Putting Learning into Practice – Looking Ahead to the Final Project

I have certainly learned a lot this past ten months about technology and education. As the COETAIL program has progressed, I have been applying my new knowledge by making small changes to what i am doing in the classroom. I have also been reflecting on my practices as an educator, having meaningful discussions with my colleagues and my administrators about the future of technology in our school, and talking to fellow COETAILers about their journeys. Now, however, it is time to do something bigger – to go boldly where I have not gone before – and really make some significant change. .It is time for the final project. Time for me to show what all this learning has really meant to me. I have been told that I should strive to reach the redefinition level of technology use in education as defined by Ruben R. Puentedura in his Transformation, Technology and Educationbasically meaning that I should use technology to allow for the creation of new tasks that were inconceivable without it. I should push myself, my students, and education in general to new boundaries.It is a lofty assignment to say the least.

Not surprisingly, after first I really struggled with this assignment. What could I really do in my classroom that will be truly meaningful? Seeing as I work in a school where students do not have consistent access to laptops, I would have to think very carefully about what was realistic.

Luckily, I have a colleague and friend, a fellow grade 5 teacher, who is also keen to see more technology used by the students. Awhile back, I mentioned to her that I was struggling to come up with a good idea for the final project, and she suggested that we work together.

Both of us, at times, have lamented the fact that working at a small school means we work largely in isolation. We have both come from schools where we taught more than one subject to one grade level and where we worked in teams. In our current school, however, we are the only teacher of our respective grade levels and subjects. I teach all the grade 5 and 6 English classes, and she all the grade 5 and 7 Social Studies course. While the flexibility we have to do our own thing with the course material is great, sometimes we find lack of collaboration hard to bear.

We have been toying with the idea for the past year of trying to do a collaborative project, but so far, nothing has materialized. Now, this final project that I must complete is offering the perfect opportunity for us to attempt some collaboration. She is also a COETAIL participant, in a different cohort that has just completed course 2, so she is also eager to experiment with some new ways of teaching and learning with technology.

In grade 5 Social studies, her students have been studying the ancients – Ancient Egypt and Ancient Greece, and soon, they will study Ancient Rome. In grade 5 English, in Writing Workshop, my students have been writing personal narratives. Next, they will look at persuasive writing and fiction. In the Independent Reading portion of the course, students have studied the different genres of writing and examined examples of each. Soon, they will studying the genre of  historical fiction.

My colleague and I decided that we could use content from her course to create a piece of writing in my course. Then, we could take the piece of writing and have the students create a piece of digital media that could be shared with the wider community. We are currently toying with two ideas – having the students create a non-fiction documentary film or having them create a historical fiction movie.

One thing that we have noticed is that our students often create videos for different subjects, but they do not seem to have received much direct instruction in how to effectively plan, film, and edit a video. I think one trap that educators fall into is that they ask their students to create digital media without teaching students how to do so. We plan to take class time, both in Social Studies class and in English class, to view existing non-fiction documentary or historical fiction films. We will discuss with the students what makes the film effective and come up with some guidelines as a class. Likely, we will also teach students how to use story board to plan out their documentary/movie.

Documentary – Students will create a documentary film. They will have to have research facts about their topic, which will be related to either ancient Egypt, Greece, or Rome. For example, students may choose to do a documentary describing how pyramids were made. This will provide the Social Studies link. Students will learn the techniques of expository writing. They will have to plan out how they are going to present their knowledge in the documentary and write a script. This will provide the English link. Then, students will create the digital media and present it to their classmates for critique.

Historical Fiction Film – Students will create a short film telling a fictional story based on historical fact. The story must include factual historical details, providing the link to Social Studies. They will learn the elements of historical fiction through reading a few examples and class discussions. They will have to plan out their story using a plot line, a planning technique which they were introduced to in first semester, and then they will expand on this plot line by making a digital storyboard. Next, they will write a script and then film their story. Finally, they will present their story to the class for a critique.

We have spoken to the principal about our idea, and she is keen to support our desire to work on a collaborative project. We have asked for and been granted some planning time on our first faculty in service day of the new calendar year. Over the Christmas holidays, I plan to connect with my personal learning network and to mine my Google reader for ideas on how to go about designing the collaborative unit.

I believe that this project is an example of using technology to redefine the curriculum for a few reasons. First, the students will be learning some techniques about filming. Until this point, I have never given my students any sort of explicit instruction on how to create good digital media. Secondly, we plan to use the Internet to access examples of other films or documentaries that students have made. When we do this, we will show students how to develop their own learning networks. We are also thinking about creating a class wiki so that the students can post their thoughts and successes and challenges as they are working on creating the video. Then, when the movie is finished, we will publish it online and seek feedback not only from peers but also the wider community. Students may also be able to enter their videos in a local school film festival. Furthermore, the students will be using higher order thinking skills because rather than just reading historical fiction or viewing documentaries, they will be creating their own.

Though it will require a lot of time and energy, I am really looking forward to this project. Collaboration and media creation, here I come!

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I’ll admit it. I’m scared. Lately, I have been reading a lot about how technology is affecting our world, and truthfully, it scares me. Now, I know that that might sound a little strange. After all, what is there to be scared of? Technology allows me to do a lot of things that were never possible just a short time ago. I can Skype with my parents back in Canada when I am feeling homesick, I can catch up on the world news using an app on my iPhone when I find myself bored and sandwiched between a bunch of Japanese salary men on the train, I can look in the fridge and immediately find a recipe online that uses the ingredients I have on hand…. Technology is great! So, why am I scared? Well, the truth is, I am scared because if our world is changing, then that means that the job market is changing, and that means that education needs to change in order to prepare the future generations for said job market, and well…. I am a teacher. Thus, I need to change. And frankly, change is scary!Sometimes I simply feel overwhelmed by it all.

As educators, most of us are somewhat familiar with the three major learning theories –  behaviouralism, cognitivism, and constructivism. These theories attempt to explain how human beings learn and gain knowledge.

The problem is that our world is changing, and all of these theories emerged before technology had a significant impact on education. Today, whether we like it or not, technology is having a significant impact on what is happening in our classrooms. Even if we tried to keep technology out of things and continued to teach without using technology, we would not be able to stop our students from accessing it and using it to work on our coursework outside our classroom.

Because of the great impact that technology is having on learning, some learned people argue that there needs to be a new theory on learning. A new theory that is gaining a lot of ground is called “connectivism”.

In a Wikipedia entry, called Connectivism, Micah White and Tom Whyte say that “Connectivism proposes that learning and knowledge exists within networks. The basis of this learning theory shares beliefs with Vygotsky’s Activity Theory and Social Constructivism, in that through interaction, social activity and collaboration learning occurs”.

Not too long ago, if you needed to know something, you would ask a teacher or find a book on the topic. You had to seek out information. In today’s world, however, you can find heaps of information in no time just by typing a few words into a search engine. The sheer amount of knowledge available to us humans has been growing at an exponential rate. George Siemens, in his article called Connectivism, quotes Gonzalez as saying “Half of what is known today was not known 10 years ago. The amount of knowledge in the world has doubled in the past 10 years and is doubling every 18 months according to the American Society of Training and Documentation (ASTD).” And this quote was from 2004.

In the same article, Seimens identifies some significant trends in learning:

  • Many learners will move into a variety of different, possibly unrelated fields over the course of their lifetime.
  • Informal learning is a significant aspect of our learning experience. Formal education no longer comprises the majority of our learning. Learning now occurs in a variety of ways – through communities of practice, personal networks, and through completion of work-related tasks.
  • Learning is a continual process, lasting for a lifetime. Learning and work related activities are no longer separate. In many situations, they are the same.
  • Technology is altering (rewiring) our brains. The tools we use define and shape our thinking.
  • The organization and the individual are both learning organisms. Increased attention to knowledge management highlights the need for a theory that attempts to explain the link between individual and organizational learning.
  • Many of the processes previously handled by learning theories (especially in cognitive information processing) can now be off-loaded to, or supported by, technology.
  • Know-how and know-what is being supplemented with know-where (the understanding of where to find knowledge needed).

He continues by saying “In today’s environment, action is often needed without personal learning – that is, we need to act by drawing information outside of our primary knowledge. The ability to synthesize and recognize connections and patterns is a valuable skill.” Basically, in today’s world, to be successful, humans do not need to have a bunch of knowledge in their own heads. What they need to be able to do is find the information they need to address a task, analyze it, synthesize it, and apply it.

We must “form connections between sources of information, and thereby create useful information patterns” to acquire learning in today’s world that is so replete with knowledge.
In conclusion, Siemans says that “our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today”. And that when knowledge is needed, the ability to “plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill.” Basically, the theory of connectivism acknowledges that learning is not longer an “individualistic activity” and it provides us with “insight into learning skills and tasks needed for learners to flourish in a digital era.”

Confused yet? This is not easy stuff to digest. The diagram below offers a rudimentary visual of what connectivism theory is suggesting.
Source: http://sites.wiki.ubc.ca/etec510/Connectivism

For teachers, this can be scary stuff. It is much easier for us to teach students the lower order skills on Bloom’s taxonomy – remembering and understanding. The higher order skills of applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating take more work and frankly are a bit more messy. It’s far easier to plan lessons and create assessments that ask students to simply know things. Assessments of these skills often have clear right and wrong answers. In today’s world, however,  “Learning is a knowledge creation process…not only knowledge consumption” and “learning tools and design methodologies should seek to capitalize on this trait of learning”(Connectivism.ca). Therefore, teachers must think more about designing lessons and assessments that stress these higher order skills.

