Tag Archives: education

The Value of Floundering Around

Searching the NetI have been plagued with a question over the last few days.  When students ask me questions about computers (mostly software, how-to type questions), I most often take the easy path and show or tell them.  But they don’t remember how to do it later.  So the question that’s been on my mind is how much should I let my students flounder around and try to figure things out?  I mean, that’s how I learned my way around a computer.  I poked and tried until I got it to do what I wanted to.  Sometimes it took hours.  But later on, I was able to do it on my own.  I value that learning in myself, but I don’t think I am fostering it in my students.  If they ask me answers to problems or issues that come up with their reading or writing, I don’t always show or tell.  Sometimes I throw the questions back or tell them to think through it a little harder.  So why don’t I do that with computers?  Should I do that with computers?

To that end, I began a new feature in my classroom blog called Tech Tips.  Each week, I will explain how to do something.  I have already subscribed all my students to the blog, so ostensibly, they should have access to the tips and can make of them what they will.  One of my frustrations as a teacher is how little my students appear to use the classroom blog.  I haven’t yet become so frustrated I felt I should just quit, but I have come close.  Which brings to mind another frustration I have.  Students are willing to learn how to use Facebook or IM, but it frustrates me that they won’t poke around my site and learn to use it as well as they do other tools.

I do think it’s valuable to flounder around and even fail for a while before you get it.  So how do I put that into practice without feeling like I’m being unhelpful?

Creative Commons License photo credit: macluke170

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Tom Discusses Teacher Shortcuts

I really enjoyed Tom Woodward’s recent post “There Are No Shortcuts at Bionic Teaching,” but I left a comment that really didn’t say all I was thinking.

Tom mentions using fun fonts to make boring content exciting (and has particular ire for Comic Sans).  I have been known to use fun fonts, but I hope I graduated from using them to disguise boring content many years ago.  One of the main issues I had with a recent word processing assignment I did for one of my grad school classes is that it was intended only to see if I could do a variety of different tasks in Word rather than make something attractive, interesting, and substantial in Word.  The resulting document looked like an aesthetic mess to me because I had to single space, double space, triple space; use three different fonts; prove I could bold, italicize, and underline text; and manipulate images for different effects.  I didn’t wind up with a document I could use for anything later.  In fact, I was embarrassed by how it looked (I was following the directions to the letter).  The content was not an important part of the assignment.  I wound up riffing on what I was currently doing with Beowulf in my classes and putting a bunch of Beowulf-related pictures in the document.  I suppose I proved I can use Word to manipulate images and text, but I don’t think the assignment proved I can use it well to create a document that has substantial content and an attractive design.

That said, I don’t use Comic Sans because I teach high school, and I consider it an elementary font, but I don’t have any particular hatred for it.  Still, I think Tom’s larger idea is that some of us create documents that are crammed full of proof that we can manipulate images and text, but that contain little substantial content.  In the interest of full disclosure, though I labored over this decision, you can download a PDF of the document I created here, but I removed my required heading because I think it’s the polite thing to do.  I also removed the file name from the footer because even though my files cannot be accessed except by my teachers and me, I don’t want to give folks who are interested the encouragement to try to break into my files.  By the way, inserting the file name in the footer of only the last page was the only new thing I learned in doing this assignment.  How useful a skill is it?  I don’t know.  We’ll have to see.

Tom also skewers using technology to make a boring assignment interesting.  Too many teachers fall prey to this trap with Power Point.  I have seen more Power Point presentations that make me want to tear my eyes out!  I would much rather listen to someone talk without visuals at all than view a poorly designed Power Point.  I think this guy captures Death by Power Point really well:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/lpvgfmEU2Ck" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

And this guy shows how you can use it effectively to enhance a presentation:

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/vXFi7AdhhGk" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

I liked what Tom said about “digital native/digital immigrant” terminology.  I have yet to meet more than a handful of students who know as much or more about technology than I do, and that’s not boasting — it’s an observation.  Granted, I think I know a bit more than the average teacher, but everything I know I taught myself by playing around with it.  I haven’t worked with too many students who are willing to play around with a bit of code or a piece of software to see what happens.  To my discredit, I admit sometimes (a lot of times), I take the easy way out of showing them instead of letting them struggle with it a bit.  How much better would they learn if I asked them to teach themselves a bit?  Likewise, teachers labeling themselves digital immigrants can be a way of giving themselves a pass on being ignorant about technology.  I’m not saying teachers all need to be Vicki Davis (though she’s wonderful and it would be great if more of us were on her level), but I think we’re past the point at which it’s OK to be a complete luddite.

As an addendum to Tom’s admonition about “faking it,” as he did, I can say only that when you genuinely like and understand something the students like, and connection is genuine, it’s wonderful.  I don’t pretend to be up on everything my students listen to, but the ones who like classic rock know I’m a pretty good resource, and if they have a question, they ask me.  That’s genuine interest.  I can talk about my passions, and Tom is right — that’s what students are interested in seeing — not that I like what they like or that I’ve latched on to the latest trend in education.  I can remember vividly the occasions when I saw my teachers’ passions shared and finding what they had to say intriguing even if I didn’t necessarily share that passion.  A good case in point was a recent class of my own that was derailed by a passionate discussion between a visiting teacher and me about why it is important that “Han shot first.”  Truly, the students couldn’t have cared less about the issue (we are going to study Star Wars in that class beginning next week — it’s my Hero elective class), and most of them haven’t even seen the movie (!!!), but they remarked later on how interesting the discussion was.  I felt like a failure after letting my class go off on such a long tangent (we discussed The Iliad very little that day), but perhaps it will be valuable in some other way down the road.  At any rate, they saw two individuals talk about an issue they both knew a lot about and felt really strongly about, and I think their interest in studying the movie is piqued.  And I suppose we were both certainly really ourselves in front of the students.

If you want to a see a teacher who is passionate about what he does and uses technology effectively not only to create handouts that are informative and attractive but also to have his students create thoughtful presentations with Power Point, you need to check out my friend Joe Scotese’s site.  He blows me away.  To me, Joe is a perfect of example of avoiding the shortcuts Tom discusses in his post.  At any rate, Tom’s post resonated with me so strongly that all I could really do was agree at the time.  After spending a couple of days thinking about it, I decided that for all the reasons I have discussed, Tom’s shortcuts shortchange our students, and they don’t make us good teachers or help our students learn.

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One of My Teachers

When I talk about certain works of literature, I can hear the words of my own professors coming out of my mouth.  I truly received a good English education at my college, and I look back in fondness at my college classes, perhaps none more so than the very last one I took, Twentieth Century American Poetry, which was the last class Coleman Barks taught at UGA before he retired.

Coleman Barks is probably best known for his translations of the poetry of Rumi, but he is a fine poet in his own right, and he was a great teacher.

Perhaps he made it a practice every time, but perhaps it was because we were the last class — I remember he asked us to submit our own poems and he had them made into an anthology for us.  I wrote one about my great grandfather that he found kind of dizzying, but to be honest, it really captured my feelings as I watched a man who I wasn’t personally close to, but who was important to my family, slowly dying of Alzheimer’s and diabetes.

We read only one female poet in that class: Adrienne Rich.  I remember we tried to talk about that omission, but he didn’t seem as concerned as we were.  I think he just picked what he liked.

It was a great class, and I remember the day of his last lecture, he was crying as he walked quickly out the door — he was trying to hide his tears from us.

And then he slept through the final exam.  I didn’t know he’d slept through.  I think we were told there was a a problem with a flight.  We waited.  And waited.  Another professor stuck his head in the door, ascertained the situation, then left to find out what was going on.  He returned to tell us that we should just write Coleman letters about what we thought of the class.  So we did.

I didn’t realize until this very day, which is at this point over 10 years later, that Coleman wrote a poem about us.  Wow, I didn’t know he felt that way about us or the final exam.  I’m so glad I found it.

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Folger Shakespeare Mini-Institute

Last week, I participated in a Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute with the Folger Shakespeare Library. If you ever have the opportunity to participate in one of Folger’s institutes, seize the opportunity. You will not only learn great practical methods for teaching Shakespeare and learn about Shakespeare and his plays, but you will also develop professional ties to amazing educators from all different backgrounds.

Much of the Teaching Shakespeare Mini-Institute’s methodology will be familiar to teachers who use Folger’s popular Shakespeare Set Free series. Our focus was on Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We began the first four days with a lecture from either Barry Gaines, professor at the University of New Mexico, or Christy Desmet, professor at the University of Georgia. We also had curriculum sessions twice a day, seminar discussions, and performance classes taught by Laura Cole from the New American Shakespeare Tavern and Caleen Sinnette Jennings from Folger. Our culminating project was performance of a scene on the stage of the Shakespeare Tavern, which was an amazing experience. Here is a video of my group’s take on the scene when the Mechanicals in MND are receiving their parts from Peter Quince.

[kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/v/WRzrvPXxPqk" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]

We all went to the Shakespeare Tavern to see Laura as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, which was a great experience.  The actors were kind enough to stay late for a Q&A with all of us, and the Tavern was generous with great seats.  If you live in the Atlanta area (or even just Georgia or nearby) and have never been to the Tavern, do yourself a favor and go.  You will not be disappointed.  Laura was brilliant, and the rest of the cast was also a delight.

I had an amazing time, learned a lot, and made new friends.  I am still processing everything I learned, so please be patient as posts about the experience will come out as I think it through and make connections.

Here’s a picture of all of us on the stage at the Shakespeare Tavern.  Click the image to see a larger version.

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New Teacher Assistance

My friend and colleague Lauren, who returned to teaching this year after working with administration at my school, has started a blog called New Teacher Assistance.  Lauren’s self-proclaimed audience is new teachers, but we can all learn from her insights.

Welcome to the edublogosphere, Lauren, and watch out — I might recruit you to help me with my GISA presentation on using blogs and wikis for professional development!

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The Power of a Positive First Impression

I e-mailed my adviser at Virginia Tech with a question about registration.  She wrote back in what I thought was an unnecessarily irritable way because I had used the wrong e-mail address to contact her, and because she was upset about that one detail, the tone of her whole reply made me feel as though I had bothered her when I was only trying to seek help.  I didn’t get a positive first impression of the person who will not only be my adviser through this program, but also who will apparently be teaching all my classes, and it made me think about how teachers unwittingly start off on the wrong foot with students, leading to self-consciousness and insecurity on the students’ part.  I know in my case I immediately felt discouraged about my decision to go to Virginia Tech, but I am hoping perhaps she was cranky for some other reason and won’t make a habit of snapping at me when I have questions.  It can be hard to be patient when you’re a teacher, and the students asked something you just answered five minutes ago, or they could find the answer if they just read the handout, and it can be hard to put ourselves in the shoes of our students.  We should really try, though.  It’s hard to be vigilant about each interaction we have with students, but it is so easy to tear down and so hard to build up.  I would hate for my students to have the kind of first impression of me that I have of my professor.

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Georgia’s CRCT

When 40% of an individual teacher’s students fail a standardized test, I imagine the teacher would be scrutinized, and rightly so. Whatever I think of standardized tests, 40% of a teacher’s students shouldn’t fail one, or something’s wrong with the teacher’s instruction. If 40% of a school’s students failed a standardized test, the school might be sanctioned depending on other factors — part of making Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) for NCLB means schools must maintain or even improve their pass rates for standardized tests. If schools fail to make AYP, a series of sanctions will follow, from losing funds to faculty “reorganization.” Again, if 40% of students at a school fail a test, there is something wrong with the school’s instruction.

But what if 40% of students in an entire state fail a test that they must pass in order to go to high school?

Unofficial results indicate that 40% of Georgia’s 8th grade students failed the math portion of the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT), the main standardized test used in Georgia to meet NCLB requirements regarding testing. Last year, about 19% of students failed the math portion of the test. Students must pass this section of the CRCT in order to proceed to high school. Some are blaming the new math curriculum, while others are saying the test must be poorly constructed. I can’t say, not having seen it. I asked my daughter, who took it, and she says she believed she passed, as she thought students at her school who didn’t were instructed to see the counselor, and she was given no such instruction. She has been an A-student in math all year, so I shouldn’t have cause to worry, but the fact that 40% of students failed the test worries me.

The news regarding social studies was even worse. Less than 30% of 6th and 7th graders passed the social studies portion of the CRCT. Again, results like this for one teacher or one school can be explained, but for a whole state? Especially troubling to me are reports from students that they were asked questions about material they hadn’t learned. How could that happen on a “criterion-referenced” test?

