Sunday, July 26, 2009

Is rote memorization a 21st Century skill?

A common theme in blogs and twitter feeds is the need to teach 21st century skills. The point has been made over and over that we should not be requiring students to memorize facts that can easily be googled. Without getting deep into the argument of what these skills are or whether they are new, let me say that I agree this should be a primary focus of education. I believe in focusing on problem-solving using authentic, real world learning with collaboration both inside my classroom and globally.

But....this year I am teaching a 6th grade math class for the first time. One of the things that has amazed me in my 5 years of teaching a math-focused technology class is how many kids do not know the answer to simple math problems like 3 x 7. They want to use a calculator for basic math facts that I think they should know. So for my class I am thinking about starting the year off by requiring them to review and recite to me the times tables through 12 x 12. I believe that this foundation is necessary for most middle to advanced math concepts including fractions, multiples, factors, algebra, and calculus.

I think memorizing spelling words is another similar set of facts that should be memorized. Even when you have spellchecker you need to be able to spell close enough that it can recognize what you are trying to spell. You also need to be able to pick out the correct word from spellchecker's choices. I have read many papers where students lacked those two skills.

So my question to readers is what do they think about rote memorization? Is it last century or still important. When is it useful or even necessary? Am I off-base or is it important to teach rote memorization of basic skills before students can perform many higher level tasks.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What are the best tools?

I talked with the head of technology in my district today. It was great to bring up many ideas in my head to bounce off of him. Our district is just getting started investigating the on-line tools that many of you have been using for years. He understood more than I expected and agreed with my overall philosophy of opening up the filter and getting more technology into students' hands.

The big difference between us is the rate of adoption. I am a no-holds barred, dive-in, and experiment with everything at once kind of guy. He is much more cautious and wants to integrate things slowly. I understand his position as an administrator and even the philosophy as to why it makes sense as articulated here by Chris Lehman. So I left the meeting excited that we are moving in the right direction philosophically and of course offered to pilot anything that he wanted to try.

So I need to give him a list of the five tools I would like unblocked for students. The district has unblocked almost everything for teachers this past year which was great. Now will begin the slower process of unblocking for students. Things like twitter and youtube will not be unblocked. I need the best tools that can be private, or self-contained in the district. I do not think they will unblock tools that give students access to outside chats.

I would like to blog, backchannel, bookmark, podcast, digital storytelling, and make stop-motion videos this year. My list right now is :

Voicethread-for digital storytelling
Livestream or jaycut-for video
Pixton-for cartoons
xtranormal or Glogster-for digital storytelling
tinychat or todaysmeet-for private backchannel
Diigo or Delicious-social bookmarking and collaborative editing of on-line texts

Sites that are already open include:
Google Docs, Earth, and Sketchup-collaboration and drawings

So readers, as you can see my list is too long. Based on your classroom experience which ones are the best? What tools have you used? Which would you recommend? What tools am I missing that I should include instead of these? Please give opinions in comments (I know I should have a poll).

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Schools need heroes

Schools today need heroes. Not superheroes who save the day, but leaders who are not afraid to make changes to improve student learning rather than perform well on "the test."

"Those who advocate incremental change are not the heroes of history." unknown tweet

I saw this a few weeks ago on twitter and it summarizes how I feel about where schools need to go. We need to be bold and not afraid to try new things.

There is too much emphasis on teaching to the test to make AYP under NCLB. I understand that federal funds and administrative jobs are tied to the scores and that they get published in the newspaper as "failing" or "passing" schools based on complicated formulas that the general public does not understand.

Still I long for administrators to de-emphasize the tests and implement student-centered, project-based instruction. Instead of trying to synchronize every content class with common assessments, encourage teachers to experiment with personalized instruction that meets students where they are and pushes them as far as possible.

