Saturday, February 28, 2009

The web gives hesitant students a forum

Years ago, author Neil Gaiman introduced me to a French term that's stuck with me ever since—"L'espirit de l'escalier," meaning "the spirit of the stairway" or "stairway wit." It's the notion that we often come up with the best comeback or reply to an argument or discussion long after we've left. In other words, when we're heading down the stairs after everything is said and done. Who hasn't experienced this? Heck, they made an entire episode out of it on Seinfeld.

I remember feeling that way quite often in high school. There'd be a class discussion, and I contribute far less that I could have because I would be slow to form my thoughts into a coherent answer, while the class know-it-all would have her hand up in the air before the teacher finished his question. If often felt like I was on Family Feud, and my reflexes weren't good enough to hit the buzzer first. If I felt that way, I'm certain that many others who might take several minutes or even hours to formulate a solid answer did as well.

Actually, make that "do as well." This happens in today's classrooms too. Many, many times a "class" discussion is still really three or four eager beavers and the teacher with a captive audience of twelve to eighteen others. It might as well be a panel discussion most of the time. Last year I decided to try it a different way.

In previous years, my senior English would read a poem out loud in class, then I would fish for student commentary on the meaning, the symbolism, the purpose and the like. What I added was an online discussion board. I visit discussion boards daily in my downtime, and thought it would be a great way to extend the lessons beyond the classroom. I created a board on the small Moodle site I'd set up for myself and a few other teachers. I then broke it into smaller forums, one for each period of time we would look at, and I would initiate a thread about each of the works we would cover.

I made it mandatory that the students had to post commentary about each of the works, and that that they reply to at least five other students. All comments had to be school appropriate and on task to receive credit. As I was teaching English, I made correct grammar and mechanics a part of the grade- no txt-spk. The initial post had to be done prior to the in-class lecture/discussion about the work in order for credit to be earned.

One of the first things I found that surprised me was that students generally went above and beyond the minimal requirements. Posts needed to be at least 75 words in length, and many went upwards of 100. They only needed five replies to others, but it was most common to see them reply to ten, or even twenty other posts. More than a few told me it was more fun to write to a message board that sit with pencil and paper.
In addition to getting more verbiage out of them, the quality was up. Kids I honestly thought weren't paying attention were shooting off some extremely well-thought out and eloquent thoughts on works as complex as Macbeth and abstract as the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. Sometimes they were actually more on target than the posts of the kids who would have had their hand permanently raised in the classroom.
But the thing I think surprised me the most was that when we did have that physical classroom discussion, the number of students who volunteered to participate doubled and tripled. Apparently, the cyber-discussions acted as prep for the physical ones.
It wasn't a fluke in my classroom either. As CFF coach I've suggested this approach to a couple of other teachers. Two that stand out are the Senior Honors English class and a health class. The Honors class was essentially a clone of my own experience, while the health class used the boards as a way to have students chime in on current events in the health field. Both teachers reported the same sort of results I did, particularly in that the quiet kids have more to say than one might otherwise think, and they are willing to share it.
If you meet them in their preferred medium.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Great New Video About Education

This is actually a commercial for an online university, but what it says about education holds true at ALL levels.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The future ain't what it used to be

Let's see, at this very moment I have on my person a four gig thumb drive, a one gig thumb drive, a laser pointer (all conveniently hung from a lanyard around my neck to drive home my geekitude to all who see me), and a Blackberry in my pocket that goes off every five minutes when I get new email (how the heck did I get on the Crocs mailing list anyways?). I'm practically in constant contact with my son who's away at college. When the phone isn't beeping for email, it's playing a song telling me he's texting (the theme from Dr. Horrible if you must know).

I have a portable, external hard drive (160 gigs) hooked to my laptop. I have every CD I own ripped and downloaded to it, along with all my school files, personal files and assorted junk-of-my-life. I don't read the newspaper anymore; I get almost all my news online from both large news organizations and small. I subscribe to a number of blogs which I read via the Google sidebar on my screen. Throughout the day, I shoot little messages to my Twitter account via my computer or my Blackberry.

As I'm typing away in my office, I'm often halted by a Skype message, either text or video, from one of my teachers who needs a quick question answered that doesn't require me running down to his room. On rare occasions, I get Skyped from a CFF coach from a different district, the intermediary unit, or even my daughter who teaches down in Annapolis.

When I go home, I seldom turn on the television anymore, at least not right away. I check my personal emails, post a couple of messages on my favorite discussion board, and do a little moderation on the various websites I maintain for people. Sometimes my wife Dolores and I will watch a Netflix movie via their instant service. I can choose a movie online through their website and it's beamed directly to my TV. More and more, I find myself texting or working on something on my computer while I'm watching a movie or TV. Oddly, I don't find myself missing what's going on on-screen (unless it's one of the interminably long segments of Heroes that's in Japanese with subtitles).

All of this makes me one of the rarities among people of my age- I would be considered a digital native. Most folks my age (I'm a pirate who looked at forty a couple of years ago) would fall into the category of digital immigrants according to Marc Prensky, who coined both terms to describe why so many adults just don't get the younger generation's lack of enthusiasm for traditional teaching methodology and are thus called lazy and inattentive. Because of my familiarity and comfort with technology, I was asked to step away from the classroom for a year or two and become my school's Classrooms For the Future coach. My new position is to help teachers in the building incorporate new technological methods of instruction to meet the needs of students in the 21st century.

Thus far this has been a real eye-opener fore me. Despite my background, until very recently I taught the same way I was taught way back in the day when Carter Country was a hit TV show. I had my classes arranged in tidy little rows, and I lectured and gave notes most of the time. I will grant you I am an absolutely fascinating lecturer, but even so, over the last few years I've noticed that lessons that once had the kids leaning forward in their seats to capture my every word are now falling on more and more deaf ears.

I haven't lost my fire as far as I know, but students today don't want to be talked to non-stop for forty minutes at a time six times a day. They are also digital natives, many, perhaps even most, more so than me. If I can't sit still and focus on simply one task anymore, why would expect that they can? Students today need to be engaged.

So I've rededicated my blogging for the foreseeable future towards the idea of education in the 21st century and how I can become a better teacher as well as help inform others who have a stake in not just education, but the future of our country. As I heard another CFF coach say recently, if we are teaching the kids for the world today, we're already twenty years behind.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Did You Know? updated

I've posted versions of this before, but here's an itteration I hadn't seen before, so I thought it was time to show it again.

Somewhat unnerving if you are at all concerned for the future of this country.