Friday, April 25, 2008

Late to the Jargon Party

Okay, okay. So I know Marc Prensky’s “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” hit the world in 2001, but I just read it. I’d heard the buzz words of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants,” but I didn’t really know what they meant. I think Prensky’s considers his audience Baby Boomers; I’m thirty-five, so I’m not really an immigrant or a native. I guess I’m first generation!

I’m not devoted to Prensky’s theories, especially since by his designations, I’m teaching “legacy content,” namely reading, writing, and logical thinking, for which Digital Natives don’t have a natural taste. Lucky English teachers, eh? He suggests that those of us teaching “legacy content” need to employ “future content,” which involves technology. I didn’t find that earth shattering. However, when Prensky writes: “Today’s teachers have to learn to communicate in the language and style of their students. This doesn’t mean changing the meaning of what is important, or of good thinking skills. But it does mean going faster, less step-by step, more in parallel, with more random access, among other things,” it caught my attention. Elsewhere, Prensky writes: “Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to ‘serious’ work.” Prensky’s list rings true to me, and I’m trying to give it more thought.

Over the summer when I can get some distance from the daily mental burdens of grading and classroom management, I like to ruminate about how I teach. (I’ve always joked that my summer lesson planning always goes so well because my imaginary students love everything!) I see Prensky’s list as a challenge, and I’m going to brainstorm how I can make some “style” changes to better communicate with my sometimes restless natives:

  • Going Faster and Less Step-by-Step—My gut instinct is “No way!” If I go faster, I’ll sacrifice depth and cause confusion. However, if I think about going faster by going less step-by-step, I realize that I already try to do this. I don’t try to hold every student to the same step in a process at the same time (at least not every day). I try to design units with multiple tasks that students can move through as they get to them. Like a water park where three different slides dump into the same pool, most students end up in the same place even if they took various steps to get there.
  • Going More in Parallel and Multi-Tasking—This concept goes in place when I remove the step-by-step process. So okay, maybe all the vocabulary words for a chapter don’t need to be written out before we begin that chapter. See? I’m flexible! I really need summer to plan for this kind of teaching because it requires me to have lots of things prepared ahead of time. Essentially, when I begin a unit, I need to have all the steps already prepared because students will hit various steps at various times. (Although I do build in what I think of as anchor points, places where we convene together, say for a mini-lesson from me or for a test.) I also find it challenging to figure out what to do with the students who finish first, maybe a full day before other students. Do I “reward” them with extra work? Let them play solitaire while the principal walks by? Start the next unit and accumulate a week off for the end of the year?
  • Going with more Random Access—I recognize Prensky’s validity on this point. My students do not think as sequentially as I do when they look for information. It’s probably impossible to organize a unit this way this first time I teach a new prep, but once I’ve made it to the end of a unit, I have a fair idea of when students have questions and what resources they’ll need. Instead of providing students with a packet of directions at the beginning of a unit, I’m going to use my web site enrichment for my classes to make FAQ-style directions. (Hard copy directions can be re-organized like this, too.) This fulfills the “just in time” learning for natives who like to find what they need in the instant they need it, as opposed to being given a complete packet and told to flip through it for their answers.
  • Using more Networking—I know my students like to work together, but I don’t always want to see collaboration. It frustrates me when I give short answer questions and three kids write identical responses; in fact, I watch them pass around one kid’s notebook as each kid copies it. The trick here is designing lesson elements where students collaborate on problem-solving but then separate again for written assessment. I know it’s as old as the hills, but I love Think, Pair, Share. If I ask students to write before they collaborate, I can cut down on the copying. Maybe I’ll try to get them working together without seeking a written product at the end of the session…
  • Using more Instant Gratification and Rewards—This concept makes me a little queasy because it feels like I’m catering to a baser appetite (Am I longing for the old country, Prensky?). I teach critical thought through close reading and careful writing. My “legacy content” and I are the anti-instant gratification. Does passing out Jolly Ranchers really help? Sigh. Alright. I have created some computer-based games (using these great game shells) and use some web-based tools for rote grammar/punctuation and MLA/plagiarism practice. These online drills help me differentiate and give students instant feedback. I try to return written work as quickly as I can. I’m thinking about using student email more to give frequent positive feedback during the week (although I’ve heard that email to today’s student is already passé.) I’m still crazy enough to want students to find reading the fiction and poetry we cover its own reward.

