Category: Education

In July of this year, in preparation for a shift to a one-to-one laptop teaching environment, I went to the  Lausanne Laptop Institute, hosted by the Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, Tennessee.

The Lausanne Laptop Institute …is an international think tank for schools using or considering laptops or tablets as tools for learning. Created and hosted by Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, Tennessee, the Lausanne Laptop Institute offers over 100 breakout sessions – from hands-on events to lectures, discussions and networking. Conference sessions meet the needs of educators, technology integrationists, technology support personnel and administration….  Over half those attending are K-12 teachers who collaborate with peers and learn tips for using laptops and tablets in their own classrooms. (source)

Feeling inundated with ideas and information (like you do, after a con), I drafted my thoughts immediately.  I figured I would polish it up on the flight home and post it, but it’s been sitting in my editing queue for a month.  As a result of the conference, I had some great conversations with colleagues on the way home, but have had trouble distilling my thoughts into a coherent post.

Let me say, at the outset, that I see the shift to one-to-one as an opportunity.  I’m excited about it, and my students are too.  I am certain there will be frustrations and failed lessons along the way, but I’m eager to try it.  To this point, my school has been technology forward, yet granting individual teachers the flexibility to integrate technology as each saw fit.  We’ve had lots of toys at our disposal.  Being a fledgling one-to-one school, I had some anxiety about the transition away from traditional instruction, but I had high expectations that this conference would help me craft the direction for my one-to-one planning.

The conference is in it’s 10th year.  There’s an app, which is pretty slick.  The ability to look over the session schedules on the fly, and to craft a schedule from my phone, was a plus.  There was also a rating function for the sessions, and links to various presentation files throughout the weekend.  Overall, I was impressed with the organization.  Logistically, it is quite a feat to transport, feed, and schedule that many people.

The very first session I attended happened to be given by Ben Goodrich, from the Institute spotlight school, Montclair Kimberley Academy.  Titled, “Don’t Use It Unless You Mean It,” they presented a balanced mix of educational philosophy and practical application, as well as some questions that schools proposing a one-to-one program should collectively address.  They emphasized strongly the need to establish common goals among the faculty for student learning.  This seems obvious for educational environments, but it is too easy to get caught up in the logistics of deploying 800 computers on campus, and to forget about the pedagogical reasons why this is a better approach to pencil and paper.  We want our students to become fluent users of technology, naturally.  But we were also reminded that the goal of one-to-one learning is to have better conversations with students.  How can I work with my fellow teachers to reinforce lessons in this new learning environment?  Does the product we create with the technology contribute to the process of learning?  Are the students simply using tools or are they building skills?  I left this session very excited to hear experienced one-to-one teachers voicing the kind of big-picture questions that I had been contemplating.  I was looking forward to having some of those questions answered in other sessions.

In a majority of the sessions I attended, there was big effort to sell the idea that laptops in the classroom are THE answer.  I’ve got news for you, Presenters. If we’re here, we’ve already bought it.  Every single school at the conference was already implementing a one-to-one program, or had one imminent.  Gathering the resources, expertise, and personnel for a one-to-one program is a huge undertaking.  Once that train gets going, there’s realistically no stopping it.  As a professional, I don’t need cheerleaders to reassure me that what I’m doing is right – particularly not when the undertaking is on the scale of a school-wide change in instruction.  My own administrators have done a really good job with that already, and it isn’t as if I can opt out.  I had hoped to come away from the conference armed with realistic expectations and some achievable goals.  The presence of so many people immersed in one-to-one teaching should have been a gold mine of resources.  Instead I felt that I had just lived through a very posh infomercial.

Sessions were tracked by roles within the school (admin, teacher, tech support, etc.), with a very comprehensive offering for each area.  As I went through my sessions, however, I was struck by the spectrum of experience among the people in the room.  At one session on blogging, there were people who have used blogging extensively with their students, teachers who are only beginning to develop blogging as a curriculum (like me), and also folks who are unclear on what an “account” is on a website and why you might need to have one.

Separating attendees by experience level would go a long way towards improving the “take away” from each talk.  Schools function rather like an organism.  Medications to treat your ear infection will also affect your gut flora.  The chocolate that triggers pleasure associations in your brain will also contribute to the adipose tissue of your waistline.  So too, when implementing a school-wide change, it is imperative to consider how those projects will affect schools in all areas.  In the case of one-to-one teaching, the technology isn’t being deployed one “system” at a time.  The admins, techs, and teachers are experiencing the change together.  Rather than track sessions by job description, it makes more sense to track sessions by experience level.  A noob-track for schools that are pre-implementation.  First-year, 2-5 years, 5+ years, etc.  There seems to be a set of skills that all schools just beginning to work in a one-to-one environment will need to acquire and a common set of obstacles they will encounter.  Given the costs associated with professional development, it is also likely that not every department in a school will be represented at a conference.  Attendees in a cohort grouping would be better equipped to return to their schools and share information broadly.  Additionally, a “sand-box” area should also be available where attendees can generate accounts for services and get help adjusting settings before instructional sessions begin.  Having informal places to play and get individualized help would encourage teachers to explore and generate content while at the conference.

