How Not to Do Portfolios

I haven’t successfully implemented portfolios in my own classroom yet, but after attending a SocialEdCon discussion about e-portfolios here at ISTE, I started thinking about the e-portfolio I created as a final graduation requirement for grad school. It was all wrong, and that’s why I feel no sense of pride or ownership over it. Our college technology programs should be leading the way in creating e-portfolios as they send instructional technologists out into education. Teachers are like everyone else. They need models of good practices in their own education so they can implement those practices in their classrooms. So what was wrong with my portfolio?

I understand that my degree program uses the portfolio to address the Knowledge Base of Instructional Technology standards developed by AECT, but rather than make these domains a part of students’ thinking throughout the degree program, the domains were introduced at the very end of the program, and I felt like I had to retrofit my learning to match the domains. If the domains are so critical, and our learning has been informed by the domains, then I should have been guided by my instructors as I completed the courses to think about how what I was learning fit the domains, and I should have been coached to think about pieces I wanted to include in the portfolio that would reflect my learning in each domain. A portfolio should show learning in progress, and it should not be something students just work on at the end. Saving a portfolio until the end makes it difficult for students to think about and reflect on their learning. I did it because I am a writer and a natural reflector. I just do that. But what about students who need a little help reflecting on their learning? This kind of a portfolio is a wasted opportunity for those students.

I didn’t have a lot of choice. I had to include certain items, sometimes things I wouldn’t have chosen to reflect my learning, because I had stringent criteria. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have criteria for portfolios, but give students choices about how to meet that criteria. As it is, I did manage to sneak in some items that I didn’t even create for school, particularly to fit the development domain, but it would have been nice if I had been offered multiple learning opportunities for other domains. For example, the only item I could really include in my management domain that demonstrated planning, monitoring, and controlling an instructional design project was a time log I kept for my final project and report, and this was a problem that my instructors knew about because they flat out told me to just use the time log for that particular domain. I want choices! I’m not particularly proud of a time log. I’m not sure what it shows about my learning aside from the fact that I can keep track of my hours and create a table in Word. Choice is such an essential part of a portfolio. Giving students ownership over their learning and choices about what they use to demonstrate that learning in a portfolio is critical.

Finally, I didn’t have a lot of choice about the format. I was told I was going to design a website (using Dreamweaver, if I wanted) with a navigation system. I could make it look however I wanted (within my ability to use Dreamweaver or code HTML), but it had to look a certain way. I wouldn’t have been allowed to use a wiki or blog. It had to be a web page I could save and upload to the system my school used to collect assignments. I couldn’t just send a link to a site hosted elsewhere, though there was no restriction against putting the portfolio elsewhere online also, so I did.

You know what? I understand now why I hated that portfolio, even though I usually love that kind of reflection and curation. It was all wrong. That’s not the way to put together a true portfolio of learning. It felt more like a checklist of items so the instructors could say yes, they met the required instructional technology standards. But you know what? They really didn’t meet those standards if they were not introduced to students until the end, and the students themselves didn’t even know what they were or were not thinking for themselves about how to meet them. For a group of folks who say they value instructional design, the way they implemented portfolio learning borders on criminal.

No wonder I dislike my portfolio so much. It’s not much of a reflection of me or my learning. It feels very impersonal, and sometimes when I look at, I don’t even feel like it’s something I created.

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Real World Problems, Real World Learning

One of my favorite aspects of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s book Understanding by Design is the real-life unit plan model they describe for a health class. In order to help students learn more about healthy foods and healthy eating, the performance task asks them to design a balanced meal plan that allows for dietary restrictions (such as diabetes) for campers. This problem is a real world problem that students might encounter in that each camp employs a real person who plans menus in the same way. It requires students not only to think about healthy food, but also variety and appeal as well as certain health issues that may (or perhaps already do) affect them. It’s a great assessment. I think it’s in the same book that students are asked to design the best form of packaging for candy so that the most amount of candy can be transported while maximizing space in the truck transporting it while still ensuring the packaging is convenient. I have left my copy of the book at school, so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t remember this exactly right, but I seem to remember that spherical packages would maximize the space in the truck and enable the most amount of candy to be transported, but for obvious reasons, spherical packages are inconvenient.

