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,"

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.