Monthly Archives: February 2010

Global Fun and Laughter

This has been an amazing week for me to solidify contacts that I began on Twitter through building a PLN. The week started with the arrival of a package from Japan. After posting a call to my PLN for help with a unit on Japan, Barb Sakamoto quickly responded from Japan. To quote my posting on her blog, “Barb responded in less than 12 hours, incredibly quickly given the time difference. She offered to help and sent me her email to communicate more directly. After receiving my description of what we were studying, she sent me a response with websites to visit, ideas for online research, and a connection with a female Buddhist priest, Victoria Yoshimura. Suddenly the world of Japan, not as a subject in a textbook, but as people on the other side of the world who want to help my students, came alive. Barb and Victoria both reached out with eagerness and thoughtfulness, considering what would support my class and offering wonderful suggestions.”

It was during these conversations about culture that Barb offered to send rice crackers and candy to my students to help them personally experience some Japanese food, sent directly to them from around the world. The arrival of a special package for them not only increased my students engagement with the material, but led to the creation of a new, interdisciplinary project, Japan Day, in which teachers from English, History, Art, Music, Math and Science are all engaged. Online collaboration has led to new collaborations within the school. Very exciting for the teachers and wonderful for our students!

My next moment of PLN fun was a day later when a member of my school’s wonderful EdTech team was asking me how I would describe Blended Learning and wondering if there was a way to create an illustration of what it looks like. I fumbled around and tried to think of the best way to describe my understanding. Then I shrugged my shoulders and opened my laptop. “I’ll just send a tweet and see what I get.” She smiled and shook her head. Out my tweet went, and over the course of that day, as we all have experienced, people responded, sending me links and ideas for areas to explore. Each one made me smile at the generosity of the people who connect through my PLN.

But last night was a new highlight! A totally unexpected, international connection around education that was filled with laughter. I had responded to a tweet a few months ago about helping to build a ning that would facilitate ESL students to practice their language skills by sharing with other students around the world. I thought that some of my students might enjoy being part of it, modeling language skills and learning about other cultures at the same time. A group of us have been working collaboratively to think about the ning and slowly build it. (My part is far less than that of @bealup and @hoprea).

I received a tweet last night that Bea and Henrick were having a skype conversation, asking if I like to join. I accepted and within moments was talking to these two people, one in Argentina and one in Brazil, whose work I knew but whose voices and faces were almost totally new to me. Twitter photos that suddenly began to move and take on personalities! We were very focused on our task, trying to develop a series of topics for the students to address and some questions to guide their investigation. Then @briandowd came online and the conversation continued with another American voice in the mix.

And then came a moment of global magic! We suddenly transformed from 4 people, working to help our students, into four friends. There was laughter, sometimes verging on hilarity as we tried to reconcile our different ideas and interpretations, and as the time passed, partnerships were being forged that were more than simply professional. We were laughing at each other’s jokes and sharing each other’s joy at being together in this digital, “living room” space where we all existed together.

The week was reinforced for me that we are building a new world of connections, one that is based on our own generosity and the generosity of people who once were strangers. That I have never stood in the same room with Barb, Victoria, Bea, Henrick or Brain does not detract from the level of growing friendship that I feel towards them. They are people who have touched my life and I hope will continue to do so. To them, and to all of the others that I share thoughts with here and through Twitter, thank you! For smiles and laughter!

“It’s like a period at the end!”

With my 8th grade class, I recently started including some form of reflection on their work as part of my major projects. I read a blog post by Peter Pappas about the importance of teaching students to think about their work and the process of learning when they complete a task. It seemed like a great step to include, especially at the end of larger projects. I wanted them to identify what they had done by looking critically at their final product. Then, the next step was to look at why the process and the learning were important. Where can these skills and ideas be used again? One of the joys of teaching 8th grade is that they love to think about themselves, and they are willing to share what they discover.

My class has been studying the Industrial Revolution in America, looking especially at the mill girls in Lowell. For their final project, after doing some extensive primary source work and roleplaying of the assembly line work, they worked in groups of four to create their own Lowell Offering. The Lowell Offering was the magazine that the mill girls wrote, containing editorials, poetry, sheet music and more. Each girl was to create two pages for the magazine, each one reflecting some aspect of the life at the mills. They could create more than that if they wanted. They had one 90 minute class for studying the documents; another for writing; and a final one for finishing their writing and creating the magazine.

I left 30 minutes at the end of the final class for them to do a reflection. I had them spread themselves out around the room, sitting away from friends and partners. I told them that this was about them and to pause before they wrote to think about the questions. After the hours of whispering, sharing and laughing, the classroom suddenly became completely quiet. Not a single student even looked around the room. Each was focused on how to talk about her learning. What had she done, and why was it significant or not? They took the task completely seriously.

After I collected the papers, I asked them about the process. What was it like for them? One of my quieter students immediately spoke up and said, “It’s good.” When I asked her why, she shrugged. I waited, and she then added, “Because it makes it feel really finished. Like a period at the end of a sentence.”

To which another student chimed it, “It helped me think about what I did well and what I would change, if I had to do it again.”

“I will know how to do something like this differently in the future. I like having time to think about that,” said another.

“It gives me time to appreciate the work that I did. I get a chance to enjoy it!”

And I knew that the reflection, even more than the project itself, accomplished what I want for my students. I want them engaged and involved with their learning. I want them to feel a sense of accomplishment when they finish their work or, at least as importantly, I want them to know how to change the outcome in the future.

When the Tech Tool Fails

Here is my response to @jasontbedell‘s request for help with his book. He was looking for stories of when teachers used a tech tool in their classroom, and it didn’t work.

My worst moments with technology have come when I found a great tool that I thought supported what I was doing in the class, only to find, as I employed it, that the time required for the students to use the tool was far beyond the time I wanted to spend on the topic. The worst example of this was when I thought it would be fun for the class to create movies showing the causes of the Revolutionary War. It seemed like a great way to highlight cause and effect, as the Americans and the English acted and reacted to each other, an important lesson in history.

I divided the class into groups and had each group choose 4 key events that led to the war. They then wrote a script and planned for making their movies. At this point, it seemed like a brilliant plan. They were talking about all sorts of history ideas, debating significance and making clear choices about what to include and what to leave out.

Then it was time for the filming, and each group had 4 major events to portray. The back of the classroom was piled high with costumes and props that they had created. The filming began. Each group disappeared off, around the school, to get the best backdrops for their scenes. After the first day, a slight portion of one scene had been finished. After the second day, a bit more. So it went for over a week, by which point, I was beginning to wonder if there was any history being learned in the midst of the mad dashes for costume changes and grabbing of props.

They were having a great time, one that I let go on for almost two weeks, when I finally pulled the plug. At that point, the students didn’t even protest, a sure sign that the activity had gone past its time of value. It was a good idea, but one that needed to be focused better. I had given each group far more than they could accomplish while still learning history.  The technology no longer supported the growth of the students’ understanding of the topic, but instead became a distraction.

When I do it again, I will still have them make a movie, but I will have them choose one event per each group to script and film. Then from whose scenes, they can create a class movie. The same enthusiasm will be generated by creating a movie, but it will make the task one that can be done in an appropriate amount of time.

Multi-Tasking Addiction

I watched Digital Nation on PBS last night and found it troubling and enlightening. One of the key points was that we are not as good at multi-tasking as we think we are. We feel that we are in control of all of the information that is flowing over us, but  a study done with MIT students showed that while they believed that they worked as well when doing multiple tasks – reading, answering their phone, sending a Tweet – they really weren’t. There was a measurable difference in their ability to perform the tasks they were given.

After having spent the weekend at Educon, where everyone had a phone or computer in their hand at all times, it made me wonder. Did we each take away as much from this fabulous conference as we could have? Did our gadgets get in the way of our learning without our knowing it? We were working on the presumption that the tools were adding to our experience, when in fact they may not have been.

I went to a workshop on Back-Channeling, the practice of carrying on conversations on Twitter or through other tools, while listening to a lecture. There are clearly some uses that  totally support a student’s learning, such as using Edmodo to have students post their reactions to a movie as it is showing or providing a means for the shyer students to express an opinion. I wonder though if carrying on multiple conversations actually adds to the learning.

Just because we can have multiple conversations, does that mean that we should? Should we be encouraging our students to multi-task? Or should we be training them to focus their brains in a single direction?

Given how devoted to multi-tasking all of us are, the task of maintaining focus may be the next great challenge for our students, both in their work and in their social lives. There is no benefit in supporting them being like hummingbirds who flit from one flower to the next. They need to develop the tools to be creative and to think deeply.