A Grand Finale

This past week my teaching partner, Chris Fox , and I rolled out the final comparative assignment  for our Grade 8 History Research Project, which also serves as our culminating project for the COETAIL course. And it’s so far, so good! If success can be measured at this point by the fact that we haven’t had to attempt a complete re-design and that our original goals remain the same, then  all is, indeed, well.

Since its inception, we have been able to run with the same overarching “content goals,” namely that student will:

  • …Explore a history passion
  • …Compare two (or more) of the six ancient civilizations studied in Grade 8 History
  • …Compose an insightful thesis statement including comparative statement and analysis (Answer Qs: Why? So what?)
  • …Prepare a presentation to communicate what has been learned and engage the audience
  • Image by Microsoft Clip Art

Through collaboration with our middle school librarian and middle school technology coordinator, we added to these content goals the following specific information literacy (IL) and research goals, as well as IT/CT (info technology / computational thinking) goals

IL (Research) Goals:

  • …Effective use of NoodleTools:
    • **NoodleTools Notecards for note-taking
    • **NoodleBib for Works Cited submission
  • …Effective use of a variety of MS Library Databases (minimum of 4 substantial sources)
  • …Effective use of Creative Commons for identifying appropriate and engaging images, and citing of images

IT/CT (Info Technology / Computational Thinking*) Goals:

  • …Problem Decomposition (breaking down tasks into smaller, manageable parts): In planning the research and presentation of this comparative report, identify:
    • **roles, responsibilities,
    • **timeline,
    • **resources needed to complete the project, and
    • **appropriate technology to communicate with and engage the audience.
  • …Data Collection and Analysis (making sense of data, finding patterns, and drawing conclusions): Gather appropriate information about the different civilizations/chosen topic; identify similarities and differences; analyze similarities and differences.
  • …Abstraction (reducing complexity to define main idea): After studying the topic/ancient civilizations, identify key comparative elements, and compose an appropriate comparative thesis statement.
  • …Parallelization (organize resources to simultaneously carry out tasks to reach a common goal): Student teams plan production of the final project presentation, including script, props, and roles of each individual in producing the presentation. Identify tasks that will be carried out simultaneously, and milestones where the pairs check in, and plan, and put things together.
  • …Computational Thinking Dispositions: Ability to handle ambiguity and complexity; ability to communicate and work with others to achieve a common goal or solution.

*Computational Thinking goals drawn from CT Teacher Resources by CSTA and ISTE: Click here to download.

It feels good to have the blessing of our middle school librarian and technology coordinator who both believe that the open-ended nature of the project is an appropriate culmination of the skills acquired through Grade 8 History this year, as well as across the students’ three years of purposeful research and technology skill-building across middle school. The scaffolding is finally coming down, and although we will be supporting students through this process on an individual basis with a running GoogleDoc of check-ins, it really is time to see how the students navigate through their options to determine the best match of resources and technologies to their purposes – on their own. Another source of my satisfaction regarding this approach is that we know the next research project the students will face – next year in Grade 9 – will be even more open-ended in terms of content, but at the same time more restricted in terms of final product, as the students will have to produce a traditional research paper. This grade 8 end-of-year project is an appropriate send-off for the students to position them for success in their next endeavor, while still providing room for individual creativity and collaborative learning.

We built a GoogleSite to hold all the pieces together – the goals of the project; the steps to complete the assignment; explicit teaching of skills such as revising and narrowing down essential questions and composing the thesis statement answer; links to our MS Library database and other research help; links to a plethora of technology tools to enhance the final presentation; a timeline of check-ins and due dates; and assessment information.

So, now our front-loading teacher-prep part of the project is pretty much done, and we can look forward to the grand finale – a final week of presentations showcasing the creative, original, and engaging final products – which will be the true measure of the success of our work in history this year. It also serve s as an appropriate metaphor for the way our integration of technology in the classroom has evolved since the early days of the 1-to-1 laptop program at our school, from a tool-driven, teacher-driven, minutely-managed approach to one in which the teachers now truly turn it over to the student experts. And genuinely feel comfortable with that!

Computers and Computational Thinking – A “throwback” to the future of thinking

The more I read about computational thinking, the more it seems to me to be mis-named. It is abundantly clear to me that critical/analytical/process-oriented thinking is required in any task/lesson/unit plan that utilizes the schema of computational thinking. But the “computational” part always conjures up in mind an image of a “computer” – which reduces it all to a physical piece of hardware and distracts from the essence, which I believe is the thought processes and dispositions of the 21st century learner. I am amused that the learner dispositions are described so broadly while the label is such a “throwback”!

In fact, computational thinking is often described in such an expansive way as to almost suggest that any kind of problem can be solved by applying this kind of thinking. An article written last year by Elizabeth Jones of the University of California raises this very point. Computational thinking, she suggests, simply encourages people to approach problem-solving as a process, as a series of steps to be taken in the effort to reach a solution. Put this way, I am similarly tempted to ask what makes this mode of thinking particularly unique or particularly computer-based.

I would also argue, alongside Jones, that there are nevertheless and indeed some kinds of thinking that preclude a process-oriented approach – particularly a moral dilemma or a question of personal values, or even something that requires a fair degree of creativity and personal opinion, such as the writing of this blog. Decisions that I am making about my writing are based on principles such as what I want to get out of this experience, what I want my reader to take away from it. And, simply, what sounds subjectively “just right” to me.

Even so, I believe I can, after all, get past the apparently illogical labeling and appreciate computational thinking as a new, 21st century style of critical thinking when theComputer Science Teachers Association (CSTA) exhorts me to consider these unique factors:

  • Computational thinking IS more tool-oriented.
  • While our human brains can perform as powerful problem-solvers, we have the power to enhance this performance with computers and various digital tools.
  • “The solution to a problem can usually be carried out by a human or machine, or more generally, by combinations of humans and machines.
  • And we all need to understand how, when, and where computers and other digital tools can help us solve problems, and we all need to know how to communicate with others who can assist us with computer-supported solutions.”

Basically, I am being challenged to re-consider “problem-solving” and how it can be served with different kinds of overlapping thinking such as logical, algorithmic thinking, as well as logical and systems thinking, parallel thinking, compositional reasoning, pattern matching, procedural thinking, and recursive thinking. If computational thinking is a handy “catch-all” label for this impressive list, then I can certainly roll with it.

Indeed, in my final project, I have explicitly listed IT and Computational Thinking skills/dispositions alongside one another on my grading sheet. This will definitely draw some blanks from the students in my Grade 8 history classes – which means I can start this conversation once again – from the top. So, step 1….!

Throwing it out there

The two of us – Chris Fox and Kristin Rowe, Team History in Grade 8 with “Ancient Civilizations” – have enjoyed the early days of our new course. We have had lots of space to dream, and we’ve been throwing around big ideas and grand visions regarding flipped classrooms, reverse instruction, the mastery learning approach, vodcasting, and computational thinking, etc, and what we could do in an ideal world/school/classroom.

But the dream is about to end, because we have to nail it down to reality! At this point, we have identified our year-long IT/IL project as the best opportunity to stretch ourselves regarding IT integration. So far, we have been working in collaboration with our middle school librarian to dip into database research and note-taking with NoodleTools alongside our daily classroom instruction, for which the textbook provides a foundation. The recurring themes holding our civilization study and research together are the five common Essential Questions (EQs). So the question is, besides picking up valuable research habits along the way, what is the final product for which they are doing all this research?

First, let’s consider the path we have started down, and what else we hope to encounter on this road. Students have been steered towards school-subscription databases like  Encyclopedia Britannica and Grolier Online as well as an appropriately titled  Ancient Civilizations Reference Library eBook for information and note-taking.  We will continue to broaden the resources to which we point the students; for example, we are want students to become Google power-users with advanced searching capabilities, and we want students to develop a more critical approach regarding website evaluation as we set them loose beyond the school database boundary.

We are encouraging students to practice titling their notecards with the five thematic EQs and “tagging” their notecards to allow for later comparison of aspects of civilization, and we know we want to include this higher-level thinking – a more in-depth comparative study – as a key descriptor of the final project.

But perhaps we don’t need to narrow it down much further than this:

  1. We want a comparative project around the EQ themes.
  2. We want student choice to allow them to pick up whatever ideas have intrigued them through the year.

And perhaps the rest should be a matter of student choice. One of the points identified by ISTE and CSTA  as key to 21st century computational thinking is the idea that students should have exposure to a range of research tools and strategies  so that they are in a position to identify, analyze, and implement the most efficient and effective combination of steps and resources to achieve their goals. If we narrow it down too far, we are taking away the opportunity for students to work through the chaos of choice to good decision-making around the most appropriate means for the most effective end. And if we want students to be able to follow their passions and for their passion to come through in their final products, then they need plenty of choice regarding final presentation of their learning.

Thus, our task would be to clearly define the options and support them with a framework for the process of planning and preparing a final project of their own design.

As we continue to brainstorm how students could present their research products, we really want to give student options regarding what tools they can use.  Of course, we have the standard GoogleApps or Inspiration 9.0 resources, but we are interested in exposing the students to a wide variety.  In our research, we are pleasantly surprised to find so many great sites about web 2.0 tools.  One of our favorite sites is Web 2.0: Cool Tools for Schools. It provides a plethora of options, each with a unique twist on its special features.  For example, one program that is new to us is ClipGenerator. Students can create their own cool video clips, add music and images, plus their own photos, and finish with a professional film cut and animation.  What a great way to hook the audience with the research topic.

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The Simple Show describes applications for the tool and “how to” work with it:

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We are shooting for a new way to present research, using collaboration and creativity.  It would be easy to simply have students complete a traditional two or three page research paper with cover page and Works Cited, but we want to arm the students with tools in order to be truly successful as they move to Upper School and prepare for what lies ahead –  the resources and opportunities are endless.  So, we are excited for the first time to throw this challenge out there to the students and see how it goes!

Beyond Management of the Machine

Management of the 1:1 lap top situation in my classroom is not a big deal for me anymore, I’m relieved to say. Don’t get me wrong – it is certainly on my mind. All the time, in fact! I do have to plan out my lessons, thinking in terms of grouping together the computer work, so students aren’t powering up and down through a 45 minutes lesson, which would lose me valuable time.  I use DyKnow Monitor and students know I may be watching them. It’s a wonderful deterrent, despite the lag I sometimes experience. And probably my most frequent management strategy is directing the students to “put your lap top to sleep” or simply “turn the lap top around to face me” so that it doesn’t pose a distraction as I’m giving instructions or presenting a mini-lesson.

What does endlessly fascinate me, however, is all the amazing things we can do with the lap tops – teachers, students, ordinary people in all walks of life  – to simply our personal organization. Here are a few of the tools I have been exploring recently.

Thanks to our IT Director, I have migrated from a simple “snipping” tool to the more advanced Snagit. This is the king in the world of free tools that our school has included in the teachers’ lap top image. Snagit is an easy screen capture software that comes bundled with Camtasia Studio Pro so teachers can create screencasts, training documents, etc.

Compared to our other clunky Windows-associated Snipping Tool, this simple screen grab tool has an impressive list of image editing and annotating features. We can simply copy, save, convert, or edit images, but what I really like about it is that it keeps a history of all things “snagged” in the past for easy  recall. They fan out at the bottom very nicely! It’s window, pictured above, looks a little daunting, and might turn some people off at this point. But it shouldn’t send anyone back to the Snipping Tool. It’s easy to add callout boxes, to send via email with a simple cut and paste, but then there are extra dashing features like the addition of a page curl using the image bar. Students don’t have Snagit yet. That’s the only snag :) right now.

Then there’s Dropbox. This kind of cloud-based file back-up is certainly the wave of the future. Our IT department is seriously threatening to shut down our mainshare access at the end of this year, because it is too costly, so they have been investigating alternatives to offer us during this weaning stage. And this option seems pretty cool to me. Simply, files that we used to save on the mainshare, or on our lap top D-drives, will be accessible anyplace anytime. We can leave the machine behind. We can walk out of the building. No little flash stick thumb drive thingy to lose. Usually tragically! No bulky external drive to lug about.

It is a tri-platform tool. All the basic file types – OneNote, Word, Excel, simple images, etc – can be accessed at home by using a web-based portal or a synchronized computer at home. As long as there is an internet connection. I can simply log into www.dropbox.com and I can get my files instantly. Of course, I can retrieve photos and documents on my iPhone too.

And it’s so easy to use. After installing a Dropbox folder on my computer, files that I save into the folder are automatically saved in the cloud. (For those of us in Asia, that cloud is actually hovering around Singapore, apparently!) It has a very handy “show deleted files” button so you can check back over what you have done – wittingly or unwittingly. You can set it up to sync one way only, to avoid any headaches. And here’s a biggie: the Dropbox people will recover file errors they have made. Now, it is a tool that has been available for some seven years already, so this very powerful, flexible tool seems like a pretty sure thing. The bad news is, for reasons I can’t fathom, it is currently only available for 14-year-olds and up, so that pretty much nixes it for the middle school. It would be perfectly lovely to share a folder with students and thus do so anywhere, anytime. But, for now at least, I will have to continue to rely on the OLC and GApps for file-sharing with students.

Anyway, the first 2G is free. Then there is bonus memory available for inviting friends to join – up to a maximum of 8G. The IT-Director tells me that the school is working on a handsome deal for teachers (because we are being pushed off the mainshare) so we should wait before purchasing for ourselves. But in the meantime I see Dropbox as the long-awaited back-up option for my personal files and photos. Yay!

The funkiest untapped tool I learned about was Evernote. This kind of combines the features of Snagit and Dropbox, allowing the user to capture anything and access it anywhere. The best way to describe it may be as a clipboard for all my thoughts. I can capture a note of simple text, an audio note, an inknote, stuff that I have copy-pasted (e.g. clipping a website – a full page or part of a page, with an annotation option). And I don’t need to worry about pressing “save.” (With my huge reliance on OneNote presently for shared planning and teaming, I have rolled back into bad habits regarding that “save” button!) Everything goes into the cloud, syncing whenever I am online. The list of snippets just goes on growing, a repository of multi-formatted notes whenever I need them.

Actually, Evernote sounds like an organizational nightmare, but the snippets can be filed away into sections, much like OneNote. You can Twitter, Facebook, email, or link the snippets. So it’s like a pumped up StickyNotes (which I have loved, but also loathed because the notes/reminders are then trapped on my desktop). It’s bigger and better than Diigo and Delicious because the user can gather together a greater range of …stuff. Again, 2G is free. The school is investigating an academic version with far greater gig. And, again, its use as a tool for middle schoolers is limited by the 13-years-old-only caveat. Doh! But, in the meantime, I’ll be investigating it for personal use.

Until now, this post has largely ignored my students, because they are just too darn young to be able to use these tools for another  year or so. Therefore, I thought I’d better drop in another tid-bit that is ALL about the students: Hoot.me

This is a cute little concept, one of a number of tools that seeks to blend socializing and studying. It aims to harness the power of Facebook as an online socializing tool – where millions of students are hanging out anyway – and turn its purpose towards study and support. Basically, Hoot.me is an application that turns the social networking site into “study mode.”

While the user remains “inside” Facebook, he or she is moved away from the wall and newsfeed. With a more atypical Facebook prompt, “What are you working on?” students can join live study sessions on that topic, complete with group video-conferencing and/or smart chat. (Smart chart allows students to type in mathematical formulas). Study sessions are saved and archived so students can search for answers in previous sessions. And these study sessions could, conceivably, be used as” virtual office hours” by teachers who are prepared to give help outside of school campus time. (Making this a more attractive option, teachers don’t have to “friend” students to be able to invite them to participate in a study group, and the sessions can be private and therefore not show up in the news feed.)

So, that’s my wrap-up of recent discoveries to enhance lap top use in and beyond the classroom. I am so glad to have that first freaked-out year of 1:1 lap top use under my belt. Yet, even in that first year, once we had the school-wide routines down – the Technology Use Policy (TUP) firmed up; the file-naming protocols sorted; file saving, storage, and sharing figured out; and my own classroom rituals defined – I have been able, for the most part, to move beyond management to enhancement of teaching and learning. Enhancement and exploration of tools, such as these, to make it that much more fun to be doing this teaching gig!

In case you wondered, a real human wrote this blog…

Okay, so I stole that line from a New York Times article by Steve Lohr that caught my attention recently with this title: “In Case You Wondered, a Real Human Wrote This Column.” But plagiarism as the dirtiest deed in academia took on a whole new dimension as I read the following lead:

“WISCONSIN appears to be in the driver’s seat en route to a win, as it leads 51-10 after the third quarter. Wisconsin added to its lead when Russell Wilson found Jacob Pedersen for an eight-yard touchdown to make the score 44-3 … . ”

Nothing remarkable in these words, you might think. It’s just a news brief published about the third quarter status of a Wisconsin-U.N.L.V. football game earlier this month. Except that it was churned out within 60 seconds of the siren … composed by a computer.

AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by JoeAlterio

Now, GoogleTranslate blows my mind, but this is more like artificial intelligence at work, it seems to me. An Illinois company,  Narrative Science, has been experimenting with software that is smart enough to write sports articles and other such data-based news writing, and smarter again to write like a human being – not in some kind of formulaic, fill-in-the-blank style that has typified efforts like this computer-authored work in the past. The computers may not have reached the level of an advanced human wordsmith, but they certainly manage the lingo of your typical local sports journalist with ease.

I shouldn’t be shocked, I suppose. Just as computers are getting better and better at understanding human language as we input it, they are getting better and better at generating it themselves. It has taken considerable time, money and effort investment from people like Narrative Science’s founders,  Kris Hammond and Larry Birnbaum, who are both professors of journalism and computer science as well, and also co-directors of the Intelligent Information Laboratory at Northwestern University. But the results speak for themselves – literally!

What are the broader implications, though? What does this mean for journalism – already a beleaguered occupation. If the software’s advanced data mining can make sense of housing and real estate statistics, as well as quarterly financial results of local public companies, such that it can then generate automatic summary articles… Well, this kind of journalistic slog-work could certainly be passed off to a robot writer. But what happens to the flesh-and-blood people whose job has thus been replaced? And who else – what other occupation that we might have thought could only be handled by humans – is in the firing line? When it comes to education, where online  courses and universities (like University of the People or the Khan Academy) are sprouting up everywhere, this begs a couple of questions: Is this a good thing? And, what do we need teachers for anymore?

Of course, the inventors of this journalistic artificial intelligence tell us that there is no cause for alarm. The companies who have expressed interest in the technology so far say they are not looking to replace anybody; rather, they are looking at this software to publish information that simply hasn’t been published before – that nobody got around to reporting. If that’s the case, then this writing software, purely expository in nature, would be a step towards greater democratization of the news, making more local news (like youth sports) more accessible. This is GOOD news!

The same goes for the greater reach of quality education that online programs now offer. There are a lot of people who can now access the sort of education that would earlier have been unheard of for their socio-economic or geographical situation. And then there’s the “Flipped Classroom” approach to teaching. The salient point there is that teachers are still very much needed to facilitate the personalization of education, the hands-on activities, and the in-class peer-to-peer collaboration that is also vital to the social constructivist’ s way of thinking about learning. It’s just homework that has been enhanced!

Still, towards the end of the article about robot writers, Mr. Hammond could not help but push the envelope:

“In five years,” he says, “a computer program will win a Pulitzer Prize — and I’ll be damned if it’s not our technology.”

 

Flippin’ Fantastic

I am both challenged and inspired by the principles of Mastery Learning and the Flipped  Classroom. As the COETAIL cohort video-conferenced (via Google Hangout – move over, Skype!) with Brian Bennett on this topic, I couldn’t help but be impressed by his  incredible personal journey and his insight. Here is a very young teacher who speaks like a seasoned vet, challenging me to re-think my whole approach to teaching. Not just re-think it – REVERSE it! On top of the fascinating troubleshooting process he negotiated with Jeff Utecht as they re-jigged the video connection to work around a Taipei typhoon (no less!), it struck me that his own story completely denied me the usual escape clause: “Well, that just wouldn’t work in my classroom.” He has, after all, developed his flipped classroom/mastery learning techniques in a Korean international school setting, and seems now to have successfully  transferred this to an American public school in Illinois. His pedigree certainly prompted me to listen closely as he shared with us an updated version of his EARCOS conference 2010 presentation.

On the one hand, the basic principles of reverse instruction seem to have evolved organically in my own practice. The idea that students do individual work at home (read the assigned novel chapters and answer the questions; read the textbook and take notes on a graphic organizer), and then spend classroom time in collaborative group work or some kind of dynamic classroom-only discourse … this makes perfect sense to me.

Instruction becomes the homework = CONTENT/CONCEPT DELIVERY happens at home.

Homework becomes classwork = PROCESSING & PRACTICE of these concepts happens in the classroom.

I can see how my classroom has turned around, particularly since this year we have adopted a new textbook for our new history course and, thank goodness, they don’t make textbooks like they used to! Our new Ancient Civilizations text from Holt McDougal is not simply a digital rendering of the hard copy, page by page. It includes multimedia presentations, videos, primary source-related materials, activity-maker software, interactive maps, tutorials, graphic organizers for reading comprehension and writing in a variety of genres, and other materials to extend the learner “beyond the text.”

In addition, it is becoming increasingly common for me and my colleagues to call on the MS IT Coordinator or the Librarian to create “how to” files (PowerPoints, pdfs with images, screencasts – all sorts!) for the classroom projects we undertake. Either the specialist or we, the classroom teachers, introduce the information, but now that we are several years into our 1:1 laptop situation, we have become used to the vast majority of our students being pretty tech-savvy, with just a fringe group of newbies needing the extra prompting. For most kids in our middle school classrooms these days, it would be a waste of time to take a laborious, repeat-each-step-after-me lecture on how to set up a blog, or use PhotoStory/MovieMaker/CamStudio.

With such rich resources, one question I have about the Flipped Classroom is this: When would it be appropriate to turn the vodcasting over to the students? In many cases, they would be re-creating something that already exists in a more professional form – either by our IT/IL Specialists or the textbook company! This is a wonderful problem to have, and it is a luxury of our full-scale adoption of technology for anywhere, anytime learning. In the meantime, perhaps I could start by adding a step to the homework – to the initial content consumption. Perhaps, I could ask students to respond to the homework lecture/instruction/reading via video. Although this could be just as readily achieved with a group discussion first thing in the next class…

In any event, I definitely like the importance that the Flipped Classroom places on teacher-student interaction – that this approach actually frees up classroom time for conversation and individual teaching/learning. It certainly flies in the face of concern that computers will take over from teachers. The emphasis is entirely on enriching the individual’s learning experience, not replacing one kind of learning experience (teacher-student interaction) with another (computer-student interaction).

