Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Feedback from the Researchers

Right before the holiday break I collected research papers from my 11th and 12th grade students.  I’ve blogged about the process we used in earlier posts here, here, and here.  As our students munched on doughnuts on the last day of class, I asked them to respond to the research process.  Here are some of their comments:

On Using RSS Feeds and Furl to keep up with News Articles:
“I felt like the furl was a critical tool for my research paper.  Normally, if I were to try to save a link from one of the electronic resources provided by the school, it would not work when I would try to visit it at a later date.  When that happens I have to start all over again, which is very frustrating.  Furl not only saved my link and kept it working; it also gave the option for me to rate my source and leave a mental note about it.”
If I was taking notes on books then it would be hard for me to go back to the book and find more information.  With the links I could go right back to the article and get all the information I could out of my sources.”
“Let it be known that I despise research papers in every way, shape, and form, so my opinion is fairly slanted.  However, compared to other research papers, this one wasn't so bad.  I liked using Furl and Bloglines to collect and catalogue the information; it was much better than reading through tons of really boring books.”
“I thought that researching through bloglines and furl was a new but better and easier way to research. I especially liked using furl because it was better to save the information and have access to it later without having to look for it again. I thought that the whole process of learning how to do this was kind of fun in its own way. This method was very easy to learn and use you should definitely continue to use this.”
“I think Furl and Bloglines were both very useful to me. It was easy to find new information with Bloglines then save it to the list with Furl.”
“Finding information on bloglines and furl was amazing.  It made it so much easier to do it that way.  With bloglines you could just type something in and it would find articles for you.  Furl was great too, all you did was "furl it" by clicking the furl button, and it saved the web address, and let you label it, it was so much more organized and easier to do than any another method.”

On Using Blog Posts Rather Than Note Cards:
I used blog posts instead of note cards, as much as I didn't like doing this in the end it was worth it because it helped me organize my outline which helped me organize my paper.”
I really liked the blog posts.  It was a good way to get your ideas together and it forced you to write instead of just putting down quotes.  For my final draft I pretty much used all my blog posts and revised my paper and wrote an intro and conclusion.  It took me no more than an hour.  It made writing the paper really easy because all the work was broken up in the course of a week.”
At first, I really wasn't sure how we were supposed to write the blogs, so that was a bit frustrating, but other than that, it wasn't too bad.  It also helped later on because I was able to just copy and paste a few sections from the blogs directly into the paper.”
“The blog posts were very easy to use once you were ready to actually write the paper. Since they were categorized into five categories that covered what the paper should contain all you really had to do was transfer the information from the blog posts and put it in the paper.”
“Blog posting was excellent. I practically had my whole paper written by the 5th post. It was a lot more effective for me to do this kind of note taking rather than write on notecards, which I have always hated to do. Plus, blogging made it easier to express my opinion and write out exactly what I wanted to say than write a summary of the article I was reading.”
“I had never done something like a blog post before as a form of research. I thought it worked well. It was better than taking notes on note cards that seemed kind of pointless and boring to me.”
“I found the blog post to be easier and more convenient, with blog post you don’t have to worry about losing it because its posted and its always there if you need to reference to it or change it.  You can access it form home and you don’t have to wait for a teacher to give it back to you.”

On Getting Feedback During the Drafting Process through the Weblog:
“The feedback was very useful, it is better when feedback is given during the writing process rather than after.  By being given feedback during the writing process I was able to fix the paper as I went along, rather then go back to it after I was finished.”
“The only thing I would change is to not schedule it during the last week before break. This was possible the worst week ever in terms of free time.”
“I didn’t receive much feedback through the weblog at all, so I prefer to make a rough draft and have feedback written all over my paper instead.  There is usually more feedback on a rough draft than the weblog and more feedback helps me write a better research paper.”
“I think that the feedback through the weblogs was much more effective than the other method of handing in rough drafts. I am glad that we used this instead that way you don't have to look at more papers.”
“I like being able to post then get the feedback online. It's easier to read for one, and it’s usually instant so we know how to improve it/what to change right away.”
“I like using the weblogs and posting. Feedback is crucial for me to complete a paper properly. By gradually getting feedback my papers can be even better. I can make changes easily and get feedback quickly too. Having the weblog was definitely the most helpful tool for writing the research paper.”
“The feedback was good, especially on the blog post; I could access it anytime and see what people or teachers had to say.  I got some good advice as to what I should do to make my paper better.”

And General Advice:
I enjoyed the paper but thought that it may have been more useful if we concentrated a little more on the first blog about the topic.  Students should be aware that the blog should be taken seriously because if they find that they are not passionate about a topic early on, they will be able to change it which will make the process a lot easier. “

Summary and Reflection:  Generally, students seem to find using Furl and the RSS Box on their individual weblogs to be an extremely useful tool.  The use of a news aggregator (we used Bloglines) seemed to be more of a mixed bag.  I think it was more useful for students who had topics that were very current and generating news updates almost daily (for instance this one and this one).  Not all of the students chose to use blog posts as a form of note taking, but those that did were very pleased with the results.  Next time, I’ll spend a little more time having everyone practice doing blog posts by getting them familiar with reading them, writing them, and using the rubric.
A couple of students weren’t happy with getting feedback via the weblog as opposed to a full printed rough draft, but overall students seemed to find this method more useful and I certainly found that I had a better handle on what they were writing about and that I could more easily address problems as they occurred.
Finally, I learned that outlines for research papers are a waste of time for both me and the students and I will no longer require them.  By giving them feedback as they write, I can identify organizational problems as they occur.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Research Blogging-The Early Returns are In

About two thirds of my students opted to complete blog posts rather than note cards for the research process.  The results of these posts were uneven as I expected.  Grading the first posts even caused me to make a couple of revisions to the rubric which can be viewed here.  Unfortunately, too many didn’t include much of an opinion or analysis of the material they were presenting.  This is understandable since they are used to doing academic writing where the source material and not their own voice is usually emphasized.
What excites me is when I read a first post like this one which I highlighted as a model for the class.  I’m hoping my students are going to be able to maintain this passion and that it translates into research papers with voice and character.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Blogging the Research Process: A Blog Post Rubric

As mentioned in an earlier post, I'm trying to incorporate blogging in the research process in the hope that it will result in a better final product. I'm thinking that by requiring students to invest more in the note taking process through blogging, that they will be better informed and feel more confident when writing their drafts.
My students spent last week gathering articles on a topic of their choosing that deals with a problem in society. They displayed these articles on their individual weblogs through an RSS box. This week they are being given the choice between using traditional note cards, or incorporating their research into five blogs. I have given them a sample article to blog about, but the directions are coming from me on this and not them.

For the next step, they will have to choose the direction their blog posts will take. This will obviously be based on the articles they have gathered. I will also be presenting a rubric to them that I hope I can use in other situations as well. You are welcome to use and adapt this rubric (I've adapted some of the language from the New Jersey HSPA Language Arts Rubric). All I ask is that you give me some feedback on what worked and what didn't so that we all can develop an evaluation instrument that might prove useful in the classroom.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Using Blogs for Writing Instruction

Although I’ve only been blogging semi-regularly for a few months now, I’ve been using blogs in the classroom for three years. At first I used in my Journalism classes as a means to bring current events to my students and later to introduce them to the power of bloggers in this new media environment. This year I have used them for writing instruction more than ever before. Manila (the software company we use at my school) has added a few new features that make this even more effective. Through access controls, each student can decide who gets to see each post. They can set it up so that all members of the site will see the post (which means everyone in our class) they can set it so that a cohort group (an assigned group of members or peers) can see it, or so that managing editors can see it (in this case just the student and teacher).

