Private Eyes…


I cannot deny it. “Private Eyes” by Hall & Oates is one of my all-time favorite songs. The tune is itself is catchy enough, but the lyrics…well, they’re practically prophetic. “Private eyes. They’re watching you. They see your every move.” Daryl Hall and John Oates may have been referring to a love affair, but in this day and age, “Private Eyes” could very well be the theme song for an Edward Snowden documentary.

But is the title true? Is the “private eye” of the internet watching us at all hours of the day, recording our every thought, word and deed?

Some would say yes, most certainly. In Daniel Newman’s article in Forbes magazine, he posits the idea that internet privacy is a thing of the past, a luxury that the general public has relinquished for the privilege of “free” social media, saying “Our Privacy Died When We Grew Obsessed With Free.”

It is true that we really have no idea how much of our own “stuff” is out there, floating around in cyberspace, just waiting to be discovered. In an article published in The Guardian, Ben Goldacre begins with the reminder that “iCloud and Google+ have your intimate photos; Transport for London knows where your travelcard has been; Yahoo holds every email you’ve ever written.” This reminded me of an “incident” from my first few months teaching at AIS-R.

When data gets creepy: the secrets we don’t realise we’re giving away”

I was on my weekly lunch duty in the cafeteria when a student came to me, clearly distraught. “Miss,” she began, “I wanted to tell you that some 10th grade boys are looking at photos of you online…you’re at the beach or something, wearing a bikini.” Wham. Sucker punch to the stomach. Here I am, first year at a new school, trying to establish my reputation as a serious IB teacher…not to mention the fact that we’re living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the most conservative countries in the world.

I panicked. Ran to my husband’s classroom where we googled both of our names. And of course, there they were. Photos of us on our honeymoon in Buzios, Brazil – big smiles, both swimming suit-clad. My heart sunk. How could this have happened and why did it have to be my students to make this discovery?!

The answer: a few years back, we decided to document our new lives as overseas teachers and create a blog, supposedly viewable by only invited friends and family. As it turned out, my husband had missed one small step in the privacy set-up, thus explaining how my 10th grade students had access. One easy click of a button solved the problem, but the damage was done. Or at least, our internet innocence was shattered.

This week, I’ll share this story (or parts of it) with my 10th graders as we continue the conversation about our digital footprints. And while we’re at it, maybe I’ll have them double-check their privacy settings.

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Digital Stock

When I first heard the term “digital footprint”, my brain immediately went to the dark side. Internet predators, google location settings, controversial comments, risque photos, embarrassing family collages, moments from my 20’s that should be lost and forever forgotten…you get the idea. In reading through this week’s articles, though, I have a new understanding of the importance of creating, maintaining and preserving that very footprint. I see it now as a powerful tool that we can use to propel us into the limelight, rather than, as what I had previously thought, a tool to seal our infamy.

Just for fun, I googled my name. I’ve done this in the past, but this time, to my delight and surprise, a whole new list of items came up. (My Coetail blog, incidentally, was at the top of the list.) Just in the past two months, my digital footprint has gone up in stock. Now, if a potential employer googled me, they would find that I have built a professional name for myself. And all this in only 6 weeks!

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This week, I begin the blogging unit for my 10th graders. Our focus is on narrative writing, and we’re going to use blogging as a means to tell our stories. The unit is planned already, but after watching Daniel Pink’s video “Two Questions”, I’ve decided I have some tweaking to do.

In Lisa Nielson’s,Teaching Kids to Manage their Digital Footprint, she suggests starting off the lesson by posing students three questions: “Who are you? What do you stand for? What are your passions and beliefs?” I love this idea and have already added it to my lesson plan. The questions not only lend themselves to the idea of creating an online profile that is meaningful and representative, but they also happen to fit perfectly with the narrative lens of our unit. Nielson goes on to write that the key idea we want our students to take away is that our digital footprints should be 100% reflective of who we are, what we believe and what we are passionate about. AND, the caveat – that this profile that we create is everlasting. No erasing, no rewinding, so no regrets.