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So, instruction is definitely in a state of irrevocable reversing for me. Although I can (and want to!) continue this trend of flipping homework and classwork, I know that the environment I am teaching in has set me down a path of reverse instruction that will naturally continue anyway. No worries there. And with a new schedule this year that has me teaching 45-minute classes instead of 95-minute classes, I am finding that class time is just evaporating before my eyes. So, in order to move from content instruction to launching into discussions and activity, I really need to set students up to read and prepare at home, ready for doing something with that  content in class the next day.

BUT: here comes the other hand.  It is the Mastery Learning element that really hounds and confounds me. At this point, the 24/7 access has not necessarily led to increased differentiation in my classroom. Student learning has not yet become personalized. Performance objectives are not yet the standard of assessment in my classroom. Certainly not anywhere near as much as Bennett illustrated with his own model of teaching. For the most part, I still have students working all together at a pace I have set for them, in the order I have set for them, and it is only to a minimal extent that there is choice for the topic, type, or medium of assessment.

I buy into on a theoretical level. I want to do it. And I am envious of how quickly it seems that Bennett was able to switch his organization and approach to enable it. I know I can be easy on myself and just start with baby steps. That’s what kindly teacher mentors have been saying forever about change in education. Just make a start. Just do it!

But I am daunted by the thought of setting up all the procedures. I know that I want to provide the opportunity for learners to take responsibility for their content. And I know that kids will probably be almost as challenged by the idea as I am, because they can no longer just get by “playing school” as Bennett described it. I like the idea of “flipping” to  provide time for learners to explore, explain, and create meaning of the content.  It means I can focus on providing context instead of providing content. Starting with the objectives of a unit and working backwards to create the activities which will give the students the opportunity to show their mastery – objective-based assessment self-evidently empowers students to take charge of their learning.

But it is definitely going to take a lot of planning to implement this in my history classroom where standards and benchmarks are not so black and white, and learning is enriched through more of a shared journey – discussion, debate, multi-party simulation, etc. And then it’s going to take some really slick time management strategies to walk around talking to every single kid (1:1 interactions) – working ahead/behind, helping to keep them with the rest of the class as needed, but giving time to go back and practice or surge ahead in their own good time. To a point. Because I will still need to follow the school’s grading schedule, of course.

Nevertheless, Bennett shared some highly practical points that made this approach seem more concrete and do-able. He said that his units took about 3 weeks and that he prepared about 3 assignments per week for students to complete. To avoid procrastinators waiting until the last day to suddenly come up with assignments, and overwhelm the teacher with the sudden surge of individual consultation time that this would necessitate, he tells students they can only get one objective checked off on the last day of the assignment.

Bennett gives himself some leeway with quizzes; some are completed orally (one-on-one) while others are written. He has a bank of questions with which to quiz students, and some students will only need a few – because they get them right without hesitation or prompting, while others will demonstrate simply that they are not yet ready for the quiz. (He has developed a nifty rubric for this purpose: for a full score, for example, students would need to respond concisely and accurately – without prompting by the teacher – using unit vocabulary fluently in the discussion, etc).

Meanwhile, other students are working on other projects. Students can frontload or backload to meet weekly expectations, but Bennett does chase up kids who complete less than the required amount per week. Because he is keeping track of everything on a one-page Excel spreadsheet (see image) that he keeps with him as he circulates in class, he is able to keep tabs on everyone – that being a total of 100 kids at the moment (just like me!) with about 5 kids that he reckons he works intensively with (i.e. resource students who have IEPs).

In fact, I was particularly impressed with Bennett’s point that this highly personalized Mastery Learning approach ensures that teachers really talk to ALL students … because, if we are honest, we would probably have to admit that there are students in our classrooms who are not actually getting the individual attention that good teaching calls for – for one reason or another, an act of deliberate or unconscious omission. This point hit home for me.

One of my colleagues asked a good question as the video conference wrapped up. What are the characteristics of things that work well flipped? It was generally agreed around the room that the subject material would preferably be algorithmic in nature. Discrete information, concepts that students can pick up quickly, and review independently. But, once the subject territory becomes more philosophical in nature, the videos may well be less powerful as teaching tools. Too boring, maybe. Simply not so flipping fantastic.

Interestingly, on the site devoted to the “Flipped Classroom and Pre-Vodcasting” concept, described as the “brainchild of Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams who are pioneers in the field of using vodcasts in the classroom,” they list specific subjects for which “flipping” is particularly appropriate – and it does not include the Humanities: “Thus far, teachers and students using the Flipped Class model have been very successful in mastering science, mathematics and foreign language. ”

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So, how often is Bennett, a science teacher, still traditionally delivering content? About once a week in biology. But he is not doing the talking. Students are – sitting in desks facing each other. He calls it “the forum.”

I hope that’s the subject of his next EARCOS presentation, because anything with his name on it would get my attention now. In the meantime, I should work with the #flipclass hash tag to follow more teachers using a flip model. More for me and you can be found at The Flipped Class Ning site: groups of people by content area and discussion forums for collaboration and idea sharing.

 

The Power of Partnering for better IT/IL Skill-building

In an integrated model of technology education, a great deal of responsibility seems to fall on the Technology Coordinator and the Librarian to ensure that IT/IL goals (be they ISTE NETs or AASL Standards or a school’s own home-grown measurements of learning) are met for each child in each classroom at each grade level. This really means, that it happens through sheer force of personality  and persistence. Or when personalities clash between classroom teacher and IT/IL coordinator(s), it might not happen at all.

As described in an excerpt from an ISTE publication, “IT’s Elementary! Integrating Technology in the Primary  Grades” it takes an instructional choice that generally includes collaboration and deliberate planning. And “it takes someone with real vision — an administrator, a teacher, or a specialist—to model, encourage, and enable integration.” I am very lucky to have such a special someone in my life: our school’s MS Librarian, Peter Giordano. He is working with us to bring our grand promises to Grade 8 parents regarding our new history course to reality. He is helping us achieve effective IT and IL integration as described in a recent Edutopia article (Why Integrate Technology into the Curriculum?), i.e. with routine and transparent use of technology to support curricular goals.

At a recent Parent Evening  my colleague, Chris Fox, and I introduced the course and made a series of sweeping statements about the critical thinking skills we intend for our students to develop through the year. In particular, I want to focus here on our final promise – namely, to advance our students’ research and information literacy skills:

Through a series of cumulative lessons interspersed through our units and created in collaboration with our MS Librarian, Mr. Giordano, students will become more advanced users of research tools such as NoodleTools for note-taking and citation, and more familiar with the great variety of high-quality databases and other reference resources that students can expect to use again and again in Upper School. And they will become better able to organize, analyze, and synthesize that information. Because, of course, in this information age, our students don’t have trouble accessing information, but they do need to become more critical consumers of the information, and its sources.  So our study of Ancient Civilizations will provide a platform for the development of these very important 21st century skills.

So, this is where we rely a great deal on the vision and good will of  the librarian. Essentially, we are working together to create a year-long project that exposes students to the quality range of databases and eBooks that the our school libraries make available, but that are also sadly underutilized by our student body because Wikipedia is just a few keystrokes away. We want to push them to explore powerful databases such as  Encyclopedia Britannica and Grolier Online and Merriam-Webster and World Atlas and World Book Encyclopedia and Ebsco Host and Gale Opposing ViewPoints in Context and …. the list of incredible resources goes on. We want students to recognize, as wonderfully up-to-date and accessible as Wikipedia is, that some academic inquiry will be better served by tools more varied and powerful than a mass-wiki produced for free and that anyone can edit.

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We certainly aren’t seeking to replace Wikipedia as a tool for students to use. But we do want to challenge students to realize in what ways Wikipedia is limited, and therefore the importance of having access to a toolkit, rather than just one fast-food-like research tool. In reading about CT (computational thinking), I realize that we are specifically tackling one of the points identified by ISTE and CSTA  – we want to give students the exposure to a range of research tools and strategies  so that they are in a position to identify, analyze, and implement the most efficient and effective combination of steps and resources to achieve their goals.

With the five essential questions providing the thematic thread though the six ancient civilizations that we study in Grade 8, we have used these questions as the starting points for reading, noting and citing, using the all-in-one research organizer, note-card and bibliography-developer, NoodleTools.

For our first civilization, Mesopotamia, we set aside two mini-lessons to begin what will become a year-long cumulative project. Of course, we had to walk students through a major start-up session to begin with because they have had a potted exposure to this tool through middle school. Some Grade 8s already had several rounds of experience while sundry others had somehow slipped through the cracks. And then there are all the new kids, mostly with no prior exposure. Unfortunately, NoodleTools is not intuitively set up so it takes a little navigation and getting used to. In advance, our savvy librarian had made sets of “Bread-crumbs” instructions available in the online classroom (OLC, powered by Blackbaud) course dedicated to the MS Library resources. He had created multiple short instruction files such as “how to cite an online database” and “how to add tags to a notecard” so students could pick and choose step-by-step instructions to follow, or simply charge ahead.

To answer the first set of EQs (essential questions) relating to the environment, we simply directed students to “get their feet wet” with Grolier Online  and Encyclopedia Britannica, the two middle school staples. Straight away, however, we delivered choice and room for individual learning needs/styles. For example, Britannica actually includes the Elementary Encyclopedia which is the easiest to use, Comptons which is great for middle school, and the world renowned Britannica which covers a whole universe of information. This menu of choice is great for kids who don’t want to advertise that they are ESL students or that they struggle with grade-level reading comprehension because they can independently and without fanfare select the most appropriate reading.

For round two and the remaining EQs, which focus on innovation and change in civilization as well as modern-day connections, the librarian was excited to share with students a new Ancient Civilizations Reference Library eBook. All very straightforward stuff.

But we are ratcheting it up a level as we move forward into our next civilization. The EQS will be recycled for the sake of civilization comparison – once again, human interaction with the environment + innovation and change – but we will layer into the resource selection the need to evaluate conflicting viewpoints. We also intend to do at least one “round” on advanced Google searching. And I do think we will want to get to Wikipedia, after all, and examine the discussion that goes into construction of the wiki pages, because there is certainly value in that kind of analysis, also.

We will continue to add levels of challenge into the EQ-based research with each round. Meanwhile, the MS librarian is working with the US librarian to ensure that Grade 8 students will be introduced to all the research tools and strategies they can anticipate using in the first couple of years of upper school. We know that next year in Grade 9, and for every year of school thereafter, students can expect to write a research report of significant magnitude. We also know we can reduce the stress involved if students are already familiar with the recipe ingredients for these research reports, so this is obviously one goal of the Grade 8 research project. But a research report??! We know we don’t want to go to that level of formality yet. And we don’t want to narrow it down and prescribe too much, either. That would negate the purpose of filling up their IT/IL toolkit through the year, if at the end we were to snatch back the possibility of having students select the most appropriate tools to achieve their goals. (For an interesting conversation about the place of traditional research reports in education today, see Are Research Papers a Waste of Time?)

By the end of our study of the six civilizations, the students will have piles of digital notecards that are tagged by EQ, unit, and topic, ready to be used to compose a final project. But just what that project will be, exactly, we don’t know yet. Perhaps, as David Warlick advocates in his blog, it will be more of an independent study type of project where students have access and now familiarity with a wide variety of tools, and they could design a project that applies to something – anything – that has piqued their interest through the year.

Perhaps this will turn out to be the focus of our final COETAIL course project. Perhaps…

Stand and Deliver! Promises I have to keep regarding my new History course

History is as essential to human society as memory is to an individual.  It provides a framework within which we can explore and debate complex issues such as identity, morality, and reality. Examining the historical precursors to the modern world also provides a reference point for speculating about what is possible in the future. History is concerned with the entire range of human activities so it is a super-subject, a meta-subject, if you like, that embraces many other disciplines. It requires the rigor of a scientist, the persistence of a detective, and also the imagination of a novelist. So we are excited to share with you the details of our new Grade 8 History course!

Thus began my “Back to School Night” speech delivered to a theater full of Grade 8 parents one evening last month. Part quote/part paraphrase from Deakin University course materialsthat I had stumbled across from my old M.Ed. program, I guess I was in a fairly evangelical state of mind to be using such grand language!

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Certainly, I am finding a whole new excitement in my teaching this year. After seven years of teaching Humanities, a combination of Language Arts and Social Studies, the school administration decided to decouple these subjects and overhaul our K-12 Social Studies curriculum, so I put my hand up to develop the new Grade 8 course and get back to my first love: history.

Actually, I wasn’t really looking for a change,  but once our principal announced the new approach to these subjects, I suddenly felt that proverbial seven-year-itch and I knew I couldn’t stand another year of doing the same thing – another year of an intricately woven but therefore tightly-packed curriculum, a course that was increasingly unwieldy under the weight of our efforts to meet Language Arts standards as well as Social Studies standards (as well as general community expectations – exactly when are you teaching traditional grammar and Shakespeare? And how well are the students performing in those standardized tests?) as well as the sundry IT/IL goals we knew we should get around to…

But now I have a blank page on which to balance competing interests about what curriculum pieces, exactly, we should “uncover” (as opposed to “cover”)  in Grade 8 History. Our administrators have given us the content “headings” – ours will be an Ancient and Classical History course following the rise and decline of six great civilizations: Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, and Rome. (This will serve as a foundational course for the two Grade 9 History options: History of Asia and AP World History). And I have been partnered with my wonderful colleague and good friend, Chris Fox, who is also sharing the Jeff Utecht COETAIL journey with me!

So, it’s back to the beginning with curriculum development. And, now that we have no excuses, it’s “back to the future” in terms of our priorities for teaching and learning. We know we simply have to infuse 21st century skills into our classroom practices.  And just last week with the BTSN presentation that Chris and I delivered, we know we have made a promise to the parents about the kind of critical thinking their children will practice as apprentice historians.

Again, we stated it in grand terms:

 As students progress through each civilization, they will be challenged to understand how different societies influenced and adapted to their environment, and how they developed tools, technology, and infrastructure to meet their needs. Students will learn about trade, competition, and conflict over resources. In addition, they will examine the evolution of belief systems and government systems which shaped the lives of individuals and drove creative expression and historical accomplishments. Combining a chronological and comparative approach, students will explore the interplay of all these factors in explaining the rise and fall of entire cultures and civilizations, and their enduring impact on the present day.

Using “Understanding by Design” and “Teaching for Understanding” principles espoused by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, and underpinning our school’s approach to curriculum writing, Chris and I have identified a common set of essential questions and understandings that will enable a comparative approach to our study of civilizations, even as we take them up in chronological order. We know, however, that this is just one of many design elements we need to employ in our course to develop the higher-order skills our students will need in their unknowable future of miscellaneous opportunity in an increasingly complex, demanding and competitive 21st century. As the Partnership for 21st Century Skills national  organization advocates, for our students to compete in the global  economy, their education needs to fuse the traditionally tested core subjects (the “three Rs”) with the “four Cs” (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation).

 Check out this short, animated film about the “3Rs + 4Cs” approach:

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What it really means to embrace the 4Cs is elaborated upon in P21’s one-stop-shop for 21st century skills-related information, resources and community tools: Route 21. For one thing, the The 21st century Route 21 ideas challenge us to focus on the final statement I made to the parents – that we would connect this ancient history to the present day. More specifically, we need to make sure that our history course promotes understanding of academic content at much higher levels by weaving 21st century interdisciplinary themes through it – literacies like :  Global Awareness, Financial, Economic, Business and Entrepreneurial Literacy, Civic Literacy, Health Literacy, and Environmental Literacy.

Clearly, literacy is the buzz-word! Perhaps the most important aspect, however, is encouraging students to “buy into” the idea that this history course is not just about amassing the right GPA to be able to advance to a higher level option in the next grade level, but that the historical literacy they are developing is, itself, the goal.

We want students to realize that learning to “think like a historian” will provide them with a highly valuable and desirable skill-set to be competitive in their near and distant futures.

Once again, we sought to make this clear to parents when we canvassed the following history classroom practices:

  • Analyzing primary and secondary sources
    • which sets students up to be information detectives, sifting through evidence to be able to distinguish between fact and fiction, to identify perspective, exaggeration, and bias, and to evaluate the reliability of information sources
  • Analyzing cause and effect
    • connecting the dots between historical events and individual people, as well as the interplay of broader factors such as geography, economy, politics, religion, science and technology.
  • Practicing problem-solving and decision-making
    •  … particularly through…
  • Engaging in simulations and debates
    • ….and various role-playing activities that take students back to critical turning points in history, and which help to build understanding and empathy for people from other times, cultures and viewpoints
  • Advancing their research and information literacy skills …

…but that will the be the focus of the next blog. Meanwhile – phew! – we already have our hands full with all these promises and obligations about our new history course. That blank page on which to develop this year’s curriculum doesn’t seem so empty anymore!

Three Branches of Government – Many Ways of Looking at It

Visual aids have perhaps never been so important to my teaching of Social Studies concepts as when I taught about US Government this past month. In preparing and teaching this unit (Course 3 project) with my teaching partners, Chris and Erik, we rummaged into all the nooks and crannies of our visual literacy toolkit to pull out the following gems.

Students have a lot of persnickety tidbits of information to assimilate as they grapple with the idea of three branches of government  – the separation of powers, and the checks and balances. And while we would like them to be able to describe the range of responsibilities for each branch, we have more lofty goals than simply the recall of information. We want students to be able to describe what they know in metaphorical terms. We know that analogical reasoning is a higher-order thinking task, so students are set up to collaborate on a poster project for which they identify an appropriate three-part comparison and then explore just how far they can take those similarities.

