Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sketching out some thoughts about my next unit

Been thinking a lot about my next unit, which involves the novels 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. It seems like the two novels present golden opportunities to examine some of the critical issues facing us today. And like I did last year, I'm thinking of using this unit to introduce students to individual blogging. Not sure if it's my tendency to stick with what I am familiar with or if there is something intrinsic about this unit that lends itself to such endeavors. What is it about a pair of books - both over 50 years old - that would steer me to naturally pair them with use of the latest 21st Century digital learning tools?

Ok, I admit that I am focusing my planning around a digital tool (a blog) rather than deeper deeper critical thinking skills, but it's a start...

Both novels were written as warnings. Warnings about the dangers that the authors envisioned for our societies. In both novels, questions concerning individual privacy, government power, use of propaganda, and social interactions are all raised. Orwell's 1984 focuses on the dangers of a totalitarian, omnipotent government that seeks to control every aspect of its citizens' lives, even their thoughts. Fahrenheit 451, on the other hand, takes a little more indirect approach in its attack on the perils of government power. Bradbury's warning seems to be more focused on what happens when the citizenry loses its desire - and ability - to think for themselves.

For this unit, I'm interested in places I can find common ground. I've taught both novels before, and usually as a tandem: students have a choice of either novel, and we use a Literature Circles model for classroom discussions. Students are grouped according to their novel choice. This year, things are a bit different. The English 10 classes now have an honors option element. The class is still heterogeneously grouped, but students can opt to demonstrate more breadth and depth of understanding to earn an honors distinction on their transcripts. As a result, the students taking the honors option are required to read both novels, while the other students only need to select one. A different challenge for me, but one that I think has helped prod me to focus on tightening the connections.

Then I got to thinking of what I'd like students - both honors and non-honors - to get out of this unit at the end. I, of course, want them to be awed by the powerful style in which Orwell tells his disturbing story, and I want them to appreciate the symbolism and figurative language Bradbury uses in his tale. That's typical high school English class fare, which is fine, but I need to push them (and me) to frame these issues and ideas in our world. I narrowed down their messages to four common threads, or issues:

  1. The threats to individual privacy

  2. The dangers of governmental power

  3. The power of information, propaganda, and language distortion

  4. The potential for mindless entertainment to stifle individual thinking (this one is more tilted towards Fahrenheit 451, than 1984, but...)
All four of those common threads/issues seemed to open a doorway between the societies in the novels and ours today. Aren't we still grappling with these issues almost every day? Or if we are not - as maybe is the case with the students - then maybe we should be, right? These ideas will serve as a focus for when the students start reading and researching relevant issues in our world today. The blog, as mentioned before, will help them achieve that purpose.

I'm still fine-tuning the details, but it's beginning to come into clearer focus...

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Learning, laptops, and promises

There's something magical about a laptop computer. The ubiquitous image of a small powerful computer embodies the vision of 21st century portable computing. And the news has been dotted with stories of laptops in schools, an image that has been both positively and negatively portrayed. There's also the wonderful efforts to put inexpensive laptops in the hands of students in undeveloped countries around the world.

We need to be careful as we broaden our use and reliance on technology. For me, the only thing worse than not having access to adequate technological tools is having access to technological tools that are unreliable or malfunctioning. That's kind of what I was saying in my last post - you know, it was there buried beneath all that the griping and teeth-gnashing. Anyway, the frustration came when the technology didn't deliver on its promise to completely transform our world and radically change learning as we know it. Admittedly, I share some blame for this problem. Maybe it wasn't a promise made by the technology, but an unrealistic expectation I had for it. Either way, the only way to get teachers embracing these powerful digital tools is make them work and keep them working: troubleshoot the glitches, fix the occasional broken keyboard, and keep the network up and running.

It's also time for me to make better on my promises earlier this year to do more in my own classroom. I am fortunate enough to have access to 25 laptops. Now it's time to grow beyond posting comments on the class blog and get the students collaborating with one another, or better yet, with another class somewhere.

Here's one thing I've done so far to keep moving forward. The students in my essay writing class each have blogs, and they are working on an end of semester research paper. Their blogs are serving as a center for their research, something they are having difficulty embracing. This week I told them to find at least three good sources and use it as a jumping off point to write a blog entry about it - summarize relevant information from the source, synthesize the ideas with their own, and ask questions that could lead to further research. Here's a model blog post I wrote to show them some of the basics. In hindsight, I should have spent more time discussing and analyzing the characteristics of a good blog entry, such as embedding the hyperlink and connecting their ideas to what they read.

