Pre-dinnertime, Friday afternoons, hanging out at the playground, of course:
Will Richardson kindly tipped my attention cap towards the work of big-format photographer, Chris Jordan, earlier today. Haven't been able to shake his mind-bending images since.
A photographer, yes. But something far richer than that. Especially if you are a believer in the evolving need to be able to 'tell engaging stories' inside the land of complex, data-dense, statistical landscapes without falling prey to pain-in-the-eye spreadsheets and 1-D pie graphs.
Using massive scale photographs in the "Running the Numbers" series, Jordan manages to take something really hard to grasp -- say the "contemporary American culture through the austere lens of statistics" -- and turns your eye his way hard-n-fast.
Like much of the design-centric data visualization examples that Dan Meyer has been doggedly drawing his teaching colleagues' attention to over the last year or more -- take Feltron's annual reports, for instance -- Jordan's photos turn spreadsheets into eye candy.
Well, let's say you wanted to talk to your students about the rapid onslaught of plastic water bottle usage in our country...and what impact it might have if you're really serious about recylcing. Sure, you could say to your kids,
"Hey, kids, did you know that 2 million plastic water bottles are used EVERY 5 MINUTES in the United States?! No? You didn't? Sounds like a lot, huh? But how much is 2 million every 5 minutes? Okay...everyone take out their notebook while I get my pie chart up on the board."
Or you could show your students the following series of photos:
2 million botttles at 60x120":
2 million bottles at partial zoom:
2 million bottles detail at actual size:
This -- I believe -- is something our students will get with a capital 'G'. And they'll crave more, as many as you can get a hold of!
I'm dying to show the entire series here, but if you're curious you only have to jump over to Jordan's site and look for the "Running the Numbers" collection.
I do, however, want to share 3 photos from another one of his collections that he entitled, "In Katrina's Wake". A healthy reminder of how good 99.9% of us have it no matter what our complaints may be in the middle of the school week:
So often these days I feel like one of them carnival of voices roaming like curious hyenas around Sybil's head. So many thoughts, so many directions, so many voices, so many disconnects, so many questions, so many opportunities.
During a calm moment this afternoon, my mind craving a swinging hammock as the school week drew to a close, I found myself staring off into space. A lovely daydreaming sequence was in full effect. Most of the school was quiet. Hardly a kid's voice anywhere to be heard. Half-day Friday's mean the place empties out pretty quick and the cerebellum drifts easily.
Found my eyes tracking upwards. Scanning binding after another. Pieces to different puzzles. An odd assortment. A bit of unresolved conflict, too.
Wondering what future archeologists will one day make of the potential idea relationships found in my school desk book stack. And taking solo bets as to when these various idea threads and the edu-voice cacophony in my head will all come together in one happy dance once, and for all.
Yesterday afternoon, my office, student ("P") on his way out the door after having successfully completed -- after 6+ weeks of it hanging like an albatross around his "Ancient Mariner" neck -- his "Ozymandias" poem memorization project.
"Nicely done. Pleased that your parents and I can finally celebrate your quarter grade the next time we're on the phone together. And I have to believe there's a bit of a weight off your shoulders now that you'll pulled off this assignment."
"Definitely feels good. And you know what? I actually ended up liking this poem once I memorized it. Crazy, that."
Backstory: Every one of my 10th graders -- 4 sections worth (the entire 10th grade for our school, actually) -- were given the following non-negotiable challenge the first week of this 3rd quarter:
Each of you has been assigned the challenge to memorize Percy Shelley's "Ozymandias," a 14-line poem centered on the historical fragments of one leader's "cold command" that lies "half sunk" in sand long after his proclamation of greatness was supposed to inspire "[d]espair" in those standing before him.
You are to write out the full poem -- word for word, punctuation mark for punctuation mark -- without making a single mistake of any type. Not even a single comma out of place or a missing moment of capitalization. Perfection, in other words.
There are 2 possible grades: "zero" or "A+". Nothing in between. Until you ace it, you'll have a "big fat zero" in the gradebook for an assignment that is the equivalent of a major essay.
Granted, you can re-take the challenge over and over again (outside of class) anytime this quarter until you ace it...but don't be tempted to wait too long to get it done. Trust me. You do not want to be trying to 're-memorize' it weeks from now after forgetting about the assignment as the rest of the syllabus takes over.
That being said, this will be a real test for many of you. And it'll be a great warm-up as we prime our brains/imaginations for doing similar work -- on paper and in front of an 'audience' -- once Shakespeare comes knocking on the classroom door later this semester.
Funny. A few weeks later, I was in Philly for EduCon 2.0. Mentioned this assignment/challenge to a few new colleagues during one of the breakout workshops centered on 'authentic' assignments. Still struck by one of the very well-intentioned educators who immediately responded:
"What? You're really going to make every one of your students memorize the entire poem without even a single mistake? Can they really do this? I don't think they can. Personally, I think it's a mistake."
Wow. A Mistake. And she wasn't kidding.
