Thursday, December 18, 2008

Snow days: Double edge sword or educational opportunity?

As I sit here at home for a second day of no school I find myself pondering the age old conundrum of the snow day. A snow day to an educator and student is kind of like a double edge sword, on the one side you get a day off from school but on the other side you have to make up the time either in February (for those of us who have a mid-winter break) or in June (or whenever your end of the school year is). But what if there was a way to make up snow days without having to take away days from our breaks? Personally I would die for something like this as my first semester tech as my students lose those instructional days (and those in my 2nd semester tech class have added days they don't necessarily need).

I have spoken before on the issue of blogging in the context of professional development but what if we used blogging combined with educational portals (Microsoft SharePoint, Blackboard, etc.) to deliver instruction on snow days? Now I know the critics will bring up the issue of the technology gap and those who don't have access to a computer and it is a valid issue but I don't think we should let that keep us from pondering the question. I say this because the number of people who have or are gaining access to the internet is growing every day. I use the term have access because one doesn't need to have a computer at home to access the internet, there are several places where one can access (friend's or neighbor's house, family member, school, public library, family members work, etc.) Also, we have student who are absent from our classes at some point in time and we hold them accountable for the work they have missed. For those that can't/won't do the makeup work then we hold them accountable when school is back in session according to the schools work make up policy. So I don't see a lack of internet access as an excuse to not use and grow educational technology to be used outside of school.

I am talking about expanding on the idea of the online classroom/school that is being utilized already in some capacity. What we should be doing is on the automated messages we send out to parents, as part of the radio/TV broadcast, posting to the web, etc. we should include a message telling students and parents to check the website and/or portal for the daily lesson. Lessons could range from journaling their adventures, writing papers, participating in discussions, reviewing for tests, doing math problems, etc. Also with webcam technology teachers can record videos of lectures (or podcasts of them) for students to take notes on. The possibilities are endless and should be explored as an alternative way of making up snow days at the end of the year.

I would like to hear your thoughts? Is there anyone out there currently doing this? If so what success have you had? Do you think this is a viable alternative to making up work at the end of the year?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Tech Wednesday: Santa Tracking as an Educational Tool

This will be my last Tech Wednesday post for the year; although never fret I will pick this back up in the New Year on January 7th.

You may be wondering why I chose the NORAD tracks Santa site as an educational site to share. I know it is not non-denominational but it is a cute site with some interesting goodies packed in there. Although I do recommend that you check your district policies regarding Christmas.

I like this site as an educator because it has the ability to hook kids in to a topic in a roundabout sort of way and gives you a platform from which to launch into a discussion. This site has Holiday related activities and games for the littler kids and some historical information on Santa, NORAD, and how NORAD got into the Santa Tracking business. I also think of it as a great way to introduce students to world geography because as they follow Santa around the world NORAD Officers give little trivia tidbits on specific places Santa visits.

Currently there is a video up and a countdown clock showing how long till Santa starts his journey. The video is a little teaser of what you will see as Santa makes his travels "live". You can also attach a feature to your Google Earth that allows you to see Santa's adventures in 3D.

Wishing all of you a Happy Holiday and a Merry New Year.


video

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Tech Wednesday: Xtimeline.com

For my second installment of Tech Wednesday I am demonstrating the website xtimline.com. I first heard about this site on another blog whose name escapes me at the moment. Their comments about how it was a great web2.0 tool that had excellent application in the classroom caught my interest and I ran with it from there. I am currently testing it out with my staff as I write this so more to come on what other teachers in my building think.

At first glance the site looks like a resource site with basic timelines, a search bar, tour video, etc. They have featured timelines listed in the center of the page as well as timeline dealing with current events and groups listed on the right hand side of the page. This is a great resource for teachers and students looking to do research on historical events and as a starting point for further research. It is also a fun tool to use outside of school if you want to do a family timeline or chronicle a local event.

To create, edit, and comment on timelines you must create an account. This is probably the one drawback I see in using the site with kids as you must have an email address to sign on. You can anonymously search for timelines but you are not allowed to edit or comment on them. If you want to use this site as a tool for your students to create timelines, you will need to make sure they have their own personal email account set up. That aside the interface is fairly straight forward for inputting in dates, background info, pictures, etc. and it automatically puts the events in order for you when you are completed. There are two views: one being a title and date; the other being a more detailed view.

Some ideas for using this in a class:

  1. Have students create their personal timeline
  2. Challenge students to find a need within your curricular area for a timeline
  3. School/District history timeline
  4. Check posted timelines for accuracy
  5. Chronicle the years events and compare prior years

I am sure there are many more. Please feel free to offer you comments and suggestions.

