Category Archives: Library Skills & Information Literacy

Lies My Teacher Told Me : Everything Your American History Textbook Got WrongLies My Teacher Told Me : Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong by James W. Loewen

This was an absolutely fascinating read for the summer of 2012. Loewen examines a dozen or so American history textbooks for accuracy, and finds a lot of evasions, half-truths, misconceptions, lies, damned lies, and statistics. The story of the American nation, as we teach it to our children, is slanted to a nationalistic, Eurocentric, self-righteous angle. To protect our kids from unpleasant stories, we whitewash historical events. To avoid annoying vocal political groups, we soften stories to remove elements of racism, sexism, and greed. To inspire our children, we present our national heroes as perfect, unblemished souls–worthy, but impossible to emulate. Loewen makes the argument that by hiding controversy and teaching history three times removed from primary sources, we rob our children of the truth, and of the opportunity to think critically about forces in our nation today.

Do pick up this book. While you read, keep your Twitter stream open on the left, and follow all the conversations about the Common Core Standards and teacher evaluations. Check the newspaper and news websites for stories on teacher proficiency, and remember that all these poor saps who want to pay their mortgages are going to have to teach to whatever test will determine their teaching “quality.” The content of the test is going to drive what’s in the textbooks. And what’s in the textbooks will drive what Ms. Jones or Mr. Smith is teaching. Most likely, the test, the textbook, teacher licensure, and the professional development the teacher receives are coming from big companies like Pearson. Even if teachers and school boards want students to have a more realistic understanding of American history, the odds are against them.

In those news items, watch for the insidious presence of corporate backers, union bashers, and conservative politicians who want want to tell history “the right way.” And remember that Texas–the state with the GOP platform that proclaims critical thinking is dangerous because it might lead children to question entrenched beliefs–is pretty much the most important force in textbook approval in the nation.

Then ask yourself if anything is going to change.

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Cinderella’s Window

Cinderella_-_Project_Gutenberg_etext_19993What would Cinderella see outside her window?

That depends.  Does she live in a small village in France, near the walled city of Great Zimbabwe, or in  the mountains of the Czech Republic?  Is it her fairy godmother or Godfather Snake she asks for help?  Cinderella might see the pumpkin patch from which her transformed carriage will come, or she might see a volcano with smoke rising from the top.  The wicked stepmother might keep Cinderella from visiting that castle down the hill, but then again, she might send her stepdaughter out to find violets in the snow.

Young children rarely have any perception that their own culture is not universal.  They assume that everyone dresses the same, eats the same foods, and celebrates the same holidays. Our first graders are working on a project–Cinderella’s Window–that will introduce the kids to the fascinating differences between countries, while understanding that some things–like storytelling–unite people the world over. There are lots of methods–history, world languages, maps, cooking–teachers can use to introduce children to the rich variety of ways people live, but folktales make a nice lens through which kids can begin to examine culture since so many traditional tales have been published in picture book form.

We decided to use Cinderella stories as the focal point for a project that will meet learning standards in Social Studies, English Language Arts, Information Literacy, and Technology. Our stories were drawn from around the world, with versions from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, the Czech Republic, the Philippines, India, and France. We gathered nonfiction books on each country, and the page I made for our library wiki links to pictures, text, and audiovisual links for our students’ research.  You can see our book list, graphic organizer, and unit outline here.

The children began by hearing Cinderella versions from other cultures, and comparing them to the version most familiar to them (think stepmother, fairy godmother, and glass slipper.)  They are now using pictures, books, and websites to find out more about the countries where the stories were set. In another week, they’ll begin writing a paragraph that tells several facts about the country they’ve researched, and they’ll draw pictures of what a Cinderella character would see through the window.  The project will end with a field trip to the arts center at a local college, to see a play…Cinderella!


This Site May Harm Your Computer…or maybe not.

googlemishap2Twitter was all…well…atwitter this morning about a widespread Google problem.  Everything in the search results had a little proviso stating “this site may harm your computer.”   (Oh no!  The Internet is broken!)

Google’s headache this morning looks like a great opportunity for teacher librarians.   Even after the song-and-dance many of us do touting the value of subscription databases and checking the authority of websites, Google is still the source of first and last resort for many students.  It’s so easy, so quick, so sweet… I had some third grade kids in the computer lab who decided to jump away from their approved links and search Google for information on the Ashanti people, because Google just had to be faster than the silly old online encyclopedia.   Result:  a page of links for the American singer Ashanti, and three kids with a dawning appreciation of the fact that faster does not always equal better.