For me this has changed the way I respond to their writing and the way students respond to one another, and I have to say (despite some bugs that still need to be worked out), I’m very pleased with the results.

I don't collect rough drafts anymore. I have my students submit an introduction and body paragraphs (for an essay) and have them give each other feedback online at the same time I'm giving them feedback. The kids have found this to be a much more fluid and personal process. After they get this initial feedback, they can submit revisions and updates for feedback from me by creating a new post (this generates an e-mail that I receive). As you might imagine, not every student takes advantage of this, but over a recent four-day weekend I had one student post and revise her scene multiple times. This is the original writing assignment. Here is the student's original scene and here is my feedback. After this, she posted again (and I commented) and then she posted once more (and I commented).
To me this is responding to writing in a more realistic way. Yes, there's a deadline, but there is much more flexibility built into the process and I found it even less work intensive then carrying around a stack of papers to write on.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Blogging as Notetaking

I’m in the beginning phases of working on a research paper with my junior/senior English class.  This one goes along with our Dystopia unit and asks students to find a problem in society they would like to see fixed.  I have introduced them to RSS including news aggregation through Bloglines, and search engine feeds put out by GoogleNews, YahooNews, and Topix.  Next week, I will sign them up for Furl accounts (which saves electronic versions of their articles) and put RSS boxes on their weblogs that will automatically show the articles they are saving.  

One aspect of the research process I’ve never been happy teaching is note taking.  I’ve tried a number of different methods from elaborately organized note cards to highlighted photocopies with annotations.  The methods either didn’t seem genuine (I don’t know anyone who uses note cards once they leave high school), or were difficult to evaluate.  This year I’m going to try using each student’s weblog and RSS box to facilitate this.  After they have accumulated research on background, opposition, proponents, major figures and events, I will require them to cover these major categories through blog entries.

I’m hoping that by forcing them to read, think, link and write about the articles that they will use (and how it fits into their own ideas) the note taking process will become more of a research paper pre-write.  For what is blogging other than an extended research conversation?  The most difficult part will be making clear what a good blog post of this type should include.  I hope to find good models of this type for them to read and respond to.  I’d also like to find a way to encourage conversation within the class and possibly from outside it as well.  I welcome feedback or offers for collaboration.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Community Blogging

Last Friday, Darrell and I took our American Studies class to the computer lab and asked them to browse a couple of online newspapers for stories that might show how their community is changing or ones that demonstrate efforts to preserve a lifestyle that is disappearing.  You can read the assignment here.  This was done in an effort to introduce them to what will be a new option for their long term research project.  We also asked them to think about what community means and how the one story they chose to blog about was affecting it.

This assignment was asking a lot, and overall I have found that our tenth graders find it difficult to focus in that kids of setting for long periods of time (we have 82 minute classes).  We ended up cutting the assignment short and required those that didn’t finish, to complete it for homework.  Still, they found some interesting stories and actually began the process of focusing on their community and all that is changing about it.  Samples of this community blogging are available here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here.

The following week, we presented them with the revised research project.  The major change here was that every student is required to establish a personal connection to their project either through the community or their own background.  They will also be required to find a material artifact to analyze, and a source for oral history.  Next week, I plan on bringing in my grandmother’s diary from her days in vaudeville as an example of a material artifact and describe how I incorporated this in a research paper I did for a graduate class.  I hope this will help some of them grasp the idea of this research project more fully and develop more viable topics.   I also hope to involve the local Historical Society for help in finding and developing material artifacts.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Interdisciplinary Thinking

As I indicated in a previous post, I’ve been inspired by an interdisciplinary project sponsored by the National Writing Project and the National Endowment for the Arts called "Keeping and Creating American Communities." After digesting two books produced by teachers involved in the project (Writing America and Writing Our Communities), I began discussing how we might adapt these practices in the classroom. My teaching partner Darrell seems excited as well, and last week we discussed it with our department supervisors. They helped us focus our activities and objectives and the most recent version of the project can be viewed here.

The original plan for the weblog research project will certainly change if we do this, but I want to be able to honor the topics of about half of our students who had very personal connections to their research projects. Both Darrell and I have concerns about how our students will react to this change in direction and whether they will be ready to volunteer for a project that features real and uncertain research as inquiry. I’m going to try and enlist as much support and collaboration from other teachers and students with experience, or a willingness to join us in this journey, or provide feedback along the way.

I've e-mailed the Directors of the "Keeping and Creating American Communities Project" and my e-mail was forwarded to other teachers involved in various aspects of the project. The responses have trickled in offering support and encouragement, some from teachers who were involved in working with the same (or similar) theme: Shifting Landscapes, Converging Peoples. One teacher who responded even lived in Hunterdon County (where our school is located) for a number of years.

Next week begins exams and the end of the first marking period, so we should get involved in this project the following week. I'll be posting updates.

Blogging for Research Papers

A while back, Will posed the question about what blogs you would have your students read. It was an excellent question, but I was disappointed in the responses.

Now I’m getting ready to begin a research paper with my juniors and seniors. The past few years we have done a research paper based on a problem that the students identify in society. This might be as local as there are no recreational opportunities for teens in town to more global concerns like the effects of globalization on third world nations. The best papers hinge on students finding a topic they really care about.

In the past we have begun this process with a look at letters to the editor in a variety of newspapers. But with the growth of the blogosphere, it seems to me that there should be much more engaging content out there for my students to read and respond to. Since each student has his or her own weblog, they can create a post that incorporates and responds to an article (or blog) that she feels passionate about (the very essence of good blogging). So I guess I’m looking to teach my students to become bloggers first and hope that the result will be better more passionate and interesting research paper writing. But where to begin? Are there indexes of blogs that contain provocative social problems? Are there particular blogs that would appeal to teens?

Podcasts, schmodcasts. I need help!

There’s been a lot written recently about podcasts and the use of iPods in the classroom. I must admit, however, that I just don’t get it. I do see the potential for using such a seemingly ubiquitous piece of technology for educational use, but I find podcasts to be impractical.

I admit this is just my personal preference speaking. I prefer to read. It gives me time to contemplate a passage I just read without re-winding. And of course with weblogs it gives me the opportunity to respond as well.
Now for some shocking admissions from someone who advocates technology in the classroom:
  1. I also don’t own an iPod and the idea of walking around with a device plugged into my ears is not appealing to me.

  2. I rarely use a cell phone. I don’t even know my own cell phone number, and in the rare incidences when I have it on and it rings, I go into a panic trying to remember how to take the call.

So I know this puts me into the minority and I don’t want my personal preferences and prejudices to limit me as a teacher. So I’m asking for someone to show me the light. Why should I go out and buy and iPod? What wonderful forms of content are out there via podcast that are not available in any other form? And what are the possibilities for education?

