So What Should We Be Amazed By?

I wrote a blog post a little while back called This is Not Amazing, and the basic thrust of it was that, after more than 30 years since “the personal computer revolution”, more than 10 years of living in a post-Google World, and now almost a full decade into the 21st century, that we should stop being so amazed at things which are simply just part of our normal world.  The post gave a few examples of things that are, quite frankly, pretty average tasks that can be accomplished on a personal computer and it relayed the story of how I had a day where I kept getting told how “amazing” these rather mundane tasks were, by people that were, in my estimation, too easily impressed.  I tried to tie that all together by observing that we probably do our students a great disservice by being easily impressed by technologically ordinary things, since this is pretty much just the world they live in. I think when we ‘ooh and ahh’ over things that are simply just a regular part of our kids’ worlds we make it all too obvious that we are a little out of touch.

The comments on that post were a very interesting collection of responses; from those people who nodded their heads in total agreement, to some who felt I was being a bit condescending and impatient.  That certainly wasn’t my intention.  I must apologise for not responding to some of the comments at the time… It was the end of the school year, I had a few personal things happening at the time, and I got sidetracked in moved the blog to a new server shortly afterwards. In all of that, I didn’t properly follow up on the ideas raised in that post, and I feel I really missed the opportunity to engage in more discussion about it.

For reasons that I’ll tell you about later, I’m interested in pursuing a further response that blog post.  In particular, I’m wondering what sort of things you think SHOULD be “amazing”?  For the record, I truly believe that the world is a wonderful place with lots of incredible things going on in it, and that we should most definitely retain a childlike sense of wonder, curiosity and awe when we see things that amaze us.  I just think we need to be careful about being too awestruck by things that, really, are now just a standard part of our digital landscape.

I’m trying to build a better understanding of what people think deserves to be “amazing” (and maybe what doesn’t).  If you wouldn’t mind, could you drop a comment here about anything you’ve done with your students that you think really does fall into the “That’s amazing!” category.  I would really appreciate it.  Thanks!

Image: ‘Crowdsource

Seeing with Different Eyes

Earlier this year, I had a visitor from South Africa contact me to ask if they could drop into the school at which I work while they were visiting Australia.  She was were here as part of a study tour, and had heard some good things about PLC Sydney.  In fact, her school in Johannesburg was a similar sort of school – independent, all girls, similar size – and she was interested in comparing a few ideas.  Her school was also using IWBs extensively, and was keen to see how our staff were using them.

On the day she visited, we chatted for a while in the main staffroom, shared ideas about education and various resources for learning, before finally heading off on a little tour around the school.

Because I knew she was coming, I sent an email around asking for volunteers who wouldn’t mind us coming into their classrooms. Several responded positively, so I organised to expect us to drop by their classrooms, however I wasn’t specific about times since I didn’t really know when we would be coming by… I suggested that they don’t try and come up with anything special, just do whatever they would normally be doing at that time.  I was pleased that I ended up with a cross section of year groups too, right from our very young students all the way up to some senior classes.

As we wandered about the school, we saw some wonderful teaching in action. My South African friend kept remarking on the quality of the teaching she was seeing, and how expertly these teachers appeared to get the best from their students.  And she was right – there really were some wonderful things going on in these classrooms. There was great creativity, engagement, enthusiasm and learning taking place in every class we visited, and it was very obviously driven by the dedication, passion and commitment of these teachers.

Something that occurred to me later that day was that every one of these classrooms we visited were all of teachers who had not always been teachers.  Every single one of them had done other things in their lives besides being a teacher.  For example, the Year 2 teacher had originally trained as a teacher, but then spent several years as a professional opera singer with the Australian Opera. The Year 6 teacher used to be a corporate lawyer before deciding to retrain as a teacher.  The maths teacher we visited in the high school was originally a computer programmer before he started his teaching career.

I thought about other great teachers I knew, and I could think of many examples of where this pattern seemed to consistently continue.  The number of really good teachers I knew who had done other things outside of teaching was quite astounding.  Whether they had originally done something else before discovering teaching, or whether they had started out as a teacher then left the profession to do something quite different before returning, the nexus between having out-of-school experience and being an outstanding teacher seemed incredibly obvious.

Before you jump on that last statement, I’m NOT saying that there is anything inherently wrong with teachers who have always been teachers.  Not at all.  There are many wonderful educators, many of whom have only ever been teachers, who do a fantastic job of teaching kids.  But I’d still argue the case that to be a good teacher you need to have some level of broader interaction with the wider world, and whether that comes from involvement in something extra-curricula like being active in a club or organisation, having a part-time job, doing volunteer work, helping your spouse run their business, or even having your own small business “on the side”, there really needs to be some other way of gaining exposure to the world outside the classroom.

I can’t help thinking that teachers who have this wider experience beyond the classroom, who have had to deal with that dreaded “real world” we hear so much about, add an important extra dimension to what they bring to their classrooms and to the experiences they offer their students.

We can all recognise the value of work-experience programs for students, and most people would agree that it’s important that kids get to see what life is like outside of school. But I’d like to see some sort of “real world experience program” for educators.  Perhaps teachers need to do a work experience program just as much as students do? Maybe we need an arrangement where teachers can choose to spend part of a term away from the classroom every few years, working in “the real world”?  It would help them understand the world their students are preparing for, it would give them a far more rounded perspective on life beyond the classroom, and overall I really think it would make them better teachers in the long run.

What do you think?  Have you noticed the same thing with teachers who have done other things outside teaching?  Would some sort of a teacher work experience program help make us better at what we do?

Image: ‘Visionary

A Fascination with Migration Information

Warning! Geek talk ahead.  If you aren’t into the techie stuff, you may want to skip this post…

A few people asked me about what themes, widgets and plugins I decided to use on the new blog site, so I thought I’d just give a quick rundown of what I’m using, bearing in mind that it’s only been a few days and it’s almost inevitable I’m likely to continue changing my mind about a few more things. One the whole though, I think I’ve got the blog running mostly the way I want. For now anyway.

The site is running the latest version of WordPress (currently 2.9.1) and PHP5.  It’s hosted with GoDaddy using their Hosted WordPress plan running on a Linux server.  The domain name is managing the actual DNS records for the site, but there are other domain names such as and that simply forward to it.  The benefit of that is that there are several paths to get to the real site.  These domain addresses used to point to the old Edublogs page, but I’ve just redirected them all to the new page.

The RSS feeds for both posts and comments have been created using Feedburner. The FD Feedburner Plugin was used to map all the hardcoded WordPress RSS feed links to the Google-hosted Feedburner feeds.  The beauty of this system is that I just need to go to Feedburner and change the real feed URL for the new site and Feedburner remaps all the feeds to their correct location. This means that anyone who subscribed to the old site using Feedburner (which should have been pretty much everyone, since I set it up quite a while ago) will get an uninterrupted flow of RSS feeds from the new site. That was important to me, and one of the things that I was very conscious of getting right in the move to a new server.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’ve tried to make every decision about the new site in light of providing the best user experience for readers.  As well as trying to keep things simple and easy to navigate, I’ve also tried to choose plugin features that help improve functionality and make it easier to interact with the content.

Here’s a list of some the other plugins I’m using and a short rundown of what they do…

  • Akismet is the industry standard for managing comment spam.  It matches blog comments against a massive database of known spammers and pretty accurately targets any comments that look spam-like. I used to moderate all comments, but I expect that Akismet will do a good enough job of looking after spam that I’ve removed comment moderation to provide a better experience for users.
  • Blubrry PowerPress is an advanced podcasting tool for WordPress.  It allows media files to be added to any post, either as standalone media inclusions or as part of a proper podcast feed.  It integrates directly with iTunes and other podcasting libraries, and does a great job of integrating media into a blog.  You’ll find the occasional Best of Betchablog post with an audio version delivered by this plugin.
  • Comment Ratings adds the ability of all blog users to rate any blog comment using simple like/dislike buttons.  At the end of every comment are little thumbs-up or thumbs-down icons where participants can have their say and vote for what constitutes a good (or bad) comment.
  • Creative Commons Configurator adds a text block containing the relevant CC information at the end of every post, as well as to the RSS feed.  It also adds the necessary machine readable code to the blog headers so that search engines can clearly identify the blog content as being licensed under Creative Commons.  I really like this one.
  • Flickr Widget adds a widget for including an RSS feed of my latest Flickr photos.  I’m in two minds about this one, and whether I should actually leave it there or not. It doesn’t look all that elegant, and really, does anyone other than me care whether I have my photos on the page or not.  I may take it off…  I haven’t decided yet.
  • Google XML Sitemap optimises the code for the blog by adding XML sitemap data to make it easier for search engines to find the site content and keep it regularly spidered.  Users will never see any obvious evidence of this one, but the site should get picked up in searches much more reliably.
  • PageLinksTo adds a blog feature I’ve wanted for a while. I was after a page menu tab on the blog which would take you to my wiki hosted at Wikispaces, but a standard WordPress blog can only have page tabs that point to internal pages. By adding this plugin, the page menu tabs can now point to any URL, including external ones.
  • Popularity Contest generates the list in the sidebar that ranks the popularity of content, creating a list of the top posts. It uses a definable scoring system to rank content and can take into account the number of page views, number of comments, number of permalinks and trackbacks, etc to determine overall popularity.  It also give a ton of useful statistics in the dashboard.
  • Search Everything modifies the code behind the standard WordPress search tool, making it more accurate and letting me decide what gets searched and what doesn’t.  It makes the search work much better.
  • Sociable adds a row of user-definable icons at the end of each post to provide one-click access to social services like Delicious, Digg, Diigo, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and so on, as well as some more standard functions like Print, Email and PDF.  It helps people share things they enjoyed reading.
  • Subscribe to Comments adds the ability for a visitor to subscribe to a particular comment feed so they can monitor the activity in any threads they take part in.
  • Ultimate Google Analytics adds Google Analytics to the site.  It tracks it all in the background, so that I can get all sorts of interesting usage statistics without inflicted it on readers.  I did include a few basic stats in the main sidebar using Clustmaps, Sitemeter and some basic subscription and Twitter stats, but these are well below the fold and much less intrusive than they were at the last site. I do like looking at the stats and find them quite fascinating. You can’t get much more detail than what Analytics offers!
  • WP Favicon is just a nice simple way to add a custom favicon to a WordPress blog.  You’ll notice it in front of the URL in the address bar.  It also get included in any tabs in the browser, making it easier to identify the site from amongst a series of inactive browser tabs.
  • WPTouch adds code to a WordPress site that helps it be identified by mobile devices. If a mobile browser is detected trying to access the site, this plugin will deliver a mobile-optimised version of the blog. The site now looks really functional, readable and usable on a mobile device… just try loading the blog in Safari on an iPhone.  It looks pretty good I think!
  • YARPP, or Yet Another Related Posts Plugin, adds a list of related blogposts to the end of each post.  It’s helpful if you’ve read something and want to see other stuff I’ve written that may be related to it. I’m still fine tuning how it arrives at its recommendations, but it’s a nice way to encourage people to discover older content that’s been buried over time.

Hopefully, this combination will work nicely together to help make it a better overall experience for readers.

Finally, the theme I’ve chosen is a nice simple one called Librio.  It’s got a bit of a Mac-ish look to it, and it adds a very obvious search bar and RSS link right at the top of the page.  It’s possibly a bit plain, but I think it has a very clean appearance.  Perhaps I’m just really fussy, but I looked at many, many themes for the new blog and although they all had some nice features, I found it incredibly difficult finding a theme that had everything I liked.  Some would have a wrong font (I really don’t like serif-based fonts online), or the text was too small, or the spacing of the text in the widgets was too big or too small, or the graphics were too garish, or not garish enough.  It was harder than you might expect trying to find a theme that had a relatively wide main text area – so many WP blog themes have a too-narrow column for the main text, making it hard to include graphics the way I like to include them. There were other considerations too, such as how comments were displayed, how colour was used in repeating elemants, and so on.

If I was better at CSS I could just take something close and hack it to suit but I really didn’t have the inclination for that at the moment.  Maybe something to play with later.  For now, this one will do.  It errs on the plain side, I know, but it makes it easy to see what’s what.

Anyway, that, it for now.  I’m sure I haven’t finished with it, but it’s functional, reasonably sharp looking and it does what I want.  The goal was to make it a better user experience, both at the actual website, via the RSS feeds and on mobile, and I think it does that,

OK, geekfest over.  We will now resume normal programming…

Image: ‘Stereotyping

PS: Technorati, this is for you. 7PDMG5YASHWK