Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Blog Challenge Continues: Wikis, My Sixth Graders, and Me

Sixth grade ELA teacher, Tim Clifford, has been learning by doing, investing time in exploring technology and monitoring how it really works with kids.Tim's focus on the wiki has delighted and impressed his colleagues by the way it can be organized, invite rich student expression, and be incredibly accessible. His wiki is a user-friendly tool for colleagues and students alike. In one way he uses the wiki as a "container," something to house all his resources, his mini lessons, his materials to model and teach by example -- available to both students and teachers. In another way, he has implemented a motivating tool for purposeful student discussion through writing and a sense of community in a friendly place where ideas are appreciated.

Wikis, My Sixth Graders, and Me

Where do your students look when they first enter your classroom? Do they check out the ‘Do Now’, see what’s new on the word wall, or immediately scan the chalk board for the homework? Most of my students still do those things, but on Mondays, they have a new routine. Most of them cast their first glance at a 2’ x3’ white board that I’ve placed in the front of the room, upon which I write the Discussion Question of the Week that will be posted online that evening.

My discussion questions came about as an unintended consequence result of my involvement with wikis. Each of my sixth grade ELA classes has its own wiki, and every student in each class has a page on the wiki. As part the first truly digital generation, my students generally love working online. They post their weekly reading and writing logs there, as well as drafts of their portfolio assignments. Their favorite feature, however, is the discussion boards.

My use of the boards sprang from a classroom discussion of our year-long theme of the hero’s journey. We were discussing our favorite superheroes, and the debate about which hero was the most super generated great interest—so great, in fact, that the discussion was raging on as the bell rang for dismissal. Almost as an afterthought, I told the class they could continue the discussion on their wiki. I would post the question “Who is your favorite movie hero or super hero?” and they could respond that night if they wished. Before long, the question garnered 86 responses and 632 page views. Students debated the relative merits of Superman vs. Batman vs. Wonder Woman and beyond.

Before long, students asked me for a new topic. I didn’t have one, so I asked them to post their own suggestions for topics, and 363 replies later, we had a wealth of new ideas from which to choose. We started with the question “What is your favorite word?” I kicked off the discussion by sharing that my favorite word is “nerd” because it was coined by Dr. Seuss and because I am one. Here are some of the replies I got:

My favorite word is daydream. When I say daydream in my head, it sounds like a flowing word. Dayyyyydreammmm.....”

“My favorite word is ecstatic. It makes me feel alive, jumpy, and hyper. What do you know? Those are my favorite thing to be.”

“My favorite word is nightshade. It kinda sounds evil and it's a poisonous plant. A single berry is deadly.”

Since then, we’ve digitally discussed students’ favorite villains, the merits of our class novel, and whether students prefer reading or writing. I believe my kids have benefited greatly from their weekly discussion questions. They participate with a passion that they are often reluctant to display in class. Often, the shyest students are the most gregarious behind the keyboard.

While there are stumbling blocks to using discussion boards, such as getting students to abandon Internet acronyms and to write in proper English, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks. Students learn to engage in organized discussions and to justify their opinions. Even their online peer editing has benefited from awareness of the need for clarity in commenting on their classmates’ work.

It may seem odd that a 2’ x 3’ white board in my classroom has opened the door to much richer conversations, but it has. Discussion forums give kids a voice and the Internet gives them an audience. It can be a powerful combination for student learning.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Taking the essay challenge: Searching, Skimming, Selection: Teaching our Students how to Navigate the Web

Sixth grade English Language Arts teacher, Marissa Gunyan, decided to take the technology essay challenge. Her thoughtful contribution, "Searching, Skimming, Selection: Teaching Our Students How to Navigate the Web" discusses what 11 year olds do after they are given the well known six word direction: Go Find It On the Internet. 

