The 2020 Symposium

For the past four years, I have organized an end-of-year “symposium” for teachers. This event has included a budget in excess of $10,000 and from 2017, 2018, and 2019, we included a second day of team building which included a trip to Busch Gardens, Segway Tours in Richmond, and white water rafting on the James.

The official name, the “Innovation Symposium,” was the brainchild of our superintendent, who in his previous role, had given teachers mini-grants of money to foster innovative practices in their classrooms. At the end of the year he wanted folks to share with others about the progress of their work with students.

For the past several years we have partnered with the Goochland Education Foundation to provide these grant monies. The school division, in turn, has hosted the symposium.

This year’s event was different, in that it was held remotely. It will conclude on June 11th, with a showcase of teacher-made videos.

Believing the act of creation is a very instructive practice, I wanted a creative challenge. Yes, we underpin the thing with prizes, but the hope is that by making something, teachers can learn and reflect on the activity of creation. We are modeling best practices in terms of performance assessment, a public showcase, and the elements of high quality instructional videos.

Our instructional technology coaches and I went a little bonkers with Bitmojis, but they certainly lend color to one of our Symposium slides.

We also modeled the creation of a rubric on how to judge the videos teachers will produce. These mirror some of the elements from our workshop on creating high quality instructional videos.

At the center of this event is an opportunity for teachers who applied for, and were granted monies for project-based learning units for students, to showcase their ideas, lessons learned, and overall, the grant-writing process.

We provided some views of what deeper learning looks like from schools across the country this year with help from Dr. Scott McLeod.

While ending the school year with a 2-day professional development event seems against human nature (let me just get the summer started!), after four years I think this event is an excellent mechanism for reflection, and I always leave feeling good. I’ve gotten feedback from teachers that they feel energized this way too.

My thanks go out to our school division for funding this, and to my colleagues Krystle, Catherine, Morgan, and Andrea for helping to give it that once-over for planning and touches of class.

Organizing Your Own Symposium

So what makes this a successful event? I’ll capture this in a few bullets then go into more detail.

  • Invite the right people,
  • Focus on just a few things,
  • Give people the opportunity to share and collaborate in non-threatening environments,
  • Provide next steps,
  • Create something you’ve never made before,
  • Celebrate your attendees.

Inviting the Right People

In order to make good use of time and to foster meaningful conversations, it helps to have the right people at the table. By this I mean people who are open to new ideas, who value the impact innovation has on professional practice, and people who want to improve their craft as educators. Our audience pool could be just about anyone from our teaching staff, but those that come traditionally come for that nourishment around improving and learning. It makes a tremendous impact on the quality of conversations and questions.

Focus on Just a Few Things

When we go to conferences, there can be a huge variety of topics and ideas present among the descriptions of breakout sessions, keynote talks, and workshops. This is what, in part, makes conferences fun learning events: there’s something for everyone. However, what’s sometimes missing is depth. Organizing an event like this affords us the opportunity to focus on just a few important things, and to try and go for depth. The message we want is reinforced many times over, and often, people leave the event feeling more confident about the methods, tools, or content information.

I’d heard people in our neck of the woods talk about truly understanding what deeper learning is, and how we know we can deliver it. And there are certainly questions around offering a deeper learning experience when students are not physically with us.

For our event this year, the focus points were:

  • Let’s inspire you with what top-quality deeper learning looks like,
  • Let’s inspire you with what your colleagues accomplished this year with their grants,
  • Let’s show you how writing your own grant, and designing your own deeper learning experience isn’t rocket science,
  • and let’s reflect on remote learning in anticipation for next school year.

And as always, we try to have some fun.

Sharing and Collaborating

The design for our symposium was pretty simple. We used Google Hangouts Meet to host the event.

  • Introduction/How the Morning Will Work (Big Room)
  • Guest Speaker (Big Room)
  • Breakouts (Smaller Rooms)
  • Discussion (Medium Rooms, organized by grade bands)
  • Closing and Video Challenge (Big Room)

“Room” here could be a physical room, but moving people around when you’re face to face is important. Inviting people to get up and stretch in front of a laptop from home is important, too.

For our breakouts, our presenters (grant awardees) were given a suggested bulleted list of things to discuss about their grant projects. While I encourage them to use visuals, there was no expectation around using slideware, or having a formal presentation. Teachers instead used what was most comfortable. I wanted the focus to be on discussions.

Because so many like to sit and watch video meetings with the mute button on, we encouraged use of ?/! in the chat feature so that our presenters could call others out to verbally ask questions and provide comments. In these teacher-led sessions, folks were on their own to learn and grow, without oversight of supervisors. I’d peek in, but I’d only stay for a couple of minutes.

The discussion sessions were facilitated with a secret set of discussion questions by two administrators to tease out best practices and lessons learned over distance learning. The questions focused on the positive. We did some sharing out after the groups came together.

Providing Next Steps

So we did not have sufficient time to marry the two big ideas together: remote learning and deeper learning. But then again, who has all the answers? We hoped by putting these two “entrees” out on the buffet, we’d get people to start putting the concepts together for themselves.

Our second day will be geared toward not only showcasing teacher videos, but helping folks see the picture of how these can fit together successfully.

I specifically wanted our grant awardees to discuss the grant process. Our GEF wants to provide more grant funds and to see more projects. We wanted people to see the process as non-threatening and far less tedious than traditional grant writing.

