Thursday, February 23, 2012

Social Bookmarking

There are many ways to get social. Most of us are familiar with social networking. It has become normal for us to share our lives with others online through sites like Twitter and Facebook. Many of us use YouTube to share videos and sites like Flickr to share our photos. Some people even do this weird thing where they invite other people over for a "party." #fishingforaninvite

In this post, I'd like to focus on social bookmarking. Let's take a look at a short video that explains exactly what social bookmarking is.

Now let's take a look at a few definitions.

Social bookmarking -  a method for Internet users to organize, store, manage and search for bookmarks of resources online.

Tagging - a non-hierarchical keyword or term assigned to a piece of information (such as an Internet bookmark, digital image, or computer file). This kind of metadata helps describe an item and allows it to be found again by browsing or searching. Tags are generally chosen informally and personally by the item's creator or by its viewer, depending on the system.

Folksonomy - a system of classification derived from the practice and method of collaboratively creating and managing tags to annotate and categorize content; this practice is also known as collaborative tagging, social classificationsocial indexing, and social tagging. #doubtifi'lleverusethiswordinaconversation

So essentially, what we are talking about is trying to take the TONS AND TONS of websites, videos, articles, photos, and other resources one would find on the Internet and organizing it by categories through the use of tags thus creating folksonomies. Think of these folksnomies as collective intelligence.

Even if we categorize all of these resources, there is still tons of junk to sift through. This is where social bookmarking helps us out. Sites like Stumbleupon, Digg, and Delicious not only organize the resources, they also allow users to easily rate, discuss, and share resources with others. This turns the organization of the Internet into a collaborative effort and makes it MUCH easier to find cool, relevant, engaging information on the topics we're most interested in. The resulting collective intelligence provides a perfect model for learning in the 21st century. Rather than viewing learning as an individual pursuit, it becomes a social, collaborative experience. These free tools have the power to radically change the way your students view researching, learning, and discovering new information. #2ndageofenlightenment

So let's take a look at three of these tools to get you started. I use each of these for different reasons.

My favorite is StumbleUpon.

Have you ever gone to the library with the intent to pick up a great book, but you didn't have anything particular in mind. You just figured you would browse and find something. Now imagine going to the library and having a personal assistant waiting for you that knows all of your interests and can recommend multiple books for you. Wouldn't that be cool? Well, StumbleUpon kind of works that way. You tell StumbleUpon what your interests are and it starts presenting web content for you to check out based on those interests. As you continue "stumbling," you give the content a thumbs up or down. StumbleUpon begins to learn exactly what kind of content you would like to experience next. Every time I use it, I never fail to discover a great new resource. #likevideosfromcerrasc

I also love using Digg. I use Digg more for news content. Digg allows you to find content/news on the web based upon use ratings. The more "diggs" an article, photo, video, etc. receives, the higher it appears on your list of results. You can also "digg" or "bury" the articles/content. In essence, this is like having the world go through all of the news articles and web content of the day and voting on what is most interesting and worthy of your attention. You can even join in on discussions of this content and make connections to people with similar interests. When you find that amazing article or video clip, you can immediately share it with your social network. #jeremylindropping38onthelakershighlights

Delicious is an incredible tool for teachers. Most of us create bookmarks or favorites on our personal computers. So you may have an incredible assortment of bookmarks/favorites on your classroom computer, but what happens when you have to go to the lab? What happens when you want the students to access those bookmarks at home? Well, Delicious allows you to create private or public bookmarks. As long as you have Internet access, you have access to all of your bookmarks. Through tagging, however, the process becomes even more dynamic. You will begin to discover other great sites and web sources that teachers and students just like you are tagging all over the world. Once you have five or more sites bookmarked, you can create what Delicious calls a "stack." Create a stack for your Algebra I class, another for your soccer team, and another for your favorite hobby....spelunking. Set these stacks to public or private and keep adding to them as you discover new resources. Delicious offers a tool called a "bookmarklet" that allows you to easily add a site, video or other online resource to your stacks as you are browsing the web. Here's a video that will show you how useful Delicious can be.

