Learning is not quiet. 

“It should be quiet in here. You should be studying for the quiz!”

“Sit down and do your work, I want it quiet in here!”

I have heard these directions, and others like them many, many times through the years, and I just do not get it. When I am trying to learn something, especially something difficult to understand, I need to talk to people. I need to compare my understanding with another’s understanding. I think we all do. That’s why we have meetings! Can you imagine a staff meeting where the trainer said “I want you all to read this article, and study it. Tomorrow you are going to implement this new procedure, so study! Quiet!”

It doesn’t work like that. When we teachers are learning something new, we talk about it. A lot. We compare understandings. We argue about understandings. We challenge each other. We draw diagrams. We discuss. We get excited! So why don’t we let kids do that? It seems to me when kids are studying for a test the room should be noisy. Kids should be talking about the topic. They should be challenging each others understandings. They should be helping each other with clues. They should be giving high fives to each other. The room should not be quiet. Quiet is not the same as engaged. Quiet does not mean on task, and quite does not mean learning is happening.

 

Trying never works

I had the opportunity to spend the last week in Redlands, California, at the headquarters of ESRI  learning about spatial thinking. In the last several weeks ESRI announced, as part of the ConnectedED initiative, a billion dollar donation of software to k-12 education. I spent the week better learning how to use that software in the classroom. It is pretty amazing stuff. For those of you that are into maps, I strongly suggest you look into this stuff. For those of you that are into things other than maps, I offer the same advise. It is not about just what is where, like many people think of maps. It is so much more than that. It is the why. It is big question, higher order stuff. And if you have any geek in you at all you will love it. And face it, if you know about this blog, you have at least some geek in you! And best of all the software is free, all you have to do is ask. But that’s not the point of this post.

One afternoon this week I was working in the auditorium completely immersed in figuring out how to show a correlation between my data points when I heard someone on the stage say “My name is Jack, and I’d like to talk to you all for a little while.” Looking up I saw it was Jack Dangermond, President of ESRI, the guy who just gave a billion dollars to education. He gave a little talk and then asked us, the eighty or so educators in the room, what we thought he should do to change the world. It was a fascinating conversation, but one part stood out.  One member of the audience offered his thoughts, and finished with “…so that’s what I am trying to do.” Mr. Dangermond responded, “Yea, the thing about trying is trying never works. I need people who will, people who do.” That really hit home with me.

Many times my students say “Ima try my hardest.” Or “Next time I’ll try harder.” How many things do I say I am trying to do? I am trying to build a better grade book. I am trying to make more engaging projects. I am trying to provide better feedback. I see that Jack is right. Trying never works. So this year I am making a better gradebook. I am building more engaging projects.  I am providing better feedback.  Because trying never works.

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Breaking Stuff and Other Problems

I have a problem. My students are doing great work. So great they are working on projects and doing things none of my classes have ever done before. They are taking the projects we do  to places I have not seen high school students do before. It is a great problem to have, but I am not sure what we are going to do next week, let alone later in the quarter. I will have to come up with more advanced projects, or at least ask better questions.

When I ask myself why this year is so much more productive I can only come up with a few ideas. The students have not changed much. Sure they are older because I do not have freshmen anymore, but I do have a lot of sophomores. So they are older, but not by much. My classes are a lot smaller. In some past years I literally had to step over kids who were sitting on the floor for lack of anywhere else to sit. All the seats were taken, and if there was an empty space on a table you can be sure a kid was sitting there too.  Now I generally have an empty seat or two, and that counts for a lot.

But I think the biggest reason for the change is that I stopped focusing on the end product and instead focus on the process. More specifically, I began encouraging kids to to “do it wrong.”  I encouraged them to “see what happens if…” When they asked “should I click this” instead of a yes or no I respond with “if ya want.” I asked them to turn in not only the finished project, but evidence of all the mistakes and problems they had. I no longer hear “my computer broke, I can’t do it. You better not give me a bad grade ’cause its not my fault.” I get “Hey let me take a screen shot, no one got THAT error message before.” I even had a student ask a friend record a video so she would have evidence of what was going wrong. She thought it would be better that way than taking a series of screen shots. It is really fun to hear them talk about problems they are having and come up with theories as to why.

So what’s the problem?

I have been taught to think that all of the students in the class should be getting the same education, they should be learning the same things. I remember early  in my teaching career having “terminal measurable objectives” drilled into my head. At the end of the semester all students will be able to (fill in the blank with some task students will learn to do.) I can’t do that anymore. In this new environment, where I am expecting students to take risks, to make mistakes, and to even break stuff, I can’t say all students will be learning the same things. Some students are not finishing anything, but are learning tons! Other students churn out finished products, but are learning very little.  Finishing a project or assignment is not necessarily synonymous with learning. Similarly, not finishing an assignment or project does not mean no standards were learned. It might mean we ran out of time. Or it could also mean the idea/project was a bad idea to begin with! It doesn’t mean we didn’t learn!

I have a team of students right now working on building a Remotely Operated Vehicle; an underwater robot, as their SkillsUSA project. They decided they would design it on the computer then print out all of the parts on the 3D printer and assemble them. Yesterday they thought they had some parts designed just right, the first one came out perfect, so they sent five of the parts to the printer and went home. This morning they came in to find the parts done, but it was clear there was a problem, something had gone wrong and the parts did not fit in the housing they were designed to go in. There was some discussion as to what went wrong and why, and they set about to solve the problem- redesign the parts. One of the kids was gathering the defective parts and I asked what he was going to do with them. He said “I am keeping these. They are evidence that we redesigned them!” I had to smile, but I still have a problem.

I really like what is happening in room 17 this year. I see lots and lots of learning. Lots of really cool stuff. But how do I sustain it? How do I replicate it next year, and the year after? Projects we do this year aren’t going to work next year. There will be different kids, different interests, and different times. Tools we use now will be obsolete. There will be websites that easily do things we now spend lots of time on. I guess that is one way teaching is different now than it was, say 20 years ago; you have to move a lot faster just to keep up with the times!

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About those quizes…

Yesterday we held our annual SkillsUSA Regional Competition. For those that don’t know, SkillsUSA is a national student led career and technical organization. Students compete in career or leadership related events. Welding students, for example, are presented with materials and drawings and asked to produce the piece depicted in the drawing. Leadership students might present their student designed and implemented community service project. It is, I believe, a fantastic way to assess what students are learning in the classroom. Which brings me to the point of my blogpost this morning.
The Washington Post this morning ran a story by Valerie Strauss called “How we teach kids to cheat on tests.” The story does a pretty good job of summarizing what happens when we put too much importance on the test score, or the quiz score.

This morning Daniel Ching  @danielpching published a blog post “The importance of process” in which he talks about the importance of providing feedback throughout the process of learning, and grading that process.  Too often we educators put all of the grade on the final test, and the students loose out as a result.

So lets go back to the SkillsUSA event yesterday. I was asked to run the Quiz Bowl event. This is sort of a “Jeopardy” type event where students, working in teams of 5, are asked a variety of questions. Questions include basic math, geometry, science, world and national politics, current events, and career related questions. It was fascinating for me to watch how students solved problems. Yea there were obscure questions where everyone in the room threw up there hands and said “whats a minority whip?” They were 10th and 11th graders after all. But for other questions it was interesting to me to watch the students break off into twos and threes and come up with their own answers,  talk their way through the questions, and come to an agreement on the answer. I could easily see strengths and weaknesses for each student. More importantly the students could see their own strengths and weaknesses. They were arguing for their answers, and providing  evidence to support those answers.

Photo by David Varela. Used with permission.
Photo by David Varela. Used with permission.

I learned much more about what these students knew by standing in the room and listening to them talk to each other than I ever would learn from the results of a test. Just as I learn more about what my students know by listening to them as they prepare for their presentations.