           Our students are immersed neck-deep in a pool of the newest technologies. As a direct result of this, many adults have adopted the theory that the younger generation is hardwired to understand how technology works; they possess an innate ability to program their iPods, download videos, and create Facebook profiles. And that must be part of the reason why we are facing an educational crisis: as adults, we simply lack the language and skills to required to teach the “digital natives.”
Recently, I signed my mother up for Gmail. The experience left me almost willing to embrace the “digital native” theory. While her ability to use “the email” seems to be improving, she still can’t see the bigger picture. She seems to be completely unaware that the way she communicates with the world, and certainly her 25 year old daughter, has to evolve into a format suited to the electronic era. A new century where people conduct important business online, like paying bills or, in a language she can better understand, printing coupons.
Thankfully, my experiences facilitating a web-based reading program for middle school students have helped me debunk this belief, that there are “digital natives,” and with it, the underlying (very dangerous) assumption that technology is a barrier between teacher and student. In fact, I have found the exact opposite to be true: whether our students sink or swim in the pool is largely determined by how effectively we teach them to use the technology at their fingertips.
Of all the ways in which we can potentially screw up the lives of the students we teach, one ambiguous task stands alone, above the rest. Six simple words that assume our students are experts in an area that we may not be: go find it on the Internet. Such a command is deadly for so many reasons. But you don’t believe me yet. Maybe you even think I’m overreacting, oversensitive, over-caffeinated. And while all of those accusations may be just a little bit true, I ask you to reconsider after reading my example below.
For our instructional purposes, “Go find it on the Internet” can be broken into three separate, equally important, tasks: searching, skimming, and selection. Searching the Internet requires an understanding of key words and lingo as well as the ability to articulate what it is you are looking for in a way that will yield specific results. Think about trying to articulate what you are looking for (a raise) in a way that will yield specific results (your boss thinking you sound smart and actually do work, and ultimately more money in the bank). Perhaps this first task is not as easy as it sounds. Skimming requires equal parts practice and patience; both must operate simultaneously, and eventually automatically. Practice develops speed, patience helps you keep reading when the first (and sometimes twelfth) site is useless. Finally, selection is explicitly tied to evaluation. The ability to judge whether or not what you are reading is, quite simply, crap.
Consider (then try for yourself!) the following example: your sixth graders are compiling research on Martin Luther King’s childhood. The average sixth grader would type those words, exactly as you wrote them, into google. And though the first link, which the average sixth grader would then select, is thankfully somewhat appropriate, it offers little or no information about his actual childhood besides time and place of birth. Teaching your students how to use key words quickly corrects this situation. Entering “Martin Luther King” + “childhood” + “for students” yields very different results, and a first hit that is right on the money.
Let’s think about skimming. In order to decide that very first page was not the one I wanted, I quickly read titles and subtitles, first words and bold words. I was able to find the correct subtitle “childhood and education” but further skimming reveals underlined phrases like “systematic theology”. Continuing to model my thinking in this way, which is abbreviated for the adult audience, can explicitly demonstrate the process of skimming.
The final step, selection, requires the ability to evaluate the information presented which is arguably more challenging than reading subtitles. How do you know what you’ve found is right? Back to Martin Luther King. Your now search savvy sixth graders typed in “Martin Luther King”+”org” + “for students” because you have instructed them that sites ending with “org” are legitimate and that adding “for students” increases the number of age appropriate sites. After successfully skimming subtitles that are geared towards students, the first site listed appears to be a hit.

    Unfortunately, that first page is equally offensive and disgusting. It offensively portrays Martin Luther King as an egotistical, sex-crazed, anti-American communist. It disgustingly markets these ideas to children, by enticing them with rap lyrics, education video, and quizzes. It becomes obvious to adults that the vulgar ideas presented are extreme and unfounded. But to kids? The webmaster does an exceptional job of making the site seem historically accurate with citations, references to various media outlets as well as the Civil Rights Library.

