Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Student Generated Curriculum?

At the end of the year, students in my classes have the option to complete an assignment using an online/tech tool of their choice, creating a product of their choice about a topic of their choice.  Some of my students are creating "how to" videos for using Web 2.0 tools, some are creating websites about learning a new skill, some are writing reviews of different online tools, some are creating resources for discussion on specific issues - as you can imagine, there is a variety stuff happening - fun, creative, chaotic stuff! 

One of my students asked if she could "revise" the project she had worked on throughout the year as her end of the year project.  As the "curriculum" for Discovery classes has grown, I have found it difficult to keep links to resources up to date. It's also challenging to keep up with the way that the assignments often evolve into more collaborative and/or creative options as the students put their own spin on how they see their own project come to fruition. I was happy to turn this task over to her and at the same time was realizing that our Blackboard pages needed some SERIOUS overhaul to better reflect some of the learning I have been doing about digital writing, collaboration and socially constructed spaces.  Sigh - this seems like a LOT of work and was wishing I had more students interested in reworking some of our other project options....Ding Ding Ding! Why should students have to wait on me to make corrections/changes/revisions to our curriculum when trying to complete work?   They already have a lot of choice an input into the types of work they complete in class  - maybe it's time to turn the whole kit and kaboodle over to them!! Already, some students are coming up with innovative ideas of how to demonstrate their learning, we could all benefit by sharing those ideas in a public space.

I hope to share in the future how this new "student managed and generated curriculum" works out.  At this point it sounds pretty awesome to me.  My current plan is to post the curricular pages in wikispaces where all of our students have read/write access.  I keep most of the wiki private but can make the curriculum pages "viewable" to the public so that parents and other teachers can get an idea of what we are doing.  Thanks to the "history" feature and RSS, I (and the students) can be notified when changes happen to these pages and if a mistake happens, we can always revert to an earlier version. Wish us luck on our new adventure!  I'll post a link when my first student gets her work online.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

So Much Time, So Little Change...

I started this blog about two years ago, posted a number of "articles" throughout the summer and then pretty much ignored it until now.  As I went through my old posts, I came across this one, talking about the value of having students do "original" work rather than everyone repeating the same assignment at the same time.  Here I am, still trying to convince myself that this is an important and worthy goal - or maybe a possible task.  In reading Beach, Anson, Breuch and Swiss's book Teaching Writing Using Blogs, Wikis and other Digital Tools, this idea is back with a vengeance at a time when I should be dreaming about what shoes to wear on my Michigan summer beercation.  Beach and friends propose that using digital tools is an important part of our students' education and in particular, students' writing and "production" of knowledge.  We need to not only be incorporating digital tools as a way to access information, but as a way to gather appropriate sources, organize, plan, collaborate, and produce works. 

Why are all of my students writing answers to the same basic questions about urban planning, for example, when we could be building a fantastic resource for others that looks at innovative strategies to solve problems in our urban spaces?  I admit to trying to "translate" some of my old fashioned assignments into something more collaborative and worthwhile at some point, but mundane classroom management tended to get in the way.  How will I assess everyone's contributions if they are working in groups?  (Well, wikis do keep track of all entries so it isn't really too hard to check who added what.) How can I ensure that my students bothered to read the source material to gain the basic background knowlege they need to move forward?  (Students' new writing should show me their basic understandings if they are writing on more advanced topics and/or there could be other cool ways to accomplish this task, perhaps through gaming software.) What if we run out of stuff to write about on the topic?  (Umm...will we really run out?  Then maybe its time to learn something new!) What will the next period's kids do?
(Build on what's there or create something else, I suppose.) I appreciate that these seem like simple problems to solve if I could apply a little creativity to them, but the reality is, no matter how much we love our jobs, teaching has a mighty big to-do list and honestly, doing new stuff is hard.  And dragging our students who have learned to love worksheets because they require no thinking into a "real" activity is yet another expense of energy I may not be up to this week.  There, I said it.  Now what I need is someone to tell me to suck it up, help me solve the stupid stuff and my students will have a better, more engaging and more challenging assignment. Hmmmm....and for tomorrow?

To learn more about some of the cool ideas shared in the Teaching Writing book - go to the wiki!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Do Schools = Learning?

When students come into my class for the first time, I ask them to fill out a brief questionnaire about learning. Asking twelve year olds to reflect on the ways in which they learn best is a challenging task for both teacher and student. Why is this? I don’t think many students have been asked to reflect upon their own learning – or not enough so that this is a comfortable space to occupy inside their own heads. To assist in the process of getting students to think about learning, we have a conversation. I ask them to consider what might be their best learning experience and to describe it. Nothing. I get blank looks. A student raises his hand. “You mean like our favorite subject?” Okay, I think, an opening. “Well, what is your favorite subject?” I ask. “Math, definitely math.” “And why is that your favorite?” I probe further. “We don’t write much in math.” Sigh.

That says a lot, I think. We define what we like based on what it isn’t. More importantly, after eight years of conversations like these with students, I have realized how school has sucked all the fun out of learning and is therefore made irrelevant. I would also argue that my gifted kids aren’t learning much in school at all. Most of what they learn is through a pursuit of the things they love to do. And really, isn’t that true for all of us?

After my first experience with the learning questionnaire, I learned to help students to “situate” their experiences in order to get an answer to what their best learning experience has been. The example I use? Learning to ride a bike. In my school’s community, this is a common enough rite of passage to make the idea of learning more concrete for kids. I point out that all of our most valuable learning experiences have some important qualities in common. We wanted to learn the new skill or knowledge first. We had desire to accomplish a specific goal. Support from a more experienced mentor helped us to build and refine our knowledge or skill. Practice helped us to get better. We probably experienced a strong feeling of satisfaction once we reached our goal. While school may be capable of providing some of these conditions for some students, the distance between what students desire to learn and actual content covered in classrooms increases exponentially as curriculum is shoved at them at an alarming pace, devoid of context or importance outside of the culture of school.

