Thursday, December 27, 2012

Drowning in Email? The Email Charter Aims to Save Our Inboxes

In grade school, every kid learns how to write a letter:  heading, date, salutation, body, closing.  They're taught to address an envelope properly.  Later, they might learn how to write a business letter, and be instructed in the use of the subject line ("Re:"), "Cc:" "Bcc:" and "Enclosures:" lines, and to put "Attention" on the envelope so it gets to the right department or person.

It's not unusual for me to receive over 100 emails in a day, and a lot of these are complete time wasters.  I'm not alone.  We're all drowning in email.

It's time for us to start teaching how to write and use email the right way.  But how? Business letter conventions evolved over time, and email -as both a convenience and a festering plague -  is pretty new. 

I first began using email in the late '80s at the University of Pennsylvania.  Faxing and voice mail were pretty new, too, and while this may be hard to believe, phone messaging had only just established itself as standard practice.  (A few quaint cranks still sniffed that they never left messages on answering machines, but their numbers were dwindling.)  I wasn't sure why the guy in charge of our brand new humanities computing was making such a fuss over "electronic mail" (and some other thing he called the World Wide Web), but I gave it a shot.  I still remember the thrill of receiving a note from a prof at Temple University with whom I was organizing an event.  We called each other on the phone to celebrate: e-mail worked!

A year or two later, I was using it regularly.  No more rushing to make early phone calls to catch Europeans in their offices.  No more worrying about whether the fax had gone through when the power went out in Tegucigalpa every afternoon.  It made working internationlly so much easier.   Eliminating phone tag was another big plus.  Inboxes at the time were manageable - I remember being shocked to learn that a friend had 80 messages in hers.  I can't help feeling the stab of nostalgia when I think of it. Only 80?

Fast forward a couple of decades.  My inbox contains 5000+ emails, and that's in just one of my half-a-dozen other email accounts, not counting the messages in Facebook and Yahoo.  This isn't entirely voluntary - every time I work as a contractor or an adjunct, I'm given an e-mail account that I'm required to use for communications with my department and with students. The nature of my work means I'm on a lot of mailing lists.  I tried dividing my account into an email for lists and a personal email.  That worked great, until I lost 60,000 airline miles because I got busy and skipped checking my "lists" account for a few weeks.  Filters, too, don't solve the basic problem of overload.  It's like trying to filter a tsunami.

So I went back to a single main account.  Since then, I've spent entire mornings deleting old emails, left over from the days when I didn't realize storing stuff in my inbox or folders was going to turn into a Sorcerer's Apprentice situation.  I've made rules or myself (e.g. I delete any list emails that I haven't read within 24 hours) and I break them regularly.  This makes me very cranky.  I mean, I've flamed my own mother for sending me heartwarming e-mail or nonsense about using my car door remote through my telephone.  I'm feeling like old Watson in the painting up there. 

So I sat up and took notice when I saw  There have been many attempts to instruct users in netiquette, but so far it hasn't been standardized - no Emily Post of the Internet has emerged.  In the meantime, people like TED curator Chris Anderson have tried to create some rules for keeping our inboxes under control.  The Email Charter was put together after a TED post by Anderson in 2011.  The Charter has 10 proposals, such as "Respect Recipients' time," "Slash surplus CCs," "Cut contentless responses" and "Celebrate Clarity" (this last, ironically, is about using a meaningful subject line.  And yes, you are detecting an unfortunate fixation with alliteration).  Oddly,  there's no mention of avoiding the plague of leaving header after header after header in the body, of or sending out emails with all the recipients' information clearly visible in the To:  or Cc: line instead of using a Bcc: to protect their privacy.  But it's a valiant start.

Check it out and let me know: What is the one email etiquette rule you wish everyone would follow?

Illustration:  John Singleton Copley, Watson and the Shark, 1778, oil on canvas.  The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.  Source:

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Facebook for Teachers: Everything You Didn't Know You Need to Know (and Everything You Do)

Ever wonder how to use Facebook for your teaching? Ever wonder if you should?  Has a student tried to friend you?  If you've ever scratched your head over these questions, you'll want to check out this article on Mashable, the very thorough The Teacher's Guide to Facebook.  It tells you how to maintain your privacy and discusses when it's appropriate or not to friend students.  But it goes beyond that to explore ways to use Facebook for teaching and other common situations like running activities or clubs. 
How have you used Facebook in your teaching?  Have you ever friended a student, and did that work out well or poorly for you? We'd love to hear from you!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

And now for...a guitar solo on a plant?

Science teachers might want to check out the video below.  It would make a pretty engaging project about electricity, assuming (and you're the experts here) it wouldn't electrocute your students., an art and creativity website, had a contest in which people were asked to make a homemade machine.  As it happened the winners both produced machines that make music.  Here's one of the winning entries from Buenos Aires, Argentina:

Kraft test drummie & Robert Plant from NormanBates on Vimeo.

According to Booooooom, Cristian Martínez’s submission is a modified toy affixed with metal sponges, car antennas, and crocodiles clips. He is accompanied by his friend Isis Abigail on an oscillator, using herself and a plant as variable resistor. I love how Isis’ really goes off near the end.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

"Ah, More, Infinitely More..."