Video:



video

Monday, December 1, 2008

New Feature: Tech Wednesday

I am going to be trying out a new feature to my blog in an attempt to get more traffic coming its way. The overall purpose of this blog is to serve as a forum for teachers and readers to share successes, advice, and general rants and raves about technology. In the past I have posted helpful websites and tips on minor tasks but now I would like to offer a bit of online training on programs and project I currently do and have done in the past. This is part of my bi-weekly professional development I do for my staff on Wednesday. My goal is to up-date this site every Wednesday with some bit of training I have done or am planning on doing. My hope is to share a little bit of what I know on using technology in education. Now I am by no means an expert when it comes to many of the things I am showing you so please feel free to offer your 2 cents on how it can be done better or more efficiently. Most of the training I will be sharing will be put together using a program called ScreenVirtuoso Pro

ScreenVirtuoso is a program that allows you to record your onscreen actions, add narration, and some simple onscreen graphics. As I am typing this out I am recording the video for this post as well as a future training for staff on blogging with MS Word 07. Bear with me as I switch between typing this blog post and narrate the video. This program is a Shareware program that does cost you after the trial period has expired but I find the price is well worth it if you are looking for a simple demo video program. There are several other programs out there you can choose from that enable you to do a lot more than this one does but these cost significantly more. I will be posting these videos in a WMV format as that is the format that works with the computers in my district. If you prefer an MPEG or AVI, FLV/SWF format feel free to email me and I can covert the video to the format and send it to you.

Let me know what you think of this new feature and also feel free to post different or easier ways of doing the things I share here on Tech Wednesday. My goal is to post once a week but forgive me if there are some gaps or if the posts are not always on a Wednesday. I am sharing time between my 3 passions in life: my work, my 3 kids, and my lovely wife.


video

Friday, November 7, 2008

Citizenship in the classroom

This past week we witnessed history in the making. Not only did we have record turnouts for an election but we also elected our first African American President. I will be honest and say this makes me proud to be a citizen of this county. I hope that you took part in the election by voting, volunteering for your candidate, and possibly hosting a mock election in your classroom or school (if you work in the education field). I held one in my tech classes and the school did one on Election Day. The comments by the kids were both interesting and insightful.

I like talking with students about election time about their thoughts and feelings. In the past many really didn't care about what was going on and wondered why I was even bothering to do a mock election (although they sometimes wonder why we do anything but play games and chat). During this lesson/time I encounter all sorts of comments and reasons for supporting candidates. These comments range from those students who choose their candidates based on what parents/guardians have said, to the more informed ones, to my favorite (and new this year) reason of "I am voting for him because he is hot!" There are the usual arguments/discussions about the popular candidates in which I need to step in to make sure feelings are not hurt and political neutrality is respected. There are all during all this I have to very artfully dodge the question of who I am voting for, although it does lend itself to a nice discussion about privacy and why voting is done in private. It is an interesting time during the election process but this year I surveyed my students after the election process on the thoughts, feelings, etc. and received some interesting comments.

I found the comments of students who voted (and those who didn't) to be very interesting and insightful. I asked my kids how they felt and their thoughts about the voting process (regardless of the outcome of the election). Here are some direct quotes:

  • "I didn't vote because I knew it wouldn't have an effect"
  • "I didn't get any of the candidates"
  • "It was frustrating having to register" (I use a website that requires a simple registration process)
  • "What are initiatives?"
  • "Why were all the drop outs listed on the ballot?"
  • "I wish I would have had more information" (Even after pointing out where they voters pamphlet was)
  • "I gave up after X position because it took too long"
  • "I was sick so I didn't get a chance to vote, Can I still cast my ballot?"
  • "What is a Superintendent of Public Instruction?"

What I found interesting about these comments is that I could relate each one to a frustration or reason one of us would give for being frustrated with the voting process. It lead to some great discussion on voting and why it is important to vote. This eventually led to the topic of them being just students who couldn't vote so why should they care. In talking about this I encouraged them to find ways to get involved with the political process whether it be something simple like talking to their family members, to running for an ASB office, or something more advanced like starting up a club. It will be interesting to see what grows out of this simple lesson.

I am curious to hear from you how you worked this year's election into your teachings?

