Category Archives: Travel

A New Normal

Call it what you will. A desperate need for change. A longing for new adventure.  A mid-life crisis. I’m calling it an opportunity that only God could provide. I know for a fact that this time last August as I sat at my desk in Orange, California exporting and importing student rosters from our SIS to various online services, while patiently waiting for a cartload of classroom iPads to sync, I would never have guessed that a year later I would be sitting in a 6th floor apartment in Jinqiao, Shanghai, China writing a blog post about my “new normal”. Yet here I am, feeling – at least for now – that this is where I am supposed to be, ready to embrace a new challenge and see how best I can use my gifts to serve the community here at Concordia International School.


So what are some of my new “normals”?

Walking to work. Okay so walking to work isn’t REALLY anything new for me. I did that almost daily in Orange, but there I always had the option to drive.  Here I do not own a car. Until I buy a bike or a scooter, my Reeboks are the vehicle of choice.  Oh, and here in Shanghai pedestrians do not have the right of way.  Vehicles do not have to stop to turn right on red, and the hundreds of electric scooters see red lights as just a suggestion.  Seriously, they’re everywhere jetting silently in and around traffic like mini stealth fighters . Want to cross a street?  Look both ways.  Twice.

Speaking of not having a car, here is something else worth noting.  As I sat at LAX on Saturday, August 1 waiting for my 15 hour flight to Shanghai, I realized for the first time in over 40 years – I had NO KEYS.  No house key. No work keys, No car key. Nothing. Sure, it felt strange, but in a way it was also a little exhilarating.


Mandarin. Guess what they speak in China? This is going to be a challenge. Not just speaking, but reading. It’s everywhere – signs, labels, text messages from my mobile provider.  Many of my fellow teachers are doing a wonderful job picking it up.  I’m trying, but listening and mastering the correct tones for speaking is challenging.  Thankfully people here in Jinqiao speak English and are quite patient with me.    I can order a grande latte at Starbucks – there are two close by –  and they know exactly what I mean.  Still, I need to be intentional about learning Mandarin.  This little bubble of Shanghai is populated by so many ex-pats that it is quite possible to live here and never learn any of the language.  I hope that will not be the case for me.  I did hear a joke that hit a little close to home.  What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.  What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? American.


The best Internet is at school.  You’ve no doubt heard of the “Great Firewall of China”.  Basically sites like YouTube,  Facebook, Google, Twitter, and many others are blocked. Residential service, at least where I live, is much slower that it is back in the states.  At school, however, they have what our IT director calls “International” or “White-listed” Internet.  Basically this means that students and teachers who want to check social media like Facebook, Twitter, Google Hangouts, or watch YouTube, I need to do it at school.  It also means that while we can access and use Google Apps at school, for students to work with Google Apps at home requires setting up a VPN.  A little bit backwards compared to what we have back in the states, right?

Dependancy.  Back home I considered myself to be mostly self-sufficient, and I was very comfortable with that. Moving here is a big step out of my comfort zone. It means giving up a big chunk of that self reliance to be dependent on  the help of others. It’s a matter of survival, but it’s a good thing. The community here at Concordia is amazing. They are welcoming, helpful, caring, and have gone above and beyond to make sure newbies like myself don’t fall through the cracks.  As a result in just three weeks time I have developed some amazing friendships.  We work together, learn together, and play together.  In many respects, it is similar to the type of connections I’ve made at Discovery Summer Institutes.  I’ve been told by several “old timers” that this is a community unlike other international schools and I’m thankful to be a part of it.

I am quickly learning that you can’t teach at Concordia and not be a “lifelong learner”.  The passion these people have for learning and teaching was evident from day one.  Here you have a group of teachers at the top of their game, doing what they love, for the benefit of the students and the school community.  In some respects, as a newbie here it’s a little intimidating.  Am I up to the challenge?  Can I live up to the expectations?  At dinner last night with several other new teachers, I was able to hear one of my colleagues express the same feelings.  What a relief it was to hear that!   I am not alone. What a comfort it is to realize that in spite if any doubts we might have, that this is where we are meant to be.  This time, in this place. It is all part of the plan. A plan that is bigger than just me.


This is the second part in a series of blog posts sharing what I learned during my visit to Finland May 3-14, 2013.

Before leaving for Finland I read articles and blogs, and watched videos like Pasi Sahlberg’s TED Talk  and “The Finland Phenomenon” ( I wanted to learn about all the amazing teaching and learning going on in Finnish schools. I arrived expecting to see engaging, dynamic lessons that would blow away anything happening here in the US. I was expecting Finnish schools to look drastically different than American schools with thoughtfully designed creative learning spaces, and state of the art classrooms. I was expecting to see classes full of focused, attentive students, actively participating and producing awe-inspiring projects.

