Monday, September 9, 2013

Revisiting the September 11 Oral History Project

Two years ago as we approached the ten year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks I decided to take a different angle in teaching the complex topic and created The September 11 Oral History Project with students. Students went out and conducted interviews to record the memories of those who lived through that day. We even got many people to call in and record their stories and captured some emotional accounts from witnesses. The goal was to practice good historian skills and to create a resource that could be used by others in the future.

The 7th and 8th grade students that worked on this project were the last to come through my class who were actually alive on 9/11/2001. Last week I realized how prescient it was to have them create it at that time when I was giving examples of different forms of government and nobody knew who Saddam Hussein was when I brought him up as a dictator. I thought teaching about 9/11 was tough two years ago but it is even harder now that none of my students have actual memories of that time period.

This year I updated The September 11 Oral History Project to make it more visually appealing and added a section with a Thinglink of learning resources.

Students will be completing a blog post that links the ideas of historical memory and the novel The Giver which they have been reading in their Language Arts classes to reflect about 9/11.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Widgets, Cogs, and Flipping the Syllabus

Bored with the traditional first day syllabus and icebreaker routine, this year I figured out how to spend the first day incorporating a simulation while walking on tables and watching Pink Floyd videos instead.

Emotionally Intelligent Classroom Maxims

Inspired by Dan Pink’s emotionally intelligent signage posts, I replaced my classroom rules that nobody (including me) pays attention to with a set of 3 maxims. Knowing that my maxims would lack concreteness and be equally as worthless as the old rules unless I could attach meaning to them I came up with a set of lessons to drive home the point.

Widgets and Cogs

For the first lesson I was able to repurpose an old assembly line simulation that I used to do during my Industrial Revolution unit. As I was mulling over ideas for the first maxim I came across the video for Another Brick in the Wall. The crazy scene where the faceless kids are marching into the grinder has always stuck in my mind and I got the idea to create a widget that looked like the grinder and have students make it piece by piece in assembly line fashion.

When students came in the tables in my room were arranged in three long rows and I had taped instructions for each students construction station on the opposite side from where they were sitting. I started by asking them what the most important innovation in American history was. I fielded their responses for while (some were really quite good) and told them they were all wrong. After a few minutes of this fun, I pulled out my completed widget and told them that I had devised it over the summer and it was in fact the most important American innovation ever.

Of course they then asked what it did and I had a lot of fun playing a wealthy self-important industrialist. I told them I could not possibly explain it to them because they were all just lowly cogs who lacked my genius abilities. I told them that a cog was a cheap easily replaceable part just like they were and they could not possibly figure out what it did but that I could teach them to build one. That’s when I introduced the assembly line as the second most important American innovation and shared some photos with them to show how they worked.

They were all ordered to stand up and take their places on the line. I came around and gave them the materials and simple tools they would need at each station. I had a few students left over that became “scrap monkeys” and were ordered to walk around picking up the scraps. They then worked the line as I walked around as the industrialist character and examined their work with a ruler chastising them for minor flaws in cutting or folding. I walked back and forth on table tops doing this making faces at the frightened 6th graders who happened to look into my room while passing in the hall.

At the end we debriefed and talked about the lowly level of skills and the negative emotions involved in such work. Nobody raised a hand when I asked if they wanted to ever work on an assembly line in real life. I told them that was good because those jobs had largely been replaced by robots or overseas laborers and were no longer common in America and that higher order thinking skills were now needed for most jobs. Maxim #1 was then revealed:

This is not a widget factory; you are not a cog

We discussed what it meant and I told them that I would never treat them as cogs but that meant that they were never to come into the class and act like cogs. I then told them that I would refuse to grade any work that looked like it was made by cogs in a widget factory. We finished by watching Another Brick in the Wall to see if the could spot where the idea for the widget came from. One girl said she was going to have nightmares.

Flipping the Syllabus

All of the syllabus information was moved to my website in video form and students were given the first day homework assignment of watching the videos with their parents and taking a simple Google Form quiz as they watched.  

The tedium of the first day was not completely removed since I wound up doing the same lesson five times. However, I did have much more fun and got to know the students on a different level. They also saw me in a different light and I was able to build excitement for the class. I had asked the students to view the flipped syllabus videos with their parents and while it is not something that they all did, my intent had been to engage them as well. So far the feedback from both students and parents has been positive with one girl even telling me, “my dad thinks you’re cool.” Considering the fact that nobody in any situation has ever referred to me as cool- I’ll chalk it up as a first day success.  

