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By bcymet from Flickr

So first off, it has been a while since I have written.  I should probably be be a bit better about writing, but in my new job as tech integration specialist, I have had some difficulty finding the time.  However, I am in a place right now where time or no time, I have some things that need to be said.  What better outlet than the fine CoETaIL community.

I called this post my ePortfolio Manifesto because I am planning on going on a bit of a rant, so please bear with me as I get this off my chest.  I have been banging the drum of ePortfolios at my school for some time now.  I have some strong opinions about their importance in education.  I firmly believe that reflection on learning is key to higher level thinking and growth from year to year.  But, unfortunately, this point has been drowned out by an argument over what tool we will use to present our work. (sigh…) How often is this the case in education.  We lose complete sight of the end objectives and main purpose for doing something in order to pick sides in a battle over which tool is cooler!

Time for some full disclosure before we move forward.  I do bear some responsibility for this current argument.  I believe that for ePortfolios to have their greatest impact on learning, they need to encompass more than just one year of a student’s school career.  I think students need to see that learning connects and builds on previous years learning.  So with that thinking in mind, I pushed for us to move to a single platform so that the students could have one ePortfolio that they used for their time in the grades six, seven, and eight.  Up to this point, students were creating a new ePortfolio every year.  The format was different, the tool was different, the explanation of why it is important to create an ePortfolio was different.  This only served to confuse students rather than bring clarity to their middle school years.  My vision was for a unified approach, and with a unified approach came the need for a unified tool.  You see where this is going…

I thought long and hard about whether or not  to mention the two tools in question in this post, but ultimately decided that would defeat the purpose and run counter to my main point, which is that it doesn’t matter which tool you use!  If that is your main concern in deciding to implement ePortfolios in your school, you need to go back to the drawing board.  I have been accused of being biased towards one tool and that I would somehow taint the process of forming a cohesive approach to ePortfolios because of that bais.  Do I have a preference? Yes.  Does my tool preference affect, in any way, the philosophy behind WHY we need a unified portfolio system? NO!  This irks me to no end.  The decision about which tool to use shouldn’t last more than five minutes, and frankly, it should be the last item on the agenda.

So, what items should come first?  I think there needs to be buy-in to why a portfolio system is important.  I think I have made that case pretty clear up to this point, but it is worth repeating.  Portfolios should act as a unifying device to provide students with an opportunity to showcase and reflect on learning.  Students need to see that learning in one class is related to learning in another and the same is true from year to year.

So how do we go about ensuring that this actually happens?  That brings me to the second point on the agenda: structure.  Without deliberately thinking through how you structure and organize a portfolio system, you could actually end up reinforcing the negative idea that learning is separated by subjects.  The first year I used portfolios with students, I used the model of having them separate their work by subject.  My thinking was that they would have a nice pile of work from each class to see how they progressed through the year.  But this model discourages seeing how learning connects across subjects.  The second time around we restructured the format to focus on our ESLRs (Expected Schoolwide Learning Results).  These broad statements about what we want students to be able to do after leaving our school provided a great opportunity for kids to see how learning connects.  Now, instead of seeing the group project in science and the group project in social studies as completely different sets of learning, they now see them unified under “Collaborating Effectively.”  Or better yet, the persuasive essay in language arts and the screencast explaining a math concept are now unified under “Thinking Critically,” or “Communicating Effectively.” By shifting our focus off of each subject and onto these transdisciplinary skills, we can really begin to have a better discussion with students about how to approach learning.

Once we have buy-in and structure in place, then, and only then, can we broach the topic of which tool would serve us best.  We have to have our priorities straight before we enter that discussion.  This is so often the case in tech integration.  We gravitate towards the tool, without first establishing why it is important to use the tool, or even if it is important.  In that process of establishing “why”  we may discover that the tool actually isn’t helping us at all.  It seems like we are always on a quest for the next cool tool, but as I like to say “It’s not which cool tool you use, it is how you use it that matter.”  And there are other question words that we could drop in there for “how.”  How about “…it is why you use it that matters,” or maybe even “…if you use it at all…”

In the case of ePortfolios, clearly it is important to use a tool, that is what the “e” stands for, but I liken it to an argument over which car to take for a trip across town, an SUV or a pickup truck.  Both will get you there, so why spend so much time arguing over it.  Pick one and move on please.  The much better questions are: where are we going, and what route are we going to take to get there?

 

By black vanilla from Flickr

We talk a great deal about changing the classroom and education in this course.  Technology opens so many windows of opportunity to us as educators that we have to change how we have always done things if we hope to keep up.  The model of education is in a major shift right now.  In my previous post I mentioned how we need to decentralize the classroom and how this will better prepare our kids for the world they will enter upon graduation.

