Changing Tools

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Long-time readers of this blog will know that Captain America is one of my favorite heroes. (Just take a look at these posts about Iconic Images, Teacher Evolution, and Grit-ty Heroes.)

Recently, Marvel Comics released the landmark issue Captain America #700, which includes a special back-up story using unpublished pages drawn by the late, great co-creator Jack Kirby with a new script by current writer Mark Waid.

Check out this classic artwork brought to life:

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In the new Avengers: Infinity War film, Cap has a whole new look. Besides facial hair and muted uniform colors, another noticeable difference is his missing shield.

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Over the course of decades and different media, the Star-Spangeled Avenger has used a variety of shields. In fact, the good folks at Comic Book Resources have published a list of TWENTY Captain America shields, ranked from worst to best.

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Each of these shields are unique, but they all serve as both defensive and offensive tools.

Captain America has his shield. Spider-man’s got his “web-shooters.” Batman has endless  batarangs. Green Lantern uses his ring (and lantern).

 

 

What trademark tools do teachers use?

Perhaps the most iconic tool of teachers is the chalkboard (and all its derivations). Just do a quick Google search of the word “teacher” and you’ll discover an array of people posing in front of a chalkboard:

 

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As seen in these images, the chalkboard is cross-cultural and used world-wide.

Much like Captain America’s shield, teachers’ chalkboards have transformed over the years.

First we have the chalkboard:

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In black OR green varieties!

 

Then we got the overhead projector:

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You can face the entire class while you write – BONUS!

 

Then came whiteboards:

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Less chalk dust, but more mind-altering marker smells!

 

Add a projector and computer connectivity, and you get a SMARTBoard:

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More recently, the advent of “Augmented Reality” (AR) is a new addition to standard SMARTBoards. Here are two photos courtesy of the March/April 2018 issue of THE Journal:

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No matter the board, each version serves in the same general capacity – to display visual information, record ideas, provide an avenue for students and teachers to share, and more.

And like Captain America’s shield, the actual effectiveness of the tool depends on the expertise and ingenuity of the user. A state-of-the-art tool used poorly yields shoddy results.

Honestly, the above photos of AR-using teachers are problematic. In one, the teacher is fixated on the board instead of the students; in the second, the computer station is a barrier blocking the teacher from her students. Both examples are just snapshots, but both could be improved with more flexibility and responsiveness to the students.

Let’s look again at Captain America’s multiple shields. Besides the standard round metal variety, I’m particularly fond of Cap’s energy shield.  One version of this tool could change according to the user’s purpose:

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So teachers, whether you have a dusty chalkboard or spiffy AR-enhanced SMARTBoard, or anything between, please be sure to use it well. Practice to increase efficiency. Welcome student contributions. And use it creatively, adjusting to the context of the lesson and learners’ individual needs.

 

 

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Hidden Wasps

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This month saw the release of a new comic from Marvel:  The Unstoppable Wasp, which stars a new Wasp heroine who is the teenage daughter of Hank Pym (original Ant-Man) and his late first wife.

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The original Wasp, Janet van Dyne, is known as Hank Pym’s second wife and a founding Avenger.  In fact, she’s the one who named “The Avengers,” as seen at the end of issue #1 way back in 1963:

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Janet is perhaps most famous for her colorful variety of costumes.  In fact, someone actually went to the trouble of cataloging all of Wasp’s outfits from the past 50+ years.  Here’s just a few:

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Contrast the elder Wasp’s fashion sense above with younger Wasp’s mission, outlined in the comic panels below:

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Reviewers are mostly positive toward Marvel’s new take on the Wasp and its pro-STEM  message, especially for girls.  Unstoppable Wasp #1 has been called “relentlessly positive” with “infectious enthusiasm.”  Take a look and consider for yourself:unstoppable_wasp_1_3

I must admit, a mash-up of science, pop culture, and cheesy humor occurs in my classroom on a daily basis.  So of course I’m totally in favor of a comic like this.

In a universe known for its brilliant scientists–Tony Stark, Bruce Banner, Reed Richards, Hank Pym, Henry McCoy, etc.–Marvel is wise to put more emphasis on female contributions.

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And if you want more reasons for improving the gender balance in STEM-related work (science/technology/engineering/math) in the REAL world, take a look at some statistics here.

I’m not arguing that all students (male or female) should pursue STEM careers or college degrees.  But we do need students (and society) thoroughly educated in science and math, as well as ALL other disciplines.  Some folks add “Arts” to advocate for “STEAM” education.  I say throw in the Humanities, History, and Physical Education can call it “SHHTEAMPE” (Trademark 2017).

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Maybe you haven’t heard of The Unstoppable Wasp, but you might know about the movie Hidden Figures.  This recent film (based on the book) shares the story of REAL women and their challenges and contributions.

