School Based Technology — Stone Soup

A really good school based technology support person, a laptop cart and a good Internet connection are all one needs to create a significant online learning environment.

Blogs, wikis, discussion boards, photo sharing, wikipedia, research resources, photostory, youtube, teachertube, vimeo, flickr, library of congress online, google are all free.

The problem is, nobody can get a job after they retire from the school system with a free resource built up by a social network.

Visual Metaphor

With this blog post, three things are going to happen. First, as a history teacher it will open up vast stores of media you didn’t think had any use in teaching history. This is important, because there isn’t a lot of news video of the Revolutionary War. Second, it will make you one of the most powerful visual creators and communicators in your building. And third, (and I’m sorry about this) you’ll probably stop watching television for entertainment, except in small bursts, in about three weeks time.

Before I became a teacher 7 years ago, I was a different person. A television producer and writer. Life’s funny that way.  I worked for NBC, CNN, Associated Press Television News and other organizations. I would like to pass along a big secret, the hidden gem, the under-the-table truth on how to produce eye-popping, emotion-grabbing, communicative media. It’s the Visual Metaphor.

Easier to explain than to do, the Visual Metaphor makes up most good media.


A metaphor is:

1. A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable.

2. A thing regarded as representative or symbolic of something else, esp. something abstract.

( source: )

In the vernacular of the peasantry, a metaphor is “comparing two things without using like or as.”

A Visual Metaphor simply replaces the words for one of the two things compared, with a picture or video.


When using metaphors for teaching, we choose two things, one is something our students know (prior knowledge), the second is some concept we are trying to teach.  The second is usually not “literally applicable” and is usually “something abstract” as noted in our definitions above.  When creating a Visual Metaphor, one wants to use the visual piece to communicate the second, abstract, something.

Watch this video:

Uncontacted Amazon Tribe: First ever aerial footage from Survival International on Vimeo.

We see here long-bows, longhouses, and any number of artifacts we are trying to teach children about in K-5 environment. We have standards to cover about Native Americans which are contained in this video. Of course the video is not about Native North Americans. It’s about Native South Americans and was shot this year.

What is an underlying theme in the video is the uncontacted tribe‘s reaction to seeing the plane.  They are scared.

OK, that was pretty easy, let’s try another:

When teaching slavery, we have limited visuals with which to work and the subject is both disturbing and difficult. This video compares slavery to a cattle auction. Every kid who’s been to a county fair knows what a cattle auction looks like.  They’ve seen the pen.  The video is talking about modern slavery, not the period in U.S. history 100 years ago.

Clearly both these videos are not proper for some groups of students and even the cattle market would need to be stopped at the high school level before the last bit about the modern sex slave trade.

But what is critical is both of these videos speak to the emotion of the participants in similar situations.  Universal emotional truths.  People caught up in a trade as slaves would have certain emotional reactions and it isn’t too much of a stretch to paint the picture.  Since we are using these videos as metaphors, we aren’t saying this is exactly how the African slaves felt when they were brought to North America.  Nor are we saying this is exactly how the Native Americans might have felt when they encountered european settlers.  However it’s important for getting information across.

People use the framework of emotions to organize information, at the gut level.  They use emotional intelligence as a wire frame on which to hang facts and figures.  It’s what drives most media.  It’s the most difficult piece to bring to teaching history — making it real on the gut level.  Great history teachers have been able to do this.  My favorite history teacher did.

So much of the traditional teaching of history is the accumulation of facts. The parsing and organization of huge amounts of empty data.  It’s the stellar history teachers that make it all come alive.  It’s not a big secret, they speak to the emotional intelligence, and use that as a scaffold on which to organize the data.

Neither of these two videos are mock-ups. Neither of them are “infotainment” with the types of historical inaccuracies inherent in using sources like Disney movies or Williamsburg to teach facts about history. As Visual Metaphors, it’s made clear they are not representations of historical fact. What they communicate is the gestalt of the historical issue. They are great writing prompts and discussion starters that allow students to place historical issues and the facts that surround them in an emotional context, without a lot of words and analysis. The information is transferred quickly and visually at an emotional level, and the syntheses comes from  analyzing and working with the information.

Conversely, what torments many students in history class is the lack of context from the start.  It is only at the end of a unit, when a diorama is complete and can be studied, that the gestalt of the historical issues are internalized.  Syntheses is rarely achieved in such circumstances.

Using Visual Metaphors at the beginning, to provide context for the facts and figures, short circuits this teaching challenge.


There are many sources of video, audio and still pictures: Discovery Education,, Creative Commons.  All of these online sources have key word search.

Here’s the trick.  When searching for visuals, don’t search using nouns (common or proper) for the actual thing you seek to teach.  Search using adjectives, for the attributes of what you seek.  You’ll find a hugh array of metaphorical options.

Find a storage place for your good visual metaphors.  They hold over time.


I said after reading this, you’ll probably stop watching television for entertainment.  What happens (to people who work in television) is they start recognizing the use of Visual Metaphor.  In every commercial, drama and movie, you’ll start to deconstruct the production process.  And that’s, unfortunately, a side effect of becoming aware of this phenomenon in media.


Slope of Ineffective Efficacy



The “slope of ineffective efficacy” is at a point just after the bulk of the planning process is completed, and after the “implement” order from required managers has been achieved.  It is at this point at which one can bring in that throng of “must have buy in” mid-level managers with the most positive and least negative impact.

It’s too late for them to scuttle the project politically in the planning stages.

It’s too early for them to claim it’s somebody else’s project, and scuttle it because one is not getting any credit.  In fact it’s just in time for them to claim credit themselves, which is critical.

Most important, it’s too late to scuttle the project by “adding value.”

During the period in a project life-cycle I term the “slope of ineffective efficacy,” mid-level managers can be brought on board, claim some ownership, not have any direct hands-on impact, and they can benefit themselves by gloaming onto the success, while not really being in a position to try and kill the project.

Solipsistic – The Word of the Day

As in, “The solipsistic ranting of histrionic and proudly biased evening hosts on Fox News and MSNBC.”

Solipsism (play /ˈsɒlɨpsɪzəm/) is the philosophical idea that only one’s own mind is sure to exist. The term comes from the Latin solus (alone) and ipse (self). Solipsism as an epistemological position holds that knowledge of anything outside one’s own mind is unsure. The external world and other minds cannot be known, and might not exist outside the mind. As a metaphysical position, solipsism goes further to the conclusion that the world and other minds do not exist.

This deserves to be viral – “You’re Not Special” Commencement Address

Here’s the text of a 2012 commencement speech from David McCullough Jr., (yes son of historian David McCullough) an English teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts:

Dr. Wong, Dr. Keough, Mrs. Novogroski, Ms. Curran, members of the board of education, family and friends of the graduates, ladies and gentlemen of the Wellesley High School class of 2012, for the privilege of speaking to you this afternoon, I am honored and grateful. Thank you.

So here we are… commencement… life’s great forward-looking ceremony. (And don’t say, “What about weddings?” Weddings are one-sided and insufficiently effective. Weddings are bride-centric pageantry. Other than conceding to a list of unreasonable demands, the groom just stands there. No stately, hey-everybody-look-at-me procession. No being given away. No identity-changing pronouncement. And can you imagine a television show dedicated to watching guys try on tuxedos? Their fathers sitting there misty-eyed with joy and disbelief, their brothers lurking in the corner muttering with envy. Left to men, weddings would be, after limits-testing procrastination, spontaneous, almost inadvertent… during halftime… on the way to the refrigerator. And then there’s the frequency of failure: Statistics tell us half of you will get divorced. A winning percentage like that’ll get you last place in the American League East. The Baltimore Orioles do better than weddings.)

But this ceremony… commencement… a commencement works every time. From this day forward… truly… in sickness and in health, through financial fiascos, through midlife crises and passably attractive sales reps at trade shows in Cincinnati, through diminishing tolerance for annoyingness, through every difference, irreconcilable and otherwise, you will stay forever graduated from high school, you and your diploma as one, ‘til death do you part.

No, commencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism. Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue. Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something. And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.

All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.

You are not special. You are not exceptional.

Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you… you’re nothing special.

Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have. And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet. Why, maybe you’ve even had your picture in the Townsman! And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building…

But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.

The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. Newton, Natick, Nee… I am allowed to say Needham, yes? …that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that’s just the neighborhood Ns. Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you. Imagine standing somewhere over there on Washington Street on Marathon Monday and watching sixty-eight hundred yous go running by. And consider for a moment the bigger picture: your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it. Neither can Donald Trump… which someone should tell him… although that hair is quite a phenomenon.

“But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection! Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!” And I don’t disagree. So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus. You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another — which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… Now it’s “So what does this get me?”

As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans. It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement. And I hope you caught me when I said “one of the best.” I said “one of the best” so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition. But the phrase defies logic. By definition there can be only one best. You’re it or you’re not.

If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning. You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness. (Second is ice cream… just an fyi) I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning. It’s where you go from here that matters.

As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance. Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about, lest you too find yourself on the wrong side of a Baltimore Orioles comparison. Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer; and as surely as there are commencements there are cessations, and you’ll be in no condition to enjoy the ceremony attendant to that eventuality no matter how delightful the afternoon.

The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer. You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–quite an active verb, “pursuit”–which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on YouTube. The first President Roosevelt, the old rough rider, advocated the strenuous life. Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow. The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil. Locally, someone… I forget who… from time to time encourages young scholars to carpe the heck out of the diem. The point is the same: get busy, have at it. Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands. (Now, before you dash off and get your YOLO tattoo, let me point out the illogic of that trendy little expression–because you can and should live not merely once, but every day of your life. Rather than You Only Live Once, it should be You Live Only Once… but because YLOO doesn’t have the same ring, we shrug and decide it doesn’t matter.)

None of this day-seizing, though, this YLOOing, should be interpreted as license for self-indulgence. Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

Because everyone is.

Congratulations. Good luck. Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.