Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Why is Technology Being Forced onto Students?

I got that question from a teacher a couple of weeks ago.

My county is gearing up for an unprecedented technology reboot that will put computers into the hands of all students grades 6-12 and will increase access for students in elementary schools. Teachers will finally receive updated laptops with consistent software, and outdated computers will be removed from the schools. It's an amazing and beneficial improvement to our available technology.

But not everyone is happy about that.

Change is a scary thing, and educators bear the brunt of a great deal of change without much voice in the matter. I would argue, though, that the change toward a technology-centered education model is not the result of arbitrary decisions. Instead, it's a common-sense recognition of the changes in our world.

Consider these statistics from Michael Lemaire with Online Schools:

  • 94 percent of today's teenagers own a cell phone
  • 70 percent own a laptop
  • 69 percent own an ipod or mp3 player

We've heard the phrase "digital natives," but it is sometimes hard to appreciate its meaning. We are teaching students who have NEVER lived in an offline environment. I think a more appropriate question would be: why would we force them to learn in an environment that doesn't accurately reflect the real world? 

This technology boom isn't just taking place among teenagers. According to Forbes, a study by Career Builder identifies the fastest growing job - post recession - is that of software developer. In fact, the article notes,"Technology and engineering roles make up the majority of the top ten [fastest growing] positions, indicative of the continued and heightened investments companies are making in these areas." The McKinsey Global Institute identifies the internet as one of the fastest growing contributors to our economy, stating that it "accounted for 21 percent of GDP growth in the last five years." 

So, if businesses are expanding their use of technology, and if the internet is driving our developing businesses and influencing the job market, then students need to be prepared to function in an online world. This means going far beyond the occasional research project and Power Point. Students need to learn to create, collaborate, and problem solve using the same methods they'd use in the workplace. 

Why force our students to learn and use technology? Why wouldn't we? We readily recognize the need for students to understand math, science, history, and communication skills. We haven't yet recognized the need for students to effectively use technology in productive and innovative ways, but we should. Ours is a tech-rich world, and our job as educators is to prepare students to meet the demands of that world. We can't do that if we ignore the most pervasive tool that world uses. 

In an article in the Huffington Post this January, Lydia Dobyns wrote: 

"We need to believe the adults delivering education services are capable of being innovative, adaptive and collaborative and welcome being accountable for student outcomes. Then we need to invest in this belief by providing both the professional development and the infrastructure to make this belief a reality for all students and all teachers."

In this technology reboot, our county is showing us it is invested in this belief. We should remember that, by embracing change, we benefit our most important clients and our most valuable resources: our students. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Make Your Students Content "Goorus"

Here's something new....

Ya know what? Lesson planning is hard. Planning with technology is in many ways more daunting because we are expected to use fabulous resources, videos, interactives and whatever else to claim we are "21st century teachers." But finding those incredibly awesome resources is SOOOoooo time consuming and frustrating.

One site that is making resource gathering easier is Gooru.

Gooru is an online education-based search engine. Say you're looking for a good video or interactive to help kids understand the slope of a line. You type "slope" into Google and begin the slow and arduous process of looking at one resource at a time to assess whether it fits your needs. You also have to wade through sites that have NOTHING to do with your search as well as annoying ads for dating sites and getting rid of belly fat.

By contrast, when you search "slope" in Gooru, you get tons of resources, categorized by type (video, interactive, textbook, quizzes, etc.) and you know it's been reviewed by teachers and approved for use. Gooru also is run by a non-profit, so there's no danger of running into a cost wall when looking for resources, and there's no pop-up ads to get in your way.

I mean seriously, isn't this search result:

better than this search result?

The Google search yielded one, maybe two usable sources...the Gooru search returned 16 in the screen shot - there were more on the page!

But it gets better....

When you search a topic, you can look at individual resources, or you can view collections. Now these are fabulous. The collections have been put together by teachers - they include selected resources and are arranged in a learning path for the kids. YOU HAVE FULL ACCESS TO THESE!

And here's the best part.....

Gooru is absolutely free. No cost, no ads. You and your students have full access to any and all resources on this site, and you don't even have to create an account. and since kids don't have to create accounts to get to this information.....wait for it......IT'S APPROPRIATE FOR KIDS UNDER THIRTEEN!


But there's just one thing...

Right now Gooru only provides resources for science, math, and social studies. As an English teacher, this makes me sad. But this site is in beta, and as more teachers begin to use it and add content, it will certainly expand. Having a product of such high quality is worth the wait in my opinion.

So go, explore, and let the Gooru guide you!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Writing Writing Writing!

November is fast approaching, and therefore so is.......


What, you haven't heard of it? It's a web-based program in which teen and adult writers all over the world write novels in the month of November. "NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth."  NANOWRIMO.

NANOWRIMO is housed in two distinct websites. The first is the adult site, where anyone 13 and over can participate. This site offers adult writers the opportunity to connect with other writers in their area and find publishers for their work. If you join this site, your goal is to produce 50,000 words.

