Sunday, March 28, 2010

Twitter and #PTChat

As a member of Twitter (KerryHawk02), I have participated in several #EdChats. But this past week, on Wednesday night at 9pm, I participated in #PTChat. It is a discussion about parent-teacher communication and the role of parents in the education process at school. Some of the participants were just teachers, some were just parents, and some were both. It was really interesting and eye-opening.The moderators are @Parentella and @ShellTerrell. I have been following both of them for a while and found them both through participation in #EdChats.

Here is a taste of the conversation, from KerryHawk02's posts (my posts):

The part of the conversation I liked was that it wasn't all positive. Many people posted issues involved in parent-teacher communication. Some of problems discussed included working v. non-working parents, child care for parents of other young children, and teachers talking to parents as if they are students. All of these are real issues that are not easily solved. In the end, most of us agreed that parent communication should be a part of teacher education.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Technology, Teaching, and Tradition... Are They Compatible?

Will Richardson, the beloved author of Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts..., recently posted an interesting, and somewhat troubling, anecdote on his blog. His blog is called Weblogg-Ed and the post is entitled Reality Check. It is compelling, and yet brief, so I'll post the entire text here:

Recently a school administrator shared a story that reminded me why I need to spend more time talking to more people outside of the echo chamber.

She said that a group of parents had requested a meeting to discuss the methods of a particular teacher and his use of technology. It seemed this teacher had decided to forgo the textbook and have students write their own on a wiki, that he published a great deal of his students’ work online, that he taught them and encouraged them to use Skype to interview people who they had researched and identified as valuable voices in their learning, and that he shared all of his lectures and classwork online for anyone, not just the students in his class, could access them and use them under a Creative Commons license.

When the administrator got the phone call from the parent who wanted to set up the meeting, she asked for some sense of what the problem was. The reply?

“Our students don’t need to be a part of a classroom experiment with all this technology stuff. They need to have a real teacher with real textbooks and real tests.”


What is so troubling about this story is that these students were acquiring knowledge through an authentic process. The teaching may not have been traditional, but it was good teaching. The content and Web 2.0 skills they learned by taking this class will outlast most of the information they memorized from textbooks and regurgitated on tests in other classes. If we want to prepare our students for real world careers, we need to start holding them responsible for creating real products in school.

Now, after taking a deep breath, I took comfort in the fact that Reading parents, in my experience, have been more forward thinking. My freshmen students have grown so much since September. I have started holding them more responsible for their own learning, although I have to admit I haven't done anything as daring as the teacher mentioned in Will Richardson's post. In one of our recent units we had a couple of student-centered activities in which I was merely the facilitator. They students took responsibility for their own learning and the learning of their classmates.

Classroom Museum

First, they created museum-style exhibits complete with interactive elements and even artifacts, to help teach their classmates about some portion of the unit. Then they created worksheets for their classmates to fill in as they visited the exhibit so that they would have accurate notes to study when the classroom museum activity was over. I don't have electronic copies of the worksheets, but here are some pictures of the kids with the exhibits they created.

Review Rap Podcast

Later in the unit, I decided not to create the traditional study guide or run the traditional review session. Instead, I challenged students to get into groups and write raps that explained the major concepts from the unit. Then, I promised to let them record the raps and publish them on our class Edline page as a podcast. Not only did they have fun, but the discussion we had after listening to the raps truly helped the kids understand the material better in preparation for the unit test. (Yes, I'll admit I gave them a "real test" as the parents in Will Richardson's post demanded.)

Powered by

The parents' responses to both the pictures and recordings of their kids was positive. Here are quotes from a couple of the emails.

Mrs. Gallagher,

Cool! Congratulations to you and your class for doing great research and using the wonderful technology you have at RMHS. Please keep sharing!

Dear Ms. Gallagher,

Megan and I loved the podcast! Thanks for sharing with us and making history fun!!

What was so exciting about receiving these emails is that they were completely unsolicited. I hope to continue implementing Web 2.0 tools.

