Sunday, October 30, 2011

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Technology and Education: The Epic

The school I am at now, Beijing World Youth Academy, does its best to keep its teachers on the cutting edge of technological education. As mentioned in previous posts, most of the staff received MacBook Pro laptops a few weeks ago. The MacBooks can connect, via mini display-to-VGA adapter, to the Smartboards that are in each classroom, Smartboards that recently received their interactive pens and are ready to use. Each room has a built-in sound system as well. Once the MacBook Pro is connected to the Smartboard, the teacher can show students announcements on Moodle - the school's online education platform, where all manner of information and assignment can be uploaded by teachers and found by students - or check grades on Managebac - the IB's online grading system that allows teachers to take attendance, mark papers, post grades, send messages, and just generally run class online, or go over papers on - a site where writing can be uploaded and crosschecked for plagiaristic tendencies. Have I had my Toshiba laptop (motto: "I'm on My Third Windows Operating System in As Many Years!"), my school MacBook Pro (motto: "What's Windows?"), the desktop PC that sits on my desk in room A403 (motto: "[sound of poop falling into a toilet]")*, my external hard drive, my USB from Frontier Bank, the previously-mentioned Smartboard, and the also previously-mentioned built-in speaker system running at the same time? Duh. I'm plugged in, homie. 

These are all almost mandatory elements to teaching at BWYA, but if a teacher were to know anything about anything, that teacher would know that there is a vast, endless number of ways that other forms of technology can be brought into the ol' classroom. Videos can be downloaded and shown. Audio materials can supplement reading. Online citation websites eliminate the need for students to learn the correct way to write out a correction works cited page. There are a million interactive websites that can assist in helping students get a clue about life: Tagxedo Creator, Wallwisher, blogs, Wikis, Jeopardy!, Voki, Toondoo, Voicethread, Wordle, etc., which, if they can't access from their family's computer or the laptop their father got them for their twelfth birthday, students can simply hop onto and check out via iPhone or smartphone or 3G or 4S iPhone or whatever the crap the latest one is now. There are a million ways students can be forced to manipulate technology for assessment: students can use a powerpoint or - even better! - a Prezi presentation (Prezi gets capitalized because it's newer and hipper, while powerpoint doesn't because it's older and I never have capitalized it before, even though Microsoft Word wants me to) to deliver a oral assessment. Students can straight up make a video. Students can straight up make a podcast. Students can do anything in between. In some schools - not ours - all the kids have laptops. The textbooks are on there, the assignments are on there; go green! There are movements toward e-readers. I teach English lit and ESL, but, if I went to a school that had as much dough as Paul Wall's got in his mouth, I could teach these traditionally paper-consuming classes without using any paper. Which is another rant for another time.

Up to this point (if you haven't wandered off to go count the blades of grass on your lawn or paint your nails or something), you may be thinking, "Oh, this must be a blog post about the benefits of technology in the classroom!"** But, dear and valued reader, you would be wrong in thinking that. Quite wrong.

Undoubtedly, there are benefits from all these new gadgets and gizmos, and as an educator I need to acclimate my students with the technology that more savvy (and more patient) teachers and professors and employers will expect them to be familiar with in the future. But, on the personal level, I have come to realize something about all the aforementioned and especially especially especially - I cannot stress this enough - any word processing program, especially Microsoft Word and - free though it may be - Open Office, which weren't aforementioned but are now-mentioned: nothing frustrates me more than technological problems.

I get annoyed about a lot of stuff in life (remember The Hate List?), but in general I can maintain a fairly upbeat, positive mood, especially when it's my job to. But one thing that inevitably destroys my demeanor is any hitch with technology, whatever it is. And these days, "whatever it is" is almost anything. Kids might be yelling "Go Yankees!" and throwing their books out the door, the principal might be motioning me out into the hall with his one hand and holding a pink slip in the other, or the wind might swoosh through my neatly-arranged classroom and blow all the carefully-stacked papers onto the floor, and I can handle it. But what makes me lose control is when any of the following happens:

1. The word processing program I am using tries to autoformat something for me. It's not so bad with Microsoft Word because I know how to both undo and cease the undesired formatting, but on Open Office - which is what I use on my personal laptop - I don't have the stoppage knowledge. If I wanted to insert bullet points or number my sentences or have an indent here, I would do it. But the program assumes it knows my mind and takes irrational liberties. I know it is my OCD/perfectionism that is actually killing me here, but these tiny adjustments that the programs make to worksheets and exams that I have aesthetically set up perfectly drive me nuts. Other complaints: the most current version of Microsoft Word's default spacing, font, and font size (10 points after, Calibri, and 11, respectively); the idiosyncrasies of turning any block of text into columns; and the fact that "Save As" is not on the default menu in the latest version of Microsoft Word (maybe I just liked 2003 too much). Most memorable moment: at CCS I was making a twelve-page test at 9 p.m. one night, and I had the whole thing just write, ready to go, and I hit the backspace button one time at the end of the document, to get rid of that last extra page, and - inexplicably - the entire document underwent this strange shift that left a entire blank page in the middle of the twelve pages. I could not get rid of the blank page. I do not know why. After a few attempts, I threw my water bottle on the linoleum floor as hard as I could. The top shattered. I can't remember how I resolved the situation.

