Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Best Laid Plans...

Recently, I watched an extremely brave teacher on the Teaching Channel as she shared a "failed" lesson from her English class. The camera was in her classroom and recording all the awkward moments and typical student responses when they aren't engaged in a lesson. She then went on to successfully change that lesson for the next section of students. She also debriefed with a colleague when everything was said and done, questioning whether her students were even ready for the task she had planned for them.

These "failure" narratives, occasionally shared by teachers in public spaces, are like a fresh of breath air in the super-hyped, "look at the awesome thing I did," and "aren't my students amazing?" world of edu-social media. Not that people shouldn't share their successes and their students' excellence (in fact, I do this quite often!). It just gets a little overwhelming when you're struggling in the trenches of your own not-so-perfect reality. This is why I appreciate it when teacher-bloggers bare their struggles. It reassures me that even though I have my own challenges, this is a normal occurrence for educators.

So, in the spirit of the brave teacher I spoke of earlier who opened the doors of her classroom for everyone to see, I'm going to begin sharing more lessons, ideas, and projects in my classroom that aren't successful, starting with my idea for student research projects.

Inspired by the idea of Genius Hour and my own conviction that students should be participating in scientific research that is relevant and interesting to them, this summer I envisioned that my students would do unit "research projects" related to each unit topic. For example, for the first unit of the year, Ecology, students would choose any topic under the very wide umbrella of Ecology and design a project of their choosing. Besides being within the realm of Ecology, the only other stipulation would be that the project had to be shared with others in some way. My students had completed similar projects in the past, but finishing one for each unit was a new expectation. Also, I planned on tying Minnesota's Nature of Science standards to the project this year.

During the first week of school, I briefly explained to the students that they would be doing these projects, but before I knew it, midterm had come and gone without any class time spent on the research. I told myself that this is typical of the first quarter of school, when we spend a lot of time developing class culture, routines, and everyday skills. Change of plans: instead of having a project with every unit, we'd have a project for each quarter. I scheduled a class day for students to choose their topics and start researching. They were supposed to fill out a Google form to let me know what topic they were considering and what help/materials they'd need from me. My students struggled to choose their topics and only about a third of them even filled out the form. For the students that did have a project idea, they were unsure how to begin their research from scratch.

The next time the students worked on their projects in class, I tried to help them develop topic ideas with a whole-class activity. They filled out another form, or that is, some of them filled out another form. Not only were some students still unsure what they wanted to research, they also couldn't imagine what their "product to share" would be.

Hoping that the third time would be the charm, I spent a Sunday afternoon scouring TED for videos about pursuing curiosity and being creative. I showed the videos in class the next day, and asked the students to backchannel their thoughts while watching the videos. We had a whole-class discussion about why curiosity is important. I asked them to fill out the Google Form with their research ideas one more time.

I still received responses from less than half of the students.

At this point, we were under 2 weeks from the end of Quarter 1, and students had yet to do any meaningful research on their projects. Many didn't know what they wanted to research and/or what their product would be. And we ended up needing to devote a lot of class time to a different project the students were also struggling with - their digital portfolios (I'll blog about these as well in a separate post). It was time to call "uncle." The research projects were not going to happen during Quarter 1. For all intents and purposes, the idea was a failure.

So far.

I still intend to have my students complete at least one research project this year, probably as a cumulative piece at the end of the school year. But everything that I had dreamed up and planned for these projects over the summer just ended up fizzling. There's a part of me that feels like I failed in some way, but another part knows that you need to know when to let go. This wasn't the first time that everything didn't go exactly to plan, and it won't be the last. Just like the teacher from the video I mentioned earlier, I tell myself what's important is the ability to be a responsive teacher and adjust a failed idea to something in which students will find success.

