Saturday, January 31, 2009

Seduced by Novelty

It’s a new year, and with it comes more and more tools for teachers to use in the classroom. In my Twitter group, I still hear about more and more ideas that I can barely keep up with. Perhaps keeping up isn’t what it’s all about.

It never fails, I will be at my desk, doing research on bleeding edge technology, bookmarking sources, cross referencing…and the phone rings. A teacher wants to know how to set up a blog so other students can see posts, but not comments she makes to the students.Some may sigh and think, “A blog…that’s so last year.” However, my reaction is this: “This teacher didn’t even know what a blog was last year, and now she’s tweaking it to help her students…yes!”

The point is this: we sometimes get seduced by the novelty of a new tool or idea and want to do it faster than our colleagues. Well, perhaps instead of faster, we can do it better. I can honestly say that in 25 years of teaching I have stolen far more ideas than I have created. However, those ideas I have stolen I have tried to adapt and refine to best meet the needs of my students. The goal is not to be the quickest to apply new strategies, it is to wisely select the tools that create meaning and extend student learning.

Often, teachers learn that a tool exists, try it, and unfortunately move on.It’s one thing to say “I am doing a wiki with my kids,” and yet quite another to use the wiki tool as a means to extend the learning beyond what could have been done without it. Perhaps we need to revisit some “old” technologies (meaning older than this week) to make sure we are getting the most out of them.

Microsoft Word More than just word processing, Word contains literally dozens of features that enhance learning. One of my favorites is the comment feature which allows teacher or peers to neatly add comments in the margin. The viewer can read, revise (or ignore) and then quickly delete the comments for the final draft. Auto summarize allows the reader to have Word “highlight” key points. This is great to make sure topic sentences are truly topic sentences. Using the thesaurus wisely (yes, teaching is involved!) can increase a student’s vocabulary by recognizing subtle differences in connotations and select just the right word. And the list goes on.

Microsoft Powerpoint Clearly, the most abused software in schools, can be a powerful visual aid. However, too often the slides upstage the presenter, and at worst, become a teleprompter. Teaching students basic visual literacy through Powerpoint can be quite valuable. Color awareness and using as few words as possible on screen greatly enhance presentations. I have gone so far is to allow a maximum number of slides (5?) and words (say, 15 in the whole presentation). This puts the onus back on the star of the presentation: the presenter, not the software.

Digital Storytelling True, I do have a soft spot in my heart for DST, but that doesn’t diminish the power that it can create in the classroom. Focus on story and revision instead of flash and effects (in other words, avoid programs like Animoto). I find that the constant viewing of images along with listening to words enables students to greatly improve their writing. Encourage students to use images that metaphorically represent emotions rather than only literal representations. I picture of a lightning bolt may serve better than a one of “mom angry.”

Screencasts The value of using screencasts as a “how to” is undeniable. But here’s another idea: Why not have students create the screencasts? They could be used as a meta-cognitive tool to allow students to reflect on, say, a research project, and demonstrate for the teacher (and themselves) how they may have discovered a source, paraphrased a passage, or revised their thesis. Viewing these could give teachers a snapshot of what’s going on inside their brains (Thanks to Scott Meech for inspiring me to think about this).

Blogs OK, everyone reads them and more and more people seem to be writing them. But what role do they play for learning? Here are two ideas: First, we need to embrace some professional blogs as credible resources for supporting research. Professionals are constantly referring to colleagues’ blogs, so why aren’t students? And there’s a bonus: Students can actually ask the experts questions…and possibly get a response! I wish I would have been able to do that 30 years ago. Of course, we need to teach students to evaluate credibility of sources, as well as bias. The second idea (again, not new) is to set up individual blogs for every student, which are used as a means to record the writing and thinking experience of the entire course. The best feature is that it creates a means for continual communication between student and teacher allowing for a substantial “Assessment for Learning.” Teachers can even copy rubrics, highlight and comment on work, and view multiple drafts.

Wikis In an earlier post, “Turbo-Charged Wikis” I stress the important of Positive Interdependence and Individual Accountability. One of the best ways to achieve this in a collaborative writing experience (a rather sophisticated process) is to: limit participants to three or four per group, assign specific roles, and assess the work frequently. This will overcome the two biggest problems associated with wikis in school which are inequitable work distribution and the “quilt phenomenon” which occurs when students write their own section with little regard for what their collaborators have written. And here’s another idea: research supports that when students take a role in creating their own rubrics, they achieve more. How about a wiki that enables students to collaborate on the rubric itself.

Google Clearly the most conspicuous presence on the web, some educators shy away from this Goliath, or write it off as passé. Nothing could be further from the truth. Google has embraced education and offers more tools for student (and teacher) learning than you could possibly use in a career. If you don’t have an account, get one, and start looking. My new fave is the Life photo archives on Google. Try it! Also, if you get the opportunity to become a Google Certified teacher, I highly recommend it.

Creation software, Blogs & wikis, digital storytelling, and Google are entrenched in our lexicon so deeply, that it is hard to imagine a time when they weren’t. But just because they’ve been around for a while doesn’t mean their importance in the classroom has diminished. On the contrary, the acceptance of these tools in the mainstream has gotten us past the novelty concept where the tool du jour becomes the driving force. Now we can get back to “What do I want my students to do?” and use the repertoire of tools when the time is right.

So what are some "old" tools you're utilizing better than ever? Please share!

Image courtesy of Flickr contributor aaronfreimark.