Monday, August 30, 2010

Teaching the Natives in their Digital Habitat: Part 1-How it Should Not be Done

     I went into today with what I thought would be a great idea.  Throughout the year I have my students use websites that first require them to create accounts.  When I think back to last year, this sign up process often took the majority of the class any time I had students use a new website.  So, this year, I decided to be proactive.  I decided to create a sort of digital scavenger hunt for my students, which consisted of a list of websites they needed to go to, create accounts on, and complete simple activities.  Taking one day to complete the sign up process didn't fit with my current unit, but getting it done would make life easier in the long run, allowing for more instructional time being spent using the actual web tools in class, rather than guiding students through the process of having them sign up for an account.  Sure, the process of signing up for an account was slightly different for each site, but my students would be able to figure this out; they are are digital natives after all. 

   Maybe they are....but such an assumption was pretty short-sighted on my part.

After explaining the assignment and letting students begin working, I noticed that a handful of students breezed through it, but the majority of them struggled.  Not that there is anything wrong with struggling....but many of these students didn't seem to have a strategy for how to go about the struggle.  Some made errors that precluded them from being able to use the sites, some perpetually called on me for help, and some just gave up....

So, now I am at a point where half of my students have created accounts on the sites I included, and most are only partially through.  I need to do some planning about how to go about having all of my students complete the process, but I'm going to put that on hold until I better understand the lessons that this debacle of a lesson has taught me. 

Wanting to talk with someone about my failure and get some direction in my own reflecting, I grabbed the person person in closest proximity to me, Cara, our literacy coach.  Our conversation was short, but afterwards, she emailed me some of her additional thoughts on the subject.  I think they were pretty insightful.

She wrote:

"To me, it's a mix of Executive Functions (frontal lobes!) and Close Reading. Often, teachers anticipate that students will struggle with complicated directions/text, and so they take the initiative to break it down, use bullets, reveal one instruction at a time, repeat instructions, go around and help individually, etc. This all gets the job done, and the goals are met efficiently. However, we are probably doing them a disservice by doing all the work of getting them to the point of completion/understanding. We (well, most of us) have the skills to break down these overwhelming tasks into small parts and act accordingly. Even if it's frustration, we can plow through them. We might get help from others, and ask questions, but we know to do these things. I think we should start talking about how do we teach students to do that. I know it will involve modeling how we do it ("So what I would do, guys, is read the entire number one and draw a line to separate each little instruction that's in there. Then, as I complete each one, I'd put a checkmark or cross it out. See how that makes it a little easier?" , guiding them through it ("Okay, now you guys try it for #2".), and letting them struggle independently ("Remember how we broke down those instructions last week? I want you to try it on your own today."). It requires slowing down and rereading.

A voice in my head keeps whispering, "But they are digital natives. They just click around and they figure it out. They don't need to be slowed down with step by step instructions...What about the social aspect of figuring this stuff out...." But then a louder voice replies, "But they need to be self-sufficient. Look at adults who waste your tie with questions that if they had just read the instructions... We have to force them to slow down and put in the effort."

I agree with her assessment of how we often offer students plenty of support to guide them through such processes, and in doing so deprive them of learning through struggling on their own.  I've thought about this before, and it was part of the reason why I structured today's activity as I did.  I'm on the right track there, and I don't want to deviate too far from it.  At the same time, I can't expect my students to know how to struggle (something that I assumed that they could do), if they have had no real practice with it. 

My task is to teach them how to do just this...but I don't feel like it is something I could lecture about.  Even designing activities that give guided practice with such skills may not even  be what my students need.  What they need is authentic, hands-on experience.  That's just what they got today, so maybe today wasn't the failure that I thought it was.  Maybe this messy process gave students some authentic experience with figuring out how to struggle.  Perhaps.  But I have no intention of having students pick up where they left off tomorrow.  I'm not done thinking about this.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Correction to my search for a new social network

In my previous post, I had discussed problems that I had ran into with  Well, in my continued exploration of the site, it turns out that I was wrong.  I learned that I could actually set users' profile pages so that they cannot add additional blocks to the page (thus eliminating student's ability to browse and add Google Gadgets).  On one hand, this remedies the problem with having users add inappropriate material...on the other, it limits users' ability to modify their page to include tools that will bring information to them, a feature that is present on

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Creating a classroom social network--my quest for a Ning replacement

Like many educators, I used the Ning platform to create a social network for my class.  Through plenty of trial and error, our social network evolved into a significant component of my class, and it also enabled me to understand how a social network can serve as a foundation for the digital aspect of our classroom community.  As I've mentioned before, the 21st Century learning community is one that exists both in physical and online spaces, so going into this year, I, without question, had every intention of involving students in our online community from the start of the year....and then Ning had to throw a wrench into my plans with their decision to place their own greed over allowing their platform to be part of the digital learning revolution in K-12 education.

With Ning's announcement came an explosion in free social networks competing for Ning users, so this summer I took it upon myself to sort through them and find a replacement.  I spent quite a bit of time setting up accounts and playing with different sites.  Most of my hours were spent with, grouply, spruz, socialgo, wackwall (now, and buddypress (more for blogging).  Many of these sites claimed to be great Ning alternatives, and all had different strengths and weaknesses.  But sadly, I found many to be limited in the functions that I grew so fond of with Ning.

One site that I felt had the most potential (at first) was    Though it took me some time to learn how it navigate it's administrative functions, its features put Ning to shame.  Its appearance grabbed my attention from the start, and I especially liked the facebook-like activity feed, which gave users the ability to "like" and "comment" on member's activities and status updates.  Though RSS feeds couldn't be added to the pages, it allowed users to put outside RSS feeds into the site's blog.  And though users couldn't change their profile's appearance, did allow them to add blocks of Google Gadgets and html to their page.  I liked the freedom in this aspect, but in playing around with this feature while logged in as a student (something that I always do before using a site with my class), I also found this freedom to be the site's downfall. 

I'm not sure why, but the Google Gadgets that users could search through did not get filtered, so at school, students would be able to find and use widgets for sites that they otherwise would not have access.  Not just games either.  Gadgets for Youtube and Facebook could be accessed by students, and ones for porn as well (yes, I deliberately searched for it...just to be sure).  I'd be lying if I said that the possibility of using with my class and hoping students didn't find this loophole didn't cross my mind.  But I know the 8th graders whom I have not yet met well enough to know that they would figure it out eventually....I'd be willing to bet within a couple of days.

Of course this realization made me frustrated; it meant I had wasted valuable time and had to go back to the drawing board.  Thankfully, my misfortune turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

I revisited the sites I had previously examined and found that Wackwall ( as of today), a site I had quickly dismissed because of its dull appearance, seemed to be an even better alternative. It was fairly user friendly and designed with educators in mind.  It had all of the options I needed, and it allowed for users to put RSS feeds and html on any of the pages. Especially cool was that it gave users both a profile page and a dashboard, where students could customize the arrangement of elements and include feeds and widgets both of their interest and related to the class--a suitable alternative to startpages like Netvibes and Pageflakes, which are blocked by my district. 

So, is where our class social network will begin this coming year, though I'm going to move forward with it knowing that I'll run into plenty of issues that I hadn't considered.  Who knows, I may even end up changing platforms for our social network half way through the year, but I've learned to accept that possibility as part of the process when integrating new web tools in education.  Being able to embrace this reality is the core of what makes not just 21st Century teaching, but all teaching. 

I'll be sure to share my reflections on both using and my emerging digital community embarking on its creation in the coming weeks.