self discovery… Twitter.


There are many articles on why Twitter is a great tool for a teacher, but for me, it has helped me connect to others who share the same thoughts and philosophy on teaching.  In the last month that I have been a regular user, I have found over two hundred authors, teachers, and others who have become a personal learning network (PLN) of incredible value.  I use Tweetdeck to monitor a couple of channels on Twitter regularly, but I have been able to ask for and give help in many different ways.  Twitter has allowed me to join moderated discussions (#sschat), share lesson plans, ask for best practices and ideas, and fill my Evernote page with hundreds of ideas that I can’t wait to implement.


Evernote is my new best friend.  It completes the Twitter experience by allowing me to organize and sort all of the great resources, learning materials, infographics, Google Doc lessons, and other excellent links that I find there.  Evernote also integrates their delivery, storage and organization options with my Blackberry (and soon to come, iPhone).  This way, I can scan something on the phone and send it easily to Evernote.  I can sort information from webpages into folders and also place tags.  This vastly improves the process of bookmarking, which I rarely do anymore.  I’m also considering placing a shared folder for my students next year with information, notes, graphics, websites, and more.  Perhaps I can get students themselves to keep online notebooks this way, although LiveBinder might be a better option.  Still, I can easily imagine a summer filled with edcamp meetings, Twitter finds and lots and lots of Evernote files.


At the end of the school year, my ability to integrate effective online learning tools greatly expanded, but PollEverywhere was one of the most useful ones in the classroom.  Previously, I had placed four note cards in the corners of my classroom.  I had students move from strongly agree to somewhat agree to somewhat disagree and strongly disagree.  They had to shuffle out of the seats and stand (which not surprisingly got more and more students to talk).  Now, I have set up a free PollEverywhere account. It allows me to create multiple choice questions for formative assessments, ask  my ‘four corner’ ranged positions, and encourage students to share text answers.  One thing that I find interesting is that in my trial runs of web polls, I have noticed that my students do not have the same level of enthusiasm for using their cell phones instructively as they do for social networking.  It’s almost as though a certain tech-loving teacher has co-opted their fun and turned it into something new and different.  I plan on making this format pervasively spread through my strategies and lessons next year.  I can’t wait thinking of great polls in the summer!

Google Voice




Ted Talks

Google Earth