Technology in the Classroom

January 17, 2015

Recently, I had a discussion about technology in the classroom on Twitter. I love Twitter, but as is well known, it can be hard to fully articulate ideas on Twitter, and so , here we are. Blog post time.

I am not opposed to technology in the classroom. We should get that out of the way first. I’m not that stodgy. But, like everything, it isn’t an inherent good. The problem with technology in the classroom comes when people assume that all technology aids learning. Learning is about thinking. And you don’t need a computer for that. In fact, there is a recent study that shows that taking notes by hand instead of on a computer, for instance, enhances learning because it requires the note taker to think hard about what to write.

What technology can do is improve access. It makes it easier for teachers and students to access materials.

However, as we have seen, technology is not a required element in learning, and one problem comes with attempts to enforce it as a requirement. In order to use technology in the sense most people expect, you need one of two things: extremely reliable and high quality network access with in a school OR a full population of students with good access to technology. There are parts of the country, no doubt, where this is the case. However, given the percentage of US children who live in poverty, it is not, generally speaking, a reasonable assumption. Further, I can tell you from personal experience that trying to integrate technology is almost always frustrating. It goes something like this: “Hey, I put together this great interactive thing for you all to do, so we’re going down to the lab… Oh, wait, the internet’s down.” And, because the school day progresses, it’s not something that can be returned to. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.

The other major problem with technology in the classroom is that a great deal of what’s out there has very little to do with education. Rather, it’s all about measuring. What did your child do today? How well did they do it? Did they sit still? These are the kinds of things that really don’t deal in actual learning. Further, they encourage achievement learning instead of mastery learning. This is bad.

For those who don’t know, achievement learning is all about grades. It’s all about doing well enough to get a check mark or an A or whatever, and once you get that, you stop. You’re done. Mastery learning is about, well, mastering a topic. It involves taking on intentionally difficult tasks with the idea that you will learn from your experiences and even – gasp! – your failures. Mastery learning is not compatible with a system that penalizes effortful failure, which is what all the metric programs do.

Those same metric programs, I can promise you, are almost always pushed on educators by non-educators. The government line right now, is that all students can be measured by how they do on a test. These same officials, of course, almost universally send their children to private schools, which do none of the standardized testing you see in public schools.

The point is that, if you see something from a school about a new way to track your student’s progress, it can probably be ignored. Instead, talk to your kids. Kids, you will find, are much better at telling you what’s going on than a decidedly un-nuanced number.

Technology is important, and it does have its uses in the classroom, but just as a few decades ago, educational videos seemed like a great classroom tool, we are likely overstating its importance. What kids really need is meaningful interaction with their parents, teachers, and peers. When that happens – whether it is aided by technology or not – learning can happen.

2014 Reading Year in Review

January 2, 2015

I have been doing a yearly recap of my reading for five or six years now. It is my favorite post of the year because I am a giant nerd. But also because books are fun and I like writing about books. So, for your benefit, here is a breakdown of my reading year.


I set myself three goals this year: read all of Shakespeare, read 20,000 pages, and read one really long book per month. I got there on the first two, but not quite on the last one, where I was one book short. War and Peace kind of wore me out. I don’t feel bad about it. Anyway, 39 of the books I read this year were Shakespeare, and if you want to read a short recap of all that, go here. Bill Shakestaff will be largely absent from this post.

And, of course, I published my first book this year, which is pretty awesome.

By the Numbers:

Books Read: 93 (goal was 50)
Total Pages: 23,464 (goal was 20,000)
Average per Book: 252 pages (This is very low for me. All the plays brought the average down.)
Pages per Day: 64
Books Published: 1 (!!!)

Biggest Reading Month: January (11 books, 3,355 pages)
Smallest Reading Month: July (Only read half of War & Peace, did not finish a book, 750ish pages)

Five Longest Books:

1. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – 1450 pages
2. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – 1031 pages
3. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – 817 pages
4. Middlemarch by George Eliot – 795 pages
5. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt – 771 pages

(fun note: those five books accounted for 20% of my page total for the year)

Five Shortest Books:

1. A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen – 67 pages
2. The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick – 70 pages
3. The Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare – 81 pages
4. First Love by Ivan Turgenev – 88 pages
5. The Tempest by William Shakespeare – 88 pages

Random Stat:

I read 39 plays by Shakespeare and two novels by Tolstoy. However, those two novels by Tolstoy contained more words than all of the Shakespeare put together.

Books I Read Again (non-Shakespeare):

A Doll’s House
The Call of the Wild
A Christmas Carol
The House at Pooh Corner
The Lord of the Rings
The Hobbit
Winesbrug, Ohio
Anna Karenina
Native Speaker
Ethan Frome
The Sun Also Rises

Biggest Disappointment of the Year:

This gets two categories, the first is Shakespeare. In general, I was disappointed by Shakespeare’s comedies. Comedy can be wonderfully written (see Bill Bryson or David Sedaris), but Shakespeare is often very, very broad and repetitive.

In the non-Bill division, I was disappointed by Babel Tower by A.S. Byatt. At the time, I gave it a 4 of 5, but it has fallen in my esteem. I’m used to nothing but brilliance from her, and this – simply – wasn’t brilliant. It was okay.

Most Enjoyable Nonfiction:

In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat by John Gribbin – I finished this book on New Year’s Eve. It was great. I am a science nerd and this is very science nerdy. It does a great job explaining quantum mechanics. My edition was a fancy Folio Society edition with pretty pictures in it. I enjoyed absolutely everything about this book.

Favorite Books of the Year:

These are the literary titles I most enjoyed this year. Last year, this expanded from a top-5 to a top-10. I thought, for a while, that I’d be doing a top-5 again this year, but I closed strong, with lots of great books, so 10 it is.

These books might be classics or they might have just come out. The one thing they have in common is that I read them for the first time in 2014. Re-reads aren’t eligible for all of the obvious reasons. These rankings represent only my personal preferences at this moment.

Honorable Mentions:

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld was the hardest book to leave off this list. It was great. Middlemarch by George Eliot showed me I was wrong to have not read it in college. The Patron Saint of Liars reminded me why I love Ann Patchett. First Love by Ivan Turgenev and The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin were both just beautiful

Now, starting at number 10, here are my favorite books of the year.

10. The Sea by John Banville – Upon learning that this book beat out Never Let Me Go for the Booker Prize, I had to read it. I’m glad I did. It’s a largely plotless book, but the sudden and disturbing ending is all the more powerful for that. Any time I think about this book, I get a chill.

9. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – Speaking of Booker winners, Cate suggested this to me. I’m glad she did. It’s hard to imagine a book more up my alley. This is one that has made it’s way fairly well into popular culture, and deservedly so. We all need to think about the ways in which we delude ourselves.

8. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mushima – The more I look at this list, the more clear it is that I read a lot of great but disturbing books this year. Make of that what you will. This may be the most disturbing book, though. It is told from the perspective of a boy who watches as his mother becomes romantically involved with a sailor. I feel like Murakami must take some influence from Mushima. This book has the same false objectivity that’s been present in the Murakami I’ve read. The narrator wants you to trust him, but you never quite do.

7. The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick – And now, let’s throw in a book about the Holocaust. This is barely a book, really. It’s only 70 pages, but what makes it impressive is that, for all the writing about WWII and the Holocaust, it feels like Ozick has fit everything we need to feel about it into these pages.

6. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche – So many of the definitive books about race in America were written long before the end of the last century. That they still ring so true speaks poorly of how we’ve progressed. Nonetheless, it was wonderful to read a contemporary book that did such a great job of addressing the issue. What really sets Americanah off is that it is told from an outsider’s perspective. The narrator is an African immigrant. Her experiences – entering our society as an adult – perfectly highlight the absurdity of what still goes on here. Anyone who didn’t understand what Ferguson was all about ought to read this book.

5. Residence on Earth by Pablo Neruda – I love Neruda, but he can be uneven. Cate got me this as a birthday present because it is supposed to be his best collection. It is transcendent. Not a bad poem in it. Neruda’s poetry – when he chooses that direction – can be as sexy as anything you’ll ever read.

4. Orkney by Amy Sackville – Seven of the ten books on my list are books Cate recommended to me. That’s a good year for her. This book was nearly the best of that lot. I have absolutely no idea what goes on in this book. None at all. I don’t know what happens at the end or how I’m supposed to feel about it. I do know that it perfectly captures what I think it would feel like to live inside a fairy tale.

3. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak – This is probably the toughest book on my list. There are a lot of characters. It is long. It is, in essence, very Russian. But holy cow, it is great. Once you get comfortable with everyone in the story, it flows wonderfully. That Pasternak wrote this while living in the Soviet Union is a remarkable act of bravery and adherence to truth in art.

2. The Street by Ann Petry – Last year, I read Invisible Man, which I really needed to read. But I think this might be the better book on race. It was written by a woman and so it doesn’t get as much attention, but it feels more real than Invisible Man. More possible. It isn’t so ambitious, and so it comes out more true.

1. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell – Now, speaking of ambitious books. I don’t know that I’ve ever read something quite like this one. It is very realistic except, you know, for when there’s magic. It is – in many ways – a contemporary, literary fantasy novel that also throws in a bit of sciene fiction. Yes, it’s that complicate. What is most impressive about Mitchell however – what is always most impressive about him – is that he seems able to write anyone. He changes voices so naturally that you never question the genuineness of his characters, who are all unfailingly real.

