Friday, December 15, 2006

FYI - Background from Interview

I am posting this as more complete background information - perhaps it will fill in some blanks - I have been remiss in my lack of participation in the Educators and Teens list:
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so I am going to let this posting serve as my introduction to that list as well.
Here we go:
November 12, 2006

Can you give a little background on Suffern Middle School (demographics,
size, location, technology, relationship to innovation, etc.)
Ramapo Central School District is located in Rockland County, New York,
approximately thirty miles northwest of New York City. We serve the
Villages of Airmont, Hillburn, Monsey, Montebello, Tallman, Wesley
Hills, Sloatsburg, and Suffern- along with a small, unincorporated area
of the Town of Ramapo.

Our K-12 student population of 4,774 is engaged in a challenging
curriculum and award-winning educational programs beginning in our five
elementary schools:

* Cherry Lane
* Montebello
* R.P. Connor
* Sloatsburg
* Viola

This award-winning education program continues through Suffern Middle
School and Suffern High School.
Ramapo Central School District Superintendent Dr. Robert MacNaughton has
presented the workshop, “ The World is Flat”
The presentation is about how students and teachers can integrate
technology into their work and their communications with others and
explains how RCSD is changing to meet the challenge of providing
adequate technology for today's students and how this will help them
communicate with people from diverse backgrounds, culture and
Dr. MacNaughton, Superintendent of RCSD since 1998, participates in
hands-on work with his professional staff to design, implement and
evaluate educational programs with an emphasis on the use of technology.
He is constantly seeking ideas that will empower schools to respond to
the needs of today's students who will be living and working in a
"flatter world". He has received the Distinguished Technology Leader for an Administrator award:
Dr. MacNaughton was honored for persistently working to develop a vision
for the use of technology throughout the Ramapo Central School District. Among his
initiatives, Dr. MacNaughton was instrumental in bringing digital
photography labs to the Ramapo High School art program and a digital keyboarding lab to the High School music department. Under his guidance, classrooms in the District are equipped with computer clusters, projection devices, wireless tablets, mobile labs, and adaptive technology for special education students, and most importantly, he supports teacher training in multiple methods.

RCSD has a clear and focused mission: Educate For Personal
Excellence. This mission reflects our commitment to challenging every student to
achieve his or her highest personal potential. We accomplish this through student-centered educational models implemented by top-notch
teaching professionals.

Where did you first hear about Second Life and when did you start
thinking in terms of making connections with it to the curriculum as a
platform to teach middle school students in?

Curiously enough I knew about SL for at least a year before I actually
went in world and explored. The initial “nudge” came from my
daughter, Meghan, who actually worked for Linden Lab as a liaison on the teen grid (Deana Linden)
She was constantly saying "Mom! You have got to check this out! You'll
love it!" However, I assumed Second Life was just another of the video games that had always eluded me and I just kept putting it off because I “didn't have time to play a game.” I had never explored video or online gaming, had never ventured into World of Warcraft or Diablo or GTA or any MMORPG for that matter. Then one day Meghan was visiting and I guess she played the ultimate “guilt card” by asking, Don’t you even want to know about where I work and what I do?” Reluctantly, I sat down and created an account in Second Life.

Initially, all I did was wander about and laugh—--a lot! I was clumsy, limited and didn’t quite “get it”. But everyone I encountered seemed to be willing to help and answer my questions, and Meghan suggested I try attending a few “events”. She walked me through some basic “etiquette”. She showed me a few fascinating places. After meeting the most extraordinary people (all the while I was banging into walls,) I started to make the connection to education. A web of ideas started to form and as I investigated further, it all started to actually make sense. I knew that this could be something huge for kids and learning. I started to investigate anything connected to education in Second Life. I searched down educators in world. I formed a group for discussions and I joined other related education groups. I read the blogs and the wikis and the journals and it all started to click. The thoughts I’d had about the “dysfunction” of conventional instruction, fueled by my own experience teaching and my own experience learning started to find a small solution. All of the books and articles and heated discussions I’d shared with my fellow educators and in my graduate classes about issues concerning twenty-first century literacy and educating the digital native was finding a home in what I was learning about the power of simulations and the potential of game based learning communities. All of these things started to crystallize for me. I felt that I had discovered one avenue of 21st century literacy that I could actually put into action. I decided to write a proposal for my district to establish a pre(sence in the virtual world of Teen Second Life. It began to take shape. The rest is virtual) history!
“In order to teach the students of the 21st century we need to use the tools of the twenty-first century.”

