Archive for November, 2005

Activating Schema

Nov 30 2005 Published by under borderland,education,literacy

One of the problems I’ve had with packaged curriculum materials since I started teaching is that they present as many problems as they solve. Math books are my biggest gripe. When I taught the lower primary grades (I taught first and second graders for 14 years.) the kids had consumable math books, which means that they could write in the book. Most of the time we would do some kind of activity and then go to the book to “apply” it. The real difficulty was, though, that the format of the book page was so confusing to the kids that they couldn’t think about the math. I’d end up frustrated because they got hung up on some graphic feature of the book that confused them, and they’d be frustrated because they thought they were bad at math, since they didn’t know how to get the answer the book seemed to want. I learned after a while, too long a while, to stay away from the math book if I wanted the kids to do math.

I don’t know where we’d be without the copy machine. There’s a lot of talk these days about computer technology, but I believe that the photocopier has done more to affect teaching than any other single piece of equipment. That may change soon, now that we can write to the web. But for now, we’re still cranking out the paper. Why? I know why I do it. I have lots of reasons. I use the copier mainly because it’s easier than having the kids write everything down. I tried that one year. I lasted about 6 months. Not bad, I think. They wrote their own notes home, their own homework assignments, their own whatever. I broke down finally when I realized that I was bucking a cultural norm. It was almost like telling people that you don’t let your kids watch television. They look at you funny. Try it; you’ll see. They’ll know you’re some kind of radical. When I tried going cold-turkey on copying I did it because I wondered if kids were getting lazy having everything handed to them pre-formatted. I think they might be, but I don’t care about it as much now as I did then. I ran into problems with absent kids. They didn’t have copies of the assignments. Parents wanted spelling lists. They wanted tests. They wanted to see worksheets because worksheets are self-contextualized. They have titles. They have directions. So they make life a little bit easier for all of us. Is that so bad?

From a literacy instruction perspective, worksheets offer some challenges and opportunities to teach about text genres. A whole language teacher believes that kids should receive instruction at the point of need, using authentic texts. I think so, too. But I also think that kids should get comfortable reading and responding to things that they may not have a lot of experience with. My job as the teacher is to figure out exactly how much support to give them when we are doing stuff that has been handed to us. I work real hard to get them to read their writing critically, to revise and proofread it. We have writing conferences, and they pair up and review each others’ work. But I still give them more formal instruction on the fine points of grammar, spelling and punctuation. I have a book full of bungled up essays that are written in a type face that looks like handwriting, presumably so the kids will believe that a kid wrote the piece. But the content and writing style are most definitely not juvenile. I look at these things and think, what kid could realistically do this without help? None that I work with.

Today I handed out one of these things. It was about Gregor Mendel’s research on heredity. The very first two lines in the paragraph had the words ‘traits’ and ‘heredity.’ These are not words that my fourth-grade students have likely ever heard. I decided to go ahead with the lesson because I wanted to do a presentation about schema with them. Before I gave them the paper I said something like, “Today we are going to have a science and a psychology lesson. I’m going to talk to you about how your brain works so that you can become better operators. Probably no other teachers are going to tell you about this, so listen and think about what we are going to talk about. You need to build schema before you can work on this assignment.”

We’ve talked about schema before. They know that it is something like a mental filing system. I put a new piece in there for them today, though. I told them that in order to add on to your schema you have to find something to hook the new knowledge to. As an illustration I took my coat to the front of the room and stuck it to the board. There was no hook, so of course it fell to the floor. Everyone laughed. Then I said, “That’s what happens when you try to learn something without activating your schema. There’s no hook for it.”

I went on, “Before you read you have to do what all good readers do. You have to activate your schema for what you’re about to read. Think about what you already know about the subject. Look for some hooks.” I believe that kids should be explicitly taught to do this at every age, in every subject. They will get to know their own minds. They will become aware of their own thinking process (metacognition is the buzzword, isn’t it?). I had their attention. We went on to talk about traits. What are traits? What traits do you have? Where do they come from? I mentioned heredity. All this to learn about a few commas and capital letters in a canned paragraph out of a workbook.

What did the kids learn? Maybe they learned something about punctuation. My real mission, though, was to teach them something about themselves. And to give them some ideas for ways to approach the world when I’m not there to answer their questions. When we finished I told them that they should learn to have fun in their own heads. “Know your brain, it’s all yours.” They went down the hall to their music class with big smiles. We had fun.

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A Brief History of Comprehension

Nov 27 2005 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,teacher research

The history of literacy theory became important for me when I chose to become a teacher, although I didn’t know that until I went back to the university after teaching for 20 years. I’m going to outline two not-quite parallel histories in order to explain why this weblog was initiated, and maybe help anyone who reads this to better understand their own literacy history.

