My Kindle Love/Hate

We are fortunate at our school to have 6 kindles in circulation for students to sign out (come September we will be adding a further 24 to our collection). Even more fortunate, for me, is that I was able to sign one out to use over the summer. Our teacher-librarian had stocked it with some popular titles and some professional development reading, so I was all set to go!

As a voracious reader, I was somewhat doubtful that I would be able to make the transition from my beloved books (or dead trees as some have referred to them as) to the electronic format that the kindle presents. One of the biggest challenges for me is the ‘page flash’. As you press the button to turn the page on the kindle, the page momentarily flashes from the grey to black as the new text appears on the screen. Besides being a voracious reader, I am a very fast reader, so I turn pages quite quickly. That meant I was experiencing the flash quite often. To minimize this problem, I minimized the font as small as was readable to me and I made the spacing as tight as possible. The advantage was that the flash came less frequently. I had hoped that after a summer of reading I would adjust to the inconvenience of the flash, but I have not found that to be the case. I have learned to tolerate it, but I find it still disrupts my pace more than simply turning a page in a book. I recently checked out the new touch-screen Kobo reader at Chapters and found that they had minimized the flash by electronically ‘stacking’ several pages on top of each other, thus reducing the need for the flash to once only five to ten pages. That leaves me hopeful that the next generation of kindles will come with this technology.

Another irritation is what occurs when you first ‘open’ an ebook on the kindle. The kindle begins the ebook at the beginning of the actual text. Essentially, it skips showing you the title, publication information or any dedication etc that one finds at the opening of a book. Personally, I like reading (or at least skimming) that information, so I find it annoying to always have to turn back to read it. It would be helpful if the kindle had a preference option to set where one actually wants the ebook to begin.

That relates to another kindle issue about endings. Normally at the end of books you find the references, any end notes, an index and sometimes things like charts etc. Sometimes (infrequently) the non-fiction ebooks have hot-linked references in the text that you can click on to be taken directly to the footnote or reference, but most often they do not. So, often I found myself flipping back and forth at the end of the ebook instead of during my reading, which meant half the time re-reading large sections to figure out what was being referenced. Hot-linking the references may be something that as more ebooks are published, the publishers recognize as important (it also may be more readily available as touch-screen readers become the norm).

Lastly, in the negative column, is that even after two months, my biggest struggle with the kindle (and I suppose ebooks in general) is that I can’t get an overall sense of the text. When I pick up a book, I know how long it is, where chapters end, what divisions are made within it, where any pictures are, if there are references etc. With a kindle, the sense of that is lost. Most ebooks have chapter markers via dots on a timeline at the bottom of the page, but not all, so I lost the sense of the layout of the text. It makes it challenging for books like “Frankenstein” for example, where the narrative line is buried three stories deep. Without the reminders at the top of a physical page in a book or the physicality of the chapter divisions, the ebook “Frankenstein” is very difficult to remember where you are in within those concentric narrative rings. Again, as ebooks gain popularity, readers will probably find it easier to gage a sense of this as we become used to the format.

In the end, it sounds like a very negative review. However, most of these issues are simply adjustment issues that those mired in the ‘dead tree’ era (like me) will come to learn to live with. Why? Because there is so much potential in that little lightweight device. My ability to take with me all the reading I could do in one trip. The built-in dictionary that defines any word I want as I read. The cost savings (and eventual environmental savings) of the ebook purchase over the hardcover. Immediate availability of almost any title I could name. Highlighting passages and making notes that can be stored for each time I pick it up. Battery length that goes on forever. It all adds to the positive column in my summer testing.

So come September, when I have to hand the kindle back, will I be sad? Oh yeah. I’ll be the one pressed up against the door of the school library wondering when I can get it back!

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Authentic for Some, Standard for English

This morning’s tweet from the BC School Superintendents’ Association’s meeting in Kelowna by Chris Kennedy, Superintendent/CEO of the West Vancouver School District, was the first I saw regarding the decision of the Ministry of Education to eliminate optional provincial exams in BC. Soon after, the Ministry’s press release publicized the decision.

