Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Great Googly moogly?

I, Willy Wonka, have decided to allow five children--just five, mind you, and no more--to visit my factory this year. These lucky five will be shown around personally by me, and they will be allowed to see all the secrets and the magic of my factory. (From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl)

I spent last Wednesday in one of Google's 'factories,' a sparkling new shop set up six months ago. A group of educators and I learned about Applied Digital Skills and had a tour of the Wonka-eque (Wonky?) premises.

The tour began in this forested lobby:
Our guide explained how each of the office's four floors revolved around a Colorado motif. Interestingly, we got the inside scoop that, while these are actual trees, they're not actually native aspens but birches, which hold up better indoors.

We took the stairs to the top story, a mountain-themed redoubt where Googlers can savor "vegetable-forward" breakfasts and lunches along with the view:

Around the corner, to capture the alpine feel, sat a couple of ski gondolas like this one:

They double as cones of silence for on-the-fly collaboration. More inside dope: Turns out retired Rocky Mountain gondolas were too pricey, so Google imported theirs from Europe.

On to Google's library, a quiet, darkened zone for reflective work. My irony detector, though, split the silence when I noticed one of the original search engines shelved in the home of our era's leading search engine:

Other floors nodded to the state's camping and mining past/present. Yes, there were also indoor gyms and a rock climbing wall thoughtfully stocked with "community shoes." (A group of fitness fanatics jogged past our tour, chugging down the stairs during their mid-day workout!) The first floor featured a bike shop, inaugurated to memorialize an employee who lost his life while pedaling, the victim of a hit-and-run.

The whole thing felt unreal, even with the very real presence of workers at desks clicking keyboards. I thought about nibbling-around-the-edges classroom redesigns (not to be under-rated, to be sure) even as my mind reeled at what Google had wrought from scratch for a reported $130 million.

I found uneasy the ease with which show and substance mingled. (Side note: Having read The Circle by Dave Eggers, this truth felt stranger than his fiction.) On one hand, strive for work-life balance, the facility announced; on the other hand, the corporate culture preached, don't stop working. As the tour guide summarized, "The people who fail in tech are the ones who are like, 'We did it.' " Instead, she described how workers here are never finished; they're always adapting. That sentiment felt like one touchstone of commonality in their professional experience and mine.

Time to cut off this slice. My irony detector is going off again as I finalize this writing via a Google product linked to my Google account.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Pupu platter

I fell off the writing horse last week, and now I'm picking myself up along with fragments I've been gathering this June.

There's this chestnut from Colum McCann in Letters to a Young Writer:“Be a student, not a teacher, even when you teach” (3), which makes me aspire to be a life-long student more than the tritely alliterative life-long learner.

Marcia Tate reminded me of what ought to be cardinal classroom rule: "If you're not modeling what you're teaching, then you're teaching something else."

Kristin Kochheiser tipped me off to Noisli, a tool I suspect might prove useful when students ask whether they may listen to music while they work.

Kevin Croghan pointed me towards the Glossary of Education Reform, so I'll never (hopefully) feel mugged by school jargon again.

Katie Wolfson introduced me to an intriguing question matrix (see second page) that I suspect may support students in generating their own better questions.

Joe Marquez showed me a more elegant shortcut to split-screen displays with the Dualless extension.

Jonathan Gottschall, in The Storytelling Animal, taught me: "Just as flight simulators allow pilots to train safely, stories safely train us for the big challenges of the social world." (58)

And lastly, I learned that southwestern North Dakota is crawling with ticks, which might just be a topic for a later slice.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

YOLO: A Reading Wars Story

The school year that just concluded put the idea of implicit bias on my radar. (A sentence that still feels slightly oxymoronic.) Then, last week, I finished Language at the Speed of Sight by Mark Seidenberg, nonfiction about recent scientific research into how readers acquire those skills. Among the author's claims: “People are unreliable narrators of their own cognitive lives… Being an expert reader doesn’t make you an expert about reading.” (4) And: "A good teacher has to be a good observer to be sure... [yet] What people observe depends on what they already believe." (261) See: Confirmation Bias. Seidenberg proceeded to kick me right in the biases by highlighting how I emphasize comprehension with middle-school readers over phoneme/grapheme know-how. In Seidenberg's analysis, those latter elements deserve more conscientious attention for many who struggle to read efficiently because so-called basic skills turn out to be both trickier and more essential to master than they're credited. Seidenberg's leading impulse leans conservative as he suggests spending less time and energy defining literacy in broad, multiple, multimedia terms and more time shoring up the phoneme and grapheme pathways that interact synergistically with semantic understanding in the most adept readers. He makes a compelling, readable research-based case. Even if making meaning remains the prime reading purpose, in my view, perhaps kindling sound-letter skills, even for tweens and teens, can feed their comprehension fire.

In contrast to the unsettling pauses Language at the Speed of Sight gave me, my next summer read felt like a cozy blanket: Renew! by Shawna Coppola. The focus here is on writing, particularly in multiple and multimedia terms. As Coppola writes, ""With visual composition becoming ever more ubiquitous in our world outside of school...wouldn't it make sense to collectively broaden our idea of what it means to 'write' within school?" (43) Even as Coppola draws on numerous literacy luminaries to make this case, I keep hearing Seidenberg's voice in my other ear, how the education system is dysfunctional because of how its “Allegiance to great theorists of the past obviates the burden of engaging newer research.” (260) I wonder: What if my efforts to coach students to write more broadly is shortchanging their writing fundamentals, paralleling Seidenberg's main claim about much present-day reading instruction?

Even as I hold that question in my head, it doesn't feel true. A feeling that could benefit from bolstering. Given that I favor both/and pedagogies over spurious either/or dichotomies, I'd do well to marshal some scientific research in service of my inner Seidenberg. I should be better prepared to justify why I work with students the ways I do, how I see our work progressing towards more powerful literacy -- or literacies.

With such notions tumbling around my brain, I came across these lines Sunday in Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer: "There are no rules. Or if there are any rules, they are only there to be broken. Embrace these contradictions. You must be prepared to hold two or more opposing ideas in the palms of your hands at the exact same time." (6)

Which leads to me a likely next step: I've started to see this summer-reading-enriched blog draft as tracing the gist of a professional mission statement a la Joy Kirr. More writing and rewriting (and reading!) to come...