Archaic thinking
Until the late 1950′s and early 60′s, around the time that I entered school, reading was regarded as merely a perceptual process. Comprehension was assumed to occur once the reader decoded the written symbols and reproduced them as spoken language. According to this view, the relatively simple job of the teacher was to teach children to discriminate among different letters and reproduce their sounds. To accomplish this, phonics and whole-word recognition were the prevailing instructional methodologies. A view of reading as decoding was consistent with behavioral theory, favored for instructional objectives during that historical period.

A linguistic perspective
Enter the linguist, Noam Chomsky. Chomsky recognized that since words have multiple meanings, comprehension of spoken language could not be explained as the strung-together meanings of a series of words. Chomsky’s insight was that language, though very complex, was acquired by children easily and naturally through immersion in their social environment. Chomsky helped us to recognize that human beings are “wired” to naturally acquire language from their home communities.

The psycholinguists
Psycholinguistics is a field that evolved out of Chomsky’s work. Early researchers in this field who were interested in language acquisition found that children became skilled users of language by inferring and testing out rules for language as active participants in a language community. Reading theorists took up these research findings and asked what reading instruction would look like if we assumed that children learned to read and write in the same way that they learned to talk. In 1965 Kenneth Goodman published “A Linguistic Study of Cues and Miscues in Reading.” Goodman found that oral reading errors made by children provided access to their comprehension process, and should not be regarded as mistakes to be corrected. Two years later he developed a model that defined sense-making among readers as the ability to simultaneously use 3 different cueing systems: syntactic cues, semantic cues, and graphophonemic cues. He declared reading to be a “psycholinguistic guessing game,” a claim that attracted a lot of criticism from behaviorists.

Psycholinguists pushed the study of reading comprehension into the foreground, and moved reading research away from behavioral and perceptual analytical models. Their work caused educators to question the value of isolated skills instruction, and diminished the attraction of artificially controlled vocabularies in texts for beginning readers. Reading would no longer be viewed as simply a perceptual process. The study of reading became inextricably linked with the study of thought. The Age of Comprehension had been born.

Sociolinguistic research focused on issues of dialect, and found that dialects were not poorly-formed variations of standard English, but were legitimate language systems with syntactic structures and developmental stages of acquisition for its speakers. Sociolinguists argued that dialectic differences in speech should not be regarded as deficits by educators, but should be accommodated while students learn to read and write. Sociolinguists introduced the idea that reading acquisition is a social process, much like that of oral language.

Cognitive theory
Jean Piaget was one of the major cognitive theorists. He used schema theory to explain how knowledge is acquired, and to describe stages of human intellectual development. His ideas, however, did not strongly influence thinking in the United States until the 1960′s. Schema theory, which describes the structure of human knowledge, contributed to our understanding of literacy. From schema theory we understand learning as a process in which we create mental models called schemata out of our experience. Some have described these structures as a mental filing system that is hierarchically organized. Schema theory helped reading theorists better understand the constructive nature of reading comprehension. Schema theory appealed to learning theorists as well as reading researchers. It emphasized the connections that readers – learners make between a text and their prior experience.

Schema theory provides a link from cognitivism to constructivism, a learning theory that serves as a kind of meta-theory since it provides us with a model for how we create mental models. Constructivism emphasizes the active engagement of learners in processes of meaning-making as they join new information to existing knowledge structures. When applied to reading, we are inclined to ask a fascinating question about where meaning is constructed. Does meaning reside in the text, in the intentions and motivation of the author, in the mind of the reader, or in the transaction between reader and text?

The discussion of constructivism brings us into the 1980′s and early 90′s. Differing views of constructivsm, however, make any single definition of it problematic. Out of a recognition that our social environment shapes our experience, constructivist thinking splintered in order to explore meaning making as it may occur in individuals, small groups, or communities. This conceptualization of constructivist theory is called social constructivism, and the work of Lev Vygotsky had a powerful influence on literacy researchers. But that story is for another time.

A new approach to literacy
The need for a theoretical framework that would encompass these various understandings and inform instructional decision-making generated a new theoretical domain for literacy education. The socio-psycholinguistic approach to reading instruction emerged in the 1980′s. More commonly known as whole language, this movement embraced meaning-making as its central tenet. Also known as process-oriented instruction, socio-psycholinguistic approaches are constructive, contextualized, learner-centered and meaning-focused.

Teachers who are familiar with language experience, word walls, independent reading, paired reading, choral reading, readers theater, readers’ workshop, reading aloud to the class, guided writing, modeled writing, independent writing, writers’ workshop, learning logs, book talks, literature circles, problem-centered learning, discovery learning, inquiry learning, and I don’t know how many more instructional strategies owe their inclusion in instructional design to the socio-psycholinguistic approach.