Creating Something

Can you really have an appreciation for a great looking garden if you never stick your hands in the soil? Our school division is in an envious position of providing every student with a mobile computing device. And video creation can be a powerful, rich tool for communication. We know video will play a big role in leveraging our time apart if students cannot be in school. And so a video challenge was born.

We have some teachers who have gained positive experiences making instructional videos. So the expertise is being developed.

But we wanted to give everyone a chance. By using a rubric, we helped set a standard. By making the topic of the video personal, we hoped to engage our teachers into producing something that truly mattered to them (in lieu of, say, mimicking a video that a student could produce to showcase their understanding of early American history). Dr. Ruben Puentedura made this point to us when he visited Goochland Middle School last year, that professional development activities—specifically creation—should be something of real interest to those making it.

Our best hope is that the process of creating something original is fun, educational, maybe slightly intimidating, but ultimately a rewarding experience. We learn when we create and make.

Celebrating

Yes, we have prizes. But it’s also the words you use, the climate you set, and the culture of your organization together that can make this learning experience powerful. Our teachers need to know how important they are and how valuable their roles are in helping maximize the potential of every learner.

I’m never a fan of giving rewards for participation, but hey, it’s the end of the year, and these are tools and prizes that can help them professionally. We gave some prizes away through randomized drawings, and others will be distributed as video awards.

A time for courage

These are my own thoughts, written on time away from work.

Some years ago I sat in a planning meeting with my colleagues—we all worked for a preK-12 school division in Virginia—and we were discussing the set of core values we would use in our next strategic plan. We’d done some work to identify our own values and our boss sifted through that data and at that meeting made a proposal.

“I got something here, tell me what you think.”

We listened.

“ECHO.” He used some grandiose hand gestures as he said the word. He repeated it, more softly. Echo. “Excellence, creativity, honor, and optimism. ECHO! It will be so easy to remember because it spells a word, and it also means these are values we want to hear echoed throughout our community. What do you all think?”

The room erupted into chatter. I considered the values myself. I couldn’t argue with any of them, but something was missing. Our leader’s drive to try new things, to spur innovation, and new ways of thinking about challenges was missing. Creativity related to some of that, but there was still something missing.

I looked through a set of values again then raised my hand.

“What about courage?”

“Courage?”

“Yeah, the need, the call to raise your hand when it’s uncomfortable, the desire to take this organization into bold new directions, the courage to speak when something isn’t right, the entrepreneurial American spirit that requires people to take chances, to bank on their ideas? I think that has a place in this organization.”

The first reaction? “Then it messes up ECHO. We’d have ECCHO,” someone said, coughing on the alliteration of two Cs. More conversation ensued.

A principal looked over at me, then pronounced so all could hear, “I like it, I really like courage.”

As I watched our leader at the front of the room at a podium, I saw nodding heads in front of me.

A week later ECCHO was put to rest and we moved onto other things.


Right now a lot is going on outside around us. It’s fair to point out that the riots and curfews are symptoms of living in larger cities, but the anger at a never-ending plight of injustice is felt everywhere. Maybe not by you, but it’s being felt by those around you, if you too don’t feel you have a stake in these events. Our world is being asked to adapt—and we’re not doing it very well—to the spread of a virus that is really making an impact on lives. People who get the so-called coronavirus can get seriously ill; some get complications, and some people unfortunately die. I’ll be honest, I’m scared of getting it. I don’t know how well my body would fight it. And then on top of this, yet another example of oppression has taken place in our country, George Floyd was arrested and died under the knee of a police officer who ignored his pleas for help.

This time last year we were concerned about the growing threat of gun violence.

Maybe it’s easier to point out the bad things around us, but I do so not because it’s easy, but because they aren’t right.

Last night the talk show host Jimmy Fallon spoke about the fact he wore blackface on Saturday Night Live some years ago to get a laugh. Whether or not the skit was funny at the time (I admittedly haven’t watched it nor care to), he was called out, and he was guided to “stay quiet” about the situation, to let it blow over. But Fallon instead chose to open up about it, admitting he really didn’t know where to start, but that he wanted to do something, that he didn’t like what has been going on. These riots cause us to stop and consider how we can make the world a better place. The looting and brutality of police trying to keep order are unfortunately side effects of this movement to protest, and they distract from the peacefully-designed demonstrations that have been taking place since the death of George Floyd.

Fallon invited on the current president of the NAACP to discuss the issues and one of the words that stuck in the air for me was “courage.” Derrick Johnson said that it takes courage to speak out, to speak up, and to join a movement.


The thing that’s sometimes hard for people to remember is that race—and more specifically the color of one’s skin—is a simplistic and convenient way to see difference. To be “white” is more than how much pigment is in my skin, just the same as to be “Asian,” or “Black” or “Latino” is. It is but one way to identify me, as imperfect as that may be. The myriad labels we affix to ourselves tell a richer story, including those that reveal our religious beliefs, our sexual orientation, our social class, our political views, or whatever else. There are aspects of my whiteness that I don’t even notice, but they are the things that color my view of the world. In most simplistic terms, they help me see how I am different from others, including people of color, but it’s not the color of my skin. While we may all be American to apply yet another label, there are cultural and historical elements that color our lives.

And when we talk about diversity, it should be about finding the courage to try and see the world without those lenses over our eyes. To understand others, in helping ourselves to develop meaningful relationships with others, requires us to open our minds toward seeing the myriad gifts we each possess. It asks of us to put our own core beliefs on the shelf as we consider the beliefs of others. All of this takes time, but let’s not make that the excuse. We all have the time, it’s always ongoing. What we don’t always make the time for is that discomfort we feel when we surround ourselves in new situations, to confront new ideas, to try and work with others unlike us toward common goals.

I think it does take #courage. I’m being honest. It doesn’t matter who you are, to speak up, to speak out, to demand better, to enter that friction with conviction, takes courage.

And if yesterday wasn’t convenient, the whole world is watching now. I can’t think of a better time to stand up for equity and sustained change.

Incidentally, the vision of our school division is to inspire the next generation to make a positive impact. Right now that will take all the courage we can muster.

The Lonely Lecture

Since schools closed due to COVID-19 in our area, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the creation of digital content for students. There are a couple of “new jobs” teachers are undertaking in the preparation of online materials. These are, I think:

  • teacher as curator, and
  • teacher as creator.

Often times for adults, when I have delivered a talk at a conference, I have found the slides I produce using slideware is not an adequate facsimile to the talk I deliver. Instead, I have used long form writing (such as a blog post or SlideDocs), or a video recording as the “handout.” And teachers are interested in the absence of adequate online resources to make their own.

However some of us know that the style of direct instruction from classroom experience that most closely resembles a college lecture does not often translate well into learning remotely. That’s not to say that direct instruction is bad or dead; it simply means we can come up with other ways to package this style of instruction. My first advice when designing videos of talking over slides is to keep the videos short (as a rule of thumb, let’s say seven minutes or less), to use strong visual imagery as much as possible in slides, and to infuse your personality into the videos. My second piece of advice is to keep the visual field of your video moving, so that students aren’t staring at the same image for minutes while you talk (or possibly drone on).

Please note that talking over slides is ideally not the best instruction, but the technology to talk over slides is relatively simple to create and for a lot of teachers, this is a great foray into beginning the creation of their own instructional videos—especially if they are already familiar with making slides in slideware applications such as PowerPoint, Keynote, or Google Slides.

So how to we make this whole enterprise work best?

One tool we have used is Google Hangouts Meet. I am confident other schools using Google Apps for Education have likely tinkered with Google’s tool for video conferencing. And while it does a great job at that, it also works pretty well as a video presentation recording tool.

To get started, you’ll create your own room, and then once inside, share your presentation screen with the hangout. You’ll then be able to record your session directly into Google Drive, and your presentation will contain your slides (large format) and also your face (small format). This way you students get the shot of you plus the amazingly rich slides you’ve created to present your content.

When you’re done, stop the recording. Wait 10-15 minutes, and your recording will be waiting for you inside Google Drive.

You can then share this video directly with students. The file size for Google’s videos is superior, I’ve found, compared to making comparable videos of slideware and talking; in addition, this solution includes a video image of you.

While I still believe Telestream ScreenFlow is the superior choice in terms of features and the like, it is not inexpensive and requires a license for each teacher.

In the end, by delivering a “lonely lecture” by yourself using a tool such as Google Hangouts Meet, you can easily create your own video content using slideware or even through screencasting, and in the process, infuse some of your personality through gesture, facial expression, and your authentic voice for students to use as a learning medium during distance learning.

Florence

In college I took a music history course and it just so happened that our professor was an expert on the music of an Italian baroque composer named Claudio Monteverdi. We ended up spending a lot of time on early Italian baroque music and I can still remember the lectures about the Gonzagas, the Medici, of Venice, and of Florence… Mantua… Ferrara…

Places, you might imagine, I’d never been and had no hope of ever seeing.

Several years ago I had the fortune of visiting Italy for the first time, and from Rome, we eventually made it to Florence. A couple years later, on a whim, I join my high school friend in Venice and return to Florence. The return to that city really affected me. It was as if the first time was bewondermewnt; upon a return, it was like returning to familiar things, but different. The respect I’d once had for the architecture and history was deeper; it was if I’d left something earlier I didn’t know I missed.

I never studied or played jazz in school. Perhaps I should have. But since college I’d discovered the standards and have a love, especially, of the classic tunes. Who hasn’t heard of Autumn Leaves? The Mercer-Prévert piece is one of the most classic standards. My high school hero Nigel Kennedy has played it on the violin in his 1984 album, Nigel Kennedy Plays Jazz, which in retrospect, is kinda cool. I’d only learned of Kennedy with his 1989 release of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

So, in this video, the guy on bass is a Korean tourist who just so happens to have an itch to play. And he starts jamming with some street musicians. The quality of the music is pretty good; so good, I wonder if it is staged. But no matter, it’s a rendition of Autumn Leaves and there is plenty to enjoy. Until, that is, the camera turns.

The first time I saw this video I began weeping. I knew it was likely shot in some European city, but I’d never guessed which one.

I’d walked past that spot maybe 8-10 times. Florence. The Duomo. That music.

Sometimes we have to forget about what’s happening around us and make the space to enjoy something. I hope you enjoy this. I have nothing to do with it, other than for it to have one day appeared in my YouTube list and made me smile a mile wide.

