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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Thoughts on Barbara Demick's 'Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea'

I often find myself, when I watch or read the news, wondering what it must be like to live in the oppressive regimes of the world. How can the small number of oligarchs led by a 'national leader' manage to keep millions of people living in fear?

The book, Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick, doesn't really talk about that. Not directly, at least. But what it did to me was leave me engaged and ultimately feeling happy and heartbroken for people I will clearly never meet.

Demick writes in a narrative style that feels more like a story, but bouncing back and forth between each narrative, neatly tying each one into the other. Of course, when you live in a country like North Korea even those who may have considered themselves 'well off' are essentially living in a similar manner. That is, living in fear. And those not living in fear live brainwashed by the regime. Demick introduces the characters in each 'story' within their relationships to each other, leaving the reader wondering how the relationships will evolve, not to mention which ones will defect to China or the south.

As a journalist in South Korea for nearly a decade, Barbara Demick bases the book on research, trips to the pariah state, and multiple interviews with North Korean defects. One is of the secret relationship of a young couple from different social standing. (yes, another reminder that communist regimes have social classes) Their innocent romance carried on for years in the dark symbolized a life of repression as well as the energy crisis in the north. (which Demick cleverly points out the dark spot that represents North Korea when looking at a night view of Asia) We learn about the genuine love some North Koreas had for their 'Great Leader', first Kim Il-sun followed by Kim Jong-il. (the book needs to be updated to include Kim Jong-un) Needless to say the sincerity was built on propaganda, information and mind control. This comes from the story of a woman and her devotion to the regime and tireless efforts to 'do the right thing', until that is, she defects to the South. It is intriguing to read of the transition. The book certainly does have it's gripping moments, and not all at the points in which some of the individuals flee the regime.

Throughout the book we learn of the regime's reactionary policies as leadership dealt with the end of the Cold War, strained relations with China and Russia (coming from the detent that developed between Russia and China later on), energy crises, chronic famine, and the corruption that kept the economy spinning. Moreover, we learn about the resilience of the characters. Two million North Koreans died of starvation or hunger-related illnesses, but reading of the strategies so may used to survive is incredible.

The book ends on a review of the lives of the defectors several years after entering the south. Though an individual in a more democratic regime (I use the term 'democratic' loosely) may be compelled to feel happy for those who have defected and 'beat the regime' by making it out of the country, the epilogue shares some grim reminders that the ending isn't necessarily a happy one. The Koreas have been divided for so long the question remains whether a via reunification can happen, let alone whether it's universally desired. Learning of the challenges facing defectors is a true eye-opener. The emotional and psychological trauma continues on for many defectors, for a variety of reasons.

How can a person like myself, who grew up in Canada, can even begin to empathize?

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Digital Distractions Just Another Kind of Distraction

*Reflections from 'Digital distraction in the modern classroom By Paul Barnwell'.

Articles such as this are always a welcome reminder of issues related to classroom management, but I can't help come back to the same conclusion: young people (and often adults at faculty meetings) will find ways to distract themselves when they are not engaged, or downright bored. Certainly, we have to learn to deal with boredom and disinterest from a young age, but I can't help but feel that devices in the classroom are just another potential distraction. According to a study in the article, 66-86% of college students were doing some kind of social engagement with their phones during class. Remember passing notes on paper?

I appreciate comments on multi-tasking. My view comes from something I read a while ago. Multi-tasking is essentially dividing up your time, thus spending less attention on each task. When I write a song or play soccer I am completely focused on the tasks. They require it. Shouldn't school work be the same? I appreciate Barnwell's frustration - do we limit screen / device time in order to maximize concentration, and thus learning? I wonder. Perhaps we need to be very focused and vigilant while we use tools. Perhaps we need to be much more focused on device-based tasks, designing lessons more carefully, not to mention clearly demonstrating the value and relevance of tasks to students. Maybe we're shifting gears too quickly during a lesson. I do find that if a school has short blocked periods there is a tendency to rush and the point is often missed, when there is little time to absorb what's happening before the bell suddenly rings.

Getting back to the smart phone part of the discussion, one concern in my school is that, being in an earthquake-prone country, our students need to have their phones close by in the event of an earthquake. (as we witnessed in 2011 in Japan - phone lines were down, but social networking sites proved invaluable to reach loved ones and confirm safety) Smart phones are certainly a great tool for managing learning, using calendars for scheduling and reminders for instance, not to mention Google Drive's smart phone apps. Don't forget the photo/video features and the plethora of quiz and other kinds of learning apps. Regardless, phones are here to stay in my school's classrooms.

Like Barnwell, I'm sure to have some technology-free lessons. Or will I? Since we use iPads and laptop devices, and Google / Edmodo / Moodle as platforms, there are days in which these tools are used to facilitate learning but not to drive "content".

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Appropriate, Engaging & Relevant: Helping student be less distracted when using technology

What struck me about reading Are Your Students Distracted by Screens? Here’s A Powerful Antidote (by Tom Daccord) was a feeling that we spend too much time blaming the internet and computers / devices for students not concentrating on their work. We've had this discussion before, but this short article brings it all together nicely, and the obvious is more obvious.

Essentially, our lessons should be appropriate, engaging, and relevant. They should be meaningful.

No doubt teachers can be frustrated with policing what students look at on their screens. The author is against blocking internet sites. I'm torn on this one, because I've experienced a school that blocks, and though students will find something to occupy their 'disengaged moments', fewer options may help. (I stress, may help) I'm against remotely monitoring screens. Daccord notes that some educators have cleverly suggested that pulling up games, apps, and social networking sites when bored is simply doodling of the 21st Century. This leads me to a belief I've had since I started teaching: students will find a way to deal with boredom. Some act out of line, some doodle or write poems, some pass notes, others skip classes, and some might sit and daydream. (I did all of the above)

A point the author makes is one I've made a million times: adults do it, too. How many of us have seen faculty (often ones who complain about student engagement) checking e-mail, prepping lessons, or on Facebook during faculty meetings? Perhaps some faulty meetings need to include more of an emphasis on teaching teachers to develop engaging lessons.

So what is a good lesson, Daccord asks us? One that is challenging and has high expectations. I'll add to this what I wrote above. Lessons also have to be appropriate, engaging, and relevant. Students have to be asked to solve problems, to troubleshoot, to create, reflect, and collaborate. (I could write many a verb here) Lessons (content?) must be as personal as possible. Moreover, which Daccord also notes, students should be told why they are studying or doing something. Doesn't it make sense to be able to explain why? I would think many students (and parents) want to how a teacher arrived at a grade, so it makes sense to me that we should be able to explain the purpose of lessons and assessments, and do it beyond 'it's mandated in the curriculum'.

So, as  a final comment, I'll give my view that we shouldn't be blaming technology. People will seek ways to handle boredom regardless of the level of technology available to their school, so we have to put purpose into what we're doing as educators.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Looking Under the Hood: Tim's Bajarin's Argument for Coding in School Curriculum

I just read a great article, written very cogently, on why coding should be a required part of the school curriculum. Tim Bajarin takes us decades back, reminding me of the old IBM computers I didn't learn to use until I was a university student, to those typing classes we had in high school. A clear point is that we use that same keyboard on all of our devices.