Well, that's what I have the laptops for, right?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Examining my anxiety over the frustrating excitement of learning new things

I can't say I'm not disappointed with myself. Yet, I am having trouble putting my finger on it. What's most disturbing is feeling like I'm not moving forward, or worse, I'm actually regressing. Am I doing enough? Am I trying to do too much? Is it possible to be both?

Looking back, I have begun to narrow down the source of my angst. (disclaimer: I turned 40 this summer, so forgive this angst, or even the use of the word here) Last school year was eye opening for me. A year ago at this time, my biggest revelation was discovering the use of a classroom blog in which the students posted responses to prompts in the comments section. From there, my learning grew exponentially as I dove further into the use of blogs, wikis, and all those other web 2.0 applications that I conveniently lump together. A big part of that learning was my own personal blog. The excitement I felt last year in my own professional growth was like nothing I had ever experienced. To summarize, I discovered THE shift. THE shift.

And now, here it is December 2007, and I'm back on the blog, posting similar prompts for students to respond to about The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Somehow it feels like I should be beyond that. That the kids would be enthusiastically posting to their own blogs, swapping thoughts, synthesizing ideas they'd gleaned from one another.

Coming into this school year, I thought I was ready for it to continue to bloom. David Warlick facilitated a workshop during the two days before school started. However, that's where the cracks began to show. My excitement evolved into apprehension. In a school filled with teachers who consider themselves technically proficient, hardly any of them knew what an RSS feed was and many consider a blog to be an Internet taboo, akin to those "dangerous" chat rooms of the 1990s. As a result, Warlick's presentation was lost on too many of them who do not have the time to "do all that stuff." I can understand those teachers' frustration, but because I am in a different place.

Embracing these web 2.0 tools is - and should - not be an alternative to some tried and true teaching method, like Literature Circles would be to traditional classroom discussions. We're talking about a new model for learning, one of collaboration and providing new venues for writing. (I know this is no revelation, but my brain takes a while to kick in after I grapple with something for a little while) I know how important "that stuff" is, yet there is still inside me a nagging sense that I don't do enough. Despite having a classroom full of laptops, I still struggle to create meaningful lessons and learning for my students. It would almost be better if I didn't know what I do know. It's that frustration - with myself - that has been the biggest struggle so far.

Here's what I'm talking about. After we read A Separate Peace, I asked the students to create a multi-media presentation on what it means to grow up. In the past, this might have been a poster or a collage followed by a 2-3 minute presentation to the class explaining it. Not this year. This year it was creating a multi-media presentation with Microsoft Movie Maker. Finding powerful photos at Flickr or through Creative Commons. Selecting a song. Putting it all together and saving it as a Windows media file. Of course it took longer than if we spent a few days cutting pictures out of a magazine. If they were going to find pictures on the Internet, they had to include the source. So I set up a wiki page for students to compile and share their work. And then between the movie maker software and the laptops, I had to add almost another week to the whole thing. And still not everyone finished on time. Frustrating.

Why was it so frustrating? Was it because it took longer than I wanted expected? Was it because the students didn't gush with enthusiasm over using the wiki? Was it because it didn't solve all those problems that typically vex every thing we do in the classroom - student apathy, procrastination, struggles to understand, difficulties planning time?

If we add it up, we doubled the time set aside for the project - from one to two weeks. We probably added more frustration and anxiety to the students as they struggled with the technology and the complexities of the assignment. I'm not saying that a little bit of anxiety is a bad thing. And I'll admit, we got much better products than cluttered posters destined to stick to the classroom walls before unceremoniously falling to the floor one by one. Am I not giving myself enough credit? It's taken me a few months to figure out that I have work harder to fight through this frustration and not let it generate even more frustration, which leads to inertia.

Is that the problem? Because I have seen the awesome potential of these web 2.0 tools, am I expecting too much? I have to remain realistic and understand that these new ideas about collaboration and writing are not magic potions to cure what ails education. Sure they can help if they are put in the right hands for the right reasons. Is it that easy? Am I going too slow?

That shift. It's made things a lot more complicated. Frustrating and exciting, too. But still complicated.