The writings of Gee align well with my observations with my own students. He writes about the disconnect between learning and schools and gives examples of how certain students, those seen as unsuccessful in school, are accomplishing amazingly complex mental tasks outside of school through the playing of games. The idea of situated cognition as explained in Gee’s A Situated Sociocultural Approach to Literacy and Technology, states that “thinking is tied to people’s experiences of goal-oriented action in the material and social world” (p. 7). When schools approach the teaching of information in discrete units which seem unrelated to one another, students have trouble using their own experience to identify patterns and to make connections. Problem-solving can’t happen without identifying a pattern or connecting to our previous experiences. The interesting bit is that we don’t all see the same patterns, even in situations with which we are familiar. “What determines what experiences a person has and how they pay attention to the elements of these experiences is their participation in the practices of various social and cultural groups” (p. 10). My example of learning to ride a bike as a valid way to show the qualities contributing to a positive learning experience wouldn’t work in all communities or with all students. Schools make hegemonic assumptions and choices in delivering curriculum based on the dominant “white culture”. As a growing percentage of the school population is outside of the “white culture,” it becomes increasingly important to find ways to disrupt current practices which discount the “funds of knowledge” that our students bring to school (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 2009).

By ignoring or demoting the importance of digital literacies, we are not preparing students to be critical and reflective about the media they consume, to participate as generators of content, or to understand how to operate in a more flexible group, distributed leadership environment. Outside of school, some of our students are recognized as experts in the digital realm. These same students are not valued for the expertise and knowledge they bring to school since it is not recognized as “traditional knowledge” (Gee, 2009).

Gee brings up interesting questions about how schools should incorporate these new literacies to combat traditional issues with learning. As students make the transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” many succumb to the “fourth-grade slump”. Gee thinks that the emphasis on decoding and literal comprehension works against the idea of our brains as pattern identifiers, generalizers, and rule appliers. In short, students lack the experiences and context to make sense of the texts in content area classes such as science, math and social studies. We need for students to be prepared to handle “increasingly complex language” (Gee, 2009, p. 18) through oral language development in a specialist or academic sense. Conversations around children’s “islands of expertise” can help to expand and deepen specialist language to better prepare them to participate in school academics.

Popular culture is one of the areas in which students develop these “islands of expertise.” This link can help provide the context and connection with school academics. Gee’s proposal is to stress “knowledge as tied to activity and experiences in the world before knowledge as facts and information and knowledge as situated as opposed to verbal understandings” (p.33). Considering how we currently “do school” we are not truly organized to support how people best learn new knowledge and skills. Perhaps if school were more like learning to ride a bike or playing a game, immersed in the concreteness of doing rather than beginning with abstractions, we would be surprised at the kinds of problem solvers and academics we could create. Ultimately, schools will need to do a better job of learning about and connecting with their students if we hope to create an educated populace.

Cochran-Smith, M., & Lytle, S. L. (2009). Inquiry as stance: Practitioner research in the next generation (Practitioners’ inquiry). New York: Teachers College Press.

Gee, J. P. (2009). A situated sociocultural approach to literacy and technology. Retrieved 04/23, 2011, from A Situated Sociocultural Approach to Literacy and Technology.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Fight for Your (copy)Right?

There's no doubt that new technologies bring new opportunities - some good, some not so good.  When it comes to how to manage laws like copyright in the world of digital content, it seemed to get a whole lot more complicated.  As a good digital citizen, I want to make sure people get credit for their creations and, when appropriate, I feel that I should pay for the media I use.  Amazon and iTunes have made it easier for people to be law abiding in terms of music, movie and other digital downloads but there is still a lot of hubbub about those who download media content for free or share with friends.  At the same time, digital rights management can get in the way of my using my media in the ways that are meaningful to me - and limit how I can use what I've purchased or rented.  There are always work-arounds, but I don't have that kind of time or patience.  HBO's move to allow subscribers to get to their shows on e-devices is a move in the right direction - especially as I was considering canceling my service.  Ultimately, media giants are going to have to reach a balance between pay per view and keeping a viable customer base - because at some point, it will be worth my time and money to cancel my cable and find other ways to watch the one or two series on each premium cable channel I'm interested in...

The Creative Commons movement is a great one, allowing artists and authors to share their works and decide how their content can be viewed, remixed and republished. Creative commons licenses are more flexible than traditional copyright and seem to be a better fit with the digital age.  In reading today, however, I came across an article about copyright for bloggers.  Considering I have all of two followers on my blog, you would think I would be thrilled to have anyone read a post I have written.  I'm not trying to make a living at this, though...and traditional copyright (and common courtesy) tells me that I should link to others' content and give credit for others' work. Content scrapers or autoblogging tools lift sections or whole posts from blog sites and pull them together into other pages via RSS.  This is an illegal practice.  Sure, it brings more readers, but works around the fact that if you produced the content, it shouldn't be able to be reproduced someplace else without your knowledge.  As copyright becomes muddier with the introduction and use of new tech, where should the new lines be drawn? As a teacher, I am all about the sharing - but at some point, I want to be giving back to the community - to people, not random blog sucking apps.  In light of this point, I want to thank @coolcatteacher (Vicky Davis) who passes along great stuff on Twitter that makes me think.

And another GREAT article on copyright and comic books - Will iPad Be the Hero or the Villain of the Comic Book Industry?  Michael Grothaus does a great job of explaining how cost and availability to legit downloads affects whether people "do the right thing".