Sunday, July 20, 2008

Amtrak Adventure - Part 4

I’ll be taking a departure away from technology issues for the next few posts to submit a little online journal of my travel across the country with Dad on the Amtrak Coast Starlight and California Zephyr.
July 18th - California Zephyr

Slept much better last night. After waking up and enjoying a nice hot shower we learned that delays and rail work overnight now had us running more than 2 hours behind schedule.

A morning stop in Omaha gave us a chance to stretch our legs for a few minutes and take a look at the beautiful old abandoned Omaha train station. This must have been quite a sight back in the days when rail travel was a primary mode of transportation. According to Bob, its been boarded up for more than 20 years, but the building is still here so there’s hope it might someday be restored to some of it’s former glory.

Here in Omaha, Bob also took the opportunity poll us on what we thought was the most scenic part our trip so far. I’ll let you experience a little bit of Bob for yourself...

After our last breakfast on the train, Dad & I retreated to our compartment for a lazy day of reading and watching the Iowa farms pass by our window. Bob told us that our engineer would try to make up some time along the route, but that we would likely be delayed another 15 minutes as we pass through the flood area in Iowa and Illinois. After we crossed the Mississippi at Burlington, Iowa I was surprised to see how much water was still around even after 3 weeks. Many of these farmers must be devastated.

Once past the flood area we were running about 3 hours behind schedule. Stopping in Galesburg, Illinois we said goodbye to some of our Zephyr friends who’d been traveling with us since Emeryville. For the rest of us, it was on to Chicago.

The Chicago skyline was a bit of a contrast to the farms and small towns we’d been seeing all day. It was also clear that our Chicago-based Zephyr crew, who started here 6 days ago was glad to be coming home. They seemed anxious to see their families and take a few well-deserved days off.

We pulled into Chicago at 6:20 pm, only 2 1/2 hours behind schedule, and in plenty of time for Dad and me to catch the 8:05 Hiawatha train to Milwaukee. It also gave us time to explore the cathedral-like great hall of Chicago’s Union Station.

The Hiawatha was a fast commuter train that zipped us up to Milwaukee airport in only 80 minutes. At the airport we picked up a rental car and headed out to stay with family for a few days. Our Amtrak Adventure was officially over.

Overall, it was a great trip. I’ll definitely have to try this again. Next time I might take the Coast Starlight all the way up to Portland or Seattle. I hear the ride through the Oregon Cascades is really beautiful in the winter. We’ll see.

Surprises and Advice
If you’re thinking about trying a train trip yourself here a few things I learned...

1) Go first class. If you’re taking an overnight trip and can afford it, get a sleeper. Traveling this way is more expensive than air travel, but if you compare the cost of driving, hotels, and meals, you’ll find you might just save a few bucks.

2) Throw out the time schedule. If you find yourself worrying about why the train has stopped, or focusing on your destination you won’t enjoy the beauty that is around you. On the train it’s all about the journey and having a “we’ll get there when we get there” attitude. Besides, arriving 2 1/2 hours late after 4 days is not bad. I’ve had flights that are delayed even more than that.

3) It’s all about the people. One of the biggest surprises for me was all the interesting people I got to meet. Our Amtrak crew was great. I’ve already shared about Bob, but I must also mention Frank, the lounge car attendant/bartender, who looked like Dean Martin and sounded like Al Pacino. His regular intercom announcements always had us smiling. I was also surprised by all the interesting people we met at meals and in the observation car. Some were seasoned rail travelers who shared stories of other rail adventures and others were first-timers just like us. Don’t just sit in your room all day. Take the time to introduce yourself and get to know the people traveling with you. It might just be the best part of your trip.

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Saturday, July 19, 2008

Amtrak Adventure - Part 3

I’ll be taking a departure away from technology issues for the next few posts to submit a little online journal of my travel across the country with Dad on the Amtrak Coast Starlight and California Zephyr.

