Thursday, August 4, 2011

Discover Books to Match the Websites You Read

Book Discovery is a browser extension that helps you find books that are related to the content of the websites you read. With Book Discovery installed in your browser whenever you're viewing a website you can click "book discovery" and have a page of suggested books generated for you. The Book Discovery extension is available for Chrome, Firefox, Opera, Safari, and Internet Explorer. The video below is a bit slow, but it does show how Book Discovery works.

Applications for Education
Book Discovery could be a good browser extension to have installed when students are doing research on the web. When students find a website that they find useful for their research they can just click on "book discovery" to extend their research to books that might be about the same topic.

Food Environment Atlas and Food Desert Atlas

Yesterday, I wrote a post about Oxfam's Food Price Pressure Points Map. Through a comment on that post made by Amy Young-Buckler I learned about two related maps that might be of interest to you.

The USDA's Food Desert Locator is a map of food deserts in the United States. The map shows the counties in the US in which a substantial number of people in that area have low access to a large grocery store or supermarket. Click here to read the USDA's definitions of low access and low income areas. You can click on the placemarks on the Food Desert Locator to open information about that food desert.

The USDA's Food Environment Atlas is an interactive map that you can use to visualize many different data sets related to food prices, food access, health statistics, and socio-economic characteristics related to food in the United States. Select one or more data sets from the menus to create a map.

Applications for Education
Both the Food Environment Atlas and the Food Desert Locator could be used in a similar manner to the Oxfam map for creating lessons on nutrition, environment, geography, and agriculture. Have students investigate the causes of food deserts then develop and propose their own solutions to the causes.

CNN Student News Summer News Quiz

This week CNN Student News doesn't have a new episode (regular episodes will resume on August 15). Instead of a new video, this week CNN Student News published a ten question summer news quiz. The quiz covers news stories both political in nature and lighter cultural/ societal topics. Each question has a featured related image. After answering each question students have the option to click through for more information about that story.

Applications for Education
This quiz could be a good first or second day of school activity to get students thinking about what has happened in the world since they left school in June or May. It could also give you some insight into which of your students tends to pay attention to current events.

10 Common Challenges We'll Face This Fall - Challenge #1: Access

One of my most popular presentations, the one that I'm most frequently asked to give, is 10 Common Challenges Facing Educators. When giving this presentation I outline challenges that classroom teachers often face and present some resources and strategies for addressing those challenges. In preparation for the new school year I've created a series of blog posts based on my presentation. Today's blog post addresses the challenge of not having access to the websites that you want your students to use.

I have the good fortune to work in a school that has a progressive policy toward Internet filtering. In my school there is rarely a site that I want my students to use that is blocked. And in the few cases when I do encounter a block, I can have it quickly unblocked by emailing one of the network administrators (generally a response time of less than five minutes). But it wasn't always this way at my school.

A few years ago I returned to school after the summer break to find that all of the sites (VoiceThread, Wikispaces, Blogger, Animoto, and others) that I had planned to use were blocked by our the new filter in place. Frustrated, I emailed the tech department asking for these sites to be unblocked. They replied by saying they'd "look into it" and get back to me. I waited. Then I waited again. Finally, I was told that if I could explain to them how and why I was going to use these sites they might unblock them if they didn't violate CIPA regulations. Up to the tech office I went and sat down with two of the network administrator's assistants to explain to them what VoiceThread did, what Wikispaces was, and how I was going to use them. As I was explaining what VoiceThread did one of the assistants said, "I think unblocking this would violate CIPA." I lost it. Here I was explaining myself to two people who not only had never taught in a classroom, had no background in education, and who clearly did not understand CIPA.

Down to my principal's office I went, bypassing his secretary and anyone else who might have slowed me down, I steamed in and sat down right in front of his desk. I was fuming and he could see it. Here's the truncated version of happened next. "Ted," I said, "we've just made a huge investment in netbooks for every student, but now the tech department is blocking everything that will make 1:1 a success. Furthermore, it's bullshit that I have to explain everything I want to do in my classroom to people who have never taught or even taken education classes." (Yes, for better or worse, Ted actually does let me swear in his office). To my delight, he agreed with me, but he still wanted more information before making a formal decision one way or another. But in the meantime the sites that I wanted unblocked were unblocked.

Fast forward a few months and my principal and superintendent are developing a formal policy regarding Internet access. As is the case with many decisions in my school, my principal solicited feedback from the staff. As you might expect, I flooded the main office with information about Internet filtering. Some of the sources that I used include Wes Fryer's Unmasking the Digital Truth, the Digital Youth Research project at Berkeley, the MacArthur Foundation's Spotlight on Digital Media and Learning, and from MIT Press Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out (at the time it was available as a free download, it's now available for purchase or you can read some parts of it for free online). A number of other teachers besides myself presented examples of the work we and our students were doing with web tools that we wouldn't have access to if a restrictive filtering policy was put in place. When a formal policy was put in place, we were all happy to learn that we would continue to be able to access all of the sites that we wanted to use in our classrooms.

Tactics for getting access to the websites that you want to use.
1. Attitude: don't sit back and complain quietly, don't sit back and complain loudly. Rather you should go to the top with research and a plan.

2. Relationships: if I didn't have a good working relationship with my principal I wouldn't be able to walk into his and have him seriously consider what I ask for.

3. Persistence: changing a school's or a district's policy isn't going to happen overnight.

4. Recruit supporters: if it's just you leading the fight you might be looked at as "that crazy teacher," if there is two of you you might be looked at as "those crazy teachers," but if you can get a third supporter then you've started a grassroots movement. This is an idea that I borrowed from this Ted Talk by Derek Sivers and from Arlo Guthrie's Alice's Restaurant.

Come back tomorrow for challenge #2, selecting appropriate tech tools for your classroom.

update: here's another good source of information about filtering. Straight from the DOE: Dispelling Myths About Blocked Sites. Thanks to Wesley Fryer for this one too.