Monday, October 24, 2011

7th Grade Reliability

Want to get a 7th grader's attention? Tell them Google doesn't speak English. That's what we talked about all of last week, which seemed to work pretty well. At least, when my Monday class came in today, they could all tell me what language Google spoke (keywords). Today, we took the foundation of choosing relevant keywords to search for topics and applied it to looking at the websites that are on the resulting search list.

Despite some pretty non-fantastic behavior by a few of the classes, they actually seemed to think through the concept of trustworthiness of a source pretty well (a lesson previous generations never really had to learn). After a discussion of the types of domains that exist, key things to look for on a website, and not to believe everything just because it's online,  I sent them off to find reliable sources on some fairly opinionated topics.

It took me forever to find things to have them search for to examine reliability. The reason for this is that when I considered how I find reliable websites, I realized that I based my decisions on the source that I am looking at. That's great if you know that the Huffington Post or The Guardian are news organizations or that is not a particularly great source. Most of the websites that they would be looking at, they have no way to know if it's true or not, just based on lack of life experience. And, I can't just give them a list and say, here, memorize it, which would be totally ineffective. I can't even tell them things like don't trust blogs ( has tons of news blogs) or don't trust wikis (Wikipedia is more trustworthy than print encyclopedias).

So, I spent AGES looking for topics to search for that would have some reliable sources and some not so reliable that the kids might be mildly interested in. What I eventually ended up going with were these questions (they had to be in question form so kids had to choose keywords), "Why is there a drug war in Mexico?" and, "Is the president doing a good job?" This brought a variety of types of sources, including opinions, answer sources, news coverage, junk, and more.

Then, I walked around and asked everyone whether or not the website they were looking at was reliable and how they knew it was. Apparently this was a good line of questioning, because it was pretty clear who knew whether or not it was a reliable source. Some of the reasons given for something to be reliable:

-It uses lots of references to outside sources (Wikipedia)
-It has a lot of news information and covers things from all over the world (Washington Post)
-The author is an expert because she has been interviewed by major non-profit organizations (National Geographic)
-The author is listed as a professor/Dr. in a related area of study
-It is described as an encyclopedia (Wikipedia)
-I recognize the news source (CNN, CBS, etc.)
-"Times"/"Post" labels tell me it's a news organization (LA Times, Huffington Post)
and my favorite reason:
-My mom uses this to look things up (Wikipedia).
     I told her this was a good reason, because if you don't know whether to trust something, ask someone you trust if they trust it. Not always a guarantee, but a good starting point.

I also had one particularly perceptive student ask whether or not Facebook was a reliable source, so we spent some time discussing how it is a great source if you are looking for an opinion poll of a bunch of people, or if you want opinion quotes from normal people for some sort of article, but that you wouldn't want to use it as a hard source for an academic report of any sort. We also spent some time talking about whether or not it's good to use a manufacturer website as a source (yes if you want facts about the product, no if you want unbiased descriptions/opinions/reviews, etc.)

So, lots of interesting discussion. I'm excited to see if the rest of this week's 7th graders keep up the good work!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Things I've Learned Teaching Technology

While teaching technology is not always my first job choice, (as opposed to using technology to teach content), I have learned a few things along that way that have made me a better tech teacher, I think. Many of these apply to any age to which you're teaching a new technology.

Do you have any others to add to the list?

1. Pacing is everything. You have to constantly be aware of when the learners have reached the tipping point and can't take in any new information. There are 2 ways to know when they have reached this point: glazed eyes and/or a look of general amazement that says, "Wow, there's so much you can do, and I'm not going to remember any of this tomorrow!" or when you start to see frustrated/bewildered looks and noises (hands thrown up, head hanging, abuse of the computer, etc.). The other day I had to intentionally slow down when I heard a student say, "What?! I'm completely lost!"

2. Assume nothing. Do not assume that a skill is so basic that everyone already knows it. Spell out every detail, or at least verbally verify that they do know a prerequisite skill. (I actually learned this lesson teaching swimming lessons to 4 year olds. As it turns out, you have to teach them to hold on to the edge, because otherwise they'll go under water and that that's a bad thing!) Every time I click and drag, I explain exactly how I do it so it doesn't look like magic. "Click on the image, hold the left mouse button down and keep doing so while you move the mouse over here. You should be able to see the image moving with the mouse. Then when the mouse is where you want the image, let go." The only thing you want to assume is that at least one person in the group doesn't know the basic skill behind what you're actually trying to teach.

3. Be calm. People who are not familiar with computers or a specific program all assume one thing: "If I click on the wrong thing, it will destroy everything." [In this case, "everything" is assumed to be either the document, the entire program or the whole computer.] Hence, it is with great trepidation that people try new things on computers. So, when the tiniest unexpected thing happens, people panic. (This is true of kids and adults.) The best thing the instructor can do at this point is to be calm and reassure them that not only did they not destroy anything, but that it is virtually impossible for them to destroy anything. Sometimes people also panic when everyone else is ahead of them (they think). In this case, a lot of times, the best thing you can do is to bring them up to speed with everyone else (even if you have to do it for them), because otherwise their panic will drown out any new information you're trying to give them. Calmness is the key to helping them keep up and continue to learn.

4. It's ok if you forget. Especially when I am teaching a new software, I am very intentional about telling  people that it is ok if they forget the specific steps for what we are talking about. (I usually bring this up about the point where people are starting to panic or get the dazed, overwhelmed look.) I don't tell them this because I'm teaching useless information. I tell this this because all they need to remember is that the software can do that particular thing. If they don't remember what button to click or which menu it's under, that's ok. As long as they remember that it has that capability, all they need to do is find someone who knows a bit more than you do to help you find it (or Google it :-)) I think that this is important for people to hear, particularly people who aren't very familiar with computers; i.e., the people who want to write down the steps for each new skill. If they know they don't need to remember every step, they are far less likely to panic, and far less likely to miss valuable instruction because they are writing down every step for something 2 skills back.

5. As a teacher, make use of the other students. I'm pretty sure I spend at least 40-50% of every school day repeating the words, "Help the person next to you if they're stuck or if they're not there yet." (This will probably be the first words my child learns to say, given that he/she will have heard it so many times in utero!) In most classes, at least half the participants should be able to keep up with you. After every set of instructions, give time to complete, then remind those who are keeping up to help those who are stuck.  This helps the confused individuals feel like they're not slowing down the class, makes those who are keeping up feel good about themselves, AND (most importantly) it saves the teacher from having to speak with every person individually to make sure they are in the right place.

Hm. As it turns out, things that help when teaching technology are just plain good teaching skills. Who knew? :-) There are a few more things I've learned teaching tech, but I will save those for future posts.

[Note: Handing out the comic depicted here from xkcd will NOT make you a good tech teacher, but it will make all the computer people you know laugh :-)]

[The error message above comes from a hilarious website that lets you make your own error messages. It is hysterical; I'd highly advise checking it out for some good belly laughs :-)]

Friday, October 7, 2011

Student Thoughts

I was on Twitter the other day, where I do NOT waste time, I learn things. Seriously. There, I ran across this post recapping some of the things students said on the "Voices of the Nation" segment of NBC's Education Nation. As I read through the items, so many thoughts were flying through my head that I was literally talking out loud to myself. In an empty room. Here are a few of my reflections on some of the student comments. [All student quotes from the panel are in italics.]

1. On critical thinking: "I have to critically think in college, but your tests don't teach me that." 
Yes!!! This is unequivocally true. First of all, good for colleges for still forcing kids to think hard. Elementary and high schools have largely lost their right to teach critical thinking. Testing has exhausted our time and energy for finding ways to show kids how to problem-solve, the most critical (and most common) skill needed for successfully navigating society today. Kids recognize how important this is too: "We do tests to make teachers look good and the school look good, but we know they don't help us to learn what's important to us." 

2. On caring educators: "I can't learn from you if you are not willing to connect with me," and "Caring about each student is more important than teaching the class." 
I see this on a daily basis. Kids need to know teachers care. It doesn't matter how you go about teaching the class, how much content you cover in a day, or even how you do discipline. If kids know you care, they will work with you and for you. We, as adults know what it's like to work for someone who doesn't care about you, and we don't expect them to. However, when we DO get to work for or with someone who honestly cares about us, it makes all the difference in the world. The same thing goes for kids. Even tiny things go a long way. Every time I tell kids good luck on a soccer game, ask them about their weekend, compliment their hair, or show them that I understand even just a tiny portion of who they are, they almost literally light up. In another student's words, "You need to love a student before you can teach a student." 

3. On staying current: "We appreciate when you connect with us in our worlds, such as the teacher who provided us with extra help using Xbox and Skype," and "Us youth love all the new technologies that come out. When you acknowledge this and use technology in your teaching, it makes learning much more interesting." 
Teaching in a way that seems relevant to students means they hear the content, not your methodology. When I was a kid, film strips were old technology, but teachers continued using them. Thinking back on those film strips, I don't ever remember thinking about what I was seeing. What I do remember is thinking how old film strips were, how dangerous the machine seemed, the noise it made, how scratchy the sound and picture was, etc. The same thing happens today. When we ask students to take out a textbook and read information that was written 13 years ago, they don't take in the content. They take in the medium and it's limitations, compared to what they know exists today. However, when we can, for example, show a 3 minute clip from NASA's Youtube channel describing the phases of the moon, we have at least eliminated the barrier of the medium. We must stay current.

4. On the futures of students: "Tell me something good that I'm doing so that I can keep growing in that." I keep learning this lesson over and over again, especially teaching junior high. It is literally our job as educators to highlight areas of students' strength. They may not even realize they have talent in that area. Or if they do, they may have never considered that it could be a possible career down the road. If we don't tell them, no one else will. Kids may not listen to their parents, because of the age-old reason: "You're my mom, you have to say that!" However, kids respect an impartial adult's opinion who interacts with them on a daily basis.  Hearing a teacher encourage them in an area where they show aptitude and passion is a strong motivational factor for kids. Not only should we encourage them in the area of a dream, but we should help get them closer to those dreams. Field trips, articles, video clips, news items, etc., all help encourage students in the direction of their future.  As another student said, "Every young person has a dream. Your job is to help bring us closer to our dreams."

5. On electives: "Bring the electives that we are actually interested in back to school. Things like drama, art, cooking, music." We never bothered to ask students what they thought about removing all areas other than test prep from the curriculum. Students know these are all important parts of life that many will not get a chance to learn any other way. When I used to teach in the regular classroom, I always liked cooking with the kids. They loved it, used all sorts of other skills, and I always saw a side of them I didn't see otherwise. Many were crushed when our school setting changed so that they would no longer be allowed to take a cooking class. Now, when I'm out on the playground with my Photojournalism students taking pictures, younger students come up and ask what my kids are doing. When I tell them, they ask with big, hopeful eyes, "So I'll be able to take that when I'm in 8th grade too?" I always feel a little twinge when I say yes, because there is a very real possibility that something as "frivolous" as this will also be ripped out of the curriculum, in favor of another intervention or enrichment course of some sort.

6. On student opinions: "Education leaders, teachers, funders, and policy-makers need to start listening to student voice in all areas, including teacher evaluations." I know there are many logistical issues with this suggestion, but in terms of teacher evaluations, it's not a bad idea. Kids aren't experts on much, but one thing they spend the first 20 years of their lives examining is teachers. While they may not know the education terminology, they know a good teacher when they see one. They know which teachers care about them, which teachers are passionate about the subject the teach, and which teachers are firm and expect much, (but only because it is best for the kids). I recently had an evaluator say that he had asked students their opinion of me and my class. Luckily, they had good things to say about me :-) At first though, I was a bit taken aback that he had considered this at least a little bit in my evaluation process. However, then I realized that (at least by junior high), kids know who is being fair and educating them to the best of their ability. If a teacher looks like they're doing an excellent job for an evaluator, but the kids are bored to tears, seething, offended, or asleep, something is not right. Students are the true experience-ers of a teacher, they deserve some chance to give their opinion. All post high-school courses in and out of official education centers require a student evaluation of the instructor. Why shouldn't younger students have the same opportunity?

If you're interested to hear more about what kids think, ASK them about it, and ask them why!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mobile Photo Blog

This week, after reviewing some of the basic photo techniques (zooming in, rule of thirds-see my example below, not centering things, etc.) one girl asked if she could show me a picture she took with her phone, which she wasn't supposed to have on in class. Needless to say, I said yes because it was a clear furthering of the educational process in this case. And, lo and behold, she showed me a beach picture she had taken that was a perfect example of the rule of 1/3s!

I had already been thinking that I really ought to find some way to leverage the camera phones and iPod Touches the kids already have with the classroom focus on photography skills, but as I thought about this student's great photo, I knew exactly what I wanted to do: Through a micro-blogging service (such as Posterous or Tumblr), create an 8th grade Mobile Photojournalism blog, in which students could text or email in pictures to the site. Both of these sites are excellent ways to have kids put their work online nearly instantly. All they do is email their writing, image, video, or sound to a specific address and it's posted immediately (though you can set it up with pre-approval by the blog administrator required, which I had planned to do).

The only problem was that as I was setting up this blog, I realized that neither of the services I was planning on using allowed texting photos into the blog. This is a critical difference, because many of my students have cell phones, but few have smart phones that can send an email. (In fact, most of the kids don't have email addresses because they don't see the point.) The email address wouldn't be a problem to create; the wrong kind of phone is a problem.

So, now I'm not sure what I want to do. It seemed like such a great idea, but now I'm stuck because I don't know how to make it work. Yes, I could have them text my phone the pictures and I could forward them to an email, but I am NOT one of those teachers who give out their cell phone numbers to students. I could have them each make their own accounts on the blog service, but that would mean they'd have to know how to get their images from the phone to another computer and I don't have time to help kids with 50 different phones figure this out. So, if anyone out there has any good suggestions on how to make something like this work, it would really help me out! Sometime, an unfulfilled idea is extremely frustrating! (Sort of like when you think of the exact food you want to eat, but you're out of a key ingredient.) Let me know your ideas!

Beginning of the Year Observations

A few random observations from the first 2 or 3 weeks of school this year:

With my 8th grade Photojournalism students, I've implemented a photo of the day, in which every class starts by analyzing an interesting picture and identifying interesting, different, notable features. I knew this would be good practice for them, in terms of looking at (and taking) photos critically, but I've been impressed with the amount of participation I've had with it, as well as the interesting observations. For instance in this picture, they all thought it looked like a tornado was coming (mind you, none of them have ever seen a tornado. This is Arizona people!) A few others noted that it was odd that there were only 3 houses (because when you're in the city, 3 unsurrounded houses is unheard of). One day, when I didn't have the image up on the board right away, one girl asked me if we could please look at a picture and talk about it :-)

This was another picture I used with the 8th graders and 7th grade computer students. I used it to discuss symbolism, and how different items in a picture can create unique symbolism. In this case, we talked about what the White House is a symbol of, and what fences represent and how those contrast each other. When asking students for other examples of symbolism, it was really fascinating to see the different levels of brain development. For what the White House symbolizes, the 8th graders came up with things like freedom, power, justice, etc. The 7th graders said things like, the President, laws, Congress, etc. When they had to come up with their own examples, many 7th graders said a stop sign was a symbol. Clearly their developmental understanding of something concrete representing a very abstract idea isn't quite there yet. A good thing for me to remember at the beginning of the year.

As most teachers do, I spent my first session with each class going over the rules. However, since school started on a Wednesday and I like to start new content on Mondays, I had 3 days to kill during the second week, so everyone practiced keyboarding. Especially with 7th grade, I was absolutely shocked at how much they enjoyed the typing practice and games that I had them play. One student asked why we were teaching them this "fancy typing." Of course, this was after we had already discussed that virtually every kind of job these days would be easier if you knew how to type, so I thought of a couple additional examples to convince him :-) I always know a lesson is successful when kids ask for paper to write down the website so they can practice at home, and that definitely happened several times that week :-)

One of the things each class did during the first session was to read and sign a tech class contract. However, before they signed, we had a big discussion about what situations people sign contracts in. Inevitably, someone in every class came up with a cell phone contract (which I hadn't initially thought of). So then we discussed what would happen if they signed a cell phone contract without knowing that the payment was going to go up after several months and how they would be legally bound to pay it since they'd signed the contract. Needless to say, since this is in the near future for many of them, I had their attention. Yet again, it showed me how if you can find a situation that is relevant to kids right NOW, they will pay attention. Too bad those examples aren't always easy to find!

As usual, I forget how much kids keep me on my toes, coming up with things I never would have thought of. That's what keeps it interesting! :-)

Monday, August 29, 2011

Accessibility for the Visually Impaired and Computer Geeks

Whew! After a June full of educational technology with district work, a July full of pregnancy and relaxing, and August full of school starting, I've finally regained enough momentum to blog again!

In addition to the many observations the beginning of every new school year brings for me, I have been forced into new learning. As we all know, given the option, most of us will continue to do things the way we've always done them until something comes along and forces us out of the way. Such is the occurrence in my teaching right now. (I am again teaching 7th grade Computers and 8th grade Photojournalism.) Last year, I had a 7th grader who was blind, and I had a heck of a time trying to accomodate for him, though I did try (with varying degrees of success). A major part of the challenge was that he used a PC and all the rest of the kids used Macs.

However, in 7th grade this year, I have another blind student who is very interested in sticking with the Mac laptops all the rest of his classmates use, and another who is visually impaired, but not completely blind. At the request of this last student's visual-impairment teacher, I finally sat down and did some research into what the accessibility features were on the Mac, including keyboard shortcuts for zooming the screen and enlarging the cursor. Part of me was also quite curious about the use of a PC because his teacher maintained that it had a better accessibility functions than Macs. Being a Mac-believer, I had reason to doubt this, and finally went hunting to find out.

First of all, as it turns out, Mac's Voiceover program appears to be just as capable as comparable Windows programs, and with only a few sets of keys to memorize, you can be up and on your way.  For instance, command+F5 turns on the Voiceover program, which then reads any items currently on the screen. (Side note: Apple has fantastic intro videos in terms of the more extensive vision accessibility features, including Gestures, which is very cool.) I also found the commands to open a list of applications, open an application, open Spotlight, do a Google search, and so on. To test it out, I closed my eyes with a blank screen, and after about 5 keyboard shortcuts, I had opened Safari, searched Hurricane Irene in Google, selected an article and had the screen reader reading an article about it.

But wait, there's more! The best thing I discovered today (other than all of Mac's simple accessibility features) was the Safari Reader function of the Safari internet browser. This feature takes any website on which it finds a text-based article and automatically converts it into a plain-text article, with only relevant images attached. (i.e., no ads, no extraneous page links, etc.)
From this new window that pops up, you can either magnify the text many times, print it or email it, or even better, have the screen reader read it for you. This addresses one of my biggest frustrations with my blind student from last year: it was almost impossible for him to use anything on the internet because it had so many other links that the screen reader would read and never get to the actual content. Safari Reader seems to be a much better system, and will help me greatly in the coming weeks.

I was so excited today as I finally sat down and wrote down all the relevant shortcuts and ideas. As I wrote the shortcuts  down (and sadly acknowledged how long it took me to do all of that,) I decided that I should really save some other people the work. Since the visual-impairment teachers seemed unaware of the accessibility functions on a Mac, I emailed them all of the relevant shortcuts, links, features, videos, etc., that I had looked up. Then I realized that in our culture of sharing, there are probably a good number of other people who may find this information useful. So, I did what any good computer teacher would do: I made a Google Doc. Of course, the people most directly impacted by this kind of information are those that are visually impaired or who work with them. However, the other biggest users of extensive keyboard shortcuts are computer geeks, and I think this could be useful to them as well. It made my geeky side happy anyway :-) Click here to access the basic information in a Google Doc and add to it yourself, or here to get an extensive list of Apple accessibility keyboard shortcuts. Hope it helps someone else too!