In all this rapid and important change I found it really refreshing to look at this week’s question concerning class management.  It was somehow comforting to me that even in the midst of all this swift change some things will never change.  Good classroom management is the same with or without technology.  The same tricks and strategies that you use when not using computers work just as well when using them.

The key takeaways I got from the videos provided were the same ideas I got from my methods classes in college.  In the first video the one common theme from each of the teachers was that you need to begin you class with an activity that is self-driven.  The instructions should be up on the board so students can begin on their own and channel themselves into the mind frame for class.  This is in no way a new idea.  I believe any teacher would recognize the value of this kind of activity with or without computers.

In the second video, again we see that the basic, commonsense strategies that we have been using for years still work in a one-to-one environment.  Using proximity to the students to keep them on task is useful no matter what the students are doing.  Providing the kids with clear expectations of what the assignment is, and a set timeframe in which to complete the task, are some of the most basic classroom management technics.  They are extremely effective and seldom fail to produce results.

In the final video we are given the most clear cut example of how little management has changed in a one-to-one environment.  If you give kids engaging activities they are less likely to be off task.  Ok, so it isn’t terribly polite, but really?…duh!  If they are interested in your task they are more likely to stay on task? Not really a new concept there.  In Dan Pink’s video from last week he talked about the importance of intrinsic motivation, and his point is an important one, but this is not, by any means, a revolutionary idea.  If you are internally driven to do something you will not be tempted to go off task.

All of these technics are just as useful in a non-laptop classroom as in a one-to-one environment. It really comes down to this main point: if you have good classroom management without computers, you will have it with them as well.  I am sure that I have over simplified things a bit, and there will always be the horror stories, but in general good classroom management works anywhere.

Here is a site with some more tips beyond the basics I outlined.

classroom management in the digital age is a document I found on etoolbox.wikispaces.com.  It gives a fairly comprehensive list of strategies.

By aaronparecki from Flickr, Some Rights Reserved

I feel more and more like the movement in education is to tear down the confining walls of the classroom.  I really believe that the more we can connect kids to the world around them, the better they will be prepared for their future lives.  The first reading for this week’s post really lists the main reasons why education has to change if we wish to remain relevant to students and their needs.  When the article states: “Formal education no longer comprises the majority of our learning. Learning now occurs in a variety of ways – through communities of practice, personal networks, and through completion of work-related tasks” that needs to be a wake-up call for educators today.  So how do we go about this process of changing the status quo?

It doesn’t need to be so revolutionary to be effective.  I think it is important to recognize that we are already a few steps down the road on this process.  The movement away from filling our students up with knowledge to a model where we focus more on teaching students how to learn is really the paradigm shift that needed to happen to open the doors to the future of education.  This has, for the most part, already happened.  Most teachers today would say that it is far more important to teach kids how to learn and reflect than to teach them names and dates.  So now we need to take this to the next step.  We need to show them that once they know how to learn for themselves that they can do it all on their own.

By connecting students with other students and providing them with powerful resources that we now have access to because of the internet, we no longer really need the teacher to be the fount of knowledge.  We really move into a supporting role, where we help when they are struggling and challenge them when they become too comfortable.  The teacher’s new responsibility is to provide the students with authentic learning situations that they may encounter later in life.  We need to help them develop their person learning networks so that they are equipped to help themselves.  And finally introduce them to communities where they can present their work and get feedback from more than just the teacher.  That really is the direction education needs to move in because that is the direction the world is moving.  Knowledge is not the sole possession of one individual meant to be imparted in some 19th century ritual from 8:00-3:00.  Knowledge is held collectively and we need to plug our students into that collective is we ever hope to truly prepare them for the world they are about to enter.

 

Here is an interesting article that takes this networked approach to the extreme:

http://davecormier.com/edblog/2011/11/05/rhizomatic-learning-why-learn/

By Hc_07 from Flickr

The concept of the flipped classroom sounds so revolutionary to people when they first hear it that it almost boarders on heresy.  A typical reaction might be something like, “You mean I don’t teach the students in my class?” or “How will I know they are paying attention to the lessons?”  The whole idea sounds like some ill-conceived experiment that has the potential to go horrifically wrong.

After a moment of mild to moderate panic, people begin to see the benefits, at that is how things went for me.  I really struggled with the idea of the kids learning the lessons out of my class, particularly with making sure they had learned the material.  I felt like I needed to be there at the moment of instruction to ensure that all my students got the concepts.  But when I started to look at the advantages that come with freed-up class time, I realized that I would be able to check for understanding far better than I could before.

This is the real advantage of the flipped classroom.  Where previously your class time needed to be spent making sure that the concepts were delivered, you now can get at the heart of teaching, which is making sure the students actually understand the material.  Your lesson time now becomes a time where you can check in with each student to really see how they are progressing.  I also believe that it aids in differentiation.  It frees up class time to spend extra time with students that need more support, while allowing your other students to work independently.

Another benefit to the flipped classroom is the availability of content to students.  By creating lessons that are meant to be viewed outside of the class, it also means that the lesson can be viewed more than once.  Students who need more time are able to view the lesson over and over again to get the concepts.  Students who are absent for one reason or another have access to the content even if they can’t come to class.  Students can come to class prepared with questions they have from the lesson, and class time can then be spent refining the concepts for the students.

As wonderful as flipped classroom can be, I do think it is important to balance your teaching style.  It is important for kids to be presented with a variety of learning situations.  It is really best to pick units that fit well with this concept, and go a more traditional strategy with other units.  I worry that we could do a disservice to kids if we went totally flipped for everything we did.

Here is a great video showing a science teacher using the flipped classroom model effectively:

YouTube Preview Image

By david-gilmour from flickr

How do we ensure that all tech standards are met in an integrated model?  The same way we make sure all of our standards are met.  It requires good planning that thinks about the end goal and how to get there.  That is the simple answer.

There is one theme that is appearing for me as we move through course four.  Good technology integration is all about taking the focus off the technology.  I know this might seem like a contradictory statement, but the main point is that the tech needs to disappear into the background of what we do and not be the FOCUS of what we do.  This is the whole idea of why we don’t have a computer class in the integrated model.  It isn’t a separate subject anymore because it isn’t separated in the real world.

So the logic follows that if it is integrated in the real world it needs to be integrated in the classroom so that is becomes second nature to our students.  But I take the challenge one step further; if we want it to be second nature to our students than it better be second nature to us.

When you are planning a new unit, any competent teacher knows to start with your content standards.  The same should be true for the tech standards.  They need to be seen as one in the same; integrated.  So perhaps we should stop talking about integrated classrooms and start talking about integrated teachers.

The Stratford Board of Education article that was provided for this week’s reading had this statement in it: “Integration is when classroom teachers use technology to introduce, reinforce, extend, enrich, assess, and remediate student mastery of curricular targets.”  At first I thought “right on!”  And then it started to seem a bit more “Duh.”  Hasn’t this always been the case?  Did we have to have this talk when they first introduced pencils to the classroom?

I know that I am over simplifying the situation.  Technology is so diverse and advanced that it is easy to stumble into an area that is much more flash than substance.  But I am willing to risk the simplification to illustrate a point.  Good teachers will find a way to use good technology appropriately and it should become second nature in order to become truly integrated.

Here is a link to a site out of Michigan that shows examples of best practices in Tech integration broken down by grade and subject.

And here is a link to a PBS site that offers more research on the topic.

 

By iwannt from Flickr

Whose job is it to teach the NET standards?  The simple answer is everyone.  If you teach kids, you should be teaching the NETs.  That answer really gets to the heart of what the NET standards are all about.  These standards are not some set of curriculum for a computer class; they are basic qualities we want students to excel in all their subjects.  Standards one through four don’t even sound “techy.”  What teacher doesn’t want their students to think critically and be creative?  The real question here is how tech integration should work in our classrooms.

First, I think there needs to be some clarification.  There seem to be some people who think that teaching the NET standards means that you are teaching kids how to use cool tech tools, and this is pretty far off the mark.  If you read them, they clearly fall into a category of general educational goals.  They act almost as a framework on which we can hang everything else we do.  The key is to find tech tools that really help with fulfilling the standards.

And the tools don’t even need to be all that flashy.  Recently, in my class, we have begun a group project where the kids are given a topic about ancient Egypt and they will be responsible for teaching this to the class.  Along with their topic, I gave them some guiding questions to be answering in order to help steer their learning.  The first thing each group did was open a Google doc and share it with all group members.  They put the questions in there and began researching them and recording their notes on the Google doc.  But here’s the cool part; I didn’t even mention to them the idea of doing the collaborative notes.  They did it all on their own, because they recognize the power of being able to work in a collaborative environment; to be able to share notes and ideas not only while they are in my class, but when they are outside of me class as well.

It wasn’t flashy, for sure.  Google docs seem almost dated now, but they were most definitely fulfilling NET standard #2, Communication and Collaboration.  The real meaningful part for me was that the kids recognized that it was a better way of doing things without me having to prompt them.  That really gets at the heart of the NET standards.  These things are so universal that their value in th classroom should be apparent to everyone.

For this unit I did two things to incorporate visual literacy.  The first area was in the actual instruction.  My teammates and I created various screencast tutorials that show the students how to write the types of poems.  These tutorials utilized several technics we learned in this class to present the information in a more visual way to the students.  By having the tutorials online for the kids to view, it allowed them to come back time and again to view them if they were struggling with the concept.  Examples of those lessons are posted below.

