Sunday, March 29, 2015

Using Ted-Ed videos to spark inquiry & research in grades 7-12

 I am a huge fan of inquiry- based research. But what if your students haven't been exposed to enough information to spark inquiry? I find that my seventh grade students tend to want to select a topic they know about, rather than explore a new topic for inquiry. In order to give students a sample of all different disciplines, I've started to show Ted-ED videos. These are incredibly engaging  animation shorts that cover a wide variety of topics--psychology, animals, science and technology, medicine, the human brain, and natural phenomena. Since our research & info graphic unit is approaching in seventh grade ELA, I've started to show Ted-Ed videos on Fridays. Students open up their notebooks and begin to write down questions they have about the material presented. So far, this has been a great way to introduce students to new material while facilitating inquiry for research assignments.
So far, students have shared the following questions:

  • "How does the salience network in the brain work?"
  • "How do neuroreceptors work?"
  • "How are memory and problem solving related?"
  • "Are there conditions in which people feel no pain?"
  • "Why is pain tolerance different in people?"
  • "How do elephants communicate?"
  • "Do elephants recognize individuals?"
  • "Do elephants have a culture?"
  • "How can we remove micro plastics from the ocean?"
  • "If plastic is made from natural substances, why is it toxic?"

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Connected There = Disconnected Here?

Like every other parent, teacher, and human, I often feel overwhelmed by my "to do" list.  This year I have made a commitment to practice mindfulness every day. As an edtech enthusiast, I've also started to think about the relationship between ubiquitous technology and mindfulness.  Occasionally, I feel the two forces pulling in opposite directions.  One tenet of mindfulness is to "eat while you're eating, walk while you're walking, listen while you are listening," without trying to multitask.  Mindfulness requires a simple and non-striving presence in the moment. On the other hand, technology often requires us to seek, find, reflect, and look at what is going on elsewhere. We momentarily leave the present, or try to enhance the present when we use Twitter, Facebook,Tumblr, and Youtube. And while I am heavy user of Twitter, I have become more discerning about how I use my time. While I find many educational and professional resources through Twitter, I admit that it is easy to become enveloped and lost in the Twittersphere. And then when you return to your life, those moments are lost.
       While the expression "If it wasn't on Facebook, it didn't happen" has become a humorous expression among friends, this way of thinking has certainly permeated our way of appreciating events in the moment. It has become second nature for many of us to immortalize the moment. In one way, posts and Tweets allow us to enjoy the moment more. For example, I can visit the picture and post of the Oak School Holiday Sing as many times as I wish. Conversely,  I had to leave the moment of just watching and just listening in order to compose and fiddle with Twitter. Subtracting a few seconds  from each present moment may not be such a big deal, but what if it becomes a habit to leave the present moment to do something else? Perhaps the habit of leaving the moment is what we really need to be careful about if we want to remain mindful, accepting each moment as it is. Not looking back, forward, or elsewhere, but being present in the moment.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Have Letter Grades Become Obsolete?

   Over the last two of years, my colleague and have I started discussing the new CCSSs, the idea of rigor and how that translates into our school environment where we have noticed grade inflation and the expectation of receiving an A, even when the work is of average quality.  Many students have come to expect an A for work that is "complete" but inaccurate or incorrect. Another problem we often discuss is the lack of motivation for students to go "above and beyond" what is expected. How can we motivate students to challenge themselves to do exceed the minimum requirement? We decided to try a new grading system for writing assignments.
   We experimented with giving codes, rather than letter grades,  that would be entered into Powerschool as an indicator of student performance. This code would provide students with an honest assessment of the work without being attached to a letter grade.  The codes would appear as "ME" or meets expectations, "AE", approaching expectations, "DNM", or does not meet expectations, and "EE" or exceeds expectations. In addition to providing honest assessment that remains uncompromised by a letter grade, this code could be used as formative assessment used to encourage revision.
    What did we notice? While students did not always complete assignments if they knew it would be given a code (that would not enter into Powerschool), the code did provide more timely and honest feedback for the students. In addition, the code seemed a much better indication of performance because it was not a grade. Students who could exceed expectations, but were not simply doing what was required. They challenged themselves to exceed expectations.
        The letter grade has become a label. It no longer reflects what it was intended to, but has taken on a life of its own. Teachers, parents, and students all dread the grade. Maybe it is time to communicate more clearly and honestly about  student performance. Perhaps this experiment demonstrates that the letter grade is no longer effective and needs to be eliminated once and for all.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Student Publishing for a Larger Audience

Recently, I have started experimenting with having students publish to the world. Several books I have read recently discuss the benefits of having students publish to a larger audience. Rather than assigning written work that will only  be seen by the teacher (and maybe a few classmates), we should require students to publish to the world. The writing becomes relevant and meaningful. The goal is clear communication to an audience. It has also been implied that another benefit of publishing to a larger audience is that students will take more pride in their work. This idea sits upon some faulty assumptions regarding the quality of student work.
       The idea that students will take more pride in work published for a large audience rests upon the assumption that students don't care about their work that is exclusively for the teacher. The student that cannot identify a run-on sentence might not be able to recognize this even if the audience is larger.  This idea also seems to operate under another assumption-- that somehow publishing to "the public" is special and novel. To adults my age, it certainly is something that is special. We would not want the world to see our mistakes and misspellings. We also did not grow up posting everything and anything to the world. I doubt if this idea resonates with our students who have grown up reading (and clearly understanding) texts, blogs, and sites without the use of proper grammar or conventions. Since conventions, grammar, and capitalization did not interfere with the meaning of the writing, there were no meaningful "consequences" for the lack of attention to detail. For the most part, readers are still able to understand ideas even when they are not capitalized or punctuated correctly. This brings me to a question about assessment.  How should we assess student writing today? Is it necessary to look at the bigger picture of whether the writing communicates the intended message? For example, the sign of an effective book review is one that actually makes you want to read the book. How heavily should we consider conventions in this particular context? Should we consider conventions? What if the use of conventions (or lack thereof) interferes with the message?  On the other hand, what if there are multiple errors that do not get in the way of the message?  

Monday, September 29, 2014

Formative Assessment in ELA


Be honest. Would you grade a paper if you knew it would not make a difference your students' grade?
As an ELA teacher, I regularly struggle to stay afloat and on top of student papers. I have difficulty grading and returning papers in a timely manner. So why would I take time to grade something that will not impact my students' grade?  Well, because 1). I want students to know exactly what my expectations are for written assignments and 2). Students need the feedback so that they have several chances to practice before they are graded on a performance. Now, in my 17th year of teaching, I have finally found a way to incorporate formative assessment regularly into my classroom! This one is a keeper. Rather than assign a grade to student writing, I assess the writing and then assign it a code. EE=Exceeds Expectations, AE=Approaching Expectations, ME=Meets Expectations, and DNM=Does Not Meet Expectations. This has proven to be beneficial in a few ways.  First of all, the students who do what is required (and nothing more), will receive a ME. The students who push themselves to do more than what is required by using powerful imagery, literary devices, sophisticated vocabulary or complex ideas can receive a code of EE, since they have Exceeded Expectations.  Never before have I received a close reading as in the picture below. Amazing! Now, students get the feedback they need to succeed and I am making expectations clear. And while it seems like too much "grading"
I find that it takes less time  to assign a code. I can distinguish a paper that Meets Expectations quickly from one that Exceeds Expectations or Does Not Meet Expectations. It is definitely worth a try!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Ugly of 20% Time