Bajarin takes it a step further, however, noting that learning some basic code will help us get more out of our devices we use today. "Looking under the hood" will help us make our smart phones and iPads the powerful computers they are designed to be. (admittedly, I've only started to sync my Google calendars with my phone, and started receiving reminders - when I get back to school next year I won't be forgetting important deadlines, which embarrassingly happens once or twice a year)

There's something more important in his commentary. Understanding basic code helps develop logical thinking. I'll add, critical thinking and trouble shooting skills. (or confidence to "try" new things without fear that the device will explode) Moreover, as Bajarin says, coding helps us understand how software is developed - important knowledge for the workplace of today and the future. He points to the work of Codeacademy in developing an greater appreciation for coding in schools. (check out their free programs) He quotes author Hank Pellissier, saying it's time we "begin treating computer code the way we do the alphabet or arithmetic." (read the article on The rising demand for skilled tech workers will not fade, but grow, and with more people crawling out of poverty worldwide, I would argue the demand for technically skilled workers will grow in incredible numbers.

I'll add one more comment related to code. We need the use of technology to be integrated in schools. This isn't to say that a device should be used for every task, or even should be used more as children grow older. Pen and paper, cardboard projects, and everything else has a place in learning. But coding and understanding how devices / technology play a role in our lives is critical. (I'm hoping eventually to my school offer an IB class called Information Technology for a Global Society - ITGS)

Essentially, I'm saying every grade level and program needs to also offer some kind of technology integration, giving students more tools for their toolkit. (sorry for the overused cliche, but it's a good one)

Monday, June 9, 2014

Flipped Learning
Based on a workshop with Aaron Sams, co-author of Flip Your Classroom.

I recently attended a flipped classroom workshop held at Seisen International School in May 2014, conducted by Aaron Sams, co-author of Flip Your Classroom. Though we may think we know a lot about an area of education, I always pick up a few new practical ideas when I attend professional development workshops. 

With a lot of the buzz around flipped learning in the last 5+ years, I’m surprised nobody wrote a book on the concept earlier. As much hype as flipped learning has, I think teachers have been doing it for decades. Though not as deliberate, nor with the same breadth as today, I do recall those nights where we had to go home and watch something on television, or do something with the purpose of discussion in class where the teacher facilitates collaboration and cooperative activities: lecture and homework are reversed; learning is active, not passive. This is flipped learning. 

Of course, with digital technology, YouTube, and a plethora of apps, you could argue it’s a more accessible model today. Something I appreciated about Mr. Sams’ workshop was that he acknowledged that a flipped classroom isn’t simply viewing a video at home, but rather doing the “easy stuff” at home, while classroom time is for facilitating learning by clarifying the “difficult stuff”. The flipped model, however, does tend to be regarded as viewing a video or listening to a podcast at home, preparing for class discussion or project work. Ultimately, it’s about getting away from the “teacher presentation station”. “The value of a flipped class is in the repurposing of class time into a workshop where students can inquire about lecture content, test their skills in applying knowledge, and interact with one another in hands-on activities.” -source

Sams suggested teachers create and curate. (create and host on YouTube, for example) Students tend to be more engaged with teacher-made material, being more personal. Aside from videos and podcasts, online quizzes and activities can also be developed for homework, helping students to identify what they don’t understand, again allowing for the teacher to act as an advisor or facilitator. (in class, students would work in groups to work through the difficult material) Class time is devoted more to understanding concepts than listening to a lecture. 

A flipped model, or even simply producing some flipped lessons, takes time. Videos, podcasts, or activities for home take time to prepare. Preparation also requires a careful consideration of how it will tie into the classroom activities. 

How am I employing the flipped model?
I am developing flipped lessons. Going back into the History classroom this year, my intention is to start with using the textbook and some general research skills. These are things that can be done on a video, so class time will be devoted to practicing. I’ll move forward with this to more content-based video lectures and podcasts. I'm going to have students create their own videos, as well. They’ll be basic, concentrating on the student proving they understand the content, but with little “production”. (I find students tend to get bogged down on the production side of slide presentations and videos, and spend less time on research, analysis and synthesis) The flipped version of my class will aim to have student-led collaboration. 


Things you should know about flipped classrooms.

A take on flipped learning from the University of Queensland. 

