Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Replace Completion with Creation

Packets, Worksheets, Study guides…call them what you will, and yes we all have had them inflicted upon us. For years, teachers who were more concerned with “covering” material instead of “uncovering” passions relied on these excruciatingly tedious methods of “learning” that, in my opinion hold very little to do with learning. I cannot think of a better way of turning off students to great poetry than to have them write answers to questions posed my teachers, or look up and transcribe dictionary definitions to words that will probably never enter their lexicon.

I must admit that, yes, I too, passed out those packets in English classes. And like many gray-haired teachers, I remember a time when certain limitations did not allow us to do a whole lot more; the goal was to get them ready for the “test.” However, many educators are coming to grips with the fact that we owe our students much more than that.

The problem stemmed from a “completion” mind set. We thought that the primary purpose of an assignment was so students could show proficiency. However, as the “modified” Bloom’s Taxonomy shows ups, the pinnacle of learning and thinking is manifested through “creation.” When I began teaching, “creation” was limited to making posters, or for those few who had the means and the skills, creating a VHS video.

These limitations no longer exist, but many teachers are still operating in an “analog” world while kids can learn and create digitally. Right now. Don’t get me wrong; “creation” and “technology” are NOT fused together. Just ask any fine arts teacher… all they do is have their students create. However, a novel, student-centered, creation-based classroom can be more of a reality than ever before. This structural change allows us to assess Learning Targets in a more organic, realistic method. Instead of checking “completion” we can assess learning by how it is displayed in projects. This does, however require us all to rethink our original Learning Targets to reach beyond our original, short-sighted intentions. If not, and we begin using these slick applications available now, is yet another example of a “digital fix for an analog classroom.”

But how do we go about developing these “creation” opportunities for kids? One of the most important decisions is to avoid making the assignment “tool specific.” How often have teachers started a unit with “for this project, you will all create a Powerpoint.” First off, the introduction and the focus should be content related, and second of all, unless it is a tech course that requires proficiency in software, why limit your students? Your learning targets should focus on what you want students to do and should not be geared toward software. Perhaps a student likes using Prezi, or has had experience with Keynote. The bottom line is that tools need to be student selected. I use Photo Story 3 to create Digital Storytelling projects, but if a student has a Mac, why not use iMovie. What if another student has used Voicethread and has a comfort level with it? There are some limitations, however. The application must have the ability to achieve what is expected. Because of its emphasis on visual flash rather than story or content something like Animoto or Stupeflix would not be a good choice. Always be wary of “wow” tools that do not afford much learning for students. Here are my views on Animoto.

To illustrate here are some examples from my school of more “Creation” applications:

Health Class: Students select a non-communicable disease (diabetes, ALS, Alcoholism, etc) that has affected them personally. Create a Digital Story telling the struggles of a family member, and include research on the disease.

Digital Photography: Create a photo blog chronicling the photos you have created. Have students follow each other and comment on images. Later, this can be used a s a portfolio for college.

Literature class: Students select a poem and create a movie that focuses on themes motifs of poem. The only narration is the reading of the poem itself.

Chemistry: Students create a poster-sized document of research or an experiment they’ve done. Posters are then placed throughout the school. It’s done in college all the time, why not in high school?

Biology: Multi Needs Classes: Using something like Scrapblog, multi-needs students do research on specific animals and create an online scrapbook. These are then shared with classmates to learn about other animals.

Health class (yes, another one) Students studying Digital Citizenship, create an online poster to share with grade school students via Edmodo. The grade school then respond back and ask questions.
At this time it would be expected--no, cliché--to supply you with a list of “creation” tools. I will resist that urge. There are tools out there, and I trust you can find them. But before you do that, think about what you want your kids to do. Chances are, they can find the tools as well.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Practicing Digital Citizenship

Like many states, here in Illinois students are required to receive a certain number of hours each year dedicated to Internet Safety. While the idea is noble, the parameters are quite sketchy. I have heard about schools having “Internet Safety Day” or some such “special” occasion. It reminded me of the Andy Hardy movies and the obligatory “Let’s put on a show, kids!” As many of you probably believe, shouldn’t every day be internet safety day? Too often these “occasions” serve no purpose other than compliance; very little learning occurs.

One of my duties is to develop our Internet safety curriculum here at my school. We have designated sophomore health class to focus on preventing and protection from Cyberbullying. It would be part of their “personal safety” unit. Since this topic is so important, I didn’t dare trivialize this with a mere dissemination of information. Instead I would like to explain what we are doing:

First, I replaced “Cyberbullying” with “Digital Citizenship.” I mean, do we call a reading class illiteracy? Next, we had to devise a lesson that would be meaningful to students and help make a difference. For the past couple of years I have been advocating that teachers develop writing situations that have an authentic audience and purpose. Let’s face it, most “audiences” are teachers (who have to read it any way) and the purpose is to get the grade, right? What we decided to do was have our students look at an essential question and research some foundation questions. Here’s what we came up with:

  • What does it mean to be a Digital Citizen?
  • What is Cyberbullying?
  • How can I protect myself from Cyberbullies?
  • How can I become a model Digital Citizen? 
Using a variety of resources students would research these questions and create…something. But what? Before we decided on what, we had to decide on an essential element: audience. Wouldn’t it be great if our sophomore students could help younger kids understand how to safely navigate cyberspace? Imagine how a fifth grader would respond to tuteledge from someone a few years older…as compared to a teacher.

Through Twitter, I have fond nearly 20 elementary and middle school teachers who will participate in this endeavor. By using Edmodo, our students will write, Glog, and video messages to these grade school students. Then, the younger kids can respond or ask questions of their “cyber mentor.” The final step will be for the older kids to respond back to the younger ones dispaying Good Digital Citizenship.

Sure beats having an internet safety fair.

If you teach grades 5-7 and would like to participate, please fill out this form.

As the project continues, I will post how we are progressing. Needless to say, I am really looking forward to this.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Now More than Ever: Be a Teacher

Let me know if this sounds familiar: A tech-skeptical teacher decides to sally forth into the world of technology and is less than pleased with the outcome of the lesson, and invariably blames the technology on the failure of the lesson. As a result, the teacher retreats back into the comfort of previous teaching methods, and will likely be even more hesitant about trying something new, despite the success of peers.

Ironically, the cause of this usually stems from the skeptical teacher giving technology too much credit, and frequently abandoning teaching methods they would otherwise use in a not-tech setting. Some of the best innovative teachers have learned that the outcomes and pedagogy are the driving force behind the lesson, and that the technology merely supports it. In other words, “Great teachers don’t need technology, but technology needs great teachers.”

Another misconception is that technology becomes a “distraction” and needs to be removed to get kids back “on task.” More often than not, what are perceived as “problems with technology” are really classroom management issues. Below are some examples of actual statements made by teachers along with some positive responses:

How can I do my lesson in class when kids are surfing to all these sites? We need to block more! If you are doing a bit of direct instruction, have kids turn off monitors. If they are still surfing for pleasure instead of working toward your learning targets (I am hoping you articulated the learning targets for them!) perhaps you need to rethink your learning targets. Do the students find the activity relevant? What can they gain by completing the task? Consider including your class on the decisions about what you will accomplish.

Why bother posting assignments on line. Kids just ask for the assignment. My first question is, “Why do you give it to them?” To change behavior and create more of a digital paperless environment, make sure that if you supply information on line, that you give them no other option. Obviously, extenuating circumstances exist, and we would never want to deny students, but those exceptions are few and far between.

These Digital Stories are just glorified slide shows. Most of the creation of TRUE Digital Stories can be done with virtually no technology. Focus more on powerful narration and sharing, selecting appropriate images, and working on the synergy between the story and the pictures. By the way…stay away from programs like Animoto and Stupeflix (Missing hyperlinks intentional).

These discussion boards are artificial…kids wait until the last day and just post whatever. To what is the discussion board leading? Are kids posting simply to receive points? A discussion is as artificial (or authentic) as the questions asked. Do the questions and responses help lead to solving a larger problem or creating meaning? Have you posted the questions to consider or do they start the threads? Did you spend time on forming discussion questions? Have you shown models of great posts?

I hate these wikis. All kids do is copy and paste, there’s no collaboration. Make sure the assignment lend itself to creation as opposed to regurgitation. How big are the groups? Cooperative Learning pedagogy tells us to ensure Individual Accountability the teacher needs to form small groups…say, 3 students, for example. Also, have you designated roles? One of the best way to infuse Positive interdependence is by assigning roles, and focusing on a goal for students. Here’s another idea: instead of the project merely being “turned in” devise a massive “jigsaw” so the information on the projects is something needed by the rest of the class.

These Powerpoints are awful. All kids are doing is reading off the screen…and they’re boring. The first mistake some teachers make is to begin by saying, “This week you are going to do a Powerpoint.” Instead, start with “You are going to prepare a presentation. The prep for a speech or a presentation should be done well ahead of opening Powerpoint. Too often kids (and adults) are so reliant on the Powerpoint that it serves merely as a teleprompter. Remember, speakers: YOU are the focal point, and the Powerpoint helps the audience, not you. The other suggestion is to use the Presentation Zen model, which focuses on the use of images and greatly reducing the amount of text on a the screen.

All kids want to do is go to Youtube. Can you blame them? Aside from the entertainment value more people are realizing what an incredible educational resource Youtube can be. Perhaps you can design a lesson that requires students to search for, or dare I say, create a movie that could benefit peers.

Clearly, a pattern is developing. First, what some people mistakenly view as “tech distractions” are actually classroom management issues. Second, without sound pedagogy, the technology itself takes center stage, and the lesson is reduced to functional literacy of the tool. Great teaching transcends beyond this and uses the tools and application towards attaining a higher goal. Third, students must see relevance in what they are doing. If we can devise those important “compelling why’s” for students, and give them the means to create, and eventually “own” their learning, then we’re on the right track.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Leaving the Office for the Cloud

This fall, we have had more students, teachers and administrators use Google Docs in lieu of Word, Powerpoint and Excel. Two factors seem to be driving this migration—first, with a stronger emphasis on collaboration in most districts, Google Docs allows for a more seamless venue for multiple writers. Second, “cloud” computing, as we know, does not constrain us to networks, jump drives, or emailing documents—we can access them anywhere. Many of my colleagues see Google Docs as a great “addition” to their digital arsenal.

But what about a replacement?

I received a call from the tech director of one of our feeder districts who posed that exact question. She discovered that discontinuing their current Office contract with Microsoft would save her tiny district $20,000 annually. Instead, she proposed, they adopt the Google Apps for Educators and use Google Docs as their primary software for word processing, presentations, and spreadsheets. When she surveyed her district the response was explosive. “Absolutely not!” was the resounding cry. Although I empathized with the tech director’s frustration, I also understood the position of the staff. And thinking about it prompted me to ponder, “Could we do that here?” Could two high schools, 6,000 students, and 400 teachers live a digital life on the “cloud?”

Why go to the cloud (Google Docs):
• More cost efficient: no need to purchase additional software

• Reduce server dependence

• No limit of space

• Easy access from anywhere

• Collaboration and individual creation become seamless

• Simpler interface

Why Stay in the Office:
• More robust support

• More sophisticated applications

• More universally accepted

• Perceived improved security

• Not reliant on an internet connection
With regard to the cloud being more cost efficient, there is Open Office, which is, in essence, a free download of “Office-like” software, and if you want to collaborate with word there is Office Live, which uses existing Microsoft Office products in a collaborative environment. These “hybrids” can also be considered.
At this point I would like your feedback. Please respond to this quick survey. I will discuss results on my next post.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Is Powerpoint Still Killing Us?