The story does not end there, or we’d be stuck in decades-old thinking. Nevertheless, to pursue the rest of the story would be overly tedious at this point. If you’re still with me on this, I hope you’ve found this whirlwind tour of the intellectual landscape around literacy informative if not amusing on some level.

The salient point I want to make is that although this history runs roughly concurrent with my lifetime, as a teacher and a student I had little exposure to any of these ideas. When I was a new teacher in the 1980′s, I was trained by a university faculty with a strong preference for behaviorist thinking. Whole-language appeared out of nowhere for me in approximately my fifth year in the profession. I had no knowledge of any of the theory that preceded it, and little understanding of how it was conceived as a model for instruction.

The history of comprehension is relatively new when you consider that it wasn’t even recognized as worthy of attention until about 40 years ago. Comprehension was assumed! It would be no different than if I was to say that after thousands of years, people recently realized that heat is a necessary condition for cooking food.

Literacy is also political. That is one of the additional understandings that we need to acknowledge in our history. Resistance to new theoretical conceptualizations of literacy is partially due to habits of mind, and partially due to ideological resistance to the notion that readers might construct meanings other than those intended by the author.

As a profession we are presently involved in an ideological struggle for control of our theoretical roots. The National Reading Panel’s report has misconstrued the research. Elaine M. Garan’s critique of the report, Beyond the Smoke and Mirrors: A Critique of the National Reading Panel Report on Phonics, is enlightening. The standards movement and the No Child Left Behind Act are aligned to limit and influence the thinking of teachers about the nature and practice of literacy acquisition and instruction. What we do with our theoretical history is of immediate importance. If we abandon what we’ve learned in the last 50 years, and settle for a politically derived definition of literacy, we will cease to ask the important and interesting questions that have helped us understand what learning and teaching might look like if we are open to discovery. There is no convincing evidence that schools are failing because of progressive pedagogy. Factors that may as easily be implicated in claims of school failure include unreasonable criteria for success, social conditions that schools have no direct control over, and a cultural environment that provides people with a limited understanding of the need for making a paradigm shift in how schooling should occur.

Teachers can become stewards of our intellectual heritage. We can use what has been learned in the past to help us chart a course for a future research agenda. Classroom teachers in particular are in an ideal position to inquire into what seems to work, and what does not. Our richly contextualized knowledge, our close reading of our students and our classrooms, puts us in an ideal position to ask the questions that need to be answered. This blog is a place for me to stir that pot and generate a little heat. It’s necessary to do that, I believe, when cooking a little food for thought.

Primary source for this article: Learning about Literacy: A 30-Year Journey, by P. David Pearson and Diane Stephens

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My Wake-Up Call

Nov 26 2005 Published by under borderland,education,literacy

Since Language and Literacy is my area of expertise ( I see educational technology as a form of literacy), I suppose it’s time for me to step up and declare Borderland to be the original K-12 Literacy blog. If there are others out there maybe someone will point me to them. We could get a conversation going and share the wealth. In the meantime I’ll do my best to cover what is admittedly an overwhelmingly huge arena for investigation. It’s true, I haven’t said anything about reading and writing workshop, guided reading, differentiated instruction, multiple literacies, or learning styles – but I will.

Miguel writes in a recent blog entry

Maybe I’m not looking in the right places, but now I know what it is that I’m NOT reading…it’s the contributions of the C&I folks…or at least, what I think they should be contributing. Where is there mention of differentiated classrooms? What about Understanding by Design? What about reading/writing workshop, learning theories, multiple intelligences, and all that stuff? If I’m right–and these things only exist in derivative form in ed-tech blogs–then there’s a real need for folks who know about this stuff to write about it, and how it’s impacting their teaching.

I echo Miguel’s desire to hear from more educators who are knowledgeable about progressive literacy education. And I’m grateful to him for helping me recognize that I could be more explicitly focused in my purpose for this blog.

Alan Levine posted a gripe he has with sites that don’t offer a short explanation of what they’re about – where it’s easy to find. I realized that I qualified, but I wasn’t sure that it mattered until I read Miguel’s piece. Consequently, I added a new line to my blog header and I’m going to narrow my focus just a bit. I’ve been writing about literacy for the last few months, but it may not have been apparent to anyone else! Literacy is a big topic. I’ve been preoccupied with my expansive view of the subject. I’ll see what happens if I try to come back to down to earth a little bit.

Many thanks to Alan and Miguel, who’ve offered me some things to think about lately. My next post (the one I’m working on) will be a brief history of literacy, and will contextualize my interest in this weblog space.