Quite obviously, I need to give each of these elements much more thought. I don’t think Prensky has all the answers, but I did think his list gave me a lot to think about this summer.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, April 18, 2008

Reminder to Self: Process not Product

My students often “quilt” their writing with lists, phrases, full sentences, and even paragraphs they find on the Internet. Because they might find the same exact paragraph on five different websites, they confuse the paragraph with the research category of common knowledge. This confusion leads directly to unintentional plagiarism, and I work hard to ensure all my students only plagiarize on purpose don’t plagiarize. In our recent poetry wiki, students needed to find three resources on their poet’s biography. Per the instructions in our textbook, I directed students to read over each source and take notes on important details. After internalizing the information, students should put the sources away and write a summary from memory. Next, students should edit their summary for dates, titles, etc. by referring back to their references.

After completing this process, students put their summaries through The students’ results lit up with color like a rainbow. This too-small sample shows how the student text (on the left) is highlighted when it matches something on the Internet (websites listed on the right):

turnitincom-report.jpg Hmmm. It turns out that many students could not bring themselves to write a summary without looking at the resources. I struggle to explain that while the facts are common knowledge, the written expression cannot be copied without credit. “You need to write it in your own words,” I’ll say. “I don’t know any other way to say that!” they’ll exclaim. Now, I may live to see a time when common knowledge includes written expression, but until that day, I want to keep working at this clarification. Also, writing a summary in original language is a good method for me to assess students’ reading comprehension, just like I do when I ask them to translate Shakespeare’s dialect into today’s speech. I decided that all those quilted summaries needed to be re-done.

“Go back and say that again in your own words,” I said in my best gentle, but firm voice. My students and I get on pretty well, so nobody laughed openly. A few students held my gaze as if to say, “Really? You are really going to make me do this again?” They returned to their seats and punched out words while plugging in less effective synonyms. “Her many accomplishments include” became “Her several achievements include.” I explained that they needed to do more than punch out words; they needed to change the syntax, too. Wearily, students converted the strong, active voice sentence structure they’d borrowed from the Internet into weak, passive, meandering phrases. “Born in Akron, Ohio in 1952, Rita Dove earned many honors” became “Rita Dove was born in the city of Akron amidst the year of 1952 in the city of Ohio.” By now, I am bleary-eyed from reading draft after draft. My head feels fuzzy as I realize that students have finally met my goal of genuinely paraphrasing, only now their language is weaker than their usual prose. Since I’d backed myself into a corner, I had to concede that students had met my goal even though I wasn’t satisfied with the results.

As I discussed the mess I’d made with a friend and mentor, she pointed out that I’d focused on students fixing a ruined product, born of a corrupted process. “You can’t re-spackle a wall,” she said. “You have to start over.” Her point works with my love of cooking metaphors, too. If I bake a cake with a corrupted process, say forgetting the eggs, I can’t fix that cake. I need to throw it out and start over, getting the process right the second time in order to get a better product. I needed to have students throw out that corrupted summary. I needed an alternative process, another assignment, a do-over, to give students a chance to apply what they’ve learned. I didn’t set my students up to succeed when I asked them to fix their broken products. It’s a lesson I’ve learned before, but I didn’t see it coming this time. The process means more here than the product, and I needed to build in process-repetition. On the one hand, it exhausts me to think of creating a second assignment, but let me assure you, the energy I wasted doing this exercise poorly cost me more…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, April 11, 2008

Gettin' Wiki with It

Personally, I like Wikipedia. It has nearly replaced the Internet Movie Database as my go-to resource for determining where I’ve seen that actor playing the criminal on Law and Order or for determining the nutritional value of lentils. I worry, however, that my students don’t seem to understand the vulnerabilities of an open source tool with open editing privileges. They trust Wikipedia as an authority on everything, an honor I’m uncertain the tool deserves no matter how much I like it.

For several years, I’ve tried to explain my concerns to students. I’ve even showed students how I can edit a page with erroneous information and advised them to enjoy Stephen Colbert’s discussion of Wikiality, but I could tell I didn’t make much of an impression. So I decided to incorporate creating a class wiki into my new poetry unit despite the fact that I haven’t used that function before; treading into unknown technological problems seemed a worthwhile cost to shifting my students’ comprehension of what an open source wiki really means.

This week students reached the publication stage of our project. Each student picked a favorite poem from a selection and wrote a personal response to it. Then each student researched and wrote a short summary on the poet’s biography, complete with some recommended websites for further reading. Students turned in each individual assignment in hard copy for a grade. Once all that work had been recorded, students started the wiki. I have thirty students and only four poets. If a student posts first to the poet’s wiki, he or she can put his or her entire biography. However, if a biography is already there, students need to edit it with additional information from their own research or with changes they think would improve it; they repeat this process for the recommended websites, too.

As students built the collaborative wiki, they started to raise their hands for me to come over to their individual computers. “Where do I put my name?” students asked me one by one. “How will people know what I wrote compared to what other people wrote?” Over and over, I explained that wikis don’t provide individual authorship credit, that students' words would be combined, changed, and edited by their peers into a group effort. Now, I can’t lie. Students did not gasp, slap their foreheads and say, “Why I didn’t realize these resources could be so variable! Is verification by consensus really wise?” They took my answer quietly, with a little nod, and repeated, “So I don’t put my name on here. No one puts a name…” Then they got back to work. To me though, it feels like my point finally got through. I think the experience of participating in a wiki has deepened their understanding of the tool in a way I wasn’t successful in explaining with words or examples. As a matter of fact, I plan to ask students to fill in a “Before I thought a wiki _______, but now I think a wiki _________" kind of statement to really zone in to what they’ve learned. Starting a class wiki intimidated me, but I’m seeing real benefits to the risk.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, April 4, 2008

Deconstructing Differentiation

I’m not a special educator, so I’m not heralding myself as an expert on differentiation. I’ve been reading more about it, however, and I decided to challenge myself to try and explain what it is I do when I try to differentiate a lesson.

For me, differentiating lessons is a lot like cooking. I don’t hit every nutrient in each meal, and I don’t address every learning style or need in a single, forty-two minute lesson. Each week, I write a dinner menu and grocery list. (Yes, spontaneity is my strong suit!) Across a week, I try to hit a variety of proteins, vegetables, starches, and fruits. Similarly, I think about differentiation across a week rather than by a day. When I cook, I rely on some family favorites and pantry staples; not every week involves gourmet recipes I’m trying for the first time. The same thing is true when I plan a unit. I dress up the same strategies over and over again, which helps make differentiation a habit for me and a consistent pattern for my students. Here are some examples of my “pantry staples” for differentiating a unit:

  • Establish the WHY
    • I try to begin each unit with a frame of how I think the lessons correlate to students’ lives. For example, I began the poetry unit with a spiel about poetry in music lyrics, at weddings, and at funerals. I explained how every time we work on a skill it gets stronger, so our research on this project would prime the pump for the bigger research papers coming up in students’ academic lives and the hunt for the right mortgage broker in their adult lives. My reasons WHY are not always sexy, but students seem to appreciate the fact that I’ve at least given each lesson thought. Even if they don’t share enthusiasm for my reasons, it makes the assignments seem less arbitrary to them.
  • Provide choice
    • For example, my current poetry unit requires students to write a personal response to a poem from a collection of seven poems I provided. Students can pick any one of the seven poems, and they can choose to write about why they liked it or why they disliked it. When I compiled the collection of poems, I purposely chose poems with a range of accessibility. Besides including men and women and people of various races, I made sure I included some poems with easier vocabulary and more accessible imagery along with poems that required a higher reading level.
  • Provide clear objectives and scoring
    • When I begin a new unit, I provide students with a “track sheet” that lists each of the assignments within the unit, how much each assignment is worth, and a description of each assignment’s requirements. This “chunking” of the big project makes each step seem less intimidating.
  • Provide a mix of independent and collaborative work
    • Across a unit, I will have some activities that students do individually and quietly, like writing a personal response to the poem, and other activities that they do collaboratively with conversation. The poetry unit also requires students to research the poet’s biographies and create a Works Cited page for their sources in MLA format. Students can help each other use the resources for MLA and share good resources for biographical information. By having intervals in my lessons where collaboration and talking is appropriate, students find it easier to be quiet and independent when asked. Another way I use this element is to mix up my role across the unit. I led a guided discussion of each poem one lesson and provided a mini-lesson at the board on MLA another day while some lessons I simply floated around the room as students researched and worked on MLA.
  • Assess a range of skills throughout the unit (Bloom’s Taxonomy—Knowledge through Evaluation)
    • Across this two week unit, I’m asking students to write personal responses as they interpret a poem, find and evaluate websites for quality information using a checklist, write up sources in MLA format using a resource model, combine biographical sources into a summary, edit their work for grammar mistakes, and collaborate and troubleshoot with partners to put the information on a class wiki about poets. Students who don’t like to write (especially about poetry!) often love the structured reliability of a documentation format like MLA. I’m always surprised how a kid who rushes through almost every reading task will spend long stretches of time judiciously selecting the best of three websites on a poet. When I write assignments in a unit, I try to make sure there’s at least one component at which each of my students can really shine.
  • Provide a combination of quick/immediate feedback and deferred/in depth feedback
    • I try to collect something from students each lesson and provide short feedback on it even if I don’t score it yet. This way students know what they need to improve upon as they move towards the final product (in this case, the class wiki), and they have a sense of how they are doing along the way. Many times I will use “exit tickets,” which are just short assignments to be turned in as students leave. It might be a question asking them to assess their work on that day, or a sample MLA Works Cited entry, or the favorite/least favorite line in the poem about which they are writing. At the end of the project, I provide more extensive written feedback about the product and the student’s process in producing that product. The exit tickets give me an easy way to track students’ participation along the way.
  • Build in some flexibility with interim deadlines
    • Some students might get more done in class than others, so by planning in two week blocks, I can often move faster students right on to the next step while providing one-on-one guidance to students who need more help. I also try to build time for catching up into a unit, so that students who are absent or fall behind are not lost for the entire project.
  • Combine predictable activities with unpredictable activities
    • This point dovetails with the flexibility in interim deadlines. Creating the class wiki online is an example of an unpredictable activity. Oftentimes, I, too, am surprised by the technical problems we need to troubleshoot when we use technology. Students who finish work more quickly tend to get to the unpredictable activities first. They usually spend some more time figuring out the glitches, which arguably is an advanced learning differentiation. By the time other students join that stage, the students who have been troubleshooting can share the strategies they’ve developed to solve the problems. The later joining students may notice something else that can be done because the issues are fresh to their eyes. While the unpredictable element in a unit is often scary and sometimes stressful, watching students collaborate to fix it can be the most rewarding element of the educational experience.

I realize as I write these down that I’m listing the olive oil, black pepper, and salt of good teaching. For me, this combination of simple elements has improved my teaching the way the discovery that toasted walnuts taste wonderful with blue cheese changed my spinach salad. It’s the combination of good basic elements that makes a unit work so well. I admit, by allowing students to choose different texts and work at different paces, I sometimes feel dizzy. When I first started cooking, I couldn’t get the veggies, the protein, and the starch all ready and hot at the same time. However, since I didn’t want to eat just veggies or just potatoes for dinner, I kept at it and I learned the balance. Teaching with differentiation has been a similar journey for me, and just like cooking, there are days when I don’t do it as well as I’d like. Hey, I’ve served up educational dessert in the form of a film the day I collect the research essay, too. Overall though, as a mainstream classroom teacher, I think differentiation makes my lesson “meals” better for everybody.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher