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...