Lucky 13th Anniversary

13Serendipity35 has reached another birthday or anniversary. Launched on this date in 2006, we has survived 13 years online. That's at least 26 in blog years - maybe more. With the visitor counter clicking over the 104,588,736 mark as I type this post, the world has seen 1,942 posts here. 

I looked up the gifts you could send us for anniversary 13 and they are pretty lousy. I guess that unlucky 13 sticks even to anniversaries.

The recommended gifts are lace, furs, the precious stones citrine, malachite; moonstone or opal. I'm not into any of those. But you can get creative.

How about a nice pair of hiking boots with laces? And I do love licorice laces

I took a look in the archive at the first few posts on Serendipity35. Besides a first post on why we are Serendipity35, the first post is oddly about the Philadelphia Experiment and Orson Welles's radio play of The War of the Worlds. There is a slight and serendipitous reference to NJIT and perhaps some tenuous connections to technology, but no education. The blog had not found its theme at that point. I only started writing here in order to demonstrate what a blog was to a group of business people attending a conference on the NJIT campus.

Another early post starts off as many of my posts do - with a book I have read. In this case it was about three books that I gave my youngest son as he was headed out to start college as a business/finance major. I bought him Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. But the book I had read that I thought he really needed to read was The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman. That book had gotten a lot of attention then. It is definitely still worth a reading - or listening - and it would be interesting to discuss it now after a decade has passed. How flat is that world?

A third early post from 2006 also was about a hot topic of the time. I wrote about The Millenials Go to College which came from a presentation at the college that my department was putting together titled "How Does the Millennial Generation Differ from Other Generations at the Same Age?"  

There were lots of articles about this generation now appearing on campus that don't want to work or play like their parents generation.  They use information, and learn, differently. We weren't even sure what to call them. Millennials was the popular label, but Gen Y, Next Gen and Echo Boomers all got some play in the media. They were born between 1979 and 1994. Both my sons were in this group. They are the largest generation since the Boomers (1946 to 1964). And they were in colleges and universities as we were putting together our program, We put them on panels and we interviewed and surveyed them in front of their professors.

Many of the posts here from 2006 to about 2013 are now museum pieces. I am regularly cleaning up some of the older posts when I stumble on them and find their broken images and links, typos, and the many references to technology that is no with us. But Serendipity35 is still here and I'm still posting about once a week these days on topics that interest me in learning and technology.

Thanks for traveling with me.

Science Fiction, Technology and Maybe Education

2001 tablet
2001 tablet

If you watch the film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Stanley Kubrick, you will see some technology that seemed to predict technology of today, such as the iPad and other tablets. 

I was watching "Design is [Sci-Fi] – How Design in Sci-Fi and the Real World Influence Each Other," which is a talk given at Google by Christopher Noessel, a veteran in the UX world. He is the author of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction. 

About Face: The Essentials of Interaction Design is the update to Make It So that addresses the shift to smartphones and tablets, mobile apps and touch interfaces.

communicator
Star Trek Communicator replica (Wikimedia)

Designers sometimes use interfaces first described in in science fiction or shown in films and television shows. Film production designers working in the sci-fi genre are often free of the conventions of current technology. They can develop what are known as "blue-sky" designs. And then, fictional devices and interfaces might give designers inspiration for their real-world designs.

One example often used is the communicator used on Star Trek which seems to predict the early flip-phone mobile devices. On scifiinterfaces.com, you will find examples of how sci-fi and real-world interface design influence each other.

Films like Blade Runner tried to portray the future and give ideas in their predictions to designers in UX and technology. But does sci-fi have an influence on other fields? For example, what have educators learned from science-fiction? How has science-fiction portrayed education?

Generally, science-fiction writers and filmmakers have not really given schools of the future very much attention. Many schools and students portrayed are at the K-12 levels. Higher education is less likely to appear. Are they predicting an end to post-secondary learning in institutions? 

I remember watching the 1960s TV show and young Elroy Jetson having a robot teacher. On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine in the 1990s, there is a school for the space station's youngsters that is not very different from our current earthbound schools.

Certainly, online learning has made deep inroads into education at all levels, but especially in higher education. We don't have robot teachers yet, but AI, machine learning and predictive analytics have certainly started to make their way into education.

