Reflections on ISTE 2013

Dynamic SerenityI am still gathering my notes on the ISTE conference last week. You can see them in this public Evernote notebook I’ve shared. Sometimes it’s not the most helpful thing to try to parse someone else’s cryptic notes, but for what it’s worth, feel free to have a look.

I thoroughly enjoyed the conference, but I have two pieces of advice for anyone who is using a slidedeck to present at a large conference like ISTE.

  1. Don’t put text on the bottom of the slide. If the room is really crowded, some of the people in the room will not see the text. They will stand up a little to see better, which only makes the view worse for people behind them. I know lots of templates have text on the bottom, and it looks pretty. I have done it, too. You just never know what the room will look like, however, and text on the top is more accessible.
  2. Why not share your presentation via Google Presentation or SlideShare? If you do that, seeing it in the front is a moot point, and you can put text wherever you want. The presentation is now in the hands of your audience, and they can more easily annotate it, download it, and (dare I suggest it?) remix it.

Invent to LearnI came away from the conference excited about the possibilities of maker spaces, and after an energizing presentation by Sylvia Martinez, I downloaded her new book, co-written with Gary Stager,  Invent To Learn: Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom. I can’t wait to learn more about making and engineering. One statement she made, which I will share here, is that we wouldn’t be talking about how to integrate the arts into schools and turning STEM into STEAM if schools hadn’t artificially removed art. She said you cannot stop kids from being artists. She shared the example of her daughter going through art school and how she learned that artists are on the cutting edge of technology.

One focus of the conference was gamification, and I am interested in exploring that topic further, as well. You have probably heard of the Mozilla Open Badges project (if not, check it out). I am excited to see how this project develops, particularly after Bill Clinton endorsed the idea. To be dead honest, my instructional technology masters was almost completely useless in terms of preparing me for what I do. And don’t get me started again on the test I had to take to add technology instruction to my certificate. It helps to have the degree on your résumé, I guess, but I hope, in light of how expensive education is (and it’s getting more expensive) that we can consider alternative credentials. Put together with endorsements, similar to LinkedIn, and I think badges could be more valuable than wasting money on classes with content you never use again. I’m just thinking out loud, and I don’t have the answer. Certainly some attention to personalized learning is in order.

photo by: papalars

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Do You Know What Today Is?

Birthday CakeIt is huffenglish.com’s 8th birthday! To make it even more special, I’m celebrating by writing this post in the Blogger’s Cafe at ISTE!

Of course, a cursory glance at my content for the last year or so reveals very little actual blogging.

Why is that? Well, I moved 1,000 miles away and started a new job. I now work at Worcester Academy, and this summer I begin my second year as their Technology Integration Specialist. I can’t think of a more wonderful place to work. They value my professional development enough to send me to the premier educational technology conference in the world, and I work with some truly amazing educators.

I have been really dissatisfied with the quiet on this blog. Even though I made some major changes in my professional and personal life over the last year, and I gave myself permission to let the blog go for a while, I have always maintained that people make time for things they consider important. People used to ask me how I had time to blog, tweet, etc. You know, all the social media. I said I made time to do it because it was important to me. And it is still important to me, but clearly not as important as some other things going on. I am announcing today that blogging has once again moved to my front burner, and if it’s not on the very front burner, at least it’s on the stove again. It’s been relegated to the recesses of the freezer as I tried to acclimate to my new home and job, but because blogging is important to me, I’ll be making time for it again.

Why is blogging important to me? It allows me to reflect on what I’m thinking and learning. Sure, I can do that offline in any one of a variety of note-taking apps I use or even with a pen and notebook, but the kind of thinking and reflection I do here on this blog transformed me as a teacher. Eight years ago, when I started this blog, I was an English teacher, and I had no idea technology integration specialists even existed, much less did I dream of ever being one. I assumed I would spend the rest of my career as an English teacher in Georgia. I am still teaching one English class, by the way, but who could have imagined I would be helping teachers integrate technology in Massachusetts? I didn’t even like technology when I started teaching, and I certainly didn’t think I was any good with it. Now I teach others how to use it in their lessons. Is that crazy?

