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A Quasi-Hiatus

First off, thanks to all my students who's been leaving messages. It's been great to hear from all of you and I'm glad things seem to be going well.

The first month of grad school has gone really well. I'm pretty much constantly working (I average about 1000 pages of reading and 5 pages of writing a week), but the work is really interesting and I'm learning a ridiculous amount --both fact wise as well as gaining a better understanding of how the society we live in really works.

I haven't been posting (and realistically, will not be posting much for the coming year) for two reasons. First, I just really don't have the time (though this is serving as great procrastination for starting the paper I need to outline before going out tonight). But second, and more importantly, much of the thoughts I'm having now revolve around issues of race and class, two topics that are unfortunately completely politicized in most of the discourse in the United States. Even though I feel the work I do is analytical and grounded in sound academic methodology, I don't want to publish a lot of these thoughts in order to not alienate anyone reading this, or any future students of mine who may read this.

So with that, I am going to take a quasi-hiatus from blogging. I will still post occasionally when I feel I have thoughts or work that are safe to share (one of these will be a paper I am working on in a history research seminar looking at the role of educational philosophy and pedagogy in the foundation of the Citizenship Schools which were an integral part of early civil rights organization). And I'll always check for comments and respond to anything there (and my e-mail is outsidethecave@gmail.com if anyone needs me).


To My Students From Last Year

Just wanted to wish everyone good luck with sophomore year. My sophomore year, for reasons good and bad, was probably the most significant year of my life. It was the year that for me, marked the real turning point between being a kid and a young adult. I wish you all the best on the journey.

If you're going to South County, good luck with being at a new school. I hope things run smoothly for you.

If you're still at Hayfield, you are lucky. You have a lot of really good and committed teachers who want to be at the school to work with you. Let me know in the comments or IM who your World II teacher is. And if you play a sport, make sure to kick a little South County butt for me.

Have fun and keep in touch.

Back to School

So tomorrow is my first day of class as a graduate student.

I had orientation last week. The general Grad School orientation was pretty useless, but my department's orientation got me really excited. The African-American studies professors all seemed very down to earth and eager to teach - a far cry from many of the professors I had at Brown. I'm really looking forward to working with them.

My fellows students also seemed great. There are 10 of us starting the program this fall. Everyone seemed to be very intelligent and passionate about being there. I can tell they have a lot to offer. One of the other students taught elementary school, and there is another who wants to get a job writing history curriculum after the program. And I have to admit, I was somewhat relieved to not be the only white person in the program (there is 1 other).

As of now I'm signed up for 19 credits, which sounds like a little too much but there are just too many good sounding classes and not enough time. But as of now my course load is:

  • African-American Studies Research and Writing (Tuesdays)
  • Writing Black New York (Tuesdays)
  • Comparative Literature of the African Diaspora (Monday and Wednesday)
  • Race and the Articulation of the Difference (Thursday)
  • Seminar is African-American History: 1945-Present (Thursday)
As excited as I am to start class, I'm definitely missing the anticipation of the first day from the teacher's POV. Last night I ended up out with a woman who is starting her first teaching job this week. I felt pretty envious. Oh well....next year.


Clarence's Questions About Blogger

Clarence posted some questions in the comments about the blogging project I did with my students last fall, specifically about using Blogger.

Overall, I really liked using Blogger. It was a little time consuming to set up initially (though not as bad as I'll make it sound) but once we got going, it worked great. I'd say that total process of setting up 16 blogs took about an hour of my time, and then about 10 minutes per group in class. The most time consuming part was creating each blog. I also spent a little time designing a template, though I had some experience from my site. I just used one of the standard Blogger Templates, then took out the navbar (and Next Blog Button!!! directions are here) and some of the other sidebar content. I then added a blogroll to link all the blogs together using Bloglines. (The template is a kind of weird hybrid of CSS, html, and some unique Blogger things. The Blogger help section has a good walkthrough).

I retained the master login for each blog. This allowed me to edit and delete posts at will (though I only had to do this one or two times with 100 students). Once the blogs are created, you can invite others to join through their e-mail. You have the option to give the individuals who join full editorial privileges, or only the ability to post and edit/delete their own posts (I chose the latter). Each student then received an e-mail inviting them to join. They each got their own unique login and password. (When I did the Responsible Blogging Lesson, one of the very few rules I myself added was that individuals were responsible for what was done on their login, so if they shared it with a friend that was at their own risk)

I hope that answers your questions. Please let me know if you have any more.


A Very Untriumphant Return

Man, did I fall off the ball on this front.

I'm really hoping to get back in the habit of posting. I think it will be really helpful and beneficial for me as I start my grad school program (orientation is Tuesday).

Since moving to New York, I've felt very disconnected form my experiences as a teacher in Virginia. I think I took the easy way out in not thinking about a lot of things from the end of the year and just focused whole-heartedly on establishing my life here with my fiancee (which has gone very well). One important lesson I learned was it's probably not a good idea to publish a whole list of things I'm planning on writing about...feel like a bit of jackass for that now. I'm sorry to anyone who was looking forward to reading about those things.

Part of me was ready to just leave this blogging experiment behind, but the heckling I got in the comments wouldn't let me do that. So I will try to wrap up some loose ends before I start class after Labor Day. (Clarence, answering your question is the #1 thing on my to-do list for Monday...thanks for the kick in the butt I needed to get back writing)

It has been a great summer though. Had a great trip to LA to visit my best friend from college (with a weekend road trip to Vegas) and another great week on Cape Cod with my fiancee's family. Otherwise I've been spending my time in NYC taking advantage of all the free offerings of the city during the summer. I've seen some great concerts (highlights were Wilco, Clap Your Hands Says Yeah, and Neil Diamond with my mom for her birthday last weekend at MSG). I've also had time to read a ton. Been averaging a book a week or so. Most interesting was probably Fast Food Nation. That, followed up with finally seeing Super Size Me, has eliminated fast food from my life.

I moved into my own apartment last week. It's the first time (and last time) in my life I've lived alone. So far I'm really enjoying it.

I hope everyone has been having good summers. Good luck to everyone returning to the classroom as students or teachers.


Now Coming to You From Brooklyn, NY

Well...didn't end up with the time I thought I'd have at while visiting my parents in Ohio - mainly because of their cable companies inability to supply internet service during business hours (which is, of course, when I had some time on my hands). Oh well. So after another reset of my bloglines account (except of course, for some quick reading of edubloggers) I am back up and running.

Made it to the greatest city in the world last night just in time for the most incredible fireworks display I've ever seen in my life over the East River. My fiancee got us tickets to watch from Roosevelt Island where we had a clear view of 4 of the barges. I had seen the NYC fireworks display from the FDR a few years ago, but it was absolutely nothing compared to the view we had last night.

Now as soon as I get through the "Honey-Do" list, I really will be back to reading and writing aspect of blogging.


Leo's Interviews - Some Initial Thoughts

Before going into some specific thought on some things that came out of Leo Rigsby's interviews with my students, I just wanted to get some general thoughts out and respond a couple of the comments others made based on my original post.

Euclid wrote:

I think you are being too nice about the kid who said you made innappropriate comments. The little s**t saw it as a chance to take a cheap shot at you. Constructive critisim is great and worth its weight in gold. However rare is the 9th grade student that can provide us this feedback.
Here is the student comment he was refering to:
I found that Mr. Lazar was a terrible teacher. He had mood swings, and always found his opinion to be right, and never played devil’s advocate. I would actually feel bad for someone who gets him as a teacher, because of the way he acts. He said Catholics are bad, and Jews always are right, and they are God’s people, putting down other religions constantly. Another problem was his constant name calling, he even recently called a group of mine, “a bunch of dicks.” I mean if you call someone that make sure it’s someone who could respond, because if I responded, I could have been suspended for threatening him. Bottom line, he is the worst teacher I have ever had.
I think Lexi (who for the record, is a 9th grader that just provided some very intelligent feedback) already said much of my initial reaction to this comment. The student who Euclid refered to as a "little s**t" was doing exactly what she was told to do. Did the student take a cheap shot at me? Perhaps. But assuming this is the student I am 99% sure that it was, what she wrote was not inconsistent with earlier statement she had openly made to me throughout the year. The bottom line is that this student hated me, and because of that she did not learn in my class. And it is my job to insure that students learn. This student was incredibly intelligent and did well in some of her other classes, but for whatever reason she decided very early on in the year that I would not be an effective teacher for her and checked out. Was her criticism of me something I take seriously? Absolutely not. However, I do take seriously my inability to be an effective teacher for her.

