Sunday, October 21, 2012

Signs? Sig(h)ns.

If you know me at all, or have followed this blog, you know that I am a proponent of multimodality.  I love teaching about, learning about, using and advocating multiple modes in the classroom.  I also propose that we pay attention to the modes around us outside of the classroom.  I do worry, though, that  the world depends so greatly on signs.  Just like we have multiple interpretations of words, we, too, have multiple interpretations of signs.

Just a few minutes ago, I logged into my blogger account so that I could read some more of my students' blogs.  I have decided to follow all their blogs, so that when I log into dashboard...there they are.  The problem...I can never remember how to log in to my dashboard. I typically have to click two or three places before it shows up.  It wasn't until a few minutes ago, that I clicked on the white B in the orange box.  To me...that logo meant "blogger" and I assumed it was going to take me to the home page.  Makes sense right? But because I was logged in, it took me to my dashboard.  I could swear that when I started this blog almost a year ago, there was an actual link to dashboard.  I mean the word "dashboard" was underlined.  So I am used to clicking on the word.  Not the logo for blogger.

So...why the change? The same thing happened to me a few years back.  I wanted to delete an e-mail from my g-mail account.  Typcially, I would click on the box to the left of the e-mail...go to the top and click on the word "delete."  I swear, it took me longer than it should have to eventually figure out that they replaced this with an icon of a garbage can.  Now, why did I never click on the garbage can?  Because in another e-mail program, the garbage can led you to your deleted e-mails.  So in one e-mail program the garbage can was literally the place where your "deleted" e-mails or "garbage" was found.  And in another e-mail program, you had to click on the garbage can to delete your message.

So here is the issue.  One sign means two different things.  When there are words, it is much simpler.  You know the meaning.  But with symbols, it might take multiple attempts or some practice to understand what they mean.

I truly believe we are becoming more sign-based because we are a global society.  The plus side to using images is that they are (most often) universal.  But the negative side is that even signs can have different meanings depending on one's prior knowledge.

I pose no question.  I just wanted to rant about signs for a moment.  While I do love teaching about understanding signs and other modes, I too, get tripped up from time to time.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Instant Memes

So tonight I was watching the presidential debate, and like many others, I was on facebook at the same time.  Though I heard Romney mention that he had "binders full of women" from which to seek cabinet members...I'll be honest....I didn't think too too much of it. At best, I thought he was kissing ass. About a half an hour later, I noticed that that my newsfeed on facebook was filled with binder comments.  Eventually I was led to this link.  Clearly, I first laughed my ass off.  But what fascinated me was the speed in which these were generated.  In fact, my partner was not watching tonight.  So I paused to tell him what the facebook nation seemed to focus on...this one comment.  (And believe me...if we're going to pick at Mittens...there was plenty to pick on.)  I even joked with him that this was "bindergate."  My partner's response was that there was so much mockery in such a short amount of time.

This got me thinking.  We are used to make comments on facebook within seconds.  But now we are creating memes.  In minutes after a gaffe.  Look at the speed in which we can send information.  It used to be that we could send e-mails to a selected party...but now we can communicate with ANYONE within moments after an event.  Being a multimodal theorist...I worry about this.  We tend to use multiple modes to express our we really want/need to have them out there for everyone?  Or are we impulsive?  Have you ever waken up after a drunken facebook night and thought "Jesus....I really didn't want everyone to hear my thoughts?"  I'm just worried, because with social networking....and web we think before we post?

i would be lying if i said i was a model example of posting.  i mean, look at my facebook any friday am and chances are...if i could take back a post i would.  not just because i may have had cocktails...but because when i facebook...which is traditionally at's after a long day of work...and to tell you the truth..i am worked up.

that's what worries me about web 2.0.  It's so easy to post without full thoughts.  Think about it.  I know I will.

I know I don't want to slant my posts...but my God...binders full of women...can't stop laughing!

