Relevance?

This post was inspired by several discussions I have had with my college freshman daughter and other readings over the past several months. While not a 4.0 student she has always done well. Her first trip home from school was during their fall break. We sat talking about her classes one night and she expressed her disappointment with most of her high school education. She said they really hadn’t prepared her well. Our conversation went something like this:

“What do you mean they didn’t prepare you for college?”

“I haven’t had one multiple choice test. None of my professors stands up in front of the class and follows a PowerPoint. There are no weekly vocabulary quizzes and a list of facts to memorize. They give essay tests and I don’t mean essays that you can answer in a few sentences. They don’t walk you through the textbook and point out the facts you need to memorize for a test. They expect you to read, think, discuss, and write. Why don’t the teachers in high school or even middle school do any of that? Do they think we can’t?”

Now fast forward to this week and she is telling me about her classes. She says these classes are kicking her rear end but she loves them. She was excited to talk about some of the topics they had been discussing in class and more than willing to discuss some of those topics with me. She stated that while most of her professors have very different points of view than she does (like her parents, she is conservative), they challenge her to think and look at the world a little differently. I of course think that is great. However, during this conversation she again says that she was not taught some things that she should have been. When asked, she began telling me about a discussion in which her professor complained about their lack of knowledge about geography. This became apparent to her as they discussed some world events.

I thought about this for a minute and referred to our previous discussion in the fall. I asked her if she thought teaching her to memorize places on a map would have been successful or if now that she had a reason to know more about some of those places the information became more important to her to learn? I asked her if it was more important for her to be able to find the information when it became relevant? She admitted that it might have been meaningless to her if not connected to topics she is currently studying.

Relevance seems to be the key. Now I know this isn’t a new concept, but do we as educators really understand what it means to be relevant? Are we making the learning relevant to our students? How? I ask myself these questions all the time. This week I realized that maybe I wasn’t doing a very good job of making my students learning of the Vietnam war and the 60s relevant to them when a student asked me why she needed to know this. Class stopped right there and we had a great discussion about past events and their connection to current events. This of course led to a discussion about how some of these current events can and do impact our lives. I thought I had made that connection but obviously not. In fact, I am still trying to help them see connections.

As a social studies teacher I have of course been glued to the news concerning Egypt and the Middle East. How do I make that relevant to my eighth graders? Why do they care about events a world away? That is our real challenge. I can remember sitting in my living room crying as I watched people literally tear down the Berlin Wall. I had had the opportunity to visit Berlin and pass through Check Point Charlie as I visited East Berlin. It had meaning to me! My textbook has never giving me real meaning, it sure won’t give my students meaning. The text (that sits on my shelf) is not relevant to my students. It is up to me (and you) to help make it relevant! How do you make your students learning relevant?

Reading recommendation: Life as we Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. This is a great science fiction book for any science teacher.

Tech Recommendation: Quicklyst a simple note taking application. Quick, easy, and effective. What more can you ask for?

Must Read (Professional Reading): Innovate to Educate: System [Re]Design for Personalized Learning

Read, Read, Read!

To say that reading is a passion of mine it putting it mildly. My mom found out quickly that sending me to my room for punishment was not punishment. That was where I could lose myself in a book and often did. She finally figured out that taking my library card or books away got better results. Chores got done much faster when I wanted that reading time! Then there were the years that I was lucky to find the time to read the headlines in a newspaper or magazine. Four children in five years meant reading was a luxury. Now that my children are older (only 2 left in high school) reading has moved to the forefront of my activities (both professional and personal).

Last spring a friend introduced me to Goodreads and Donalyn Miller’s book The Book Whisperer. A summer book-a-day challenge had been issued and I jumped on board making The Book Whisperer a must read. Donalyn Miller challenged me in more ways that just increasing my own reading. I wanted to pass my love for reading on to my students, even though I am not a reading teacher. The next book on my professional reading list was Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do About It by Kelly Gallagher. We all talk about the importance of reading and yet, according to Gallagher, we adults don’t do much of it ourselves. Teachers fair no better in the reading statistics. Are we or are we not lifelong learners? Do we set an example by reading and sharing our own favorites with our students?

Sitting back complaining about my students’ reading abilities was easier than trying to actually do something about it. Reading across the curriculum has always been important to me, but now it was time to really DO SOMETHING than just pay lip service. Donalyn inspired me to create a classroom library. Our classroom library now contains around 700 books (thanks to a few donations, scrounging used books, and a very understanding and generous husband). After contacting the literacy teacher on my team and passing these professional books on to her we decided to join forces and require our students to read 40 books a year. It is now well into our third quarter and while all my students are not on track to meet this goal, most are. And those that aren’t are reading more than they ever have.

Recently several of my students took out their iPods and phones during reading time. These items are actually supposed to be locked away in their lockers or left at home. What were they doing? Reading of course! They had downloaded reading apps and books and were reading away. Curious, I asked all of my class if they would read more if their books were on some type of digital device or eReader. After looking over my Kindle and the reading apps on their classmates’ phones and iPods they all said DEFINITELY! Now I absolutely love my Kindle. It allows me to keep hundreds of books at my finger tips. The ability to switch between books and genres is very important to me. Could these digital tools increase our students’ interest in reading?

My students are reading more this year and sharing their reads through Goodreads. You might want to check this free service out. Students add books to their shelves (to read, read, currently read, or shelves they create). The students are all friends with each other (as well as me and our literacy teacher) so they can recommend books to each other through their ratings and reviews. They really enjoy this capability.

My next goal is to purchase enough small sets of books to actually teach my US History through novels. Anyone out there want to purchase a classroom set of Kindles and enough copies of eBooks to go around? 🙂

Now, I can’t end this without sharing some titles that my students and I have read this year and absolutely love. The list below is just a few of the books my students have loved. Future posts will include more titles. Check them out.

Matched by Ally Condie
Gone by Michael Grant
I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore
The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
The Magnificent 12: The Call by Michael Grant
The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis

Engagement?

What is engagement? Now most of us have gained enough insight to agree that engagement is not just compliance. Our students may be sitting quietly following all our expectations and still not be engaged. I want my students’ brains to be engaged in the learning that is going on not simply sitting there like a robot following the rules. This week my friend and colleague (an instructional coach) came in to observe a lesson. I asked her to look for student engagement and let me know how well she thought my lesson engaged my students. The first question she asked during our debrief was what my thoughts on engagement were. This led to an interesting discussion. Can engagement include watching a video and thinking about it and taking notes? Does engagement mean that students have to be actually doing something? Can we engage their brains and stimulate thinking without them actually doing something (discussion, writing, reading, etc.)? She challenged me (as she always does) to reevaluate my own thinking.

My reflection leads me to believe when students are discussing a topic, solving a problem, writing a reflection, or otherwise “doing” something we know they are engaged. It is hard to determine if they are truly engaged when watching a video or quietly reading unless they produce something that demonstrates their engagement afterwards. Can they participate in a discussion? Do they ask thoughtful questions Can they express their thinking orally or through some other medium? If so, then engagement occurred. If not, then it is time for me to rethink the activity or lesson.What are your thoughts on the matter?

Of course, I can’t let an opportunity to share a new technology tool. We are not a one-to-one school – yet. However, we have some mobile labs that are of course always in demand. Some of our teachers are just taking baby steps into technology integration and then there are others that have jumped right off the cliff into the web cloud. My students may be connected through social networking and texting but few have truly learned how to use many of the incredible resources available. Which means they often need a lot of guidance. One of their problems has been to keep track of the various websites that we access.The favorites tool bar allows them to save urls with names and organize them but Only2Clicks allows a really great visual display and organization for students. I really like this and actually used it for a presentation to other teachers in my district. They loved it.

Only2Clicks allows the students to create a home page with tabs to organize their sites. Instead of a list of addresses or names, the windows are shown with the name beneath it. There is also a bookmarklet that can be added to the toolbar for easily adding sites later and an iPad & iPhone app. There are import and export functions that allow you to incorporate your favorites and to back up your information. The few students that have tried this found it very helpful. Next week, all my students will have the option to create their account and set Only2Clicks as their home page.

By the way, the LiveBinders are going great!