Thursday, October 06, 2005

More on the Class Research Weblog Project

After interacting with my American Studies students through their weblogs, I began to rethink the year-long research project a little. While some students have passionate interests and are personally invested in their choice of topic, others seem no more excited than if they were choosing it off a list of research paper topics. Since the area I teach in, and the school itself, has changed so dramatically in the past ten years, I began to look at this more locally. In doing some research I stumbled across the book Writing America: Classroom Literacy and Public Engagement. With a name like that how could I go wrong? It was even better than I expected. This book describes the Keeping and Creating American Communities project that is supported by the National Writing Project and the National Endowment for the Humanities. It's an ambitious project, but one that might engage some of the students that don't seemed to be personally connected at this point. Rather than researching their connection to an outside interest or family background, they will be researching their connection and place in their community. They will also be active in analyzing the changes that have taken place and are happening. I'm hoping that the opportunity to work in groups or pairs might entice some of them as well. And the national project theme of Shifting Landscapes and Diverging Peoples seems tailor made for what our part of New Jersey is experiencing right now.

Is anyone familiar with this project and the resources we're going to need to pursue this?

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Welcome Inquirer Readers!

This blog, along with all my weblog based school sites, was featured in an article by Joyce Valenza who writes the Tech.Life@School column for the Philadelphia Inquirer.  It’s titled “Blogging works best as an ongoing effort” and it provides a nice introduction to the varied possibilities of weblogs in schools: “When it works well as an educational tool, blogging involves students in content, critical reading, and thoughtful, reflective writing.”   My blogs are featured as an attempt to “expand the classroom beyond its traditional walls to involve parents, other teachers, and other schools.”  In a large part this is what I’m trying to accomplish this year through my weblogs, and I’m looking for others to join me.

If you’re visiting for the first time because of this article, welcome.  Take some time to read the posts, click on the links, become a member, and join the conversation.  If you would like to collaborate with any of my classes please leave a comment or e-mail me.  I would like to be able to offer my students choices for collaboration.  This could range from working with other schools in different part of the US or world, to interacting with a college class, an expert in a related field, or local community organizations.  I’m always open to ideas that create a richer learning environment for my students.  That’s the real power of weblogs!

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Rethinking the College Craze

Today I was talking to a good friend and colleague who is a special education teacher. She is working with a few kids this year who are overwhelmed by the expectations placed on them to the point of one of them being hospitalized for depression and other mental illnesses. Although generally I think it is best to challenge all kids to reach their potential, we were left wondering if we are really doing what's best for these kids. They have so much support in high school through IEP accommodations and yet still some of them struggle mightily. What type of support can these kids expect in college? This was a question that neither of us could really answer.

I did a little searching and found a site that describes what Boston College does. Is this the norm? Are colleges bound by any laws to meet accommodations like elementary and secondary schools? This seems to be an area in which discussion between colleges and high school teachers (both regular and special Ed), counselors, and child study team members needs to take place. Or am I just ignorant about this whole process?

Getting Ready for the Next Step

Back to School Night took place a little over a week ago at my school. Not usually an event I look forward to, but this year was a little different. Parents were attending after working with their kids on the initial Background and Interest Survey (for the yearlong weblog research project in American Studies), and after receiving the letter on the multiple uses for weblogs in our classroom. I was interested in their reaction and to have a chance to personally invite them into the process.

Although we don't have much more than twenty minutes to talk with the parents, I definitely left with a good feeling.  I was even able to share with them some of the results from the survey through the weblog.  I had one parent who was concerned about whether his daughter's writing would be seen by anyone on the internet, but other than that parents seemed to have a positive outlook on the project with 15 out of 17 parents (who returned the form) opting to become members of the class weblog.  Even the parent who was concerned about privacy issues joined after I explained the control students have over who can view material on their weblog.  

The next step came Friday when we took the kids to the computer lab. I wanted them to respond to an article (that could also involve their parents) and get them talking about learning both in school and in the real world. I also invited the author of the article to participate in the discussion as well. You can see the post and the evolving discussion by clicking here.    

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Looking Back, Looking Forward

This was an exciting weekend as I received the diploma for my Master of Arts in Education from Arcadia University, and I had an article published in Technology & Learning magazine. The pursuit of both of these was a major driving point for this weblog. Much of the research cited here, along with the interview with Marc Prensky, was done to support one or the other. Now that the products of these projects are on paper, I realize just how much I’ve learned in the process. My thinking about how kids learn best has certainly broadened as I’ve become better informed.

Finding new ways to engage kids in their learning has become a passion of mine and will be the driving force from here on in. And since school is in session, hopefully this weblog can be a source of discussion as I plan, share the successes and failures, and reflect on what’s happening and why.
Here are some of my goals in this area:

  • to honor the knowledge that students and their parents can bring to the classroom

  • to find ways to make the learning more meaningful to them by offering them choices and giving students the tools needed to take control of their learning.

  • to provide opportunities for collaboration with different communities of learners, educators, and experts in the field

  • to provide opportunities to write for a real audience

  • make the planning process transparent – encouraging student and parent involvement

  • Making reflection (from both student and teachers) a regular part of the learning and teaching process

I hope you'll participate in this project as well. Please leave a comment to share your thoughts, experiences, and best practices.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Engaging the American public in its own history

There was a wonderful commentary in the Philly Inquirer about collecting war memories for a project called the Veterans History Project. I used it to try and inspire the students in our American Studies class to explore their backgrounds as they choose a topic for the long term research project. I posted excerpts of the commentary to our class weblog and found some excellent resources on connecting hertiage projects to the classroom. One is called Heritage Projects and Place-Based Education: "The broad goals of a Heritage project are to positively impact a particular state or school's educational achievement by providing teachers and students the means and motivation to become cultural researchers and historians of their own communities. " They also have additional resources for teachers here.

This sounds like it could be helpful in gaining an audience, guidance, and opportunities for collaboration as we move ahead with this project. Details are still a little sketchy at this point. We've had them do an Interest and Background Survey, given them very general parameters, and set them up with weblogs, a news aggregator, and introduced them to RSS feeds. The next step will be narrowing and deciding on a topic (that will be meaningful to them) and getting them started on collecting artifacts.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Chat Live with a Reporter

Here's a nice little activity for journalism classes or others stuudying current events, food, the arts, polictics or anything covered in the newspaper. After following a topic in the Philadelphia Inquirer via their RSS feeds, you can have your class enter a one hour chat with the reporter. You can find the schedule here and they even publish transcripts of some of the chats. If you are in a computer lab, your students can interact with the reporter in real time. The chat room is a little slow, so I would have the students vote on about five questions to be submitted at the beginning of the hour long session. Then the kids could read and interact to the developing discussion. Here's the transcript of the chat I participated in (I didn't join until about half way through) to give you an idea of what to expect.
The Inquirer also features a number of blogs from writers which provide another means for students to interact with a journalist including the Early Word, a new blog from one of the editors that takes a look at breaking news and what's in the paper. So there's all kinds of ways for budding young journalists to interact with some seasoned veterans.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

New Beginnings

The first week of school is always exciting. Meeting a new group of kids, with new challenges, and new ideas remind me of what I love about teaching. This year I have a number of new projects and ideas that I hope will engage the kids on a new level and create the kind of classroom Florence McGinn was describing.

Last Friday I set up two classes with weblogs and taught one group about RSS and news aggregators. Darrell (my American Studies teaching partner) and I kicked off the year long research project with an interest and background survey and some general guidelines for how the project will work. The kids seemed receptive although a few said they had a bad experience with weblogs last year.

We then took this group into a computer lab to get started on their weblogs and complete one new post. I have been thinking a lot about Florence’s strategies to get the kids to know themselves better as learners so they can take more responsibility and “leverage their strengths.” I hope that getting the kids to know themselves and opening up the planning process to them and their parents will allow them to become much more active in the learning process. As a first step towards this, we had them read about George Lucas and take an online multiple intelligence survey. This might not be a reliable instrument (and I know Howard Gardner doesn’t approve of these), but the purpose of doing this wasn’t necessarily to have the kids identify their strengths among the intelligences, but to reflect on themselves as learners, and to learn how to post and add a picture to the weblog. Unfortunately there was an unforeseen technical glitch. The website I sent them to graphs the results of the multiple intelligence assessment in a program called ActiveX which the school computers didn’t have loaded. Of course, one of the lessons everyone learns who uses technology in the classroom is to be flexible, so we had them do their first post on their initial thoughts on a topic for the research project instead.

Monday, September 05, 2005

A discussion with Florence McGinn

I remember standing out in the school parking lot on a freezing afternoon picking Florence McGinn's brain on one of her last weeks at our school. She had already created a course that earned her national recognition, and she graciously explained to me how she was able to earn grants from AT&T and others that enabled her to provide her kids with the resources to do some amazing things. The weeks and years after that took her and her kids to China and in front of Congress as part of the Congressional Commision for Web-Based Education. Since then she has formed GKE Learning Systems working in Beijing and elsewhere and has published Blood Trail, a volume of her poetry.

Once again Florence was kind enough to explain how she was able to accomplish so much with the technology of ten years ago. Her strategies and methods are based on honoring the individual strengths of her students and developing strategies to give students the choices and flexibility they need to be successful.

She used the videoconfrencing technolgy to make it possible for her students to collaborate with different audiences. She explains some of that here:
In those collaborations, because we had the technology, we had kids that were fine when we connected with Rider University, and they didn’t have a problem with being connected to the professor or with a university student and they’ll take their poem and they’ll put it out there. You have others that that is not appropriate for them. They feel that internally, and they need a choice. Or they need to shift and they can also extend those curricular skills and learn them by mentoring younger kids, so we also connected to the middle school. And some of the kids worked with the younger kids, and some of the kids wanted to be editors and some of them wanted to work with other high school kids and that led to the Asbury Park project. So there were choices that the individual made that were really their own. So we actually worked with what are learning styles and why you might need different expressions for yourself in developing these skills. Why might you want to exercise these at different times and shift? Because you found that some students were afraid initially and wanted to mentor a younger student, then they would become an editor, then they would want to show their work to a college student. And the technology was able to offer enough flexibility in the classroom. So yes, to answer your question collaboration was important, but just as important was to honor the individual creative process and learning process within each student.
We often teach students about creative process and they recognize that they have these needs, but we offer them only one alternative – the writing workshop in the class and that doesn’t fulfill them enough. So this was allowing students to take charge of their own learning process and the thing that really thrilled me was that they went way beyond the curriculum. In fact, some of the things that were very exciting to me was that, given that opportunity, they honored the learning so thoroughly that many of them accelerated to the point that was totally unexpected. These kids wanted to spend so much time after school that their parents would literally be knocking on the door to get them to come home and they would be screaming that “there’s a time warp in here” and they were working on writing, they were working on words.

Now that's what I call kids that are engaged in their learning! The way Florence was able to create such a flexible learning environment and still manage her classroom is remarkable to me. She's an inspiration to me of what is possible within the confines of the educational system if you are given the resources and support.
Florence not only understands how kids learn, but she found ways to make it matter to them. Certainly one of my goals this year. Here's more:
One of the things is that they’re dealing with the information that we teach them and it’s informing them, but it goes further than that, it’s forming them too, it’s shaping them. And that’s what we have to do. We deliver the information and let it integrate and let it shape them, and let the kids shape that information into what they need because they have things to do. It becomes really relevant.
I learned a great deal from this discussion, and I will be featuring more of it as I begin to put things into place this year. Read the full interview here.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Taking a Light Saber to Tired Old Teaching

George Lucas knows why the classroom needs to be transformed to better engage students and encourage creative productivity. This New York Times article describes his experiences in school: "A bored, dreamy student, George had struggled with spelling and needed to repeat math the summer after eighth grade. His high school art teacher, looking over George's drawings of space soldiers, admonished him, "Get serious." George's father refused to pay for him to study illustration in college, hoping instead he would take over the family's office-furniture store."
And this is what he has done about it:"Out of his own uninspiring education, the conviction that his abilities were ignored and throttled by conventional schooling, Mr. Lucas, 61, has assiduously yet quietly built a foundation devoted to education reform over the past dozen years.
"This is no exercise in designer charity. The George Lucas Educational Foundation has 30 full-time employees, a $4 million annual budget and a headquarters on the founder's Skywalker Ranch here in the Marin County hills. It publishes a magazine(Edutopia), produces documentaries, supports projects in both public and private schools, distributes an e-mail newsletter and maintains an extensive Web site, glef.org."

The Lucas Foundation "gets it," and the reforms, which I mentioned in a previous post, are even more vital now than when George Lucas spent time in the classroom. For now, as Marc Prensky said, "Every kid at some level has something really engaging him. And so they understand what that means and I think that's one big difference. So they're looking now to find engagement in school." Unfortunately, in too many ways, school remains fundamentally the same.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Sunday Papers 3: "Learning to teach, teaching to learn"

This article (from Sunday Inquirer) by cultural anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson examines changes in authority and learning that have been taken place and what it might mean for society. She apparently writes about this in depth in her book Willing to Learn: Passages to Personal Discovery.

Some interesting excerpts from the article:
But in addition to teaching their parents how to deal with new technologies, kids today also are teaching them profound ethical lessons about protecting the natural world and respecting themselves and others. Here are some of the examples I have heard from schoolchildren that go beyond technology or popular culture: A girl: "I taught my mom to recycle." A boy: "I taught my dad to enjoy rap." A boy: "I taught my mom to be independent." A girl: "I taught my dad not to interrupt me." A boy: "I taught my dad not to make cracks about gays."

The relationship between who learns and who teaches has been fairly constant in human cultures for millenniums; you looked at the previous generation to learn how to live. Of course parents and teachers still do a huge amount of teaching, from life skills to grammar, but today children increasingly are teaching their elders, as well. To thrive under conditions of accelerating change, you have to be learning all the time.
A whole series of relationships are becoming two-way streets: The boss has to listen to the employee, the manufacturer has to listen to the customer, the professor has to listen to the student, and the political leader who doesn't listen is likely to be out of a job. Change means that the nature of authority also is changing all over the world.

The transition I'm talking about takes a couple of generations and is moving unevenly through society, but it is already well under way. I think we are now, in this country, beginning to have a college population whose parents already understood that they didn't know all the answers and were curious and ready to learn from their children, so that the kids grew up in a kind of dialogue. That's not to say that it's true of everybody, but there's a shift in ethos.

And my personal favorite:
The slogan I use is, "You are not what you know but what you are willing to learn." Willingness to learn demands respect for others across difference. Puzzling and even disturbing ideas are invitations to curiosity, and the greater the difference the more there may be to be learned. The world is a rain forest of variety full of promise that is at risk of being lost. If one teenager could give his father an appreciation of rap, another may be interestingly articulate about body piercing and baggy clothes. I have argued that the willingness to learn is a form of spirituality. It is a stance of humility, because there is so much to be learned.

This describes a change in the atmosphere and meaning of education that has been going on for some time now. And although some haven chosen to focus on the lack of respect shown to authority figures like teachers, others have seen the positive aspects of this revolution and how classrooms must adapt to it. More support for education as a conversation and equiping students with the skills they need to adapt and learn in an ever changing and "flat" world.

Thursday, August 18, 2005


Today's Philadelphia Inquirer contains a nice analysis of how blogs and other media outlets interact to bring attention to a story that's not being covered in the mainstream media (MSM):
"They're called 'blogswarms' and you never know when they'll attack. Bloggers start taunting and disparaging the mainstream media - or MSM - for not paying attention to a story they deem worthy."

As mentioned in a previous post, the power of blogs is something students can harness as well. As a new blogger, I know how exciting it is when someone recognizes the value of something you've written (Hey, someone is actually reading this stuff!). Realizing you're writing for a real audience about something you care about certainly has an impact on writing and is one of the important elements that is sometimes left out of classroom blogging. One of the reasons might be the potential problems. Could students writing about issues at school that they don't like cause discomfort for some? Yeah, it's called democracy folks! When we empower students to take their place as citizens, these are the risks and rewards. As educators it is our responsibility to make sure students are aware of their rights and the consequences of their actions, along with the benefits of responsible internet publishing.

As adviser of the school newspaper, one of the reasons we give for why sensitive stories and controversial subjects should be covered is so that underground newspapers don't spring up to give voice to student issues that aren't being heard. But there aren't underground newspapers anymore. There are blogs. And if we don't give students a way to voice their concerns in a responsible and constructive way, there might be a blogswarm coming to a school near you.

"Blog pressure and blog reporting are integral parts of the 21st-century information revolution," Malkin said. "Better get used to it."

When the Emperor Was Divine

An interesting article in the New York Times about the growing popularity of this novel in schools. We began teaching it last year in American Studies while doing our WWII unit.
I never really thought about the present day parallels: "What has happened with "Emperor" is what no one in publishing or education can predict: the way an accomplished work of art, though set in the past, captures something essential about the present day."

It should be interesting to explore some of these questions as we read this beautifully written little book. I didn't realize any other schools even read this novel. It might make for an interesting collaboration with a school that has a large Muslim population.

Invitational Education

I just read about this theory and haven't done enough research to know how I feel about this yet. It's briefly explained here.

Invitational Education is a theory of practice that addresses the total educational environment. It is a process for communication caring and appropriate message intended to summon forth the realization of human potential as well for identifying and changing those forces that defeat and destroy potential.
The four qualities of Invitational Education are respect, trust, optimism, and intentionally:
Respect. People are able, valuable, and responsible and should be treated accordingly.
Trust. Education should be a cooperative, collaborative activity where process is as important as product.
Optimism. People possess untapped potential in all areas of worthwhile human endeavor.
Intentionally. Human potential can best be realized by creating and maintaining Places, Policies, Processes, and Programs, specifically designed to invite development, and by People who are intentionally inviting with themselves and others, personally and professionally.

It's certainly intriguing and in many ways in line with the type of classroom environment I would like to create. Seems a little idealistic and abstract on the surface though. I need to know more about practical applications and whether there is a serious body of research behind it.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

American Studies Project

I've spent a good deal of time in this blog talking about my vision, ideas, and beliefs about how education can be improved. Now, with the school year rapidly approaching, it's time to take a much more practical approach and begin to propose how I paln to implement some of this in my classroom. In the spirit of collaboration I hope you will provide me with ideas, questions, criticism, and helpful advice.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I plan to revisit an experiment I began last year in American Studies - a year long interdisciplinary course that combines English and US History. I'm hoping to engage students and parents by making the unit and lesson planning process more transparent and inviting them to participate.

I've also begun to think of this in terms of a long term project that might connect to the required research paper. If we begin the year by having students reflect on their interests, the unique experiences they and their familes have had, and how all this might apply to the themes, issues, events, arts, literature, cultures, and places that we cover in this course, perhaps each student can become engaged in an area that will have meaning for him or her.

After doing some initial research, students can be taught how to utilize news aggregators as a way to keep track of the latest material published on the internet about their topic. They could conduct interviews, collect artifacts, and write reflections on what they discover. They would then publish this all on a weblog, and when we get to the time period or unit to which their topic best relates, the student can be the expert on this by presenting what he or she has discovered. By publishing it through a weblog each student can get feedback along the way from teachers, parents, students and other experts in their chosen area.

Finally, they would examine the impact this topic had for the country in the traditional social studies research paper.


This is a wonderful magazine that is available through an RSS feed. After reading the articles from the current issue in my news aggregator, I think I'm going to subscribe to the print edition. Few articles have articulated the vision I have for the classroom as well as this one entitled "Big Ideas for Better Schools." They identify ten credos that are categorized under students, teachers, schools and community. The magazine plans on publishing a series of essays that will expand on each credo in upcoming issues.
Below are some of the credos I feel are most important.

Engage: Project-Based Learning Students go beyond the textbook to study complex topics based on real-world issues, such as the water quality in their communities or the history of their town, analyzing information from multiple sources, including the Internet and interviews with experts. Project-based classwork is more demanding than traditional book-based instruction, where students may just memorize facts from a single source. Instead, students utilize original documents and data, mastering principles covered in traditional courses but learning them in more meaningful ways. Projects can last weeks; multiple projects can cover entire courses. Student work is presented to audiences beyond the teacher, including parents and community groups.
Connect: Integrated Studies Studies should enable students to reach across traditional disciplines and explore their relationships, like James Burke described in his book Connections. History, literature, and art can be interwoven and studied together. Integrated studies enable subjects to be investigated using many forms of knowledge and expression, as literacy skills are expanded beyond the traditional focus on words and numbers to include graphics, color, music, and motion.
Expand: Comprehensive Assessment Assessment should be expanded beyond simple test scores to instead provide a detailed, continuous profile of student strengths and weaknesses. Teachers, parents, and individual students can closely monitor academic progress and use the assessment to focus on areas that need improvement. Tests should be an opportunity for students to learn from their mistakes, retake the test, and improve their scores.
Coach: Intellectual and Emotional Guide
The most important role for teachers is to coach and guide students through the learning process, giving special attention to nurturing a student's interests and self-confidence. As technology provides more curricula, teachers can spend less time lecturing entire classes and more time mentoring students as individuals and tutoring them in areas in which they need help or seek additional challenges.
Adopt: Technology The intelligent use of technology can transform and improve almost every aspect of school, modernizing the nature of curriculum, student assignments, parental connections, and administration. Online curricula now include lesson plans, simulations, and demonstrations for classroom use and review. With online connections, students can share their work and communicate more productively and creatively.
Involve: Parents When schoolwork involves parents, students learn more. Parents and other caregivers are a child's first teachers and can instill values that encourage school learning. Schools should build strong alliances with parents and welcome their active participation in the classroom. Educators should inform parents of the school's educational goals, the importance of high expectations for each child, and ways of assisting with homework and classroom lessons.
Include: Community Partners Partnerships with a wide range of community organizations, including business, higher education, museums, and government agencies, provide critically needed materials, technology, and experiences for students and teachers. These groups expose students and teachers to the world of work through school-tocareer programs and internships. Schools should enlist professionals to act as instructors and mentors for students.

