Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sorry MJ, Iran still matters

I have been thinking about this post for some time. I have been trying to wrap my brain around the effect of social media on the #iranelection My emotions have run the gamut from excitement to anger to disgust to frustration. At first I was so excited about the power of Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, and YouTube to show the world live what was happening in Iran. It reminded me of the big splash that CNN made by reporting live from the First Invasion of Iraq under Bush Sr. I remember vividly gathering around TV's while I was in college to watch "live war." For the twitter naysayers, CNN has managed to do OK after that.

This time though we had the common people "reporting" from everywhere.

In recent days I have learned from Twitter about the deaths of Ed McMahon, Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Jeff Goldblum (whoops Twitter rumor), and now Billy Mays. I was shocked by MJ but McMahon and Fawcett were not surprising due to age and cancer. The response of their fans around the world is a bit too much for me.

Full disclosure I have never been a "fan" of any them. I have tried to relate to their fans and their behavior by thinking of what celebrity I am a "fan" of. First of all, I had a hard time thinking of who that would be. I am a big sports fan especially of the University of Michigan football and basketball teams. So I thought of Bo Schembechler, who passed in 2006. I remember being surprised but not too much because of his age and health issues, but I never was effected by it. I would never place flowers or gifts around a shrine to him. I felt no emotional loss at his death.

For me it comes down to mourning people I know personally, family and friends, not celebrities and sports heroes. Death is the natural end of all life and I am OK with that. It sometimes surprises me, but only effects me when it is personal or tragic like 9-11.

Getting back to Iran what really disturbs me is how fast our culture looks for the next train-wreck story. I do not blame the national media on this one. Check out the trends on Twitter and you can see that #iranelection is still there but there is a lot more attention on many other frivolous things. People would rather obsess about the natural deaths of MJ and the other celebrities than the tragic deaths of Iranians fighting to change the future of their country. My avatar is green to support them (As many others were, but I can't help but notice that quite a few have changed their avatoars back to normal). For many the Iran election was an interesting story, but now it is over.

Sources from Iran tell a different story. For one the Iranian government is using the same social media as the activists to trap them down and arrest them (Read about that here). I had not heard any tweets for days from one activist until today when he tweeted about his friend being captured for days and interrogated. Another Iranian blog has a post from a friend because the authorities are looking for the blogger and have already arrested his brother. The Iranian activists are now in danger because of social media.

While I have read an interesting discussion about traditional media vs. social media and the how important is the role of traditional journalists in Will Richardson's blog and comments. I think the bigger issue is the effect of social media on the people "reporting" the news. Iranians have turned to social media because the world is listening. They hold up signs in Farsi and English because they are talking not only to their government but to the world! The attention that they get through social media has empowered the Iranian students and they will not allow things to return to "normal" in their country because they have been heard. I believe that this is the true power of social media to empower those who have had no voice against the powerful.

Personally, one of the most disturbing things I have heard from Iran is this CNN interview. The reason that it haunts me is the desperation in the woman's voice as she begs for us to help her: "You should stop this. You should help the people of Iran who demand freedom" (about 3 min. in and 5 min. in). Most of the Youtube videos that I have seen do not really have much audio, but this woman's emotions are so raw. The interviewer obviously is uncomfortable and tries to ask another question, but her desperation is clear.

My final thoughts are frustration at feeling like I can not really help them. But oh we can. We can keep re-tweeting their posts and keep giving them support. Educators do not forget about Iran. Re-tweet, Re-tweet, Re-tweet!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Students say using technology to cheat is not cheating

E-school News reports today:

A new poll conducted by the nonprofit organization Common Sense Media suggests that students are using cell phones and the Internet to cheat on school exams. What's surprising, however, is not just the alarming number of students who say they cheat, but also the number of students who think it's OK to do so.

According to the poll, more than a third of teens with cell phones (35 percent) admit to cheating at least once with them, and two-thirds of all teens (65 percent) say others in their school cheat with them.

Of the teens who admit to cheating with their cell phones, 26 percent say they store information on their phone to look at during a test, 25 percent text friends about answers during a test, 17 percent take pictures of the test to send to friends, and 20 percent search the Internet for answers during tests using their phones. Also, nearly half (48 percent) of teens with cell phones call or text their friends to warn them about pop quizzes.