By now, many of you have seen the hilarious and oh-so-true Don McMillan video “Death By Powerpoint,” and, I must admit, presentations I have seen lately are noticeably improved. I have witnessed a decrease in the frequency of distracting transitions, complex graphics and row upon row of bullet points. Unfortunately, this practice has not seemed have filtered down into the classroom. While there are many great tutorials on what and what not to do in Powerpoint, I think we are missing the mark on some of the essentials we need to teach kids about Powerpoint--the most abused software in education. Here are six suggestions to get kids on the right track:

Model behavior If you are using Powerpoint to convey information to your students, hold yourself to the same expectations as you would your students. If you, as a teacher, make use of PowerPoints that are screen upon screen of microscopic text, I have one question: Is Powerpoint the best means to achieve this? Wouldn’t a Word file, web page, or PDF online achieve this better? If you do use Powerpoint make sure the slides are engaging, thought provoking and add to your message instead of become the message.

Call it a “presentation” not a “Powerpoint” We’ve all seen the assignments that begin with “You will create a five minute POWERPOINT.” Your students’ primary goal is NOT to create a Powerpoint, it’s to convey a message. Downplay (ignore?)the role of the software during the research and preparation phases. Have students focus on content and delivery first, then include the Powerpoint as a means to help convey the message.

“Post” a webpage, not a Powerpoint Keep in mind that a Powerpoint was designed to complement a live presentation. Unfortunately, many use it as a self-contained means of conveying information. If a Powerpoint can stand alone with lines and lines of text, chances are, when it was presented, very few people were paying attention to the speaker, and instead, were reading. If the purpose is to create a document for people to READ at their leisure, is Powerpoint the best method? I don’t think so.

Learn and Promote “Presentation Zen Without a doubt, Garr Reynolds has had the most positive effect on combating “Powerpoint abuse” in recent memory. His emphasis on simplicity and incorporating powerful images has created a paradigm shift in multimedia presentations.

Put restrictions on text, not slides In an attempt to reduce reliance on the software, teachers place restrictions on the number of slides students use. This usually results in the cramming of data on to individual slides, which results in an even more confusing presentation. Instead, lift the restrictions on the number of slides and instead impose limits on text per slide. In keeping with Presentation Zen, a great image or graphic coupled with a phrase or even a single word can be much more powerful.

Teach visual literacy Recently, I saw a rubric for a project that included images as one of the criteria. The requirements were: “4 images=A, 3 images =B…”and so on. Unfortunately, some teachers want kids to incorporate images but don’t hold them as accountable as they do for text. Start with things as simple as placement of images on the page, positioning of text, and cropping images keeping in mind the “rule of thirds.” Then you can have students advance to artistic considerations including line, color, rhythm, contrast, and form. Here is a great video interview by Martin Scorcese on the importance of teaching Visual Literacy.

Note that these suggestions have less to do with how to manipulate the program and more to do with why it’s being used in the first place. We must emphasize that what’s on the screen should not upstage the person in front of us.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Embrace the Mess

We like to use catch phrases in education. How far can you read without coming across these: collaboration, project-based learning, formative assessment, authentic audience, or student-centered classroom. It seems that for many, these phrases become empty vessels--elaborate and  impressive, but containing little depth. Too often we talk in theory and assume that educators can fill in the details. I would like to share how I added flesh to these phrases in my sophomore English classroom (These methods can be applied to any discipline).

First, let me say that I am not a big fan of final exams in high school. Instead, I would prefer to see a Final Project. Assessing growth and learning is much more valid when measuring the development of a project over several weeks than on a ninety-minute test. Here’s what I did:

There were six weeks left of school, and one novel left to read: Lord of the Flies. Now, as much as I love teaching literature, Lord of the Flies is not on my top ten list to teach. Yes, I do realize the literary merit, but always struggled teaching the book. I decided to take this opportunity to try something different. Instead of a final exam, the students would complete a final project, where I would assess their skills on what I felt was important. I wanted them to do a project that would measure their success in:

· Cooperative learning
· Literary Analysis
· Inquiry Research
· Text marking
· Reading for purpose
· Peer teaching
· Literature circles
· Collaborative writing
· Creating a multi-media research project
· Proper documentation and citation

I began by placing students in heterogeneous groups of three, and passed out copies of Lord of the Flies. To each group, I gave a slip of paper with one of the following phrases:

· Freudian Psychology
· Biblical Allusions
· Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs
· Biography of Golding
· Allegory
These represented the five themes I would have “covered” in a more traditional teaching of the novel. I then told them that they were going to read the book on their own, with support from their group, through the lens of the particular theme or motif on the slip of paper. When they text marked (which they had done all year) it was to be from the perspective of that particular lens. Whenever they chose, they could meet to discuss issues in the book and help make meaning. There would be no study guide, no quizzes, and no vocabulary lists. The final product was to create a scholarly article online analyzing the particular theme and how it was illustrated in the text. We used a wiki as a vehicle to create these articles. Students were permitted to use whatever resources they could find, add appropriate, helpful images, and provide links to other related articles. In addition, groups were to supply two foundation questions relating to specific issues raised in the article. They were not to supply answers.
At first, the kids were a bit shocked. I had always tried to promote independence and developed activities that afforded them some autonomy…but not THIS much. As the weeks progressed, students read, discussed, researched, discussed some more and even consulted groups with the same theme in other classes via an online discussion board. They learned, struggled, disagreed, negotiated, and learned more; it was a messy six weeks. At certain times I gave them feedback directly on their wiki, suggesting ideas, praising good work, and posing questions, always posing questions.

The time came when the books were read, articles were written and foundation questions were asked. But what about a final assessment? Students needed to be well versed in all the themes. Students were to read the articles of the other groups and answer their foundation questions. What was created was a network of “experts” in one area who shared their expertise with the rest of a class; it resembled a “jigsaw on steroids.” The students were given three days to read, review, ask questions of each other via discussion boards or directly on the wiki. What I found was that during this phase, students had to defend their positions on the articles they wrote, which were often called into question by the other students. Of course I encouraged them to revise based on any new ideas they had. Yes, this was a messy three days as well. What a wonderful mess.

What I found is that through this process, students gained a much deeper understanding, asked more important questions, and spent more time researching than I had ever experienced before. Even after the assessments were collected, students still questioned, discussed, and defended views about the book, and human nature. When I surveyed the students afterwards, phrases like “hard work,” “on my own,” “worked to make,” and “I really understood,” kept popping up.
As I look back, I have never gotten such a response with using study guides, quizzes, and vocabulary lists. I will admit it was the hardest I had ever worked on an “independent” study project. What I found was that I was able to assess far more learning targets than I could with a timed test. Messy? Yes. Was it worth the mess? What do you think?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Lighting the Fire

This week I was asked to speak to the District science teachers.  The topic: "21st Century Collaboration."  Hmm. A dilemma.  I don't know about you, but I've had about enough of "21st Century" in the title of anything. I mean, what else should we be doing? We only have 90 years left in this century.  "collaboration."  OK...that's in my wheel house...Cooperative Learning trainer...wiki master.

The eyes of my audience were a kaleidescope of emotions. Anticipation, and excitement as well as skepticism and, yes, dread permeated.  Can you say "Differentiated instruction?"

The faces turned to wonder, relief and intrigue as the conversation went on.

I spoke very little about technology.  Instead we talked about "authentic audience,"  and "meaningful purpose."  We talked about "inquiry" and "Positive Interdependence," and how learning science cannot be bridled by the walls of a school.  We talked about "Wouldn't it be great to work with some kids near Ottawa, Illinois, who live on the banks of the Illinois river, infested with Asian carp, and get video, data, and first-hand experience on invasive species.  How about getting in contact with professors and researchers from institutions around the country. Fermilab is right down the road...but why stop there. The excitement grew with the potential of how their classes could change. Then the moment I waited for arrived: "But how can we do this?"

THEN we talked about technology.