Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Why I LOVE History Lesson Planning (& HATE Christopher Columbus)

It starts with an idea. This was the idea I had last week:
I don't want to be another in a long line of teachers who lets Columbus Day come and go silently.  I don't want to horrify my students, but they deserve to know the truth.
So I start researching.

First, I looked for something that Columbus said in his own words. An obvious choice was his report to the the King and Queen of Spain upon his triumphant return from his first voyage in 1493.
For this and all images throughout the post,
click the screenshot to go directly to the resource.
Columbus speaks of the natives of Hispaniola in favorable terms.  They were welcoming, friendly, and unarmed.  Columbus seemed pleased.  Well, as I confirmed through further research, he should have been pleased.  He stood to receive a substantial reward if he discovered something that could be profitable for the Spanish Empire during his voyage.  The Library of Congress showed through primary sources that he gained the right to "bear arms" (this meant have his own coat of arms in Renaissance Europe), to use the title of admiral, and to collect a significant cash reward.
Top: Columbus's coat of arms
Bottom: Book of Privileges recording Columbus's agreements with the Spanish crown
OK, so far, Christopher Columbus presents as a wildly successful explorer who enjoyed the rewards that he worked hard to earn.  After all, a year-long journey to parts unknown is no small accomplishment, right?  And he did it FOUR times.  What a guy.  Well, it just so happens that an infographic on The Oatmeal website came to my attention through Facebook.  It didn't necessarily reveal anything new, but the way the information was presented was compelling.  This is the main thesis:
I love the attractive layout and shock value that this infographic delivers.  I plan to show select screenshots of it.  They will no doubt get a reaction from my 14 year old freshmen.  In my opinion though, the coolest thing about this infographic is that is goes on to hail Bartolome de las Casas as a quiet hero of Native American rights in an era when heralded explorers and mass murderers like Columbus were getting the most recognition. Las Casas, a Catholic priest and adventurer, is someone that all history teachers of the Age of Exploration worth their salt already cover.  He published quite a bit of testimony on the unjust and unChristian treatment of Native Americans by Spanish conquistadors and settlers.  So, next I needed to find a good translation of one of his documents.  The most obvious choice is his most known work.
Las Casas chronicles the enslavement and brutality against native groups that Columbus started and others continued.  He entreats the Spanish crown to enforce laws that protect the natives in New Spain (Spain's claims in the Americas).  Turns out, as I read I found out that Las Casas faced some significant opposition.  Most notably from Juan Gines de Sepulveda, the official historian of the the Spanish king, who argued that the natives were barbarians who were fundamentally inferior and therefore deserved to be enslaved by the civilized Christianized Spanish colonists.
Now these two resources, from Las Casas and Sepulveda, should be read as arguments against one another to help students evaluate historical examples of persuasive writing (a VERY Common Core concept).  But, again, I teach 14 year old freshmen.  The sources are long and are written in an archaic translation of Spanish.  So, I read through them, picked short excerpts that were more manageable for the teenage mind and put together an adversarial activity that will get the kids worked up, I hope.

Armed with their new knowledge of the true legacy of Christopher Columbus, I wanted to students to do some thinking of their own.  I chose some historical artwork from the 1800s, an era when Columbus was still hailed as a hero and people still felt that Columbus Day was a holiday worth celebrating.
My hope is that students will notice how the American artist depicted Columbus and his men as compared to how he chose to depict the Native Americans.  Clothed versus naked. Strong versus weak. Standing versus crouching. Light versus dark.  Art shows perspective.  It does not show truth.  

As a history teacher, my job is to help students learn how to investigate truth.  Hopefully my own investigations and research to put together this lesson will be a step toward reaching that goal.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

What Drives Me

Daniel Pink's book Drive boldly analyzes why we humans do things.  His analysis was meant to be read by business CEOs and managers, but many have applied his research and conclusions to education.  While his ideas are interesting, they certainly do not fit into the current public education model.  His book did cause me to ask myself, "What drives me to be a teacher?"

The Test
Pink discusses of the two types of people that exist according to him in Chapter 3.

Type X
"Type X behavior is fueled more by extrinsic desires than intrinsic ones.  It concerns itself less with the inherent satisfaction of an activity and more with the external rewards to which that activity leads."

