Monday, September 22, 2014

The World is Our Classroom

During the school year of 2013-2014 I had a goal of helping my students understand the power of their mobile devices when it comes to learning.  I achieved this, in part, by going paperless in my classroom and asking students to demonstrate learning through multimedia products instead of tests.  Inspired by Sylvia Tolisano's session at BLC14 in Boston, one of my personal and professional goals during the 2014-2015 school year is to show students that the best learning happens when we leverage all of the resources available to us.  While I might be their history teacher, I'm usually not the person with the most expertise available. In fact, the world is available to my students.  They just have to tap into it.

This week my students will be meeting and talking with Jamie, an Explainer at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, England.
Jamie from MOSI Manchester.
My sophomores have worked hard to learn the proper terminology and the social and economic impact of industrialization in preparation for the chat.  I'll be sure to post soon about how it went and about the kids' reactions.

Our next unit covers the revolutions for independence in Central and South America in the early 1800s.  The beginning of the unit focuses on the system to racism and the intentional divisions that were created and perpetuated in Central and South American colonial socio-economic systems.

Casta system from Museo Nacional del Virreinato
A pyramid many history teachers use in an effort to simplify the system when teaching it.

After using a few revolutions as case studies (usually Haiti, Mexico, and Brazil) the students get the chance to analyze some of the compelling art that has been inspired by that tumultuous and sometimes bloody era.
The History of Mexico (a portion) by Diego Rivera 1931

Hidalgo and National Independence by Jose Clemente Orozco 1937-38
If you know of an expert, historian, or museum educator who could talk with my students about their research and experience I would be grateful.  I'm working hard to connect my students directly with the experts, and to cut out the middle man (me).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Kids Speak: Good Teacher v. GREAT Teacher

The curriculum I teach might be history, but teaching is about a heck of a lot more than curriculum.  More than anything else, building a real relationship with students is what facilitates learning.  In case I needed a reminder, my newest students for the 2014-2015 school year did a great job talking about those meaningful relationships with teachers in their first blog post of the year.

On the first day of school we watched a video in which a series of teachers and administrators talked about the hard fact that every child deserves a great teacher.  As part of their first blog post I asked students to talk about teachers they've had in the past that have been "great" and to give reasons.  Here are some of their awesome answers:

A great teacher must also be compassionate so they take outside factors into consideration. For example. if a student is having a rough time at home the teacher understands and makes necessary adjustments to help through that issue.

One specific thing that you could do for me this year is to really get to know me.  I really appreciate it when a teacher is very understanding with me and knows who I am. I have survived a lot and it is so welcoming when a teacher shows support for his or her student because the student feels appreciated.

Some qualities that a great teacher has are humor, kindness, patience, and being able to relate to students.

Sure, some kids mentioned that great teachers assign very little homework, or that great teachers crack jokes all the time.  But what they really want is for a teacher to make their homework meaningful, manageable, and worth their precious over-scheduled time.  And for teachers to understand that humor goes a long way to building that real relationship.  After reading through all 116 posts from title to final punctuation, one particular piece of media embedded into one particular post stood out as the common theme among all students.  So, I tweeted it out.

Clearly the educators in my PLN agree. With 77 retweets and 45 favorites to date, it is the most far-reaching tweet I've ever posted in my 5 and a half years on Twitter. While building this kind of relationship with some students is easy, it is harder with others. And, how can one person build a real relationship with 116 different individual struggling teenagers after seeing each of them for only 55 minutes a day for 180 days? This year I'm experimenting with a new idea.

 I didn't just post the idea to Twitter, I sent home an email to parents. Here's the excerpt:

I even put it up nice and big on Monday's class agenda and announced my intentions to the kids in all 5 of my classes.  Before we jumped into the day's lesson on museum exhibits from the Industrial Revolution, I talked with the kids about my hopes for these meetings.

It won't be easy, but after tweeting it out to my PLN, emailing it home to all parents, announcing it to my students, and now posting it publicly to my blog -- I'm committed and I will hold myself accountable.  I know that a relationship can't be built with 4 meetings a year, but at least these meetings can be the start of a real conversation.  If even one or two of the 2014-2015 #gallagherhistory crew scores me among "great" teachers, it will have been worth it for sure.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Creating a Place for Students to Create

Public education is changing.  But change is slow when new programs, ideas, or teaching methods don't fit into existing structures.

Last spring I proposed a Student Help Desk program for our high school.  My hope was for students to have the opportunity to create tutorials that would help teachers and students integrate BYOD more smoothly and successfully at our school.  See, I don't believe in tech for tech's sake.  But our students are already bringing incredibly powerful smartphones and tablets to school, so why not teach them to leverage that power to enhance their academic experience?  BYOD can help students:

This is how professionals are getting things done, so why shouldn't our students be working this way in the classroom as preparation for their professional lives as adults?

The problem is that this idea - having students create the school programming without a highly structured curriculum already in place - doesn't fit into a public school where teachers and students are told they have to meet standards and follow frameworks.  It also did not fit nicely into our schedule or our academic departments. It isn't really a business class and I'm a history teacher.  Science? Nope.  Health and Wellness? Nope.  At first it was a tough sell.

Thanks to some supportive and forward-thinking allies, after several drafts this is the proposal that was accepted:

8-1-14 RMHS SHD Pilot Proposal.pdf

Rockets Help Desk started meeting the second day of school and, based on an early teacher request, the kids settled on their first tutorial topic: digital note keeping in Evernote.

Click the screenshot to see the students' first public tutorial.
We still don't really fit into any of those public school categories.  I'm still teaching my 5 history classes and am facilitating Rockets Help Desk instead of a traditional duty (like lunch or hall monitor).  Even though the students are working hard and are producing authentic products that are meant to help their school community, they aren't getting credit... just yet.  They are choosing to use directed study time, traditionally used by students to help with the crush of homework, to build something new for our school.  Also, we don't really have a home yet. We are operating out of the library media center for now, a great central location in the school.  But don't have our own computers or a guaranteed quiet space for recording audio and video.  For now, the kids are using my laptop and their own BYOD devices to make it work.  It is working, though! We are making it work together.

I'm hoping to support the kids by publicizing their work via Twitter and through an in-house e-newsletter so that teachers and students at our school can benefit.  As the year goes on I'm hoping to hand over more and more control of Rockets Help Desk to the kids.  My early members, Julia and Megan, can become mentors for students we recruit in the future.  Over time we can grow into a program that helps students and teachers communicate about how we can learn best together.