For September: Who knew Walt Whitman is as fresh today as in 1874?  Listen:

"An old man's thought of school,
An old man gathering youthful memories and blooms that youth itself cannot.
Now only do I know you,
O fair auroral skies--O morning dew upon the grass!
And these I see, these sparkling eyes,
These stores of mystic meaning, these young lives,
Building, equipping like a fleet of ships, immortal ships,
Soon to sail out over the measureless seas,
On the soul's voyage.
Only a lot of boys and girls?
Only the tiresome spelling, writing, ciphering classes?
Only a public school?
Ah, more, infinitely more;
(As George Fox rais'd his warning cry, "Is it this pile of brick and mortar, these dead floors, windows, rails, you call the church?
Why this is not the church at all-- the church is living, ever living souls.")
And you America,
Cast you the real reckoning for your present?
The lights and shadows of your future, good or evil?
To girlhood, boyhood look, the teacher and the school."
--Walt Whitman, "An Old Man's Thought of School," composed for the inauguration of Camden NJ's Cooper public school, 1874

Image: Cooper public school ca. 1910.  Source:, a non-profit site that promotes music, the adoption of senior dogs, and provides a trove of information about Camden, NJ.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Game Changer: The QAMA Calculator

A calculator that won't give you the answer has me doing math for fun.
First, a confession:  I'm innumerate (well, OK, maybe semi-numerate) but I'm not proud of it, any more than you would be if you were illiterate.  A series of unfortunate or just plain indifferent educational experiences, punctuated by the occasional Year of Living Math Hell (you know who you are, Mrs. L and Sister A) left me stumbling through every math occasion like a carny at a coronation.  The "A's" and "B's" I got were achieved by sheer terror and memorization, the half-grasped concepts rapidly forgotten like so much vermicelli in the drain basket. 

By the time math started to get challenging, right around the second half of Algebra I, I couldn't sustain even that and got the first C of my life.  Next year was even worse- D in Algebra II and Trigonometry - and I gave up.  I got put in Calculus in college with predictable results, so I never took a math class again. 

Years later, to prepare for the GREs, I taught myself what I needed and passed with a respectable score.  That's when I started to have an inkling that maybe I wasn't stupid in one part of my brain. Maybe I could learn math, and I hadn't had the right teacher.   I continued teaching myself, performing well as I moved on to jobs where I had to handle large budgets, work in Excel, perform estimates and projections and so on. 

But it wasn't fun.  I always felt anxious.  I checked and double-checked and triple-checked my work.  I did a good job, but there was no pleasure in it.

So when I saw the QAMA Calculator, which won't give you the answer unless you first give it a reasonable estimate, I hoped it would force me to develop that facility with numbers, the feel for them that I've noticed and envied in my math-adept friends.   I ordered it.  Immediately.

Ripping open the package a few days later, I was a little daunted by the instructions, but I jumped in and tried a few triple-digit multiplication problems.  As promised, I couldn't get it to give up the goods (the product, for all you smug math mavens) until I thought and thought some more and came up with an estimate close to the real answer.  Then voila! the answer appeared.

This is major:  I can't tell you the sense of triumph and affirmation I felt when I finally got it right.  I tried another one, and another.  A lifelong math avoider, suddenly I WAS DOING MATH FOR FUN!  Do you understand what this means?  In a matter of minutes the QAMA had me challenging myself for the pure game of it.

The QAMA website warns that you have to use it all the time for it to work - that every child in a classroom should be given their own calculator so they estimate EVERY time they do math.  It won't help build that wonderful fluency with numbers if you make them share or only trot it out occasionally.  This makes sense.

But still - for me to actually look forward to doing bills and estimates because I get to use the QAMA is nothing short of miraculous.  I'm starting to get cocky.  I'm bandying numbers about, striding around, standing a little taller.  I'm tossing them off like there's nothing to it.  I'm starting to get it. 

What if the QAMA was in every classroom?  Do you think it would be a game-changer?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Delicious leaving a bad taste

Poor Delicious! The once-awesome social bookmarking site had been going through some changes since its purchase by YouTube founders Chad Hurley and Steve Chen (AVOS), none very promising.  The latest debacle is the demise of their once-touted "Stacks" feature.  Don't ask me what it is - I never, ever figured out what Stacks were about the whole time I've been on New Delicious.  I even made a few stacks, and promptly forgot about them.  I couldn't divine what they were good for.
After it was purchased by AVOS it raised a firestorm of criticism as the owners essentially tried to repeat their success with YouTube by making it into some kind of playlist thing instead of the super social bookmarking tool that was its raison d'etre.  The idea was to make it more social (?).

They introduced the mysterious Stacks feature, along with a saccharine new slogan ("Discover Yourself!") which might as well have been cribbed from a yoga spa or maybe an especially chirpy junior college in the Carolinas.   Functionality suffered as Delicious was revamped and brought without warning back to beta.  Users couldn't get at their formerly easy-to-use custom keywords and do other things they were used to doing.  They vented on the web in a storm of virulent tantrums (yours truly among them) criticizing pretty much everything including the new blue-and-puke-green color scheme. (OK, this last was probably just me, but I really hated those colors.) It like New Coke on a smaller, geekier scale.

