Saturday, April 19, 2014

Students Teach Teachers the Power of Paperless

If you read my blog with any regularity or follow me on Twitter you know I've transitioned to a paperless classroom this year. I've been lucky enough to have students who are willing to be on this new adventure with me. My well-intentioned plans don't always work perfectly when deployed in a BYOD classroom of 25 students. We've decided that there are too many benefits to the paperless model to let a few technical difficulties get in our way. Teacher and students have worked hard, together, so that we can benefit from the opportunities that mobile technology provides in a paperless classroom environment.  If it weren't for my students and their enthusiasm I never could have come so far... and I truly believe there is much much more my students and I will get to learn as we continue on our adventure together.

It only seemed right that when I had to opportunity to share my paperless successes at a professional conference, students should lead the way.  At the Blueprint Institute for Educational Excellence my students were excited to have their chance to show teachers how they prefer to learn.  They even gave up their afternoon on a sunny early release day to do it.

I wanted to be involved in this conference because I felt like my voice could really be heard and people would listen to what we had to say.

It was interesting being on the flip side of the card, and teaching teachers things they didn't know.

I liked in more than presenting to a room full of peers! The teachers really were there to hear what we were saying, not because they had to be (like most students during peer presentations) so I really felt like what I was presenting mattered.

First, I met with the student volunteers individually or in pairs and asked what they wanted to share with teachers about the paperless classroom. Not surprisingly, each student had a different reason for liking it.  We put it together into a presentation. Students were excited to share their ideas.
Our plan was for the students to show examples of their own notes and work as examples to help explain why paperless was a better way for them to learn. To the students' delight, 25+ teachers and education leaders attended.
 I snapped this picture while the kids were presenting.  Notice how they used their nervous energy to decorate the whiteboard in the background for the occasion.

They listened as 10th graders explained how paperless access to resources is more efficient than receiving handouts in class. They showed how much easier it is to maintain a digital notebook than a spiral or 3-ring binder.  They discussed how completing work in the cloud was better because there are no papers to lose and teachers and students can see and edit same document in real time, even when neither is in school. Finally, they shared their enthusiasm for the way a paperless classroom allows them an easier way to learn about the ideas of their classmates through collaborative apps. Here's the ebook version of what we put together for the workshop:
After the formal presentation phase, the workshop broke out into four groups that tried out four difference examples of paperless class activities we have done this year.  The students tried to choose activities that were simple enough to teach beginner techies but powerful enough that they felt there was a significant impact on learning when they experienced it firsthand in history class. The breakout groups generated fantastic discussions between teachers and students about teaching and learning.

After about 35 minutes of experimenting and discussing, the groups shared out their results.  There was a talking Franklin Pierce thanks to Chatterpix, a short answer quiz where the best answer got the most votes with Socrative, some Educreations explorations, and (my favorite) an eQuilt made with Paper and Padlet.

After the workshop I asked the students whether they thought the teachers in their breakout groups learned something new to bring back to their classes.

I think they were really impressed that we knew how to use the apps, which was actually new for them. In my group, the teachers saw simple tasks, such as drawing and posting something in a new way.

The teachers in my breakout group seemed to learn a lot more about technology that they were already familiar with. We also gave them feedback on what we thought could work well in their classroom.

This student voice in teaching and learning has played an important role in the way I operate my classroom day-to-day. Bringing student ideas to professional conferences like this can really expand educators' understandings of how to best reach their students.  Administrators and educators should strive to include student voice in policy change, curriculum design, and lesson and project planning.  And kids are grateful for their teachers!

We, as students, really do appreciate everything they do to make our lessons more interesting and different, whether it be through the use of new technology or not. It definitely helps us when they attend meetings like there, so thank you to teachers!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Blackout Primary Sources

If it had been possible for something to go viral in the late 1700s, Thomas Paine's Common Sense would have done that. His pamphlet was the catalyst that convinced a hesitant colonial public that rebellion for independence from the British Empire was the only answer.