The second is connected to the Young Writers Program, and is kid safe. Part of the sign-up process asks the  student to identify his grade level as elementary, middle, or high, and a teacher can create an account students can link to. The youth site is for students 17 and under specifically, and students can set word goals.  So an elementary student can write a 3,000 word short story, while a high school student can write a 10 - 20 thousand word novella.

This site is great for helping writers write, but don't think it's just for English teachers. A middle school class could write a collection of Math Adventure stories in which the main characters have to use their stellar math skills to solve difficulties, or a history class can write novellas from the perspective of an historical figure.

NANOWRIMO is sponsored by Create Space, an independent publishing firm, and NEO2, a program with Renaissance Learning. Other companies that partner with NANOWRIMO include the National Writing Project, Edutopia, and The Learning Network.

Happy writing!

Monday, August 13, 2012

Gearing Up for the New Year

It's happening again...

We're about to begin a new year with new students, and we're dusting off our file cabinets and setting up our rooms. In the midst of the meetings, the professional development, and the general chaos of these first days, you'll have to ask yourself the following questions:

1. What do I want my students to accomplish this year?
2. How will I go about making this happen?
3. What tools are available to me to make my lessons the best they can be?
4. How can I successfully measure my students' growth?

These are the normal, universal questions teachers ask. In the last several years, though, we've been asking a fifth question: Where can I fit technology into my curriculum?

And that's the problem...

Too often, teachers view technology, and I mean the hardware, the software, and web 2.0 tools, as an addition to their curriculum instead of an integral part of their curriculum. Admittedly, as an English teacher I was often stumped as to how to integrate tech into my lessons about literature, but I came to understand that I didn't have to use technology for its own sake, but I needed instead to use it to enhance my lessons.

If you are currently teaching in a traditional, "20th century" way, or if you think using technology means showing power points on your SMART board, then let's think about expanding our outlook just a bit. Here's  three ideas that you can use today to start integrating technology into your teaching practices.

1. Add some interest to your warm-ups by creating an interactive activity on your SMART board. Students can match terms and definitions, categorize items on the board, or click parts of the board to reveal answers to review questions or problems.

2. Consult experts in your subject by finding relevant videos on YouTube. Some great learning-based channels include TEDeducation, SciShow, CrashCourse, and 60second recap. Adding a short video to your lesson or to your website can spark interest and be a great way to reinforce that learning can take place outside the school walls as well.

3. Use Google Documents for student writing. Have students share their papers with you in Google Docs, then work with them through the writing process. Students have more frequent feedback from you, and you can watch them working with their papers in real time. You can even hold online office hours with students to discuss papers.

Remember that using technology effectively doesn't mean we are using it every minute of the day. Remember that the technology you use should be appropriate to your goal for the students. Remember that technology used for its own sake typically hinders learning rather than enables it.

So those four big questions from earlier? Don't add tech as your fifth question. Instead, think about how technology can help you answer those questions. Tech shouldn't be squeezed into your curriculum. It should support your current teaching.

Happy Teaching!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Blogging Along with Formal Research

Whenever I tell my juniors they are about to begin writing a research paper, they all groan. Loudly. They know just as well as I do that research is difficult and tedious, and that they'll have to spend time learning or relearning MLA formatting and citation in order to write their boring, meticulous, dry position papers.

Over the years, I have tried various approaches to research, like linking their argument to a literary work, writing in the voice of an author they have researched, or researching their own family history. All of these have been an attempt to make the process less painful for us all, but where I have failed is that the topic chosen doesn't usually make up for the process, and part of the problem (in fact, it becomes more of a problem) is that a student may have a topic he feels passionately about, but must write the paper in an academic voice to suit the MLA gods.

I've been curious about blogging, but was too afraid to try it until I saw a wonderful presentation from Steve Fulton at our state's English conference in 2011. He had his middle school children research and write about anything they wanted, and encouraged them to explore different genre options and different voice options in their writing. It made me think that surely I can provide my students with an engaging writing experience to supplement, not replace, their academic research.

My 2011-2012 AP students became my guinea pigs, and we launched our research project. I told them they had to pick a topic that would 1) give them room to argue a position and 2) give them some means to comment on America's position globally. Right away they went for the popular topics, like world hunger or education, but soon, they started to understand that if they were going to also write casual or even funny blogs on their topics, they had better choose differently. Consequently, the topics became much more personal and interesting. One student discussed the Americanization of martial arts; another discussed how sports affect politics.

We then ventured into blogging. I helped students create and update blogs, and modeled the difference between "blogging language" and "formal paper language." The students were able to work out major points of argument in their blogs, then transfer their ideas to their research papers. Many students felt more confident in their arguments because they had first written the blogs, and several students commented that understanding how to change their voice to suit their mode of writing was the most beneficial lesson. All of my students thought this research process was made easier by using blogs, and I noticed how much better the papers were in terms of argument, choice or sources, and formatting.

I have links below to a few major blog sites, and I hope you'll give blogging a try.

Blogger.com - you can create a blog and add your students as authors, then make the whole blog private.

Kidblog.org - you create a class and add students. They don't need an e-mail for this.

Edublogs.org - the largest education blogging site on the web.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Enhance Discussion with Flip Cameras

The Problem

I don't know about you, but I often find myself wanting to use my Flip video camera, but not feeling like I know what to do with it. After all, it's only one camera, how do I engage an entire class in an activity? I'm kind of tired of having groups re-create scenes from stories, and I suspect that while they have lots of fun doing it, it's not the best bit of learning they do.

I did a little research and found Tom Barrett's slideshow on 45 ways (and tips) for using video in the classroom.

These looked great and fun...and not quite what I was looking for for English. I had to think of something else.

The Brainstorm

This summer I planned a discussion activity involving essential questions in literature. I knew that students would get a lot out of sharing the questions they found in their summer reading, but I was concerned about accountability and class management. Small group discussions are great, but when circling the room, I always feel like I'm missing something in the groups I'm not currently watching.

It hit me. Film them.

The Planning

I had to borrow five more cameras from our media center so there would be one for each group. No other planning was necessary other than the lecture and mini activity the day before on essential questions. Students then went home with their novels and found one essential question in their novel and at least one passage to support it.

The Activity

When it came time to have the discussion, I explained to the students that I wanted to give them full credit for their discussion, but to do that, I needed to see their entire discussions, not just the bits I saw while strolling by. I explained that it would help all of us in multiple ways, including keeping them on track. They were a little unsure about this, but they took the cameras and went to work.

I should say here that I immediately discovered the importance of checking the batteries on the camera, because two cameras had dead batteries. Undaunted, I changed the cameras around so that the two groups who did not have cameras were right next to each other and I could observe them while the rest of the room worked.

I have never had a class so focused on discussion.

When we started the group talks, I told them they had 30 minutes, giving each student in the group 5 minutes to share their question and subsequent passage. They all looked frightened - how were they going to share one question and one passage and make it last five whole minutes?!? They discovered that, surprisingly, when they listened to each other, they had questions to ask. Those questions led to connections, and soon they were comparing themes in their books.


The Result

After the discussion, I ostensibly had three hours of film to review, but grading didn't actually take me that long. I was able to give credit for the discussion almost immediately, having observed the class deliver a focused, sustained, thirty-minute conversation. I uploaded all their films and looked for specific students that I hadn't heard comment during the talk. Easy. I was also relieved that, if a student wasn't happy with his or her grade, we could always go back to the film - I have a permanent record now of the discussion. (I don't have to tell you how handy that is when putting together a professional portfolio.)

Many students said in reflections afterward that the activity on essential questions and the discussion were extremely helpful in identifying universal theme and in comparing different texts. In fact, some went as far as to say that they learned more in those two days about literature than they had in their entire high school experience. I thank them for the compliment, even if it is hyperbolic.

Students used their essential questions and their identified themes and wrote their first analytical papers of the year. While they still carried the organization and style issues that the first papers of the year typically carry, the papers ALL identified universal themes correctly and strove to analyze the methods that created those themes. In that alone I feel the exercise was a success.

The Conclusion

We don't need to feel we have to do grand things with technology. Sometimes, technology serves us best when we use it to enhance, not replace, what we are already doing.

Just make sure you've checked the batteries.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Using Storify for Synthesis Writing

One of the writing standards in the Common Core involves synthesizing information from "multiple print and digital sources" (Common Core p. 46). For most of us, that would mean research, but since the common core asks us to do synthesis writing often, it isn't feasible to do formal research projects over and over again.

We are also expected to have students write in a variety of modes, from casual to reflective to formal, and to apply this synthesis skill in those modes as well. Once again, formal research just isn't going to work.

I was introduced to a very cool website called Storify. It is a source collection site that can search a topic within social media (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, You Tube, Slideshare, etc.) and allow you to create and embed a stream of sources for your students to pull from. By simply adding your instructive text to the stream, you can assign students any type of synthesis-based writing you want.

I have already created a couple of Storify stories that are linked in this blog. My first story I was able to put together as the presenter was explaining the site; it's that easy. I had been reading a series of articles about the public derision against The Onion's satirical piece on Congress members taking children hostage and thought it was a great opportunity for discussing free speech vs. responsible speech. I now have a collection of several sources discussing two recent free-speech issues in America and have inserted discussion questions into the stream.                                                                                                  

My second Storify I created for my freshman Enlglish class. I complied several You Tube videos of songs and artwork relating to Romeo and Juliet, and have asked the students to write a reflection on the play's timelessness. Students must reference at least two sources in the stream and find an additional third source for their responses.

With Storify, you are not limited to searching only social media sites. The site has a URL importer which will allow you to embed any article or page of information you like from anywhere on the web. Its only current fallback is that it will not allow you to upload your own documents, so your instructions can't be attached, they must be on the stream itself. Since the site is still in beta, users have requested this capability, and it is being reviewed.

When you are ready to publish your Storify, you can embed it onto your class's webpage.

If you don't like to play with new technology without a tutorial, I have a quick run-down of how to operate the site below. I hope you'll have fun with it, and that you'll find several ways to apply this incredible source.