Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Students as teachers, part one

Photo by Ben Harvey
As we near the end of the school year, my upper level students will take on more of the teaching load. For example my advanced photo students are going to produce videos that profile their expertise. I've been planning the activity for a while, but when Ben (a student in the class) showed us the recent video he shot while he was photographing his water blur series, it became clear that the many talented photographers I work with every day need to become mentors.

Some of the things they'll teach:
Sports action - Alex, Jeannie
Tyler - how to light and shoot studio portraits
Sylvia - environmental portraits
Ben - long exposure
Photo apps - (Abby & Zoe)
Christina - wildlife
Josh - perspective
Pets - RachelShea
Danny - landscape
Kyra - gourmet macros

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Integrity and disconnectedness

Yesterday, I wrote about an emerging challenge in my teaching, the overwhelmed feeling students get when they experience information overload. The curriculum's already crowded, so I'm wondering where this fits in my teaching. What's a composition teacher to do?  Some answers have come from the Future of the Internet V survey conducted by Pew Research and Elon University.

Here are some excerpts from a recent Mind/Shift article "Doomed or Lucky: Predicting the Future of the Internet Generation."
Barry Chudakov, a Florida-based consultant and a research fellow in the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto: “The cognitive challenge children and youth will face (as we are beginning to face now) is integrity, the state of being whole and undivided. There will be a premium on the skill of maintaining presence, of mindfulness, of awareness in the face of persistent and pervasive tool extensions and incursions into our lives. Is this my intention, or is the tool inciting me to feel and think this way? That question, more than multitasking or brain atrophy due to accessing collective intelligence via the internet, will be the challenge of the future.”  Alvaro Retana, a technologist with Hewlett-Packard. “The people who will strive and lead the charge will be the ones able to disconnect themselves to focus on specific problems.”
A musician friend of mine says that the pause is as important the note, and I've learned that white space is a powerful design element. Maybe the same is true of digital writing. To be a valued part of a interconnected learning community is to know when to be whole, undivided, and disconnected."

Monday, March 19, 2012

Infofatigue and impatience

Link to original
Tony Shin's infographic (at right) and research from Jean Twenge came together in class last Friday.

My students and I were discussing Martha Irvine's 3/15/12 article  (based on Twenge's research) which claims that today's teens are less environmentally conscious and less civic-minded than previous generations. At first I was surprised when my students readily agreed with the article's premise because I consider them to be pretty enlightened in those two areas. But they were quick to agree with Irvine. "We're not as green as our parents," one student said without batting an eye. She then said she'd read somewhere that recycling plastic water bottles is more costly than producing new ones and saw recycling as "a waste" (a waste of effort, by the way, not of resources); after some competing claims were tossed about, the subject shifted. On the topic of civic-mindedness a student brought up the Kony 2012 video citing stories that said that Invisible Children give less than 30% of the money they raise to African sources; another student said that was false, based on what she'd read on the nonprofit group's financial statements on their website.  But pretty soon it went the course that too many contested discussions go – to a stalemate. As their teacher, this gave me pause. We had two fascinating discussions, but without a resolution to either. It reminds me of what Shin has found – we don't want to wait for the answer, and so we move on, without a resolution ... and, I suspect, with a gnawing dissatisfaction.

It's easy to become inundated with facts to the point of information fatigue. As Irvine wrote:
... are they just overwhelmed?   Mark Potosnak, an environmental science professor at DePaul University in Chicago, has noticed an increase in skepticism - or confusion - about climate change among his students as the national debate has heightened. That leads to fatigue, he said.  "It's not so much that they don't think it's important. They're just worn out," Potosnak said. "It's like poverty in a foreign country. You see the picture so many times, you become inured to it."

I can't help but think about the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment and follow-up studies which indicated that children in the original study who exhibited delayed gratification were later described by their parents as being more competent adolescents and found to be more academically successful. It left me wondering if I should be even more explicit with my students on how to take a more measured, deliberate approach to a medium teeming with actionable content and instant gratification ... and if so, how?

Friday, March 09, 2012

Blogging the research paper

Open Education Week, Day 5

One of the staples of the language arts classroom is the Research Paper. I wrote them when I was in high school, I still assign them as a secondary teacher, and when standardized testing permits, a lot of other teachers still assign them today. Even in my pre-Internet classroom, though, I struggled with the end result. I mean, after the research has been drafted, workshopped, revised, polished, and the paper graded, what becomes of it? For the most part the scholarly research ended there. Never really got much farther than that myself.

But lately I have to say that blogging about the research on Youth Voices has opened up a whole new perspective on the process. Composing in an open, networked public has added value to things like argument and information writing, which are becoming increasingly important in the current standards movement. I follow Bruce Ballenger's research essay approach (a book I highly recommend) with the addition of blogging about the research through the six-week process. Here's an example of a student blog entry and a productive discussion about it that really helped this student with his research. Below I outline some of the more significant moments in a more open approach to writing research.
  1. Beginnings. Ballenger's book, like much of what I've learned through the National Writing Project, is based on an inquiry approach. Real learning and authentic writing come directly from students' interests and passions. It's true for students, it's true for teachers. What else motivates us to even want to begin the research process?
  2. Accessing databases. There is a lot of valuable information that's only available through subscriptions ... or if you have a library card. Is all information free? No. But the fact is that libraries are still wonderful places to visit and having access to library databases is a means to information that isn't openly available. I require my students to obtain a FREE library card before we delve into databases.
  3. What's a researchable topic? Students need at least a week to talk about ideas that will keep them interested for the next month or so. Again, Ballenger's book is worth it for this stage alone.
  4. Surveys/interviews, and library database research. By week two students are zeroing in on their topics and it's time to do some preliminary searching through library databases and through interviews and research.
  5. Note taking. I don't spend enough time in my classroom talking about the process of gleaning information and keeping track of it during the research process. Ballenger describes a few different approaches. Since I didn't have enough time, I had my students try the double-entry journal and the research log.
  6. Real time info. I have my students search Twitter, blogs, and news to find the most current information about their inquiry. 
  7. Converse. One of the significant affordances of open discussion is the ability to have conversations about the students' inquiries with others who are outside the physical classroom. Students provide substantive comments for one another in three ways: via chat, in-doc talk, or comments on blogs. These conversations should be happening frequently in the research process not just once in a workshop.
  8. Leads and structure. Sometimes students spend an inordinate amount of time crafting and revising their introduction – at the expense of diving into the draft. Having students write three types of introductions (out of a possible nine), loosens up their writing. I also think students need to think about structure more consciously. The five-paragraph, three-point essay is one type of structure, but there are many others that students begin to appreciate once they read widely and write fluently enough to become cognizant of different structures.
  9. Face time. Even though students have access to an wide array of communication tools, there's still a basic need to talk face to face (F2F) without digital mediation. Ballenger suggests a couple of ways to conduct F2F conferences – how to direct the reader's response etc.
  10. Wrap it up. I gave this sequence six weeks of class time. I probably could have spent even more time in the revision page, but time marches on. 
  11. Publish and Share.
In the end I still have a stack of papers to grade. There are those who disagree, saying that all writing should be done electronically. Call me old-fashioned, but I still appreciate the tactile experience of ink on paper. And I think my students are still are straddling two worlds: the analog and the digital. I believe that the future I'm preparing them for will require fluency in both print and digital literacies.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Blaming teachers

Open Education Week, Day 4...

If a business fails, how often do we blame it on the rank-and-file workers? When Enron failed, who's fault was it? Would you blame the electricians who were actually doing the retrofittings of the buildings?

But this is the logic of current attitudes toward teachers.

Teachers today and teacher education programs have a more challenging task than ever. We need educators who can blend the best of the pedagogies that have worked in the past, yet adapt to the challenges of more mediated learning environments.  And all this while classroom teachers are feeling more disrespected than ever. Here are a couple of examples that come to mind.

On Tuesday, 3/6/12, the Utah state Senate passed a bill that would allow schools to drop sex education and prohibit instruction on how to use contraception. Despite the opinions you might have about sex ed in schools, there was a quote by a legislator that bears repeating:
"To replace the parent in the school setting, among people who we have no idea what their morals are, we have no ideas what their values are, yet we turn our children over to them to instruct them in the most sensitive sexual activities in their lives, I think is wrongheaded," Republican state Sen. Stuart Reid said, according to The Salt Lake Tribune.
These "people" Sen. Reid refers to are known to others as "teachers." I can't help but read this statement as an indictment of teachers, like we can't be trusted ... to teach.

At the same time New York City teachers are also feeling disrespected because news organizations have now identified the "best" and "worst" teachers based on a "value-added score," progress students make on the state tests in a year's time. In theory this sounds good, but as the NYC teachers pointed out, if you've got good test taking students, you won't be identified as one of the "worst." Rating teachers on the result of a test taken one day. Can't we do better?

Here's an excerpt from last night's Teachers Teaching Teachers show notes (the episode is still being edited, by the way).

