Monday, November 23, 2009

When EVERYTHING goes wrong

At 11:09 AM this morning I sent out the following tweet:
Today is the type of day that makes you say, "i will never use technology in the classroom again" but I will persevere!
It was only 20 minutes into the second class of the day for me. I had been fortunate enough to find an extended period of time when the school laptop carts were not reserved. I reserved them for seven consecutive school days. Today was day 1. I'm glad I have six more days.

The particular project the kids are working on is what we are calling the "Cool Questions Project". Throughout the year, I have kept a running list of cool questions the kids have asked, most of which I have been unable to answer, either because I myself did not know or we just needed to move on. Occassionally I will push pause on whatever we are doing and do a quick search on the internet to try and find the answer. As a sidenote, sometimes it's best to turn off the projector, otherwise the auto fill feature of Google will list questions like "Why is my poop green?".

Using that list, the kids are each selecting a question of their choice and researching the answer. Once they have completed their research, they will each do a digital presentation. They can choose whatever format they would like - powerpoint, Glog, video, Voki, etc. Since many of my students have no computer access at home at all, I reserved the laptops for an extended period of time.

Day 1 went only a little worse than I had expected. The teacher who used one of the carts before me failed to plug up any of the laptops. Few machines in that cart had a charged battery and two of power cables do not work. I spent the entire 63 minutes of my first class finally getting all my kids id's and pw's straightened out. My second class only went a little better.

Technology issues aside, I began to question the scope of the assignment. Did I assign too much to my little sixth graders? Can they really handle the open endedness and potential enormity of this project? Several issues quickly made themselves apparent. 1) They have no real idea how to do research. 2) They have not yet learned how to read a passage for information and make the necessary inferences. (This is a science class BTW). 3) Despite being given a rubric with benchmark goals and dates, most only see a BIG project, not the small manageable pieces.

So, have I erred once again by failing to properly plan? Did I forget to consider my students' actual developmental stage? Can this thing be salvaged? I believe the answer to all three questions is "Yes". However, I don't think that in regards to planning and considering my students' abilities that I was really not that far off. This project is on track to accomplish everything I hoped it would. The students will get a chance to study something THEY want to study. The students will learn some new research skills. When things go wrong, students are forced to develop problem solving skills. They are excited about doing "a technology project." It's one step closer to that self-paced differentiated classroom I so want to teach.

I think when this is all said and done, if more wrong than right happens, it may turn out to be the best project ever.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Doing something Different(iated) for a change - Part 1

This post was spawned by a retweet of @edteck sent out by @shannoninottawa. The quote was
A thought...What % of your class time is spent having every kid do the exact same thing?
This seed was further nurtured by an article called "The School of One". The article describes the exact type of classroom I've always wanted to have. If you read the article, you'll find a broad range of responses, both for and against this approach.

Honestly, despite the potential chaos and confusion in the classroom and tons of extra work, I would love to have a classroom where all 30 kids were doing something entirely different every single day. Twenty years ago when I taught high school math, I taught two sections of what was then called Competency Math. These students had not passed the NC Competency test for math. I had 12 to 15 students in each class. Each student worked at his or her own pace until a particular skill was mastered. So why don't I do that now? What's my excuse?

Let me list my excuses first so I can shoot 'em down when I'm done.
  1. I don't have the time. I'd have to come up with all my lesson plans, activities, etc. all at once so my quicker students would have something to do as they speed through.
  2. I can't effectively teach every child that way. Somebody's going to fall through the cracks. The slower kids will probably get all the attention while the smarter kids teach themselves because they are able to anyway while the middle of the road kids get minimal instruction. Or I'll focus on the average kid because there are more of them and the advanced/slower kids will get neglected. Or . . .
  3. I don't have the necessary resources. Sure, I did it 20 years ago, but honestly, it was really a worksheet driven class. Everything is tech driven today. I only have 1 computer in my room. Lab time is hard to come by. Besides, if everyone is doing something different, I cannot necessarily take them all to the lab at one time.
There are probably some other excuses but I'm sure they are some derivative of the above three.
  1. Not everything has to be done at once. It would be nice to have everything all tidied up in a box, ready to pull as we progress through the year. I don't have to teach the entire course like this. I know what the standard course of study is for the year. Look ahead, pick a couple of units far enough in advance. Plan them around this philosophy and see how it goes. Expand the offering each year until you are satisfied.
  2. Move to a student centered/learning driven classroom. Face it. Everything we do as teachers tends to be teacher centered and teacher driven. The emphasis is on how we present things, how we lead activities, how we deliver content. It's not about me - it's about the student. If I focus on the essential standards of my course instead of the myriads of factoids found in the content, all sorts of activities and lessons can be implemented. Give students every opportunity to create their own content so they can demonstrate mastery via evaluation, analysis, and other higher order skills. This will keep ALL students moving and learning.
  3. 21st Century does not equal technology. 21st Century skills are skills like collaboration and evaluation, the same sort of skills we taught in the 20th century. True, they are pushed via technology today, but they don't have to be. You use it whenever you can get your hands on it, but come up with the old-fashioned ways all the other times. Check out this article by @kellyhines for more about that.
Okay, so I've eliminated all my excuses for myself. The next step is to actually do it. Part 2 will address that. While we all wait to see what that looks like, what other excuses am I missing? What are valid objections to such an approach? What are possible solutions?