A session I presented at last year's Sakai Summer Institute about blogging in the classroom:
The keynote speaker was just wrapping up. The teachers in the folding chairs all around me were quietly and politely easing their programs, notebooks and knitting into their tote bags and positioning themselves to sprint out of the ballroom before the crowd got jammed up at the exits. And, because I'm kind of an idiot, it was at this point that I started flipping through my conference program to take a look at what sessions I should go to.

I don't think so. 
Oh, that looks good; no, wait - it's for administrators. 
"Fun MCAS IEP Compliance Strategies That Really Work" - What does that even mean? 
Oh, hey - this looks promising...

I was so busy circling conference sessions that I hardly noticed that the speaker has wrapped up telling us how under-appreciated yet amazing we were and how the hard work was ahead of us and suddenly, we were at the clapping-and-gathering stage. We were told to have a great day, and then four thousand middle school teachers sprinted for the door.

My first-choice session was full up. I couldn't even get close to the door.

My second-choice session looked promising though - Effective PowerPoints in the 21st Century Classroom. Hey, you know me - I'm all about PowerPoint. I love it. There were still plenty of seats in the middle of the room. I slipped in as unobtrusively as possible and started listening to the presenter.

"So, most of you have probably heard something about PowerPoint. It's great - it's like a slideshow you can run from your computer!"

So help me god, she was showing us a PowerPoint about PowerPoint and reading her whole presentation from bullet-points. 

There are times I'm fearful for the future of our profession.

I knew this wasn't going to go well. If I wanted to escape with my sanity, I had to bail out of this session quickly and shamelessly. I got up as quietly as I could and ran the gauntlet of dirty (and in a couple of cases, envious) looks from the other teachers in the session and left.

Okay - the morning wasn't shaping up the way I'd hoped it would. I looked across the hallway and saw an almost-empty ballroom. Through the open doorway, I saw four or five women talking quietly as they cut and folded paper at one of the tables. Assuming that the room was actually free and that these ladies were getting ready for a presentation in the next session, I decided to slip in and get my bearings. If I sat down with the program, maybe I could figure out where I wanted to be for the next session and get there early enough to get a seat.

Of course, (and you saw this coming, didn't you?) it turned out that this was a real session and one with so few people in it that there was no way I could bail out of it. I had to sit politely and put up with whatever silly, paper-craft nonsense these ladies wanted to show me.

Okay - I'll try to make a long story short:
  • The two ladies were veteran teachers with seventy years of experience between them.
  • They were showing three other teachers (and now me) how to make something called a "magic book".
  • They said that this was a time-tested, sure-fire way to spark student interest in presenting projects.
  • It turns out they were right.
"Magic Books" (which, for my money, may be the least inspiring name for a project ever) are brochure-like folders that students make to present information. They have to cut and fold and weave some paper - not much, but just enough to give them some hands-on engagement - and when they are done, they will have a brochure with a secret compartment in the center.

At this point, I've made Magic Books with my students for five or six years and it never fails to engage something like 95% of my students.

Here's how you make one:

According to the teachers who showed me this, you can make magic books out of any kind of paper in any size, from slips of paper as small as postage stamps to giant pieces of poster board. They suggested using manilla folders, which are the right size and stiff enough to fold well. I've found over the years that this is a good call; the one classroom supply request I submit each year is for a couple of cases of manilla folders.

I use magic books for my first research project of the year with my 8th graders. I have each student research one of the Framers of the Constitution and construct a magic book about him.

Here is that project:

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I don't know the best way for you to use magic books in your classroom, but I do know two things:
  • You should.
  • I owe those two highly skilled and experienced educators an apology for my condescending attitude.

My five year-old son is mad at me.

Both my wife and I have to travel for work a few times a year and The Boy gets distinctly bent out of shape with us if we get to go on trips without him. I'm going to be attending two professional conference in the next month that will have me away from the house on two Saturdays and he is pretty cheesed-off about it.

Yesterday morning, I was trying to make breakfast and The Boy kept standing in front of the refrigerator, with the door open. I kept telling him to close the door. Finally, he informed me over his shoulder, "You know, I've got a conference too - a conference with the REFRIGERATOR!"

Okay, that story doesn't have any real point, except that: 1) I have a really funny, strange boy, and 2) I go to a lot of conferences.
Anyway, I do go to several conferences a year and I make presentations at two or three of them - usually on tools I use in the classroom. At some point during any given presentation, somebody usually asks me, "Where do you find this stuff?"