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Sadly, I haven’t seen this film yet. But it’s already one of my wife’s all-time favorite movies, so it’s only a matter of time.  Until then, Smithsonian Magazine‘s website provides an interesting overview, “The True Story of ‘Hidden Figures,’ the Forgotten Women Who Helped Win the Space Race.”

This feature also shares author Margot Lee Shetterly’s background (and ongoing) work in uncovering details about the people involved.  I appreciate the article’s final paragraph and quote from Shetterly, because it evokes super-heroics even as it emphasizes down-to-earth human effort:

“[Shetterly] hopes her work pays tribute to these women by bringing details of their life’s work to light. ‘Not just mythology but the actual facts,’ she says. ‘Because the facts are truly spectacular.'”

The impact of the people in Hidden Figures continues today, with reports about increased interest in STEM by girls and minorities.  I don’t know if The Unstoppable Wasp will have the same effect, but teachers may want to try both artistic resources in their classrooms.

Here are some other suggestions from “experts” talking with CNN about increasing girls’ interest in STEM.  I’d say that many of these ideas are applicable to all children and all subject disciplines.

What about you?  You don’t have to teach in a STEM-related field.  What “SHHTEAMPE” strategies do you use to make learning meaningful and memorable?

 

Tech-No?

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Turn around, Avengers – they’re right behind you!

The Avengers: Age of Ultron movie is out, and apparently it’s doing very well. I did my part by seeing the film twice (continuing education credits for my geek certification).

With box office business, there are always those “glass-half-empty” folks defining success. We’ve talked about “What is Success?” before, related to teaching and heroics. And last time we examined the issue of too much integration, whether it be heroes or school subjects.

This time, though, let’s dig deeper into one of the bigger topics in the film:

Technology gone wild!

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Of course, the Avengers were worried more about global safety and saving human lives; but we can still tackle technology with respect to the classroom and student learning.

Since my background is primarily science education (see “geek” self-identification above), I’m going to concentrate on that specific classroom context. Focusing on a single subject, however, still results in fuzzy conclusions.

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For example, here are a few reports on research examining virtual versus hands-on lab activities:

– Students (elementary/primary age) participating in virtual activities (3D animations, interactive) showed significantly higher scores in cognitive understanding compared to those in a traditional setting (El-Sabagh, 2011).

– Overall, no significant differences in learning gains have been found between virtual and traditional hands-on labs in college (Hawkins & Phelps, 2013).

– Although college students report liking virtual-type labs (easy and quick to do), they feel they would learn more by doing real world labs as well (Keeney-Kennicutt & Winkelmann, 2013).

It’s worth noting that–in these studies, at least–younger students responded more favorably to technology-based activities than older students. One could claim this is because today’s younger students are more exposed to technology than older students.  (It’s the old digital native/digital immigrant demarcation, although hasn’t everyone gone native by now?)

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You could also argue that older students are more reflective about their educational experiences and recognize what’s needed for robust comprehension.

Age differences aside, I’d argue that there needs to be a balance between old-school nitty-gritty hands-on lab activities and fancy-schmancy whiz-bang virtual activities.

– Since both virtual and hands-on labs have their advantages and disadvantages, blending the two throughout a course may have the most benefits for learning and motivation (Abdulwahed & Nagy, 2009).

– A recent study at Carnegie Mellon University focused on young students (ages 6-8) and found that participants using a “mixed-reality set-up” of both real and virtual components learned five times better than those using virtual-only features (Yannier, Koedinger, & Hudson, 2015).

So maybe student age doesn’t have anything to do with it. Have we solved the technology problem? I’m afraid it’s a never-ending issue, a never-ending battle all teachers face.

As teachers, we must be ever-vigilant about technology use in our classrooms, and I’m just not talking about keeping an eye on our students’ computer and tablet screens. We must also be sure our technology use actually enhances learning, as opposed to hindering authentic understanding. In other words, technology must remain our friend, not our enemy.

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A little TOO friendly, Ultron.

Let’s use an analogy from Avengers: Age of Ultron (slight spoiler alerts follow, yo).

Some humans (i.e. some teachers) see a new technology as the answer to all of our big problems, akin to Tony Stark’s vision for a global protector. More often than not, what actually comes into existence is a shaky, slightly grotesque prototype.

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A few missteps should be expected. Problems occur, however, when misguided plans typhoon into blind initiatives touting innovative, revolutionary, and other game-changer buzzwords.

Over time, the technology transforms into sleek, next-generation models. Updates happen so fast that we must keep up for fear of being branded “obsolete.”  (Not that far from “oblivion.”)

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You’ve seen the trailer, right? Watch this one again, looking for a classroom metaphor. (Hint: All the evil robots are iPads.)