You really never know what trajectory your career is going to take, and it is smart to make connections with really smart educators online and off, to participate in chats with other teachers when you can, and to tap all those great resources online and in your community. You just never know where your life will take you, and even if you plan it, opportunities will arise that you never foresaw, and doors will close where you expected them to be open.

I am the happiest I have ever been in my life right now, and a lot of that happiness has to do with my professional satisfaction. But only a few years ago, I felt like I was at a professional nadir, and my dissatisfaction at work made it hard to enjoy everything else. It is really true that if you find something you love to do, you really don’t ever work again.

Here is hoping you can find what makes you happy, too.

Happy birthday, huffenglish.com. To many more years of blogging! (And I mean real blogging.) Cheers!

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Tuning Out

Fingers in EarsSometimes you just need to take time off and check out.

I can’t remember the last time I checked Twitter and tried to read most of the tweets. I can’t remember the last time I checked out one of my favorite blogs. I haven’t written a whole lot lately, either. And all of that is OK because I think sometimes we need to take breaks from all the information overload.

I like to be a part of the edublogosphere and keep up with my colleagues and friends on Twitter. But sometimes it can be overwhelming, and the sheer volume of information can be daunting. So, I have been on an information sabbatical, and it has been wonderful. I have learned how to make soap, and it has become a satisfying, engaging, and interesting hobby for me. I have been reading a little. I watched the entire first season of Doctor Who and a few episodes of the second, so now I’m totally hooked. I have been busy with the start of school in my new position.

The move from Georgia to Massachusetts was mentally and physically exhausting, and I think I just needed some time to recharge my batteries. I didn’t unplug right away, but I would say it’s been about a month since I really kept up with all the social media I usually use. I am beginning to feel recharged. I think once I get my bearings at my new school and find myself settling into the routine of the school year, I will be able to engage in social media again. As for right now, if you’re wondering where I’ve been, well, here I am. I am not the kind of person to announce a hiatus or quit altogether, but I recognized I needed to tune out the cacophony for just a little while.

It’s been a wonderful vacation, and I know in my heart I’ve missed some really important things, but stepping back can be important, too, and I think many of us hear the message that we need to be continually engaged in the conversation or people won’t read our blogs or will not follow us on Twitter. I decided not to worry about that a long time ago. If my blog is good, people will visit when I post. If they are looking for quantity, they probably won’t. If what I tweet is helpful and interesting, people will follow, and I don’t need to worry about losing folks who think I don’t tweet enough. This is great advice to anyone who wonders how to juggle it all. The fact is, I’m not sure anyone can. You have to set priorities based on your goals. Right now, my goal is to settle into my job and enjoy my new home. So far, so good. I will be in touch soon.

Image via Roxie’s World

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What is a Connected Educator?

August is Connected Educator Month.

What is a Connected Educator?

Let me start with a reflection about my children. My children use YouTube constantly to learn how to do things. Tonight at dinner, my daughter Maggie told me how she used YouTube to learn how to create a flash dress up game. Keep in mind she opened Flash for the first time maybe a couple of weeks ago, if that. She used the tutorial to create the game. I frustrated myself trying to do anything in Flash for most of a semester in grad school. Anyway, Maggie’s game looks awesome, and it works great. Maggie knows how to leverage her personal learning network—in this case, YouTube—to learn how to do something. That is how our kids are learning. They are curating and collecting resources that help them learn to do what they want to learn to do.

Maggie is not too different from the students in your classroom. Your students are connected. They can’t remember a time when everyone wasn’t connected. Teachers should be lifelong learners, and one of the things teachers should learn is how to get connected to other teachers. One of the best ways to connect to other educators is through professional learning networks, or PLN’s.

My favorite professional learning network is Twitter. I recently acquired an iPad and use the apps Zite and Flipboard to discover stories that are relevant to me. I also follow many educators on Twitter and group them according to various interests (e.g. “readers,” “tech,” or “writers”) so I can quickly check in on their latest tweets. I participate in #engchat, a weekly Twitter discussion of issues related to teaching English. Many folks share items they feel will interest English teachers with the hashtag #engchat even when a chat isn’t scheduled, thereby making it easier for English teachers who follow #engchat to find their tweets.