Autumn Leaves in Florence

Domaine de Chantilly

Most people probably think of sweet, whipped cream when you hear the word “Chantilly.” (Or else, the town in northern Virginia.) It took my some time, really, to think about a movie I liked and to do a little research.

Scene from a View to a Kill with Christopher Walken and Grace Jones

I’ve been a fan of the 007-James Bond movies since I was a kid; it was always a special treat when they’d show them on television. Then I’d go to the theater to see the new ones. Then I bought the “complete” movie set on Bluray. And I tell you all of this not because I want to debate my favorite Bond actor, but because I’ll admit which is my favorite movie. (I’m not sure anyone with any real critic chops agrees with me, but I stand by my choices.) My favorite Bond movie, at least those without Daniel Craig (Casino Royale is pretty good), is the 1985/6 production with Roger Moore: A View to a Kill.

I just remember at the time thinking Christopher Walken, playing Max Zorin, was a very convincing portrayal of a madman. All Bond villans tend to have their eccentricities, but there’s also something comical about these artifices, too. From a fluffy white cat, to a third nipple, or a short dude with a razor-studded hat, all these traits reek of the absurd. Sure, Zorin was supposedly the product of a mother who had been treated by a Nazi doctor/hormone specialist. I just think Walken was a better actor in many ways.

And the movie had Grace Jones. You don’t forget her.

In the film, Bond has to travel to Zorin’s horse estate, as there is a “sale” going on. Bond travels with a companion who acts as his valet. They encounter Jenny Flex, upon driving up to the estate. It’s magnificent on screen, and maybe some ten years ago, I read that they’d used a real estate in France. The building in the movie is the chateau and stables at Domaine de Chantilly. Low and behold, it’s thirty minutes away from Paris by TER train.(The train leaves from the Gare de Nord.)

(The movie also features a scene in which Bond chases after Mayday, played by Jones, before she escapes by leaping off the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Bond lands, chasing her, in a wedding cake inside a bateau mouché.)

Supposedly Walken wasn’t their first pick. I am not sure Roger Moore was, either. But the movie’s done. And beyond the Chateau de Chantilly, it features a lot of time in another one of my favorite places—San Fransisco. Let’s just forget that they never really made silicon chips in Silicon Valley. The movie includes a beautiful French estate and chip factory, a convincing underground mine scene, and views of the Golden Gate Bridge from a custom blimp.

Since I knew I’d be in France, and I hadn’t seen it yet, I wanted to visit Zorin’s lair. Or, well, the Domaine de Chantilly.

So off the train, you can wait for a taxi. Or do what we did, on a particularly comfortable morning, and walk the two kilometers or so to the Chateau. You just may see people riding horses. It’s a big deal. Just as was portrayed in the movie, the Chateau’s neighbor is a large horse stable (now, its own museum). And you’ll pass a large horse track before you get to the Domaine, proper.

The stables, seen above, connect almost immediately, on the other side, to “downtown Chantilly,” which would be a great place to stay for a few days, given fine accommodations and a gastronomic restaurant.

I got tickets for just the Chateau tour (there was more to do in Paris that afternoon). The gardens are another part of what your ticket entitles you to see, however perhaps early October wasn’t the best time of year for the gardens. Thankfully the clouds parted ways before we parted the Domaine.

I knew somewhere in those gardens is where Stacy Sutton’s chopper had landed, before she struck a deal with Zorin in his sumptuously-appointed office. In reality, the gardens feature the pools and fountains. The view from the sky is impressive; in total, the gardens did not rival those as Versailles.

From there, almost everything I remember from the movie was a memory. The real Chateau is home to its last owner’s collection of art and books. And wow—I didn’t know it was the largest collection of paintings in all of France after the Louvre.

This large salon felt as if there was too much art—it was crammed onto the walls. Quite a collection.

I recommend the included audio guide tour to learn more about what you’re looking at. The guide doesn’t cover every piece of art; instead, the guides more or less cover the rooms and what’s contained within.

The tallest portion of the chateau, on the right, is the chapel. It was a magnificent yet intimate gem of the estate.

The duke who owned the estate before leaving it to the French Institute also had a significant book collection.

Not photographed: several prized volumes encased in glass.

As the image above indicates, sometimes you have to look up. No ceiling was plain at the chateau; the art and design of the ceilings were so varied and all interesting.

In all, my visit to the Domaine de Chantilly, although fueled by my interest in a 1980s James Bond film, turned out to be far more interesting than I’d imagined. It’s smaller than Versailles, but in many ways, there’s more to appreciate. Gardens, great art, wonderful architecture. If I had more time for a slow lunch, visiting the equestrian museum would have been an ideal way to spend the afternoon.

Ambronay

This town plays no significance to what any of us may know or think of France. It’s so small that even French people—at least those whom I spoke to—shook their head. “Where is that? Ambronay?” The truth is that it’s located in Ain, seemingly halfway between Switzerland on one side and say, Mâcon, to the west.

Yet I knew the name well. As it turns out, the small town has allowed its name to be used as a music label. And the abbey in town has been a fixture each fall for a music festival of baroque music, 2019 being its fortieth year. Music festivals bring together a lot of top artists and fans together in a short span of time, in one location, in a series of concerts. And this year, I got to go.

Ambronay Town

Officially called the Festival d’Ambronay, it features concerts on the weekends, roughly just longer than a month, from September to October. I’d arrived in France via the Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris. Eventually a car rental from Dijon took me past Bourg-en-Bresse (where I stopped for their famous chicken) before arriving in Ambronay itself. I’d purchased two tickets at home, but found they didn’t ship them to the U.S. They were thankfully waiting for me when I arrived, amid the bookstore and CD shop they’d erected inside the former abbey’s walls.

Abbey interior

The abbey itself wasn’t exactly new to me. I’d seen so many concerts featured at this festival across past years that I felt I’d know the space. But as tall as the space appears in the picture above, the depth of the building, it’s length from back to front, wasn’t so intimidating. I found its overall size to be quite reasonable compared to what I’d imagined it would look like, seeing it on video. The first recital would be the one I was most anxious to see, an Italian violin recital by Enrico Onofri and the Imaginarium Ensemble.

Before I discuss the music, where you’d stay and where you’d eat became a concern. It was obvious that this music festival was low key and I imagine many of the audience members did not travel far to enjoy the festival. We ended up staying about an hour away in the small town of Vonnas, known as “Village Blanc,” after the famous three-star Michelin Chef who has taken over the town with shops, restaurants, and hotels. An e-mail from the festival officials alerted us to the prospect of a catered dinner. We bought-in, after having to leave a message about our intention to dine there several nights in advance. The meal was not superb, but it was many times more enjoyable than the McDonald’s meal I’d endured several years before, attending a concert in Lyon (yes, they have a baroque series of concerts, too).

harpsichord in situ

The concert by Onofri included a continuo group of cello, harpsichord, and lute. The opening piece was an early one for violin alone, and didn’t use continuo. I immediately realized why the abbey had become a noted musical venue: the acoustics were very favorable. Onfori’s violin was amplified considerably against the stone walls and ceiling of the space. My seat off to the side was ideal, as the violinist faced us the entire time, seemingly only a few steps away from where we sat. The repertoire wasn’t anything new for Onofri, who already has several CD releases featuring this genre of music; the concert featured pieces by composers such as Vivaldi, Bonporti, Veracini (representing the late baroque), but also Corelli, and a handful of masters that came before him.

This concert was special to me in part because I’ve counted a recital by Onfori and Imaginarium’s harpsichordist, Mr. Doni, as one of the top musical performances of my life. It took place in the mid-1990s at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the concert featured early Italian violin sonatas. It was my first opportunity to see Onofri play. Everything about his style spoke to me; he seemed to bring this ancient music to life in a way other musicians seemed to have missed. Last week he still uses a scarf tied to the endpin of his instrument, but no longer ties it around his neck.

Having the opportunity after the concert to attend his talk and hear him answer questions was cool. I was the only one asking questions in English. I’m hoping I got most of what was said. (He has a good command of both French and English, in addition to his native Italian.)

He was kind enough to be photographed with me.

me, photographed with baroque violinist, Enrico Onofri

After dinner, we attended a larger event, the performance by Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques of Handel’s opera, Julius Cesar. I was fortunate to hear Rousset in his other major role as a harpsichord soloist when he came to Washington, D.C. several years ago. The Handel performance was for us wasn’t ideal, as we had seats behind the orchestra, but we had the aid of a HD monitor tied to one of the abbey’s large columns, so we could get the front-row perspective. France 3 did an excellent job of moving around the orchestra, highlighting the singers and instrumental soloists. The sound, again, was amazing.

All in all, it was an incredible experience. Beyond the music, the experience was significant because it was a journey. I’d read about, heard, and listened to recordings that came about from this music festival for years. To finally attend was a type of personal pilgrimage, to join musicians and music lovers who also understand the power of this repertoire of music.

Ambronay won’t be on most American tourist’s stops if they travel to France, but I found both the journey and the destination to be first rate. Highly recommended.

Tips

We rented a car from Dijon, which is where we stayed before the concert date. Car rentals tend to be easy at larger train stations and airports in France. We arranged to drop off the car at the Lyon Airport, bypassing the traffic of the city of Lyon.

The car was modern and featured Apple Car Play. I used Google Maps the whole time to navigate from the efficient highways (autoroutes) into, and through, small towns. As an American, I’d recommend reviewing some European road signs before you travel.

Parking in Ambronay wasn’t a problem; the festival folk had identified areas to park near the abbey.

Food and snacks are available at the abbey. If you plan in advance, there is a one-star Michelin restaurant in town, right in front of the abbey. Be prepared to fetch your seat ahead of the announced time; they start their concerts on the dot, just like the French TGV trains.

It may be possible to train your way to Ambronay; we did not investigate that. For healthy, young people, the walk around town posed no challenges. We did not encounter any taxis in town, therefore, having a car made things simpler.

The festival will try and collect a nine Euro fee for sending you the tickets; their system assumes you’ll want them sent. I chose this but then found out that they wouldn’t ship the tickets across the ocean. Thankfully they refunded my shipping fee later.

Be sure to book tickets in advance to get better seats.

Knowing by Doing

This past week I have been supervising the hand-out of new 1:1 technology to our students. It isn’t the first time I’ve done this, but this year I wanted to take a particularly strong hands-on role with the roll-out or deployment, as we call it, of devices. I did several introductions to high school students, and when it came to our elementary students, I enjoyed seeing how quickly fifth graders took back to their iPads.