[And I realize this comic is PC-based, but I thought it was entertaining nonetheless, assuming you know what they do ;-)]

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Why Digital Literacy Matters

For years, I've heard teachers in the district rave about tech camp in Tucson. For years, I've thought, "Hm, that sounds nice. Too bad I wouldn't be able to convince anyone to pay for me to go to a resort for a week." In reality, I never asked, I just assumed that was the case. Yes, I know what that makes me. It also goes against my philosophy of "You never know till you ask." Either way, when my Instructional Technology director happened to mention that he still had slots to fill for both ISTE 2011 and tech camp, I "happened to mention" that I had never been to either. (Subtle of me, right?) So, when he offered me a spot at tech camp, I was all over it. And here I am!

While it's affectionately called tech camp, it's officially called "Camp Plug & Play 6.0" and is sponsored by the AZ K-12 Center. It's not a conference, so much as an extended workshop, in which you learn a specific skill all week. Some of this week's strands focus on iMovie, interactive whiteboards, Google, and digital storytelling (the strand I was signed up for). Though it's not really a standard sit-and-get conference, there was a keynote speaker yesterday, who made some excellent points. Her name is Angela Maiers and she was so passionate, I decided to go back for an optional evening session on the first day when I was already exhausted. The focus of her second presentation was the importance of digital literacy. I have never seen someone speak so passionately on this topic (for good reason)! These are some of her best points, written through my lens.  

Being literate is no longer only about being able to read words. Obviously that is a critical, first step, but if you don't know how to communicate in this new digital world, you will feel like you're in a foreign country. We see evidence of this everyday as more and more people with public identities try to speak in a language in which they are not literate (Representative Weiner, etc., etc., etc.) One of her key elements to being literate in the digital world is learning how to be a "great infosumer." Not only do our children have to know how to read, now they have to know how to find and then select the most relevant, accurate information. Without this, we have students meandering all over the wasteland of the internet looking at images as "research" or using as an impartial source of information. 

Then, once they find the information their looking for, they need to know how best to represent that information to others. This includes synthesizing that information into a person's own unique words and understanding, as well as adding new information to what is already available. While many of our students are experts at knowing how to upload a fight video to Youtube or how to post on Facebook, they are absolutely clueless on how to post information that the world finds valuable. In Ms. Maiers' words, "The web doesn't care about you until you contribute valuable information to the community." Our students rarely think beyond the borders of their own community. They don't realize that there is a whole world of people who may be viewing their work, and that if those people find it valuable, it could be shared with hundreds and thousands of people. It absolutely behooves us to help our students differentiate between information for friends and information that is useful to people around the world. 

On a related note, we have to teach kids about how to act respectably and respectfully on the web. Heaven knows adults are not setting good examples for them, and we must point this out to them. We have to help them have a bit of foresight and know that the internet actually "does NOT have an erase button." There is no such thing as deleting. If your screen name in 7th grade was sexychica, it will define you for far longer than you want. Everything a student puts on the web will be searchable by someone, potentially someone you don't want to find it (a future employer?) and will do so long after it ceases to represent who he/she really is. (There are fantastic interviews with students on this point in Along Together.) We have to help our students have the foresight to represent themselves well. 

These were just a few of the points she covered in her 60 minutes, but she was kind of enough to show us her full-blown graduate class information via her wiki for free. Check it out if you want step-by-step lessons for ways to teach these concepts to your students. Needless to say, I will definitely be including portions of this information in my courses this year. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Mind, Brain & Education

That's the title of an interesting collection of brain-based education articles I borrowed from a friend. While there are definitely some dryer parts to this collection, there is much that can be applied in everyday classrooms. It also expounds on the numerous inaccuracies that many teachers have been led to believe is solid research in terms of the brain and it's impact on education.

  • Right-brained vs. Left-brained. While there are clearly different sides of the brain that accomplish different tasks, there is no such thing as a kid who is too left-brained to be able to do something "right brained." (I read the same thing in a NYTimes article today.)
  • Mozart EffectThe original study describing the impact of Mozart's music on increasing intelligence in people has never been replicated, and the original study only showed a weak, temporary increase in intelligence. 
  • Brain Plasticity is Limited to Certain Ages. The past ten years of research has confirmed that a person's brain is able to change to include new things at any age. While it is true that there are certain periods in which the brain demonstrates extreme plasticity, this process continues in varying degrees throughout life. 
 Here are some of my favorite ideas from the book.

  • Only kids who think, learn. Specifically, when kids make predictions, it ensures that they learn something. When they are engaged with the material and have to presuppose what might come next, and they receive confirmation (or not), the neural network in the brain is either rewarded with a dopamine burst for being correct, or has to rewire itself to adapt to the new information. Either way, comprehension is occurring. But it only happens when kids think. (p. 56) 
  • Know your brain. When students understand a few key bits of information about their brain, it can motivate them to not only study more, but study more effectively. For example, if a student knows that repetition forces the neural networks to prune out unnecessary information and only latches on to the repeated information, their practice can make that knowledge permanent. (p. 58)
  • You can change your brain. Research has shown many times that human brains change from birth to death, due to experiences and learning. This is critical for all students to know, but especially those students who think they aren't as bright as others. When they find out that they can change their own brain by practicing new skills, correcting mistakes, and having new experiences, they are empowered to take responsibility for their own learning. (p. 61)
  • Think big picture. Ask the kind of probing questions that help students develop intuition about their own thinking. For instance, if a student is trying to solve a math problem, have them back up and ask themselves if they are using the right strategy for that type of problem. Or, if they're working on a science project of some sort, have them ask themselves, "Am I getting closer to the answer?" This type of metacognition (thinking about one's thinking) encourages the brain to begin to automatically ask these sorts of questions when working through any problem. By evaluating their thinking process, students learn to make their thinking more effective, by focusing on what works, and how to get there as quickly as possible. (p. 80)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

It's All About Choice

There are several things I've learned about teenagers in my teaching career, and two of them tend to go together. (More on the others later). My mantra, especially with difficult classes has become, "If you can make something into a choice, it will be a better day for everyone." This can relate to discipline as well as actual assignments.

