Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Just how much do our kids know? Do we even know?

Last year in class, we were talking about A Midsummer Night's Dream and I showed my students a few clips of some high school and college productions of Shakespeare's play that I had found on YouTube. I had downloaded them and saved them on a thumb drive because our school blocks YouTube.

The kids got a kick out of seeing the humor and emotion from the scenes, something that is difficult to convey with a high school English class reading of the bard. One of the kids asked where I got the clips, and I told them I found them on YouTube.

"You go on YouTube?" one of them asked, apparently flabbergasted.

Although a little surprised that the student would think me technologically behind the times, I brushed it off as another example of the adolescent mindset - the world revolves around teenagers and adults are merely taking up space. However, I am again thinking of this exchange after seeing the results of a student technology survey by Barry that I saw, thanks to a post by Patrick. Essentially, the results seemed to reinforce some ideas I had been having an inkling about in the last several months: our students - for all the talk of digital immigrants, 21st century skills, and the wired generation - are not as digitally literate as we may think they are. Or probably more accurately, not enough has been done in schools to show students the power and potential of the Internet as a real learning tool.

Here is a highlight from Barry's survey:

Barry surveyed the students in his school. He asked them if they do any of the following on a regular basis.
Read a blog (21%)
Post comments to a blog (13%)
Write a blog (7%)
Post to a wiki ( 1%)
Listen to a Podcast (9%)
Create a podcast (2%)
Download Music (70%)
Upload music (33%)
Download photos or
video (35%)
Upload photos or video (38%)
Create videos, but don't upload
them (11%)
Text message (71%)
Send photos or videos I take with my phone (29%)

Conclusion: They text and download music. They entertain themselves with technology. I'm not sure how much content they are creating beyond their messages. Certainly the vast majority of high school students do not know how to use the Office suite for full academic potential, cite sources correctly, or access scholarly sources."

What makes this relevant is that we, as educators, assume that when we use computer technology in the class - whether it's via a spiffy PowerPoint presentation or assignments on a classroom blog - that we will suddenly flip the "on" switch for student learning. Maybe it's because that many of these web 2.0 applications come with such promise that we mistakenly assume too much.

This kind of disconnect - between student engagement and teacher technology use - can be especially sharp for teachers just getting their feet wet in the use of web 2.0 applications. The question I have for teachers, is assuming that Barry's results a generally true, what are the implications for the classroom? What do we need to do as teachers to make sure we are utilizing the proper tools and promoting the important skills? What do we have to do bridge that student technology gap? The gap between viewing and using technology as an entertainment tool and utilizing it as a learning tool? Maybe the first step is for teachers to take that same survey and see what the results would be.One final thought. I was surprised when my student had not considered any educational potential in something like YouTube. How many of the teachers in your building are likewise unaware of such educational potential? What do we need to do to fix that?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Liveblogging - something else to try

Here's another great idea and innovative use of blogs in a classroom - liveblogging. Two teachers in Colorado - Mrs. Moritz and Mrs. Smith - are reading A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink and are facilitating several liveblogging discussions in their classes of the ideas raised in the novel. Check out some examples of the discussions (in the comments) here and here and here. In addition to reading the book, taking part in online and live classroom discussions, students are also writing a persuasive essay and using a classroom wiki to do some of the writing. Both teachers work at Arapahoe High School in Colorado, home of Karl Fisch. As usual, Karl provides an excellent overview of the project and their efforts. That deserved mention here and in my del.icio.us bookmarks.

What's also awesome that as part of the liveblogging, these teachers brought in the author and other professionals into the conversation with the students.

Never heard of Pink's novel before. Now I want to read it.

This is just another example of the numerous ways to "play with" a valuable learning tool by constantly stretching its limits and applying it in other ways. Years ago, when I first began experimenting with Literature Circles I began requiring students to use Post-it notes to mark the text as they read. Even something as simple as that expanded with some creativity from myself and my colleagues - students swapped Post-its and responded to one another; students recorded their best Post-its on a harvesting sheet as a way for me to monitor their thinking; students categorized their Post-its as a class discussion activity.