Euclid also wrote that she/he believes it is rare that a 9th grader can provide constructive criticism. My question for Euclid is, have you ever sought out criticism from your students?

Because I did this formally on a quarterly basis, and informally much more frequently. Out of my 120 students, I would say that 50-60% of them consistently provided useful (worth its weight in gold) criticism. The student responses that were not useful were mostly either from students who loved the class and didn't want anything to change, or from students who would only write "This class is ok." And yes, there would be one or two students who would take 'cheap shots.' But those responses quickly made their way to the trash, and from the rest I could readjust my teaching (or more often, the way I presented my teaching) in a ways to benefit my students.

Much of what I will have so much to say in response to Leo's Interviews is because things came out that had not come out in my earlier attempts at getting feedback. My students had never said anything to me about being too strong on my opinions. They had mentioned the "friends" issue, but not in a way that I truly understood until reading these responses. And there are a handful of other things that came out that made me think about the past year in a different way that I'll be writing about.


Done moving

After what felt like 4 days of non-stop moving, I am finally done. Now I get to relax and spend some times with my family in Ohio. I'm really hoping to get a lot of writing done over the next few days.

In the mean time, here's links to the last three Carnivals of Education, which I also hope I get a chance to read over the next few days:


My Students Thoughts on My Teaching

I've been incredibly lucky this year to have Dr. Leo Rigsby as a frequent guest in my classroom. Leo is an education professor at George Mason University, and was paired with me through the Mentoring Program at the Center for Inspired Teaching in D.C. About once a month, Leo would observe my class. Afterwards, we would usually talk for about half an hour reflecting on the class. He would then type me up a few pages of comments. He was incredibly helpful throughout the year in terms of keeping me focused on empowering my students and keeping my classroom student-centered. I wish more teachers could have this opportunity.

Towards the end of the year, he asked if he could interview some of my students about the experience of being in my class. I jumped at the opportunity. A couple weeks ago, he spent 15 minutes each with three of my classes without me in the room and typed up a summery of the discussions. I have a lot I want to say about the comments, but I'm just going to let them speak for themselves for a few days (plus I have WAY too much packing still left to do). The comments can be found here.

The comments are exactly as he sent them to me with two exceptions.

  • I removed the name of the school.
  • I also, in brackets, denied two things a student quoted me as saying. They are both things that would be incredibly inappropriate for a teacher to say to students and I do not want people thinking I said them. However, I don't do this to in any way diminish the importance of the perception of this student. If a student perceived me as having made these comments, this is something I need to worry about.

Quick Thoughts on My Students' Final Projects

So the last set of Daily Shows were presented to the class today. Overall, I'm happy with the way they turned out. All of them contained a solid historical base and were entertaining. Perhaps most importantly for the end of the year, everyone seemed to have fun with them.

The major weakness of my execution of the assignment was my failure to make it more rigorous. There was really no critical thinking involved in this assignment on any level. While my students certainly had fun with it, I'm not sure how much students learned from that. And I'm okay with that for the end of the year. However, if I were to do this assignment again, I would move it earlier in the year, and try to emphasize much more of a critical approach to both history and the process of putting the assignment together. I would mandate a draft and peer review process. I would do a piece analyzing how an actual episode of the Daily Show really works and how it interacts with current history, and include this as part of the assessment.

But all in all, I had a lot of fun with the assignment, and it seemed like my students did too.


I'm Back!!!

Well, it took a week to get a new computer, and then a few days to get it up and running, but I am back and fully connected on my new iBook G4...just in time for the last two days of school and a move to NYC through the weekend.

There is SO much I want/need to write about. Over the next month, I'm going to (hopefully) have periods where I am very proficient in writing, and others where I disappear for about a week (going to L.A. July 13th to visit my best friend from college for a week, and going to Cape Cod on July 23rd for a week with my fiancee's family).

So things I need to blog about in the coming weeks (basically a to-blog list for myself):

  • Reflection on my students' final projects (hilarious videos!) and their blogging
  • Responses to one of my last posts on tracking
  • Thoughts on the end of the year
  • I've been working with a professor from George Mason University who has been observing my class throughout the year through a program from the Center for Inspired Teaching. He interviewed three of my classes last week and wrote me a fascinating seven page summery of their thoughts on my class (which I'll post once I change my web hosting). I need to write a lot of thoughts on this.
  • Thoughts on leaving Northern Virginia for NYC
  • Thoughts on books I've been reading
  • Responses to a ton of great posts that accumulated in my Bloglines account over the past two weeks
Some very quick thoughts:
  • While I have been counting down the days until I move to NYC for a few months now, I'm really sad to say good-bye to a lot of my students Friday. I'm really going to miss being in the classroom next year.
  • Right around when I first started this blog, Bud asked "How many days does it take to develop a habit to the point of sticking?" I don't know how many days it takes for the habit to stick, but it was VERY easy to feel like I got out of it. I actually got my computer Sunday, but it has taken until now for me to sit down and right again for fear that the habit would get in the way of other things I need to do. It's a similar fear to get back on the bicycle after falling.
  • As much as a I love Bloglines and how much more information it allows me to consume, it is overwhelming being away from it for an extended length of time. Even with nearly 1000 unread articles when I got back, I could bring myself to just mark them all read and start over. Have I become dependent on reading too much?
  • Thanks to everyone who has continued to comment on my site in my absence.



My laptop's hard drive failed this morning, so I am computerless for at least a day or two. I'm really looking forward to responding to the comments on my post on GT and Race, as well as this post over at Clarence's site when I'm back and wired.

UPDATE: Hard drive unfortunatly wasn't the only problem, as the logic board was also damaged. But a new computer is on its way, so I'll hopefully be back up and running at full speed over the weekend.


Next Year or, Why Blog Part II

In my first post (which - hard for me to believe - will only be one month ago this Friday) I talked about some of the reasons I decided to start this blog. There was one big reason that I left out, because I wanted to make sure I was able to tell my students in person first.

I'm going to be taking a break from the classroom next year to get my master's degree. I got the good news last week that I was accepted into the African-American Studies program at Columbia University in New York City.

Since I will not be in a formal education program, I wanted a way to connect what I'm studying to teaching, and I think this blog will very much help me do that in a semi-formal way. I hope to use this space as much as possible to play with ideas and issues that arise during the year, hopefully getting them into a form that will be useful when I return to the classroom in the Fall of 2006. Also, I look forward to staying connected with community of blogging classroom teachers who have helped me learn so much over the past few weeks.

A lot of people have asked me both why I'm going to grad school now, and then also why I'm doing my masters in African-American studies (full disclosure - I am very much a white boy from Ohio).

The first question is easier to explain. I got engaged this past March, and will be getting married next June. My fiancee lives in Brooklyn, and we'll be much happier together in New York than we would be in the DC area. Once we decided I would be the one moving (in 3 weeks now), we thought it made sense for me to get my masters before we get married as opposed to trying to teach and do a masters in the first years of our marriage (an MA is required for a full teaching license in New York). So I began searching for a one-year programs in the City.