That’s the problem with expectations. They are used as a measuring stick to evaluate what we see. “This exceeded my expectations.” “That did not meet my expectations.” Expectations put an ideas in our heads and focus our attention to look only for certain things and not notice important details that fall outside that focus. My colleague Janet warned me not to let my observations be skewed by expectations, but rather to go in without any expectations at all and see the teachers, schools, and students for what they really are. I’m thankful for her advice. I’ve now had several days to process what we saw, heard, and talked about.

The Finnish schools I saw did not look that much different from schools in the US. Desks, chalkboards – yes I said, chalkboards. Student artwork decorates the halls. What I noticed is how clean and well maintained they were. Students walk the halls in socks – they are trained to leave their outside shoes by the door to prevent tracking in snow and dirt. I didn’t see an abundance of technology. The school in Ivalo had a computer lab not unlike those at many US schools, and the school in Utsjoki had a distance learning room equipped with a SmartBoard, but overall they were not equipped as well as many schools here in the states. Now I admit, we were visiting rural schools 200+ kilometers above the arctic circle, but Janet informed me that while there are some schools that feature some pretty innovative learning spaces, most are what we would recognize at typical schools.

Finnish teachers I met know their students personally. The schools I visited were small rural schools but I was told that even the largest schools in Finland don’t have more than several hundred students. This allows teachers time to build relationships, and develop an understanding of individual student needs. Teachers stress less about themselves and all they are required to teach, but focus more on each student and what they need in order to learn. Isn’t that what differentiation is all about?

One major difference between Finnish and American schools is that these teachers do not have all the standards we do. In fact, they don’t have “standards” at all. Instead their national core curriculum has “objectives”. These objectives are a lot more open-ended, like essential questions, and allow teachers to design lessons and activities that get students asking their own questions, thinking critically, and solving problems. Individual schools are in charge of their own curriculum and teachers are free to decide the best methods for teaching their students.

Here are a few examples of their objectives:

Biology (Grades 5-6)

  • learn to move about in the natural environment and observe and investigate nature outdoors
  • come to understand that people depend on the rest of nature in their food production
  • take responsibility for their own actions and take others into consideration

Physics (Grades 7-9)

  • learn to plan and carry out scientific investigation in which variables affecting natural phenomena are held constant and varied and correlations among the variables are found out

History (Grades 5-6)

  • understand that historical information consists of the interpretations of historians which may change as new sources or methods of investigation emerge
  • learn to identify the continuity of history with the aid of examples
  • learn to present reasons for historical changes

Math (Grades 1 -2)

  • learn to justify their solutions and conclusions by means of pictures and concrete models or tools, in writing or orally; and to find similarities, differences, regularities and cause-and-effect relationships between phenomena
  • become practiced in making observations about mathematical problems that come up and are challenging and important from their personal standpoints


If you look at their national core curriculum you’ll see, listed under their objectives for each subject area, core contents to be integrated into these objectives. The emphasis appears to be on practical examples, real world experiences, problem solving, and critical thinking rather than lists of facts to be memorized and tested. I encourage you to check them out for yourself.

The Finnish teachers we saw don’t take home stacks of homework to grade. The teachers I observed check to make sure homework is done, but that homework has little effect on students grades. Proof that students understand and meet the objectives is determined by assessments and student projects.  The don’t send home progress reports, but do communicate to parents when students are struggling.  I mentioned in my last post that students are trusted with more personal responsibility. This translates to a greater personal responsibility for their own learning as well.

Finland doesn’t have standardized testing like we have in the US, but that doesn’t mean they don’t test. They have one standardized test that all students take when they are 15 years old. They also have a matriculation exam to check and see if students are ready for upper secondary school and another one to determine if students go to University or Vocational School. The National Board of Education also randomly selects a sampling of basic and secondary schools for testing each year. Here’s the big difference. Those test are developed and administered by the National Board of Education, not private for-profit testing companies, and the purpose of those tests is to see how schools across Finland are doing as whole. These standardized tests are not used to evaluate individual teacher performance or rate schools as good or bad. Schools and teachers are not in competition with each other.

The Finnish teachers I met seem to have great respect for American teachers. In fact, many lesson and projects ideas used in Finnish classrooms come from American teachers. They feel that American teachers are among the best, hardest working teachers in the world, yet they are stuck in a system that is broken. A system that emphasizes picking correct answers over producing products that demonstrate student problem solving and critical thinking.

Wonder what might happen if you took an American teacher and a Finnish teacher and let them switch places? Here is what Finnish education expert Pasi Sahlberg thinks: “What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools?” The last three paragraphs of the article answer the question. I’m thinking this might make an interesting TV Show for next Fall: “TeacherSwap”. This is a reality show I might actually watch.

Why Finland?

This is the first part of several blog posts sharing what I learned during my visit to Finland May 3-14, 2013.

You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach as you near the front of the line to ride that scary new roller coaster for the first time?  That’s the best way to describe the feeling I had stepping on to British Airways flight 268 from LAX to London – the first leg of two flights that would take me to Helsinki, Finland. I was full of anticipation and excitement, mixed with a little anxiety. This would be my first ever trip to Europe. After months of mental preparation it was actually happening.

So why Finland? And why was I using my full allotment of personal days and spending my own money to jet off for 11 days in the middle of May? My good friend Janet English ( has been in Finland since January on a Fulbright Scholarship studying how Finnish schools teach problem solving. Her project has her visiting schools and interviewing students & teachers all over Finland to get their story. For the last several years Finland schools have been the focus of world attention because of their students high scores on the PISA, an international test that “looks at students’ ability to apply knowledge and skills in key subject areas and to analyse, reason and communicate effectively as they examine, interpret and solve problems.” (  When she invited me to join her on an adventure north to visit schools in Lapland, how could I refuse?

I arrived in Helsinki at 11pm local time Friday night. This gave me two nights to adjust to the 10 hour time difference and explore Helsinki before leaving for Lapland. It is a fascinating place and fun to explore. I’m embarrassed to admit that I am fluent in just one language while most Finns speak two or three. When I tried to use some of the VERY limited Finnish I learned online and on Youtube, most people just smiled and answered me in English.  The Finns are very gracious.  By the way, the World Hockey Championships ( just happened to be starting in Helsinki the day I arrived so finding something to do on Saturday was not an issue. Go Team USA (“Ooo, Ess, Ahh” in Finnish!)


Janet arrived in Helsinki Sunday afternoon, just in time for dinner and another hockey game. Monday morning our adventure to Lapland began. We flew to Ivalo, which is about as far north as commercial airlines will take you in Finland, then drove another two hours north from there to Kevo Subarctic Research Institute ( This would be our “home base” the next week. Since Kevo is 350km north of the Arctic circle we were blessed with 24 hours of daylight. While the sun would dip below the horizon for a couple of hours it never really got dark. In another month, it won’t even set, but rather just make a 360 degree circle around the horizon.

IMG_20130507_145228The next day we were off on my first school visit, a small Jr/Sr High School in Ivalo. As soon as we arrived the difference between Finnish schools and US schools was evident.  Doors were unlocked.  We just walked in. I admit I was a bit uneasy as we walked the halls. With security such a big issue in US schools, I couldn’t help but feel we needed so sign in somewhere, get a badge, or be escorted by someone official. Janet assured me we were fine. Finnish schools are open like this. When we finally met the school administrator with whom we had arranged our visit I was much more at ease – even though I really had nothing to worry about.

The math teacher created this card with string to help her students understand triangles in geometry and showed me how to fold a rectangular piece of paper into a triangular prism to teach surface area.

She brought us to the English class. Finnish students start studying English in first grade. One the high school students gave us a tour of the school and answered our questions – in English of course. Once again I felt a bit humbled that I only speak one language. We toured the school, observed math, chemistry, and art classes, and joined the Finnish teachers at their table in the cafeteria for lunch. Students here have a lot more independence than their American counterparts.  In this school, they have their own student lounge with couches and coffee. Students (age 15-17) who travel more than 50km to school stay overnight during the week in a building adjacent to the school. There they take care of themselves, even preparing their own meals.

IMG_20130508_100054The next day we visited a smaller school in Utsjoki – at the very top of Finland.  Here we met with their science teacher, a very talented yet humble man. He shared how his students learn principles of science by studying the outdoors right around them. They learn about biology by studying their own environments and how they survive and interact with it. We also met and spoke with a Sami teacher, a native Laplander, who teaches the Sami language to students at their school and others using their distance learning classroom. For lunch we enjoyed a delicious salmon soup in the cafeteria, and then met with students in the English class.  There we talked with them, in English, about life in Southern California. Our life is quite a contrast from theirs.  They wanted to know about Los Angeles, earthquakes, and life a metropolitan area that has more people than their entire country.  It was a good opportunity to let them hear that there is more to America and Americans than just what they see in the media.  Conversely, their lives are quite different from anything I could imagine growing up.  One of the students in the class actually works as a reindeer herder.  I suppose the definition of “fast food” is a little different here, but that’s not a bad thing.  In fact I found reindeer quite tasty.

