Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Answer

I had some good comments on my last post about collaboration, but they did not fully address my deepest question: "Why do it?" I believe in collaboration but did not feel that I could explain its importance very well. So I asked on Twitter for a response to that philosophical question. Here is the one response:

susan artkras said...
Collaborate to express your ideas to an authentic audience because sometimes you don't know what you're thinking until you share it with others.

Collaborate to have your thinking challenged or validated which might promote open-mindedness.

Collaborate to listen to others' thinking so you understand other people's perspective and the reasoning for it.

Collaborate to share our strengths, talents, gifts and so that other people's strengths etc. compliment our own and even fill in for our weaknesses.

Collaborate for the pure experience of the trials and tribulations of living in a society that demands collective survival.

Collaborate so we are a part of the human experience, learning how to communicate verbally and non-verbally.

Collaborate for the support, kind words of encouragement, an extra set of hands, ears or eyes, and collaborate even for the competitive challenge.

Collaborate to realize that my story and your story have much in common. That we are alike and we are different, and that either way it's okay.

Collaborate because some tasks are too big for one person to handle alone.

Enough said. Who can argue about the value of these things in any class? 

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Why would I want collaboration in my class?

While sharing with a math teacher at lunch about how I was using technology to connect my 6th grade math class with a class in Florida, he asked me "Why would I want collaboration in my class with another classroom?" He was not being a smart alek but was seriously wondering how it would help him or why it was important. I assume he was thinking about the agressive pacing schedule of the district curriculum and trying to meet the standards.

I must admit that the question threw me for a second. I hold global collaboration as a high personal value. I lived in China for two years, and often advise my students to take any opportunity to travel and/or live overseas if they get the chance. It is a question that I would never ask, but looking at it from his perspective it is a valid question.

I ended up answering by saying that it increased student motivation in that their work had an authentic audience. I compared hanging work on the walls to posting it on the internet to share with the world. I talked about our class's work with Kyle Webb and how we made videos to answer his challenge problem to us.  I didn't talk about diversity, culture, or the force of globalization in the world. I didn't talk about the importance of getting along with and being successful with all different kinds of people.

I think this is an example of how standardized testing of curriculum makes teachers focus so much on their content area that they forget about the other things that we need to teach students that can not be tested.

So help me out. How could I have better answered this teacher's question "Why would I want collaboration in my class with another classroom?"

Monday, January 18, 2010

Warning: The grade you have received may not reflect your actual level of learning in this class.

As some of you know this is my first year teaching math. I am currently teaching one section of 6th grade math. The rest of my assignment is 6th, 7th, and 8th grade technology which I have taught for six years. This new math class is the source of my focus on grades and grading. In my district we have standards-based report cards and in math we have district tests for our required assessments. For this post I will focus on my technology class and assessment (I will save math for the next post).

My Technology class flies under the radar. We have standards that reflect what the class was like five years ago but not what it is today. I and my fellow middle school technology teachers use project-based learning and computers to challenge kids with fun and relevant learning. I truly have more freedom than almost any other teacher in my district to teach whatever I want however I want. I am accountable to my principals who are happy to see children "doing" creative things. We build pop bottle rockets, balsa towers, hot air balloons, pneumatic devices, and egg drop vehicles. We use Lego Robotics and some math software games. Starting last year students blogged and use Google Docs. This year we are using programs such as Google Sketchup, Pivot, and Scratch.

I grade of course in Technology because I have to but my grades are either a rubric of checklists or once in a while based on reaching certain levels. So many of my grades reflect effort of students to complete the projects rather than measure learning. I am ok with that I guess.

For example some excellent students attempted some unique balsa tower designs (the picture is one of them) that totally failed when tested. By the way, most of the class voted their towers to be the strongest before we broke them. They did not receive an A but I would argue that they learned and taught the rest of the class more about good design that anyone else. Why, because they took a creative risk and tried something the rest of the class was unwilling to do. We do not have time or $ for materials to have students build multiple towers to improve their designs which would be the best way to show their level of learning.

Even more difficult for me was when my students made their own Pivots, Sketchup, and Scratch program. We created rubrics together as a class and then I made a grading form in Google that the students embedded on their blogs.

How does one grade creativity? What makes my opinion more valid than anyone else's?

Therefore I was just going to count the students' assessments of each other. This did not work out as planned as too many of them did not grade each others' projects because some were completed late and some did not take the rating seriously. Basically I question the whole point of this grading as a waste of my time.

My ideal system would be to share these tools and projects with students and have them complete them as creatively as possible to the best of their ability. Their "reward" would be the learning that they experienced as a class. Would they all learn the same things or even the same amount? No, just like now they would learn based on the amount of thought and effort they put into their work. If they slacked off then they would learn less; if they worked hard then they would learn more.