When kids are being disciplined, having a choice helps facilitate the idea that their back is not up against the wall yet (figuratively). The fight-or-flight instinct hasn't been touched off yet. When I used to teach in an alternative high school, if I wanted a student to do something, I'd give them two options, even if I knew they didn't want to do either of them. Usually, that was enough to move them at least closer to the objective of the lesson, even if it still wasn't perfect. Today, when I have students that are (I'll just make up a quick, implausible example here), on Facebook or Youtube when they should be working, I tell them to close it. If they don't, the next step is "You close it, or I close it." (To most kids, keyboard shortcuts are still a total mystery. I tell them it's magic :-)) Generally, they'll start moving to close. All kids want is to feel like they're not on a one-way street.

In terms of curriculum, whenever I'm designing assignments for regular classes or my technology classes, I do everything in my power to incorporate choice into the project. When I can do this, everybody is happier, me included. For instance, my 8th graders are currently working on a project about the Vietnam War on Glogster. I gave them a list of things to include, and they chose 3-4 in each category. Added bonus: they get a big long list and are overwhelmed, and then I tell them they don't have to do it all :-) My 7th graders are making interview videos in iMovie about technology and how it impacts us. While they didn't have a choice on the general topic, they can choose the specific question they are asking people, and then can choose what the final product looks like.

Choice and motivation are like spring fever and state standardized testing: you don't get one without the other. The 7th grade project has made my life a breeze this week. The students know how to do all of the pieces, from last week's instruction and previous assignments, and I just let them go. I've literally spent all year trying to keep them off of great programs like Photo Booth because they weren't in my assignment. I finally figured out that I just had to design an assignment using photo and video and they're all over it. Just the specific technology is motivation enough. Last year, I had students supremely motivated to learn about tides, not because of the topic, but because (without any previous instruction on tides) I had them find a video describing how tides work. (Added bonus to this assignment: Youtube was blocked, so they had to find a way to work around it.) Again, sometimes just the technology itself is motivating. Imagine if you told students to take 5 pictures with their cell phones and write a story to go along with them. Motivation? Check.

[Note: all the links in this post are how these tools relate to education.]

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Twitter 101

[Sorry for the cross-post, those of you that follow both blogs. I thought it was suitable in both places.]
I love Twitter. After a recent conversation with my aunt about what, exactly, Twitter is, (and realizing that I’ve had this conversation multiple times), I decided to put it in writing. As they always say, if one person has a question, there are probably many others who do too. So, for those of you who don’t understand what the big deal is about Twitter, this is why it is NOT what you think.
What Twitter is NOT:
Twitter is NOT about updates about what you had for breakfast, (unless you can say it in an incredibly clever way). It is also NOT a private, direct messaging service, a la Facebook, email, instant messaging, etc. Though many use it from their smartphones, it is NOT only available on phones, but is also a website where you can tweet from (  
What Twitter IS:
Twitter is a “micro-blogging” service. In other words, it is like a blog, in that all posts are public, and they are listed reverse chronologically, with the newest posts listed first. It isn’t like blogs in that it has a140 character limit.  Because of this limit, tweets are approximately 1-2 sentences and many people and companies use it to post links to longer articles, blog posts, etc. (It IS possible to send direct messages to people, but they still have to be 140 characters or less. Because of this, it is not a common use of Twitter though.)
Due to the public nature of Twitter, it is most useful for keeping track of public organizations and people. You don’t have to know them or ask for permission to follow them. For instance, I follow AirFrance for European travel deals (@AirFranceUS), New York Times for news and commentary (@nytimes), and Jimmy Fallon (@jimmyfallon) and Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) because they are hilarious : - )
However, the reason Twitter is most useful to me in my daily life is that I can follow other people within the education community, many of whom are technology teachers like myself. We all post about things we’re doing within the classroom, open questions we’re considering in terms of educational technology, and other such things. Some of the teachers I know personally, but many I do not. Twitter gives me access to a much wider circle of like-minded people whom I can bounce ideas off of. I also follow some friends from my personal life.
Overall, Twitter is an excellent means of keeping abreast of news and information of interest to you, professionally and personally. There is much more to say in terms of effective ways to use Twitter, details about common abbreviations, hashtags, or trending topics, but hopefully this basic description helps you understand what it actually is and how it might benefit you. And if you decide to join Twitter, follow me @dierdreshetler ! :-) 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

When things go wrong

Make sure it works!

For those of you with a little corner of your brain that goes nuts at the many possibilities of things that could go wrong with using educational technology, I have some suggestions for you. Before you are getting ready to use technology, ensure that it works by doing the following things: 
  • try the activity yourself, so that you know all necessary steps 
  • test the website on the computers the students will be using
  • make sure batteries are charged, if necessary
  • make sure all critical elements are plugged in and displaying/producing sound correctly
  • know who is available to call for help in a pinch
  • have a related back-up plan (more on this later)
  • have an educational task ready for those who finish early ( is an excellent option for this circumstance)
If you need to borrow someone who knows more than you to help make sure everything is working in advance, do it. Definitely do this when students are not there. This way, you can focus on teaching when the time comes. Also, make sure that YOU set everything up, even if someone else comes in to advise you on how to do it. This will give you a much better idea of what to do if things go wrong. 
That said, no matter how much you've tested things out, things happen. 

Do Not Give Up
Should something malfunction, do NOT give up immediately because there is a class of students staring at you. In doing this, you teach them to give up. If waiting a few minutes means they get to use technology, they will be VERY patient (if not quiet). Give the students a content-related topic to talk about/work on, and then take a few minutes to try to troubleshoot the problem. If this doesn't work, ask a student to try to get things to work. Students tend to have much more perseverance than adults. While they do this, go on with the rest of the content of the lesson. Most of the time, one of these options should eliminate the problem.

Back Up Plan
On the off-chance that you've tried to fix it, a student has tried to fix it, and you've called a co-worker and he/she can't help you, then chalk it up as a loss, and move on. These are the cases where your back-up plan is critical. Your back-up plan should be one of two things: either a different technology-based way of accessing the same content (i.e., a different website, an interactive whiteboard lesson/game, a video clip, etc.) OR a non-technology based way of addressing the content (i.e., textbook, game, discussion, writing, etc.) In having such a back-up plan, you ensure that kids will learn the desired content, no matter what the circumstance. A benefit to having a non-technology-based method is you have a way of teaching the same content to kids who don't focus while using technology.  

Try Again
Lastly, just because technology may have bitten you at one point, DO NOT GIVE UP. Even if you had to bail on your last attempt, TRY AGAIN, even if its with a different website, etc. Once you have a successful experience, you'll understand why technology is such a powerful medium for educating children. And remember: there is always a learning curve when doing something new, but it will diminish with time and practice, and it will be worth it!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Haiku for me and you

About a month ago, I had the opportunity to be a presenter for the first time at a conference. I applied to present in September of last year, mostly just to see if I had any chance at all of being accepted. It took me a while to decide what to present on because, having been to the MEC conference before, many of the things I know a lot about are fairly common things. Hence, I was looking for something that wasn't particularly well-known, but that has worked really well for me. With these criteria, it didn't take long to come up with Haiku, an online learning management system. Lucky for me, that was the type of thing they were looking for and I was accepted!

I first used this system when doing my final project for my master's degree, when I designed an online professional development class for teachers in my district. While Haiku's main premise is to be used to teach online classes for K-12 students, I knew it had a lot of potential to function well for professional development (in any field, really) as well as for online collaboration between administration, teachers or students. 

While I hated to do a powerpoint presentation, I know that when learning about a new thing, what a person really wants is the bullet points with the main ideas. So, I went with the powerpoint and this is what I came up with. Putting this presentation together led me to realize that there are even more cool things about Haiku, that I didn't already know (including a beyond affordable pricing structure). Since I was going with the standard presentation, I decided to at least make it a little up-to-date and include some poll questions via, in which participants can use their phones to text in an answer to a poll question (Such as: What area of education are you involved in? What areas would you be most likely to use Haiku for at your school?) I would've used a video from the Haiku website, but when I'm at a presentation, I don't want people to show me things that I can see for myself on a website. I also wanted to use my iPod Touch as a mouse, so I wouldn't have to stand by my computer the whole time. Here's my presentation: 
Haiku Learning Management System

When the day came to present, I was definitely nervous (made even more nervous by a co-worker who came in to watch :-)), but everything went fairly well. There were about 15 people in the workshop, which I thought was pretty good, given that it was for a product that no one had ever heard of, being presented by a me, whom no one had ever heard of. The embedded poll slides worked quite well, and gave me a quick idea of the general type of audience I was talking to (mostly administrators), as well as their opinions on various portions of the product. The remote mouse didn't work, because I had to keep logging on to the guest internet account. People seemed very interested in Haiku, and there were at least a few who sounded like they were definitely going to consider for their site. 

So, for my first time out of the gate as a presenter, I felt like it went pretty well! 

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Arrangements and Combinations

If you've ever taught math, you know that the terms "arrangements and combinations" do not mean the same thing. And that it's nigh unto impossible to teach kids the difference. (See here for a description, in case you're wondering.) How one arranges and combines kids is a critical element in classrooms, (in addition to mathematics).

I began thinking about this when I saw a post (via @shareski) on Twitter asking how people had their classrooms arranged. I have had the "opportunity" to arrange 11 classrooms, though I've only been teaching for 6 1/2 years, so I've tried many things. In my first year teaching (6th grade), I started with rows, and then moved on to pairs, and eventually grouped, and then back to rows (it was an...exciting year.) :-) I told them we had to move back to rows because they "couldn't handle" sitting together, in terms of behavior (which was true).

As I was pondering the possibilities for the next school year though, I decided that I was going to think positive and start in groups (which is always my personal preference). I did this, and never changed back. The biggest benefit I saw to groups (in addition to all the supporting research), was that it forced kids to learn how to deal with each other. This sounds a little coercive, but I prefer to call it educating :-) When they thought that there was no other option, they found a way to make it work. Albeit, every year, I had conversations about how it's an important thing to learn with kids who wanted to change seats. (I think the discussion went something like: "You don't have to like them, you just need to be able to work in the same space. This is an important skill that everyone has to learn at work-even teachers--, and it's even better if you learn it now!") This method worked the best for me through the years, particularly because we did lots of group work.

At the end of the 2009-10 school year, I let my 7th graders choose how they wanted the room arranged for the last week or two of school. After a vote, they decided to go with one big circle. While it was a physical nightmare because we couldn't get to anything outside the circle, the kids loved being able to see everyone at once, and it led to some fun discussions. 

This year, when I began teaching computers, I had to set up a new style of classroom. Not only that, since I'm a traveling teacher at 4 schools, I had 4 labs to set up! 2 of the labs are laptops and the others are desktops. In the laptop labs, I have round tables with 5-6 laptops apiece, which works fairly well.  In my desktop labs, computers are arranged in groups of 6 on tables, which functions in pretty much the same way. 
The most important thing when using technology with middle schoolers has been to have them in places where they are next to someone at all times. The logic behind this is that someone always missed where to click, which menu the command is on, or typed .com instead of .org. When they need to verify something, there is always someone to help, which seems to be a more critical element with technology than with regular content teaching. (And it helps save my sanity, so I don't have to answer every easy question!)

No matter what, I'm always in the process of determining who needs to sit in a different combination, but the arrangement in groups always stays the same. :-)

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Finally Fourth Quarter

Fourth quarter is finally upon us. As usual, the year has been filled with many ups and downs so far, with more to come, I'm sure. As we came up to spring break, I did everything I could to make sure I was ready to return to school so I wouldn't have to work over break. Much of my brainstorming was characterized by frustration due to the 400 kids per grade of level whom I teach each week. 
Photo Credit

The issue with teaching computers the way I do is that I have so many kids that anything that involves creating individual accounts for students online would just take way too much time. Unfortunately, this eliminates many of the most interesting Web 2.0 things to do. Alternatively, I've had them all using either my account for something or a class account, if that's an option, but not all websites allow that. I would just have the students create their own accounts, but many things require email addresses, which many of my students don't have (they think it's too slow, when they have cell phones). In addition to that, everyone creating email addresses is out because most free email sites won't allow multiple accounts to be made from the same IP address. Anyway, all this to say, my options are limited by the sheer scale I operate on. If anyone has any good solutions to this sort of problem, let me know! 

These are the ideas I eventually landed on. My 7th graders have been working on their iMovies for literally a semester (much to my dismay), and they are finally finishing up. So, after basically a quarter of not having to plan for them, (they just came in and kept working), it's time for something new. As boring as spreadsheets can be, I feel like it is something that is important for the students to know. Some creative googling brought me to this lesson about the amount of fat in fast food.  The focusing question I'll use for students is "Can fast food be healthy?" It has the students create a spreadsheet documenting the amount of fat in an entree, side, dessert, and drink of their choice from a fast food restaurant (also their choice). Using a website extensively documenting nutrition in various foods (including fast food restaurants), they'll determine calories, fat calories, non-fat calories, and the percentage of fat in each item and meal. From there, they'll use formulas to figure out percentage fat, enter it into a class chart, and create their own charts. This will all be posted in a blog post. From there, they'll be making a movie using flip cams to document what they learned and convincing others that it is or is not possible for their meal to be healthy to eat.