That’s me sitting on a reindeer hide roasting reindeer sausage over a fire inside the “kota” (a teepee) at Kevo.

A More Human Way to Travel – Part 2

Climbing through the mountains near Santa Fe we ran into snow flurries so I didn’t get great view out the window for the prettiest part of the trip, but the falling snow was a treat in itself. One thing I’ve really come to appreciate about train travel is the quiet. In my compartment with the door shut, it’s quite peaceful. Unlike an airline, there’s no engine noise and unless you’re moving between cars you don’t even hear the “clackety-clack” of the tracks. Even though I bring stuff to read and typically make plans to use all that time on the train to get work done, I usually end up just sitting, staring out the window, watching the world go by. Before I realized it, we had crossed over Raton Pass and into Colorado. It was already getting dark again.

After dinner I retired to my roomette, worked a little more on my presentation then found Rene to get the room ready for sleeping again. Knowing I would lose another hour overnight I set the clock on my Blackberry ahead to Central time and turned in.

The tracks were a bit rough through Kansas overnight. As I rocked in my bunk I dreamed I was riding the luge down the Olympic course at Whistler. After breakfast we stopped in Kansas City for about 40 minutes. I had time to walk around and take a few pictures inside the beautiful Kansas City Union Station. If you’ve ever been to Union Station in Washington DC, it’s a bit smaller, but similar. As I stepped out front to get a few exterior pictures I saw Barb. Her trip was over and she was waiting for her ride. I told her it was a pleasure traveling with her, wished her a safe journey home, and made my way back to the platform.

Leaving Kansas City we crossed the Missouri River. The rest of the way to Chicago, I saw a lot of snow. It was everywhere – on the ground, in the trees. It blew past my window as the engine stirred up whatever was lying on the tracks. We passed countless farms and rolled through several small towns as we made our way across Missouri. At one stop in La Plata, MO I noted that you know you’re in rural America when the only vehicle waiting at the railroad crossing is a John Deere.

At Fort Madison, Iowa we crossed the mighty Mississippi into Illinois. My last meal on the train was with a couple from Kansas on their way to Chicago for a little vacation. She was a retired Kindergarten teacher. Funny how I keep running into teachers. We shared school experiences and I talked about ways education has changed over the years (and how it hasn’t). I also explained some of the things I planned to teach in my ICE presentations.

Passing through Princeton & Mendota, I knew my journey on the Southwest Chief would soon be coming to an end. As I gathered my things Rene came by to help. Naperville was the last stop before downtown Chicago. Since my conference was in St. Charles, it made sense to arrange for transportation from there. I found my way downstairs as the train slowed to a stop. Rene opened the door and placed my bags on the platform and I thanked him for making the trip an enjoyable one.

As the train pulled out of the station on it’s way downtown, I meandered toward the front of the station where my friend Anne was waiting for me. My 42 hour Amtrak trip to Chicago was now officially over.

The train arrived in Naperville, Illinois 15 minutes early. My flight back to California the next Saturday was over 2 1/2 hours late due to mechanical problems. As I stood in the security line at O’Hare with my shoes off, laptop out, and carry-on ready for inspection, I noticed ads for Amtrak pasted to the bottom of those plastic bins at the x-ray. The modern day equivalent of “Next time, take the train.” You don’t have to tell me that.

A More Human Way to Travel

I’ll be taking a departure away from technology issues for the next few posts to submit another online journal of another train trip across the country. This time I used the 2010 ICE Conference in St. Charles, Illinois as an excuse to ride the Southwest Chief.

When you ride the train they know you by name. At least your sleeping car attendant does. Rene was in charge of car 430. “Mr. Dennis”, he called me looking at his passenger list as I boarded the Southwest Chief in Fullerton, California eastbound to Chicago. He lifted my large bag up onto the lower baggage rack and directed me upstairs to my compartment. I was in roomette #5. The roomette is a small compartment with two seats facing each other and a sliding glass door & curtain for privacy. By the time I set my backpack and coat down on one seat and plopped myself down on the other I realized we had already started moving. I barely noticed. “They’re still serving dinner.” Rene advised, “You should go get something to eat.”

It was 7:20pm. If I had known they would be serving dinner that late I wouldn’t have eaten that burger before arriving at the station. Meals are included in when you purchase a sleeping compartment. Entering the dining car, Annie, the dining car steward directed me to my table. Amtrak dining cars are community seating, so you get to know your fellow passengers during meal times. Next to me sat Barb, who got on with me in Fullerton. Her compartment was right across the hall from mine. She was traveling back home to Kansas City after visiting her grandchildren in San Diego. The gentleman who sat across from us was a businessman “training” his way to back to the East Coast. We introduced ourselves and shared about our occupations. The ribs and chicken looked good, but since I had already eaten I opted for just coffee and slice of cheesecake. Over the meal we had a lively discussion over ways deal with the glut of information online, the need for “fact-checking”, and how to teach kids to determine bias. We agreed that the loudest opinion is believed and shared more often than the actual truth.

By the time dinner was over we were already past San Bernardino and heading up Cajon Pass. I was about ready to turn in for the night and before I could ask, Rene was there. In less than 2 minutes he had converted my two seats into one bed. When the sleeper is made up it’s about as wide and long as a standard sleeping bag. With the slider to the compartment shut and curtains pulled I had about 12 inches of space between the bed and the door. Not much room to change, but I managed. I suppose I could have used the changing room downstairs. Maybe tomorrow. This was my third overnight train trip, but the motion of the car and the unfamiliar surroundings still took a little getting used to. I woke up several times but eventually found my way to dreamland.

Shortly after 5:00am it was still dark when the train stopped in Flagstaff. I woke to look out my window and see snow – lots of it. I snapped a couple of pictures and debated going back to sleep, but then realized my time was wrong. Blackberry’s don’t update the clock when you change time zones. It was already after 6:00am. Time to get up.

Showering on a moving train can be a challenge. Each sleeping car has a changing room with a shower. It’s like a glorified RV shower. Amtrak provides towels & soap. You set the temperature and press the button for about 45 seconds of water. It took a few presses to get hot water – I never really got the temperature right. The water pressure was pretty weak but after several presses at least I felt clean and somewhat refreshed which is more than I can say for my fellow passengers in coach. One man who got on with me at Fullerton was headed all the way to Rhode Island in coach. All I remember thinking was, “Good luck, pal.”

The dining car opened at 6:30am for breakfast. The sun was just coming up as we rolled East across Arizona. Barb was at my table again for breakfast. She had travelled on the Southwest Chief several times before so I asked her to advise me where the prettiest part of the trip might be. She told me my best photo opportunities would be climbing through the mountains near Santa Fe and into Colorado. While we ate, the train made a quick stop in Winslow. I did a quick check to see if I could see anyone standing on a corner – taking it easy. Nope. The train moved on.

9:00am. Crossing into New Mexico there was snow on the ground once again. After passing through Gallup, I grabbed a cup of coffee from the coffee & juice station at the center of my sleeping car and tried to get some work done on my presentation for the ICE Conference – my excuse for taking this train in the first place. Rene had already changed my room from a bed back into two seats. Each room has a power outlet so I plugged in my computer and was able to get online by tethering it to my Blackberry. I tried pushing my luck to see if I could Skype with Jen Wagner so she could give me some advice on my presentation. We got a few words in, but the connection kept dropping, so I went back to texting.

Lunch time. We pulled into Albuquerque 20 minutes early. That gave me over an hour to explore before the train was scheduled to depart. I walked around for a bit but got hungry. “Back so soon Mr. Dennis?” Rene asked as I climbed back into car 430. “The dining car is empty if you want to eat lunch.” My thoughts exactly.

This time my meal companions were a couple of seasoned train travelers, one a retired college professor, on their way to New York. Teachers always have stuff to talk about and before I realized the hour was up and the train was moving once again.

Go to PART 2

Summer Reflections 2

Fun With Time-Lapse

In addition to digging into Google Maps, this summer was also an opportunity to explore the world of photography. I haven’t owned an SLR camera since my old 35mm Canon T70 died back in the early 90’s. Things have changed a lot and my new Nikon D5000 has some pretty impressive features. For those you hardcore photographers this is just an “entry level DSLR”, but for me it was a major step up from the point & shoots I’ve been using up to now.

One feature I’m really enjoying is the Interval Timer feature. This allows me to set the camera to take a certain number of pictures at a specific time interval. This is a great way to capture a series of images that can be combined either inside the camera or using video editing software like iMovie, Movie Maker. For example, I was able to capture time-lapse images of storm clouds moving over Lake Powell this summer. To create the sequences below, I put the camera on a tripod and set it to take one picture every 10 seconds for about 60 frames.

The ability to shoot time-lapse has lots of creative possibilities as well as some science applications too. Things to remember:

  • Make sure the camera doesn’t move while you’re capturing images. After seeing the results of my first few attempts, I learned that it was better to set the tripod on the ground because the houseboat moves.
  • Don’t use the maximum resolution of your camera. You don’t need a 3000 x 4000 pixel image if you’re making a video. Besides, you’ll fit a lot more on your memory card if you scale it back a little. The best HD video resolution is only 1920 X 1080.
  • Make sure you have a full battery charge or, if you have an AC adapter, plug your camera into a power source. A lot of time can be wasted if your camera dies during your interval shoot.
  • Experiment & have fun. Just like the Hokey Pokey – “That’s what it’s all about.”

Summer Reflections

Many of you start a new school year today. In just a moment students will be arriving, anxiously waiting for the pearls of wisdom you choose to bestow upon them. Like me, many of you are probably wondering how summer went by so fast. It seems so close, yet as you frantically put those finishing touches on your classroom, it also seems infinitely far away. It wasn’t that long ago, I think it was July, that I was in Alaska exploring Denali National Park and cruising the Inside Passage. When I get stressed about everything on my “to-do” list it helps to go back and re-live that adventure. It puts me back in my “happy place”.

Because I consider myself a bit of a techie, I used the trip as an opportunity to dig in and really get familiar with Google Maps. Below is my Alaska Adventure.

View Alaska Adventure in a larger map

Creating a Google Map is a wonderful way to combine stories, pictures, and video from your vacation. I was able to arrange events in order, map my travel route, and place pictures and videos in their proper place on the map. It’s like an interactive travelogue. And sharing my travel story is as simple as copying and pasting a link into an e-mail (or blogpost).

When editing a “story” events can be rearranged by simply dragging them up and down the list on the right side of your screen. Lines can be added to show travel routes. One feature I really liked was Google Maps ability to make lines follow known roads or highways. (I don’t even think you can do this in Google Earth.)

I had no problem adding photos I had posted to my Flickr account. In the “rich text” editor you just click on image button and paste the URL.

Google Maps will also accept some embed code. Using the “Edit HTML” feature, I was able to copy and paste code to embed video clips I posted to YouTube. Since Google owns YouTube it makes sense that this would work. I did not have any luck trying to embed something from Voicethread however. It may take some experimenting to see what it will and will not accept.

As you can imagine there are lots of possibilities for using Google Maps in the classroom. Maps are a great way for students to grasp large amounts of data in a way that isn’t overwhelming. Here’s one that shows recent earthquakes around the world ( Do you think your students could use this information to locate the boundaries of tectonic plates? If your class is looking at current events, the LA Times has one with updated info about the Station Fire.

You can also get students involved in creating Google Maps. In an earlier post I showed a “Breakfast Around the World” map created with data collected from our 3rd graders. Colette Cassinelli created a project she uses with her students called “Postcard Geography“. I can see our 5th grade teachers doing something similar for combining information from students’ state reports. (Colette also has some great Google Map links on her wiki.)

One hurdle you need jump when using maps with students is that Google Maps is not part of Google Apps for Education. So in order for students to edit a map or create their own, they need to register with Google and create their own Google account, or use one created by their teacher. Otherwise the teacher will have to take work submitted by students and post it to Google themselves. (That’s what I’ve done.) Hopefully this is something Google will add to Apps for Ed in the future.

Enjoy playing with Google Maps and if the new school year gets a little overwhelming, take a time out, think back to summer and map your summer memories. I think I ‘m going back and look at some Alaska pictures right now.

The Final Frontier

Here’s another one of those serendipity moments.

A weekend fishing trip up to the Owens Valley yielded an unexpected surprise. If you’ve ever driven up US 395 you may have noticed those large radio telescopes off to the east between Big Pine & Bishop, CA. For years I’ve wondered about those and have always wanted to get a closer look and learn more about them. What I never knew, is that 13 miles east of there, tucked up in the hills is another similar array.

Here’s the serendipitous part – the day we picked to fish the Owens River just happened to be the same day that CARMA (The Combined Array for Research in Millimeter wave Astronomy) was holding their annual Open House. We followed the signs along the highway, headed east on highway 168 past the big dishes in the valley up into the White Mountains, and found the observatory site and it’s 23 “telescopes”.

Upon arriving we were greeted by Dr. Mark Hodges from Caltech who started the tour by sharing some information about the array and some of the work being done there. While not as big as the 130 ft dishes in the valley, what these telescopes lack in size, they make up in quantity and precision. The 10 and 3.5 meter dishes here are practically perfect parabolas – the margin of error is about the width of a human hair. By using an array of telescopes they are effectively able to get the same information that could be obtained by a much larger dish. As we toured the facility, Douglas, one of the engineers explained how the racks of computers he designed process terabytes of information received from the array, filter out the noise, and combine it into one “image”.