There are many other social bookmarking sites. Pinterest and Reddit are two popular tools to check out if social bookmarking intrigues you. The great thing is that they all work well together. I use StumbleUpon to FIND content. I use Digg to find and SHARE news articles. I use Delicious to ORGANIZE my bookmarks. So I may find something on StumbleUpon and add it to a Delicious stack. #mmmmIwant pancakes.

So give social bookmarking a shot. You'll be surprised by how fun it can be and how quickly it can reignite one's passion for learning. #let'sallbenerdstogether

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Inner Technology - Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

Ever since my dad took me to see Star Wars I have been fascinated with technology. This world with droids, hovering land speeders, and light sabers opened my eyes to the possibilities of what the future might hold.

While I do not yet have my own Millennium Falcon, we have certainly developed some really cool tools. Smartphones, iPads, 3D printers, and social media have all transformed our external world.

But what about our inner world? What inner technologies have we developed to improve our consciousness?

What do I mean by inner technologies? Well, there are probably many ways to define it, but I believe it boils down to the ability to control one's own mind, promoting a state of peace and stillness. It could also be described as the ability to be mindful, present, and aware in the now while shedding the ego's desire to work through problems of the past or worries about the future.

I believe the development of inner technology has largely been neglected as we sought to build better machines. This has resulted in an imbalance. The world is moving much more rapidly while our minds are still wired for a much slower world, resulting in high levels of stress and anxiety. 

This neglect has led to an epidemic of mental health problems. Here are just a few statistics to support this claim.
  • Approximately 10,000,000 students in the U.S. are on antidepressants. 
  • It is estimated that 1 in 5 students has a mental health disorder.
  • About 79% of children with a mental disorder, between the ages of 6-17 receive no mental health care. 
  • Suicide is the third-leading cause of death among teens. 
  • The suicide rate for 15-24 year-olds has TRIPLED since 1960. 
  • More than 160,000 students skip school each day to avoid being bullied. 
What have schools done to address this epidemic? From my perspective, most have ignored it due to their narrow-focused drive to increase test scores. After all, mental illness, emotional well-being, and happiness are not measured on standardized tests.

Our children live in a fast-paced, high-pressure world. Many of them come from homes filled with strife and uncertainty. Others have incredible home lives, but are under an enormous amount of pressure to earn straight A's and perform at high levels in sports, music, etc. Increasingly, these students are given the external technologies to be successful, but they have been given virtually no training on how to develop internal technologies to manage the pressure they feel. 

I believe we have a possible solution. Some call it meditation or biofeedback, but we will refer to it here as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR. MBSR is a meditation technique that promotes relaxation through nonjudgemental awareness of moment to moment sensations, experiences and reactions.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is Professor Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In this video, Jon explains the benefits of MBSR.

Now I know some will wonder if I am trying to push some form of religion or spirituality. That is understandable. MBSR is based, in part, by meditation techniques with roots in a variety of religious and spiritual traditions, but let me be clear. MBSR is a secular approach to controlling the mind and is NOT spiritually based. Rejecting the scientific benefits of this technique simply based upon its origins would be, in my mind, like rejecting algebra because it was largely developed by Islamic mathematicians. This misunderstanding is likely to be the highest hurdle faced by those hoping to integrate MBSR in our schools.

MBSR would be an incredible asset to our students. If they simply spent 20 minutes at the beginning of each day calming and focusing their minds, I believe they would benefit emotionally, mentally, and academically. I believe classroom discipline would improve and, most importantly, the students would be happier.

Daniel Rechtschaffen explains how teaching mindfulness is helping students in California.

Mindfulness is already being integrated into schools. Let's take a look at the impact it making.

Check out what these students have to say about their mindfulness practice.

