Friday, July 20, 2012

Schools v. Students Smackdown

The MindShift article describing the friction between students and schools over cell phone use in the classroom fit with what I've seen in schools myself--especially during my student teaching, and also in discussions with principals during my interviews for teaching positions. I've actually worried that being honest about my feeling that we need to let cell phones into classrooms might be hurting my chances of getting hired. If 65% of principals are against this, or at least aren't ready to try it, then they probably don't want another voice against them in their midst.

It thought it was interesting that parents are supporting students on this issues. I wonder if it's because they want to be more constantly connected to their kids--helicopter parent-style--or if it stems from a genuine desire to have their kids learn how to use technology "for good," i.e. practical, educational uses.

Speaking of "stem," I also was intrigued by the statistic that students who use technology in their classrooms are more interested in STEM careers than those who do not. This makes sense because incorporating tech-friendly approaches in students everyday life will probably make them more comfortable with logical, mathematical approaches to tasks.

Overall, the article was informative and gave me useful statistics to ponder as I continue to try to navigate a tricky balance between supporting technology in classrooms and not alienating principals in the process.

"5 Reasons to Use Cell Phones" Makes Sense

I appreciated reading Michael Soskil's blog posting on The Innovative Educator because his "Five Reasons to Allow Students to Use Cell Phone in Schools" were compelling and concisely well-argued. While I am wary of the dangers of cell phones in the classroom--the potentially uncontrolled texting, the cheating online, the video-game-playing under the desk--I know that we have to accept that this technology is part of everyone's lives, and holds multiple benefits that we shouldn't hold back from kids. The only argument that I have reservations about is in his point #3, in which he discussed how cell phones (especially Smart Phones) can teach 21st century skills. I completely agree with this point, but I think Soskil downplays the dangers of the "bad" side of cell phones a bit more than is realistic. Yes, students have always passed notes, but they have not passed them almost invisibly, in a nanosecond, like they can a text message. And yes, tests should be rigorous and not just regurgitate facts, but you can't deny that almost any assessment is going to involve facts of some sort, and I still believe students need to keep some facts in their head, not just look them up online every time they need them. Using cell phones in class will require much more monitoring by teachers, and extra work, at least initially, by teachers and administrators to set up effective policies for making sure that students use these tools responsibly in class. Overall, though, Soskils' list is very helpful and will be a good tool for me if and when I need to convince my own administrators, or fellow teachers, that using cell phones in the classroom is not only beneficial to students, it's a necessary part of the educational process in the 21st century.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Parable of the Cave Preview Lesson (Digital Story)

I created this digital story as an intro to a unit on ancient Greek philosophy that I would teach in a 9th grade Honors English class. The first few lessons will focus on Socrates' "Parable of the Cave" story, which was written down by Plato, Socrates' pupil, in Plato's famous book of philosophy, The Republic.

The idea is to introduce young students to the concept of philosophy in a gradual way, with simple explanations and a bit of humor. This way they will (hopefully) be less intimidated by the subject matter.

I used Power Point to create the slides, then brought them into iMovie to make the video. I used Flickr Creative Commons for most of the images; the others were from other sites but also stated explicitly stated that they were available for public use. The background music is from a public domain music site.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Edward Tufte and Evil Powerpoint

I loved reading this article because it articulated exactly all of the annoyance I feel for Power Point presentations, even though I have used (and still use) the software as much as anyone, both in the business world, in my grad school work, and when I've taught students.  I particularly liked that Edward Tufte wrote it--I'm somewhat familiar with him from his books on effective visual presentations of content. He has a great map of Napoleon's march on Moscow that is pretty famous--it shows immediately the carnage that happened as Napoleon pushed his troops through the freezing Russian tundra, letting his ambition run miles ahead of his strategic wisdom, and causing his ultimate failure in this campaign, and ultimately, his whole conquest.

But back to Power Point.  Tufte states, "The standard PowerPoint presentation elevates format over content, betraying an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch."  This is absolutely true.  I've experienced this myself, in classes.  The professor is talking but also using a Power Point presentation to echo his points.  I end up writing down, verbatim, what the slide says, instead of listening to the teacher, processing his comments, translating it into my own words, and then writing this down.  The former process does nothing to help me learn the material--it just makes me a scribe. The latter process embeds the knowledge in my brain because I've had to think about it myself and rephrase it in a way that makes sense to my own particular logic.

Now, don't get me wrong--I have no problem with marketing and sales pitches, when they're used in their proper context.  But the classroom is not where we need more soundbytes.  I understand the need to meet students at their own "place" in the world, and this means faster, media-driven approaches.  But I refuse to give up on my belief that teaching students how to focus on a problem for more than ten minutes is essential to their ability to function productively in the world.  I would like to see a research study done that compares lessons constructed to emphasize long-term focus versus quick shifts in activities, and see, over time, which group does better academically and also with other life skills, such as socializing and acting responsibly.

