Monday, December 22, 2008

A little more pushing, a little bit of progress

Despite some skepticism and pre-Christmas pessimism, I have to admit I am a little energized by our school's new attempt to use a wiki. It's a step we needed to take.

The purpose of the wiki is to gather some of the professional "voices" in the building as we move our curriculum and our instruction into the 21st Century. Right now, we're using it to share ideas and build consensus on the definition of several different student learning behaviors. We use these learning behaviors as points of focus for learning walks by the administration and leadership team. Conversations about how to define these behaviors have been a valuable part of our professional discussion recently. Now part of that conversation can be done with the help of a collaborative wiki.

In this case, we needed to use the technology for the sake of using the technology. Only then will we begin to see just what potential the technology holds and how we can best use it. If, along the way, we extend the conversation beyond our regular meetings, then that's gravy.

What makes a wiki such an appealing tool is that it can help promote such a conversation in a different venue. But more important, the process becomes part of the product. That can be powerful. That needs to be explored.

We'll see.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Colorado school turns the homework model upside down

Here is a novel idea worth thinking about. Several math teachers at a Colorado high school have turned the homework-schoolwork model inside out. Instead of using class time to introduce content (my translation: lecturing or providing direct instruction) and then sending students home to solve problems or grapple with that content, they've decided to flip it. Class lectures and other such materials are now available online or burned on a DVD for students to take home. During class time, the students solve problems and work more directly with the teachers. The TV news folks, of course, portray this shift in educational thinking as a renegade high school doing away with homework.

Anyway, it sounds like something that can easily be done in math or maybe science. But what about English? If I flipped the model like that, what would it look like? Kids could listen to discussion of a novel or hear background about the author at home, while we spend time in class reading and making connections to what we read? I don't know if it has quite the same effectiveness. According to the state of Connecticut, my focus should be (in my words) to teach important literacy skills such as making connections to what they read, identifying the craft of the author writing, and even to "appreciate" texts from a variety of cultures. What I do inside F14 must be with those standards in mind. What is it, then, that we need to flip?

We need to find ways to extend and inspire the conversation outside of class so students can understand the richness of exploring a text and making deep personal connections to it. Just exactly how should that be done? If I had the answer to that, I'd open up my own consulting business and charge people for the answer. (By the way, the teachers mentioned in the video do run an educational consulting company. A feature on the 11 o'clock news can't be bad for business.)

Until then, there are ways we can try. I've experimented with having students post comments on a class blog, write blogs themselves and link to one another, create wiki pages and read one another's work. Right now, I'm starting with Google docs, asking two students to collaborate on gathering quoted evidence from The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Down the road, I'm thinking of asking students to use Google chat to have a dialogue outside of class with a classmate about a piece of literature or issue we're discussing and hand in a transcript of that chat session to me.

What else can we do? What have you done?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Show me the Money!

Been thinking about money lately. Not because the economy has dominated the news for the last six months. And not because I won the lottery, that's for sure.

I've been reading a wonderful blog with a great title - Get Rich Slowly. Although the blog is not written for educators or to explore the digital possibilities of web 2.0 applications, it is one of my favorite regular reads. The blog is devoted to "sensible personal finance," preaching patience as a core belief. That appeals to me, whether we're talking about money or my own professional practice in the classroom. It's also a good reminder for these down times when I feel more frustrated than excited.

Get Rich Slowly is well-written, relevant, and thought-provoking - everything a blog should be. While I enjoy it for it's own sake, the teacher part of me wonders what part of the author's educational experiences prepared him for what he's doing with this blog?

Blog author J.D. describes the blog this way: "You will not find any get-rich-quick schemes here. Nor will you find multi-level marketing fads or hot stock tips. I am not pitching any product or book. Instead, you’ll find daily information about personal finance and related topics... Please note that I am not a financial professional. I’m just an average guy who found himself deep in debt. When it finally became too overwhelming, I began reading personal finance books, hoping to find answers. I wanted swift solutions to my problems. My research revealed that few people get rich quickly, but almost anyone can get rich slowly by patiently following some simple rules."

We can all stand to embrace such a philosophy. First of all, it must be obvious that if more people in this country adopted such a frugal, long view philosophy, then we might not be in the mess we are right now. As classroom teachers trying to make sense of the radically changing educational landscape, we need also to remind ourselves of the sound thinking espoused in Get Rich Slowly. If we want to get "rich," we need to take a long view and be satisfied with incremental steps towards our ultimate goal.