But most fascinating was watching the third graders.

We use iPads and students use the on-screen keyboard. Our early forays into using iPads at the middle school level taught me that students, with daily use, could quickly become quite proficient at typing with the on-screen keyboard (at landscape mode) at a speed that impressed me. I never attempted to measure the speed, but it was impressive enough at the time to inspire me to think that I’d never seen students on borrowed laptops type that fast in the 8th grade.

So today our third graders, who had plenty of iPad experience in the 2nd grade using individual iPads that stayed in the classroom, got a spiel from me and my associates on caring for the iPad. Rules on how to take care of it. And then we all signed into our accounts and kicked the tires on the devices.

And there they were: eighteen kids, spread around a media center, looking for the symbols on the keyboard they needed to type in order to login to their accounts. Last year they’d used Seesaw. This year it would be Google Drive and Schoology. There were a few students who were pros. I knew they must have devices at home. The QWERTY keyboard was nothing new.

But for so many, it was something new, that keyboard, hunting, and pecking for the right symbols. “Which one is my password?” “Is this an e-mail address?” “How will I ever remember this?”

It’s easy for some of us to remember a long string if we know the formula.

Their user accounts look like an e-mail address, complete with an @ symbol. We explained the formula. The number. The last name. The first initial. The @ symbol. Then our division’s geographical domain name. You could see the smiles on some faces as a once unintelligible string of symbols started to make sense. But I was far more interested in watching them type.

Some students had no real clue where the right letters were. Some needed help adjusting the keyboard to display numbers. No one was yet an expert.

Yet, the day before, watching 5th graders, they input those addresses faster than I could compute. They knew where all the letters were. They were masters of the on-screen keyboard.

Did we teach them? Not directly. We don’t use any kind of typing program. It’s only through daily use (or we could say daily practice) that they master the keyboard.

“Third graders. Behold. Today as I watch you all type these new addresses in, you all are a bit slow. The addresses seem very long. This is all brand new. By the time you’re in the fifth grade, you’ll be speed demons. Trust me. All it takes is some practice.”

As an educator, and a former music student, I should have expected as much. Play your scales enough and you’ve mastered them. The keyboard, virtual or real, wasn’t terribly different. But the powerful reminder was that there are things we’ll do over and over that will just come with time. Mastery takes practice. Seeing a fifth grader assimilate to their daily device in just a few minutes helped reinforce the power of the 1:1 program, that students would come to use this tool as a daily amplifier of their potential. Maybe not yet with the finesse a top chef has with their knives, these students are well on their way to bending these tools to help them ask questions, dream in different and interesting ways, and write what they will through taps on glass.

Sometimes our jobs are as simple as providing the opportunities for experience, for practice. We can always get better, and we will.

Video with Diverse Voices

In this post I am going to discuss how I was inspired by videos I saw, and how I used those ideas to create my own. I made two videos in July-August, 2019, for the convocation exercises at Goochland County Public Schools.

Tools: iPhone 8 (set at 24fps/4K), iPad Pro, two lights, green screen; Canon 7D
Editing: Final Cut Pro X on MacBook Pro

Background

Earlier this summer I experienced videos produced by Apple. One was a video of students sharing anecdotes about teachers. The flavor of the video was humorous and uplifting, and the students were shot against a lit, white backdrop, seated on a plain stool. All the focus was placed on the students and the shot reminded me a lot of Apple’s famous media campaign of Switchers, shot against a white background. (In the Switchers commercials, the talent was standing).

I produced a video of students talking around the topics of creativity and learning. None of the recordings were rehearsed or written out. In some cases, after hearing what students shared, I re-stated their responses in a more concise way and had them repeat that. Students stood against the backdrop of a green screen.

In another video Apple produced, they captured the perspectives of teachers. Again, the feeling was uplifting and the stories captured helped convey a positive feeling about teaching and learning. In this video, also against a light background, the talent was treated with some kind of filter. I can best describe the filter used as squiggly lines in a limited tonal palette. It looked very creative and I hadn’t seen this effect used before, nor was the filter used something I could easily identify. The video also included moving text effects, as if the words were being written out in beautiful cursive.

In my video capturing teacher voices, I wanted to hear why teachers liked working in our school division. The stories were not rehearsed or written out. I had subjects sit in a low-backed chair.

In both videos, I had a second camera person capture the shots with an iPad Pro for secondary shots. Audio was used from the iPhone recording.

Emulating Another Video Production—Why?

I’ve done a lot of video projects. Less than a year ago I captured student voices against backdrops at the school; a brick wall, outside, against the backdrop of the football field, in the school’s learning commons. The shots did as much to convey the school as they did diverse student opinions. The shots, however, felt somewhat naive, with both background and the subject being in good focus. In hindsight, I would have liked to have used a different aperture setting to blur the background somewhat. The picture below captures the major aesthetic of my video: the comic filter is used to manipulate the talent and the background is white, but not bright white. This allowed contrast with, in this case, the teacher’s outfit.

When I saw the videos produced by Apple, I realized how in their removal of any backdrop or distraction, the words and ideas conveyed by the talent was very clear and direct. The videos also made an impression on me in how they were different than most I’ve seen with people talking. The teacher video was creative in an interesting way. For better or worse, I tried emulating some of these ideas, to carry some of their strengths in our own work. Focus on the honest words of real people and take away distractions.