RTwenty-percent time in class does have its ugly moments.  Currently, I am teaching a new elective called "My 14% Time." It is the 20% time model adapted to my middle school schedule. This class is composed of seventh and eighth graders.  Many  students are working on projects with a clear purpose. I have one student who is in the process of learning all about binary code. She is attempting to write her name using binary code by the end of the course. Another student is creating something I can't even explain (a phrase I find myself saying often) using Java 7. I didn't even know they made a Java 7 (or 6 or 5 or 4 or 3 or 2 or 1)! Yet another student is learning to speak Taiwanese with the goal of a video tutorial by the end of the course.
While all students have received feedback about their projects, as well as suggestions from me, it is noticeable that not all students have the motivation or passion necessary to work on a project every day for a semester.  I have found myself in the role of a babysitter--ensuring that students aren't just playing games for the period, but working on achieving the next SMART goal. Several seventh graders spent the period today switching from an irrelevant game to something that looked like their project (only when I was nearby). I have conferenced, suggested, and even restricted computer use until I could see concrete goals. Some students still don't seem mature enough for this type of self-directed class. And while several seventh graders do have projects that are interesting and purposeful,
far too many are playing the game of let- me- see- if- I- can- play- a- mindless- game- until- teacher comes- by. I enjoy the role of facilitator far more than that of a "sage on the stage." But what do we do when students aren't yet ready for the responsibility that is necessary for succeeding in a self-directed, teacher-as-facilitator course? I would like to keep this course open to anyone who would like to take it, but I also think it could improve the class as a whole if an application was prepared by students wishing to take this kind of class. This could give students a chance to think about a project idea before the school year begins. If the student is dedicated to a project and demonstrates that they commit to an idea for the semester, perhaps it is most suitable for this student. Maybe, even though we'd like to think that all students have the motivation and passion to pursue a goal, some students are not quite ready for this kind of independence. Some have not been introduced to enough to know what they are truly passionate about. When I think back to seventh grade, I can't honestly say that I was passionate about anything other than Jolly Ranchers and Days of our Lives. On the other hand, I'd never had the opportunity to consider what I really wanted to learn about. Maybe it is this opportunity that creates a spark for some?

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Close Reading of AoW #1 (non-fiction article)

A seventh grader demonstrates a close reading to his table. 

       Yesterday, students watched me demonstrate a close reading and then demonstrated their own. Today, students used the same reading performances to demonstrate a close reading of our first AoW (article of the week, courtesy of Kelly Gallagher). The article was titled "12 Things We Know About How the Brain Works." In order to prepare for the reading, students write in their writers notebook everything and anything they knew about the human brain. After writing for about 5 minutes, we watched a brief TED video (sponsored by Toyota, I think) all about how the brain functions while we try to multi-task. Students were surprised to learn that multi-tasking only ensured that two tasks were completed inefficiently or inaccurately.  Taking time to build up some context before diving into the AoW was an excellent idea. Students wanted to share their own experiences of their own brain under stress or while trying to cram before a test. It felt great to talk to the students about this issue that is relevant and important to us all-- how we, humans, learn.
      After sufficient context-building, we started our close reading of the article. While students worked quietly, I demonstrated my own close reading on the overhead projector to get them started in the first paragraph.  Students were very engaged. A few tried to use highlighters rather than making annotations, but I was able to intervene. I explained to them that the process of highlighting what is already on the page is not the same as rephrasing the material and then annotating. This is actually a different cognitive process.
     After about 20 minutes, I gave students a chance to share a favorite annotation and then I showed students what a demonstration of close reading looks like if you have EE (exceeded expectations).  We talked about the difference between work that met expectations vs. work that exceeded expectations. I explained that this meant that you didn't simply do what was required, but you pushed yourself to ask many thoughtful questions with possible outcomes. While I think that this new way of grading will be very successful, I won't know until I see the student work on Friday.
    At the end of the period, I tried to sneak some web literacy into the lesson by asking a student volunteer to step up to play "researcher." Because students were to highlight words or phrases that caused confusion, the researcher's role was to research the meaning of "fluid intelligence." After searching Google, most students suggested clicking on the first entry. Can you guess what it was?
Wikipedia, of course! After explaining that .com and .org can both pay for a domain name, another student demonstrated a Google Advanced Search that only searched for domain names ending in .edu. After this, I had a few more students demonstrate the Google Advanced Search. This was awesome! Thank you for the ideas Alan November, author of Who Owns The Learning as well as
Web Literacy for Educators. This felt great!