Sunday, August 26, 2012

Tech Integration - An Easy First Step

This a great post by Bill Ferriter a sixth grade ELA teacher from North Carolina. He posts a sentiment I have long agreed with:  technology has promised to fix education for 25 years and it has yet to do so. The only thing that will is great teaching.

What kids want is to be social, to share and to work together - is that really any surprise?  That is how we are hard wired to survive, that's how humanity evolved, in tribes - live together or die alone.

So the biggest tech improvement I think any teacher can make this year is the most basic:  move the desks. Allow conversation, allow collaboration. Then once you get to know the students, add in the technology that would best fit their needs; not the other way around.

My principal shared our state testing results earlier this week.  If my districts annual state test scores showed anything it's what we already know:  the kids are dying alone. Moving the desks together and allowing conversation isn't going to lower our scores.

When I am evaluated this school year on tech integration in my classroom I hope my evaluator takes into account that I integrate technology everyday. I leverage the power of sharing and communicating; our species greatest innovation.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Leveraging Hope

There is one universal constant that will hold true for as long as we continue to use the current model of education:  there is no day of school like the first day of school.

Is it because of the weird schedule and near fanaticism to get our first day attendance right?  Is it chemical induced euphoria created by the scent of all the new markers? Is it the awe inspired by perfect rows of unused crayons? Flat, pristine paper?  Is it the extra long lunches that give teachers just a few more minutes to catch their breath?  Is it the secret joy the teachers hold knowing the parents have homework filling out all the forms and cards? Is it because they only job of a school on the first day is to get them in, get them fed, get them home?

All those are good reasons why the first day is so abstractly different than any other day of the year.  But, what really makes the first day special is the one thing we can't see:  hope.

Every human being who walks into a school building on the first day of school is hopeful.  The slate has been wiped clean, we have all been given a fresh start.  We hope that we can be better teachers, better parents, better students, better administrators, better ____________________.

Our challenge, as communities, is to keep the hope alive in the building as long as possible.  How do we leverage hope?

It always starts with building relationships, communicating, talking to others, walking a mile in their shoes, seeing the world through their eyes, empathy, perspective, taking a different POV.

I read a great blog post by seventh grade history teacher Elizabeth Miller about how she is connecting with students on the first day of school.  Read her post, it's brilliant.  I already plan to steal parts of it.

The key to Elizabeth's idea and what I have done in my classroom, which I will share in a moment, is that the students have a chance to communicate.  We keep forgetting, as a society and a system, that human beings are meaning makers.  And we make meaning in a tribal setting.  Banding together, working together, surviving together is hard wired into our DNA.  You remember the old adage:  live together, die alone.  It's the same with school.  Students want to share, to talk, to collaborate and technology gives us one platform to live together.  Unfortunately we have created too many classrooms where students are dying alone; trapped in their own development.

In order to build on my students sense of hope I did three things:
  • introduced myself to my students
  • asked them to tell me about themselves
  • sent a "letter of welcome" to each of their homes

The Introduction
Transitioning from elementary school to middle school is a big deal!  It is.  So I began my introduction with where I was 30 years ago, as a sixth grader in the early eighties and built from there.  Before a student ever steps foot in my class they know me.  Maybe, just maybe I have made them a little more hopeful about the upcoming school year.

The Survey

I created a Google Form and posted it on my website  You are more than welcome to borrow the questions and format. I already have about 20 responses and I will share some patterns I am already noticing in a later blog. But I am very excited to be able to have something to talk to the students about, to build a connection with them, to build hope.

Letter of Welcome
In my district we use Skyward (I often call it Skynet in reference to the Terminator movies) as our online grade book. Skyward has many nice features but one I appreciate is the ability to e-mail all of my students parents at one time. Very convenient. So my letter of welcome was sent out yesterday, with a link to my website and a few words of hope and excitement about the upcoming year.

Hope. How do we keep it alive? How do we leverage it build communities and schools that succeed? I think it begins with building a community in your classroom. Connect to your students, allow them to connect with others and then build from there.

No day is as hopeful as the first day, maybe we can change that.

Monday, August 20, 2012

See How Easily You Can Design a Lesson for Creative Thinking

In 1941 the U.S. Air Force had a problem. A large proportion of their aircrew trainees were not graduating, they could not pass their performance tests.  You want to talk about high stakes testing...scantrons and number two pencils have nothing on a young pilot behind the stick of a high powered plane taxiing down the runway. The least of his problems is making dark neat marks inside the circle.

Enter JP Guilford, a psychology professor from the University of Southern California.  Guilford had been studying the diversity of individual differences in intelligence; he noticed that intelligence was a combination of multiple abilities.  Taking this into account, and based on his research of intelligence testing, he worked with Air Force and discovered there were eight specific cognitive abilities that were needed to fly an airplane not just one.

The Air Force needed to be more divergent in their training.

I think we forget  sometimes about looking for divergent thinking in school.  We are victims of our own schooling, trained for years to play the game of "what does the teacher want?"  But like the trainers in the Air Force 70 years ago, we can remember to teach for more than just one answer.

Educational writer and consultant Ian Gilbert shares some ideas in his book Why Do I Need A Teacher When I Have Google? 

Give students a group of pictures the one below (which, like Ian Gilbert in his book, I just made up):

Which one of these doesn’t belong? Why doesn’t the pencil belong? The headphones? 
What would come next in the series?  Why should one be outlawed? 

Which should be a national symbol? 
Which of these is most like a geometrical proof?

These are just questions that popped into my head, I am sure you can do a better job asking questions that will push the students thinking.

Another benefit to using these types of questions is helping students understand differing perspectives and explaining their own perspective. Some gifted students are often frustrated when they have an idea in their head but do not have the words or opportunity to translate the thoughts into explanation. Quick warm-ups this gives teachers a chance to help students listen to each other but also work on their ability to explain their divergent ideas.

Lets make this idea do double duty: work on perspective building and add rigor to our content.

Divergent Thinking in Science:
You could stick with the theme from above...
Why is your science lesson like a dog or earphones or a pencil?
What would you get if you combined all three together?

or put up a slide like this:
Which one of these doesn’t belong? Why doesn’t the Potassium belong? Nitrogen? 
What would come next in the series?
Why one should be outlawed?
Which should be a national symbol?
Which of these is most like a geometrical proof?
How would the world change if all three were banned from the United States?

Divergent Thinking in Social Studies:

Which one of these doesn’t belong? Why doesn’t Enron belong? Spindletop?
What would come next in the series?
Why should one be outlawed?
Which should be a national symbol?
Which of these is most like a geometrical proof?
Why should all three of these be legal forms of tender in Washington D.C.?

Divergent Thinking in Math:

Which one of these doesn’t belong? Why doesn’t 1.5 belong? 2.67?
What would come next in the series?
Why should one be outlawed?
Which should be a national symbol?
Which of these is most like recess?
If these three numbers ran a race, which one would win?

Waiting for Right Answers

The lesson from Guilford and his time with the US Air Force is that if we want students to be able to think on their feet, they need to interact with our content in divergent ways. The charge to us as teachers is do we give equal footing to divergent answers in our classroom?  Do we light up imaginations with possibilities or dim student thinking expecting the right answer?

If you would like to read more about using divergent thinking in the classroom please pick up a copy of Stand Up! Speak Out! The Social Action Curriculum for Building 21st-Century Skills available from Prufrock Press and Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Design Thinking for Educators: My Reflections on Week 1

I just finished my first week in the Design Thinking for Educators Workshop sponsored by edutopia, IDEO and Riverdale County Schools.

This week we had to redesign the morning commute of someone we knew.  The project required us to interview the person to "...learn about how they feel, what they wish for, what gets in their way." Our job was to ask great questions, listen and learn. And to never be afraid to ask "Why?"

My user initially mentioned being tired in the morning and then the discussion drifted over to stress because of all the road construction going on in front of her school.

But the stress wasn't so much about the traffic but the feeling of having so much to do before her students arrived in the morning; she didn't have enough time to feel prepared for the day.  It's hard for her to stay late after school because she has three children of her own and they are involved in activities that she wants to be a part of.

So her biggest need was to lower her stress level by being prepared for the day. So that no matter what happens at home or during the commute, she is prepared for her day and happy to see the students walk in the door.

After interviewing her for about ten minutes I brainstormed six different ideas. Then, and this is a really cool part of the whole process, I went back to her with my ideas to get more feedback and understanding to what she really needed.

She looked over all of my ideas and found that she liked the combination of two separate ideas: an automated teaching assistant and a smartphone app.

She liked the idea of the AITA (Automated Integrated Teaching Assistant) managing the day to day shuffle of papers, copies and printing through a mobile app.  

AITA will save teachers many trips to the copy room and stressful mornings putting together last minute lesson plans for subs or even themselves.  Never again be frustrated by a colleague jamming the printer again!

These are the areas that seem to suck up the most time and lead to the biggest source of stress.  The mobile app feature was her idea when she thought how she could start AITA working on a project on her way in to work so that the copies or printing was done before she ever walked in the door.

Design thinking is much more than just solving problems.  The heart of the idea is seeing the world through other peoples eyes and understanding that opportunities for innovation are all around us - we just have to look.  That is, look with a different perspective.

What great life skills for students:  in one hour I had to understand another person's perspective, see the world through their eyes, design solutions with them in mind and then get their feedback to design the absolute best solution.  

It is not too late to take part in this great five week course that is free.  

Week 1: Design Thinking Mini-Challenge - Design Thinking for Educators:

The course is well set up and utilizes all the best parts of social media:  sharing and inspiring. It changes the focus of the learning when you know your work and feedback is going to be shared among a community of creators and problem solvers. No longer can you hide in the corner; you are accountable and others will be paying attention.

Active, Independent, Producer: Student 2.0

Create your own Playlist on MentorMob!

Last year I experimented with recording my lectures so that students could access them at anytime:  for review, if they were absent, for homework if time ran out in class. Unfortunately the recording of lectures for homework has become the one aspect of the flipped classroom most teachers attack with a zombie grip of death.

To be clear, in my opinion, a flip classroom is one in which students are active independent producers not passive dependent consumers.  I do my best, though not always successful, to make sure that is the environment my students create in, recording lectures seems to be one good way to make more time for creation.

In the spirit of creation, combining and remixing, I took some resources that I have used in the past, my screencasts and some other videos I found on The Hero's Journey and mixed them together in MentorMob.

This is a playlist that my students can use this year to build their schema for the Hero's Journey as we dive into Greek Mythology, story analysis, fiction writing, character development, personal development and metaphor.  Wow, just writing that is getting me jazzed up for the new school year!

Working through this process has got me thinking about areas of the curriculum I may have, to put it lightly, glossed over in the past.  The biggest frustration that I have had with my curriculum is the abandonment of grammar the past few years; it's been pushed into the abyss.

I am going to fix that this year using MentorMob, google docs, and screencasting.  The principle behind the idea will be to find examples of grammar in what they are reading and what they are writing.  I am going to create short MentorMob playlists about each grammar concept, embed a scavenger hunt type aspect to the project and then students are going to create an archive of their understanding of grammar.

I do not foresee much direct teaching of grammar this year, like usual, but by making students active independent producers that have a chance to share their learning I think I can build in some love for the building blocks of language.