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Posts Tagged ‘Education’

After attending the Edutopia webinar, “Education Nation” amidst planning for the beginning of the school year, I was inspired by the idea that there are some classroom techniques and practices that must move from the realm of “nice to know” to “must do.”  As an educator, I have been guilty of learning about new sources and methods, but have failed to completely integrate them into the classroom.  Time has always been an issue.  It has always been easier to fall back on what I’ve used in the past and use what is readily at hand.

But as the school year begins, I think it’s best to review my  lessons and practices of the past school year and employ the  philosophy of Re: Reflect, Reevaluate, and Reinvent.

  • RE – flect: Think about the learning experience of students in my classroom.  Am I challenging and engaging my students?  How many assessments involved more than recall and regurgitation?   How can I best assess their knowledge?
  • RE – evaluate: What classroom projects and practices worked last year, creating an authentic learning experience for my students?  Look at each unit, it’s construct, resources used, and assessment.  Be brutal.  What is worthwhile and worth keeping?  What can be improved?
  • RE – invent: Once the weaknesses in lessons have been pinpointed, I must have the courage to change them.  I have to step out of the box and try something new –use a tool I’ve just learned about, or explore a different dimension of a topic. I’ll do my best to try to engage the students, rather than instruct them.

Now that I’m reinvigorated from the summer, I should have the energy to revise my methods.  That is my goal for this year.

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Yesterday, because of a horrendous nor’easter, I was stranded in a commuter train for six hours, hoping to get home.  It was exhausting and frustrating, and would have been much worse, had I not been traveling with a colleague.  After finding a pen, and using the back of our theater tickets, we talked about lessons and future class plans.  We worked on scenery and staging for our school musical, and even a little choreography (although we did get some strange looks from fellow passengers).  We had to laugh about the absurdity of the situation — we had to be trapped in a commuter train outside of New York to have the time to work together, and collaborate the way we wish we could.  If only planning time was made a priority by schools, so that teachers would have time to exchange ideas, and explore new, inventive ways to teach lessons.  It is amazing how productive we can be when we have the time to bounce ideas off one another — time that we never have during the school day.  I guess we were lucky to have been stranded — it gave use the opportunity to accomplish everything we wanted to.  I have to thank  Mother Nature and New Jersey Transit for that.  Although next time, I’d rather not be tired, hungry, and thirsty to work my best.

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Lately, we’ve talked a lot about the necessity for collaboration between educators.  As a librarian, I’m especially interested in the topic, as I’ve come to realize that this collaboration truly produces the most authentic project based learning.  Many teachers are reticent to embrace such collaboration, seeing a division between information use and subject-specific instruction.  But as we all know, 21st century learning recognizes no such division.  I had come to believe that the combination of the instructor’s age and lack of familiarity with technology was responsible for this resistance, but this week I was proven wrong by my students. 

Eighth graders learned this week how to use GoogleDocs; specifically,  the presentation creation feature.  The idea was this:  as a class, let’s create a slideshow about the Winter Olympics, based on research they’ve already done.  To do this , they had to collaborate with classmates, agreeing on backgrounds that did not clash, similar fonts, the formatting of slides, and in what order to place the information.  Students began to argue about the look of the presentation.  More than one student took it upon himself to change the background of all the slides multiple times, resulting in raising the frustation level of the group.  Once it was decided to put the slides in chronological order, students were surprised to see that classmates had moved their slides, often to the incorrect position.  The results would have been comical, had they not pointed out the difficulty of collaboration, even amongst the young and tech-savvy.  I found that group collaboration is hard, regardless of age and experience level, and that the lesson here was not what I intended — to teach the students to use a new tool — but how to work together.  Our class next week was to spend time looking at our beautiful final product, but instead, we’ll look at the project from a different angle — why is working on it together better than doing it apart?  We’ll spend most of our time discussing the difficulties they had working together, and how we can do better next time.  Because, as all educators know, an intended lesson can often have an unexpected result.  It was no longer about  the use of a new tech tool.  It  became something totally different — that collaboration is difficult, but well-worth the effort.  And this lesson is age and ability blind.

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Yesterday I had the opportunity to talk to some former students who are now seniors in high school.   After the ceremony honoring them (that’s another story), the young men came into the library to talk to me, and a simple conversation about school evolved into an educational policy discussion.

First, they told me about their “silent” library.  They laughed as they told me how they can’t talk in the library, and are threatened with demerits if they do.  “It’s different than here,”  they said.  (I never was known for a quiet library).  I have always tried to encourage discussion and sharing, and have tried to make the library a fun space that students would be happy to come to and stay in.  After all, in a student’s world where social learning and exchange is commonplace and constant, imposing silence seems not only artificial but stifling. We have to encourage enthusiasm and collaboration. And that sometimes results in more noise than most find acceptable, and may look a little chaotic, but it seems to work.  