Another way I connect with my personal learning network is through this blog. I post about whatever is on my mind, and if people are so inclined, they share the post with others and comment on the post. I reply to their comments, and we have a conversation about the issue. I first realized the power of this kind of connection when I decided to read Understanding by Design several years ago. I began reflecting on my reading here, and before I knew it, there was a loosely structured book club, a wiki for sharing units, and a connection to Grant Wiggins.

If you are looking for a way to connect with educators, my suggestion would be to try using Twitter. Locate good educators to follow. It’s OK to lurk at first, but when you feel comfortable, you should begin conversing with the teachers you follow and posting links to resources you like. Participate in an education chat on Twitter. Jerry Blumengarten has a great list of hashtags and Twitter chats that educators will find helpful. You’re sure to find one that interests you. As you begin to use Twitter more, you might want to download a Twitter client or use an in-browser client like HootSuite. Most clients allow you to save searches for hashtags so you can easily check in on your favorites.

Here is Will Richardson on personal learning networks (PLN’s):

YouTube Preview Image

Here is a great collection of books for connected educators. Check them out!

If you’ve been waiting for the right time to figure out all of this Web 2.0 connectedness your tech-savvy colleagues are talking about, what better time than Connected Educator Month? You can follow the Connected Educators Project on Twitter at @edcocp, and follow their hashtag #ce12.

photo by: ajusticenetwork

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First Week

I just finished my first week as Technology Integration Specialist at Worcester Academy. My preliminary verdict? I’ve never been this happy at any job before. I have been working on SMART Board training and Wikispaces training for faculty, learning how to use Schoology (a great tool that is overshadowed by big competitors Moodle and Blackboard), building LEGO robots, and just generally becoming acclimated to the new environment.

I’m really excited about the role I will be playing in the school. In addition to my technology integration duties, I will also teach a middle school class on digital citizenship and a tenth grade English class, and I will co-sponsor the school’s LEGO Robotics club for middle schoolers. I am super excited about the LEGO Robotics club, especially after one of my new buddies from Carolina Day School reached out to me via Twitter to suggest a collaboration between our two schools.

Besides having colleagues who are excited about technology and are doing exciting things with technology integration in an environment that encourages and requires technology integration, I also have a variety of tools at my disposal. I have never been able to have access to all the tools—including professional development—that I need to do my job. That may sound like an astonishing statement, but most educators can completely relate to it. In fact, that’s the most overwhelming part: not knowing what to use.

I haven’t even taken time yet to process my first ISTE experience on this blog, but that will be forthcoming. I’m really excited about the year ahead. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, moving my family so far away, particularly when my children are on the autism spectrum and don’t like change. They had no memories of ever living in any other house than the one we lived in. They have adjusted surprisingly well, and I think once school starts, they will be happy. I like New England, too. Moving can be such a stressful event, and our move didn’t go as smoothly as we’d have liked. (Word of caution: Don’t hire Summit Van Lines to move your things. They gave us a low initial quote, but turned out not to be terribly cheap in the end, AND they took two weeks to deliver our stuff. I was not happy with them at all. They were almost impossible to communicate with, in addition to the other issues. Steer clear!)

In all, it’s looking like a very good change, and I’m really happy.

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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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Seven Years of Blogging

It seems fitting somehow that my blog turns seven years old as I am currently attending my first ever ISTE conference. I am also starting a new job 1,000 miles away from the place where I have lived and worked for the entire time I have written this blog. I started this blog because I thought I had something to say about education, and I was impressed with what I was seeing in the edublogosphere (which was much smaller at that time). I didn’t try to analyze what I would focus on or what my audience would be. I just decided I would write about the things that interested me, and if they also interested others, so much the better. I still think that was a smart move because even when months go by without a post on this blog, I know that I am writing here still because I want to share something, not because of any expectation I set for myself. I have seen so many good bloggers quit over the years, and I think that they are partly crushed by unrealistic expectations:

  • They feel pressure to build a huge audience really quickly. I know how it feels to think no one is reading your posts. You don’t see comments. It feels like an echo chamber. But over the years, I have heard from lurkers who might never leave a comment but still get something out of what I post. There are a lot of bloggers with wider audiences, and there are all kinds of reasons for that, but I feel blessed to have a supportive readership.
  • They feel they need to focus on one thing. It’s true that niche blogs seem to do well—just a focus on math or technology or educational policy. But I think sometimes folks put themselves in the position of feeling like they can’t comment on other things because their audience expects them to write about one subject only. It’s your blog, and you should explore topics that interest you.
  • They set up a posting schedule and/or feel they must write every day. Write when the spirit moves you, I say. If you force yourself to write every day or to write according to a posting schedule, you are going to wind up treating your blog as work instead of your own reflective space. I am guilty of this, too. I have a posting schedule set up in my calendar. I was worried about how little I was posting, not realizing that part of my silence was due to some real unhappiness on the job. I determined that a posting schedule would solve my problems. I couldn’t follow it. I started feeling guilty, and I worried no one would stick with my blog. It didn’t turn out to be true, and putting that pressure on myself only made me want to blog less. Blogging when I want to about what I want to made me love my blog again.

This conference has been amazing so far, and I am sure that once I have had time to think, decompress, and reflect, I will have plenty of posts about it.

Image via Martin Thomas

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The End of a Long Chapter

For the last eight years of my teaching career, more than half my career and 1/5 of my life, I have been on the faculty of the Weber School in Atlanta, GA. Today was my last day, and it felt very strange to walk out the door and make my way across that lawn to my bus stop for the last time. I don’t think I expected to burst into tears, but even though I have mixed feelings about leaving, I know it was a completely normal and understandable reaction. I have colleagues at that school that I love very much. They are warm, intelligent educators who made me a better teacher. I will miss them so much. We have shared lessons and laughs. We have commiserated over shared workplace frustrations. We have grown together. I can’t imagine I won’t see them again, and I truly hope that they will manage to visit me or that I will manage to visit them. I take some comfort in that in today’s digital age, I can keep up with them a little more easily than I might have done ten or fifteen years ago. In that way, I hardly feel like I am leaving. I can’t begin to thank them for all they have done for me and meant to me over the years.

At the beginning of July, I will begin working at Worcester Academy in Worcester, MA. I am already excited about the new colleagues I have and will meet and the new experiences I will have. It’s a great adventure, and though moving 1,000 miles away is daunting, I am excited, and I’m beginning to feel almost ready. I will be heading to ISTE with new colleagues prior to joining the faculty, which is another experience I look forward to.

Though it saddens me to turn the page on the chapter of my life at Weber and say goodbye to beloved friends and colleagues as well as a state I’ve lived in (with the exception of two short sojourns in VA and NC) for the last 20 years, I am excited to see what the next chapter has in store.

photo by: A6U571N

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What Makes a Good Technology Integration Specialist?

Sarah Horrigan asked in a recent post on her blog, “What makes a good learning technologist?” I love this question, and it strikes me that I’ve never even really reflected here on what makes a good English teacher (that’s a separate post for another day, though). This year was my first year as a technology integration specialist at my school, and while I am kind of green as far as the role goes, I have some definite ideas about what a good technology integration specialist looks like.

Curious

Sarah and I agree here. I don’t know how to do everything, and since I only have one year’s experience, there is much I haven’t tried. However, one thing I do have is curiosity. I want to learn how to do things, and I’m willing to try, even if I don’t know how. I also want to learn more about how others are integrating technology and keep up with news and trends. I actually like learning in general a great deal, and sometimes, even when I’m frustrated by a problem, I like the challenge of learning how to solve it myself. The other day, for instance, my MacBook’s fan was going nuts, and it looked like Spotlight was the culprit, but I couldn’t figure out what on earth it was trying to index that was taking so long. I tried various solutions until I discovered a command I could input into Terminal to find out what it was indexing, and it turns out my computer was just unhappy that I had not moved the entire Audacity folder into Applications instead of just the application itself after a recent software update (which the installation instructions did, after all, tell me to do). Once I moved the folder, the fans immediately settled down. I was really frustrated by the problem, but I felt great that I figured out how to resolve it (with the help of Google).