I am not the only teacher out there realizing that change in education is needed. I work with a guy named Mitch Norris. In his recent post called Connectivism and 21st Century Education he said that in light of the connectivism theory, us educators should think more carefully about the tests and quizzes we are giving. We should not just assess knowledge, but instead assess higher order thinking skills. We need to start “designing tests that have students access the information and synthesize it or use it to create their own products”. Basically, we should be assessing “how well a student can learn as opposed to how much students know”. Norris goes on to talk about A Google a Day which “tests very specific skills and lateral thinking as opposed to recall of information”. When you visit the site, you are presented with a question that you must answer by searching Google. The catch is that the answers to these questions require fairly advanced search skills. I tried the site myself and was given the following question – You are a light-skinned European and have brown eyes. Your spouse is a light-skinned Nordic with brown eyes. What color eyes will your baby be born with?  I was able to find some pretty good information by doing a few quite specific searches, but in the end I did not get the correct answer. Perhaps I, like my students, need to work on improving my higher order skills as well.

It is clear that today’s teachers need to rethink the way they have been doing things in the classroom. One teacher who is really thinking outside the box is Aaron Sams. In my last post, I talked about watching a video in which Sams presented the ‘Flipped Classroom model’. After years of working with the flipped classroom model, Sams is now taking it to the next level. Sams says that when planning, teachers should not shoot for the middle, but instead, design their lessons for the fringes – the low end and the high end. He says, if you design for the fringe, everyone benefits. He now tries to give kids multiple ways to learn something and multiple ways to prove that they have learned it. He provides his students with an objective, and if they want to learn the objective some other way than his videos and activities – they can look for the answers themselves. For example, they can Google it, read the textbook, or watch someone else’s video. This is a good example of differentiation in practice, as Sams provides the resources that the kids need to arrive at the answer, but he does not hold the brightest kids back from doing their own thing.

He also has begun to give “Open Internet” tests. Basically, when it is test time, he allows his students to have access to the Internet. He decided to do this after discovering Wolfram Alpha, a website that does computations for you. So, if your Math homework consists simply of basic problems to be solved, Wolfram Alpha can do it for you. So Sams started asking himself, Just what do my students really actually needed to know off the tops of their heads? He is not sure of the answer yet, so he is trying the “Open Internet” testing in order to find out. Of course, his students think it’s great. After all, they think they can just find all the answers to the test on the ‘Net. But Sams isn’t just asking them simple fact questions that sites like Google and Wolfram Alpha can give you the answers for, and he reminds his students that they have to know what they are looking for.

Recently, I watched a fantastic video, which made me feel a bit better. The video is of a presentation given by Dan Pink called Drive.  In the video, Pink talks about our drives as humans. He says that we have biological drives. For example, when we feel hungry, we are driven to find something to eat. Unlike animals, however, humans are more complex than that. We also respond to rewards and punishments. We are driven to achieve rewards for our behaviours and deterred from doing certain things because of punishments. Humans are more complex than this second drive too though; we have a third drive. Pink says we also do things because we find them interesting and/or inherently gratifying, because we get better at them, because they make a contribution, and because they are part of a larger purpose. Basically, humans like to learn.

Pink is right. Humans do like to learn. I am not taking this Coetail class because is satisfies one of my biological urges. I am also not taking this Coetail class because I will punished if I do not. In fact, I could argue that taking this Coetail course is punishment, especially since I have been working on writing this post for many hours. LOL. Sure, I may get paid a little more by my school when I complete this course, but the monetary payoff, in the short term anyway, is so small that it is negligible. It is that third drive that Pink talks about that is pushing me through this course. I want to learn. I want to grow. I find this interesting. I want to be a better teacher.

So, that said, I will try to put my fears aside and embrace this idea of connectivism. The seeds of change have been firmly planted in my head, and I am now thinking more and more each day about what I can do to make my classroom a place where more connected learning takes place.

Connectivism suggests that we get knowledge from those that we are connected to. Next month, I am going to try to put a lot of what I have been learning about technology and education into practice and design a new unit of study. The unit is going to involve the creation of a documentary. I know very little about this and need more knowledge before I embark on the unit. Before I even read about connectivism, I was already thinking about how I could reach out to the educational community for ideas, examples, and advice. Over the Christmas holidays, I plan to put out calls for help and advice on my Facebook and Twitter pages and on some of the blogs that I follow. I also plan to mine my Google Reader for ideas and relevant articles. Furthermore, I am going to do some specific Internet searches for sample units that can guide me as I create my own. I will accessing my PLN and the wealth of knowledge available to me on the Internet, basically doing what Seimans described earlier – drawing information from outside of my primary knowledge, synthesizing, and looking for connections and patterns.

What is becoming more and more clear to me is that educators need to be teaching students how to live successfully in this connected world. As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I tutor a student who has some learning difficulties. The biggest thing I have been working with her lately on is how to access the kind of information she needs to complete her assignments. For example, recently she was writing a paper on Cleopatra. Immediately after receiving the assignment, she went to Google, typed in Cleopatra, and came up with just under 50 million results in. 0.12 seconds. Then she started to read, one article at a time. It was painful to watch, so I quickly intervened. I asked her what she needed to know about Cleopatra. She hadn’t even thought about what the assignment was asking her to do before she had accessed Google. I told her that she should really needed to learn to do something I call “search smart”. In today’s world, with all the information that is so readily available to us, we must learn how to find the information that we need. This experience that I had with one of my students provided me with a window into some of the issues that the other students are having with finding the information they need to complete tasks. I am sure it is not just this one girl who is struggling with finding information and living in this very connected world. The take away from this is that I, along with the other teachers in my school, need to be doing more to teach students how to “search smart”, make connections, and manage information in order to develop knowledge and understanding.

MisterNorris Connectivism
Connectivism – Wikipedia entry
Information Growing Exponentially
The Speed of Information

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Flipping Out – Reflections on the Flipped Classroom

If you are an educator who pays attention to current trends in education, you will most certainly have heard the term “Flipped Classroom” being thrown around a lot lately. I myself heard about it last March at the EARCOS annual conference. So what is a ‘flipped classroom’? Is it just another educational fad that is destined to live a short life or is it a real way of changing education for the future?

To learn more about the flipped classroom, I first visited the article Reverse Instruction: Dan Pink and Karl’s “Fisch Flip” on the Connected Principals blog. The article opens by saying:

As the Internet revolution continues to build and increasingly influence everything under the sun, so too it is going to have a massive impact on teaching and learning in K-12 schools.  Educators who don’t anticipate this change and work to ride the wave will be subsumed by it, I fear.

I happened to be reading the article in the presence of a friend and teaching colleague and read the line aloud to her. She laughed and said, “Ain’t that the truth”. I think we all know teachers, and schools too for that matter, who have been slow to adapt to the rapidly changing nature of the job and therefore fail to adequately equip students for the world they are about to enter.

We live today in a world of content. In the past, you looked to teachers for information, but today, if you need to know something, you are likely going to head to the computer first before you ask a teacher for help. The article raises the question: If kids can get the content from the computer, why are teachers using precious class-time delivering content?I Perhaps, us educators should be ‘flipping’ our classrooms. Instead of using class time for delivering content/lecture, we should have the students to receive the content at home and then we should allow students to use class time to work on the assignments that we would have previously given as homework. If we do this, us educators will be there to “teach” our students when they encounter problems with the assignments. With the growth of the Internet, memorization of facts is becoming less and less important. The kids of the future are going to need to apply knowledge, synthesize information, and collaborate, so us teachers should give them time to do that in class, instead of making them sit and listen to us. They can do sitting and listening at home instead, and the added beauty of this is that if they miss something while listening, they can simply replay what we have said.

In the article Think-Tank: Flip-thinking – the new buzzword sweeping the US, author David Pink, talks about Karl Fisch, a teacher who has “flipped teaching on its head”. He has done this by uploading his lectures to YouTube for his students to watch at home at night and then getting them to apply the concept they learned in the lecture in class during the school day. After talking about education, Pink goes on to suggest how this concept of ‘flipping’ can apply not only in the classroom, but also to all kinds of professional organizations. For example, Pink notes, ‘flipping’ can apply to the publishing industry. Usually publishers first put out an expensive hardcover and then come out with a cheaper paperback later.  Seth Godin, marketing guru and author, has proposed that publishers should put out the cheaper paperback first as  “readers are more likely to gamble on an unknown author” if the book won’t set them back too much pocket money. Then, if the book sells well and gets some fans, the publisher could then sell an expensive hardcover collector’s edition.

Pink ends the article by saying:

“Here’s your homework for tonight. Ask yourself: what is one process, practice, method or model in my business, work or life that I can flip? We’ll work on your answers together in class tomorrow.”

I took Pink’s advice and started to think about what exactly I could “flip”. Unfortunately, nothing immediately jumped to mind, so I continued to do a bit more reading.

I decided to watch the video Did you Know/Shift Happens 4.0. It was fascinating, and I definitely recommend viewing it yourself. One quote from the video that struck me was:  “The computer in your cell phone today is a million times cheaper and a thousand times more powerful and a hundred thousand times smaller (than the one computer at MIT 1965)…what used to fit in a building now fits in your pocket, what fits in your pocket will fit inside a blood cell in 25 years.”  Truly the world is changing. The message is clear – as educators, we must adapt.

I next visited a post called Vodcasting and the Flipped Classroom and watched two videos about Aaron Sams and Jonathan Bergmann, two pioneers in the ‘flipped classroom’ movement. The thing that Sams said that struck a chord with me was: “Now I walk around the class, and I help kids…” Isn’t that what we teachers should all be doing all the time? I stopped to think about my classroom. How often do I actually get to walk around the classroom and help kids? Honestly, I am sad to say, the answer is: “Not much”.  I don’t consider myself an archaic teacher, but I still spend a lot of time directing the instruction. Maybe it’s time for me to ‘flip’.

One thing I have noticed, however, about ‘flipping’ is that some subjects seem to lend themselves better to it than others. If you look for great examples of reverse instruction or ‘flipped classrooms’, you are sure to find a plethora of Math and Science examples.  Bergmann and Sams, the pioneers of the movement, are both Science teachers and Fisch is a teacher of Math. Being a teacher of English myself, I sometimes struggle to know what exactly flipping would like in my classroom.

