Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Language Barriers?

Last week, I met with Alexander, head research consultant for the E-learning support project at the National Training Foundation for teachers in Moscow, Russia. He and Gregory, a vice principal he works with, were visiting our campus to learn more about the ways to get technology more integrated into their school culture. Today, I Bruce Schauble and I presented to a group of 26 visiting teachers from Beijing, China. In both cases, we gave a brief show-and-tell of the ways our school uses blogs, wikis, Moodle, and a few other software applications. And what's been most interesting to a few of the groups is the 1001 Flat World Tales Project.

What struck me today was that all of our schools, irregardless of our contexts, are asking the same questions about technology, and we all seem to be moving in the same direction. It's exciting to think about the network of schools that will soon be connected and collaborating. Here are the questions that keep coming up:

How can a school create an environment where technology enhances communication rather than creates a barrier, physical or otherwise?

How do we define responsible (mindful) consumption of media? How much time online is the right amount?

How does a school mandate integration of technology in classes without mandating it?

What does the support system look like for faculty and staff?

How are results measured?

How does a school manage their digital assets?

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Notes On First Student-Teacher Course Design Collaboration

Lindsey, of student2.0 notoriety, and I met today for our first work session. Our goal is to design and propose a new kind of course at our school, described on Twitter by Clay Burell. The idea is that students will create their own learning networks and apprentice in an area of interest. So far, we're also thinking that designing, maintaining, and modeling for a student network would be part of the course, as well as aggregating all the sustainability-related work that happens across our campus and figuring out how to best manage and publish it. We plan to podcast our meetings, and I hope we can create and post materials too. Just an update.

Mindful Consumption Of Media And Cyber Sprawl

Since I started this blog and found a network of educators with which I collaborate, it's been a constant dialog with myself about my level of involvement in Web2.0. There are times, for the example, the past month or so, when I'm pretty much uninvolved besides working through my reader. And there are other times when I large chunks of my work days blogging, reading blogs, tweeting, etc. And then I spend weekends and evenings Skyping and collaborating and blogging. It's sort of the job I get paid to do, but sometimes it feels like web2.0 pulls me away from my immediate community and collaborators. And sometimes still, I sacrifice personal time to 'work.' I can see the benefits of balancing my teacher self at school and on the web. And lately, I've been taking inventory of all the places where I'm kind of involved and trying to prioritize and follow through before jumping into another project. I feel good about it, and I feel guilty and uninvolved about it. Okay, so what?

Well, I've written a little lately about structuring my class around communication competency levels, starting with words, then sentences, then dialogs, then paragraph, etc. Using this approach, I hope to teach a little grammar (all encompassing term for usage, conventions, punctuation, etc. And I'm still figuring out what I mean by it in this context), and I hope to help students find their voices by looking at the components. Okay, stay with me.

My wife just got back from a conference about adaptive technologies for differentiation. And speaking of words, she was sharing with me the taglines of the different seminars offered at the conference. And there was one that has helped me get this post out of my draft folder: Mindful Consumption of Media. I don't really know what the presentation was about, but just the words, in the context of my class's focus on the connotations of words, struck me. First, the idea of mindful as I know it is the slowing down of attention (I'll have to consult my copy of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind when I get home today), immersion and engagement as attention. I've noticed personally that when I work online, I tend to feel some kind of urgency to get it out there? Probably just me. Then, the word consumption. Do we use this word when we talk about reading books or attending live classes? There's something one-way about it. To me, it implies input without output (is web2.0 different?). Also, consumption is for the purpose of nutrition. I know I get tons of good stuff from the web, but are we teaching students how to watch what they consume and examine what they input? Lastly, media is so different now. I guess I think of media as being just a small part of a class a few years back. Now media of all kinds can make up the majority of a course and its curriculum.
Good to get these thoughts out, still need refining.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Work Flow, Lesson Design, And Differentiation

When I started teaching I used to dread the mundane task of filling out the lesson or unit plan sheet: numbering the objectives, making sure they aligned with state standards, spelling out student objectives, breaking down the activities by calendar, tweaking the rubric to align with everything I just listed, and so on. It seemed to take away from the natural flow of a unit or lesson. And nobody really check on that stuff anyway, except when I put in three years of weeknights to get my "professional" teaching certificate.

