Other People’s Moments

Five years ago, I remember leaving a conference with my head squarely in my hands, staring back up at me in sheer wonder at everything I had seen to.  Eavesdropping on some conversations today at Classroom Reset, and following the twitter conversations around it, I was reminded of that moment when my thinking and my direction in education tipped.

See, we all need to have days where big ideas and impossible plans run amok and take us down corridors that had not seemed all that worth exploring before.  We also all need days of epic failure, where our supposed best ideas crash and burn and our belief in those big ideas is tested.

But today was not that day for anyone.

Everyone I met today was there for the single purpose of pushing themselves to try new things and look at their practice in a profoundly different way.  One of the afternoon sessions I attended (presented by a teacher from my district!) summed up the tone of the sessions: “Technology Integration: how to add meaning to the Language Arts classroom instead of bells and whistles.”  Today’s sessions were about pedagogy and not tools, about leveraging the capabilities of our technology to make us more human and not less.  It was about interconnectedness and how to take advantage of it.

For me, it was also a great reminder that I still have so much more to learn, not only about how we match traditional pedagogy with emerging social technologies, but also about the decisions we make regarding the uses.  Several conversations I have had lately deal with the age-old problem of “just because we can doesn’t mean we should.”  Two examples stick out in my mind:

  • during my session, I took an informal poll of the room about a service that came across my radar the other day, called Remind101.  It allows teachers to gather the cell phone numbers of parents and students and send text blasts through a web portal, allowing teachers to keep their private numbers private.  Some in the room felt that was only allowing for a further shirking of responsibilities by students.  “Why pay attention to that part of class when we know it’s being sent to our phones?”  Also, is it creating more work for the teacher to do this?
  • at the end of the session, I also asked the group about the availability of grades for students and parents online–a classic example of the “we can/should we?” dilemma.  The room was split there. Some felt that it was a great way to foster communication between parent and child, while others felt that it enabled parents to remove the child from the equation and just go straight from online gradebook to teacher contact, thereby bypassing the student, whose responsibility it is to track their grades.

Those two questions made me realized that we have some great conversations ahead of us.  And they also made me realize that questions like those should never, ever, get in the way of student learning.  While emotionally charged on both sides, neither has any real impact on how and what students learn.  Those type questions are the ones I am ready to tackle.


A Foray into the Paperless Fray

Today we were fortunate to Skype in Shelley Blake-Plock into a lunch-hour session in our high school.  Blake-Plock, the driving force behind the recent paperless push by educators on Earth Day, spoke to our staff about his classroom design, philosophy, and practice in a 45-minute session today.

When I originally contacted Shelley last week to inquire as to whether or not he would be willing to talk to my staff, he jumped right in, and he didn’t disappoint.  What impressed me most about him as I listened to him describe his practice was his clear vision of what it meant for his students to function in a classroom that he designed: it was about them learning.  He truly designed the environment with their learning–their unbridled learning–in mind.  His decision was not a secretarial one, but rather came from a desire to push students to take control of information gathering, processing, and creating.

At one point, a teacher from our Social Studies department asked about how he assesses his students if he doesn’t give tests or quizzes on paper.  Did he design them through some sort of CMS in the formed of timed essays, or online quizzes?

Shelley’s answer was flat-out brilliant.  He described the manner in which students are required to keep a blog that he is tied into via RSS, and daily they add content to that blog in the form of class notes, personal reflections, or other media.  His assessment then becomes his analysis of their thinking and reaction, and he does this using screencasting (he uses Jing).  This way, instead of notes in the margin that are loosely tied to anchors in the text, he can pinpoint exactly where in the writing he is talking about and offer precise, quasi-one-on-one feedback even though he is not present.  I just dug this.  We often bemoan our students willingness to skip past any comments we make on their writing in their desperate rush to find out their grade, but what Shelley is doing is removing much of that and asking students to take constant feedback and do something with it.  Our teachers have long lamented the amount of grading that has to be done, our parents and students complain about the length of time it takes to get it back, and all research shows that feedback given after a certain point is nearly useless to the student in terms of increasing achievement.

What if they got feedback consistently over time?  Would that change the final outcome (the grade)?  In my follow-up with the staff, I am going to be sure to inquire about that one.  With a budget that includes nearly 60% of supplies being cut, looking at alternative options in terms of assessment–and those options that are grounded in formative assessment–is necessary.


Take a quick look at this video:

It may be contrived, it may be produced by a major publisher, but notice they didn’t try to sell anything.  Also notice that the students were honest in their assessment of their reading habits before and after choice.

Do we underestimate the power of choice in student reading?  Do we accept that students must read certain books regardless of whether or not they are ready for them or want to read them?

Look, I understand the Broccoli Effect, but if you asked me whether or not these students learned more about the skills they will need to become lifelong critical readers through a teacher-paced dissection of TKAM, or what they did through reading books of choice, I am going to say that the choice ruled.

This is perfect timing for me as we have been analyzing where we lose our students when it comes to reading, and how we can correct this.

Mobile Phones, They Just Won’t Go Away

For the last few days, I have been party to three separate conversations about mobile phones and schools, and in the conversations, the only common denominators have been the shoulder shrugs that each conversation has ended in.
The use, or in some cases the possession of, a cellular phone in a classroom is often times a material disruption to the learning process.  Let’s face that right off the bat.  Yes, we can do some truly amazing things with any cellular phone within the classroom, but from a management situation, even those teachers who truly get it when it comes to relevance and utility of mobile computing are irked by students constantly turning their wrists or sliding their keypads out to check for texts.  And we cannot blame students for that either; what do most of us do at the precise moment our phone either rings, dings, buzzes or whispers?  We reach for it.  We are overridden with curiosity, not to answer it, but just to see who it trying to capture our attention.  Imagine what that feels like to an adolescent struggling with identity, peer acceptance, and societal norms?  Yeah, I am reaching for that phone too.
Those that I work with, a group of very forward thinking educators, often struggle with the use of mobile phones in the classroom for different reasons.  They tend to see it as a situation where there are other solutions that work better or just as good as would the use of a cellular device.  My thinking in these situations is always centered on trying to find that sweet spot, that activity or learning experience that could not be done better than if everyone was using their mobile device.  I don’t do this because I am some crusader for cell phones, but rather because I think they have leverage.  Paul Allison tweeted about writing with cell phones tonight after asking students to do some independent reading for thirty minutes and then check in via their cell phones:
I just love stopping and asking students to write with their phones. They have such a warm response, like “Oh, of course I can do that!”
For me then, it becomes clear where they have their use, and not for everyone, nor every situation.  But think about what Paul did with his students.  He didn’t ask them to interrupt the flow of their reading to take out pencil and paper and craft a response to a packet question, and he didn’t ask them to open up a laptop or move to a computer and find the discussion page on the wiki for that book and add an entry.  He asked them to do what they probably wanted to do anyway: send someone a text about what they were doing.
Flow.  Sense.
I don’t have the full details of what Paul was trying to carry out with his lesson, but if his intent was to engage students in reading and then have them reflect, then re-engage with the reading, doing it through that medium makes sense.
Our mindsets,  our infrastructure, and out pedagogy have a long way to move before we massively adapt to the use of cellular phones in classrooms, and I am beginning to see that its due mainly to our adult sensibilities about usage.  Our habits speak a different language, as we have very similar habits to our students, but our grip on how we should behave with cell phones is still strong.  Renny Gleeson, in his brief TED Talk, shows how we as a society have not yet normed our usages with our phones:

As we look at the inclusion (or as some would say, intrusion) of cell phones into our classrooms, we have to center on Gleeson’s point: are they making us more human?  Or, as Allison’s example more aptly shows, are they becoming invisible?

Great Pushback, From a Local Source

This comment appeared in my email inbox the other day, submitted by a teacher I work with in regards to my Attention, Engagement, Learning post from ASCD :

I really liked your “transfer of responsibility” model. But to a degree I disagree with the idea that students speaking/ interacting is a panacea for learning. I remember in my teaching classes we were drilled with the mantra “leanring is social”. But I think that’s just a new myth. I think instruction has to be differentiated. SOME kids are social learners and some are not. I frequently do partner assignments in Russian at the high school, and one of the consistent comments I got back on my survey was “less partner work”. My other class there ( I have two sections) seems to love it. I’ve also seen partner/ group work devolve into BS sessions or one person giving the answers to the other and the other kid not learning a thing.
So: not a panacea, just another tool to use appropriately.
I was blown away that anyone in my district actually reads this, but psyched to have some push-back from a local level where, to me, it matters most.  Here was my quick reply:
Thanks for checking it out; it was a great weekend where I was able to really get into excellent discussions about things that matter.  Here’s my take on your reaction.

Yes, some kids are social learners, some are not.  Some kids draw pictures, some are like me and cannot even begin to attempt that.  What the GRR model advocates is not “all social all the time,” but rather a mix of various types of collaborative and cooperative work.  Some of that will involve talking, some may not.

Plus, when you take a close look at what Kagan believes about the brain and what he believes about how we learn, the structures make a ton of sense.  In the model you gave me for your classes, how do you hold each student responsible for what goes on in the discussion?  If, as you say, it devolves into a BS session, what can be done to deter that?  The structures Kagan created all are built with a combination of group and individual accountability whereby, if done right, there is equal responsibility on the part of all cooperative partners.

From my perspective, we as teachers work very hard.  Can we begin to look at what we do not from the standpoint of teachers, but from the standpoint of learners?  If we did, I think we would agree that there is a lot of responsibility that can be transferred to the learner.  This is not just a tweak here or there I am talking about, but a whole paradigm shift in practice.

And, that was not all.  He came back today with another great insight:
My observations and criticism were directed more toward the PET scan and the concept that “the person doing the talking is the one doing the learning”. For me to buy into that model I would need to see more context for what specific events were occurring during the PET scan. For example, I”m sure that parts of the brain involved in registering the facial expressions and emotional reactions of the person one is speaking to are lighting up in that scan. But does that necessarily mean that that person is “learning” more of a particular content? What if we took two individuals and asked one to write a summary of  Romeo and Juliet and asked the other to retell it? Which brain would light up more? And what needs to be lighting up to demonstrate learning? To be mildly flip: I bet my brain would light up pretty brightly if I was about to be in a car accident. What am I learning (except that I”m screwed …:)
My point simply is this: I need more evidence to buy the notion that the “one doing the talking” is the one who is learning. This may be true for some social learners in some contexts but not necessarily in others (again, returning to what we both agree is the need for differentiating instruction).
I like and accept in principle the GRR model, especially in the broad principal/ thesis of moving the student from dependency to independence. I think that some of the failures I’ve seen of cooperative learning was that it kept students stuck in being dependent on other students for the answer/ learning, rather than using it as a means to wean them to a level where they can demonstrate/ perform a skill independently. So I think the concept if I do it-we do it-you (plural) do it-you (singular) do it is a good one. (Although not all kids will need to do the you plural one all the time in all situations…
These are the kinds of discussions that we should be having, and whether or not they are in person, at this point, I don’t care.  Eventually I would love that, but we have to start somewhere.
What do you think?

SparkNotes and the Desire to Read: Mutually Exclusive?

This post is the transcript of the notes I posted to our English Department Group page.  I thought I’d make them public here as some of our discussion might spark some conversation elsewhere.

This month’s meeting had a dual focus:

  • Resource Sharing
  • Summer Reading Discussion

We began the meeting by discussing the following passage:

“I am a second year teacher who teaches at a high school where the
SparkNotes epidemic is in full force. In fact, I had students in a
college prep class gloat over the fact that they hadn’t read a single book all year and were passing (barely, mind you).

We all know the list: SparkNotes, Cliff notes, BookRags, Pink Monkey,
etc. etc.; and for some, like myself, it’s difficult to imagine not
reading the book and simply relying on a website as a primary source.
(After all, you don’t get that lovely used book smell. Aahh.) Ugh, but
it’s happening…a lot.

I’ve talked to my collegues about this, and we’ve griped about it
together. I’m very creative with my lesson plans and want to teach
heavier concepts, but it’s extremely difficult when

no one
is reading. One teacher told me she purposely goes on these websites to
create her quizzes based on information not mentioned in the plot
summaries and character analysis. It sounds a bit malicious, but what
else is there to do?

Does anyone have a suggestion how to combat SparkNotes? Or do I throw
in the towel whenever I assign a bit of reading that contains more than
fifty pages?”

The purpose behind this was two-fold.  Obviously the piece generated discussion amongst the group regarding how we work with this, and how to find the holes in the SparkNotes summaries that students read.  Several of you discussed how you read the SparkNotes summaries and use them to create you assessments.  Doing so enables you to focus on details and elements not included in a pat summary.