I can’t complain about the availability of online resources.  Most presenters provided links and sites for us, should we feel like reviewing all the links (and links, and links!).  There were a few sessions that stood out with good content.  In particular, Matt Harris, from the German European School Singapore, gave a wonderful talk about the connection between educational research and the “essential questions” surrounding one-to-one learning environments.  Jeff Whipple, a proponent of personal branding online and blogging in the classroom, gave a lovely survey of the kinds of blogging projects teachers are doing.  The Evernote panel, also hosted by the spotlight school, carried just the right blend of practical information and pedagogical rationale.

Ultimately, this balance is what I had been hoping to find throughout the Institute.  I was looking for a taxonomy of links and ideas.  People have been using one-to-one instruction for over a decade.  I wanted to connect with the experts, and to talk about more than just tools and tricks.  I see one-to-one learning as more than just exchanging a pencil for a cursor.  In trying to serve noobs and pros, alike, most of the sessions were disappointing.  The Institute describes itself as a “think tank,” but delivers more as a viewing gallery of one-to-one teaching.


Special thanks to @costelloland, for the quick beta.

As always, comments are welcome.  If you have experience with the Lausanne Laptop Institute, or if you teach in a one-to-one environment, I’d particularly like to hear from you.


It’s a boring drive to the Keys.  The sameness of mile after concrete mile of the turnpike as it winds its way through the flat Florida landscape is hypnotic.  Suburban sprawl punctuated with strip malls. Big box stores. Billboards.  Scrub.

© RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program

I’ve done this drive many times, but never with a vanload of teenagers.  On a Friday afternoon, after a long day of school, my students, together with fellow teacher Deb, and I piled into two vehicles, fortified ourselves with caffeine, and headed out to the Keys for a shark-tagging expedition.  David Shiffman, whom I met at Science Online, is a researcher with the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program (RJD).  He was kind enough to invite me to bring some students out to spend the day on the water with him and his crew to tag sharks for research.  Partnered with the University of Miami, RJD promotes conservation efforts, marine research, and education.  Through outreach, both online and in the field, they educate the public and seek to foster conservationist attitudes while providing opportunities for engaging, educational science research. That’s a mouthful, but what it meant to my kids is they’d have a chance to spend a day on the open sea, handling live sharks.  What could possibly be cooler? (I’ll save you some time.  Nothing).

The group of students I took have diverse interests.  Some are avid sport fishermen, looking for a new experience.  Others have college dreams of marine biology or marine ecology, and were eager to get a taste of work in the field.  Still others had no idea what to expect, but couldn’t pass up the chance to see a big fish up close.  Whether it was  a first step on the path of a dream career or part of a quest for the coolest Facebook profile pic ever, the kids were excited, and I was too.

In high school, I did trips like this.  A five-day field trip with the SEA Education Association introduced me to oceanography in the field.  Divided into round-the-clock shifts, we were charged with everything from navigation to plankton tows.  Hammocked in the bowsprit of a 135-foot sail boat, being paced by a pod of wild dolphins seemed an adventure beyond belief.  We slept in the gunwhales because it was cooler than the cabin, and ate on the foc’sle to avoid the nauseating roll of the closed galley.  The weather cut our trip two days short, but I arrived home salty and exhilarated.

Being in the field breathes life into science in a way that documentaries and museums never can.  Field research is a gamble.  A long-shot where the risks include the very real ones to life and limb and the more amorphous one of disappointment.  The reward of a good day in the field may be as small as a single significant data point for the project, or as grand as a thrilling lifelong memory.

The students were ready and waiting in the parking lot when I left my classroom, that Friday.  They chattered and joked while jockeying for position in the car.  The drive itself was a chaperone’s dream – uneventful.  The ride down to the Keys seemed to go by quickly, and we got through the night in the hotel with no shenannigans.  The kids had an early call Saturday morning.  I expected to have to pound on doors to get them up, but when I came down to the hotel lobby, 16 expectant faces were there to greet me.  Armed with cameras and water bottles, they were ready to go.  Like, NAO.

