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.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Myth of Classroom Discussion

“Class discussion on…” How many times have you written that on a lesson plan? Here’s another question: how many of those sessions are truly “discussions”? In real situations I know of no discussions that include one person directing questions to a large group of people who raise hands, competing to be the first to answer. True class discussions are rare. I have seen it done well by a few teachers in my school. The class is organized in a big circle, and more often than not, the teacher is outside of that circle, merely moderating. Discussion skills take practice too. If you circle the wagons and expect kids (at any age) to conduct a scholarly discussion on their own, you may be disappointed. While this scenario is closer to “discussion,” two problems still exist. First, only those who are socially assertive participate, and second, due to the competition to be fast, responses are often half-baked and brief.

So what’s the solution? Cooperative groups can encourage a higher participation rate—it’s hard to hide in a group of three. The problem is that often some great ideas are lost within the group and not shared with the whole class.

Enter discussion boards.

OK, discussion boards arent as sexy and new as some other applications discussion boards hold many advantages over class conversations. Since they are asynchronous, participants have time to respond; there is no pressure to “compete” with other students to answer quickly. Another advantage of asynchronous communication is that it often results in more thoughtful, thorough responses. A study done in 2006 revealed that asynchronous writing produced richer, morwe thoughtful responses than did synchronous writing (Mobrito). Also, because of the permanence, participants can read and reread posts to avoid misinterpretation.

Because of their egalitarian nature, discussion boards allow opportunity or all students. I was always pleasantly surprised to see some very thoughtful responses from students normally “quiet” in the classroom. Perhaps those students were not as vocal, or they preferred to have time to process the ideas to formulate insightful responses. Either way, the discussion board encourages thoughtful participation from everyone.

Using discussion boards allow teachers to assess social skills as well as the content. Give students a set of protocols for posting on discussion boards. Make sure when responding that they acknowledge the previous response and if they disagree, that they criticize the idea, not the person. It’s also a good idea that students are aware that they are to post using standard English; this isn’t a chat room (LOL).

Some teachers may argue that they don’t have the time to post, review, and respond to discussion board. True, if discussion boards are added on to an existing curriculum, time becomes very limited. Consider this: perhaps the discussion boards are replacing some other activities that are more teacher centered. Perhaps you can “selectively abandon” some other activities. (Translation: lose the worksheets).
Once you set up the discussion board the teacher include a few other structures to ensure success. First, you must determine your role in the discussion. Will you participate? Are you starting all threads and letting them respond? Will you assign student moderators for discussions? Ideally, the more students “own” the discussion, the more authentic, but you may need to be a presence at least in the beginning. Next you must determine the topics of discussion. Make sure that the focus is on open-ended questions that encourage debate, dissention, and controversy; the idea is to encourage students to support answers, and listen to dissenting opinions.

Equitable participation is often another caveat. One solution is to break down the discussions into smaller groups, that way each person is responsible for a larger percentage of the discussion. Another possibility is to require minimum posts for “credit.” While I am loath to do this, I did find the need to tell students to “start at least one new thread” and “post at least three responses.” While this is admittedly, a bit artificial, it was a good way to get students started. Ideally, the discussion leads to meaning that will be required for another project; the motivation stems from the idea that “I need this discussion board to learn X.”
If you are not sure where to start, many web applications contain discussion boards. Ning, Moodle, and Wikispaces each has discussion board capabilities.

Many forward-thinking educators preach the need to develop more student-centered classrooms. To do so, students need to “own” the learning and have the opportunity to use take advantage of learning spaces outside of the classroom walls. Purposeful use of discussion boards is one way to achieve this.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Four Faces

Disclaimer: This post has nothing to do with technology.

Three years ago I was a sophomore English teacher. The significance is that for the first time in my career there are no students in the halls who know me as their current of former teacher. While I love my current position there is a bit of sadness in this thought. So last week, when I walked down the main hall I smiled when I noticed that in the pictures of the “2010 Seniors of the Year” the visage of a former student was smiling back at me. Josh was named the Speech and Communications Senior of the Year: no small task in a school with ten state speech championships in the last eleven years. I knew he was a talented speaker, and was a joy to have in class, and I must admit, my chest swelled a bit knowing that I was his sophomore English teacher. Then I came back to reality when I remembered that we were blessed with Jan Heiteen, one of the top speech coaches in the nation.

My eyes scanned the pictures until they met another familiar face; Casey was named top PE student. I remember Casey’s happy, hard-working demeanor as well as the accolades she received as a top cross country runner. But this wasn’t sports…it was P.E. Often times, athletes have a blasé attitude towards P.E.; their physical exertion was saved for their sport, not P.E. class. Yet here was Casey, recognized for her leadership and exemplary behavior. The same behavior she exhibited in my class--every day.

I scanned another row, and…what do you know. Roxana: “Student of the Year” for Family and Consumer Science. Like Casey and Josh, Roxana was also a “pleasure to have in class” (How’s that for a cliché). I did some work with Roxana’s senior Intro to Teaching class last year. It was rewarding to see her blossom into a poised, articulate, enthusiastic teaching candidate (She is thankfully majoring in elementary education now), after knowing her as an effervescent sophomore.

Wow Three of my students were “seniors of the year” unless…

There was Amanda. Shy, hard-working Amanda, named Special Services Student of the Year. My thoughts went back to seventh period sophomore “Skills” (always hated that term) three years ago. Amanda: always making eye contact, always pen in hand, always careful notes, always smiling when I said good bye at the end of the period.

Four. I had four students on the board. No small feat considering we have over 3,000 students, and nearly thirty English teachers. As I walked down the hall, my pride was tempered with two thoughts. First, while all receiving good grades, none of them were necessarily the best writers I had in class. Second, Could it be that perhaps I was the one who was fortunate to have them?