My videos helped put the emphasis on the people and their words even though they are bound by the location where they work or attend school. Using an improvised green screen, you can see shadows in the screenshot below. I used the selection of multiple parts of this green screen using Final Cut’s keyer effect.

Green Screen

Without having a pristine white backdrop and excellent lighting for capturing our voices, we used a green screen. In one video I replaced the background with an off-white backdrop; in the other, I replaced the background with a nearly black gradient from dark gray to black. Comments were that both were interesting. The student video used the black background; the teacher video used white.

I used a two light setup on the talent. A soft professional video light lit the scene and a smaller spot light lit the face of the talent from the side.

To produce the filtered look I had remembered from the Apple video, I played around with a lot of different settings within Final Cut Pro. None of them came close to the effect I was after, however I decided that a combination of the halftone filter and the comic effects gave an interesting enough change to the appearance of the talent. At full opacity, these effects were too artificial. But when the blending level was set between 25-35%, the effect was subtle enough to convey that “artsy” look without making things appear silly.

Without any halftone filter, I used the comic effects on the student video as well. Students appeared against a mostly dark background, using a subtle gradient.

Other Elements

Talking heads the whole time might make for a boring video. In the introduction to my student video, I used the secondary footage shot with the iPad and Canon cameras to show the filming taking place in situ, with the green screen unaltered. This served as an introduction to show that we’d pulled in students to share their stories.

In the teacher video, I started with text effects in the video and music to help set the stage. The video was designed to help viewers gain perspective that together, we are all focused on the same thing. The introduction of the first teacher when it happens is a little bit of a surprise after 1.5 minutes of moving text.

The video ends with teachers talking about our Core Values. To segue between the teacher “interviews” and the perspectives on core values, we used drone footage taken above our different schools, some capturing students and moving buses over the past school year. This helped, I thought, ground the diverse perspectives and show they come from across our five schools.

Mistakes and Lessons Learned

The audio from the iPhone was tainted by the sound of the video light. I used digital audio filters and settings within Final Cut to improve the sound, but use of a better quality microphone system would have been ideal. Without someone to hold a boom mike over the talent, the placement of a digital stereo microphone (such as the kind by Zoom that records to compact flash or SD card) would have been adequate, off screen. Finally, use of an all iPhone setup with a clip-on microphone to Bluetooth would have worked too, although you would have seen that in the video.

Using the backup cameras (iPad Pro and Canon 7D) at different resolutions and frame rates was not ideal. While the sound from the Canon, without an extra mike was not bad, it is a difficult camera to use for video because there is no auto-focus. (In this case, having shots that didn’t really move made the process easier.) The iPad’s camera was not nearly as good, nor could it shoot at the same settings as the iPhone camera. Ideally, using two iPhones would have been superior.

Mixing video footage from the different sources was relatively easy to do in Final Cut Pro.

While I am very happy with the content of these videos, and have an excellent tool in Final Cut Pro, I am looking forward to improving the quality in the future. A lot of folks on YouTube are not using iPhones, even though you can shoot feature films with the device. This guide is but one on some recommended camera upgrades and includes information on microphones, too. And if you’re going to capture moving scenes, and not stationary people as I did in this video, DJI’s new gimbal, the Ronin-SC, looks to be a great choice, especially if you have an auto-focus video-capable DSLR. Their Osmo line would no doubt be ideal using an all iPhone setup.

Headphones and the iPhone

The geek in me appreciates gadgetry. I have bought a lot of Apple equipment (my first, which my parents bought me, was the Apple //e, with a green monitor, and the DuoDisk drive for writing to two floppies at once). And the one thing I was on the fence about, what today seems, is the most popular Apple gadget after their phones, were the AirPods.

The AirPods seem like a risky investment. They look like the (free) wired headphones that came with your iPhone. So why do they command such a high price?

Losing the wires is magical, but there were wireless headphones before the AirPods. I’m willing to say that I think wearing AirPods is a cultural statement, at least for teenagers, it’s a status symbol. The white things hanging from inside your ears are iconic and wearing them shows you want the best in high tech. The price tag, no doubt, is commanded in part because of the technology in those things. While they appear at first glance like the regular earphones minus the cord, there’s a lot of tech required for charging, for working in sync, for stereo. (My first wireless earphones, from Beats, used a cord to connect the two sides, which made the wireless implementation technically easier.) And when I finally succumbed to the purchase of my own pair, I was pleasantly surprised of the sound quality.

They sounded good!

John's AirPods

I’ve used mine for music listening, but more often, they’re really nice for use with, say, my iPad, when I’m watching YouTube or a video streaming service. No wires. I can walk around, carry the iPad or iPhone with me, and the music is with me too. And since I’m whole-hog into that Apple ecosystem, to be able to put them in and take a walk (you can run if you like) without a phone, using the connection between the AirPods and my Apple Watch—the first time I did that, it did feel magical. There’s music in my ears. No wires, no “thing” to hold. (Perhaps the Walkmans of the 1980s and the iPods of the early 2000s programmed us that music on the go has to come from some kind of box we hold.)

I wanted more.