Monday, August 5, 2013

The New (2013) Nexus 7: A Review for Educators

This week I got the opportunity to try out a set of new Nexus 7 tablets to evaluate their potential for use in school. I run a 1:1 classroom with Chromebooks which I have found ideal for school use but I also use an iPad and a MacBook Pro so I have no particular allegiance to one system or another; just an interest in what works.

The new Nexus 7 is an Android based tablet from Google. Is has a 7” inch screen with amazing display performance and audio that is superior to the iPad. It has front and rear facing cameras that take both stills and video. I was initially worried that I would be put off by its small size but I did not miss the extra real estate after using it for a few minutes. Its size and light weight make it exceptionally portable. The specs claim a 6-7 hour battery life which is less than an iPad or Chromebook but still adequate to get through the school day on a charge.

Account Management
The Nexus 7 allows up to 8 user accounts to be set up on each device. One of the new options is to create restricted accounts where the primary user can restrict access to certain apps. This was designed for parents to use with kids and not necessarily for schools but it could come in handy especially at the elementary level when you only want to offer a few options. One negative aspect to using it with students would be that those who sign in to restricted accounts aren’t synced to their own Google Apps accounts but they can still access them through the browser.

The account management feature that I really liked was that when I signed in as the primary account holder on multiple devices all of the apps that I had downloaded were automatically set up on each new device that  I set up. This is a much better setup than the iPad offers since multiple accounts on each device is virtually impossible and syncing apps across devices is a headache.

App Quality
The selection of Android apps is not as great as the selection that has been built up in the Apple ecosystem. Key iPad apps such as iMovie and GarageBand are missing but there are still many that work almost as well in the Android environment. I tested out many educational apps and found a lot of free ones that would be very well suited to the elementary level. Google also recently announced that a Google Play Education store is in the works for this fall. This focus promises to offer more to teachers in the near future.

Some apps of particular interest:
  • Video/Photo Editing -WeVideo is a cloud based video/slideshow editor that has been upgraded consistently over the past year. It syncs automatically to Google drive and has become the go to video tool for my students. The android version lacks some of the capability of the browser version but I found it to still be highly functional especially when combined with Animoto and Aviary for photo editing.
  • Note Taking -Evernote, and my new favorite Springpad both allow students to take notes and organize their work. Both can also be used to capture audio, photos, and video which would make them ideal for capturing what is happening in class. Springboard was also very easy to use to capture web resources and other media that would very helpful in tracking research. Simplemind is a good tool for mind mapping and StudyBlue works for making and sharing notecards.
  • Socrative- Teachers can use this app to pose questions and have students reply via their device. Questions can be multiple choice or open ended and responses can be tracked in real time on the teachers screen which can also be projected. Socrative recently received $750k from investors for improvements and this has the potential to be an even more killer app that would replace stand alone classroom clickers.
  • Splashtop Whiteboard- This was the only paid ($9.99) app that I took a look at. It allows teachers to use the tablet as an interactive whiteboard with annotating capabilities in the classroom.

Collaboration Potential
Collaboration should be a key component in a 21st century classroom so any devices used need to be able to support it. Google Drive has always been my go to solution and I was disappointed to find limited abilities to use it in the Android operating system. Documents and spreadsheets can be created, edited, and shared but presentations and drawings can only be viewed. I frequently have students collaborate on presentations and I have not yet found a solution that would support that.

That being said it still has seamless resource sharing functions. Apps and the browser are all synced so that resources can be shared across a variety of social media and note taking :

Creative Potential
One of my concerns about tablets has been that they make great consumption devices but are less than desirable when it comes time to creating robust content. Some of my go to options such as Glogster, Voicethread, and Prezi, are not supported on the Nexus 7 but there are enough app options available through the Android store that students can still make and share high quality videos, slideshows, and podcasts.

WeVideo student work example:

