Badges for Student Choice – Not Revolutionary (Yet), But Positive

One informed risk I’ve taken this year is the introduction of badges in my AP Literature and Composition classes. After a semester,  the reviews are positive – many students appreciated the opportunity to branch out and try something a bit different.

These badges replaced an outside reading requirement and allowed for student choice of both material and assessment type, something difficult to accomplish in an externally moderated course like the AP or IB. While the badges may not have provided whee-fun! responses per se, the respect afforded by choice improved the classroom environment in what can sometimes be a bit of a slog through content and repetitive writing types.

Less than five students chose to read outside of class for their badge. Far and away the most popular badge was the Internet Enlightenment badge, and it led to great discussions with students about their social media presences. As an “edtech” wonk, the depth and breadth of these conversations was surprising; I couldn’t predict student responses. Kids obviously chose this badge for its ease, which is perfect, because it made them change their behavior online, or at least change their privacy settings.

One concept that repeated through the conversations was the idea of “parking” social media personas for later use in life. If a kid isn’t using Google+ today, she sees that she may in two years, so she wants to keep that space “clean.” Pretty informative perspective, really. Spaces like Facebook are useful in the same way that my daughters’ playroom is useful for containing the mess in our flat, but the girls will outgrow this space someday.

The coolest badge was clearly the Starving Artist. I received beautiful digital art from a student on one of my favorite novels, Siddartha by Herman Hesse. Students made paintings and drawings based on all sorts of novels, including Kafka on the Shore, which impressed me. One student even made a dress of white chiffon with a belt made of real chains spray-painted gold on the basis of her outstanding reading of “The Lady of Shallott” by Tennyson. This young lady arranged a model and blew my mind with the rigor and specificity of her analytic argument, connecting throughout to the text specifically. Her rationale is a stellar example of literary argument.

While she wasn’t happy with the final result of the dress, she made it, and it was cool. Additionally, she reflected specifically on what she would do differently next time. All of this made my day, but it’s the display of fine literary argumentation produced through the pursuit of the badge that makes me so happy. Self-selected, this assignment rang true and captured the student, leading to excellent, meaningful practice. This didn’t happen for every student, but it will in other assessment contexts. When it happens once, I’m stoked.

Other students extended the classroom into other directions, resulting in learning that I value, and that many of them valued. If the badges doesn’t advance toward our AP Lit goals, I’m okay with that. In terms of the partially successful requirement that these badges replaced, I’m happier with the greater proportion of success created by the badges so far.

 

 

Oh, Good Teachers Have Always Done That…

The cliche says: Man, if I had a dime for every time I’ve heard that. One cliched turn deserves another. I’ve been thinking about backwards design and this concept, what good teachers do anyway.

Very rarely do I say, or hear said: Oh, that’s a great idea that I’ve appropriated for serious misuse. But when I make my big mistakes, it is so often thus. Backwards design from an end that is meaningless, or worthless, or counterproductive, or at cross-purposes to colleagues, or ill-conceived will yield a process that takes us all to this barren shore together, a la high stakes standardized testing and the general, shallow outcomes it yields.

Of course, I can find silly outcomes on my own. However, by identifying what I value most, I can find high-value targets for students to hit. Additionally, I can design curriculum that allows students freedom and choice in their journey towards meeting or surpassing such targets.

Even more powerfully, communities and institutions like schools can come together and make shared decisions about what they value, and focus in on that. For example, when politicians decide that critical thinking has no place in schools, we can expose that conversation and have it at the local level where I feel solidly that few parents would argue that critical thinking and analysis is bad for their kids, even while they worry that (thanks to decades of demagoguery) schools may be undermining religious beliefs and the like.

Simple, focused statements of value are clear and transparent. Simple, focused statements of value can create outcome targets that aren’t obscure or scary, leading to paranoia like that reflected in the Texas Republican platform. Simple, focused statements of value can help teachers do what they’ve always done, better.