Please do not think that the purpose of this post is to gloat over something that, frankly, I didn’t earn. The point is this: we teachers, especially in the fragmented world of high schools, often look at our students through the lens of our discipline.After all, I wasn’t teaching honors sophomore English. I had two sections of “regular” and two of “Skills.” We have to remember, though, that an “average” math student might be a brilliant writer; a struggling history student might be an accomplished cellist. And the list goes on.

Josh, Casey, Roxana, and Amanda were part of the “last class” I taught, and I was fortunate to have these special kids. My only regret is that it took pictures on a wall for me to realize how talented and truly remarkable these kids are. We all need to keep that in minds with all of our students.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Bulging Pockets

Like most edubloggers, this post is sort of a “back-to-school” one. However, instead of offering a motivational charge, I would like to share with you an account of a very encouraging day I had last week.

Last Wednesday morning I led the annual new teacher training. I am allotted three hours to get new teachers up and running on our system at school. You know, logins, email, grade book…essentials, but not necessarily translating to student achievement. This year I decided to get through the mechanics as quickly as possible, and use our remaining time to work with teachers on how to develop a more student-centered classroom, and how to use some of our available applications to change the way our kids learn. The morning was the most successful session we’d had. Their eyes widened and their enthusiasm rose when they realized this wouldn’t be a “how to” tech session. Instead, once the group opened up, it became a sharing of ideas which would result in actual change. I was also pleased to see that many of these “new” teachers were quite adept at many of the applications we used. My confidence swelled when a show of hands revealed that many of them already had Google accounts, used social bookmarking, and some were already blogging. And the best news yet? Not all of them were fresh out of college. The age of the “new” teachers ranged from early twenties to, well, as old as I am. So much for “Digital Natives.”

After the meeting I was stopped by my associate principal. He was wondering if I could help staff with Learning Teams. Two years back, we adopted the DuFour model of a Professional Learning Community. He had said that teachers were frustrated with the limited time they had in meeting face to face with Learning Teams, and needed to know how to create some new “learning spaces” (HIS term) to allow access and promote a more 24-7 chance to work on sharing ideas and creating common assessments. He wanted to know if I could teach the staff how to utilize applications such as existing tools in our content management system as well as Google Docs, Forms, and Moderator. Hmm, a chance to do systemic training? Count me in.

Later that day, I met with a journalism teacher who, wanted to do what was best for her students, and develop a paperless, online school newspaper. She started with “I can’t, in good conscience, teach journalism in an archaic form.” She told me what she wanted, and we worked together to develop a way that her student staff could develop the school newspaper completely on line, including podcasts, and the ability to have the rest of the school comment on articles… all within our existing content management system.

This day just kept getting better and better.

Before I left, I decided to check my email. I saw a message from a teacher, previously on the technophobic side. She wanted to take all of the Effective Reading classes, put them in a group together that would allow them to write book reviews which other students could read, comment, and decide themselves whether they too wanted to read those books. She never mentioned the word “blog” but it didn’t matter. These kids would be writing for an authentic audience and purpose and would be responding, sharing and critiquing on line.

Someone pinch me.

Please understand that my purpose is not to brag about the teachers in my school; I am sure you have these same “pockets” of teachers who are doing great activities with their kids. The point is this: the pockets are bulging. I no longer have the same handful of trailblazers asking for assistance. These are the teachers who usually don’t seek me out for ideas. And what’s better, I no longer have as many people approaching me with a tool and asking me how to use it. Instead they have a vision, or design of a new idea, and are asking me how to do it. The ISTE NETS standards discuss “Systemic Change.” And while we are not there yet, we are nearing the Tipping Point of such change. Here’s to a great school year for all of us.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Pecha Kucha or Digital Storytelling?

If you know me at all, you know about my love affair with the process of Digital Storytelling as a means to create community and to give students an authentic voice to share experiences and life lessons. The idea of developing a personal narrative and adding images, voice, and soundtrack and then recording it in a “permanent” form has developed into one of the most engaging activities for students (and others) to do.

While conducting a workshop on DST last year, I had a teacher who was rather ambivalent about the whole DST concept.  While he embraced the idea of melding words and images, he would have preferred an activity that incorporated a “live” presentation; he wanted to make sure that teachers did not substitute a Digital Storytelling assignment for a speech. I couldn’t agree more. There is no substitute for a live performance; an entire set of skills and learning targets come into play with any public speaking. I had told him that DST would “replace” something like a written narrative, not a live speech.  But the more I thought about it, he had a point. Could there be another possibility that was as engaging as DST yet live (And no, I am not referring to a speech with never-ending, bulleted list Powerpoint slides)?

Then I heard about Pecha Kucha (Pronounced: puCHA kuCHA).  First conceived as a Japanese bar game, (like Karaoke) the Pecha Kucha concept is deceptively simple: twenty consecutive images, each displayed to the audience for twenty seconds while the speaker presents live to the audience. For more information on Pecha Kucha and a sample from me (sort of) please go to my Digital Storytelling page Actually, the inception of Digital Storytelling by Dana Atchley and Joe Lambert stemmed from live performances anyway!

Last year at a conference in Illinois, I was asked to try my hand at Pecha Kucha. As a Digital Storyteller, I must say that the experience was quite a departure for me. The live concept was both exhilarating and a bit intimidating. I mean, in DST if something didn’t sound right or my timing was off, I could re record. But with Pecha Kucha, I was out there.  On the other hand, it was much more engaging for me the performer. I could respond to the audience and “ad lib” when appropriate. I performed it twice live and expectedly, each performance had its own subtle uniqueness.

True, there is not the “polished” feel of a Digital Story, but what it lacked in polish; it excelled in spontaneity and audience interaction.  What I found interesting was how the audience’s attention went back and forth between the screen and me, as if watching a tennis match. At times, they needed to watch the image while listening to my voice and at particular animated moments the attention was all on me. The other new sensation was that clock ticking in the back of my head. Pacing and development of ideas were always on my mind, and the question always loomed, “Is it going to change…now?”