July 17 - California Zephyr

The upper bunk was a little narrower than I expected. Thankfully there were safety straps from the edge of the bunk clipped to ceiling of the compartment that kept me from rolling out during the night. The rocking of the train took a bit of getting used to, but eventually sleep found me. I think I dreamed I was in that old “I Love Lucy” episode where they slept in the upper berth on the train from Hollywood to New York.

During the night we passed through the Utah salt flats, Salt Lake City, and Provo.
Morning included another first - a shower on the train. Nothing glamorous here. Think of a tiny tent trailer or RV shower. Were not talking about the Hilton suites but there were plenty of clean towels.

Breakfast was an added surprise as Dad discovered that the people sitting across form us were Iowa relatives of one of his best friends. As soon as I can get a WiFi signal Dad plans to e-mail Jules and tell him we had breakfast with Chick & Opal.

The ride through Utah, Glenwood Canyon, and the Colorado Rockies was stunning. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. We rode through some beautiful canyons and valleys that can only be seen by train passengers and backpackers, following the Colorado River all the way to the town of Granby. You might remember this little town was in the news about 4 years ago when a disgruntled citizen built his own “tank” out of a bulldozer and destroyed a 13 town buildings including the Granby City Hall.

The Moffat Tunnel was our passage under the continental divide. This 6.2 mile long tunnel takes about 12 minutes for the train to go through. During that time, passengers are warned stay in their own cars and not open the doors between cars in order to keep out the diesel fumes and coal dust.

Dinner included a very interesting conversation with a man from the Canadian Coast guard. He shared his first hand experience with the staggering effects of global warming on the Arctic ice pack. “Icebergs used to break off in the summer and reform in the winter, but now they’re not reforming,” he shared noting that estimates predict that by next year the ice may have thinned out enough to create a shipping lane from Greenland to the Bering Strait. We also discussed the drastic effects a minute change in ocean temperature, salinity, and acidity could have on algae growth, fish population, and the formation of coral. Its amazing to think about how all these seemingly separate systems are actually connected and dependent on each other. I just hope we haven’t figured all this out before its too late to do anything about it.

Sunset brought us to Denver’s Union Station and a last chance to get out and stretch our legs before turning in for the night.

CLICK HERE for Part 4

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Still No WiFi?
I tried to locate wireless access point at every station stop today, but I think I’ll just have to accept the fact that I won’t be able to get online until arriving in Chicago or Milwaukee.

Amtrak Adventure - Part 2

I’ll be taking a departure away from technology issues for the next few posts to submit a little online journal of my travel across the country with Dad on the Amtrak Coast Starlight and California Zephyr.

July 16 - California Zephyr

The horn blast of an early morning freight train was our wake up call this morning. The balcony of our hotel room overlooked the Emeryville station. At 7:55am the California Zephyr, our home for the next 3 days, pulled up to the platform. We found sleeping car 632 and met Bob, our 6 foot 6 1/2 attendant. He had hot coffee already for us in the car and not long after had we settled down in our room, he popped his head in our compartment and invited us to breakfast in the dining car. Our dining companions were a couple of musicians from the Bay Area. We shared stories and had a great discussion about the need to teach our kids how to find truth and validity in the glut of information available online, and promote creativity and innovation in the classroom. We chatted until the attendants politely kicked us out of the dining car, encouraging us to continue to solve the world’s problems, but to work at it in a different car.

After a brief stop to stretch our legs in Sacramento, the Zephyr started chugging uphill into the Sierras following pretty much the same route as the original Transcontinental Railroad. From here to Reno we were joined by two history experts from the Sacramento Railroad Museum who narrated the journey and answered passenger questions in the observation car. They were more than willing to fill me in on the history of the railroad and it’s construction, along with great bits of Sierra history and little know facts. I was even able to pry one of them for some information about a great spot on the Truckee River for catching native brown trout (but was sworn to secrecy).

