Posts Tagged school

Rationalizing (a lot of) computer lab time

Audrey Waters wrote what she calls “an explainer” piece this summer on her Hack Education blog in which she pulls together some of the arguments against Khan Academy brewing in the education world. It’s very interesting, and right here.

Aside from the distrust of Bill Gates’s corporate involvement, the pedagogical argument identifies Khan’s videos as merely a different form of an old-fashioned lecture. And that’s not so innovative or interesting. That makes sense.

But the backlash against the entire idea of “flipping the classroom” seems like it might be creating a false dichotomy between Khan and Dianne Ravitch-esque progressive educators. I think we all agree that teachers shouldn’t be lecturing at the front of the classroom for an entire period. We decided on that a long time ago, didn’t we?

Here’s why I’m thinking about this tonight (besides the fact that I just read that post on Hack Education). After school today I checked my agenda for tomorrow’s senior classes and noticed that my plans were a little thin. I realized I only had about half a class period’s worth of activities (that’s 49.5 minutes at my school, by the way).

My seniors are working on a personal narrative essay, so I checked the computer lab calendar, noticed it was miraculously free during both 1st and 4th period, and signed up to take my kids down for the second half of each class.

On my drive home (stuck in traffic on the interstate that passes a noxious dog food factory) I thought, “Well that is some lazy lesson planning, Mr. Fine. You didn’t have enough instruction planned so you’re just going to plop them in front of computers?”

Now I do have somewhat of a point there, but I (the other me) may also be standing on some sound pedagogical footing. Math and science teachers, in Khan’s model – and, not so differently, in a Constructivist model – should be guiding students as they discover the content knowledge. In an English or writing class, that discovery happens through…writing, of course. So I need to let them write. And since I’m sick of seeing kids scribble on a sheet of binder paper and then shove it to the bottom of their backpacks never to be seen again, they should be typing.

My summer experience corroborates this.

I taught summer school this year, and I was blessed with a class of only seven wonderful kids. And there weren’t even any non-wonderful kids – there were only seven kids in the class.

This is obviously a complete Utopia for me, and it shouldn’t be surprising to any teacher (or former student) that we were able to get a lot of learning done and that we actually enjoyed each other’s company in the process (as much as possible, I would think, given that it was summer school).

In short, it ended up exactly like this:

I’m sorry. No, it didn’t. But what was interesting for me as an English teacher was how valuable my students found having large chunks of time in the computer lab to write their essays.

Again, maybe it’s not that surprising. Most of these students were quite bright but chose not to do homework (or not to go to class – more on that some other time…it was fascinating). So if I had sent them home to write an essay, as most English teachers are wont to do, they just wouldn’t do it. Ever.

The computer lab at the summer school site was not heavily used, so, on consecutive days, I was able to give my students 2-3 hour chunks of time to write. Since there were only seven of them (I’m sorry, I know), I was able to sit down with each of them for 15-20 mintes at a time and go over what they had written so far to steer them back on track when necessary. To me, it felt like the most effective writing instruction I’ve ever done as a teacher.

My students responded to it, too. There were days when I had reserved the lab for the morning (8-10 a.m.) so they could write, and they all practically begged to be allowed to come back for the second “period” (10:20-12:20) and continue writing. And they were working the whole time (trust me, I was there). They said things like, “I’ve never worked this hard on an essay before” and “This is the best essay I’ve ever written by far.” And it was on Oedipus Rex!

So was this the English class’s version of Sal Khan’s flipped classroom? Not exactly, since I was not assigning any homework in this case. But the huge blocks of class time allowed for some whole-class instruction followed by hours of valuable “guide on the side” time.

And, most importantly, this all makes me feel better about my brilliant lesson plan for tomorrow – which had absolutely nothing to do with my being underprepared.


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Knewton sponsored this infographic, which I found through edsurge. I’ll comment below the graphic. Ok, hello again. So I love this idea. When a close friend first showed me Sal Khan’s TED talk on flipping classrooms, I was seriously inspired and hopeful. My experience has done little (if anything) to convince me that homework, in the traditional model, works at all (although that didn’t keep me from giving my students a boring speech today on why they need to do their homework so they can develop their skills. Why do I say that if I don’t even believe it?)