After a bit of searching, I did manage to find an example on the Vocasting Ning (or The Flipped Class Network) called Example of an English podcast. During the 9 minute podcast, a teacher goes through a student’s essay, paragraph by paragraph, offering feedback on how to improve it. I assume that this podcast was created during the teacher’s time and given to the student to view as homework. One commenter posted a reply to the podcast saying that it was a great idea, but noted that it would take him/her 16 hours and 30 minutes just to give the first level of feedback on one paper to her 110 students. I must admit, I was thinking the same thing. I guess the advantage here of doing a podcast rather than a live conference with a student is that the student can play back the podcast whenever he or she needs, and therefore, the teacher can avoid having to re-explain himself/herself. In that respect, perhaps it would be worth making the time investment.

I decided to do a search for Middle School English to see if I could find some more examples. After a little digging, I found ADAM FACHLER’S BLOG  titled ELA and Social Studies Vodcasting. There he states:

I would love to start a conversation with some peers about fleshing out how an hour-long class period might be spent using this model as well as best practices for vodcasting for Language Arts or any humanities teacher.  I know people might respond by saying “Use it however you would spend class time normally,” but the Atwell/Graves/Caulkins middle school workshop is a purposefully versatile structure and requires a truly diverse range of mini-lessons and workshop possibilities.  One idea I have had is to frontload by creating a whole library of vodcasts for a unit and allowing students to move through the progression (i.e. how to write a feature article/short story or how recognize the elements of an unfamiliar genre) at their own pace while I formatively assess and coach students through the material.

Since I too use the Lucy Calkins Reading and Writing Workshop models, which advocate teaching reading and writing using a workshop approach that includes mini-lessons and active engagement time, I decided to sign up for the Ning and connect to Adam. The best way to learn is through conversations with others.

I next visited The Flipped Class Blog and read The Flipped Class Revisited.  Here, the author addresses some fears people have of flipped classrooms including fear that the flipped class will lead to less engaged students who simply look at videos, fear that the flipped class will lead to huge classes with little engagement, fear that the flipped class is just bad lecture on video, and fear that the flipped class hurts students who have limited access to technology. I thought that the point about the flipped class being just bad lecture on video was particularly interesting for two reasons. First, I think there is some truth to the statement. I have looked at number of videos made by teachers on the web, and yes, there are a number of examples of bad lectures out there. That said, however, I have come across more good examples of flipped classrooms than bad ones. Secondly, I think if teachers were to record their lessons on video, they would think more carefully about the quality of them. I know that if I am going to record myself teaching something, I am going to think a lot more carefully about the quality of my lesson than if it is just a one-time spiel that I give in the classroom. Therefore, I think getting teachers to record themselves giving lectures/lessons would actually improve the quality of the ones that are given. After all, you are going to be “publishing” your work if you are recording it and giving it to the students to view outside of the school, and people often put more effort into the things that they publish.

I next viewed a video of Aaron Sams presenting the Flipped Classroom model to the American Chemical Society meeting.  In the video, he states that the idea of giving students content to view at home which will be discussed later in class is not really all that new or revolutionary. English teachers, he says, do it all the time when they ask students to read a story at home and then discuss it the next day in class. Hearing that as an English teacher, who often gets students to read things at home, made me feel a bit better.

Sams suggested that ‘flipping’ a classroom means that “the kids that need the attention get the attention”. For example, the kids that understood the lecture and now knew what to do could simply get to work and the ones that needed extra help could get it. In every classroom, there are students that demand the teacher’s attention. Often, these are the children that are quite engaged with your lessons and not needing of extra support. Unfortunately, it is often the kids that are struggling the most that do not ask for attention and wish to appear invisible. Having a flipped classroom means that you have time to move around the classroom because you are no longer stuck at the front of the room lecturing, thus, no child should be able to slip through the cracks.

During the video, Sams provided a chart that showed possible breakdown of a traditional 90 minute course. What is notable from the chart below is that the students get a lot more guided and independent practice time in class in the flipped model.

Traditional Flipped
Warm Up 5 mins Warm up 5 mins
Go over previous night’s homework 20 mins Q and A on podcast 10 mins
Lecture new content 30-45 mins Guided and Independent Practice/Lab Activity 75 mins
Guided & Independent Practice/Lab Activity 20-35 mins

Near the end of the video, Sams gives a great analogy and if you have been reading my blog for a while now, you know I love a good analogy. He says that he sees assessment like a GPS. If you are in a car and you turn the wrong way, the GPS will say “redirecting” and then reassess your location and offer a new set of directions. Sams says, “As a teacher, I need to be the GPS. You made a wrong turn here. I need to redirect back to where you need to go.” What a great example of ‘differentiation’, another one of those educational buzzwords. Because you are constantly interacting with your students in a flipped model, you are able to differentiate your instructions for each of them.

After I finished the video, I wanted to learn more about Bergmann and Sams, so I visited learning4mastery and clicked on the news tab.  I decided to watch one more video and chose to view Flipped/Mastery Education Model: Student Impressions to see what students thought about flipped classrooms. Each student interviewed seemed to really enjoy the Flipped Classroom model. One quote I especially liked was “You can get more help on the assignments when you are at school, rather than struggling with them at home because you don’t have the teacher help at home.”

How often do we get students coming into our classes saying they didn’t do the homework, because they didn’t understand it? I get it often enough. Usually I reply by telling them that they should have come to see me before the assignment was due. I also sometimes get parents emailing me and asking me questions about certain assignments. Perhaps if I flip my classroom, I can be the one helping my students with their assignments instead of having the parents do it, and I should be able to avoid the “I didn’t understand it” excuse.

I think the best thing about the Flipped Classroom model is that you can sometimes have students working at their own pace. Once every two weeks, I devote time to teaching grammar concepts. Sometimes my students understand the concept right away, but some need extra explanation. Unfortunately, all of my students have to listen to the extended explanation when not all of them need it. Sometimes I can even see the brightest kids in the class yawn and stare off into space. If I recorded the basic explanation and my students watched that for homework, I could give the students the practice exercises in class and then work with the ones that were having the most difficulty without having to hold the brightest ones back.

I know I could also use the flipped classroom approach with my Writing Workshop lessons. For example, every year, I teach my fifth graders how to punctuate dialogue. I also teach my sixth graders the same thing. Even though I taught the sixth graders how to punctuate dialogue in fifth grade, many of them completely forget how to do it correctly over the summer holidays. A small handful of kids, however, remember how and do not need to sit through a whole lesson on the topic again. Currently, however, I make them. Perhaps, I could video my lecture on punctuating dialogue. Kids could watch it for homework. Then, I could do a quick assessment the next day to figure out which kids have got it and are therefore ready to move on and which kids still need help. Then, I could let the ones who were ready to move on work with each other in a peer revising workshop, while I would with the kids who need more explanation on how to properly punctuate dialogue.

My brain is churning. I am starting to look at everything I do in the classroom and ask, How can I flip this? Thank goodness the Christmas holidays are coming up. Maybe I can do some experimenting and recording over the break and try out some samples in the new year. I’ll make it a resolution.  :)


Note: Even if you have been using the flipped classroom model for a while now, I still strongly suggest you view Sams’ video – most especially the final section as he talks about how he is now taking the flipped classroom to the next level.

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Technology Integration – What does it really mean?

The term “technology integration” is on a lot of lips these days, but what does it really mean? Is it as simple as having a bunch of computers in a school or is it more than that?

If you head over to Wikipedia and type in Technology Integration, it will tell you that the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) offers this definition of technology integration:

Curriculum integration with the use of technology involves the infusion of technology as a tool to enhance the learnign in a content area of multidisciplinary setting….. Effective integration of technology is achieved when students are able to select technology tools to help them obtain information in a timely manner, analyze and synthesize the information, and present it professionally. The technology should become an integral part of how the classroom functions – as accessible as all other classroom tools. The focus in each lesson or unit is the curriculum outcome, not the technology. 

The two words that most stand out to me in the above quote are “infusion” and “select”. I work in affluent private international school. We have quite a bit of technology in the building – there are SMART boards, and iPads, MAC laptop carts and computer labs. Because of this, many would say that our school is doing just fine when it comes to technology. We are current. But, is the technology we have in “infused” into the curriculum? Are students often given the opportunity to “select” the technology tool they want to help them obtain information?

My school probably needs to take a lesson from Harrison Central High School. If you want to see technology integration in practice, you should watch this video about their school. In the accompanying article: Why Integrate Technology into the Classroom: The Reasons are Many, you’ll find this quote:

“Integrating technology into classroom instruction means more than teaching basic computer skills and software programs in a separate computer class…. Effective technology integration is achieved when the use of technology is routine and transparent and when technology supports curricular goals.”

I think this quote hits the nail on the head. Effective technology integration is when the use of technology in the classroom is seamlessly integrated with real-life learning. When technology devices exist as just one of the many tools in the classroom to enhance learning, I believe you have achieved technological integration. The technology does not drive the curriculum, but enhances it to provide an improved learning environment. Strong curriculum is key. Each teacher in the video at Harrison Central High School had clear learning objectives and was utilizing technology to achieve them.

I also think having a person in the role of technology coordinator is paramount to success. In the video from Harrision Central High School, the educational technology coordinator was there supporting the teachers and coordinating the integration of the technology. If schools do not have a clear vision, I believe it is very hard to achieve true technological integration.One school that seems to be succeeding in this area is the International School of Bangkok. They employee “technology and learning coordinators” at all three levels of the school – elementary, middle, and high. The teachers at ISB look to these coordinators for help with projects that are directly linked to their curriculum and content areas. (To hear more about what is happening at ISB – listen to this podcast: Shifting Our Schools episode 11: How Do We Connect Technology and Classroom Instruction Seamlessly?) I truly believe that all schools, no matter how small, should look at creating and staffing these positions if they are really serious about integrating technology.