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Three Kinds of Respect

Nov 24 2005 Published by under borderland,education

This week my fourth-graders visited the Alaska Room at Ladd Elementary. The Alaska Room is a special classroom in our school district, set up to teach students about Alaska Native culture.

Around the room there were 3 tables. At each table there was a woman working, busy preparing materials for the kids to use. All around the room there were cultural artifacts: furs and drums and carvings, posters about Native Americans, maps that showed where different Alaska Native groups live, and a glass case with Native dolls dressed in skin clothing. One thing that caught my eye was a harpoon with a barbed ivory tip that looked very deadly. There was a huge halibut hook made of wood with a nail lashed to it for a barb. It was tied to a piece of rope with wooden floats. It would have taken a very large fish to put that hook in its mouth. There was a giant bone, maybe a whale’s rib, under a table. Interesting things were all around the room, no matter which way I looked.

Mary said that she was going to teach the kids about 3 different kinds of respect. She talked about the importance of teachers. She said that when she was a girl, her parents were her teachers, and so were her aunts and uncles, her grandparents, and the elders in the Eskimo village where she grew up. She told us that these teachers were important because in the old days people learned how to survive from their elders.

Then she did an interesting thing. She said, “I want you to think about something – I don’t want an answer – I want you to think about what you would do today, this morning, if someone told you to go eight miles down the trail to check on a trap.” She pointed out the window at a cold and snowy landscape. When she said, “I don’t want an answer,” not a hand went up. No voice answered her. But each student spent a few moments with their own thoughts. She paused in the thoughtful silence that followed her proposition.

She continued, “Imagine you lived over a hundred years ago…with no roads, no stores. Our people didn’t even use money back then…” and she went on to recount all of the modern conveniences that were not available in Alaska until modern times. She told the students that her teachers prepared her to survive in the world. And she told them that their teacher now is doing the same thing, and that the world, having changed, requires new survival skills than it did before.

“Today I want you to show respect for your teachers,” she said, “by watching them and listening to them.”

“The second type of respect that I want you to know about is respect for yourself,” she said. “You show respect for yourself by working hard and getting your work done. Don’t think about what the other people around you are doing. Concentrate on what you have to do. That’s how you show respect for yourself.”

Mary told the kids that the third type of respect she wanted them to know about was respect for the space of other people. She said that in her village, they would go visiting and would knock on a door. When they were invited in, they would step inside but would not walk into the room until they were invited to come in. “It might be 30 seconds, or 30 minutes,” she told them. “When you go around to the learning stations in this classroom today, don’t walk up to the table until you are invited by the person who is working there.”

Then she introduced Ida, Molly, and Katie, the women who waited at the tables. The kids stood patiently and waited to be called. I was impressed. The fourth-graders were, too, apparently. They were models of respect. The kids worked hard at the 3 projects they had for them to work on. In two of the stations they had to sew some things. It was obvious who had experience and who didn’t. There was little chatter, and lots of focused effort. I was pleased with the way they conducted themselves. We seem to have come a long way from the beginning of the school year. This was an important lesson, and they passed this little test with pure grace.

I came away from this with a new appreciation for the value of reflection, and a deeper understanding of respect as a Native cultural value. When she said, “I don’t want an answer.” Mary was letting each student know that the most important answer to her question was the one that each of them imagined. She was showing respect for them by not allowing some to speak out and intrude on the thoughts of others who might be less vocal. I also saw that respect, as Mary defined it, means more than common courtesy. It can shape our relationship to the world, and the work that we are called to do in it. Later on, when I spoke with her and told her how impressed I was with her presentation, she said that she came up with that little talk a few years ago when she started in that position. She said that she doesn’t put those words up on the wall because she wants the kids to carry that message in their hearts.

This was a lesson for us all.

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Digging Around with

Nov 22 2005 Published by under borderland,technology

I’ve been obsessed with lately. I’ve got several different things to say about it, and it may take me a while to exhaust my interest in writing about this site. I’ll have some things to say about Digg, too, but not right now. As a resource my account may be the most rewarding search tool I use, mainly because of the sharing feature that shows me who else has linked to the same things as I. Because of that, I’ve created my own personal internet with a bunch of stuff that is uniquely suited to my interests. When I first started using it about 6 months ago, it seemed strangely barren of any documentation. I fussed with it and saved things as I ran across them, but my interest remained for the most part at what you might call a normal level.

But then I discovered my inbox. I subscribed to it’s feed with BlogBridge and began a feeding frenzy of sorts. Actually I found BlogBridge because I was subscribed to my inbox with Thunderbird. They are both open source applications. Thunderbird was a good tool as far as it went, but it lacked the synchronization feature of BlogBridge that lets you keep your feeds organized among different computers, and more importantly BlogBridge lets you tag your account. BlogBridge also has a smartfeeds feature that gives you direct access to flickr tag searches, Amazon, and a few other sites. Maybe you can begin to see where this all leads. BlogBridge is a whole other topic that might be worth writing about soon. A new release is due out shortly.

The people who I first added to my inbox were people who posted verbose descriptions of the links they kept. I put their names into the inbox because the aggregator only registered when someone left a description. Some people don’t put anything in the description field, and the aggregator isn’t much help then. Some of the descriptions were written as commentary, as well, and reading them is almost like reading a short blog entry. Then I discovered Collaborative Rank from a link left by Alan Levine, and noticed that I had something called “experts” who were people that shared certain linking / tagging behaviors with me. So I looked at their tags, and if they were verbose decribers I put their names in my inbox as well. Now it’s really out of control.

The most recent chapter of this little saga is that I recently found a new help page. This evening I followed the tagrolls link and installed a new tagroll in my blog sidebar. The tagroll preference panel has a graphic interface that allows you to choose a color scheme and the size of the cloud (if you choose a cloud), as well as the size of the font, and a couple of other options, as well. I like it.

While I’m on the subject, mentioning the sidebar, I also put up a new top-10-posts plugin that displays my most popular link. It styled well with the rest of the sidebar text. I wonder why it only has 5 links in it, though. Maybe it will have to be there a while before the new database table gets populated. Time will tell.

Update-Nov. 22: I was partly right about the database getting populated. It’s true, and it will take a while for it to begin to reflect where the traffic is really coming from. Also I had to paste the code into a few other files, like single.php and archive.php in order for the hits that come from search engines to be counted. I’m guessing a couple of weeks….and it looks (from like the tag cloud was of interest to a few people, too. Have at it!

In the meantime, I’ve still got a few more things to say about

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Beyond Fear and Trust

Nov 19 2005 Published by under borderland,education,technology

I’ve been monitoring a discussion about the appropriate use of social software in schools. I’ve offered an alternate perspective, and I have an anecdote and some comments to share as well. But before I get to that I would like to simply say that I don’t consider myself an expert in these matters. My interest in computer technology is relatively recent, and springs from my interest in textual studies and literacy. Most of what I’ve learned about the internet has been learned from Chris Lott, and from reading and writing in this space that I’ve created on the web. I respect the variety of viewpoints that have been expressed because I have been given plenty to reflect on. For whatever the experience of one teacher is worth, I offer mine as an example of the problems with trust and danger that Miguel and Bud, Will and Darren talked about.

Glacier Travel: A near miss
Several years ago, when I first came to Alaska, I participated in a practical course in winter mountaineering sponsored by a local mountaineering club and the University of Alaska. We learned all about glacier travel, rescue techniques, and gear. We went on weekend climbing trips. I met some good friends. The course ended and the following winter one of those friends and I headed out on a trip into the Alaska Range on our own. It’s been said of mountaineering that experience is gained suddenly, and that you don’t necessarily grow from all the times when things go as planned. So on this unguided trip my friend and I discussed whether we should use a rope to cross the glacier – despite the fact that we’d been taught to ALWAYS use a rope. We’d hiked up the lateral moraine of the Castner Glacier for about 5 miles, and needed to cross it in order to reach our destination on the other side. It seemed like a trivial detail. There was light snow and rocks showing all the way. A huge and very intimidating crevasse lay to the right of our proposed route across. We’d steer clear of that! As an academic exercise, we finally decided to use the rope. We were about three quarters of the way across; the snow was only a few inches deep. I was about to step up onto a small pile of rocks when the bottom dropped out of my world. I remember that fall as an eternity. When I shook the snow out of my glasses I realized that I’d fallen into a small moulon – a glory hole – an abyss that is carved by summer runoff on the surface of the ice that ultimately finds a path to bedrock. It was not very big, maybe 10 feet across. I couldn’t see the bottom. From where I hung on the climbing rope, the top was a small hole showing only a patch of gray sky, way above my head. My first instinct was to claw my way back up, but of course that wasn’t possible. Instead, I had to remain clear-headed and follow the protocol we’d been taught. Summing up my feelings about this whole experience I’d say that I thank God for whatever inspiration prompted the impulse to use the rope that we carried, and I marvel at the ignorance that tempted me to consider leaving it in my pack.

