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.