First of all, where are the teachers in the classroom administering the tests? I think cheating is not that easy if teachers are paying attention while they administer tests. Surely you would notice if they have out an electronic device. Some readers are quick to blame the technology and say "why are phones in school" and that they should be banned. Cheating has been around for ages before we had cell phones. Don't blame phones for students behavior. Cell phones have a very useful place in the classroom as mini-computers that can be used for research.Reading a text message is not that much different than reading a note. Teachers watching for phones out during a test is no different than watching to see if they have a "cheat sheet" on a piece of paper.

More importantly teachers should re-evaluate their tests. If tests are really at high-level thinking requiring analysis, evaluation, synthesis, and application then they should be "cheat-proof." It is much easier to cheat on multiple choice or fill in the blank than on a test that actually requires thinking, interpreting, and students writing their own opinion. I agree with Alan November who said that tests should be open Internet. But it requires a new way of thinking for teachers and students. This open test would actually be more difficult because it would require higher level thinking rather than just rote memorization. Students would have access to all of the "facts" on the Internet, but then would have to use them to answer a more difficult level of questioning.

I personally lean toward no traditional tests, but use projects, blogs, and other forms of writing to assess student learning. For example after my students build and launch hot air balloons made of tissue paper, they must write a letter to Leon Gambetta explaining to him how to escape from a siege of Paris (1870). In the letter they must explain how to build a hot air balloon and why they fly. My 8th grade students write evaluations of all of their projects on their blog explaining their experiences for each project. Of course if it was up to me I would eliminate grades all together but that is another discussion.

Finally also disturbing to me is that students do not view this as cheating. Morals are in decline in our country and many students will do whatever it takes to get ahead just to get a good grade. I often ask ethical questions as "opening" writing assignments to students and many of them see little wrong with cheating, stealing, or lying if they think that they will not get caught. Many students admit they would take a stolen ipod from a friend or lie to get out of trouble and see nothing wrong with it. Therefore we need to teach students why cheating is wrong on top of monitoring them from doing it.

In summary, authentic learning experiences with authentic assessments with open resources makes cheating impossible. So what do you think?

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Sunday, June 7, 2009

Students prove the premise of UP

My 6th grade technology class has just finished making hot air balloons out of tissue paper and launching them. We also wrote letters to Leon Gambetta helping him escape Paris in a hot air balloon after reading Horses with Wings by Dennis Haseley.

I then used this article from Wired for a lesson last week.I posed the question of whether the premise of the movie UP was possible? The class voted and then I told them that we were going to prove it one way or the other.

I then made them figure what questions to ask and what we needed to know to "prove" it. They had the Internet as their resource. It took most of the hour, but they figured it out. Learning to ask the right questions was an important part of this lesson that I emphasized to them. They had to figure how much the house weighed, how big the balloons are, how much lift helium has, and the volume in a balloon.

We then talked about the errors in our hypothesis such as neglecting the mass of the string. We also talked about other practical concerns mentioned in the article and in the comment feed such as the fact that houses are not designed to be lifted. Lastly we looked at the clusterballoon website of people who launch themselves. The students were fascinated by this site.

Overall it was a very good lesson and I plan to repeat it again next year with one change: bring in some real helium balloons and have students perform an experiment to discover the lift of helium by measuring the balloon's size and tie it to a weight on a triple beam balance.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Reflections on our Landscaping Class

Our art teacher, Kim, and I combined our art and technology classes for the final quarter of this year and team-taught a landscaping class. This post is a reflection on the class, good and bad, looking towards another version of it next year. It was challenging, frustrating, and rewarding at the same time. We had a general idea of what we wanted to do and accomplish, but we really wanted the students to have as much a voice as possible in the class. Therefore it was difficult to "plan" because we really wanted to leave that to the students.

We started the class knowing that we would use my background in concrete construction to have the students build some kind of decorative pavers in a garden space that we would create outside of our rooms. We tried to spend time in research with books and the Internet. Kim taught them about Georgia O'Keeffe and Frank Lloyd Wright. The students drew the space from a two-point perspective and as a blueprint on graph paper. The students really struggled with the abstractness and ambiguity of the project.