I’m no technophobe. This is a blog article. With pictures and video. I’m typing this sentence using my MacBook Pro. (It hasn’t eaten me yet.) I love indoor plumbing. Big fan of electricity, too. Wi-fi? =hugs=

But as much as these advances make life more pleasant, we must be careful to ensure technology is the tool, not us.

For a more thorough examination of this topic, take a little time to review Olson and Clough’s 2001 article entitled “Technology’s Tendency to Undermine Serious Study: A Cautionary Note.”

If you have a lot of time, check out a book Olson and Clough helped put together called “The Nature of Technology: Implications for Learning and Teaching.” It has all kinds of chapters dealing with issues of technology use in the classroom. As a bonus, here is the book’s cover, which by itself should give you pause and something to think about:

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Technology by itself is not the problem. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the good guys (and gals) used all kinds of technology–Quinjets, holograms, and even Hawkeye with his bow and arrows. Throughout history, the classroom has been a hub of technology, be it chalkboards or SMART Boards, pencils or tablet styluses.

The ultimate “bad guy” in Avengers was not technology, but misguided Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). Likewise, teachers must battle the dangers of artificial intelligence, instead fighting the good fight for authentic learning and meaningful application.

Heroic Integration

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It’s been a while since our last blog post and we have all kinds of critically important issues to talk about, starting with . . . OH YEAH!  AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON super-duper blockbuster opens THIS WEEKEND!  

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The latest greatest superhero movie can provide a useful springboard for exploring the dangers of relying too much on technology (e.g. resulting in an evil sentient robot that tries to kill all humankind). Forget a vengeful Ultron or iPad; beware of students plugged in but tuned out to meaningful learning.

We’ll table that discussion for another time, however, given recent chatter about another famous Marvel character who may possibly join Earth’s Mightiest Heroes on the big screen:  Spider-Man.

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Thanks to Photoshop, we already have a poster!

Like Captain America and company, Spider-Man is a mainstay Marvel Comics character. But up until now, everyone’s favorite web-slinger has appeared in his separate series of movies due to film rights owned by Sony Pictures.

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Confused? Don’t worry, because bigwig producers have signed important papers and the stars have aligned and now Spidey can swing along with the Avengers in the official “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” or MCU.

Fan reaction has been understandably joyous, given the potential team-up between Marvel’s flagship hero and Marvel’s flagship hero team. Heck, the good folks at IGN have already imagined what Age of Ultron would look like with Spider-Man in the mix.  Take a look at their trailer here, if you’re curious.

Enthusiasm has erupted for integrating even more heroes in the movies. Speculation abounds if Marvel’s other movie heroes – the X-Men, the Fantastic Four – could ever merge into the MCU.  Even Wolverine’s Hugh Jackman wants to join in the mix.

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Coming to a movie theater near you?

Such integration of superheroes (a.k.a. worlds colliding) may appear as a bounty of riches; but there could be a downside.

Ever heard of too much of a good thing?

A common feature of disappointing superhero movies is a glut of characters in the script. Spider-Man 3 had Sandman and Venom and the Green Goblins clogging the villain faucet. Batman & Robin was actually Batman and Robin and Batgirl and Poison Ivy and Bane and Mr. Freeze. Superman III had Richard Pryor.

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Proving that “Two’s a Crowd.”

Curriculum Integration in schools is another appealing mash-up that may have a hidden downside or two.

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Basically, integrating curriculum is what teachers do when they teach lessons combining two or more major subjects or disciplines. Examples are as obvious as teaching algebra and graphing with a science experiment, and as unique as an instructor’s imagination. I know of a middle school that features a building-wide interdisciplinary unit all about the Greek Olympics. Every class studies some aspect of the ancient athletes – math, history, language arts, visual arts, science, P.E., and more.

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Sounds neat, right? And perhaps a little daunting to pull off, given the coordination of teachers, resources, and activities. But that’s just a challenge, not the downside. The upside is collaborative educators and students energized by explicit and relevant connections among various scholarly endeavors (subjects).

The danger of curriculum integration in classrooms is similar to those in superhero movies. Cramming in too much can end up in confusion and misconceptions. Content may be watered down, spread thin, or lost in the shuffle.

Take a minute to look at this article, “A Caveat: Curriculum Integration Isn’t Always a Good Idea,” by Jere Brophy and Janet Alleman for a more robust examination of this strategy. Better yet, print it out and read it while you wait in line for your Avengers movie tickets. Or download it on your portable digital device.

Technology can be great. So can curriculum integration. Just be careful.

You are not alone

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An encouraging reminder that there are many other super-teachers fighting the good fight.

Take a look:

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Love it!

This gem comes from the folks behind Podstock, a “tech integration conference” for educators in Kansas, the adoptive home state of Superman.  (Not bad!)

Learn more about Podstock here.  Go for it!