The ideal classroom would be 1:1 laptops with no textbooks. The internet and world would be the "text" along with conversations with students and adults from around the world. Teachers would not use textbooks as easy lesson plans, but would continually be exploring the web themselves finding the latest resources to engage their students. Students and teachers would learn together and document their learning on blogs, wikis, and digital portfolios. The portfolio would continue with the student throughout their school career showing their learning progress. Students would use skype and other social media to collaborate with schools around the world in real life projects that integrate multiple content areas. "Homework" would be students continuing these conversations on the internet outside of school and researching more about them. "Classwork" would be students sharing and teaching each other what they discovered at home.

There are literally hundreds of "tools" on the web that are free and open-sourced. School budgets would shift from paper,textbooks, and canned software to wi-fi, netbooks, and teacher training for the student-based learning. Schools would get creative (and save money) by allowing students to use their own laptops, cell phones, and ipods to access the web.

These kind of changes can not be implemented by individual teachers in isolation, but require leadership from the top that is willing to take risks and encouraging risk-taking by its teachers and students. Teacher training is imperative to successful implementation.

Where should administrators begin? Start with reading blogs of some administrative leaders such as Chris Lehman and Scott Mcleod. Learn about the best practices from bloggers like David Warlick, Will Richardson, Shelly Blake-Plock, and Wesley Fryer. Engage in the comments section of these blogs and join twitter. If you feel that you are "not good at technology," ask these people to help and share with you. They will meet you at your level and help you join the learning revolution. Find some one to mentor you in how to successfully use these tools. Here is a place where you can find some people who will mentor you on how to use twitter. Administrators, please go to educational technology conference yourself. Do not just send others, but experiment for yourself with the possibilities.

After you have seen the creative possibilities out there, share your enthusiasm with your staff and teachers. Encourage them to engage like you have. Demonstrate to your teachers how to build a PLN (personal learning network). Encourage innovation, get rid of filters, train teachers, and turn them loose.

If you create this kind of school, parents will not care about what the newspaper says about your school, but will know that you are creating the best educational environment for their child. They will see the difference in their children who are engaged in school and truly learning. So what are you waiting for? Jump in and become a hero. Our students deserve nothing less.

PS: more ideas from Leadership Day 09 posts here.

Friday, July 10, 2009

My twitter beginnings....

With my recent posts about the challenges of getting connected in the ed-tech community, I was very happy to see a twitter mentor project on the twitter4teachers wiki. This is what I could have used in March when I signed up for twitter.

First, the story of my decision to use twitter. I had to learn about twitter as part of my "23 Things" class. It was Thing#21 and I did not like twitter. Re-reading my post is funny as it is obvious like many people I did not "get it" or as I recall I did not spend much time trying to "get it." So I had no use for twitter and focused on reading blogs.

In March I attended my first MACUL conference. The first session I attended after the keynote was by Steve Dembo in the main ballroom. There were screens on the ends of the room that were very hard to see. I missed a link that I wanted so during the session I quickly joined twitter and asked for the link using a conference hashtag. I got an immediate response from Kevin Galbraith. After the presentation I went up and asked Steve (who I had never heard of by the way) about how to actually be heard and have conversations on twitter. I remember he explained that it was a catch-22 that no one was listening until you built relationships with people and that took time.

Well I think the time it has taken me is what led to my frustration blog about NECC and the difficulties of engaging the edu-blog community. The reality for me is that I personally knew no one on twitter or using any social media for that matter. I had no idea who to follow or how to build a PLN. I could have desperately used a guide to get me started on worthwhile blogs and tweets to follow. I since have worked hard to find some great educators to engage with. I now consider myself slightly beyond "newbie" stage with some great twitter friends who share and stretch my thinking.

But this wiki is exactly what teachers new to twitter could use. This is a great way for tech-ed leaders to mentor other teachers. A big part of my frustration with growing my twitter PLN is how hard I had to work to build it, not because I am lazy. My family would say I am addicted to twitter.