We realized the students could not focus on the big picture of the project, so we switched approaches and had the students draw life size versions of their personal tiles. We made some guidelines for them that the tiles had to be based on nature. The students really took off with great ideas.

While they worked on drawings in Kim's room, I brought small groups to my room and the students built their forms. They choose the shapes, measured, cut, drilled, and screwed the forms together. For many of them it was a first time using any of these basic tools. It was great to see some of the students who had some skills in this area jump in and take charge.

Next we began pouring the pavers. Concrete is a challenging material because of the time constraints. You can not just pack up at the end of the hour and finish the next day. So we were able to pour 2-3 each day taking over ten pour days to finish. The students mixed the concrete with a drill, poured it in the forms and finished the concrete. A few days later we stripped the forms.

The process of figuring out the layout design of the tiles was one of my favorite parts of the project. Now that they had the tiles they could "see" the problem of layout. We cut out life-size cardboard shapes of each tile and they wrote their names on them. Then we went out side and told them to lay them out. Then we talked about how it looked and they edited by moving them until they "found" their design. This concrete, no pun intended, process of design was much easier for middle school students than trying to create something on a blueprint before they even really understood what they were making. We took pictures of the cardboard placement so we could remember when we bought out the real pavers.

The absolute best part of this project was seeing the skills of some of our hands-on kids validated at school. They may struggle in traditional classes, but they were the leaders of our class and you could see their self-esteem rise. They worked hard and were proud of their results. Another great part of the project was our blog at Students wrote about their individual tiles and we posted it next to a picture of their tile. The students were so impressed by all the dots on the clustrmap on the first day (thanks to my PLN on twitter!)

As I move to a paperless classroom, I am reminded the most important part is students. I have always emphasized project-based learning that is based on collaboration and problem-solving. Next year we plan to have the students design and build benches and some sculpture stands. We are also going to have students collect food scraps from the cafeteria and start a compost pile.Of course as has been said many times before, learning is messy, but so worth it. The students are proud to leave behind this contribution to their school.

Ok readers, how will you be creative and challenge students in real world ways next year??? Kim and I asked ourselves what are we doing sometimes and this was by far the class that took the most energy and planning. It was hard work, but oh so worth it!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Tiananmen Square Massacre Never Happened

TeachPaperless' Shelly Blake-Plock wrote an article here about filtering in China and in U.S. classrooms. It brought back memories to me of teaching English in China in 1999 during the ten year anniversary of the Tienanmen Massacre.

I was teaching English at a university in ShenYang, a heavy industry and mining city in Northeast China (think Cleveland or Pittsburgh). I remember we were using The JoyLuck Club in one of our classes and we had to cut out a part of the appendix because it mentioned Tienanmen Square and "that never happened" according to our Chinese overseerers.

If you remember in May 1999, NATO accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia based on info. from the CIA. This tragedy was a wonderful opportunity for the Communist Party propaganda machine to distract the people from the anniversary by turning their anger against the U.S. The government-controlled CCTV did not immediately broadcast the news. Instead they waited until the evening news when all Chinese people would be watching (there are not a lot of choices on Chinese TV). Professors organized their students to protest at the consulates around China. This was shown on the evening news as the majority of Chinese people heard about the bombing for the first time. Students could be seen yelling through a microphone of a police cruiser. It was very organized and designed to distract the people from the ten year anniversary of Tienanmen Square.

As an outsider it was much easier for me to see how the Communist government was manipulating these events to their advantage. (There was even a conspiracy theory that the Chinese government paid Clinton to bomb it to distract the people. Remember the big stir here when he was renting out rooms in the White House? I don't buy that though) Very few Chinese people saw it though and I had to try to explain it to my Chinese friends. A wise professor who tutored me in Mandarin saw through it all and we had great conversations as he pointed out that the United States had no motive and nothing to gain from the bombing. I learned about the power of propaganda through media and cultural perspective through this event. It has helped me re-evaluate the U.S. positions and actions throughout history more critically.

I want my students to think critically about all media and information that they encounter in life. It is scary when I make a statement in class that "it was on the Internet. It must be true" and no one disagrees with me. One of my goals for next year is to focus even more on critical thinking and evaluating skills. I want to adopt the approach of this great teacher who started the year off by showing kids that they need to question everyone and everything including himself. How will you teach students to think critically?