It reminded me of a real world problem I heard about when I visited Carolina Day School in Asheville, NC not too long ago. The middle school was considering replacing the long tables in the cafeteria with round tables, but the administration was concerned that they would not be able to fit enough round tables to seat all the students in the cafeteria. The assistant principal knew the seventh graders had been learning about area in math, so he gave the problem to them to solve. I don’t know what they decided, but I think it’s a great way for students to learn about real world applications for math. I always hear students complain, often about math, that they can’t see how they will use the skills in “the real world.” Of course, I know they will use the skills in all kinds of ways they may not be able to imagine, but I think sometimes teachers don’t always give students enough real world problems so that students understand the relevance of what they’re learning. In his last blog for The Huffington Post entitled “Best Ideas for Our Schools,” Eric Sheninger argues for authentic learning: “In my opinion there is no other powerful learning strategy than to have students exposed to and tackle problems that have meaning and relevancy.”

The Weber School’s students recently won first place in the Moot Beit Din competition. Moot Beit Din asks students to apply Jewish texts to current problems. The competition offers students an opportunity to determine in what ways Jewish texts are still relevant as a guideline for modern life and also how they can use these texts to grapple with issues in our society today. In terms of Jewish studies, it’s about as authentic as it gets: not unlike Model U.N. or Mock Trial. Once students participate in these types of activities and describe their experiences, they make connections between what they’re learning and the “real world,” and their excitement is palpable. Just take a look at this video (which features some of Weber’s students):

In many ways, just approaching an assignment differently can turn an activity that may not ask students solve a real world problem into one that does. The other day, I was in our school’s Learning Center, and I found an assignment left behind by one of our tenth graders. It was based on the chapter of The Great Gatsby in which Nick attends Gatsby’s party for the first time. Students were asked to write an article as the gossip columnist for the local New York newspaper in which they describe the party, including some of the rumors about Gatsby and speculations of their own. It’s a great approach to a traditional summary. Students are asked to recall and predict, which are not necessarily the highest order critical thinking skills, but are good skills for reading comprehension. If they had been asked to write a summary of the chapter, they wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much, nor would they have produced work that was half as fun to read or that approached a real world situation they might encounter—how to write for the kind of authentic audience that reads a newspaper and is relying on the writer for information. Students see the relevance of this kind of assignment much more readily than the see the relevance of writing a summary, yet both assignments essentially ask students to use the same summary writing skills. The main difference is in their approach.

The headmaster of Carolina Day School told me that he felt students should be blogging because there was a ready-made authentic audience in a blog that gave a writer a reason to write beyond earning a grade for a class. They are no longer writing just for their teacher, but also for a larger audience, and more importantly, for themselves. Assessments that ask students to grapple with real world problems don’t necessarily require a huge shift in the kinds of skills and learning that are assessed so much as they require a shift in thinking about how we approach teaching and assessing skills and learning.

Feel free to share some of your ideas for authentic assessments in the comments.

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March Madness Ideas

air timeIt’s March! That time of year when everyone’s filling out their brackets. You can use March Madness as a metaphor for all kinds of activities at school:

  • Poetry: Have students pit their favorite poems against one another. They can create brackets. It can be a fun segue into National Poetry Month in April (see also NCTE’s lesson).
  • Writing: TeachHub has writing prompts related to basketball and March Madness for students in grades K-12.
  • Math: Probability activities and more math-related March Madness.
  • Multiple disciplines: This New York Times activity allows students to use brackets to debate academic questions.

ESPN has tournament brackets available as GIF’s or PDF’s.

Do you have a March Madness idea? Share please!

Creative Commons License photo credit: *sean

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What is This Test Measuring?

070305I have been studying for the Technology Education GACE (Georgia Assessments for the Certification of Teachers) test I will take next month. This test is the last step in obtaining certification to teach technology. However, I have some concerns about the test based on the study questions provided at the GACE website. Technology covers a wide range of courses and fields. Were I to teach robotics or electronics, it would be important for me to know how transistors work, which is one of the free response questions. However, I wonder, given the fact that my goals are to teach my colleagues and students about computers and similar devices, how important is it that I know the safety procedures for operating a lathe? Or that the process used to increase the density of concrete by removing air voids is called rodding? I suppose I might, at some point, need to understand economics of supply and demand and perhaps even the advantages of oxyacetalene cutting torches over plasma cutting torches. Fair enough. But the advantage of flat-sawed lumber over quarter-sawed lumber?

More troubling to me even than the inclusion of questions related to what I would term “industrial arts” are the exclusion of questions about what I might actually do. For instance, where are the questions about the instructional design process (emphasized so heavily in my master’s course work)? Where are the questions about evaluation of websites? Where are the questions about the process for evaluating tools such as software for purchase? Where are the questions about multimedia authoring? Digital audio? Instructional media? Even basic computer literacy?

I believe that this test is designed to test teachers from a variety of instructional backgrounds, whether that background is industrial arts, computers, construction, manufacturing technology, and several other disciplines, but that’s precisely the problem. This test, from all appearances, is spread out across too many different disciplines. When I took the Teacher Candidate Test to be certified as an English teacher, all the questions were related to my discipline. They were about literature, writing, vocabulary, and grammar.

This test appears to be about several things that I don’t believe are related to my discipline. If I successfully pass it, I will be certified to teach wood shop. Do I feel qualified to teach wood shop? Not in the slightest. There is too much I don’t know about the equipment and procedures to be successful in that position. This test would also determine whether or not I could teach computer science. Do I feel qualified to teach computer science? Certainly, and this test won’t change that.

I understand that all of these areas can be thought of as “technology,” but I think it’s understood that when we use the term “technology education,” we’re talking about teaching others how to use computers, interactive white boards, software, communication devices, and similar tools. We’re talking about which tools to use to accomplish certain tasks. We’re talking about 21st century skills. I’m not concerned about passing the test, but I am concerned that passing it doesn’t really communicate anything to anyone about how ready I am to teach the material covered on the test. I would propose that the test be rewritten to focus on the different disciplines that currently fall under technology education so that both the test-takers and the administrators who hire technology educators can be sure that candidates have the skills required for their particular discipline. But I invite you to take a look at the testing preparation materials and tell me what you think.

Creative Commons License photo credit: COCOEN daily photos

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Literary Mixtapes

An old love song!The pop culture blog Flavorwire regularly creates mixtapes for literary characters. Their latest offering is Dorian Gray. Creating mixtapes can be an interesting way for students to think about characters and themes in the literature they read, especially if, like Flavorwire does, they need to justify their choices. Such an assignment could address the following NCTE standards:

  • NCTE/IRA Standard 1: Students read a wide range of print and non-print texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
  • NCTE/IRA Standard 3: Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).

Creating a literary mixtape would require students to think about the character and his/her conflicts and development as well as the plot and theme of the work in which the character appears. The mixtape could be a fun strategy for helping students comprehend, interpret, and evaluate texts and enables them to draw on their prior experience with music to make meaning of the texts they read.

Instructions

  1. Students should either pick or be assigned a character or work of literature.
  2. Students pick ten songs that somehow illustrate the work’s theme or define that character. Students can also pick songs that would appeal to their character.
  3. Students write a two-three sentence justification for their song selections. Their justification should explain why the song fits the character or work.
  4. Optional: students can present their mixtapes.
  5. Optional: students can design a cover for their mixtape.

Examples

Take a look at these other Flavorwire mixtapes.

At an NCTE conference in 1997, I went to a session that shared a strategy similar to this, and the teachers in that session shared that students had paired “Uninvited” by Alanis Morissette with The Great Gatsby and “Head Like a Hole” by Nine Inch Nails with Heart of Darkness. I thought those examples were good, as the speaker in “Univited” is addressing a suitor she isn’t interested in and explores the uneven nature of their feelings for each other, while the speaker in “Head Like a Hole” repeats the refrain, “Bow down before the one you serve. You’re going to get what you deserve.” The last line of the song, “You know what you are,” echoes the end of Heart of Darkness: “The horror”—Kurtz’s last words as he realizes who he is.

Cautions

Be mindful of copyright. Do not ask students to assemble actual tapes or CD’s. Students might be able to find officially released videos on YouTube or the artists’ websites, but they should not try to circumvent copyright laws in order to share the music they assemble. Several online services allow users to stream selected songs and create playlists (Spotify, for example).

This assignment could also work for historical figures or biblical characters.

Update, 1/10/12, 8:45 A.M.: Check out Leslie Healey’s post about creating a mixtape for King Lear. Note: she shares Playlist.com as a way to create mixtapes.

Creative Commons License photo credit: silkegb

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ITMA Portfolio

After about a year, I have finally edited my portfolio from the Instructional Technology master’s program at Virginia Tech. I needed to redirect a lot of links in order to make sure everything functioned. Feel free to check it out if you are interested in that sort of thing. A link to it has a permanent home in my left sidebar under Links.

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The Differentiator

pencil

The Differentiator sounds like a professional wrestler’s stage name. It’s a cool tool, though. When I took Instructional Design as part of my Instructional Technology master’s, one point that the instructor and my text both emphasized was that objectives needed to be clear and measurable. One of my favorite methods for constructing objectives was the ABCD method advocated by Smaldino, Lowther, and Russell in Instructional Technology and Media for Learning, which was my textbook for Instructional Media (my favorite text). The ABCD model for writing objectives considers 1) audience—the learners; 2) behavior—what you want your audience to know or be able to do; 3) conditions—under what conditions (environment and materials) the objective will be assessed; and 4) degree—what will constitute an acceptable performance or demonstration of learning. The key with the “behavior” or verb in the objective is that it must be measurable.

Mager criticizes use of verbs that are not measurable in Preparing Instructional Objectives, a suggested text for Instructional Design. For instance, how would you measure whether students “appreciate” something or even whether they “learn” it? Smaldino, Lowther, and Russell say “[v]ague terms such as know, understand, and appreciate do not communicate your aim clearly. Better words include define, categorize, and demonstrate, which denote observable performance” (p. 93). A table on p. 93 of Instructional Technology and Media for Learning entitled “The Helpful Hundred” includes a great list of verbs for writing objectives. Of course, these types of charts are available everywhere, and maybe you even have a good one that you use. What I liked about the Differentiator is that you can use verbs organized via Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy to build objectives. The list is somewhat limited, but it’s a good start. Most of the verbs are measurable, too (I’m not sure how you would measure whether students “value” something, but that’s the only verb that struck me as difficult to measure and unclear to students). Using this model, you might write an objective like “Using a computer with word processing software, ninth grade students will write an essay with a score of 4 on a 5-point rubric where 5 = exceeds expectations.” (A similar example can be found on p. 94 of Smaldino, Lowther, and Russell.)

Mager’s model for writing objectives includes three major parts: 1) performance—what you want students to be able to do; 2) conditions—tools students can use and circumstances under which the performance will take place; and 3) criterion—the description for criteria for an acceptable performance. Using this model, you might, for instance, write an objective that reads “Given a computer with word processing software, students will write an essay with a score of 4 on a 5-point rubric where 5 = exceeds expectations.” The conditions are the computer and word processing software. The performance is writing the essay. The criterion is that the essay is at least meets expectations, earning an overall score of four.

A poor example of an objective with a similar goal might be “Students will know how to write an essay.” Using either model I’ve described will help you determine whether or not students know how to write an essay; they will also allow you to determine the degree of success and under what conditions you expect that performance to take place.

The Differentiator can help you write objectives similar to both of these models. I do think the content part of process is somewhat confusing and maybe unnecessary. For instance, I used the Differentiator to write “Students will construct a model of the solar system.” The missing piece is the criteria for an acceptable performance, but you get the idea. At any rate, it’s fun to play with and see what happens. I think it has potential to help teachers write higher order objectives more easily and perhaps help teachers remember to ask deeper questions.

It might seem somewhat cold or clinical to think about teaching this way, but it has made me think about what I what students to know or be able to do with much more clarity, and it has also made me think about how I will know students have learned something.

Creative Commons License photo credit: D. Sharon Pruitt, Pink Sherbet Photography

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Assessing Learning

Exploring an ideaI had an idea today, and I decided to try it out and see if it would work.

Teachers use Bloom’s Taxonomy to construct assessments for students, but I don’t think students have ever heard of it. I know I never thought to share it with students. And why not? It’s not a great big secret.

We finished studying Macbeth in one of my classes, and so I decided to let the students essentially create the test, which is not a novel idea. Other folks have done that. What I did, however, was share the various levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy with the students and ask them to think of questions that they felt addressed each level. We began with remembering or knowledge and reached analysis before the period ended and we had to table the discussion for tomorrow. Here are some of the questions the students came up with in the level of Bloom’s that the students placed them:

Knowledge/Remembering

  • How many witches?
  • What happened in the play?
  • Describe the setting of the play.