One of your blogposts indicate that your administration gave the all
clear for three private islands. To what do you attribute the key
factors within this proposal or other factors about your school that
administration was in support about the project?

Our head of instructional technology, James Yap, helped me to focus in on the curriculum connections and to organize my myriad ideas into a cohesive document. I was able to present a bit of background on the digital native and learning styles, on the neuroscience behind their multi-tasking, etc. I relied a great deal on ideas I had read about in works by educators like Marc Prensky and James Paul Gee. But my task was not as difficult as one might imagine since the administrative leadership of Ramapo Central School District truly understands the demands and direction of the global workforce, and how best to prepare our students to be successful in that “flatter world” awaiting them!
When I presented the proposal, they asked all the right questions: How will this enhance learning? How can we guarantee our students’ safety? Once I addressed those issues by making curricular connections to learning in the virtual platform and by setting up Ramapo Islands as secured, “closed” land, I received the green light!

Can you explain a bit about the fees for the private islands, the bulk
accounts for the students, background checks, and any other fees that
have been contributed to the project?

Linden Labs gives educators a discount for island purchase. There are
also fees associated with the maintenance and for account creation but
Linden Labs bent over backwards to accommodate our project. As we were
breaking new ground, many of the decisions concerning the development
of the islands were "first time" decisions and Linden Lab always took
the high ground-their priority being our success rather than their
convenience. I can't say enough about the Lindens who worked tirelessly
on this project, especially Claudia Linden and Blue Linden. There were
many others at the company going the extra mile for us too! They did not though, lower the security settings for adults entering the teen grid – even for our teachers who all had to submit evidence of background checks.

Who designed the buildings and services on the islands?
Once the proposal passed and RCSD had purchased the three islands I started planning with teachers who had agreed to participate in the pilot program. We began by looking at the existing curriculum and designing projects that would be enhanced in the virtual platform.

I remember the day that I received notification from Linden Labs that the islands had been created and were now accessible. I had asked to have them established on the main grid to be transferred over to the Teen Grid after completion. The reasoning behind this was simple. My avatar was not allowed on the teen grid and I had no “connections” on the Teen Grid. The first time I went to Ramapo Islands I imagine the feeling was not unlike what the early explorers experienced. Vast EMPTY land of rolling green – that seemed to go on forever. I had generated some interest in the project in world through the educators groups and such, but I knew I didn’t have sufficient skills to create my vision. I had been greatly inspired by the content on the main grid and I had the imagination and ideas for builds from my teachers. So, I attended the SLCC in San Francisco and basically approached anyone and everyone who would listen to my plea for help! I had done my homework, and I scouted down some of the most creative residents who were at the convention. Due in part to my shameless recruiting methods, and even more so to the truly generous natures of the Second Life Community, I was able to connect with the best and the brightest visionaries in SL. The excitement of the potential for educational possibilities was infectious!
After some initial planning done at SLCC, all meetings to determine the design and building of the islands was done in world. I left SLCC with names, and a plan! We then formed a group, Ramapo Volunteers, and held meeting in world to discuss builds and design. Fred Fuchs of FireSabre Consulting (Gus Plisskin in SL) who was instrumental in the Global Kids Island move to the Teen Grid became my technical director and Guru! I have a list of about twenty other residents who donated their time, builds, energy, etc. As the build was developing I also traveled about in world and looked for "cool stuff" that we could use on the islands. Then I would approach the resident who owned or created it, deliver a note card about the project and cross my fingers! I received everything for which I asked - NO ONE turned me down. This doesn't happen anywhere else that I know of!

