Saturday, April 27, 2013

Teaching the Real World

I teach Social Studies and Science - so the "real world" should come into play in my classroom on a regular basis. However, I think sometimes we get so bogged down in the world around us we forget that sometimes what is occurring in the here-and-now is our best tool and a great link to relevancy. Here are 2 examples from my week:

Teaching Economic Systems - supply and demand without the graphs
  • In 6th grade, my students are supposed to "master" identifying economic systems
  • This week NPR did a series called "Coffee Week"
    • Coffee week talked about 2 types of coffee (products) which are essentially differentiated by cost (and quality)
    • They discussed production methods (industrialized, specialty - which includes a variety of methods to meet various standards for labels like "Fair Trade," "Rainforest Alliance Certified," etc.
    • They included the effect of middle men on the specialty coffee market
    • and there was also a bit of discussion about standard of living of farmhands (another economic standard I teach)
  • So we "read" three audio clips about coffee and had a discussion about the things we discovered
  • I focused discussions using the 3 basic economic questions (gathered from an article, "Economic Systems, by Chris Stallman - students read the article following our discussion activities)
    • 1) What goods are produced with the available resources?, 2) How are these goods produced?, 3) For whom are they produced?
    • From our "reading" we gathered that 2 types of coffee are produced
      • Different economic systems decide what to produce by different means (the kids don't know this yet, but it's important for us to know as teachers where we're going with this)
      • So then I ask..."How did we decide to produce 2 types?" and kids talk about cost and how some people can only afford generic coffee while others can afford to pay for better flavor and are willing to do so and we decide that "buyers" play a role in what is produced
    • We also gathered from a case study in one clip that what's produced depends on producers being able to make enough money to continue (so sellers play a role in what is produced)
    • Moving on to question 2: generic coffee is produced by the cheapest means possible (machines lower labor costs, as an example), and in specialty coffee, the buyers who want certain labels influence production (how are workers treated, environmental sustainability, etc). - so we see again, buyers and sellers playing a role
    • Question 3: goes back to question one - these goods are produced for whoever can and wants to pay for them
    • In the end we have a picture of supply and demand (and we do a little cost analysis where we discuss what would happen if the buyers costs were too high, or the seller made too little money) and now we've had a complicated discussion about supply and demand and kids never had to stare at a graph (so I can bring that in after they get it- and then it is less likely to confuse them.....graphs are tmi for a 6th grader - these steps are great to build them toward that)
    • Then we talk about - using their background knowledge - what is the place called where buyers and sellers meet and haggle over prices....and they say "A Market!"
    • And now kids have developed concepts of a Market Economic System through careful questioning on my part and discovery on their part....
    • Then I move to my political ideologies poster and read them one of the communism examples "You have two cows. You have to take care of them. Then, the government takes all the milk." This is a simplification, but it helps to illustrate some points (and we can argue details later)
      • So again I ask the 3 economic questions (production is a little hard - but we point out they can only use 2 cows and that they are forced to be responsible for them)
      • Then I ask: how did they decide the answers to these: and most kids can say "The government decides"
      • Then I introduce a "Command economic system"
      • The kids have 2 down (I'd like to point out that I introduced traditional earlier in the year with Mayas, Aztecs, and Incas - and it hasn't sunk in or really even made a dent - so we review that - these are great examples of a traditional economic system because the market system has invaded most cultures the kids are familiar with in the modern era so we go back to something pure that they are familiar with; kids can recognize that only royalty gets to eat chocolate for example and that is because of beliefs which are a social custom - tada: one of the characteristics of a traditional economy)
  • It's at this point that I pass out Chris Stallman's article. Kids read it, record definitions of the 4 systems (Mixed gets added, a combo of command and market).
  • My students go into the reading already familiar with the 3 questions, knowing you can't define an economic system without those 3 questions, and so they can focus their reading better.
  • They also go in knowing there is a quiz to follow it up (it's a mastery quiz we do before starting an economic simulation based in the Caribbean....the simulation focuses more on saving and investing and we look at how some people can't invest and frankly, can't even save and how saving becomes a pre-requisite for investing)
Anyways....on to Science. While downloading my audio clips about coffee, I ran across a video posted by the Canadian Space Agency.

How do water molecules behave? - as part of my Weather Unit
  • Warm-up: What would happen if you wring out a wet towel in space?
  • Discuss.
  • Then give kids pipets with water and wax paper - let them explore the behavior of water and talk about surface tension.
  • Ask them - would there be surface tension in space? Let them adjust their predictions and also add "How would being in a space shuttle be different from being in the vacuum of space?" This forces the kids who think their first prediction was "perfect" to add to their thoughts. Point out that both lack gravity, but one has air pressure (this is after we spent several days discussing the behavior of air molecules)
  •  Discuss again.
  • Share the video. Let kids be wowed!
  • Move into a discussion about cloud formation - starting with what types of molecules are in air (water, various gases, dust, etc), then moving to the behavior of air when it is cold versus hot, how would this affect the water vapor in the air, what role to dust particles play....
  • Suddenly we have a complex version of cloud formation - surface tension helped kids imagine condensation up in the atmosphere.
  • The video was a minor part of the lesson - but it is such a great hook and makes weather more exciting than just what the temperature and precipitation is for the day.

Friday, April 26, 2013

"The Wonderful World of Wikis, Blogs, and Podcasts" - Jamie Diamond and Meg Gaier, District 220, Barrington, IL

So in February I promised some follow-ups on what I learned at the CCIRA Conference this year. So let's talk about Jamie Diamond and Meg Gaier's presentation "The Wonderful World of Wikis, Blogs, and Podcasts."

The first thing I had to say is that these ladies made the use of these technologies seem easy, rather than cumbersome. I have yet to tackle blogs and podcasts, but next year I would like to push them a bit more. Podcasts in particular intrigue me because they seem like a great way to follow the advice of another presenter, Johnathon Mooney, and de-emphasize reading and writing, while supporting literacy. Podcasts allow students to work on vocabulary through word choice and voice as they share what they know verbally. I can also share things with my students via podcasts. Two students that I have right now made me very interested in this because they are great kids but deal with dyslexia in one case, and a severe case of LD reading struggles in the other. As I have learned from these boys, however: open these opportunities up to all students, so some kids are not singled out. Wikis offer a great way for kids to collaborate and because it's essentially a website - it seems more purposeful than simply creating something in a google doc with peers.

One thing they did that made teaching the use of these technologies so much more doable was the use of videos from Common Craft. I knew I could go back to my students, share a video like "Blogs in Plain English" and have a springboard for a discussion about Blogs and how we use them. I built my blogs and got started in both my science and social studies class. The kids were engaged and the beauty of it was - every kid turned SOMETHING in. In the future, I intend to use these more, as my school did a fundraiser to buy chromebooks and we now have a set of 20 that I can check out and use regularly.

Warning: Do your research first! I started blogging, having checked with my school tech teacher to see if he thought this would be okay. The students are all under an "umbrella" account which I run and thus do not have their own accounts (but they do have their own logins). Since I teach 6th grade, my students are under 13. He thought it was fine and would not break any laws, but then our district tech leader heard about it (because one of the district tech people has a daughter in my class - she loved that we did this and was bragging about it) and he shut us down. I'm still not sure if he knows how the logins work, but we were asked to include this site in our list for our tech agreement that parents sign at the beginning of the year.

The site I used: Kidblog

I picked kidblog because these presenters said it was friendlier for young students than sites like Edublog. Since my students are under 13, I try to stick with the elementary friendly sites.

Personally, I think this site is great because if a student forgets to "publish" their work, I can look up drafts and still see their work. Also, kids get to personalize their individual blogs -so they like it. Its a great place where I can comment (public or private), kids can see the work of their peers, and edits can be made at any time (school or home). I have complete control over what is posted, comments, usernames, passwords, etc. Also, I can set the site to be hidden, so external viewers cannot see the posts my class has made. We can have conversations about each others' work and learn more through each other.

Here are a couple examples of how it could be used:

  • Reporting class news: individual students can report what they learn or what they think or feel
    • In my Science class, we reported our evidence about why different geologic time periods began. For example, students might talk about the emergence of life on land and what new era that ushered in. They had to use the "CER" (Claim, Evidence, Reasoning) response.
  • Current event reports: Students can report about world events, sharing news that interests them and commenting on things they discover through each others blog (a great way to do this is assign weeks for reporting and then kids who aren't reporting, have to comment on the news reports).
The beauty of this: Students can practice their writing skills with a clear and real audience. This type of writing feels purposeful, real-world, and not contrived.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube

Interesting. Now - how can we apply this to education?

The Integrated Science Class

"It is not enough to teach science as science. A great teacher designs a science lesson within the context of the greater world and considers the social context of scientific learning, the  myriad avenues of receiving and communicating the information (literacy), and the natural place mathematical thinking has in any field of study."

The quote above is from my first blog post as the "Contemporary Teacher." It models my educational philosophy.

Recently I had what I consider an educational victory. You see, Colorado has integrated physical, earth, and life sciences in their middle school standards. However, not all school districts jumped on board, having separated the three in the past. Mine was right along with the rest in avoiding the change. We're three years into the changed standards and my pushing has finally resulted in discussions about actually changing our curriculum to match. I had all my arguments and brought resources and it paid off. Much to my surprise, all but 2 teachers were on board. Democracy can be a beautiful thing.

In case you're wondering, here are my reasons for using the state standards as written:

  1. Integrated science allows me as a teacher to develop units that show the complexity of the real world
  2. There are more opportunities for interdisciplinary learning with a greater variety of sciences
  3. the vertical alignment and spiraling of learning developed by the standards designers is intact
  4. better retention by students as they are building on these concepts (versus learning earth science in 6th grade and not seeing it again until 9th grade)
  5. process skills are written at a grade appropriate level
 Next year, I will teach the Colorado State Science Standards as they were intended for 6th grade students. I am terrified, excited, sad at the loss of some of my favorite units (solar system), but always ready to do the work to make changes that I feel are the most appropriate for helping my students.

Here are some things I am working on for myself and my fellow science teachers:
  • a very complicated concept map showing connections between the concepts I will teach as well as vertical alignment (MindMaple Lite is a free software which is GREAT for this purpose)
  • a google sites web page which includes file folder pages that teachers can use to share materials
A note about making changes as your school: If you are going to push for a change, be ready to step up and prove you are an asset to the change process. To be clear, I teach only one section of science. However, this one section gets just as much time and energy as my social studies classes. Some teachers might try to balance this time. I can't do that.  I am just as much science teacher as social studies teacher - the physical schedule has nothing to do with that. I wanted a change, so now it is my job to help my fellow teachers to see this change is doable and a benefit. If we drop the ball and do a poor job of making this change, we will get poor results. If we're going to do it, we'll do it right and thus I see it as my duty to ease the change I pushed for. Educators do not often enough see themselves as a team handling problems together. We get focused on ourselves and our own dilemmas. Change that! For yourself, and your teammates.

Read some of my other blog entries to see how to integrate literacy, math, and social studies into your science content (or vice versa).

Stop Fighting Technology

As teachers, schools, or districts we often have developed policies around the idea of eliminating cell phones or other devices. The idea is to eliminate educational distractions. Now, I am aware that there is plenty of research out there on the benefits of technology in the classroom, but I would like to offer a little of my own perspective.

I have a student who we will call Pete (because I name everything Pete). This particular kid has been struggling with his parents' recent divorce and is a typical distracted, social 6th grade boy. Did I mention he struggles with dyslexia and has handwriting that can be near on impossible to read, mimicking the size and stylings of a preschool or kindergartner? Pete also has me for both Social Studies and Science. All year he has squeaked by in these two classes (and most of his others) - and the squeaking has taken a lot of support from his mom and I.

Now, Pete has had access to some "educational" technology as part of his 504 plan; things his peers aren't allowed to use. The first thing we tried was an iPad. That was a disorganized mess due to lack of file folders. I would also like to point out that Pete would start a new document rather than reopening and adding to older assignments and if something got deleted, it was gone for good. Science labs would come to me in disjointed sentences with multiple pieces missing. It was a battle every time to make sure everything was part of one document and that the full document was sent to me.

Next on Pete's educational technology list was the laptop. He broke that within a week. Now, in addition to the iPad which he was using poorly and eventually stopped using, we had a laptop, which he couldn't use. However, that's giving Pete a little too much credit because before it broke and after it was fixed, he didn't use it for the intended purpose. You see, the whole idea was that we could use these items to de-emphasize reading and writing, to use the words of Johnathon Mooney. Pete was supposed to use Dragon so he could record his voice, rather than pecking away with his fingers. He was supposed to let the computer read class documents to him. This didn't happen.

Frustrated, Mom asked for another meeting (note that another means this is not the first). The big topic was about how we could get Pete to do 2 things: 1) feel like he could succeed and 2) use his technology without shame. You see, Pete didn't want to use Dragon because it makes him feel different and weird. He wants to do things the way everyone else does. So I, boldly, asked if I could pilot letting everyone use cell phones and other devices in the two classes I have Pete. This was bold because my principal and the parent were in the meeting with me - so there was no going back and I didn't really leave an out. Thankfully, they were both on board. No students were present, including Pete.

Going back to my masters program and a traumatic brain injury conference for educators that I attended, I used what I know about research on planners to start with getting kids more organized. I no longer address technology with Pete individually, but talk to my whole class about ways to use their devices. Would it be a good time to mention that my pilot social studies class frequently has fewer missing assignments than my other classes and sometimes none at all? You see, I had known for the three years I  have taught following my masters program, that planners are ineffective. However, I still push them, because they are what we use at my school. The research on alternatives to planners says a list is better. However, 6th graders lose lists. They are infinitely less likely to lose a cell phone, however.

Here's ways to use a device to keep track of work:

Option 1: Homework Note
  1. Create a "homework" document on the device (phone, iPad, kindle) - most of a notebook where this can be done
  2. Look over and grab the stuff needed before heading home
  3. Update this same document daily
    • In class: type in the new assignments
    • At home: delete things as you do them
    • fill in the assignments again the next day and repeat cycle
Option 2: Camera
  1. Photograph the teacher's agenda using a phone
  2.  Look over that at night and complete
Option 3: Google Drive
  1. Have kids start a google drive document for homework
  2. they can update it with homework just like in the notepad function 
  3. The benefit here is that they can keep a running list of things and the document can't get lost amidst all other stuff on their device (should they be a kid who puts everything on notepad) 
Option 4: Events and Alarms
  1. If a student has homework, they can set it as an "event" in their phone with a time for the alarm to go off.
  2. This way, when they get home, the alarm will remind them to do their homework!
 I have also let kids take notes, make voice recordings, do research, and even do their actual homework on phones. Once, I assigned for kids to go home and find a news article. We had a few minutes in class, so I let some boys "prove to me" that they could do it on their phones. They found their articles and turned them in with their phones. That was in a class where I was not piloting using devices. Still, 15 kids were able to pull out their devices (half the class!) and get this done. Why fight it? Kids keep their cell phones with them, whether they are allowed to or not.

We have a grade level cart of chrome books - only 20 and not enough for every kid. So, some kids supplement the supply with their iPads and other devices. I teach in an inquiry school - so when a kid asks me something I don't know - I no longer write it down to look up or run to my computer during work time so I can tell them. Now, I can say "Great question! See if you can find it with your phone."

Back to Pete. Pete is still struggling, and still does not use technology in a way that de-emphasizes literacy for him. However, he is more comfortable having technology and so hopefully we can build him up to feeling safe using it in a way that helps him. In the mean time, I have shared a Johnathon Mooney video with his mother, hoping to inspire him into believing that he can succeed and it shouldn't matter if he can do it in the same way everyone else does. On another note: Pete calls himself "my favorite student" and I have never disagreed. We have a great relationship - even though I am the only teacher whose class he has failed (science). I will continue to expect his best and someday, I hope he gives it and realizes that his best is just as good, if not better, than others' - it just takes different methods to get him there.

Update: My students and I had a little debrief about their technology. They shared with me that there are some great apps for phones and iPads that are for tracking homework. Some even let them check off the assignments when they turn them in. See what's out there!