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!