But there is a HUGE problem with this, isn’t there? I can’t possibly be the only one who sees it. The idea is that every student will watch videos or lectures at home, online, right? But, no. I teach in a suburb of Denver, not East Timor, but even here I have a handful of students in each class who don’t have consistent internet access at home. So doesn’t the digital divide simply tear this whole system then fall apart?

I run into this problem when I assign homework on Edmodo, so I just try to have a paper option available for those kids. If that’s not possible, I tell them they could have extra time to get online assignments done, since they would have to do them in the library on their own time (and 9th graders at my school do not have any study periods during their first semester). But that creates a logistical headache for me. In fact, most parts of teaching create logistical headaches for me.

While the digital divide might not be the crisis it was ten years ago, there is still a correlation between household income and internet usage.  So while I’d love to flip my classroom around and be a “guide on the side,” I’m afraid I can’t do that entirely just yet. This all makes me all the more thankful for my 99 minute blocks, though, so I can be that “sage on the stage” for 20 minutes or so, and then make my way to the sidelines (sorry – football is back!).

Also, I’m sorry if I offended anyone from East Timor, or Timor-Leste, but I actually looked up the countries with the lowest rates of internet penetration before throwing that out there. I first wrote Tajikistan, because I though it sounded funnier, but it turns out there’s even less internet in Timor Leste.

And if you haven’t seen Khan’s TED talk (and missed the link above):

And anytime someone says “flip,” I can’t help but think of this:

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Popplet like it’s hot

[It might be a problem how funny I think this post’s title is.]

I used Popplet today, not for the first time, but it was one of those times where the idea to use it came to me on the fly, in the midst of an activity. This is the place I want to get to with web 2.0 tools: where I have a massive, Batman-esque tool-belt, filled with items to help enhance any lesson or solve any problem. And there would be so many tools that my students wouldn’t keep seeing the same one twice, but, instead, would be able to be consistently surprised, staying engaged to see how things turn out.

Like Batman, who happened to have shark repellent in that helicopter. 

Popplet allows you to very easily make attractively rounded text boxes (which can also easily be photos or other media) and arrange them or connect them. It’s one of those simple systems that has so many applications.

Today I had my frosh in small groups, writing out the subject, main idea, author’s purpose and theme of a story (“Word Problem,” by Bruce Holland Rogers). Each group collaborated to write those four sentences on one sheet of paper. They then handed those in, and while they chatted with their group members for 5 minutes, I quickly typed up the responses into a series of popplets I had arranged earlier (it should have been much earlier, but I did it while they were working, since this is when I had the idea. Also, I could have had something else for them to work on while I did this, but they are still getting to know each other, so I think the chatting was a great activity.).

I then turned on the projector (worked like a charm) and started evaluating each group’s response. I made a chart on the board and graded each one on a 4-point scale. The kids were pretty rapt. I think it felt like a valuable behind-the-scenes moment to figure out how to get full credit on something for me. We’ve only been at this for a couple of weeks. They still don’t know me. I’ve been getting very little homework turned in, and I’m sure that for some kids it’s because they are afraid they aren’t going to get full credit (so they make the brilliant choice to turn in nothing. I kind of get it.)

One student, who was still chatting when I started reviewing the responses, eventually looked at the screen, bewildered. “Hey, that’s what we wrote! How did it get there?”

It’s not quite as bewildered as I was when I saw Batman whip out his shark repellent, but it’s getting there.

I’ve also used Popplet to make character maps:

And tree maps to plan essays:

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When the chalkboard disintegrates

But the chalkboard never did disintegrate, did it?

Today my projector wouldn’t turn on. It was actually the projector in a colleague’s room where I teach one class. I’d known this projector to be temperamental (which, I must admit, I was not able to spell without help). My colleague suggested using the gnome instead of the remote to turn it on. She keeps a ceramic gnome on a desk under the projector and uses its long pointed cap to hit the button that is about a foot above the highest point I can reach.

My students watched patiently as I reached toward the projector with the gnome’s cap, pressing the button that is supposed to simply go from orange to green, but either emitted a wailing beep instead, remained orange, turned green for a moment before resorting back to orange, or, finally, turned an angry red I had not seen before. This was when I finally realized it was time to proceed with a backup plan.