I get asked the same thing by colleagues at school who I forward links to a couple of times a week. The answer is a little too long to go into in any detail in person, so I usually shrug and say something like, "the voices in my head...: and give a creepy chuckle. (This is the sort of Noel Coward-esque wit that keeps me from getting invited out much.)

The longer, more helpful answer is that I actually find cool content and tools for my classroom in four main sources online:

1) Twitter

2)  Comic strips and other websites that I check every day

3)  Blogs

4)  Podcasts

This post is about Twitter and how I use it.
I've heard that there are two types of people who use social media online - Twitter People and Facebook People. I'm definitely a Twitter Person. I like the 140 character limit to messages - it makes me think really hard about what I want to say and the most straight-forward way to say it. Other people's messages are short, to the point and often very funny.

They say that Facebook is like a dinner party and Twitter is like a bar. What can I say? I'm a bar kind of guy.

I generally post two or three messages a day on Twitter, and, for whatever reason, there are some people out there who want to know when I've got some brilliant observation to make, so they "follow" me - in other words, they've signed up to get these messages. In turn, I follow about a hundred people who have things to say that I'm interested in. These break down to four types of people:

1) People I actually know in day-to-day life: my wife, colleagues, a couple of friends. (This is the "Facebook-y" side of Twitter.)

2) Other teachers around the country (and occasionally, around the world): these are the most useful contacts in terms of finding cool stuff. Teachers love to share things with each other and they generally post links to the cool stuff they find online. In a given day, my teacher contacts turn me onto two or three tools or websites that I can use myself or that I can pass on to other colleagues. 

3) Celebrities: I do follow some celebrities; I admit it. Though, in my own defense, I have to say that the type of "celebrity" I follow is a particularly nerdy type - NPR hostsbloggers whose writing I admire, Adam Savage from MythBusters - that sort of celebrity.

4) Organizations like museums, websites, tv networks, restaurants, etc... who post information that is useful to me.

Tips for finding useful (or just cool) people to follow on Twitter:

1)  When you do find someone on Twitter whose posts you like, that are useful to you, etc..., look and see who they follow. Very few people are independently brilliant - if they've got good posts and tips, they have good people feeding them stuff.

2)  Really good writers are usually married to really good writers. Almost all the people I follow on Twitter, especially bloggers, seem to be married to really fascinating people. Some of my most valued Twitter contacts are people I stumbled onto by initially following their spouses.

3)  Don't be afraid to block people. If there is somebody - or more likely, some company or spam engine - who starts following you that you don't feel comfortable with, don't feel guilty about blocking them from reading your posts. (Trust me, most of them don't have feelings to hurt.)

4) Don't follow too many people at a time. It's easy to get overwhelmed with information. Just follow a few people at a time. Add contacts as you feel comfortable and drop contacts whose posts aren't all that useful or entertaining to you anymore. 

(That's a big difference between Twitter and Facebook - people tend to not take things like this personally. Dropping a "friend" from Facebook can generate real drama in your day-to-day life. Doing it in Twitter rarely will.) 

If you look at people on Twitter with a LOT of followers, you'll notice that they only follow a few people at a time. My rule of thumb is to keep the number of people I follow under 100, which sounds like a lot, but isn't really, because about a third of them don't "Tweet" that often. (But when they do, it's worth it.)

5) Don't be intimidated by people who seem much smarter than you. A lot of the time, I don't have a clue what the people I'm following are talking about. Most of the teachers I follow are much brighter than I am and hang out with a much more sophisticated crowd than I do, technology-wise. They make references to programs and platforms and other jargon-y things that I don't have a clue about. (Like "Nings" for instance; I wouldn't know a Ning, if it dropped out of the ceiling on top of me, spraying me with melted cheese.)

Here's the thing to remember about that - most of the time, when teachers online are asking questions about these things you don't know about, it's because they are just feeling their way through something at the edge of their comfort zone - that's why they're asking questions about it. They don't know much more about it than you do. If you are really curious about what they're talking about, just look it up on Wikipedia. (That's the sort of thing that Wikipedia does really well - give geeks a forum to explain technology.)

(Oh... so THAT'S what a Ning is...)


Anyway, Happy Twittering.

Next Time - Comic Strips!!!