Month: April 2015

The Power of Student Choice

When we do technological innovation with our students, it is important the we keep the proper objectives in our minds. We want students to learn the content, innovate, collaborate, and think critically. These are absolutes.

That being said, the way they go about it does not matter so much. Does it matter how they do it? Do they all have to create something in the exact same way?

Recently, I had two projects in my classes, one for Frederick Douglass in my ELA class, and the other for the development of the North and South prior to the Civil War. I had been struggling to motivate and excite my students about ThingLink, but with these projects I opted instead to give students the option of using it. In other words, I let them choose the format for creating the project. They could create a ThingLink, an iMovie documentary, a blog post, a tri-fold poster, a Minecraft village, or any other ideas they they had.

The results far exceeded anything I could conceivably create. One pair of students created a professional-quality documentary, while another used a statistical map of the U.S. as the backdrop for a ThingLink. Others created blog posts protesting slavery by using Douglass’ life as evidence of its evils.

To be sure, I doubt that I could motivate every student to create a ThingLink or a village in Minecraft. Some were excited to write blog posts, but many opted out of that. The standards do not require students to master ThingLink or iMovie or Aurasma or Minecraft. Even the ISTE standards promote creativity and collaboration, but not specific apps or products.

In other words, when we learn about a fancy new tool at a conference, not every student will enjoy it, and that’s okay. It is one tool at our disposal, one way to motivate students.

Advertisements

Questioning the Connected Echo Chamber

This week’s #YourEduStory topic is something I’ve been mulling over for quite some time: Connected Educators sometimes tend to create an echo chamber. I find this most notably on Twitter, where 140 characters and easy contact helps to create a space where everyone agrees with one another, and if they don’t, conversations can quickly escalate into heated arguments.

There are three areas in which I don’t agree with the EduTwitterverse:

  1. Compliance is not the enemy.
  2. Teachers must be given the devices first, and then their hunger must be developed.
  3. There are times when students should put their devices away.

Before you argue with any of my opinions, please take a moment to hear me out:

What is the opposite of compliance? The easy answer some people give can be critical thinking, creativity, or empowerment. But I don’t think that is necessarily true. I believe that the true opposite of compliance is anarchy, which is an environment that does not promote student learning. Now I am not talking about controlled chaos or perceived chaos that is ultimately ordered. (“Oh my gosh! All the students are doing different activities!”) By anarchy, I mean, “Wow, I don’t feel safe in this classroom. Let me get out of here!”

It is important for teachers–even dedicated 21st century educators–to maintain control over the environment. By control, I do not mean that teachers need to regulate every single action of students, but to create a safe environment for learning, risk-taking, and the ability to allow students to work on a wide variety of activities.

To be sure, many teachers simply create activities and lessons that are not centered on student learning, where the only goals are silence and obedience. This is wrong. Some teachers also make homework and classwork a large portion of the grade in order to ensure that students do it. This is also wrong. This is not pedagogy that is focused on student learning; it is an example of teachers attempting to use the grade book like a sword. I do not support these forms of compliance whatsoever.

Secondly, there is always a debate on Twitter between which is better: show teachers the possibilities of tech and make them hungry for the devices, or give them devices first and then make them hungry. I firmly believe that the devices should come first.

Why do I believe this? Because I have seen teachers time and time again tune out when they are at a professional development session, and they realize that they cannot apply what they have learned from a presentation without the technology. Instead of “igniting a fire,” it merely gives teachers a reason to be mad at administration for not providing technology for the latest initiative.

I will provide an analogy to prove this point: I cannot possibly afford to go to Disneyland. It’s roughly $100 per person per day, plus hotel, plus food, plus transportation, etc. Therefore, I do not get excited about Disneyland at all. Why would I bother? I can’t afford it. In a similar vein, teachers who don’t have tech often will not get excited about it.

What’s more, most PD sessions are graded on the idea of “Day One.” That is, a good speaker must present an idea that can be implemented the very next day. That way, teachers can take the idea and immediately begin using it in the classroom. If not, the knowledge will soon be forgotten. If we try to inspire teachers before they even get devices, they will likely forget everything by the time the devices are introduced to the classroom.

Lastly, there is an idea around educational technology circles that students should be able to access their devices at any given point during the day for any reason. If a student is distracted, that is completely the teacher’s fault for making a lesson disengaging or uninspiring.

While it is true that technology requires teachers to design better and more engaging lessons (and that we can’t nor shouldn’t simply punish our students into paying attention), I believe that there are times that students need to put devices away. I teach in a Catholic school, and we have morning prayer. It is inappropriate for students to be watching YouTube videos or playing 2048 when we are doing prayer (and we cannot simply make prayer so exciting that they will magically want to pay attention). I also feel that if I am talking to the class for a brief interval (5 minutes max), they need to put devices away to avoid the distraction.  To be clear, I do allow technology for the vast majority of my class time. I simply feel that technology (as with most things in life) comes with limits.

This brings us to the point of this exercise: how can I prevent Twitter from becoming the echo chamber? I believe that the best way I can do this is by questioning others. If they feel that students should be able to have devices on at all times, then how would they handle times when we do need whole-class attention? If someone advocates “hunger first,” then how would he or she handle teachers who complain about the lack of access. Turning Twitter into a heated argument doesn’t persuade anyone; it merely gets everyone angry with each other.

That being said, if you disagree with any of my thoughts, please feel free to tell me why. I welcome comments and blog posts that provide differing opinions.

They will help us from becoming lifelong members of any echo chamber.

The Joy of Pinterest

Recently, I had been searching for a place where I could get great ideas from others and could save articles and posts for future reading. I had been tinkering with Diigo and EduClipper, but I didn’t have much success.

I then sought advice from Jon Samuelson, who recommended Listly as a resource, and he also recommended Pinterest.

Pinterest?

No way. Pinterest is not for me. I’m not interested in recipes or wedding planning, so I can’t possibly get any use out of it. And even then, how can I even use it? It seems like a weird, cryptic site that eludes understanding.

And yet… I trust Jon Samuelson, so I decided to give it a shot.

I was pleasantly surprised.

I began creating boards that fit my educational interests (Educational Technology, Apps for Education, etc.). I would find articles or blog posts that fit those categories, and I began pinning them to those boards. The Pinterest Chrome extension makes this very easy to do. I also sought out some of my PLN members and began following them and their boards.

The result: when I go to my Pinterest homepage, I am bombarded with ideas that are relevant and useful to me. I don’t need to search anywhere to get great ideas and excellent resources.

Screen Shot 2015-04-02 at 10.03.36 PM

Pinterest is exactly what I was seeking: a place where I could share excellent resources with others and easily find resources that I can use.

Go ahead. Try it out. You might just be surprised.

Why I Love Curriculet

Recently, I attended the CUE Conference, and I worked in Curriculet’s booth. I extolled the virtues of Curriculet to passersby and demonstrated its merits.

So why do I love it? And what is it?

Curriculet is an online digital reading platform. It has many great features: scaffolding supports to aid reading (including text, images, and video), questions that pop up to assess student learning (these are both multiple-choice and free-response), and it tracks how quickly students read (or whether or not they finish). These annotations almost always come with the online books, but teachers can always edit these annotations (or create them from scratch). These books are available from an online library, with almost every classic available for free. Curriculet also offers a new USA Today feature, where the most current USA Today articles are available with these annotations.

However, there are other programs that offer these same products and features, most notably Actively Learn and Subtext. I believe that Curriculet stands out for two reasons.

First of all, unlike Subtext, any teacher can use it with his or her students instantly. It is the ultimate “Day One” product. Go in, create an account, give your students a class code, and they are in. What’s more, the classics are free. This is a great tool for high school English teachers who want to give students some extra assistance in reading difficult novels.

Secondly, the layout of Curriculet is far superior to the layout of Actively Learn. Actively Learn looks like books have been transposed onto blog posts, while Curriculet feels much more like a book. Perhaps more importantly, the annotations are tucked neatly to the side, which do not distract the reader until it is time to view the annotations.

Screen Shot 2015-04-01 at 9.58.07 PMScreen Shot 2015-04-01 at 10.00.05 PM

The annotations in Actively Learn are posted directly into the reading, which makes it difficult to focus on the text itself. I believe that these features make Curriculet a much better product and a better choice for middle and high school English teachers.

As I said before: individual teachers can sign up and create accounts. Thus, teachers can sign up tomorrow and get started.

What are you waiting for???

The Joy of PD

Recently, two California greats Scott Bedley and Karl Lindgren-Streicher have taken up a discussion on the value of professional development and conferences. Scott’s post is here and Karl’s post is here. They are both brilliant posts that speak to the triumphs and shortcomings of educational conferences.

I think that many of us have had that experience when were first exposed to educational technology when we realized that there were tons of resources, strategies, and tools at our disposal. We were overwhelmed and overawed at what we could accomplish with what was out there, and we were left astounded. As time went by, however, we adapted to these tools and learned to successfully navigate the tools at our disposal (at which point, pedagogy–not technology–became our focus).

When this saturation point hits people, the conferences become less exciting, less thrilling, and easier to comprehend. Technologically competent teachers feel comfortable with a wide array of apps, websites, and extensions and don’t feel a thrill with many of the sessions at a conference or feel a need to see everything. In a sense, the conferences can become dull.

This then begs a question: are these conferences any less valuable? Can we as more technologically competent educators (not that I am in any way in Karl’s or Scott’s level of proficiency) gain anything from large conferences like CUE or ISTE? If none of the sessions genuinely excite us, is there any point in attending?

I believe the answer is a definitive yes.

I believe that all teachers have to work really hard to get through the days and weeks of the school year. We might innovate and try new things, but we can only try so many things at one time. We might know of other new tools or strategies, but we have to put those on the back-burner as we can only do so many things at one time. Conferences are a time and place where we can take time to reflect on those ideas that have been simmering. I had heard about Adobe Voice many times before going to Scott’s session at CUE, but it gave me a chance to dive in and try it firsthand. Aurasma has been on my iPad for months, but a session at SVCUE by Anne Schaefer-Salinas and Rebecca Girard gave me the time to play with the app and really try it out. Mark Hammons‘ session on iMovie at CUE showed me things about the app that I hadn’t previously known. This time has given me the time and space to try new things and to discuss new ideas. These ideas can come from actual sessions, but they don’t need to. After the first day of CUE, I had a conversation in a bar with Moss Pike about how to run a Minecraft server for a fraction of the cost of purchasing Minecraft for the school. These brief discussions (called by some “HallwayCUEs) are often more valuable than any official presentations at conferences. I also believe that these informal talks can best happen in face-to-face conversations. Yes, we can discuss ideas over Twitter or Voxer, but sometimes we need the real interaction to fully grasp these new and innovative ideas.

And this–more than any official fifty-minute talk in a room–is why I enjoy conferences and believe in their potential.