Returning to the task

amaranth seeds and chaff

Sowing the seeds of life-long learning. Flikr.com Amaranth seeds and chaff, by blurdom

It has clearly been far too long since I took up writing on this blog. The reasons are common, and the reasons are not worth belabouring to any great extent. Suffice it to say: new year, new school, new responsibilities and a lack of commitment on my part. So the next question to ask might be: well why are you writing again? A good question and one that I hope to answer over the next year or so as my colleagues in the social studies department and I embark on a new plan: creating an environment that supports and fosters inquiry-based learning for our students.

I began this adventure a few weeks ago when I had the chance to hear from a colleague who was working on implementing this process in his classes. He gave me the inspiration to undertake the project. I listened to what he talked about and I thought that he was giving his students the skills and talents necessary for the future. As many people have pointed out what we need is students to have the ability to access knowledge and learn how to make use of that knowledge as opposed to merely being the accumulators of knowledge (and it should be pointed out often knowledge that is only retained for a brief period).

So after being suitably inspired I asked my principal if I could invite him to come out and speak to us and if we could set up a day for our department to discuss these ideas. With her encouragement I invited my colleague and the discussion that he led inspired us in the morning and gave us more things to think about in the afternoon when we had time to consider it for ourselves. As a group we agreed that this is most definitely the way that we would like to teach and frankly we want to do something better than what we are currently doing. Having made this step we all had to consider what are some of the challenges that we may face. The challenges vary from the availability of technology, challenges to students who need extra help and the reaction of the school community to these ideas. There is much research to be done and much thinking to occur, but I am thrilled to be working with such a dynamic group of individuals. We believe that this might revolutionize not just our classes at the grade ten level (which is where we’re starting) but all of our social studies classes.

To begin with we decided that we needed to come up with something that outlines the skills that we want all students to learn. Whether that’s being able to ask good questions, looking for issues, proper referencing, different applications for working on projects or presentation these are some of the things that we think all students would benefit from exposure level. We will be developing those over the next few months.

So in the future this blog will be the home for our departmental work in developing this new approach. We know it will be a trip well worth it.

Guilty as charged – now what?

Cucciolo colpevole- Guilty puppyphoto © 2008 Mauro | more info (via: Wylio)
A couple of days ago I wrote about my questions about what we are trying to do as an education collective. Then I started reflecting on what I know, and what I’ve been doing. Then I read The Innovative Educator – Lisa Nielsen’s wonderful entry on engaging students. And I have something to confess: I am guilty, guilty of everything that she suggests in her blog. The only thing I can say to mitigate it I am not guilty of everything all at once, but I am certainly guilty of all of them at some time or another.

I have been guilty of these in the past, and I am guilty of some of them still today. I hope that I will not be guilty of them in the future, but I have to admit it is hard to let go.

It is hard to let go of everything that I have been, and have learned. It is hard to see new ways of doing things when the things I used in the past kind of worked.

So what do I do? Well I take into account that I do have some skills when it comes to teaching. I keep up my efforts at trying to integrate technology into my classroom, and I will continue to work with what the kids bring as opposed to an outright ban on things, which as Lisa points out in her blog, is the easy way out.

A few days ago I wrote about some of the problems that I see as an education collective, I have to also say that there are a lot of failings that I am working on as an individual.

A sea of conversation

Ocean Closed

Flikr.com Marty Desilets Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial No Derivative Works

This is part of a phrase that one of my colleagues mentioned to me sometime ago and it has been floating in my mind ever since.  The whole phrase was actually: Learning occurs on a sea a conversation, and I think it totally encapsulates what we should be doing as teachers.  It’s really just an extension of the idea that all learning is really social.  It is however something that I think I have lost sight of in my desire to push ‘content’ I have lost this, and it is really beginning to bug me.  In my mind the ‘sea’ of conversation in my class has not been very open.   I am becoming more and more convinced that my students are leaving my class and with a quick brain dump are not long in possession of what I hope that they learn.  So I am resolving that I need to bring the conversation back into my social studies class.  It’s not like I’ve totally ignored asking questions, it’s just that I think I haven’t done a very good job ensuring that students (all of them) are learning something.  I know this seems like such an obvious statement, but I think it boils down a realization that there are things that I can do about this.  It especially hurts when I think of the fact that I am teaching one of the most resource rich subjects that exists.  I am literally teaching something which pretty much has a direct application from the real world almost every day.

So this means that I am on the hunt for new ways to engage my students in this conversation and also to try and make it more authentic for my students.  Of course I have tried to encourage my students to follow the news, and bring questions to class, but as I have mentioned I don’t think this has been effective.  This is where the idea of technology as a tool to achieve something great.  I want my students to engage in conversations within and outside of the class, but not just with people that they might know, but with people they might meet on Skype, or who would respond to a blog post.  It’s time, I no longer want my ‘ocean’ to be closed, I want my sea of conversation to flow easily.

Using wikipedia

How is Wikipedia used in real life?

I recently read a great post from Christopher Dawson on ZDNet appealing to teachers to stop the prohibiting the use of Wikipedia.  He makes a lot of sound reasonable arguments for using Wikipedia, and he is right it is a great starting point that is a lot more interactive than Encyclopedia Britannica was in our day.  Personally I like Wikipedia, a lot, it is far from perfect, but it can be used effectively, and quite frankly I know of nothing better to use for answering questions surrounding pop culture!  However I always try and keep this post in mind when I am talking about it, because there are certainly things to be concerned with.  I quite liked this particular ‘how-to’ guide to Wikipedia, it visually represents the things that I have always tried to tell my students, but for which I could really use a visual reminder.

All of this was a preamble to the picture I’ve included in the post: it appeared in my Facebook feed, I’m not sure that this is an appropriate use.  Or perhaps they need to put the ‘how-to’ guide up in hospitals!

Just a little tidbit

Nokia N97 and iPhone 3GS

via William Hook, flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/williamhook/3810777827/, Creative Commons, attribution

A while back I wrote about filters and the way that they have been used in schools. I ended my rant with a comment about how maybe the whole filter things might be becoming irrelevant anyway. Today gave me an example of that. A colleague of mine had to forward some information to a group of students before he talked to them about it, so he forwarded it to their e-mail accounts. Within a short while (less than 15 minutes) he went to talk to them only to discover that most of them had already read the e-mail on their phones. No need to access the school’s network to get that information. Seems to me that if we don’t get these students more access through our systems soon they’ll just go around it and that leaves me wondering how some people are going to deal with that.  If you really want to see great insight into this idea you should go to David Truss’ presentation on PODs in the classroom that he did for BLC 09.  It’s one of my favourites.

Filters and other annoyances (well actually only filters)

This idea has been rolling around in my head for the last few weeks.  I have been trying to figure out how to write this with a feeling of anything less than sheer and utter frustration.  It is mainly because my friend Cynthia wrote me an e-mail on Friday asking me to describe what our filtering system is like that I’ve been provoked into action.  Clearly filters are an issue about which many of us in the blogosphere have written long and sometimes distressing entries.  I have no intention of rehashing that although I think that you should visit the following blogs from David Truss’ entries here and here to get an idea, although there are many more!  Beyond the fact that they are a reactive approach to controlling students web activities, rather than a proactive approach to the problem, I’m frustrated because ours really don’t seem to work all that well, and if we’re going to use them (as some educational directors resolutely maintain), shouldn’t they actually work?

They’re not very accurate.

First off let me say that I do understand that sometime and for some things there is a need to put in some form of restriction.  What I can’t figure out is why we don’t think about the sites that we block.  Maybe there should be some considered thought put into the reasons why something gets blocked rather than why they should be unblocked.

One reason why I would argue this is because I have seen a few sites blocked by the masters of the filters (whomever these people are) that simply have no reason being blocked.  Earlier this year one of my colleagues was doing a project that he had been doing for a couple of years on the topic of dictatorships.  He had his students use a website ‘the Dictator of the Month‘ which suddenly and inexplicably this year came up as inaccessible.  When I looked into it, it said that it was because it was obscene/tasteless.  What I would like to know is who decided this?  I mean I understand that it isn’t exactly the greatest website (in fact it has not been updated recently), but really obscene/tasteless?  I was able to get it unblocked, but when I asked why it was blocked, I was told that it was probably because of a mathematical algorithm.  I really didn’t get it, and still while I sit here looking at it I don’t get it.  It is my shining example of why the people who are doing the filtering are not doing the right job.  Some might say that this is a rare occurrence but I can remember a couple of times in the past few years where I had students working on World War II projects and the sites would come up inexplicably blocked.

Another reason why our particular filter bothers me is the fact that it has a strange aversion to feeds.  I have been trying to use Edmodo for my social studies class, but one of the things that I wanted to do was build up a collection of feeds, but whenever I have set one up I have found them blocked.  There is a note about advertising/banner ads, but I’m not sure how that applies to my feed.

I have been told by some colleagues that teach mathematics that the filters have an itchy trigger finger for sites even remotely related to probability, apparently they are freaked out by gambling.  Is this a good thing for our students?

Exactly how much time we have spent trying to correct this idiocies is not clear, but it makes me wonder if these are good value for the money.

Students get around them too easily

If they were effective students wouldn’t be able to get around them.  Only they do on a very regular basis.  I have seen all sorts of students on websites that they shouldn’t be.  Students shouldn’t be on Facebook (that’s a debate for another entry), but there they are.  They shouldn’t be on shooter games, yet I found one student playing a game called ‘Sniper Assassin’ apparently without even having to bother with trying to find a proxy to bypass the filter.  They also shouldn’t be on proxies but they are there as well.  I don’t know how many people in schools that have 3G phones, but I would say a lot of students do.  How effective is a filter at blocking 3G cell phone towers?  If I tell a student they can’t do something on one of the school computers, well that’s why they have a mini-computer in their pocket that doubles as a phone.

What’s worse is that these often block the teachers from accessing the most up-to-date or most useful information.  I had a colleague who was regaling me with how the filters ‘worked’ at his school, finally one day after expressing this frustration to a class, a student volunteered to help him access what he wanted.  This one time he agreed, and the student leaped over the filter and had the information inside of ten seconds.  While I may question the speed reported in the story, I have no doubt as to its general validity.  Again how is it that filters are supposed to work again?

Lastly I would point out that the Chinese government has tried desperately to erect an Internet filter, and with all the resources of the state behind it, it apparently doesn’t work well.

A final rant

This whole rant leaves aside the most important problems with filters that they are the wrong approach to the problem.  I guess what I have been dealing with is the fact that if you are a supporter of filters then they should work and work properly.  But the fact is they don’t, and that as technology marches forward they will become increasingly useless (there’s that 3G or 4G or whatever).  What frustrates me probably more than anything is the fact that no one in a position of power seems willing to have a frank and open discussion about this.  This last week the Calgary Board of Education announced that students would be able to use their cell phones in class, but they said that they would still control the websites the students had access to (make sure to read the corrections at the bottom).  Seems a trifle over-optimistic if you ask me.

One week in…

So the first week of my new adventure in teaching has come and gone, and there have been some interesting moments.  Some of the points that I am reflecting on are the following:

  1. Simple things like reminding the students to bring their ear buds so they could listen to the videos (and eventually podcasts) that I’d like them to follow in order to answer the questions I give them, were both easier and more difficult than I thought.  A lot of students had them, but surprisingly to me not all of them had them, so the first time I tried to have them follow a video we ended up having to watch it all together.
  2. Google Apps has been a wonderful discovery especially the power of the form.  I am able to ask the students a few simple questions to start the class and then we can look at the ‘data’ and discuss.  I was also able to collect the student’s e-mail in extremely short order.  Lastly by asking a few simple questions at the beginning of the first class I was able to get an overview of the class in a fashion that I have never been able to do.  I was able to find out and view in a generalized fashion a lot of information about my class.  I used to hand out sheets and have the students fill in most of this information, but I never really had the time to look for more than specific outliers, never to really get a sense of the class.  I was also able to assess their habits as far as social studies (reading newspapers, watching the news) and get an idea that if most of my class wants to go onto post-secondary study (another question) than a large number of them need to change these habits to help them become more successful.  Really the forms function has been wonderful, putting it all in spreadsheets and graphing it has been great, but I am still frustrated with Google’s word processing program as I find it very limiting compared to Microsoft Word.
  3. Another interesting experience has been working on getting the students to submit their work to me.  I would like the students to use something else besides e-mail but only a very small number had Google accounts, and the ability to share things otherwise seems a little bit limited.  I tried to introduce them to Dropbox, as a way that they could transfer their files simply between home and school, but then found a lot of them just e-mailed their files home anyway.
  4. A couple of students have their own laptops which is great because I am short a couple of computers if all the students show up, and even then it’s nice to have a buffer as sometime school tech works, and sometimes it doesn’t.  Like today when I was trying to load a DVD into my teacher machine and it kept on shutting itself down.  Annoying to say the least, and a giant time wasting experience to say the most.
  5. Lastly the biggest problem I’ve had with having computers in the classroom is that my brain seems to need retraining.  I want to do something new with the students but at the same time my brain seems to be defaulting to those things with which I’ve taught the majority of my classes in the past.  Hardly inquiring sort of stuff.  I want to do more, but it is just so easy to revert to what I’ve used in the past.  My mind is open but my brain seems closed.

The last of the problems is obviously the biggest.  I sometimes feel like I don’t know where to start.  It’s making for really long days!