It is important for schools and teachers to realize what integrating technology is NOT. Stratford Board of Education also offers an explanation. It is “NOT the use of managed instructional software, where a computer delivers content and tracks students’ progress” OR “having students go to a computer lab to learn technical skills while the classroom teacher stays behind to plan or grade papers” OR “using specialty software for drill and practice day after day”. And it most certainly “does NOT replace a teacher with a computer.”

What technology integration is is “when classroom teachers use technology to introduce, reinforce, extend, enrich, assess, and remediate student mastery of curricular targets.” It is:

…an instructional choice that generally includes collaboration and deliberate planning—and always requires a classroom teacher’s participation. It cannot be legislated through curriculum guides nor will it happen spontaneously. Someone with vision—an administrator, a teacher, or a specialist—needs to model, encourage, and enable integration, but only a classroom teacher can integrate technology with content-area teaching.

I recently had a look something called the Technology Integration Matrix. This matrix “illustrates how teachers can use technology to enhance learning for K-12 students. The TIM incorporates five characteristics of “meaningful learning environments” with five “levels of technology integration”.

The design of the matrix seems to suggest that it is best to be in the transformation stage of technology integration most of the time, but I have some problems with this. For example, if you look at the “Active” characteristic of a “meaningful learning environment” and then find the Transformation column, you will find this:

Students have options on how and why to use different technology tools, and often extend the use of tools in unconventional ways. Students are focused on what they are able to do with the technology. The technology tools become an invisible part of the learning.

The teacher serves as a guide, mentor, and model in the use of technology. The teacher encourages and supports the active engagement of students with technology resources. The teacher facilitates lessons in which students are engaged in higher order learning activities that may not have been possible without the use of technology tools. The teacher helps students locate appropriate resources to support student choices.

The arrangement of the setting is flexible and varied, allowing different kinds of self-directed learning activities supported by various technologies, including robust access to online resources for all students simultaneously.

Sure, it sounds wonderful, but I do not believe that my 10 and 11 year old students know enough of the technology tools available in order to make informed decisions about which technology tool to use. I would love to teach them all the different tools out there, but the reality is that I still have a curriculum that I must cover. All that said, I suppose if a student did come to me with a new way of doing an assignment and the objectives were still being met, I would allow it. It is true that I currently have some students working on their narrative pieces in Microsoft Word, and some in Google docs, and some in Pages. Another thing, besides students’ familiarity with technology tools, that gets in the way of achieving the transformation stage, is the access you have to technology at school. Last year, I did have students using a variety of programs to complete a major project. I allowed two groups of students to bring in their own devices to work on these projects as they had specialty programs that they wanted to you. Then I was told that I had to stop allowing this as our school did not yet have a policy to govern the use of students using their own devices. Thus, when in school, my students are limited only to the tools that the school can provide.

I feel like this incident would not have happened if my school had a clear vision and strategy for technology integration. Perhaps I should share this TIM site with the media department and administration. The site’s Table of Teacher Indicators could provide a starting place for discussion about what teachers need in order to effectively integrate technology in the classroom.

After evaluating myself on the Table of Teachers Indicators, I was pretty relieved to find that, when it comes to technology integration, I have surpassed “entry level” in each of the characteristics of learning environments. That said, in a lot of areas, I feel like I could do a better job of integrating technology into the classroom. In some cases, I am being held back by the amount of technology that is available to me. We are not yet a 1:1 school, so simply not having regular access to a class set of computers prevents me from achieving the transformation stage in some of the learning environments. I am, however, looking forward to January. I will be meeting with the grade 5 Social Studies teacher and the principal to begin work on a collaborative project where we will hope to focus more on the some elements of infusion. The Social Studies teacher and I will have to give up some instructional time introducing some technology tools to our students, but we hope that teaching these skills will benefit them in other subjects in the future. We also plan to communicate to the other grade 5 teachers the skills that our students now have, so that they will be able to benefit from the students’ new knowledge.

I also feel like I am moving to the transformation stage in terms of collaboration. In this box, the teacher “seeks partnerships outside of the setting to allow students to access experts and peers in other locations, and encourages students to extend the use of collaborative technology tools in higher order learning activities that may not have been possible without the use of technology tools.” I have been doing a pen pal project with students around the world for many years, and though I intended to have my students communicate with each other online last year, it never happened. This year, I think it will. I have designed a new and improved wiki, and have shared it with the other teachers involved. The paper letters have been mailed and once we receive the reply, my students will post a reply online. Then, my students will share the book trailer video they have created for my English class with their pen pals and ask for some feedback. Then, as a class, we will discuss the differences between the pen and paper communication we did and the online communication we are doing.

I think I am moving in the right direction when it comes to technology integration, but I still have a long way to go. I plan to keep the TIM Table of Teacher Indicators close by to encourage me to continue to move to the right farther away from entry level towards the transformation stage. I also plan to continue to have discussions with my administration and the media department about how our school can move to an environment of deeper technology integration. I have said this before, but I feel like it is appropriate to say again – It’s a Long Road Ahead!

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A Long Road Ahead….

Let me start by saying that I love the NET standards. They are a set of standards developed by ISTE to “help students prepare to work, live, and contribute to the social and civic fabric of their communities”. I have used the NETS for students already a number of times this year when planning units and lessons. One thing I really like about the NETS is that they “are not subject-matter specific, but rather a compendium of skills required for students to be competitive and successful in a global and digital world.” They are broad enough to apply to all subject and grade levels, but specific enough to guide planning.

Another thing that I like is that ISTE does not only offer standards for students, but it also provides standards for teachers and standards for administrators. I think this is wonderful as all too often we have standards for students, but forget about what teachers must do. After all, it is important that teachers model all the things that they want their students to learn so as not to subscribe to the age old adage “Do as I say, and not as I do”. ISTE recognizes this and standard three in its NETS for teachers is “Model Digital-Age work and Learning.”

It is also important that there are standards for administrators. These standards direct them to provide “visionary leadership” and to promote a “digital-age learning culture”. As everyone knows, good leadership is key to schools effectively running there programs.

I recently also looked at a document called American Association of School Librarians’ (AASL) Learning Standards. I liked how it opened with saying:

“Reading is a foundational skill for learning, personal growth, and enjoyment. The degree to which students can read and understand text in all formats (e.g., picture, video, print) and all contexts is a key indicator of success in school and in life. As a lifelong learning skill, reading goes beyond decoding and comprehension to interpretation and development of new understandings”.

As an English teacher, my job is to teach students to read both for pleasure and for learning. It is sometimes easy to think that teaching reading means only teaching short stories and novels though. I, along with other English teachers out there, must remember that teaching reading also includes understanding texts in other formats than simply books.

The document also says that for future employment needs “today’s students need to develop information skills that will enable them to use technology as an important tool for learning, both now and in the future”. This is becoming more and more clear to educators every day. If we are to adequately prepare our students for the future, they must be able to be savvy users of technology. The document also states that “the amount of information available to our learners necessitates that each individual acquire the skills to select, evaluate, and use information  appropriately and effectively.” We are simply living in an age of information overload, and students must become more aware of how to search for information. Recently, I was helping a student on a research project. Earlier, I had been trying to get her away from using Google for everything. Sure, Google is great, but in many ways, it is not the best tool for student research. She also has it in her head that Google is a source and often cites “Google” in her bibliographies. A few weeks ago, she needed to find some information about Cleopatra. When she typed Cleopatra into Google, she came up with 50 million results!! I pointed out to her that it would take her far more time to begin to sift through these 50 million sources than it would to go to World Book Online, for example, and find a relevant article.

Another thing the document advocates is the social context in which learning occurs. It states::

“Learning has a social context. Learning is enhanced by opportunities to share and learn with others. Students need to develop skills in sharing knowledge and learning with others, both in face-to-face situations and through technology.”

I think this point, specifically, is so important to share with administrators. As I mentioned in some earlier posts, I have met administrators that have been very threatened about the idea of students publishing work online. Administrators must understand that learning in enhance through opportunities to publish and receive real world feedback.

AASL believes that learners use skills, resources, and tools to:
1. Inquire, think critically, gain knowledge,
2. Draw conclusions, make informed decisions, apply knowledge to new situations, and create new knowledge.
3. Share knowledge and participate ethically and productively as members of our democratic society
4. Purse personal and aesthetic growth.

Under each heading listed above, the AASL lists skills objectives, dispositions in action objectives, responsibilities objectives and self-assessment strategies objectives. The document is a bit cumbersome, but well worth a read.

After studying both the NET standards and the AASL standards, my first thought was that there was something missing. Both documents provided 21st century standards/objectives, but neither seemed to shed much light on what each standard would look like at each grade level. I was frustrated as that is what I am currently struggling with. I understand that my students need to be able to do the things laid out in the NETS and AASLs in order to be successful members of today’s society, but I am just one of their teachers. Which of these standards it my responsibility to cover? How will I know what meeting the standards should look like in my classroom, in my subject area, and at my grade level?

After some more digging, I found a partial answer to my questions on the NETS for Students 2007 Profiles page. On this page, ISTE provides some suggestions for what meeting the standards might look like a certain age levels. Below is an example taking from that page:

The following experiences with technology and digital resources are examples of learning activies in which students might engage during Grades 6-8 (ages 11-14).

* Create original animations or videos documenting school, community, or local events (1, 2, 6)
* Participate in a cooperative learning project in a n online learning community (2)
* Employ data-collection technology such as probes, handheld devices, and geographic mapping systems to gather, view, analyze, and report results for content-relative problems. (3, 4, 6).

All right! This is great stuff. Finally, some guidelines for what these standards might look like in the classroom. Now, the next question is whose responsibility is it to address all these? As I mentioned before, I am but one of the teachers the grade 6-8 students at my school have. Also, my subject is English, and I am not sure how geographic mapping systems would fit into my curriculum.