Schoolhouse Rock! provides a handy example with “Three Ring Circus.”

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Then, with the goal in mind, we begin a series of lessons that seek to raise students’ awareness about the Constitution, how it works as a “rule book” for the game of government, describing the role of the various players and their “moves.” Below is one slide from our introductory PowerPoint:

This PowerPoint punctuates a rather long lecture on the history of the Constitution and how it came about (as we need to assume little or no prior knowledge of US Government), so we know we need to give students a chance to process all this verbal and visual information in a more collaborate, student-directed activity. Two Inspiration Webs serve this purpose. Pairs work with one computer between them to take a list of key vocabulary terms/concepts and add these into the web organization, adding text to explain connections:

Then, a more detailed slide show compares and contrasts features of the Three Branches, such as terms of office:

The remaining time is divided between further interactive activities such as three BrainPop video/quizzes (“The US Constitution”, “The Bill of Rights”, and “The Three Branches of Government”):

BrainPop “Three Branches of Government” (www.brainpop.com/socialstudies/usgovernmentandlaw/branchesofgovernment/)© 1999-2011 BrainPOP. All rights reserved. BrainPOP is a business name of FWD Media, Inc. Your use of the site indicates your agreement to be bound by our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

And students play interactive games from the excellent civics curriculum resource, iCivics, to review, apply, and self-assess what they have learned. Once again, we add the collaborative element by instructing students to work in pairs, so that decision-making is a shared meaning-making exercise.

In addition, we have charts and posters around the room for visual reference. The students’ own “Three Branches of Government Metaphor Poster Project” will become another one of these when they are finished; thus, students ultimately have the benefit of everybody’s collective creativity and metaphorical thinking … at a glance!



New Technology > New Teaching Tools > New Teaching Partnerships

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This Groen Brothers commercial spoof of a cellphone with multiple fanciful functions is a good laugh. But it’s also a sobering reminder that the things we laugh about now will be the ordinary, everyday, un-eyebrow-raising facts of our students’ future. Our kids have been born into rapid change. New tools come and go fast. Marc Prensky made a bold statement when I saw him present at a conference a few months ago: he said YouTube will be obsolete by 2015. That’s a staggering prediction for those of us who were NOT born into this over-drive of technological evolution.

As teachers, we have to get prepared for and plan for continuous change. Show reverence for the past, but don’t live in it. This involves a shift: VERBS vs NOUNS.

We think about  tools like PowerPoint, Outlook, etc, but nouns change. In their lifetimes, our kids will see technology become one trillion times more powerful. Consider the 1960s mainframe compared to today’s iPhone. And then compared to the nanomachines being researched and developed today – machines so small and so sensitive we really could control them with our brains … Wasn’t this just science fiction until, well, yesterday?

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That’s why educators need to think in terms of verbs (skills), because they tend to stay the same, (e.g. communicating, collaborating, creating, etc).

Nevertheless, digital tools are required, not optional. Prensky dismissed his much-cited terminology, announcing that “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” are OLD. We are  ALL moving to something new. And we all require digital tools to live and work. (Now, perhaps, we are all “h.sapiens digital”!)


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In fact, says Prensky, wisdom requires digital tools – because our brains don’t do everything well, e.g. we forget data; we can’t unhook thoughts and emotions, etc. (Thus, a central problem for the future of education is: What do we keep in our heads, and what do we delegate to machines? Another issue is that technology is becoming more disposable.) Nevertheless, the importance of technology cannot be understated.

The conference, where Prensky was keynoting, was called “iGeneration: How the Digital Age is Altering Student Brains, Learning & Teaching.” Before he presented, I had heard a whole lot of neuroscientists, psychologists, and educators  getting very excited about the new things we are learning about the human brain, now that we have MRI technology and other medical/scientific advances, and the impact this should have on education. Now we know, for example, that multitaskers aren’t really what they say they are – they are, at the brain level, task-switchers…

But Prensky say: SO WHAT? This sort of talk is confusing levels of granularity: how we learn vs how we learn in the classroom. Educators need to be about the Right mix and the Right Motivation. Especially during this “perfect storm” of change – change in the type of students we see these days, change in technology. And both of these driving change in education.

 

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Educators come in at the point that technology needs to be integrated with the learning/teaching. For example, assessment. Prensky asked: Would you disallow your doctor to use his stethoscope in an examination? So why don’t we have open-phone tests? Teachers need to start evaluating students with their tools, even as we keep the verbs in mind.

We are a tool for educating kids, and we need to change to a 21st century tool too. Before, we taught our subjects. Now we need to teach our students. Changes in technology and education don’t need to be intimidating if we look to partner with students going forward. We should share the work: Students do what they do well (use technology, find content, create) + Teachers do what they do well (ask questions, add quality and rigor, put it into

To put this another way: Technology’s role is to support the partnering pedagogy, i.e. students teaching themselves with teachers as coach/guide. This was the Presnky Apostasy  in essence: Don’t waste time learning to create with new tools (unless you want to) because the students can do that (and they want to do it).

Another stress-reducing corollary of this position is: Teachers should never use the technology for the students. This brought past PD with Tom Daccord to mind because he was a big advocate for Smartboards. But he was an even bigger advocate for the fact that teachers shouldn’t use them – kids should.

This relates to my previous blog post on Paul Gee’s list of important learning principles, a critical one being student motivation. What is it that best motivates today’s kids to learn?  Their passion (which is all sorts of things). Learning comes from passion, not (external) discipline.

 

And kids are passionate about technology. They want to get real. And they want to be connected. So, as I plan my new Social Studies curriculum for next year in Grade 8, I guess I’d better keep it real by having them read tweets from Libya (or whatever the real-time equivalent is of the standard and benchmark I am focusing on), even if I still can’t quite get a handle on Twitter myself.

…Or the next new thing.

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