Type I
"Type I behavior is fueled more by intrinsic desires than extrinsic ones.  It concerns itself less with the external rewards to which an activity leads and more wit the inherent satisfaction of the activity itself."

Well, of course after reading these descriptions and the more detailed analysis that follows, anyone would want to be classified as an I.  No one wants to think they are motivated to do things merely for the reward or recognition.  Everyone likes to think that they make choices for honorable reasons.  Also, Pink claims in bold lettering that "Type I's almost always outperform Type X's in the long run."  Well, after that claim, being labeled a Type X has very little appeal.  It is as if a Type X is sentenced to a lifetime of mediocrity.  Pink offers the Drive Survey on his website to help with self-evaluation and reflection.

So, I am an X. Ugh.

Upon reflecting on the test, there were a few questions that I felt could be regarded as invalid for teachers.  Here are some examples:

Public school teachers' work lives are definitely fixed.  My ability to consult with colleagues, meet with students, and even to eat and use the restroom are dictated by bells.  The bell systems of the Industrial Revolution have been eliminated from most work places in most industries, but not in education.  I've also had to make tough choices about child care for my own very young children as a result of my work schedule.  My husband can only take vacation time from his job to be with me when school vacations are scheduled.  Spontaneity is not really a possibility.  Doesn't sound intrinsic to me. 

Our professional goals are set by the district, school, and department administrators who are our supervisors.  Although we have some input at the department level, we certainly do not have individual autonomy.  I agree that each of the written goals we have been given are important, so I'm on board.  On the other hand I have my own goals that might not apply to other individuals in my department, school, or district.  These include expanding the use of primary sources in the classroom for all ability levels, going paperless, and networking more with other history teachers who are integrating technology.  All three of these things make history more real and exciting for me.  They get my students to say and do amazing things in my classroom.  So I do set my own goals and I do monitor my own performance, but officially the answer is that I disagree with the statement on the survey.  The goals by which I am formally evaluated are not goals that I set for myself at all.  Once again, not much room for intrinsic motivation here.

Some entities make the choices for me at work: Department Head for the classes I teach, Massachusetts Curriculum Standards for content, Common Core standards for skills, and school administration for the daily bell schedule including when I teach/eat/prep my lessons.  Some choices I get to make myself: which colleagues I want to collaborate with, which activities and primary sources I want to use in my lessons, how much emphasis the place on writing/media literacy/communication skills on a day-to-day basis.  The answer to this question had to be that I'm neutral, especially since it was specifically asking about work.

Autonomy is Important
I understand the need for consistency in public schools.  Parents and students need to know the intended outcomes.  It is a very extrinsic need, but it is one that teachers and administrators have to respond to.  It is built on the Motivation 2.0 system that our society has been built on for decades.  Parents want their children's lives to go smoothly.  They want to know that there are certain actions they can encourage their children to take, and that successful completion of those actions will lead their child to become an intelligent well-adjusted adult workers who can function in the Motivation 2.0 world that we live in.  In Chapter 1 Pink says:
"Workers, this approach held, were like parts in a complicated machine.  If they did the right work in the right way at the right time, the machine would function smoothly."
This approach has caused schools to educate students in a way that has prepared them for the socio-economic system that exists where good is rewarded and bad is punished.  But, do our students and teachers really CARE about what they do every day?

I would argue that a lot of them do actually care.  But they don't care about the bell schedule, the lesson goals on the Smartboard at the front of the room, or the curriculum standards.  They care about the interesting interactions they have with their classmates and colleagues.  They care when they learn about something in school that truly changes the way they look at the world.  I am motivated by the laughter from students who learn about the sarcasm in political cartoons for the first time.  I am motivated by how emotional they get when they read a primary source that advocates for maintaining a system of slavery.  I am motivated by my fellow teachers who are so knowledgeable and creative and who teach me new fascinating things every day.  These moments don't occur because of the bell schedule, curriculum standards, or skills rubrics that have been handed down to me.  They happen because of the way I have crafted my lesson, built relationships with my students, chosen to collaborate with my colleagues.  They happen because of the part of my job in which I have autonomy.  In Chapter 4 Pink explains:
"Autonomy is different from independence.  It's not the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the Americans cowboy.  It means acting with choice - which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others."
The part of my work that makes me happiest are my interactions with students and colleagues.  They challenge my thinking, teach me new ideas and approaches, and inspire me to have fresh perspectives every day. So, fine, label me an X because of the way others structure my work.  But labels mean nothing on a day to day basis.  The meaning comes from the choices I make within that structure day in and day out.  The meaning comes from the way my choices have an impact on others and the way others' choices have an impact on me. 

