Monthly Archives: October 2011

Unit Planning

Yokohama hasn't changed a BIT!

Yokohama hasn't changed a BIT! source: beato_places/image/image_det/44_Yokohama_FrBluff_det.jpg

This unit idea is something that I’d like to try later in the year after studying the Silk Road. Last year in G6 I felt that the Silk Road unit could have had more links to the world today, and this unit might be a good appendix to it. Also, YIS is in a very interesting, historic area of town and I’ve been wondering all year how I could incorporate some trips around the neighborhood into a project. I might have figured out a way to tie all that together using some tech which would be new to me in the classroom, particularly Google Maps.

I haven’t used a UBD template or approach to planning before. I found it really easy to think of ideas for each of the GRASPs sections (maybe I did it wrong?), and I would be interested in trying it again in the future.


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Tech as window to students’ passions

Based on a True Story.

Based on a True Story. source: funny_pictures_kitten_fell_off_chair _Funny_cats_and_dogs_pics-s450x329-49242.jpg

In any class of 20 or so 7th or 8th graders, there are always some students – boys, usually, I have to say at the risk of being prejudiced – who for whatever reason (hormones, sugar intake, boredom, etc.) don’t quite fit into the cookie-cutter mold of a “good student” in terms of in-class habits.

Maybe one will have a speaking voice like a Brazilian soccer commentator with no volume knob. Maybe one will be unable to stop himself from leaning back in his chair until he falls over. Maybe one will constantly want to stand up and rush around the room. Maybe one will never speak at all or get any work done in class (although capable of doing homework in great detail).

As a teacher, my interactions within the classroom (combined with the work they hand in, of course) would normally be all the evidence I would have to go on in terms of forming my opinions of these young people and their potential. And those interactions are limited both in terms of time and space, and they are not always authentic or positive. No matter how good my intentions it’s hard to think of someone as a future genius if he’s fallen over in his chair four times in an hour.

In other words I think the setting in which I see my students, the classroom, practically predisposes me to form negative opinions about those who have the most energy, or who are most idiosyncratic or boisterous or socially inept.

But lately I’ve been noticing that some of my students who seem the least comfortable with acting like normal human beings within the walls of the classroom are precisely the ones who have astonishing levels of passion and productivity in other areas of life. How am I noticing this? Technology.

My students have YouTube accounts where they post videos they make. They have personal blogs. They have posted music they’ve composed, films they’ve edited, songs they’ve sung, applications they’ve programmed, video games they’ve designed. And whenever I get to see these things, I know more about my students as people, and can reevaluate any negative impressions I’ve built up within the confines of the classroom simply because that’s not where they shine.

Normally I suppose you could get a glimpse of your students’ hobbies by going to their recitals or sporting events – for example I’ve been brought almost to tears by seeing amazing dance performances by students who struggle academically – but those are discrete events which must be attended at certain times. Unless maybe you coach sports teams, which I don’t, it can be hard to say that during any one school year you’ll see students doing what they love outside the classroom walls. It’s one reason why I really enjoy our school’s Field Studies week.

However, thanks to technology I can more often and more easily get exactly that sort of glimpse into the extracurricular interests or enthusiasms of my students, and also thanks to technology it’s easier to find ways to incorporate those interests in the classroom. I think this window into their passions definitely helps me be a better teacher to all of my students.

Of course there’s still a need for everyone to work on face-to-face skills of behavior and social propriety within the classroom, and of course I still need to base most of my assessments on what happens in and around that classroom…. But there’s also a chance that that boy who keeps falling over in his chair might indeed turn out to be a genius, and I don’t want to shortchange him.

In short I think technology is increasingly giving me the power as an educator to get a more well-rounded and less crabbed view of students, more quickly, than ever before, and I welcome it.

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CSI: Google Docs Unit

There was a recent incident of copying in one of my classes, and it involved shared Google Documents. The students were allowed to work together on their initial research, but were supposed to write individual reports, and one student seems to have just paraphrased another student’s finished report.

I initially felt pretty upset about it, and it had me thinking about whether I had set up an environment that encouraged the copying by having such an open and initially collaborative project. I think I will definitely tweak some of my approaches to the use of shared document collections, etc. in the future, especially where summative assessments are involved.

However, on reflection I have also decided that things aren’t as bad as I initially thought. In fact, I feel OK overall about Google Docs, how we used it for sharing project documents within the class, and the way things went down. Here are some reasons why:

  1. The copying was obvious, and I watched it happening almost in real time. Because the relevant student documents were all in one place, and because I had viewing rights on all of them, I saw what happened as it happened, and went from there. If these projects had been all on paper, or handed in separately, it’s possible that my radar wouldn’t have gone off and I wouldn’t have seen the similarities. One point for Google Docs.
  2. I could back up my suspicions with exact revision history and timestamps. The student hadn’t gone through the research and drafting steps the project needed, and there was a trail of virtual breadcrumbs that showed his work suddenly appearing all at once after the other student’s. Another point for Google Docs.
  3. This demonstrated how silly assignments are that rely on “correct answers”. In a world where resources and student work are shared, and where it’s simple for students to copy large slabs of text from the Internet or each other within seconds, I need to challenge myself to invent assessment tasks where no one could possibly succeed by cutting and pasting or by using another’s work. In other words, if the student had been able to have gotten away with copying, then it wasn’t a well-designed assessment task. I think I’m moving in the right direction, but I think this will push me to create more higher-order thinking in projects, and really make sure to assign students to create products that show more individual analysis from each student. One more point for Google Docs.
  4. The online “crime” was not inconsistent with the student’s offline behavior. This is something this particular student would have tried to do on paper, or offline. Some students always try to find shortcuts. I don’t think the shared Google Doc environment created the misbehavior, and I haven’t seen any incidents like this at all from students who weren’t prone to that sort of thing in the first place. In other words, this wasn’t Google Docs’ fault, it was an attempt to continue old behavior in a new space.
So, while I’m still upset that there was an incident like this, and while I’m going to rethink some things about this and similar projects, I think it was a positive step towards my learning how to navigate sharing and student work in the future, and I think, if I had it to do over again, I would still have used Google Documents for this project. Case closed… ?