So where does this all fit for teachers? Is there a place for it in my classroom? Can kids do it? Does it need to be 20 images? First I think there can be a situation for students doing Pecha Kucha, or at least a form of it.  Instead of a six-minute plus performance, maybe try ten images. I do like the twenty-second intervals; anything less does not allow for much development on the part of narration. The other point is that when assessing, I believe there needs to be a certain allowance for spontaneity. To me, a speaker engaging with the audience, for the sake of speaking in a “polished” manner should be rewarded. But maybe you feel think otherwise.

So your question may be “Which one should I have kids do?”  My answer would be both. You can NEVER have too much student creation.

Friday, July 30, 2010

More Than Just a Spark

August is rapidly approaching, which means more of our thoughts turn to the upcoming school year. For me, that means lots of staff development planning. In a three-week period I will lead a Digital Storytelling workshop, a Blackboard seminar, a new-teacher training day, and a “Technology for PLC’s" session.
I do have one more workshop that has been occupying a great deal of my time and efforts. In three weeks I will be leading a District-Wide Administrator’s Academy on the topic of Web 2.0 Tools for Educational Leadership. The audience will be all District and Building-level administrators, department chairs, and lead teachers.


Needless to say, I am thrilled with this opportunity, yet I also know the importance of this day. I must admit, that I did not want the focus to be on “tools” but at the same time, many administrators “don’t know what they don’t know,” so an “awareness” might be a good starting point for all of us. Like your district, we have a wide variety of “tech” abilities, and the last thing I want to do is leave some of those folks in the dust…especially considering the influence they have.

In developing the plan for the day, I have come up with a dozen ideas for creating powerful staff development sessions. Here they are:

Build on prior knowledge: Develop a system that allows participants to share and discuss what they already know prior to the first session. In the spring, I set up discussion groups who followed a handful of blogs of innovative educators, and had them comment on what they read. I must admit, priming the pump took a while; I discovered that several of the people had never read blogs and were apprehensive about putting their comments “out there.” In the last two weeks, with the encouragement of others, the discussion boards have really been picking up steam, and will give us lots to discuss next month.

Know your audience: In my case, I will be working with all of the district leaders. Since the focus is on modeling best practices, many of more examples need to be “administrative” rather than “classroom.” Also, since participants have such a wide range of abilities and prior use, I need to rely on the “power users” to help the novices to create a “differentiated” learning environment.

Start with home-grown best practices: Like all districts, we too have pockets of some great innovative teaching and leading going on “right here in River City.” What better way to model this innovation than to showcase our own innovative leaders. Two byproducts result. First, it draws attention to those who are doing great things, and second, it adds credence to what we are trying to accomplish, and anticipates the skeptics who think we can’t do it here.

Walk the walk…Go paperless: One of the criticisms I hear about using any sort of content management system is that “kids don’t use it.” The answer is twofold. First, design lessons that are more inquiry driven and less “drill and kill.” The purpose of Moodle or Ning is not just to have a place to put worksheets. Inquiry-driven experiences better lend themselves to a paperless environment. Second, make sure the ONLY place to get information is in the content management system…in other words, don’t give a paper option. Keeping this in mind, your staff development sessions should be paperless as well. NO HANDOUTS. Hopefully, you’ll avoid the situation I had. I was running a session entitled “The Paperless Classroom” and had a teacher ask me for the handout for the session. Seriously.

Root it in sound pedagogy: Make sure the delivery of the staff development session reflects the pedagogy and vision of your district. Our District requires all teachers to be trained in Cooperative Learning (Johnsons and Kagan), Assessment Literacy (Stiggins), and CRISS Strategies. Needless to say our workshop will infuse Positive Interdependence, Formative Assessment, and require the use of several graphic organizers during instruction.

Empathize: Many educators have been doing great work for many years, and may question “why change now?” In some respects, they may have many strong arguments. Also, there will be feelings of uncertainty, which leads to fear and rejection of new ideas. Rule of thumb: NEVER start with technology. Instead, begin with a product, or a skill, and work backwards to show how it can be done. A traditional teacher may use lit circles. Show a product of students creating a set of “Cliff Notes” for that book collaboratively. THEN introduce the concept of a wiki. Understand that those people have a great deal to offer, and using that expertise to bridge the gap can go a long way.

Embrace the “leaders”: By “Leaders,” I don’t mean formal leaders. In every educational culture there are those whom others follow. They may be the more vocal or most experienced members of a faculty. If you can showcase work by those people, you are well on your way to create a tipping pint for the whole faculty. Here’s an idea: if you have teachers who are embracing your ideas and also happen to be active in union leadership, definitely showcase their work.

Talk less: As an Instructional Tech Coordinator, the whole school knows where I’m coming from before I speak. Sure, I will introduce ideas, but the more I have others present work, and the more I get them to discuss, question, and practice ideas, the more successful the day will be. I am invited to present at department meetings during the year to demonstrate tools and ideas. . I have learned that the most successful meetings occur when all I do is introduce other department members and let them demonstrate. My role is then to answer questions.

Inspire, don’t preach: We have all seen many videos that focus on how education has to change. However, the in-your-face, we’re-hurting-kids videos seem to do more harm than good. Instead focus on positive approaches that make people what to change. Will Richardson started with this great video a kid created, and his sole purpose was to solicit help on how to build a fire with a bow drill. Another one shows how a guy dancing on his own illustrates how a movement attracts followers. Both are non threatening to the viewer and inspire instead of wave a finger.

