Monday, November 26, 2007

Learnerblogs Blues

In the name of blogland security, I've been trying to make decisions, as Technology Resource Teacher, that represent my school's interest in carefully dealing with the privacy-security-student-blogging-online-learning-environment issues. So I went with Learnerblogs (I have really started to dig WordPress) instead of Blogger, which I used last year with little to no issues. My school has Moveable Type on our server. But it has proven hard to set up, difficult to customize, and all together pretty inflexible and inconvenient. But now that we're up and blogging, Learnerblogs is beginning to disappoint. I like to move from my Google Reader to original posts for commenting. And I want to comment on nearly every post that my students write. But, man, Learnerblogs is so slow, both to load and to post comments.

Restructuring Homework In My Class, Starting Today

The philosophy, practice, and dividends of homework are perpetual topics of discussion at my school. For me, they meld with other questions of what it means to be a serious student, what it means to be a learner, and what it's going to take to be successful and happy in the 21st century. To move beyond discussion, I decided to make some fairly significant changes in the way I assign, collect, and assess homework. The seed for this change was planted a couple weeks ago when I was in a meeting listening to a proposal for a 'hybrid' course, which (at my school) means less class time, more independent work and individualized instruction via Moodle and various chat and videoconferencing tools. Personally, my favorite hour of the day is class. I couldn't do less of it. But what occurred to me was that homework in an online course is inherently more independent, individualized, and flexible. These are the values that drive our school's technology initiative. And I want my homework assignments to embrace these values. So here's what I changed:

*First, I set up every student with a Learnerblog and Bloglines account (for more on this, see Clay Burell's post visionary student blogging). Each student put together their own blog reading list consisting of 5-10 feeds, and proposed a purpose or topic for their own blog.

*They are required to publish one thoughtful post a cycle (our 6-day version of a week).

*In addition, during class time each cycle, they meet in small groups to report on their reading of feeds.

Okay, here's the homework part:

*On the first day of each cycle, I post 5 items to our class Moodle page:
1. A prompt for this cycle's post. (They can use it or not).
2. Required reading and viewing. This cycle, for example, I posted a TED talk, a YouTube video, and a link to an educational post.
3. Cool Tools. I post links to tools they might like or find useful. This cycle: Quotiki and
4. And a mini-lesson. This cycle is commenting on blogs: why do it, why not to do it, and opportunity to practice.
5. A forum for discussion of any of the cycle's homework activities.

What's in it for me:
*I feed their posts to my reader and leave individualized comments.
*I can see when and how often they access the homework activities in Moodle. Doing this allows me to monitor and coach students in the art of time management.
*Now, we all do the same kinds of homework, which creates a different kind of learning environment.
*My class time is freed up to do the things I always feel I don't have time to do, like sit in a circle and read literature together, slowly (10 pages in 3 classes - this is a good thing) and critically.
*I always know they've done the reading (no need for punitive quizzes:)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Resource Teacher Outreach: Freshman English Moodle Workshop #1

The hardest part of being a Technology Resource Teacher is outreach. It's easy to work with other teachers when they come to me with a specific questions or ideas for using or integrating technology into their classroom. But how do I present ideas to others without adding to peoples' plates? This blog, I hope, is one way.
Another idea that came to fruition yesterday was to plan and host a Moodle Retreat for all Freshman English teachers. So my Department Head arranged for them to have subs for half a day, and I put together an agenda, examples, and test courses. Here's what the half-day looked like.

1st Hour: Moodle Basics And Demonstrations

* What is a course management system?
* The vocabulary of Moodle
* How it works: basic functions and navigation
* Demonstrations of English I and other courses in Moodle

2nd Hour: Putting Together Test Courses

* Examples of each activity you might use and how to create them from scratch
* Create resources, activities, and 'blocks' in your own test course (blog, wiki,
forum, glossary, quizzes, etc.)
* Experience Moodle as a student

3rd Hour: Translate Your Next Cycle Plan Into Moodle
(please bring unit/lesson plans that you already use, tech or no tech)

* Collaborative planning
* One-on-one Moodling
* Time to work

30 minutes to reflect and/or use the time however we choose.

