Sunday, October 30, 2011

Digital Anne Frank Museum Final Thoughts

Previously, I wrote about the process behind converting my Anne Frank Museum project into a Digital Anne Frank Museum. This is my follow up post to let you know how it went.

Here is where you can find the Digital Anne Frank Museum final product. Overall, I was pleased with the outcome of the project.

Creativity: I didn't specify the technology that needed to be used in order to encourage the creative use of technology. I was pleased to see some impressive projects I myself would have never thought of. Two students created the Annex residents in Sims 3 and then recorded some of their daily interactions. Two other students used Minecraft to build a model of the Annex. I am familiar with both of these programs, but would not have thought of tying them in with Anne Frank. Two groups used Glogster and one took those Glogsters and embedded them into webpages without any help from me.

Content: I felt the students did a good jo of showing understanding of content. Only one project, although very creative and artistic, failed to show a solid understanding of the book. I use the project in lieu of a test to assess understanding. It appears the majority of the students came away with a firm grasp of what Anne Frank is all about. However, I don't just want content understanding, but also a clear understanding of the significance of the book. In my opinion, that was achieved.

Death to Powerpoint: Like I said, I didn't specify technology as to allow creative uses. However, I strongly considered banning Powerpoints. Forty percent of my projects were Powerpoints. All of them had good content, but just weren't very original. Also, all of them had a technical issue the students couldn't solve. Some didn't get their fonts or images to appear as planned. Others couldn't get their audio to work correctly. I would say that this was my biggest disappointed. I encourage them to use Google Presentations (this was prior to the recent Google Presentation upgrade), Slide Rocket, Keynote or some other presentation tool. I, personally, can't remember seeing a good Powerpoint presentation, or actually any Powerpoint presentation at many of the conferences I've attended over the past few years. I've been to NCTE, ISTE, and a few smaller conferences and just don't see it. Maybe its my personal bias, but Powerpoints always looked dated and cluttered to me. Recently, I saw on YouTube Adam Bellow giving his Tech Commandments at the 140 conference. The MC implied Adam used Powerpoint for his presentation. I was surprised how good it was and didn't think Powerpoint could do many of the things he did. However, I asked Adam what he used and apparently he used Keynote '09 for his presentation. I assume the introducer was using Powerpoint as a generic term, like Kleenex.

Another teacher at my school recently assigned a Powerpoint specifically (even though we are a Google Apps school). I believe that is a lot of the problem. Too many teachers are still assigning Powerpoints, making students believe making a Powerpoint is an important skill. Presentation skills are important, the ability to make content presentable is important, but the actual Powerpoint program, I believe is counter-productive to that goal. Feel free to disagree and send me wonderfully produced Powerpoints that prove me wrong. I just haven't seen them.

Classroom iPad: We have a classroom iPad2 that the students share. I was hoping to see some students use it for something extremely creative. About halfway through the project, I had one group that was having difficulty with getting video to a mac to edit. Since the iPad has iMovie on it, I suggested they record video with it and edit on it. They got all the video complete and did some work in iMovie, but ended up exporting it and editing on a Macbook in iMovie because that is what they were familiar with. One other student used it to search for images for his Powerpoint. Oddly enough, he moved the images to his Google Docs account, so he could work on his Powerpoint at home. Disappointingly, other than that, no one came up with a creative use for the iPad on this project. At the point, students still see the iPad as media consumption only and are not seeing the production capabilities it has as well.

Overall, it turned out to be a good project that I will continue into the future. Some of my disappoints will require a cultural shift in thinking, not only amongst the kids, but also other staff members. Small steps I guess. Small steps.

Feel free to let me know what you think of the project.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Reading and Discussing is not a Flipped Classroom

I had read the USA Today article about Stacey Roshan's Flipped Classroom a couple of weeks back. This morning, while going through some other sites, I came across a video of the same story. What jumped out at me was a quote by Ms. Roshan where she said, "In an English class, you send the kids home to read a passage, and then in class, you discuss that passage."

As I wrote this, Jon Bergmann tweeted out a story in the Virginian-Pilot about Megan Edwards's Flipped Class. This article reads, "She compares it to English teachers asking students to read a piece of literature at night, then having them discuss the work in class the next day."