Why take a picture with radio waves?
After munching on free hot dogs provided by the CARMA staff, Eric, one of several astrophysicists on site, explained that while the Hubble Telescope provides stunning visual images, it doesn’t give us the whole picture. Radio waves provide much more information about distant stars & galaxies and help scientists determine not just what they look like, but also identify the molecules that make up these distant objects. Also, because radio waves are not affected by visible light, these telescopes can be used 24 hours a day.

What type of research is being done here?
When I asked Eric about his project, he shared that he currently has the 3.5 meter array pointed at a cluster of galaxies and hopes to use the information he gathers to prove the existence of dark matter.

The CARMA array is funded by the National Science Foundation and is a jointly operated by Caltech, UC Berkeley, the University of Illinois, the University of Maryland, and the University of Chicago. Every 6 months, the NSF accepts research proposals and determines which ones get time to use the array. The allocation of time is a valuable thing because a single “picture” taken by the array can take take several hours. Douglas, one of the CARMA engineers, explained that to get one image, an array of telescopes captures lines of information as the Earth rotates. After about 8 hours these lines create a complete circle and the computers get to work to process the image. “It’s like the world’s slowest digital camera.”

That’s me standing next to one of the 10 meter telescopes.

For more information about CARMA, visit their site:

Morsels from NCCE

Okay, I have to admit I’m a little jealous of people who can attend a conference or workshop and by the time it is over they’ve already written and posted a clean, coherent, and thoughtful blog recap of what was learned and experienced. For me it takes some time to process all that has been received, and even then it’s often difficult to put pen to paper (or text to screen). Maybe that’s why I have such great respect for experienced edubloggers like Wes Fryer.
Even so, it has been a week since I returned from Portland, Oregon and the NCCE Conference, and while it may not be as timely as some bloggers, here are a few morsels that fed my brain last week.

Peer Coaching
This idea of training a team of teachers to design and implement technology rich, standards-based lessons, and then sending them out to coach and train others at their school is nothing new. It keeps the focus where it should be – on the students and the teachers, not the computers and the technology. It makes sure that technology is not used for technology’s sake, but rather with a real learning goal in mind.
In my practice at school, I’ve realized that staff in-services once or twice a year are not nearly as effective as working one-on-one or in small groups to provide “just in time” learning. When a teacher learns how to use a specific tech tool that engages students and helps them achieve a specific learning goal with greater understanding and retention, that teacher sees the value of that tool for learning. Better yet, as that teacher becomes proficient using that tool, they can help their colleagues learn it too.
In Washington state they’ve formalized the process of peer coaching with the help of grants from Microsoft and peer coaching facilitator training through the Puget Sound Center. I think a program like this could really benefit our schools and districts here in Orange County.
In my previous post I shared one example of how this type of mentoring works in the Bend/LaPine School District. I’m really impressed with the work done by these “cadres” of teachers to energize their lessons with technology. Besides I think it just sounds cool to part of a “cadre”. I want to be part of a cadre, or maybe I’ll join an “EdTech Posse”. What do you think?

Mobile Technology in the Classroom
From Karen Fasimpaur I learned about “Using Mobile Technology to Differentiate Instruction” and how podcasts, vodcasts, Palms, cell phones, netbooks, and ebooks can be used to engage students and motivate them to learn. I also got a chance to get my hands on Amazon’s Kindle e-book reader. I know I keep saying it’s about the learning and not the thing, but I SO want one of these now. (Is that wrong?)

ISTE’s Classroom Observation Tool
Want to see if technology rich lessons and projects are really helping your students? Download this free tool from ISTE to use as you observe in the classroom. You can use it offline, but data is uploaded to ISTE’s secure server so you can access it from different computers and generate various reports. I asked if ISTE intends to use this data for their own purposes, but was told, “No, they just store it. They don’t use it.” With that in mind, if you use this tool, you still might want to be careful to keep your observations clear of specific names and keep them limited to “just the facts”. I can definitely see benefits to using this tool to record and report the effectiveness of instruction. Now if only ISTE would update it with the 2007 NETS for Students rather than the 1998 version.

Northwest Tech Teacher of the Year
What a pleasure it was to see my friend and fellow DEN STAR, Martha Thornburgh awarded the Northwest Tech Teacher of the Year award. It’s always nice to see someone you know and respect honored for the great job they’re doing. Way to go Martha! If you get a chance, be sure to check out her “Give Math a Voice” presentation and Voicethread.