When I was teaching young adult novels, some students read Robert A Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky. This 1955 novel presented things like high school students being teleported for their final exam in a survival class to a distant planet. My students found these schools better than their own classrooms.

I found that my students often wished they could go to these futuristic sci-fi and fantasy schools.

I'll admit that when I read the Harry Potter books, I sometimes wished to be in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry or be a teacher there, or just have Harry, Hermoine and a few of their mates as students. 

One of the few higher education depictions I have read is Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy found in the The Magicians books by Lev Grossman and the TV adaptations. 

Are there any things that most of these future schools have in common? You would be quick to note that students have much more choice. Their curriculum seems to be all directly related to what they want to do. Yes, some of Harry Potter's classmate may not like a course on magical plants, but they realize that it is an important part of the magical world.

Obviously, these future students have amazing technology to use. Paper notebooks and books and pens and pencils generally don't exist. Everything is digital. 

But there are also things that seem very much the same. Typically, there are still classrooms, labs, rows of desks and a teacher in the front of the room. I suppose even blue-sky writers and designers haven't come up with any good alternatives to those. 

Isaac Asimov made many predictions, including some about 2019, often they were based on current scientific research. Education was something he predicted “will become fun because it will bubble up from within and not be forced in from without.” He wrote a short story that I used to teach called "The Fun They Had." It is about future students that were completely educated at home via teching machines. When the system breaks down one day, they have to read a book and find out that kids once went to a school building and had classes with other kids their age. The children are in awe of the fun those kids must have had.

I wouldn’t use “fun” as my main adjective for education today, but through MOOCs, alternate degrees, customized programs and other DIY educational paths there is more education “bubbling up” than ever before.

Christopher Noessel is a veteran in the UX world: designing products, services, and strategy
for the health, financial, and consumer domains, among many others. In this talk,
he investigates how the depiction of technologies evolve over time, how fictional interfaces
influence those in the real world, and what lessons interface designers can learn
through this process, with many examples of good and awful designs.

 

Jumping Through the Dissertation Hoop

jumping through hoops
"Jumping through hoops at Arabian Nights" by Experience Kissimmee, Florida is licensed under CC BY 2.0 CC BY 2.0

Ah, the dissertation. That mammoth writing task that a student needs to complete in order to get that terminal degree. ("Terminal" - interesting term to use)

If you work in higher education, then you have stories to tell about people trying to jump through that academic hoop. I have lots of tales of friends and colleagues who struggled to write, finish and make it through their defense. (Isn't "defense" an interesting word to use for that part of the process?)

One friend of mine was being pushed to extend his writing for an additional semester because his supervising professor needed him to justify not teaching an additional class. The professor actually told him that. When he reacted negatively, the prof replied that "We had to jump through these hoops to get our doctorate, so now we get to make you jump."  Wow. It's the academic equivalent of fraternity hazing.

I could also write a post on "NOT Writing the Dissertation" since that was my own experience. I enrolled in a Ed.D program in "pedagogy" but lost interest when I was required to take courses on topics such as "school law." I continued to take classes - just not the right ones. Since at that time I was teaching in a public school, when I had amassed 32 credits beyond my MA degree, I "advanced" on the salary guide. Not as far as if I had the Ed.D, but pretty close.

So, I was close to being ABD (All But Dissertation) but really closer to being ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder).

Through my LLC with my wife, we have done editing for academic writing, including some dissertations. When I saw an article by Leonard Cassuto in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the "Value of Dissertation-Writing Groups," it was a good reminder that although we seem to value the solitary work of writing a dissertation, it is - and should be - more of a collaborative writing task.

Cassuto says, "The glorification of solitary labor permeates the imaginary ideal of scholarship in the humanities and humanistic social sciences. Your dissertation is your own work of expertise, your own plot in the great intellectual firmament. And you write it by yourself. Here’s the trouble: It just ain’t so."

The dissertation is supposed to be part of the process of making a student into a scholar and getting research out into the world. Scholarly and academic writing outside of dissertations is especially collaborative. As the article says: "Academic writing done by those who already have the doctorate is very collaborative, as is obvious if you look at all those acknowledgements in scholarly books. There are other academics, librarians, archivists, proofreaders, but also — and crucially — the people who have been reading drafts all along, making suggestions, editing, shaping. The person whose name is on the spine does the largest part of the work, but others share in the labor."

It seems to me that working with graduate students who are doing writing (dissertation or otherwise), you should certainly address the collaborative element. One way to do that is to have a dissertation group. The students we worked with on dissertations all had formed a group on their own with classmates, mostly ones who were on a similar path. That is a part of the process that should be formalized, encouraged and - perhaps most importantly - accepted by academia. 

Return to the One-Room School

one-room class
I don't know that anyone wants to literally return to the one-room schools of the past. This one is from 1940 in rural Kentucky, USA. But the concept may have present day applications.

According to Wikipedia, one-room schools were once commonplace throughout rural portions of various countries, including Prussia, Norway, Sweden, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Spain.

In these rural and small town schools (some of which literally used someone's house), all of the students met in a single room. A single teacher taught academic basics to different aged children at different levels of elementary-age boys and girls.

I imagine that younger kids were hearing some of the older kids' lessons and older kids could get some remedial lessons when the younger kids were being taught. I think that could be an interesting model of learning. I also think it would be a challenging teaching assignment. It's a topic I delve into a bit deeper on my other blog.

Any debate about whether to group students by age or ability is hardly a new one. Terms like "performance-based" "ability grouping," "competency-based education" and "age-based instruction" pop up in lots of article, papers and dissertations. Classes and schools have been created around these ideas. And they still are being created - perhaps for different reasons than those that brought the one-room schools of the past into existence.

What is a school without grade levels? I read about a number of contemporary schools, including a district in North Dakota, that felt a drive to teach competencies meant eliminating age-based classrooms.

Back in 2016, I read an article in The Atlantic that asked "What If Schools Abolished Grade Levels?" Their panel concluded that sorting kids by age or ability creates problems.

What are some reasons to consider this approach to education?

In traditional classrooms, the learning is likely to be too fast or too slow for a good percentage of the students.

Rather than using "seat time" (students progressing through school based on the amount of time they sit in a chair), base promotion onward on mastery of competencies and skills.”

Allowing students to learn at their own pace, including progressing more quickly through content they truly understand.

Those sound good. Are there any potential problems with this approach?

Grouping by ability rather than age could increase social interruptions. Having taught middle school and high school, I would tell you that there are some big differences between a sixth grader (typically 11 years old) and an eighth grader (at 13). Even more dramatic would be a class with two very good math students that are 12 and 16 years old. I actually saw that happen several times when middle school students were allowed to go to the high school (or even local college) for advanced classes. I know it works on television for Doogie Howser and Young Sheldon, but maybe not so smoothly in real life. Maturity, socialization and self-esteem are all considerations. 

Scheduling and assigning courses for each student becomes more complicated. 

But even if you question the pedagogy of this approach, what about the andragogy? When we train adult employees or our returning adult undergraduates and graduate students, how do we group? Do we put the 45 year-old woman working on her MBA separate from the 26 year old? Of course, we do not. Through some screening or admission processes, we often put learners in groups based on ability. For example, an employee is brand new to the software so she will go in level one training whether she is 22 or 55 years old.

The old one-room schools were primarily for the lower elementary grade levels, and they very much were products of economics, supply and demand, and necessity. Perhaps, new one-room schools would also work better at those levels rather than at the high school level. We already see some of this arrangement informally or just be accident in higher education and we certainly see it in training situations. This might be the time to reexamine the formal use of ability grouping at different ages and in different situations.

Poetry and the Presidency

originally posted this at Poets Online and reposted it here in 2008, but it seems like something that might need to be read again in 2019.


 

I read in a post on the Library of Congress blog that in 1982, when Barack Obama was a 19-year-old student at Occidental College, he had 2 poems published in the spring issue of the school's literary magazine of the time.

Here's one of those poems:

Underground

Under water grottos, caverns
Filled with apes
That eat figs.
Stepping on the figs
That the apes
Eat, they crunch.
The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance,
Tumble in the
Rushing water,
Musty, wet pelts
Glistening in the blue.
Obama is taking on a job that is incomprehensibly difficult to most of us. I'm delighted that he even wrote poetry as a student, and I hope that it may still have a place in his life as reader and writer. But I'm surprised by the "analysis" that these two poems have been given in the press and online lately. (I know some of you are saying that I'm naive for even being surprised.)

The second poem, "Pop," is reported to be about his maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham.
Pop

Sitting in his seat, a seat broad and broken
In, sprinkled with ashes,
Pop switches channels, takes another
Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks
What to do with me, a green young man
Who fails to consider the
Flim and flam of the world, since
Things have been easy for me;
I stare hard at his face, a stare
That deflects off his brow;
I’m sure he’s unaware of his
Dark, watery eyes, that
Glance in different directions,
And his slow, unwelcome twitches,
Fail to pass.
I listen, nod,
Listen, open, till I cling to his pale,
Beige T-shirt, yelling,
Yelling in his ears, that hang
With heavy lobes, but he’s still telling
His joke, so I ask why
He’s so unhappy, to which he replies...
But I don’t care anymore, cause
He took too damn long, and from
Under my seat, I pull out the
Mirror I’ve been saving; I’m laughing,
Laughing loud, the blood rushing from his face
To mine, as he grows small,
A spot in my brain, something
That may be squeezed out, like a
Watermelon seed between
Two fingers.
Pop takes another shot, neat,
Points out the same amber
Stain on his shorts that I’ve got on mine, and
Makes me smell his smell, coming
From me; he switches channels, recites an old poem
He wrote before his mother died,
Stands, shouts, and asks
For a hug, as I shink, my
Arms barely reaching around
His thick, oily neck, and his broad back; ‘cause
I see my face, framed within
Pop’s black-framed glasses
And know he’s laughing too.

Someone asked Harold Bloom at Yale University to review it and he said it was “not bad—a good enough folk poem with some pathos and humor and affection... It is not wholly unlike Langston Hughes, who tended to imitate Carl Sandburg" and further says it is much superior to the poetry of former President Jimmy Carter whom Bloom calls "literally the worst poet in the United States."

I never knew critics were so interested (or tough!) on poetry in college literary magazines.

I picked up a book of Jimmy Carter's poetry in the library a few years ago, and I recall liking a few poems about fishing that were there. Great poetry? No. The worst poetry? Definitely not.

Presidents taking their chances on writing poetry is not without precedent.

How about this acrostic poem by George Washington?

From your bright sparkling Eyes, I was undone;
Rays, you have, more transparent than the sun,
Amidst its glory in the rising Day,
None can you equal in your bright array;
Constant in your calm and unspotted Mind;
Equal to all, but will to none Prove kind,
So knowing, seldom one so Young, you'l Find
Ah! woe's me that I should Love and conceal,
Long have I wish'd, but never dare reveal,
Even though severely Loves Pains I feel;
Xerxes that great, was't free from Cupids Dart,
And all the greatest Heroes, felt the smart.

John Tyler wrote several poems that have survived. One was written when his three-month old daughter Anne died in July 1825. Here are the opening stanzas to that elegy:

Oh child of my love, thou wert born for a day;
And like morning's vision have vanished away
Thine eye scarce had ope'd on the world's beaming light
Ere 'twas sealed up in death and enveloped in night.

Oh child of my love as a beautiful flower;
Thy blossom expanded a short fleeting hour.
The winter of death hath blighted thy bloom
And thou lyest alone in the cold dread tomb. . . . [4]

And we also have the precedent for the inclusion of poetry at Presidential inaugurals. Robert Frost recited "The Gift Outright" (PBS transcript) at John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural. (Frost actually recited that poem from memory because he was unable to read the text of "Dedication" (PBS transcript) which he had written for the occasion because the sun was in his eyes. (video of Frost reading "The Gift Outright" at Kennedy's inauguration)

Maya Angelou read "On the Pulse of Morning" at Bill Clinton's 1993 inaugural. (video of the reading) James Dickey read ''The Strength of Fields'' at Jimmy Carter's 1977 inaugural gala at the Kennedy Center.

Are any of you with me on thinking that having a President that reads, writes or at least has written and read poetry at some point is a GOOD thing?