My real concern is that I want to share all of the great things that I am learning with the other teachers in my building and district. I do not think that the majority of teachers will work as hard to build a PLN. I reference Scott Mcleod's excellent post today about enabling teachers by too much handholding when introducing technology to teachers. For better or worse, I agree with the comments that I would rather enable than to have teachers never try to use it at all. So I commend this wiki and hope that mentees will find it and use it.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

We are learning, not technology, experts

I heard a tweet about how many teachers have never heard the names of the "technology experts" in education. I echo this sentiment and believe it is a real and huge problem. I believe it is a problem of labels and how technology leaders are promoted. Before my "conversion" starting in December of last year I had never heard of any of the edu-bloggers and twitter people that I follow, and I am a technology teacher! In order to see the large scale changes in our public schools we need to reach the masses of general education teachers and administrators.

The first "name" I learned was David Warlick through my "23 Things" class. I found other leaders by reading the blogs of Will Richardson, Wesley Fryer, Shelly Blake-Plock (TeachPaperless), Alan Levine, and Vickie Davis. I set up class and student blogs with the patient help of Sue Waters. I went to MACUL conference and heard Alan November, Steve Dembo, and Leslie Fisher speak. I had no idea who they were when I got there. I signed up to help mentor a pre-service teacher in Dean Shareski's class even though I had no idea who he was. I keep learning about and meeting through twitter many teachers and education leaders. My blogroll keeps growing as I learn from so many of these great teachers and thinkers.

Now back to the problem of labels. These people present at conferences and workshops all over the country and world. Technology education has an image problem represented in its semantics. I have read arguments about our terminology: Web 2.0, 21st century learning, social media, etc. Some want to ban them; some want to make new terms; others try to define them more clearly; I agree with those that have argued that this pleura of terms that technology leaders can not even agree on just confuses the average teacher who is being introduced to technology integration.

Unfortunately many teachers are not active learners and can easily use the excuses that they are too busy or not good at technology to keep from integrating technology into their teaching. The confusing technology terminology is another easy excuse for them to ignore new strategies of learning and teaching. They can just claim "I don't teach a computer class."

The other image problem is how we compartmentalize and divide classes: core vs. electives. Of course, there have been schools that integrate subjects, but most schools and teachers are still segregated by subject. Our school used to have teaming, but that ended years ago because of the budget. The biggest problem is classes like mine: Technology class. We are telling students, parents, and teachers that technology is something separate from math, science, social studies, and language arts. A more holistic approach would encourage computers and technology use in every class. That is the way technology is used in the real world: integrated.

Now for the kicker: I think we need to re-term our ideas from educational technology to best practices in learning. I do not have a fancy name for it. What I mean is that the technology experts that I have mentioned among many others, need to be seen by administrators and teachers as the experts on the best practices in learning instead of as technology experts. They need to present more at general ed. conferences, math, science, social studies, reading, writing, and special education conferences. Maybe they should be on shows like Oprah and the Today Show like Alfie Kohn. By focusing their time and attention on technology educators they are narrowing their audience when every teacher should adapt the best practices that they are demonstrating. Their philosophies of education should be taught to pre-service teachers not as a separate class but in the best practices and philosophy of ed. classes.

This in my opinion is the way to reach the masses (of teachers and administrators). Integration of technology is the key-at the classroom level within subjects and by our"big name" leaders being viewed as "learning" experts instead of technology experts.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

#iranelection as spam

I had a thoughtful discussion on twitter with @AndrewBWatt about using the #iranelection hashtag on twitter. He told me that when I use that tag it was like spam in that it was filling up space that was being used by real Iranians to communicate. I had never thought about it from that angle before. I had looked at the tag as a way to continually bring attention to the struggle of the protesters for a more democratic government. He also mentioned that I could be creating noise so that Iranians who were communicating life-saving information about what was going on at the ground level would not be able to find it.

I considered his comments very seriously as he brings up important points, but as I have watched the #iranelection posts on twitter I do not believe it is being used by Iranians to communicate tactical moves of the authorities. Rather I think the primary use of twitter (and blogs, Youtube, Flickr, ect.) is to broadcast to the world what is happening in their country, begging for our support. Therefore when I "advertise" a blog post about the importance of the events in Iran or re-tweet links of events going on there, I am adding to the discussion. I believe that my #iranelection tweets are "signal" of the most important kind rather than "noise."