    Teaching our students how to navigate the web becomes more manageable when skills are presented systematically, but not entirely fool-proof. In addition to explicitly modeling for our kids how to search, how to skim, and how to select, we must also teach moral of the story: the Internet is a tool for gathering information, the brain is a tool for analyzing information. 

Let us know what your thoughts are about students searching the internet. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Technology Question

When I was compiling essays for The Pressures of Teaching, I was on the lookout for essays about technology because I knew that technology in the classroom was a source of pleasure – and pressure. A technology teacher promised an essay about the necessity of technology for teaching for the future and not the past. Another teacher submitted an essay regarding his work creating a visual exchange between two schools which crossed urban and suburban lines. Another wrote about how she created all her lessons on power point and had them at the touch of a button.

But digging deeper into conversations with these and other teachers revealed certain pressures: that the availability of technology has changed ever corner of the educational landscape whether its a new found ability to capture student learning in the form of longitudinal data or the way teachers deliver content in the classroom or the way students express their learning. There is the ever present sense hat we know what we’re teaching now or what we are teaching with will be obsolete very quickly; that its nearly impossible to keep up with the what’s new and newly available. There is an internal pressure of looking for the next big thing; to catch the wave, and the right wave, to be the best prepared. And none of this, not one shred of this, is related to the testing movement in which we are compelled to live and teach by.

Technology is transforming the very definition of what it means to be educated. It is changing the definition of literacy.  

Then there are the mounting practical issues of technology use in school that pressures classroom teachers: do schools have enough money to purchase computers or smart phones or I-pads or e-readers and to fund a top to bottom school-wide initiative? And how does a school pay for what may go wrong, the breakage, the loss, equipping a transient population? What do we do when the internet goes down in school, in the middle of a lesson or presentation? Or there's not enough room on the WI FI band? Or if the computer or entire system succumbs to a virus? A power outage? Personnel disputes that have developed over the lack of electrical power in the circuitry?

In my own school, we faced internet interruptions, temperamental WI FI, outdated machines, blown circuits and we didn’t have one or two people to serve as our technology specialists – those who knew what to do when systems or machines went down.

In his essay that appeared in the collection of The Pressures of Teaching, Fred Haas, the technology liaison for the Boston Writing Project, claims schools and businesses operative differently and therefore technology initiatives have a different character. He writes, in his essay, False Starts and Failures: In Search of a New Model for Integrating Technology into the Classroom that schools are not businesses and cannot be run like businesses.

School leaders need to have a system-wide technology vision, something difficult to implement because of the rapidly change availability of applications and software and because funding is often in question or simply not enough to build capacity. Teachers need to be “trained up” as do students. What tasks and projects can students now do with technology that provide meaningful avenues to demonstrate sophisticated critical and creative thinking?

Students need to be trained as well. Recently a group of teachers in my school asked to consider revising the sixth grade curriculum to include instruction on “keyboarding” and creating an e-mail. But by some standards, e-mail is already old technology; those who have been keeping up with changes on Facebook will know that the majority of teenagers now consider e-mail too slow and prefer a hybrid of e-mail with instant messaging. Nonetheless, while teenagers come to school with smart phones, they lack the fuller depth of academic applications.

I was also looking for teachers to write an essay about how cell phones/smart phones had turned the corner schoolyard fist fight into a major brawl by a text gone viral. Or had liberated the bully. Or had given voice to the Mean Generation. Or how cell phones enabled cheating.
At the time I was looking for a teacher to discuss the issues of technology in the classroom, particularly the improper use of Facebook by 11 year olds. I was looking for teachers who, unbeknownst to them, had Facebooks they didn’t create. In my school, sixth graders, were creating unpleasant Facebook pages about teachers, snapping photos of them in classrooms without their knowledge. Suddenly teachers in my school had Facebook pages they didn’t make or authorize or know about. And the new sixth graders had created one for me that alluded to child abuse.

I suppose I should have written that essay myself.

What would your essay have been about?