Blog author with Northwest Tech Teacher of the Year, Martha Thornburgh, and StormChaser Reed Timmer. Photo courtesy of Martha Thornburgh.

Storm Chaser
The DEN came through for me again, this time giving me and other Discovery Educators an opportunity to meet and talk with Reed Timmer of StormChasers. His passion for science, math, and meteorology is demonstrated in his fascination for getting up close and personal with tornadoes and other violent storms. I was also surprised to learn that in addition to storm chasing, he’s also working on his PhD! Is this guy brilliant or totally nuts? Perhaps a little of both. Thanks Reed for inspiring my students, and thanks Discovery for this wonderful opportunity!

Bigger Isn’t Always Better

ITSC is small compared to other state or regional conferences – only about 400 attendees – but I really like how they put it together. The three hour workshops really encourage conversation and allow time for reflection. It’s also a great opportunity to hear and interact with some pretty amazing presenters on a more intimate level. Having access to these presenters both during and outside of their sessions is a real treat and facilitates some great conversations.
Speaking with Jennifer Arns, the Program Director, I learned that at ITSC they really want schools and districts to attend in teams and they provide teams with time to meet and discuss what has been learned periodically throughout the conference. This time to process what has been learned and brainstorm how it can be applied is quite valuable and unfortunately pretty unique in educational conferences. The fact that they can actually get this many teachers to take their President’s Day weekend to attend speaks to the importance these educators place on using technology tools to improve instruction.

Here are some thoughts from sessions and conversations:

Cell Phone Digital Storytelling – Wes Fryer
I’ve created podcasts from my cell phone using GCast, but another tool called Gabcast adds the ability to post from not just MY cell phone, but ANY phone.

With this tool, teachers can create multiple channels for different classes, then give students the phone number and access code so they can just call in and record their thoughts & stories, posting them to the class podcast. At our tables we brainstormed how this could transform a class field trip by directing students to use their cell phones to take pictures at certain locations and record and post their thoughts on what they see, what they experience, and what they learn. These images and audio files are captured “on location”, and can later be combined into digital stories using any number of media tools.
The best part? There’s no need for the school to supply students with expensive camera or recording equipment, most already have what they need to collect their stories.

Historical Documentaries – Jennifer Gingerich
Using familiar tools like PhotoStory3, iMovie, and GarageBand, students take “digital kits” and use them to create documentaries from periods in history. Jennifer worked with our group to create a pretty impressive Ellis Island story in just a matter of minutes. She also shared student created Oregon Trail diaries. These documentaries are written in first person, using images from the kit, or photos taken of students in costume with a sepia tone effect to give an “antique” look.
The digital kits contain music, photos, citations and other components needed to create the stories. For the students, the focus is not on teaching them how to find pictures or make videos, but seeing how well they know the content and can tell a story. The emphasis is on writing and historical accuracy. The advantage of digital stories over a written report? Stories not only capture the facts of the time period, but give kids an opportunity to put themselves in the place of these people and consider what they must have thought and how they must have felt – connecting them to the history on an emotional level rather than just a factual one.

Wii Whiteboard – John Sperry
I’ve seen Johnny Lee’s video on YouTube, but here I got to actually see, feel, and try it out for myself. John Sperry from Springfield, Oregon demonstrated how easy and inexpensive it is to make your own interactive whiteboard using a Wii Remote. Time to dust off my soldering iron and go into project mode. I may have to take John up on his offer and send him a empty Expo marker so he can transform it into an infra-red pen.

Bend/LaPine School District – Amy Lundstrom
Amy Lundstrom is a technology program developer for Bend/LaPine School District. She’s also the one that suggested I take an extra day or two to attend this conference. I’m so glad she did.
Speaking with her between conference workshops I learned how she is working with teams of teachers in her district, facilitating development of standards-based lessons that integrate technology. One unusual thing they do is give teachers an opportunity to observe their own class during one of these lessons. Through this “Lesson Study” program, members of these teams take turns teaching and observing each other’s classes. The purpose of these observations is to determine 1) Do all students have access to the content being taught? 2) Did technology help students acheive the standard? In addition to observing the whole class, the classroom teacher can identify specific students in their own class to be observed. Observers are directed to be “human video cameras” noting how these students act during class and determining if those actions indicate motivation. After class, these students’ work product is also evaluated. This program gives classroom teachers a unique insight into how particular students are affected by these newly developed lessons and technology tools. Ultimately it helps these teachers become more comfortable and confident planning and implementing technology infused lessons with their classes.