Saturday, October 27, 2007

New Tools and the Use of Thinking Skills

Today,Wes Fryer shares his experiences in writing his doctoral thesis using web tools. So, with a little time on my hands I've given Jump Knowledge a try. Here's a sample: (scroll down a bit if you check this out)

Click here to view an annotation of Weblogg-ed

There are other tools that function similarly to Jump Knowledge. One of them is Diigo. I've been using Diigo for a while. I like that I can highlight whole chunks of text then annotate them. I also like that I can go back to my Diigo account to see the chunks with the annotations associated with them. You can then extract the highlights so that you print a page containing your highlighted chunks of text along with the annotations you made. I think this is perfect for student research and for bloggers as well as for creating conversations among groups that you create in Diigo.

Jump Knowledge, on the other hand, seems to only let you print the annotations alone. Without the text that the annotation refers to, I'm not sure how much I might use this tool. If I'm doing research I find it more beneficial to have the original text together with the annotations - for me, this helps to preserve the text and experience based connections that I found while reading.

As I think about writing this blog post, I think about how we use the power of technology for learning. The use of technology is most powerful when we can use the tools to gather and organize the information we need in order to apply thinking skills. While writing this posting, I've used my blog, my email, Jump Knowledge and Diigo but, in order to really improve my learning about these types of tools, I've also used (in this case a very limited) comparison, which is one of the most effective instructional strategies we can use with students and a skill that helps us to process information in order to retain that knowledge for long periods of time. So, it's not just about the tools - it's about the learning that the tools support and the instructional practices we use.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Reading to Learn

"I want my students to use the computers in a way that helps them learn," my teacher friend said to me this summer. "Great!" I said. "What do students need to learn in your classroom?"

So began a conversation about technology use in the classroom. This one, like many, led to exploring option together and working on what we thought might be a viable solution.

The solution: teach 3rd graders to use Word to help them with main idea. Here's how it would go...
Find some short articles from Time for Kids at the 2nd to 3rd grade reading level. Copy the article and paste it into Word, develop a question that would lead students to find information from the article that addressed the main idea, teach students to delete any text that did not address the question - in the end leaving them with the question and a list of items from the article that answered the question. This seemed to us to be a great way to get kids to use technology to help them sift through information to remove unneeded pieces of information and keep the necessary information.

But wait! It didn't work! How could such a simple strategy, such an easy way of using technology not work? Well...the technology couldn't possibly make a difference when the real problem was that students just didn't really understand what main idea meant in the first place. Interesting...because for the last two years, when we done the data analysis on our state assessments we've found that main idea and summarizing were areas of weakness from 3rd grade to 5th grade. So, if the kids don't really get it in the first place the technology doesn't matter.

We've been talking about using technology for years with our teachers. Is it possible that our teachers don't really get the concept in the first place? Do they need that concept first before the technology makes a difference? How do we best approach teaching that concept then?

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What are we searching for?

This morning I'm taking a few minutes to go back through my Statcounter account. It's interesting to take a look at the visitor activity but most especially to look at the search terms that people are using. Overwhelmingly, I'm noticing that people are looking for information about how technology affects student learning. And I'm wondering - what blogs are addressing this question well enough to satisfy those who are looking for that information? I'm pretty sure mine isn't - mostly because I'm not a classroom teacher - I'm a technology specialist so I'm reflecting on the issues that are directly affecting me - issues that I'm trying to work through by writing about them.

In the first session I attended at the NECC conference this past summer, the presenter's main purpose was to talk about things we can do with technology that would affect student learning - but not just the technology. She was also talking about the instruction that supports the use of the technology. I'll admit, the presenter was a little difficult to warm up to, but several people got up and walked out. I considered it myself but stayed anyway and was pleasantly surprised at how the session unfolded. I walked away from that session thinking how smart the presenter was in the approach she took to the presentation. But then, I wondered, why didn't other people stay? What were they looking for that they didn't find in this session?

This question of what our teachers and other staff are looking for where technology is concerned has been bothering me a lot lately. I keep thinking they're looking for the "magic bullet" - that one little thing that they can easily implement that will make a difference in student learning. But, there isn't any such thing really -just as there is no "magic bullet" that will help every student to learn to read and read well. We need to try different strategies and different tools until we find what fits our students needs, interests and learning styles. No amount of talking about all the really cool tools out there will help until we as teachers dig in, do our own investigating and try something new supported by well established instructional strategies.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

The Unexpected

The other day I wrote about a workshop I had done and my thoughts about the two kinds of learners that made themselves apparent via the structure of the session. Another thought occurred today and that was that the structure created "the unexpected" for many teachers.

My usual strategy when introducing new tools or teaching teachers how to use tools has been to provide them with materials, complete with screenshots and step-by-step directions, that they'll take with them to use later on. I'd been doing that for many years because teachers had told me they liked having them to go back to. But, in doing so, I may have been creating too much of a crutch for them to lean on. The other problem, if that's what I should call it, is that it really didn't do too much to change teaching practices. Teachers came, they listened, they asked for a repeat of the directions, they practiced a bit and they took the materials with them. But, in the end, many didn't use what they had learned and they haven't internalized some strategies and skills that they can apply with the use of almost any piece of software or technology they encounter.

It reminds me of the kinds of classroom that many have written about - you know...the kind where the teacher teaches, frantically trying to pour all the learning into their student's brains so they can regurgitate it later and never use it again. :) But, it's the unexpected that wakes the brain up, that intrudes on the ho-hum-ness of the same old thing day after day, that gets those neurons firing away in the brain. That's the kind of professional development experiences that I'd like to provide to teachers. They already know a thing or two about the technology - they just need to push beyond that basic level of knowledge (think Bloom's) and get into applying what they know to new things.

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Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Struggling... think you've got some cool tools to show to teachers. Tools that will amaze them, excite them, get them thinking. So you show them off, you set up accounts, you give them time to explore, you encourage them to interact with each other to figure out all that each tool has to offer. For some teachers, this is their learning style - just point the way and they'll find the right path. For others this creates panic - "You're not going to show us how to use this?" "We don't even get a tutorial first?"

This was my experience today. It was really great! was really a struggle. I set up four tools: Pageflakes, Writeboard, Google (docs, calendar, iGoogle and maps) and Trailfire. Put together a quick intro using Voice Thread, placed that in a wiki that I had set up as a preview to the session (which no one went to as a preview even though it was in the session description). My VoiceThread intro was all about how the web has changed and it talked about each of the tools one by one giving a little background about how the tool could be used- probably could have done at little more with that whole part of the presentation.

Where did I go wrong? Well, I didn't...not really.... It's just that there were basically two different kinds of teachers in the room and I didn't meet the needs of all of them. So, some walked away muttering about the great tools they saw with one teacher who emailed me later in the afternoon with what he had already created and some walked away talking about needing a lot more support for their learning. Hmmm...I guess lots of kids do that too huh?

The next time...
If I ever get a change to do this again, and I hope I will, I would set up the lab with tools to explore but use the wireless laptops in the library (since it's right next door) to provide a tutorial for those who need it. We have to be able to address those learning styles for teachers just as we do for our students. Today's session was only an hour and a half - which was actually cut short because of the length of the keynote speaker's presentation. Instead of the single session - I'd consider doing a double session instead - spend the first session taking more time to talk about the instructional use of the tools and doing that quick little walk through, then the second session could be devoted to setting up the tools for instruction and for sharing what was accomplished as well as providing that extra support that some teacher learners need.

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