Monthly Archives: September 2009

multi-tasking: friend or foe

Ah, multi-tasking.  Sometimes that word feels like an obscenity to me.  More often than not I think the countless demands placed on me (on all of us) during the school day limit my productivity, but in theory shouldn’t multi-tasking increase productivity?  The most straightforward definition, “the performance of multiple tasks at once,” does not address the quality or level of completion of those multiple tasks.  But then along comes this fancy new definition from Henry Jenkins.  He proposes that multi-tasking is really the “ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus onto salient details on an ad hoc basis.”  So multi-tasking is a good thing.

Those two definitions are really talking about two different things.  I think Jenkins’ idea of multi-tasking moves beyond task completion and into higher order thinking skills, demanding that we (and our students) evaluate incoming information and connect/filter/prioritize in the moment.  In popular culture, however, multi-tasking seems to imply doing a bunch of disparate things at once, and perhaps not doing any of them too well.  A researcher in this Washington Post article cautions that too much multi-tasking could even be detrimental to developing brains.

But I wonder…perhaps our brains are evolving to accommodate these new demands.  I remember seeing a presentation (maybe the district’s Web 2.0 kickoff a couple years ago?)  where we learned that research on kids’ brain function in the last 5-10 years shows that they are much more visually oriented than language-based.  They respond more readily to icons and symbols than adult brains.  That is a dramatic change in how we communicate with each other, and it’s kind of overwhelming for those of us with old-fashioned language-based brains.  I guess my point is that there’s no good or bad about multi-tasking , especially Jenkins’ description of it.  It just is, meaning we can’t hunker down and close our eyes and say “go away while I focus on just one thing at a time.”  I still see a necessity for single-minded focus, but it is increasingly unrealistic in our work and school environments.  We want our students to be able to sift through multiple forms of information and use that knowledge in new and creative ways.  Just as important, as Jenkins points out, is that we teach students what it looks like to be off-task compared to multi-tasking in an effective manner.

All this is a challenge to my own brain, but learning new things is good for me.  Like vitamins.


It happens to all of us.  Digital overload.  Or maybe just life overload, and the digital world is an easy target.

I read through chapter 2 (in Teaching Writing Using Blogs, Wikis, and other Digital Tools) about technological options for collecting and organizing information.  I was excited about digital notetaking (especially after seeing Zach use his tablet PC in class this summer!), and I went right to the book’s wiki resource site to explore all the options mentioned in the chapter.  Each link brought me to some kind of review or overview or product description, but I really didn’t feel like I gleaned the power of the notetaking tools themselves.  And now I’m in the too-much-information mode, where I know that there are some great resources out there but I don’t know how to use them or how I can use them in my work with students.  Overwhelmed is the word I’m looking for.

The idea of digital notetaking appeals to me primarily because “traditional” notetaking can be very complicated for my students.  Notetaking requires: proficient fine motor skills, the ability to hold information in your head and then transcribe it, basic spelling skills (so you can at least read your own notes), the ability to summarize auditory information, metacognitive skills that allow you to organize/categorize information before transcribing it, and of course, the ability to focus on the presenter long enough to absorb the material.  I address some of these issues with existing assistive technology in the district (CoWriter, Kidspiration, portable word processors), but I feel like those tools just scratch the surface of what’s possible.

I guess I need to see some of the digital notetaking software in action in order to understand how it works.  This is a call to you, my fellow cohorts: if you use something like FreeMind, KeyNote, Webnotes, show me how it works for you!  Tell me how you think it could work for students.

On a more upbeat, excited note: check out the links I added at the bottom of my “blogging makes me happy post.”  Very cool things going on in a Staten Island classroom!