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Calling 3rd, 6th and 10th grade teachers

If you teach 3rd, 6th or 10th grade, would you consider taking a few minutes and take the following survey.  This is for my friends and colleagues at the Institute of Learning at The University of Pittsburgh.  I know they would appreciate it.  Feel free to share the link.  Thanks!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Picture the Story

Anyone who knows me as a person or as an educator knows that I am a visual learner.  One of the things that I like about reading is making a "mental movie" in my head.  I was not taught that skill until later in life (definitely not in high school), thus I was not a fan of reading literature when I was younger.  It wasn't until I was specifically told that making a mental image is a skill that is required for reading.  I mean, yes, I made mental images, but I was always concerned with mine being wrong, or way off the mark or something like that. 

Years ago when I was teaching high school, I asked how many students make mental images when they read, and I was surprised that not many did.  Like me, when I was there age, their eyes were scanning the words, but they weren't processing a whole lot.  So I came up with an activity I like to call Picture the Story, and I'd like to share it here.

Typically Picture the Story takes place when students have finished a book, but it can actually be done at any point in time.  I break the book down into sections; one section for each student.  For example...student one is assigned pages 1-5...student 2 is assigned pages 6-10....and so on.  Then I give each of the students a blank piece of paper and some markers.  (I highly encourage markers in the matter what level of education.) I ask the students to review their assigned section, and to draw a visual depicting an event in that section.

This is where the fun part comes in...I then choose a student at random...someone who is assigned the middle of the book. I ask them to come to the front of the room and share their image.  The other classmates try to guess what the image is, what it means and when it took place.  This dialogue is very encouraging.  Once the students have figured out what part of the story is being represented...they tape the picture to the wall.  I then ask another student to come up and we repeat the process.  However, this time the students have to decide if the new event took place before or after the event currently being presented.   Once they have decided, that picture is posted on the wall, either before or after the first picture.  We continue this process until all pictures are posted in chronological order.  Then I ask the students to write a short summary of the event and a rationale on a note card, which explains their thinking and their depiction of the event.  I then have them post these under the picture.

One nice thing about the assignment is that you now have a visual and written timeline of the events of a story in your classroom for all the students to see.  And if you teach the same book in multiple classes, you can compare and contrast depictions.

I also think that this can be useful not only for review, but to discuss symbolism and other literary events.  The students will already be familiar with the plot after conducting this activity, so they will be more apt to discuss other literary elements as well.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Teaching Digital Literacy Skills earlier in education

In his blog, Ray Kelly, the CEO of Certipoint ("the world's leading provider of computer literacy skills training and credentialing program) advocates teaching digital literacy skills in middle school.  I wholeheartedly agree with Kelly, as we are a digital and global society.  As newer and newer technologies shape the way in which we function, I agree that middle school is a good place to start.  However, Kelly lists three major components for teaching these skills:  key applications, computing fundamentals, and practical use of the internet.  While he brings up important points of each, I think his blog is a bit limited.  I'm surprised to see that digital composition isn't one of these skills.  Under key applications, he describes learning about photoshop and MS office...but I feel that these are just the tip of the iceberg.

For example, what about blogging, podcasting and other digital tools that are becoming common?  Should we train students to see what these are and allow them to experiment? Also, with so much social networking (ie. facebook, linkedin, etc.) might it be a great lesson for students to learn what these tools are in context?  Rather than saying "this is facebook" show students how companies use this tool, as so many do.

I also think Kelly needs to mention media literacy education.  Because youth are some of the largest consumers of media, I think it's important to teach them the skills they need to evaluate the ads they are being bombarded with along with the other types of media that are consumed daily.  I suggest Frank Baker's  media literacy clearninghouse as an excellent point of entry because it contains so many links about media literacy...from learning what it is, to learning how to be less passive about media, to educational links.

While Kelly's blog does suggest earlier education regarding digital literacy is important, I feel he could include more than just "computer literacy" which seems to be his main point.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Annotating on the Web

One of things I have always struggled with as a student was reading online.  Yes, I know I teach all about technology and digital tools, but one of the reasons I like to print out EVERYTHING is because I really need to annotate the heck out of something.  I've heard of annotation tools that let you mark up web pages, but on initial investigation I noticed there was a cost of some sort.