The idea of getting rich and teaching students share many parallels. In the classroom, my ultimate goal is for students to learn the literacy skills necessary to be successful in a changing and increasingly diverse global community. But it's not like I'm ever going to show up for school one day and declare mission accomplished. It just does not work that way. That can also be said for getting rich. To me, it's more about adopting a philosophy than reaching a concrete goal.

With a little tweaking of the 12 key beliefs that form the core of the Get Rich Slow philosophy, I can inform my own teaching and professional growth. In the interest of brevity, here are some highlights of the key beliefs as they apply to enriching our craft by incorporating relevant 21st Century skills and using powerful web 2.0 technology in our classrooms.

Small amounts matter.
Don’t be frustrated if the teacher next to you seems like a tech genius and you are still getting comfortable with a computer. Try out a new tool with a small lesson or a part of an assignment. You have to start somewhere, and saying you could never do it like Mr. Tech Wizard is a lame excuse.
Do what works for you.
Each person is different. What works for one person may not work for another. There’s no one right way to teach 21st Century skills or use technology efficiently as part of the learning process. Be willing to experiment until you find methods that are suited to your class.
The perfect is the enemy of the good.
Here's one area where too many teachers get stuck. Too many people are reluctant to start because they don’t know what the best first step is. The best first step is the one you take. Don’t worry about getting things exactly right.
Failure is okay.
Just don't give up. 'Nuff said.
Do it now.
It’s easy to put things off. But the sooner your start moving toward your goals, the easier they are too reach.
Food for thought...

Saturday, November 08, 2008

My beliefs, our cellphone and the 21st century (of course)

As teachers, we all know how important it is for us to encourage students to try new things, but what happens when it gets turned around on you? Or even worse, you find you too may have to think hard about something? Right now, I am in that territory.

So I got my students involved in the "This I Believe" project through NPR. It's a novel idea and one that was brought to my attention by Anne, who is a teacher in Karl Fisch's school in Colorado. For several years now, she's been assigning the essay to her students, posting them on a class wiki to foster collaboration, and then submitting them to NPR. This year, she's expanded it to other teachers in the world and right now, there's a whole slew of interested educators.

As part of this project, my 21st Century Journalism students are paired with a school in New Jersey. And that means it's time for me to push this thing forward, even if the students resist a little. New things and change are always tough for anyone, adults or children. Of course, pondering the logistics of this latest project, I also find myself grappling with what it is I believe in. That's a hard one.

But we had an interesting discussion in class the other day. It somehow meandered to the ubiquity of the many tiny digital devices and gadgets that make our modern life everything from more convenient and easy to much more busy and complicated. Those same devices popping up in my classroom everyday also help illuminate another width of the divide that exists between education and the world of those we educate. I can see the irony and contradictions that exist in our world and how tend to ignore it, rather than embrace it.

Even before we started carrying cell phones and plugging into ipods, the adult world was full of these type of contradictions. How many times have you heard teachers complain about students not paying attention in their class, only to see those same teachers sitting in a professional development workshop chatting away or grading papers. Today, I'm sure you wouldn't be hard pressed to find a teacher's cell going off in class on one day, and the next day that same teacher confiscating a student's phone. To me, that's just one more instance where the classroom becomes an artificial environment that does little to replicate the real challenges and obstacles we encounter in the real world.

What's the message we send to kids today? What can we do about it?

For me, the best thing I can do right now is write my own "This I Believe" essay along with the students. I'm not exactly sure how it's going to turn out or where it will end up, but I'll soon find out.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Keeping track of those connections

Several of the students in my 21st Century journalism class have asked about how to find and reach a larger audience with their blogs. Right now, they've been mostly confined to our classroom. I'm the audience. However, that model's no different than just typing away on a word processor and handing in a sheet of paper.

The next four things I need to teach and encourage in class:

  1. They've got to register their blogs with a blog tracking service such as
  2. They have incorporate hyperlinks to other blogs they read as part of their writing.
  3. They have to keep reading other blogs to help spur ideas and thoughts for their own blogs so they can link back to those blogs when they write. See number two above.
  4. They have to leave comments on other people's blogs and get themselves involved in the discussion generated by someone's posting.
You know, the more I think about it, I can't just think of this as a prescribed step-by-step process. Yea, I can show them how to sign up for technorati and then subscribe to the feed for their blog links. It's going to take a broader approach and one that does more to provide a broader understanding of what a blog is, how to read one, what it's purpose is. I've touched on this before. In a way, it's like teaching a short story unit. You might start off with Edgar Allan Poe's theory of a short story, then you might read different examples that illustrate plot, irony, or symbolism.

That's where I am now, looking for resources on types of blogs, and examples to illustrate different components. Where should I go? Stay tuned.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Content, digital tools, and glimpses outside the classroom

Although I haven't kept up with this blog as much as I have in the past, I'm still here in F14 - or whatever room I happen to have a key to - plugging away at this thing called 21st Century learning. In the nearly two years since I started this blog, my thinking has evolved, and my practice in the classroom has grown more refined, yet my time spent reflecting on it in this space has dropped precipitously.

The teaching challenge is still there for me - how can I embed digital and web 2.0 tools into my students' learning?

Well, let's see...

This year I've had the good fortune of teaching a class called 21st Century Journalism, which has allowed me the freedom to try different approaches with the students. There's no set content requirements. Instead I've turned things around, focusing on the digital tools that may help students find content rather than using classroom content (the assigned reading books for example) to experiment with digital tools. So while my English 10 classes read a series of short stories and created a wiki resource about them, my 21st Century journalism students signed up for a Google reader account and have begun reading blogs tailored to their interest. As I watch them work, I continue to think about the challenges they face when they encounter a broad variety of digital content.

It's a challenge that Bud the Teacher seems to working with on a recent project about generating research questions for a class studying digital literacy. Having kids explore the issues and contexts of digital literacy would be a valuable activity, if for nothing else to help them make the connections between what they already do online with other valuable productivity tools available. Right now, I think there's a disconnect in kids about that. They may spend several hours on facebook or myspace, but never consider the other applications and implications of the technology they use. I guess that's a teacher's job, to help forge those connections and help trigger that learning.

At the moment, where I'm at is using blogs in the class for students to practice the skills of reading and writing. The more I think about Bud's project, it seems to make sense to include a reflective piece, maybe even borrowing some guiding questions from his project. Do we read websites differently than we do books? Does literacy only mean reading and writing? Or, has the meaning of literacy expanded to include how we understand digital content?

As I ponder those questions and how best to integrate them in class, here are some examples of where so far student blogging has reached outside classroom.

One of the students has begun reading about some local issues, but I've been trying to encourage her to expand her reach and read more about statewide and regional stories. I directed her to a blog by a Connecticut attorney, and she mentioned it in one of her posts. Within a few days, he had left her a comment and, in turn, gave her kudos on his own blog. It was awesome to see the reaction of all the students in the class when they huddled around her computer to read the blog entry where she was mentioned. Sometimes it's the small things that have the biggest impact - even though they all laughed because of the name of her blog.

Another student has begun reading numerous different blogs and now maintains two of them, one for the class and the other a little less schoolish. However, there are times when her personal interests and school do mix. She discovered the postsecret blog and absolutely loved it. She decided to bring that idea to the school. And guess what? That's what she did. Read about it here.

I hope the students keep going, and they don't stop here. There's just too much more to learn.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Irony in the 21st Century classroom

Here's another taste of an authentic 21st Century English classroom, sprinkled with a healthy dose of the latest and greatest technology, and finished off with a hint of irony to keep it real.

It started when I figured out a way to incorporate text messaging into the lesson - something I've been trying to attain for over a year. Anne posted about how she used Polleverywhere to set up an in-class poll that took text message votes. What I did was ask the kids which of the five stories we read in class they liked the best. Simple enough. Just five minutes at the beginning of class to try out the service, get a quick feel from the kids what they thought, and then use that to plan the next step.

It went smoothly, and I recommend Polleverywhere to everyone who's willing to experiment. It's free and easy to use. (Go ahead and respond via text to the one on this page and you'll see what I mean) What I did in class was project the live poll on the SmartBoard, and the kids got a kick watching it move with every vote.

Several of the kids were genuinely enthusiastic about whipping out their cell phones and sending a text. A few kids thought it was a joke, and I think they were legitimately amazed that a text message and a lesson could ever find common ground. That's great. One student even suggested that I do this again, but set it up so kids could text in a discussion question or idea as we walk into class. I plan to take him up on his idea at some time.

So the rest of the class is spent doing a "Take A Stand" activity to discuss upcoming themes in the novel A Separate Peace. To do so, I was using the SmartBoard, projecting a Google presentation of the discussion questions which was embedded in my classroom wiki. What's more 21st Century than that? After the discussion, which covered topics such as jealousy, friendship, and honesty, the kids spent the last 10 minutes of class writing about one of the ideas from the discussion they felt the strongest about.

So where's the irony? Well, during the writing portion of the lesson, I confiscated a kid's cell phone because he was texting during class.