Cycles of Learning

educreations (app)

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Things That Highly Creative People Do

Where do we get our inspiration? How do learn to think creatively? (or can we?) A colleague shared an interesting article with me months ago. Being a musician, and hopefully a creative problem-solver, I thought I'd comment on it.

For myself, creativity isn't limited to what I think we often attach to the fine arts. "She's a very creative artist." "His songwriting is so creative." These are simple examples, but creative thinking is similar to design thinking, in that we seek a need or identify a problem and attempt to deal with it effectively. It involves a great deal of patience, reflection, and revision. (like the fine arts) Creative thinking also happens in Math classes, Science classes, etc. I'm not reading Dana Boyd's "It's Complicated", and she quotes Ezster Hargittai who suggests teenagers are more likely to be "digital naives" rather than "digital Natives". The idea may also imply that creative thinking and problem solving amoung youths isn't happening to the degree that adults may think.

So what is it that creative thinkers do? Here is a summary, which in the article (I think) is intended to reflect more of an arts approach, but I'd like to think there are broader applications. (ie) "I've got to figure out how to use this application" or "This is a tough problem, so what formula will work?"
  • Daydream - apparently similar brain processes to imagination / creativity
  • Observe / people watch
  • See possibility in a wide range of situations
  • Work their own hours - ever been to a Google office? (I'd also suggest that they work at their own pace - tough to do in time-restrained schools and workplaces)
  • Take time to be alone
  • Try new things
  • Turn hardship into opportunity
  • Persevere - failing is learning (my favourite Japanese proverb is 七転び八起き- Fall down seven times, stand up eight; I even wrote a song with this as the title)
  • Take risks
  • Seek opportunities for self-expression
  • Follow their passions, not someone else's
  • They focus

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Some End of Year Inspiration

I viewed these videos from the Google Certified Teachers Google Group. There are so many videos of inspiration out there, some attached to companies or organizations. Regardless, the messages are worth considering.


The first is from Educating The Heart organization. It expresses the need to help children grow to become compassionate and tolerant.


The second is from a company (I think) based in Zurich. It addresses our notions of what the perfect body is. This is a unique project. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Quicktime for Teaching & Student Assignments, Stop Motion on iPhones & iPads - Japan ASCD Try-It-On-Monday Tech Workshop

(this post will be updated)

Two areas were chosen for this workshop with the intent of being "over prepared" rather than "under prepared". The first area we'll tackle is Quicktime - a tool I find is simple and useful, but under utilized. The second, stop motion animation, has no doubt been used time and again, but doesn't get used so much due to what I think may be due to few chances to use the tools. Thus, for the stop motion portion I've deliberately incorporated iPhones and iPads.


Quicktime Player has three functions we'll look at today: New Movie Recording, New Audio Recording, and New Screen Recording. The audio and movie functions are similar to any audio and video recording functions. In Quicktime layer, the movie and screen recording functions can be used by teachers and students in many creative ways. In some instances, green screens are a lot of fun.

1. (screen) A students can be given a diagram, image, series of images to explain. (maps, diagrams, rules in sports)

2. (screen) A student can demonstrate how something is done within the computer. (ie) How to set up a Google Site.

3. (movie) The student draws a diagram / image as they explain something.

4. (movie) The student demonstrates how to do something in PE, Dance or Music classes. (ie) A (bad) example of a G-D-C chord progression on guitar, with three different "C chord" derivatives.

How would you use these two visuals?

Here is a list of ideas for screen casting. (source)

-Explain/Interpret... just about anything.

-Math processes & problem-solving

-Science concepts, events, digital microscope capture, browser-based activity,...

-Weather Forecasts (using weather map images and other online data)

-Map Skills (directions, scale, coordinates, ... Try it with GoogleMaps or Google Earth)

-Response to literature (book reviews, plot, theme, characterization, authors...)

-Reflecting on writing pieces or learning portfolio


-Daily Oral Language editing

-Writing conventions

-Reading stories, ebooks,...