I was lucky enough as an undergrad to be able to fully participate in an outstanding MAT program which got me certified in Social Studies and History, but gave me no advanced degree. I think, at this point, I will benefit much more from some more work in my content area that in more education courses. I'm also only a handful of courses short of English certification, and would very much like teach at a school that integrates Social Studies and English, so I decided to look for an interdisciplinary program. I didn't set out to specifically to pursue study in African-American Studies, but when looking at all my options, it seemed to present me the best preparation for teaching in New York City, as well as the largest potential for personal growth. From my application essay:

Columbia’s masters program in African-American Studies seems uniquely positioned to help me achieve this goal. I must admit that I do not have a very strong background in this area. I took two courses in Africana Studies at Brown, as well as Education and History courses that touched on the black experience in America. I hope to achieve two main goals by participating in this program. First, I want to dramatically increase the body of knowledge I will be able to use to develop curriculum that is personally relevant to the lives of my students. Second, I want to further develop my ability to see the world and myself through eyes other than the white, suburban, middle class ones with which I was raised.
I hope this blog will help me as I develop along this path.

Most Harmful Books of the Past 200 Years?

I whole-heartedly refuse to be identified as a 'liberal' or 'conservative' (the terms are WAY too simplistic, not to mention always changing). With that said, I came across this list of the "Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries" from Human Events - The National Conservative Weekly, and my first inclination was to read every book on the list. I mean, any group that puts Hitler's Mein Kampf on the same list as the two books perhaps most responsible for the Feminist Revolution (The Feminist Mystique and Second Sex) has to be worth disagreeing with on many levels, right? MIght as well check out some of their enemies. (I've unfortunately only read 10 of the books from the expanded list. Maybe time to add to my summer reading list?)

UPDATE: Two slightly more serious posts on the same list from the Eduwonks and Jenny D.

Life is a Carnival...

...so is the new Carnival of Education.


Gifted and Talented?

Following on the footsteps of yesterday's post, I've been waiting for the time to write about a parent letter that was published in the Washington Post a couple weeks ago about tracking. Jacqueline Morgan is a parent of an 8 year old who recently had two friends tracked into the school's 'Gifted and Talented' program:

It was heartbreaking to see that our 8-year-old child was already being tracked in the "average" group and knows clearly that she is not part of the "smart group" (her words, not ours). Why are these children being tracked at such a young age? How much of this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy? It's unbelievable to see the level of pressure from parents to get their children into the GT program. Of course, if our child were in the magnet program, maybe we would be perfectly content with the tracking.
There are far too many issues here to get into in one post. So to concentrate on only one - WHY DOES THE PROGRAM NEED TO BE CALLED GIFTED AND TALENTED??? Is there any reason that students who are not in this program should come to any conclusion other than "I am not gifted and I am not talented?" What effect will this have on students? I think one of these effects can give some explanation to the information on yesterday's post.

The gifted and talented program runs from 3rd-8th grade. I teach 9th grade, where there is no longer any official tracking. Any student can take any class. In core subjects, classes are offered as 'Regular' or 'Honors' (or AP). However, all my students in my 'regular' class refer to the 'honors' classes as 'GT.'

Let's juxtapose this with a couple statistics:
  • From yesterday's post: While 91 percent of Fairfax's white students demonstrate proficiency in English, only 66 percent of its African American students reached this level of achievement last year. As The Post noted in an editorial last November, African American students across Virginia demonstrate higher levels of learning than similar students in Fairfax (Washington Post).
  • In the 4 'honors' classes I teach, I have a total of 90 students, 7 would be visually identified as African-American. In my 1 'regular' class of 28 students, I have 11 students who would be visually identified as "African-American."
So, having a 'Gifted and Talented' program is teaching students that if they are not in the program then they are neither gifted nor talented. Significantly higher percentages of African-American students are 'choosing' not to take 9th grade honors history. Is it any surprise then, that African-American students are performing at a lower level on state tests?

I am not denying that there are many other issues that explain these discrepancies. At the same time, I cannot understand how these facts do not cause more outrage.


The One, Unquestionably Good Thing about No Child Left Behind

From Ross Wiener's op-ed piece in today's Washington Post:

Before NCLB, schools hid their achievement gaps behind their overall scores. Take Fairfax County, for instance -- one of the most affluent and highly regarded school districts in the nation. It turns out that Fairfax public schools are great for some but not others. While 91 percent of Fairfax's white students demonstrate proficiency in English, only 66 percent of its African American students reached this level of achievement last year.

As The Post noted in an editorial last November, African American students across Virginia demonstrate higher levels of learning than similar students in Fairfax. Indeed, African American students in the Richmond, Henrico County and Hampton school districts -- all of which are less wealthy and educate a higher percentage of African American students -- have been taught to higher levels in English, science and mathematics than African American students in Fairfax.


Without a Net

Two great posts against "protecting" students through filters and otherwise preventing access to various online sites. Will talks about the growing climate of fear about technology across the country. The Bionic Teacher argues against filters in general and gives us a line to rally around:

Block a website keeps a kid away for a day
Teaching them real world internet skills changes them for a lifetime.
I've had 90 students blogging for just about 2 weeks now. With nearly 1000 student posts and comments, there has yet to be a serious issue, and I don't anticipate there will be one through the last 3 weeks of school.

How would the argument change if the people arguing against the use of various technology in schools admitted what their basic concern is - They do not trust students. And how would the students respond?

UPDATE: Clarence had a great post on the same subject posted at about the same time as my original one. He wrote:
Classrooms are intersections where learning occurs. They are a space where students need to safely question what is happening around them. When we block the world out, these spaces become disconnected from reality and have little purpose or reason to exist.
I couldn't agree more.



One of my favorite lines from a song I liked in high school, courtesy of Rage Against the Machine: It has to start somewhere/ It has to start sometime/ What better place than here? / What better time than now?

I came across 2 non-education related articles about change this week that really got me thinking about the changes many of us in the edublogosphere are trying to make: changes in the way technology is perceived and the ways classrooms are organized.

The first item I came across was an article from Fast Company Magazine. The article talks about cognitive and psychological explanations for resistance to change. While it concentrates on the buisness world, many of the articles findings and analysis are directly related to learning. Some highlights:

Questions about resistance to change:

The conventional wisdom says that crisis is a powerful motivator for change. But severe heart disease is among the most serious of personal crises, and it doesn't motivate -- at least not nearly enough. Nor does giving people accurate analyses and factual information about their situations. What works? Why, in general, is change so incredibly difficult for people? What is it about how our brains are wired that resists change so tenaciously? Why do we fight even what we know to be in our own vital interests?
Adding more dimensions to arguments for change:
Dr. Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California at San Francisco and founder of the Preventative Medicine Research Institute, in Sausalito, California. Ornish, like Kotter, realizes the importance of going beyond the facts. "Providing health information is important but not always sufficient," he says. "We also need to bring in the psychological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions that are so often ignored."
More change is better than less:
Reframing alone isn't enough, of course. That's where Dr. Ornish's other astonishing insight comes in. Paradoxically, he found that radical, sweeping, comprehensive changes are often easier for people than small, incremental ones.
The importance of life-long learning:
How, then, to overcome these factors? Merzenich says the key is keeping up the brain's machinery for learning. "When you're young, almost everything you do is behavior-based learning -- it's an incredibly powerful, plastic period," he says. "What happens that becomes stultifying is you stop learning and you stop the machinery, so it starts dying." Unless you work on it, brain fitness often begins declining at around age 30 for men, a bit later for women. "People mistake being active for continuous learning," Merzenich says. "The machinery is only activated by learning. People think they're leading an interesting life when they haven't learned anything in 20 or 30 years. My suggestion is learn Spanish or the oboe."
The other article came from Jeff Jarvis' media blog - Buzz Machine. He posted about the need for old media to open a dialogue with its customers in order to learn and change:
You don't have to be young to use RSS or an iPod or mobile digital networks or wi-fi. You don't have to be young to appreciate the conversation the internet enables. You don't have to be young to question authority or distrust the press.

When we hear research about how young people treat news differently it could just be that they are the generation freed to think differently, unencumbered by our old-fart habits. If we old farts would free ourselves, we'd think differently, too.
I think there are many lessons to be learned in both these articles. More than anything, they force me to remember that change is not only not inevitable, but it is unlikely unless we are making a constant, intentional, and well thought out effort to change the minds of students, administrators, and the community. But of course, that the easy part. The next step - how do we do this?


Class Blogging Reflection Part II - My Role

There's been a nice run of posts on the roll of the teacher in students blogging at The Daily Grind, Random Thoughts, and Blog of Proximal Development. I've been waiting to respond to them so I could relate this to my reflections on my students' blogs.

I wrote in my last real post that I think my students blogs are going well in the sense that they are a public space where they share and express their thoughts about their final projects. However, I am not happy with the lack of critical thought and discourse. I've been thinking about how I can change my role in the blogs to better encourage the third goal of the blogs.

To this point, I have stayed mostly out of the way of my students (I have only commented when students have asked me a direct question). I have done this because I wanted my students to establish their blogs as their space, not an extension of the classroom (as much as I would like to try and make my classroom a student-centered space, it is still a classroom in school).

This leads me to Mr. McNamar. He recently posted an excellent reflection on his first year of blogging in class and came up some questions which frame the internal conflicts I'm facing right now:

  • Should the teacher post on the classroom blog?
  • Should the teacher interact, through comments, on the classroom blog?
  • Should posts be graded, if so, what should the criteria be?
  • Should blogging in the classroom be held to the same standards as essay writing, or should we give into the text-message culture?
All the questions speak to the tensions between this being a controlled, teacher-directed space as opposed to a dynamic, student-controled space. If I regularly post and comment, grade every post, and hold the writing to 'essay standards,' then the blog will certainly become 'just another assignment,' though there is a better chance I'll be able to help my students write (and think?) on a higher level. On the other hand, if I do not comment or post, if posts aren't graded, and if students write in whatever form they are most comfortable, there is a chance that the blogs will not just be another assignment, though the level of discourse will almost definitely stay where it is now.

These questions, directly or indirectly, have been addressed by many others.

Matt Johnson commented:
But in furthering my theme of expanding the writing skills of students, I would encourage you to require adherence to standard English. Using the text-message English that is now becoming common place detracts from the ability to formulate reasoned and lucid responses on the fly.
I think Matt has a valid point when trying to work specifically on formal writing skills. However, I think doing this comes at a very high price - mandating a certain type of discourse I think automatically makes it a teacher controlled space. As long as my role is playing "language police," a much higher emphasis in some students minds will be on writing properly as opposed to sharing ideas, building knowledge, and thinking critically.

Ivy, who is a student in online graduate courses, commented:
I don't think that posts themselves should be graded -- as it turns the blog into an assignment just like any other assignment, which is something you seem to want to avoid -- but participation in the blog can be graded. For me, in my classes, it is required that I "make a substantial daily contribution to classroom discussion". "Substantial" is highly subjective, but it's that subjectivity that prompts the class to really think about their posts and comments so that they will, hopefully, qualify.
I think she hits some things right on the nail. However, I am hesitant to trust the subjectivity of "Substantial." I think it may work well with graduate students, but I am not as confident it will work with 9th graders. What does 'substantial' blog participation look like? Is it just thoughtful posts? Is it responding to other ideas in others' blogs? Is it commenting on many blogs? I am not really sure at this point.

Nancy McKeand posted:
If we are truly committed to student-centered classrooms, we have to get out of the way. But I think that teachers can post as an equal member of the learning community.
I think she is 100% right in that we need to get out of the way to have a truly student-centered classroom (or blogosphere). One area I've struggled with tremendously this year is in trying to become an equal member of the learning community. I'm sure a lot of people would say that this is not possible with 9th graders, but I refuse to accept that. However, at least three different students wrote to me in reflections throughout the year something to the extent of "if you want to be our equal, we're going to treat you like we treat our peers, which isn't always good." What can be done to get around this attitude that certain students have?

Nancy also had a great post on grading blogs:
I think it should be graded in a portfolio format where students choose their "best" posts. It seems obvious that the student who writes more would have more to choose from and would, therefore, be likely to produce a better portfolio. That would seem to cover the question of frequency and content and, to a large degree, subject matter, as well.
I just think this is a fantastic idea that I will steal. I told my students when giving the assignment that they would be graded for their blogs on "effort and thoughtfulness." I can grade the effort in a straight - Did you respond to all prompts - manner. I like the idea of students picking their 2 or 3 best posts to be graded for thoughtfulness.

Finally, I love the ideas Konrad Glogowski expressed for how to interact with the students' blogs with out directly entering their space. He described how he doesn't post in students' blogs, but instead discusses student posts on his own blogs:
I use my blog to direct traffic, to let my students know that I also go online, that I do read their work - not because I am interested in marking it but because I am genuinely interested in what they have to say. I direct the cognitive traffic of my class blogosphere by using my own blog to post links to student entries and write about similarities and differences in their ideas. I sometimes see my work as that of an aggregator. I do not produce ideas, I just “catch” them as they move around in the ever-expanding web of thoughts.
I think it may be too late for me to establish this because I have already established this blog as something separate from the class. However, the next time I use blogging in class, I think I'll use this idea and have a class blog where I am the author, and use this primarily to reflect and respond to students' postings.

Take a ride

This week's Carnival of Education is up.

Blogs are not journals!

Great comic
(Thanks to Will)


Class Blogging Reflection - Student Blogs

So most of my students have been blogging for about a week now about their final projects, which means I finally get to share some of what they've been doing.

Overall, I think the blogs are working very well. I intentionally gave the students minimalist directions (for the full assignment, click here). I have provided each group with prompts to respond to before each class (I see different classes on different days, so not all students are in the same spot):

  1. What topic do you want to do your presentation on? Why? What's an idea for each segment?
  2. How do you make history/news funny? What makes something funny?
  3. What is the biggest challenge your group is facing right now?
The overall use of the blog has ranged from a group who has done nothing but answer the prompts (the bare minimum) to a group that is being ridiculously prolific.

Without much suggestion from myself, different student blogs have developed different uses (for each use, I'm just going to site one or two examples, but more can be found within the blogs - links to all of them can be found on any of the pages):
  • Probably the most common use has been to help the groups brainstorm ideas.
  • One group's blog is looking like a pretty traditional link blog, which they are using to share research.
  • Different groups are using the blog as organizational tools in different ways. Here is a rather detailed list of everything a group needs to get done, whereas here is just a simple reminder of a looming deadline.
  • Here's an example of a student from one class learning, and commenting, on a blog from another class.
  • Here is a student who posted a technical question that was quickly answered by another student.
  • And finally, Dan wins the funniest post award for the first week.
Pretty early in the process, Caitlin wrote "This is working out really well. Like email only...okay so it's exactly like email." I think Caitlin's assessment is for the most part fair to this point. The blogging has been working out well, but only as something like 'public e-mail.' In that sense, the blogs have been great in that they are a public forum for my students to share their ideas. This only hits two out of the three main goals I had for my students in assigning blogs to help with the final project.

The last, and most difficult goal to achieve, is to use blogs to help develop more critical thought and discourse regarding the project. With only a very few exceptions, students have not starting commenting on other groups' blogs. I hope that when I assign this as one of the blog prompts over the weekend, that this will lead to more interesting inter-group conversations, and therefore help the groups to better develop their ideas. Does anyone have any suggestions as to how I can help my students take their blogs to the next level? (I'd also encourage anyone to compliment, constructively criticize, and question my students. Unfortunately due to some practical considerations, I've required a Blogger account for commenting, but that can be gotten pretty quickly here and does not require having a Blogger blog).