Before I continue, let me say, I don't know Stacey Roshan or Megan Edwards personally and I'm not being critical of them at all. I agree with much of what was presented of them in the story. Having had a story done on my flipped classroom recently, I realize you are at the whim of what the reporter decides to use.
In addition, I am a huge supporter of the Flipped Classroom. Many proponents that I have a great deal of respect and admiration for have also presented this argument to support flipped instruction.

The gest of this argument as I understand it is that teachers in English have done the flipped method for years by assigning a novel or other reading to be completed at home and then discussing it in class. I guess at a basic level, it is similar, but I would argue it is not the same thing.

Here is how I would describe the flipped class at its most basic: a method to free up class time to individualize instruction in the classroom. Those of us who use the flipped class know it is so much more than that, though.

Using that basis, sending the kids home to do their reading is the same as sending math students home with math problems. In other words, we are still asking students to use skills at home which they may not possess yet. I'm referring to reading comprehension skills.

In my school, we have reading and English as two separate classes. In English, I teach writing and grammar. In reading, I teach reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition. Discussion is a common practice in many Language Arts classrooms. I believe discussion is used for three main reasons: 1) to promote higher level thinking, 2) to assess understanding, and 3) to link basic text to societal, historical, or cultural context. These are all great goals, but is there a better way?

I'm not proposing I have all the answers. I just know, if my students don't have solid reading comprehension skills, discussions aren't productive, nor are they the best method for students to learn.

Last year I was meeting with a parent about her daughter. My 7th graders were reading A Chrismas Carol at the time. The parent told me she liked how I posted the pages to be read online, because she would look them up, read the assignment during the day, then sit with her daughter at night and help her understand the passage. The parent wasn't complaining, but rather praising me for listing their assignments online. But, I couldn't help but feel like that parent was doing my job for me. Wasn't it my responsibility to make sure that child had the ability to read and understand the material? And, if the child didn't understand, was it not then my job to identify what skills she lacked and help her get them? How could I do that if the student was primarily reading at home?

Based on that situation and other similar ones, I am attempting to flip my reading classroom. I have successfully flipped my English classroom and am enjoying great success with it. I'm still bouncing around ideas for successfully flipping my reading class. To this point, I've added video content of terms or ideas that would come up in a reading antagonist or plot structure. I've also given days were students read entirely in class and I circulate to have individual discussions to assess understanding. But, the individual discussions don't allow me the time to have deeper meaningful discussions that can be attained in a collaborative group setting. I've also considered and dabbled with a Socratic questioning method to ignite better understanding.

When I was interviewed for the NPR article, the reporter asked me if there was a "light bulb moment" where I knew I was going to flip. I couldn't think of a particular moment. It happened gradually as I researched it more. I attended The Flipped Class Conference and had multiple "light bulb moments" if you will. However, something of this magnitude, I explained to the reporter, isn't something that just happens. It takes time to grow and develop. I believe I'm trying too hard to force flipped instruction into my reading class. I need to take my own advice, it seems, and let it grow more organically based on the students' needs.

I've preached to many that no two flipped classes are alike. Well, it appears even for the same teacher (me), no two of my flipped classes are alike!

So, back to the main topic of this post that got me thinking: I'll say it again, simply reading at home and discussing in class is not the same as the flipped classroom. I cringe when I hear that comparison, because saying that, I believe, takes away some effectiveness in one's argument. Please, keep that in mind during future flipped classroom discussions.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

ELA Problems, Explore-Flip-Apply Solution

Last summer at the Google Teacher Academy in Seattle, I had the pleasure of sharing a table with Ramsey Musallam and heard him speaking about different models of the Flipped Classroom. Of particular interest to me was the Explore-Flip-Apply model. Currently, I am doing the traditional model (isn't it odd to call a flipped instruction method "traditional"?), where I front load the information and then assign a project or activity to assess that content. I liked the concept of the Explore-Flip-Apply for the Language Arts class and decided I eventually wanted to move to this model. I wanted my students to get familiar to flipped instruction first and transition them into what I would consider a more difficult model.

Ramsey Musallam recently posted a more detailed explanation of Explore-Flip-Apply and gave some examples from his Chemistry background. This post really got me thinking more about how I can use the Explore-Flip-Apply model. The more I think about this, the more I'm realizing this might alleviate some of the obstacles I've seen in English instruction. I realize every discipline has its own set of challenges. Following are some that I've seen in English Language Arts that many struggle to address. And, after each problem, I've presented an Explore-Flip-Apply solution.

1. Show your work
When was the last time you heard a teacher talking about all the extra English tutoring she did? How often do kids come in before or after school for English help? At my school, our principal runs after school math help (he was a former math teacher), but kids rarely ask for after school English help. My point being, for the most part, kids don't think they need extra help in English as often. If a student has trouble with an English assignment, they will call a friend and get the answer. There isn't the need to show your work as would happen in a math class. There doesn't seem to be an expectation to show your work in English. Sure, we teach writing as a process and may require rough drafts to "force" kids to show their work. But, students used to doing English work at home in isolation, tend also to not to see the need for showing their work.
On a similar note, I love the "revision history" in Google Docs. I can see my students' writing process and "rough drafts" right there in the document.

Explore-Flip-Apply Solution: This model seems to be based around "showing your work". I'm envisioning a lesson in which I present a problem or task. Ken Shelton presented an awesome activity at the GTA on Google Search tools that required us to work in groups to fill in answers to some questions in a short time period. I can see doing something like this initially as exploring. Give the students a short time period to answer some questions. At the end of the time period, hopefully, no one will have completed the activity. Then, have the students brainstorm how or what tools they needed to be more efficient. That's the Explore.
Next would be providing a video, screencast, podcast, or other digital means for them to be provided a list of tools and their uses. Maybe you could even demonstrate finding the answers in the allotted time emphasizing what tools you used. That's the Flip.
Finally, the students return to class and are given a similar, but possibly even more difficult, task. Again, they are given a specified time limit to find the solution using the tools they learned about the previous night. Once they've shown progress in their search efficiency, assign a larger research project. That's the Apply.

2. A lot of writing is collaborative

If we think about times we use our writing skills in really life, many times it is in a collaborative process. Right now, I am working on two presentations and a conference proposal with other teachers. We are collaborating the writing process. Unfortunately, when we ask students to collaborate, all students don't learn or focus on the same skills or content. With some projects, that's acceptable. However, even when students contribute equal work, they still contribute to different tasks. Students will work toward their strengths, which is what real-world collaborations are, but we need them to work on their weaknesses.

Explore-Flip-Apply Solution:
I can see doing a project where students teach each other as part of the explore. For instance, I assign a presentation. The presentation has to teach the class a skill or topic on which the group has a lot of knowledge (sound like a conference presentation?). As a group, they have to brainstorm what topic they will be covering and then proceed to determine what skills they need for a successful presentation. If you want to narrow it more, it could be a topic of some content related to your class. Students determine what they are going to need to complete this project successfully. At the same time, they have to identify and document what each partner's strengths are. That's the Explore.
Next, they watch a video, podcast, or other means and see which skills they really do need. Here, I might throw in a twist and require them to perform a weakness of theirs as opposed to a strength. And, at the same time, they need to teach their other group members their strengths and learn from the others how to improve their weaknesses. That's the Flip.
Then, they use all the tools they learned and put together their presentation. That's the Apply.

3. Authentic writing
In English, we always want to work on what is known as authentic writing, or real-world applications. While I love this idea in theory, I don't always see it as attainable. Maybe it is the fault of standardized testing, but students struggle sometimes to make that connection between what they know and how it applies to the real-world application. For instance, I do an advertising unit with my students to cover some media literacy skills as well as persuasion. Rarely do I get a student that makes the connection between the formal persuasive essay they write for class (either my class or other teachers' classes) and persuasive advertising. Here in lies part of the problem. On a standardized test, they are going to asked to write a letter to their principal explaining why school uniforms are bad or good, or some other contrived "real-world" problem. It is simply asking for a persuasive essay in the form of a letter. Some kids don't get that and write these long drawn out letters with poor organization or supporting evidence. I've even had some kids ask if the principal was really going to read the letters. Do you think that kid is formulating good ideas and focusing on the writing process? Not likely. And that is the crux of the problem. If we focus too much on formula writing that the tests want to see, kids miss real-world applications. If we focus too much on real-world applications, kids can struggle to make the connection needed for standardized test type writing.