Everything we do in teaching is based fundamentally upon what we value. We should endeavor to honor these values with names and descriptors so that we can work purposefully in the same direction within our schools and our communities. I bet that’s something really great schools have always done…

My Big Open Classroom, An Intro

At one point last year, during a meeting of my school’s leadership team, referred to as a Curriculum Area Leader meeting, I said “Sign me up.” This is the kind of statement I have been known to make when somebody throws out a wild idea that fits my educational philosophy. Implicitly, I attempt to express support for an idea in this manner. Explicitly, I agree to take part. Which is why I now teach in a classroom twice the size of any other at my school, and why that classroom has no doors, separated from our giant hallways, known as coreways, by a partial wall of glass.

This has positives:

  • Amazing space for flexible furniture arrangements, including a couch and a tall round table with stools
  • An open classroom fits my philosophy and approach – come on in! We’re a community.
  • Classrooms are awkwardly small in our building, which was built to encourage breaking out of classrooms into the gigantic hallways. We get the best of both worlds with the new room.
  • Lots of light!
  • We now have a water fountain in my room, which is great. Hydration is life.
  • We get to play with a new generation Smartboard projector. After three years of trying, I get a regular whiteboard to use! Wahoo!
    • The downside is that I keep tapping the whiteboard with my finger when the beamer is on. The pen is an awkward tool thus far.

Drawbacks also exist:

  • The classroom can become suddenly swamped by noise. For some reason today, the PE teachers were rocking out to AC/DC and the door from the gym to our floor was open. Loud. Two teachers choose to communicate between stairwells – loud. Giggles – loud.
  • Somebody overheard me talking about 50 Shades of Grey in AP Literature, which led to some light teasing. I was making a profound point about genre… 🙂
  • It is now totally impossible to do any high quality recording in our classroom for digital journalism purposes. The ambient noise is too unpredictable.

The coolest thing about this classroom is that it is a leap toward a more open school. I am always surprised by the reticence of some colleagues to have others enter their classrooms; I understand concerns about interruptions, but have never found this to be an actual problem. My guess is that my classes will grow more and more comfortable with class that isn’t behind walls, less likely to be disturbed by people wandering in and out, and immune to the ambient noises. We’ll see.

The coolest thing that happened today, tangentially related to the classroom layout, was that a student asked to sometimes drop by the new Digital Journalism 2 course for help with her writing. We discussed how she could choose to write for some editions of the student newspaper, stopping into the class (which coincides with a free period for most 11th and 12th graders) whenever she wanted feedback from a peer or from me. She was stoked enough by the idea to join in for class today and get a preview of our Basecamp setup for managing the paper. The open classroom sets a tone, reinforced by students opting into some sessions of the course during their free periods. I can’t help but think this sends a cool message to the kids who are enrolled – others want to be here, too!

Certainly, this is a bit of an experiment at school, and I’m honored to be leading the charge. Another colleague teaches two courses in the space, while I teach a full load of five courses there. I will regularly reflect on our experiences as they accumulate.

 

Language and Identification

On a recent, totally engrossing Radiolab episode focused on color, Homer’s use of color in “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” illustrated a startling fact: not once in either epic does Homer use the word “blue.” Dawn is rosy-fingered, the sea wine-dark, nothing blue. In fact, they later visit the Himba tribe in Namibia who have no word for blue, who struggle to differentiate a sky blue square from a computer monitor otherwise full of green squares (the official BBC link is here). The Himba people have fully functional color vision, but their brains aren’t seeing blue. Why not?

One hypothesis mentioned in the piece is that a culture must synthesize a color before naming it, and as teachers have been known to say – to name it is to know it. Differentiations of shades, of colors, demand parsing an abstraction. As in deconstructing language or writing, terminology helps apply labels to abstractions, just like blue for the curious deep safety of green-minus-yellow. When students struggle to see what needs improvement in their writing or even in their ideas, language helps. All too often, schools approach writing instruction haphazardly or formulaically, because it is so challenging a task.  I have seen the power of a set of language and common, basic rubrics in action, like those adapted from “The Six Traits.”

