Thursday, November 30, 2006

Managing Change

As I work throughout my school district, I constantly hear teachers reflecting on the changes and new initiatives that have been going on over the past four years and the word most often spoken by them is "overwhelmed." It makes me think about reading one of Eric Jensen's books, Brain Based Learning. Jensen writes that, in order to fully understand a concept, our brains need to be immersed in information and then we need to "think" our way out. I'm thinking this is what's going on with our teachers. They've been immersed in lots of information as we work toward our curriculum and instruction vision but we have yet to "think" our way out of all this information. While there are certain pockets of teachers (maybe they're the right brainers) who have gotten the big picture, others are still struggling with the pieces and how they all fit together. So, what's the best way to think our way through all of those pieces? To truly move forward and to empower all of our teachers, it seems that we need to find our way from the pieces to the whole and we need to do it together. Somehow, I'm confident it will happen...but when and how still remains to be experienced.

Connections to Information Literacy

Interesting connections to information literacy came up today in conversations that were based on data analysis using the results of our state assessment in English Language Arts. We looked at specific skills that students need to use when answering some of the constructed response questions. This was my first experience in hearing teachers talk about these assessments and how their students had handled the tasks.

One skill that was identified as critical when writing an essay that required the use of information from both a piece of fiction and non-fiction was, “identifies and utilizes specific details from multiple sources.” As the teachers began to discuss student performance in relation to this, it was recognized that this is a skill we use in the research process and it was a great way to enter into a conversation about information literacy. And so, we talked about ways that technology supports this skill. The teachers worked through some strategies for addressing this skill and, very soon, the topic of working with the librarian to provide support in this area came up. Yes! This is just where we need to be…recognizing that information literacy is part of this assessment, part of our literacy instruction and that we have someone beyond the classroom or the literacy staff who can contribute to this instruction.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

21st Century Book Reports

I’ve been getting a feed for the tag “literacy” for that last few days to see what sites are being tagged by others. Interestingly, this afternoon there’s a site that someone tagged and titled as, “More Ideas Than You'll Ever Use for Book Reports.” This leads to three pages of ideas submitted to describing alternatives to the traditional book report. I was immediately struck by how web 2.0 tools and certain pieces of software could be enlisted in carrying out these ideas and would provide even more enrichment to reading particular pieces of literature. Here are a few adapted to web 2.0 – any other ideas?

1. Interview a character from your book. Write at least ten questions that will give the character the opportunity to discuss his/her thoughts and feelings about his/her role in the story. However you choose to present your interview is up to you.
WEB 2.0>> Students post these questions on their blog and other students can answer the questions as if they were the character. This could also be a podcast.

2. Prepare an oral report of 5 minutes. Give a brief summary of the plot and describe the personality of one of the main characters. Be prepared for questions from the class.
WEB 2.0>>The oral report could be recorded as a podcast or this oral report, if recorded, could become a conversation between an interviewer and a character or between two characters in the story.

3. Build a miniature stage setting of a scene in the book. Include a written explanation of the scene. OR Make several sketches of some of the scenes in the book and label them.
WEB 2.0>> Create the stage then take a digital picture and put it into your class Flickr account. If many students in the classroom create several scenes from the book, the scenes could be put into chronological order then annotated.

4. • Write a book review as it would be done for a newspaper.
• Write a feature article (with a headline) that tells the story of the book as it might be found on the front page of a newspaper in the town where the story takes place.
WEB 2.0>>As you study literature throughout the year, a class wiki with pages devoted to each piece of literature would be useful here. Now the wiki can contain these book reviews. I’m sure that, over time, it would be a great way to watch students progress writing in this genre.

5. After reading a book of history or historical fiction, make an illustrated timeline showing events of the story and draw a map showing the location(s) where the story took place.
WEB 2.0 >>Draw pictures then scan them, or create dioramas or other 3 dimensional representations of events and take digital pictures. Upload your photos to Flickr then geotag them with the locations of the events from the story.

6. • Write and perform an original song that tells the story of the book.
•Be a TV or radio reporter, and give a report of a scene from the book as if it is happening "live".
WEB 2.0>>Sounds like some great podcasting to me!

7. Create a newspaper for your book. Summarize the plot in one article, cover the weather in another, do a feature story on one of the more interesting characters in another. Include an editorial and a collection of ads that would be pertinent to the story.
WEB 2.0>>Sounds like a great way to use wiki pages! Front page, business, local news, comics, weather, etc.

8. Draw a comic strip of your favorite scene.
Macs with OS X have a piece of software called “Comic Life” that would really entice students to do this assignment.

9. • Make a mini-book about the story
•Make a flow chart of all the events in the book.
• Make a time line of all the events in the book.
WEB 2.0>>If each of these were created so that they could become individual slides (use PowerPoint and save the slides as TIFF files or use a drawing program such as KidPix where the drawings can be saved as .jpg or .gif), they could be uploaded to Bubbleshare then placed in a student blog or a class wiki.

10. Make a chart of interesting words as a whole class activity. Categorize by parts of speech, colorful language, etc.
WEB 2.0>>Have students illustrate the words using any drawing software that you have available (such as KidPix), save the pictures as .jpg or .gif, upload them to Bubbleshare or some similar service then place the resulting “dictionary” on your class blog or wiki.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Instructional Tools -where's the change?

I'm wondering today about the technology tools we use for instruction. Having attended a technology conference this week, it's natural to have these questions. Having seen things like Smartboard demos, a session on the use of Blackboard, etc. I'm feeling a little disillusioned with what we consider to be "good" uses of technology. Many sessions are billed as "engaging your students with [fill in the blank]" but what is meant by "engaging" and what are we "engaging" kids in?

We seem to think that if it's "fun" for our students that it will therefore be engaging. Hmmm...I guess there's something to that... Fun in school is surely a way to draw in young kids but what other ways are there to "engage" our students through the use of technology?

We place a Smartboard in a classroom, load up a game from a website and invite the students to come to the board and choose the right answer. We find "activities" where students can drag and drop and project that image to a Smartboard and invite students to come and demonstrate that they know how to drag and drop the correct letters into a word. We locate "interactive" activities such as PowerPoint Jeopardy games, project that image onto a Smartboard and invite the students to play the game. We project a story being read aloud then ask kids questions about the story, check to see which questions we answered incorrectly, go back to the story and look for the part of the story that would answer those questions. Are the students "engaged?" I suppose they might be...for a while...but what make the Smartboard a better tool? What's the difference between putting the image on the Smartboard and sending the kids to the computer (alone or with a partner) to do the same thing or connecting a projector to your computer and working from the computer to do the same things? Using the instructional design that was demonstrated, only one student can come to the Smartboard at any one time just as only one student can be called on to answer a teacher's question at one time. What makes the difference or what do teachers perceive as making the difference? Are we back to the coolness factor of the technology? Is the technology changing the pedagogy? Impacting student learning? I just don't see anything different happening here - I don't see the technology provoking any change in instruction.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Learning and Thinking

Eric Jensen has a great book titled, "Brain Based Learning" published in 2000. I'm going back to his book this afternoon in thinking about some experiences over the last few months. In Chapter 21 of the book, Jensen discusses lesson planning "with the brain in mind." He points out that, "We learn best by immersion; by jumping into the fray, then thinking our way out of it."

We've been working with a curriculum consultant who has spent many hours with our teachers talking about a schema for lesson planning that's based on brain research. But, over time, it has seemed to some that we've been covering the same material over and over again with a few different twists each time. As I listened to each presentation, I kept picking up on the "twists" that trigger new thinking while others were saying that they'd heard this information already.

This summer, we returned once again, to a discussion of the lesson schema but this time something different happened. We went back to what we had learned previously, then began to talk about the lesson schema as a "system" and what would happen if any part of that system broke down or didn't happen. This was a whole new way of thinking...this was "thinking our way out of" the wealth of information that we had been gathering over time. The conversation among the teachers was amazing and very insightful!

In talking to the consultant later and in reflecting on the presentation, I was brought back to Eric Jensen's point: these teachers needed the time and the exposure to lots of information before they could think their way out of it and it wasn't until this past summer that this could happen.

What about our students? There has been a lot written about how we should encourage and teach critical thinking skills but not much mention about how much information we need in order to "think our way out of it." How many teachers continue to rely on the readily accessible textbook as their sole source of information and is it enough information to truly "think" about? What makes it so difficult for them to use alternate resources so that students are learning from a variety of sources?

As we talk about the use of such tools as blogs, wikis, podcasts and others, I think it will be especially important to keep in mind our pedagogy, and the amount of time for our students to access and gather information before they blog, before they contribute to a wiki, before they create a podcast so that they can "think" their way to better uses of those tools. Eric Jensen reminds us that we need to ask, "What is there to learn and, how can it best be learned?"

A new web?

Buried on page 15 of our local Sunday paper, is an article about the creation of Web 3.0 that comes from the New York Times News Service. The article, also online, describes an effort to create the kind of web that provides us with a complete package of information as a result of our search rather than a laundry list of possible options. Quoted in the article is Nova Spivak, founder of Radar Networks, who says, "We are going from a Web of connected documents to a Web of connected data." Some of the possibilities cited in the article include vacation planning, financial planning, and college selection.

In education, what are the possibilities? First of all, it sounds like my search time would be shorter and more precise in terms of finding the exact data I'm looking for rather than just a lot of possibilities of related information.Let 's say that I want to connect with others who are doing work in the area of improving literacy skills. I could imagine that Web 3.0 gives me more precise and better probability of finding other teachers in similar types of schools who are working on the same thing, or lists of research articles, data from schools that have made improvements and how they've accomplished their goals.

What about a Social Studies unit on the Revolutionary War? Couldn't "a web of connected data" then more easily give me both sides of the story - the American viewpoint versus the British viewpoint? Could our searches more effectively weed out the junk from the really good stuff? Wouldn't that make our lives in the classroom so much easier?

A simple Google search will reveal a long list of other articles and blogs that might be worth holding onto as this idea develops.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Conduits and Obstacles

In a conversation recently, a friend made a comment about someone else being an obstacle to success rather than a conduit. How does that apply to classroom uses of technology? Are the ways we use technology designed to keep students occupied (obstacles) or are they designed to help students experience growth in their learning (conduit)?

While watching a presentation done by a vendor the other day showing access to online sources that support their printed materials, I was hearing positive comments from others around me and wondering whether they were looking at these sources as conduits to future/further learning. When we provide students with access to "technology" designed purely to occupy their time, we're merely providing what, in the end, will prove to be an obstacle to learning.

The challenge for us as educators is to examine our practices in terms of being either obstacles or conduits to the learning of our students. The pressures of state assessments would subside if we could think in those terms rather than in terms of the amount of content to be covered in order to take a test whose results won't be known for many months.