I was merely planning to share a document with my newspaper staff – a critique from the state high school press association that I had just received in my email without enough time to make copies. And then I was going to show them a powerpoint and collectively work on turning interview notes into a story. But I needed the projector for all of this.

When I worked in a school with a 1:1 program, I quickly became aware of the need for backup plans to account for a particularly slow server during that class period. So this idea of contingency when using technology is nothing new. But I have become so reliant on the projector that I was truly thrown for  a loop without it.

And that’s why I started thinking about a malfunctioning chalkboard. I guess teachers used to run out of chalk? I remember scrambling to find some in my first year of teaching. That’s easier, though, since, if we are able to get our hands on some chalk, we know how to solve that problem. A faulty projector? We’re done. No teacher knows how fix that aside from calling your IT department and getting a loaner. Which, I suppose, is the same as borrowing some chalk from a neighbor, though much more bulky.

So I was simply reminded again of the value of having another plan in my pocket. I suppose it’s the same for any lesson – we could realize it’s going poorly and change course. But today I was not so nimble. I stood there, poking that button with the tip of that gnome’s cap for maybe ten minutes, waiting for the machine to warm up, then trying not to cuss as it faltered. It was one of the moments when, as a teacher, I realized how much I was wasting everyone’s time.

Not a proud teaching moment, but a real moment nonetheless. My student journalists saw me struggle, get frustrated, and make light of the situation. Then I told them to get to work on their own stories, and off they went, without my direct instruction for that day.

Who needs a projector anyway? Who needs a teacher? Who needs a gnome?

Maybe no one did today, but by next class I’m going to need at least one of those three things to work better.

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The difference with 9th graders.

Man. I was so excited to see how quickly my seniors ran with Edmodo yesterday, but my frosh brought me back down to earth. They are just so much younger. I should have taken the advice I saw on the Edmodo blog and given them all “read only” status to start. With the ability to post a note to the whole class, many students couldn’t resist merely typing the word “poooooooooooop” over and over again. Sigh.

It is amazing, though, to think of all that growth and maturity that happens in these three short years, for most kids. And that, then, hammers home the sometimes-crushing feeling of responsibility to make sure that said growth really does happen, and that our students grow in a positive direction.

Also, I have a lot of 9th graders who don’t have computers or internet at home, so I won’t be able to make online homework the only option. That’s okay, I think. I’m afraid, though, of those students feeling left out when we might look at work other students have done online (which is so much easier to look at as a class with the projector).

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Introducing Edmodo

Took my seniors to the computer lab today to get them on Edmodo, and it seemed like a hit. “Is that Facebook?” I heard from a kid in the back who couldn’t quite see the projector clearly.

And that resemblance to Facebook really does go a long way, at this point, in terms of immediate engagement. For an initial “practice” task, I wrote a note (like a Facebook status) and asked students to reply with what they had for dinner. They all did, and some even had funny, lighthearted conversations with each other throughout the thread.

I then posted another note asking students to post their own note consisting of a good line from their draft of a personal narrative essay, one they might be proud of. I added that everyone must then reply to two or more of their classmates with a comment articulating what they liked about their sentence. I told them we’d get to constructive criticism later, but that they should keep it all positive for now.

Most students rushed right toward their profile page before attacking any of this. Some were able to get pictures of themselves off of their email which they then made their profile pictures. Others found pictures from the internet. One was not even close to appropriate, so I had to have that conversation right away.

In fact, I made what I thought was an adequate speech on how we’ll use it earlier. I tried to be transparent about why I like Edmodo (it looks like Facebook – I hope that means you’ll use it and communicate authentically with each other…I wonder if that was too much “behind the curtain”). But I stressed that it’s not Facebook, it’s actually an extension of our class, so hopefully they’ll realize how they’re supposed to behave.

Once they got to posting those sentences from their narratives and commenting on each other, it was kind of magical. There were periods of quiet, as they looked for their perfect sentence and then read through the others. There were periods of loud, energetic interaction as students saw something funny in someone’s comment and told their friends to look.

I heard one girl say, “Aw, this makes me feel so stupid.” Why? “Because everyone else’s is so good, and mine is gonna like stupid.” I was transparent with her, too. I said, “That’s kind of the point – I want that to motivate you to make sure you do really good work.” Again, too much? Not sure.

One thing I love about online communication in a classroom like this is that you get students who would never speak to each other in the classroom comment on each other’s work online. A quiet boy’s sentence about his grandfather’s influence on him elicited this response from a girl who seems to be in a very different social circle: “that’s wahts up. this is ku.”

As we were leaving the computer lab, I heard one student say, “This is better than Facebook!” That was a little more than I expected. We’ll see if it lasts.

In fact, I got a brand new student today (2 weeks in), who had just moved from Florida. When we went down to the lab with her class, she saw what we were doing and said, with evident displeasure, “Oh, you guys use Edmodo?” We’re starting to, yes, did you use it at your old school? You didn’t like it? Why not?

“I don’t know.” I’m sorry? “That’s ok, I mean, it’s easy to do work from home on it.”

So that’s what will happen, I guess. Right now it’s shiny and new, and I haven’t assigned much work on it yet. We were out of the classroom and we were playing with a new toy. But once I make a habit of assigning schoolwork on it, it will become an extension of school. That is my goal, but, by definition, that will cause students to resent it? I’m not sure how to get around that – how to sustain the degree of fun and authentic communication that we had today once this becomes an integral part of our coursework.



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Shifting Paradigms

A friend just showed me this video, an RSA Animation take on highlights from one of Sir Ken Robinson‘s talks (upon accepting the Royal Society of Art’s Benjamin Franklin Medal in London in 2009). Some of his main points, if you don’t have 12 minutes, seem to be:

  • our model of schools is supremely outdated, as it is emerged from Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution ideals
  • ADHD may not be so real, or at least it is causing too many kids to be over-medicated and “anesthetized” to school
  • we need to work on developing divergent thinking
  • we need to change the way we think of “academic” vs. “non-academic”
  • we need to change schools to make them more of a natural learning environment

I don’t know about his claim that ADHD may or not be a real thing – I thought it was – but I agree that the medications that work for some kids are tragic for so many others, and that they are prescribed to way too many.

The divergent thinking study is too depressing. Basically, kids start out as geniuses, and school makes them dumber, or forces them to forget how to think in that creative way.

He says, “We should be waking them up to what they have inside of themselves” instead of putting them to sleep.” He says, “Collaboration is the stuff of growth.” I like both of these.

I watched this directly before my 9th graders came into my classroom. And things like this, while inspiring on one level, also often have the converse effect on me. How am I, one teacher in one classroom, supposed to successfully teach my students if the whole paradigm of our school system is dysfunctional? I can’t change the whole system. I can’t ignore the standardized tests (whose rise in popularity, he notes in the talk, has coincided with the explosion of ADHD diagnoses). I can’t reorganize all the students in the school so they are grouped by ability instead of by age (which, according to Robinson, is proof of the school system being “modeled on the interests of industralism, and on the image of it….It’s like the most important thing about them is their date of manufacture”). I can’t ignore the bells and the school’s tardy consequences (which he points to as another example of schools being “organized along factory lines”).

But still, with his argument fresh in my mind, as I embarked on some dreadfully boring but collaboratively-agreed-upon grammar exercises, I felt like I did have some significant power to change things up within my own classroom. I saw them sitting their in their ridiculous little desks, and it seemed all wrong. It seemed like one of the things that Robinson says “isn’t because teachers want it this way; it’s just because it happens that way. It’s because it’s in the gene pool of education.”

So it’s not like what I did was so brilliant, but it worked. To review the grammar exercise (identifying subjects and verbs…yay!), I projected the document on the white board and told the whole class to stand up (this was with my small class. For my large class I did this in groups of 10). Each student took a turn identifying the subject or verb with a dry-erase marker while the rest of the group, huddled around them at the front of the room, gave encouragement or advice like they were on “The Price is Right.” It was kinda fun. One student even said, “We should do every grammar exercise like that,” and several others agreed.

And my first instinct was, “No, we can’t do that every time, only once in a while.” And then I thought, why am I saying that? Is that the gene pool of education speaking? Is that a vestige of Industrial Revolution-era, assembly line values?

Here’s one of his TED talks from 2006. And here’s the follow-up.

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