Questions that came up (both during the meeting and in my head after):

  • Do we take the role of “gotcha” with our assessments?  If so, what affect does that have on students desire to read?
  • What other sites are out there for them to use? (Schmoop, BookRags)
  • If we don’t acknowledge the use of it and use it as a tool for ourselves as well, will it become abused?

The second purpose of reading this passage was to give an example of the type of discussion that is occurring at a social networking site created by English teacher Jim Burke called The English Companion.  The site has over a thousand members from around the world, most of them English teachers.  The amount of sharing of resources and ideas that is occurring there is truly phenomenal.  I find myself reading and commenting often.  Learning as we know it is changing rapidly, and our ability to find sources of dialogue about these changes is crucial to our understanding of it.

The second article we shared was an editorial from the Washington Post by Nancy Schnog titled “We are Teaching Books that Don’t Stack Up.” The article originally ran in August, but I wanted to tie it into our discussion on summer reading.  Schnog argues that as much as our desire as teachers of literature is to engage our students in the thrills we have all found in literature and the requisite critical analysis of it, we might be doing them a disservice.  Jamie pointed out that she remembers being a student and wanting to just read a passage without having to dissect every nuance and literary symbol.  Schnog also spoke about the timing of literature and the genres offered to students at their various age levels.  She spoke about students reading Catcher in the Rye as Juniors rather than as 8th graders because of how they could relate to it on a completely different level.  When we speak about summer reading, we often include similar ideas: is this book going to engage the boys?  is this title going to pull in reluctant readers.

If our goal is to push students to read for enjoyment, are we accomplishing that?  If that isn’t the goal of summer reading, what is?  Andrew brought up a point at the end of the meeting regarding what we can ask students to read and what we can ask them to respond like.  His reading, he stated, has become focused on editorial and opinion pieces over the last year, and looking at the summer reading list, Angela asks her students to keep dialectic journals while reading a self-selected group of editorials from either the New York Times or the Washington Post.  What if we asked our students to do this at every level?  Due to the participatory nature of politics and news at the moment, this might work to engage them in reading for pleasure.

Big Ideas, Like Minds

A few days back, Alex Ragone posted this via twitter (I just don’t feel comfortable saying “tweeted”):

Working on technology vision for students and faculty. We really need to look big picture and design curric to match that. Not so now.

I’ve never met Alex face-to-face, only through a twitter request that landed me in his professional development workshop last year, but his thinking in 140 characters or less gave me an idea: Alex lives in New Jersey, so do I.  His thought made me think about what we’ve been working on in our locale regarding the same issues.  How do you design curriculum so that your pedagogy and technology are in harmony to the point where we don’t talk about technology as an isolated event that happens in the lab or is viewed as a separate bullet point in a curriculum document?

My response was simple

@alexragone would love to get a skype session about curricular vision with a few of us from NJ.

Those simple connections led us to including Bill Stites, Dan Sutherland, and Barry Bachenheimer in the conversation via a collaborative planning document and a skype conversation.  In our daily jobs as administrators, tech coordinators, and teachers, we often get mired in the issues that bog us down: supplies that don’t arrive, inter-departmental squabbles, crab-bucket culture, etc.  Having the opportunity to engage our minds in this form of big-picture play keeps us free, keeps us from the feeling that we are running through mud.

We hatched a plan and pitched the idea to the annual NJECC Conference on March 17-20 at Montclair State University.  Here’s the plan:

This conversation will address the following essential questions:  What does the student experience in a classroom look like when the curriculum is integrated with technology that they use?  What support structures need to be in place for this classroom to exist?  For the experiences to exist?
Bring your curriculum design question and we’ll help you develop it for the dynamic needs of today’s and tomorrow’s students.
We’ll demonstrate successful classroom practices using social networking, online course management systems, global and local collaboration,  and online writing to create audience for your students.

It hasn’t been accepted as of yet, but if it does, and you are in the tri-state area, please come join us.  There will be four of us leading this workshop in a hands-on format.  We are hoping for a lot of small group discussion and creation of solutions for participants.  One phrase I remember uttering during our skype planning session was that I wanted each of us to remember the key elements from the best conference workshop we’ve ever been to, and I want us to re-create them here.  We need to teach this one in the manner with which we would want to learn it.  For me, that’s conversation and sharing among participants.

Who is Who: Interview with Mike Wesch

This video came across the twitstream last week and has been making the rounds among my network.  It’s short enough to squeeze into a prep period for a quick PD session.  One of the things I would listen for, if you are so inclined, is Wesch’s definition of anti-teaching.  For me, the idea of anti-teaching, or as we’ve called it here in the past, Unschooling, is almost anti-thetical.  Sound teaching requires that you question assumptions both of your students and yourself.  Is this not what Wesch is doing?  If so, what is the need in the new moniker for good teaching?

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Who is Who: Interview with Mike Wesch“, posted with vodpod

New Literacies?

I couldn’t help but write this post after some of the brief discussion that occurred last night while watching David Jakes keynote at NYSCATE. This, in addition to the panel discussion from TechForum Northeast in which one of the initial questions posed by David Jakes was

“Are there new literacies that connective technologies create?  ..or do these tools afford the attainment of a literacy in a different way?”

When I look at this video, produced by some very intelligent and thoughtful people, I want to ask whether or not we are just adding verbiage to a slew of verbiage we already have?  The idea that we are re-inventing how people interact with their surroundings, and especially the media inputs they manage is something I don’t know if I am ready to do.  We still need to be skeptical, analytical, synthetic, and interrogative, just on a wholly different level.  It’s not that the skills we have used in the past are suddenly extinct, but rather that their relative sharpness will determine our success as “readers.”

Side note: In another of the rising tide of print media fall-outs, TypePad is offering laid-off journalists free blog accounts.

Reflecting on the Fly

J. Clark Evans posted a piece at her blog, My Continuing Education, today called “Worst Class…Best Class” in which she recounts a recent day where the discussion in her 10th grade British Literature class did not go as she wanted to.  We’ve all been there on that day where you’ve hatched out these ground-breaking discussion questions about the novel you are reading or the era you are studying, and then when you unleash them on your students in the hopes of them coming to a new great American understanding, they look back at you as if you weren’t even there.  What do you do then?  Well, Evans did this:

I literally threw my hands up in the air and ended the lesson. I asked students to reflect on their lack of participation and offer ideas for ways to improve in an email to me.

My best quality as a teacher is my desire and willingness to reflect. I spent the rest of the day reviewing their comments, taking to another grade level teacher, and agonizing over how I could help them to be more successful.

I learned a new word today via the Open Dictionary: Andragogy.  Andragogy means the practice of teaching adults with emphasis on participation of students in the planning and evaluation.  Due to the nature of the Open Dictionary, I can’t be 100% sure it’s an official word, but I like it’s meaning nonetheless.  Evan’s example of andragogy is on that I feel we are lacking more of.  While she is teaching “almost adults,” the point is the same.  Can we teach our students to be part of the planning process?  Look closely at the way in which she implemented it too:

My second class British literature class also has problems with participation during general class discussions. A couple of students will attempt answers only after awkward silences. But the majority of students won’t speak, maybe if called on, but it’s so painful for both them and me that I hate to do that and put someone on the spot.

I started class by asking if they wanted to go with “regularly scheduled programming” or try something radically different. I would give them a task and when they accomplished it they would be dismissed, even if that was in ten minutes. They were a little reluctant but then encouraged each other to give it a try. They encouraged each other to get energized about a challenge in English class.

My favorite part of this was the conclusion she came to from the morning’s failure.  It wasn’t to let the students design the learning completely on their own, but rather to design something teacher-driven, but aimed at the students’ expressed desires from the morning class.  We are really beginning to look at assessment-driven instruction–using what our students know and don’t know to drive what we teach–in our district, and I like this example.  Here is the comment I left for her:

Here’s where you had me, and them, I believe:
“My best quality as a teacher is my desire and willingness to reflect.”

If one thing came through for your students it was that you listened to them. You took a failure, a rather public one, and pivoted in front of them. The student quote at the end of the post demonstrates what several of them were most likely feeling, even if they didn’t intimate it the same way.

In a new way, you showed what the use of assessment should look like. It wasn’t a book test, an essay, or anything pscyhometric, but you used it to inform your instruction. This is what we need everyone to be doing: look at your practice, look at what the students “tell” you, and make adjustments. The added bonus for us is that you wrote about it here and we can share it with more people.

And I hear you about the grading of papers. Feedback on graded material was always my downfall.

Using assessment doesn’t mean that you give pre-tests or previous examination grades; it can mean that you make an informed decision based on information you gathered through observation, much like Evans did.  This, I feel, is sometimes lost when we talk about using assessment to drive instruction.