Competitor Diigo smelled blood in the water and offered enticingly easy bookmark migrating and thousands - or at least a whole lot of us-  jumped ship. (Indeed, if you click on the last link, you'll still see a prominent banner on Diigo's home page telling you how to migrate and leave Delicious in the dust.)
Stacks  were supposed to be some kind of playlist or web page of bookmarks or whatever.  I've used Delicious pretty much every day, even when I hated it, even during the dark days when I couldn't get my keywords back.  I stuck with Delicious even when I was at ISTE 2012 in San Diego and heard a talk by Coolcatteacher blogger Vicki Davis, who talked all kinds of unapologetic smack about Delicious (e.g., "They're unresponsive") and encouraged us all to try Diigo, where she's made her wildly popular moderated edtech bookmarking group's home.
 Apparently my fellow diehard users were just as mystified about Stacks as I was, because Delicious has just announced that they're deep-sixing Stacks. I won't miss it, but for however many people tried to make it work, it's another inconvenience that's bound to ignite another shitstorm.
Tsk, tsk.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Live at ISTE! Using Visuals to Deepen Learning in Assessments

Here's the video I promised of our poster session at ISTE 2012 in San Diego, "Using Visual to Deepen Learning in Assessments."  Ericka Pitman starts off describing our project, and then I explain Q-charts and some of the other tools, although my name was omitted from the description. If you look carefully you might catch a glimpse of Michelle Wendt in the background talking to another visitor to the booth - unfortunately she wasn't on camera, which is a shame because she's an awesome presenter.  Amy Ackerman had to be elsewhere but is also part of this project.

Here's the link in case you need it: Using Visuals to Deepen Learning in Assessments - ISTE 2012

You can learn more about using visuals (photos, graphics, charts, art, and so on ) in assessments at our wiki:
Or visit to comment and share your own examples of using visuals in assessments!  We'd love to hear from you.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Presenting at ISTE

Last week I presented a poster session,"Visuals in Assessments to Deepen Learning" along with Ericka Pitman, Michelle Wendt, and Amy Ackerman, who could not be with us having just returned from a conference in Vienna.  There was a lot of interest and we were busy the entire session answering questions and discussing our work with conference attendees.  A prof teaching a course on assessments to pre-service teachers asked to video us for the edification of his class, and I'll post it as soon as I track it down.

Michelle Wendt and Ericka Pitman interact with a conference-goer at our poster session in San Diego

Monday, June 25, 2012

ISTE 2012

Conference-goers wait for the next session at the San Diego Convention Center. 

The San Diego Convention Center is 25 miles long and stretches from Oregon to Mexico.
I'm pretty sure about that.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


It's starting! Here at the International Society for Technology in Education 2012 annual conference in San Diego.  Afternoon spent checking out different ISTE special interest groups like Digital Equity, Innovative Technologies in Education, Advocacy, Digital Storytelling, International Schools and more.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Baby Names: Interactive Graphic of Trends - An Engaging History Lesson

Check out this cool interactive site that gives a graph of the popularity of individual men's and women's names over time. 

BabyCenter Baby Names

You can type in name and see how it trends over a period of years.  Radio buttons let you pick U.S. Census data, beginning in 1881, or BabyCenter data, beginning in the mid-90s.

In the image above, I used "Emma" as an example.  By clicking the radio button for the U.S. data to the right of the chart you can see that naming your little snookums Emma was insanely popular in 1881.  After this it rapidly lost favor until a dismal nadir lasting from about 1961 to 1985.  Emma began a rapid climb after that, with a sharp upward spike in the 1990s.  Currently "Emma" has occupied one of the top three slots for girls' names for the last nine years, although hasn't quite regained its nineteenth-century popularity of 20,581 per million babies. 

It may even be bobbling a bit - below the graphic, you can click to see all data on a name by year, again divided by Baby Center or U.S. data (scroll down), handily organized by namings per million babies. 

In a lesson, you could ask your students what's wrong with this way of displaying the data (answer: is it clear that the measure of 1 million includes babies of both sexes?). 

All-time popularity ratings for Emma

Time Sink Warning:  It's way more fascinating than you would think and I had to crowbar myself off the site.

Why am I jabbering about this in an education blog?  Because it's an awesome social history resource and a way of engaging students with statistics, change over time, culture, gender, and other juicy social science and humanities topics.

Give it a try and let me know how it worked out in your classroom!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Mobile Devices are Changing Education Worldwide

Image from
UNESCO held its first-ever Mobile Learning Week to think about and work on how mobile devices can help it achieve its goals of education for everyone. Part of the focus was on how mobile devices could be used for teacher education, especially of teachers who work in the most difficult conditions. Four countries were chosen for focus studies: Mexico, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Senegal.

For some of the problems and challenges of Mobile Learning, see this article by Professor  John Traxler at

Ten UNESCO working papers will be released early this year - stay tuned!