Sunday Papers 2

One of my favorite weekly rituals is to spend Sunday morning with a cup of coffee or tea and my Philadelphia Inquirer. In between the T.O. coverage there was a couple of interesting articles that look at the complexity of what many see as simple issues.

First was Arthur Caplan's look at Rafael Palmeiro and the renewed steroid scandal in baseball. But this article (by the Chairman of the Medical Ethics Committee at the University of Penn) sees this issue as the first in a series of complex ethical questions we will have to face in the near future: "There is nothing about the reaction to Rafael Palmeiro's downfall that indicates we are ready to deal with the fundamental ethical question raised by his use of steroids: How can we draw the line when it comes to enhancement?" This issue is explored further in this article which is a preview of a new book on the subject by Joel Garreau entitled, Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies - and What It Means to Be Human and in the film Gattaca.

The second article looks at the many gray areas in copyright infringement. This is another area that raises some complex and difficult ethical questions as digital technology becomes more sophisticated. When is copying legal? When is it stealing? And will society lean more toward open collaboration (see Creative Commons)?

It should be interesting to see how these issues play out and to get students to respond to them as well. We try to touch on some of these issues when we do a unit on Dystopian Literature in a junior/senior level English course. Having them examine real ethical questions and how they might effect society in the future helps them to see what the statement the authors are trying to make about society through the novels and stories. Students choose one of the following novels to read: Feed, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and A Clockwork Orange.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Self-Detemination Theory and what it means for the classroom

From the beginning of this weblog, I've been inspired by the transparency and grassroots movements that have taken place in journalism and other disciplines. I thought by applying this to education, students would have more of voice in their learning and feel more engaged in it. In reflecting on my intial efforts to apply this, I've stumbled on to a whole body of psychological research about something called Self-Determination Theory. Basically this theory says that if people feel competent, autonomous, and relatedness then intrinsic motivation will increase and so will feelings of well being. Makes sense to me. A couple of articles apply this directly to education.

The first study conducted by Black and Deci looks at the autonomy of students and teacher support of student autonomy as a predictor of success in a college organic chemisty course. Autonomy in this study is defined as instrinsic motivation. They determined motivation for students to do work for a course through a questionaire. "Individuals’ ratings of the degree to which each reason is relevant for them can be combined to yield a summary score called the Relative Autonomy Index (RAI)." They found that students who chose the course because of intrinsic interest were less likely to drop the course and make adjustments to the requirements. They also found that students' whose RAI grew during the course performed better and that if they perceived that their instructor supported student autonomy they performed much better. They concluded: "It appears that shifts in teaching approaches toward providing more support for students’ autonomy and active learning may hold promise for enhancing students’ achievement and psychological development. To some extent this can be accomplished by having professors become more student-oriented, more accessible to students, and responsive to their needs and concerns.

The second artcle summarized the finding of many studies and looks at ways in which educators can put these theories to use, for it claims that "self-determination theory has identified ways to better motivate students to learn at all educational levels, including those with disabilities."

It draws the following conclusions:
"Students experience competence when challenged and given prompt feedback. Students experience autonomy when they feel supported to explore, take initiative and develop and implement solutions for their problems. Students experience relatedness when they perceive others listening and responding to them. When these three needs are met, students are more intrinsically motivated and actively engaged in their learning.
Numerous studies have found that students who are more involved in setting educational goals are more likely to reach their goals. When students perceive that the primary focus of learning is to obtain external rewards, such as a grade on an exam, they often perform more poorly, think of themselves as less competent, and report greater anxiety than when they believe that exams are simply a way for them to monitor their own learning."

Unfortunately, as I've discussed before, most of my students perform only for a grade and it seems a difficult culture to break. It comes back to an ideal that many teachers aim for: creating lifelong learners. It doesn't seem to me that we are doing a very good job of this.

Challenging Students

I know I've spoken about engaging students as a key element in improving education a lot lately. Empowering students to pursue some of their own interests, drawing from their experiences and involving family and community to create writing and products that have relevancy is certainly an important part of this, but sometimes I feel as though I've sold academic rigor short. I don't want to do that. One of the most important roles of a teacher is to challenge students to look at things from a different viewpoint or present them with material that makes them re-examine conventional wisdom. Beyond using what's in the curriculum, I'm always looking for new ways to present interesting topics and prompts for writing and discussion.

This summer I saw two films that certainly challenged me and got me thinking.
One was called Baraka which I found out is one of a growing genre of movies that began Koyaanisqatsi with in 1982. They have no dialogue or narration, but instead use vivid visuals, music, and editing to make statements and raise questions. Many of them examine the value of progress and technology by contrasting our everyday lives with the natural world or effects on Third World countries. This might work well with the book Into the Wild which examines the life of Chris McCandless who was a bright upper middle class college graduate who threw away all material things to travel the country and spending a great deal of time alone in the wilderness. Many students fail to see any value in his journey and find it difficult to really examine the lifestyle we all live from day to day. Perhaps some short clips from Baraka and other films of this genre would lead to valuable writing and discussion.

The other film was What the Bleep Do we Know!? which although certainly thought provoking might not have any English classroom application. It probably crosses too much into the spiritual realm to be used, but I certainly enjoyed the way they used storytelling, animation, and interview to explain complex topics. In a way it is an expansion on what New Journalism strives to do, except it employs ficticious characters to put a face on the story.

Has anyone had success using unconventional videos such as these to prompt writing and discussion?

Friday, August 05, 2005

What Bloggers can do.

As has been recognized before, one of the values of the blogosphere is to give voice to the voiceless, and bring attention to events that aren't determined newsworthy (for one reason or another) in the Mainstream media. This was illustrated once again last week in the story of missing pregnant woman Latoyia Figueroa. This story was only being covered in Philadelphia until local bloggers such as this one and this one and then the more widely read allspinzone.com raised the question about why Natalie Holloway's disappearance was getting so much national media attention while Figueroa was getting none: "She isn't white. She isn't rich. She is a mother. She is also pregnant. And she's missing, and has been for the last 8 days." Enough noise was made in the blogosphere that CNN and others national news organizations began to cover the story. Blogs were even given credit for bringing national attention to the story in this Philadelphia Inquirer article and this syndicated column from the Kansas City Star. The way the media covers missing persons is even going to be the topic of a segment on "Dateline NBC" tonight.

So what does all this have to do with education? Well as mentioned in an earlier post, many are seeing an explosion in amateur creative production due to the new tools that make it easier to create professional quality music, video, and publish new works. Students also have the ability to become activists and expose racism and injustice in a new real world setting. This is an opportunity that education can't miss out on. We can't let our fears about what students might produce keep us from encouraging students to do real work that will have meaning for them and others. We can give them the guidance they need to make good decisions, keep them safe, and allow them to fulfill the learning objectives of the curriculum while still pursuing topics and activities that will fully engage them.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Interactive News Map

Google has developed a mapping software that seems to have all kinds of uses. One that might be applicable to schools is a news map called NewsGlobe that plots stories by location. As journalism.co.uk describes it: "The tool scans headlines for keywords that identify the location of the story, and then presents them by headline with the location pinpointed. A summary of the story appears when the user hovers over the text and they can click through the the full story on the original news site."
Students can subscribe to different news publications that put out RSS feeds (New York Times, BBC, Washington Post, etc.) and follow the way events are covered by them. This would lead to an interesting study for journalism classes, but also might have uses for any class that is studying a certain region or even local current events. Google Earth also has a bulletin board that encourages discussion from educators and others about how the software might be used in the classroom.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Culture of High School - Time for a Change?

Here's an interesting article that calls for the American high school to be abolished. As a high school teacher I obviously have some problems with this, but the author makes some observations that I find it hard to argue with. Here's an excerpt:

The result, predictably, is the warped culture that holds sway in the halls of most American high schools. Adolescents are conformist, so the culture demands conformity. Adolescents are vicious, so the culture is cruel beyond belief. Adolescents are insecure and anti-intellectual, so the culture despises academic achievement. And, of course, adolescents (or their parents, more likely) adore athletics, and so the culture treats athletic stars and their paramours as its kings and queens.
When a student finally graduates out of this culture, he has undoubtedly gained a smattering of practical knowledge. But after four years in a shallow, conformist world, he is no closer to being an adult, really, than when he entered high school in the first place. Or if he has matured, than it has been in spite of his "socialization," not because of it.
But it's so important for kids to spend time with their peers, the objectors will bleat. Well, yes, time with one's peers is great--but must it be every day, from eight till five and beyond? Surely this is arrant nonsense. Adolescents are messed-up, confused, insecure human beings, each buckling under an individual, angst-ridden burden. Why on earth would it be good for them to spend all of their time with other angst-ridden, insecure, unhappy types?
In a saner world, they would be forced to live with, and as, adults for large chunks of time--making it more likely that they would actually become adults. Such a world would encourage home-schooling, for instance, by easing the economic burden for parents who choose to stay home and teach. It would offer a more flexible, decentralized system of education, balancing classroom time with, say, vocational training and programs allowing kids to work under and alongside adults in local workplaces. It would be a world where adolescents were integrated into society, not ghettoized in the local high school.

My view of adolescents isn't nearly as bleak. I don't find most of them to be "messed-up, confused, insecure human beings," but the effect of the culture Ross Douthat describes seems fairly accurate to me. The idea of radical reform that many have called for recently to fix high schools might involve removing students from this culture for at least part of the day. Creating a more "flexible, decentralized system of education" is vital, I believe, and I think technology and the work of forward thinking educators could produce this. But it certainly won't happen without the courage to make some very radical changes. But what might these changes look like and how would they benefit teens both socially and intellectually? Could partnership between colleges, community, and business (whether in person or online) be part of the answer? And how do you facilitate this while still keeping kids busy and engaged during the hours their parents are at work?

Monday, August 01, 2005

Teens and Technology

A new study from the Pew Internet and & American Life Project was released last week and although there were no big surprises revealed, a clear picture of the way that teens communicate and spend their leisure time emerged.
Here's are some findings I found significant:
87% of U.S. teens aged 12-17 use the internet, and 51% of teenage internet users say they go online on a daily basis. And for high school aged teens the percentages are even higher: in 7 th grade, it jumps to 82% who are online. From there, the
percent of users in the teen population for each grade climbs steadily before topping out at 94% for eleventh and twelfth graders.

One out of every two teens who use the internet lives in a home with a broadband connection. This statistic surprised me and lends more credence to the explosion of online content referred to in the Inquirer article I commented on in a previous post. This is an area that seems to hold a lot of promise for educational uses. By being able to share games, audio and video files and webcast, content and discussions can move out of the classroom. But more importantly we're now entering a time when many students have the skills and tools to produce these products as means to demonstrate their learning and teach others. In fact many are noticing and prediciting an explosion in amateur creativity (as described in this BBC article) that schools and students could, and should be a part of. Another by-product might be new meaningful interactive homework and enhancement activities. A frequent complaint I hear from students is the about the amount and ineffectiveness of homework. In fact, a study summarized here looked into this very matter. They used an interactive homework program to engage students and parents and found it a more effective learning tool and one that students would more readily complete. They also found that parents can play more of a role in high school students' schoolwork through programs like these. "High schools have the capacity to change the way that families support teens' school success. When high schools reach out to involve families, families are more likely to be involved in ways that support teens' success through the last year of high school."

"Instant messaging has become the digital communication backbone of teens' daily lives. About half of instant-messaging teens or roughly 32% of all teens use IM every single day."
"IM is a multi-channel space of personal expression for teens. They typically converse in text, but they also share links, photos, music, and video over IM."

IM is another overlooked technology that has educational uses. Teens are obviously very comfortable with it, and although you wouldn't want it to be used where more formal reflective writing is required, for quick informal discussion and interaction among teachers and classmates it is ideal.

When compared to adults, teens are more than twice as likely to play games online; 81% of online teens say they are gamers, compared to 32% of online adults.
This seems to be a growing area for educational software developers and something that was covered in my interview with Marc Prensky.

I believe that if we want to engage students in new ways we must utilize the formats of communication, entertainment, and information that they are familiar with. An earlier Pew study focused on what they termed the Digdisconnectonect: "Many schools and teachers have not yet recognized, much less responded to, the new ways students communicate and access information over the Internet. Students report that there is a substantial disconnect between how they use the Internet for school and how they use the Internet during the school day and under teacher direction."

These studies taken together offer a portrait of our students and the means of content delivery and areas of interest that compete for their time. Students are regularly reporting that high school doesn't engage them. So rather than try to beat them; let's find ways to join them.

The Sunday Papers

A few interesting articles yesterday from my favorite newspapers the Philadelphia Inquirer and The New York Times. The front page of the Inquirer featured an article about how broadband technology is changing the way people use the internet to include video footage and even online TV stations. They describe college students who get practically all of their content (news, entertainment, music, information) from the internet and internet only TV stations such as ManiaTV!. What really interested me was the ease that they claimed someone could broadcast, the interactiveness of some of the broadcasts, and the growth and makeup of the audience. I'd like to introduce a broadcast component to my Journalism 2 class and maybe this is a different and less time consuming way to do it.
There was also this column about the textbook the Philadelphia School district will be using for it's new mandatory African American History course. This topic is a favorite of mine and is important in the interdisciplinary American Studies course I team teach. One of the problems I've found in teaching African American history to mostly white students is they have a hard time understanding the impact of our history on the present. They seem to think that racism and discrimination were in the South and the past and if there is any discrimination today it's against whites. The African-American Odyssey is a college textbook being re-written for tenth graders and seems to do a nice job clearing up some popular misconceptions. The article even includes a quiz (derived from the book) with some surprising answers (I only got 7 out of 10 correct). Did you know that as of 1830 there were over 2,000 slaves in New Jersey?
The New York Times also had a useful article to help get through to these kids. It is a study from Penn State that used DNA evidence that showed how most of us are of mixed races. Too bad we couldn't start the school by letting each kid discover his or her true racial makeup. I'm sure it would engage some students in African American history in new ways.

