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.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Dealing with Tech Overload

I really love technology.

I am always excited to see new web 2.0 tools, new presentation sites, new new new. The newness of technology becomes especially exciting when I attend teacher conferences, like the NCETA conference I'm attending now, where I've played with Glogster, LiveBinders, Storify, Prezi, Blogger, and countless other options for enriching my teaching and the kids' learning experiences. I usually walk away from weekends like this with my eyes glazed, my brain swimming with dozens of ideas that I know my students will LOVE. 

Then a few things happen. 

1. My planning, which admittedly is not as organized as I'd like, becomes totally incoherent as I start trying to immediately integrate my new high-tech lessons and projects. 

2. My kids, who are supposed to fall in love with this new technology just as much as I did, somehow don't end up having the same amazing experience. To save face, I decide my students are just unreachable. 

3. Somehow, the technology that always works for everyone else on every other day, doesn't work for me when I need it. 

Experiences like these can lead us to the conclusion that technology is ultimately disruptive or that it can't exist in cohesion with our current lower-tech lessons.

I don't think I'm alone in that kind of overload. Many of my friends in education complain that, though we are shown so many wonderful options, we don't have the time to play with and develop the technology into something really meaningful. What results is a grab-bag of tiny, disconnected lessons that use completely different technologies, and none of it has any fluidity. We all go through phases with our technology, too, where we fall in love with one form of technology, but we abandon it when we find something else - rather like my oldest son who doesn't even know where his Nintendo DS is because he now has an X-Box 360.

There has to be a way to resist the overload and use technology in a meaningful, integrated way so that it has real value. Do I have the answers? Well, no, not completely, but I have some ideas.

Idea #1: Scale it down and use it sensibly.
       If you have Flip video cameras, you feel obligated to create movie projects in order to use them. Don't. I used my school's cameras in a really simple way: I had discussion groups film their discussions. I told them that I wanted them to talk about their topic for X amount of time, and the video I should see should be a single, unbroken record of their conversation. Students stayed on task better than any class before, and the quality of conversation was the best I've ever seen.

Idea #2: Let the students take charge.
       Instead of taking the time to teach my kids how to use certain presentation sites like Prezi or Storyjumper, I direct them to web 2.0 sites that list several presentation tools and tell them to play with and pick a tool for presenting their projects. I get to experience a wider variety of presentation tools, and the kids end up teaching each other about the developing technology resources.

Idea #3: Remember Thoreau: "Simplify, simplify."
      There was a time, as we were reminded this weekend by Carol Jago, that a pencil was considered high-tech. If your technology fails miserably, or if your eyeballs are spinning from the overload of options, remember to return to the basics and rediscover the beauty of the sound of a pen scratching on paper.

That's my advice, as far as advice goes, for dealing with the technology overload. Ultimately, we have to remember that as fun and as dazzling technology can be, we should use it deliberately as a tool toward accomplishing our goals, not as a replacement for instruction. As David Thornburg said, "Any teacher that can be replaced by a computer, deserves to be."