Common Language: The Power of a Good Continuum

Like I said last week, I love a good continuum, but while SAMR has good intentions, I’m not convinced of how helpful it is to truly impact the ultimate goal of schooling–improving student learning. But since my Mother used to tell me, “If you can’t say something nice…” I decided this week to share a continuum that I believe does help impact student learning. It’s from my friends at Henrico County Public Schools outside of Richmond, VA, and it’s the Technology Innovation Progression, or TIP Chart.

Developed under the guidance of professional friends and colleagues Tom Woodward, Debbie Roethke, Gaynell Lyman, and others, the continuum does many things to improve the interactions teachers and students have with technology. It’s also the centerpiece of two national recognitions for excellence from the American Libraries Association and the Consortium for School Networking. Despite the awards, it’s creators will be the first to admit it’s not the “be all and end all,” but it has done more to promote quality conversations about teaching and learning with technology in many of the school districts I have worked with. That’s something that a simpler continuum often does not do.

It’s Not Easy Being Simple

I understand that simplicity has it’s appeal, and that since technology integration is a complex issue that a simple framework reaches some people. But I find the SAMR too simplistic and results in oversimplified conversations about what teachers–not to mention students–should know and be able to do to improve student learning. The ultimate goal of technology integration is improved student learning, remember, so we need a continuum that helps students understand what that looks like. SAMR does not do that. The TIP Chart does.

The TIP Chart covers four categories (only one of which is presented above. Follow the link to the full chart on Henrico County’s website). The four categories are based on the 2007 National Educational Technology Standards for Students from ISTE. They include:

  • Research and Information Fluency
  • Communication and Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Creativity and Innovation

A single post is not the place for a detailed exploration of each. What is possible is spending time reviewing the structure of the TIP Chart to better understand how it can be used. I use it as a foundation for conversations with educators at every level, from the classroom to the superintendent’s cabinet. In fact, after initial use in one district, the director of secondary schools said to the gathered group, “for the first time, I feel like I have the language to talk with a teacher about what creativity and innovation is, and is not, and what they can do to work on it.” The TIP chart, while addressing complex and sometimes misunderstood concepts like creativity and innovation, uses simple language to make these concepts tangible.

It wasn’t easy to distill these complex concepts down to the simple language that now exists. The TIP chart has and will likely continue to evolve. In fact, several of my districts have started by using the TIP chart to have conversations about technology integration and moved on to create their own continuua that sometimes address the same concepts and sometimes include other concepts they value (e.g., curiosity, imagination, flexible learning environments, global citizenship, etc.).

The following graphic provides an overview of the structure of the chart. For each category, you’ll find more teacher-centric activities described on the left. As you move to the right, you’ll find descriptors of more student-centered learning activities. It’s not that the left is bad and the right is good, or vice versa, it’s just a way to interpret those types of instruction. Many teachers move back and forth from one side to the next, sometimes during a lesson or across a unit. One of the greatest benefits many teachers find with the chart is that while the top row describes what teachers do–in a way that is far less punitive than most state teacher evaluation instruments–it also describes what students are doing (in the bottom row) for the simple reason that if students are to take greater ownership of their learning, the actions students take to do so have to be understood and described.

Tip Chart structure

By academic, I’m referring to those simplified, well-structured activities all teachers use to teach concepts and allow students to practice skills (e.g., five-paragraph essay, proofs, scales, etc.). Authentic implies the instruction incorporates problems or phenomena that students will find outside of school–whether actual problems or problems with a real-world context. I’m not just saying “word problems,” which are usually still simplified academic problems. Authentic problems are complex, also referred to as ill-structured, and may have more than one correct answer or no correct answers. Academic exercises are used to train students. Authentic problems require students to perform new skills.

There’s more to it than that, but that’s a good start. Please take time to review the full TIP Chart from Henrico County and consider how it might support teaching and learning in your own school or district. I’ll dig into it in subsequent posts.

Why Audience Matters

In the past week I’ve had reminders from two great educators in different parts of the country who remind me why audience matters. This is something that comes up often in my work but not something I believe many classroom teachers routinely think much about. For a long time, there were only a few things classroom teachers could do to expand the audience for student work. But the audience for student work is now unlimited thanks to the many safe ways that teachers and students can share work beyond the school walls. And that can be a game changer.

Let’s begin with this quote from David Dulberger, a dynamic fifth-grade teacher at Emma K. Doub School in Hagerstown, MD. His review of Piktochart actually prompted this post. In his review (which you should read if you’re interested in creating infographics, but you should probably bookmark his blog for ongoing great ideas), he makes this statement,

“I have found that my students are inclined to work harder on projects that will be showcased to an audience greater than their parents and me. By simply clicking the publish button, my students know that their work can, and often will be, viewed with more than just our classroom community. The concept of having a 5th grade student publish an infographic to the web may sound outrageous to most people, but my students, and many others around the world are more than capable. “

This is a simple, yet powerful statement. When student see value for their work outside of the classroom–when the audience is greater than just the teacher or their peers–they often feel the pressure to do a better job. That’s the power of audience. Simply by changing the audience for student work, students will want to do better.

The importance of audience is underscored by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their popular instructional design model, Understanding by Design. I use UbD when working with teachers on curriculum design, especially designing performance tasks. A key component of their framework for performance tasks is identifying a relevant audience, and as often as possible, I encourage teachers to design tasks with an audience that goes beyond the classroom to make the tasks more relevant to their students.

Need more convincing? Consider this e-mail from Becki Price, another fifth-grade teacher (just coincidence), but she’s in Round Rock, TX, where I had the privilege of working with a cohort of teachers using Chromebooks. Teachers in the cohort were trying new ideas for student projects, and Becki reflected on a science project. I didn’t get to see it in action but was able to chat with her about it during my last visit. Here’s what she says,

“I wanted to share with you that we wrapped up our first project for the second semester. I took the ideas you shared with me and the student’s projects are posted on my webpage for the world to see! The kids are really excited about this, and some are suddenly not pleased with their final product since it’s out there for everyone to see and compare.”

The Audience Continuum

Perhaps because I taught music, I had the concept of audience drilled into my head all of my career. Everything we did was ultimately for some audience outside of the classroom. We prepared concerts and shows for parents, the community, and competitions across the country. Many school music groups now have their own Facebook or websites with videos of performances that make it even easier to share their work.

But what about a regular classroom? What can those teachers in other content areas do? Digital technologies, as illustrated by these two great teachers, make that easy. Whether using a secure website, a blogging service just for kids, or allowing older students to use social media or other means to promote their work, there’s no reason any teachers shouldn’t be able to “break down the classroom walls” an expand the audience for student work.

As a final example, I use a portion of The Continuum from the Dubuque Community Public Schools (see below). This portion of The Continuum provides guidance for teachers to plan for and implement lessons and activities that promote student communication and collaboration. In terms of audience, my standard story is as you move up The Continuum and you’re trying to promote student communication, the level of audience for student work should increase.

That interprets to moving from an audience of one–just the teacher–to the rest of the classroom. From there, that middle line is really important. It represents the break between inside and outside of the classroom. Moving beyond the classroom means that student work is viewed first in the larger school or family-centric community, but ultimately by the world. In the two fifth-grade examples, note the impact of making the audience the world: same content standards and same learning goals + largest audience possible = increased student interest, engagement, and desire to succeed.

The Continuum

Expanding audiences for student work

Now it’s your turn. Take a lesson you’re working on (or that a teacher you know is working on) and explore ways of expanding the audience. Very often it takes very little work. You may have to explore a new tool, like these teachers did, but chances are most teachers have access to a range of free and easy tools they can use to expand the audience for their students’ work.