Other Considerations
  • No Flash- Android no longer supports Flash so this unfortunately puts it in the same league as the iPad. Many educational resources including the iCivics and Mission U.S. games that my students play would not be accessible. There are workarounds to this that I found but the average teacher would not be willing to go to such lengths.  
  • No Projector Output- There is no output feature that would allow a projector to be attached. However this should not really be a factor at this point, videos created with apps such as WeVideo are cloud based and can even be synced to Google accounts. Students would just have to sign in from a classroom computer hooked to a projector and go from there. Additionally, the new Chromecast could eventually have potential for sharing screens in the classroom. Right now Chromecast only supports a few different apps but that is bound to grow with the attention it has been getting.
  • Testing Software and Textbooks-They are not going to run your PARCC or FAIR tests. Shame on you if that is what you are checking these out for anyway. Textbook support would be variable by publisher but there are many free digital textbook options available out there and intrepid teachers can make there own digital texts fairly easily.
  • Lacks the Cool Factor- Many teachers are familiar with iOS and may not want to give a tablet other than an iPad a second look. They will have to invest some time getting to know a new operating system but I found the learning curve to be minimal.
Bottom Line
Except for having a better system for managing user profiles, the Nexus 7 will not do anything that an iPad cannot. That being said, I think it can stand toe to toe with the iPad for most uses and is a tremendous value for schools at $230. With the new iPads still priced at $499 and the the minis starting at $329 the Nexus 7 blows them out of the water for the cost. My school has been purchasing both Kindle readers and classroom clickers but you could get a tablet that does both of those things and much more for a little bit more of an investment. Looking at it another way,  you could get a new Chromebook for $249 AND a new tablet for the same price as one new iPad.

Tablets haven’t yet superseded other solutions for a true paperless classroom but are great for most 1:1 initiatives. If the solution that you are seeking is a tablet I would highly recommend checking out the Nexus 7 as a true competitor to the iPad.

Size Comparison: RAZR, Nexus 7, iPad

Monday, July 29, 2013

What do you subtract to get accountability?

Lauding the Finnish education system is certainly nothing new but something that I came across last week has really stuck with me and I thought it was worth sharing. Morgan Spurlock (the Supersize Me guy) has a new series on CNN called Inside Man and last week he went inside the education system. He spent half of the show visiting a Finnish school and talking to various administrators, teachers, and students. At one point he asked an administrator what he thought about the American obsession with testing. The admin smirked and replied:

“Accountability is what you have left when you remove responsibility from the equation.”

It was clear that this wasn’t just a random statement but a philosophy embodied by everyone involved. Trust in teachers to be the professionals that they are and for students to focus on what they needed to do is the lynchpin of their system. There is no magic formula and in fact their lessons don't look remarkably different than those in a typical American classroom. The difference is simply a trust in the fulfillment of responsibilities. It also doesn’t hurt that their schools are inspiring and modern buildings whereas ours tend to look like (and are often run like) minimum security prisons.  

Spurlock spent the second half of the show in American classroom. Unfortunately, it was in a NYC charter school and not representative of the quality of education or what happens in American schools overall. The lesson planning and management protocol looked pretty gimmicky and low level to me and I would argue that in this case they are subtracting dignity to get accountability.

Update 8/5/13: Check out the EduShyster's much better written take on the charter school piece: 
A Second is a Terrible Thing to Waste

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Pinterest for Displaying Model Student Work

The smell of wicker makes me queasy and since Pinterest initially seemed to me like a virtual version of a Michael’s store, I swore I would never use it.  However, I have been searching for a solution for displaying digital student work for quite some time and hadn’t found anything that was fitting the purpose. In a paperless classroom, the walls no longer work for doing such a thing and work tends to fade from memory when posted to a blog or edmodo. So I gave Pinterest a try and have got to say that I am now loving it. It is perfect for the task of displaying exemplary student work to use as examples and motivation.

I’m still fairly new to the Pinterest world but am clearly seeing how it can be a great resource for curating resources across a range of topics. You can follow my developing boards here:

Friday, July 12, 2013

What About Bob?- Part 3: Have you evolved beyond empty compliments?

Some light summer reading.
This week (it turned out to be a few weeks) I will be reflecting on my involvement with the Marzano Causal Evaluation Model which has recently been adopted as the teacher evaluation framework in most of the state of Florida. I volunteered to participate in intensive coaching and filming sessions throughout the past year and a half that were sometimes stressful but always revealing. I had always been a fan of Marzano’s work but was skeptical about the model for several reasons. Over the next several posts I will be outlining some of the changes that occurred in my thoughts related to the model and why I am excited about the direction that it is taking us in.

The first formal evaluation that I had as a teacher was an extremely frustrating and unfulfilling experience. I had set an observation time sometime in October with the principal who was going to come into my room and evaluate me as I taught a lesson. I lost sleep and stressed about it for days as I continually changed my lesson to try and make sure it was good enough. When the appointed time came the principal did show up. I stopped by to see her at the end of the day and she apologized for getting caught up in something else and we set another time the following week.