My 8th graders have 2 different assignments to keep me from getting bored. Half of them will be doing a photo contest at the beginning of the quarter. They'll take photos that represent the best thing about their school and write an accompanying piece explaining why it is the best thing in their opinion. These will then be displayed in the school library for others students to vote on. Next, (when it's too hot to got outside and take pictures), we'll use Google Earth to take a virtual tour of a place that has been in the news. They'll use screen shots and online research to create a video on iMovie explaining the situation in this location. 

The other half of the 8th grade will be creating Glogs (interactive, online "posters") about the Vietnam War, with the focusing question being "Why was the Vietnam War such a big deal?" On their glog, they'll each have 3 sections, including facts, links, and images. (Here's an example I found online.) Examples of the types of things they'll be looking for include a quote from a soldier's diary, info on the draft and the controversy, links to a timeline and casualty statistics, and pro and anti-war images. 
Hopefully, these assignments will keep them (and me!) engaged, even when their brains are in high school already!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Commenting Skills: How to not be a jerk

One of the 21st Century skills I'm trying to teach my students is how to comment. I was reminded of this today at MEC 2011, when the keynote speaker, (Karen Cator, head of the US Office of Educational Technology) mentioned in an aside how much she wished there was a curriculum for teaching kids how to comment. Given the scandalous tone of many letters to the editor and comments on various websites in situations like the Egypt protests and SB 1070 here in Arizona, I knew that it is critical that students learn how to communicate their opinion without being (for lack of a better word), jerky.

One of the things that is most interesting in the brain development of 8th graders is that they are more and more capable of abstract thought, but not developed enough to do so consistently. Hence, one has to have just the right question to get everyone to want to actually think. It has to be something that is relevant (not  generic, like say cafeteria food) and be something about which everyone has, or can develop an in-depth opinion. The topic I happened to stumble upon was having the students take photos of the neighborhood surrounding their schools and then write a paragraph or two about their opinion of the neighborhood, and the impact they think it has. Then, I took one piece of exemplary writing (which happened to somewhat criticize the neighborhood) and had the other students practice their commenting skills, after we discussed what a good comment looked like.

The criteria we listed for a valid comment were:

  • It can't be one word or even one sentence (at least not an 8th grade sentence: "That's cool.") This helps the author know you actually care about what they said, and what they specifically think.
  • Explain what you agree with or think they did well. No matter how frustrated you are with someone, you will have a much more productive conversation if you can start on common ground.
  • Ask a question of the author instead of insulting or calling names. This encourages the author to think about what they said, instead of being defensive and not listening to you. 
  • Add information to the topic, by giving a related experience you've had, or the reason for your own opinion on the topic. 
  • Re-read your comment before posting. Ask yourself: Would I say this to the author's face? If so, would I be yelling when I said it? If you answered no to the first question or yes to the second, you need to take another crack at the comment. 
In education, you win some, you lose some, so I was thrilled when this lesson went over surprisingly well. Like I said, since many of the students were a bit upset with the author (who they didn't know), the criteria were a bit of a challenge, and I did end up deleting some inappropriate (read: jerky) comments, but by and large, the kids did a really quality job. We also had to have a discussion about the difference between being racist and stereotyping people, because everyone wanted to jump straight to calling the author racist, but that's another story. Check out some of the comments on this blog post, and see what you think. 

And for proof that this is a valid skill that students want to know, I had an 8th grader come back to my class later in the day with a 7th grade class (his teacher had gone home sick), and he looks around at all the 7th graders working individually on their iMovies, and says, "Wow, this is boring. We were actually having fun in here this morning." 

Friday, February 11, 2011

Just ask!

One of my mantras in life is, "If you don't know, ask!" Yes, I was that kid in school. The one where everyone else is ready to move on and probably understands already, and school was over 2 minutes ago, and my hand goes up. Groans all around. [Many moments of embarrassment are based on this situation. But I digress.]

True, this is an irritating habit, but it solves problems, and it is even more beneficial as an adult. (I have become a little less irritating to others, thanks to Google :-)) Asking helps me find out what's going on at the airport when we can't figure out what the issue is, in grad school when I don't understand my assignment for the next week, and at the restaurant when I don't understand where that obscure $20 charge came from. (In fact, with customer service issues, I include the additional "Call a real person and ask." I'm telling you, it gets stuff done.)

The most recent way this habit has been helpful to me was a few days ago. I was to be meeting with the other district Photojournalism teachers. It ended up being just me and one other teacher, but we covered a lot of ground. We were showing examples of student work, and she showed me a slideshow of student photos in movie format. I asked how she had done this, because my students were creating photo essays, and I'd been attempting to have them upload everything to, but this was not working particularly well. (This was from no fault of Edublogs, but some of my 8th grade classes are not geniuses at following long sets of instructions.)

She explained that she had the students create the actual slideshow file within iPhoto, display captions through the settings bar, and then export it as an .m4v file. This sounded WAY easier to me, so I tried it the next day with my classes. Just to put the next statement in context, the previous day the old method had gotten classes maybe 1/3 of the way finished with the project. As I took these students through the process, step by step on the IWB, I was floored at how simple and quick it was. In 10 minutes, most students had completed the entire project. Done. Unbelievable. :-) (I'll post one sometime soon.) So, next time your frustrated with something, ASK and see if there's a better way. There probably is! :-)

Thursday, January 27, 2011


Here's an example of an iMovie my 7th graders have been working on. Half of the project was finding out how to do solid internet research, and the other half if learning how to create an iMovie with the images and research they did. Here's one finished example: (If it isn't clear, they got to choose their own topics. The only rule was that if they did a person, it couldn't be someone who was alive.)

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

I touch learning!

Wow! Today was the first time in a long time I've been at a workshop for content that 1) I was not teaching/assisting with, and 2) was essentially completely new knowledge to me. Our district kindly organized a workshop with Tony Vincent, guru of all things ed tech, particularly hand-held learning, (starting in the early days with PDAs and now iPod Touches).

While I've been aware that this technology has been in use for quite a while in various forms, I've never had personal access to it or knew if we'd have any access to it at school. Lucky for us, this is the innovation of the year in our school district Instructional Technology department. So, now I can start researching new things on this level! (Basically, before I felt like I needed to focus my limited time on things I had immediate access to.) Oh, and another reason I've been interested in this area is that I just got an iPod Touch for Christmas ;-) That definitely helped. (I'm a little addicted to it.)

So, here are some of the highlights of a sort of Highlights of iPod Touch Labs workshop, which mainly focused on some cool apps that can be used for academic purposes. Specifically, these are the ones that I thought could be most useful in the classroom and my everyday life. Hence, they now reside on MY iPod :-)

1-Bump This app lets you share files just by bumping your iPod/Phone holding hand with the other person's iPod/Phone holding hand. In everyday life (EDL) that might be used with resumes, contact information, etc. In education (ED) it might look like students turning in assignments like photo illustrations, voice recordings, etc to a single iPod for the teacher to grade or combining research information into a central location.