 

10+ Popular Digital Resources for Teachers from 2014

10+ Popular Digital Resources for Teachers from 2014

I actually look forward to “Top 10” lists that sum up educational trends of the year. They always have new things I’ve missed or resources I need to investigate further. They’re much better than those stupid year-end predictions that never seem to come true, like “This will be the year of…(fill in the flavor-of-the-moment resource)!!”

This year I decided to create my own list. There’s no empirical research behind it; no data to prove their popularity. These are just a few digital resources for teachers that I’ve observed in classrooms across the country. This year I truly made it “coast-to-cast” by working in districts from Pawley’s Island on the coast of South Carolina, to Redlands, California—just shy of the Pacific—and many in-between. These are resources I see teachers using or ones that teachers have introduced to me presented in no particular order. It was hard to keep it to 10, so I didn’t.

  1. Socrative. If I had the data, I bet Socrative would be the most popular digital resource I’ve seen in schools this year. It showed up a few years ago as a polling tool, but the updated version and new data reporting tools make it even more useful. I know some teachers like Today’s Meet, but Socrative is far more powerful. Whether used as a quick formative assessment or for actual quizzes or tests, Socrative provides teachers with a range of data—some that can be represented visually on the fly—that can confidentially be tied to individual student records for monitoring purposes. I’d be really surprised if someone in your school isn’t already using Socrative.
  1. Blendspace. This media-blending tool seemed to find a larger audience this year, probably due to the addition of assessment and data monitoring functions. I’ve used Blendspace in the past because it’s just so easy to find and link resources, but the additional functionality takes this resource beyond just a fun curation site to a powerful classroom tool.
Performance task presented in Blendspace

Performance task presented in Blendspace

  1. Kahoot! is really a hoot! O.K., it’s just a quiz game, but kids love it. I thought the gaming nature would only appeal to younger students, but I’ve seen Kahoot! even enjoyed by high school students. The concept is simple, but the graphics and music seem to make forced-choice quiz review or actual quizzing more engaging. Turn it around and have your kids come up with the questions to raise the cognitive demand.
  1. WeVideo. It’s about time video editing was free, easy, and online so we can get to our files from anywhere. There are others out there, but I have probably seen teachers and students using WeVideo more often this year than other video-editing tools, even MovieMaker and iMovie. With WeVideo, platform doesn’t matter, and you can use what you know from these older video tools to create your own videos for flipping your lessons, or have your kids create video-based digital stories, lab reports, documentaries, and on and on.
  1. Tackk. No one’s had to use HTML to create web pages for a while now, and sites like Weebly and Google Sites have made it easy for students and teachers to create attractive sites for assignments and projects. Tackk is a new entry in this market and shines above most others simply because it’s just so darn easy! Kids can focus on the content and quickly get an attractive web page up to share their work. Commenting and chat are built in, so the usual monitoring of social networking components is necessary, but we teachers should be already doing that with our students instead of avoiding these powerful tools.
  1. Thinglink. How quickly things change. Yes, we can all easily create, edit, and post video from devices like our phones—something that used to take expensive tools and software. Thanks to Thinglink, we can also now annotate videos and images with the click of a button. How cool is that? I’ve seen some interesting biographies and book reports using Thinglink, but there are many possibilities. Think of the exploration of primary source documents in multiple formats—very interesting possibilities. There’s a public and an education version.

Seven through 10 are some Google Tools you may or may not know about. I find a mixed bag of teachers who do or don’t know about these free, powerful tools that can add to their classroom. Very often, I seem to be in districts where teachers don’t realize the district has their own Google Apps for Education (GAFE) domain. This alone provides a wide range of security and functionality if your GAFE administrator sets it up correctly, so I’ll focus on some things you can use within your own GAFE domain or externally. I’m saving Google Class, possibly for next year. It’s still a little new to make the Top 10.

  1. Usage rights. Let your kids search the Web for images and what do they do? Almost every kid I see goes to Google Image search and copies and pastes directly from the found set—no concern for attribution or whether the image is even legally available for use. Most don’t even visit the site where the image is actually located. I even see watermarks and copyright symbols printed on images in student projects. Google’s made it easy to find images students can use in their projects through their Search Tools. Complete the image search as you usually would, then select Search Tools, and pick one of the Usage Rights. I suggest “Labeled for noncommercial reuse with modification” to get the maximum number of options, unless kids are just going to copy and paste, in which case they can use “Labeled for noncommercial reuse,” which implies no modification. You choose what’s best for your purpose.
Finding images you can use in a Google Image search

Finding images you can use in a Google Image search

  1. Research Tools. Open any Google doc or presentation, select the Tools menu and click on Research: Up pops the research pane that allows you or your students to do a full search of text, images, or other from within your document—including filtering by usage rights (see #7). You can add links to primary sources on the Web directly in your document, and auto-generate a list of citations following MLA, APA, or Chicago style. Why isn’t every teacher using this?
Using Google Research Tools

Using Google Research Tools

  1. Google is connecting everything, even people. Google Hangouts are basically multi-point videoconferences that can be supported by computers, tablets, or phones. There’s no need for expensive web- or videoconferencing services. Google does it for free. And just like email (or Gmail), Twitter, or other social tools, you can share images, text, and links.
  1. I personally haven’t used Moderator, but since I work in several districts with GAFE, teachers report to me it’s an easy way to support a class discussion if you’re not using a learning management system (e.g., Edmodo, Canvas, or even Google Class). It’s a discussion forum. Simple. Easy.

And the +! It really was hard to narrow down the choices. In addition to my top 10, this year I’m going to spend more time with two presentation tools that teachers tell me are easy to use and highly engaging. eMaze was described to me by a teacher as a cross between PowerPoint and Prezi but easier to use. It sure looks it. Powerpoint is so abused in classrooms and Prezis often make me queasy, so I’m interested to see how eMaze stacks up. PowToon is another presentation tool that I’ve heard of for a couple of years but I haven’t really seen any students using it in the schools I visit. It looks like it might take the place of xtranormal (not sure what’s going on there!) that was popular several years ago. The learning curves looks a little steeper for PowToon than eMaze, but I’m old and kids will probably figure it out far faster than me.

There you have it. Just a smattering of fun and helpful resources I see in classrooms across the country. I know there are plenty more, but many teaches often tell me, “I don’t need to know everything. Just give me 1 or 2 good tools that work.” Pick one and let me know how it goes.

My Great Day! (at PHES)

Yesterday was such a great day that I wanted to share. I helped to pilot a new fifth-grade performance task at one of the elementary schools I’m working with. This is one of those events that can go well…or not. While probably not the intent, recent trends in education have been pushing teachers away from student-centered instruction. If you haven’t bought into it, it can be challenging . There’s definitely more activity going on, and if you like a pristine,  quiet classroom with kids in rows all doing the same thing, you can find the buzz of activity a little disconcerting. More importantly, if you’re not used to it, it can be challenging at a philosophical level.

The school and district administrators and I had talked about this last point. In previous visits, we observed what I see in a lot of classrooms—teachers so concerned about their students being successful that they don’t give them opportunities to struggle and even fail. There’s little challenge, as sometimes teachers do all the work and students spend their day copying. These teachers must be exhausted by the end of the day! But their students are just bored. I hope these performance tasks are a way to help teachers understand that student-centered instruction is possible, manageable, and a lot more fun—for students and teachers. I think we saw some of that yesterday.

The task

The performance task was intended to target key skills and knowledge the fifth-grade teachers covered in core content areas during the first nine-weeks grading period. It’s not a multiple-choice test, though, because those overarching skills oven require students to analyze and evaluate information and then create something. That’s hard to do when you’re selecting which bubble to fill in.

I unpacked and reviewed all the standards from the first nine weeks and described characteristics of the task. I spoke with the school administrators to identify a relevant topic. They talked with the teachers and came up with the idea of comparing white and wheat bread, because the kids are not happy about the switch to wheat bread in school lunches this year (as part of the new USDA guidelines for school lunches). Because a simple comparison—of cost or health benefits—didn’t reach the rigor of the standards, I ended up expanding the topic and had the kids create the best sandwich possible.

Without going into detail (but I’ll post the task), the kids were introduced to the topic through the guidelines their own school cafeteria faces. They have to create lunches that meet certain nutritional guidelines but that also have cost limitations. We simplified a few things and rounded out some numbers, but the final goal was that students had to design a healthy sandwich choosing from a number of ingredients and then design a product to convince their teachers, the school principals, and the other fifth-graders that it was the best solution. The total lunch had to cost less than $1.75, be less than 650 calories, and no more than 1/10 of the calories could come from saturated fat. Look at all that math! The presentations just had to be awesome—and some truly were.

Lunch TrayThe day

Teachers were prepared—both mentally, emotionally, and with resources—by the building leaders. They did a good job both logistically and professionally in setting up the day. The students had 2 hours to complete the task and had access to laptop carts, videocameras, posterboard, and other materials. Unfortunately, one of the teachers was absent, but it resulted in a fortuitous learning opportunity. The substitute teacher gallantly went on with the task. If designed correctly, the students should be able to complete the task on their own, so we (me and the building leaders) observed with interest to see how that class would work out.

The most striking observation was that the students in the class with the substitute immediately got down to work on the task and needed little guidance. The substitute introduced the task and let them at it! She gave little more direction than what was provided to the students in the task documents. The kids stayed on task pretty well throughout and we had a variety of PowerPoint presentations, some hand-drawn posters, and even a video-based commercial—all completed entirely by the students.

In comparison, in the other three classes, teachers were a little more reluctant to let go of control. Some of the teachers worked through the math components with the kids (so we don’t really know if the kids could create multi-step problems on their own, which is one of the standards). Some were prescriptive about what the students should create (limiting student input on creativity). Others controlled the pace of the class and wouldn’t let students begin until their work had been checked (preventing us from determining how well students could use their own problem-solving skills), with one teacher taking 50 minutes to review the task until gently prompted to let the kids get started. In one class, one young girl urgently repeated, “When can we get started?”

Ultimately, I think the teachers discovered that the students could work on their own on their projects. I certainly observed that. Some students, of course, needed support from teachers, but it appears to those of us observing that most kids were authentically engaged in the task and stayed on target throughout. After a quick review, the products from the class with the substitute weren’t substantially different from the other classes, but we decided we might find some middle ground in which the teachers provide some attention to the task requirements but without being so prescriptive. And the students in that class started finishing up after about 90 minutes, while some of the other classes took almost 3 hours. That’s a pretty telling piece of data on it’s own.

What’s Next?

I’m waiting to debrief with the principals after they have a chance to chat with the fifth-grade teachers. Were all the student projects wonderful? No, not really. Some did the barest minimum and others were so caught up in finding images and playing with backgrounds and fonts that they missed some of the critical details they were supposed to provide. But that’s valuable information, too.

The students had little or no problem searching the Internet and putting together PowerPoint presentations. And there were a couple of videos that kids did on their own. Incorporating technology more strategically during instruction and using it as a resource for solving problems is a logical focus moving on. But no one could deny the kids had a blast! One young man couldn’t control his excitement about sharing his solution he presented on a poster that he made up a song for it. There were several ingenious solutions, and lots of variety.

I’m hoping the teachers felt good after it was all over. They handled it well. Like I said, it can be hard to let go of the reins, but as we build more of these opportunities into the curriculum I’m sure they’ll do fine. And by the end of the year, I’m hoping they (and other teachers in their school and across the district) begin building their own tasks. When done well, these tasks can help students see the connections of why they’re studying something. It’s no longer just something to do for the teacher or for a grade. This was relevant to the kids and they not only expressed their opinions, but backed them up.

We identified our favorite top 10 and the kids are going to vote on the best presentations. I’m hoping the cafeteria actually makes some of the winning sandwiches! Talk about real-world application. Now I’m off to make a sandwich of my own. That task made me hungry.

Wanted: Non-thinker; must be able to color

Imagine the jobs of the future. What are they going to be? Sure, there will still be doctors, lawyers, and even a few Indian chiefs, although the latter has a pretty limited applicant pool. But what kind of doctors and lawyers? There are now so many specialized fields within fields. It’s hard to imagine how traditional jobs will evolve or change.

And then there are new jobs. When my grandmother was born in 1901, no one was thinking about growing up to be an astronaut, a physical therapist, or a systems analyst. And then there are some that have evolved in my lifetime, like forensic scientist or nanobiologist. Not to mention some of the careers my younger family members have, like game designer, digital artist, and a specialist who develops algorithms to emulate textures in the backgrounds of digitally animated movies. I don’t know what to call that job, but my nephew’s having fun doing it.

Even developing and delivering online professional development wasn’t something I dreamed about doing as a kid, although I’ve done a good bit of it. It’s not what I went to school to do. But the opportunity availed itself and what it came down to was that I drew on what I did know and then added to those skills by learning new things. So, in a way, my job was to be a learner. Didn’t see that on the application.

Being a learner is the one thing that all educators can tackle with their students. And it’s the one thing that’s going to prepare those students for those future jobs that have yet to be developed or even dreamed of. Being college and career ready is far less about knowing a limited set of facts and figures than it is being able to find and evaluate new information and being able to use it to address problems. But that’s not what I see happening in classrooms today.

Job Ads of the Future

A few years ago I was attending a conference in Virginia Beach. I was in the hotel lobby waiting for some colleagues when I overheard the manager talking to an employee about the current round of interviews she was conducting. She summed up her method of evaluation as, “Hire the smile, and I can train the rest.”

It may be a simplistic comparison, but really, how can we teach our students all the facts they’ll need to know to be successful in college and career? We can’t. And nor should we. But teachers are trying! This manager wanted someone with basic communication skills and at least a little personal autonomy. The “how to” of the job was something she could take care of. I’ve heard similar stories from those in all kinds of careers. “Just give me someone who can think on his feet!”

The push for students ready for college and careers is intended to encourage teachers to promote students to think, to persevere through challenge, and to develop skills to solve problems—some that we don’t even know exist, yet. But measuring that intent with a barrage of multiple-choice tests and somehow equating that to job performance has done just the opposite. Despite our best intentions, in many schools, we’ve done more harm than good.

I visit a lot of schools across the country and have done so for many years now. Unfortunately, what I see most consistently is the force-feeding of students trivial information out of context. Very often, the same content is presented over and over, year after year. I’m just as likely to see students coloring the same or similar maps from kindergarten through high school. I saw the same basic lesson about simple machines in a second grade class recently that was covered in a sophomore physical science class, and probably had been covered at least every other year as those kids went through school. Coloring, copying, cutting, and pasting are not preparing our students to become learners.

Few students are challenged to think or struggle or even allowed to “fail.” Pressured by a litany of low-level tests, teachers are doing all the work for their students, but they’re doing them no favors. How are these kids going to solve the financial crisis—ours or the ones they’ll encounter? Or ensure potable water for everyone on the planet? Or…

So imagine those jobs in the future again. What are they going to be? Micro-political analyst? Digital forensics comptroller? Extraterrestrial tourism promulgator? Based on the skills I see our students learning today, that job ad will most likely have to look something like this:

Wanted: Non-thinker; Must be able to color

Position available for a docile non-thinker. Must be able to color, copy, cut and paste. Neatness not an issue. Ability to fill in the blank a plus. Should be tolerant of repetitive tasks that have no consequence. Sleepers will be considered but those able to sit for hours without disturbing others preferred. To apply, copy the given resumé and add your name in the highlighted, underlined, space with the red circle around it. Individuals with personality need not apply.