Google is a superb search engine.  However, students need to understand that just because Google admits the existence of a site does not guarantee that site’s authenticity, and furthermore, that the information Google gives about websites–page rankings, security, date, and so on–may be open to question, too.  Older students need to learn about the various ways Google and other search engines can be manipulated*, for various malicious, political, or humorous reasons, in order to falsely promote some web pages to a higher place in the results.

When Google was experiencing its little migraine, I amused myself by snapping a screenshot of the results of a search for “google.com.”  I’m going to share it with young researchers in my district, to remind them of that old saying so valuable to those seeking information:  Question Authority!

*I’m citing a Wikipedia article in a blog post about questioning authority.   I am aware of a little irony here, but you know, when I googled “Spamdexing, ” it was, like, the top result…

Photostory

A picture is worth a thousand words, so what’s a picture with words attached worth? How about if we add music?

If you haven’t yet played with Photostory, run right over and get it. Yes, it’s from evil giant Microsoft and it won’t run on your Mac (but you have iLife on your Mac, so no complaining!) but it’s easy, and it’s free. How easy? I’ve used it (with guidance) with kids in first grade. If you can browse for files, something everybody does, and have access to a computer microphone, you can use Photostory.
Photostory Screenshot
Basically, the program asks you to upload your pictures. Then you can add narration for each picture, add a pre-recorded audio file or some music, and save. It’s a little harder to get your video online that with Animoto (see below) but you have much, much, more control over your content, and no limits on length. Once you’ve saved your .wmv file, you can easily upload to Teacher Tube or to your own website or blog.

How could this be used? To record and share library or classroom events, to create narrated stories (just upload images of kids’ artwork instead of photos), to create slideshows without the hassle of all the “stuff” kids want to add to PowerPoints. I, for one, would like to see a student slideshow with no clipart and no flying text! With Photostory, the kids are focused on the images and the audio. Older students can add more sophisticated looking transitions, or alter the timeline to keep a particularly important image on the screen for a longer time. Titles and text can be added to any slide.

Here’s my video.

I did discover that Photostory has an annoying habit of “fading out” the last few seconds of your music or audio file, but I solved that problem by recording about 10 seconds of silence when I was done recording my voice. Worked like a charm.

VoiceThread

The weather in upstate NY is dreadfully hot and humid this week. I remember similar days when I was a kid, when we’d retreat to my grandparents’ lovely cool basement room, where my grandfather would show us family pictures on his slide projector. Years later, I still have a soft spot for the slideshow.

The web seems overflowing with slideshow apps, but VoiceThread is easily my favorite. To be more precise, Ed.VoiceThread, which is a dedicated K-12 / educational version of VoiceThread.

A “VoiceThread” is a series of images–still images or video–to which users can add narration, their own audio files, hyperlinks, or hand-drawn “doodles.” PowerPoints and .doc files can be uploaded,too. The end result is a multimedia slideshow. The site will generate the HTML code you need to embed on your own site for a lovely YouTube kind of look.

Here’s a VoiceThread my preK class made before going to the zoo.

I uploaded the pictures–though of course, older kids would be able to do that part for themselves, since it’s as simple as browsing your files for the images you want. You can also upload pictures from a URL or from other VoiceThreads you’ve created. Then I handed the microphone over to the kids. At age 4 or 5, they’re not writers yet–but they sure can make noise. That’s the sweetest-sounding polar bear roar I’ve ever heard!

The preK teacher told me that the kids were really excited to see the gate to the zoo–Holy cow! It was the same gate they’d seen in Library time! (Isn’t Flickr’s Creative Commons pool great?)

There’s a social aspect, too. Once you’ve created a VoiceThread, you can allow other VoiceThread users to add comments, too. This would work nicely in a classroom setting; students could collaborate on a project, or review each others’ work. A VoiceThread called Mr. G’s Shakespeare Page shows the possibility. The teacher created a simple, two-slide presentation. The kids then recorded their own reading of the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. Clever–the teacher has wrapped up his Shakespeare unit with a multimedia show that serves as a collaborative student project and an assessment piece, all in one nice package. The sense that they’re performing for a larger audience encourages the kids to do their best, too. School Librarians can seize the opportunity to talk about copyright–and copyleft–and the ethical use of other people’s media.

VoiceThread (without the “Ed.” in front) accounts are free, but K-12 educators are going to want to be part of the “Ed.VoiceThread” network. There are several pricing levels, but you can jump right in for a one-time $10 fee. Their customer service is excellent–when I’ve had problems, I have had e-mail responses from VoiceThread in as little as 15 minutes.