My hope is that, through this unit, I will be able to foster a culture of responsible, proactive and thoughtful internet use and that my students will view the internet as more than just a means to endless (and often mindless) entertainment. They will also, more importantly, begin to see the potential that their own digital footprint can bring. As William Ferriter mentioned in his article,

students who see social media spaces as forums for learning begin to paint complex digital portraits of themselves by networking with like-minded peers, joining groups committed to studying topics of deep personal interest to them, and creating products that are an accurate expression of who they are and what they believe in.”

It is Ferriter’s last sentiment, that students create who they are and what they believe, that resonates with me the most. This is the idea that I will do my best to convey to my classes on Sunday morning.

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Getting it “just right” with Youtube.

For the Course 1 Final Project, my colleagues and I decided to take a previous unit we did for the Individual Oral Commentary (IB Literature) and jazz it up with a little something called Youtube.

The Goal:

Prepare students for the Individual Oral Commentary, an IB assessment which asks students to deliver a 10 minute analysis on an unseen poem.

The Rationale:

Students tend to see this particular assessment as the “hardest” of the IB assessments for Literature. They’re nervous partially because they don’t know which poem they’ll be discussing, but mostly because it’s pretty daunting to have a one-shot recording of your analysis. With a written exam, they always have an eraser, but with this exam, if they make a mistake, they have to accept it and keep going. No erasing.

The update for this unit was to add an element of technology (youtube) as a way to assuage anxiety and allow students a comfortable environment (their home) in which to practice the skills for this assessment. They get to erase and re-record as many times as they want. Essentially, the technology allows them to get it “just right”. We’re hoping that they’ll be so obsessed with getting it “just right” that they won’t even realize that they’ve been practicing their speaking skills the entire time.

The feedback element is key, too. In the past, we’ve struggled with figuring out how to allow all students the space and time to practice this skill in a crowded classroom. Using youtube takes care of that piece and now offers students the opportunity to listen to their classmates IOC’s and respond with constructive feedback.

We’re excited to see how the new and improved unit pans out. Keep you posted…

Continue reading “Getting it “just right” with Youtube.”

And we’re blogging.

connectivityCOETAIL. It’s making huge ripples in my life. Just ask my colleagues. My next tech tool to bring to the classroom? To change the “learning landscape”? The blog. Da da da…Not a big deal to most edtech gurus out there, but as I’m currently a blog novice myself, I feel like I’m taking a risk here – a responsible risk, yes, but still a risk. Thankfully, I don’t have to convince my grade 10 teaching team on the blog front – they’re very amenable to technology as a learning tool – so that’s one hurdle I do not have to overcome. What concerns me the most is the implementation of the actual blog and moving it beyond, as Andrew Marcinek calls it in his article, “Help Students Use Social Media to Empower, Not Just Connect”, a tool of simple connectivity.


Most of my students have had or currently have a blog, so it won’t be new technology to them. I want this to be a different experience for them, though. A more meaningful way for them to make connections, grow as writers (in a context that they’re not used to), discover their voice, learn from other writers and offer sound advice to other bloggers. In short, I want this experience to be meaningful and authentic and yes, different than anything they’ve done before in English class. Expectations too high? Nah.

Writing is a process.

So now I need to figure out how I’m going to use the blog as more than “just an efficient publishing platform” as blogger/educator Tracy Kracht  mentions in her blog. (Okay, honestly – that’s what I was envisioning. Good thing I read her post.) Kracht continues, saying that in order to move beyond a blog’s basic function as a “publishing platform”, the focus needs to shift from the final product to the actual process of creating that final product. Kracht notes that writing a blog can be a “cycle” of “revision” whereby students are engaged in a process of “evaluat[ing] and revis[ing] their work so that they are increasing publishing quality.” I like her idea of using blogs as a way to increase the quality of students’ writing and the fact that writing is a process. It’s a constant cycle of revisions, editing, rewriting, crossing out and revising again. 

So I think that’s where I will begin this blogging endeavor – as a journey of discovery that I will embark upon alongside my students. We’ll explore this fascinating new learning landscape created by technology and hopefully, forge our own trail forward.