One thing offered on the ISTE NETS page is  ESSENTIAL CONDITIONS: NECESSARY CONDITIONS TO EFFECTIVELY LEVERAGE TECHNOLOGY FOR LEARNING. Basically, this page lays out what conditions needs to exist if technology is going to be used effectively to enhance student learning.

One of these “essential conditions” is a shared vision.

“Proactive leadership in developing a shared vision for educational technology among all education stakeholders including teachers and support staff, school and district administrators, teacher educators, students, parents, and the community.”

I feel like I have the vision, but I am not too sure if all the people I work with do. Most teachers have a lot on their plates and are constantly being pulled in many directions. I am very focused on improving the use of technology at my school, but I now that is not everyone else’s current top priority. I have heard administrators complain that they simply do not have enough time to learn about this new technology between meetings and dealing with issues that come up. Without a shared vision, it makes it hard for anything to truly be implemented. Sure, I can do a lot on my own in my own classroom, but there are many things that it is hard to do without true collaboration.

I work at a wonderful school, but it is small. I teach all the English classes for grades 5 and 6. As stated above, one of the essential conditions for applying the NETS is a shared vision. At a school, where each teacher teaches in isolation, I think it is hard to have a shared vision. I meet quite regularly with other members of my department, that is the other Eng
lish teachers in the school,  and we do do some vertical planning, but it is very hard to find time to meet with the other grade 5 and 6 teachers to find out what they are doing in their classrooms.

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about how to integrate more media literacy into my classroom. I have had trouble, however, with knowing where to begin and what it is appropriate to teach at my grade level and in an English classroom context. A few months ago, I watched a trailer for the film Miss Representation. After visiting the website for the movie, I saw that the organization, also called Miss Representation, offers a package for sale that includes the movie and lesson ideas for each grade level. I was quite excited. I knew showing the whole movie to grade 5 and 6 students would be inappropriate, but the package came with pre-selected clips that are age-appropriate. I wanted to order the kit, as I thought it might give me a place to start. My thinking was that I could try it out, and if I thought the information was good, pass it on to other grade level teachers. Sure, it would not be true collaboration, but it was a way to possibly get something started. I convinced my department that it would be a worthwhile purchase and I got the admin on board too. The head librarian agreed to order it out of the budget. Finally, I had a place to start. Unfortunately, just last week, however, I found out that I cannot order the package, as it is only available for purchase in the US and Canada. Aaargh! I’m back to square one. Ideas anyone?

Though I keep stumbling upon setbacks, there is hope. Our media department is growing. This year, we have a new head of the department, and he is working with the other department members on developing a new media studies curriculum from K-12. I am in close contact with members of the department, and often have informal chats about what is at our school. I hope to be able to continue to work with them to find out just what is happening in terms of technology at each grade level in our school, where the gaps are, and what else needs to be done.

I feel like it’s a long road ahead.

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Visual Literacy: My Reflections

Recently, I have been studying the topic of visual literacy, and the readings and assignments that I have completed have impacted my teaching in real and tangible ways. Over the last few weeks, I have made some drastic improvements in the classroom, most especially by completely overhauling the mini-unit that I teach to my 6th graders about Native Americans.

In recent weeks, I have improved a number of my PowerPoint presentations by adding much better images and reducing the amount of text on each slide, I have included some new video and pictorial resources on my website for my students to access, and I have had some meaningful discussions with colleagues about what we are currently doing to address media and visual literacy in our school and what still needs to be done.

Furthermore, I have applied what I have been learning outside of the classroom, as well. I am using what I learned about F-tracking to overhaul the charity website that I manage. Also, I recently overhauled an old PowerPoint presentation which outlines that work that the previously mentioned charity does, and I presented it this weekend at a benefit that I was hosting. The old PowerPoint was text-heavy, so when updating it, I made the focus of each slide the image instead of the text. The presentation brought a few guests to tears, and I really think using powerful images had a lot to do with that.

I am also convinced that I am going to be learning more and more about visual literacy in the weeks to come. Soon, some of my colleagues and I will have a meeting about how visual and media literacy are being addressed across the curriculum, and just today, a colleague shared with me a blog entry called Digital Storytelling: Engage Students in Collaborative Creative Writing in Class and Online, which has got me thinking about how I could use a variety of online tools during the fiction unit that I teach later in the school year.

Recently, I also read Becoming Screen Literate by Kevin Kelly, which I found quite thought-provoking. Kelly talks about how at first, humans’ dominant media was oral storytelling. Thanks to Gutenberg and the printing press, print eventually replaced oral storytelling as the dominant media. Today, we are becoming “people of the screen”.  Kelly talks about how there are screens everywhere these days, and being a resident of Tokyo, I must agree with him. There are even screens on vending machines here.

He goes on to talk about how today’s digital media is being created like a writer writes. He says that a movie scene is “like a writer’s paragraph, constantly being revised.” As an English teacher, I found this comparison of moviemaking to writing very interesting.

I also recently read Questioning Video, Film, Advertising, and Propaganda: Deconstructing Media Messages. This site offers a number of good questions that teacher can use when asking students to critically examine videos. It also talks about how teachers should teach students to understand a list of “film devices” just as they teach students to recognize “literacy devices” in an English class. Again, being an English teacher, I found this idea to be very thought-provoking.

I also must admit that I really loved that this site mentioned Saskatchewan Education’s Media Studies 20 course. First, being a native of Saskatchewan myself, a province in Canada that many people have never heard of, it was very exciting to see my province mentioned on a website! Also, I was excited to read this because during my practicum, I was actually given the opportunity to teach this course for a couple of months. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching the course and believe that the students found what the course covered to be very relevant to their lives.

For my final project in course 3, I chose to write a lesson plan based on visual literacy. As I have mentioned in my last few blog posts Reading Pictures – Let’s Take a Look at Visual Literacy and Killing my Students Softly…with PowerPoint, I have had some problems getting my students to really understand what a Native American is. As I mentioned previously, one of my students recently asked me if all the Native Americans were now gone. This was a wake-up call. I suddenly realized that I had been teaching my students all about Native Americans prior to colonization and around the time of colonization, but I failed to talk about Native Americans in the present day. As such, I knew it was high time I did a lesson on Native Americans today.

The mini-unit in which this lesson fits provides a brief introduction to the Native Americans peoples of North America. It is studied in grade 6 English in preparation for reading the novel Walk Two Moons. Students begin the unit by making a KWL chart on the topic “Native Americans”. Then, they view a PowerPoint presentation which describes the places that the main character will visit over the course of the novel, a number of which are very important locations to Native Americans. Next, they read some picture books – Crazy Horse’s Vision, Between Earth and Sky, and Brother Eagle, Sister Sky. While reading the latter, they examine the images present in the story and discuss why some Native American groups do not think this is a good book for children. Then, they read If You Lived with the Iroquois.

Now it is time for the new lesson. First, students will now watch a short video called Native Americans from National Geographic Kids. This gives a very basic overview of the history of Native Americans from ancient times until today. They will then answer some questions related to video which ask them to examine how the creator of the video feels towards Native American peoples. Next, students will view some picture galleries of Native American peoples. After viewing, they will choose one image that appealed to them. They will add this image to their digital portfolio blog that they created in ICT class and answer a number of questions about the image. Next, they will do an online image search for an image that in some way relates to the original one they chose. They will add the new image that they find to their blog and again answer the same questions. Then, they will share this blog post with their classmates. Finally, the students will then write comments on each other’s blogs.

I am both excited and nervous about trying out this lesson. I showed my students the video today and asked them to answer the questions for homework. Then, I gave them the assignment to view the picture galleries, find an additional image, and answer the questions. They have one week to complete the task. Some of the students seemed quite excited about the task, while others seemed very apprehensive about it. This task is quite different from the usual reading and writing that I assign, so I am very curious to see how my students fare. We have analyzed some images as a whole class a few times already this year, but I have not yet asked my students to do this on their own. I may be pleasantly surprised, and find that my students are truly capable of analyzing images, or I may find that I have to do a lot more background work with my students before assigning this type of task. I try to remind myself of the words of Louis E. Boone, “Don’t fear failure so much that you refuse to try new things.” I know that I will learn a lot when I see what kind of work my students produce.


Here is the lesson plan:

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Digital Storytelling

Over the last few weeks, my blog posts have been focused on visual literacy, and this one will be no exception. I recently read The Visual Literacy White Paper, which was written by Dr. Anne Bamford and commissioned Abode Systems Pty Ltd Australia. Now, it can be no surprise that Adobe published a paper on visual literacy, seeing as they are the makers of photo editing software. That said, while the paper was obliviously designed to promote Adobe’s products, such as Adobe Photoshop   and Adobe Photoshop Elements, it raises some interesting points.

One quote I especially enjoyed was:

“Visual literacy includes critical knowledge. This is best developed through exposure to interesting and varied images and through thoughtful and thought-provoking questioning and discussion.”

Also quote I found interesting was: “The idea that seeing is believing is now a naïve concept.” As teachers, I think it is very important that we show our kids just how easy it is these days to manipulate images so that they know that they cannot believe everything that they see, and therefore, must be critical readers of visual images. For a great list of questions students can use when critically examining images, see page 6 of the paper.

The Visual Literacy White Paper also gave some suggestions for visual literacy lessons which included:

–          Looking at how the same book is marketed with different cover designs in certain parts of the world

–          Creating an image resource about a passion the students might have

–          Altering and manipulating photos

One message that has kept coming up in my readings on visual literacy is that in order for students to be visually literate, they need not only to view and interpret messages, they also need to know to create them. Before I give an assignment to my students, I usually try to do it myself first for four reasons. One, doing the task myself helps me to identify any potential problems, two, modeling helps my students understand the task, three, it helps my students to see me as a learner just like them, and finally, I usually enjoy doing the task myself. Digital storytelling is something I have been thinking about doing with my students for quite some time now, so, I set out to do some digital storytelling myself. Taking the suggestion from Adobe, I decided to create an image resource about a passion that I have.

In 2009, I learned about a charity in western Africa called the Ember Kenya Grandparents Empowerment Project during a visit to Kenya. I was very impressed by the work they were doing and decided to stay involved with the charity and help out as much as I could. In 2010, it became apparent that they needed a new website, so I volunteered for the task. After creating the website, I decided I needed to know more about the project. Thus, this summer, I went back to visit the charity again. The following is a presentation about that visit.


I decided to use Voicethread to make this presentation as I had heard about Voicethread at a PD workshop last year, and already had a bit of an inkling of how to use it. I logged into my account and easily was able to upload some slides from a PowerPoint presentation I had previously created. When I went to add sound to each image, however, I could not get Voicethread to record my voice. I tried troubleshooting recommended by the website to no avail. Frustrated, I decided to visit some other CoETaIL blogs for ideas. I visited Diana’s blog post called Digital Storytelling.  She said she used VuVoux and Garage Band. I signed up for VuVoux and added all my pictures and then went to download Garage Band for the audio. It was then that I realized that Garage Band was only for Mac users. Being a PC users, I searched for an alternative and found Audacity. Unfortunately, I could get Audacity to record my voice either! I was ready to scream.

Then I had an epiphany – maybe I should try a plug in mic instead of relying on the one built into my computer. And Eureka, it worked! I then chose to leave Audacity and VuVoux behind, and head back to Voicethread. I made this choice for two reasons. First, I had seen Voicethread in action before, and secondly, Diana mentioned in her blog that with the VuVoux and Garage Band combo she had a lot of trouble synching the sound to her images.

In the end, I found working with Voicethread to be quite easy. Once I had the mic working, it was easy to record myself and to rerecord if I made a mistake. Because of its ease of use, I am going to give my students a chance to try out Voicethread in the classroom. Currently, my students are writing personal narratives. Once they finish writing the narratives, I think it would be really neat for them to find some images to express their stories and then have them record themselves reading their stories on Voicethread. Then, they could easily share their stories with friends and relatives around the world. Also, their friends and family could record comments on their Voicethread for them. I also might be able to use Voicethread during the poetry unit in second semester. As a culminating assignment, students must write their own poem using one of the techniques learned. After the students have written the poem, I might get them to find an image (or images) that represents their poem and then have them record themselves reading the poem. Then I could get their peers to listen to the poems and provide feedback.

Further Readings:

Towards a Framework for Visual Literacy Learning

50+ Web 2.o Ways to Tell a Story



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Killing My Students Softly…. with PowerPoint

“Death by PowerPoint”. Have you experienced it? Better yet, have you committed it?

Comedy is a reflection of society, and therefore, I find it extremely telling that you can find a myriad of comedy acts on Youtube just by typing in the phrase “Death by PowerPoint”.  In fact, typing this phrase into Youtube garners over 700 results. By the way, my favourite is Don McMillan’s routine – Life After Death by PowerPoint 2010. It’s definitely worth a watch.

I’m guilty. I confess. I have committed “PowerPoint-icide”. It’s true. I have done it, not once, not twice, but repeatedly over the last six years. You see, I have this one presentation that I show my 6th graders every fall. The death they experience gets a bit less painful each year, seeing as I generally make small improvements to the PowerPoint presentation in question each time I present it, but it is still pretty bad. The presentation I am referring to is one that I use each year before the class begins reading the novel Walk Two Moons. In this novel, the main character travels across the northern United States. Seeing as many of my students have never visited this part of the US before, I use this presentation to help them visualize the countryside and landmarks the main character is seeing.

That said, after taking another look at my presentation just now, I have quite suddenly realized that my presentation contains a lot more text than it does visuals. Ooops. Even though I know it is not a great PowerPoint presentation, each year I justify my use of it by saying, “The information is good”. I guess the question I need to now ask myself is this: If my students are experiencing “death by PowerPoint” while watching the presentation, are they really internalizing all that “good” information anyway? And, unfortunately, the most probable answer is “No”.

When PowerPoint first came out, only the cool kids were using it. I remember seeing my first PowerPoint presentations and being amazed. Soon, PowerPoint became available to the masses, and every Tom, Dick, and Harry was making one. All too soon, however, a precedent was established and if you gave a presentation without slide transitions, clip art, and custom animation, you were old-school. Soon the best presentations had text that flew onto the page and made great little noises as it did. This kept people’s attention.

I remember when I first started working at my current school six years ago. I used a PowerPoint presentation during our open house day to give parents an introduction to the English course I was teaching. My presentation was complete with clip art and custom animation. A number of parents were awed and congratulated me on a very sophisticated presentation. Today, just 6 years later, almost every teacher uses PowerPoint during our open house. It is precisely because so many of us are now using PowerPoint  presentations that the phenomenon of “Death by PowerPoint” is occurring. There are simply too many presentations out there that contain distracting animations, an overabundance of text, cheesy clip art, and hard to decode graphs and charts.

Today, simplicity sells.

You only have to look to Steve Jobs to know this. After his death, many people have been reflecting on his life and his success. A recent 60 minutes episode was dedicated to Jobs and in it, his biographer, Walter Issacson shared excerpts from the many conversations he had with Jobs. One thing Issacson says is that Mr. Jobs was deeply influenced by the simplicity of Zen Buddhism and it really informed his design sense that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.

This concept of simplicity has helped Apple to sell its products, and following it can help you to give more effective PowerPoint presentations. Forget the clip art, the flashy custom animation, and the slick slide transitions, and just keep it simple.

Okay, maybe simplifying your presentation is easier said than done. If you really want to find out what makes good PowerPoint design, I would suggest turning to Garr Reynolds, an internationally acclaimed presentations designer and communications expert.  He is also the author of a book called Presentation Zen. For an overview of what is contained in the book, I suggest watching Matt Helmke’s Youtube video. Helmke really enjoyed the book and claims that it should “come with every copy of PowerPoint and Keynote that is sold”. Some of the key learnings that Helmke came away with after reading the book are as follows:

- Plan Analog. Before you begin to create your presentation, decide what the story is that you want to tell and what your message is. Then, step away from computer and plan your presentation out before actually designing it. This will lead to you giving a presentation with a clear message.

-  Handouts can set you free. Reynolds recommends putting the data from your presentation on a handout rather than on the screen. He believes that slides should be incapable of standing by themselves. That is why the presenter is in front of them. If you are simply going to read slides out word for word, you are not needed. Your audience can read without you. Put the data that your audience needs to walk away with a piece a paper that they can take with them after the presentation.

- Go back and edit like crazy. When you are finished designing your presentation, go back and edit, twice. It is better to leave your audience wanting more than overwhelmed.

- Simplicity. It doesn’t mean simple. It does mean clarity, essentialness, subtly, and minimalism.

- Use images to achieve simplicity. Images are a powerful and nature way for humans to communicate. Images are remembered better than text. 

- Reduce noise. Text, images, animations, and slide transitions all contribute to noise. If a message can be designed without the aforementioned, don’t use them.

- Empty space is okay. You can use it and manipulate it to effectively deliver your message.  

After watching the video numerous times, I am convinced that I need to get myself a copy of Reynolds’s book. I most especially like the idea of planning analog. I think too often we sit down at the computer and start designing before we have a clear picture of what we want to do. And I know that our students do this too. Planning before designing will help all of us to improve our presentations. Also, I love the idea of handouts setting you free. I can’t stand sitting through presentations in which the presenter simply reads each word that is up on the screen. That said, I know I have done this to my students. Somewhere along the line I got it in my head that PowerPoint presentations had to be able to stand alone. I am so glad to hear that they don’t.

Another point that Reynolds makes about PowerPoint presentations is that they should have “story”. He says that we “are all born storytellers (and ‘storylisteners’)” and that the best teachers we have probably had were the ones that told us stories. Therefore, the best presenters are the ones that can present the information in a narrative form. He also states that good presentations often contain elements of humour. To read more, visit Reynolds’s post From design to meaning: a whole new way of presenting.

So what about this terrible PowerPoint that I inflict on my students each year? Armed with this new knowledge about what makes for a great presentation, I sat down to try to improve it. Rather than scrap the whole thing (remember, “the information is good”), I decided to making it better one slide at a time.

I started with a slide about Wisconsin Dells. Here is the original:

Clearly, it has issues. There is too much text, the image is too small, and the background is bland.

After some serious editing, I came up with a new and improved slide:

Just by cutting some text, increasing the image size, and changing the background colour, I made a slide that was much more eye-catching and interesting. Encouraged by my success with this slide, I took on another one.

Here is the original:

And here is the improved version:

I then played around with a few more slides and tried to improve them. I plan to show the PowerPoint next week. Let’s hope that my improvements will ensure that no students perish during this presentation. :)

Update: I presented the new and improved PowerPoint to my students just yesterday. For the first time ever, some of my students uttered “Ooohs” and “Aaahs” when viewing some of the slides. Encouraged by their positive reaction, I spend two more hours after school updating other slides in the presentation. I can’t wait to use the presentation again next year. My days of committing “Death by PowerPoint” just might be over.

Sources and Recommended Links:

What is good PowerPoint design? – Garr Reynolds

How to Present Data – A short clip by Garr Reynolds

What is Presentation Zen? 9-min intro at Apple Store Japan, Feb ’08 – Garr Reynolds

Steve Jobs CBS 60 Minutes Episode – Discusses the new Steve Jobs biography

Death by PowerPoint – Presented by brainrulesbook

Stop Killing Me with Your PowerPoint – Short video

Life After Death by PowerPoint 2010 – Don McMillan

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“Reading” Pictures…. Examining Visual Literacy

My last post was all about media literacy, and the opinions I expressed on the topic have lead to some rather impassioned conversations amongst some of my colleagues. It seems that many of us have slightly differing views on what media literacy really means. So this week, before I start talking about visual literacy, I am going to start with a definition. This definition can be found on a website titled Visual Literacy Using Digital Still Images.