Again I lost sleep and stressed about it as I developed a new model lesson. When the second appointed day in mid-November came the principal again did not show up. Trying very hard not to take it personally, I once again tracked her down and we set another observation time. She actually showed up the third time and spent about 15 minutes in my room. When we finally met later that week to discuss the notes she had taken on the observation form I was relieved to see that I had scored at the top level in every category. When I asked her what I could improve on she responded that the kids really liked me and gave me some vague suggestions about differentiation. I left her office feeling good but it didn’t last long as a realized that I really had no idea what I had done well or what I could do to improve. The rosy feedback I got was just a bunch of empty compliments.

Since then I have had many evaluations that were very similar including walk throughs that lasted under a minute, empty suggestions based on check marked forms, and even summative evaluations completed without an observation after the last day of school in June. As I have traveled around and met with a variety of teachers across the country over the past few years I have discovered that this story is more common than not. It seems everybody has war stories about worthless evaluation.

I initially viewed the Marzano framework through that lens; another reform effort that we were going to throw our resources and time into only to have it disappear once it proved ineffective in the real world. The reality is that it represents not just a reform effort but an evolution in how we approach the issue of evaluation. It is about empowering teachers to grow and focus on the areas that they want to improve in. When applied correctly it is not about accountability, “gotcha”, or checklists. It is simply about growth.

The potential impact upon students is exciting. Over the past decade the focus on teacher accountability has shifted into classrooms where increasing amounts of time are being spent on uninspired test-prep activities. It stands to reason that a shift in how we evaluate teachers would also influence what is happening in the classroom and that teachers themselves would begin focusing more on student growth in authentic ways.  

Any change is going to meet resistance and a shift to an evaluation a system as complex as this one is going to be messy at the beginning. Perseverance and a strong focus on growth is key to its success. The bottom line is that it has made me a better teacher and I think it is the most promising development in education since edtech.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

What About Bob?- Part 2: Art, Science, and Coping Without Fabio at Shortstop

This week I will be reflecting on my involvement with the Marzano Causal Evaluation Model which has recently been adopted as the teacher evaluation framework in most of the state of Florida. I volunteered to participate in intensive coaching and filming sessions throughout the past year and a half that were sometimes stressful but always revealing. I had always been a fan of Marzano’s work but was skeptical about the model for several reasons. Over the next several posts I will be outlining some of the changes that occurred in my thoughts related to the model and why I am excited about the direction that it is taking us in.

One of my first impressions and a frequent comment that I hear from colleagues is that the causal evaluation model is too prescribed and focused on the actions of the teacher. At the beginning this is probably true just as it would be of learning anything that is new. After all when you first learn how to ride a bike you have to concentrate pretty hard on each of the individual tasks required to keep you from hitting the pavement. As you develop proficiency you stop thinking about all the individual parts and start concentrating on other things. Once you become comfortable with the model I was much more in tune to how the students were reacting to what was happening as oppose to my actions.

The other frequent comment that I hear related to this is that good teachers have been using all of these strategies for a long time already and we don’t need Marzano or anybody else to tell us to do them. Again, there is some truth to this and good teachers have probably been doing well at incorporating a majority of the 60 elements. The difference though is that the causal model provides a framework and motivation to very deliberately improve each of the strategies that we have already been using. We all get locked into our habits and tend to have certain strategies that have worked well get reused year after year without considering how to improve them. Even veteran teachers can benefit from critically examining those strategies that they have in their tool belts.

Many of the arguments against any reform movement including the causal evaluation model is that as an art form, teaching cannot be effectively measured. Good teaching is undoubtedly an art and it should go without saying that you have no place in the classroom if you cannot develop relationships with students and are deeply committed to positive change on a very personal level. The art of it only takes you so far though and the science aspect needs to have a more prominent role in informing practice. We are in the infancy of using big data to inform decision making and it while it is impacting many aspects of life it still has not been used effectively in education. We need to take the leap from using data in an NCLB accountability style to a more democratic growth style.

Consider the clip below from Moneyball. A Sabermetrics approach would be a much more unlikely proposition when it comes to teachers than ballplayers but there are some comparisons that we could make. Many of the current corporate sponsored reform initiatives are from the perspective that we simply need to replace our teaching force with Harvard grads who would be chomping at the bit to go into teaching if it simply paid more. The thinking goes that if you could raise the standard required to enter the profession and then the salaries the field would be flooded with genius ivy league grads who would propel us into American domination. The truth of the matter is that we are not going to get a Yankees lineup with an As budget. Fabio is not going to be our shortstop. We need to develop the prospects that we have by focusing on growth and not accountability.

What's the problem? How do we make data useful instead of punitive for educators?