Diigo – Online Annotation

Several months ago I stumbled across this resource. It is awesome! A free downloaded tool bar allows you and your students to highlight and annotate documents. The students can actually highlight information and add sticky notes (their thoughts and questions). These annotations and sticky notes can be private or public. No more making hundreds of copies of an article for my students to annotate, loose, or forget about. Using Diigo Edu I can create accounts for my students and access their libraries. This allows me to share information with my students (and hopefully my students will eventually share information with each other). As an educator you can also sign up for specific email notifications from Diigo. These notifications have been great for me as educators share what they have found, what they have learned, and how these technologies and strategies have been used in their schools.

Today I shared some of the wonderful Web 2.0 technologies with educators in my district. Throughout the presentation I referred to RSS feeds. Finally a teacher asked me what an RSS feed was. Ouch, my mistake. I assumed that the teachers (or most of them) in this session had some knowledge of RSS. How familiar are educators with technology and the tools available? My experience suggests that we have a lot of work to do. It is my hope that I can facilitate that work. How can I help the teachers in my district understand and grasp Web 2.0 technology tools? Today I shared blogs they should follow. Is that enough? I don’t think so! For many educators, we need to help them find the tools and help them find ways to implement those tools. Just as we expect our students to be active learners instead of passive, we must help our educators to do the same. The current educational model has perpetuated the concept of “tell me what I need to know” instead of exploration or seeking knowledge. If we want our students to seek knowledge and skills, then our educators should set the example and do the same. It is my hope to facilitate the process. Can I assist the educators in my own district (and beyond) in the expansion of their 21st Century Skills? That is my goal!

Once educators are comfortable with a few tools, they will venture into those uncharted water (for them) and explore the possibilities. My goal with this blog and other efforts is to facilitate that process.

Paperless!

w84 - Version 2 In my last blog post I shared a project my students and I are working on, digital portfolios for student-led conferences. That post described what we are doing, why we are doing this, and the resources we are using to accomplish this. There are some really great people out there sharing technology resources, strategies, and lots of valuable educational information to help us all improve our craft. I follow many of them. So instead of just passing on lists of resources, I will only pass on resources that have actually been used by me, a colleague, or my students. My posts will describe the resource and how it is being used. That means you will find out about my failures as well as my successes.

With that said, the Livebinders are catching on fast with my students. They are finding out ways to do things in them that I didn’t even think about. Isn’t that usually the case? After posting I ran across Teach Paperless, a blog that is dedicated to sharing information and resources that will assist teachers as they try to end the never ending stacks of paper and standing in line at the copy machine. 10 Reasons to Have a Paperless Classroom , by Steve Katz, really says it much better than I did. There are multiple contributes with some great resources. I will be exploring these.

One of my new discoveries this week was PDF to Word. I have tried some of these resources before without much success. This resource renewed my faith. Not only is if FREE, but it WORKED. You simply upload your document (.pdf) and select the format you want it converted to (.doc or .rtf). Then type in your email address. Within a few minutes my document was in my inbox. I was using it to fill out some forms. These were one page documents. I will have to try it with something longer later.
Why anyone would put a non-fillable pdf file out there. Maybe some of you have a typewriter stashed away somewhere, not me! It seems that more and more organizations are putting their forms, applications, and other documents into formats that can be completed online. Those that don’t get on board may just be left in the dust.

Finally, some of us have been around a few years and were taught certain typing skills like the double space after the period. It has been brought to my attention that this is no longer acceptable. I will do my best not to offend anyone and try to elminate any double spaces after periods before posting. Please be patient and understanding of those baby boomers like myself that are having difficulty breaking old habits. 🙂

Let me know your thoughts and ideas. Have you tried something new lately? How did it go?

Until Wednesday….

Digital Portfolios

w84 - Version 2I decided to have my students create a digital “notebook” or portfolio to share with their parents during our next parent/teacher conferences. Now, I am really pushing boundaries here because no one else in my middle school does student-led conferences. Past experience as a parent and teacher has cemented my belief that students should be sharing their learning and explaining their progress to their parents. NOT ME! Our students need to accept responsibility for their learning!

Why are we setting up digital portfolios? Maybe your students don’t loose or forget things. How many times have you made 100+ copies of something only to find them on the floor, in the hall, or who knows where? Does your school have an unlimited budget for paper and copies? Mine doesn’t. If these aren’t reason enough then consider trying to add a video or some other cool media to that three ring binder. Let’s bring out the creativity in our students and have them create products that demonstrate their learning in ways that suit them. Hopefully, I have made my case for digital portfolios and student-led conferences. Let me know your thoughts.