Finally, there was this story in the New York Times that questions the usefulness of college education programs. It claims that "for decades, education schools have gravitated from the practical side of teaching, seduced by large ideas like 'building a caring learning community and culture" and "advocating for social justice.'" It calls for education programs to become more focused on what goes on in the classroom believing that will help reduce the large number of teachers who leave the profession in the first few years. But while I acknowledge that there might need to be a better balance between the practical and the theoretical, I don't think too much of a swing would be helpful. Teachers need to be aware of the big picture in education beyond their content material and how to prepare for standardized tests. Knowing the history and scope of education and the various theories supporting it, creates reflective teachers that work to engage students in the content in new and more exciting ways. I'm glad that I took a mix of education and English content courses in graduate school. Many of those education courses made me rethink what I do in the classroom and why I do it.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Getting Parents Involved

I have to admit that one of the aspects of elementary schoool teaching that never appealed to me was dealing with parents in the classroom on a regular basis. It just seemed that there was too much that could go wrong in these situations. Plus, as the parent of a ten year old, I've heard enough bus stop conversations about certain teachers to be thankful that I teach high school. Still, although teens certainly need to become more independent, I've come to believe that parents are extremely important element in their child's education even in high school. It's a time that while giving them more freedom they can get involved in other ways. A lot of research on the subject is summarized here, and while much of it concerns elementary school students, there is a considerable number of studies that show that high school students (especially before senior year) benefit as well. According to one study, "parents' educational expectations and encouragement were by far the most important type of family pratice" (Catsambis 93). Another found that schools who contacted parents about how they could get involved or help their child were view more positively (Sanders, et al 162-163) and they all seem to point to parent-school partnerships as a largely untapped and important resource. But none of them seem to examine a more direct approach to parents and the classroom.

I tried inviting parents to contribute their experience and expertise last year in my American Studies class that combines Sophmore English withUS II (American History from1920 to the present). The idea was to get both students and their parents contribute to the content of the course and have a voice in what was happening in the classroom. Although my teaching partner and I know the material very well, I'm sure the 27 students and their parents have interests and experiences that could have greatly added to the content. At the same time, we were hoping that this would lead to the students being more engaged in the content, and their parents being more involved in their school work as well. Unfortunately, as I've refered to in other posts, only a few parents actually participated. I would like to try and approach this in a slightly different way. First, we could introduce the weblog and the idea at the beginning of the course (rather than in the middle) and explain it further at back to school night. And although idealistically, I would like to leave participation in the weblog as voluntary, I might have to require students to participate to some extent.

Finally, perhaps each student can be responsible for presenting a lesson on a topic that they have an interest in or their family has a unique relationship to. Maybe they have a grandparent that was present at a battle in WWII, or their grandmother worked in a factory during this time. They could conduct an interview and show pictures and artifacts. Perhaps the student is a musician and would like to present changes in the electric guitar and it's impact, or one of their parents grew up in Levittown (like me) and can present pictures and artifacts to illustrate it's importance and impact. This could also end up relating in some way to their research paper. We could get kids thinking about this early on by completing a survey on the interests and experiences of themselves and their family members.

Has anyone tried anything like this? Does it seem worthwhile? Will the involvement of parents serve to limit the participation of some kids or will it be a positive thing? Are most parents interested in being this involved or do they think it better to let the kids do things on their own at this age?

Alternatives to teaching to the test

This article in the New York Times has created a lot of discussion on the Teachers and Writers listeserve. It illustrates how reliance on the five-paragraph essay, as mandated by testing, is leaving little time to work on other important aspects of writing, such as developing voice, and is in fact killing the creativity and sophisticated thinking that a good writing program encourages. Some on the listserve go so far as to call for teachers to take action and fight NCLB testing practices. They point to websites here and here that have gathered support to make changes.

Here's some excerpts from the ongoing listserve discussion:
Fostering individual creativity will do much more to move our society forward than any homogenization of the whole.
While I am not blind to the merits of a well conceived brief essay, it seems that the form has become prized out of all relationship with its actual function. In my mind, it has become an academic model, nothing more.
I feel the pain of my students EVERY DAY--it is really doing a lot of psychological damage.
The idea of prewriting on something I care nothing about, drafting on something I care nothing about, revising and editing ON MY OWN WITHOUT PEER INPUT, and then publishing a piece I care nothing about on a topic I care nothing about, with improvements I literally had no time to think about making (giving a writer minutes to edit and revise amounts to no time at all), etc. all this is mind boggling to gifted writers.

These are all excellent points, but I do believe it is possible for talented teachers to infuse real writing practices and techniques into the curriculum and then relate them to the five-paragraph essay. Writing with authentic voice, developing short scenes (including characters and dialogue), and using vivid details are all techniques that should contribute to an excellent essay. The problem of course is the time limit and formula kids have to work within. At my school we've done an excellent job teaching the essay, and now it's time we moved beyond it. I admit this can be difficult especially with everything else that must be covered Freshman and Sophomore years.

Here's one interesting approach (posted on the listserve) to writing and the essay that might have potential, especially for my interdisciplinary 10th grade course.
This year in my seventh-grade language arts classes, we took a conversational approach to literature and writing from a democratic perspective focusing on social justice. We began the year with conversations about life, who they were, how they are known, and what perpetuates this identity of groups and individuals. Discovering it was language that helps construct our identity, we began to look at how it does this. Conversations of students in small groups were taped and later analyzed using a conversational analysis. Students transcribed parts, identified key components of the conversations, noted patterns, and observed vocabulary.

In the meantime, our conversations and readings focused on topics such as freedom vs. equality, maturity, school issues, etc.... These were then related to the conversations to see if our class was democratic or not.

While analyzing transcripts, students observed how they sound in a conversation.Realizing they didn't speak in "formal" English, they transformed their conversations in to formal. This gave us ample opportunity to discuss grammar, word choice, etc... that spilled into their writing.

Overriding all of this was a focus on the language (vocabulary) of our trade. We needed to understand the meanings of the terms we used, not just memorize a definition and repeat it. We re-learned what a sentence was, what a verb was, what a subject was, and what characteristics made them that. Students were asked to analyze words and sentences, and explain the answer they gave.

We spent two weeks reviewing for the spring standardized tests. Only the county test for promotion has been scored and returned. Only one student out of 120 did not pass the LA section. Students in special ed., ESOL, and "regular" ed. classes all performed with phenomenal scores.

What do you think? Any other ideas or responses to the effects of testing on student writing?