Make ‘em laugh: We all learn better when we’re happy, right? When my group is learning how to podcast, my intention is to give them lines from movies, and allow them to do a dramatic reading to share with others. Let’s face it, for the workshop, the content isn’t the issue, it’s learning how to use the tool. Right now I’m thinking lines from Animal House, Airplane, Caddy Shack, Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, and Dirty Harry… Am I showing my age?

Build in follow up: Yes, in my opinion, the last is the most important. We have all endured the “one and done” method of staff development. And we all know how meaningless it becomes. My District is making a commitment to transform our students’ education. I couldn’t be happier. We have already built in time during department meetings, institute days, and planning time to further explore thes ideas that will be introduced. Ongoing, formal and informal transformation is vital.

I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to these opportunities. But one of the first things I learned in my new position is that I can’t do it alone. I can ignite, answer questions, and bring people together. With the help of those people we can continue the exciting journey of doing what’s best for our kids.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Assessing Collaborative Writing

Tools like Google Docs and a variety of wikis have spawned an explosion of collaborative writing possibilities for students. However, too often teachers are puzzled and dismayed when the results are less than expected. Questions I often hear from teachers are “How do I know all kids are working?”  “How do I keep them from cutting and pasting?” In other words, “How do I assess collaborative writing?” Keep in mind that “wikis” and “collaborative writing” are not synonymous. The former is a tool, and the latter is a process. Many teachers have used wikis for massive collaborative data collection with the entire class participating in a single purpose; while this is a valuable process, it is not collaborative writing. Here are a few tips to ensure success in a true collaborative process

Create an Authentic Audience and Purpose Too often, we as teachers ask students to write or create for no other reason than to have them prove that they can master the skill. The teacher is the only audience. Why not create an activity that other students need to succeed in the course? In an English class, have small groups read Lord of the Flies, and each group read the book through a particular “lens” (Social Darwinism, Biblical Allusions, Freudian Psychology) and publish their interpretations for the rest of the class to read and analyze. A math class could take the same concept solve a particular kind of problem and share their findings. I got this idea from Darren Kuropatwa, who calls it his “Wiki Solutions Manual.”  A French class could study regions of France and share those results. The idea is that someone other than the teacher will read the product, and more importantly will rely upon it for success. Also, students become “experts” in a particular field.

Form Small Groups For a collaborative writing task, I would recommend no more than four members per group, with the ideal number being three. The Johnsons and Spencer Kagan are two of the leading experts in Cooperative Learning, and both stress the importance of matching group size to the task. The first reason is that the larger the group, the more complicated the communication becomes. Simply adding one person to a pair triples the lines of communication. The second reason is that the smaller the group, the greater the individual accountability. It’s much easier to “hide” in a group of six than in a group of three.

Develop Precise Learning Targets Prior to the activity, develop a set of specific, measureable learning targets and share them with the students. Ideally you want to have students help develop these as well as the rubric you will use to assess the project. Rick Stiggins has done groundbreaking work in developing learning targets.

Assign SPECIFIC Roles When students are faced with a collaborative task, often their solution is to “divide and conquer.” “Linda, you write the first part, Thomas, you do the second, and I’ll do the third,” is usually what transpires. Unfortunately, Linda often never even reads parts two or three. Instead of a collaborative writing experience, we have a patchwork of individual ideas. Instead of a “quilt” we want a uniform “blanket.” During the first draft, it’s ok to parse out these segments, but to achieve uniform writing, and to expose all students to the entire document, assign revision roles that permeate the entire document. After the draft (and your subsequent comments) Linda can revise the entire document for support, Thomas for organization, and the third student for mechanics. Then the next time around you can assign “format” roles such as “images,” “hyperlinks” and “citations.” The key is that ALL students are responsible for the ENTIRE paper. You can assess students individually that way as well.

Offer Frequent Formative Assessment Stiggins also is an advocate for continual Formative Assessment (Assessment FOR Learning). Begin by setting target dates for steps in the process of the collaborative writing experience. As each date approaches, monitor the progress of the documents and offer suggestions for improvement. Make sure to offer suggestions ONLY on what is being measured for that segment. In other words, you should refrain from noting spelling errors during a brainstorming phase.

Consider Assessing More Than Just Writing As a former English teacher, my emphasis, of course was on evaluating the writing. However, even the NCTE recognizes “text” as more than just words. Consider images as being a requirement for the document. Using hyperlinks correctly can also be a valuable addition. Even embedding video or podcasts may be used to make the project multi dimensional, and as a result, more engaging. Also, this affords a great opportunity to teach ethical use of material and proper citation.

Be a Teacher All wiki tools have a History function, and some can even break down the “lines modified” by users to determine who added what to the document. While these can be handy as a guideline, I recommend that you avoid using these numbers as gospel. If students think you are looking at only the results on the history, two negative byproducts may result. First students will fight over who enters what so they get “credit” for writing it. Second, students will enter the editing mode of the document and leave without making changes, or merely add and delete a period. To discourage this, you need to schedule regular meeting times during class for kids to discuss, face to face, their progress. During that time, you need to be carefully observing their progress to make sure kids are on task. You can keep track of those kids who offer ideas in the process, but may not be doing the typing. Stress to your class that you will not be “nit picking” about who wrote what line, but are more interested in the entire product. The Johnsons offer many suggestions to ensure Individual Accountability. 

Plainly stated, Collaborative Writing is difficult work. Assessing it can be just as hard. These tips can help raise standards as well as make the assessment task more manageable. 

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ten Burning Questions

Lee Kolbert's Blog is subtitled "Ask lots of questions."  And, true, most educators today know it's all about asking good questions.  So I decided to walk the walk, AND encourage you to participate.

The last week or so, several questions have been simmering in my head. I have been observing  instances that make me wonder "why?"  I would like to share those questions with you and allow for a more interactive discussion.


Yes, after becoming a Google Certified Teacher I am making use of my new fave tool: Moderator.

Please click the link, check out the questions, my responses, respond on your own, add more, vote, whatever.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Staff Development Woes? Google Can Help

This post also appears in the Digital Learning Environments blog.

Last week I had the opportunity to present at Tech Forum, Midwest. As always, it was a lively exchange of ideas with some of the more forward-thinking professionals in education. One of the recurrent topics was staff development. How do we accomplish our goals? How do we bring teachers together? Is formal training less important now than relying on PLN’s? Several ideas were discussed, but the two biggest dilemmas: time and money seem to loom large. Specifically, the biggest impediment stems from the inability for teachers to “connect” with colleagues to develop ideas.

As many of you know, I attended the first Google Administrator’s Academy last month. As I continue to process what I learned there, I would like to share with you a handful of Google applications that can transform staff development in schools.

Docs Google Docs contains word processing, spreadsheet, presentations and even draw on line. Google Docs enables you to create documents “in the cloud” and collaborate easily with others. Inviting collaborators is as easy as sending an email. New features include a more robust “word processor” interface, faster uploads, group folders, and the ability to upload virtually any document. Many educators (including me) are saving more documents on Google Docs, and fewer on a “hard drive.” The big advantage is if I need multiple people to collaborate, give feedback or just proofread, I simply invite them to the document, instead of sending multiple emails and collating responses.

Forms Let’s say you need to collect survey-type information from your colleagues. Sending out a Google Form is a great solution. Housed in a Google Doc spreadsheet, a Form allows the creator to choose from a variety of question types, create a survey (or quiz for that matter), send out the url, and allow participants to complete the survey on their own time. The data collection is simple; as the responses come in, the information is gathered on the spread sheet, and with one click, the creator can view results for each question in an easy-to-read bar graph. This is quite a relief for a spreadsheet-challenged user like myself.

Moderator This is quite possibly my favorite new application. Let’s say your staff development group has to brainstorm a list of resources to help teachers develop strategies in Assessment Literacy. Moderator allows the creator to set up a “series,” invite users, allow them to add links to sites, comment on the sites, and vote for which ones are most valuable. At any time, viewers can see the vote tally as well as the comments made by colleagues. This is a great brainstorming tool that allows everyone in the group to voice her opinion and be heard.

Calendar OK, so an online calendar is not new, but I have found the Google Calendar to be very powerful and easy to use. There are many, but my favorite feature is the ability to create multiple calendars, and overlay calendars with other users. This can do wonders to resolve possible conflicts. You can also sync your Google Calendar with Outlook or your phone.

Groups Increase your PLN in two ways. First, create a group including the people on your staff development team. Groups allows you to discuss and share ideas in a universal location. More importantly, browse Groups to connect with other teachers across town or around the world to ask questions or respond to others.

Wave Admittedly, I have used Wave on a limited basis. Several people I know have used this real-time collaboration tool with great success. Think of it as a cross between a wiki and Twitter. Please share any feedback.
Staff development is a continual, arduous process. We have a tough enough job developing the ideas to transform education. Getting together with colleagues should not impede our progress. These applications help take us in the right direction.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Fine Arts Teachers "Get It"

Photo Courtesy of Scott Ableman

Yesterday I read about yet another school district possibly cutting fine arts programs in order to save money. I always cringe when I read this—the fact that many still view art, music, and theatre as “add ons” instead of an essential component in a child’s education. The preponderance of research that shows the correlation between fine arts education and student achievement is staggering.

But this post isn’t about that.

Clearly, many of the arts classes are not valued by some pencil sharpeners and belt tighteners. But what about the fate of those professionals who teach art, music, and theatre? I’m sure that most of them will migrate to a district that either values or can afford them, but I believe we are all missing out on something very special.

In today’s education landscape, change is in the air. We are looking to make classes more “student centered, ” projects more relevant, and assessment more formative. Some of these changes are met with less-than-exuberant responses by some more “traditional” teachers. Districts are spending thousands of dollars on staff development to teach “Project-Based Learning,” “Authentic Assessment” and “Collaboration.” Unfortunately, these initiatives are sometimes piecemeal, and too often fall on deaf ears. I have observed that sometimes fine art teacher seems to be politely passive during these sessions. Why? The reason is because fine arts teachers have been teaching this way all along.

Consider some of the pedagogical changes that visionaries are suggesting to transform our schools, and how fine arts teachers have already embraced them:

Project-based learning with specific goals: For the choir, it’s preparing the Hallelujah Chorus for the winter concert, the jazz band will perform at half time of the basketball game, opening night of Guys and Dolls is only two weeks away. For arts students, every action, every repetition, every procedure is geared toward fulfilling a very precise, focused goal: the performance.

Emphasis on formative assessment: The majority of assessment in a music class is formative. Daily rehearsals (not lessons) are met with continual scrutiny and suggestions. Groups work hours upon hours to prepare for the upcoming event. Missing a beat at the rehearsal can be remedied before the performance. Early in a semester, very few grades exist in the art teacher’s grade book because the teacher recognizes that the student is still working, experimenting, and learning... how can you put a grade on that? Isn’t the end result more important to evaluate? Because of this atmosphere, kids are more likely to experiment, fail, and try again, resulting, ultimately, in higher achievement.

Purposeful homework: The oboe player must practice on her own outside of class, the photo student must compose images in “the field” and Stanley Kowalski must practice his lines. Since students see a direct connection between the hours spent and the quality of the performance, they are much more motivated to spend extra time on tasks.

Professional Learning Community (PLC) Model: Whether it be planning the upcoming concert, coordinating the set, score, lighting, and direction of a musical, or putting together an art show, by definition, fine arts teachers must work together seamlessly to develop their performances and products. The fading notion of teaching in “isolation” was never an issue with teachers of The Arts.