But today I discovered free annotation tools that enable one to mark up, circle, annotate, you name it.  I've only tried out two of these five tools so far, but they were indeed free, and pretty easy to use.

I like because it's so simple to use.  I wouldn't use it for heavy annotations, but maybe to simply circle or box an item, and to put a few comments in.  Think of this as annotating for elementary or middle school.  This is an especially useful tool if you have a computer and a projector but no smartboard. This even lets you save the annotated page as a link.

Another tool that is particularly useful is called  This is a little easier and more useful for annotation as the text is a bit smaller, so there is more room for commentary on the page.  Think of this as capturing a screen shot.

There are a few other free annotation sites on the link above.   Check them out and feel free to comment.  I especially find these useful as a former student, but they could be very useful in education as the teacher could mark up specific parts of a website and even share these annotated pages as links.

Friday, February 3, 2012

For PA Educators and Pre-Service Teachers

If you are currently teaching ELA in PA, or if you are a pre-sevice teacher with ideas and/or research you may want to consider presenting at the PCTELA conference on Oct. 26th or Oct 27th.  PCTELA, the PA Council of Teachers of English Language Arts is a professional organization promoting and supporting PA ELA teachers and pre-service teachers.  Every October they hold a 2-day conference with outstanding speakers from the field, multiple breakout sessions, a bookstore, and plenty of opportunites to network, share and exchange ideas, and what I think is highly important---rejuvinate! I can't tell you how inspriring I find confereneces. Lots of folks with the same interest, tons of ideas, research and meeting new people are some of the many benefits of attending.

This fall, the conference is being held in Lancaster, PA. If you are interested in presenting, click here to download a conference proposal.  PCTELA accepts proposals from all ELA teachers, no matter what level.  I would certainly suggest both practicing and pre-service teachers submit a proposal.  The conference is a nice size, and intimate, so it's not too overwhelming.  I hope I see you there.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Does technology have to be engaging and entertaining?

So I came across this article which discusses how schools are behind in utilizing the skills todays students have with digital technology.  For the most part, I do agree.  I've always thought that when we meet students half-way, or even part way, we are doing them a great service by a.) acknowledging them (you'd be surprised, many teachers don't come CLOSE to doing this) and b.) we are making what seems practical to them a learning experience.

I really liked this article, because it showed how there can be educational value in texting, tweeting and social networking.  Like the author, I balked when my administration tried to "shut down" the internet or (worse) tell me I only had the intranet to use. (ew!)  Overall, Luscre makes some great points and provides some practical examples of how instructors can teach using these technologies. My big beef with the article, however (besides the over-used OMG! in the title) is that he keeps referring to these as fun and engaging methods for teaching.  While I think many students would be engaged and maybe even have fun, I worry when technology used the hook "fun" to entice students and educators.  As an educator and as an eductor of educators (got that?), I clearly believe that if students are engaged that they will benefit.  But what I cannot tolerate is the label of FUN that is assumed when one uses technology.  (I really don't like absolutes like that, because it also infuriates me when people identify technolgy with the word "trouble.") 

I guess I'm on the soapbox regarding this article because I want individuals to learn that using technolgy is necessary because it's the way of the future.  Sure, it seems silly to ask students to tweet a summary of a short story, but hey, learning to work with parameters and limitations is a real world skill, is it not?

Overall, it's a great article if you are considering how to utilize technology in the classroom.

Friday, January 20, 2012

An awesome organization for all English Language Arts Teachers

So if you are an English Language Arts teacher or pre-service teacher and you have not heard of NCTE, you will most certainly want to check out this organization.  Becoming a member is cheaper if you are a student, so if you are, consider joining.  There is a weekly "in-box" update with links to articles and sources.  There are a plethora of journals to subscribe to, and most importantly there is the national convention every November. I can't tell you how AMAZING this convention is. True, it can be costly...but this November it's in Vegas, so I say....make a trip out of it.