Monday, October 27, 2008

Listening to the little voices in your classroom

This year our district is focusing on capturing student voice as it relates to education and the work we do. We are looking at how we can use student voice to design more engaging work for students. We I say engaging work I am not just talking about work that is fun and exciting but work that truly captivates students interest, whether it be hard or easy, and forces them to think and persevere. This definition is part of the work Phil Schlechty has done on school reform. This year I have stepped out on a limb when it comes to student voice in allowing them to have a say on how I changed my curriculum.

Last spring I surveyed my 6th and 7th grade technology students on what I was teaching and how I was doing as a teacher. I asked their thoughts on my teaching style, curriculum, and what their suggestions were for improvement. This is something I have done in years past but stepped away from for awhile as I worked through my administration program and grew my family. After looking at the surveys I found that there was a resounding need to retool my curriculum as students were bored with what they were doing. For the most part their suggestions were the typical ones of "don't talk so much", "We need more work time", "You are such an awesome teacher", "Why can't we play games"; But others were more insightful like "I want to do animations", or "why do we don't video". Now I didn't base my curriculum changes solely on what the students said but I looked at what they were doing both in my class on current projects I was having them do as well as what they were doing outside of class during their free time. What they were doing in my class as well as during their free time mirrored what they were asking for. So using that small bit of data I retooled my curriculum to fit with what they were asking/showing they wanted/needed.

To this end I am incorporating the use of typing games to teach basic typing skills and reigning in the amount I talk by showing kids free online training exercises on the programs we use (http://office.microsoft.com/en-us/training/default.aspx), showing them how to use the help features included on the programs they use, as well as seek out classmates with the expertise they need (thereby reducing my talking in class). I will be honest to say it is rather hard to make these changes and I am not having all the success that I had hoped for but I am seeing some positive results and much more satisfied students. The one major success story I have had is with the use of Digital Stories.

In my tech 2 class I am having students create a digital story on social issues facing 10 to 13 year olds today. For this project students have had to: write a contract, think about resources needed (training and physical), write a story board, give a pitch on their idea, and edit their pictures. Now I am sure I am not doing this in the official digital story telling way but the point is that students have and are doing a lot of work to get their story done before the deadline of 10/31. It is interesting to watch them work on these stories and go through the process of creating their story. Some straight through the period while others work for a little bit then take a couple of minutes to chat with friends but the work gets done. The conversations are even more enlightening as they are talking not only about what is going on in school and in their lives but also about the project. They bounce ideas off of each other, they ask for help intertwined with conversations about math tests, boyfriends, etc. It is amazing to watch this take place and I can't wait for the end result.

Monday, September 8, 2008

To Tech or Not to Tech

Welcome back to school for most everyone if not everyone. I am officially one week in to the New Year and looking forward to another high energy year with high energy students. It is always nice to come back and see all the bright, eager, young faces ready to learn. I was fortunate this year to run part of our annual staff retreat where we prepare for the upcoming year and develop our focus for the year. This year we are focusing on student voice as a way to foster engagement in students.

My presentation and activity centered around the research of Marc Prensky, Daniel Pink, and others, that say we should be including students in lesson planning as well as activity design. As a staff we focused on looking at not only who our client is but how they learn best, what are their needs when it comes to effective teaching. The outcome of the activity was fascinating to say the least. Teacher groups identified characteristics of our students and then watched the video "Our Future". They then talked about and recorded effective and engaging teaching strategies for middle level learners. The reactions to the video were priceless and well worth the time spent. The reaction of some of our more veteran staff was that the video was good but it went too fast and they wanted to see it again to get what they missed (frustration level of learning). Our younger teachers thought the video was right on in length and speed and message. They were able to pick up on the more salient points. Those of us who are tweener teachers (7 to 15 years) identified with both the opinions of the younger and veteran staff. My challenge to all, especially our veteran staff, was to think of this from the student point of view. Thank about the activity and teaching they are doing and how their students are feeling as they sit in the seats in their classrooms. The end goal of this activity is to hold some focus groups of students and have them check over our work and give us some feedback on how we did. They share this feedback with staff and use it to direct professional development and curriculum development throughout the year and beyond.

As I move along the journey of incorporating student voice in the shaping of professional development I read a post and video on the following blog (By The Way). In the video students share phrases on their laptops about learning and how they learn best and the message is quite clear, Tech is it. They make no bones about hating learning through worksheets, reading chapters and answering questions at the end. They want/crave problem solving and working together in teams using technology as their paper and pencil. After viewing the video I found myself asking the question "What about those teachers who insist on worksheets and paper and pencil activities?" I have talked with these teachers about incorporating technology or at the very least having my more tech savvy students create self correcting online worksheets all too little or no avail. They cite study after study that say students learn best when they write it out, put pencil to paper, etc. The funny thing is that most of the kids I have talked to about these teachers really love them. It says a lot about their teaching style and how they interact with the kids, so they are doing something right, they are making learning fun. However my question still remains "How do I engage these teachers to look at integrating technology into their paper and pencil world?"