Sometimes I feel like there's too many awesome ideas and innovative web 2.0 learning applications out there. Add liveblogging to that growing list.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Three questions to ask anyone thinking about using blogs in a classroom

My first electronic writing implement was an electric Smith Corona typewriter. I took typing in high school and, thankfully, I could quickly transcribe my rough draft (scribbled on line paper in which I skipped every other line) onto the final draft. That's how I started writing. As computers became more prevalent, I followed much the same process, eventually learning to write my first draft directly on the screen, saving it, and coming back for revisions. My years as a daily newspaper reporter honed my skills at deadline writing.

So here I am looking back at that as I think about about Thursday's two-hour professional development session on using blogs and wikis in the classroom. Whether I wrote on my Smith Corona or tapped away on a PC, my writing was still confined in the same way. Print it and hand it in. My teachers didn't spend anytime teaching me how to type or how to press ctrl-s to save (in the pre-mouse days). Today, students still write and still "hand it in." Thursday's PD session, I hope, will help spread the word to other teachers that we have many more options these days, more than they might know.

Teachers might come in to the session with a vague idea that some kind of new technology is available to broaden students' writing experiences. And like the promise of all new technological advancements, this one has come with some promises to improve student writing and reading. It's also possible that teachers may come into Thursday with nary an inkling about just how a blog fits into an English - or any other - classroom.

Here are the questions I need to ask of any teacher who wants to use blogs as part of their classroom repertoire.

What do you expect to get out of using a blog? First of all, it's not going to cure the ills of the English classroom. That is, students aren't likely to start magically devouring the written word as if recovering from a lifetime of literary starvation. Throwing their words up into the realm of the blogosphere is probably not going to make them instantly better writers. However, it's reasonable to expect that using a blog can be another tool to promote student reading and writing. And a quite powerful one at that. It doesn't have to be the cure-all, for it to simply be of help. Think about it. A blog offers a student a venue for "publishing" work in the real world; a tool for a reader to respond to what is read; a way for a writer to link to others with his or her writing. Exploit those characteristics. Beyond posting their own writing, use blogs to require students to read others. To leave comments on others. To write posts in response to what they've read and hyperlink to that source. To read comments you leave them about their work. Teach them all those things and more.

How do you want students to use these digital tools? We still must tease out the important concepts and skills embedded in anything we ask the kids to do. Whether it's on a blog, a wiki, or ripped from an electric typewriter, good writing is good writing. One of the biggest realizations I made last year was that just because it's on the internet and requires some up to date technology, doesn't mean students are going to embrace it. For most adolescents, it's probably still a lot cooler to log onto Facebook or Myspace than it is to respond to the ideas of 1984 through a classroom blog. Don't compete with those sites, but rather use a blog or wiki to meaningfully engage your students in their work. They'll respond to that. Exploit the characteristics of a blog for those purposes. (See previous paragraph)

How are you, as a teacher, going to use them? This is quite possibly the trickiest of the three questions. If students are expected to use them, then so are we. Be ready when they have technical questions. They might ask: How do I change the settings for who can leave a comment? How can I import a picture? What's the proper way to hyperlink to something I've read? Make sure you know the answer. The best way to figure it out is to experiment yourself. Look to see what other teachers are doing and borrow their ideas. Tweak it to make it your own. Then try something else.
The thing is, when I handed my papers in way back when in my high school days, that was the end. I waited for the teacher to "correct" it before I got any return on my investment of time and thinking. There are some many more valuable opportunities these days for student writers. It's up to us to take full advantage.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Baseball, blogs, and teachers, in no particular order of importance

I know today is Super Bowl Sunday, but baseball is on my mind. That and a two-hour teacher professional development I'm scheduled to give next week. As I sit here thinking about how to do it, I keep thinking of my son, CJ, and his love for America's pastime. He's always liked to play, but lately he's shown a growing interest in the history of the sport.