A luxury of teaching at an independent school is I you really feel independent in the way I craft lessons. I no longer fill in numbers from a grid of skills and standards. Instead, I try to create as flexible and dynamic of a learning environment as I can, and I look to capitalize on the teachable moments. Not to mention, I have time to work with students individually during the school day. All this sounds great. In fact, I remember saying to myself and to some colleagues from the public school where I began my career that all of the excuses and reasons for students not being able to achieve were non-existent here.

Yet a simple word has changed the kind of attention I'm now paying to lesson design. The word, the title of this post, is work flow (is it one word or two?) I've heard it before but I'm hearing it a lot more now from laptop vendors, software companies, and teachers, and I'm starting to use it myself because, well, it flows. It just a way to define how we work, how we take and idea and turn it into a product. Very appropriate for 21st century learning since it's more about producing. I find myself talking about products: digital assets, learning objects.

Next move, I examine my own work flow. I think it's pretty standard. I have a small moleskin cahier that I carry everywhere. In it, I make lists and webs and brainstorms (I get the graphed paper). Then I have my notebook where lists become prose, then my blog, slideshow, word-processed document. Couple this with the results of my Strength Finder 2.0, and my work flow makes a lot of sense for how I think and my areas of strength. And as I think about the kinds of lessons that I create, they all follow the same framework as my personal work flow.

This is where I find myself as I write units in the second semester. How can I understand my students' work flows and write assignments that allow them to engage in a successful process? Are there steps that need to be in everybody's work flow? How should this affect the way I deliver information?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Reflections On The First Days Of A New Semester With A New Group Of Students

Well, I'm feeling some pressure from Lindsea, and she channeled in some pressure from Clay to get my act together and start posting again. I was planning to. So I'll start with a somewhat counterintuitive observation from the first day of my new class.

I always begin with a new group by having them fill out some basic information on index cards. These cards serve several purposes: they help me get to know the students faster; they can be shuffled and arranged to help create small groups easily; and they can be shuffled for random, equitable questioning. So on the cards I have students write their names, AIMs, something interesting about themselves, a perceived strength in English, and something in English class that's most challenging that they'd like to work on this semester. Overwhelmingly (all but one or two students) wrote that they want to work on grammar. Here, we call it "architecture of a sentence."

I've taken their feedback to heart and am trying a new design in my second semester freshman English course. I'm adapting an idea that came from a colleague's question of what would happen is we set up our courses based around competencies, starting with words, then sentences, then dialogue, then paragraphs, and so on. As a class, I'm arranging each unit in the aforementioned sequence; and individually the idea is that students don't move on to the next competency level until they are proficient in the previous level.

In hopes that this approach will slow students down and help them pay more attention to the precision of language, here's what my class looked like this week: We started by listening to several selections of music, chosen for the singer's unique voice. Students created lists of words that describe the voices they hear ("what is my voice?" is an essential question of the course, and, I think, directly related to word choice and usage). From there, they used Visual Thesaurus to a)learn how to use the resource, and b)see the possibilities of words. They left with an assignment to write a narrative about themselves starting with the first line from The Catcher In The Rye (they don't yet know where the line comes from): "If you really want to hear about, the first thing you'll probably want to know is..."

The next class, I asked them to share their narrative in small groups and to keep a list of the most powerful words they hear in other people's narratives. Then the small groups had to chose five words from all their lists that they feel represent them the best. I collected these words in a document, and we framed them as descriptors and examples of our voice as a class.

The next question (today) is what is our school's voice? To explore this question, I had small groups navigate through the websites of several other independent schools from around the world, creating two new word lists: one list of words that describe the overall impression of the school' site, the second list of words that the school uses to describe itself. Over the weekend, I've asked them to complete the same activity with our class website. On Monday, the plan is to record everybody in the class reading all of our words and to use the recording as a soundtrack to a collaborative slideshow of pictures that represent our voices as individuals, a class, and school. I'm trying to accomplish a lot with this first collaborative mini-project. But my questions are: will this design allow for direct teaching of the architecture of a sentence in context with concrete steps, skills, and scaffolding? And, will the students think mindfully enough about their words, since there's no other consideration, like writing a paragraph, that they accurately describe our voices? We'll see; more to come.

I also have a ton of drafts ranging from cyber sprawl to my visit with Apple and Stanford two days ago. I'm still blogging.