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Year Round Schooling

This posting may be a repeat but it is an issue I am starting to feel stronger and stronger about, Year round schooling. Yes, yes, yes I know how dare I mention this. I have heard the arguments about kids need time off to work in the fields or family business (and yes I know I am contradicting myself but hear me out), to explore alternatives to traditional schooling, go on the family vacation (or staycation), etc. Yes we need to take these things into account when we talk about year round schooling but we also need to look at what research says about learning and retention with long breaks in schooling.

In many states year round schooling is already going on with some degree of success (http://www.educationworld.com/a_admin/admin/admin137.shtml). There are also studies out there that claim mixed or even negative results of year round schooling, however in a cursory search using Google most of the articles I found were by organizations supporting summer vacation. The one telling article I found on ERIC (http://eric.ed.gov/ERICWebPortal/custom/portlets/recordDetails/detailmini.jsp?_nfpb=true&_&ERICExtSearch_SearchValue_0=ED399661&ERICExtSearch_SearchType_0=no&accno=ED399661) found that if Year Round Schooling is "…carefully planned and implemented…" it had "…high levels of satisfaction for all stake holder groups." To me this says a lot about the direction we should be headed in education.

Now don't get me wrong, as a teacher I do enjoy the time off that I get (after all it is one of the hidden benefits of my job). Although I do get burned out on breaks especially summer vacation. By about mid July I am ready to head back to work as I have finished most of my honey do list, and/or other projects that need my attention. As a new parent I am learning the benefits of year round schooling from my daughter's day care. They offer a year round program for the younger kids (toddlers) and some type of summer program for the older kids (pre-kindergarten and kindergarten) albeit at a reduced day. She has been in this school for a year and a half now and I am seeing great strides in her learning. Now some of you may be thinking what am I doing with a 2 year old in school over the summer. Why am I not taking time to be with my daughter and enjoy the lazy days of summer playing and exploring the world with her. To you I say I am. So far this summer we have gone to the Aquarium, Fishing, the Pacific Science Center, the Oregon Coast, Geocaching, and numerous other activities. But on the days she goes to school her mother and I are able to work on home projects (landscaping, remodeling) and a small business (my wife) as well as take care of our two 9 month old twins. Without a year round school for our 2 year old we would be going bat crazy by now not to mention having a failing business. It has allowed us to be flexible and the type of year round school I would like to see is a flexible one as well.

I have read about two main ways of scheduling year round schooling, one being the "single track scheduling" where all students are on the same track with the same vacation schedule and the other being "multi-track scheduling" with various tracks for students and teachers and both have their pluses and minuses. Of the two I think single track is the most workable and the one that fits my view of year round school, although the multi-tracking system certainly is appealing from a cost saving point of view. My idea hopefully takes all stake holders accounts in to consideration. I would like to see us move to a university type system.

In the university system you have, for the most part, 4 quarters of schooling, fall, winter, spring, summer with the most heavily attended being the first 3. Most students take the summer off to work, vacation, relax, etc. but there are those that do take summer classes for various reasons. Some want to finish early, some are looking for enrichment or remediation and therein lies the key to my plan for year round schooling. In this day and age of budget cuts, high stakes testing, accountability, and program cuts. Year round schooling offers a viable solution for everyone.

With the university model of year round schooling you have the major areas of academic study (math, reading, writing) be mandatory but also sprinkle in some of what I will call the enrichment type courses (shop, art, music, etc.) but the focus is on the basics. Over the summer quarter you offer remediation and enrichment type courses. By having a semi-optional summer quarter you are giving parents a place for their kids to go, you open up your academic offerings for students, and you give teachers the ability to teach more and time off for those that want it. Not everyone would have to or need to attend the summer quarter only those that wanted to or needed too hence the semi-optional. For those students in need of remediation they would need to attend over the summer to boost their skills, unless they could show evidence of work towards improving skills areas needing remediation.

But what about vacations I am hearing some of you say. Well you would get more vacation throughout the year during the quarter changes. There would be 4 natural breaks around each quarter. How much time for each break would need to be hammered out but should be no longer than one month at a time to minimize academic loss.