“Visual literacy is defined as the ability to interpret images as well as to generate images for communicating ideas and concepts”. (Stokes, 2002)
A visually literate person should be able to
• Interpret, understand and appreciate the meaning of visual messages;
• Communicate more effectively by applying the basic principles and concepts of visual design;
• Produce visual messages using computers and other technologies; and
• Use visual thinking to conceptualize solutions to problems
(from Jerry Christopherson, 1996 International Visual Literacy Association Conference, referenced from the book, Visual Literacy: Learn to See, See to Learn By Lynell Burmark, p.3, 2002)

Now that I had a definition, I wanted to learn more about visual literacy.

I began my quest to learn more, by reading David William’s blog post called A Brochure Without Words. In the post, he states, “There is simply too much information these days; too many words and not enough time to read them.” For that reason, he promises to keep his blog post short. I will try to follow his example and do the same. Then David goes on to briefly explain that one year ago, he and some colleagues at the International School of Brussels began to work on writing a new school brochure. This new brochure focused heavily on the visual – lots of pictures and only a little text. I paged through said brochure, which was embedded on his blog, and I’ll have to admit it was very pleasing to the eye. You could surmise a lot about the school from the photos. For example, you could tell that there are a variety of programs offered at the school, the student body is very diverse, and the grounds are beautiful. As a prospective parent, I’d be impressed. Sometimes a picture really does say 1,000 words.

My next destination was Garr Reynold’s Presentation Zen, where I read the post The Power of the Visual: Learning from Down Under Promotion Videos. Here, Garr talked about the success of both Australia’s and New Zealand’s recent tourism advertising campaigns. One thing that Garr says both countries have done so well is apply something called the “rule of thirds”. This means that when you take a photo, you don’t place the subject at the centre of the picture, but instead near the “powerpoints”. I heard about this “rule of thirds” idea a few years back and started to apply it to my own photography with great success. Just this past weekend, I was enjoying the Tokyo outdoors and took this amazing photo. I hope to have an opportunity to use it soon.

Two Rooms Restaurant - Tokyo, Japan

After leaving Garr and the sweeping vistas from Down Under, I headed over to Brain Rules to see what John Medina, a molecular biologist, has to say about Vision. In his book/multimedia project, he outlines 12 rules for the brain that he says all business leaders, parents, and teachers should know. Rule number 10 is that “Vision Trumps All Other Senses”. Medina says that humans can remember pictures far better than they can remember something they have heard or read, and that we should toss our old PowerPoint presentations that are text-based and make new ones that are image-based instead.
Intrigued, I watched Medina’s slideshow based on rule 10. On the first slide, the text reads:

“Recognition soars with pictures. Various studies show that recognition doubles for a             picture compared with text. Concrete text is more effective than abstract text because         it’s better at electing a visual cue.”

Next to the text was a chart, supposedly demonstrating what the text stated. Unfortunately, the graphic did little to help me understand the meaning of the text, and I found the whole thing quite confusing. I understand that visuals are often more powerful than words, but the visual was confusing and there was not enough text to explain the chart accurately. I think if Medina wants to make his point more strongly, he might rethink the visuals he is using. Just saying…. (In fairness to Medina, I think the slide was supposed to have audio, but it was not working. Perhaps a combination of text and audio would have helped me decode the visual. )

Even though, I found the slideshow confusing, I did peruse the rest of the site to find out about the other brain rules, and I strongly suggest you do too. I liked hearing that the brain needs a nap midday (now I know why I am always so tired at 2pm), that multitasking is a myth (I emailed the slide to my sister in an effort to try to get her to stop texting and driving), and that the brain pays a great deal of attention to emotional events (that’s why sex sells).

I then viewed the presentation Visual Literacy by Terri Johnson. Here are her suggestions to educators:
1. Images must specifically illustrate the targeted content and match the instructional goal.
2. Ensure that students have a meaningful interaction with images or video.
3. Make sure the images and videos supplement your good instruction, not replace it!
4. Model appropriate use and attribution of copyrighted digital images and video

I like what she has to say. Most especially, I think her last point hits home. Just the other day, I was talking about the literary genre of drama with my students, and I did a quick Google search in front of the class for a picture of the comedy and tragedy masks that are associated with drama. I told them I was going to find one that I would later paste on a handout for them. I skipped over a few, until I found the one I was going to use. My students were asking why I wasn’t using certain images, and I explained that I was looking for an image that I had permission to use. I did not intend to have a discussion about copyright, but this became a great teachable moment about proper use of images.

After leaving Terri Johnson, I visited a website called Visual Literacy and Picture Books. The opening statement on the page again reminds readers that in today’s society, we are constantly being bombarded with visual images. Because of this fact, classroom literacy programs must include “learning experiences which allow students to think critically about how images convey meaning”. The web page goes on to say that picture books can be used successfully to help student think critically about images. Immediately, I added this web page to my Diigo list, seeing as I use picture books all the time with my grades 5 and 6 students, and am sometimes criticized for using such “easy” books with my students. In my classroom, when I tell my students I am going to read a story, they excitedly gather on the floor in front of me and listen. They often point to things in the images, and occasionally, we discuss how the image relates to the text and what the illustrator was trying to show in the image. After reading the rest of the web page, I vowed to do more of this image analysis with my students.

I rounded off my reading by returning to Garr Reynold’s Blog and the post Nurturing curiosity & inspiring the pursuit of discovery. In the post, he asserts that our schools do a “poor job of nurturing students’ natural curiously.” He continues by saying that “a necessary element of good teaching is curiosity” and that to be a good teacher, we must demonstrate our own curiosity in order to inspire it in our students. According to Garr, “The best teachers are the ones who show their own desire to learn more about their subject and who are not afraid to show mistakes or admit that they don’t know it all.”

I couldn’t agree more. Back in 2006, I was really frustrated with how I was teaching. I was getting the students to read and getting them to write, but it wasn’t working well. They were not engaged by what they were reading, and their writing lacked quality. Though my students were too polite to admit it, I knew I was boring them to death. After all, I was bored, so they had to have been. Luckily, I was given the opportunity to attend a workshop at the Columbia Teacher’s College Reading and Writing Project.

On the first day of the two-week session, I listened intently to the opening speeches. One speaker said something to this effect: “How can we tell our students that it is important to read and to write, if we don’t do it ourselves?” It made me think. Here I was, a reading and writing teacher, but the last time I actually read anything for pleasure was probably the previous summer’s holiday and the last time I had written for pleasure was probably high school. I was telling my students that it was so important that they read and that they write, but I wasn’t doing it myself because I was “an adult with a job” and simply “too busy”. Classic “do as I say, not as I do” behaviour.

After the course ended, I began to write for and with my students. When I asked them to write something for me, I did it first – sometimes I would prepare it ahead of time and sometimes I would write right in front of them. I also started to read too, for pleasure, and talk with my students about what I was reading. They began to finally see me as a writer and reader, and that empowered them to do it themselves. My classroom was suddenly a very different place. Because I was reading and writing, I had passion for the subject again, and I began to have much more meaningful interactions related to reading and writing with my students. My teaching was revolutionized and I now know that as educators, we cannot inspire curiosity in our students if we do not act like lifelong learners ourselves.

Now, you might say that that last Garr Reynold’s article has very little to do with visual literacy, and though he may not mention the term “visual literacy” in the post, educators can take the idea of curiosity and apply it to our teaching of visual literacy in the classroom. Our students need curiosity if they are going to make meaning out of all the visual images they are being exposed to. All evidence today seems to suggest that we teachers need to use more visuals to catch our students’ attention. We also must make sure that these visuals are effective and engaging. But the final piece is that we must inspire our students’ curiosity, and show them that they must not just take all these visuals that they are exposed to at face value, but instead examine them critically.

Recently, I have been thinking a lot of visual literacy as I teach my grade 6 students. For many years, I have had them study the novel with a Native American protagonist. When I first started teaching the novel, I simply assumed that my students knew what the term “Native American” meant. I quickly realized, however, that this was not the case. Of course. Why would they? I am from North America, so I understand, but many of my students have never even set foot on the continent. So, I began to teach about Native Americans. My first failed attempt was to give the students a long handout with a few pictures. Not surprisingly, they were bored. Then I experimented with a PowerPoint with a little less text and more visuals. It was better, but still not very successful. Then, a couple of years back, I started to use some picture books, namely Between Earth and Sky, Crazy Horse’s Vision, and If You Lived with the Iroquois. The students find them much more interesting I think mainly because they include a narrative and pictures. Now, I plan to add the book Brother Eagle, Sister Sky to the collection. This book is a bestseller, but some Native American groups think it should not be read because they have issue with its illustrations. I plan to read it to the class and then hold a discussion about the images.

After doing all this reading about visual literacy, I know also plan to study some still photographs. Recently, I realized that all the images of the Native Americans I have been using are from around the time of colonization. The other day, one student asked me if all the Native Americans were now gone. I certainly don’t want my students to think that Native Americans have disappeared, so I have decided that I must also include some images of Native Americans today. I plan to use the present day images below with my students next week. I found the first few from Flickr, and the last one is one I took myself of students that I taught a few years back in Canada. My plan is to show these present day images to my students and ask them what they conclusion they can draw about Native Americans today from studying the images. I will use their responses to prompt a discussion about issues facing Native American people today.

Alright, not all that brief. My apologies. I will try keep the next posta bit shorter. Stay tuned. :)

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You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

Although I am less than half way through the CoETaIL program, I am already noticing a difference in my teaching. I now spend a lot more time thinking about technology and how I can apply it in the classroom. Although it is still early in the school year, I have already arranged a collaboration with the computer teacher, been in email contact with a number of teachers regarding a pen pal wiki project, had students upload their book trailers to our wiki, shown these student-created trailers to new students, embedded some cartoons and videos on my classroom website, added better graphics to a number of handouts and presentations, become somewhat of an activist at our school for improved access to technological devices, and been approached to be part of a speed-geeking team at my school. And, it’s only October.

Recently, I visited Jakob Nielsen’s page called How Users Read on the Web . Right away, he got my attention. Underneath the title, he simply wrote “THEY DON’T”.  He says that people don’t “read” the web, instead they scan it. That said, I did actually read his page (though admittedly, I might have just scanned it were I not using his article for this blog post), and then I clicked on the link F-shaped Pattern for Reading Web Content.  Later that day, I visited the Official Google Blog and read an article called Eye-Tracking Studies: More Than Meets the Eye.

Both articles talked about how people read web pages. As an English teacher, I spend a lot of time teaching students how to read printed texts. For example, we have lessons on topics such as how to use the 5 finger test to determine if a book is at an appropriate reading level, how to use the front and back cover of a book to gain information before we choose to read it, and how to use headings and subheadings to locate information in a non-fiction text. But I don’t teach them how to “read” what they find on the web.

Nielson uses the term “F” tracking to describe how people read websites. He says most people scan a website by looking vertically across the top first, then moving down and making another vertical scan of the page, and then finally, scanning down the left-hand side of the page. This mimics the pattern of a capital “F”. I believe him, as I am sure that is what I do. When looking for something on Google, I type in a search term, scan the first few results quite carefully, quickly decide if they contain the relevant information, scroll a bit down, read a few more lines, and then, only make it to the bottom of the page if nothing near the top of the page meets my needs.

I have never been taught to read a website this way, but I can. Why? Having thought out it, maybe I know how to do this because I have unconsciously applied my knowledge of skimming textbooks to reading on the web.

That said, one girl I tutor doesn’t read like this. Just the other day, I asked her find the names of some famous Italians. She went to Google, typed in “famous people in Italy”, clicked on the first result (which was a Wikipedia list), and began reading from the very beginning. The list was massively long, and she was reading word for word. Not surprisingly, it was taking her forever to come up with anything of value. I told her to look at the bar on the right hand side of the screen that indicated how long the page was. The scroll bar was tiny and at the rate we were going, we would be reading for hours. I then asked for control of the mouse. After quickly scrolling down the entire length of the page, I determined that this was not the kind of site we were looking for. I quickly went back to the search results page, did an “F scan”, and found the information we were looking for. That was a wakeup call. If she can’t read a webpage properly, I am guessing she is not the only one.

I have designed a few webpages. I have a classroom website, and I have made one for a charity in Africa. When designing the pages, I tried to make them functional based on what I like to see on a website. That said, I have not paid much attention to the first words of my paragraphs.  Looking at the heat maps Nielsen included on the page taught me just how important the first words of a paragraph are. Because of F-tracking, I need to spend more time making sure I put the most important information on my website in the first two paragraphs, and as Nielsen says, I need to make sure to “start subheads, paragraphs, and bullet points with information-carrying words that users will notice when scanning down the left side of your content in the final stem of their F-behaviour.”

Fascinated by what I reading so far, I headed back to How Users Read on the Web, and clicked the link Scrolling and Attention.  Nielsen has a great metaphor for how people read on the web, and as I have previously mentioned, I do love a good metaphor. “It’s as if users arrive at a page with a certain amount of fuel in their tanks. As they “drive” down the page, they use up gas, and sooner or later they run dry. The amount of gas in the tank will vary, depending on each user’s inherent motivation and interest in each page’s specific topic. Also, the “gasoline” might evaporate or be topped up if content down the page is less or more relevant than the user expected.”  What he is saying basically is that the material that is most important should be above the fold (or the area which you can see without scrolling), as users do not look below the fold as much as they do above. He suggests that if you really want people to look far down a page, the layout must encourage scanning and the information above the fold must make the reader believe it is worth their time to scroll down to see more. Okay, clearly it is time to revisit my websites and improve their layout and design!

Still interested in Nielsen’s ideas, I returned again to How Users Read on the Web and read the articles Mobile Content is Twice as Difficult, How Little Do Users Read?, and World’s Best Headlines. I could go into a lengthly discussion of each of these articles, but I am trying to be a bit briefer these days in my blog posts, so instead, I will merely suggest you read them for yourself. They are well worth it.

After bidding Nielsen adieu, I set out to read an article from John Hopkins University School of Education, called Visual Literacy in the Classroom by Erin Riesland

The first line that got my attention was “The speed at which technology is altering classroom communication is overwhelming. The time to address visual media literacy is now.” Ms. Riesland certainly does not mince words. She goes on to say that often educators expect students to “present complex visual ideas using a variety of multimedia applications without serious direct instruction.”  Good point Ms. Riesland. How many times do we tell our students to create a PowerPoint or something similar, but then fail to teach them how to create a PowerPoint. Sure, we might show them the basics, like how to create a new document, but do we teach them how to make one that is effective? All us educators know that it is our job to create the citizens of tomorrow, and like it or lump it, that tomorrow is going to be full of media.

Literacy is the ability to read and write, but what it means to read and write today is not the same as it was just 20 years ago. We need to teach students how to read multimedia texts and how to write them too if they are going to be truly literate in today’s society. As Riesland points out, “by educating students to understand and communicate through visual modes, teachers empower their students with the necessary tools to thrive in increasingly media-varied environments.”

Another point that Riesland makes is that “the increase in student use of online hypermedia for serious information gathering is altering the way students read and collect information, and will ultimately alter the way students write.”   As an English teacher, I spend a lot of time teaching my students to write in the traditional ways- how to write a persuasive essay, a journal prompt, a friendly letter – but do I really instruct them how to write material that is going to end up online? The answer to that question is sadly a big “No”. When I ask students to create multi-media assignments, I spend little time, if any, talking about things such as typeface, size, style, colour, and page layout. I assume they know what to do, and I shouldn’t.

Riesland also states that “as students learn to decode hypermedia, they are also learning how to decode advertising”, and she advocates for visual literacy education that prepares students to critically analyze the great deal of advertising they will be exposed to during their lifetimes. Riesland says that students must be taught to ask questions about the images they see and “once students internalize these questions, not only will students be prepared to recognize and decode subversive advertising messages, but they will also be prepared to communicate with a level of visual sophistication that will carry them through the multimedia-dependent environment of higher education and the modern work environment.”

Riesland suggests that there are many ways to integrate and address multimedia in the classroom. She suggests taking a constructivist approach as one way. In this approach, the students produce multi-media information rather than consume it. “Through classroom construction of a multimedia project, an in-depth understanding of visual communication, or visual literacy, is learned along the way.” (Riesland)

In conclusion, Riesland says that “if the goal of literacy education is to empower students with the tools to communicate and thrive successfully in society, shouldn’t we consider the current literacy demands of the technological age? Who will ultimately teach our children to communicate?”

After taking some time to digest Ms. Riesland’s words, I decided to read one more article. I chose to look at Visual Literacy by Frank W. Baker.  He made the point that “many of our students don’t question media: they believe everything they see–including digitally altered images seen in the media.” As a teacher of 10-12 year olds, I can attest to that.

Interestingly, very recently, I saw a trailer for the 2011 film Miss Representation. Within seconds of watching, I was riveted. Though only 8 minutes long, the trailer makes bold assertions about the impact media is having on our young people and how media’s portrayals of women affect young boys and girls. Immediately, I reposted this video on Facebook and it wasn’t long before many of the women in my life commented on, liked, and shared the video themselves.

Miss Representation 8 min. Trailer 8/23/11 from Miss Representation on Vimeo.

This video really hit home for me for two reasons. First, I work at an all-girls school. Second, I remember watching a similar video, Killing Us Softly by Jean Kilbourne, back in first-year university. At the time, the realization that there were so many perverse images of women all over the media horrified me. That was almost ten years ago. How little things seemed to have changed in the last decade.  One of my Facebook friends, a teacher and mother of teenage girls, quickly wrote on my wall, “So how are we going to address this?” and honestly, I had no good answer.

Okay, so I now am convinced. As an educator, I must make more of an effort to teach my students to be media literate. I must teach them how to read web pages and how to design them too. I must also teach them how to read the other forms of media that they will be encountering, and I must teach them how to create media. Now, where do I start?

I am already doing a collaboration with the computer teacher, wherein my students create trailers for books that they have read, but that is probably not enough. Unfortunately, media literacy does not seem to fit neatly into just one content area, so I think all us content area teachers just say, “Well it’s not my job” and hope that someone else is teaching it.  At the moment, each department at my school is currently working on creating a more streamlined K-12 curriculum. As part of the English department, I am sitting in on meetings where we look at different aspects of English and what we are doing in each grade level. For example, last week, we discussed what was being done with poetry at each grade level. I could suggest we do the same for media literacy. Of course, this would only be covering what is being done with media literacy in one of the content areas, but I guess is a place to start.

Change does not happen overnight, and in my experience, you have to “be the change you want to see” (Gandhi). I know that I cannot simply wait to see what happens with media literacy at my school. I must be proactive. Therefore, just tonight, I emailed my curriculum coordinator and principal to ask if we could order the media literacy unit provided by Miss Representation. My thought right now is that I will talk with my fellow grade-level teachers, English department colleagues, principal and computer teacher and see if, with their help and support, I can put together a short unit for second semester. I don’t know yet where exactly I will find the extra time in my curriculum. Maybe I take some of the time that I set aside for having my students read and write in the traditional ways, and use it to teach them how to read and write media texts.

I want to leave you with two quotes, taken from the Miss Representation trailer, that illustrate just how important media literacy is becoming.

“If you think about media and technology, they’re delivering content that is shaping our society. They’re shaping our politics, they’re shaping our national discourse, and most of all, they’re shaping our children’s brains, and lives, and emotions.” (Jim Steyer, CEO Common Sense Media)

“People learn more from media than from any other single source of information, so if we want to understand what is going on in our society in the 21st century, we have to understand media.”  (Jackson Katz, Phd, Educator, Filmmaker, Author)


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