As of yesterday, I'm only 4 kids away -- out of the ENTIRE 10th grade -- from having 100% success with this project. This includes the natural actors; it also includes the ESL and alternative-learning-modality kiddos, too. No exceptions.
To get there, we didn't even use a blog or Twitter-tweets or wiki-up our thoughts. Nope. Used pretty antiquated tools, to be honest. Just time, brains, paper, a book, and zero apologies. Even a blackboard (the dry erase type with no 'smart' nuttin' plugged in).
In spite of all the hyper-attention given to bleeding-edge technologies and ramped-up global collaboration these days, sometimes the really epic 'teaching/learning' moments happen when you put a non-negotiable line in the sand for EVERY kid that demands an all-or-nothing approach with zero apologies for having done so. Amazing what happens when something that challenges even your best-n-brightest is something the not-so-strong kiddos pull off also. Pretty much levels the playing field for the rest of the year so we can get down to the business of really pushing hard on ideas in class.
These kids will never forget this poem. Never. Heck, I still remembered after 21 years because my own 11th grade English teacher pulled this crazy business on us, too. And a few just like "P" -- kids who normally 'tread water' through their English class -- discovered that through 'authentic' old-skool challenge, a real passion for something 'academic' happened beyond their control.
See below for the link to read the full poem.
Maybe you'll even take on the challenge of memorizing it yourself. Spring Break is coming up. Might be a nice change from mowing the lawn or hanging out on the beach.
Strange. Even Twitter's 'error' messages make me smile.
I'm sure there's a larger design/marketing point to be made here about how we convey reality/challenges in our schools (etc.) -- hint: winning people over at the level of their heart (not brain), mission critical 21c skills centered on 'design & storytelling', and realizing just how vital it is to truly engage your audience's curiosity along the way -- but for now, I'm just gonna let the "little birdie and robot man" visual haiku that Twitter sketched out when their site momentarily went down a few minutes ago make me smile.
And that ain't a half-bad thing on a Friday as the weekend draws near.
Hey, Mr. Lehmann. Earlier today, I Twittered the following (to which you responded "Sure." soon after):
I wasn't kidding when I responded to your Tweet:
Part 1: "You might suspect irony in my 'voice', but truthfully -- sincerely -- I LOVE this project, even with 100+ (responses received) every Sunday night".
Part 2: "Why? Exponentially increasing relationships w/ the kids. & many (other) teachers now mention "Your kids are talking about...""
You see, I really meant that business. Completely transformative element in what is otherwise a 'classic' classroom dynamic. Really. Sincerely. Truly.
Why is the news cycle so last-dance-at-the-prom giddy about these 2 stories?
Seriously. Given the options, these are topping the news wire links today?
And is a $400 'freebie' really gonna be the difference maker when you're already talking about a 4+ year investment at a university that costs $25K/year? Is it gonna be the reason why your 17 year old decides to fill out the application and move 2 hours west of Ft. Worth and 2 hours west of Lubbock, TX, if he/she wasn't going to do it already?
Really? For an iPhone?
The kicker: A university with little-to-no national exposure is SUDDENLY catapulted to the top of the news wire charts because they -- what? -- what? -- what? -- give the trendy phone-of-the-day away to all in-coming frosh?
Really? Really? Really?
Get's me thinking.
If I gave away an iPhone to a new subscriber to this blog, could I usurp #1 Engadget's seat on the top of Technorati's world-domination blog list and really cash-in before blogs go the way of toaster ovens for sex appeal?
One of the blog questions -- falling in the "Big Ideas" category -- that my students will have to face this week is the following. I'm curious: how would you answer it?
Here's an 'easy' challenge for you, my budding philosophers:
Prove that you actually exist.
Seriously. Can you?
Can you -- only through words/writing -- actually prove that you exist?
Can you do it in 7+ sentences and actually convince your reader that you really, really, really do exist? Can you? (he smiles)
After 5 weeks of testing out the classroom blogging project with my 4 Eng II classes, I thought I'd ask my students to evaluate the process so far.
The questions I asked ranged from asking them how much time they spend each week submitting entries, the value (to them) of having me comment on student entries, the grading/selection process, to the quality of prompts. Fortunately, they are a forthright group of kids...so getting honest feedback was a guarantee.
The range of comments were generally positive (in fact, they seem really invested save for a few -- and actually, I can respect where they're coming from knowing their stories). Certainly positive enough to give me confidence that it will be worth pursuing this project through the rest of the year (with a few minor tweaks to ensure I don't overwhelm my students' workload in the process).
Of the many student evaluations back to me that caught my eye, however, this is the one that has me laughing even hours later. Out of the mouth of babes:
"Personally, I am shocked that a teacher of any sort could think of an interactive homework assignment that involves the Internet."
Let that one sink in for a second.
I think this one pretty sums up EVERYTHING I've spent the last 3+ years wondering about in my previous professional life. Hopefully, however, such a response won't be the norm too far into the future.
Unless we really have a sense of irony.