Comprehension

  • How is Lady Macbeth the more dominant partner in the relationship?
  • How should an actor interpret a given passage of the play?
  • Give examples of how Macbeth misinterprets the witches’ prophecies.
  • Explain how Macbeth changes over the course of the play.

Application

  • Show how Macbeth is still relevant to a modern audience (Why do we study it? What can it teach us?)
  • Show how Macbeth is similar to a modern teenager.

Analysis

  • Compare how Macbeth felt after killing Duncan to how he felt after having Banquo and the Macduffs murdered.
  • Why did Macbeth kill Duncan? Banquo? The Macduffs?
  • Why did Macbeth listen to the witches?

I think some of these questions are really good and really interesting. I’m not generally a fan of using the lower level questions, and in my mind it is those few knowledge/comprehension questions that are weakest. Beyond identifying how many witches are in the play, it might be more interesting why there are three witches instead of two or four, for instance. I might also have placed some of their questions in other categories. For instance, I think the question about Lady Macbeth’s dominance is more of an analysis question than a comprehension question. Same with the question about Macbeth changing over the course of the play.

Some of their higher order questions are questions I wouldn’t have thought of—showing how Macbeth is like a modern teenager (they mentioned “peer pressure”). I really like the question about why Macbeth listens to the witches.

It was a good assessment of my teaching to hear what the students were telling me they had learned from studying the play. I think it will be interesting to see the assessment that they craft—the assessment that will tell me what they consider important and worth assessing about their study of Macbeth.

Creative Commons License photo credit: JJay

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Addressing Plagiarism

If you’ve taught for any length of time, you’ll probably have to confront plagiarism. Even in the age before the Internet, students plagiarized, though it might be a little easier to do now than it was when you were in high school. A variety of tools can help you detect plagiarism, but what are you supposed to do about it?

First of all, consider the age of your students. I think if you have middle schoolers, they likely don’t know or haven’t learned how to attribute quotes. Students should be taught how to attribute information. Model it. Teach them to use just the part of the quote they need. I have a handout on integrating quotes that might be helpful.

Teach students what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Barry Gilmore’s book Plagiarism: Why It Happens, How to Prevent It can help you. Melissa Vosen has a great article in the July 2008 issue of English Journal entitled “Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Teach Students About Plagiarism.” I’ve used it for two years (and will use it again in January) and have found it to be an excellent mini-unit for helping students understand what plagiarism is and how to avoid it. Obviously preventing plagiarism is the best possible means of handling it, but when it happens, and it’s probably a question of when and not if, keep in mind:

  • It’s not about you. The student doesn’t necessarily plagiarize because he/she dislikes you or your class. It’s an act of either laziness or desperation that has nothing to do with the personal feelings the student has for you or your class. You shouldn’t make it personal when you handle it.
  • Consequences are important. Your school probably has a policy about plagiarism. Follow it. That means the student will need to be punished even if he/she is contrite and promises never to do it again.
  • Move on. After the consequences have been given, forgive the student. Go ahead and check their work more carefully in the future. That’s common sense. Don’t make the student feel as if they have irreparably damaged their relationship with you.
  • Make sure the parents know. It might be a good idea to address parents from the point of view of a parent—show your concern and assure the parent that though there will be consequences, you understand it was a mistake and will be moving on and putting it behind you. Assure the parent the student will have a second chance. Parents need to know because any consequences will likely impact the student’s grade.
  • Examine the assignment. Is there something about it that made it too difficult for the student to do? Or was the topic the kind of topic that invites plagiarism because it’s a really commonly assigned topic? Is there anything you can do to improve the assignment so that students won’t be tempted to plagiarize? One suggestion I have is to construct the assignment around an authentic audience and task. For example, instead of framing the topic like this: “Analyze Beowulf’s heroic characteristics using textual evidence,” try “You are King Hrothgar. Queen Huffgar the Wise has written you in desperation. She has a horrible problem with Acromantulas in her kingdom, and she has just learned that your own kingdom was recently rid of two terrible monsters. She wants to know if you can recommend the services of a hero who might be able to do the same for her kingdom. Write a letter of recommendation to Queen Huffgar for Beowulf’s services as a hero. Use examples of Beowulf’s heroic prowess from Beowulf.” Those two writing tasks are asking students to do the same thing. One seems like a lot more fun to write (my opinion, of course, given I wrote the task).

Do you have any tips for teachers with how to address plagiarism? Please share in the comments.

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