Photo is from a map of the old Berlin train network, taken by SnaPsi Сталкер, from Flickr, licensed via Creative Commons.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Connected Moments

What follows is an overview of what I did between 5:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m yesterday morning while in my pajamas and eating my breakfast:

  • I checked my Schoology notifications to looked over some student assignments that had been handed in the previous night. I entered the scores in my online grade book and removed the students from our district ICU list, also online. This automatically generated an email to their parent or guardian, letting them know the assignment had been completed.
  • I listened to my Voxer messages and left some messages. I had questions about metacognition, so a fellow Biology teacher from New York and I decided to chat about strategies he uses in his classroom.
  • I checked my Newsify account to read the most recent posts from the blogs I follow. 
  • I e-mailed an Anatomy teacher from Kentucky I've been working with regarding setting up a Google Hangout soon for our classroom collaboration.
  • I checked my Schoology messages and discovered that some students were looking for feedback on their Weebly digital portfolios. So I opened up my Weebly classes, checked out the student portfolios, and sent them feedback via Schoology messages. I also updated their scores and feedback in a Google Doc I created for the in-progress portfolios.
  • I checked my personal blog to see if their were any posts I should respond to.
  • I read through the two whitepapers I subscribe to.
In October of last year, I wrote a piece about being a Connected Educator and shared it with my colleagues. This year, I had no intention of writing about the topic because I didn't feel like I had anything to say that hadn't already been said. However, after breakfast yesterday it hit me: the connections and information we have at our fingertips are just amazing. Working with teachers across the country, open and immediate communication with students and parents, up to date information about the latest in learning and education...none of this was possible before I became a connected educator. Moments like yesterday morning simply inspire awe in what is possible.

Photo from Heather on Flickr. Licensed via Creative Commons.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

In a World Full of Distractions...

I write a "Tiger Tech" newsletter every other week for our staff, and publish it via Smore. The following is a piece I wrote last week. 

I recently read an article from The Washington Post entitled, "Why a leading professor of new media just banned technology use in class." (Link HERE). Like many headlines, this one was a bit misleading, but the content of the article was still thought-provoking.

Clay Shirky is a professor of media studies at New York University, and he's had a "relaxed" approach to devices in the classroom for many years. However, he has noticed that his students are becoming more and more distracted by their devices in recent years. He attributes this to the many social media platforms that compete for student attention while they're working on school-related technology tasks. He states, "Computers are not inherent sources of distraction - they can in fact be powerful engines of focus." However, "...hardware and software is being professionally designed to distract..." Shirky also discusses how these distractions encourage multi-tasking on the part of students, which has been shown to decrease learning in multiple studies.

After reading the headline and beginning of this article, you might expect that Shirky threw up and his hands and banned all technology from his classroom. This is not exactly the case, however. He reports that he has changed his rules for devices from "allowed unless by request" to no device use "unless the the assignment requires it." In other words, students are only using their devices in class if there is a specific learning goal for using that device.

I see our high school students struggling with these same issues. When is an appropriate time for them to check their most recent "Draw Something" picture or visit a messaging service? These programs have notifications, pop-ups, and all sorts of bells and whistles that are constantly crying for their attention. I believe it's part of our role as teachers to help them navigate this world. Shirky states in his article,
I've stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity toward involuntary and emotional reaction.
After reading this article, I've been trying to make this more clear for students in my classroom by stating explicitly the appropriate times for...
  • No devices at all.
  • Using devices for a specific classroom task only.
  • Using devices for their choice of activity.
I think there is a time and a place for all of these situations in the classroom, but it's our responsibility to guide students in interpreting the task and environment correctly so they can eventually determine appropriate device use for themselves.
Image"Partial Attention" from Flickr by Marina Noordegraaf. Licensed by Creative Commons.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Thinking About Flops

I write a "Tiger Tech" newsletter every other week for our staff, and publish it via Smore. The following is a piece I wrote about a month ago. 

Have you noticed how students seem to be really well-behaved during the first two weeks of the school year, until the third week rolls around and you find yourself dealing with more and more behavior issues? At first they're small things, like a couple of students whispering in the background when they should be listening, but then you suddenly have your first major "confrontation" of the semester. We all know that how we deal with these challenges early on can have implications for the entire school year.