Internet Highway Travel: Dodging trouble
Last spring I set up some student blogs for my fourth-graders. I considered district policies regarding their privacy and took measures to ensure their anonymity. I monitored the comments on a special email account I reserved just for that project. The student blogs were a big hit. I was very gratified. A couple of things happened, though, to give me pause. Early on in the project one young man decided he would publish jokes that people sent him. He tried to publish his personal email address so anyone who wanted to could send him jokes. I caught that one. I told him that I didn’t want him to engage in any email conversations with strangers. He was mad at me for ruining what he thought was a masterful plan to generate a great humor collection. The spectre of control began to haunt me. We worked with a professor from the University on a math-related project and she asked the kids to reflect on their experience with her research. One of the young ladies in the class expressed her feelings with what I would consider a vulgar and impolite word. So I began to ask myself, whose web space is this? And is this really blogging if I take this much editorial control of their writing. Still, they needed to respect the same social conventions that apply to all of their schoolwork. The final cautionary incident came shortly after school let out. I found a comment from a stranger on the blog of a boy who had written about trampolines. The comment was entirely appropriate on a superficial level. The commenter asked my student to provide advice on doing flips, and sent an email address for the child to respond to. I had to hack the template to allow only registered users to comment. Those student blogs are gone now, and we’re working out a new non-blog authoring alternative that would be suitable for elementary-aged kids.

I realized that there are issues and pitfalls to the use of social software that I’d not thought about. There are pedagogical limitations to using a journalling tool to teach writing, since revision is problematic with blogging software. There are questions about ownership of the web space. Who really owns the content? And I have misgivings about putting my elementary-age students in a situation where they could meet people that none of us know. I ask myself, who am I to decide these things? The school I work at serves a community that places a lot of trust in the teachers. My students’ parents didn’t really read or monitor their activity on the web. They left it up to me. My principal isn’t web savvy, and I don’t think he read their stuff, either. He trusted me. As to teaching our students about internet safety, I say that is an absolute requirement. Kids get safety lessons all the time. And it strikes me as altogether naive to think that those lessons will prevent bad things from happening. If that was true, there would be no teen pregnancies, teen drinking, or drug use. All teen agers would be home by curfew, do their homework, and go to bed on time.

Teachers need that training, too. But just like driver education, I doubt if such training will suffice to guarantee that nothing bad can happen with various socially enabled software applications. Just as we use seat belts in our cars, I believe we should use specialized tools for publishing student work to a dynamic internet environment. The issue of trust need not be construed as one that involves the integrity of a teacher’s ethical foundation or professional competence, but may be considered in light of our awareness and experience with powerful emergent technologies. As I read it, Miguel’s position could be construed as simply suggesting that we all rope up before someone takes a serious fall.

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School Technology Planning for a Changing Network

Nov 17 2005 Published by under borderland,education,technology

I’m not a technology specialist. The technology that I know best is books and pencils. I’m a regular classroom teacher – an elementary school generalist. I got interested in digital media authoring after finishing a MEd in Language and Literacy. Last year I set up some classroom blogs using b2evolution on a school district development server. They were a complete hit with my students, but the server was “repurposed” over the summer and that account no longer exists.

Cut to the present:

District Level
Our school district used to encourage interested teachers to maintain their school web pages, and offered training in Dreamweaver and Fireworks. That model for web development is being revised in an interesting new direction. Instead of having lots of individual static (and frequently outdated) websites that are indexed from the school district’s main page, we are being invited to have our school pages redesigned as database-driven sites, written in PHP. At first I thought this was an attempt to standardize our web presence, like everything else educational nowadays. However, as it turns out this new model is more about separating content from design and enabling more teachers to post content directly on the school sites. Teachers who want to maintain static pages are still welcome to do so. The reservations the teachers at my building had was that we would somehow lose the flavor of our school identity in our website. We’ve been reassured, though, that nothing would change until we were happy with it, and we are intrigued by the prospect of more universal access for teachers to contribute to the district’s web space. So we are in the redesign process right now. This is fun.

Building Level:
It looks as if our new building – with no computer lab – is going to be equipped with wireless laptop carts that will be shared among several classrooms. I’m curious to know at what point we spread ourselves too thin with sharing between classes. What’s a good ratio of students and computers? Are there any statistics on this? Right now each room has about a half-dozen computers. I’m happy that we’re getting more machines, and I hope we figure out how to make good use of them. Any suggestions for using mobil labs in elementary school are welcome here.

Classroom Level:
I made a pitch for using a content management system to develop a classroom writing community, which was positively received by the district technology coordinator. Last March when I requested database permissions on the district server there was a little bit of discussion about it. At first I thought it was going to be a big deal to get what I assumed would be a simple thing, and I felt like backing away from my request. The reaction I got was that, no, it wasn’t a big deal; it was a new deal. It was the first time anyone had made such a request. They’re going to set up an additional server now, to handle my project. Students won’t be blogging in the conventional (whatever that might be) sense, though. I think we’ll be using Drupal to publish a student literary journal. I want it to have a broad mission that encourages various forms of expression. My hope is that this might become a multi-class / multi-age writing community.

