Monthly Archives: January 2011

Heading to Educon – Year 2

Educon is an amazing conference that brings together educators from around the world to discuss teaching and learning in the 21st century. Last year was my first year attending, and it was when I began to meet the people in my PLN face-to-face. It was a remarkable experience to be together with people that I had met on Twitter and shared so much with, but had never shaken their hand or heard their voices. I spent the whole weekend in awe, as I tried to match real people with Twitter photos.

This year will be different in so many ways. The relationships that I started last year have become full friendships. These are people that I know and have worked  with all year. The friendships I have made are anchors in a world that is constantly changing. They encourage me to move beyond where I am comfortable and push myself to learn and connect more. They truly drive me out into the digital world. The beauty of it is that the people who I am connecting with are some of the most generous and thoughtful people that I have ever met. The educators who take the time to connect on Twitter have made a commitment to a level of excellence and of community that is inspiring. I am grateful for each and every one with whom I have shared there.

As someone tweeted out this morning, there weren’t even iPads at the last Educon, and how many will be there this weekend? This is the world that we live in now, and if we do not cement ourselves to each other, we will be lost in a tornado of Change. We will lose our way alone. It is only through these kinds of friendships that we can maintain ourselves and our energy. Together, we can master the new ideas and new tools, because when we work together, no one has to do it all. Collectively, we can master them, sharing what we learn with each other. As we answer questions and respond to tweets, we build a community that can weather all that swirls around us. Together, we learn and serve our students in the best ways possible. As we take the time to talk and challenge each other, as we spend time learning about the strengths and needs that we all bring to this, we can build a community that can weather the storm of Constant Change without being lost in them.

So I am off to Educon to talk and listen to the people who have shared and supported me throughout this year, in tweets and comments on my blog, at conferences and skype calls. What a wonderful time to be an educator!

Tolerating Chatter

Noise is one of the hardest parts of Project-Based learning for me. I love creating the projects; I love introducing them and watching the students eagerly take on the task. The conversation that starts, “Look what I found,” just makes me smile, as they engage with the information, beginning to collaborate with each other. It is the chatter that then so often starts that is always a challenge for me – chatter that is off-topic and seemingly distracting that always is a challenge for me. While my head knows that middle school students are social creatures and the breaks that they take can support their learning, often helping them to reconnect and remember more, because of the chance to be social. I know they need those breaks to make them feel happy and secure. But the “Old School Marm” in me always wants to clamp down, exert my authority and seemingly regain control over my students. So I am working on a balance.

This week, I introduced a research project on the role of the Executive Branch of government and had the students investigate the life and powers of the President and his cabinet, using There is an amazing amount of information there, and I wanted them to follow their interests and instincts while still aiming for a general goal.  They eagerly set to work, silently at first, making their way to the website and beginning to investigate. After 3-5 minutes the conversation began, in whispers at first and then with increasing volume. Much of it was directly connected to their research, as they excitedly shared a new fact, pointed out a picture, discovered a tour of the White House. They were genuinely interested in what they were finding and in sharing it with their peers. Those are the times that make me glow! I love creating an experience that makes those kinds of interactions happen.

But then, within a few more moments, there were snatches of, “I wish it had been a snow day,” and “What are you up to this weekend?” My impulse is always to immediately intervene and call them back to the work before them. I so want to clamp down, forcing obedience to some ancient standard of what an engaged and focused student looks like. Intellectually, I know that desks in rows and silent, rote learning are not tools I want to use, but there are times when I find myself turning towards them, rather than away.

I struggle to accept, when it is happening right in front of me, that those times of reconnecting with friends, are important for the energy and learning of my students. They are not direct affronts to my authority, but instead are simply signs of middle school students being who they are. It really has nothing to do with me or the lesson, and it has everything to do with their social needs. Having listened to a presentation last week about the importance of accepting middle school students as social beings, this time, I took a deep breathe and just waited to speak. I wandered around the room, making my presence felt, but not taking control. Often the simply aspect of the teacher moving closer caused them to refocus, but not all of the time. I simply passed on, even if they were talking about unrelated topics.

I let this go on for about 5 minutes, as the volume slowly rose to one that felt too loud for work to happen. At that point, I told them that they needed to be silent for 4 minutes. I decided that rather than setting a long period of silence, I would set one that was achievable for them. They each know that they can stay quiet for 4 minutes, maybe not much more than that, but they can do 4. They immediately fell silent with absolutely no whispering or conversation of any kind. They took on the task of focusing for a set period of time and went to it. The part that caught me off guard was that they stuck to it, long after the 4 minutes was up. they read and recorded, not looking at the clock or squirming in their seats. They tackled their research without even a question. I simply stood there, shaking my head. They never cease to teach me something new, if I will only listen and observe. While the Chatter Time is often like “fingernails on chalkboard”, I may well have to learn to let it be an accepted part of my classroom.

Why Bother with Memorization

I have gotten into many conversations about whether or not students should be doing any memorization work at all when they have access to all of the information they could ever need right in their phones. In a day and age of Google and all of the other sources on information – YouTube, Wikipedia, Flickr – why should any student be required to memorize facts. It is clearly not a higher level thinking skill to commit information by rote to memory. So why should we ask it of our students?

I would argue that there is one primary reason, which is that the process of figuring out how to effectively memorize teaches a student about how his or her brain works. If we teach students multiple ways to commit a series of facts to memory, they can experiment and learn which one works for them. Is it easier for them to learn by reading the information over and over again? Is it easier if they read it aloud rather than silently? Are they more effective when they draw charts of the information on large sheets of paper? Does hanging those sheets up in their bedroom help them learn it? Do they need to take a walk and teach the lesson to their dog, speaking it aloud.

We need to teach each of these strategies in the classroom. We need to model how each is done and then have them practice that strategy at home that night with a lesson. The next day should be a time of reflection on the process. Take a quick quiz, not for a grade but to evaluate retention of the material. Then have a class discussion about whether it was an effective strategy. Find out about when and where they used it and how it might be adapted to be more effective. It is empowering for the student to go through the process of using different strategies. They begin to understand how they learn while doing a relatively simple task of memorizing a set of facts. Each student begins to develop his or her own personal strategy for tackling their next learning challenge. There is a direct sense of personal power in this understanding of how you learn the most effectively that can be translated into more complicated tasks. Because our brains change and grow, this is an important task for most years of school.

I have no desire to return to a rote-learning classroom, where there is no investigation and student-driven work. On the other hand, I want to avoid throwing this particular baby being thrown out with the bath water. Access to information is not the same as knowing how to gain control over it and work with it. We need to teach our students every possible skill that will allow them to do that, and memorization is simply one that should not be forgotten.

2011 – A Year of Curiosity

My goal for this coming year is to foster curiosity in my students. I want to create an environment where it is safe to ask questions and to wonder. It needs to be a place where the goal is not Right Answers. Two experiences this Fall deeply influenced my thinking about what I want to create  in the coming months. The first was during a research project. The students chose topics that were of interest to them in American history – food, clothing, architecture, etc. The goal was for them to learn about their topic during each of the different time periods that we were covering in class. They would become the experts on housing or commerce or whatever their topic was.

One of the first steps was for them to generate a list of questions that they wanted to investigate. What did they want to know about their topic? The startling effect of posing this task for them was how unable they were to figure out what they wanted to know. They wanted to know what was the right aspect to be researching, what were the right questions to be asking.  They were clearly insecure about articulating what was interesting to them. “What should I want to find out about?” was the primary question. They wanted me to tell them what they should want to learn about. They are products of our system, one where it is often about a correct set of facts and not about the learning journey. They are most secure, being the necessary information to memorize and simply being asked to respond with those facts.

We, as educators, can’t allow them to stay in that place. There is so little need to simply learn a set of Right Facts in today’s world. Their phones hold all of that information and more. They need to learn to ask questions and to manipulate the data to build new understandings and then to be able to present their thinking in original and informative ways. We have to unleash our students from the dictatorship of single, right way to learn and show what they know.

This is scary for us as teachers. It takes us out of our own comfort zones. It is much easier to grade a multiple choice quiz than a variety of dioramas, PowerPoints, videos and essays. But when we pull back from what we imagine as the Right Way, we open the doors to their curiosity and investigation. We have to teach them to wonder and to explore without the constant worry of a bad grade or of rejection of their thinking and process. I need to keep this as a mantra for this year.

My second experience came during a simulation based around the Indian Ocean trade networks. It was built on one that I have used before from Berkeley. It started with an investigation of some “artifacts.” In a plastic ziplock bag, I had put items that had been traded around the Indian Ocean – pepper corns, coriander, cardamom and a cinnamon stick. To those I added some laminated images: Chinese porcelain plate, a piece of papyrus, a brass jug and some glass beads. I gave groups of 3-4 students a bag to explore. They had a great time, asking questions and wondering about the origins and uses of the different spices.

After about 15 minutes, on one of my wanderings, I realized that many of the students had not only been smelling the different spices, but they had broken them up and eaten them. After an initial moment of horror that there might be food allergies to contend with, I marveled at what happens when students are deeply involved in an investigation. They immediately moved out of a standard, school, fill-in-the-blanks kind of response and went surging forward, using every tool that they could think of, which included eating them.

So my goal for the year is to remove the barriers that hold back those kinds of investigations and to create activities that encourage exploration. Some of those will be with digital tools, but the goal is not to use more technology. The goal is to facilitate a new depth of learning in each of my students.