The view from the observation car was spectacular as we climbed through Emigrant Gap & Donner Pass, then followed the Truckee River down to Reno. Lunch in the dining car was accompanied by a view of Donner Lake and the Eastern Sierras, along with some nice conversation with some Zephyr regulars who served as personal tour guides during the meal.

What About Bob?
I’m learning that train travel is a much about the people as it is the scenery. One of the joys of this trip so far is Bob Heath, our sleeping car attendant. Bob is a 35 year Amtrak veteran and Chicago native. Car 632 is HIS car, and we are HIS people. He’s always ready to serve with a warm and friendly smile and makes an extra effort to get to know his passengers.

In the evening he can convert a 2 seat roomette into upper and lower bunk beds in less than 2 minutes flat - complete with fresh linens and mints on the pillow. Dad and I had a great time getting to know him on this trip and hear about some of his experiences working on the train for the last quarter century. And yes, after 35 years, he still bumps his head occasionally as he maneuvers his 6 foot 6 1/2 inch frame through the train corridors.

Evening brought us into the relatively flatter part of western Nevada and dinner with a couple from New Zealand traveling across country to Connecticut. Their idea was to use cross country train trip to work off the jet lag of a 12 hour flight to San Francisco. Interesting idea.

Tonight is our first night of sleeping on the train. I’ll have to let you know how that goes tomorrow.

CLICK HERE for Part 3

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Amtrak Adventure - Part 1

I’ll be taking a departure away from technology issues for the next few posts to submit a little online journal of my travel across the country with Dad on the Amtrak Coast Starlight and California Zephyr.

I got this hair-brained idea standing with my shoes off in an airport security line muttering to myself, “There’s got to be a better way!” I knew that I needed to get to Washington DC for the Discovery National Institute by July 21st. I knew that I didn’t want to take a “red eye” flight and arrive in DC at 5:30 in the morning. I also knew that driving from LA to DC with motels, food, and $4.50 per gallon gasoline was also not a desirable option.

Why not take the train? According to those “Great Rail Excursion” shows on PBS, the California Zephyr is one of the most scenic rail journeys in the US. Booking a sleeping compartment would not only gave me a private room to sleep in, but also included all meals in the dining car and first class treatment on board and at train stations. It seemed like a no-brainer.

So rather than take a “red eye” from LA to DC, here’s what I chose instead.

Coast Starlight from LA to Emeryville, CA (near Berkeley).
California Zephyr from Emeryville to Chicago.
Hiawatha commuter train from Chicago to Milwaukee.
Visit with family for a few days then fly from Milwaukee to DC for the National Institute.

We’ll see as these blog posts progress if this was a good idea.

July 15 - Coast Starlight

As we boarded the train we met Howard, our sleeping car attendant, who showed us to our compartment, explained how to work all the gadgets in our “roomette”, and told us where to find the dining, lounge, and observation cars. Leaving Los Angeles the first thing I noticed was the quiet. The superliner compartment was blissfully silent. No loud jet hum, coughing or sneezing passengers, or crying babies. I didn’t have to be told for the 100th time how to put on my seltbelt because there aren’t any. And there was no talk of oxygen masks falling from the ceiling or reminders that my seat cushion also serves as a flotation device in the event of a water landing - which in my mind is still called a “crash”.

Shortly after we were underway, Chris, the dining car steward, popped his head in our room and asked what time we would like to reserve seating for lunch. Meals are included for sleeping car passengers. Then, just before lunch Howard came back to deliver our complimentary champagne. (I think I’m starting to like this.)

For lunch Dad and I shared a table with a husband and wife who were traveling to Oregon to check out colleges for his graduate studies. Wonderful conversation - along with a nice plug for the DEN - was accompanied a fine meal with real silverware! Did I mention to beautiful ocean view right outside the window?

