Sunday, April 22, 2012


I haven't written much on my blog this year. It's purpose has mostly been to report out on the activities going on in my classroom. But by the time I get through the school day and the work it takes to get that done, I've not got much left in me to take time to share it out here. Besides, except for the cell phone policy post, no one looks anyway.

I am compelled, however, to write briefly today because it is the day I posted my 3D GameLab badge I received for completing the coursework necessary to bring this gamified learning platform to my students. The end of the school year tends to be a bit rocky because of the anticipation of summer by both students and teachers. I tend not to get antsy about it until the very end of May, usually because I always feel like I am running out of time to get everything done that I wanted to do.  This spring, however, was different for some reason - I found that in April I was anticipating summer. That is a dangerous place to be with regard to motivation.  So it was with great relief that I stumbled across 3D GameLab, because the experience gave me a much needed anticipatory shot in the arm for next year, which helped me keep up the momentum for this year. It was an unexpected perk.

The major reward for me was in finding a tool that will aggregate most of the digital tools and learning strategies that I have been collecting for 4 years by placing them in a fun and valid format. 3DGL is a powerful tool that I plan to use with my 7th grade students. I am anticipating a fun summer, building in the coursework for next year.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Students Change School’s Cell Phone Policy - A case for inquiry/project based learning

I started this blog with the intention of writing every Sunday. That was a summertime dream! Once into the thick of the school year, that intention evaporated quickly. This holiday break gave me the time to write up and summarize all that I had wanted to try to put down each Sunday night. However, I think this will prove to be a better post, albeit a rather long one, because it tells a comprehensive story.

Under the Muscatine Community School District’s new G² inquiry/project based learning pilot program, the cell phone policy project was born at Central Middle School. The project set out to answer the question: “What factors impact cell phone usage policies in schools?” Language arts teacher, Tanise Colvin, and I decided on this project because it would provide an opportunity for students to develop their information literacy skills and to engage in authentic civic action should they choose to pursue a change in their school’s cell phone policy (which they did and we suspected they would!) An overview of the project can be viewed here.

We began by having our students generate the factors they believed currently influenced cell phone policies (mostly cons) and those that they felt would have a positive impact in school. We finalized a list of 32 factors, half of which were pros and half cons. Mrs. Colvin worked with the “cons” groups and I worked with the “pros” groups. Working in groups of three, the students researched one factor per group which were then collectively presented at our Exhibition Night on November 4, 2010.

As Mrs. Colvin worked with the groups researching the potentially negative consequences of cell phone use in schools, we came to realize that we needed a way to address these proactively if the proposal we were planning to make to administration had any chance of approval. Originally, Mrs. Colvin’s groups attempted to devise a set of proactive slogans to thwart inappropriate cell phone use by students, but soon came to realize that this was a project in and of itself and could not be included in the original project and Exhibition Night.

As part of my social studies curriculum then, I took over the idea of a Responsible Use Campaign and I scrapped my pending project for the time being. Before we could set to work on the campaign, we had to devise a comprehensive policy proposal based on our research and feedback from the Exhibition Night audience. The students were very careful to write a balanced and rather conservative proposal to administration, but we didn’t submit the proposal immediately. We knew we needed to submit our Responsible Use Campaign ideas in unison with the proposal to help make and keep the new policy a success. The students were keen to work on a proactive scheme rather than focus on disciplinary consequences (although they were asked by administration to submit their ideas for that as well). So the Responsible Use Campaign began in earnest.

Students were arranged in groups of eight and all were responsible for creating a unique slogan, logo or mascot, posters, intercom announcements, a video and ideas for promotional items. In thirteen days, we completed twelve campaigns that are poised for deployment every three weeks should our student body manage responsible cell phone use to keep the new pilot policy in place until the end of the year. The campaigns are collected in a website and can be viewed here
We are still making some final touches to the pages and some uploads at the time of this writing.

Once we had our campaigns well under way, we invited the administration in to view our work and to consider our proposal. The students’ work paid off. They didn’t quite get all they asked for, but they understand that what has been approved is a good start and one that they made possible. Beginning on January 3, 2011, 7th and 8th grade students will be allowed to use their mobile devices in the classroom for educational purposes and at the teacher’s discretion, and during the lunch period. But this story doesn’t end there. Our administrators were so impressed with what the students had accomplished that they asked them to do one more thing: to launch the new policy to the entire school via an assembly.

The holiday break was looming, so we had just five days to coordinate an assembly and our students unfailingly stepped up to the task. Each class period was responsible for one aspect of the assembly. One group choreographed the majority of a “flash mob” dance for all 100 of our students to open the assembly with, one group storyboarded a movie and filmed transitional vignettes, one group made huge Responsible Use pledge banners for all the students to sign, and one group coordinated a Poll Everywhere poll for the students to interact with during the assembly and to show off one benefit of using cell phones in the classroom. It was messy, it was crazy, it was rushed, it was nuts, it was exhilarating! Best of all, it served a real purpose and need.

The day of the assembly my G² colleagues put aside their own lessons for the day and we all joined together in the auditorium to practice for two hours before showtime. It was really shaky to begin with, but everyone persevered and in the end, our students pulled off one of the most entertaining informative assemblies that I have every witnessed. The only adults that got up on stage, were the administrators when they had to discuss the disciplinary aspects, otherwise, our students controlled the show (admittedly, with a little help from me in the background, but had we more time, I could have easily turned over entire control to them).

The movie, which provides an overview of the initial project, shown at the assembly:

The Flash mob dance, performed to MC Hammer’s “Can't Touch This, since the slogan of our first campaign is, “Can’t Text This.”

The remaining clips from the assembly:

After the assembly, we had one last component to prepare before the new policy launch on January 3rd. During our campaign preparations, an idea bubbled up out of a conversation regarding the promotional pieces. Just how were we going to make those happen? Students had designed t-shirts, water bottles, stickers, bookmarks and bracelets. I hadn’t put any real planning to that idea, it just sort of seemed to be a natural part of a promo campaign and I figured I’d deal with it if the proposal was approved. Well, the time came to deal with it and I did the only thing I could do and really should do, I took it to the kids.

Serendipitously, the promo piece question came up at the same time another concern was voiced. We were pretty sure that the G² students would mostly comply with the new policy because they had invested so much time and effort (note: ownership) but we were uncertain just how effective the Responsible Use Campaign would be for everyone else. How could we get the other students to invest in behaving responsibly? That’s when a voice popped up from the crowd and suggested we have the other students make the promo items - we could provide kits. That is exactly what we managed to put together in a day - bookmark kits for 400 students at only 7 ½ cents apiece.

We arranged two assembly lines, and created kits of three pieces of yarn, two beads and a mini card-stock “banner” bearing our first slogan, “Can’t Text This” and the reminder,”Use Ur Cell Well.” We provide a lot of reading time at our school, so we determined that a bookmark would keep the idea of responsible use close to mind and the hope is that students will actually use them because they made them.

Footage of the kids assembling the bookmarks:

At the same time the bookmark kit assembly lines were in operation, a few students took off with a Flip cam in hand and prepared a tutorial for how to make the bookmark. I finished it up into a final video to be shown during homeroom time, where the students will assemble them.

The bookmark tutorial:

Now, that all the pieces are in place, the new policy is ready to launch in just a couple of days. It is a scenario I could never have imagined last summer when Mrs. Colvin and I were first putting this idea together, and that is precisely my point.

The point of this narrative is not only to record and tell the story of our first project, but to emphasize the evolutionary, very real, nature of the project. The space that we were given to create and follow a natural course of events made all the difference in the world for what our students were able to create and accomplish. Our original question was, “What factors impact cell phone usage policies in schools?” What we couldn’t foresee to add was, “If a change in policy is desired, requested and granted, how will we make that happen successfully?”

One cannot predict a natural progression or evolution because it has to take into consideration everyone else’s ideas and the resulting consequences. Isn’t that how the “real world” works? Isn’t that what all the 21st Century chatter is all about in educational circles? This then, is my first argument for more inquiry/project based learning in Iowa.