Good Luck Sloggers!

My roommate Mat left this morning for West Virginia to get one last good night's rest before the Afghan Girls Fund Charity Slog begins tomorrow. Once again, Mat and the rest are doing 200 miles in 10 days with nothing by the clothes on his back, a couple canteens and one tea bag. No food. No tent. No sleeping bag. The slog's website will be updated throughout the next 10 days with pictures and updates from Madeleine Wiens, 13 year old daughter of one of the sloggers.

The picture on the right is Mat before he left today. I'll have an 'after' pic when he gets back.

Safe Blogging - Issues with Comments?

Came across a great teaching blog last week: Random Thoughts by Nancy McKeand.

She has a great argument about why we should be teaching student how to blog safely as opposed to banning blogs in schools and thus ignoring the fact that many students are blogging on their own.

She also brings up an issue that I had neglected to give much thought to, and have therefore not yet discussed with my students - how do we deal with inappropriate comments on student blogs? She points to Anne Davis' post on how she deals with this in her class. Anne and her students decided that:

  1. We would not respond to the irresponsible commenters. We would ignore them.
  2. The student would report any inappropriate comments to the teacher.
  3. The teachers would delete inappropriate comments, if they found them first but would discuss the matter with the owner of the blog and with the group, if appropriate.
  4. We agreed that it was unfortunate that the commenter had not used common sense and we would try to set good examples on our blogs.
This seems like a pretty good policy, and I'll submit it to my students in class this week. Does anyone have anything to add or change to it?

I'm going to start reflecting and linking to my students' blogs this week, and while I am 99% confident there won't be any negative issues to deal with because of this, I am thankful to Nancy and Anne for bringing this to mind beforehand.

African History Denied...Again?

One of the ways I'm hoping I can use this blog in my future teachings years is to highlight news stories that relate to subjects we've already covered, or are yet to cover. Here's practice #1 at that:

Earlier in the year when we studied ancient African history, we talked about how African history was largely denied by white colonialists who didn't believe that the natives were capable of organized society. There are numerous examples of this, but for me, the most striking was the assertion that Great Zimbabwe must have been the palace of the Queen of Sheeba (nothing like British colonialists looking to fit something into the Bible over the historical facts at hand).

One would hope this would not happen any more in a world that has at the very least recognized most of the evils of colonialism, even if most of the world has yet to recognize the full and continued affects of colonial rule. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. This article (via Outside the Beltway) talks about bias in reporting of the news in modern Africa, particularly about the tendency to over report negative news stories, and under report positive news stories from the continent.

IM issues?

Lots of interesting shades of grade is this Washington Post article about two students in the county I live in (but not work in) who are now facing charges because of 'joking' threats they made to other students on Instant Messenger. I piece is a nice change of pace from the seemingly-usual "technology poses a risk so let's ban it" story we're been seeing about blogging a lot.


Truly Amazing Endeavor

I've had the link to the Afghan Girls Fund Charity Slog up since my site launched, but they just started their blog today so I wanted to bring as much attention to it as possible.

This site is truly remarkable on three levels:

  1. It supports National Geographic's Afghan Girls Fund - a incredibly worthwhile cause.
  2. The page will chart the progress of 10 people (one of which who is my roommate) who will begin a 200 mile, 10 day hike with nothing but the clothes on their backs and one tea-bag on June 1. That's right - 20 miles/day with no food, for 10 days. These are all better women and men than I.
  3. The site's blogger, Madeline, is a immensely talented writer for any age. But she also happens to be 13 and her father will be partaking in the slog. Her first entry, contemplates how her love for reading might have been different if she grew up under Taliban rule. This should be required reading for all. An excerpt:
Just as I sat there on a cheery Beatrix Potter-patterned child-sized chair at the Borders Bookstore in the heart of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in the summer of 1997, the Taliban militia had recently come to power in Afghanistan, installing a reactionary policy of gender apartheid. My short sleeved T-shirt and cotton patterned shorts would have been considered indecent, as I would be required to wear the all-covering burqa in public. My future would have been dim, as secondary schooling was prohibited for females. Independence was not a possibility, since driving vehicles was not permitted without male escorts.

New Blog Feature

When I started the blog, one of things I wanted to do down the road was find a simple way I could post interesting articles and blog posts I read on a daily basis on my site - not necessarily education related, just anything I happened to read and find thought-provoking, in hopes that just maybe, a few of my students (or anyone else who comes across my blog) might read something they don't usually read. I knew that there would be some way to do this using RSS and furl or del.icio.us, I just wasn't sure exactly how I could go about learning the programming necessary to do it.

Well turns out, there was a much easier solution, thanks to a wonderful little site called RSS DIgest. They will take any RSS feed and turn it into javascript that can easily be put into any page. That combined with the RSS feed for a certain del.icio.us tag (I happened to use the tag 'today') creates the new list on the sidebar: Things I've Read Recently. Thanks to Jeffrey Veen for this info.

Further simplifying the process was a little javascript thanks to Peter Parkes which gave me a bookmarklet which will automatically save the page I'm viewing to my del.icio.us account with the tag 'today,' therefore, in effect, adding the link to my blog's sidebar.

So new feature over on the right. The first page, other than the pages that explained this process, was today's NY Times column by Matt Miller, who was a high school student of my student teaching advisor. I can't think of much more I would want as a teacher than to have a student become something like Matt.

Come to the Carnival!

This week's Carnival of Education is up!


Final Project Assignment

Finally started the first set of my students on their project today! The final assignment is posted on my website. Students also should be posting on their blogs tonight or tomorrow. I promised them a week to get the hang of it before I start showing them off on this site.
It's amazing how rejuvenated I feel about teaching once the shackles of the state standards have been removed and we finally get to start some truly student centered authentic assessment.

Reflections on Responsible Blogging Lesson

Before I even start writing this, I want to say that I hope my students will comment and add their thoughts on the lesson. My thoughts reflect only a very limited point of view (and one that is ultimately pretty meaningless in talking about how a lesson went).

I think the lesson was basically a success in terms of meeting the objectives of the lesson. Students identified some of the potential dangers of blogging (as well as being very aware of which ones, while legitimate, were largely the result of alarmists). At the end of the lesson I felt they were ready to begin blogging, and I think taking the time to do the lesson will eliminate any "behavioral" problems during the process (without the lesson, I feel there might have been one or two minor ones). Most importantly, each class was successful in writing a blog policy, which I posted over at Bud's Wiki.

As usual, each class has it's own distinctive personality. My 1st and 6th Period classes were energetic throughout and had very solid conversations. My 7th period class was almost ridiculously efficient in their conversation. They hit all the major points and necessary rules very quickly without much conversation. The class did not go quite as well 2nd period in terms of the quality of conversation, but the class was still successful in creating a good policy. (Still haven't done it with my 4th period class).

The biggest surprise for me came during first period when there was a somewhat heated conversation about whether or not parental permission should be required. I have very strong feelings that it should not be required (the school's Acceptable Use Policy, which parents do sign, includes permissions for teacher supervised web pages), but I kept my mouth shut. At one point during the conversation, a student asked me what I planned to tell parents and my response was "It's your project." I could be reading this completely wrong, but I felt like the students who wanted parental permission seemed to take that as a given, whereas the students against it feel into "My parents don't care/I don't see them" and "We're mature enough to do this on our own" camps. Ultimately, the class decided that if students want to tell their parents, they can. I also crafted a letter for students to take home to their parents (adapted from the letter on Bud's Wiki).

The other topic of conversation that students got the most into was whether or not to allow what I dub AIM-speak: the use of acronyms like "LOL" and "BRB" and phonetic spelling like "sez," "cuz," "l8r," etc... Different classes made different decisions on the issue (the conversation from 1st period actually extended onto the comments section of my blog, which I then created a new blog for). My personal opinion on the matter is that in moderation, the AIM-speak acronyms are fine as long as everyone knows what they mean (as Ben alluded to, http is an acronym that would just clutter up the language if spelled out). As far as phonetic spellings, I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, they're more efficient and casual and as long as people know what someone is talking about, I don't think it should make any difference. On the other hand, there are many adults who will think students who spell like this are idiots and don't know how to spell and I'd like my students to represent themselves in a way that will make people take them seriously. Ultimately, I was glad that two of classes did not feel the need to make a rule against this type of spelling, but at the same time, I hope my students will be careful and conscious in how they chose to represent themselves online.

Susan posted a few questions for me between her blog and comments that I wanted to answer:

  • To be honest, I didn't even think to include our county's Acceptable Use Policy. The policy we wrote, in the end, did fall under the policy. In hindsight, I am glad we did not sue it because I think it might have limited the ways in which students would have thought about writing the rules. The way we did it, it pretty much all came from them.
  • In total, there was about 45 minutes of all class conversation, and 15 minutes of small group conversation. The students talked for about 15 minutes on dangers, 15 minutes generally on types of rules for the policy, 15 minutes in the small groups coming up with specific rules and consequences, and then about 15 minutes (in some classes shorter, and in others longer) discussing the worthwhileness of specific rules that the small groups proposed. I am lucky enough to have my students for 90 minute blocks, which allowed for the extended conversation
  • I didn't have to synthesize at all for my students. In the first two conversations, all I needed to do was ask the initial questions and then occasionally add another question when conversation stalled. I didn't have to offer anything in the small group conversations. When we looked at the specific rules, I was just a facilitator.
So overall, I'm happy with how things went. I'm left with a somewhat empty feeling on some fronts though, as I wonder whether this was in some ways an insult to the intelligence and character of many of my students. Yes - I am glad that the lesson gave students ownership over the blogging process and hopefully made students feel a strong sense of responsibility for their blogs. And Yes - this probably prevented at least one group from making their plans to meet on their blog. But ultimately I hate the idea (even though I know it was 100% necessary from the adult/outsider point of view) that before my students could start to enjoy their participation in the edublogosphere, they had to be subjected to rules, rules, and more rules. To carry Bud's metaphor one step further - do you start skateboarding by learning the rules about skateboarding? Or do you learn to skate by trying it out, falling on your ass a few times, and then eventually figuring it out for yourself?


Thoughts on Picking Groups and Group Sizes

So it seems like at this point, the two biggest areas of concern with the project are the fact that I am picking the groups and how big the groups will be.

As far as picking the groups goes, I don't really have much to add to what I already wrote. What I wanted to comment on was the discussion that's been going on around the issue. I want to commend Drew, for being the only person to actually respond to what I posted. Of all the posts that came later, no one bothered to engage any of my argument. And while I disagree strongly with some of the things Drew wrote (though Mark already called him on some of this), he actually responded to what I wrote. Not that there is anything wrong with just sharing your thoughts, but for the comments section to work to its full potential, it needs to be more than just a place to share thoughts. The point of the comments is to engage with what's written in the blog.

On the group size front, I am sympathetic to what Mike, Drew, and Jack wrote. All of you are right -- getting 5 or 6 people to agree on anything is going to be a huge challenge. I am confident that my students are up to it, though. Part of my motivation for this project is that I want my students to produce something of some value. I do not believe that a group of 4 people would be able to meet my expectations for the project (I was actually giving thought originally to groups of 8 or 12, but was dissuaded from that in the initial posts). With that said, here is what I have planned for the project in hopes that the challenges Mike, Drew, and Jack noted will not get in the way of each group producing an excellent project:

  • Students will have at least 6 (nearly) full class period to work on the project. That's 9 hours of time to work, just in class.
  • The blog will give students a means to communicate with each other without having to worry about finding a time where everyone can get together
  • Before students are even allowed to talk about what topic they want, they will spend time breaking up the project into smaller parts. They will have to submit to me a list of these parts, as well as who is responsible within the group for each aspect of the project. This means that there are really only two decisions that absolutely must be made by the whole group: how to split the project up and what the topic should be. After that, it will be up to students to weigh the pros and cons of having more people working on a portion of the project

Final Final Project Assignment Update Post

I think this is the final list of information for the Final Project before converting it into formal assignment form (my first group of students will begin the project Tuesday):

Ok, so here's the list of what was established:

  • I want them to create a presentation of some sort based onThe Daily Show. The content of the presentations will be based on places and times we have studied throughout the year (prehistory -> Renaissance in the West, and Ming Dynasty in the East)
  • The final product needs to be completed the week of June 20
  • Groups will have 5-6 people
  • Each group will have the option of presenting a video or "live" in class. Groups presenting live will be required to submit a script.
  • Each group will have the option of choosing to concentrate on either a certain time, or a certain place, with teacher approval.
  • Each group will be assessed on [at least] Humor/Entertainment Value, Accuracy (and existence) of historical content, Professionalism of presentation (sets, visual aides, costumes, etc). Once we actually get started with putting the projects together, we will discuss and construct a very specific rubric so each group knows what the expectations are.
  • There will be a blogging requirement for each group
  • Individuals will have assigned roles in the group.
  • I will make groups
  • On the first day of the project, the groups will be responsible for turning in a list of a) assigned roles b) a list of check-points. The individual groups will determine what both the roles and check-points are, but I must approve them.
  • Each group will have a blog set up for them. Students will be required to post to the blog before each class meeting. I will provide a discussion topic for each meeting. There will also be a smaller requirement to post comments on other groups' blogs.
  • There will be both a group and an individual grade. The group grade will be based on meeting the check-points and the final product. The individual grade will be based on participation and effort in the blog. I reserve the right to also grade an individual different from the group if she/he does not make an equal contribution to the group (note that this is not just someone who does no work, but also someone who dominates the group).
The last additions:
  • The total grade for the project will be determined by the presentation (60%), participation in the group blog (30%), and meeting the project deadlines (10%)
  • All deadlines will be set by the group, with my approval
  • The final presentation will be about 22 minutes long
  • The final presentation will be made up of 3 different segments.
  • The first segment will be an in-depth report on a major news story. This segment must include at least one "on the scene" report from a correspondent. This segment also must include at least one "news clip" (i.e. you need to re-enact the news story you're reporting on to some degree)
  • The second segment can be another news story, a feature story, a "where are they now" segment, a "Back in Black" rant on the stupidity of something, or anything else they do on the Daily Show with approval.
  • The third segment will be an interview with a celebrity, artist, or politician.
  • There will be a "task" to complete during each class meeting. Completing these tasks will count as grades for the 4th quarter (County policy is that I have to have 2 grades/week, otherwise I wouldn't do this. These should be gimme points)
Some thoughts on picking groups and group sizes to come later this evening (I hope).
Questions, Comments, Concerns? Hit the comment link and share your thoughts.


A Compliment for My Students

I just wanted to bring this comment out to the main page so hopefully most of my students will see it. I hope they realize what they're doing is pretty cool and unique, and that they are making some very positive impressions on people:

To all the students particpating here, your thoughtful comments and active participation in this blog is a credit to you. It shows a level of maturity I've not often seen in 14 year olds. Keep up the great work. You've just begun to tap into the powerful learning potential of blogging. I'm looking forward to watching your continued growth.
Darren - Thank you so much for the kind words to my students


Last Set of Final Project Questions?

Let me know what you think:

  • There will be three major parts of student grade for this project: the final product, meeting the check-point deadlines, and individual participation in the group blog. What percent of the total grade do you think each part should carry? Why?
  • What information/resources should I provide before we start the project?
  • Is there anything else we're forgetting or not talking about?
Thanks in advance for your continued input.