Ramapo Volunteers included Robbie Dingo, Seifert Surface, Lyr
Lobo, Patch Lamington, twisted fool, lumiere noir, Mathieu Basiat, Chaac
Amarula, Liberty Tesla, Les White, Sulumor Romulus, Ayesha Honey, Lilith
Heart, Frans Charming, Joshua Deckard, aEoLus Waves, Bella Damone,
Karamel Madison, Kayla Khan, Amulius Lioncourt, Rhiannon Chatnoir, and
please forgive me if I have forgotten others. Many of these residents even paid for the background clearance check so that they can enter the teen grid to mentor. The spirit of community is outstanding and the islands reflect it!
We needed to have functional builds that taught skills etc, but also to have enough "eye candy" and fun stuff to keep the kids motivated and to allow them to
glimpse the potential of SL without ever being on the Teen Grid proper.
I think we managed it really well!

The team, Ramapo Volunteers, would meet, assign tasks, delegate responsibilities and the islands started to take shape. An idea would surface and if a team member was unable to complete the task, they recruited a friend who could.

What do the names of the islands mean?

The islands are all names that reflect the real world locations of our
school. We are in the town of Suffern, in the county of Rockland, and
the Village of Ramapo. The Native Americans from this area were the
Ramapo Tribe.

We read the press coverage in SLNN here:
.html Is there anything else you would add in terms of plans for
services for students? Can you elaborate a bit more on the description
and function of the library (photos?)

Everything is evolving. As my teachers learn and become more familiar
with the capabilities of the platform, they are coming up with some
powerful ideas. The library will not only serve as a meeting place,
auditorium for group viewing of movies, (student generated etc. ) but
will also eventually serve as a receptacle for student writing and art. Eventually I am looking to investigate the integration of Web2 portals for a virtual collection but for now the “books” are student works.

What does it feel like to be a pioneer? Have you always been one? In
what ways do you see this as a pioneer effort and in other ways similar
to real life in terms of reaching teens where they are?

I came to teaching later in life than most. My first career was as a
musician. (That's another whole story!) When I decided to teach I truly
did so for all of the mushy altruistic "change the world, make a
difference" reasons. I have been very lucky in that the three districts
in which I have worked have had a major focus on technology and literacy. When I taught third grade at Mount Sinai Elementary School on Long Island, I was also attending SUNY StonyBrook for my masters in Ed Tech. I remember learning things on a Tuesday night and then teaching them to my third graders the next morning and they got it! We had six computers in the classroom and by the end of the year every student had generated their own web site and a digital portfolio of their work.
Funny thing is that everyone assumed it was some kind of technical magic
that I had - and they were wrong. It was the kids. What I realized from
that first teaching experience, was that these students are comfortable
with technology and given the tools they soar with it! This opened up a
whole new realm for me and I became passionate about the authentic
infusion of technology in learning. When I taught for the Greenville County School District at Stone Academy of Communication Arts, I started to train teachers and develop curriculum that wasn't just teaching technology for technology's sake but truly addressed the learning style of the digital native. It was there (University of South Carolina at Columbia) that I started a second master’s degree in Library and Information Science which I am now completing at Southern Connecticut State University (online of course).

Educators must begin to realize that 21st century Literacy is NOT what WE
grew up with. It has evolved and we, as educators, must evolve with it. I love
Prensky's new book, "Don't Bother Me Mom, I'm Learning", as he explains
this in very "teacher-friendly" terms. Educators too often feel that teaching
the new literacy negates traditional literacy and it does not.
Traditional literacy is the foundation of all literacy.

Right now, with this latest project, I am feeling encouraged and
validated. The 8th grade teachers at Suffern Middle School have
embraced this project. Some are young and on the fringes of “Digital
Nativism” themselves, so this was not a giant leap for them but others
are definitely Digital Immigrants, and although they don't
personally subscribe to the processes of the native, they are insightful
enough to realize that this is where the kids need to be!

Can you give some examples of how your curriculum was written to match
with activities in SL?