What does this have to do with web 2.0 tools in the classroom?

Last year, I gave a professional development class to fellow teachers about web 2.0 and using blogs and other collaborative tools to help instruction. The hour-long session, which focused on the blog I use in my English 10 class, went over well. It lasted longer than an hour, which means teachers stayed well beyond the 3:30 pm requirement to talk about the topic. Many teachers expressed interest in doing something similar.

Unfortunately, few actually followed through as far as I can tell.

Anyone who is reading this probably knows the same - or more likely more - about the most effective use of these read/write tools in the classroom. Or at least, if you are reading this blog, you have a fundamental grasp of the medium. It seems to me that understanding the blog as a medium, as opposed to, say, a newspaper article or non fiction book, is crucial to effectively employing it in a classroom. That idea has to be a basic step in anything I do with teachers.

Often, the word blog conjures up images of partisan political hitmen spreading gossip and innuendo about their opponents. And a wiki, well, that's equal to wikipedia, that hell-spawned repository of false information that's clawing at the very fabric of our culture.

If teachers are going to use blogs and wikis in classes, then those impressions need to be modified. And the place to start is helping teachers understand just what a blog is. How it comes to be. I can worry about the specifics of what to teach them, but for now I'm thinking through the pedagogical foundation of why and how it needs to be taught.

That's where my son, age 7, comes in. We've been reading books together lately on the history of baseball. He has taken a real liking to it and enjoys thumbing through some of the coffee table size books that contain numerous pictures and some lengthy descriptions of old time players and teams. He can read and occasionally reads the text to me. However, there were several times he'd come to a page and look at the picture and ask me: "Who's that daddy?" or "What are they doing?" I would point out to him that there is a caption underneath that explained the picture. Read it, I told him, and he could learn about the photo. He didn't really know to do that. Simple lesson.

It took him a while, and he's still learning. Then it got me thinking. All the books he's read up to now had pictures, but not captions. He regularly reads story books, where any pictures natually complement, or illustrate, the story. A book of baseball history, on the other hand, is non fiction. Both the pictures and the text work together to provide information, and often the photos (with the help of the captions) help tell some piece of the story. To get the most out of the big books we thumb through, he needed to better understand how to read a nonfiction text, figure out the characteristics of that medium. Of course to him, he was simply learning about all the great ballplayers of the past - Ted Williams, Christy Mathewson, and Walter "Big Train" Johnson, which happen to be two of his favorites. (Me, I also like the guy pictured at the top of this space.)

Anyway, that's what I'm thinking about as I work to try and help my colleagues discover the benefits of using things such as blogs and wikis in class. The first step is differentiating what a blog is from what a website is. Based on anecdotal evidence from conversations I've had with teachers, I'm under the impression that posting student writing on a blog is viewed the same way as the idea of creating a class website was 10 years ago. It's a finite undertaking, with a final, concrete product put together at a specific point in the process. That's not a blog. Blogs are more dynamic. They change as the content gets added. They grow as more information and/or ideas are added, both from the writer and readers. Hyperlinks help enhance the reading and writing process. Both teachers and students can - and must - participate in that process of creating content or writing on a blog. There's a not so subtle difference there that is fundamental to understanding the best way to use a blog in a classroom.

Of course that means that reading and comprehensions skills play a prominent role. Anyone reading this blog, for example, would need to know something about me when making a determination about my credibility. That can only be gleaned by reading old posts, viewing information I choose to share on the site. But if I write that Babe Ruth is the greatest player of all time, followed distantly by Ted Williams and then Willie Mays, well you'd have to determine how much to value that in comparison to, say, a columnist from the Sporting News who may hold a contrary view.

But the extension of that idea in a class is that the technology that makes a blog a blog, is what makes it so useful in a class. The same for a wiki. Instantly posting ideas and writing. Leaving comments. Having an easy to access menu of drafts for a piece of writing. Accessibility from almost anywhere. But before you use it in a classroom, you need to better understand it.

This week will be another step in hopefully spreading that word in my school.