Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Cheater's guide to Creating an Inquiry-Based Lesson

One of my running goals as a teacher is to generate more inquiry-based lessons in my classroom. In part I feel that the students can handle it; in part because I am frustrated with students who are used to being spoon fed information without getting their hands dirty. I think that in some cases it is the grinding of the grades and in other cases it is an culture of efficiency and expediency.

Be all that as it may, I desire to evolve into the teachers and professors I admire and ask more questions of my students in the place of minutes spent listening to the sound of my own voice. I have gotten better at the ask-pause-gather-reflect style of questioning and continue to strive for better rhythm and timing. The real trick I have found is turning my questions and their answers into actual notes the students can record.

Enter the lesson-formally-known-as-PowerPoint. Over the past two years of reviving the Of Mice and Men unit, I have been growing and mutating a PowerPoint presentation from the very first year I tried to teach this lesson in 2005(?). It is pretty ugly and I will just show a part of its final mutation here.

I gave it my "What I would I do if this were presented to me as a student" test. Result: I would have tuned out. This is the kind of presentation that I hate having to endure at conferences and I can only imagine how my students must feel, deep down, when they see it in class. So I trashed it in favor of a more open format.

Let me break it down:
7:00am - Arrive at school; turn on computer; go to dining hall for cereal whilst said computer gets warmed up.
7:05am - open the above PowerPoint and my teacher notes for the lesson; review the notes; distill it down to one essential question with guiding questions and the main point. to wit:
  • Where do authors get their ideas from?
  • What is "Foreshadowing."
7:10am - Delete the PowerPoint; zip over to Creative Commons/Wikipedia Commons for open license images that refer to:
  • King Arthur
  • Cain and Abel
  • Of Mice and Men
7:15am - Open and Prezi template; drop the images in the right locations; paste the essential and guiding questions in matching areas; create a space to record class responses; paste my notes in an inconspicuous corner.
7:20am - I now have the following presentation and note-capturing platform ready to go and still have time to nip down to the Admin Assistant's office for coffee.

The classes went swimmingly. I asked the questions and let the students tell me the stories of King Arthur and Cain & Abel. There were obvious gaps in their knowledge, and I still had the pleasure of filling in the missing pieces. The key set of directions were "Copy the questions, write your responses, note others ideas." As the stories unfolded, they would record their knowledge and add the rest of the details as they unfolded. My notes became a checklist rather than lecture and they developed new and novel observations on their own.

The real magic happened with the second to last question about how all three stories were connected. The students discovered for themselves the themes of brotherly love, jealousy, death, envy, moral/ethical behavior, and allegory. When directed the final question of how might all this foreshadow the ending of the book, the students were excited to speculate. Many even left the class still discussing what might happen and at least one student asked if it would be permissible to read ahead.

It may not be a true inquiry-based, Socratic lesson, but for ten minutes of cutting and pasting, it was a better lesson than it was going to be. And you know what?  I still got to hear the sound of my own voice from time to time saying something brilliant, yet it was nice to share that stage with my students.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Playing and Learning: Overcoming Fear of Technology

A fellow teacher and I have been distracting each other from doing any meaningful work whilst we are lurking in our classrooms this summer. OK, it is probably more truthful to say that I have been distracting him more than the other way around. But we are talking about school/education/teaching/student stuff. Honest.

The one productive thing we did accomplish was to help get him set up on his Moodle account. I was able to apply my latest reading on creating forums from here and here. Within the day, he was able to set up individual, student-to-teacher forums to track and evaluate their responses to topics and questions. This is not interesting or important: he is a smart and educable guy, I know the CMS (course management software), and we are open to sharing/learning resources.

What stood out was his initial reluctance to even utilize it because he felt that he was not thoroughly competent and knowledgeable about Moodle and its functions. My first reaction was something like this:

And then a thousand little voices sounded off in my head about being empathetic and supportive during moments like this. But it it did crystallize our discussion into an essential question about why there is a need for teachers to feel like they are required to be the font of all knowledge and wisdom: the "sage on the stage" syndrome. The rest of our digression was about our school's mission statement, student-centered learning, flat classrooms, and 21st century learning. This, too, is not interesting or important here: more on that later, I suppose.

What I really want to write about is how to help ourselves overcome this initial reaction to introducing technology into our lessons and classroom. I must admit I suffer it to, in a way. When I find something that I think would be great, I immediately want to learn more about it and, in time, do become a bit of a local expert (e.g. Moodle, NetClassroom, Prezi, etc). But not knowing every little detail about a program or machine has never stopped me from using it anyway. We talked about how he could turn his lack of familiarity with Moodle to his advantage by admitting to his students that he was experimenting, had no idea how it would turn out,  and wouldn't it be fun to try it anyway? My colleague saw this as "buying in" and I saw it as "let's play": different ways to see the same possibility and potential.

So I guess the main thrust of my point (and I do have one) is that we teachers need to hold onto and use our sense of play when it comes to learning/teaching. I think this especially holds true when we introduce technology into our classroom. Let me use the first time I decided that the software "Comic Life" would be a great alternative to use instead of traditional book reports. I took a look at it, listened to our IT coordinator describe it, verified that it was installed on our computers, and checked out all the digital cameras I could from our library. I had four days in the computer lab and not a clue as to how long it would actually take. In the end it was not a complete fracas, and it has evolved into a regular project for the past three years (although I saw a note to myself to scrap it: there were too many compatibility issues with computers at school and home). Here is how it plays out now (bear in mind that our class periods are 40 minutes long):
  • Day One: Before even getting to the computers, students took a Moodle survey on cell phone etiquette for the previous night's homework. Class is spent examining the results and establishing rules/guidelines about proper cell phone use in the classroom. We leave class with a clear idea of these guidelines and temporary permission to bring their phones into class for the rest of the week.
  • Day Two: In the computer lab, students verify that all software is present (Comic Life, PhotoShop, Word, etc) and they open a "book" from the class Moodle site (a "book" is a module in Moodle that I generally use for organizing step-by-step directions and the like). Students then play. Yes, for the whole period, they play with the software, play with the camera features on their phones, play with transferring and editing those pictures, draft a summary of their favorite parts of their books. This results in their discovering and learning how it can all work, they collaborate and share what they learned with each other, they teach me new things every time. And all the while there is NO fear in the lab about the software and hardware: they already "know" it.
  • Day Three and Four: After detailing the part of their book they want to share, they gather images, props, and settings to generate a sample graphic novel for their book report. The cell phones are slaved to our purpose by becoming digital cameras and DO NOT interfere in their other classes (see Day One). They use their class mates as actors and models to help retell the story and photoshop costumes and scenery for each frame. Using free online sources line Creative Commons, they add in props and additional scenery to their finished product. 
  • Home Work: This is one of the times when their homework meets little resistance. The students are excited to continue their work at home using family and friends to add depth and variety to their story. Student excitement + parent involvement + teacher advising = winning project. 
  • Assessment: We needed more than four days. Not because the software and hardware was difficult to use, but the students wanted more post-production time to really get their graphic novels to shine. As our school gets more technology to support out-of-lab work and allow greater computer consistency, we can now expand it to greater time limits.  
  • Moral of the story: Dare to play.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Finally, a break between storms

Tech Camp is finally over and I have some time to fiddle-fart around. By the way, this past Spring I got one of these:

I am "xooming" and loving it. Last week I played with my brother's iPad2 (yes, I was rather surprised to see one in his hands - it was kind of like watching a gorilla tying a knot) and I am still very happy with my purchase. I have downloaded the Kindle App and have all my books for this year on it; I can easily access Moodle and grade assignments; the video is a very effective teaching and coaching tool that I have already used in my fencing classes. Let me know if you want me go on about the great uses I have put it to.

Anyhoo, I have returned to my school to poke around and discovered that I have been moved to a bigger, air-conditioned classroom. Finally! True, the view out of my many windows is of the loading dock in the back of the kitchen, but there are at least more than two windows and there is at least a view. Did I mention it was air-conditioned? The B&G heroes are going to paint the walls and clean the carpet (bless them - bless them all) so I cannot move anything until next week.

So in the meantime, I am catching up on reading, getting my hair cut, and planning out the next year. I am currently reading Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business and so far I really like it. I am trying to see how I can take the marketing ideas in it and  twist them to my own uses in school. I have been pretty effective at getting my students trained to use Moodle and e-mail (which they really do not used anymore) and my new goal is to get the parents and other teachers involved. So far my evangelizing is paying off in small ways (a teacher her and there using Prezi or Moodle), but I am convinced that our school can leap-frog ahead by utilizing what is current and up-and-coming.

I will try (again) to keep this blog active and attempt to use some of the ideas as I go along.