Month: October 2014

The Joy of Getting Away

I generally live, breathe, and think education 24 hours a day. When I am at home, I am usually on Twitter or reading education blog posts. I often bring home work and do it in my free time.

This past weekend, however, I did not.

My family and I got away to a cabin at Lake Tahoe, and education rarely crossed my brain. My six-year-old and I worked on a 500-piece jigsaw puzzle. For two days, this was the focus of our lives, and when we finished, we had a sense of achievement. It was very refreshing to do something difficult that had nothing whatsoever to do with work or education.

These times are fun, but it’s also essential for our work. Most practitioners of cognitive science argue that it is essential that we take time away from our work to achieve insights and epiphanies. If we never separate ourselves from our work, we risk losing those great innovative moments when breakthroughs occur. We also must take steps to ensure that we prevent burnout before it is too late.

To be sure, we can’t step away too much. If we never struggle with an issue, or we never think of education outside of work hours, we will fail to think creatively and bring new insights to the classroom. Nevertheless, it is important to take time now and then to get away from it all.

Besides, how chances will I get to solve a 500-piece puzzle with my six-year-old?


Empathy Maps and Vivid Discussions

Last week, I tried some new ideas. Students did a two-day activity called empathy maps for the Britain and the Colonies, where they had to analyze how each side viewed the conflicts of the 1760s and 1770s, what they thought and felt, their prospective gain, and their possible pain. It was a great way to incorporate cooperative learning and keeping students engaged on the task at hand. After they had completed, they posted their maps on the classroom walls and viewed everyone’s work.

I then wanted to take a few minutes to debrief and allow students to share their reactions to their own work and the work of their classmates. I wanted to review what each side would see, hear, think, and feel during the turbulent 1760s and 1770s.

However, we didn’t have time to design a Socratic Circle or have students generate questions. Predictably, I had the same four or five students participating. This has always been a challenge for me, and I had to think quickly to elicit more participation.

An idea suddenly popped into my head: ask other students what they thought of the previous student’s comment. I had done in previous years, but this time, I did so in a completely unthreatening way. I did not ask in a way that said, “why aren’t you participating?” I asked in a way that said, “I am curious to hear what you have to say.”

When I called on a student to ask what he or she thought about the previous student’s comment, the student agreed without adding anything or questioning anything. On that level, this experiment didn’t yield any fruit. Surprisingly, however, it resulted in many more hands being raised and more eager participation.

Why was this? Perhaps it was because I was modeling for students that I was curious to hear what they had to say, rather than merely getting angry for not participating (which is what I have typically done in the past).

In the end, I don’t really know why it worked. But does it matter? Is there anything better than seeing people eager to participate in a class discussion?

The Skill of Questioning

This past summer, per a recommendation of Moss Pike, I read A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger.

The book describes the importance and value of questioning and how inquiry can lead to innovation and breakthrough. In a sense, Berger argues that we need less of skill ideology and more of good questioning. His book is replete of examples from the business world of how questioning can make a huge difference 21st century companies.

As I read the book, it was painfully clear that questioning would have to be essential for my future growth as a teacher. I have tried many times to have good class discussions, usually with little or no success. I had heard that having students come up with discussion questions would increase student engagement. This did work–with some success–but I found that the students’ questions did not meet my level of expectations. Berger deals with this very issue, because he enumerates a step-by-step process on how to get students to create and develop good questions. Essentially, students create questions, choose the best ones, and improve them.

I started using this process with class discussions and driving questions in Project-Based-Learning. It has already been very successful. The process has led to much better focus during project time and higher engagements during discussions. The students have done two things: take ownership of the learning process and create really good questions. One question the class developed for the novel Johnny Tremain was, “Do you think Johnny [who is an orphan adopted by a silversmith family] longs to have a real family?” I would have never created this on my own, nor would I have been inspired by it. However, this question led to a great discussion, which wouldn’t have happened with a question I had created.

I can’t do this book justice. Get it. Buy it. Read it.

Do you Kahoot?

Last month, I first heard about a quiz / game website called Kahoot. The way it works is simple: the teacher creates quizzes, and students answer questions on computers or devices. There is a time limit for each question, and students get points for answering them correctly and quickly. The less time it takes to answer correctly, the more points students earn. At the end of the game, students see a list of top-earners.

With many educational tools and strategies, we often wonder if students will like it, or what will happen if we don’t do it absolutely correctly. When I started using Kahoot, I was blown away by how much my students bought into it. They all get very excited and try to earn the most points in the class. (I often award Classcraft XP points to the game’s champion)

I have used it as a formative assessment tool, but I also like to use it if the class has been doing some intensive, quiet work an extended stretch of time, and the kids need a break. It allows them to participate and be excited while also staying focused on class material.

It takes some legwork creating quiz questions, but the site currently has 415,700 free quizzes (by the time you read this, it will probably be higher) that you can easily use with your students.

I delayed using it for the first few weeks, but in retrospect, I wish I had started earlier. What’s stopping you?

The Effect of Comments

The renowned German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once said, “God is in the details.”

I sometimes think about that quote and how it impacts us as teachers. Sometimes one seemingly insignificant detail is the difference between triumph and failure. That one little thing can make a huge difference in a lesson or even a child’s life.

One critical detail is the importance of comments in Google Docs. In the past, I had guided students in their revisions by simply writing in the middle of the document. I would make it clear that it was my writing by using either capital letters or a different font color (or both). Students could then change their writing based on what I had written. Unfortunately, my students often disregarded what I had to say and neglected to improve their writing.

Lately, however, I realized that it was time for me to go ahead and use the well-known comments feature of Google Docs. It surprised me how this small difference–I was giving the same feedback–made a big difference in the students’ reactions. They were excited to get comments, and they often replied with humorous responses. I was absent yesterday, but I was still able to comment, and some students used the opportunity to say hello. I also noticed a change in the quality of the students’ writing: students were much more likely to follow my suggestions and take steps to improve the quality of their writing.

I have also noticed the value of giving this feedback in class when they are writing. The real-time aspect of comments keeps them engaged and much more likely to follow the advice I give. When I gave feedback away from the writing time, it often got ignored. The effect of instantaneous feedback is real and potent.

The bottom line: details matter.

My Time at CapCUE TechFest

Everything was going great. We woke up nice and early, hit smooth traffic for the entire two-hour trip, and I was on-time to the Conference a full 45 minutes before I had to present. No problems at all.

Until I realized that nobody was there, except for some football and basketball players.

I checked my phone and then realized that I had accidentally told my wife to drop me off at Natomas High School instead of Natomas Charter School. I called her, but she was already on the way to the zoo with the kids. My blood pressure started to rise.

Then I thought, “They’re both called Natomas, so they much be close to each other!” I checked my phone. Natomas Charter was a one-hour walk away (2.9 miles), and I had 45 minutes to get there. At that point, I realized that there was only one thing I could do. Run. With a laptop, an iPad, a full water bottle, and two chargers. In the Sacramento heat.

It wasn’t easy, but by the grace of God, I made it on-time to present on Genius Hour with minutes to spare. I learned my lesson: double-check the location when looking at directions!

I presented on Genius Hour and Assessment Tools. I feel like my presentations were okay, but I am not entirely satisfied with them. Revisions are already underway so I can give attendees a better learning experience. I am planning on awarding badges for participants who are able to create activities or accounts on the spot. Research is underway to see if others have created more innovative way to use various tools in order to give attendees the latest and greatest information.

In many ways, I hope to improve my next presenting experience, including getting the location right.

Classcraft in the Classroom

This year, I tried many new things. I flipped for the first time. I revamped my ELA teaching. Oh, I’m also a part-time administrator now. I have had plenty on my plate.

I also planned on trying one new thing: gamification. I had heard about a game called Classcraft from Timonious Downing at EdCamp Home over the summer. I was intrigued, but I didn’t quite know how much I wanted to follow through with it. I signed up, and I loaded my students, but after the first few days of school, I considered backing out for the year. I was pretty overwhelmed as it was, and was it really worth it to add one more change to the mix?

I stuck it out, and I am glad I did.

Let me preface this by saying that I am not using Classcraft to its maximum potential. I haven’t really created a good system for when to take away Health Points (HP) and when to reward with Experience Points (XP). My rewards and punishments tend to be a little arbitrary, and I need to find a more consistent system and enter those actions into the preset point systems. I don’t always remember to do what is called an “Event of the Day,” which is a random event generator which can cover everything from everyone earning XP to having a random student sing in front of the class.

That being said, my students LOVE it. They get excited about finding ways to heal in order to gain XP. They are excited about getting coins. (How do they get coins? Don’t ask me!) They get excited to gain XP to level up.

Most importantly, I have been able to use it to develop student learning and engagement in the classroom. If students are off-task on their iPads, I am able to take away HP, and if students are taking a long time transitioning to an assignment, I begin rewarding students who are on-task and who are doing good work. Once I start doing this, the rest of the class gets on-task immediately. Students get excited to earn XP for their entire group, which encourages collaboration. This alone has proven to me how effective it is in the classroom, and why I am very glad to use it as one of my teaching tools.

That being said, I’m looking forward to honing my Classcraft skills and becoming more adept at using it effectively. If I’ve had this much success with barely using it, it must be a good product, and I look forward to further learning it in the months to come.

Backchannel Boo Yah!

Last week, I finally tried a new idea. I heard from multiple sources that Todaysmeet, an online chat website, could be used as a backchannel during class. One appealing idea was to use it with Socratic Circles. The idea of a Socratic Circle is to have two circles of students, one inner circle and one outer circle. The inner circle discusses a question or a series of questions, while the outer circle analyzes the discussion. With Todaysmeet, the outer circle analyzes the discussion in real-time, and in some cases, the online discussion can be projected onto a screen in the front of the room.

I went ahead with this last week, and it was a great success. I posted the discussion onto our Smart board so all students could see the discussion unfold. Everyone was totally engaged with the discussion and posted frequently on the backchannel. Those in the middle were startled to see analysis posted while they were talking. I was shocked by the fact that I didn’t need to tell anyone to stay on Todaysmeet or pay attention to the discussion, which I would have surely done without the backchannel.

I did learn that I have to work on online discussion skills with the students. There were plenty of times where the comment “I like what Jonathan had to say” was repeated by may students. I also want students in the outer ring to directly engage in the conversation by questioning those in the inner circle, rather than act like spectators.

Nevertheless, this tool gives me a great place to start.