Over the past few weeks I have seen students form novel neologisms and contort common words like “flow” into descriptors for what they wish to create in their writing. This is my failure; I should provide a useful rubric for students to practice with, grow comfortable with, and apply to their own writing for personal growth. Once students begin to see distinct zones in their writing for improvement, they can learn independently through playing with their writing. If a student can’t name a fragment or a run-on sentence, she can’t find them, or fix the problem. If a student can label distinct parts of her organizational structure, or identify strategies for improving her sentence fluency, she cannot be stopped from learning and making improvements as she sees fit.

Across the curriculum, if students and teachers share a basic functional vocabulary for writing, we will all see anew, see kernels amidst the chaos, see something hiding right now before our very eyes, obscured by the blindness of our minds. Language can begin to unwind the blindfold. We should let it.

Gamification: Bad Design, Good Design

I was struck today during a portfolio conference with a student who was laboring under the perception that we were adversaries, that her job was to guess my mindset and reflect it back at me, fool me into believing she had learned something or improved her writing. She declared that she thought I might be refreshed by honesty. After a dozen amazing conversations with kids about their writing, I was rather stunned. Just prior to this conversation, I proctored a final exam. After the exam, a student squealed repeatedly about all of the “C” answers on the multiple choice – he had changed some because it seemed like too many Cs in a row to be correct.

So I believe this about gamification: When grades are on the line, design the game or be at the mercy of an implicit, insidious game.    Inherent in school’s current design is this game; we cheat to win games, to gain advantage. Shortcuts in games may win us some upper hand. When I was an offensive lineman, I was a master of holding, which is a penalty if caught. In fact, any decent O-lineman can tell you how not to be caught, just keep your hands inside and let go if they spin or get separation. Cheating in this case is built into the game play – defensive linemen learn how to get loose, “break the hands” off the jersey. This isn’t necessarily a flaw in the design of the game, though, because a certain type of holding gets penalized 95% of the time (hands outside the body).

In school, shortcuts save time or effort, and cheating more so. However, this isn’t built into the game play of school, because when kids cheat or take shortcuts, they lose. Granted, when we offer nothing of value to students, maybe they don’t lose. They do, however, develop odd superstitions like Skinner’s pigeons and erase a few Cs when all signs point to C. As I reflect on my own gaming of school as a teenager, I suffered from arrogant self-perception (likely do still, after all, I blog). The choices I made that cheated me out of learning or experiences like speaking another language hurt me. I like to believe that by being open and transparent, by giving students control over their learning and the expression of their learning as in this portfolio assessment, they will take some ownership and do something that displays growth. Many do, some don’t, and I’m focused here on the negative.

What is the solution to breaking the implicit games of school? Relationships first, transparency second. Third and fourth, choice and authenticity. If I can design a curriculum that is open, student-centered, and constructivist in nature, most students will come along. Designing a framework in which students can learn language skills by doing isn’t even that hard, but it sure looks different. Good design, thoughtful design, is important, because otherwise we stay victim to the implicit design and fight the same battles, again and again as the gamers lose. At the very least, we could try to design in some more fun.

ZIS COETAIL Course 4 Project – Vertical Collaboration on Media Rubrics…And Beyond!

Crossposted from ZIS COETAIL cohort blog.

Shea and I worked on revising media rubrics for our Course 4 project. In my two years at ZIS, we haven’t done much cross-divisional work between English curriculum areas (CA), probably because we are busy, busy, busy people. As such, this has been a very illuminating peek inside the villa, checking out how the English CA is using rubrics to assess and instruct student writing and media creation.

My original media rubrics assessed the media product. For performance assessments, the performance itself often makes up the assessable product, so this made sense. These rubrics were based on the Upper School English CA’s Writing Rubric, which they developed themselves before my arrival. However, later media rubrics focused more on the genre of writing or media that students were asked to create. Interestingly, feedback on the earlier rubrics from students was that they weren’t terribly helpful for reflection or identifying areas for improvement. Because we were learning media creation from consuming and analyzing media models, such as Radiolab for podcasts, I asked students to write our News Writing rubric based on the models they listened to and read, but in a different form than earlier. My Masters action research was on student created rubrics from models and I am a big fan because students determine, and therefore internalize, the expectations for outcomes.

I chose to use a blank 6 Traits rubric because I have used the 6 Traits for years and find the breakdown apt for decoding and planning good writing. Students filled in the blanks based on what they saw as good, bad or mediocre. When we reached the conventions band, we realized together than, as some groups were writing and others were podcasting, we needed dual conventions bands for each media type. This really proved powerful. Recently, I have begun working on a video rubric, as the kids are doing investigative reporting and creating a video report. Through revising my existing rubrics to jive with Shea’s, I had an epiphany that drew also on the earlier experience of student created rubrics: Media is determined by conventions. I never needed that podcast rubric, but rather needed kids to know the conventions of the form. In addition to adherence to conventions, content, style, creativity, and format determine quality. Rubrics should reflect degrees of quality.

As I began to work with Shea, sharing feedback and making revisions, what became obvious is that our 5 column rubrics clashed with the middle school’s four column rubrics. A four column rubric is best because it eliminates the lure of the middle ground and forces a decision on the part of the assessor. I often borrow bits from grade bands as I assess a piece, which is as much a part of how I write rubrics as how I see student work. However,the new four column rubrics wound up stronger, I believe, than their predecessors. You may also note the blank band for video conventions. My students are viewing more media examples this weekend in order to fill in the blanks on Monday. Next, they will create a rubric for investigation and we will simply copy and paste the genre conventions below, merging the elements of quality into one rubric.

As I review these rubrics today, I see room for further improvement: “Sentence Fluency” could be better described (students wrote that, though, so it is meaningful to them). Also, what Sentence Fluency means for video may be so abstract as to demand a new band title. We’ll see. However, this process has led me to understand instruction and assessment of media creation in a new, more purposeful way. We can’t divorce content from form, period, and so our assessment tools should reflect that.

Further, by collaborating with Shea, I have seen in her revision an excellent clarification of media conventions wedded to content – media literacy demands are now embedded directly into her “Sell It” rubric. Also, I really appreciated her addition of an “Overall/Voice” band, which ties together the norms of an advertisement with the voice behind it. I’m not sure how to incorporate this into my current rubrics, but I will be considering a way to do so because it succinctly and explicitly illustrates the purpose for and function of the project’s outcome. Cool!

Working with Shea was great because it made creating better rubrics easier. Working together made my process much quicker and my final products stronger, less cluttered, and based on increased expectations for success. I look forward to more vertical teaming with Shea and my middle school colleagues in the future, not only because it is an enjoyable learning experience, but because it improves my teaching practice and, by extension, student learning.

The NETS and Good Teaching

Cross-posted from the ZIS “COETAIL” group blog.

When I read this question seeking a gauge of how important the NETS are to good teaching, I experienced a massive wave of cynicism that was broken by returning to the standards. Promoting creativity, designing progressive curriculum and assessment, modeling skills, engaging with ethics, and continually learning are lofty and important goals. Are these essential for good teaching? Yes.

I heard the term “common formative assessment” this weekend from a fine educator in the States, which seems like Orwellian English for standardized test. In too many US schools, students are treated as interchangeable parts, completing identical tasks or tests for data. Data makes great spreadsheets, but I’m not at all sure how that is formative. For the love of all that is sacred, can we not cultivate creative acts? How much more interesting for everybody – pity these poor teachers delivering the assessments, too – if kids spend common time in school or between schools working on a self-directed or cooperative creative, authentic activity. The data could be gathered in a celebration of creativity, an exhibition, and/or a website, if not shared in a more organic, authentic manner. Just NET Standard 1 is a powerful reminder that school can be real, based on actual problem solving driven by students. If all teachers and administrators stopped at #1, school would be a more dynamic place, full of uncommon formative assessments.

NET Standard #2 is fine. It’s probably the least important of the bunch for me. I do this, but most schools don’t rain iPads and software, so I’m going to give everyone else on Earth a pass on this one, in terms of being a good educator.

NETS numero tres is fantastic. What I love about this statement is that it begins with demonstrating fluency and then moves into collaboration, communication, and critical research skills. By demonstrating fluency, I imagine this standard to mean that we don’t write a blog post and then behave like we’ve pulled a rabbit out of a hat, but rather use a blog platform to do what blogs do – communicate information. We make a video to share information that benefits from a visual platform. We snap photos with our cell phone when we need a photo. So we model fluency because we are fluent; the environments that we use this fluency, at whatever level of proficiency we have, to build are what matter most. If I ask students to write a descriptive essay about Genghis Khan or a pterodactyl using the five senses, I wonder if I am fluent in using my senses or in writing (have you tasted a pterodactyl? To be fair, it’s probably a lot like chicken). If I ask students to burp into a Voicethread and call it a project, I wonder if I am fluent in project management or design (the Voicethread bit is easy enough to learn). Anyway, that’s why this standard is essential, because it transcends the digital.

NETS number four, ethics. Essential. We should treat ethics as a vast field for exploration and reflection, not as a whipping post for the unwashed, of course. There are no children who I have met without a finely honed sense of justice, and if you doubt the accuracy of that statement, hand out brownies of different sizes tomorrow in class. However, students are rarely encouraged to explore the foundations of their belief and value structures, much less to use these as a means for engaging with the world beyond their heads. Making real-world issues available for exploration in the classroom lights students on fire and teaches important skills like reading, writing, arguing, and critical analysis. While it’s hard for me not to jump up on the soapbox when class discussions range into ethics, for example, or responsible, active citizenship, I also make a point of exposing my own biases and their ethical foundations, as well as how these ideas create a lens through which I encounter information online or elsewhere. Sometimes I appear as a real person to kids, I think, which is powerful. I also like the focus in this standard on using technology appropriately to reach out to peers and communicate openly. All around, #4 is good stuff for good educators.

And finally, #5. If you ain’t learning, you’re dead. And dead educators are often less effective than live ones, but not always. Zing!

 

Ensuring Learning, Meeting Needs

Cross-posted from the ZIS “COETAIL” group blog.

When it comes to tagging blog posts, I am a burgeoning maestro. For this post, I have selected “21st Century Skills,” which is a term approaching Pee Wee’s Playhouse-style Secret Word madness with me. So, you see, that’s it! That’s an answer to the question. How do we ensure that students are learning what they need when it comes to Technology and Information Literacy? Teach 21st Century Skills, that’s how!

Ok, so that’s clearly not an answer. Here’s how: give the kids something to do and let them work out how to do it. I truly don’t believe that it matters if the solution involves picking a dodgeball side or working to protect the rainforest via a vast global network of like-minded youth, because I believe both are essential skills for this here century of ours, at once here and futuristic. It is not for me to decide what each kid needs, and need is essential to the question at hand. As we have been told by Sir Ken and his contemporaries, many of the jobs of the future don’t yet exist, so we can’t tell what kids need. Of course, the family of the future, the community of the future, and the future of the future do exist now, so we should keep teaching 20th, 19th, and 18th century skills, too. The world of work isn’t the whole world, after all.

Of course, I am more excited about authentic curriculum than I am about dodgeball (mostly). If we know what we would like students to know and to do, then I think we are best suited to help them if we couch their learning in authentic learning opportunities or projects. Of course, these should include the authentic use of technology, not to reach out to pretend audiences or to solve pretend problems, like writing a letter to the editor about dinosaur extinction, but to connect with anyone, anywhere, to talk to strangers, to take the ideas of others, ethically, and use them, advance them, in the pursuit of a solution for something. What won’t help students is using lasers to answer chapter review questions or the gamification of spelling tests. Learning a mix of skills for human interaction in the physical realm and the virtual realm is the best bet for securing a future for ourselves and our students that meets our individual and collective needs in this 21st century.

The NETS and Teaching

As a part of my COETAIL course at ZIS, I am required to answer the question “Whose job is it to teach the NETS (and other) standards to students?” NETS stands for the National Educational Technology Standards and is a set of standards for various groups in schools, like students, teachers, administrators, coaches, and so on. Like most standards, these statements aren’t analytic, but big, broad statements such as “Students understand human, cultural, and societal issues related to technology and practice legal and ethical behavior.” Then, each statement is parsed into 4-5 areas of application, also broad. So, who teaches creativity, collaboration, communication, information literacy, technological fluency, critical thinking, citizenship, innovation, research skills, and media literacy? You. Wait – didn’t you get the memo?

The problem with such standards – probably all standards – is that they at once seek to define all that must be known and done by everyone, everywhere. Standards have value and I find the NETS sensible and useful, but of course I understand the NETS through the lens of my subject area and age group. Most other teachers will do the same. As such, the NETS become a sort of planning and reflection checklist for the teacher – how am I hitting or ignoring certain parts of these, and how can I do better? That’s useful.

But, as long as we teach from pages 134 to 141 tomorrow, and as long as we shoot for standards like the Common Core, for example, there is little hope of generating the sort of student-centered, exploratory environment that would furnish the most powerful, transformational answer to this question: Together we learn the NETS through exploration in a supportive environment. I recently read something marginally snarky on Twitter that the tech-savvy person hits a problem and asks “How can I solve this problem?” and the tech-o-phobe asks “Who can solve this problem for me?” If that’s true, then the failure for the tech-o-phobe is in the environment in which they are working; perhaps a better question in a more supportive environment would be “Who can help me learn to solve this problem?” That is the sort of question I want students and teachers asking together.

If a school environment supported messy, time-intensive “project based-learning” or exploratory approaches, they need to cultivate the risk-taking (maybe low-risk taking is a good term), “play” mindset. Teaching media literacy, for example, gets sticky fast. As soon as we start drilling down past the surface, individual interests lead kids off in fascinating directions. Once they start producing media that “talks back” to mainstream media messages and values, it’s hard to have everything due on Tuesday. Instead, some time frames expand while others contract. Some students make a chunky poster, others geek out in Photoshop, and others still build elaborate sandbox sets for the destruction of a Matchbox car in explosion and flames. Each student may not even hit the same standards at the same time, but allowing open-ended exploration and choice helps students learn the NETS themselves in cooperation with each other and with the teacher or teachers. And that is the right answer.

Digital Storytelling in 90 Seconds

I have been working on a variety of digital storytelling rubrics focused on specific types of journalistic reports lately, cooperating with students to reflect what they see as valuable or important in feature writing versus opinion writing versus news reporting, and so forth. My next project is video, breaking down what works in video in these various types of reports and adding investigative reports to the mix. It’s a work in progress.

But, I have also created a very, very brief digital story of my own this week: a “Virtual Classroom Tour” that may be found below. This project is part of the presentation on podcasting in my Digital Journalism course that I will make at the Microsoft “Partners in Learning” Conference in Lisbon, Portugal, in a few weeks. The time limit of 90 seconds was set by the good folks at Microsoft, and, as I so often say to students, I learned from having my communication forced inside an imposed structure. I wouldn’t only want to tell a story this way, but it’s a good opportunity to boil the podcasting project down to its essentials. Therein lies the strength of an imposed structure, similar to the AP exam’s time limit or a prescribed “elevator pitch” layout like a Pecha Kucha.


So, please check out this very brief digital story produced in Camtasia Studio and offer any and all feedback. I took the video of students with the iPad 2, which lacks a good microphone. I tried to compensate for that, but it only worked to mediocre effect. I also had to convert the video from the iPad to use it in Camtasia, which created very small final products. Part of my thinks the little “window into the student” effect of the almost embedded interview video is interesting, while another part recognizes it’s kind of crap. Still, it helped me conceptualize the curriculum a bit to push it out in 90 seconds. I can see the value of asking for super-brief videos asking for illustrations of key concepts as a method of formative assessment a as result of this experience.