It seems to me that trying something new in your classroom, whether it be technology-related or a different teaching practice, follows a similar path. The first few weeks can be exciting and full of high expectations, but it doesn't take long to hit that first stumbling block. I had a lesson last week that took a lot of thought and planning on my part. Not only did it use technology that was new to me, but I was also exploring a different way of introducing content to students. To make a long story shorter, it flopped. The students didn't engage in the topic like I thought they would, one of the tech pieces gave us trouble, and when it was all said and done, I don't think it promoted the student thinking I was hoping for.

While my knee-jerk reaction is to throw up my hands in exasperation when these set-backs occur, I try to focus on having a Growth Mindset, knowing I can improve the lesson through additional reflection, practice, and time. After all, isn't this the same expectation I have for my students when they struggle?

So as we approach the midterm of Quarter 1 and that "beginning of the school year" glow starts to dim, I encourage you to give yourself a break! Not everything new you try in the classroom will work perfectly the first time. But don't let those set-backs stop you from moving forward either. After all,

"If we only did things that were easy, we wouldn't actually be learning anything. We'd just be practicing things we already knew." - David Dockterman

Sunday, October 5, 2014

What I Learned During The 30-Day Blogging Challenge.

This word cloud captures all of my blog posts up to this date.

I recently completed TeachThought's 30-Day blogging challenge, and now that I've taken a few days off to recover from the writing-marathon that it was, I'd like to wrap it up with some reflection on what I learned about writing, blogging, and myself by participating in the challenge.

First, some background. I started my blog about a year ago because I was writing a lot for a class I was taking and it was easy to post my written assignments to a blog in order to submit them for the class. I continued to write blog posts throughout the year, probably averaging about one per month. I felt like I should probably write more, but a variety of factors were holding me back. When I saw the TeachThought challenge on Twitter, I figured it would be the perfect jump-start to get me over some of those blogging hurdles. Starting on September 1, I successfully posted an article on my blog every day for 30 days, using the prompts provided by TeachThought.  Here's what I learned:

1) Blogging regularly takes a lot of time. There were nights when I would be working away diligently on grading or lesson planning, look at the time, and just groan because it was already 11:00 and I hadn't yet started my blog. I lost a lot of sleep from staying up later at night just to write. While I was writing one post, I was actually repeatedly dozing off. I kept waking up to see that I was typing gibberish in my sleep. Despite the work and loss of sleep, however...

2) ...the process of writing can be addictive. Sometimes it's hard to start, but once I started typing, the ideas would develop at an ever-increasing rate and I gained some insight into my own teaching that I never would have otherwise experienced. During the day, I found myself reflecting about what I would write that night.

3) Even if you don't know what you're going to write about, just start writing. There were a few prompts that left me wondering what I would actually post. However, I felt responsible to write and started with simple ideas. Those simple ideas inevitably led to topics about which I had a lot to say, and I found myself writing more than I initially envisioned. For me, writing is kind of like my early morning runs. Once I get myself out of bed and onto the treadmill, I'm happy to be there. It's the "getting there" that's challenging.

4) It's hard to know which posts your readers will connect with. There were a handful of posts I cared very deeply about and for which the writing process was very emotional. There was this post, in which I almost slipped into "look at how awesome my classroom is" and thankfully backpedaled into sharing a more honest reflection. Or this post, probably my most open writing so far, in which I talk about the guilt I constantly feel from the conflict between my teacher-self and my personal-self. I expected that I would receive a lot of feedback on these ideas. Most of the time, I was wrong. The posts that had the most readers were often those that were less personal to me.

Honestly, I'm feeling somewhat relieved that the blogging challenge is over, and I have some more freedom at night again! However, I'm thankful that I participated in the experience. I know that it has made me more a more confident writer. I don't think I'll struggle with choosing topics to blog about as much anymore, and I'll blog more regularly. A post a day is a little to much for me, so I'm planning on one post per week. I'm also hoping to continue to grow in my courage and to post more personal writing throughout the year.

Thank you, TeachThought, for helping me to refine my voice and become a more reflective teacher!