© @lalsox

We arrived in Islamorada on time with waivers signed, ready to go.  Standing on the dock, I had a good feeling about the day.  The weather that had been threatening all week looked like it was going to hold off, and the water was calm.  David was excited to be going to an area of the Everglades National Park that is typically thick with lemon sharks.  With big fish and low visibility, there would be no chance of swimming that day.

The plan for catching sharks is simple.  Cast baited lines in a large circle.  Wait about an hour, and then go round and pick them up again.  Using a circle hook, ideal for catch-and-release, large pieces of fish on a long line allow any shark to continue swimming freely, and the line is equipped with a timer to let us know how long a shark has been hooked.  This is important for evaluating the overall health of the animal since many sharks must swim constantly to breathe, and some species are highly susceptible to stress.  The students were divided into teams and assigned jobs.  Measurements, muscle and cartilage biopses, and a tracking tag are all used to get information about shark age, relationships, and migratory patterns.

© @lalsox
David and Kyra demonstrating measuring and sampling techniques to the students.

We set the first ten lines, and then we waited.  We had lunch, and David and Kyra (a former student of mine) took the time to brief the students in the correct techniques for taking the data. As we started to bring up the lines, anticipation was very high.  The first ten lines were “intact”, meaning that the timer hadn’t been triggered, though the bait was eaten, in some cases.  Each line was re-baited and cast again.  Again, every pull brought up an intact line.  Sometimes, the bait was eaten, sometimes not.  No sharks, though.  It’s a sobering reminder that, over the past few decades, shark populations have been decimated.  Maybe the weather was keeping the sharks away that day.  Or maybe they just weren’t there at all.

By the time we’d set the third round of baits, I could tell everyone was nervous that we might not catch a shark at all that day.  In an area and a time of year when sharks were supposed to be plentiful, we hadn’t seen even one.  The winds were picking up, and the thunderheads were collecting on the horizon.  The kids huddled and dozed just outside of the cabin, but they watched every pull closely, hoping for a taut line.

When the last line came up empty, the disappointment on everyone’s faces was palpable.  And, in that moment, I was most proud of my students.  They crowded onto benches in the cabin to watch videos of shark tagging from previous trips.  They compared pictures captured on smartphones, taken throughout the day.  They braved the rising wind and salt-spray on the bow to enjoy their last hour on the water.  When we arrived at the dock, they listened attentively, made a sincere show of thanks, and said goodbye.  They didn’t try to hide their disappointment, but they didn’t wallow in it either.  And, every one of them wants to come back again.

That morning, on the way out, I had turned to Deb and said, “This is the best field trip ever.”  She looked at me sideways and asked me how I could say that when nothing had happened yet.  And I said, “We’re here.  That’s all that matters.”

I can’t wait to do it again.

Every day, I have to pick and choose which science blog posts I’m going to read. Titles scroll across my twitter feed, tempting me to push away my work and immerse myself in stories of tri-vaginated marsupials and XNA constructs. I’ve been following the opening of the NRC in Raleigh, NC, desperately wishing I could be there. Looking forlornly at images of Discovery, I’ve been saying farewell to the science giant that was the Space Program. The wealth of reading material in science blogs is staggering, and a lot of the writing is good.

I’ve been thinking a lot, since Science Online 2012 in January, about how students struggle to write effectively, and about how putting our work out there (like in this blog) can be so intimidating as to be paralyzing. In several different sessions at SciO12, I heard comments about the unpreparedness of college freshman to navigate science literature. Inability to distinguish between blog opinions and peer-reviewed papers is rather alarming, but it speaks to the experience of these students, not their intelligence. Understanding of resources begins with exposure. It develops when the interaction with those resources (articles, interviews, texts) is scaffolded in a meaningful way by teachers. It occurs to me that, although my students are prolific writers in English and History classes, they do virtually no science writing at all in their high school careers. I have a plan to change this, but, like any scientist, I need some preliminary data.

If you are a science instructor in higher education, an editor of a science publication or blog, or in any other field where you face the challenge of working with young science writers, I invite you to comment on the quality of science writing you see in undergraduate, graduate school, and beyond. Where do you see gaps in the science writing education of your students? What kinds of errors do you see, repeatedly, in your new hires that make you frustrated? When does the writing work?

If you’re challenged by science writing, what do you think your science education could have done to better prepare you?

Comment here to share your thoughts, or email me privately if you prefer.

(to reply privately, write me at lalsox(at)gmail(dot)com)

This is your chance to tell a high school science teacher writing work you wish she’d done with her students’ writing before they graduated.