Initially, so as not to demand too much too soon, I explained to my
teachers that they would teach as they have always taught, but that the
virtual platform would be used for the students to demonstrate learning.
We talked about different projects and assessments that would translate
into the 3D environment. For example, after studying World War II,
rather than a research report or a PowerPoint presentation, the students
would demonstrate learning by constructing a virtual timeline of the
major events of WWII. This project would be differentiated in that
students who were less familiar with the platform could simply research
and create an exhibit in world, while others could use the movie tools
and create a documentary. What I expect to happen is that the kids will
start to develop their own ideas and eventually their own curriculum
connections. They have already opted to create an Ellis Island (many thanks to Liberty Tesla for our “Lady Liberty”) complete with a museum, and a kids who completed a Geometry unit have created a Geo Gallery with 3-D sculptures that give note card explanations demonstrating geometric concepts. I am advocating use of peer review and peer tutoring. As each successive class enters Ramapo Islands, the previous residents will be charged with the responsibility to "teach them the ropes" and eventually, when all the kids have been oriented, we will address cross curricular content and have the kids generate activities that relate to
their curriculum. The latest idea is a team lesson involving English and Social Studies. The students will read To Kill a Mockingbird in English class and re-enact the trial in SL. So, they will need to use traditional literacy skills in reading and understanding, and then synthesize that information to create a setting and role-play the trial. They will need to research the American Judicial System to understand the trial by jury system and the required participants (judge, jury, witnesses, defendant, prosecutor, etc.) and they will need to identify those corresponding roles from the novel. The teacher will assign the roles and the kids will research what they need to know in order to play their part. The teachers and I are developing a rubric for assessment.

How are you working to build sustainability in the project?
Right now, I have introduced the kids to the islands and clearly
explained that they are the "test cases" I have outlined not only the
community standards, but the Ramapo Central School District code of
conduct. I have told them that it is up to them whether or not this
project flies for next year. I am hoping to present this at NECC this
year, and I will be gathering evidence of success and even some data to
support the project.

What has reaction from your students been? Are many of them familiar
with SL already? Any direct quotes to share? Any parent feedback yet?

As I said, yesterday was the first day that the kids were shown Second
Life, but they have not been given their own accounts yet. We are
expecting that this week. Of about 100 kids, about three quarters
consider themselves "gamers". Only a handful had heard of Second Life.
After showing them one of the SL trailers, I had them watch my avatar on
Ramapo Islands. I gave them a quick overview of changing appearance,
flying, dancing, building and a simple rotating script. They were
literally spellbound. First of all, I think it really helped to grab
them that my avatar very closely resembles me in real life. (albeit about twwenty years younger) Gus
Woodward arrived so we demonstrated chat and IM. The kids had a million
questions! They wanted to understand the commerce; Linden Dollars were
of great interest to them! "How can I earn money here?" Other questions
were, "Can you die? Can someone else take your stuff? Can I do this
from home? Can I create my own account on the Teen Grid? Will I have
this in high school? (update: see for comments and photos)

Any negative feedback on the project? How do you address it?

We are still in the infancy of the project so this remains to be seen.
I plan on sending an informational letter home to parents to explain
things in detail. The emphasis is that our kids are on a PRIVATE island,
- no one else gets on, and our kids can’t get off - so there is no danger of them being exposed to outside influences. My hope is that after this year we will have sufficient evidence of the value of this platform and will increase our land
holdings and, possibly, open our islands to the Teen Grid in order to
expand the experience and enjoy the cultural exchange! Bring on some more schools and the possibilities for cultural exchange are boundless!

Where can people contact you for more information? If you are looking
for help, what would you like to include as to specific areas you are
looking for help in? I am always open to new ideas for curriculum connections~ or at school,

What words of advice would you give teachers or school districts if they
are wanting to start a similar project?

Be sure to include fees for developers in your proposal! Although I am
eternally grateful to the philanthropic volunteers that worked with me on this
project, they all had time constraints.
In order to really develop your project in a timely manner and
to the specifications of your needs, a really good technical director
and team are absolutely necessary. I hope that anyone embarking on this
journey will contact Fred Fuchs,
FredF4364 on AIM 713-429-1750
Authorized Member, Firesabre Consulting LLC
Content Services for Second Life
Creation, Training, and Management
(Gus Plisskin in Second Life)

He is, in my opinion, an expert on all things relating to Teen Grid
education builds and can troubleshoot many issues before they really
become issues. Gus knows the people you need to know and is creative,
devoted and doesn't ever seem to sleep!

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