One more thing I pulled from this week’s reading: the idea of synthesis as a way to demonstrate understanding of multiple texts (as described in the Zawalinski article).  We often expect kids to summarize and synthesize without actually teaching them how to do it.  Those are tough skills to teach.  But the graphic organizer (figure 3 on page 658, Starting to Synthesize–Synthesis Scaffold) in that article looks fantastic!  It breaks down the skill of synthesizing into all the smaller steps, using clear, student-friendly language.  These are the kinds of tools I love.  Again, I need to think about how exactly to apply this with my students…which means I have to step back and think about how to integrate blogs meaningfully in my work with kids.  But I’ll get there.  Hello higher order thinking!

blogging makes me happy

As I practically shouted in class on Thursday, I love blogging!  I started out as a lurker, reading a few blogs religiously, and then I started commenting, and then I finally started my own personal blog a couple years ago.  I’m an introvert (although sometimes I put on a good extroverted front) and blogging helps me satisfy social needs without expending energy on face-to-face interaction.  While blogging may present opportunities for an authentic audience, in my own personal blog I appreciate writing with relative anonymity.  No one out there in internet land knows the real life me, and that seems to free my writing.  Interestingly, the people who know the real life me don’t know that writing side of me, which makes me wonder what would happen if ever the two shall meet?

Blogging is a two-fold process for me.  It provides me with a personal writing forum, but it also allows me to drop in on people all over the country and feel like I am a part of their lives (whether they know it or not).  And those two things keep me engaged and excited.

Maintaining engagement and excitement is the tricky part of integrating blogs into a classroom setting.  We’ve talked about how blogging can be just “one more thing” for students, something they do to fulfill a class requirement and then move on.  A couple teachers in my building are trying things that move beyond prompting and responding with their classroom blogs, and I watch them carefully to see how I can use similar strategies with my own students.  I love the idea that blogs can increase the amount of writing students do without them really being aware of it (sometimes I need to be sneaky to get my students writing), and I think social connectivity is probably one of the keys to keep students engaged.  In chapter six of our text, the authors emphasize that “it is important to perceive them [blogs] as a tool for social conversation” (p. 118).  Often that social part of blogging in the classroom seems not quite right to us as educators, as if kids talking (writing) with other kids is somehow a waste of educational time.  It’s not, of course, but we have to be prepared to justify every use of time in our school days.

I’m not yet sure how to make blogging effective and engaging in my setting, but I think I can be a pioneer on this front.  Or maybe there are some exciting examples of blogging with kids with disabilities that I don’t know about yet.  Example: I just rediscovered after reading Maria’s post, and I will be exploring that site to see if/how I can integrate it into my work.  Onward ho!

edited 9/26/09 to add: Yesterday I heard this fantastic interview with a science teacher on NPR’s Science Friday.  I was driving at the time, so I didn’t explore her classroom blog/wiki/etc until this morning, but holy cow!  This teacher is incorporating digital technology in all the ways we’ve been talking about, and her students have a huge presence on their classroom blog.  I will be wandering over there many times this year to figure out how I can take some of those ideas and use them with my own students.  Visit Stacy Baker’s classroom website, Extreme Biology, and be sure to check out their class blog (which you can find navigating the site map on the website).

the new hidden curriculum?

In my work with students on the autism spectrum, we emphasize direct, overt teaching of the “hidden curriculum” that runs parallel to the academic curriculums taught in schools.  The hidden curriculum refers to those unwritten rules of social behavior that most kids seem to acquire without effort.  One of the hallmarks of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is the inability to observe and demonstrate those seemingly natural social behaviors.  So it is with great interest that I noted this quote in Henry Jenkins’ paper on digital learning and media (Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century):

Access to this participatory culture functions as a new form of the hidden curriculum, shaping which youth will succeed and which will be left behind as they enter school and the workplace.

Later in the paper Jenkins again emphasizes that nearly all forms of digital literacy “involve social skills developed through collaboration and networking” (p. 4).  We have been talking so much about how digital literacy is intertwined with reading and writing; traditionally reading and writing have been perceived as solitary activities (rightly or unrightly so), but digital literacy pulls in this third realm–the social world.

In many ways the social nature of online interaction works in favor of students with ASD.  There are no facial cues to read, vocal tones to interpret, physical proximity issues to monitor and adjust.  This new technological interactivity offers more opportunities to participate and succeed without standing out as socially awkward.  But there are social rules in the digital world too, and I wonder how much of this will be easy for my students to acquire.  Last year I had to specifically teach one of my students with ASD how to post a friendly comment on another person’s blog.  He was excited about interacting with his peers online, but even in that forum his delayed social skills were a factor.  I don’t know if this will be the case for most of my students on the spectrum, but it is something I wonder about.



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