I could say many, many more great things about NCTE, which by the way stands for National Council of Teachers of English (sorry, got ahead of myself and forgot to mention that) but I'd rather you check out the links.

If you are a student of mine, I would certainly consider joining today.


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Technology in the English Languge Arts Classroom

So this semester I will be teaching one methods course called Writing for Non-Print Media.  I am very much looking forward to this course for several reasons. First of all, I have a passion for non-traditional assessments.  So much of what we do in schools is print or language-based.  We read, we write, we speak. We regurgitate.

However, we live in a world that extends beyond words.  For instance, my g-mail updated to a new version a few weeks ago and when I wanted to delete an e-mail it took me a bit of time to find out that the word "delete" is no longer an option.  Eventually I found and icon of a garbage can.  Duh!  I'm not saying that I am for or against a semiotic world, but just want to point out that we use symbols, signs and images a lot...and that we need to teach our students how to view, understand, analyze and comprehend these.

So back to my point about assessments....I have always favored assessments that enabled me to do some sort of visualization.  Whether it was a video or a power point, or even a collage...I thrived on these and went WAY above and beyond what I needed to do for the assignment because I could use strongest "intelligence."  (See Gardner's Multiple Intelligences if you are interested in leaning about a variety of ways in which we learn.  It's cool.)  

So as an educator, I have always been sensitive to alternative assessments that value multiple intelligences and extend beyond simply writing or responding to a prompt.  Now, that doesn't mean that I don't value writing and LANGUAGE....of course I do.  But I just feel that there are occasions when we as educators can extend BEYOND THE SINGLE MODE OF LANGUAGE to offer more MULTIMODAL opportunities for student learning.

Another reason I look forward to teaching the course is because I learn alongside with the students.  There is a plethora of technology out there.  And rather than using technology for the sake of using technology...I like to give my students opportunities to research and consider these types of technologies and find meaningful ways to use (or not use) them.

For instance....I wanted to use Tumblr a, very, very simple blogging tool for this course.  However, after spending some time on the site, I realized that while it is a very good tool for blogging, it is mostly used for re-posting content.  Yes, you can write posts....but it looks like it's more used with mobile devices and I even saw the word "microblogging" on the Tumblr page.  While that is a nice tool...I need something a little more traditional in the way of blogging for this course.

My point is...the students (and I) can sift through this technology throughout the semester....and discuss both in class and in blogs WHAT is out there...and HOW it MIGHT (or might NOT) be used in the classroom.  Afterall, there is an abundance of information out why not work together to learn about it.  Right?

Getting Started

Hi All.

My name is Tim Oldakowski and I am an English Professor at Slippery Rock University, in the small town of Slippery Rock, PA, located about 45 miles north of Pittsburgh, PA.  I teach both English courses as well as English Education courses.  One of the courses I teach is called Writing for Non-Print Media, and in the course my students will be keeping blogs.  I figured this would be the best time for me to model what I teach by keeping a blog myself.

While I have used, researched and even written about blogs, I have never kept one myself.  I decided that this would be the best time to start one, and like my students the focus is going to be on education.

The students in my course will keep a blog focused on what they are learning during the semester, not only in my course, but in other courses as well.  I'm hoping that they will use the blog as a space to reflect upon what they are learning as pre-service teachers during the spring 2012 semester.  Obviously I hope that the students enjoy blogging and network with others so that they can continue to use the blog even after the course ends in May 2012.

I, and hopefully my students, will keep a casual tone.  This is simply a place to reflect, to share, to connect and to prosper as educators and as future educators.

I'm sure I will be updating quite a bit in the next few weeks as I will want my students to have a model from which to work from.

So, here it is.  The first entry in Oldakowski's Educational Stuff.  I hope you enjoy.

Dr. Timothy Oldakowski
English Department
Slippery Rock University