New resource for music geeks

Scott from Boy in the Bands alerted me to Hymnary.org’s hymnal app for the iPad. They describe the app as follows:

Use our collection of over 140,000 page scans (and growing) as an enormous hymnal. Put your iPad or other tablet device on your music stand or piano, enter in a hymn title or use our melodic search engine, and music for just about any hymn you can think of is instantly available.

The average person in the pew will continue to use printed hymnals, or song sheets inserted into the order of service, or projected lyrics on the big screen behind the preacher. But this iPad app is going to be a major boon for worship leaders and musicians. Have a request for a specific hymn for a memorial service from the Army and Navy hymnal (as I did once)? — there it is on your iPad. Need to find the more traditional words for a Christmas carol? — just use the search function.

One final thought — I really hope the next Unitarian Universalist hymnal is also sold as an iPad app. I doubt many people will use it in Sunday services, but there are a fair number of people who keep a hymnal at home, and the iPad app would potentially be a lot cheaper, and easier to use.

2011 in review: the liberal religious blogosphere

The most important trend in liberal religious blogging in 2011 was the continued growth of other forms of social media. Facebook and Twitter are obvious cases in point. Compared to blogging, it’s so much easier to post a quick status update to Facebook or Twitter, so much easier to let someone else manage the technical infrastructure, so much easier to stay in touch with your friends and family without juggling RSS feeds. At the same time, Facebook and Twitter (and Tumblr and Google Plus and LinkedIn and Pintrest and all the other multitudinous social media outlets) are different from blogs, they help to spread good blog posts to a wider readership, and they serve more to supplement blogs than to supplant them.

The second most important trend in liberal religious blogging: plenty of people are still writing and reading blogs. The main aggregator of Unitarian Universalist blogs, Uupdates.net, is now tracking over 500 blogs. This represents, I believe, a slight increase over last year, and on the order of a tenfold increase over five years ago. It’s impossible to keep track of that many Unitarian Universalist blogs, and I would say there is no longer a coherent UU blogosphere — there are just a lot of blogs, a lot of bloggers, and a lot of blog readers.

As an example of the ongoing strength of blogs, “Yet Another Unitarian Universalist” continues to rise slowly in readership; last time I checked, back in October, this site was approaching ten thousand unique visitors a month. (I’m not keeping track at the moment — my Web host got rid of their analytic tools, and I haven’t had time to install an alternative.) And there are plenty of other liberal religious blogs out there with bigger readerships.

And speaking only for myself, the third most important trend in liberal religious blogging has been my return to non-Unitarian Universalist blogs. In 2003 when I first started reading religious blogs regularly, there were only half a dozen Unitarian Universalist blogs; you were almost forced to read read non-UU blogs. Then for a while I tried read every UU blog at least a couple of times a year. I continue to look at uuworld.org’s UU blog round up, and I try to scan UUpdates.net periodically. But I I find myself going back to my 203 habits, and reading lots of non-UU blogs. I scan the blog of Steve Thorngate — he’s an associate editor at Christian Century — for religion news, and the intersection of religion and politics. I sometimes read Carol Merritt’s blog “Tribal Church,” mostly about young adults and religion, which is also on the Christian Century Web site. For leadership and growth issues, I regularly scan the weekly Alban Institute “Conversations” posts, which are linked to from their “Roundtable” blog. Recently, I rediscovered The Velveteen Rabbi, and am enjoying the personal take on spirituality there. So yes, I’m reading lots of non-UU blogs these days, and I’ve been enjoying the wider perspective that I’ve been getting.

Technology and the classroom (and youth group and…)

We were sitting in youth group today, talking about plans for a trip later in the year. One youth was checking his online calendar on his smart phone; I lent my laptop to another youth so he could set up a Google Plus group for the youth group to use. And a couple of us talked about how we spend way too much time use the Internet.

And this evening I happened upon a blog post by April DeConick, a professor at Rice Unviersity. She writes in part:

I guess what I am saying is that technology is ahead of us. We are enthralled with it. It has become essential to how we live and work. But we have yet to figure out how to control it. We are like that kid in Charlie in the Chocolate Factory who loves chocolate so much he jumps into the chocolate sea and nearly drowns.

Yeah. That would be me.

So I put this out into cyberspace as a kind of call, especially to other teachers. We need to get caught up with the technology and establish technology boundaries in our classrooms. We need to take back the classroom.

Anyway. If you work with young people, you might want to read DeConick’s post.

I hate Facebook (again)

Facebook has done it again: they have made their inefficient, poorly designed privacy system even worse. Obviously feeling some heat from Google Plus, they instituted something that looks a great deal like Google Plus’s “circles” feature. Except unlike Google Plus, their “circles” feature is hard to customize, and arbitrarily divides your Facebook “friends” into seemingly random categories.