Final Project Assignment Update

Ok, so here's the list of what was established:

  • I want them to create a presentation of some sort based onThe Daily ShowThe content of the presentations will be based on places and times we have studied throughout the year (prehistory -> Renaissance in the West, and Ming Dynasty in the East)
  • The final product needs to be completed the week of June 20
  • Groups will have 5-6 people
  • Each group will have the option of presenting a video or "live" in class (My addition: Groups presenting live will be required to submit a script)
  • Each group will have the option of choosing to concentrate on either a certain time, or a certain place, with teacher approval
  • Each group will be assessed on [at least] Humor/Entertainment Value, Accuracy (and existence) of historical content, Professionalism of presentation (sets, visual aides, costumes, etc). Once we actually get started with putting the projects together, we will discuss and construct a very specific rubric so each group knows what the expectations are.
  • There will be a blogging requirement for each group
  • Individuals will have assigned roles in the group
  • I will make groups
Here is what I'm adding:
  • On the first day of the project, the groups will be responsible for turning in a list of a) assigned roles b) a list of check-points. The individual groups will determine what both the roles and check-points are, but I must approve them.
  • Each group will have a blog set up for them. Students will be required to post to the blog before each class meeting. I will provide a discussion topic for each meeting. There will also be a smaller requirement to post on other groups' blogs.
  • There will be both a group and an individual grade. The group grade will be based on meeting the check-points and the final product. The individual grade will be based on participation and effort in the blog. I reserve the right to also grade an individual different from the group if she/he does not make an equal contribution to the group (note that this is not just someone who does no work, but also someone who dominates the group)

To Make Groups or Not To Make Groups

There's been some great discussion over on one of the comments thread about whether or not I should be making the groups for the final project. This is the type of situation I hoped would happen when starting the blog because it both a) is a really good "meta" conversation how people best learn and b) it forces me to explain my rational behind a decision.

I think Divya made a really good argument for why I should make groups:

i think that you (Mr. L) being able to pick our groups is a better choice. there are things in life that you're gonna get stuck with that you don't want so this would be good training. It would also show how much we've progressed over the year in being able to stand each other and get along. The groups [in my class] that have presented have done an equally good job when the groups were student chosen or teacher chosen.

I think the anonymous poster did a good job describing some of the issues with me making groups:

I disagree 100% with everyone who wants you to pick the groups. I know who I work well with and who I get along with. I also know who has the same goals and work ethic as me. I would not want to be thrown into a group that has people that sit back and don't contribute. If the people who don't care want a bad grade, then they can all get bad grades together.

With that said, here, in no particular order, are some of the main reasons why I want to pick the groups

  1. Let's say there are 6 groups (has there has been for most projects this year). Any time the students pick groups, I'd say there are 2 groups that work really well, 2 that work alright, and 2 that don't work well at all. Generally the two groups that don't work are groups where people chose to work with their friends.
  2. There's always at least one group that is the "leftovers." It's a horrible feeling to be in that group. I want to avoid that for this project.
  3. At this point in the year, I think I know my students well enough to maximize the chances of success in groups. While me making groups may prohibit the 1 fantastic presentation I may get from a certain group of friends, it will also avoid the 2 mediocre presentations I get. That's a trade off I'm wiling to make.
  4. On the issue of "fairness," I think it is more fair to have a group where there may be one unmotivated person, than to have a whole group of unmotivated people.
  5. I want everyone to succeed in this project. By making groups, I can put everyone in the position to succeed. With the "same old" student-chosen groups, I pretty much know in each class there are one or two groups who are not as likely to succeed as other groups.
  6. in the reflections on the Teaching Asia project, the top recommendation for how the project could be improved (after "more time") was that I should chose the groups.


Responsible Blogging Lesson Plan

My students are going to begin using blogs for discussion/brainstorming/metathinking in their final projects starting in about a week. Over the past couple weeks, I've been reading a lot about concerns in various communities about the safety of teen blogging, with Xanga and Myspace being the usual culprits (both of which, along with LiveJournal, are blocked from computers in my district). I've also been reading various responses to these concerns from teachers who use blogs in their classes. I put together a lesson that I hope will help students work through the arguments made on both sides argument, with the goal of writing a class blog policy:

Responsible Blogging Lesson Plan:

At end of the lesson, students will:

  • Recognize the potential dangers of irresponsible blogging
  • Write an "Acceptable Blog Use" policy for our class
  • Be ready to begin the responsible use of blogs in our class.
Reading Materials:
  • Students will pick up printouts of the reading as they enter class
  • Read and markup the packet (20 minutes)
  • Rearrange room for Socratic Seminar [I've also seen this called a fishbowl. Short explanation for complex procedure: the room is arranged with an inner and an outer circle of desks, both facing inward. Students in the inner circle have a discussion based on a 'text' while the outer circle observes. The students then switch places. Sometimes the outer circle has a set of process questions to keep track of. There's lots of other variations, but for this lesson that's enough].
  • Seminar #1 - What are some of the potential dangers of blogging discussed in these articles? Which of these concerns are legitimate? Why or why not? What other dangers are there in blogging that were not discussed in the articles? (10 minutes)
  • Seminar #2 - What type of situations should our class blog policy cover? What are appropriate consequences for breaking the policy? (10 minutes)
  • After the seminar, students will get in groups of 3-4, and come up with a list of 3 rules they feel should be included in our class blog policy. They also will have to come up with consequences (10 minutes)
  • Students put rules on the board (5 minutes)
  • Discussion - What rules are we missing? (This will just be brainstorming...no shooting ideas down). What rules do you disagree with? (Disagreements will be put to a majority vote) - (15 minutes)
  • Follow up: I will type of the policy, and have students sign a copy of it the following class.
Thoughts on how to improve the lesson would be greatly appreciated. I'll post some thoughts on how the lesson goes as well as the policies students write after the lesson next week.

Carnival of Education

The new Carnival of Education is up over at The Education Wonks. Students - if you're interested in seeing what some teachers "really think," this is a good place to read. The Carnival links to a bunch of teacher blogs, this one included.


Globally Competitive Students

Clarence at Remote Access had a great post the other day that discusses some of the skills that I think are the goal of a "flattened education." One statement is particularly pertinent to my class as we begin our final project:

In my mind, the most important skills that globally competitive students can learn are those that are cognitive. They must learn to be both critical and creative thinkers. They must be problem-solvers willing to tackle problems with extended effort and not give up when the first solution doesn't do the trick.
I couldn't agree with that statement more. It unfortunately is in stark contrast to what my students are experiencing this week as they take the Virginia Standards of Learning tests, which at least in History, test the ability to memorize facts, and a very specific euro-centric set of facts at that. I am hopeful that the final project we will work on over the last 5 weeks of school will achieve some of Clarence's goal. Five weeks is a long time for one project in our school, and I hope my students are beginning to realize just how much work will need to go into it. I hope we will be able to combine the thinking and creative skills necessary to thrive in a flattened world with some of the content we have been forced to study this year.

History Video Games

How cool does this sound? (for something school related, at least)

A new kind of interactive software is being used for the first time in high school and college classrooms across the country. "Making History," a PC-based learning simulation from Muzzy Lane Software, has debuted this spring at the University of Illinois in Urbana, Ill., Salem State College in Salem, Mass., and Oak Hill High School in Converse, Ind.
I would've loved to use Civilization or Age of Mythology to teach my World History class this past year...hopefully it's not too far away where we can readily have these tools at our hands.


More final project questions

More food for thought (and response!):

  • What are some different roles that could be assigned to group members?
  • Given that this is the final for the course (1/9 of total grade), should individuals be held accountable in certain ways? Or should everyone in the group get the same grade no matter what? Why? If you think individuals should potentially get their own grade, how would you go about doing this?
  • What "check-points" should be built into the assignment? That is, what should be turned in before the final, graded, project?
  • How can we use blogging to help with this assignment?
  • What other questions should we be discussing?