Frankly, I’m not surprised by the news. Once the exams were made optional and universities began to drop them from admission criteria, the writing was on the wall. There should be no doubt that this is of benefit to students. Without the pressure of a 40% weighted standardized test, classroom teachers are freed to be creative in both their delivery of curriculum and the assessment of the learning outcomes. All in all, a win for the BC education system.

What concerns me though is the continuation of the grade 10 and 11 exams and the English 12 provincial, as well as the strengthened ‘link’ between scholarship provisions and these exams.

As an English teacher for many years, I am demoralized by this news. Since the English 10 provincial (which rose from the ashes of the grade 10 FSA) is worth 20% and the English 12 provincial is 40% of a student’s grade in those years, for a student’s three senior years of English Language Arts, an average of 20% of their grade in those three years comes from two separate three hour, high stake tests.

My school has worked hard as an English department with our teacher-librarian to make assessment relevant and meaningful to our senior English students. Our grade 11 exam is an amazing piece of cumulative work in which students get to show their passion for a topic and the skills they have learned all year. Next year, we are even taking it a step further and making it into an electronic portfolio. This is, to me, true learning. With our English 11 exam the students demonstrate their completion of the learning outcomes with a commitment that I have rarely seen in any classroom assignment. It is one of the best exercises any member of our department does in any of our courses precisely because the students are empowered to drive their own education.

That is exactly what is missing from the provincial exam process. The fact that a 20% average of each year of my students’ senior English grades is determined in only 6 hours of standardized testing is appalling to me as a professional who believes passionately in authentic assessment and has seen the benefits of such assessments to her students.

When you add in to this mix the increased weight of these exams on a student’s chance for a scholarship, my disenchantment with the graduation program is deepened. The Ministry’s release does not reveal how the scholarships will be determined other than to state, “scholarship criteria will shift to focus on students’ performance in grades 10, 11 and 12 required provincial exams.”. Not only will I still be preparing students for standardized tests in two out of their three senior high school years, but now these exams will be even more firmly determining whether or not my students will receive scholarships.

So although I welcome the Ministry’s decision to end the optional exams, I am left wondering, when will the English teachers too see the end of standardized testing in their classrooms?

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A head start to a new year

I finished my education degree in 1999. Back then a requirement of our practicums was to write what were called ‘reflections’ on our teaching practice. I hated the thought of writing them. Like most of my classmates, I felt that I was ready to ‘just teach’ and that writing about what I had done was just a make-work project.

However, being the good student I was (I can hear the groans that my classes would give me at that!), I always did them regardless of my personal feelings. And inevitably, after sitting down to write them, I felt like I really had learned something in the process. I liked talking about my mistakes and my successes. I liked thinking back about how to do it differently. I liked the way it forced me to slow down and really think. Now, 11 years, many different schools, varied subjects and thousands of students later, I feel like I need to return to reflections.

This is a big school year coming up for many different reasons, but for me, especially, on a personal level for my practice. The more I thought about the upcoming year, the more I wanted to challenge myself and by extension, my students, with some changes to my teaching.

First up is the adoption of edmodo. Edmodo is “a secure social learning network for students and teachers”, according to their website: After attending their online conference last week (#edmodocon), I’m even more energized to try out. I have used a google site in the past to communicate with students and a posterous blog to communicate with parents. I’m hoping to use edmodo to blend the two together. Originally I had planned to only introduce the website to my junior classes, but after the conference, I’m considering expanding to all my grade levels.

Second, I’m teaching Math 8 again for the first time in many years. With the help of a learned colleague who suggested the idea, I have decided to try flipping my math classroom. There is a myriad of websites talking about this idea at the moment, so I won’t go into detail about it (mostly because I’m still deciding on how I plan to implement it!), but a great introduction can be found here:

Lastly, obviously, there is this blog: this chance to reflect out loud and publicly. Honestly, I resisted the whole idea because it seems terrifying to me, but how can I, as a teacher, demand something of my students (like I do with almost any type of public display of their work, be it presentation, wiki, blog etc.) that I am not willing to risk doing myself. So, here I am, reflecting.

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