 

Inaugural Digital Learning Day

My Wild Self

My Wild Self

I celebrated the first-ever Digital Learning Day in about the best way possible…working with teachers on planning for digital learning! I’m working with a group of talented and skilled K-12 teachers from a single school district and we’re beginning to craft a new technology plan for the district. Whenever I visit districts, I am often seen as the “tech guy,” so I really tried to make sure that we focused on students and learning and making sure our tech plan supported the needs of the district and any initiatives they had underway. In order to do that, we started the day with a student-oriented activity.

Design A 21st Century Student

To open the day, teams of teachers divided themselves into groups and worked together to determine what a 21st Century student needed to be successful. They then had to design a visual representation of that student in some way. We had posterboards and markers handy, but I’m very proud to announce that all of our submissions were digital. Some used their iPad to draw, others combined images they found online, but most opted to use a site I mentioned that was the origin of the idea called Build Your Wild Self. This site from the New York Zoos and Aquarium was recommended to me by one of my graduate students (Thanks, Shenette!) who teaches second grade. She used it for a best practice lesson on habitats, because the “wild self” you create comes with a wide range of options on body parts and accoutrements, but you have to justify why you used them. We did the same with the 21st Century student.

The future selves the teachers created, whether with the site or not, came with some great justifications. Truthfully, I had only budgeted 30 minutes for the activity as an ice breaker and to get creative juices flowing, but we took a whole hour. I believe it was worth it. In the end, the teachers noted that our 21st Century student needed some of the following:

  • Antennae because they’re always networking, but a need to understand how to connect networking to education
  • Wings because they are often connected and may rely on mobile devices, especially wireless devices
  • To come out out their shells and develop social skills in a variety of settings, including face-to-face settings
  • A device to support knowledge: they need to know how to access, assess, and apply knowledge
  • Wide eyes because they are often visually stimulated and enjoy a wide range of stimulation
  • Devices they relate to so that their different learning preferences can be addressed
  • Wings because the teachers want them to soar over adversity and to rise to their potential
  • Big ears because they’re probably always listening, although teachers need to help them develop the skills to be critical listeners
  • Powerful hindquarters or fins because teachers want to push or propel them to success

This was a great start to a long day full of lots of hard decisions and analyzing different forms of data. Please feel free to use it yourself, and if you do, let me know how it worked. If I get permission, I’ll post some of the examples from the teams, but in the mean time, my own wild self is presented below.

Teaching Teachers: Considerations for Design

When I was in college, I couldn’t wait to get into my own classroom. The learning and camaraderie was fun, but I just wanted to be in charge and put all those things I was learning into action. Theory is one thing, but I wanted to see it in practice. I wanted to be in charge. For that reason, I know I developed some of the same behaviors antithetical to learning in my own classroom that I now struggle with when I work with teachers. One of my goals is to design instruction that helps my own students, most of whom are teachers, to overcome some of my own poor behaviors.

Teaching can be a lot of fun. One of my favorite parts of teaching is seeing kids learn something new. There’s no audible “click,” but often it seems like you can actually see that change when a kid processes something new and develops a new understanding or adds something new to their repertoire. It happened a lot with my middle school students, but I could still experience it with my high schoolers. That’s not always the case with adults, though, who tend to be more resistant. Typical of adults, it shouldn’t be surprising that with so much learning going on in my own classroom, that the one that was most resistant to learning was…me.

It’s not like I shut out the possibility altogether, but there’s a strange switch that occurs with many people when they move from student to teacher. I know I went through it, and I run into it time and again with the teachers with whom I work. I’m not sure how it happens. It may be an artifact of our school culture, but happen it does, at least in many cases.

In most schools, teachers work alone. The bell rings, they close the doors, and it’s time to get to work. They’re in charge and what they say goes. There’s a saying in education, “don’t smile until Christmas,” and I’m not the only one guilty of perhaps embodying this philosophy a bit too strictly.

Now that I work with teachers and even teach teachers, some of these strange cultural behaviors are more readily apparent, and they really make me struggle as I try to learn from and help my teachers learn new things. Following are some behaviors I know I’ve exhibited that are now challenges I face when designing learning for teachers.

I don’t know it all. There was a time when teachers may have known it all—or at least all the content they needed to impart for a test or entry into a career. But there’s more to teaching than just the facts and figures. Many of the teachers I run into truly do know all of the facts, figures, and processes covered in their curriculum. But it astounds me that I run into many who can’t tell me why they’re important. Why study math? Science? Social studies? Some of the answers I receive are astounding, and not all that convincing.

In my first classrooms, I tried to know it all, and many of my students expected me to, but now it’s different. I’ve seen that not only that I don’t know it all but that I never really will. There’s just too much to know! And more to know day after day. So now I tackle my online instruction as an opportunity to learn rather than a requirement to teach.

I learn new things from my students and the teachers I work with every week. They share their experiences, new resources they’ve found, and we sometimes work through problems together. The process really helps me, and I believe that those who are willing to work with me in this way also benefit. I tell my students that activities are a conversation, and if I misinterpret or misunderstand something, they should let me know. We should talk about them so we both better understand each other. That said, I rarely have a student speak up or contradict what I say or comments on their work. Why? Well, they’re almost all teachers and many are still playing the know-it-all game.

One of the most powerful things I’ve learned to say, albeit reluctantly at first, is “I don’t know.” But I can’t leave it at that. I may not know, but we can figure it out together, or you can help me to learn it. That has been a great benefit. There’s been one more benefit to realizing I don’t know it all. A tremendous burden has been lifted from my shoulders because one thing I do know now is, I don’t have to know it all. Whew! Now if I could just convince a few others…

I’m not always right. This is a tough one. The stereotypical image of a teacher is of the all-knowing font of knowledge that has the final say. Being the final authority is an approach I probably did take more often than not when I first started teaching, but it’s really a trap. I know why I did it. It made me appear to be the authority that my students could trust. But if you want to wear those shoes, the first time you aren’t right, you then spend most of your time doing damage control and you never really gain that trust back.

This issue comes to the forefront when commenting on the work others have done. Outside of the classroom, this is pro forma. I remember the first paper I wrote for my new “corporate” job (I use quotations because I worked in a non-profit with a lot of other former teachers, so it was more corporate than a school, but not entirely so). I had just published my dissertation and thought I had this writing thing down. The paper I got back was covered in red pencil from an editor. I was livid! How could this be? I had a Ph.D.! I was the expert!

In the end, what happened was I learned that while I knew a few things about educational technology, our editors knew a lot more than I did about writing, especially writing for different audiences. Their comments weren’t intended to be punitive, but informative. Sometimes they were intended to make me think deeper about my topic and maybe to consider different perspectives. They were actually trying to make me sound better, perhaps smarter, and to make my writing better so people might think I was always right (well…maybe right most of the time). I began to trust them and rely on their feedback.

Giving feedback to teachers is a challenge. If a teacher works under the mindset that they are always right, even a simple question can shut down communication. At least once in every class I teach I have students tell me they are struggling with my class and feel like they’re failing. Generally, they have the highest grades in the class and are exemplary students, but I may have posed questions or even taken a point or two off an assignment. To those students, less than perfect is failure. I gave up on perfect long ago and am much happier for it.

In terms of design, I try to be very confirming with my feedback. I try to pose questions rather than make statements, pull in references or data, but even those can cause some people to raise their shackles. Very often, however, I do have students that make erroneous statements or flawed or conclusions. At this point, I’ve taken the stand that it’s better to let them know than to let it slide by. It can take its toll on communication, but communication has to take a back seat to learning.

I can’t do it alone. A former colleague of mine once said, “Collaboration is an unnatural act conducted by two nonconsenting adults.” It may seem that way, but collaboration has become one of the most necessary skills for success in the world of work—in just about any occupation. It should also be true in education, but many of the educators I work with don’t see it that way.

I have to admit that working in cooperative groups was one of the most difficult things I had to learn once I left the classroom and worked in “the corporate world.” But the truth is that since I don’t know it all and I’m not always right, having other people who knew things and could do things I couldn’t do actually made me more effective. Our skills and knowledge often complemented each other. In this case, I really believe that the sum of the parts was greater than the whole, especially since collaboration can lead to creative solutions or opportunities that I just couldn’t come up with on my own. I just didn’t have the experiences or knowledge to do so.

The 21st Century Skills movement has encouraged educators to provide students the opportunities to collaborate and build collaborative skills, but I find few teachers willing to work collaboratively themselves. At this point, I encourage but don’t require collaboration in my online courses. When collaboration is an option, I try to provide structures for collaborating, perhaps job aids or templates, and I encourage collaborators to reflect on the activity. What did each person do? What did they bring to the table? What was the benefit? Collaborating with someone new, however, seems to still be a challenge, and until the participants feel comfortable and realize they don’t know it all and aren’t always right, it can be a slippery slope to traverse.

 

I’m still working on these factors in my learning design and consulting work. Sometimes I think I should go in and pretend to be the all-knowing font of knowledge who can’t be wrong—I think teachers expect it of me. But it’s a loosing game in the end. I’ll keep plugging away and hope you share some ideas you have for designing better learning for teachers.

 

 

 

All A-Buzz: The 21st Century Language Classroom

Last Fall I visited some schools in Henrico County, Virginia, which is on the outskirts of the Commonwealth’s capital, Richmond. During those visits I had the great fortune to observe a fantastic 21st Century lesson delivered by Spanish teacher, Patrick Wininger. Patrick teaches Spanish to seventh grade students and works in a district that has a one-to-one laptop initiative. While that may be a plus for technology integration, his lesson was an excellent example of varied and seamless technology use that not only supported skills often referred to as 21st Century skills, but repeatedly gave students practice in the critical areas of reading, writing, listening, and speaking Spanish. It was also one that could be accomplished in classrooms without the laptops, but maybe just not as efficiently. Patrick graciously agreed to a follow-up interview and has some great tips to share for incorporating technology in language acquisition instruction.

Focus on the Student

While I was invited to visit showcase lessons for 21st Century skills, you could tell this was pretty much just another day for Wininger—a day brimming with excited and active students very much engaged in the business of learning language. In fact, the class was so full it was almost bursting at the seams, with some students squeezed into corners to accommodate the visitors. The noise, at times, rose to a pleasant roar of excited students clearly engaged in learning, collaborating, and communicating with and without their laptops. I love that sound.

When you visit a classroom, it’s usually pretty obvious when what you are watching is SOP—standard operating procedure. Students know what to expect, what to do, and are familiar with the transitions from one activity to the next. Wininger was a great conductor, but the students were truly the stars. He confirmed with me, later, that he really tries to give the students what they want. “Foreign languages, especially Spanish,” he told me, “are growing in popularity and students really want to be able to use it to speak with others who speak Spanish.” These may be other students who go to their schools, play on their sports teams, or others they meet in their communities. “Many people,” he says, “now see Spanish as useful in day-to-day life. It changes the reason why students take a language.” So he capitalizes on that.

In fact, Wininger is a career switcher who came to language instruction from corporate training and communications. In the business world, you focus on the customer, which is also what Wininger does in his classroom. He focuses on what the students want and uses the available technologies to engage them and help them learn language. “It has to be useful. If teachers can’t explain why this matters, they shouldn’t be teaching it.” He notes that students are becoming more consumer-oriented, and if what you are offering doesn’t have value, they won’t buy it.

Freedom to Learn

Wininger notes that “It’s more about how you teach than the tools you use.” Yes, his students have laptops, but in many places increased access to different technologies is blurring what one can do in the classroom and at home. He incorporates a textbook series with many digital resources, including handouts, recordings, presentations, and even a website where students can go online and listen to native speakers. The district has a web-based student information system, so students don’t even have to turn in homework at school. In fact, it’s probably better if they don’t because then his instruction can focus more on active language acquisition than checking homework.

During the 45 minutes I was in the classroom, the students quickly moved through a logical sequence of instruction that was building to an assignment they’d complete for homework. Students focused on action verbs and vocabulary and worked through writing, listening, and speaking (and reading, of course) supported by digital handouts, presentation software, digital recordings and lots and lots of interaction. The digital resources served as a basis, but all activities were customized and required students to create their own examples, to relate it to their own lives, and to speak with others. They spoke with each other, they spoke with Wininger, and they responded to the digital voice that hovered over the room, with reminders all the way through—by Wininger—of where they were headed, why they were doing this, and constant reminders about the connection between reading, writing, listening and speaking. And what were they going to do? Students had to build on the sentences they wrote during class to post a blog response related to a favorite hobby or pastime. It was practical, relevant, and used tools the students enjoyed.

Wininger notes that foreign language classrooms have always had tools, like language labs, it’s just that the tools are different now and can all be in one place. “It’s not about what you have, it’s about being skilled at what you have.” Technology empowers students. Many of them are using it outside of school already, whether it’s texting on their smartphone, mastering multi-player games, or chatting with friends online. His students just use technology to learn a new language in ways that feel comfortable.

Wininger says his students are like sponges. They love to try new things, especially with technology. He said he’s never had a student not want to participate when technology was included. He says, “Whatever I’ve tried with technology, they’ve been willing to try it, too.” Even if it’s something new they don’t know how to use. Once they begin to use it, even in small ways, they feel empowered. One example was when the young girl next to me had a problem with her document, before Wininger could get to her, she had several classmates at her computer who overcame the issue in a few seconds. He notes that the more students interface with technology, they build a repertoire of skills they can use elsewhere.

The Tips

So, what are some of the activities Wininger and his students participate in during class—and beyond? I’ve already described what could have been a very traditional worksheet-based lesson that was put into overdrive and ended up being a blog post. Following are some additional technology ideas Wininger shared.

Create games to play in class or online. Many applications have multiple functions, like the ubiquitous Microsoft Word and PowerPoint. With these, you can manipulate text, images, video, and include hyperlinks that connect information together. You can create a presentation to use during class, or add buttons and links that branch to different parts of the presentation.

Bring in the world. Most teachers have Internet access, and so Wininger uses it to go beyond the walls of his classroom to engage his students with cultural artifacts as a subject for language acquisition. One example involved a painting by the artist Frida Kahlo. He provided background information through a lecture supported by presentation software, and the students read a section about the picture in their text. But then Wininger “visited” the Smithsonian where the students not only got to see the image projected larger than life in class but explored more information about it. Students followed up by writing a reaction paper, which could be in Spanish for more advanced students.

Build a website. There are many different tools that you and your students can use to create a website, it’s how you frame those activities that matters. Wininger has had his students participate in the traditional travelogue activity in which students plan a trip to another country where Spanish is spoken, but he also requires students to create budgets and build a website based on their trip that includes a daily blog that they keep while they are “traveling.”

In another web-based project Wininger identifies 20 contemporary Spanish songs that students select. They learn the song, of course, but they also learn about the performer and partner with another student to develop a fan website. Some of the students didn’t want to stop, and even during the class I visited I could hear students singing along to some of the Spanish pop songs that played in the background during one activity.

Shoot a video. Again, you don’t have to have access to an expensive videocamera and suite of editing software to incorporate video into your instruction. Wininger’s students researched, wrote, and produced daily weather reports in Spanish…for Spanish-speaking countries. They searched the Internet for real-time data and presented the whole project in Spanish on video, even using green-screen technology so it could look like they were “on location.” He said the students were not only engaged, but motivated to do a good job and to deliver the reports convincingly.

Make it interactive. Wininger admitted he was a little reluctant to get a video beam projector, not wanting to give up his trusty overhead projector. But now that he has one he absolutely loves it. It projects large, clear images that the students find engaging and focuses their attention unlike everyone staring at their textbook, and is useful for a variety of video resources, as well. He’d like to have an interactive whiteboard, because he feels it would make it that much easier to move images and objects around and he’d like to get his students up and interacting with the content—highlighting, summarizing, matching, ordering…there are many possibilities. While he doesn’t have one currently, he suggested—my favorite tip—you can create your own interactive whiteboard out of a Wii game remote and an infrared pointer for about $40. Honest! There are dozens of videos on YouTube that show you how, so go check it out.

Practice What You Preach

Wininger does more than have his students do all the work; he has modeled 21st century communications for his students, friends, and teachers. He participated in a Fulbright-Hays Study Abroad seminar in 2009 that took him to Mexico with 15 other teachers, and to keep everyone informed he kept up a daily blog (http://patrick-wininger.blogspot.com/). A blog alone can be a lot of work, a daily blog even more so, but while traveling?!?

However, “the experience was really valuable,” says Wininger, as he was not only able to communicate with friends and colleagues back home, but it really helped him understand the potential of this form of communication. His blog entries include reflections, new learnings, and incorporate images and even videos. Some of the images make it into his instruction, as do some of the things he learned, like how the textbook he uses inaccurately described the Sun Stone in the Aztec room in the Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

The textbook describes the stone as a calendar, but that’s not what the museum reports. Wininger can now not only describe its real purposes to his students but show them pictures he’s taken of the stone. His excitement on his blog is palpable, “…now I get to teach my students the RIGHT thing instead of the wrong.” The 21st Century has already emphasized the shift from receiving information to creating information, a key characteristic of Web 2.0 and social networking technologies. Wininger’s blog is a great example of creating information that is available not only for his students but with anyone with a web browser.

No, not those Natives vs. Immigrants again!

I get a little tired of people telling me I’m not a “digital native,” Marc Prensky’s famous description of students who grow up with digital technologies. And, no, I didn’t. I’m comfortable not being a digital native, because I think I do pretty well. I work in educational technologies, after all, and I work with others to try to help them figure out how to use them to support teaching and learning. I have never been one to think it matters much. But Wininger may have changed my mind…may have.

He notes that it’s not the digital natives that we have to be concerned about right now, it’s us digital immigrants. He agrees that 21st Century skills that promote communication and collaboration, solving complex real-world problems, and being creative and innovative are valuable. The issue is that most digital immigrants have never been shown how to teach them. He said they’re very different teaching skills, and since they haven’t really been valued so much in education until recently, teaching digital natives is a bigger challenge than being one.

I’d like to thank Henrico County Schools and especially Patrick Wininger for allowing me not only to visit but to follow-up with my many questions. Patrick may not be a digital native either, but his students don’t care. They’re learning, and having a great time while they’re doing it, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re an immigrant or not when you make that happen.

Don’t Miss the Bus!

Regardless of how you’re keeping track, the 21st Century is almost one-tenth over. Remember all the hoopla for the new millennium? Can you believe that was 10 years ago? An entire decade? We were worried about what the “millennium bug” was going to do to our computer systems, and educators were being encouraged to help students develop “21st Century skills.” Well, a decade pretty much places us into that new century. Are we there yet?

My November TechTips article explored the 21st Century theme from a broad perspective, and I’m glad to say I received some great feedback! Some asked me to “just tell us how to do it,” with “it” being technology. Others wanted to know more about “just what these 21st Century Skills are.” Over the next few months I hope to provide some more specific strategies to help world language teachers not just get ready for the 21st Century but put them square in the driver’s seat in their 21st Century classrooms. We’re already there, after all. That bus may be on the road, but there’s still time to get aboard. I’ll explore some of the “its” but also have contacted several exemplary teachers whose stories I hope to share in subsequent articles. If you know of some additional exemplary teachers, please contact me. I’d love to talk with them.

“It” Is All About Learning

I get the “just show me how to do it” response a lot in my line of work, and I have to admit I’ve been guilty of saying it, at least in the past. I sympathize but want to shift that line of thinking just a bit. As I’ve mentioned, the “it” that most people want me to tell them about is technology, whether a laptop, a podcast, or some other application. They want me to tell them which buttons to press, which menus to use, which steps to follow, but technology varies, and it all changes so quickly.

I recently developed a workshop for a school that had just gotten new laptops running Windows 7, so I upgraded to that operating system and created some step-by-step handouts with screenshots from the latest version of Microsoft Office. What I didn’t know was that they didn’t have the latest version of Office, just Windows. My handouts didn’t look like their screens or have the same steps. What to do?

This is a pretty common occurrence in technology, actually. Trying to tell people how to complete a task in common software, like Microsoft Office, varies depending on which computer you have, the version of the operating system on that computer, and the version of the software. In a single workshop I can have Macs and PCs, two or three different versions of either operating system, and a similar range of application versions on each. All of these differences change the steps to follow. What I do—or try to do—is to focus on the learning, not the technology.

In this case, I took an activity like inserting an image into a document and I turned it around on them. I showed them some common places to find images. I demonstrated how I would insert an image on my computer, highlighting some common commands or menus to look for. We even talked about when and why to insert an image. Then, I told them to work together. They had to figure out how it worked on their computer and then share it with the rest of us. They could go online and find tutorials or ask me for help, but mostly they shared with each other. We revised the handout together which they could then use with students or other teachers in their schools. I got new handouts out of the deal, too.

That’s a simple—and true—story of 21st Century skills in action. It also demonstrates shifting the focus from teacher-directed to student-centered instruction. Instead of telling them what to do, walking through a handout step-by-step, ending up with cookie cutter products that all looked the same, my teachers had a very real-world problem to solve. They were going to have to teach these skills to other teachers in their district after I left! It was an authentic problem that required them to do a little critical thinking along with communication and collaboration. And some of their results were more creative than my solution, including one who posted her handout to her blog.

Beyond the Handout

Moving from teacher-directed to student-centered instruction can be a hard shift if you’ve never been given autonomy as a student. I started out teaching the way I was taught, and probably so did you. But just like my handout story above, you can take small steps and don’t have to give yourself over to full-scale student autonomy—at least not right away. Digital resources make this easier, because we’ve gotten to a point where there are more high quality materials and applications that are available 24/7. These give you more opportunities to interact with or engage your students in language acquisition in and beyond the classroom.

While sometimes a handout or two may be helpful, I’m encouraging moving beyond relying solely on prescriptive activities in instruction—whether that instruction involves teaching teachers or younger students. Think about when we use our own language skills. Maybe you’re trying to figure out a train schedule in a foreign country, or you’ve been asked to talk with a new parent who doesn’t speak English, or you’re going to chaperone a student group to another country. How often will you have to fill in a blank or answer a multiple-choice question in that setting? Now consider the situations where your students will use their language skills.

As I mentioned last month, it’s not all or nothing. There’s no cosmic switch that will help a teacher magically transport to 21st Century teaching and learning every lesson of every day. And sometimes, you may not want to. Language acquisition, like all content areas, requires foundational skills and knowledge, and sometimes students have to practice those. But we can move to more authentic and relevant instruction for our students, often relying on the many free digital resources available now.

What would I suggest if you wanted to do that? What would I do if I wanted to move to more 21st Century teaching and learning? Following are a few suggestions.

Set a goal and monitor your effectiveness.
Remember, it is generally understood that teachers progress along a continuum as they learn new technologies. One of the best strategies to move forward is to set a periodic target to incorporate technology that promotes 21st Century skills (e.g., creativity and innovation, critical thinking and problem solving, or communication and collaboration) until you feel more comfortable and they become second nature. You can start a class discussion list or blog. You might incorporate a weekly podcast, that you or your students create or find. Or have students create newscasts—print, web, or video—in the language they are studying. You may want to conduct one of these activities once a week, or maybe try a longer activity once a month if you have limited technology access. If your students have access to laptops, I’ve seen technology experts recommend once a day.

Use what you have. We don’t all have access to interactive whiteboards or a laptop for every student, but that doesn’t mean we can’t create more authentic learning opportunities that rely on the digital technologies at our disposal. Using one computer a teacher can still create concept maps, digital stories, or explore web resources during whole-class instruction. It can become a student center during small group activities. When relying on a lab, plan ahead and prepare students in during class before getting to the lab, so time is focused on applying language skills and knowledge, not the technology. Technology is not required to create 21st Century teaching and learning, but in this century we use technology for everything from shopping to finding medical breakthroughs. Technology is the way we do things in the 21st Century, so use what you’ve got.

Practice, but you don’t have to be perfect. I know, as a teacher, I want to be the authority and don’t want to look like I didn’t know something in front of my students. But when I visit and interview exemplary technology-using teachers, they all tell me, “I learn from the kids.” All of them. Remember, technology is going to change. I planned a workshop on Delicious, the social-bookmarking website, which I have been using for years. When I got to the workshop, I discovered that Delicious is now owned by Yahoo! and registering was much different than when I had first created my account. You’re the learning expert. Keep the learning goals in mind, and when technology throws a wrench at you, use it as an opportunity to learn along with your students. You’re modeling valuable 21st Century skills when you do.

Find a buddy. You don’t have to do this alone. In fact, research on exemplary technology-using teachers shows that they don’t. These teachers have a network they can rely on to learn new things, bounce off new ideas, and even try new technologies and techniques with. It’s nice when your buddies are in your own school, but with technologies like webconferencing and web-based resources, including those from the NCLRC, you can find a buddy around the block or across the globe. You can communicate through webconferencing (e.g., iChat, ooVoo, or Skype), jointly create documents (e.g., using GoogleDocs, TypeWith.me, or Scribblar.com), and share your results (e.g., creating a podcast with Audacity or GarageBand or even uploading a video to YouTube or TeacherTube).

Technology Tip: Getting Your Act Together

In an effort to comply more with the “just show me how to do it” requests, I want to offer this real, bonafide technology tip. In the 21st Century, we have to deal with a lot of information, and now a lot of that information is found on the web. It can be hard to sort, store, and find when you need it. In order to deal with that information, I encourage you to set the goal of using a social bookmarking service, if you are not already doing so. It should help you get started in moving up the continuum.

Many of us are used to bookmarking information on our own computers, but what happens when we have to use a different one, or we buy a new computer? Yes, you can transfer bookmarks to new computers, but a more useful solution is to use a social bookmarking service. Essentially, this service allows you to store all of your bookmarks online, so you can get to them any time you want to, from any computer with an Internet connection.

They allow you to create tags, or groupings, so you can organize your bookmarks in different categories. Then you can share them (or not) with others. Coming up with the tagging scheme may be the most complex aspect of using them. You may want to do it by general categories (e.g., travel sites, government-sponsored resources, language practice, etc.) or organize them by lessons or units. This latter arrangement will take more planning and is probably something you might accomplish over time.

In homage to 21st Century skills (which encourage you to be creative, solve problems, incorporate critical thinking, and communicate and collaborate), I’m not going to tell you how to do it step by step. Each site contains tutorials and answers to frequently asked questions that provide that information. There are three social bookmarking services I know of, two that I use routinely and one that I have read reviews of that seems to be promising. You can decide which one works best for you, but I encourage you to use one of these free services to organize information for your language instruction and to model 21st Century skills for your students. Already use one? Be a buddy and help someone out who doesn’t, or check into one of the other ones. They may offer functionality you didn’t know about.

Social bookmarking services:

  • Delicious (www.delicious.com) One of the earliest bookmarking sites with an easy-to-use toolbar you can add to your web browser. You do have to create or use a Yahoo! account for this service. Unfortunately, if you have more than one Yahoo! account, you’ll have to switch back and forth, which is cumbersome. This is my problem because I have a Yahoo! personal e-mail account and one I created just for trainings.
  • Diigo (www.diigo.com) Another easy-to-use service that has really ramped up its social networking aspect. It also allows you to annotate websites, so you can highlight the most important information on the site for your students. There is an educator version (www.diigo.com/education) that allows you to share your bookmarks with a class and does not require students to have an e-mail account. Unfortunately, because it does have this social networking aspect, which I think can be pretty useful, you may have to get it unblocked on some school networks.
  • iCyte (www.icyte.com) I have only read about this service and viewed some of the tutorials, so I admit I’m not an expert on this one, but maybe you are and can let me know how you use it better. iCyte claims to be more than a bookmarking site, but both Delicious and Diigo are constantly evolving, so if you find a feature you like on one, chances are it will be on one of the others—if not now, then soon. Like the others, it appears to be very easy to use, allows you to annotate, and you can install the iCyte toolbar on your favorite web browser.

Creating and maintaining a social bookmarking site is a good way to get started with moving along the continuum towards more 21st Century teaching and learning, and it will help you organize all the information you collect, from the NCLRC and elsewhere. If you’d like to see one in action, please feel free to review the sites I maintain at the links below. If you do need some more help to learn more about social bookmarking, want to suggest additional topics, or just send some feedback, please feel free to contact me. I appreciate all the advice I’ve received.

My Delicious account: www.delicious.com/tltbookmarks
My Diigo account: www.diigo.com/user/tltbookmarks

Moving Beyond the 18th Century

I had the pleasure recently of visiting several middle schools that are participating in a one-to-one laptop initiative. I was part of a team that went into classrooms to observe teaching and provide feedback to the schools and district. We visited several foreign language classrooms—both French and Spanish. The classrooms I visited were fairly ripe with technology, not just the laptops every child sported, but interactive whiteboards and many digital resources. These are what many people might consider rich “21st Century classrooms,” and our visitors included administrators from other schools and districts who may have been a bit jealous about the preponderance of technology. Unfortunately, the teaching I most often observed took little advantage of the wealth of technology. The instruction could have occurred 100, 200, or even many more years earlier.

One member on my team was a principal who had been a Spanish teacher. He concurred, but also said it was representative of how he had originally been taught how to teach. What we saw was very traditional, teacher-directed instruction that took little advantage of the available resources. Primarily, teachers lectured at the front of the room, using print-based handouts that had been digitized so they could be displayed on the interactive whiteboard. Students could access the forced-choice and fill-in-the-blank handouts on their laptops, but most used the paper-based versions even though their laptops sat unopened on their desks. Students were passively engaged and called upon one at a time to give their answer to questions that related to vocabulary recall, sometimes going to the front of the room to write an answer on the interactive whiteboard. That novelty didn’t seem to engage many students, though. That’s pretty passé to someone who can spend hours a day online pitting their skills with others from across the globe in a multi-user videogame.

These were language classes, and in the 45 minutes we visited each, there was very little language going on, especially when considering language consists of reading, writing, speaking, and not just listening. The students might have read 10 sentences total and underlined vocabulary. The worksheets had an opportunity to write out approximately 20 isolated vocabulary words, and the listening—besides the language immersion approach the teacher should be commended for—consisted of a digital recording that required students to “check off” whether spoken terms were masculine or feminine, so very little written language occurred, too. Students might have been called upon once—at most twice—during the entire class to respond, so there was very little speaking going on, and none in context, as they merely reported their vocabulary responses. It’s reasonable to assume that these students spoke no more than one or two words in their language of study in an entire class period.

You’re Not Just On or Off

In our discussions following the classroom visits, we considered ways to better monopolize on the digital technologies now available, so we can break the paradigm of the teacher-directed instruction we saw that provided so little opportunity for engagement in language (and other content). We did usually see a variety of activities within a 45-minute period, but if I had to sum up the instruction we observed using a single word, I’d say it was boring. I was bored. The kids were obviously bored.

The key is changing the instruction, not providing more tools. The tools are nice, and provide some unique opportunities, but most classrooms now have at least one Internet-connected computer that would allow teachers to bring the world to their classroom, if they felt comfortable changing their instruction. That change has to occur in more places than just that classroom, though.

There are several continuum theories applied to the adoption of technology in instruction. That’s important because it’s not like you are or aren’t a 21st Century teacher. You’re not on or off. Most of these theories suggest that teachers begin using technology by replicating what they are familiar with. That’s what we saw with the workbooks and handouts—that were just as effective either as paper or digitized—and the heavy reliance on response and recall of low-level information. But higher up those theories are stages where teachers create instruction that utilizes the technology in such a way that the instruction could not otherwise happen. The technology provides access to activities and information that are not feasible or not practical in an analog classroom.

Knowing when a teacher is at a lower stage of the continuum is important for supporting professional growth. You can’t expect these teachers to leap to the end of the continuum. But it is reasonable to expect them to move to a higher level of the continuum, maybe the next level at first, and then going on. It takes some skill training, obviously, but perhaps most importantly it takes an environment in which teachers are willing to take risks and are given the opportunity to practice new pedagogies and give up some of the control they may feel in more directed lessons. To a teacher, the term “student-directed” implies “I’m not in charge,” and that can be the hardest change to make.

I know these types of lessons may not happen every day, and building basic foundational skills is important, but we were invited to see the very best “21st Century lessons” from these teachers, not 18th Century lessons with 21st Century tools. So, what would we have liked to have seen?

It’s About the Skills, Not the Tools

To me, the workbooks and handouts obscured the real purpose of the class. They were not the best means to an end. They were an end to themselves. Why do students study language? To use it. They should be able to read and write the language and use it to communicate with others. Ultimately, we want them to be able to engage in language at a level where they are thinking and responding from the new language. How reasonable is it that these kids will go to an area where these languages are used and complete a fill-in-the-blank worksheet? Or to check off which words they hear are masculine or feminine?

Digital technologies allow you to bring the world’s resources to your classroom, not just scanned worksheets. You can bring in newspapers and video broadcasts from across the world. You can access images, audio, and video from government organizations, travel services, and educators from across the globe. You can find podcasts in many languages for students of all ages, or you can have your students create their own with free tools like Audacity or GarageBand. You can also store and organize all of these resources on a class website, a school file server, or using a social bookmarking site like Delicious or Diigo, so you’re not recreating lessons every year.

Real life is engaging. Walk through the halls of your local middle school when kids are changing classes, and you’ll hear lots of language and engagement. Bring it into your classrooms. Have your students apply their language skills, either with their own classmates or with those from another class. You don’t necessarily have to sign up for an electronic pen pal in another country (although it can be fun and engaging to do so). You might just want to pair your students in different classes, or with students in other classes in your district, just to give them an opportunity to apply their language skills with other kids their age. Focusing on their lives makes the instruction more relevant to them and will increase engagement.

They can participate in real-time interaction through common webconferencing tools like iChat, ooVoo, or Skype or they may create asynchronous interactions. If you have limited access to computers, consider broadcasting you streaming web video to the front of the class and using different students each time to lead discussions with those at a distance. Consider creating a class website, blog, or wiki, that allows students to communicate to each other during class and beyond. Students can journal or blog about their day-to-day lives using their growing language skills. You don’t have to share them with the whole world if you don’t want to, as students can create digital journals or portfolios that are only shared with other students in their class or with their teacher, such as developing a dialog journal in which teachers provide formative assessment of language use. And digital journals can include audio and video files to build language use in other areas.

If you do want to use worksheets and handouts, which do provide a level of practice that can be important for building vocabulary and other foundational knowledge, consider new ways to incorporate them. The students I observed went through three pages of forced-choice or fill-in-the-blank responses in 45 minutes. It should have taken about five. Have students share their responses with others and identify the most common misconceptions, or put them in a dropbox so you can monitor them but spend your instructional time on actual language production. Expose them to foundational information, but use class time to apply that information as much as possible.

The Format is Not the Test

After visiting many classrooms, and not just language classrooms, one of the visiting administrators verbalized a common concern. Teachers feel pressured to prepare students for end-of-course tests that are usually presented in forced-choice formats. True, but the catch is that these assessments—at every grade- and content-level—still address higher levels of cognitive demand. They’re based on standards and the standards in all grades and content areas go beyond identification and recall tasks. Teachers who simply use the forced-choice format but who do not present instruction or even find or generate questions at the appropriate level of cognitive demand have not prepared their students for these assessments. The format is not the test. How well prepared were these students who filled out three worksheets but might get only one opportunity to speak during an entire class period?

Yes, these formats are easier to grade, but you have to mix it up. If language requires application, you have to find opportunities for students to apply language in authentic contexts. If you’re shooting beyond application to synthesis and creation, you need additional opportunities, and creating forced-choice assessments at these levels is difficult and time consuming. In these cases, teachers can apply different assessment methods.

One quick and easy way to guide and evaluate learning is the use of checklists or scoring guidelines. These are often based on the presence (or lack thereof) of critical attributes. Did your dialog use at least five of this week’s vocabulary words? Did you find three relevant news stories? What is the level of accuracy of your translation? These make great job aids or guides for students and can be posted on a class website, file server, or other shared space where students can access them both in and out of classroom.

Rubrics are also popular, especially in more open-ended activities supported by technology, but take more time to develop and can be difficult for novice teachers. It’s hard, sometimes, to know exactly what makes a response a 3 vs. a 4, or basic vs. proficient. Having students co-create rubrics can be a great learning opportunity, but can take away from limited instructional time. Sometimes you may want to include them, and sometimes not, depending on how much time you have available in your curriculum. I am a strong proponent of sharing the rubrics up front to guide student learning and for ongoing self-assessment and monitoring, but one teacher we visited last week says she has found it helpful to let the students get started on their projects first and then introduce the rubric in the early stages of work so they are better able to understand what are the most important aspects of the rubric. In a complex rubric, they may place inappropriate attention to some categories over another.

If you’re new to rubrics and want some help, the best resource I know is RubiStar (http://rubistar.4teachers.org/). It provides rubric samples or allows you to quickly create your own. RubiStar has rubrics in many categories, not specifically foreign language, but reading, writing, and other language-appropriate categories. You can also access RubiStar en Español (http://rubistar.4teachers.org/index.php?skin=es&lang=es&).

What Goes Around…

I want to conclude by giving some kudos to these teachers. They were doing what they thought was appropriate. They were using methods they were familiar with from their own days as students and perhaps from their language methods courses. And they all showed willingness to try new technologies in front of people they didn’t know! (Being observed always causes some anxiety.) I just felt like they were missing opportunities that the powerful resources they had access to could provide to their students. Given some guidance and support, though, and I think they’d all begin moving up that continuum.

If we’re going to move beyond 18th Century lessons with 21st Century tools, we need to provide our teachers with different examples. We need to engage them as we’d like them to engage their students. They need to see authentic instruction models and be given an opportunity to develop and practice them on their own. We can’t all get to the end of that continuum right away, but we can all move forward.

Please let me know if you’d like to explore any of these topics in greater detail. I’ve contacted a few exemplary teachers and some programs that incorporate technology in language instruction and hope to share some of their stories with you. I’d be glad to hear yours so we can all work together on determining what is the best way to use technologies to support instruction. As my good friend and colleague Joy Runyan says, “we’re all in this together.”