T Sale's Blog

Thursday, August 24, 2006

SF Update Redux

Just a follow up on my post of August 15. When I showed my SF students the second part of the SF history slide show, I asked them to just watch the slides and then write for 5 minutes about what they found interesting or important, or what they connected to. Though some students responded with a borng list of topics, most of them did exactly what I'd hoped -- they connected with the show in some way, expressing an interest and, in some cases, some profound insights about the purpose of SF. The responses were much more fun and satisfynig to read than their answers to a test.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Blogging Vocab

Last year Karl wisely advised me not to use blogs to add work to my classes, but rather to adapt existing assignments and activities that might fit into the blogosphere. In that spirit, I'm having my English 10 students use the class blog to post vocabulary words. I have a requirement that, in the course of their reading or perusing other media, they each find one new word a week. They post the word, the original sentence in which it appeared, the source, and a definition written in their own words. They're also required to post a word that hasn't already been posted, so they have to read the previous posts, and if they all learn the word "mitosis" in biology that week, only the fastest student can use that word. Once the words are posted, we can use them to generate a vocabulary list for the class, or, better yet, have each student choose X number of words to add to his/her personal vocabulary.

It occurred to me there might be other occasions when I want students each to generate a unique idea, and having them post it on the blog could prevent me from getting a parade of repetitive answers to a writing prompt.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Reading Recommendations

For those of you intrigued by the startling statistics in The World is Flat and shaken by the factoids n our own Karl Fisch’s Did You Know, I’d like to recommend a couple of excellent science fiction books that explore the same kinds of ideas and play with the possibilities of things like the artificial intelligence (AI) more advanced than the human brain.

Accelerando, by Charles Stross, explores the Singularity, that point at which technology is advancing so fast that it’s impossible to even predict what’s next; by the time you predict it, it’s already happened. The book starts in the near future, when people wear glasses that constantly stream information from the Web into their eyes and ears, so that they’re literally wired (or I guess wireless) wherever they go. By the end of the book we’re watching AIs gradually demolishing the inner planets of the solar system to provide raw materials for a vast computer that stretches to the orbit of Jupiter.

River of Gods, by Ian McDonald, takes place in India in 2047, the centennial of India’s formation as a country. In this future world, Krishna Kops use electronic avatars of gods such as Vishnu and Siva to hunt rouge AIs, and the most popular entertainment in India is a soap opera called Town and Country. On this soap opera, not only are the characters computer generated, but the actors who play the characters are virtual as well. Programmers create not only the drama seen on TV, but also the virtual life of the computer actors. (Apparently even the Lindsay Lohans and Mel Gibsons of the world got too tame.)

These books’ future events seem outrageous, but with the Singularity fast approaching, they’ll soon qualify as historical novels.

Making Science Fiction Up To Date

Thinking about constructivist teaching has prompted me to change something I’ve done in my Science Fiction class for a long time. I started teaching SF when I first came to AHS in 1985, and I inherited a three-part slide show of the history of SF. The slides are in carousel trays, and the audio is on both cassette tape and vinyl records, complete with the “beep” to tell you when to change the slides. (Lately I’ve been using the records because they have better sound quality than the old cassettes.) Now here’s the thing: I’m not planning on abandoning the slide show. I have to supplement it more and more because it was made in 1974, and it’s a little corny in spots, but it has good information on the roots of SF, and it’s narrated by the great Rod Serling (creator of The Twilight Zone, for those of you too young to remember). And using such retro gear in a class about the future appeals to my sense of irony. It’s my own little tradition. However, here’s what I plan to change. In the past, I’ve always given the students a set of fill-in-the-blank notes, and later an objective test. This year I want to give them…blank paper. I want the students to really watch the show (instead of madly scribbling notes) and jot down 2 or 3 details that interest them – perhaps an image from one of the slides, or a detail about an author. Along with that, they’re going to express some of the questions they have about science fiction tropes like time travel, aliens, robots, and the future. I hope to get the kids asking about science fiction, instead of feeding them the knowledge that I think they should know. Later, as a little project, I’m going to have them research some of the authors and trends of the eighties, nineties, and aughties, and create their own update in artistic form.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Flat World Thoughts

I had mixed feelings about The World is Flat. On the one hand, I found all the history and explanation of the digital revolution interesting (somehow I wasn’t getting it all first hand when it was happening), and I liked the forward-looking nature of the book because I’ve always been a science fiction fan. At other times I got a little tired of the repetitive nature of Friedman’s examples – here comes yet another story of how someone makes a lot of money, followed by another example of how the Chinese are preparing to conquer the world.

There were a few things that struck me as important to education. The section on Wikipedia, and in particular the experience of John Seigenthaler, Sr., brought to mind one of the big shifts that’s taken place in research and the very nature of fact and fiction. I remember when we spent several days showing students how to access information. Now they can find more information than they’d ever need in a few seconds on the Web. But as the finding of information got easier, we didn’t think about the quality of the information. We still need to make a shift over to teaching kids how to judge what they find on line and differentiate what’s fact and what’s hooey. To me this is an important component of modern education because these days we get our information “through a fire hose” (as Friedman says) and much of that water is polluted. We need to give students the means to filter what they see in the media.

The horizontal interconnectivity of information is also something we as educators could use to better advantage. We see any given student for 56 minutes per day, and some students who struggle could benefit from all their teachers comparing notes from time to time. We might be able to alter some behaviors if the math, English, science and history teachers all focused on the same thing for the student.