I wonder what Tufte thinks about Prezi.  I think it's cool what one can do with images, but it seems very jumpy to me, and doesn't add to the content delivery except to make it more jazzy and entertaining for kids.  Entertaining is great, but I want my students to at least try to experience the satisfaction of taking time to learn a tough concept, and finding that they come out at the other end of the "hard work" tunnel with a new level of understanding that makes them view the world with more insight.

Common Sense Lesson: "Chart It" (Grs. 7-8)

"The Internet is a portal to talk behind your back in your face."  This comment struck me as very poignant and cut to the essence of what can be so poisonous about social media for kids today.  A middle school girl made this comment in a video interview that was part of the Common Sense Media "Connected Culture" unit, available free online, along with many other useful, plug-and-play Digital Literacy and Citizenship units that are ready for teachers to use in their classrooms.

Each of the Common Sense units is set up as a traditional lesson plan and has all the required elements, from an outline of objectives to the statement of standards (aligned with National Education Technology Standards), to sample discussion questions, introductory videos, in-class activities, homework and extensions for more advanced learners.

I explored the "Chart It" lesson, which has as its highlight a whole-class exercise in which the students physically become a grid on which to chart levels of "Helpful," "Hurtful," (the X axis) "Intentional," and "Unintentional" (the Y axis) online behavior.  Students are asked to plot on a paper where certain online comments fall, then move to that spot in their physical grid.  Then the teacher asks the students to explain why they chose this point on the graph, how the intentions of the commenter could have been misunderstood, what reactions would help or hurt the situation, etc.  This is a great way to address multiple learning styles at once; it taps kinesthetic, visual-spatial, and oral, to name a few.

Another well-crafted part of this lesson were the videos.  There was a video for teachers, to prep them for the lesson, and one for students to watch at the beginning of class, as a warm-up.  The video for teachers used an teacher-narrator to focus instructors on the essential issues addressed by the lesson, reinforced through in-person interviews with real students talking about their experiences with social media--the good and the bad.  The students chosen for the video were articulate and thoughtful, which was helpful in explaining the themes addressed.  But it would have also been useful to include reactions from some students who were less intellectually advanced.  This would give a truer picture of the student population, their issues and concerns.

The video for students seemed a bit dated.  It used a 56kpb modem sound effect and a graphic of a phone jack from an older-model (non-Smart) cell phone plugging into a globe.  It would have been better to use an iPhone or similar device, or even a Tablet. Students pick up on datedness very quickly and it invalidates the authority of the content for them.

Aside from the intro, the video was effective, however.  It showed message texts being typed onto mobile devices--first a positive one, such as "Great job, Ted!" and then the letters rearranged into a negative one, such as "Ted smells bad!"  It was a good way to show, rather than tell, how words can change from supportive to damaging in just a few keystrokes.

Overall, this lesson and others like it in the Common Sense curriculum seemed useful and I would definitely use it, at least as a base, for my own lessons on online citizenship.

Langwitches Blog Re-visit

I went back to the Langwitches Blog today and found an incredibly interesting and immediately useful post on using blogging to improve students' writing skills. The post was about a 4-week experimental unit conducted with four elementary schools in different parts of the world (Prague, Switzerland, U.S., and Thailand). The project is over now, and the blog owner, Silvia Tolisano, has posted a reflection in three parts--one part student, on part teacher, on part Silvia-as-coach.

It seems that the project was a huge success. The students and the teachers felt that the students' writing improved greatly over the four weeks (more detail, used more desriptive words, more engagement, using links). The kids seemed to love it (check out this video of students talking about the project and how it has helped their writing). Ditto the teachers.

This post was very helpful to me because I'm trying out blogging now with a 6th grader I'm tutoring currently. He's a smart boy with a great sense of humor and flair for vivid, telling detail, but he lacks focus and doesn't like to take the time to get down his thoughts on the page coherently/effectively. I've started a blog with him, and he seems to like it. He's very visual, and likes to format his text in eye-catching ways. Even if his formatting choices aren't the most legible (bright yellow font on red background, plus underlining, boldface AND italic treatments!), I let that go because he's writing much better already, and that's what's important.

I got a lot of new ideas from this Langwitches post, about ways I can be more effective with my students and blogging. For instance, a rubric with "levels" the students can rise to is an excellent incentive. Also, teaching them to include links in their posts is a great way to have them connect with content relevant to their posts. I need to keep the comments coming, I realize now, so I don't lose momentum with my students in the blog. It's the feedback that gets them motivated. I'd like to try blogging with students in other countries, too. My student, Filip, has family in Serbia. I'm sure he has cousins he could share his blog with--I'll ask him about that next week when we meet.