2. Any problem occurs when I try to print. At CCS the first problem with printing was that I had to run down 1.5 hallways and one flight of stairs to the printer, and sometimes the door would be locked. Then there would sometimes be discrepancies in the paper size: A4? 8x11.5? All the default settings had to be changed. And even if I figured it all out, some knucklehead might not, so he or she would send four hundred pages through, but since the knucklehead hadn't sent the document on the right paper size, the little red light would flash on the printer, and I (I say "I" but I am sure a million different teachers were in this boat a million different times with me, and I'm sure Mr. Nickel wanted to kill himself because his office was right next to the printer and he would have to listen to both the "beep, beep" that indicated a printer error and the muttered curses that other frustrated teachers would emit from the printing room) would have to go through the moral dilemma of deciding whether to cancel all the queued documents that were in the wrong paper size, all of which would cause a printer error, or set the paper size aright, or do nothing at all and wait for the knucklehead to come down and discover his or her error on his or her own, or just freaking leave. I employed all of those strategies at one point or another. I was also, especially early on, the knucklehead. Then there were also a buttload of other problems, like missed staples, garbled test pages, accidentally taking someone else's one printed sheet in your six hundred sheets, or the infamous paper jam: "Why does it say paper jam when there is no paper jam?" Most memorable moment: I was photocopying some pages out of a book during the period before I needed the pages (this is key; it heightens the tension and frustration). Photocopying out of books leaves big black parts on the printed page, and those are what cause paper jams. Well, obviously, my copies jammed, and I needed them quickly and I needed them badly, and I was on the verge of an epic meltdown when suddenly a prospective student and his mother and father came nervously into the room, looking for the principal's office, which can only be entered from the printing room. I had to swallow all those four-letter words and hide the papers I had shredded in a horrifying rage and pretend to be a normal human teacher until Mrs. Dyck ushered the threesome out of harm's way and into her office.

But there's more! I haven't had too many hickups printing at B-Dubs, but there have been two insanely detrimental instances that, though isolated, were basically worst-case scenarios. The process for printing is as follows: first, print one copy to room A200, the printing room. Second, go to room A200 (a room in the corner on the second floor; I operate out of the fourth floor homeroom I've been assigned) and tell the Chinese copy dude how many copies you need and any other special instructions you can convey with pointing and motioning. Third, wait a bit. Fourth, get the copies. There have been two times where I have printed a story that I needed the next period*** as the basis for the next two days of lessons and then have gone down and discovered the printing room locked. Really, really locked. Both these times were so extreme, so utterly devastating to my plans and at such a time where I really could not plan anything else, that I didn't even get mad; I just laughed. You know that feeling.

3. Any problem arises with an external hard drive or a USB flashdrive. These things seem so secure at face value: all the information is stored on this small, compact object; nothing bad should happen to it. But a million bad things can actually happen to it. It can get lost; this has happened to me three or four times, sometimes my fault or sometimes Jake Hegman's fault. It can malfunction; the thing will simply fail to turn on, incur a virus, or have some other distortion of information (perhaps arising from not having clicked the "eject" feature before yanking it out of the computer). It can become full; the user should see this coming, but it is still inevitable after a while. The user should also probably occasionally back up the contents of the drive, which I have been smart enough to do once in a great while. And to be honest, this hasn't been the biggest of my problems with technology, although the USB I am currently using is on the fritz and I have lost, as I said, a couple thumbdrives. But...most memorable moment: halfway through my second year at CCS, at which point I had a year and a half's worth of teaching material, much of which I was reusing/recycling and all of which had come at a great expense of time, sweat, blood, emotion, and [see 1. and 2.], my external hard drive, on which all this teaching material was stored, quit working. It wouldn't turn on. My heart wouldn't turn on, either, until I prayed for about a hundred hours and had our IT mastermind Mr. Dyck look at it. He resuscitated the thing and I immediately backed it all up elsewhere, but it was terrifying. The problem had been that the drive had come a bit loose in the case, a problem that stemmed, no doubt, from me chucking it around in my backpack up all those stairs to the school and to my classroom. Later in the year he saw me with it and said, "You're still using that thing?"

4. Computer hardware malfunctions sometimes. A malfunction is more likely to occur if more hardware is added; I am sure that somewhere there is a math equation that reflects this well. When you've got just the computer, life is probably good. Add internet, and, yes, you can do more, but there are more things that can go wrong. The pros still outweigh the cons, but then start adding extra drives, power cords, projectors, multiple screens, interactive whiteboards, and sound systems, and you are done for. There's no chance that everything will work perfectly. Something will without fail go wrong, whether one piece is not working or you just don't know what the heck you're doing. CCS didn't have much to offer as far as hardware, which I was fine with, and now here I am still trying to figure out how to use most of what is available, so I haven't really had my legs cut out from under me yet, fortunately. The best luck I have had with technology was to have all the students gather around my computer and watch Youtube! videos with me. Most memorable moment(s): every chapel period at CCS, someone would need to show a video, and the video would never, ever, ever work on the first try. We usually did end up watching it, but there was always a problem with the sound, or the program that the video needed to be played with, or both, or the projector wasn't connected, or something. This happened to me at least fifty percent of the time I had class in the chapel, but the only time I ever had class in the chapel was when I wanted to show a video, so those were high-risk class periods.

5. The internet is fickle. Especially here. Back in the day this statement might not be true, but having internet access is a basic staple of most institutions these days, especially schools. To be denied internet feels like a basic right has been taken away. So when the net does go down, I feel handcuffed, even if I don't need to use the web for anything in class. What if I need to check something? What if I do quick want to show a video? What if I need to check my stocks? I know, I know, I and others like me are products of the internet age. Anyway, no internet during class isn't a huge deal, but I know that I would be a worthless lesson planner without internet access. Worthless. I do not know how teachers twenty years ago got anything done; it is a mystery to me. I use the internet for every plan, every day. Which is a scary statement, when put in print. But there are so many resources. Grades and report cards are also often online, on some program. Kids come in, saying, "I couldn't turn in my paper; the internet didn't work!" You get some virus trying to download something innocent and useful for class. What kind of person starts a virus, anyway? What does that person gain from destroying so much? Sigh. Anyway, so the internet is important to education. But last year I didn't have steady internet at my house, even in one of the most plugged in countries in the world. I got it most of the time, but to Skype I had to go to the school. And anytime I couldn't get it, it was frustrating. Now I do not know which is worse: the occasional internet blackout at home in Seoul or the constant censorship that so freaking many of my online searches generate in Beijing. Here in China I have the internet everywhere, but so much is blocked, and even if it isn't, some sites (Google) are sensationally slow. There've been ten thousand times I have thought, "Ah, I can show this video with this lesson plan," and then realized that there is no way for me to access said video, since Youtube is blocked in China. Even when I have found videos that are not blocked, at school, they take six hundred fourteen years to load. Prime example: I started loading a five-minute video at the beginning of a seventy-five minute class, and by the end, two minutes of the video had loaded. Give me cancer now, God. Videos are not the only victim; I have a ton of resources on a Google document, but I cannot access it because it is restricted. Any teaching site with the wrong keywords are also off limits. Most memorable moment: I slotted off this chunk of time to go to some internet tasks with my seventh grade students here, so I e-mailed them the assignment right before we went to the computer lab. We got there, and I said, "Go into your e-mail account, download the attachment I sent you, and do the tasks." The five or so kids who have Hotmail or Yahoo! accounts blew through the work; the Gmail users took no less than ten minutes just to get the assignment.

There is an unending ocean of other school-related problems that defy categorization and/or stem from the use of technology, such as the computer freeze up, the reply-all button in staff e-mails, internet plagiarism, Gmail chat (fun in theory but actually detrimental to getting work done, and frustrating for those who leave Gtalk open but leave the computer), viruses, websites that can be fun in moderation but usually just chew up everyone's time (Facebook, Youtube), texting and cheating via cell phone in class (some kid took a picture of me teaching last week), really slow computers (so bad when you are in a rush), awful eye diseases that develop from overexposure to LCD, LED, and FML screens, and - why not? - carpal tunnels that develops from typing all the time. There are also an unending ocean of technological problems that are unrelated to school, like society's complete and total reliance on much of the aforementioned and countless other items, like cell phones and what have you, but we've all wasted enough time on this post already.