Since I have an intense distrust of Facebook (their motto: “Have we done our evil quotient today?”), I’m assuming they have really just weakened their privacy yet again. So now instead of merely suspecting that everything you post on Facebook goes out to people you don’t want it to go out to, you can now be sure that everything you post on Facebook may be made completely public at any time without you knowing about it.

Not that Google Plus is any better: it still lacks important features that would make it worth while for me. The only thing social networking sites are good for is the purpose for which they were designed: to sell advertisements.

Experiments with blog books

I’ve been experimenting with producing books from blogs, using the Web-based service BlogBooker.

BlogBooker appears to have one or two bugs. First, while blog entries appear in chronological order, comments appear in reverse chronological order. Second, BlogBooker regularly inserts close quotation marks at the beginning of sentences. It does not handle blockquotes particularly well, leaving too much white space above them, and sometimes indenting the first line oddly.

BlogBooker is not perfect in other ways. While BlogBooker captures still images posted on a blog, it will not include the images associated with most embedded videos (e.g., YouTube videos). It inserts an ugly title page. As an option, it can list links in footnotes, which is useful, but it places the footnote at the beginning of the link, not at the end. If a blog post includes internal links within that page, BlogBooker lists those links like any other, which is not very useful. BlogBooker does not retain the italics and bold type of an original Web page, though it does retain strikethrough type. And it will only accept output from three blogging platforms: WordPress, Blogger, and LiveJournal.

One last feature that annoyed me: BlogBooker places static pages within the regular blog chronology. But I feel that static pages should not be included in the regular blog chronology. I chose to edit the dates of each page so that they would not be included in the date ranges which I used to generate the blog book.

Even though BlogBooker is not perfect, it does produce reasonably good output with some customization allowed. It uses LaTeX as its underlying publishing platform, which means the typesetting is attractive. It does offer a number of options: specified date ranges; 5 page sizes, including U.S. letter, A4, 6×9″, 7.5×9.25″, and B4; 6 type faces; and 4 font sizes (9, 10, 11, and 12 pt.). You can choose whether or not to include comments or post author. It will automatically generate a table of contents and number the pages. Layout options include two columns, and starting each entry on a new page.

Best of all, the service is free. You can give them a donation if you want, but it is not required.

Because BlogBooker provides a PDF file as output, it is easy to create a printed book using one of the online print-on-demand Web sites. As proof of concept, I used LuLu.com to generate a printed book in trade paperback (6×9″) size. I added my own title page, and generally spruced up the PDF generated by BlogBooker; this, and fiddling with the time-consuming LuLu.com service, took up quite a bit of time. I have not yet received the printed copy, but LuLu.com has always produced excellent printed materials from PDF files.

As for ebooks: The PDF file generated by BlogBooker can serve as a perfectly adequate ebook. You can also use LuLu.com or other online print-on-demand services to generate an ePub file from the PDF.

In summary, BlogBooker can generate a reasonably good PDF book from a blog. If you’re satisfied with their somewhat quirky formatting choices, you can easily generate a print book or ebook from your blog.

Teaching teachers to teach

Joe introduced me to Learner.org, a Web site with online resources for professional development for schoolteachers, as well as classroom resources. Joe particularly mentioned the online videos that are designed to help schoolteachers become better teachers. So I watched a video of a fourth grade teacher leading a small group literature discussion. The small group setting was somewhat akin to a Sunday school class: plenty of personalized interaction between the teacher and the students, and teacher-guided interaction between the students. The general subject area, responding to literature, is also akin to Sunday school classes: discussing a work of literature, and talking about what’s going on in the work. The video shows an experienced teacher, Rich Thompson, actually teaching children, and the video also includes Thompson reflecting on how he teaches.

I found I learned a lot from watching this experienced teacher. I learned a lot just from watching his body language with the children, e.g., as the two boys drift away, Thompson puts his hands on the backs of their chairs to keep them included. I also liked the tone of voice he used: he was warm and calm, open and friendly; you can tell he likes the children he’s working with. I noticed the way he expressed his own thoughts and ideas about the book they were discussing, so he could model how an experienced reader engages with a text (“Did you notice that the book was War and Peace? Do you know how big that book is? That’s the book she used to hit the bear with”). And I really liked the way he did formative assessment at the end of the lesson, talking briefly with each child about what they did well, and where they could improve.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have resources like this for volunteer Sunday school teachers? Unfortunately, producing a series of twenty-minutes videos like this would be expensive, and liberal religious institutions don’t have the resources to do something of this caliber (and I feel that producing a poor video would be worse than no video at all). But given how hard it is to deliver training to volunteer teachers, it is something to think about.

Blogs as books

I stumbled on the Web site BlogBooker, which will create a PDF file from your WordPress, Blogger, or LiveJournal blog. From there, of course, you can publish that PDF file as a book using one of the online print on demand publishers like LuLu.com, or you can just treat it as an e-book. BlogBooker could be a useful tool if you had, say, a blog for a class (online or face-to-face class) that you wanted to save as a final project — and right now I’m thinking about ways of doing online religious education, so this may be one of the tools I make use of.

Preliminary review of Google+

My sister Abby and I did some experimenting with Google+ last night. Its real strength appears to be the way it has both integrated and implemented various online communications tools together. It integrates email, microblogging, social networking, chat, videoconferencing, etc., in the same interface.

And each of these online communications tools has been implemented reasonably well. You can send a message directly from Google+ to any email account using a simple, straightforward procees. Microblogging from Google+ is as easy as Twitter (though I haven’t yet figured out how to do it from my phone). The social networking feature seems better designed than Facebook or MySpace, and presumably draws on Google’s extensive experience running Orkut (which has never been popular here in the U.S., but is hugely popular in Brazil). Abby says the chat feature is identical with Google Talk, which she has been using for some time; in addition to chatting via text, you can also use video chat. The videoconferencing tool, called Hangouts, allows up to ten persons at once, although we were only able to test it with the two of us.

Some people are claiming that Google+ is going to kill off Facebook. But I’m not convinced that they are aiming at the same market. I can immediately imagine how I might use Google+ at work, whereas I can’t imagine using Facebook at work except for the most rudimentary communication. Google+ is not primarily a social networking tool; it is an online communications tool.

At this point, I can say that I like Google+ pretty well. I’m already thinking of ways I can use it at work (interoffice communication, online committee meetings and small group ministries, interoffice communication, text-based discussions about sermon topics, etc.). It’s good enough that I’m willing to invest some time in experimenting with it. But I’m not yet willing to say it is the best most awesomest online communications tool ever. Ask me again in a month, and I’ll have a better answer for you.

Neuroscience and religious education

Outline of an informal talk given July 10, 2011, at Ferry Beach Religious Education Week, held at the Universalist conference center in Saco, Maine.

Welcome to this porch chat on neuroscience and religious education. What I’d like to do in this porch chat is this — First, find out what you know about neuroscience as it applies to religious education. Second, to tell you a little bit about what I have been learning about the exciting new developments in this area. And third, to talk about ways we can all continue our own education in this area.

(1) Let’s begin with what you know about neuroscience and religious education. And before you say “nothing,” I suspect at least some of you know something about Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. How many of you have run into multiple intelligences work before?

What you may not realize (or may forget) is that Gardner drew upon new scientific insights in the way brain works to develop this theory. According to a paper by the Multiple Intelligences Institute, “to determine and articulate these separate faculties, or intelligences, Gardner turned to the various discrete disciplinary lenses in his initial investigations, including psychology, neurology, biology, sociology, anthropology, and the arts and humanities.” [p. 6] So Gardner represents one attempt to apply scientific insights into the brain to educational practice.

So now let me ask: what (if anything) do you know about neuroscience and religious education?

[summary of some of the responses]

  • the brain’s plasticity
  • answering the question: is there a genetic quality to empathy?
  • the god gene
  • how like things like mediation, music, etc., can change the brain
  • kids who have deficits with empathy
  • you can make new neural pathways
  • visualing brain pathways through brain imaging

(2) Now let me tell you a little bit about what I’ve been learning about how to apply scientific understandings of the brain to religious education.

I’d like to begin by reading you a paragraph from a 2000 report by the National Academy of Sciences titled “How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School.” (You can download a free PDF of this book here.) I was introduced to this book by Joe Chee, a teacher educator and UU who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in education and technology; Joe recommended this as a great introduction to the topic. And right at the beginning of this book, the authors tell us why we should care about the topic:

The revolution in the study of the mind that has occurred in the last three or four decades has important implications for education. As we illustrate [in this book], a new theory of learning is coming into focus that leads to very different approaches to the design of curriculum, teaching, and assessment than those often found in schools today. Equally important, the growth of interdisciplinary inquiries and new kinds of scientific collaborations have begun to make the path from basic research to educational practice somewhat more visible, if not yet easy to travel. Thirty years ago, educators paid little attention to the work of cognitive scientists, and researchers in the nascent field of cognitive science worked far removed from classrooms. Today, cognitive researchers are spending more time working with teachers, testing and refining their theories in real classrooms where they can see how different settings and classroom interactions influence applications of their theories.

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