Looking Ahead:

Last year showed me several things. First, I don’t really want to tackle a prolific author all in one go. 39 plays by Shakespeare was too much. More moderation there. I did really like reading long books, however. It’s something that’s so easy to neglect. I don’t want to push for one a month this year, but I am going to make sure I read at least half a dozen books over 500 pages. I’m also setting my arbitrary books read goal at 75 this year. I did 50 last year because I had no idea what would happen between Shakespeare and the long books. I read 93, so that was probably a tad conservative. I’m open to the possibility of reading 100 books in 2015. It would have happened in 2014 if not for a disastrous July.

I have two other goals for 2015. First, I currently have 33 books on my to-read shelf. That’s too many. Every month this year, I plan to read at least two books from that shelf. I must also be open to getting rid of any books that sit unread at the end of the year. I’ve had some books there for almost a decade. Time to read them or let them go.

Second, I want to spend more time in bookstores. Because of various projects and the reading teaching requires, I didn’t read nearly as much contemporary literature this year as I wanted. I’ve always found the best way to find good, new books, is to poke around my local indie store. So, I’m going to do that again. Cate and I used to do monthly book-night dates. I think I need to push for that again.

Okay, I’m off to read…

December Book Log

January 1, 2015

This was a really nice reading month for me. I finished eleven books, which ties the most books I’ve ever read in a month. A lot of them were short, though, as I was powering through Shakespeare, which I did finish, so there’s another goal met. December’s list is below. My year-in-review post will be up in a day or two.

1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (5/5) – I taught this book for the second time this year and read it for, I don’t know, the bazillionth time. It’s good. You know. Dickens and all that. I won’t pretend I have new stuff to say about it.

2. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (5/5) – I also taught this, but reading it for only the second time, I took a great deal from it. As with all books that I reread, I was able to appreciate the way Tolstoy structured this. Of particular note were the complimentary narratives of Levin and Anna, which play off each other brilliantly. Anna Karenina deserves it’s reputation as one of the greatest novels ever, and I continue to be impressed by Tolstoy’s excellent run at providing the meaning of life.

3. The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare (5/5) – Here at the end, Shakespeare has become a bit more uneven. Lots unfinished. Lots of strange choices, but this was great. It does a wonderful job of mixing comedic elements with a serious exploration of redemption. Well done all around. It’s one I’ll revisit.

4. Cymbeline by William Shakespeare (4/5) – It is easy to imagine this as one of Shakespeare’s great plays. The material is all there. The story is compelling. But it is either unfinished or not entirely written by Shakespeare (or, perhaps, just lazily done in places). The poetry isn’t there like it is in his best plays, and so it’s not quite a masterwork.

5. The Tempest by William Shakespeare (5/5) – I remembered this as one of my favorites by Shakespeare, and it still is. Brisk and brilliant, I’ll be teaching it in the new year, and it’s one of few I feel like I can stand to re-read right away. It belongs every bit in the same place as Lear or Macbeth or Hamlet.

6. Henry VIII by William Shakespeare (4/5) – This is a collaboration, and as the collaborations have been generally terrible, I was not looking forward to it. I was pleasantly surprised. It’s fun in a way that none of Shakespeare’s other plays are. And Henry VIII comes with a good story already. This is the only one of Shakespeare’s collaborations that I might someday revisit.

7. Edward III by William Shakespeare (2.5/5) – The last one I had to read. It is such a recent addition to the cannon that it wasn’t included in my complete Shakespeare, and I only found out about it through friend. There are moments of nice poetry, but overall, it is not a good play. No need to ever read it again.

8. McSweeney’s 32 (3.5/5) – A back issue I picked up at a used book store. It was decidedly meh. I’m starting to figure out that whenever McSweeney’s commissions writers to write on a particular topic, they get a couple of great stories, a few okay, and several that just don’t work.

9. Leonard Cohen: Songs and Poems by Leonard Cohen (3/5) – This is part of the Pocket Poets series. There are some very, very good pieces here, but Cohen writes about the same stuff in the same way fairly often and his rhymes are pretty obvious. I like him best when he sticks to unrhymed free verse. In those instances, his creative metaphors and similes really shine.

10. The Call of the Wild by Jack London (5/5) – Cate got me a beautiful illustrated edition of this for Christmas. I really like Jack London, but hadn’t read this since seventh grade. Because he is so often read only by middle school boys, London gets unfairly overlooked. HIs sentences are great and he is able to pack a pretty fierce emotional punch in not that many pages. Having re-read it, this feels like one I’ll revisit with some regularity.

11. In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat by John Gribbin (5/5) – This was a great book. I like to read about physics, and no one ever gives a good in-depth treatment to quantum mechanics. This does AND it makes quantum mechanics really accessible. Gribbin is an excellent writer and now I’m going to see what other stuff he has written and maybe read that, too.