That is what drives me.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Don't Just Review, Re-Vine!

I posted about my limited experience with Vine last spring soon after the app was launched by Twitter.  A couple of days ago in class I was in a bind, and the opportunity to use Vine as an academic tool presented itself.  I grabbed it.

An analysis of the potential of Vine and Instagram videos in the classroom was recently posted on the Edutopia website.  After reading it, I was determined to find a way to make it work for me.  My philosophy is:
If I can meet my students where they already are, rather than forcing them to learn on my terms, they are more likely to see how history can be relevant in their own lives.
Things Weren't Going As I'd Planned
I had spent the better part of a Friday evening building interactive review games through my Smart Notebook software.  I've used these activities before.  They give students a chance to play with the Smart Board and they review content to prepare for assessments.  But, when I tried to fire them up the following Wednesday in class my Smart software got corrupted and the activities were freezing up.  I was in a bind and there were still 40 minutes left in the period.

What do we teachers do when the technology fails us?  We adjust!

Enter Vine
I asked, "How many of you have a Vine?"  Roughly 1/3 of my 9th graders raised their hands.  I told them to get into groups of 3 and to make sure that at least one person in the group had a smartphone with the Vine app already set up.

The Rules
  • Each group is assigned an important idea from our unit on the Renaissance and Protestant Reformation.  
  • Make a Vine (a video that is 6 seconds or less), post it, and send me the link.
  • No one had to create a Vine if they don't already have an account. Some groups ended up using my Vine, which I use professionally rather than for personal networking, to post their work.  
I monitored each group, but didn't give them any ideas.  Some came up with ideas quickly and others struggled.

The Results
Some student groups didn't want to be on camera so they used props.  This group shows that Leonardo da Vinci was a Renaissance man.

Some were ready and willing to be on camera!  This group explains the concept of humanism.

Of course, some groups were more creative than others.  But each 6 second video led to good class discussion and a decent review of the unit. We spent the last 10 minutes of class watching the Vines and talking about why they chose certain methods to represent the ideas they were assigned.

A few students were freaked out and asked if I was going to follow their Vines after this activity.  I was kind of glad that concern came up, because I could reinforce the idea that Vine, Twitter, and most other social media platforms are public.  A little media literacy thrown into history class never hurt anyone.  Anyone could follow their Vines, even me, their history teacher.  Although I'm not following any of them as of right now, thankyouverymuch.

As for the academic value, I would definitely consider using Vine again.  The lesson didn't go badly at all, and it was done on a whim because I was in a bind.  With some more specific planning and guidance, I bet the Vines will be even more fruitful in the future.  Pun intended.  This is a great example of allowing students to learn the way they CAN and ARE already learning, rather than forcing them to learn the way we think they should.

Are You Taking Notes or Just Doodling?

The answer is: BOTH

The ed-tech integration cohort I'm working with this school year completed an iPad scavenger hunt with 9 tasks that required us to look for apps and work together to solve problems.  For one of the tasks we had to use Doodle Buddy to create our avatar.  It was fun.  We giggled.  But the real world classroom application of creating one's avatar was not immediately apparent.  How would this task help improve my students' learning experience?
Here's the selfie and the resulting avatar from the scavenger hunt. Meh.

At the same time, in all of my classes, students have gone paperless.  They're taking notes and carrying out class activities using mostly Evernote and the suite of accompanying apps.  One that they've been using quite a bit is Penultimate.  It has similar capabilities to Doodle Buddy, but it connects rather seamlessly to Evernote, so it fits into my class better.  Here's how it works:

Before the Lesson
I upload the class notes to Edline and then create a QR code that will connect them directly to the notes so they can reference them during class.  As students enter the room, they scan the QR code and start previewing the resources (links to video clips and websites, PDFs of class notes, primary and secondary sources readings) we will use for the lesson that day.