At San Luis Obispo, the train headed inland and the rest of the afternoon was spent reading in the observation car and enjoying the peace & quiet of our “roomette”. I took advantage of the time to make a few phone calls just because I didn’t have to shut off my cellular phone - or any electronic devices for that matter. We even had a standard electric outlet in our room for plugging in the laptop computer. Internet access is another issue. There is no WiFi or ethernet connections on the train and I’m too cheap to buy one of those mobile wireless cards so I’m dependent on whatever free WiFi I can find. No luck today.

At 7:30 Chris announced over the intercom that it was time for us to head up to the dining car for dinner. I had the steak and dad had half of a roasted game hen. Another fine meal.

We pulled into Emeryville at about 10:20pm, just a few minutes behind schedule. Ack! No free wireless at the hotel across from the train station - should have checked that when I made the reservation. Not sure when I’ll get to post this or what kind of access I’ll be able to find for the next few days on the train to Chicago. We’ll see what happens...

CLICK HERE for Part 2

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The NECC Buffet - Part 3

Part 3: Dessert!

Remember to save room for dessert? No trip to the buffet would be complete without it. Forget about counting calories - just dive in! My favorite part of a buffet is the dessert and my favorite part of the NECC buffet was the opportunity to spend time and have fun with some amazing people. I'll have to admit that one of my primary reasons for attending was to renew friendships with many of the Discovery Educators I met at the DEN National Institute last year. Just knowing that these people would be in San Antonio made my first NECC experience a lot less intimidating.

In addition to spending time with DEN friends, I was delighted to meet many others I only knew online through Twitter, the Discovery Educator Network, or Second Life. I owe a big thanks to Anne Truger and Tom Turner (both NECC veterans) for helping me make connections and friendships with some wonderful tech educators. My personal learning network continues to grow.

Hats Off To Discovery
If one group has done more than any other to help me connect, grow, and learn it would be the folks at Discovery. I like to think of Scott, Steve, Hall, Lance, Matt, Joe, Brad, Justin, and of course mother-to-be Jannita as good friends and education professionals who just happen to work for an awesome company. The DEN event at Enchanted Springs Ranch was yet another opportunity to learn, connect, and have fun with other teachers. Here I finally got to meet Martha Thornburgh, a teacher I've collaborated with online but never met in person. Thanks DEN.

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Teachers That Play Together...
Not only is NECC an a great opportunity to collaborate and exchange ideas with other teachers on a professional level, its also a great place to play together as well. And play we did! As I mentioned in my previous post, its all about relationships. I feel so fortunate that I had a chance to meet and get to know teachers like Lee "@Teachakidd" Kolbert, Darcy White, Tim Childers, Chad "IMC Guy" Lehman, and the infamous Riptide Furse! It was fun to get pulled out onto the dance floor by Anne Truger & Teryl Magee, to find out what SL's Lori Abrahams is doing in RL, and to catch up with fellow "Academic Excursion" cruisers Jennifer Gingerich, Elaine Plybon, Tanya Gray, Heather Hurley, and of course Howard Martin - the voice of Igneous Rock himself. I really hope that we can keep communication open through Skype, Twitter, and other online tools.

The Jen W Factor
Finally, I need to share another NECC treat on my dessert tray. Even though Jen Wagner was not able to attend NECC, she was busy at home Ustreaming, Skyping, and using any other means possible to connect to the conference. For me, having Jen there virtually was like having a little Jiminy Cricket on my shoulder guiding me through my first national conference. I really appreciated her reminders to, "Make sure you go and see a presentation from someone you don't know", and "Don't just be a sponge, also be a watering can." Jen helped alert me to opportunities I shouldn't miss and people I should try to meet. It was my pleasure to be a small part of the crew that helped keep her connected to the conference. I still have fun telling people she sat on my lap during Jakes & Shareski's "One Hour Power Point" session. Thanks Jen.