I'm hoping to debrief with everybody and get suggestions on how to improve the workshop. Overall, this was a very successful way to create time for teachers to learn new tools. I also had four other TRTs with me to support. Thanks to all involved.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Blog Reading Level Or Student Writing Level

I've always struggled with teaching grammar and vocabulary in and out of context. I don't know if this tool could be helpful, but it's sparked a few ideas to help students direct their own mastering of these necessary communication skills. I ran across the Blog Readability Test on Jeff Utecht's blog, and I think it could be an interesting feedback tool for student bloggers. Although, I'm suspicious of it's calibration.

What Is A Serious Student?

Every other week, the English department meets a large group (largest dept. in the school) to discuss courses, initiatives, school business, and overarching questions. Yesterday, we revisited a conversation about homework that's been going on school-wide for a few years. How do we use it? Why do students gain from it? Could we get by without it? And so on. And we ended up discussing what some of us perceived as a move towards a school culture that doesn't foster serious students, specifically in English. Physics and Math maybe a different story?

Many great questions came out of the discussion:
*Is there a difference between being good at something and being a student of something? Waterpolo was the analogy.
*How do we balance encouraging the skills of a good student with the necessary pace of the curriculum?
*Should we expect all student to have passion for English? For example, do we expect all student in orchestra to be serious musicians?
*Is being a serious student, a mastery of skills or an investment in content?

So I left the meeting thinking about these questions, and thinking about how I might present some ideas in a post here at WatsonCommon. Considering myself a serious student of several things, English, leadership, educational technology, surfing, mountaineering, racquetball, marathoning, I thought I'd take inventory of all the things I do as a serious student (maybe learner is a better term).

1. I keep a small notebook with me at all times to quickly jot down ideas, reflections, and observations. This is also where raw ideas are born. Often, what's written here is in the form of lists, pictures, webs.

2. I write in a personal journal, at least 10 minutes a day, for nobody but me.

3. I keep a professional blog and read blogs of people who do similar work, creating a network of creative collaborators. Before blogging, I documented all my work and organized it in binders and folders, ready to reference and share.

4. I try to build a professional library of thought-provoking reading. I think this too is encompassed by the read/write web.

I'm probably missing things. But these are the habits (I wouldn't call them skills) that I believe make me serious. Is this what we expect of students? Or is it something else? Something more?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

A Different Take On Teaching The Thesis (With Just A Little Technology)

To oversimplify and make a generalization based on not much, English and Language Arts instruction seems to follow one of two mantras when working with the thesis essay. 1) The 5 (or however many) paragraph model: Thesis, supporting statements, evidence, and discussion, and some kind of conclusion. Or, 2) Rejection of this kind of formulaic writing with something more narrative-based or creative in its place. I've tried both, and I've tried teaching from somewhere in the middle, but that gets tough because of the inherent contradictions. Where teaching the middle worked well was in an upper-level composition course (one of my favorite courses to teach). For this post though, I'm thinking about teaching the thesis to freshman.

The context is that my class just finished reading The Odyssey with which we did some very engaging writing about names, family, self, home, journey but neglected to work on anything that resembled thesis writing or literary analysis. So as an afterthought steeped in guilt, I decided to run what I called a "Group Thesis Challenge Relay."

1. I divided the class into 5 groups of 4 and explained briefly that a thesis is essentially identifying a literary device and its impact on something thematic or character-based. Other traits of a thesis might be that it's disagreeable and beyond a summary.
2. I gave them this stem: Homer uses _________ to show _________.
3. The groups had 10 minutes to dig through the text and compose as many workable statements as possible.
4. I determined a random order for the groups to present then had them designate a spokesperson.
5. The first group presented their thesis statement.
6. Any other group could challenge the thesis. They had to provide reasoning behind their challenge. And the challenged team gets a chance to respond. Challenges had to be justified by the text.
7. Unsuccessful challenges result in loss of points (I had just watched NFL Sunday).
8. After each challenge, the whole class revised the thesis. I word-processed and projected the statements. With highlights, comments, and revisions, I'm going to post the document as a future reference.
*This activity segued into a discussion of a wiki document we've been working on to examine the differences between blogging, journaling, writing for school. They saw the connection.

Throughout the thesis activity, I was increasingly impressed by the student-led challenges and discussions. In order to make valid challenges, students discussed how an essay would be constructed around particular statements, why a statement wasn't specific enough, how to revise, what parts of the story support and/or disprove statements. The activity became much more than an afterthought.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Students Starting To Blog And I'm Considering Critical Thinking, Creative Commons And Innovative Mash-Up: A Couple TEDs To Juxtapose

My latest side project idea is to start to put together a presentation for my school's sophomore English teachers in anticipation of our 1:1 laptop program moving into the 10th grade next year. I'm working on this in conjunction with the work I'm doing with the four other technology resource teachers, which is to determine a set of hardware and software functionalities necessary for our students, as we begin the process of renegotiating our laptop lease. So I want to try, in this post, to connect these two projects, and point to a couple powerful TED videos.

Our sophomore English course, along with all courses at our school, values critical thinking and writing skills, and asks students to exercise these skills while exploring these essential questions: What kind of world is this? How should I live in it? In my presentation to the group, I'm hoping to show how the critical thinking skills translate to all the elements of keeping a self-directed, academic, student blog, much like the long-standing sophomore English assignment of the commonplace book.

The difference being that all that collected, hyperlinked, referenced, reorganized information is being shared publicly; copyright must be an issue. And the connection to my school's functionalities selection process is that our Director of K-12 Instruction suggested that we seek a tool that allows students to create and design "innovative mashups--empowering students to interact with traditional curricular content in ways that will nurture and develop and expand their creative and innovative capacities." So here are the TED videos: first, innovative mashups; second, creative commons.

Monday, November 5, 2007

1001 Flat World Tales: Honolulu, Seoul, Denver Winner Tales eBook Available

Last year's 1001 Flat World Tales writing project on a wiki was a huge success. Now, the eBook is available. Read more and get involved in the project here.

Another Differentiated Quiz: Quick Observations

My class is almost finished with The Odyssey. We've discussed and written about the themes of self, name, reputation, and home. Now, we're starting to talk about the idea of the journey, which is an appropriate segue to keeping blogs as a way to think about where they've been and where they want to go. So today I set up what I called a quiz/activity (funny how tagging assignments changes them so much). It was a quiz in the sense that it checked their weekend reading; it was an activity in the sense that it introduced and helped them think about their own journeys through school and life.

The quiz:
-Identify important stops in Odysseus' journey, cite the Book in which they occurred.
-Draw comparisons to events from your own journey. (My example: Odysseus is stuck on Calypso's island at the beginning of the story. This is sort of like the girl I dated for way too long in high school, which led to us both missing out on things).
-More specific = More points.
-No required amount of events.
-Use whatever tool you feel is most appropriate to the task.

-5 students used paper and pencil.
-8 students created some kind of mindmap using Inspiration.
-5 students wrote in narrative form.
-2 students used Excel charts.
-2 students used web resources (after I reported my observation to my students, many said, "we didn't know we could use the internet." I hadn't said anything about it.)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Software Applications vs. Web-Based Tools: How Do Schools Choose?

For the last two days, I've been working my way through a PDF document that Bruce emailed me. It was created by Ben Wilkoff of the Douglas County School District as a concrete list of useful web tools, software applications, online resources, and authentic learning environments. From his list of 101 tools, I pared down to a list of 30 that I'm going to explore further. But that's not exactly what I want to write about in this post.

This morning I attended a presentation of DyKnow, an online synchronous classroom tool for 1:1 tablet environments. The software allows for communication with student computers, screen control, private notetaking, session playback, document exchange, desktop sharing, anonymous polling, among other features. During the presentation, I kept saying to myself: almost all these features are available for free on the web (most documented in Ben's PDF).

Our school, being in the first year of a laptop program in the high school, but a program that's been in our junior school (a separate area of the campus and a different culture) for better than 5 years already, is trying to navigate through all the questions of privacy, security, and pedagogy on its way to policy. And I'm on the steering committee and planning a M.Ed. proposal around this process. So how does a school decide when to go with purchased software and when to go with web-based tools? Here's a quick comparison chart I sketched out during the meeting:

*I've been reading and listening in hopes of adding to this cursory list. I'm hoping edubloggers from schools that have been through this can offer some feedback.

Purchased Software:
-Managed and supported within school IT dept.
-Content is owned and archived on school server.
-Maybe this software is more powerful and reliable.
-Easier to drive initiatives.
-Universal tools across classrooms and grade levels.

Web-Based Tools:
-Take 'em or leave 'em.
-Exists outside school.