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De-inventing the Wheel

Wheels wouldn't really work here. Well, maybe a unicycle.

Wheels wouldn't really work here. Well, maybe a unicycle. source: frontiere_des_provinces_hida_et_etchu.jpg

So far I’ve been quite impressed by the results of the un-essay project brilliantly devised by my colleague Rebekah. We’re still in the middle of the project in my classes, but giving the students the task of successfully defending an essay-like thesis statement without imposing the structure of an essay seems like it will produce a lot of interesting, persuasive multimedia projects.

As someone with a lot of respect for the traditional forms of rhetoric and academic writing I felt a bit of anxiety at the abandonment of the essay part of the project, but I think it was a good move.

Upon reflection, I actually hope to feel that kind of anxiety on a regular basis.

To use some ideas from my Humanities class: 1) I don’t want me or my students to grow boisei molars, and 2) I want us to de-invent the wheel when we need to. What do I mean? Read on! Or don’t. I’m going to keep typing either way.

The Inexpert Ape

Nice molars dude. Shame about the extinction.

Nice molars dude. Shame about the extinction. source:

We’re learning about early humans in Grade 6. We watched some of an action-packed BBC documentary called Walking with Cavemen. In the second episode, the placid, herbivorous Paranthropus boisei are contrasted with the struggling, scavenging Homo habilis. One of the most intriguing ideas of the show to me – and one that the students seem to get quickly, albeit after a bit of discussion – is the reason the show presents for the extinction of the doomed P. boisei.

Long story short: the boisei were experts at something. They were specialized.

It killed them.

They had, we learn, evolved huge jaws and teeth to grind tough vegetable matter. As the documentary imagines it they spent their days lounging and munching in canebrakes like gorillas or pandas, without a care in the world.

The show’s Homo habilis, however, are not specialized. They’re shown clumsily trying to raid bees’ nests and snatch bits of carrion before the lions show up. They aren’t really experts in anything.

But by the end of the episode, the world undergoes a climate change due to an ice age, and the boisei can’t survive the loss of their particular cozy environment. The struggling Homo habilis, however, are forced by their ineptitude to be inquisitive, inventive and endlessly adaptable. They can barely scrape together enough to eat. So they make tools, they crack open bones, and they survive.

As I discussed with the 6th graders after watching this tale, the IB Learner Profile has several words for the qualities students should have. One of them is “Inquirers”. “Specialized Experts in One Thing” is not on that list.

Whatever academic task or area is being investigated, I want me (and my students) to have the flexibility to adapt to changing situations, and not to evolve boisei molars – those comfortable crutches that allowed the ill-fated apes to munch away at vegetation that they were incapable of realizing wouldn’t always be around. I feel like this comparison has a lot of resonance with approaches to technology in the classroom and more generally to teachers, learners, sages, stages, or fossilized ways of doing things.

De-inventing the Wheel

Try driving a cart through that.

Try driving a cart through that. source: travellers-crossing-the-oi-river-by-katsushika-hokusai.jpg

This one will hopefully take less explanation. In medieval Japan, educated folks who’d been to China or other countries had definitely seen wheeled vehicles. But, aside from certain very heavy ox-carts, Japan before the arrival of the Americans was essentially a wheel-less society. People carried things on their backs. People carried other people on their backs.

Does this mean the Japanese were backward or primitive? Of course not – it just means that the wheel wasn’t the best tool for the job, given their environment and situation at the time. Japan back then was full of raging rivers, steep hills, and cheap labor. The wheel made no sense in that environment. I’ll let this guy explain it:

As a 20th-century American I was educated to believe that the wheel was the bee’s knees in terms of human cleverness. It was essentially the first thing cavemen came up with after fire and the arrowhead.

The idea that people might TURN DOWN the use of the wheel, might say “eh, no thanks”, that it might not be the right “fit” for an entire civilization for centuries would seem preposterous. But it’s true, it happened, and I want me and my students to be flexible enough to see those times when the wheel is, well, stupid.

The other side of this analogy is, of course, to note how fast Japan adapted to the wheel once there was a paradigm shift. They ignored the wheel when it wouldn’t have worked for them, but the instant they saw how it could, they changed their way of doing things.

Imagine how refusal to give up certain “fundamentals” in terms of educational content or teaching style could parallel this example. I’m sure you get the idea. Sure, there might be certain important background skills or concepts everyone should be exposed to, but in some ways there are no absolute fundamentals. There is no rigid hierarchy of inventions or tools or skills that everyone absolutely must know. There are only appropriate responses to the environment one finds oneself in, and the skills that best lead one to make those appropriate responses. That’s how I want to face new situations, and that’s the attitude I want to inspire in my students. And I think being anxious about trying new things in the classroom is a sign that I’m moving in the right direction.


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