Of course, language that was considered engaging and persuasive in the late 1700s is not necessarily the same language that 21st century teens find engaging. Without doing traditional document analysis, how can students see how important this document is?

As is often the case, I found inspiration from my PLN on Twitter. Greg Kuloweic and Lauren Putman were tweeting about blackout poetry, partly inspired by poet Austin Kleon
Lauren challenged her middle school students to blackout the Battle of Salamis, with impressive results.

Greg blogged about it and explained how to leverage iPads to complete and publish the project. He also took the project a step further and suggested a way for students to produce videos in which they explained their thinking and the meaning of their poem.

Making it a Work in My BYOD Classroom

After teaching my students essential Enlightenment ideas like social contract and consent of the governed, I introduced them to Thomas Paine and Common Sense. I gave them excerpts in groups of two. After an initial read through I told them about blackout poetry. Then they had the next 40 minutes of class time to circle and blackout their excerpts. They worked hard using apps like Educreations and Skitch.

First, they started marking words and phrases that stood out to them.
Then they started blacking out their excerpts. For some, this was hard. They even asked me if it was OK to cross out words. But if they made a mistake, their devices allowed them to go back and erase their work and change it. 
I had them screenshot every phase of their work and send it to me via email. As with our class philosophy, I wanted to publish their work. An ebook of poetry seemed appropriate. 

The next day students read their poems to the class. We then talked about the main ideas of their poems and figured out how Paine's Common Sense was linked with enlightenment ideas like social contract and consent of the governed. Here are our class notes.

Of course, publishing to our classroom alone isn't really publishing. So I sent parents the ebook so they could read their student's work. Parents wrote back that they liked the books and the opportunity to talk about them with their children.

I also shared our books with my PLN on Twitter, especially Lauren and Greg so that they could see how their ideas had an impact on my classroom. I heard back from them and a few others on Twitter who liked my students' work.

But the best response I got was...

Our poetry was noticed and republished by others! 


In the end, were the kids positively enthralled with blackout poetry. Well, no. But they had produced something. Their parents saw it and talked to them about their learning at home as a result. Now that we are in the midst of studying the American Revolution, nearly all of them have firmly grasped that the battles were not over taxes and money. They understand that the war was over representation and natural rights. In other words, through this activity and the publishing of the students' work, my classes learned the deeper roots of the American Revolution and continued a conversation about their learning outside of school.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Death is Hard to Talk About

On this one year anniversary of #BostonStrong part of what we remember includes the suffering and bravery of those who were injured or killed. It was a day that both horrified us and united us. Part of the reason for those two different affects is that death is hard to talk about.

On this day of remembrance I had the opportunity to remember a different event that forced Americans to come face to face with death: The Civil War. Drew Gilpin Faust and Ric Burns talked about Death and the Civil War at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Their talk focused on Faust's book and Burns's film based on that book.
Click the image to find out about the book.
Click the image to see the film website.

Their discussion focused on how the sheer numbers of dead created new realities and attitudes of death. 2% of the whole U.S. population died in combat or from disease during the war. That adds up to approximately 750,000 people. (Based on the U.S. population today, 2% would be 7 million people...dead.) In the South it was even worse: 20% of the male population between the ages of 15 and 45 were dead. How did the nation respond?
  • Families had to come to terms that soldiers were not dying a "good death" because they were dying painfully, publicly, and far from home.
  • 4 million enslaved Americans thought of death in an entirely different way than their white countrymen.
  • The American government realized it was woefully unprepared to treat the injured without adequate field hospitals and ambulance corps.
  • The bodies of the dead were often not honored in traditional ways and were not laid to rest in marked graves. What did this mean about American society or beliefs?
Here are my sketchnotes of the event:

Bringing a discussion about death, which is hard to talk about, into a classroom full of wide-eyed teenagers is daunting. But it's important because death is part of history. I happened to have participated in a book club a few years ago through History Connected and developed a short unit as a result. Part of that unit asks students to analyze excerpts from Civil War letters meant to assure families of the "good death" of their soldier.
Click the image to see the lesson.
After returning home from the the Civil War discussion with Dr. Faust and Burns, I was able to sit on my couch, type up this post, and watch the premier of Ken Burns's The Address. It is the inspirational story of a boys' boarding school that challenges its students, who are learning disabled and have arrived at that school often as a last resort, to give Lincoln's famed speech at Gettysburg publicly to their teachers, friends, and family.  I found it fitting that the evening's discussion with Faust and Burns closed with the thought that President Abraham Lincoln gave the soldiers' deaths new purpose in the Gettysburg Address when he said,
"These dead shall not have died in vain."
He assured Americans that their sons', husbands', brothers' and fathers' lives had great value and that the nation would be rededicated and reborn so that freedom could be achieved across the nation. In the same way, the young boys in The Address are given a rebirth after working for months, and in some cases years, to memorize Lincoln's 272 words that consecrated that battlefield. Through this monumental task, they also experienced rebirth: one of self-realization.

So on the anniversary of #BostonStrong we can remember our history. Americans have suffered in the past and have learned and united as a result of that suffering.  Our history is also an important part of our identity, as the boys in The Address learned when Lincoln's words became their own. So talk about death, even though it's hard. But then, take the time to remember who we are. Remember that we are stronger together. Take to heart the lessons history taught us one year ago and 150 years ago. It is all part of being American.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Animate Your DBQ

Teenagers send videos to each other all the time via iMessage, Snapchat, and YouTube. Why not teach them to make videos that answer deeper historical questions?

The document based question (DBQ) is a staple in most middle and high school history classrooms, but your day-to-day document analysis can be humdrum. To add interest and encourage students to create something unique based on what they've learned, I asked them to produce videos that explained their document's importance.

The DBQ Project has a great American History Mini-Q that asks "The Battle of Gettysburg: Why was it a Turning Point?"  It contains four excellent documents that range from maps to letters to statistics.

Step 1: History Recall

In a previous lesson of this unit, students analyzed statistics about the North and South at the outset of the war and created infographics. I asked them what they remembered about the advantages and disadvantages of both sides.

In another lesson students created their own Civil War battles scavenger hunt that had them running the halls and discovering trends in the war. I asked them what they remembered about who was winning and losing early in the war.

Once they established the context they needed to know, it was time to teach them the tech.

Step 2: Animoto Tutorial

Using Reflector Mirroring, I demostrated the Animoto app on my own iPad while they watched and listened via the SmartBoard at the front of the room. This literally took no more than 3 minutes.  You can also find great tutorials on Animoto on YouTube.

Step 3: Distribute the Documents

The class was divided the class into four groups. Each got one of the four documents. They used the guiding questions that come with their document to figure out what evidence from the document helped answer the overall question of why Gettysburg is considered a turning point in the Civil War.

Step 4: Students Analyze and Create

I gave students about 30 minutes to analyze their documents, draw or find their images to represent what they learned, and create their Animoto videos. I checked in with groups to ensure their analyses were moving in the right direction. At times, if they asked I gave help with the app.

Step 5: Share & Discuss

Each group presented their short video to the class and we talked about how it proved document analysis had been completed and how it answered the overall question of why Gettysburg was a turning point in the Civil War. Great results! Here are a few:

Click here to watch a video explaining why the casualties were more devastating for the Confederacy.
Click here to watch a video explaining why Lee chose to invade the North, a risky tactical decision.
Click here to see how Lincoln's Gettysburg Address changed the purpose of the war.

By the end of one 55 minute class period we had reviewed, analyzed, created, shared, and discussed. DBQs are an important part of teaching students to learn about history from various sources, but they don't always have to prove their learning in the form of a traditional essay. Of course, the writing process is essential and we certainly do that quite a bit in my history classes. But a fresh creative approach can go a long way with a classroom full of teenagers... and you just might be pleasantly surprised with what they create.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A Reason to Push Forward

I was honored to receive the 2014 Yale-Lynn Hall Teacher Action Research Prize at the Yale School of Management Education Leadership Conference on Friday, April 4.  Click the link below to view my submission:

Mobile Devices and Student Innovators

Mobile Devices and Student Innovators

My colleague Janet Dee was an encouraging force in getting me to put together the submission and helped with the editing and data analysis processes. Her connections with Yale SOM made it all possible.

I was part of a panel on entrepreneurship in education with edtech leaders from Panorama Education, DBL Investors, EdSurge, and Whiteboard Advisors. We heard high quality business proposals as part of the Education Business Plan Competition. After, we discussed the revolution of edtech in education reform. 

A few reflections after attending the conference, being a part of the panel, receiving the honor, and returning to my classroom:

EdTech is Changing My Classroom Even Today

I drafted the submission in February and I can't help but notice how much farther my students and I have come in the two months since then. They are building even more creative products, sharing their ideas collaboratively online, and staying on contact with me 24/7 with questions and ideas.  The classroom experience is changing faster than I could have imagined due to the possibilities created by edtech. I'm so happy to be a part of it.

Policy Makers Want to Include Motivated Teachers in EdTech Reform

After speaking about how my students have benefited from the collaboration and creativity that technology integration has made possible, edtech entrepreneurs, administrators, and policy makers wanted to talk to me more.  They seemed starved for information about successful technology integration from the classroom level.  I'm hoping I can be a voice for teachers.

Student Input is Needed to Move Education Forward

My students have GREAT ideas. Just today a student asked me if SMART Technologies could create an app that allows her to view my SMART Notebook lesson files and edit them for her own note-taking purposes. What an awesome idea! I did a little looking and it turns out there is one. Time for more due diligence on my part.  Yale ELC was a forward thinking conference, but student input into where education is going would make it an even more valuable experience for all involved.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

#sketchnotes: Time to Give Kids More Freedom

I'm on the verge of a BIG shift in the way I empower my students to record day-to-day learning in my classroom.

I've blogged about doodle notes before to show how my students:

My students have edited primary source quotes.
They've taken digital notes directly on primary source images and art.

But I haven't really gone full tilt with student sketchnotes. Sketchnotes are a more creative and engaging way to take notes.  They're posted all the time on Twitter.

With all of the versions of doodling I've allowed students to use in the classroom, there is a clear structure I've put in place first.  I haven't really given them the freedom to doodle in a their own way.  I was worried that without some kind of linear guide my students would not get down the essential content I'm responsible for teaching based on our school curriculum and state standards.  On the other hand, as this school year has carried on I've been giving my students more and more choice and they've responded by raising the bar for themselves.  Since they've proven themselves over and over its time to give them more freedom in their own notebooks, even if they are paperless notebooks, or precisely because they are paperless and they aren't limited by paper and writing utensils.

But if I want my students to try something new and stretch their thinking, I have to practice what I preach first. I recently had the tremendous opportunity to attend and speak at the Yale School of Management Education Leadership Conference. I saw keynotes and panels and I took part in a school site visit to a charter middle school that is changing student achievement in New Haven, Connecticut. Of course, conferences are a great opportunity to learn from others, take notes, and look back at them once it's over to figure out how it can have an impact on my own professional practice. Normally I take notes in a linear way: bullet lists, key phrases and quotes, title and subtitles, etc. This time I doodled; I created sketchnotes and shared them.

First I attended the opening panel on school reform and transforming failing schools.
Note the emphasis on the words "turnaround" and "transform" that was apparent from the panelists. They discussed and debated their differing strategies for making schools more successful in Connecticut.

Then I went on a site visit to the Amistad Academy in downtown New Haven.
Amistad Academy is an Achievement First charter school. They are in the midst of transitioning, enthusiastically I might add, to a Common Core model.

The conference keynote was shared by Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade and Dr. Howard Fuller, two charismatic men who are passionate about justice in education:
This was perhaps the most powerful keynote I've ever witnessed. These two men walk the talk. They have immersed themselves in education reform for minorities and the poor. Their messages are clear and urgent.

Finally, I went to a panel on the implications of early adoption of edtech in schools:
The panelists included Patrick Larkin, Asst. Supt. in Burlington, MABenjamin Berte, CEO of Socrative; Jennifer Medbury, CEO of Kickboard; and Chris Bostock, Principal of Achievement First Amistad High School.
There is no doubt that I lack the artistic ability to make these sketchnotes beautiful, but I'm giving it a shot. I have to admit, I found this method rather thought-provoking as I was doing it for a few reasons:

  • Since my notes were not a mere list, I had to think about how big/small certain words were. It would show emphasis, as the size of words in a word cloud does.
  • Placement was also important. I know intuitively that people read from top to bottom and from left to right, so that had to weigh into my choices.
  • Color choices and double-backing on certain words to make them stand out was another way I showed importance of ideas.
I've found myself looking back at these notes quite a bit in the 48 hours since the conference ended. I have to admit that in the past, I haven't really looked back at my notes with any consistency. Maybe there is something to this. Would my students be more likely to look back at sketchnotes from class than they would to look back at linear/outline style notes?

My next task is to figure out how to teach my students to develop this skill, without being so structured that their own personalities and ideas fail to come forth in the resulting sketchnotes.

Stay tuned!

Note: The sketchnotes above were created using Paper by 53.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Running Through the Hallways: A Class Created #BYOD Scavenger Hunt

Even for an enthusiastic history teacher like me, the idea of conducting a class in which students learn generals' names, gruesome casualty numbers, and mark battle locations on a map seems a bit dry.  Without added meaning, facts alone do not generate real thinking.

It takes time to look up the factual information that, taken together, can help students understand why one side won and the other side lost any given war. In our case, it was the Civil War. Students would rather work together than trudge through the facts alone, and I would rather help them learn to collaborate with one another.

Here's how we did it:

Images from Lily's Blog.
With this strategy, they learned about the major battles of the Civil War quickly without having to tediously look up all of the dry names, dates, and numbers themselves.  They saved the information in their Evernote or Google Drive notebooks right on their devices as they carried out the scavenger hunt.

Of course, I wanted them to gain an even deeper understanding of why the Confederacy dominated in the East early in the war, while the Union dominated in the West and on the sea throughout the war.  Padlet made that possible.

One student, Rachel, noted:
After everyone finished the scavenger hunt we used a website called Padlet to post answers to specific questions we were asked. Padlet was an easy way to see everyone's ideas and it was helpful to answer the essential question of the lesson.
Christina explained how it was a combined effort:
After we had finished what we could of the scavenger hunt we emailed each other notes on the battles we missed and further joined forces to reflect and analyze what the answers were to the Essential Questions based on the combined effort research. This collaboration was done technologically using Padlet, a site where you can post computer-generated sticky-notes on a virtual wall.

With their combined knowledge, students were able to answer complicated questions.  They did it all themselves. I didn't give them any answers.  And they were proud to have done it together.  Of course, in the end, I wanted them to write about what they'd learned individually so I could check that each and every one of them had learned the content goal of the lesson.  But the collective depth of understanding was more impressive than in previous years and it's because of collaboration students were able to achieve. Plus, it was more fun!

Ryan seemed to like the activity, posting:
The battles scavenger hunt was another new and fun way to present the information we've been learning in class. It's always nice to be able to do something that's enjoyable that is also different from traditional teaching methods.
Andrew simply said:
The way in which we did the scavenger hunt was fun, and barely felt like work at all.
A few students, like Jason, thought the physical activity was a bit more than he'd bargained for when he walked into history class:
Overall, the scavenger hunt was an interesting but exhausting way to discover new information about important of the Civil War.

I'm sure this activity could be used for other wars throughout history, or even for any series of facts that students need to learn but can be dry to teach or read about on their own.  It's a great opportunity for a class to come together and create something fun while learning.