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."