PHOTO CREDIT: Dean Shareski on Flickr (Modified by Me)

Lessons Learned
Just writing these last three blog entries have helped me review and organize many of the things I learned at NECC this year, but if I had to pick one major lesson I learned it would be this: "Its not what you use its how you use it." This message is nothing new of course, but it was reinforced while talking to teachers and visiting the poster sessions over my 5 days at NECC. We are blessed with an abundance of technology tools at my school in Orange, CA. It was humbling to see how some teachers are doing more with so much less. Therefore I'm resolved this year to do my best and make the most out of the technology we've been given and use it to help our students become powerful thinkers, creators, and problem solvers.

That's about it. Thanks for taking time to read about my NECC buffet experience. There's so much more I would have liked to try. I'll definately have to make it back for NECC next year in Washington DC. I'm sure my plate will once again be piled high with great presentations and conversations. Then again, maybe I'll skip all that and just go for the dessert.

Can I offer anyone a "wafer thin mint"? :)

Monday, July 07, 2008

The NECC Buffet - Part 2

Part 2: The Entree

The Entree is the reason you go to the buffet in the first place. It's the main course of the meal. Here's where you pile your plate high with everything you like or have been been dying to try.

For many people the concurrent sessions at NECC were their entree. That was not the case for me. The main reason I attended NECC was for the conversations - the chance to talk and exchange ideas with other technology educators. This is why a arrived (at the buffet) in San Antonio a day early to attend EduBloggerCon 2008 so I could have an extra day to engage in conversations.

PHOTO CREDIT: by elemenous on Flickr (Modified by Me)
Between EduBloggerCon, the Bloggers Cafe, and random meetings throughout the convention center, my NECC experience was filled with great idea exchanges and brainstorming. Here are a few morsels I brought home with me.

Why Didn't I Think of That?
After any professional development, Kevin Honeycutt sets out a "buffet" of laminated key tags - just like those grocery store club tags. Each one lists a tool that was discussed on one side and a web site address for that tool on the other. Under the web site is the name of a school or district contact who has agreed to serve as a mentor to support teachers and help them learn to use that tool.

Think of these like collectors cards for all your professional development topics. Kevin discovered that his teachers like to collect tags and will even trade them with other teachers. It even becomes a little competitive as teachers try to see who can collect the most tags. Besides, "If you laminate it, teachers won't throw it away."

Virtual Class Pets
Real class pets teach kids responsibility. Virtual pets can do the same and also help them learn responsibility and good online habits. Maria Knee uses a Webkin as a virtual class pet. Kids take turns caring for their class webkin, decorating it's house, doing chores, earning Kinzcash to buy new things, and communicating with other Webkins. Along the way they're learning to be good online citizens. Guess I'll have to work making an exception for this site on our school web filter.

We All Scream for Ustream!
Strangely enough, one of the best sessions I attended at NECC, I attended virtually. I caught most of Chris Lehmann's School 2.0 session from the Global Connections lounge and followed along with backchannel chat as well. Chris did a great job demonstrating how to build a collaborative unit plan with audience participation. Participating in the chat and sitting a few feet away from me in the lounge was Jeff Utecht. As an added bonus, after the session I was able to talk with him and learn how he uses Google Apps for Education at his school in Shanghai.

Meaningful Change
How does it happen? Rushton Hurley led this discussion at EduBloggerCon. What an amazing opportunity to meet and share with other Edubloggers! The topic: What needs to be done at the school/classroom level to bring about a meaningful change in day-to-day learning?