My next undertaking is a long-term research project that will culminate in a documentary. I assigned it today and, although their eyes grew large when I explained the scope of the assignment, they left the classroom excited about their topics and the prospect of sharing their final documentaries with each other when we have our "Viewing Party" in May. It isn't the traditional research paper that students are accustomed to writing in history classes, but I hope it reflects the same research process with a final product that better reflects many 21st Century skills, including writing. Wish me (and my students) luck!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Power of Wikis In/Outside the Classroom

A little over a month ago Anne Low, an 8th grade teacher at Parker Middle School in my town, and I had the idea to help ease the course placement and transition process for 8th graders by hooking them up with 9th graders. Although I now teach high school, we taught 8th grade history together at Parker for the past two years. We noticed that students get a lot of information in a formal way (through presentations from RMHS administrators and guidance counselors during the school day or through evening meetings at RMHS that are expressly for incoming feshmen) but they never get a chance to really ask the questions that make them the most nervous about high school. Questions like...

  • I think I have the choice of going into all honors classes for my freshman year. Do you think I could be able to do that and still have a social life at the same time?
  • I heard there are different lunches for each grade. So is there some freshmen in a lunch with a few kids from each age? And how many kids are in each lunch at a time?
  • How often do we use the computer lab? Do we use things like Google Docs and wikis like we did in middle school?
  • How much time does it generally take to complete all your homework? When we get projects how much time do we usually get to do it?

These are real questions from the wiki, and there are more where that came from! We decided that the easiest way for our students to communicate would be via wiki.

You can check out the results here.

The process:

  1. First we created the wiki. Since both Anne and I are administrators, we both edited the home page with our expectations for our respective students.
  2. Next we showed the wiki to our students. The freshmen were excited, but had to wait before they started editing because we needed the 8th graders to post questions. Anne took the 8th graders to the computer lab for a day or two at Parker to help them become members of the wiki and post their questions on the appropriate page.
  3. The freshmen followed suit, but they had to learn to become members and edit the wiki on their own time. Based on the amount of exposure and experience they have had with Web 2.0 tools in my class so far this year (and based on the fact that they are all honors level students) I told them that I expected they would be able to figure it out. There were a few who had trouble and came for extra help before and after school last week, but in the end we accomplished our mission.

Although the results aren't necessarily pretty, mostly because there were almost 200 students editing one wiki website, the students did a nice job coming up with and answering questions. Some of my freshmen even embedded video clips, images, and provided links to some examples of their work from the school year so far. I'm not sure how satisfied Anne was with the process I have a few reflections.

  • I wish my freshmen were able to answer each and every question on the wiki, but without assigning certain students to each other it was not possible. Maybe we can set it up that way next year.
  • The freshmen really liked the activity. Some remarked to me that they had the same questions as 8th graders a year ago. They also liked that they felt like the "older kids" for a change. As the lowest underclassmen at RMHS, it was a nice moment for them.
  • I was pleased with how genuine the 8th graders' questions seemed to be and how considerate the freshmen's responses were. They really took the time to answer the questions the way the 8th graders wanted them to.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Marblehead: Connecting Me with Alan November

Ellie Freedman, RMHS principal, shared this video with us, her faculty, after attending a session with Alan November over February vacation and listening to his ideas. I was intrigued by the setting November chose for the video.

November juxtaposed the history of Marblehead, Massachusetts with the need to assign class work and projects that all students to be contributors, not just workers in the classroom. I worked at Marblehead Veterans Middle School as an 8th grade social studies teacher for 4 years prior to coming to Reading. I'll admit the connection is tenuous, but it was enough to help me recognize many of the narrow colonial streets and coastal landscapes in the video.

Myths and Opportunities: Technology in the Classroom by Alan November from Brian Mull on Vimeo.

Based on this video (and a complimentary article by November you can find if you click here) we have both learned a few things from our time in Marblehead:

  • Technology for technology's sake is NOT an improvement in education.
  • Students like to be told what to do, because it is easy to receive and follow instructions. The best way to challenge them is to ask them what they need to do in order to learn.
  • Students do better work when they are going to share that work with their peers, or with an even wider audience via the web. The quality of work goes down when the only eyes that will see it are the teacher's.

There are a few other things that November does NOT cover in his video, but I think they are important to remember.

  • Rolling out these ideas takes time. Once the kids know what to do, it may not take much time out of your curriculum instruction, but you have to make some sacrifices early in the year to set them up.
  • It is best to try one or two ideas at a time. Become an expert at those applications (and allow your students to become comfortable experts in their own roles) before you roll out another idea.
  • Don't let yourself, or your students, get frustrated if it doesn't work right away. Students need reminders. They need encouragment when they are taking part in self-directed learning. It is frustrating and requires a lot of mental effort. They need you to remind them all along that you believe in them and that their effort will be worth it in the end.