I’ll keep you posted…;)





In the clouds…

This week, my school is hosting a Learning Think Tank on the topic of, not surprisingly, “The Future of Education.” On the To-Read/To-Watch list are a number of insightful, compelling and forward-thinking articles. One, in particular, got me thinking about competency-based classrooms where differentiation is the norm, not the goal. Another got me all fired up when the author remarked, “If you can google it, why teach it?” You can NOT google critical thinking, I thought rather smugly.

All together, I spent an enjoyable morning preparing for the Think Tank and reflecting on the “future of education“…and of course, pondering all of those wonderful challenges that lay ahead of us.

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There was one video, however, that really got my goat: Sugata Mitra’s Ted Talk, “Building a School in the Cloud“. In this hugely popular talk (2.4 millions views and counting), Mitra argues the idea that schools, in their current state, are antiquated, obsolete and in fact detrimental to learning itself. Inspirational at times, reasonable & thought-provoking at others, the video left the teacher in me feeling just a wee bit, I don’t know – deflated? With comments like

“Schools as we know them are obsolete, not broken”

and “Learning’s not about making it happen, but about letting  it happen”, I felt myself doing two things: 1. considering my shelf-life as a teacher and 2. wondering how many 21st century classrooms Mitra has visited.

He does make several significant observations, like the fact that our education system is based on a Victorian era “bureaucratic machine”, producing identical results and creating identical people. And in terms of our current mode of assessing learning, where we ask students to perform under pressure (often quite enormous, e.g. SAT/IB/AP exams), he notes that the avian (bird) part of our brain shuts down everything else when it feels threatened. Thus, he posits, we are essentially asking our students to “shut their brains down and then perform.”


Mitra suggests that our current system of testing was relevant when there was a time “when we needed people who could perform under threat”, but those circumstances no longer exist. This idea was both enlightening and provocative. Lots of room for improvement here.

Finally, Mitra gets to his solution: the “school in the clouds”, or simply SOLE – Self-Organized Learning Environment. Based upon the notion that, if students are provided the space, materials and time, they will not only create their own learning, they will accomplish this learning independent of a teacher.


To be fair, he does allow for one adult presence in the learning cloud. The “method of the grandmother” seems to be Mitra’s answer to the teacher problem. A virtual granny (in the video, it turned out to be, ironically, a retired teacher) is Skyped into the SOLE classroom, doling out little morsels of encouragement and probing “What’s next” questions to the eager students. It would seem that the role of the teacher, in Mitra’s eyes at least, is akin to that of a doting, loving granny. It was hard for me to see my profession – my craft – reduced to something so simplistic as a granny in the cloud offering encouragement. 

I’m left contemplating Mitra’s findings – that students learn best when they work together; that students learn best when they’re offered hands-on, experiential opportunities; that students learn best when they receive feedback, particularly positive feedback.

Perhaps I doth protest too much. But to be fair, at my school, we’re doing most of these things already. Project-based learning; inquiry lessons; peer-teaching; flipped classrooms; blended learning. If it’s a new strategy or technology, you can bet that one of my open-minded, courageous and forward-thinking colleagues is field-testing it.

Don’t get me wrong – I love the idea of a self-organized learning environment. Isn’t that what we’re all trying to achieve, to some extent? Giving our students the power to be the authors of their own education?  My question remains though: where’s the balance? I need to go between facilitator and teacher in a hurry, because I’ve got a whole lot of content to cover, but don’t necessarily have 6 months to play with (like the kids in his video). Not to say that content wins, but that there has to be a balance between the skills and disposition and the things we want students to know and to understand. How do we pull all of this off while still encouraging organic, self-organized learning environments.

Perhaps the answer lays somewhere in the cloud…

Can an old dog really learn new tricks?

  Perusing this week’s Diigo Course 1 links, I stumbled across a blog post by an Icelandic teacher/writer, Ingvi Hrannar Ómarsson. In the post, he discusses 14 things that are obsolete in 21st century schools. He concludes with Henry Ford’s thoughts on ingenuity:

If I had asked the people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

Included in his list of the obsolete, along with archaic technology policies and unhealthy cafeteria food, is the notion that “all students get the same.”  Ómarsso notes that “school systems were originally set up to meet the needs of industrialism. Back then we needed people to work in factories, conformity was good and nobody was meant to excel or be different in that environment. That doesn’t fit our needs today, let alone the future but many schools are still set up like the factories they were meant to serve a 100 years ago.” In my own personal musings about the efficacy and practicality of the traditional classroom, I always come back to that image of the old-fashioned one-room school house…you know, the one that looks eerily similar to the classrooms of today.