My students typically participate in the Career Pathways Showcase. In this event they prepare a presentation where they demonstrate what they have learned. On Friday a group of students was preparing their presentation and one of them said “We should bring the books we read as evidence of  our learning. We could talk about the books.” Another group decided to bring a stack of their mistakes, and talk about what they learned from them. I didn’t tell them to do these things, they decided it was the best way to demonstrate their learning.

I think these SkillsUSA events are much better assessments of student learning than any test. So no, there is not going to be a quiz on this on Friday.

Vocabulary

The topic of teaching vocabulary has been coming up a lot in my circles lately. The conversation goes like this:

Teacher: “These kids need to get motivated. If they don’t want to try I can’t do it for them.”

Me: “Well, what are you asking them to do that they aren’t doing?”

Teacher: “Like vocabulary. We have to do vocabulary, they can’t learn the concept if they don’t know the terms. But they aren’t learning the words. I just don’t know what else to do.”

There are some assumptions in this dialog, and I suggest they are  false assumptions. The first assumption is that we have to “do vocabulary.” I don’t think I know a single teacher or student who enjoys the activity of writing a word, looking up the definition, putting it in a sentence and whatever else ritual is tacked on to this exercise. Nor can I find many people who can honestly claim that is a particularly effective  exercise. Yes, students do it, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence that any real learning is taking place. But so many continue to inflict this exercise on their students, because, well, we have to. Why do we have to? Because thats the way our teachers did it way back in the day? I sure didn’t get a lot out of it in those days, did you? Maybe we do it because the textbook or pacing guide says we should. Or because that is the way it is done in the department/grade level/school district. I suppose that may be the issue in some cases, but if it is, it should be questioned.

The second assumption is that they can’t learn the concept if they don’t know the terms. Really? I understood the basics of fire behavior long before I understood that fire is rapid oxidation generating light, heat, and smoke. I learned a long time ago that fire is hot, and it burns. I didn’t have to write a synonym, or use it in a sentence a single time. I learned by experience that if you take away the heat by putting water on the fire it will go out. I learned that if you take away the oxygen it will go out. I learned these things long before I heard of the fire tetrahedron.

I guess what I want to say to these folks who are recognizing that what they are doing  isn’t working is that maybe they should try something different. You can’t wait for “the kids to get motivated.” Maybe one day all of the  students in your room will magically be highly motivated, but probably not. Maybe there will be this mysterious shift and your school will be full of  academic high achievers, but probably not. Most likely, if there is going to be a change, the change will come from the teacher, not the students.

So if you are one of those teachers struggling with things not working, change something. Learn how to do it differently. Don’t know how? There are lots of places to learn. Twitter is full of awesome teachers who are full of ideas, and there are lots of web sites out there to teach you how to use Twitter. Google  “Twitter for Teachers.”

Social Media is not your thing you say? Buy a book. There are many, many great books out there to help you look at things differently. My recent favorite is Teach Like A Pirate by Dave Burgess. But thats just me. Amazon is full of great titles. Get some and read them. And then implement some of the things you read.

There are lots of conferences and workshops out there as well. Yea some of them are expensive and require a huge time commitment, but many are just a weekend morning, or are a single afternoon and don’t cost much.

My bottom line is if things are not working well, try doing it differently. Take a risk and admit it could be better. That is the first step to doing it better. If what you are doing isn’t working well, don’t keep doing it. Do something different.

Being proud and actually saying it.

I was able to attend Fall Cue this year again.  It was, as usual, a great experience. It was a little different this year in that I didn’t come home with a great new tool. Usually I learn of a great tool that is new to me; an app, a web site, or a gadget. This year there was no such discovery for me. The learning for me seemed to center on attitude. Mostly my own. I really wanted to refine my thinking about the maker concept and design thinking, and I was able to do that, but it wasn’t really new.

The opening keynote by Ramsey Mussalum, which can be seen here, was great. Does Ramsey do anything not great? (Why do they call it the opening keynote when it is delivered at the midway point of the conference? But that is an aside.) Ramsey talked about why so many kids hate school, and to combat that we, as teachers, need to love our jobs. If you don’t love your job it shows, and you make it all the more likely that your students will #hateschool. Fortunately, #Ilovemyjob.