So, how will this be accomplished without money? We are trying Livebinders. This is a free Web 2.0 resource that allows you to create binders (they look just like a three ring binder) with tabs, and sub tabs to organize your information. Create your binder then begin adding information in the form of web links, PDFs, images, videos, etc. The tabs (pages) can be formatted so that students can upload media on one side and add their own comments on the other. You just have to check it out. Go to Livebinders and look at some of the examples. Go through the tutorial (very quick) and find out how easy it is.

In addition to managing the student portfolios I had to find a way to sign 100+ parents up for individual appointment times. This problem was solved when a little research revealed Web Appointments. They have a 30 day free trial and several very reasonable pricing options, especially if you split the cost with a colleague. With just a little playing around I had a calendar set up that parents could link to and select an appointment time. There is even an option to send them a reminder. My kids like to share stories about who I have forgotten where and when. There are six of them. So reminders are very handy for people like me (I know there are more of you out there).

Our conferences aren’t until March so I am really putting myself on the line with this post since I haven’t finished this endeavor. It could fall apart. Which means you can expect another post around the middle of March letting you know how it went.

Looking forward to hearing about your experiences!

Hello world!

My Very First Post
Wow, I am really going to do this. Share my thinking, research, questions, etc… with others. A little scary to say the least. Will anyone read this? Does anyone really care about what I have to say? Maybe, maybe not. Let me tell you a little about what you can expect from this blog by telling you a little about myself. Yes, you can read the my profile, but that doesn’t really tell you about me and what you might find on this sight over time. Then you can decide if you would like to follow my ramblings.

One thing needs to be made clear. I am not an expert at anything. In fact, you might say that I know just enough to be dangerous. As my grandfather use to say, “I am a jack of all trades but a master of none.” My life experiences are a little different than most educators as all of my experience has not been spent in education. Of course I have spent a good portion of my life taking classes, attending conferences and workshops, or in some learning environment. You might say that lifelong learning is has always been a part of my life.

Look up avid reader in the dictionary and you might just see a picture of me. If there were a way for me to make a living by reading it would be hard to choose between reading and teaching. 🙂 There is alway a book with me (thank you Amazon for the Kindle) and my reading collection (both read and to read) includes…

professional titles concerning teaching and education.
professional titles on technology in the classroom and integrating technology into curriculum.
picture books.
teen and young adult titles of all genres (even poetry and graphic novels – both of which are not my favorite).
adult fiction of a variety of genres even fluff romance (we all have to have an escape)
adult nonfiction (political, economic, biography, etc).
blogs, magazines, news articles, and more.

The past year has found my education focus on authentic learning, authentic assessment, literacy, and technology integration. Might as well say it now – WE CANNOT IGNORE 21st LEARNING. There will be many posts along these lines. It has been a constant goal for me to improve my own teaching skills and expand my knowledge of good practice. However, it is not enough to learn about it, how do we implement these new ideas, strategies, and technologies in meaningful ways. You will notice that I am just like many of you – a teacher trying to do her best for her students. With each post I will look forward to hearing from you.

With that said, there are many others out there that are passing on some great information through blogs, social networking, books, articles, and more. This blog will share some of that as well as how I may have used the information that others have so graciously provided. It also must be said that this blog will “evolve” over time. Things will be added, taken away, and hopefully improved. Many of these changes will be based on my learning with and from you!

My political views will probably show through from time to time. So you might as well know that my views lean toward moderate conservative. Is that the right way to say it? But those that know me know there is nothing better than a good discussion between friends with different ideas. Of course, all views are appreciated as long as the discussion is respectful.

What does it all boil down to? I will share thoughts about 21st Century Educational Skills and hope you will contribute to our learning and craft. Share your ideas and experiences (even the failures – that is how we learn).

We must also share the humor that goes along with our profession. Laughter helps us to live longer and (in my opinion) be better people. With that said, I must share a YouTube video that I found after witnessing two colleagues perform this routine. Hope you enjoy and I look forward to sharing and learning with you.