Helpful and Approachable

One of the things some old school IT guys get zinged for is how aggravated they get whenever someone wants help. They grab the mouse when someone they are working with doesn’t move fast enough or click the right spot. They sigh and roll their eyes. They don’t listen. As a result, folks just stop asking them for help unless they are forced to do so, and can you blame them? Who wants to feel like they are putting someone out just because they need help learning how to do something? I don’t ever want to be that person. I want teachers to feel they have learned something after working with me, and I want to support them in their learning. Sometimes it is frustrating to work with someone who has very minimal technology skills, but we only perpetuate the problem if we roll our eyes, sigh, grab the mouse and do it ourselves. I have found a little bit of patience goes a long way. I use the same skills I learned working with students when I work with teachers. I haven’t found them to be that different after all (unless perhaps more set in their ways and less willing to try things, but even that varies). If I am approachable and willing to help, people are more likely to seek my help when they want to try a project in class.

Enterprising

Good technology integration specialists seek out opportunities and approach teachers and students with their ideas. It doesn’t do to wait for classroom teachers to come up with their own ideas for using technology, although they do come up with some great ideas. A technology integration specialist, however, is a leader in this area, and teachers and students look to the technology integration specialist to generate ideas. The technology integration specialist shouldn’t feel afraid to approach even reluctant teachers with ideas for integrating technology. Obviously, teachers may resist and even turn you down flat. However, if they can be convinced that your idea is either going to 1) save them time or make something they do easier, or 2) be more engaging for them and for their students than something they already do, then usually you can convince them. When you can’t, you should just keep gently trying. Teachers don’t give up on their students and just decide that it’s not important to teach their students, say, how to solve quadratic equations or how to write a good argumentative essay. We keep plugging away, sometimes feeling frustrated. We hope the students will understand the importance and relevance of what we teach, and we understand it’s our responsibility to sell students on the importance and relevance of learning. Technology integration specialists are no different. They need to help teachers and students they work with understand the importance and relevance of using technology. Why? Because Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach is right when she says, “The truth is that technology will never replace teachers; however, teachers who know how to use technology effectively to help their students connect and collaborate together online will replace those who do not.” It is the technology integration specialist’s job to help teachers learn this important truth and to give teachers they support they need to learn to integrate technology. It is the technology integration specialist’s job to help teachers understand technology is not a fad or an add-on, but an important part of how people today learn and work, and students need to be able to learn how to use it effectively for both work and play.

Connected

Sarah mentioned this trait also. I feel it is critical for technology integration specialists to be active participants in a variety of networks, including Twitter, Facebook, Ning communities, and professional organizations like ISTE. I also think they should be active online. If they don’t have their own blogs, they should be using Facebook or Ning blogs to reflect regularly and think out loud about technology integration. I realize I have a bias toward blogging because it was blogging that introduced me to technology integration in the first place. I was never what I would call a tech savvy teacher until I started blogging, and I taught myself most of what I know now, which leads me to my next point.

Autodidactic

There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with asking for or expecting professional development on tools you plan to integrate, especially if you are a regular classroom teacher and technology is not where you live. However, if it is where you live, I think you need to be willing to teach yourself lots of things. You need to have a willingness to try out a new tool. I taught myself HTML using a variety of online resources (of which, Lissa Explains it All, a website designed by a young girl to teach HTML to kids, was by far the best). I had to do some light coding for a website I used to have, and before long, I was designing my own templates. Next up: I want to learn Java and Photoshop and, well, actually a lot of other stuff, too. I could take classes, but I like the idea of trying to learn these things myself, too, and truthfully, I think figuring out how to do things on your own, finding your own resources (whether those resources are books, people, websites, videos, or other tutorials) is the best way to learn.

Passionate

Sarah mentioned this one also, and at the risk of simply cribbing her entire post, I had to include it. If I am not passionate about the possibilities of technology in education, I probably should be doing something else. If I’m not passionate about technology, I’m not going to seek out opportunities to help teachers learn about it and use it in their classes. I’m not going to continue learning about it myself. I will slog to work every day and not make a difference in the lives of the teachers and students I work with. Passion ties everything else together. It is perhaps the most important quality a technology integration specialist, or any teacher for that matter, should have.

What qualities do you think a good technology integration specialist should have?

photo by: torres21

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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.

photo by: JD Hancock

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