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!

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.

 

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!



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: