Monday, March 15, 2010

Answering a Question About "No Home Work"

I was being snarky on a friend's post on face book and elicited this question from an old fencing buddy who is thinking of getting back into teaching.

From Taro:

I'm curious as to how you would use tablet/notebook computers such that the need for homework would be eliminated.

No problem.

First of all, it requires a commitment from the student, parents, and teachers to take control of their media and internet connection. There are a variety of inexpensive notebook computers and tablet (around $500) and high speed internet access is becoming as standard today as a land line was 10 years ago. If teachers and educators take an honest look at how they spend their time, they will find that a majority of their time is wasted.

Most of what traditionally goes on in class is direct instruction (lecturing) and/or cooperative learning (an evolved form of "group work"); both of which relies on students having "done the homework from the night before." So instead of assigning reading or repetitious problems to solve (much of which the parents cannot or will not help with), why not use a variety of freeware that allows a teacher to package their lectures and class assignments into down loadable content? All the information that they get passively in class can be taken care of at home, and then the reinforcement and practice happens a t school with their teacher (the expert).

In other words traditional homework and projects are done at school, collaboratively and with teacher guidance. The boring and trite stuff can happen at home where the kids get most of their information anyway. Instead of googling randomly for information, students go to the teacher's private social network and can get the necessary information from a more reliable source before they start surfing the web.

I am already doing this in my English class and the students go to my "ning" to do their "homework" but the practical learning takes place in my class room where I can keep an eye on it.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Renaissance Man (Part One)

As a way of  internalizing the work of Postman and Weingartner, as well as reflecting on my own teaching philosophy, I am challenging myself to address 16 challenges for schools and teacher. I am trying to tackle two a day and for the master list go here.

1. Declare a five year moratorium on the use of all textbooks.

Personally, I learned to hate textbooks when I learned that there was an awful lot of omission in them. Especially my History and Social Studies textbooks. When I finally arrived at college I was introduced, for the first time in my recollection, to the concept of primary sources. Now to be fair, there may have been a teacher or two in high school who mentioned the dramamtic difference between primary sources and textbooks; however, any Gen Xer will assent that high school was mostly a blur and if you didn't conform, you were fighting for survival. Trying to get out of high school was more on my mind than the quality of my school books. Besides, I was usually too busy reading stuff that was of interest to me and cared not a whit about what "they" wanted me to read and write.

Once in college, I eventually discovered Philosophy, History, and English. Not one of those professors used a textbook .NOT ONE. We read primary texts or at least really good translations of them. After one semester of academic probation, I learned to spend two hours in the library for every hour spent in class. That library time found me troweling in the stacks (no internet back then to speak of) and reading what other people wrote about what I was reading. I learned to shelve my opinion and study the more experienced opinions of others,; only later did I learn to con-fuse my world view and ethos in a kind of alchemical process. It also helped to be surrounded by people smarter than I was (even though I may not have appreciated them at the time - s/he knows who they are) and eat a little humble pie. The rest was provided my lecture and discussion.

How I loved discussion. Ultimately, that is what drew me to philosophy and away from psychology. Yes, we had inflated views of ourselves, but I felt my mind absorbing like a sponge. My professors and my peers became my best tools for learning new ideas and exploring new frontiers of academia. Those conversations only gave me more things to think about and more paths to research. There was never a textbook in sight.

So why not do the same in primary and secondary schools? Why do we need textbooks in the age of wireless internet? Originally, textbooks were used to help transition students who learned Latin to become literate in their own language (John Wakefield, 1998) and help reinforce character development. Most of our students today are functionally literate on the one hand and extremely technologically savvy. (this very evening I watched a three year old pick up a remote control and start using its basic functions). With the advent of electronic readers and cheap memory, students can easily carry small libraries of primary sources and pdf files that can be used in any inquiry based lesson (more on that later). Give a teacher adequate planning and prep time they can create bookmarks and annotations that the students can carry in the same unit as their portable library.

    Tuesday, March 9, 2010

    Teaching Subversion

    So with scads of time and a dearth of other things I should be doing, I waste time writing a blog that almost no one will read. Oh well. It does make me question why I even started it, and as the months pass I think it is more for myself. Maybe you, reader, will gain something as well.

    I am currently reading a 40 year old book entitled "Teaching as a Subversive Activity" by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner. Although parts are a bit anachronistic, the principles resonate with my current thinking and frustrations with the education business. In it, they cover how the business and bureaucracy of education is the true subversion: they subvert our ability to survive as truly democratic society. Teaching, therefore, must become subversive against this type of entropy to promote enlightenment.

    In chapter eight, Postman and Weingartner list 16 challenges to change the nature and function of school. I have less than two weeks of Spring Break. Can I address two of their challenges a day? I cannot wait to find out.

    So here is my "Table of Contents" and the list of Postman and Weingartner's challenges:
    1. Declare a five year moratorium on the use of all textbooks.
    2. Have English teachers teach Math, math teachers teach English, Social Studies teachers teach Science, Science teachers teach Art, and so on.
    3. Transfer all the elementary-school teachers to high school and vice versa.
    4. Require every teacher who thinks s/he knows his/her subject well to write a book about it.
    5. Dissolve all "subjects," "courses," and especially "course requirements."
    6. Limit each teacher to three declarative sentences per class, and 15 interrogatives.
    7. Prohibit teachers from asking any questions they already know the answers to.
    8. Declare a moratorium on all tests and grades.
    9. Require all teachers to undergo some form of psychotherapy as part of their in-service training.
    10. Classify teachers according to their ability and make the lists public.
    11. Require all teachers to take a test prepared by the students on what the students know.
    12. Make every class an elective and withhold a teacher's monthly paycheck if his/her students do not show any interest in going to next month's classes.
    13. Require every teacher to take a one year leave of absence every fourth year to work in some field other than education.
    14. Require each teacher to provide some sort of evidence that s/he has had a loving relationship with at least one other human being.
    15. Require that all the graffiti accumulated in the school toilets be reproduced on large paper and be hung in the school halls.
    16. There should be a general prohibition against the use of the following words and phrases: teach, syllabus, covering ground, I.Q., makeup, test, disadvantaged, gifted, accelerated, enhancement, course, grade, score, human nature, dumb, college material, and administrative necessity.
    (Postman and Weingartner, pp137-140)

    Monday, March 8, 2010

    Lights, Camera, Action

    A few months ago, my school head suggested that all the English and History teachers videotape themselves teaching. He wants to use these tapes as another way to help us be reflective of ourselves.

    There was a lot of shifting eyes.

    I volunteered to be first.

    Am I the sort of teacher who likes to show off? Enjoys the sound of his own voice? Toadies up to the boss? Yes, yes, and no. But the real reason is because I have done this sort of thing before, both in my academic career as well as in my not so academic career. I am used to being taped, monitored, observed, and discussed: it doesn't bother me. I think it is a valuable tool at our disposal and helps us as educators and colleagues, no matter how ridiculous you think you look on video. Let me explain.

    First of all, we never get to see what our colleagues and supervisors see. If we tape ourselves we can beat them to any punches they may throw. It is surprising to me how my pacing has changed in over eight years since my last taping and I was pretty impressed with my improvement. I also was not surprised that I went off topic, yet happy that my non sequiturs were much more brief that when I first hit a classroom. This last tape also served to remind me that my sense of humor is still pretty dark and still has an edge to it from my urban school days.

    Another good reason is to see how the students respond to you when you are not looking. Let's face it, we can't see everything all of the time, and it gets worse when you are running a cooperative lesson. My students do great with the first five minute warm-up activity, quiet down promptly, engage with each other during the lessons, and pay relatively close attention when I am giving direct instruction. There were times when it was clear that I may have lost a few for a minute or two, and the video helps me see where some of my blind spots are: literally and figuratively.

    Finally, this particular session helped me with a current goal I have this semester. I am trying to focus on a more inquiry based lesson strategy and a video of my class from soup to nuts helps me see how well I am progressing. For the most part, I am making more interrogative statements than I am declarative. I have yet to do it, but I will go back and keep score on how many. Ideally, I want to ask five open-ended questions to every one opinion.

    I hope that this effort will make it easier for others to do the same and gain some benefit from the exercise. We rarely get to see each other teach, so this is a great way to use technology to help us as teachers. Remember to put the camera in a conspicuous place, tell the students it is there, leave it out for few days, and turn it in when you have lesson ready to go. If you don't like the results, just rinse and repeat.

    Sunday, February 28, 2010

    Building Perfect Worlds

    (From my blog to parents. Call me lazy.)

    I took a close look at what I had planned for this quarter and then took closer look at our last quarter of the semester. Some of the projects and essays I want the students to work on are just too important to skip, so it looks like I will bleed this unit over into the next quarter. I think this will work out simply because my plans are based on last years time line. You may not know this, but Echo Hill was usually in the Spring and cut into 4th quarter studies. Since we have already taken care of this 8th grade trip, we have some time to wiggle around in.

    Which brings us to our current study. We are taking closer looks into the idea of equality and fairness (a topic that is a favorite of our students and, no doubt, a regular guest star at family discussions) through the literary device of "Utopia." I am trying to encourage the students' imagination to work in tandem with their budding ability in logic. Through the genre of Science Fiction, we are exploring Scott Westerfeld's futuristic world of "Uglies." I know, I know: your professors probably turned their nose up at the Sci-Fi genre and told you it wasn't "serious literature." Well I have two words for that argument: Kurt Vonnegut.

    I doubt many would disparage Mr. Vonnegut as a frivolous author and he used Science Fiction as a mode of delivering some rather arch observations on current events. He is not alone. Today, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells are still the most widely read authors of their time. The popularity of TV shows like "Lost" and the triumphant return of cult classic "Dr. Who" are also evidence of how modern writers are commenting on current events such as quantum mechanics, ethical relativism, and the future of the Human race. And you know what else? Science Fiction is fun to read.

    This quarter, students will write an essay where they imagine what their prefect work would be like and what it says about their current points of view. They will also build a model of a community from this vision complete with a handbook on how to live in it as well as a brochure to entice people to live there. Many of them have already made the leap that at the heart of a "perfect" world is a kernel of disaster waiting to blossom. Many of them have read "The Giver" and we have watched the first 15 minuted of "Logan's Run" and they suspect that there are nefarious elements at work id something seems too good to be true.

    It is my hope that when they go on to read "1984", "Brave New World", and Plato's "Republic," that they will recognize those environments from the work they do this here. I hope that there are some thought provoking discussions at the family dinner table.

    Tuesday, February 9, 2010

    Snow Week 2010

    I am snowed in and looking for other things to do (except grading). So I visit my good old blog and its two followers.

    Lately, I have been playing with my students on a closed social network called a "ning." Frustrated with the sluggish progress our educational stabilization centers are making around integrating tech and preparing our students for 21st century, I decided to take the bull by the horns (or the cell phone by the blue-tooth). This happened to coincide with my head-of-school looking into a moratorium on the cell phone ban in middle school, the challenge of the Head Master to look for ways to continue teaching in the event of school wide shut down (kind of like now), and my own desire for the B.B.D. (Bigger Better Deal). After playing around with blogs like this, Moodle (open source software our school uses), and other Web 2.0 sites. I stumbled on a site that has actually been around for about 4 years.

    I get ahead of the story.

    The story begins with a blanket announcement from our Headmaster that all online interactions between students and teachers must be restricted to official school business and channels. This was met with confusion from those faculty members of a certain generation who still think e-mail is pretty nifty, and with surprise (yet not surprised) from faculty members who already "friended" students on Face Book.

    Again, maybe I should go back farther. I was receiving "friends" requests from current and former students and grew tired of telling them "no" for obvious reasons (obvious to me, at least). As a more productive answer, I created a second Face Book account exclusively for myself and my students. Every time I received a request, I reminded the student of the "Acceptable Use" policy of our school and that, from my perspective, any interactions between myself and said student would follow major school rules. Every student accepted this; every parent and teacher on this account accepted this policy as well. The result was that there was another set of adult eyes and ears on students' Face Book accounts.

    Back to my little narrative. The lawyers and insurance brokers for our school only saw big lawsuits waiting to happen. The most safest and conservative decision was to suspend such interactions. Our Headmaster was not happy about making the announcement and, after a private consult, made it clear to me that he was open to alternatives for the future.

    I love a challenge.

    As other schools, both private, public, and parochial, were wrestling with these same issues, there were some schools taking the social media head on and co-opting it for education uses. Using Face Book and cell phones instead of shunning them (as only U.S schools and Al Qaeda can) are real possibilities and are being demonstrated as such on a regular basis. Why should our school wait in the wings for Phillips Exeter to do something first? Why not take the lead in using the tech in tandem with our own creativity as educators?

    Somehow, in my internet insomnia bouts (also known as "research"), I came across the concept of the "ning." I created one just for my class to see how easy it was,or was not, to use. Perhaps not as easy as Face Book, but simple enough that a few beta tester teachers could figure it out. Now, in our third quarter, my students and I are creating a virtual society that parallels the one created by Scott Westerfeld in his young adult novel, "Uglies." They are posting pictures, sharing videos, commenting on each others ideas, spontaneously engaging in pre-reading activities, and chatting with new "friends" that they would not ordinarily speak to in the hallways.

    I will try to include more as we learn from each other.