Saturday, October 30, 2010

What I've Found on the Web This Week (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

What I've Found on the Web This Week (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Teaching Digital Learners to Learn Digitally

        I've been quite the learner these days, thanks to technology.  With the web never far away, I have not only a place to find immediate answers to questions, but also free tools that enable me to navigate the sea of digital information with ease.  I use web tools like Diigo (social bookmarking), RSS, iGoogle (web portal) and Google Reader (feed aggregator) to bring the content I want to my computer and organize it in a way that's easily accessible.  Having such control over information has turned me into an absolute learning machine.  I ask a question, find an answer, overhear new conversations, think of new questions, and start over again.  The process continues indefinitely, as the number of questions I ask and the knowledge I own grows exponentially.  

     Technology is the performance enhancing substance of  my learning, even though the process is as natural as it gets.   My own curiosity is what drives me.  No goals, standards, or objectives. There is no final product I intend to produce, and no intended stopping place for my inquiry.   I'm experiencing learning in its most raw of states:  learning for the sake of learning.  I don't think I've been this engaged in the process since I was five.


       I was standing in the hallway with my students the other day during the middle of fourth block, the time when I take the class to the restroom and stand quietly in the hall while I wait for students to come out.  Like most other days, I was using this quiet time to think.  I was contemplating the way I go about learning in my own life conflicts with how learning is done in school.   Considering if, why, and how I could teach my students to learn like I've been, and also wondering if they, perhaps, already were.  

     The first students came out of the bathroom and leaned against the lockers across from me, and I let my curiosity break the silence.  "If you could learn about anything, what would it be?" I asked one of of the girls.

        She looked up at me. "Huh?" she asked.

        "Absolutely anything," I told her.  "If you had complete freedom to learn about anything in the world.  Anything that you were interested in and wanted to know more about....what would it be?"

       She was silent for a moment, a perplexed look growing across her face.   "I don't know," she said hesitantly. 

       She looked at the ground, and I could tell that she was still thinking, so I waited.  Looking back at me, she said again, "I don't know....I guess that I've never really thought about that before."

       By this time the rest of the class had joined us.  I walked my students back to our room and resumed class, but I couldn't help but keep thinking about the exchange I just had with this student.  Her response to me, I decided, was completely unacceptable.


      We live in a society of immediate and instant access to just about any information, anytime, anywhere.   As I've seen first-hand, this reality changes the face of learning dramatically, and I'd say it's for the better.  Discovering how to learn with digital tools has sent me down a path where I have been able to grow as a learner on a scale I had never before experienced.  If I were asked the same question I asked my student in the hall the other day, one that addressed what I would like to learn about, I would have more to say in response than my questioner would have time to listen.

        But when I asked my student this question, she didn't quite know how to respond.  And she wasn't the only one. The group of students around her looked equally baffled by what I had asked.  I'd bet that none of them had really thought much about the their own learning. 

      To me, this just didn't seem right.  As a teacher, I want to cultivate in my students love for learning and the skills they need to continue to grow as learners long after leaving the walls of formal education.  Actualizing this vision, of course, comes with challenges, but the digital world today provides a tremendous opportunity to make this happen. 

      In his last post, David Warlick identified a "vast chasm between the world that we are preparing our children for, and where we are preparing them."  I can see this, too. The 13 and 14 year olds I teach have seamlessly integrated technology into their own lives. Many have amassed hundreds of friends on social networks and can engage in simultaneous conversations through texting.  They are, as characterized by many, digital learners, and we are preparing them for a life in a digital word.  Technology must play a role in how we teach them.  But, if enabling students to become life-long learners is also the goal, then it's not enough for the focus to only be on integrating it into learning.  Students also need the chance to learn how to learn with it.

       So, that's what I'm going to teach them to do.

      Next week, my students will be starting what I will tell them is their Digital Inquiry Project.  I've spent quite a few hours thinking about and planning it out, and while this project most likely won't go as I've planned (new lessons seldom do with 8th graders....for better or for worse), I know that we're on the brink of something incredibly important.  I'll speak more about this plan in greater depth in a later post, and of course, I'll be blogging about the lessons we are all learning along the way.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

What I've Found on the Web This Week (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

What I've Found on the Web This Week (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Headfirst into Blogging

As I mentioned in my last blog post, my students were excited to get started with blogging.  I was too.  With only loose long-terms plans, we dove right into it this week.

For their first post, I gave students some direction, instructing them that their post in some way needed to reflect an opinion they now had or were forming about our latest topic of investigation: teens' self-image, and the media.

I know, I know....with all the talk in my last post about giving students free reign over the direction of their blog, leading with such a teacher-directed assignment seems a bit contradictory, but I wanted students to have  a simple place to start....a place where I knew they would have something to say and would be able to explore the ideas our class had generated in a format that was new to them.   

So yes, this first assignment didn't necessarily conform to the ideal I envisioned for blogging in my classroom, but it got us off the ground and had enough going for it to be meaningful.  The fact that students were genuinely interested in the topic, combined with the freedom with which they could direct their writing within it, and the digital composition tools available to them (hyperlinking, embedding images and videos), kept their engagement pretty high. 

Click here or here to check out the blogs of a couple students who agreed to let me share their work. 

Experiential Learning

For our blog site, I had students use Blogger. I rationalized that having them use this site, rather than an education blogging site created for classroom use like Class Blogmeister, Edublogs, or Kidblogs, would enable them to feel more like actual bloggers and would be convenient since most of them already had Google accounts.   Was this a good decision?....I'm not totally sure.  I've been looking at (and impressed by) other classroom blogs on Edublogs like this one from Ms. W. in Tasmania, one of the teachers who have taken the lead in the Great Blogging Challenge.   For now, however, I'm still sold on Blogger.  It's public, fairly simple to use, and completely free.  

As I'm coming to see, using a site not specifically directed toward teachers and students does present obstacles to overcome.  The first we encountered when getting students' blogs set up, and the second which we would have to encounter this week before we could create anything that would resemble a blogging community. Each of the 80 blogs my students created was floating around in cyberspace on its own.  Before students could read and comment on the ideas of their fellow class blog-mates, they needed to be able to find them.

Thanks to digital tools, making this happen only took a few minutes.   I put a link to a Google form that I had created on my homepage for students to enter their names and blog URLs.  I then embedded the resulting spreadsheet with students' blog information on my home page, allowing students to access classmates' blogs by clicking on the link next to their names. Easy.

Before turning them loose to read and comment, I gave students a few guidelines on how to respond thoughtfully, and instructed them to read and respond to the blogs of the peers in their writing groups before continuing on to other student's blogs. The task was simple, but during this process, I saw some pretty cool things happen.

Blogging and Learning

Over the next 30 minutes, students were genuinely engaged with reading, writing, thinking, and viewing.  They were exposed to different ideas and perspectives on a topic that we had been discussing in class, but in a way not possible through discussion alone.  Students were able to hear the voices of classmates who don't otherwise speak up in class, see ideas more complex that some typically articulate through words, and were able to experience how digital writing tools could add a depth to composition not possible with pen and pencil alone--on more than one occasion I had to shush conversations across the room that would begin with, "hey, on your blog, how did you....".

I wouldn't necessarily nominate this activity for lesson-of-the-year,  but it solidified the place I thought I might find for blogging in my classroom.  My students learned and were engaged.  They used the strands of of Language Arts to express and understand, and  they connected with the ideas of others.  I saw that blogging could guide my students in developing their identities as writers and members of our classroom community......seeing this, I'm ready to let the real work begin.

The Construction Zone
Now that I've started my students blogging, I have no intention of turning back....even though the specifics of my plans are drafts in progress.   The base off of which I will build these plans....the role that blogging will play in my class......I DO, however, have figured out.  These principles look something like this:
1. The blog as a daybook extension

Our daybooks are a place for students to gather and grow ideas...and I don't want this to change.  The physical daybook serves a need that couldn't be fulfilled with pencil and paper.  In addition to the fact that  act of writing by hand is a tool that all writers need, the daybook serves as an easy storage place that can be accessed anytime, anywhere....It's even the place where students can write badly, where they can work through the mess of thinking and trying out ideas. 

Out of this messes will grow blog posts, and with them students will have a dated and organized digital portfolio of their writing pieces this year.

2. The blogs will serve as a space for students to interact in their writing group.

The blogs my students write are all public, but gaining a wide audience is not going to be our primary concern (although this may still happen).  Students should know, though, that what they write on their blogs will be read by individuals besides just the teacher.  Students, while they are free to follow any blog that they like, are required to follow the blogs of those in their writing group and to expected to respond to any post made by a member of their group....a task that Blogger makes easy, as new posts will show up as they are published in each student's reading list.  In receiving responses to all of their posts, students will be assured that they are indeed writing for an audience, also learning first-hand the value to writers of reader-response and continuing to develop their small writing community.

3. All students will be authors and followers of our "Community Blog"

One drawback to not having students follow of all of their classmates is that unless a classmate visits their blog, the student's writing is not readily accessible to the entire team.  For this reason, I created another blog titled "The Community Space" and invited all of my students to be authors of it (Blogger allows up to 100 authors to a blog for free...not the case with Edublogs).   When students have a polished piece of writing or something they would like everyone to see, students can post it on our Community Blog, knowing it will show up on the reading list of every student I teach. 
      My next post, which I am presently drafting, will discuss our first use of this new space.
*A note from the author before publishing this post:

I feel like moving forward on the principles above will result in some amazing learning experiences for my students.  I won't has taken a lot of time to get here.  I've spent hours racking my brain trying to figure out how to best align the features of Blogger with the vision I have for my students.  In getting students' to set up their blogs (as I mentioned in my last post), we encountered some unforeseen obstacles, ones that required additional time before students could start their first post.  And, of course, the task of composing this first post took longer than expected because I underestimated the time students would need to become familiar with Blogger's features. 

And the payoff of this time investment....there will be one, but I'm going to have to revisit it at a later point.

Two days before posting this, something on the network end at my school changed, preventing students to blog on Blogger.  They can still access the site.....just not compose.  I'm not sure what to make of this one......However,  my students and I are no strangers to technology roadblocks, so we'll suck it up and move on to Plan B. And once I figure out what that plan is, I'll write about it in my blog.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

What I've Found on the Web This Week (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.