-Historical events

-How to use software, tools, websites...

-Capture/narrate student online creations (cartoons, stories,...)

-Reflect on field trips (verging on digital storytelling)

-Capture & narrate a web-based projects and tools like Google Sketchup, Google Earth,...

-Use screencasts in conjunction with the augmented reality app, Aurasma (ideas here). Create overlays
that play published screencast video when viewed with mobile device.

-Create a "Summer Learning" series that consists of short, fun, learning bytes


Stop motion is a lot of fun; finding the right learning goal is most likely the greater challenge. The key is to find a program that takes no time to film, so that students don't waste too much time on technology and spend more time focusing on the specific learning goal. (unless of course, the goal is learning to use the technology) Regardless, stop motion allows students to be creative, to collaborate, and demonstrate learning. Again, green screens are a lot of fun as well. 

Here are two good articles on stop motion - one with a still camera - and a good article on stop motion in the classroom. (more will be added or synthesized)

Look at Jellycam. (Mac) It's free and easy to use. You may have to install Adobe Air also free and with a direct link on the site. Here is a YouTube demonstration. 

For iPhone and iPad I like Stop Motion Studio - a free app that allows for embedding music and easy sharing. The "extras" cost, but you can simply edit in another editor if you so desire. Here is a demo:

There are several free tools, but almost all are trial-based. I have used I Can Animate*, which is simple. Take the shots, export the video, and edit in another editor (such as YouTube - easy and no copyright worries - the video below is a simple green screen effort). I Can Animate for Mac. I Can Animate for PC.

*There is a trial period for I Can Animate, and when it expires you cannot export. I deal with this by screen casting the video with Quicktime and cropping. 


I'm gathering a list of resources, but not ready to publish.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Stop Motion Clay Animation

Stop motion animation (in this case clay, but you can use lego, action figures, photos, your own drawings, human beings - the sky is the limit) is an enjoyable assignment that allows students to collaborate, create through storytelling, collaborate through art, and simply have fun using technology. (digital publishing) My students came up with this in about an hour an a half. They used clay, iMovie, YouTube, their brains, a sense of humour, and a willingness to collaborate. Note how everything is simple, but effective. Humous is used appropriately. The soundtrack "makes" the video. 

"The Warrior and the Snake"

*Credit using full names is withheld due to privacy.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Design Thinking Process - Co Barry TEDx

Check out the diagram before reading further. This is 'Design Thinking' in a nutshell. (source)

I've been trying to learn a little more about design thinking since it was first introduced to me. I have been involved tangible projects that involved this process, I don't recall doing it from the very beginning, with a local community (empathy) in mind, and an actually building something long-lasting. (the feedback) Maybe I'm wrong - I've been involved in many community-oriented projects in and out of school, but not with this process consciously in my head. The TED Talk below gives a nice anecdote of design thinking in action. (my summary and comments following)

Design Thinking: Maximizing Your Students' Creative Talent (Co Barry at TEDxDenverTeachers)

Co Barry begins with a reflection on how she learned - figuring out what the teacher wants and the 'correct answer', but not really learning to deal with complex problems, or take the risks to effectively solve them. She starts with describing a basic part of the process: identify a need and ask questions about it. (and, significantly, Barry points out that after going to the community you may often find that your perceived problem wasn't really the problem at all, but that the problem was deeper)

Empathy - going to the community and learning.

Prototype - looking for the best possible solution. 

She makes several comments, but essentially Co Barry points out that this kind of approach to learning leads to higher levels of engagement and overall achievement. The concept she offers that I will adopt fully is that 'we don't know what (future) we're preparing children for, but we can prepare them to deal with complex change and complex challenges'.

What a great way to put it. There is a deeper understanding to design thinking, but this video is a nice start to getting an idea about what design thinking is.

A couple more diagrams. (source)

And a couple of links (not commented on in this):