The second area we incorporated visual literacy is in the final project the students will complete.  They will need to create a voice thread that shows their poems.  They will also record themselves reading the poems to show how to read with emotion.  Finally they will record themselves analyzing their poems using the draw feature in voice thread to point out the key elements of their poems.  We haven’t completed this step of the process so I don’t have a sample to show, but I will update this post when we get that far in the unit.

Here is the unit plan:

 

I have to admit, when I first read the assignment for this week I was less than enthusiastic.  I really didn’t think that this was my style of learning, and wasn’t very interested in trying it out.  That should have been my first sign that I was in for an eye opening experience.  It seems like every time I am reluctant to try something out, I am prove wrong in my initial thinking.  I really enjoyed creating my digital story, not just because I liked learning a new tech tool, but because it really stretched me to think of how to tell a story.

I had originally planned to use the ability to add words to each slide in the slideshow to help my story along.  However, I soon found myself trying to find a way to move the story along without using any words.  I spent a great deal of time selecting just the right picture to show movement and story progression.  I also relied heavily on the use of effects, such as zoom and pan, to further the story (perhaps too much).  In the end, I was quite happy with my results.  I am sure that in a few years I will look back on it with shame, but for a first attempt, I can’t complain. 

 

Adapted from a photo by jontangerine

Grammar in the English language can be confusing enough without me trying to explain it to you.  It’s not that I am bad at teaching it, but rather that there are many things that just sound right to my ear and I struggle to explain why.  I am a History teacher by training, so when I got my position of Humanities teacher at my current school I was filled with a mix of excitement and dread.  I would be able to teach my passion, history, but I would have to teach all those Language Arts topics that, for me, might be a struggle.

I persevered and did my best, but when I encountered having to teach prepositions and prepositional phrases for the first time, I ground to a halt.  Trying to find a way to get kids interested in prepositional phrases is not as easy as you might think.  Ok, it’s probably exactly as easy as you might think!  How do you make a topic so dry interesting to kids?

I am ashamed to admit that at first I just plowed through and verbally explained it to my students, moving on as quickly as possible.  This very quickly proved folly when in our poetry unit I asked my students to write prepositional phrase poetry.  They had no idea where to begin, and had only vague recollections of my rushed attempt at teaching the concepts earlier in the year.

Ok, take two; it was time to re-evaluate and come up with a new plan.  I created a lesson in Smart Notebook software that I thought for sure would do the trick.  As you can see in my screenshot below, the basic design had the students coming to the board to “build” prepositional phrases by pulling words from labeled boxes.  I even built in scaffolding so that I eventually removed the labeled boxes so the students had to identify the parts on their own.

From my Notebook file

While this produced better results, I still wasn’t satisfied.  This year I have created a concise screencast aimed at teaching the concept in a bit more detail, while still holding the students attention.  I expanded the Notebook file to include the use of images to help students understand the concept.  I also tried to carefully control the flow of information to keep anyone viewing the screencast focused on the ideas presented.  By making it a screencast, the students can continue to refer to it if the need to later on.  I haven’t had a chance to use it with my students yet, but I hope to see even better results than last year.

Here is the latest incarnation:

YouTube Preview Image

The old cliché “a picture is worth a thousand words” is a cliché for a reason.  There is no question that one single picture can replace thousands of words of attempted explanation.  The ability to find and use powerful images in our classrooms is absolutely essential in today’s world.  If we hope to hold the attention of our students we must incorporate powerful images into our instruction.

I am currently teaching a unit on Mesopotamia.  This is often an abstract topic for kids to understand.  I can talk till I am blue in the face about how amazing it was that these nomadic tribes managed to learn to cooperate together to form societies capable of creating magnificent structures without the use of modern technology, but until they see the products for themselves they don’t truly get it.

Here are some images I use with my kids to show how impressive their accomplishments were:

These show the size and precision of the temples built by the ancient Mesopotamians.

By jmcfall

By The U.S. Army

Seeing the Ishtar gate really shows them the craftsmanship that they were capable of achieving.

by Rictor Norton & David Allen

 

However, one of the most powerful images I use all year comes in my Egypt unit.  I teach the kids that Egypt is called “The Gift of the Nile,” but they never understand how essential the Nile is to life in Egypt until I show them modern Egypt on Google Earth.  I start zoomed far out and slowly zoom in as they identify what we are looking at.

This is the first image they see, and most kids can Identify the Nile river, or so they think.

From Google Earth

 

By the time I zoom in this far they all see the “river.”

From Google Earth

 

It’s not until I get zoomed in this far that they see the real river.  This image is really powerful for showing them how irrigation can turn a desert into farmland.

From Google Earth

 

Images have a much longer impact than any words we could muster.  A well-chosen image will make or break a lesson.  This is why it is so essential that we become “literate” in using visual media in our classrooms.