I welcome your thoughts and comments on this post as always. I know there are a lot things I haven't considered and I would love to hear from you about those things.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Blogging: The New Professional Development

In reading a recent post on edutopia (www.edutopia.org) today by Anthony Cody I was struck with an idea for simple yet effective professional development. In reading the reply to his posting on advocating for education by Bill Ferriter my idea started to take shape. Bill mentioned that he tries to read and respond to three educational blogs/postings a day. In doing this he mentions that he is able to stay up on current research, seeing other points of view, and sharing his point of view on topics. I believe this is not only at the heart of education but is essential to keeping education alive today. I also believe it can help educators meet if not exceed their needs for professional development.

In this day and age of NCLB and high qualified we as teachers need to be on the top of our game when it comes to our knowledge about our subject area. You may say what you will about NCLB and highly qualified and the nightmare it creates and I would support you on that; however I think there is a good side to it as well. What I think is a good idea is for us as educators to stay current on what is going on in our field whether that is instructional strategies, new research, new books, and/or new technology. That can be very hard given with trying to minimize days out of the classroom, shrinking budgets, lack of time in the day, etc. The traditional ways one can get information on current research are reading books or journals, attending in-building/district level professional development, attending classes or attending local, regional, and/or national conferences. All of these can be time consuming and in some cases expensive and in the case of reading no way of getting credit unless it is part of a class. For the later three one can apply for educational credit that can be helpful in moving them along a salary schedule, but often times these classes or conferences cost big bucks on top of the cost for credit. This is where blogging can come in handy.

Blogging is a great and inexpensive way to conduct professional development in the area of current research. It has all the elements of classes and/or conferences without the costs associated. You have experts in the field sharing their knowledge and/or research in a targeted forum (similar to a class on a specific topic). You have a somewhat captive audience participating engaged in an ongoing discussion of the topic as well as a recorded record of the discussion that one can refer back to. The only thing you have missing is the large entity asking for your money and giving you a grade. I can hear the skeptics out there crying hold on a minute you can't give credit for blogging. How will we know they are participating in the blog? How do we know if the blog they are participating in is credible? How do we assess what participants have learned? How do we account for everything? These are good questions posed by the skeptics but are answerable using the current system we have in place for recognizing classes and conferences. If teachers are participating in a blog, and they must for it to be effective, their posts are recorded. Districts can work with unions to develop criteria for which educators get credit for participation. In regards to the quality of information in a blog the moderators and bloggers are pretty good at policing inappropriate/inaccurate information. Districts in most cases have lists of organizations that they recognize as valid education/professional development providers. Why not add entities or individuals that maintain a credible blogs to this list? In the area of assessing what is learned you need to look no further than the classroom, staff meeting, lunch room, department/grade level meeting. One thing I have learned about educators is that when they have learned something good or that works they can't wait to share it. If they are sharing it with other educators and/or using it with their students then you can see that they have learned something. Yes this is anecdotal and subjective measurement but some of the best learning is measured in this way. I also am hearing all you teachers out there saying when will we have time to do all this. I would answer this by saying it is your choice to participate or not but if you are getting credit for participating why wouldn't you? I was a skeptic on blogging when it first came out. I thought it was just a fad that would come and go, I also thought that it was just another form of chatting online and that may have been what it started out as but it has morphed into a way of cataloging and sharing knowledge in real time. I have been blogging for going on 2 years now and I can say that I am convinced it is here to stay.

I am curious to hear your thoughts on this idea of allowing blogging as a form of professional development. If you and/or your district are doing this what can you share on how it is going?

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Summer Vacation in the Era of NCLB

As no doubt most of us are enjoying summer vacation an interesting question was posed at our school the last few weeks of school. The question centered around what to post on our website in the way of resources/activities for students to do over the summer. It sparked some interesting debate between all of my colleagues. All were in agreement that students lose some of what they have learned over the long break. Where we differed is in what if anything we give them to do over the summer.

There was a lot of debate on what children needed over the summer to help them retain their learning. One camp said we needed to encourage basic reading skills in the area of novels. Another camp said students needed to be able to relax and do more free form learning in the form of enrichment type activities. Yet another camp wanted internet resources parents could go to if they wanted something for their kids to do to stay academically sharp. As you can imagine each had their research to back up their claim, but the one thing that was said that I think rang true the most was the individual(s) who stated that not all children are the same and need the same things in the way of instruction. There are those kids who need a little bit more academic support to stay at grade level over the summer, and there are those that need more enrichment type activities to stay at grade level and keep them interested in school. I believe that sometimes we get so caught up in NCLB, worrying about performance pay, being compared to other schools in an apples to bolts kind of way that we forget who we are dealing with, individual kids. In the Era of NLCB and education reform we often times get so caught up with looking at groups of students and what they need or don't need that we forget about the individual students unless they are below grade level. Summer time would be a great time to encourage some individualized instruction whether it be in the form of summer school or resources for parents, summer work packets, reading lists, etc.

One idea would be to take advantage of the family vacation as an enriching opportunity. In the fall often times we ask kids to report out on what they did over summer vacation as an entry task, why not reverse this and ask them what they are going to be doing over the summer. By knowing what they might be doing over the summer we could tailor some enrichment activities for parents to work on with their kids. These don't have to be anything snazzy or sophisticated just something to engage students while on a trip. This would help us make education come alive for a lot of kids which is often times hard to do in a classroom. How cool would it be to have a student going to Boston for the summer grab some digital pictures of historical sites, or have a custom tour designed for them based on their social studies text or lessons? What about the student going camping to Devil's tower? They could examine first hand some of the geology that created the tower. The possibilities are endless

Now I know that some of you would say this would take tons of time that we don't already have or have allocated to other more important things. Well I would say what about the parents who don't have the time or ability/access to the resources we have as teachers? In a lot of the texts we use or the websites we use for research there is enrichment type activities that are often time tailored for this kind of activity. Just some simple tweaks here and there and it is ready to go out with the report card or final grade. It may take us some time but I believe it would be time well invested.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Education Funding

One thing that really gets my stomach in a knot is that state of education funding in my state (Washington). The district I am currently working in is facing some pretty steep budget cuts as are many other districts in our state. By no means is this a rant against my district as I feel they are doing and have done an admirable job of keeping these cuts away from the classroom. This is more a rant against those out there who can't seem to figure out how to properly fund education.

I am by no means and expert on the fiscal policies and procedures of the State of Washington, but I do have some observations to make and hope to receive comments or corrections on. Our education system is funded through various taxes and lottery earnings which go into the states general fund and sent out to the various districts in the state based on a student formula. This coupled with local property tax levies are the main ways schools are funded in our state. One thing both voters and legislators can agree in is that the system is not fully funding educations needs but that is where the agreement ends. On the one side you have voters who are feeling over burdened with a multitude of taxes and on the other side you have the legislators who are busy fighting over various issues ranging from transportation, to the environment, to security, and to education. They all have their own opinions on how to solve the education problems of our state. They range from moving away from public education to charter or private schools, to reforming schools to be more business like, to home schooling, to various other reforms. The two things they all have in common is that they all have their "experts" they cite as to why they will work better than what we currently have. The second thing they have in common (for the most part)is that they leave out the opinion of the real experts in the field, the teachers. I know some of you will tell me that educators are consulted and I would agree that educators are consulted but who are these educators? Are they actual teachers or are they people who work in the field of education such as front office people, administrators, district budget personnel? I agree that we need to talk with these people but we also need to talk with actual teachers as well so we get all sides of the story.

There are currently some really bad plans out there to solve the funding of education. You have one plan to privatize education and make it a for profit company that runs the school. Where should I start on why this is a bad idea? I will simply say that a school is not nor will it ever be a good for profit business. Another idea is that districts and schools need to be more business like in that they need to offer up incentives for those who turn out the best students, the good old corporate mentality. This sounds good on the outside but as you dig deeper into the practice it could make things pretty ugly. You can't apply a for profit corporate business model to an industry that deals with human nature. The mind is not a blank slate that you can imprint knowledge on like a circuit board. It is a plastic entity that is ever changing and responding to its environment in unpredictable ways. This plan would send education back to the dark ages of having teachers shut themselves in their classroom and not share out ideas for fear of losing their "bonus". You have charter schools which is a melding of private and public which can be a good thing but you need to make sure that they don't take us back to education before Brown vs. The Board of Education.

I am not one to gripe about something and not offer up a solution as well. I will be the first to admit that my solution may not be the most wise or perfect solution and there could be better ones out there but I will say that it comes from a certified teacher who is in the trenches day in and day out. Currently we have a system where states are responsible for funding public education and I say it should stay that way as different states have different needs. However it needs to a priority for states to fully fund education from a separate account outside of the general budget. This would give legislators the ability to separate out cuts on frivolous spending and necessary spending. It would also make sure that money that is meant to be spent on education is spent on education and not diverted elsewhere. The other part would be to fully fund mandates. Currently there are several unfunded mandates that are diverting resources from non-mandated areas. By requiring a funding requirement to every mandate it will reduce the number of mandates to those that are very important to have. With a reduced number of unfunded mandates money will be able to flow down to where it needs to be.

I know my solutions may seem simple and from a naive point of view. My intent is to stimulate some conversation around the issue with the hope that it will end up in the hands of those who are making decisions on how to fund education.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Some interesting websites

Over the past 6 months I have run across some interesting websites that can be used to integrate technology and problem solving into your classroom. In this post I will describe the website as well as some ways it can be used in the classroom

Kiva.org

Kiva.org is a website that facilitates the lending of money to entrepreneurs in impoverished portions of the world as a way to combat poverty. The key is that these are loans not donations to these people, the loans are what are referred to as microloans. You can view is as sort of a financial networking site for small businesses. The website has been featured on a variety of news magazine shows as well as various magazines.

This would be a great way for a school to have an ongoing impact on impoverished nations. Instead of doing a onetime fundraiser where the money is donated and that is often times the last the kids see of the money. With Kiva students can watch their money flow to the individual and then come back to them to be loaned out again. Students can also get updates through the journals the entrepreneurs keep on their progress.

Voki.com

At Voki.com individuals can create a virtual character and attach audio to it. Characters that can be created can range from realistic representations of the self to religious figures, animals, etc. Built as part of the social networking world as a way to communicate with friends, this web 2.0 tool has numerous educational applications.

Teachers can use a Voki to post instructions on their website. These instructions can range from how to do things on the website to help completing assignments. Vokis can be used to give one dimensional history lessons a third dimension. Create a Voki of a historical figure and have them talk with students. Students can use Vokis to add dimension to their writing and other assignments. Office staff can use Vokis to post messages on school websites giving them some pizzazz.

Freerice.com

Freerice.com is a simple vocabulary game where one guesses the meaning of words; the catch is that for each correct word 20 grains of rice is donated to starving people around the world. The site was started by a father to help his son learn SAT vocabulary but has grown into a full fledged non-profit. The site has it's own vocabulary raking system that has no educational basis that I can find. You can also set the website to remember where you left off and what settings you want for when you return.

This site can be used for more than just preparing for the SAT or wasting time. It is a great way to challenge students to build their vocabulary beyond the basic. You can have vocabulary contests to see who can learn the most words and/or donate the most rice. You can use this site as a way to launch investigations of new words. Challenge students to figure out what the words mean as part of a decoding unit.

These are just three websites I have used in class and/or visited. I welcome your comments on these sites as well as some suggestions you may have as well for great web resources.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Cell Phones: The answer to the 1:1 dilemma?

At a recent educational technology conference it was mentioned by the keynote speaker and several other speakers that we may be wasting money on 1 to 1 initiatives (take a deep breath). Now I know that in the academic circles I run in the title to this blog alone will invoke cries of blasphemy. I can just hear it now:

  • What are you thinking?
  • Kids are not mature enough to handle cell phones in class?
  • All they will do is text each other!
  • But they will cheat
  • All they can do is text, chat, and call
  • What about those that don't have cell phones
  • Wasting money on 1:1, you have to be kidding

All these excuses and more were brought up by conference attendees. I have to be honest until 3 weeks ago I was right there with my colleagues, but I have seen the light sort ta speak. After listening to Ian Jukes (see blog in the links section, The Committed Sardine) and listening to Marc Prensky I now see the importance of starting to explore the uses of cell phones in our classroom. Cell phones, if used properly, can be a powerful learning tool.

During the keynote address Marc had us do an exercise where he challenged us to find out three things using only our cell phones. We had to figure out who a person was, what they did, and what they collected in 5 minutes. After about 5 minutes almost 75% of the audience was able to answer all three questions. He then went on to talk about this is the world the kids we are teaching live in, the digital world. I tested his claims that the majority of students have a cell phone in my own 7th grade classes. I found that through a simple survey about 60% to 75% of my students not only had a cell phone but had it with them even though our school has banned them in classrooms. I have yet to challenge them to do research using their phone but I am willing to give it a go in the near future. The interesting thing I found out was that even the ones who didn't have a cell phone are able to search and use the phone to do research. How does this help us in the classroom you may ask?

In talking with my staff most say they would use technology more if they had access to either a classroom set of computers or more access to our computer lab. In looking at the projects they are working on and what they want students to use computers for is primarily research and some writing. If this is all they are going to do why not have students use their cell phone for this purpose? If you think about it most of today's modern cell phones are capable of accessing the web, even if it is the simpler mobile web. New phones and add on to phones are coming out with tools that allow students actually compose not just email but simple documents as well and I am not talking about expensive smart phones. But most cell phones can be used for more than just research. Most of your moderately priced cell phones are able to be used as simple digital still and video cameras. The pictures and movies can then be transferred to either another cell phone or with some simple software and USB cables or other means to a computer to be edited. Think about the possibilities of having a classroom set of digital cameras? All these features and at no cost to the district, yet we are still asking for more money to buy digital cameras and computers. Why?

I challenge us to rethink our ban on cell phones in the classroom. Instead of figuring out ways to keep them out, we should be encouraging students to bring their phones to class. Think about the possibilities if we are not limiting ourselves to computer labs or trying to reach 1:1 in our classrooms. We could have students use the labs to do what they are begging to do which is create rich content by taking the work they have done on their phone and digitize it using tools such Photoshop, PowerPoint, Publisher, etc.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Keeping Technology Out of the Right Hands

After reading the following article, 'Think before you ban' (eSchool News 1/21/2008) I find that it struck a chord with me. As a technology teacher it is my job to teach kids how to use technology more efficiently and effectively. It is also my job to help students learn how to evaluate technology. I find it interesting that often times when new technologies come out such as web 2.0 tools the first instinct of many districts is to either ban them or proceed extremely slowly in their adoption. Oftentimes banning these technologies is out of necessity because to not ban these technologies would cost us federal money (EX. Pornography, bomb making sites, etc.). The banning of these makes sense as there is little to no educational value in the viewing of these sites (although I know some would argue this last point). However, I find in my readings and from personal experience that there are times when we ban technologies/websites because we're scared of how they may be used at school by students (MySpace, blogs, podcasts). It is easy to say that we are blocking these technologies to keep kids safe or because we don't want students to become distracted by the content provided on these sites, to me this is an easy cop out. I say this because today students are able to find distraction on a computer, cell phone, MP3 player, textbook, or paper and pencil just as easily as if they had access to the blocked technologies. A great case in point is my use of student discussion boards in my introductory and intermediate technology classes.

I work with my students on how to use discussion boards to ask questions and have a meaningful discussion on specific topics. For awhile students stick to the topic of the discussion but after a while, and usually due to lack of monitoring, these discussion boards quickly become chat rooms. Now at first glance I was scared that work was not getting done but standing back and taking a look I found something interesting happening with these crude chat rooms, work was getting done. Now I will fully admit that the work that students were taking on wasn't work for my class but was work that needed to be done. For example our local parent group had surveyed students about how they would like to see a rather large sum of money spent. This survey was done the traditional way by asking students in their homeroom classes for their thoughts and opinions. I am not sure how those discussions went but I can tell you what students thought about being asked and what some of their suggestions were based on a discussion thread that was created on one of my discussion boards. The students in my class took it upon themselves to create and maintain their own discussion thread on a topic that was of importance to them. I could not have been more proud than I was at that moment; this was one of those rare and elusive "aha" light bulb moments in education that reminds me why we do this job. Now I will say there were several other topics ranging from opinions of our Dean of Students, the lack of snow, and comments about the local college rivalry game that weekend. There were inappropriate comments made on a variety of topics and there was the expected inane babble that comes from these creatures we call middle schoolers. There was even distraction from daily lessons and activities but all of these were easily managed with a simple discussion and loss of privileges (the dreaded read only feature of the discussion board). Although because of this aha moment I am encouraged to continue using this technology as a way of hooking in the students and meeting them on their playing field.

I encourage you to build on this aha moment and look at some of these web 2.0 technologies and some of the many articles, blogs, etc. that discuss their use and try and find ways to use them in your classroom. Unblock them for student use and see what they choose to do with it. At the many conferences I have attended over the years and the several articles I have read on educational technology I have heard one constant battle cry and that is we need to start focusing on helping students become creators of technology and not consumers of it. This is what web 2.0 technologies are all about, making it easier for all of us to become creators of technology. Some of the ideas I am toying with having students do are:

  • Using demo video software to create tutorials
  • Having students utilize online textbooks as instructional materials
  • Using gaming/simulation software as a form of classroom based assessment
  • Helping students become more familiar with using our district portal as an instructional tool

I hope to be able to expand this list to having students create and maintain their own school blogs, wiki's, and maybe even have them create and maintain a school podcast. I hope to take on some of these projects/ideas with the deployment of the new version of our portal, and am looking forward to engaging students in the use of technology as a production tool of the future.

As always any feedback or further ideas on how to reach the elusive being that is the middle schooler is greatly appreciated.