So all this technology is here. It is enticing and, when it works, it can be good good good. Heck, it allows me to write this whiny blog post and communicate with friends and family everyday. But, more often than not, in the classroom, it just frustrates. I am not trying to persuade anyone to do anything; I just long for a simpler lifestyle, and I know that removing a large percentage of these things from my life would reduce its complexity by quite a bit. The fewer distractions and things in my life, the less I have to worry about; the simpler and more basic my life is, the more I can focus on what is really important to me.

*Actually, to be honest, this desktop computer works quite well compared to the one in the room next door, which runs alarmingly slow and has caused me many a conniption.

**Which, ironically, was a blog unto itself once, at my doing, for a one Peggy Kendall's COM301K class, Communication, Technology, and Society, which met from 12:30 to 1:20 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I took it with T-Duck, and it was sort of hit-or-miss. The blog was called "Technology and Education: The Epic." Feel free to check it out and see how far I have come since then, especially the last post in the blog section. The last post I did is actually very supportive of this one; it is called "Too Much Tech." Ha!

***Maybe you are thinking to yourself, "Reub, you seem to be doing a lot of stuff at the last minute. Maybe you could plan ahead a little more." If you are thinking this to yourself, you can die.

Friday, October 7, 2011

We Like Sports and We Don't Care Who Knows

In high school, I played four sports. I didn't really excel at any of them, but since Central Lyon was a pretty small school, and my class wasn't particularly athletic, I played a role on the varsity cross country, basketball, track, and baseball teams. After graduating from high school, my inclination toward participating in sporting events began to dwindle. Yes, there was pick-up basketball at Bethel, and there was certainly Slayer, two-time intramural co-ed softball championship winner, but other things began to take precedence over running around on the court or smackin' the ball around on the field. After college, I almost never played anything. There were a few games of basketball here and there, and in Seoul I would attend an occasional open gym at SFS, but by and large I shied away from the rigors of the court and the field.

Last Wednesday, like every Wednesday, my baseball club met. The club is a bunch of sixth through tenth graders, some of whom seem to love playing and come dressed for the occasion, and some of whom wear pink and yellow and spend most of the time laughing and are only there because their friends are there (but their friends wear pink and yellow and spend most of their time laughing, too...). And a bunch of kids in between. It's pretty chaotic, and I have to yell the entire time, and no one listens very well.

However, this past week, I had an awesome time playing, though I can't speak for anyone else, and I was again reminded of how every sporting activity since high school has been for me. The formula is this: I am doing something, and a friend extends an invitation to play basketball or volleyball or softball, and I reluctantly agree, but I immediately lose energy and pizazz and go into the athletic match unexcited about getting sweaty and frustrated during the competition. Then we play, and whether I do well (rare) or not (common), I walk away with the endorphins flowing freely through my veins. I feel good afterward and am glad I went, glad I had the experience playing.

So too it is on Wednesdays. I don't look forward to getting these students into lines to play catch or try to explain how to swing the bat while half of them aren't listening or telling those guys over there to get their fingers out of their noses and start moving. I don't know how to coach baseball or teach baseball to a group that wants to listen, much less thirty kids with varying levels of English and baseball desire. But each week - and especially last week - I walk away feeling accomplished, like we've had a good time.

Last week I had Mr. Wang take half the ruffians onto one side of the soccer field and play catch and 500, which he said they enjoyed. The other half took batting practice, with me pitching. And it was super fun. Everyone made contact, at least. There were some skinny, awkward little kids that knocked the cover off the ball. One of the seventh grade girls hit every single pitch I threw, and she hit them hard. This one emo-lookin' dude who has the "too cool" attitude tattooed all over himself nearly killed his older, stronger peers with his line drives. I almost got destroyed by a single up the middle. Kids were talkin' smack. I was talkin' smack. It was on. The crowning moment was when this young guy from Japan came up. We'd talked earlier; he was new at school and I never saw him hanging out with anyone, but we'd discussed baseball a while, which was a passion of his. He hit a couple hard ground balls that no one could handle, and then he parked one way, way, way over the fence of the other side of the soccer field. So good.

Then we left, and the mayhem was over. I was sweaty and sort of hoarse and had a bunch of that black rubber stuff from the fake turf all over me, but there was that feeling again. The love of the game, the satisfying fatigue of having gone out and played. Perhaps part of my joy was having reached 3:50 yet again, but another part of me looks forward to next Wednesday, when we play again.

Monday, October 3, 2011

A Room of One's Own

This post is going to violently break from previous posts on this blog. Are you sitting down? First: it is going to be short. Second: instead of posting pictures and writing about my apartment, I am putting a link to a Prezi that contains all that anyone interested needs to know. The link is here. It is where I live now, in Wangjing, Beijing, PRC.