I really don't know how I can accurately measure their actual learning anyway. Grading feels like a game to me and some of the greatest projects like this and this happened for no grade or extra credit. I fail to see how the "grades" that I assign to them contribute to their learning experience and oftentimes do not adequately reflect their actual learning. I also know that grades do not motivate my at risk kids at all, and they motivate the "top" students just to perform for me not to actually learn.

The ultimate thing that matters to me is that students are challenged, given a chance to be creative, and explore in a hands-on way math, science, and technology. The rewards are internal for the students who give their best. Those who just go through the motions miss out no matter what their report card says.

Next post I will explain the conflict I feel comparing this class and grading to my math class.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

"Don't cast your pearls before swine"

This morning at church, my pastor Rob Bell, taught on a well known passage (Matthew 7:1-6) full of quotes that some people love to pull out of context.

"Judge not, lest you be judged.
Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?
Don't cast your pearls before swine."

The teaching (Podcast will be here later this week) hit me on severeal levels, not the least of which is education. To summarize we looked at the passage as a whole and realized it is about trying to control and change people.

The judging section is about trying to control people in a negative way by putting them down to elevate ourselves. We criticize, evaluate, and condemn to try to manipulate people to change to how we want them to be.

Jesus uses humor to make his point on how this does not work. (He would be a great host on late night TV using humor to expose societal and political problems).

Picture trying to help someone with a sliver while this log is in your eye. When we judge others they can often find a log in our eye and will not be helped by our criticisms.

The pearls before swine line is also humorous. Taken literally was this a serious problem in that day? It is a ridiculous illustration. Why? Because pigs are not able to perceive the value of pearls. That is the definition of a pig here: a person who can not see the value of what you offer. This definitely fits what we know about middle schoolers: they live in the moment, are self-absorbed, and have difficulty seeing long-term effects. 

Pearls are positive attempts to control and change people. It is when my best friend's dad bought him the best presents after the divorce. It is when we force a great idea upon someone who has not had time to digest it like we have. It is when we push technology on teachers who are resistant. It is when we give out candy in class and parents give money for good grades.

And what is the result? Pigs trample the pearls and you under their feet. If you force teachers to blog, tweet, build a PLN, or integrate technology will they do it? Sure maybe for awhile, but probably with a bad attitude and in the end they will "predict" and "prove" themselves correct that it is useless and pointless. They will bad mouth the tools and the messenger. They are not ready for it and are not willing or able to discern that it is useful.

Students are controlled by judgment and "pearls" all of the time. We try to motivate but the truth is that we can not force students to learn anything. Schools, teachers, and parents manipulate through punishments and rewards. So what is the answer?

I am leaning more and more toward an "unschooling" answer of allowing students to choose their own learning. Let students study what interests them as a starting point. Use their interests to branch out into new areas holistically. Expose students to interesting ideas, art, philosophy, and field trips. Teach with real labs with no pre-fabricated processes and results. Let students study real problems and propose solutions.

The discouraging thing is that with NCLB and standards this is a challenge to do. But I think it is the right goal to pursue.

The other factor is to build real relationships with students and reluctant teachers. Be passionate about your class, content, and PLN. People will be attracted to you and will want what you have. Athletes will work hard through boring drills for a coach that they respect. Most teachers want to be the best that they can be and will be open to technology integration if they can see it used effectively. They will be open to a PLN if they see how one works over time.

The key is to turn students and reluctant educators from pigs (people unable to discern the value of something) to people who desire to learn and want your pearls.
Hands On

Monday, January 4, 2010

New Year's ...

I didn't say "New Year's Resolution" because I have not done them for years. One day is not necessarily  more significant than any other to have goals or start something new. But this weekend three things happened that are significant to me and represent change. First, we canceled our subscription to the local paper. Long overdue since I have been reading it on-line for over a year, but my wife likes the coupons and ads. It is a good "paperless" movement in my personal life. By the way why do we still have a government-run post office? Why not email everything and use on-line billing? Oh that's right, then how would I get all my junk mail?

Second I got a droid. The pic shows my old phone so this is my first smartphone. I love it so far and have been playing with all the apps. You can expect to see more pics from me on Twitter.  I definitely see smartphones as computer alternatives in a few years. First I think almost all phones will be smartphones in a few years and more and more students will own them. We will have computers in every room in the students pockets at least at the secondary level. I find this exciting, not frightening.

Last I have to advertise the best new blog I have found: Adventures in Pencil Integration . This blog is over one hundred years old, but still relevant to today. It is humorous satire that cuts right through many issues in ed-tech today. Highly recommend that you add this one to your favorite Reader.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Do you have "gifted" students?