Explore-Flip-Apply Solution: Well, both my other examples were real-world solutions. However, in this case, I may use a similar contrived assignment that could be seen on a standardized test. I could assign writing a letter to our principal about some topic that needs persuading.
In class, students brainstorm on what skills they need and what steps they'll take in the writing process to compose a solid letter. That's the Explore.
At home, they'll learn the links to other assignments they've had in the past.....persuasive essay, compare/contrast, cause and effect, etc. whichever one I want them to apply here. Or, I may just give them videos on these types of essays and see if they make the connection on their own. That's the Flip.
Then, they compose the letter in class. That's the apply.
Note to self: this exercise might be good to try a couple weeks before we begin statewide testing.

4. Common Sense or "I've spoken English all my life"
Students oftentimes see English as common sense to them. English content is what I like to call cyclical. Or so it appears. As opposed to math or science, in which you build on each topic, English content comes back around and is re-covered time and again, year after year. I can look at my school's 5th grade textbook and find many of the same concepts as my 8th grade textbook. We begin talking about nouns, for instance, and my students say, "We already know what a noun is. We had it in like 5th grade." What they don't realize is that nouns in 8th grade are subtly more comprehensive than in 7th, 6th, and 5th. They might be thrown some collective nouns or gerunds. But, they have their blinders on and are thinking "I already know nouns; I can tune out for awhile." Therefore, they aren't going to ask for help understanding nouns because they haven't even realized there is new content being presented.
Many teachers believe, as do I, that grammar is best taught in context. Meaning skill and drill worksheets, while possibly good for picking up terminology, don't improve grammar in writing. And, isn't that where we want to see good grammar? In their writing? I've always been a bit bothered by our standardized tests that say, "Identify the preposition and object of the preposition in this sentence." My students can write wonderful and correct prepositional phrases with ease. Yet, some of them come to that question and can't identify the preposition. When they get older, will they be more aptly served writing prepositions or pointing to them?

Explore-Flip-Apply Solution:
This might be bit harder to pull off in the Explore-Flip-Apply model. I might be reaching here, but I'll still give it a go.
In class, students might be presented with a problem. Explain what goes into writing an effective paragraph. Maybe even focus it more by adding nonfiction or fiction. Let the students brainstorm what makes a good sentence, attempting, at the same time, to use proper grammar terminology. While they are throwing out what they think are grammar terms, asked some pointed questions like, "does the type of noun we use matter?" Or, "why might introductory clauses be important?" At the end of the period, we should have a list or guide to writing an effective paragraph, with what they believe is proper terminology (but not telling them if they are correct or not). That's the Explore.
At home, they watch a video explaining all they really need to know for writing an effective paragraph, confirming some of their previous work or dispelling any myths or misunderstandings. That's the Flip.
Next day in class, use my list or guide, maybe even spend some time comparing the two guides and coming to a common agreement about certain items. Maybe even have a discussion on why my guide is wrong and theirs is correct. Ultimately, you have them write a paragraph using the guide they learned, at the same time, identifying prepositional phrases, introductory clauses, etc. That's the Apply.

In this post, I solely covered the writing part of English Language Arts. I didn't tackle the Reading Comprehension part at all. That's down the road some time for me. As I stated earlier, I'd like to move my students to the Explore-Flip-Apply model away from, or complementary to, the Tradition Flip model. I have my sights set for doing something like this after Christmas break. We'll see if it happens. In the meantime, I'd love to hear other suggestions on using the Explore-Flip-Apply model to solve the problems I presented. I would also love to hear your problems (content problems that is) so I can help brainstorm solutions. If you have ideas or literature units using the Explore-Flip-Apply model, let me know those as well. I see this model having so much value in the ELA classroom.