Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Tweet That! Fun in the Classroom with Student Choice and Social Media

Two of the more specific pedagogy goals I have for this year are allowing students more choice in some of the activities they complete and engaging students with the use of social media.  One way that I have actually accomplished both of these goals is described below.

First, I realized that in order to embrace the idea of more student choice, I needed to focus less on the content and more on what type of choices I was going to provide within a history curriculum.  I thought of several options, including drawing political cartoons, creating comic strips, quoting famous people, etc. These activities incorporate creativity and can be applied to almost any historical topic or unit.

Next, I gave students an opportunity to post their work on social media, namely Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. (Students who did not have social media could ask another student to post it for them or send it to me to post anonymously.)  This opportunity was extra credit, but proved to be a fun element for students and one that effectively created an online digital class journal of the exercise.

Three examples of choice that I incorporated within the first two units I taught this year are as follows:

1. Machiavelli Quotes
Students researched famous quotes by Niccolo Machiavelli and analyzed three of their choice.  They also selected one of the quotes and identified a historical figure that exemplified that quote.  For example, one student selected, "It is better to be feared than loved." and applied that quote to Joseph Stalin.  After this analysis they had the extra credit option of choosing another Machiavelli quote and relating it to another person through a post on social media (Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc.) using the hashtag #BHSMachiavelli

2. Renaissance Art Show
Students chose a specific artwork from the Renaissance and completed a detailed analysis of the work in order to give a 1 minute presentation of the work to the class.  After their presentations, students shared their chosen art pieces through social media using the hashtag #BHSRenArt.  This essentially was the creation of a digital art show, all done very efficiently and displaying student choice and the reasons they chose each particular work.

3. Martin Luther vs. Leo X: Rap Battle or Propaganda Poster
After completing lessons about the start of the Protestant Reformation students were challenged to create either a rap battle between Martin Luther and Pope Leo X or a propaganda poster promoting the perspective of Luther or Leo X. Then they posted their work to social media using the hashtag #LuthervsLeo

I encourage you to search for these hashtags on Twitter, where most students posted them, to see the work that students produced.

Overall, this has been one of these easiest activities that I have created and one that students look forward to completing.  Why? They are always on social media and they enjoy sharing what they do.  Thus, creating a forum for them to do just that, and allowing them choice, engages them and makes learning a little more fun.

Please feel free to comment and add share any ideas you may have about incorporating choice or the use of social media in the classroom.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

New Year, New Goals!!

At the start of every school year, which for me is in late August, I commit set personal goals for myself in regard to teaching.  This school year the goals I set for myself are: 

1. Continuing to implement and refine my use of blended learning.

Implementing blended learning during the last two months of the previous school year was biggest experiment I attempted in my entire 15 year career in teaching.  As with all experiments in education, and in life, it came with some immense growing pains and significant challenges, some of which you can read in earlier posts, such as this:  More importantly, it also resulted in improved relationships with my students, more independent approaches to their learning, and a more enjoyable classroom environment for all.  Given the initial success I felt from my first few units of blending, I made it my first priority to continue to developing blended learning units and expanding my understanding of how to better incorporating a more in-depth blended approach through the creation of playlists and pathways.  
2. Reconsidering my approach to mastery learning and homework.

Another key focus of mine for this school year is refining all levels of planning (daily lesson, units, long range) to include steps to more effective forms of mastery learning and reevaluating how and when I assign homework.  As a teacher of honors and AP classes, even the thought of considering the undertaking that moving toward a mastery learning approach usually gave me serious trepidation.  After witnessing yet another year of over-stressed students and consistent gaps in learning, I knew I had to take the time to reconsider my overall approach.  After conducting research throughout the previous school year and this past summer, which included reading such works as How We Learn by Benedict Carey and Beyond Measure by Vicki Abeles, and reviewing blogs such as, I realized that it is necessary for me to adjust my views and attempt to implement mastery learning techniques and be much more selective as to the necessity of homework and when it is given.

3. Incorporating new methodologies and content gained from summer institutes.

This summer I was fortunate enough to attend three great summer institutes, in addition to a week of grading AP European History exams for the College Board which also included professional development regarding the AP course and exam.  The three institutes included the second summer of my teaching fellowship with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, the first summer teacher institute on the War in the Pacific at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, LA, and a Personalized Learning Conference held by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District.  While these opportunities took up over four weeks of my summer, all were great opportunities to learn more about content and methodology related to teaching history and blended learning. 

All of these goals will be explored in depth in future posts. Please stay tuned and feel free to comment and start a conversation.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Risk-Taking = Change-Making

In the previous post, I discussed the desire for teachers to possess the power and control in the classroom. Everything emanates from the instructor in the traditional classroom.  He delivers the content, provides the order, and disciplines those who refuse to conform to this approach.  This is the way it has be.  Why? Because this is the way it has always been.

In order to break ourselves from this mindset, it is necessary to do something many teachers fear: take risks. Teachers fear any kind of change, and change is inherent in taking risks.  Don't believe me? Watch a teachers' faces when you tell them in August the new district initiative they will have to implement in the upcoming school year.

The fear in their expression is not from a lack of desire to improve, it is that they are not in control of the change they have to make.  In order to make this change, they will have to take a risk.  And this is simply unnatural for many teachers, especially those who have several years of experience.

The only way that change happens is when we are willing to take risks.  And change, and thus risk-taking, are absolutely essential in our profession.  How can we expect to teach 21st century skills using 20th century practices?

You need to commit to it, and you need to commit now.  Much like a diet or exercise program, there is always tomorrow, but your students cannot wait until you are ready to change because they will pass you by and they will have missed the better teacher you could have become because you were waiting for the right moment to change.

It is hard and it is challenging, but change comes with a benefit for all, including the teacher, but especially the students.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Control: What Standardized Testing and Traditional Teaching Have in Common

Have you ever given a standardized test to a group of high school students that you did not teach?  While many teachers loathe this responsibility, having to tend to students that you do not know for several hours at a time, a remarkable thing happens once students are settled into their desks: they take the test and often do so in a well-behaved manner.  The students may dislike this experience as much as the teachers who have to administer the test, but, like the teacher, they comply to the expectations.  Why?  Because they have been conditioned to do so after years of standardized testing throughout their schooling.

This reality, while painful to most to accept, is also the reality of traditional teaching.  Much like the devotion that students pay toward mindlessly filling in the the circles on a standardized test form, they also "engage" in copying notes projected onto a wall or Smartboard.  The teacher drones on about a particular topic, while students turn a deaf ear as they laboriously copy the words they see on the screen.  Are they thinking about what the teacher is saying?  Maybe a few. Are they thinking about what they are writing down? Not likely. They see and they write.

If this is true, then why are we doing this? The answer is simple: control.  Traditional forms of direct instruction, such as lecturing while students copy notes from the board, is a well-rehearsed method of controlling a significant portion of time that a student spends in a classroom.  It reduces the likelihood of having to address student behavioral problems because much like standardized testing, students have been conditioned to take notes in this format.  This is so comforting to us as teachers that we often forget that we are even doing it for this reason.  Like the students, we are also conditioned.

We need to reform our practices and move away from this type of passive learning and create lessons that actively involve students in learning.

Stay tuned for a follow up post regarding breaking away from passive learning.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Blended = Student Responsibility

A consistent challenge in the classroom and world of 21st century learners is time management.  While teachers may be well aware of the need for students to learn how to properly develop their ability to manage their time effectively, it may come as a surprise to many that students are also very good at assessing their own weaknesses.

In the fall of this school year my school's profession learning team (PLT) on improving students academic skills surveyed the student body asking them to respond to several questions regarding their areas of strengths and weakness, with a total of 18 responses from which to choose. One telling response that has bearing on this post was to the following question:

"Choose the top three areas where you have the most difficulty or need the most improvement"

The #1 response, and the only response chosen by over half of the students, was time management.

After the first three days of the current blended unit on the interwar years, it has quickly become evident that time management is a weakness of many of my students.  Though it should not have come as a surprise to me, considering the results of the survey that I had seen earlier this year, I was still mildly startled by this reality.

On the first day of the unit, I gave each student the unit guide explaining the outline of the unit and the daily schedule and tasks. (See previous post for more on the unit guide.) I also shared the lecture videos for the unit and I encouraged them to get ahead with their note-taking on the lecture videos so they could ensure that they would be able to complete the daily requirements on time.  After careful monitoring of their progress, a weekend following the first two days of the unit, and some student complaints voiced today about their being "too much to complete" by the first deadline, it has become clear that many students are struggling in managing their time efficiently to avoid procrastination.

As one of my colleagues aptly noted to her class, who was exhibiting similar problems, " 'Friday You' is going to have a big problem with 'Monday You' if you don't use your time wisely."  I feel that this sentiment is going to become a common refrain for me with my students as well.

Thus, blended learning, while helping to more effectively engage students with content, also will force teacher to engage students in learning how to attend to their development of time management skills.

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Second Coming (of a Blended Unit) is Here!

It has been about a week since my last post, which may have you wondering if I had literally jumped off a cliff because of the challenges of blending a course (as depicted in my first blog post).  Actually, I gave my major section test for this marking period earlier this week and that took a few days, which I also used to start planning my next blended unit.

As I looked ahead to the next unit, which is the time period between the two world wars, I was initially excited to begin planning it.  This is my favorite time period to study and teach in history.*  Now that I had completed one unit of blended learning, I thought that planning the next unit would be a breeze.  I had great ideas for adjustments from the results of the surveys I gave my students (see earlier post - "The natives are getting restless...or are they?" ) and I had several days of testing that would give me even more time to plan ahead.

Unfortunately, I was wrong.  Creating a unit plan that lays out what you want to do in terms of content to teach and pacing is relatively simple, especially if you have been teaching the same course for 10 years as I have.  However, creating a unit plan that has specific details about what you are going to do every day of the unit, including the completion of the video lectures and activities to correspond to each day is daunting.

I spent approximately 15 hours planning this three week unit.  That means that it took me more hours to plan it than the amount of hours students will actually be in class during those three weeks.  Revising my presentations, recording the video lectures, planning the activities, creating the unit guide for students, and having colleagues review some materials all takes time.  I don't think I have taken this much time planning one unit in this depth, before I taught any of it, since my first year of teaching.  (And I really do pity the new teachers, but I am envious of their energy.)

The unit guide that I gave to the students is below.

While the students will be given all of the video lectures for the unit in advance, they will only be given the links to practice quizzes and the blendspace, which contain the activities that help expand their understanding and force them to apply what they have learned, on daily basis.  Thus, they can work ahead in getting the content through the lectures, but the periodic checks on their through the practice quizzes and blendspace activities keep me abreast of their comprehension.

Also, you can see that many of the classes will be spent with students working through the unit individually, but other days will be whole class discussions and group work activities, thus maintaining a healthy mix of differentiation in delivery and application of content.

While I certainly feel good that I have completed the unit plan, I clearly desire for you to know that it is not something to be taken lightly and definitely not something that can be finished in one planning period. Overall, I feel relieved to be done with the plan and I am excited to implement it and monitor its progress.

Stay tuned for more honest feedback on how it goes.  As always, feel free to share any comments or ask any questions.

*I am fortunate enough to be a United States Holocaust Museum Teaching Fellow and I recently was honored by being chosen to attend summer institutes in New Orleans and Hawaii for the National World War II museum.  So, you could say I'm pretty "into" the war and the lead up to it.  

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The results are in and the winner is...the students!

After completing the unit, soliciting the students' opinions about it, and some significant reflection and speculation on my part, the last point of evaluation was the unit's summative assessment.  Having never required more than just one video lecture to be viewed in any previous unit, I was very nervous that an entire unit where student's were forced to watch video, as opposed to in class, lectures would be too much of a shift for students to make.

Therefore, while the student surveys and comments I shared in earlier posts were instructive, I really felt that the results of a traditional assessment of their learning, a paper and pencil test, would prove to potentially solidify or break my hope in blended learning.  My hope was that I would avoid the feeling pictured below.

The results of the assessments are seen in the table below.*

Section 1
Section 2
Section 3
Section 4
Previous Quiz Average
Blended Unit on World War I Quiz Average
Point Differential
*It should be noted that I teach four sections of history, each class with approximately
25 students of varying abilities and accommodations, which can be assessed from the results seen in the table.  In particular the first two sections have a larger contingent of students identified as gifted and talented. 

In my opinion, while not conclusive, this data is important in helping me understand the potential impact of blended learning.  The key findings of this data include:

1. First and foremost, the averages in the classes that seemed to be struggling the most prior to this unit showed notable improvements, though it should be recognized that they also had the most improvements to make in comparison to the first two classes.

2. The small change in the second class possibly indicates the struggles of a few students to adjust to the new format.  A closer look at the data of individual students (not shown here) indicates that this is the case as four students experienced a significant decline in their scores.

3. Overall, the data suggests that at the very least blended learning is not negatively affecting the performance and/or learning of a vast majority of the students that I teach.  At least for in comparison to previous units, it seems to actually have some benefit.  (The following expression from Kramer, while a little embellished, is how I would have reacted to this prior to attempting this unit.)

Certainly, there are many more variables that could have affected student performance, but it's hard to ignore the data.  When considering these results, and the positive responses of the surveys discussed in earlier blog posts, I can say that I am convinced that I need to continue developing blended learning units.