Building a Collaborative Classroom: By virtue of the activities, fine arts students MUST work together; they develop Positive Interdependence organically. The first violinist realizes he needs the rest of the section as well as the other instruments to perform the piece; he can’t do it alone. Also, you probably find that in your school (like mine) music kids hang out together in the music hall because of the common bonds and interests that have developed. The culmination of this is that they trust each other.

Teaching Visual Literacy: Even the NCTE recognizes that “text” no longer is limited to words, but includes a variety of media. Who better to address visual composition than a 2-D art teacher? Have we tapped these resources to teach the rest of the faculty concepts such as line, contrast, value, vanishing point, and rhythm? What about the photography teacher to share expertise in lighting, framing, and the difference in effects of a low and high-angle shot?

Of course when you talk about Portfolio Assessment, and Authentic Audience…need I say more?

I consider myself very fortunate to work in a school that not only values The Arts as an essential component in education, but also is blessed with a talented, dedicated group of fine arts teachers who inspires, ignites, and, motivates students to develop their own potential. Perhaps some day everyone will “Get it” the way fine arts teachers do...and instead of cutting out programs, they can be expanded.

Or at very least, can share some of their teaching methods with the rest of us to embrace.

Friday, March 12, 2010

"Drink the Koolaid"? Not me.

I don’t like buzz words. Nothing trivializes an idea more than the overuse of a phrase. Some of you have heard my rants on the wearing out of the word “amazing.” However, artfully constructed, a fresh metaphor can really harness a hurricane.

The phrase du jour seems to be “Drink the Koolaid,” which has devolved into simply meaning to “believe in something,” or “have faith in something novel.” Really? Of the last four people I heard turn this phrase, only ONE knew the origin. I always ask, “Have you ever heard of Jim Jones?” From many, I get blank stares. How about “Jonestown?” In 1978, cult leader, Jim Jones brainwashed his followers in Guyana to drink Koolaid laced with cyanide in a mass “revolutionary suicide.” Nearly 1,000 people took their own lives on the word of a charismatic sociopath when he told them to “Drink the Koolaid.”

Recently, I have heard some advocates of changing our educational system use the phrase “Drink the Koolaid” to get people to buy in to student-centered classrooms, inquiry-driven research, world-wide collaboration, and leveraging technology to facilitate learning.

Is this the phrase we want to use? Have we forgotten the sinister, diabolical connotation of this phrase? Charles Manson’s followers “drank the Koolaid,” Bernie Madoff’s investors “drank the Koolaid,” to a certain extent we all “drank the Koolaid” when it came to Tiger Woods’ perceived image.

And this is the phrase we want to use to help show fellow educators, administrators, parents, kids, and community members how we can change schools for the better? Especially in the wake of President Obama’s plan to transform education, is this the proper stance?

Perhaps we need another phrase. How about “See the light”?

Monday, March 8, 2010

A Perfect Storm

Sometimes it just all comes together. And for me, that time is now. I have had three forces come together recently that have compelled me to action.

ONE: A couple weeks back my administration had approached me and my partner and felt that the time is now to make some changes in the way our kids learn.

TWO: Saturday, I returned from the first Google Administrator's Acadamy, (see last post) where after an intense day of Google, we were asked to create an action plan over the next few months.

THREE: Upon returning, I was made aware of President Obama's plan for Transforming (as opposed to Reforming) the American education system, with an emphasis on leveraging technology to, among other things, break down the divide between how students learn outside of school and how they (don't?) inside.

And this is after attending Educon in January, METC and ICE in February, where the resounding message was to have students "own" their education through student-centered, inquiry-driven purposeful learning experiences.

How can I NOT respond?

However, an initial reaction may be to boil with enthusiasm and quixotically, sally forth into the educational maelstrom.

But that won't last. I'll just end up wet, cold, and discouraged.

Change is hard, especially for an institution like American education, that still keeps an agrarian calendar.

So instead my plan is to purposefully make small changes, one at a time.

And I am continuing with a study of what I learned at the GTA. Sure I am a "Certified Google Teacher," but really, what Friday in San Antonio showed me is how MUCH I need to learn, on my own, from my colleagues at work, my PLN, and our students.

Here's what I plan:

I will select one of the applications I learned at the GTA, and spend an evening, approaching it from this perspective: "What sound uses of this help transform how my students learn?" (Notice the emphasis on sound pedagogy, not magical tools)

One every night? no way. Surely, one night I will have to drive kids to practice, move furniture for the carpet coming, or go pick up my daughter from college. THREE nights a week is reasonable, don't you think?

As I continue, I will collect my data via: this blog, my delicious page (jorech) and by posting questions and findings on twitter (again, jorech).

Tonight, I focus on searching with Google. I'm pretty adept at advanced search, using the "site:" strategy as well as the "Show Options" (Wonder Wheel and Timeline." Instead, I think I will focus on "Books" and "Square." Lisa Thumann, whom I follow on Twitter (and you should too) who did the presentation on Search, said she has my back if I have any questions. God Bless my PLN.

Now I'll ask for a favor. Keep me honest. They say if you are trying to lose weight, to tell someone else so you have a support group to keep you going. See? now I told you. Now I am committed. Here I go.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

GTA: Now What?

Yesterday I flew home from San Antonio, Texas where I had the privelege to participate in the first ever Google Administrators Academy, a FULL day (11 hours) of presentations, innovations, networking, and hands on experience. It's hard to pinpoint any one component that really stood out to me. I mean, during a fireworks display do you remember a single explosion? It's all powerful, right?

(Image:Flickr Contributor P.O.P)

I could go on about the events, speakers, and the energy of being with some of the most dynamic, forward thinking administrators around the country. But anything I would write has already been done by one of my GTA comrades, Eric Scheninger in his first (yes first! blogpost). An inspiring read.

Like the rest of the #gtadmin folks today, my head is spinning. So many possibilities, so many ideas...wow! But an exciting, yet intimidating question looms:

Now what?

I know we are all bursting to get back to share with our colleagues to share all we've learned. but how do we begin to even scratch the surface of passing on what we learned on Saturday?

I do have some ideas.

First, we need to walk the walk. Start by making some changes. This post is being created on a Google Doc using Chrome. OK so that's not a big deal, but if I am going to discuss these tools and end encourage others to use them, I need to start too, right? It's sort of like playing Christmas carols when decorating the tree. It puts you in the mood.

Did I say tools?

Yes, we were immersed with dozens of applications on Saturday, and I will be reviewing again and again the agenda which includes all the slide decks and ideas from the presenters (oops "lead learners"!). But I have three suggestions:

Take a breath: avoid the desire to go back tomorrow and try to unleash everything you learned in an email to your staff. More likely than not, many will not share your enthusiasm, and steamrolling all of these ideas will likely cause people to shut down. Share initially with those people whom you know will be receptive and let them be your connectors. As time goes on, reveal those concepts or ideas gradually as a means to solve educational problems and meet needs of students and teachers. The quicker these are unleashed, the quicker they will fade.

Choose wisely: One of the "Leading Learners" made the point that most educators will never utilize all these tools, nor should they. Think carefully about which applications are best suited for what your district wants to accomplish. One of the biggest decisions is whether or not your district will be utilizing the Google Apps (capitol "A") or not. Perhaps start with 2 or 3 ideas and go from there. Personally, I am starting with Moderator and Sites to fulfill some needs that currently exist in my building. This brings me to the last suggestion, which really needs to be the first implemented.

Start with LEARNING not TOOLS: My worst nightmare is that people use these tools as an "add on" to their existing curriculum. To me this is what I think of when I hear people talking about "integrating" technology. Never before have we had the opportunity, and the need to transform education. We need to start with student-centered, inquiry-driven, purposeful opportunities for kids to learn. On of my favorite sessions at GTA had nothing to do with computers. It was a session, early in the day when we shared an innovation that we were currently using at our school. Amy, who sat behind me, shared that she had kids who were able to explore and learn outside of their grade level and either explore something at a higher level, or get help on something that was difficult. That is just one of the many examples shared that focused on student learning. Let's all continue to embrace these ideas, make these changes...and THEN use these wonderful tools as a way to solve what we want to so. If we create the need and show what can be done, then teachers will be clamoring for the applications to reach goals.

Thanks for everything, GTA peeps! Go forth.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Educon Reflections

Sometimes you need to beat me over the head.
Two years ago, I met Chris Lehmann at our Chicago area Edtech Conference. I was impressed with his fresh vision and his undying desire to do what’s really best for kids.He said I should come to Educon 2.1 held at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia. I didn’t go. Then, last January, it seemed that the only hashtag I saw on Twitter was #Educon. Maybe I missed something. Oh well, there’s always next year. I saw Chris again at Techforum in New York. Again, he said “Jon, you should come to Educon.” I still didn’t sign up. Then while talking to my predecessor, Dave Jakes , he looked me square in the eye and said, “you need to go.” So I finally signed up.
I am so glad I did.
Educon breaks the mold of all “conferences” at so many levels. First there are the Axioms of the conference:
1. Our schools must be inquiry-driven, thoughtful and empowering for all members
2. Our schools must be about co-creating — together with our students — the 21st Century Citizen
3. Technology must serve pedagogy, not the other way around
4. Technology must enable students to research, create, communicate and collaborate
5. Learning can — and must — be networked
It doesn’t take a Wordle to figure out something is very different. Notice the conspicuous absence of the words: “Tools,” “Integration,” “Web 2.0,” and while it mentions “21st Century,” it’s referring to Citizens, not skills. The emphasis is on education, not technology. But the uniqueness does not end there.
Browse through the session descriptions (notice I didn’t say “presentations”) and two points jump out. First, the quality of presenters is jaw dropping. Usually, you get one, maybe two of these people delivering a keynote address to hundreds of people…and good luck talking to them afterwards. But here you get ALL of them in a classroom setting of twenty or thirty participants. Oh, and by the way, the “participants” are all really, really smart people. I was lucky to sit in a session on teacher training presented by Alec Couros and Dean Shareski that was informational, inspiring, and thought provoking. If those two weren’t enough, who else was in the “audience” but Jon Becker, Will Richardson, Jenny Luca, David Warlick, and yes, my pal Dave Jakes was there too to engage in the conversation. I guess what struck me the most was that THESE people were as eager to learn from us, as we were from them. And I guess that's what makes Educon different: the "us" and "them" just becomes "us."
Did I mention these are conversations? “Presenters” are very careful to make the sessions completely interactive, they are truly “conversations” not “presentations.” During the two days, there are several 9o minute sessions with 30 minute breaks (equally valuable for networking). The best thing is that no one feels intimidated to bring up questions and points. It was refreshing and encouraging to have these people talk “with” me and not “at” me.
Then there’s the school. The SLA is smack in the heart of Philly (my first time, and I thoroughly enjoyed the history, restaurants, and hospitality in the City of Brotherly Love) and is a “magnet” public school of about 475 students. So much of what is “wrong” with education is extinct here. Students focus on all problem-based projects as opposed to memorizing meaningless facts. Kids are in the hallways working with each other and their provided Mac laptops, and seem to be working “with” teachers. There is a comfortable, casual respect for this bright, innovative staff, as they create and discover together. Hmmm seems like the axioms of Educon are also present at the SLA. Students here have a large, genuine role in the Educon experience. From giving tours, to planning meals, to checking your luggage on Sunday to take to the Philly airport, kids are trusted with adult responsibility. And love it. And you read correctly, on Saturday and Sunday, there were many, many, SLA students in white lab coats there to help.
Time prohibits me to elaborate on everything I learned. Bet here are the recurring messages I heard again and again:
· The importance of building relationships with students
· The need for teachers to have an online presence in order to help our kids connect with others
· The critical need to evaluate the value and purpose of student assessments
· The power of tinkering to learn as opposed to a “scientific” approach
The final note is that I came home with zero papers. No handouts, yes is quite green, but also supported the notion of “conversations.” I mean, how many of you bring handouts to a conversation.
Educon was the most valuable conference I have ever attended. I highly recommend it.
Wait, strike that. If you all sign up for Educon 2.3, I might get nosed out. It wasn’t that great.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Are these Two Forbidden? Think again

On more than one occasion, I have heard these phrases spoken by teachers:

“Do not use Google when searching.”
“Do not look at Wikipedia.”

Hmm. My first reaction is usually, “What are you afraid of?” But the bottom line is teachers are not afraid, they have their own concept of research and communication. Also, they see some of these tools and applications as distracting from learning. True, a quick, single word search in Google will return meager results at best, and Wikipedia is not always the best source, but instead of shunning these tools, teachers need to better leverage them to not just improve, but to transform learning. Here are five tools and ways that they can be utilized in the transformation.

Google: True, most kids type in a couple words or a phrase, hit search, and roll the dice. Instead, we need to educate students on how to get the most out of searching. First, as in any search tool, teach kids to use the advanced search feature to limit results. Also, teach them the purpose of quotation marks. A search for Chicago Bears may show results of a recent bear cub born at Lincoln Park Zoo, while “Chicago Bears” will result in information from my team that, yet again, did not make the playoffs. There’s also the “site:” search tool that can really help. Using this followed by a particular code can limit your search to a particular domain (“site:.org”) or results from a particular country (“site:uk” for results from Great Britain) Then there’s the Google options that enable the “Timeline,” “Wonder Wheel,” and other tools. (See my previous post on Google options). And then there’s the custom RSS feeds, Reader, Docs, and…well, you get the idea. The point is that we need to teach kids how to maximize their searching through this powerful search tool.

Wikipedia: Do kids rely too heavily on Wikipedia? Maybe. Do some teachers prohibit Wikipedia because of a perceived lack of credibility? Definitely. To some people, an online encyclopedia edited by the whole world is considered les reliable than a bound book. Here’s what I would suggest: challenge a teacher to find an error in Wikipedia. I have tried this several times, and I have yet to have a teacher find an error that Wikipedia had not already discovered. You will see the warning plastered on the top of a page. Conversely, students need to be aware that while Wikipedia can be a great place to get started, it is by no means the only source on the topic. I tell kids that they can cite Wikipedia once, the same way it would be for any other source. For those of you who really want to transform learning, I challenge you to have kids write a Wikipedia article on, perhaps a local notable. Now THAT”S writing for an audience.

It all goes back to LEARNING first. Neither of these resources is a panacea nor pariah. Teaching kids how to use these tools just gives them more ammunition.

Transform Student Writing

I have heard from some teachers lately that “technology gets in the way of writing.” When you think about it, technology and writing are inextricable. Without a chisel, or pen and paper, printing press, or typewriter, or word processor writing cannot take place. Fittingly, with every new advancement in technology, we are also privy to new opportunities for writing, and more importantly, the teaching of writing.

So why have many not embraced the new opportunities available vie Web 2.0?

The National Council of Teachers of English in its “21st Century Literacies point out that student writers need to “Design and share information for global communities,” and “Build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally.” Clive Thompson stresses “that students today almost always write for an audience.” In The Stanford Study, Andrea Lunsford stated that "I think we're in the midst of a literacy revolution the likes of which we haven't seen since Greek civilization."

Clearly, with such a paradigm shift in writing imminent, the teaching of writing also needs to change. We must create authentic audiences and purposes in virtually all student writing. Now this notion may sound old, but have we really done this across the board? More often then not, the REAL audience of a writing assignment is only the teacher. And although a “simulation” may take place (“Students, in this assignment, pretend you are a lawyer and I am a judge.”) the audience is not real, nor is the purpose, which, in reality, is nothing more than proving to the teacher that the student can write in a particular manner.

To create authentic writing experiences, students must write for a real audience, with a purpose in mind that is valuable to the writer. These experiences can be divided into, what I call, “School-Bound Authentic” and “World Authentic.”

“School-Bound Authentic” refers to writing experiences within the school community that have genuine audiences and purposes within the school. Here are some examples:
· Book reviews by students that can be published on the school library page
· A student-generated textbook wiki for the purpose of assisting others (and one’s self) to learn material.
· Creating a collaborative “jigsaw” project where students research and become “expert” in a particular area of a unit, and share findings with peers.
· Student-generated screencasts that teach peers processes.
· Designating a daily “scribe” to take class notes and post them (Thank you Allan November).

“World Authentic” consists of writing experiences with an audience outside of school that have a genuine purpose for the writer; in other words, the writer hopes to accomplish something with the writing…other than a grade. Here are some examples:

· Twenty-five Days to Make a Difference What started as a young girl’s tribute to her grandfather, turned into a viral phenomenon.
· Write a Wikipedia article. Some teachers bristle at the mention of the word “Wikipedia.” So why not pick a local historical figure and create an article to add to the largest encyclopedia in the world.
· “Hire Me” Have students beginning a work-study program create a “digital resume” where they explain their qualifications on a video.
· “Convince Your Parents” Senior writers can research why a particular college is the best choice, and present findings to those who will foot the bill.
· “Dear Michelle” Students in Texas write the First Lady to share their stories and express genuine concerns.

Most of us are faced with writing opportunities every day. I know that if there is some outcome, other than the writing itself, I tend to write more carefully, and with much more purpose; as a result, my writing is better. If we want our kids to excel, shouldn’t we afford them the same opportunities?