A teacher’s rating depends on how much progress her students make on state tests in a year’s time, and is known as the value-added score.... If city officials were trying to demoralize and humiliate the workforce, they’ve done a terrific job. News organizations get an assist for publishing the scores, and former Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein deserves a special nod for enthusiastically supporting the release.... It’s not just the low scorers who are offended. Maribeth Whitehouse, a special education teacher in the Bronx, wrote me [Paul Allison] in an e-mail: “I am a 99th percentiler. A number of us are in touch with each other, united by nothing more than our profession and professional disdain for this nonsense.” She is circulating a letter of protest for others on the 99th percentile to sign.

So on this fourth day of Open Education Week I'm wondering about the role of the teacher in online spaces. How will we judge effectiveness? The medium has a lot of potential. Will we live up to it, or continue the same ways of assessment?

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Learning through conversation

Open Education Week, Day 3...

I've come to realize that online conversation plays a vital role in the learning process. Take this recent discussion post written by a student of mine. If you've got the time, read through the thoughtful post and comments.

photo by sloanpix
The first few comments come from other students who are in Andrew's physical classroom in Utah, but next come comments from students in New York City schools – from a classroom whose teacher I've never met, and from students whom Andrew will most likely never meet. In my pre-Internet classroom, Andrew's "essay" would have perhaps been read by the other 20 students in the room, and maybe a few of them would have given him some substantive comments. But unless the piece were published elsewhere, that would have been the end of it. The gestalt of the group composition is what strikes me, the conversation becomes richer by the various perspectives; there's even a comment where another student disagrees in a productive way.

Productive disagreement. Isn't that an interesting concept? Wouldn't we benefit more as a society if the adults in charge learned to disagree productively? Imagine where we'd be if U.S. Democrats and Republicans' disagreements were productive discussions that led to real problem solving, instead of character assaults. I'm not holding out much hope for our current batch of elected officials, but maybe when the next generation comes of age....

We don't come by the habits of good online conversation naturally. My colleague Paul Allison has numerous guides to help students learn the comment genre. Here's a case study of a productive disagreement that took place via online conversation and a subsequent podcast, described in detail on Digital Is.

And finally, some of the most powerful learning I've done as a teacher has been as a result of the open conversations that take place every Wednesday on Teachers Teaching Teachers. Here's an idea and an open invitation to join us. Let's talk!

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Managing the digital flow

Open Education Week,  Day 2

I haven't participated in a lot of open courses, but one that I'm involved with right now is "Connected Learning with Youth Voices" at Peer to Peer University. A member of the community asked how teachers manage their students' digital work. Back in the pre-Internet classroom, this type of question would have been referred to as handling the paper load, but now I think of it as managing the digital flow.

I know that one answer to managing all of my students' digital work would be to just have them work in learning management systems like Blackboard or Angel or Turnitin; that would certainly make things more convenient. But as a student having composed in these spaces myself, I have to say that I don't like systems where content is password protected. An LMS might work for a lot of people, but these places don't work well for the way I teach because I'm trying to help students navigate and leverage the affordances of new media landscapes.

photo by sloanpix
For instance, I think all photographers benefit from participating in sites like Flickr, where people who are passionate about photography congregate. And I want my students to have meaningful discussions with other students on Youth Voices; that means connecting with people who aren't necessarily in our geographical area and who don't always share a similar world view.

So back to how to manage all this. One thing I do to just get a handle on it all is to set up a Google Spreadsheet with links to my students' Flickr photostreams, Youth Voices discussions, shared Google Docs, and email addresses. Initially it takes some time to set this up, but the result is a one-stop portal to the various aspects of their digital learning portfolio.

Another FAQ is how to assess student digital work. This is a difficult question because the assessment depends on the situation and the purpose, but in general here are some thoughts. As far as their image composition goes, their photostream should show these traits; their video compositions should have those same qualities but also have clear audio and tell a compelling story. Here's a link to a self-assessment tool for my students discussion posts on Youth Voices. I treat comments as a separate genre, and so I think good comments should do these things.

I know I could make things easier on myself, but I've come to believe that the learning my students do is most powerful when it's out in the open.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Opening up my classroom

In honor of the inaugural Open Education Week (March 5-10, 2012), my goal is to post a few things in the next few days as a way to open up my own teaching. This all started on a recent episode of Teachers Teaching Teachers when Mary Lou Forward encouraged me to share my teaching in a more public way. The 2/29/12 TTT episode, "Open Education: Connect, Collect, Create, Share" was about Open Education Resources in general, and it got me thinking about what openness means to this classroom teacher.

Here are a few ideas I'm working through, and I offer them not only to open up my teaching but also to clarify them in my own mind: