Thursday, August 31, 2006

On Cooperation and Engagement

We've one more day of Kagan Cooperative Learning Train the Trainer training. During today's session, I began to think about cooperative learning and engagement in the modern classroom. Part of the Kagan premise is "Simultaneous Interaction" which asks the question, "What percent is overtly engaged at a given time?" It's a fantastic time and one teachers have been asking since they stepped in to the first schoolhouses. The trouble I see is prescriptive engagement. Jackie, our trainer, made sure to point out that engagement does not equal compliance. Doesn't it? Another piece of the Kagan premise is "Individual Accountability" which asks, "Is individual public performance required." It's that last word that runs up against the idea of compliance being separate from engagement. If I'm requiring my students to fulfill a certain role, am I not requiring them to engage in a compliant manner? If student A refuses to work because he wanted the role assigned to student C, then he is truly engaged, but not at all in compliance. Most teachers would give student A the choice of complying or choosing to work alone. I know many who choose the latter and even more teachers who expect the former.
This works away from 21st century literacy skills and problem-based learning. I would much rather my students were engaged due to authentic interest in content rather than contrived adherence to teacher prescription. In my doodling/notetaking today, I wrote down, "Cooperative learning does not fix bad teachers." You can take a horrendous teacher, train them in Kagan structures, have them buy in and own the structures and use them everyday in their classroom, but I would argue you haven't helped that teacher if the content the students are cooperating to learn has not changed. If this teacher is having students use the "Quiz-Quiz-Trade" structure to review important dates of battles of the American Civil War, then the students are still being done a disservice in their learning. Even if they were using the same structure to review the causes of the war, a disservice has been done if those causes came from the textbook or teacher. The teacher has simply found a new way to transfer old information.
Teachers must also be taught how to let students uncover and evaluate their own information. From there, quiz-quiz-trade is a great avenue of education. Kagan surely informs our practice, but not our pedagogy. Old dog, old tricks, new order.
I would be remiss if I did not clarify that I am a believer in the promise of Kagan. I've experienced the transfer of responsibility and increase in student accountability in my own classroom. My worry is that it is not requiring teachers look more critically at their practice, rather it is providing a more palatable (for teachers and students) method of delivery. Taking your cousin to the prom is taking your cousin to the prom whether he's the best looking person their or not.
One piece I thoroughly enjoy about Kagan is its focus on state change and its interest in brain chemistry. While teaching does have an artistic side, educators cannot afford to ignore the science of the brain and how best to activate it. Including the elements of "Silly Sports" and "Goofy Games" is something all structured events, from classes to faculty meetings would do well to include.
Miguel Guhlin had a fantastic post recently on "Whitelisting and Transparency" that has certainly informed my thoughts on covert and unintended hypocrisies in education. It's led to the consideration of how I can transform the way I do things in such a manner that it provides my students with authentic engagement in a safe (in many senses of the word) environment. Kagan is an undeniably useful tool, but it is the lens to examine the findings, not the hammer and pick to unearth the learning.
More later.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Time, Time, Time

I'm in training all week this week to become a certified school trainer with Kagan Cooperative Learning. I'm highly excited by this prospect. This is my third Kagan training, and each time I walk away with new knowledge that had direct benefits for my students.
The difficulty comes in the visage of being out of my classroom for an entire week so early in the school year. It's never easy for me to leave my students in the hands of a substitute, even the most capable. Amazingly, I know they've learned from teachers I'll never meet and will go on to meet many more. For me, though, it's a question of how long I have them in my classroom and I hate to waste any of that time.
For the most part, my substitute reports have been positive, with regular mentions of some frustrating mishaps. I've had my students working on the laptops the first two days of the week, but that met with big problems. For someone who knows what to expect, it's an excellent environment. For someone who neither designed the lesson nor has the training/experience with technology, it's proven a nightmare.
Tuesday, as my final attempt, I designed an automated PowerPoint presentation with embedded audio thanks to audacity. I figured the students would be able to hear my voice and that will help as a behavior regulator. Plus, it was a way for me to be in the room without being in the room. For some, it worked; for others, it did not. That's ok. It was a trial.
Upon returning to school Tuesday afternoon and reading of further mishaps in the substitute teacher's notes, I packed up the laptops in the cart and wrote a lesson plan that was technology free, no projector even. Not only that, for the first time in four weeks, I was sent to the copy machine. The lesson I designed was high-content, but low-tech. Traditional would be the word for it.
I didn't go back to school when I got out of training today. After staying up until 1:30 both Sunday and Monday nights, I decided I had put in my time. I got to bed at a decent hour last night, but it hadn't been 11 hours since I left when I stopped by the building this morning. Luckily, I have not much of a life outside of teaching.
The whole week takes me to what I've heard Will Richardson comment on several times in person and in podcasts - it's about teaching the skills. I thought I had made headway with my students in showing them appropriate use of resources and the rationale behind it. Clearly, there's more work to be done. When we get back after the holiday, I'll start in with new class and teambuilding as well as tech. and web usage skills. One of the pieces I'm constantly reminded of is the premise that many of my students stand on the losing end of the technology divide. Though the majority of them have home computer and Internet access, it's a slim majority. They may be natives of Prensky's digital world, but they are not among the power class. There's a difference between living in the Bronx and living in Manhattan. I'm not sure if the metaphor works, but it's how I see things in my head.
Much of the time, I feel the shininess must wear off before we can get to the true potential of these tech tools.
One more note about training before I sign off. The final announcement for the day was about the follow-up to the training and making sure every participant had support in taking what we've learned back to our schools. The way that will happen is a follow-up day back at the district office for participants to voice concerns, questions and the like. Stephanie, friend and science teacher at Phoenix, and I agreed a blog would be the best way to house that conversation and eliminate the need for yet another day out of the classroom. We proposed the idea and were told a blog was a great idea, but as a follow-up to the follow-up. Tried to make the case for blog-as-follow-up, but met with resistance. I suppose the agreement that a blog would be a useful tool is a sign of progress. Oh, progress, you slow, lumbering behemoth. (My point was just validated by the fact the spellcheck did not recognize the word "blog." Too funny.)
More later.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Bringing Dimension to the Flat World

I was talking to myself as I walked through the halls yesterday morning. It wasn't the first time and I doubt it to be the last. I happened upon our assistant principal, Dr. Shelley, and said, "Do you know what Jason (our social studies teacher) is talking about in his class today?"
She didn't and asked what.
He was talking about the flat eighth graders...historically low-achieving eighth graders. It was amazing. Not only that, he opened with a streamed video clip from one of Thomas Friedman's appearances on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Then, he gave a mini lecture to familiarize his students with the topic. From there, the learning belonged to the students. He asked them questions about the populations of China, India and the US. He asked about graduation rates, industry and the like. He didn't point them toward the information, he simply supplied them with the question. Our kids still need the guidance.
Tomorrow, he will be presenting a PowerPoint on China and India and how they measure up to the US. I'd showed him Carl Fisch's now-updated presentation and told him our students had already seen it in my class. His picks up nicely.
To round it out, he has the students identifying the possible impact of developments in China and India and then writing about possible solutions in the US.
A group of students was talking about effects of war and ethnic cleansing in another class with our literacy coach the other day and she asked what they would do if someone came in to their homes and they were forced to leave. Some of the students said they would go to China because they had learned in my class that there were a lot of smart people in China, so it must be safe. Our lit. coach told me of the interesting and engaging conversation that followed.
Now, think about this. I can't imagine another 8th-grade group that has spent such a chunk of the beginning of their school year talking about, thinking about and soon writing about global economic shift. As they are about to become participants in the global community, it's probably best that they realize its existance and importance first.
I realize they don't get the nuances of the process. I realize it's new and will take much more to develop a reasonable understanding, but what a great foundation for learning. Often, we talk about what our kids are and are not prepared for. Rarely, do we speak TO our kids about what we have a faint idea might lie ahead. I cannot wait to begin blogging with them. I cannot wait for the world to engage them.
More later.

Sunday, August 20, 2006


Part of me can't believing I'm posting this. The rest of me isn't surprised at all.
My friend Rachel and I went to see the much-anticipated Snakes on a Plane last night. I don't have a particular affinity toward snakes, planes, Samuel L. Jackson, Julianna Marguiles, etc. In talking Rachel into seeing this movie, I finally became exasperated at making my case and just said, "We just have to see this movie."
If you haven't or are thinking about it, I will leave that decision up to you. Much in the same way this post is not about the movie, the need to see it last night was not about the movie.
Exiting the theater in extreme states of incredulity, Rachel and I both agreed, SOAP is an incredibly important movie. Incredibly.This movie, on its merits, hadn't a shot in the world, but then came Web 2.0. The blogosphere erupted, T-shirts were printed, news outlets had no choice but to engage.
I'm not immune to the ironies at work here. A movie that would otherwise have been heavily neglected was brought to the global conscious while policital issues and global crises fail to garner the attention due to them. Still, it is a first major flexing of a muscle that, 5 years ago, was barely forming.
Change consistently happens in unexpected ways. The key to the success here had to be its lack of contrivance. If it had been a promotion originating from big business, I argue Snakes on a Plane would have crashed. Natives no contrivance, it lacks luster. In the same way my educational practices must be authentic, SOAP had to be an authentic phenomenon.
Either way, it is an important movie, perhaps one of the most important we've seen in a while, but that importance has nothing to do with the movie. What will be next?
More later.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Two Weeks

With two weeks under my belt, the school year is zooming by.
I did an informal survey today, asking my students to tell me what they had learned in the first two weeks of my class. "What have you done that you haven't done before? Tried that you hadn't tried before? Learned or thought about that you hadn't before?"
More than once, a student raised his hand and said something to the effect of, "Last year, we visited the computer lab maybe three times in the entire year." Three times! I'm finding, not surprisingly, that my kids are not as tech literate as I'd like them to be. In one class, four kids raised their hands when I asked if anyone had ever created a PowerPoint presentation before. They know Myspace and they know the ins and outs of Windows Media Player, but the majority don't have anything past that. The vision is to move to a community of bloggers the way I read about Konrad Glogowski or Darren Kuropatwa's classes doing, but it's going to take time. The legs are still shakey. We'll get there.
Alan November's question of "who owns the learning" is in the driver's seat this year. Today, I did something I wasn't so sure about. I knew it would be uncomfortable for my students, but I also knew I had to stop spoon feeding them and let them gain confidence. I put up the assignment on the ActivBoard with three bullets:
  • Log in to Blackboard.
  • Read the announcement.
  • Complete and turn in the assignment.
In a Hansel and Gretel-type fashion, I had pebbles of instructions throughout the assignment for guidance, but I told them at the beginning that I would not be answering any questions, that they already knew how to do everything they needed to complete the assignment. It was uncomfortable. One student raised her hand and told me she couldn't get to the website. "Try typing in the address again," I said. "I've typed it three times already, I'm just not going to do it," was her reply as she sat back in her seat with her arms crossed. "Ok," I said, "That's your choice, but I'm sure the site's working and I know you don't want to fall behind. You can do this." I walked away, but continued to monitor. Sure enough, within minutes, she had found her typing error, fixed it and logged in. It was a step toward self-reliance.
In another class, students would try to get me to answer questions and I would almost answer, but I was cut off by a slew of students who said, "Can I help him, Mr. Chase?" They would get up, walk over and show the students how to complete the assignment. One girl announced, "All right, I'm not getting up after this, so who needs help now?" How many times have I thought that as a teacher. I was monitoring screens with my new Vision access to make sure things were on track. They were.
It felt fantastic. I was so proud. They were building a community.
One other things of note today. I'm not certain of the etiquette on this one. Checking my Bloglines account this morning in a faculty training on how to use the district's online print shop order form (not so helpful for the paperless classroom), I saw my name in David Warlick's blog 2 Cents Worth. I literally let out a little scream.
Now, I've been published online, in newspapers, magazines, etc., but none of it compared to the excitement of this. Why? A number of reasons. For one, it wasn't passive. I had written something that made someone else think. For another thing, it meant more people were going to be reading what I wrote. I called my mom. By the end of the day, I had messages from around the globe. I stopped and realized. This is why our students should be blogging, this feeling of connectedness, of authenticity. I shared the whole thing with my classes, explaining how the network operated, how David likely found my blog and so on. All but three of my students had never heard of a blog before, so I took it slowly. It was the first glimmer of realizing the potential in a first-hand manner. Awesome. I feel I'm such the nerd for saying so, but it truly was.
More later.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

So Much!

Nine days, that's it! I've only been in the classroom nine days and I feel like I'm doing good. My kids are using Blackboard, they've posted to an online discussion board, they've uploaded files, they're getting closer to where they need to be.
Tonight, Wendy, our Tech Coach, and I worked with my student laptops to install Vision. This means that my room of 20 laptops is much more manageable. I can keep tabs on what they're looking at, chat with them, demo what I want them to do, the works. It's one of the pieces I've felt was missing.
For the first time, today, I was able to work Wikipedia in to my lesson today. I posted a piece of the entry on on the discussion board. It was all about restrictions being put on the site in schools. My kids were all over the place with what they thought. Not everyone was a fan, all of them understood the dangers. What surprised me last week was the number of kids who said their parents also had Myspace pages. The kids knew it and they knew their parents were watching. Maybe things aren't as bleak as the frightened masses would like to think.
In the coming weeks, I see great opportunities. I showed my kids the PowerPoint presentation from Karl Fisch's blog today. Some good conversation came from it. Not only that, Wendy said the kids were asking her about the presentation after they left my class. Something stuck.
I've been looking at tonight. What an excellent partner for our program that puts computers in homes of students who don't have them! No longer do parents have to worry that they can't get the right software. Kids can save their work online and then pull it down. Start a file at school, edit it at home, share it with classmates. It's a network in a grand sense.
My problem is that I'm so anxious to use these things. I need to pause. I need to slow down.
One of my frustrations when listening to the podcasts and presentations of folks like David Warlick and Will Richardson is that I want examples, I want lessons and projects, I want to see what's going on with the people who have been there.
Perhaps I should sleep. Take pause. I feel like I can't afford to pause.
More later.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Stepping Forward

Reading Doug Johnson's latest post tonight, I was reminded of the term "change agent." It's what teachers must be. It's our job. How ironic that the change agents of society are so resistent to change. Today, though, I saw things move in the right direction.
We've been trying to implement various technologies at Phoenix this year. Some are big ones, initiatives like blogging and podcasts and wikis. Some, like one I experienced today, are small but important. Rather than have each 8th-grade teacher keep his or her own separate parent contact log, we've designed an Excel file that lives on the server which is access-restricted. All 8th-grade teachers can open and modify the file that has columns for Date, Last Name, First Name, Calling Teacher and Notes. Not only does it put a record of all teacher-parent contacts in one convenient location, it is sortable and each-to-use. It's something that's been possible for years, literally. While I realize it's simple, I cannot overstate it's importance. It's something that I can show to teachers and say, "Look, this is a way you can look to technology to improve how we do things." Once they are sold on the little things, we're more open to putting more deep-seeded traditions on the table. Small steps.
The thing is, at the end of the day, our assistant principal called me in to her office about finding the right tech tool to provide basic bulletins on specific student behavior monitoring. This is a conversation she would not have had last year. Even she realized and appreciated that fact.
Some fantastic news, news I'll say "I told you so" on. Today, Phoenix started a waiting list. A WAITING LIST! The school that was searching for students just last year and worrying about it's numbers in a much different way, has people waiting to get in. What an amazing team I get to be a part of that has created an environment for students in which such contagious change is possible. Seeing them in action today reminded me of what consumate professionals they are. Hearing their dedication to solving the little problems that arose during Day 1 reminded me of what adept problem solvers they are. Such a healthy place to work.
As more and more outlets enter the DOPA debate, I've been asking myself what I can do. I've decided to pitch a column to the paper presenting a NeXt Gen educator's take on the whole thing. With the fair and impartial piece on our dedication to tech integration, it seems a logical follow-up.
With all the changes in humanity, it amazes me the extent to which we are still afraid of what we do not understand.
More later.

Good Press

Up and getting ready, but I've got to post this article from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on the NeXt Generation Teacher program. It's a nice, brief description. Let's hope Liz follows it throughout the year to keep us on our toes.
More later.

9.5 Hours

The first day of school is technically here and there's so much to do. So much. I need to be trying to sleep. Much like the night before a marathon, I have trouble sleeping the night before school starts.
Open house was a success this year. We had more parents come through than I've seen in 3 years of teaching. It was odd that I always forget how animated I get when I'm in a classroom. There's an electricity attached to it. At some point, parents were clapping and muttering "Uh-huh, that's right." One mother stopped me and asked if I could give my speech at another district school.
It wasn't until I got started with the first group that I realized what I was going to say. That's the improvisor in me. It turns out I was driven by the question Alan November asked us when he came to speak to the NeXt Gen teachers and again when I was up at the BLC06 conference, "Who owns the learning?" Well, it turns out I'm determined to have the students own the learning this year and I told them and their parents that. In fact, I flat out refused to own the learning anymore.
Now, I qualified it by confessing that I would kill myself to make sure they had everything they needed to succeed, but admitted that actually succeeding would be on them. A friend of mine stopped by Phoenix to pick me up Friday night (we'll not talk about how late I was in my room). Enamored by all of the technology with which we are equipped, she noted, "I guess you really do need to be following the technology, huh?" It triggered something, we shouldn't be following the technology. Playing catch up will leave us winded and grasping. We have to be on the edge. We have to be pulling technology, thinking of what we need it to do next and then finding ways for our students to demand more rather than patiently waiting to find out what we're supposed to be excited about next.
Web 2.0 came without a clarion call. We must set our own alarms for what comes next. Speaking of which, I should set mine so that I'm well-rested for what comes next.
More later.