These are all exciting new technology developments that I see on the horizon for me and the teachers in my district. Our planning is starting to account for a changing internet in which website design is secondary to content, and in which authorship is open to many people. Our technology department also seems willing to assist teachers who want to pursue unconventional applications that further curricular goals. I wonder how this compares with other school districts?

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The Line Between Freedom and Authority

Nov 15 2005 Published by under borderland,education,politics,technology

Bud’s podcast post inspired me to write this evening. I’ve noticed a few things over the last few weeks that I’m going to pull together here. I hope I don’t get bogged down in too much detail, but I think that there may be a relevant point that is being touched on in various forms, but not explicitly identified. I hope I can make a constructive contribution to this discussion.

From David Warlick’s, response to Marco Polo’s post about the contradictions he sees in both being and mistrusting authority figures, I was reminded of some reading I did about the tension between freedom and authority that many teachers who aspire to a democratic practice face each day. Bud’s audio post concerned his decision to give his students a choice of books and the opportunity to visit a bookstore where they could select them. His experience in this was altogether positive and he used this as an occasion to talk about the merits of students having choice and voice in educational decision-making. Bud was commenting on Miguel Guhlin’s recommendation that schools “set up our own blogosphere–severing the connections to the ‘real’ blogosphere.” I enjoy reading Bud’s blog, and I am fairly awed by his willingness to think aloud (in a first draft, as he called it) and publish it as a podcast. The key thing that Bud said, I think, is that

as a teacher it’s a really hard balance for me to figure out where the line is between being a responsible adult and denying students opportunities or access.

The unifying thread to what I see here is the contradiction between freedom and authority that progressive educators face in educational decision making. Ira Shor, a critical theorist, in an article called What is Critical Literacy. says

The risk and difficulty of democratizing education should be apparent to those who read these lines or to those who have attempted critical literacy, perhaps encountering the awkward position of distributing authority to students who often do not want it or know how to use it….Dewey saw cooperative relations as central to democratizing education and society. To him, any social situation where people could not consult, collaborate, or negotiate was an activity of slaves rather than of a free people. Freedom and liberty are high-profile ‘god-words’ in American life, but, traditionally, teachers are trained and rewarded as unilateral authorities who transmit expert skills and official information, who not only take charge but stay in charge. At the same time, students are trained to be authority-dependent, waiting to be told what things mean and what to do, a position that encourages passive-aggressive submission and sabotage.

Here we can see that this is not a new problem. Dewey wrote “Experience and Education” in 1938. What we have now are a new set of tools that seem well suited to subvert the system and short-circuit the power dynamic that has frustrated progressive educators for decades.

Marco Polo wrote that “probably due to their incarceration in high school, my students have developed bad study habits and self-sabotaging behaviour.” Bud Hunt said that “when you don’t get the opportunity to learn how to make a good choice you don’t learn about how to do that and we release adults into the population that aren’t ready to be there.” It’s an interesting choice of words by both of these teachers, who used language that associates schools with prisons. I don’t want to read too much into this, but I’d say that we are dealing with some fairly serious power dynamics, and everyone recognizes it, either consciously or unconsciously. I don’t mean to criticize their choice of words, either, because I think many of us see the truth in what they say. Whether we see ourselves as jailers or liberators, though, we should recognize that we are involved in a political struggle. It doesn’t matter whether we filter or not, whether we give students choices or not, we are imposing our values and ethics regardless. It’s unavoidable. There is no such thing as a politically neutral classroom.

We have to engage students in discussions about things that matter to them and act as guides and interpreters to the world they are living in. Choices, yes absolutely. It’s how students learn. Authority, yes as well. It’s our duty. Kids need all manner of guidance, and they look to us for leadership. They also trust us to keep them safe. We owe them the benefit of our experience and our knowledge of the world. The balance between responsibility and the need students have to take a risk is real, but it’s not a static limit. It shifts and moves with each individual. None of the institutional barriers restricting access to information will matter if we are truly engaged in honest dialog with our students. I don’t believe there is a choice for us to make between one extreme or another. I think we have to be both ally and authoritarian, depending on the circumstance. Dialog is key. When we speak from our hearts to theirs they know we care. Our challenge is to help students imagine a better future than the one that will be handed to them by default. How we do that is a creative process that nobody – to my knowledge – has mastered.