We talked about past lessons and research, and how I had changed things to incorporate some newer tools like our class wikis, twitter, googledocs, and wallwisher.  All our middle school students have gmail accounts that they use to login to other sites and to communicate with the faculty.  I don’t think of any of these things as revolutionary; conversely, I think they’re a pretty basic step into web 2.0 tools appropriate for students this age.  If anything, I think we could be more progressive than this, and I’m working on incorporating more collaborative tools into their lessons.  I thought my former students would laugh at their simplicity, but the reaction I got was quite different.  My high schoolers look at each other in astonishment.  It seems that social media tools and most types of communication are being blocked at their school.  “They don’t trust us,”  they said.  They laughed as they told me that the school has a twitter account, but they’re blocked from reading the feed at school.  “We can’t use any of that stuff” was the general comment.

That got me thinking — how are schools preparing students for the 21st century, if policy becomes more restrictive as the students get older?  I always thought with maturity comes increased responsibility.  Where have the benefits of social media gotten lost?  Or perhaps, more scarily,  why have they yet to be recognized?  Who is driving the policy that is preventing young adults from using the tools they use now in every other facet of their lives, and will continue to use in the years ahead?  It’s a little scary when middle school curriculum and policy is more progressive than high school policy.  When 18-year-olds recognize the absurdity of a school’s blocking and filtering policy, what does that say about the educators who are perpetrating it?  Out of the mouths of babes —

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As I revised a lesson on search tools for sixth grade this week, research and statistics confirmed what I already instinctively knew: that things have changed dramatically in one short year.  Searchme, which I discussed last year,  no longer exists.  Bing has appeared and made a strong showing.  Google’s search share has increased.  Specific question and answer search tools have cut into market share.  And these are just the glaring examples.  If the tools themselves have changed so drastically, shouldn’t our lessons be changing to reflect these innovations?  It is discouraging to see the same assignments being recycled by teachers year after year, with little or no adaptation to take advantage of the advances in technology.  How are our students going to be prepared for future expectations when they have to take steps backwards to create outdated projects?  And why do teachers continue to insist on the completion of such futile assignments?  Again, I can come to only one conclusion: resistance to change.  But what, if not the needs of our students, is important enough to spur this change? Changes in technology must leave the boundaries of the computer lab and the library.  It doesn’t help to give students information and training if it’s never used in a practical sense to create an original product.  I’m beginning to wonder, though, when this will ever happen.  Technology training for faculty, sharing information on a faculty wiki, and face-to-face discussions have only produced a few converts.  When will the rest see the writing on the wall?  Only time will tell (if it doesn’t run out).

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The Power of Belief

As I watch 17-year-old Melanie Oudin win match after match at the U.S. Open, I’m reminded of the power of belief.  This young phenom has gone further than anyone thought possible on the strength of her belief that she can do what no one else thinks possible.  She takes the court with her trademark tennis shoes with the word “Believe” actually printed on the side.  And when you watch her, you believe as well. 

What does this have to do with education? Just think what our students could do if they believed that strongly in their ability.  They wouldn’t be deterred from pursuing their goals, regardless of hardships personal and financial. They would be filled with an optimism and yearning for something better.  But how can we instill that kind of confidence so that they’ll have the strength to overcome roadblocks in their educational journey?  Praise them for their accomplishments, no matter how small.  Expose them to the many educational possibilities that lie ahead.  Listen to their concerns.  If one of the major forces influencing students who stay in school is a connection to an educator and a feeling of belonging, than our attitude can have a much bigger impact than increased funding or improved teaching techniques.  If we believe in our students, they’ll believe in themselves.

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Sometimes convincing others to use the technology you find so beneficial is not easy.  Enthusiasm, presentations, and demonstrations can only go so far in changing a mindset that has become ingrained.  Because, like all professionals, teachers can get in a rut.  Sometimes it’s simpler to do just what you’ve been doing for years.  After all, it worked before, can’t it work again? Why do we have to learn something new, something that will take more time, especially at first?  Because, as educators, our goal should be to best educate our students.  Teaching is not about what’s easy, but how to best prepare students for the world, a world which is increasingly entwined with technology. 

I was inspired by “A Vision of K-12 Learners“, which emphasizes the difference between students of today and the students and teachers of the past.  It shows that today’s students share information using  a myriad of technologies, technologies that will only continue to advance.  As teachers, we must engage these students, using wikis and blogs to collaborate, and digital tools to encourage the creative process.  The film’s statistics of teachers failing to revise their thinking are staggering, but its message is challenging and inspiring.  If this vision doesn’t move us to make an effort to change our methodology to address the changing needs of today’s students, what will? And if it doesn’t, maybe we should reevaluate why we call ourselves educators.

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