2-Doodle Buddy This app is a simple drawing program with standard features like different colors, text boxes and a plethora of designs to use as backgrounds and to stamp on drawings. While all these things are to be expected of a free app, it really becomes applicable when you import photos you've taken or from the web to draw/write on. For EDL, this could be useful to help write notes on an image to emphasize a particular feature. For ED, it could be particularly educational to have students find examples of a specific item online and write a fact about it (find a picture of cloud and write what type of cloud it is, submit it to the teacher via Bump). This app is similar to Comic Touch Lite, which allows you to put comic speech bubbles on pictures, which is a slimmed down version of a program I LOVE: Comic Life.

3-Dragon Dictation This free app is much more than just a simple voice recorder, which comes by default with iPods/Phones. It records your speaking and translates it into text, which can then be emailed or copied and pasted into other apps. While you do have to speak a bit slower and include end punctuation, it is an excellent speech translator. Obviously, for EDL, this would be super-useful in any of those situations where you 1) don't want to use the iPod/Phone's TINY keyboard, or 2) when you are, say, driving, and shouldn't be texting, but you need to remember something or send someone something. In ED, I think this would be fantastic when a teacher wants to give ELL students instructions. They could just record them, and then students could see the written instructions (particularly if they might be different from those for other students). Another idea: it would be a fantastic way for my photojournalism students to interview people for their articles.

Hope this gives you some new ideas to try with kids and iPods! It sure helped me out!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Who cares?

While most of my 8th graders are doing photo essays on their neighborhood, 2 classes are working on developing their own blogs, at the request of their teachers. Since I spent a good bit of time blogging with my students last year, I didn't think it would be too daunting of a task. However, the way I did blogging with my students is quite a bit different from what these kids are doing. The main difference is that I've always had my students use one class blog, as opposed to having each kid have their own blog. I have no issues with either method, and always intended to have my students develop their own blogs, but just never got to it. Hence, most of the time, I told them what to write about.
Not so, with this group of 8th graders. In this case, they each have their own blog, and I'm not using this as a writing lesson so much, as how to create and keep up with a blog. After they initially created their own blogs through, we began discussing what it is that they might be writing about, since it was more or less up to them. The main thing I encouraged them to do was to choose a theme for their blog, so that they were always writing about the same general topic (like sports, movies, school news, etc.) I explained this by saying that people were much more likely to want to read their blog on a regular basis if they knew what was going to be there and if they're interested in that topic. 

While I know that kids don't like to be told what to do, I was quite surprised at the level of resistance they had to essentially being required to limit their writing to one general idea. In fact, not only did they not want to choose a topic, they didn't understand why it was necessary in the first place. This was perplexing to me at first, but then I realized that it made perfect sense for the developmental level of 14 year olds. 1) They don't want to do anything suggested by an adult, which at 29, I guess I am. 2) Their entire brain is essentially designed to be focused on themselves right now. They just cannot fathom why someone wouldn't be interested in every single thing about themselves. 3) Culturally speaking, our culture is excellent at emphasizing the beauty in randomness. The best example of this is, of course, the ipod, in which kids can carry all of their music with them at all times, and switch instantly between any genre, artist, or song at the drop of a hat.  Hence, the idea of limiting themselves to just one topic seems like a huge drag. 

So, what can I do to remedy this? I think I'll start by using non-examples of random blogs from other students that won't matter to anyone outside of themselves. Then, I think I'll track down some high-quality student blogs that address one topic that other people would care about, like the excellent OmniTechNews blog. [If you have any suggestions or additions to add to my list of quality student blogs, let me know!] Hopefully, this will clear up the distinction that people do care what you have to say IF its something that they are also interested in and know where to find it. 

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Photo Essay

While my 7th grade Computer class is right on track in terms of the original projects laid out of the year (albeit behind schedule), my 8th grade Photojournalism class gets rewritten on what seems like a weekly basis! Most weeks, I am disappointed by either the lack of progress, or the lack of motivation 14 year olds display. Hence, the weekly re-working of what we might do next. (I exaggerate, it's not weekly.) 

So, after some major brainstorming prior to beginning the next quarter, I am on track to start another new project. We'll be creating a photo essay about the neighborhood that the kids live in, known as Maryvale

I plan on introducing the project to them this week with some brainstorming on what they think of when considering the neighborhood. Next week, we'll do a photo walk around the block that surrounds the schools. Following that, they'll write captions and introduction text for their photos and then post them in a blog post, or some other tool to display a photo essay. (I'm open to suggestions on this.) 

Below is the sample I made :-) 

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Online vs. Paper Writing

Over the holidays, I had a lovely conversation with a friend about her next job and how educational technology relates to it. A few things you need to know about her to preface this discussion: 1) She's going into her 3rd volunteer job in Africa, adding up to about the last 8 years of her life. 2) The job she's beginning this year is heading an English department at a girls high school that is opening in February in Rwanda. 3) She's an amazing writer and just finished a master's degree in creative writing. 4) She's in the editing stages of writing her first novel.

With these things in mind, we had a discussion about whether or not (or when) it would be appropriate to have her forthcoming students do online writing in any form. Her first assumption (being a very pen and paper type), was that it would be better to spend quite a bit of time getting the students used to doing general writing on paper before heading them into theoretically uncharted territory of writing online.

My response, (after she told me that they'd be on a wired campus) was that they should absolutely give online writing a shot. I do think students need to practice writing thoughts out on paper as this form of writing hasn't been completely outdated yet, especially in Africa. However, I think that it's critical for students all over the world to learn how to write online for many reasons.

I believe this is an imperative part of writing instruction in this day and age because it gives students incredibly real audiences. Through this, they can learn about writing in a form that is useful and/or interesting to an audience that does not know you and does not have to read your writing. Too often, classroom writing takes on topics that do not engage an outside audience at all, and are merely exercises in the conventions of writing, not the content of writing. (Ex: No one cares about how your basketball practice went outside your family, unless you can find a way to make it useful to others.)

Also, in online writing, particularly through blogging and other kinds of technology that allow commenting by readers, students learn about giving and receiving useful comments and criticism. While it does leave them open to ridiculous comments, it teaches them that those types of comments do occur, and how best to respond to them. If we leave students to discover this kind of reading and writing on their own, we take the chance that they will become those ridiculous people who make the internet feel like the crazy, wild, wild, west.

Without these kinds of opportunities to write for real people who care what students have to say and give and receive comments and criticism for others, students will be missing out on instruction in something that WILL [eventually] be part of their online lives, no matter where they live.