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Asking Better Questions

Nov 13 2005 Published by under borderland,education,science

When I first heard about using inquiry as a teaching method I wanted to try it right away because it seemed like a good way to get kids fully engaged in their learning. My first run at it was with fourth-graders. The results were about what they should have been considering I did very little teaching with the project. As I recall, some of the kids managed to assemble a completed report with a colorful display, and most of the rest had projects that I stored in a closet for the rest of the year. The kids had fun, but I don’t think they (or I) learned very much from doing that first inquiry.

I recognized there was probably more to generating authentic questions than simply having students complete a KWL chart. Since June, 2005, I’ve been involved in a professional development course for science education sponsored by The Alaska Science Consortium where I was introduced to the Learning Cycle Model. I can’t go into much detail on the Learning Cycle Model right here, but I want to say that I believe the issue of question-asking is relevant to teachers at every level, in every academic discipline.

The learning cycle starts with a bit called the “Gear Up,” which is usually a quick little demonstration to get everyone’s attention and to assess students’ knowledge and preconceptions about the concept you want to teach. The Gear Up is a springboard for question-generation. Just about anything can be a gear-up: A story, a diagram, a discussion, or a demonstration. Many gear-ups present students with a problem. These are sometimes called discrepant events because they involve an observation of a phenomena that turns out other than how you’d expect, and a state of cognitive dissonance is induced. You know when you hit the mark with students because their reaction is something like, “Wait a minute. Let me try that.”

When a discrepant event doesn’t work out, the students don’t note any discrepancy. This might happen if students haven’t thought about whatever is being explored, and therfore don’t have any preconceptions. They accept the results at face value and think, “So?” When that happens, the point of the “surprising” demonstration is missed. To optimize the impact of discrepant events, it can be helpful to use a predict-observe-explain approach. The predicting process helps to activate background knowledge before the demonstration begins, which primes the students’ expectations. One technique I’ve tried is to poll the class and record the predictions with tally marks on the board.

Once the Gear up has done its job, we move on to Exploration, and ultimately, to Application. Along the way, there are different types of questions that teachers need to be aware of. To begin with, there are the questions that the students ask, and there are the questions posed by teachers. We need to think about both. Teachers should recognize the difference between questions that simply elicit information, and questions that initiate investigation. Questions that begin with “Why” are most likely information-seeking, and require an explanation for an answer. Minimally, they can be answered with just one word. Questions that invite inquiry might begin with “How does,” or “What if.” In any case, it’s worthwhile to think about the purpose that the questions we ask will serve. We ask questions that will motivate discussions, assess prior knowledge or current progress, challenge students’ thinking, or prompt them for an answer.

When students begin to generate questions, we can help them to recognize which would be the most productive to pursue. Good questions lead students to find solutions to a problem. To answer them students need to seek new information and to formulate a plan of action. Teachers can help guide a student’s activity by refining or rewording a question to give it more focus. Students eventually learn to recognize which questions can be easily answered, which questions require basic research for information, and which will lend themselves to scientific testing.

Good questions are the foundation of all creative effort. They are vehicles for our intellectual growth. It doesn’t matter whether we are doing science, math, art, writing an essay, writing a poem, reading a book, or making a blog entry. The questions we ask ourselves play a crucial part in determining the nature of our inquiry, and without good questions our answers won’t matter.

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How to Make a Very Big Hole in a Sheet of Paper

Nov 11 2005 Published by under borderland,education,science,teacher research

paper_cuts diagram

From the News You Can Use Department: I’ll explain how to make a large hole in a regular-sized piece of paper.

I mentioned in my last entry that this would make a good bar bet. While I was on the phone for an audio conference last night I amused myself making a diagram with Appleworks Draw and Fireworks, that might help with my explanation. I got this idea from Invitations to Science Inquiry, by Tik Liem.

The question is, can you make a hole in a sheet of paper that a person could step through? You need a sheet of paper and some scissors. (I haven’t tried this with a napkin, but if you could do THAT, you might really have a winner.)

  • Fold the paper in half.
  • From the folded edge, cut in most of the way to the other side of the paper.
  • Make several of these cuts, about an inch apart. For larger (flimsier) holes, make the cuts closer together.
  • Turn the paper around and make another series of cuts from the open side of the paper toward the folded edge. These would be between the previously-made cuts.
  • Finally, cut through the folds so that you open up the middle of the paper. Don’t mess with the end tabs.

This is supposed to be a demonstration of a physical change in matter. An interesting observation by one of my kids was that no paper was removed. In science lessons these activities can serve as discrepant events – activities that arouse curiosity and stimulate questions that lead to inquiry.

Try it and see what you think. I’ll bet that if you do it once, you’ll do it again to see what happens if…

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