Saturday, December 29, 2012

Unleashing Talent

I have always considered my Lower School Colleagues to be creative and intelligent educators. In a recent Lower School faculty meeting many teachers shared new and exciting examples of successful integration of technology into existing curricula. Successful because each example demonstrated enhanced learning by their students; integrated because each example showed technology supporting the learning rather than being a flashy add-on. Two years ago, this same faculty held technology at an arm’s length. Computers had been removed from primary rooms, Smartboards were nuisances taking up valuable white board space, and concerns for on-line safety trumped interests in the possibilities for connecting students to people and information beyond our school walls. So what changed?

During our summer vacation in 2011, our third grade teachers received professional development funds to attend the annual ISTE conference. Along with lots of wonderful and overwhelming information, they came back with one concrete idea for a shift in a current project. They decided to replace their students’ usual African Animal Project Posters with Glogster. As a part of the third grade’s term long exploration of African Culture, Geography, Fauna and Flora, each student researches an animal. Previously each student created a poster about their animal; in 2011-12 each student created a glog! (The added bonuses were greater longevity in projects' life span and trees saved!!)  That same year, the second grade teachers experimented with creating class blogs and asked to have the computers returned! Two other teachers provided leadership for using an on-line discussion tool to help collect information for writing student comments. From these first adopters the rest of the faculty was interested but not ready to make a huge leap in their own technology experiments.

Over the past summer, the Lower School gained a new principal committed to technology innovation, and a new librarian with a job description shaped to combine media literacy and technology skills. We also hired a three division, dedicated technology integrationist. The librarian and tech integrationist have created a wonderful tag team meeting with each Lower School teacher to explore current curricula and look for opportunities to create shifts. While the first adopters were able to make the leap from an ISTE presentation to implementations, others needed help to find the right place to use a new tool, explore a different information gathering means, extend learning using an ISTE Net, or adding a new creative dimension. This is the gentle lifting our new teachers provided. Having been supported and successful with a first adaptation, faculty find themselves looking for other intelligent places to shift learning.

Some of these shifts were on display in the aforementioned faculty meeting. Besides the third grade glogs, our fifth grade teachers have modified the final product of their Peacemaker Biography project from research papers to individual web pages using Weebly. Everyone involved from students, to teachers, to parents loved this new media for communicating learning. Research and writing still mattered but now the audience for student work was much broader than the single teacher reading the paper--classmates, parents and others were able to read and react with student work! Next year the plan is to teach students enough html to do their own website programming! Our science teacher showed us the Lego Robot students were learning to program. Finally, one of our art teachers showed us student created stop animation films using iPads and the clay figures each student created for their films. We ran out of faculty meeting before we had run out of examples of experiments and successes folks had brought to share.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Reflections on this online learning experiment

First, would I teach US History in this online format again??  YES
Second, did this consume too much of the time I would have otherwise spent reading for pleasure or sitting on my mother's dock starring off at the lake?? YES
So why, given how much I value summer for the time to read would I do this again?

The paradox in the above statement is emblematic of so much of teaching 10 students US History in an online course. There are real trade offs that have to be made.

Face to face versus virtual: I believe absolutely in the teacher student relationship that happens within a bricks and mortar classroom and the peer relationships that develop around those tables. The online experiences is different. You have to work with great intentionality to make it personal, to make it human. It helped that we began with two days in a real classroom. Assignments were created in such a way as to "force" conversations between peers in the discussion forum and the class wiki. And early projects were designed to be collaborations. Regular SKYPE check ins between myself and the students, even for just a five minute discussion of an assignment idea were a necessity. But the upside of this individualized approach to building class cohesion and student support is that the learning is individualized. Rather than spending time preparing for four classes a week, I prepared for one class and focused on individual student thinking and learning the rest of the time.

Time is an all too precious commodity in a 6.5 week summer school course: Over the course of 9 months, teachers feel pressed to cover all the content. 6.5 weeks raises that pressure at least five fold. I had to stay focused on the themes I wanted my students to have ingrained in their brains: the evolution of the meaning of freedom (and who it includes) over three hundred years, the development of a market economy, the rise of American imperialism/exceptionalism,  the Constitution as a living document with meaning for their lives, and the agency of ordinary citizens for creating change in their communities and nations. Over these themes, stood my own working assumption about history--that history is created by the actions of ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary people). Within these themes, I had to let go of insisting every student learn every detail of the battles of the War of 1812 or the Civil War, the many treaties signed by the US over the course of the 19th century, or even all the places the CIA fomented rebellion during the Cold War. Did I make the right choices for my students? Should we have spent more time on Reconstruction or the Taft Presidency and how it compares to Roosevelt's or Wilson's (something I do when I teach US History over the course of the school year)? I have colleagues who believe this is the only chance many of our students will ever have to learn the details of our history. In 6.5 weeks, either the details come fast and furious -- in a blur-- or the focus is on the big picture with details helping to ground those themes in time and place.

Students still need to communicate: Thursday evening class was a rich experience (even when the technology wasn't perfect). The short class time worked because students had already been "talking" in the forum. The discussion forum worked because the students came to trust each other to read carefully and respond honestly-even when they didn't agree.

There is a place for this sort of learning within the continuum of bricks and mortar to large scale MOOCs. Done well, student's learn content and skills--skills they will encounter in their life. This sort of learning helps to break down that artificial wall between what you learn at school and the rest of your life. The students learned at a time they were ready and in a manner that served their very different learning needs.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Third Week -- interest based learning

Ten students and one teacher:

  • One is dealing with connectivity issues in Central Pennsylvania
  • One is just returning from ten days of being off the grid in Mexico and poor hotel wifi in Toronto
  • One spent six days at wrestling camp--no time after three a days and three showers a day.
  • One is in China and finding the Great Wall applies to the internet as well. After five days of silence he finally reappeared to write an eloquent comparison of a speech by abolitionist Angelina Grimke and an essay by slavery apologist George Fitzhugh.
  • One student is in Italy
  • Six other students are chugging along juggling work, friends, US History and managing to have some fun as well.
  • I am behind in my grading.
  • I SKYPED with three students since last Thursday and had email exchanges with the rest.
  • By design I was less active in the Discussion Forum. The kids carried on beautifully.
How do you manage time zones? Our class meets in the evenings from 7-8:30 EST. In Italy that is 1-2:30AM and China 7-8:30 AM.

Tonight we shared projects! Every meeting adds some new experience and some new snag. The new feature was figuring out how to share videos with the kids. When I tried this the first week they could see but not hear. Tonight I had a solution and we had two student produced videos. The first two students shared a video they had created about women's participation in the Civil War. One student said "I had no idea women dressed as men to enter the army, I thought they were just nurses". This led into a discussion of nursing and Florence Nightengale and his "just nurses" comment withered. Discussion shifted to disease in the camps, medical practices and what made this a modern war. Another student researched the role of drummer boys and created a film demonstrating some of the drum signals.

And now the snag: I had a great deal of lag caused by my audio. It got so bad, my computer froze and I decided to exit the program and reenter with IE instead of Chrome. Tonight I learned that the class continues even if I exit the program! While I was out a student shared a poetry slam on the Ghost Dance and Wounded knee. Other than the fact that my name disappeared they didn't really notice and judging by the chat when I re-entered they had a lot to say about this poem. 

In all there were presentations on drummer boys, a case for the most illustrative of the time events from 1878-1900, the Diary of a Mill Girl, women's contributions to the Civil War effort, and a poem on the Ghost Dance.

We finished with a short discussion by me on the overall strategy of the Union and Confederate armies in the Civil War and Lincoln's generals. 

I asked one student to stick around after the other's left to discuss with him the need to be more active in the chat! I was worried he had left on his computer and walked away. He talked with me about some of what was discussed and I was reassured he really had been present.

Overall a good class!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

ARRGH and success!

Last week was our first week of online learning in our US History class.

Here is what I have learned. . .

First: I gave way too much work, for the kids to do (they did finish) and for me to grade (I am still reading blog entries).

Second: You need to know your technology cold (unless you have helpful and understanding students!).

Our first 30 minutes of virtual class were plagued by audio problems--echoes, dropped lines, and people talking to quietly. I had planned a break after the first 40 minutes. After the first trying thirty I suggested a short break. I moved to a different location in my home --carpeted floors, wing back chair, no feedback! I turned off everyone's speaker rights, opting for a one speaker at a time format. It took a bit for the students to realize that when the mike icon appeared next to their name on the screen, they had the "floor" so to speak. I had to remember to toggle between each of them and myself until I figured out that I could "be on" even as I toggled between each of them. And I made sure everyone participated. The last 45 minutes were much improved with a solid discussion of the importance of slavery to all parts of the British Empire's economic wealth, the point of no return in the lead up the American Revolution, and finally the crucial precedents set by the first three Presidents and the challenges they faced. Can you guess what they felt was George Washington's greatest action (hint he did it twice!)?

The slides I had prepared kept us focused, but when I shared a web page, two students lost audio. I decided not to even try the Youtube I had cued up. But I did use the chat to have students suggest ideas and post questions. I can see why, in managing the chat and assistant would be a huge help!

You must block private chats with high school students!!!

Third: The discussion forum has rocked!!!! Students wrote substantive analysis on Native Americans and why the French tended to co-operate with Native Americans while the British tended to opt for pushing them west, away from white settlement. On the topic of women and Republican Motherhood, students were intrigued with this "bone" to women and quickly began to discuss its flaws. One student wrote, 
"The fact that republican mothers were educating their sons, but were uneducated themselves, leaves a gap in the theory. It could be implied that women are already educated with necessary life skills, and that they must pass these life skills on to their youth. But then again, it is the ever so important future of America, how could they possibly benefit from being raised by an uneducated individual. At this point in American history, politicians had to wake up and smell the change. The system of republican motherhood wasn't sensible, and the only solution meant women’s education".
Possibly, the most impressive discussion centered on a reading on the changing definitions of freedom in the 17th and 18th centuries. One student wrote 
"I think that the people who had freedom believed that they had more responsibilities than those who didn't, but really, they were just different ones. Property owners had to ensure that everyone under them was surviving, and that their property continue to gain profit. Women and slaves had different responsibilities. It also depends on the type of freedom we are talking about. Religious freedom would bring, as you said, servitude to God. Moral liberty would bring the responsibility to do the right thing. Property + economic freedom would bring the responsibility to stay in that state of stability and to provide for those around you. In the 18th century, this type of freedom would also mean that you were responsible to be politically active and participate."
 In response, another student argued, 
"When the United States was first founded nobody was going to be freer than his neighbor, or at least that was the idea. There were slaves, and they weren't free obviously enough, women though not in slavery didn't have the rights of a freeman, women couldn't vote like men, and they couldn't do many of the jobs men did. Even among men there was a difference in the rights associated with freedom, men of higher economic class were considered more free than a common worker. Today, we like to consider ourselves free to do as we please, but everybody has to answer to somebody, we all have to abide by laws whether we agree with them or not, we all have to do something we don't want to do because we have to do it. So when you think about it we're free in a sense, but are we really completely free in the way that the fore fathers of this nation envisioned?"
 These were but a few of the comments of a discussion that ranged from Seneca, to John Locke, to Puritan sermons, to capitalism's implications.

I am still grading ( but the quality is excellent)

No one is behind (except for maybe me)

Students are fully engaged

Next week, I will be a better manager of Adobe Connect

Friday, June 22, 2012

Day Two

All the kids came back! Well to be fair their parents had paid tuition and they all had their own reasons for being present. We spent less time going over technologies and more time on content. We even had our first discussion. My one student who was connecting from Missouri had some internet problems at his end but I will follow up with him today on the phone (he left his cell phone at home).

We spent most of the morning considering the lead up to writing the US Constitution. A short video reviewing the issues in the years following the American Revolution led into an examination of the three main plans brought to the Pennsylvania Convention. In small groups students compared the features of the plan and then began to examine the Constitution. The students quickly realized that this work --their first assignment-- was going to be bigger than they could complete before we went our separate ways at noon. I helped the groups discuss strategies for working together. While not every student knew about google docs, by the end every group agreed to use it to complete their work. Beyond that two groups set up cell phone dates, two others (including the boy without his phone) agreed to use Facebook's chat feature. Nothing earth shattering here except that for 5 of the students using Facebook for school was a new concept!

So why start with the Constitution when the focus this first week is the time from the French and Indian War through to the War of 1812? The Constitution creates an important pivot in history. Students can follow threads from it back in time and make connections forward. The documents surrounding it, Madison's notes, the Federalist Papers, writings from the Federalist and Anti-Federalist are challenging. I wanted to be physically present to work with students and assess their ability to handle some of the most challenging documents we will approach together. Now I have a sense of my students strengths, weaknesses and strategies for handling challenge. I know who is going to fly, just need encouragement and directional pushes from me, who is going to need a fairly supported and scaffold-ed approach and who is somewhere in between.

Before we broke up for the day we discussed the challenges they felt they would face going forward. I asked them to be very aware this week as they work through the readings, forum and wiki to consider their own learning style and what they will need to create meaning for themselves for this first 50 years we are covering.

Our next collected meeting will be in Adobe Connect next Thursday. Until then they meet asynchronously. I will be checking in via SKYPE with each of them before then.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Great Experiment Day 1!

Today was the first day of summer school --nothing new there. I am teaching US History--I've been teaching it off and on for 16 years! Nothing new there. The experiment is all in the delivery. We are engaged in a blended online class. We have two days of face to face class time in a Westtown School classroom. After this we will meet for five additional weeks without ever being in the same room. One student will be traveling to China, another to Canada, a third to central PA, a fourth will be hiking in New England and the others will be scattered through out the mid-Atlantic--ten students and me. We will meet asynchronously and synchronously using a variety of online tools. Every Thursday we will meet using a program called Adobe Connect. Between Thursdays discussions will happen in our forums, wiki's will be constructed, assignments uploaded and quizzes taken all within Moodle.

When I thought about the organization of this class I was stymied by the challenge of covering the full sweep US History from pre-conquest Native Americans through to the election of Barack Obama in just six weeks.   Every online US History course I examined seemed to take this approach and rely heavily on weekly assignments and pacing that resembled the nine month school year course. Fortunately, a wise and forward thinking colleague reminded me to start with the outcomes I wanted and that with a new medium I needed a very different course structure. In his opinion, the problem with online high school classes is they try to replicate a face to face curriculum in a virtual space.

My outcomes for my students include garnering a sense of the sweep and power of US History, to write well and to be able to think creatively about US History and make connections between the past and the present (I suspect we will skip over President Garfield yet again).  I want them to know US geography and the inter-relationship between history and environment. Finely, I want them to see themselves as the next generation in a long line of people actively engaged in making history, involved in the civic life of their country and responsible for their future. We will do a lot of writing--two 5-7 page essays with proper bibliographic citation-- as well as significant and regular writing in our discussion forum and their own current event blogs. The forum will be centered around questions of analysis, synthesis and creative thinking. Our wiki's will be more fact based; geared toward building a foundation in the scaffold of events, issues, and people. There will be a collaborative project of their choosing. The final project will ask them to track a current event issue over the five weeks and write about it in a weekly blog. As they learn more about their topic, they are to engage with others beyond the confines of our class.

The first day went as I expected. It took us a significant amount of time to down load the exact media driver for our school's video streaming program, Safari Montage. Each different student computer has its own particular hurdles and driver needs. Once we had everyone's computer ready to stream videos, we showed them how to search the movie database and then I explained that while we would have a text book as a reference, they were free to read or watch videos to learn about any topic we were covering. One or two history channel buffs were thrilled! We then reviewed a number of online subscription services available to them as another alternative to the textbook. Tomorrow I will review with them how to select the best sites for learning and show them how to use the textbook most effectively.

We spent the last hour drawing free hand maps of North America. Students were to locate major rivers, oceans, lakes, mountain ranges and other geographical features. They also had to locate some major cities and correctly draw in the boundaries for all of Canada's provinces. We will add the US states over the next few weeks. I was interested to watch strategies for locating things to be placed on the map. Some turned quickly to the textbook, others found maps on line and still others googled terms like Hudson River.

Tomorrow, we tackle the US Constitution and how to use Adobe Connect.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

President Garfield?? Really??

Brady-Handy photograph of Garfield, taken between 1870 and 1880
It's that time again, time to cram and review for the SAT Subject Tests. I teach at a college prep school; many of the more selective colleges and several state universities require students to submit subject test scores as a part of the college application. Therefore, we/I have to have our students ready for these content focused tests. While running a review session last week, the students took and then we went over a practice test. One of the practice test questions (in the leading test prep book) was about President Garfield. Only one of our bright, eager students even knew we had a President Garfield. What this student knew, was that he was one of four Presidents assassinated. In making choices about what to cover and what to leave out my colleagues and I chose to skip past Garfield, spending time in Reconstruction, the Gilded Age and then jumping to American Imperialism in the late nineteenth century. I have a Ph.D. in History from University of Pennsylvania. I have been teaching US History since 1997! What I know about Garfield is brief--self-made man from Ohio, compromise candidate for the Republican Party in 1880, worked hard to reform the Federal Civil Service. His successor President Arthur actually signed into law legislation establishing the civil service as a merit based system (as opposed to a spoils system). To learn more all I need to do is do a Bing or Google or Wikipedia search.

I don't want to get into an argument about whether or not Garfield was a part of US History, or whether or not the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was a a game changing piece of legislation, the question I want to ask is as follows. What is it we want our students to learn from their US History survey courses? Every state requires high school students to take a US History survey course. Given the shortness of the school year and the increasing body of US History (every year we add another year of events, people, topics) we have to make choices. The SAT Subject Test is one choice, every event, every President, every person of note is of equal importance and of equal likelihood to show up on the test. To make this choice is to commit to moving through the survey text book at a measured pace, constantly committing facts to memory, reviewing them frequently and finishing the year with a head full of facts, a knowledge base a mile wide (or at least 300 years long) and a half inch thick--hopefully some of it will stick past the test date. By using this test in college admissions, colleges are saying, this is what we want our incoming students to have--heads full of facts.

But what can these students do with these facts? If I were a college admissions director I would want an assessment that sought to tease out a young person's sense of what it means to be an engaged citizen. As a baseline, this sort of assessment might begin with geography. Where are the Appalachian Mountains and what do they have to do with the Proclamation of 1763, where is the Grand Coulee Dam and what does it have to do with the Second New Deal, where is the Rio Grande and what was its importance to the Mexican American War? Along with geography, I would want to examine what students know about he evolution of the concepts of liberty and equality from the time of the Puritans and Cavaliers through to the present. How informed are they of the ways in which the Constitution has been interpreted and re-interpreted?  Then I would want to see how much they know of all those times when citizens came together to effect change--all those 19th and 20th century citizen led reform movements including those of reconstruction and the Progressive Era to improve the lives of others or reform the government. For instance, I would want students to compare the Bonus Army with the  Occupy Wall Street Movement. I would want this assessment to measure effective writing and thinking. Then, I would want to know what they could actually do with all of this knowledge. Are they active, critical thinking, citizens or passive receivers of information? That is what I would want to know.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Civic Space: a kinesthetic experience

In both of my history classes we have been examining the expansion of democracy in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In World History we have been asking ourselves whether or not suffrage alone is sufficient to consider a country democratic. Who needs to vote? Who has the vote who doesn't? Is it possible to have universal adult suffrage and not have democracy? We have asked ourselves what else might be required. Some students suggested a written constitution might be a prerequisite, others wanted a legal system that treated everyone the same. Still other students felt guarantees of basic human rights were essential ingredients for a functioning democracy. Interestingly, none of them on came up with the idea of civic space, civic organizations, or civic engagement. Alexis de Tocqueville identified American volunteerism or the tendency to form associations as a defining characteristic of American democracy. My students have grown up with this most basic and necessary ingredient as a part of the air they breath. Every Saturday, these self same students may see this at work when two groups share the public square in West Chester, PA. On one side of the intersection are those carrying flags and signs telling us to  "Support our Troops" or "Thank our military heroes". On the other side of the intersection another group carries flags with the stars arranged in a peace symbol and holding signs telling us that "War is not the answer" or "Support our troops, bring them home".

Occupy Wall Street is back in New York (though you wouldn't know it from the non existent news coverage). Every weekend in the spring groups gather for walks, health festivals, protests and rallies (large and small). This rainy Sunday morning, 17 Westtown students and assorted adults joined several hundred other folks from around Delaware and Chester County to participate in the Walk MS event. With their feet and in the rain these kids engaged in the public discourse around Multiple Sclerosis. They helped to re-create and sustain the civic space so vital to a successful democracy. While not as dramatic as the March on Washington in 1963 or the Bonus Army occupation in 1932, this was civic engagement all the same. These weren't truckers protesting fuel prices or public workers in Wisconsin protesting changes in their pay structure. They were, two girls whose mothers have MS. These two girls wanted to raise awareness of the disease for their peers and take action in a tangible way. Their friends wanted to help. This is how all movements large and small begin. These two girls and their friends now have another experience upon which to build of making change, of being involved. Citizenship is not waiting for good things to be handed down from on high (it never has worked that way-ask Alice Paul) -- waiting versus acting might be the difference between being a subject and being a citizen. These Westtown students have begun to understand through their walking today, that citizenship means action. Whenever we create space for our students to actively engage as opposed to passively receive we insure the health of our democracy.