I know the perception exists that Georgia schools are universally backward, but after having graduated from a Georgia school and watching my children in Georgia schools, I have to say that like everywhere else, Georgia has good schools and poor schools. A pertinent quote from the New Georgia Encyclopedia entry on Public Education:

The Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) is a college entrance exam often used to compare the performance of high school students among states and among school districts within a state. In 2003 Georgia students averaged 984 (combined verbal and math scores) on the SAT, compared with a national average score of 1026. When SAT scores are used to compare states, Georgia usually finishes near the bottom. The College Board, which administers the SAT, cautions against the use of SAT scores for this purpose, because the population of students taking the SAT in each state varies considerably. In some states, most students take a different test, the American College Testing [sic] (ACT). In those states, students who take the SAT generally have strong academic backgrounds and plan to apply to some of the nation’s most selective colleges and scholarship programs. For example, in 2002 there were nearly 54,000 Georgia students who took the SAT. In contrast, only 1,900 Iowa students took the SAT. (As a point of reference, Georgia had more than 72,000 high school graduates in 2002, while Iowa had nearly 34,000 high school graduates.)

My point in bringing this up is that I think it’s unfair to dismiss problems with the CRCT with a blanket generalization like “Georgia’s just got bad schools.”

So what happened, I wonder?

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Choices for Teachers

I wrote this last night thinking of submitting it to the Faculty Room, but I realized I misunderstood our focus question, and I didn’t want my post to go to waste.  Thus, here are my thoughts on some choices teachers ought to have about their profession and environment.

Teachers have differing degrees of choice in their educational experience, depending on a variety of factors: where they live and teach; who their administrators are and what their philosophies are; what access they have to technology and other tools; and what kind of support they have from the district and community.

I think teachers ought to be able to design their own professional development based on their needs and interests.  Too much of our professional development does little to enhance our learning and teaching.  Furthermore, teacher certification agencies ought to examine these self-designed professional development plans and approve them (or not) for staff development or professional learning units.  The two single most beneficial professional learning opportunities I have undertaken—a course in Mel Levine’s Schools Attuned and a self-directed study and subsequent establishment of a professional learning community centered around Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s Understanding by Design—will not count even one PLU credit towards certificate renewal, but you’d be surprised at the insipid courses I have taken that will.

Teachers should have some input in the hiring process of new colleagues.  After all, we will be working closely with new teachers, and it stands to reason that we will work better with colleagues with whom we share philosophies and goals.  The best schools I have worked in have always given teachers some say regarding which teachers are hired.  In the past, I have been interviewed by full panels, including a prospective department chair and colleague as well as administration, and I have also participated in a hiring process that requires the department chair to observe a sample lesson taught by the prospective teacher.  I think this kind of input has made me feel more comfortable about being interviewed as well as selecting potential colleagues.

Teachers should have some input into the courses they teach, including opportunities to write curriculum.  Many schools have a form of hierarchy based on seniority, and I think this is fair.  In addition, teachers should have some autonomy in selecting topics for study or emphasis, too.  I admit I am an English teacher, so to me it seems natural to be able to select novels for study.  I understand that math teachers don’t have the option to decide not to teach quadratic equations if they don’t like them that much.  However, teachers should also follow a curriculum or standards to ensure that all students receive a good, comprehensive education, and I think many if not most teachers should be able to write a curriculum plan that addresses the essential knowledge and skills in their subject matter.

If teachers are afforded the opportunity to shape their professional learning, select their colleagues, and write the curriculum, I think we will find much happier, more collegial and professional educators.  I have had some opportunity to do all three, and it has made a difference in how I feel about my work.  Ultimately, teachers must be trusted.  Teachers who are not trusted will not have opportunities to design professional learning—they won’t challenge themselves to grow.  Teachers who are not trusted will not select their colleagues or write curriculum because they might make poor choices.  If teachers are not trusted to make these decisions, however, why do we trust them with our students at all?

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UbD Wiki: Summaries

Miguel Guhlin has joined the UbD Educators wiki and wants your help.  He is posting UbD chapter summaries and wants input from other wiki members.

I want to ask wiki members a question: Miguel suggested that we unlock those summary pages to allow nonmembers to participate.  What do you think?  My idea was that allowing editing by wiki members only would prevent vandalism, but it also closes participation — I have not denied membership to anyone, nor do I plan to (unless they join then vandalize the wiki, which seems unlikely), so perhaps the point is moot.

Check out the summaries and add your thoughts.  I’m really excited about Miguel’s work and plan to begin adding my own ideas this weekend.

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