In the coming week, I will be deconstructing this first project with my students. We have completed reflections along the way, but I intend for us to identify more about the definition and process of learning - an effort in metacognition and to provide valuable feedback for me. There is one identifiable outcome I am sure of: when students have to put themselves and their work up in front of others, especially their peers, and when that work truly impacts others, especially their peers, quality becomes a major concern - in their words, “we don’t wanna look stupid.” Our quality wasn’t too bad this first semester; I expect to see improvements next semester. But that is a post for another time.

Note: How lucky am I? To be able to write a story of teaching and learning - something I would never be able to do with nothing but a parade of textbooks and worksheets. There’s no story in that.

Local newspaper picked up the story!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

"More freedom, less structure, dancing on the tables." Is this Project Based Learning?

Seems like every time I turned around this past week, I was hearing comments like these and quite frankly, it annoyed me. Our district has implemented a project based learning pilot with half the populations of our 8th, 10th and 11th graders. I am responsible for the the social studies component of one of the 8th grade teams. Maybe I misunderstood the meaning in the comments, or maybe it is a case of miscommunication or lack of communication about the program, but I am compelled to set the record straight just in case there is any doubt.

It would seem that somewhere along the line, the impression has been given that the PBL program we are working to establish is some sort of throwback to the days of the hippie. If that were the case, I'd be sporting my tie dye headband and humming Kumbaya all day. I am a hard worker and always have been. I can honestly say, I have never worked so hard in all my life as I have on this program.

My fellow PBL teaching companions and I have been putting in countless hours establishing the very thing others somehow seem to think this program lacks - structure. Structure of communication with students and parents, structure of student teams, structure of a coordinated and integrated curriculum, structure of projects, structure of lessons, structure for resource acquisition, structure for field trips and other activities, structure and restructuring of time and a structure for the four of us teachers to learn how to work together.

The structure we are building, sets the very necessary parameters for student voice, choice, exploration and presentation. Should anyone passing one of our classrooms see students dancing on the tables, please know that there is a detailed plan, and a very sturdy framework in place that supports them.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Take Your Cell Phones Out Please. Is this a trick to get us into trouble?

Bless our students' hearts. Even with full knowledge that their first project is to investigate the factors that impact cell phone use policies in schools and then to construct their own policy proposals, our students were still hesitant and suspicious when I announced that I wanted them to take out their phones. Their reaction highlights the less flattering aspects of our educational system.

It only makes sense to have a show and tell of the device under discussion and to use them in our investigations, yet our students are so well trained through fear of reprisal, so used to not having access to their own possessions/comforts in school, so quick to distrust, so ready to expect that lessons do not reflect the components of their lives, that they can't resist questioning whether  "real world projects" are nothing more than simulations. We have told them countless times that for this project we will provide the skills and opportunity for them to attempt real change, but they are doubtful.

After the students shared the various features of their phones, one student asked if the policy request and any change would apply only to the PBL kids - the kids in our Project Based Learning program. When I replied that no, the request would be for the entire school he looked truly astonished. It is so beyond our students' realm of reality to believe they can create any real change or have any real control over their lives in school or to have any choice, that they can barely comprehend the opportunity we are providing. If nothing they propose is approved, (we have made it clear that we cannot promise the outcome only the opportunity)  I do fear they will respond with slumped shoulders and a "see, I told you so," attitude.  It will be difficult for me to convince them of the benefits of a democratic society and the opportunities it can provide if all they get is the same set of dictated rules. Teaching and learning for real world consequences is risky but I think that teaching and learning for anything less is far riskier.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Ya know, this isn't like Facebook,,,,

...said a very frustrated 8th grader to me the other day in class as he grappled to learn how to use Google docs and sites. I replied, "Yeah, I know. There's more to know than Facebook."

Whenever I hear educators say, "It's okay if we don't know much about the digital world because the kids know more than we do anyway, so they can teach us," I cringe. It's a dangerous myth because students primarily only know a few social apps well and the statement excuses, and may actually prevent, teachers from taking control of their own learning.  I know why it's said - it's to acknowledge and diminish the fear of  losing control and the premise that the teacher has to know everything before they teach it. What a shame that teachers were ever led to believe that way in the first place because too many either strive for or want to uphold that undesirable premise thereby keeping them in their comfort zone of what they know and learning only that which is presented in an inadequate few hours of often inadequate professional development. The digital roller coaster has already left the gate, so educators must catch and manage the ride, first without barfing and then with finesse, because our students are already thrilling swiftly along the tracks but they don't know all the ups and downs, twists and turns, and loop de loops.
Our kids know Facebook and MSN Messenger, texting and similar. Beyond that their skills vary widely and sparsely. I would wager my first born son that I collectively know more than any of my students about the myriad of digital tools available and more importantly, the skills needed to navigate the constantly dynamic and changing information and media landscape. I immersed myself into the digital world three years ago and it's a darn good thing I did, otherwise I would never be efficient, effective or comfortable in attempting to use all things digital in my classroom. There are and always will be select students who know more about a particular program or bit of hardware or software logic that I lack, and for that I am exceedingly grateful that they are there to teach me. Furthermore, I seek their knowledge and accept their suggestions without hesitation. However, it is not their responsibility to teach me - it is my responsibility to learn for myself because that is the demand of my profession. A teacher must be a learner first and forevermore. How can one lead and inspire others to learn if they won't first learn for themselves?

I propose we revise the myth to a more truthful statement and one that will allow teachers to move forward. "It's okay if we don't know everything about the digital world because we can learn while simultaneously realizing, it's okay that we will never learn it all." If an educator hasn't yet managed to dip much more than their big toe into the digital ocean it can be ridiculously overwhelming. What to do? Don't be afraid to admit you don't know and ask for help from someone who does. Ask how they got started, how they learned, and what they would suggest. You can start with a formal course about tech integration or learn informally with what's on the web. With every new thing learned you will recognize patterns and similarities in the interfaces of the tools so they become more intuitive for you to use.You can learn which blog, website and Twitter authors to follow that will yield valuable lessons, resources and advice. You can learn where and how information is stored and accessed and practice your own searches for incredible content and presentation.

Above all, resist the temptation and trap of related myths that will deter you from learning. Myth number two, "My students don't have adequate access to computers anyway, so what's the point?" The point is, what would you do with them if they did? Learn awesome stuff first, and when your students have the computers, do awesome things with them and share awesome things your students have created, connected with and collaborated on. The power to make this happen, or not, is in your hands.

Finally, run away as quickly as you can from myths three and four. Myth number three, "Just because it's digital doesn't mean kids are learning any better so it's really not all that necessary anyway." It should go without saying that there must be sound pedagogy paired with digital tools and information. What is not always clear and should be made clear is that it is a waste and shame to use computers merely for electronic forms of what has been done in the past, ie: worksheets, flashcards and quizzes.   Finally, my personal favorite myth for triggering a 10 on my disbelief meter. Technology is always changing, schools can't keep up, so why bother?"  To which I reply,  "let me fetch you a quill, inkpot and parchment for you to use for all your work here from now on. Or better yet, go scratch on a cave wall somewhere."

Monday, August 30, 2010

Truly Leaving No Child Behind: the case for project based learning

It's only day four of our new Project Based Learning program but I have already learned my first and perhaps most significant lesson.  As I watch our new group of fresh faced and enthusiastic 8th grade students participate in the various team building activities we have presented them with, I take notice of those that participate with ease and those that occasionally struggle for any variety of unique reasons. I am struck, almost in terror, with the realization that if I allow any of our students to "get left behind" it will  not only let them down but everyone in the program because there is such tremendous interdependency in PBL. Never before have I felt such a massive responsibility to the success of each and every student.

I know I have always tried my best to help struggling students to keep from failing, but that is not the same as supporting each child to succeed to the absolute best of their ability. The projects we are creating are designed to provide awesome real world experiences that reflect student voice and choice but the program will fall short of its potential if we fail to fulfill the potential of each and every student. It's an imperative. For the first time, in my admittedly short three year teacher career, my work feels truly meaningful because my students and I will get to strive for the highest common denominator rather than the lowest.

And we're off!!!