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!

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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Digital Citizenship Lesson Buffet for Middle School – Course 2 Project

Our school is looking to develop the character education component of our homeroom time. One slice of the pie I’d like to sink my teeth into is digital citizenship. To be sure the message gets out to all students, I would be very pleased to see explicit teaching about rights & responsibility, security & safety, communication & etiquette become part of our homeroom advisory instruction.

Working with Alli and Becky, we sought to kickstart the process with a Digital Citizenship Lesson Buffet for the middle school – a list of links, lessons, and activities, organized into broad categories, that could be shared with the IT Department and MS Administration for future planning of character education delivery.

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We began by defining specific realms – digital citizenship traits. It didn’t take long for these divisions to prove themselves quite arbitrary as the online materials out there are myriad and, of course, do not necessarily follow our idea of compartmentalization!

Nevertheless, we came across many, many good online resources, initially with some assistance from a small taskforce of Grade 6 and 7 students in an after-school IT-interest club, sponsored by Becky and our MS IT Coordinator (who played an important advisory role in this project also).

The more we gathered, categorized, and annotated, the more we all got the feeling that we were barely scratching the surface of the awesome resources available. Even when we restricted ourselves to those freely available, without charge. Fully developed all-in-one programs do exist, of course, but our school is perhaps looking to use a more personalized, student/teacher-interest driven methodology, so this was another reason for our smorgasbord approach to the project.

We see the future of our project requiring the direction of coordinators and principals. However, we suggest that next steps would involve (hopefully student-directed) defining of the traits of digital citizenship. The materials also need to be transposed to some sort of articulated framework, i.e. which grade levels do what.

Long story short (project steps and further info are available below in the project document itself): Regardless of next steps at the next level of administration at our school, I am personally looking forward to using some of these ready-to-go, highly-interactive online resources at content-related intervals through the rest of this year, and hopefully next year as well, when our advisory program will take more concrete shape.

Here is our final Course 2 Project GoogleDoc template:

A Glimpse into the Future

I did the simplest thing in class yesterday. It was genius – by which I mean that I had just experienced one of those “A-ha!” moments, when, for a moment, I saw with great clarity exactly how a tech tool could enhance my teaching…with ease!

I wanted to introduce our next novel study to the class: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. We read this novel primarily to explore its themes and what the author wants to teach us through those themes about the state of our society. As both a Grade 8 English and Social Studies teacher, I wanted to make a connection to our current study of Ancient Greece. Socrates was the obvious dot to which I wanted to connect Bradbury because Socrates advocated critical self-reflection and the rigorous questioning of taken-for-granted assumptions. Two of his most famous quotes indicate the goals of his philosophic introspection: “Know thyself” and “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

As serendipitous as it was that I was concurrently introducing Socrates and Bradbury, I did not want to take up a lot of class time with this point. So, how could I make the connection brief, yet engage students in the exercise (rather than just standing up front and telling them point blank, and then having many of them miss it or instantly forget it).

At this juncture, my mind alighted upon one of Tom Daccord‘s little gems, as shared with Social Studies teachers at a recent middle/high school workshop. Fusing this with the “million dollar job” activity from Jeff Utecht’s August 28 Course 1 intro day, I had the makings of a cool little exercise.

First, I told students to use the window of class time they had once they were finished and had submitted their Ancient Greece section quiz, to find out more about Socrates. I encouraged them to go to any online reference tool they liked to use to do a 5 minute skim-read with the purpose of identifying Socrates’ main philosophy. Then students were to summarize his main teaching point in a single sentence – it could be a quote from the reference site, or one of Socrates’ own, or a sentence composed by the student. While they were at this, I took the next step:

By filling in the blue form boxes at TodaysMeet - a matter of a few seconds – I had created almost instantly a simple space on the web for a synchronous conversation at www.todaysmeet.com/socrates. I projected the webpage with this simple URL, and students joined me, also in a matter of moments.

I told students to cut and paste their sentence into this chat. Once individuals had finished this step, I told them to watch as more sentences were added, and review those already submitted, with the goal of looking for trends – what ideas came up most? In this way, every student was engaged with the task, and every student reported to the class. And it all took at most 10 minutes.

Finally, I scrolled through the transcript of the chat and elicited from students the words and phrases they could see were repeated most often. The rationale was that any one individual might have misunderstood what she/he had read or been simply a bit off the mark in describing Socrates’ critical ideas, but that probably overall the classroom crowd would have correctly identified the key ideas, so we could boil down the chat input to those basically cross-referenced points.

Sure enough, key words like “question” were repeated, and one or both of the quotes I had hoped they would stumble across, stood out from the list of sentences. In a matter of collaborative moments, I believe the students had gained a clearer picture of what Socrates stood for through a process of social meaning-making enabled by a Web 2.0 tool. And, also, by me. Connectivism on multiple levels.

With the connection iterated, and an essential understanding for the novel study deeply etched along my students’ neural pathways, now they could all turn their attention to reading and self-reflection with Bradbury. It had all been so very simple, student-centered, self-differentiating, publicly accountable, high interest, and easily replicable.

Erik J and Chris F will be sharing details in their blogs about the joint Course 1 Project that we undertook to enhance our Grade 8 English curriculum with a GoogleSite-based discussion and file-sharing, with a VoiceThread activity thrown in. Putting this project together took quite some consultation but we are satisfied that the tech tools we’ve added will certainly enhance our Literature Circle discussions of Fahrenheit 451. I’m sure our efforts will reap rewards for the students in terms of personalizing and internalizing the author’s thematic lessons through collaboration.

But my favorite result of this process so far was that light-bulb moment for me in the classroom, when I saw that it doesn’t all have to be blood, sweat and tears. Technology tools offer instant gratification for old digital immigrants like me too!