During the Lesson
As we are carrying out class activities and discussion, whenever I put information up on the Smart Board, I encourage students to look at the documents that popped up from the QR code, screen shot them, and embed them into their notes in Evernote.  It's a quick process and it's a much more productive use of class time than retyping the information at the front of the room word for word by hand.
Notes on Toussaint Louverture from a lesson on the Haitian Revolution.

What I Found Out After the Lesson
As we were wrapping up at the end of class the other day, I was watching students review and clean up their notes in Evernote.  I noticed a couple of students had hand-written over the screenshot pictures to add details based on our discussion.  They put the screenshot into Penultimate, used the drawing capabilities of that app to embellish the notes as we talked in class, and then embedded the modified file into their work.  The result is personalized high quality file that they can reference later when writing their reflective blog post on the legacy of the Haitian Revolution.
Student notes showing connections between Louverture's life events and with color choices for emphasis.

This idea of doodle style note-taking is not new.  Students have always done it and, mostly, teachers have always questioned it.  One person that takes this idea farther is Sunni Brown.  She wrote a book called Gamestorming that challenges readers to use more visual techniques when working.

"The visual meeting techniques within are about doing what comes naturally to all of us: exploring, discovering, and reorganizing knowledge so we can make something better, at work and in the world."
 Some examples of her doodle theory in action can be found at Doodle Revolution.
This doodle is based on a TED Talk from Sir Ken Robinson called Schools Kill Creativity.
I think Brown is on to something.

Can we give students more freedom when we are teaching note-taking? Or, do they need to know the basics of outlining, graphic organizers, and the two-column technique before they can truly take advantage of doodles in a way that helps them learn?  Is this old/new technique something we need to give students more freedom to do?

Thursday, October 3, 2013

When the Government Shuts You Down, Your PLN Can Lift You Back Up

My little family is fortunate this week because we are all still working.  Even though the 94% "non-essential" federal workers are furloughed, everyone we know personally who works for the federal government is considered "essential" and is still working and earning a paycheck.  That doesn't mean, however, that I'm not feeling the far-reaching effects of this giant Congressional tantrum.

Day 1 of Shutdown
First, on Monday, October 1 I tried to get onto the Library of Congress website to do some research for an upcoming lesson.  When I was faced with a government shutdown message, I tweeted out my frustrations.

To my delight, I got a few retweets from sympathizing teachers and a new follower.  Darin Johnston (@AnIowaTeacher) certainly isn't anyone I've ever met, but we seem to both be educators with a love of political drama.  So, I followed him back and got this tweet.

At the end of the day I was frustrated, but at least I'd met a kindred spirit and expanded my PLN.

Day 2 of Shutdown
On Tuesday, October 2 I was explaining to my sophomores about the parameters of an upcoming blog post assignment on the Lowell Mill Girls' experiences.  They were going to write, analyze text primary sources, and include at least one piece of visual media as well.  As I was talking I attempted to show them the Lowell National Historical Park website.  Foiled again!  The National Park Service website system is down and I got another frustrating message on screen.  Again, I tweeted out my frustrations.

This time I also went to Facebook.  To my surprise, as my friends added their comments to my post, one specific comment stood out.

So a very good friend from my college days works for National Park Service IT!  He's considered essential and he's working! I sent him a private message via Facebook and he sent back some really fascinating stuff: 2 .pdf files with images and documents from 1985 that made up the original application to categorize the Boott and other mills in Lowell as 'The Lowell National Historical Park.'  My students will be able to use some of the photos of the mill buildings in their assignments.

Things were looking up!  To add to my good mood, a clicked on a link to an article on the Onion someone in my PLN had tweeted. After reading it and chuckling a bit, I decided I should send it along to my new friend.

His response:

So by the end of Day 2 of the federal government shutdown, I was feeling better.  I had been able to acquire at least some of the resources I needed and I'd gotten a good laugh at Congress's expense.

Lesson Learned: When the government shuts you down, your PLN can lift you back up!