I lived in China teaching English and learning Mandarin in 1995-96 and again in 1999. My Mandarin was survival level only, but I was pretty good with food vocabulary. My second week in China, an American friend sent me to a local restaurant to order some noodles. He taught me how to say bring me a bowl of noodles and a pop (that's soda for you people outside of the Midwest). He also taught me the phrase "I only can speak a little Chinese." After I ordered the noodles the waitress started saying all kinds of things to me. I had no idea what she was saying and kept repeating the phrase, "I only can speak a little Chinese." The word for Chinese, han yu, ends in the same sound as the word for fish but in a different tone. Unknown to me, I ordered a small plate of fish (I hate seafood, BTW). My bill came and was way higher than expected and I had an argument with the poor waitress trying to understand what had happened. I only figured it out much later.

So I was interested in the post Nature v.s. nurture, what are we missing by Punya Mishra about how having a strong pitch musically is linked to speaking a tonal language such as Mandarin. I won't re-hash the whole story here-Read his post and the article!

I can say that I know from first-hand experience the difficulty of a native English speaker learning a tonal language. Mandarin has four tones which change the meaning of a "sound." If my memory is correct there are only slightly over 400 sounds (words if you will) in Mandarin. But changing the tone of each word changes its meaning. Also the same sound and tone can have multiple meanings. An English example would be the words two, to, and too. In Chinese, the written characters would each be unique, but the pronunciation the same. In English there are various words like this, but in Mandarin there are multiple meanings for almost all of the 400 sounds. That is why tone and context of the conversation are so important in Mandarin.

My first time in China, my wife to be, came and visited. I had been living there around six months and was her guide. This was comical and became quite the joke because my wife was adopted as a baby from Korea. So all of the Chinese people assumed she was my translator and would not believe me when I told them she could not speak Mandarin. But my wife, I believe, has perfect pitch. She can play songs by ear on the piano and was very astute to understanding conversations. She could read the tone and body language to understand conversations. The second time in China, we were married and I listened to my wife talk to people even though I know she did not understand most of the words they said. I have always considered my wife "gifted" in this area, whereas I see myself  "gifted' in math.

Back to the research... (You read the article, didn't you?). The critical conclusion of the research by Deustch is:
"Perfect pitch for years seemed like a beautiful gift – given only to a few genetically endowed people. But our research suggests that it might be available to virtually everybody."

The evidence is that some things we considered to be "gifted" in students may actually be more of a learned trait based on environment, in this case perfect pitch being rare in the West, but more common in speakers of tonal languages. I think Punya asks important questions in his post,

What other exceptional abilities and talents may we be missing out on developing in our children? How many of the talents we regard as being innate are merely a function of inappropriate nurture? I often hear of people say that they don’t have any mathematical ability? Is that necessarily true? What about artistic ability? How much of it is nature and how much nurture? And how much are we losing out by thinking it is more of the former than the latter?

These questions have been haunting me today. How much of ability comes from our parents? Not genetically, but because of values. The art teacher and music teacher in my building have their children in art classes and music lessons. I choose to sign my children up for sports, explore science and nature with them, and helped them create blogs. By choosing what we expose children to at a young age do we strongly influence "their gifts?"

I started the year telling my students that we would approach math differently and that they would all be successful. But they have not all been successful. It is easy to beat myself up and sometimes parents help. I have tried lots of different teaching strategies and methods with varied success.

What really bothers me is that in the back of my mind I have my students labeled by ability and what they can achieve. I believe some of my students can perform almost any problem easily and accurately. They seem to never be stuck. (I should mention that 6th grade math in our district has very few new topics from 5th grade). They are "gifted." Others I know will struggle a bit, but work hard and "get it" in the end. Still others rarely seem to get the concepts and even when I think they do understand they seem to forget by the next day. These stereotypes are based on what they have shown me and nothing else. Am I holding back some of my students by doubting their skills?

If you read the research summary, it also mentions the importance of starting music training at a young age. Are some of my students math struggles due to a lack of good mathematical foundation skills in elementary school or even pre-school? How much is mathematical ability a born-with trait or how much of it is developed?

What does this research mean for tracking students or "learning styles?" (which research is showing that they do not exist)

How do I keep an open mind about my students and continue to show each one I care and believe in their ability to master mathematics?

What are the effects on children as we continue to cut "the arts" from schools to save $$$ and to focus on NCLB?

Surely we all have areas in life that we are more talented in than others. I love sports and have played since childhood, but was nowhere near good enough to play at the collegiate level. How much of our student's abilities are natural vs. training?

Most importantly how do we help students who are "behind" get caught up?