Students are not the only ones to benefit from MBSR. Teachers' minds are bombarded with information, worries, agendas and to-do lists all day long. If we do not give our minds an opportunity to settle down, we can become worn down, burned out, and completely stressed. This time of year can be one of the most difficult stretches for teachers. There are very few breaks between January and Spring Break. If you are feeling the pressure, it is critical that you find a way to release it. Stress can lead to a multitude of health problems: high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, depression, etc.

The scientific community is uncovering a variety of mental and physical health benefits associated with MBSR. The studies show that MBSR can transform our minds, our health, and ultimately, our schools. MBSR has been proven to be highly effective at stress management. Studies show that MBSR can reduce pain levels, improve self-esteem, relieve anxiety and depression and help one develop greater energy and enthusiasm for life.

So you have read/watched to this point. You must at least be curious about what it would be like to develop your own inner technology through mindfulness.
This requires taking a timeout from thinking. It also requires shifting one's focus to the present moment. There are many ways to do this. Some focus on the breath. Others repeat mantras. For some, singing or guided imagery can accomplish this. The key is to let go of all thoughts of the past and the future. I choose to sit down in a quiet room, focus on my breath, and gently acknowledge thoughts until they inevitably pass. When I have a thought, I recognize it and gently refocus on my breath. After several minutes, my mind begins to unwind and settle. Once I am settled in I stay focused on my breath. Now this may sound incredibly boring to you. It was for first. I was used to constantly giving my mind stimulus: conversations, music, video games, books, movies, tv, etc. The idea of sitting quietly, doing nothing seemed like an odd thing to do. But when I gave it a shot, I was surprised by how incredible it made me feel.

Try this....

1. Find a quiet place where you will not be distracted. (This is the hardest part.)
2. You can use relaxing music or just sit in silence. I use music and guided meditations found at Choose something with which you are comfortable.
3. Sit comfortably keeping your back straight.
4. Breath in and out focusing on your breath. What does it feel like?
5. As thoughts from earlier or later in the day enter your mind, recognize that a thought has come up and redirect your attention to your breath. This requires practice. I was surprised at how difficult this was for me at first. Stick with it though.
6. Just continue this process. At first, you might only practice for 5-10 minutes. You may never really become fully relaxed, and that is fine. Remember...mindfulness leads to a nonjudgemental awareness of the present moment. If you are chastising yourself for not getting it right, you are preventing yourself from reaching that relaxed state. It's like TRYING to fall asleep. You're only making it harder.
7. Try to keep up with your practice. Set aside 5-10 minutes per day. Hopefully you can work up to 20 minutes.
8. Experiment with this and see what kind of an impact it has on your mood, your patience, your stress levels, and your overall feeling of well-being.

Stop for a moment and consider how much of the day your mind has controlled you. How many moments did you give away to your mind, thinking about the past or worried about the future? How many moments were you truly present in the now?  When the mind controls us, we run around frantically trying to get everything done on our checklist. We take our worries home, perseverating on the events of our school day and worrying about events that will take place tomorrow. This non-stop world of thought generates stress that will bring you down.

If we allow our stress to go unchecked, we not only risk health problems, but also risk never reaching our potential as educators. A mind that is under constant stress cannot operate optimally. We also run the risk of transferring our stress to the students we teach. Our patience, our compassion, and our sense of humor do not shine through when we are plagued by stress. Our students pick up on this and will often model this behavior.

Our schools have done a remarkable job integrating technology. Our schools have become very efficient at analyzing successful learning strategies, informing decisions based upon data, and moving closer towards true individualization of instruction. They have, however, done little to address the growing pressure felt by students, teachers and administrators. If we fail to balance our advances in external technologies with the development of inner technologies, we risk escalating emotional instability and mental health issues with our students, teachers, and administrators.

We must insist that our schools offer opportunities to develop inner technology. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is a proven, scientifically-based tool that could achieve this goal, positively transforming our schools and our society.