The most important evidence of my view is how many Iranian twitter users request re-tweets of their information to get their message out. This is also the reason that they hold up signs in English as well as Farsi.

Lastly some twitter users in the USA are using the #iranelection hashtag as "noise" by randomly sticking it in tweets that have nothing to do with Iran just to get people to see their tweets. Although I find this self-promotion loathsome, I still think even this spam has a positive purpose by keeping the hashtag high on twitter's top trends list. Just keeping #iranelection in the top ten serves as a reminder to Westerners that this is an ongoing battle for freedom that will not quickly be resolved.

What do you think?

Friday, July 3, 2009

F2F Connections

Wow! The difference in one comment and blog post. Since last night, many educators have contacted me through comments and Twitter. Thank you to each of you for your encouragement. I do believe that edu-bloggers are willing to reach out to anybody and join them in the conversation. I think that the most important word in my feelings yesterday was my PERCEPTION. I have learned that many of the people that I follow are themselves relatively new to the conversations but have just engaged others more than I have.

I specifically want to point out a post by Scott Meech in which he encourages his friends who are "experts" to get out of their comfort zones and join "newbies" in conversations at NECC. This is exactly what I am talking about happening, and I find this encouraging. I would add that I hope that they would reach out all of the time and not just at NECC. I also agree with twitter comments about setting up a more regional meeting so people can meet with their PLN f2f (face-to-face).

In re-analyzing my feelings yesterday, I think the real thing I am missing is the personal connection beyond twitter. That is what Ben Grey's post said to me. I can "feel" the friendships that he has with his PLN by reading his tweets. The real thing that is missing for me is that I have never met anyone in my PLN f2f except for two people in my school that I helped sign up for Twitter. Basically I feel jealous of everyone at NECC because of the strengthening of their PLNs through f2f contacts.

So I am very interested in regional meeting idea because I can not afford the time or money to go to DC and I am sure that there are many more like me. I do feel that there is something very powerful in the real world conversations of a PLN beyond blogs and Twitter.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

NECC, mentors, and the Matrix

I am watching the first Matrix movie and reading my Tweetdeck. I was reading Ben Grey's wrap-up post on NECC and left a comment there. I found others discussing something that has been bothering me for a little while. It starts with a tweet from Steve Dembo (who talked me into starting twitter at MACUL 2009 by the way)

"If I took nothing else away from NECC, it's that we need to spend more time bringing in new choir members, & less surfing the bleeding edge."

I could not agree more. I am a "newbie." I have been a middle school technology teacher for five years, but before December, 2008 I had never heard RSS, Readers, Flickr, Twitter, Digital Storytelling, or anything Web 2.0 or 21st Century. I took a "23 Things" class through my local ISD and have immersed myself ever since. I started as a lurker reading around a hundred blogs. I have recently started blogging more myself, got active on Twitter, and commenting on others' blogs. I have started to get into conversations with some great educators.

Although I am so new to all of this I have already presented a Professional Development session on Google Reader and Delicious for middle school teachers in my district. Compared to almost every teacher in my district I am an expert! They would be lost in even the most basic sessions at NECC.

But as I commented on Ben's blog I feel like the top edubloggers have an "exclusive group" that is easier to "follow" than join into the discussion for the average classroom teacher. While I have written this Morpheus has spent the whole time explaining the "new technology"of the Matrix to Neo. He could never become "the One" without Morpheus as his mentor.

I suggest that each of the edublogger leaders take 10-15 newbies under his/her wing and actively engage with them and guide them in their struggles implementing new teaching strategies and tools. When I tweet a question usually no one answers me. I understand it takes time to build my PLN, but an expert to guide me would be very valuable.

So in answer to Sheryl NussbaumBeach who tweeted

"pondering "agents of change" who are unknown -- can one be an agent of change if those who need changing do not know about them?"

I say yes! Start with those of us who do know about you and we will share with other teachers.

I have the opportunity to be a technology consultant for one hour a day for the second semester of this next year. I hope to engage as many teachers as possible in my building with student-centered teaching using technology. So who wants to help :)