The closing keynote by Angela Maiers was equally powerful. She talked about how kids just want to be acknowledged and valued. Call them by their name Angela said. All of them. Make them know you notice them. In a good way.

One of the reasons #Ilovemyjob is because I work at a small school where I can know every kid’s name. We have less than 250 kids. I need to do better about knowing all of their names, even those who don’t hang out in Awesomnesity Central, or for those who don’t know, Room 17. I came back to school with the plan that I was going to seek out those kids who think #Ihateschool and say hello to them, by name. It seemed simple enough, and sounded like a pretty good idea.

It was Tuesday afternoon, the last period of the day. I spent most of the day honestly amazed at the work my students were doing. We were doing some pretty complicated GIS stuff on a school network that doesn’t like GIS stuff. We had lots of issues, and the kids were just plowing right through them. They were almost finished with a project and I was just beaming with pride. I said it.

“You guys are really doing amazing work, sticking to it, working through problems. Its amazing to watch. I am proud of you.”

One girl turned around and asked “Me? You are proud of me too?

“Yea, you. Everyone in here. You guys are doing amazing stuff.”

“But you mean me? You are proud of me?”

“Yea. Of course. Your data was gone, you got it back, like it was no big deal. You have been doing great work. Why are you acting surprised?”

“Because no one has ever said that to me.” Long pause. “No, no one. No one has ever said they were proud of me.”

I am glad I went to Fall Cue.

Mom’s on the phone

mobile phones
mobile phones (Photo credit: phossil)

This year our school district changed a policy concerning cell phones used by students. While there seems to be some contradictions, my understanding is that it is ok for students to have and use cell phones on campus, as long as they do not disrupt instruction. While some teachers are still taking phones from kids I decided to try something new. I gave them an assignment and encouraged them to use their phones to do it. Then I told them it was ok to use their phones as long as they were not just texting, Instagraming, Facebooking, or what have you. I promised them I would not give them grief about their phones, if they kept it professional.

So far it has worked out well. Almost everyone has a phone, iPod, or tablet out and plugged in. They have their ear buds in while they are working, they take them out when I need to talk to the class. They take pictures of things they need to remember. They step outside to make audio recordings, and they compare apps for given tasks. And yes, they text. Every now and then I will see someone talking on the phone.  I tell myself it is ok. I asked a student who she was talking to on the phone. She said “My mom called.”

Yesterday I asked a girl if she thought she might be texting too much. She didn’t argue with me at all. She said “You’re right.” She turned to her friend next to her, handed her phone to the friend and said “put this in your bag and give it back to me after class.” No argument. No disruption. No referral. No calling campus security to search for a phone. Just kids doing their work. It looked and sounded a lot like a bunch of adults working in an office. I like this policy much better.

Giving Feedback

Google Bike by Mhall209 CC Some rights reserved

I have committed this year to do a better job of providing timely feedback for my students. I know that timely feedback is what makes or breaks a learning experience. When I was a child learning to ride a bike, I knew immediately when I made a mistake. I knew because I crashed and it hurt. I knew when I was doing it right because I didn’t crash, and it was fun. When I read about using games in the classroom I find that they are valuable because the feedback is immediate; the student doesn’t need to wait to get their paper back to see how they did. They know right away; they got points, they lost points, or they got game over. And that, so the theory goes, is why games are so engaging.

The problem is the classes I have are not games. Or at least I haven’t figured out yet how to make them games. (Maybe I should learn to code…hmm.) I still am having kids “do things” and turn them in. And that is where the catch is. Right now there are 76 “things” in my cue awaiting feedback, or as my kids prefer, waiting to be graded. Some of those things are videos, some images, some websites, some short essays. To make the problem worse, I don’t penalize for late work (why I do this is another post) and students can redo work as many times as they like to get the grade they want. All this makes my inbox a mess. Some of the work is new and timely, other pieces are things that a student didn’t turn in a couple weeks ago, and still others are things I have already seen a time or two before.

