This year’s WCTE convention was eye-opening in many ways, and made me question a lot of things: things about my practice, things about curriculum, and things about our world in general. The central theme for the conference was “Finding a Balance: Traditional content vs. contemporary technology.” I was particularly excited because of how closely the theme corresponds to my current professional goals–I definitely came away with some new ideas about how to utilize technology in the classroom. But, as mentioned above, I also came away with a brain full of ponderings.

The day began with a keynote speech by Hilve Firek, who specializes in technology use in the English classroom. Much of her lecture was based on the premise that the Internet, videogames, and cell phones have dramatically altered the way that children think and learn. I in no way dispute this–I’ve read it in published research. I see it in my classroom every day. Firek came to the table with a “let’s use this to our advantage” type of battlecry, which came with possibilities for rapid fire lessons that cater to the endorphin-seeking, multitasking mind of the 2010 adolescent. I agreed with her, completely. But I still felt a little uneasy with some of the realities she exposed… If the next generation is physically unable to concentrate on one thing for an extended period of time, what will our society look like in the next thousand years? Is it “ok” that emotional responses to video games are becoming just as real as our responses to actual life events? Is it our duty as educators to stick to what are now the “old ways” of taking ample time to study, focus, and discuss? Or do we embrace the now and near-future world where there are constant stimuli requiring ongoing responses, leaving behind anything that takes more than 20 minutes to accomplish? Do we even continue to read books and write essays? And if we don’t, is it still possible to teach students how to think about the world, examine it, wonder at it, and change it for the better? Or does it all just become one big game? That seems frightening–I want to believe that our world will retain the ability to do detailed, nuanced, focused, meaningful thinking.

Maybe I’m reading too much Ray Bradbury, so let me lay aside my doomsday concerns to talk about one fantastic, technology-dependent, literary phenomenon that Firek brought up in her keynote: The Amanda Project. This “interactive” book features an ambiguous female character with a mysterious identity. The companion website allows readers to discuss and debate, submit Amanda-inspired artwork and poetry, read additional information about the characters, and add on to the story by writing and publishing scenes about Amanda. The book is completely alive, as the authors are using these reader-submitted stories in order to write the next books in the series. It’s a collaboration between author, reader, and character that has never been seen before. The possibilities are intriguing… Firek mentioned designing a classroom project that does the same type of thing with a traditional text. I thought it was a genius idea, and hope to attempt something like it, this year or next. Kids get to be readers, published writers, and researchers all at the same time, and can learn a ton about literature in the meantime. What’s not to like? 🙂

I went to four breakout sessions that also had good things to offer. One teacher spoke about how he utilizes Facebook in the classroom for group projects, discussions, and manging the classroom–it was actually quite similar to the Goodreads unit I did with my seniors last year. Social networking sites can be insanely wonderful teaching tools, as long as privacy is extensively provided for. Another session I attended highlighted many useful, free technology resources on the web–a list I scribbled down as fast as I could and will be exploring throughout the year. While I don’t want our world to go robotronic anytime soon, I do adore and recognize the positive effect of using website lists, wikis, blogs, video and sound editing software, and online presentation tools. The more in any teacher’s arsenal, the better.

There was an information session about Poetry Out Loud: explore their website at This is a really incredible program that I’d love to lead at my school somewhere down the line–it’s an extracurricular that requires students to memorize, interpret, and perform poetry in a public setting, from in-school contests all the way up to national competition. Check out some of the videos on the site and prepare to be blown away. I love opportunities like this, that show just how much power, emotion, and intelligence can be in one young adult. Anything that has to do with the arts is great for our society! I was thinking of possibly imitating the competition on a tiny scale, just in my classroom, during a poetry unit; this would give me a chance to incorporate it into my curriculum even before starting a team.

Finally, the session that offered me the most immediately usable and innovative resource: “Tablet PCs: Paperless Portfolios and Powerful Potential” from David Roloff of UW-Steven’s Point. The presentation was simple and pragmatic, designed to showcase the use of tablet PCs, laptops that allow the user to write on documents in digital ink with a special pen. This allows notes by hand to converge with digital documents, marrying both ways that we make meaning in our modern world. Now, admittedly, this is very fancy and financially unachievable for most educators to implement anytime soon, no matter how awesome it is. As luck would have it, there was another aspect of this presentation that could be put into effect tomorrow!

The program that Roloff and his students used with their tablet PC’s is the little-known wonder of Microsoft Office Suite, OneNote. I’ll be honest–I had heard of this program before, when my brother told me matter-of-factly, “You should put all your notes in OneNote.” He proceeded to give me a mini tutorial, but I wasn’t interested. I guess I just had too many other things to think about. But I am whole-heartedly convinced that I need to give this program another shot, especially as a classroom tool. In Roloff’s classes, students used the program to create “paperless portfolios” that were packed with content, well-organized, easily searchable, included multimedia, and were all solidified into a single document that could be e-mailed or shared on the web. The program is essentially like an immense 3-ring binder filled with notebooks and tabs, except it doesn’t weigh 25 pounds and you use a computer to create it. I love this program because it makes perfect sense, keeps things organized, and allows students to create complex portfolios available in one file. So smart. And (I think…) already available on our school computers. Excellent. Here’s a little tutorial on the program. Yet another thing I’m hoping to use this year!

All in all, my trip to Eau Claire gave me much to keep on my radar. I was also fortunate enough to be named a WCTE liason for District 1 (Milwaukee), so I hope that this role will offer me some leadership capabilities and chances to collaborate with great English teachers across the state.

Each year it’s my goal to try one completely new technique in my classroom. Thanks to WCTE, and the many other great professional development organizations out there, it’s not difficult at all.  Despite all my occasional concerns about where our way life may be headed in this wired world, I have faith in our educators and our students. There’s so much that’s good out there. It may be that we’ve just thought up some better ways to go get it.