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.

YouTube Preview Image

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

YouTube Preview Image

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.

AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by the urban mermaid

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!

AttributionNoncommercialShare Alike Some rights reserved by ganatronic

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:

YouTube Preview Image

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!

Opening Up

“There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein”

~Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith

Unfortunately, although I now have the relative luxury of my laptop and Microsoft Office Word 2007, I don’t feel that the writing is coming any easier. And Mr. Smith was making these dramatic claims as a sportswriter, after all. Isn’t that simply a matter of collecting clichés? Whereas I, on the other hand, am tasked with writing something worth reading on the subject of education and how we can turbo-charge it with digital power-tools.

I have tormented myself with inaction over this blogging assignment since it was first proposed by Jeff. The tech part I feel I can figure out by myself or with the help of a kindly middle school IT coordinator in exchange for extra play dates/babysitting for her young children. And the education part – no worries there. I love it. I got into teaching for the learning.

It’s the composing and exposing of myself that is excruciating for me.

William Wordsworth isn’t much help: “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart,” he says. Thanks for that. It’s the echoing emptiness in my head that makes me so hyper-aware of my heartbeat anyway, and I’m already heavy-breathing (or maybe it would be classed as hyperventilating now) about the prospect of 8 blogs and a looming end-of-course deadline.

A word is not the same with one writer as with another. One tears it from his guts. The other pulls it out of his overcoat pocket.  ~Charles Peguy

That’s more like it. I picture my incredibly intelligent colleagues with fingers fairly flying over their keyboards as their reflections on teaching through technology enliven the blogosphere. Their wisdom – complete thoughts, rich sentences – sprout forth fully formed …Meanwhile, my process is more of the gut-wrenching, hara-kiri variety.

Surely writing would come more easily at this point if I felt I had anything of value to say, anything to add to the already loud chorus out there about digital tools and their potential for pushing us into a new paradigm for understanding teaching and learning. But why should I add my timorous voice to the bold banter of the expert bloggers out there?

Okay, so I understand the point of writing – on a personal level. I am a teacher of writing, after all. For years I have been explaining to the raised eyebrows in my classroom that we write to think. We write to give ourselves pause for thought. (A looooong pause, in my case.) We write to think more deeply. The writing process should be a process of personal discovery, of learning. To promote critical thinking and earnest self-analysis is the bottom line of our mission as teachers, right?

The new NETs for Teachers get to this, of course: “teachers should promote student reflection … to reveal and clarify students’ conceptual understanding and thinking, planning and creative processes” (1c). Can you guess which tid-bit I conveniently exchanged for an ellipsis?

And, yes, if it’s good for them, it’s good for me too. Of course, I’m going to want to distance myself from the type of teacher parodied in this YouTube clip: When I become a teacher YouTube Preview Image (which is pretty much a video version of the old, offensive adage: “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”)

But I haven’t just been asked to write for me. I’m writing for my peers, and whoever else stumbles across me out there in cyberspace. This scares the pants off me. Now it’s a whole other ball game. We’re talking not only about writing to think, or writing as a dialogue between student and teacher, but writing to PUBLISH. And this is where I wrestle with the value of blogging for me. I have always considered that the role of a writer (a writer who seeks a public audience, that is, publication) is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say. (Referentially and deferentially yours ~Anaïs Nin) If I don’t have anything new to bring, why bring it? I know a bit of blog cross-referencing and name-mentioning is a nice form of flattery for other bloggers, but that’s just Commenting, not Writing.

Shelly Blake-Plock, in his post on Why Teachers Should blog (from TeachPaperless blog) describes a poor wretch of a student in his education class who sounds a lot like me. The student complained that he had nothing to blog about because he had nothing to offer to advance the discussion. Blake-Plock says his student is wrong. To blog is to teach yourself to think, he says, and then goes on to admonish the student for over-thinking. Stop it, he says. Don’t think too much, just write. Just bare your brains out there. Be embarrassed. Be confronted by your own inadequacies, amplified exponentially by the very public nature of your idiocy. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, have another go. Think again. Grow. And grow up. That’s the point of the exercise.

But is failure a prerequisite for greater understanding? Must that failure be on a grand scale, in front of a broad readership, which includes the people I have to front up to work with tomorrow?

Must we struggle, must we fail, must we do it spectacularly and in public?

Haven’t some significant contributors to human progress done so without epic failure or even initial embarrassment? Have their endeavors always been collaborative? Haven’t they had space to think/invent/compose in private? Or at least to determine their audience – who the great work is revealed to, and when? Do I owe myself and/or my students some space to do the same? Or should we be forced into the full glare of the online world on somebody else’s timetable?

Blake-Pock declares that it is teachers who have “the power to teach a generation that to fully live and to fully know one’s self is to fully live and to fully know one’s self in the public conversation.” Wow! Is public success and failure the only kind that really counts? Is there no personal, private triumph? (Heck, I’m feeling a small victory coming on as I near the end of this post!) Just because we can – because we have this vehicle, this world wide web, to reach across the globe – is there an imperative to do so?

Can’t we just read our history (and an expert’s top 10 list of expert blogs on the subject) and learn from the mistakes of others?

(Please?)