So my challenge today is to figure out a way to tame the inbox so that kids get their feedback no later than the next day. They need to know when they are doing well and when they fall off the bike.

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3 and Out

Photo CC by Paul Keleher of flickr

I just finished the coursework for a Preliminary Administrative Credential at Teachers College of San Joaquin. In California prospective administrators have two options to become credentialed; take a test or take a year long series of courses. The test takes a Saturday and has a relatively small fee. The coursework option is several thousand dollars and is just shy of a masters degree. Seemed like a no brainer to me- I took the coursework!

One of the ideas that kept gnawing at me through all of the coursework was that it is a good thing to stay at a school for a short while and then move on. I was told that I should plan on being an Assistant Principal for three to five years and then move on to something else. And then repeat. It seems like the old football saying, “three and out.” The three and out thing is generally not a good one. Unless you are on defense. I don’t think schools should play defense.

One of the things that make good schools effective learning places is the environment. Effective schools have a positive climate where everyone feels included. Students, staff, teachers, parents and all the stakeholders feel they have an important role in the school. I think of that as a sense of ownership. It is our school. As an administrator I think it would be difficult to accomplish this climate when your tenure is shorter than the tenure of the students. Especially in high school.

I think if we truly want to transform schools we have to be a part of the learning community. We as educators have to be a part of the community as much as the students and their families. We really are in this together. You can’t do that if you are going three and out.

No More iPads

Microbio
Innovative uses of edtech.

The graduate school I attend has announced they are no longer providing iPads for their students. They gave two reasons; budget cuts, and they have observed students don’t use the iPads.

No one can deny the impact of budget cuts, the school is also no longer going to loan textbooks- students will have to buy their own books like most other schools. I get that choice, books are expensive and it is easy- and logical- to pass that cost on to the students.

The same is true with the iPad decision. They are expensive, and if there is no money in the budget, an expensive iPad would be a logical place to cut. But the observation that the students are not using the iPads is bothersome. I am one of those students who rarely uses the iPad. No one asked me why, but that has never stopped me from sharing before!

Part of the reason I chose this particular school is because they gave out iPads. Not that I needed or wanted another one. But I thought that if the school was progressive enough to provide an iPad they would be using technology in innovative ways, and I wanted to learn more innovative approaches. I was wrong, not much innovation here.

As a student I am expected to turn in papers in APA style. Using an iPad to type a several page APA formatted paper is not the most efficient use of tools or time. In one class  papers were required to be done in Microsoft Word! Why would I even look for the iPad if I am required to use Word?  

We were expected to create a portfolio to document our learning. I am a huge proponent of portfolios, I have required my students to have portfolios for years. But I was being required to use a binder for my portfolio. Not a Livebinder, a binder. A binder full of word processed, printed, two dimensional pages.

English: D-ring type 3 ring binder (opened)
English: D-ring type 3 ring binder (opened) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)binder full of word processed papers. I required my students to stop using three ring binders five years ago. But the school that gives you an iPad still requires a three ring binder.

I was required to make PowerPoint presentations. Not just any presentations, PowerPoints. And to print them out. Emailing assignments is frowned upon, they needed to be printed. Once, only once, was I expected to create a video. And I was told to not bother editing it, that was considered a waste of time.

So why did the iPad initiative fail? Because just giving out an innovative tool does not make an innovative program. If you really wanted me to use the iPad ask me, no LET me, do something the iPad is good at! And there is no shortage of things the iPad is good at. Don’t give me the same assignments colleges have been handing out for decades and expect to be innovative. Instead of asking me to make a PowerPoint presentation with handouts on flipped instruction, have me create a flipped staff meeting. The iPads would rock at that. Instead of asking me to make a three ring binder portfolio have me make a multimedia infused online digital portfolio. Again, iPads rock at that. Instead of an APA paper, why not a blog entry. Or a video. Or an animation. Or a Voicethread. Or you get the idea.

So I guess my point is that just handing out an innovative tool doesn’t make something innovative. You have to actually try something different for innovation to happen. But I guess that is not a very new idea either.