I’ve tried a lot of different “things” to listen to music: beyond speakers, I’ve tried in-ear earphones, noise canceling headphones, over the ear headphones, and of course the class of devices like Apple’s, which I think we’re calling ear buds. This is the time for the disclaimer: I want high fidelity when I listen to music. I’ve experienced it and it became a requirement. I went to music school. I just want good sound.

But everyone knew, you couldn’t get good sound on the go.

Getting great sound from something that goes into your ear is possible, but those things are expensive. I’m not willing to pay over $1000 for something that I’m going to have to deep clean with a pick later. While still pricy, good over the ear headphones, such as my Sennheiser 650HDs, are really good, but they require some juice. They’re really at their best with an amplifier that can drive the resistance they pose with their drivers. Plugged directly into my phone, they’re flat and can’t get very loud.

Plugged into a home amplifier, I appreciate their open design; your ears don’t get sweaty, because they’re open; it also means that sound escapes, which at least a few times, made it seem like I wasn’t blowing my eardrums when I had the volume too loud.

Wouldn’t it be cool, I thought, to listen with these?

In the house this is very feasible but then you’re tethered to one chair, close to the amplifier. And then the music source needs to be close-by, too.

My Current Solution

Another disclaimer: this solution isn’t for everyone, and I do realize it’s kind of crazy right now. Remember, a few months ago I was using Apple’s AirPods.

So the product I’m using now (which has since been bettered with an upgraded design, called the Cobalt) is the AudioQuest Dragonfly (Red). Your friends will think you have a race car-red colored USB stick. But it isn’t a USB stick. It’s a miniaturized digital to analogue converter (DAC) and headphone amplifier. And despite all of that technology sounding dicey, fitting into a USB stick-sized thing, it sounds awesome.

And it drives my big Sennheiser cans.

headphones with DragonFly and Apple USB Camera dongle

So, with my computer, you plug in the DragonFly into a USB port and you have better sounding audio. Plug in your headphones and you’re good to go. You can use any headphone, really, from a truly portable one to the 300 ohm monsters too.

But wait—there’s more. The DragonFly can be used with a cell phone!

Except, look at that photo. With my Sennheiser 580s, I had to buy an adapter to go from the 1/4 inch plug to the 1/8 inch plug, which is heavy. Then that goes into the DragonFly, which seems dwarfed in the photo with Apple’s version 3 of their Lightening to USB Camera adapter. I have to connect all that malarkey to my phone to enjoy the bigger headphones.

Why?

Well, while there’s a big path there from music to your ears, it does sound good. And if anyone sees me with this contraption of wires walking outside, they know I’m pretty darn serious about my audio. (For the record, I do take this outside, but not for walking; I’ll use it sitting on the patio.)

For those of you with a USB-C equipped phone, such as one not from Apple, AudioQuest is making a USB-C dongle of themselves which is far more better equipped for mobile usage. (Me thinks this could all have been made less dorky if AudioQuest only chose to make an Apple-branded version with the lightening adapter.)

So, all of that said, the music many people listen to on a mobile device is compressed. It’s MP3s or compressed MPEG-4 files, such as those from Apple Music, or streamed via Spotify. With this setup, you (or at least I) can start to hear the limitations of that compressed music.

Of course, you can rip CDs and push those via iTunes to your iPhone. But more recently I’ve changed my setup at home and it makes this use case of big headphones with several adapters in tow, while at least not truly portable, at least worth the effort.

CD quality and beyond

Several years ago when I gave up my MacPro at home (the big cheese grater (original cheese grater), the one that could store four drives of data), I had to come up with a new solution for my music collection. The new 1TB iMac wasn’t going to cut it.

I bought a network-attached storage server (NAS) and I can access my music over the network.

I still used iTunes as my player. I have a big CD collection, so all of that was ripped on the computer. I was on the fence with streaming services. (For me, with my primary interest in classical, services like Apple Music or Spotify weren’t as appealing, and they didn’t offer CD quality sound.)

Today I use software called Roon. Their server software runs on my iMac; it indexes all my music sitting on the NAS, and adds value through their rich catalog of metadata (for instance, it knows my albums and knows details about them, like who mastered a recording, where it was recorded, and they provide access to information about the performers). I then need the client software to playback my music, which can live on my phone, my iPad, or my computer.

And today, you can “stream” the music to endpoints on your home network. This includes my phone or my iPad, but also a network streamer like the Auralic Aries, or a Sonos speaker, or to my reference DAC, the PS Audio DirectStream with its network bridge card.

So, using Roon, I can listen anywhere inside my house.

Roon running on my iPhone. Currently it’s configured to control playback on the DAC/streamer connected to my loudspeakers.

Sitting outside on the patio, with my phone, I have access not only to the music loaded on my phone, but to my entire music collection, at the native resolution of every file. And more recently, I’ve begun a subscription to Qobuz, a French high-fidelity music streaming service (compare this with Tidal), which seamlessly integrates with Roon.

So with this mess of wires and my big over-the-ear headphones, I can move about the house and listen to anything, all in high fidelity.

Does it rival a big tube-powered headphone amplifier? No. But the convenience is worth the compromise. It’s not as convenient as the AirPods, but I think we only have to wait. In five years, I’ll probably laugh at having so many wires and dongles hanging from my phone.

(But did I mention it sounds really good?)