This struck a chord with me, probably because I had also recently watched “If students designed their own schools”, a fascinating short documentary, where one intrepid high school in Massachusetts is rewriting the rules of the traditional high school experience. The “Independent Project”, as Monument Mountain Regional High calls it, puts the onus of the learning on the students, allowing them to be, as NY Times writer Susan Engel calls them, “the authors of their own education.” As one senior in the video notes, “If the question is yours, the answer is going to feel great when you obtain it.” 

Monument Mountain Regional High isn’t the only school capitalizing on this new wave of autonomous learning. In his blog, Will Richardson discusses a similar idea, and cites Northstar and The Princeton Learning Cooperative as two models that are willing to “shed the traditional narrative of how kids become successful in the world.” Indeed, Richardson goes so far as to perhaps support Philip Schlecty’s point that if school’s can’t ‘get it together’, then: 

customized, commercially provided education is likely to replace both public and private schools…Those left behind will be the children of the poor, who will be trained in state- run bureaucracies rather than educated in outstanding schools, making even more real the social class divisions that are tearing at America’s social fabric.

Schlecty’s vision of a post-industrialized educational system is scary – Hunger Games‘ish post-apocalyptically so. Perhaps a bit much of the doomsday, but certainly worth considering.

The bottom line – it is glaringly obvious that significant reform is needed in the organization and structuring of our schools. It seems crazy that we expect our students to excel in an educational system that is more than 100 years old. Sure, it works for some, maybe even for many. But is that enough? Shouldn’t we keep striving for more? For something…revolutionary?

The horse and buggy: 2.0


My husband, a newly appointed Director of Development and Communications, is wondering about the RSS feed. To our 30-something selves, RSS appears to be yet another tech tool that is just kind of overwhelming and a bit daunting. I shared with him that a part of my COETAIL experience means creating an RSS feed (is that even the correct terminology?) and reactivating my latent Twitter account. His ears perked up.

Something that initially attracted me to joining the Coetail program was the idea that, working with a team of my fellow teachers, I could possibly hone my skills as a techie and become that illusive “digital native”. Don’t get me wrong. I consider myself to be, practically speaking, literate in the art of digital technology. I have a Facebook account; I use Moodle like a pro; I can successfully navigate myself around my MacBook Air and sometimes I even update my iPhone 5 with the latest IOS software. Okay, so perhaps I am not at the top of my digital literacy game, but that is where Coetail comes in. I’m already working on my first educational blog – that’s huge leaps and bounds for someone who, just the other day, asked her grade 12 students what Snapchat is.

Back to RSS. I’m still not exactly sure about it. I understand that the RSS functions as “a network of information from multiple sources” where, “insteRSSad of you finding it,  you now control the information that finds you” (Utecht 11). Sounds awesome, perfect and so easy! And I love the idea that, through the RSS feed, I’m creating my “personal learning network” (Utecht 31) that will, at all times, be working for me behind the scenes and ostensibly, for my students as well.

I can’t help the creeping feeling, however, that the RSS reader might become yet another doomed piece of my internet lexicon, remaining unopened in my wide and varied “Bookmarks bar”. I appreciate that in his book, Reach, Jeff Utecht acknowledges this very notion, citing that “Educators have enough to do managing their own classrooms on a daily basis without having to be an active member to one or more online professional communities” (Utecht 26). He notes that many teachers become enchanted by new digital possibilities, but “use it for a day or two and then never return” (Utecht 26), thereby negating the proffered ease of the technology. 

I am heartened though that, as a member of the AIS-R Coetail community and more broadly, as a member of the larger Coetail community, I will inevitably immerse myself in the unknown. I will endeavor to, as Utrecht mentioned, “network in those 5 or 10 minute blocks of time” in my working day to make my PLN work for me.

Now, back to setting up that RSS reader…