PHOTO CREDIT: Teachandlearn on Flickr
If we're right, and technology has the potential to change learning from passive to active, we can't simply bemoan being inundated by complacency, what do we do?
- Rushton
Everyone at NECC seems to have a passion and energy for technology & learning, but that excitement loses something when you try to bring it back home to your school. In my opinion, it's all about having conversations and developing relationships with your teachers. Identify those who have a passion, whether or not it's a technology passion, and partner with them. Help them take that first step. Celebrate their successes. When things go wrong, help them figure out what to do better next time. To ensure that the change is permanent, its important that teachers see added value the technology brings to the project, but its also important that you make it inconvenient for them to go back to doing things the old way. This is where an administration can help by defining policies that take the "old way" option out of the equation. Even if you don't have administrative support you can encourage change by publicizing student success and work products among parents and the community. Once word gets out that this is the type of work being done in their class, it puts a little social pressure on the teacher to keep these technology projects going.

Please Sir, Can I Have Some More?
There were many other conversation morsels at NECC. Unfortunately that's what they were - morsels. My NECC plate was so full that I regret not having time to really sit down and enjoy a full portion of some conversations. "Let's talk more later," was a recurring phrase. Too bad the conference ended before many of these "laters" came about. Thankfully we have online tools so I can go back for seconds.

NEXT POST: Part 3 - Dessert!


The NECC Buffet - Part 1

I attended NECC for the first time this year. While many attendees have already blogged about their experiences - as I write this Technorati already has over 500 blogs tagged "NECC2008" - it's taken a while for me to process everything and gather my thoughts enough to put text to screen and share my impressions.

To say NECC is big doesn't quite capture it. My thesaurus suggests words like monumental, immense, ginormous, and elephantine, but those don't seem to paint an accurate picture either. For me, NECC was a chance to attend the worlds largest most extravagant buffet for the very first time. I wanted to load my plate with a little of everything. Not knowing if I would ever make it back, I tried to devour as many small morsels as I could but quickly discovered there was no possible way to digest it all without making myself sick. In the end, I had to make choices. I'll leave it up to you to determine the wisdom of my decisions.

Part 1: The Salad Bar

The salad bar contains all that stuff that's healthy for you. It's not the real reason you came to the buffet, but you feel obligated to partake because it helps you balance out the guilt you feel for indulging in the next two courses. The concurrent sessions at NECC were my salad bar - and what an AMAZING salad bar it was!
  • Ian Jukes is one of those "sit down, fasten your seatbelts, and hold on" presenters. I love his energetic, in-your-face style and powerful visual images. While his session about Learning in the Digital Landscape did not give me anything I haven't already heard, nobody preaches it and gets you fired up to teach "digital kids" like Ian Jukes.
  • I've been a big fan of Lego Mindstorms for years and used them at my previous school so I was anxious to hear Mitchel Resnick speak about some of the new technologies they've been developing at the MIT Media Lab. Thanks to Wesley Fryer for taking such copious notes - Grassroots Creativity: Helping Everyone Become a Creative Thinker.
  • Rushton Hurley has a wonderful presentation style and his now famous "Who Can Make a Video in 10 Minutes?" session gave me many ideas that I hope to incorporate into future staff trainings. His non-profit NextVista for Learning web site promotes student and teacher made instructional videos and seeks to encourage global understanding through digital media. He also gave me the challenge to contribute some video to his site. (If you're reading this blog you can help keep me accountable to do this!)
  • Finally, what can I say about Hall Davidson that hasn't already been said? From exploding bottles of Dr. Pepper to his "I've never tried this before, but do you want to see if it works?" style, it's clear that Hall is a guy who doesn't play by the rules. His "HTML for Non-Wizards" presentation was just what my inner tech-geek needed, plus it gave me some extra techie tid-bits to feed to my middle schoolers who like to push the limits. (Click here if you'd like to download the 36MB pdf version of his presentation.)
NOTE: Several of these sessions and a few that I missed are now available at the NECC Webcast site. Here you can see presentations from Chris Dede, Mitchel Resnick, Hall Davidson and several other NECC Spotlight speakers. You need to register with an e-mail address to view the webcast but you also get to join the chat with anyone else who happens to be watching it with you.
Hmmm. Want to train your teachers how a back channel works? This might make a good practice playground.

NEXT POST: Part 2 - The Entree