Final Project Assignment Update

Ok, so here's the list of what was established:

  • I want them to create a presentation of some sort based on The Daily Show
  • The content of the presentations will be based on places and times we have studied throughout the year (prehistory -> Renaissance in the West, and Ming Dynasty in the East)
  • The final product needs to be completed the week of June 20
Here's what I'm ready to add after reading your responses:
  • Groups will have 5-6 people
  • Each group will have the option of presenting a video or "live" in class (My addition: Groups presenting live will be required to submit a script)
  • Each group will have the option of choosing to concentrate on either a certain time, or a certain place, with teacher approval
  • Each group will be assessed on [at least] Humor/Entertainment Value, Accuracy (and existence) of historical content, Professionalism of presentation (sets, visual aides, costumes, etc). Once we actually get started with putting the projects together, we will discuss and construct a very specific rubric so each group knows what the expectations are.
  • There will be a blogging requirement for each group
And here are some additions based on some further reflection on my part (please feel free to post disagreement!):
  • Individuals will have assigned roles in the group
  • I will make groups

Comments re: Flattened Education

First off, I just wanted to thank everyone who has posted once again. In my first post I talked about how I am beginning to take initiative in sharing my thoughts on what I have learned on the web because I feel a responsibility to do so. I appreciate those of you who have chosen to share this responsibility with me.

Ok, so on to the responses, in order of their posting.

...no wrote

We understand that the change can benefit us. We're not totally incompetent. [. . .] Quite frankly, I like having a say in my education, especially through blogging. I really don't like speaking up in person, so this works well for me.

I didn't mean to suggest that any of you were incompetent. However, not all my students would agree from you (as many have made clear in various reflections throughout the year). And that is okay. Different people learn differently, and while I think a classroom that involves students in the decision making process and encourages them to be active learners works best for the largest number of students in the largest number of situations, there is no silver bullet that will work for everyone all the time. I'm glad you like the blog format for sharing thoughts. I wish it is something I had started earlier in the year, and will definitely continue in future years.

Jared wrote:

I liked it alot more as opposed to some other classes I've had this year and in the past, and your unique approach is interesting.

Jared - I just wanted to let you know that while a lot of techniques I use place me in the minority at a school like ours, the techniques I use to teach are all used by countless other teachers throughout the country. I think they are a lot more effective (and more fun and interesting) than traditional teaching and there is a mountain of research that backs that up. Unfortunately, changing tradition is a long (and sometimes seemingly impossible) process...

Cassie wrote:

but it was also more work. I think that some of the other kiddos didnt enjoy it because it made them think and they actually had to do stuff.

Cassie - It's funny you wrote that. When I was in college and started learning about this style of teaching, I thought a lot about how I would've felt if I had a teacher like myself in high school. And to be honest, I probably would've hated me. I was one of the students who could get by without doing too much work (my school was a lot easier than yours, though) and the idea of a teacher who wouldn't let me just skate by would have really bothered me.

....yea dont know how much that was on topic but what can you do?
It was, but don't worry about it. You're sharing your well-thought out ideas, and that's what's important.

Fair Use

Came across this today. With all the conversations about piracy and what not, I was surprise to see what actual US Copyright law looks like, particularly the definition of Fair Use:

the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.
My school district has very strict guidelines for films that can be shown in class, largely because of copyright laws. Does this mean it would be legal for me to download a pirated video for use in my classroom? Just wondering...


Your Comments

Thanks to everyone who has been commenting. It seems like this little experiment is off a really strong start. People have been sharing some really great thoughts. I'll let them accumulate some more over the weekend, and then write a big response with some new questions on Monday. Hope everyone has a great weekend!


Flattened Education

Will Richardson recently posted about connections between Thomas Friedman's new book, The World is Flat, and the opportunities that new technologies provide for the classroom. His post connected three different issues I have discussed with my students throughout the year:

  1. We read Thomas Friedman's New York Times article which summarized the book's argument as an introduction to our unit on India and China.
  2. I have tried to continually stressed that as technology makes traditional knowledge progressively easier to access, it will be more and more important to "know how to learn" and "know how to find information" as opposed to just "knowing information".
  3. My belief that a good teacher makes himself "increasingly unnecessary."
Will's adopted a quote from Friedman that perfectly sums up the latter two points:
This is what happens when you move from a vertical (command and control) classroom to a much more horizontal (connect and collaborate) flat classroom. Your student can do his job and your job.
I think one of the biggest challenges I have faced this year is convincing my students, most of whom have been very successful in a traditional "vertical" classroom, that this change can benefit them. I am hopeful that blogging - both through allowing me to be more transparent in my teaching and through giving my students added control and ownership over their class - can move us in this direction.


First Final Project Thoughts

So here's what I have in my mind in terms of my students' final project:

  • I want them to create a presentation of some sort based on The Daily Show
  • The content of the presentations will be based on places and times we have studied throughout the year (prehistory -> Renaissance in the West, and Ming Dynasty in the East)
  • The final product needs to be completed the week of June 20
Other than that, I'm open to suggestions. I want to keep this as open ended as possible for now, so here are a series of questions to consider for now:
  • How big should groups be? Why?
  • What should the final product be? (A script? A presentation for the class? An actual filmed segment?) Why?
  • Should each episode concentrate on a certain time? A certain place? A certain time at a certain place?
  • On what aspects of the production should students be assessed? Why?
There's lots of other questions I have (including: How can student blogging be incorporated into this assignment?), but we'll leave those for later.


The First Post - Why Blog?

Why Blog? For my students…

While the road to this goal has been paved with unintentional hypocrisy and failure, one of my main goals as a novice teacher has been to empower my students with as much control over their education as possible as while I have simultaneously tried to emphasize the process of learning. Through journaling, class conversation, and reflective essays, it has been my hope that my students would grow and improve over the year not just as students of ancient and medieval world history (which, let’s be honest, all but a very small handful will ever think about again come June), but as critical thinkers and learners.

As students began this process, I also experimented - to varying degrees of success and failure - with getting more and more student input into assignments as the year went on. Early attempts at having the students write their own test or assigning a presentation without any real guidelines met with mixed results. At the midpoint of the year students wrote an I-Search paper on an unanswerable question of their choosing, investigating how different world religions had addressed their concerns. These papers were for the most part good, with some being excellent. Finally, we just completed a unit on Eastern Civilization where students became the “teachers” of the class with the responsibility of both teaching and assessing their “students.” And while there were some unfortunate exceptions, these presentations were for the most part excellent. This assignment combined both my goals – of helping students to learn how to learn while simultaneously empowering them with control of their class – and I was happy with the results. I hope this blog allows us to take this process another step.

While the state mandated curriculum has served to handcuff our efforts in many ways, the state tests will be completed in the next two weeks, leaving us with five weeks to (hopefully) truly create a much more ideal educational experience.

Why Blog? For me…

Over the past few weeks I have become more and more conscious of a certain hypocrisy in my teaching. While I force my students to actively reflect on their own learning, I have not actively reflected on my progress as a teacher. So in one sense I hope this blog will serve in many ways as my own public learning journal.

But as I have very recently discovered, blogging will allow me to do this in very powerful ways. Over the past couple months, I have begun reading a number of educators who have joined the public forum of the Internet to share their thoughts and experiences. The ways I’ll use this blog has been particularly inspired by Will Richardson, Bud the Teacher, the guy who writes Remote Access, Tom Daccord, and Thomas Cortese. Similar to how Paulo Freire wrote about the need to eliminate the one way traffic of the “banking model” of teaching in favor of creating communities of teacher-students and students-teachers learning together, these thinkers have made me realize the power of moving beyond the web as simply a method of content delivery. I now realize that the true power of the web is to connect readers and writers, so that “every reader is actually a writer, and you write not so much for "the reader" but for other writers.” I guess I am now ready to accept that responsibility.