Friday, December 13, 2013

Informational Text vs Non-Fiction (Common Core)

I am reading the November 2013 issue of ASCD's Educational Leadership magazine. It is focusing on the Common Core expectations for reading. The Common Core is calling non-fiction works "informational text", which brings to mind all those manuals that come with items we buy, but we rarely read them unless we need to know something specific. That is where it is falling apart when trying to bring Common Core to the public. The language was changed to something that seems daunting to an adult, so why would we force the youngest of our students to read "informational text"?

So as I'm reading the articles in the magazine, I'm having flashbacks to a couple of weeks ago as I was on the treadmill, watching Fox News. I was reading subtitles, and only half paying attention but there was this one woman who did catch my attention so I read along as she talked. She is a mom and she does not agree with the Common Core, so much so, she has started a group to try to stop it from being taught in her district. She is encouraging parents to pull their kids out of school to home-school them until the Common Core is dropped. Why? Because what the Common Core is asking her elementary student to read is too hard.

In the magazine there is a Research Alert about this very issue. "Text complexity has decreased over the past 50 years - but at the middle and high school levels, not the primary grades./There's nothing in the research that supports the connection between 2nd and 3rd grade text levels and students' future performance in reading texts at the college and career levels."(pg 8) So does she have a valid argument that by upping expectations at the elementary level, are we setting up students to become frustrated with reading? And I think a more important question that those two bullets present is: why has the complexity decreased for our secondary level students over the past 50 years?

That made me think about my own students. A lot of what we do in my Computer Science classroom requires research. They need to research when designing Web pages, because those require accurate content. They may need to comb through coding language libraries to find out what certain code fragments do before using them. They will often have to visit forums and weed out the solution to a problem they have encountered. All good skills that require close reading. So where is the loss?

I asked my students where they do most of their reading, and the majority say "online". That is their preference for research and informational text. If I ask them what they read for fun, most say "I don't read for fun", and a few tell me about some series of books they love in the vein of fiction. None talk about non-fiction as fun reading. Few to almost none read magazine or newspapers anymore either.

When I was teaching Kindergarten, many of my students gravitated to fun-fact types of books. Usually centered around animals, these books have large colorful pictures with facts about how fast they can run or fly, the habitat they live in, what they eat (or what eats them), and other facts to hold their attention. Some of my students loved these books more than the fiction books. What happens between Kindergarten and High School to make non-fiction less appealing?

I think back to my High School students. They see non-fiction as go to material. It is for what they must know in the moment, and not something that will be entertaining or enriching, and for them, this information is more accessible online but not in books. Where as fiction is entertaining.

Now, personally I have found many non-fiction pieces to be entertaining as well as informative. Many times I stumbled on those pieces by accident, thinking it was fiction, only to find out it was non-fiction half way through the book. But the books were compelling, because they read like a story and not like a store of information.

So as educators heading into the Common Core, we'll need to find compelling non-fiction to hook them into the informational genre of non-fiction. It doesn't have to be dry or only online. I think the biggest mistake that was made was calling it informational text, when it should have been called non-fiction text all along. The former sounds like some kind of monster waiting under the bed, whereas, the latter is a familiar friend we may want to revisit.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A "Shift" In Professional Development

Our district recently went under new leadership. A new superintendent was hired to replace the one we lost to illness last year. Of course, just as a teacher needs to become familiar with their school when first hired, our SI is adjusting to her new district. She has also brought with her some fresh ideas from her old district.

She shared with us (the PD committee, in which I am a member) the idea of keeping a professional portfolio, with evidence to support how the professional development you attended has directly impacted your instruction and practice. I have always been careful in considering what professional development to take so that it did have a direct impact, but I never thought about those who might be trying to gather hours for re-certification, but without it really having an impact on their practice.

So I took her draft example, and my notes, and looked those over after the meeting. Today I took a webinar about the DOE changes and expectations in upcoming PD Master plans for districts. This reflection I am currently writing is to meet the needs of a requirement with our current PD plan. I filled out the paperwork to take the webinar, I have the email confirming my registration, and now I'm typing the reflection required about my PD experience.

Here's the twist. This reflection must be attached the the PD paperwork that needs to be turned in within 30 days.

So what was talked about at our last meeting and during the webinar is about the long term impact that PD has on practice, but here I must write a reflection on something 1) haven't been able to put into practice yet 2) must be turned in within a short period of time, therefore can I even measure the impact in the reflection? 3) will this type of reflection prove useful as evidence since it is written 10 minutes after attending the webinar, so I do not miss the universal deadline?

So I guess that this reflection is about the usefulness about forcing a reflection when there is nothing to yet reflect upon. That is a dilemma.

So what is the "shift" I hinted to in the title? It was a phrase I heard during the webinar: Professional Learning. I think if we look at it as a process of learning, then long term reflection on progress makes more sense. When we talk about the upcoming Master Plan, I think we need to review the purpose and timeline of a reflection. I think it might be better to do a meaningful reflection of the year as a whole, instead of individual activities. I would rather look back and examine my growth and the connections, than try to arbitrarily come up with an explanation of what I just experienced, and how it might fit in to my practice.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

My CSTA Convention Experience

This has been such a busy summer with lots of wonderful PD opportunities. One of them was the Computer Science Teacher's Convention (CSTA, #CSTA13) in Boston.

I work for a small high school, under 500 students. At the convention I discovered that for the size school that we have, we are unique in our Computer Science offerings. In fact, most schools our size do not have a teacher dedicated to Computer Sciences, and computer classes are often taught by business or math teachers. If I didn't already feel isolated enough as the only CS teacher in my school, that only made the isolation feel even larger. I often do not have others to bounce my ideas off of in my building related to my subject matter. That leaves me to read a lot of other people's blogs, articles, follow others on Twitter, etc.

So going to the convention allowed me to connect to others of my ilk and gather so many wonderful ideas to take back with me.

Back in March of 2012, I blogged about the new APCS course being offered. I only knew what I was reading about it, I didn't know anyone involved in it. At the convention I was able to get a great deal of information about it and I want to look into more PD so I can become certified to teach it. One of the things I like more about this course than the current APCS A offering is that it is not a multiple choice heavy exam. It is portfolio based.

I also like that the AP Principles course promotes critical and analytical thinking, much like the Exploring Computer Science (ECS) course, another area I'd like to get more PD in. I also think the ECS course is a wonderful feed in to the AP Principles course. The thinking skills in these course really serve the 21st century "just in time" skill set, versus the 20th century "just in case" skill set.

Another thing that I have always believed and was only confirmed at the convention is that there is a difference between COMPUTER LITERACY (CL) and COMPUTER SCIENCE (CS), but literacy is often what is taught under the name of science. CL is to CS as spelling & grammar skills are to writing a novel. Yes, one must be literate in the one to accomplish the other, but knowing how to spell and form grammatically correct sentences does not make me a novelist. Writing a novel is a craft that some are born to to naturally, and others have to train to do correctly. CS is like that too, and we see that in the classroom with the skill sets students come in with.

So what is CL? CL is the ability to use a computer, the tool, with confidence. Most of us are literate. Our phones function as small computers, anyone reading this can use a browser and find a blog, we check and answer emails, and can use most office software.

So what is CS? CS is the ability to make the computer do the things that a CL audience will use. The CL person may use Microsoft Word to create a brochure, whereas, the CS person will design the embedded spell check for Microsoft Word. So to be able to stand by your program of studies and say that you are teaching Computer Science, then you have to be careful that you are not really teaching Computer Literacy.

So where does the shift begin? Hadi Partovi was a keynote speaker at the convention. He has heard the call for action and started the movement. This December during Computer Science Education Week (CSEd), Hadi has challenged us to introduce new people to programming for one hour that week. This can be done individually or as group instruction. The site says students, but he stressed that it can be anyone, not just the kids. This will help bring awareness to Computer Sciences as a platform for the creating of new products through critical and analytical thinking. If we reach 100,000 people, and 10% of those people get turned on to programming, that would be 10,000 people who would have never considered programming as a reality for them before the challenge. With 1.4 million jobs in Computer Science predicted for 2020, and only 400,000 students graduating with Computer Science degrees, those 10,000 newly prospective CS students just seems a whole lot smaller than we need to fill that gap. ( Reaching 100,000 is the goal, but what if we could reach 500,000, or even 1 million! Our 10%+ pool of possible CS students grows expediently as well.

Attending this convention made me realize that it is important for me to do more outreach and advocate for CS as a consideration for our students. I want to promote it during CSEd week. I want to go spend a day with our middle school students and program with them so they'll be excited to take it here at the high school. I want to start a computer club so students can get hooked on programming through game design. I want to make CS seem like a no-brainer when they select what courses to take each year, because I want them to see an importance and a relevance in their lives and society. I want them to see CS as a possible career, not just a graduation requirement.

Most of all, I don't want them to be passive users of their devices, I want them to be passionate about all the possibilities their devices can provide. I want them to see the flaws or failings in these devices, and I want them to fix those. I want them to create the things that only exist currently in Science Fiction novels. I want them to take technology to the next step so our global society can thrive.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Time Management in an On-Demand World

So you watched the video and you are thinking what I was thinking: "the Internet is not going away, so how do we resolve this?"

I think about how TV must have been perceived when it came out. And I think about how it is used today. In my house we watch a lot of documentaries, the news, a little bit of reality TV, and some sitcoms, but overall, the TV in our house serves more for background noise. And now with so many on-demand options, we seldom watch TV when it is scheduled and watch it when it is convenient to us.

The Internet, on the other hand, is an all the time on-demand information force to be reckoned with! Which is why I believe that 21st century learning is not about rote memorization, but about digital citizenship.

Let's look at this pre-Internet. Looking up the facts, before the Internet and World Wide Web meant going to a library, flipping through the card catalog, and finding the appropriate book with the information you needed. If you really wanted to get to it fast, then that meant going to the set of encyclopedias, pulling out the appropriate letter, and looking it up there. So the ability to "look up the facts" was available during the 20th century, but now in the digital 21st century, it is just so much easier to do. That is the real difference.

I once asked a teacher back in the '80's, when I was in high school why he always encouraged us to use encyclopedias over books written specifically for what we were researching and I'll never forget his answer: "Incidental learning". My adolescent brain was totally like (best valley girl voice) .... say what??

He explained that incidental learning is the learning we do without intention. For example, I might be looking for an entry in the encyclopedia for Vikings, and along the way find something about vacuums. I wasn't researching for vacuums, but it catches my eye so I read about how a vacuum works. Once my side trip is done, I will now return to my search for Vikings.

I think the Internet works a lot like this. We start on one path, often get side tracked, return to our original path and finish out the journey. Unfortunately, this often gets overlooked as a benefit of our hyperlinked world.

What, I believe, is the real issue is not our constant clicking about on the Internet until we burn out, but instead is our ability to manage our time. I see this every day in our students. They seem to think there isn't enough time to do all they need and want to do. When I gift them a period of class time to work on a project I assigned, you would think they would be excited that they were given nearly an hour of time that is not outside of school time to work on it.

No they were not. They were surfing. I would verbally redirect them, that would work for a minute or two, then there were surfing again. I would lock down their computer remotely, they would promise to stay on track, but then off they go surfing again. This was my hour with 1/3rd of the class, the other 2/3rds completed their work and then went on a surfing expedition. Of course, by the 5th time I told the 1/3rd that they are not allowed to surf off task, they would point out that the other 2/3rd were surfing off task. "Their work is done and now they are being afforded the last few minutes of class to pursue something of interest to them."

Does the example I just gave support the video? Yes in some ways, but no in others. The kids who stayed on-task until the research and writing goals were achieved managed their time better than the ones who were off-task. The fact of the matter is that 2/3rds of the group had the goals for the hour in front of them and worked toward that goal with focus, using the Internet the whole time, with little to no side trips. It was the other 1/3rd that are a concern and achieved nothing. If the non-focused 1/3rd would have managed their time better, then they too could have made the same accomplishments.

So we need to add time management to the list of 21st century skills that our students (and ourselves) need to incorporate in our quest to be outstanding digital citizens. This means shutting off your phone when it is not appropriate to use it (movies, bedtime, meal times, etc). Do we really need to be that connected all the time to the whole world? If we disconnect a couple of hours a day, we can reconnect with those around us and quiet our mind long enough to allow some of that short term memory to move in to our long term memory. Check your email once an hour, or schedule a time in the day (or a couple of times) when you can read and respond to emails. If you have an email alert, you can shut it off when it is not your scheduled time to deal with emails. It'll all be there waiting for you during your scheduled times. I have even started the habit of reading all my snail mail in the school's office when I pick it up, throwing away what I don't need, bringing back what I do need, and putting it in a "to file" box to be put away later. I no longer have a pile of papers building on my desk that will distract me from other things that need my attention.

Of course, tomorrow I will be using today's experience as a teachable moment by starting my class with  a resource and time management discussion. I imagine my 2/3rds of on-task workers will continue those habits, while my other third will remember the warnings, lock-downs, and unavailable down time at the end of class. Hopefully they are reflecting on that independently, but if not, our discussion might remind them of the purpose for our hour of time and how precious time really is.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Time to Ditch The Textbooks

For many in education, the title of this entry is blasphamy. After all, if we do not have a text book for every student, how will they learn all this content we need to cover in less than 180 days?

My first year teaching (2006/2007), I walked in to my classroom and did not find a single text book that aligned with the classes I was going to start teaching in two short weeks. I panicked and pulled out the budget I that was designed by the previous teacher and quickly found that there was little money for text books. I started to dig in our book depository upstairs and found "Computer Literacy" text books, only to discover that they were from 1986. I was in 8th grade in 1986. I thought maybe there were some gems in the book I could use, but when I read the line "by the year 2000, computers will make us so productive that a full-time work week will only need to be 20 hours long." I laughed out loud, slammed it shut, and kept one copy as reference.
Image Source

All the programming books I found were for programming languages I wasn't slated to teach. In fact, they were for languages I didn't even know how to program in. Shelved those too. I ended up ordering books for my Web Design class. But then in under two years, I learned why my predecessor did not buy many text books.

Not only are text books expensive, but in my subject area, they are outdated almost as soon as I open the box they were mailed in. The software on the lab computers have been updated twice in the last 7 years, but the text books have not been updated at all.

I have gotten to a point now where I think this class would work best if I flipped it by making video tutorials this summer and putting links to the videos up as a part of a GoogleDoc.

I thought this was a problem that only I was facing in the building. So many teachers are isolated in the profession that we often think that we are the only one facing a problem, but this is not the case when it comes to text books.

At meetings I'm attending the subject of text books keep coming up. It is one of our biggest line items. Many are complaining about the new versions being bought to replace lost or damaged books do not match the old versions. If you keep a book long enough, its content won't match the world we live in. Jokes are made about text books talking about how the Vietnam War should be ended. Math books have word problems that students can't relate to. Science books have Pluto listed as a planet.

See where this is going? Information is not static, but text books are. Static, expensive, and seldom used by their intended audience .... the students. I watch the kids going down the hallway at the end of the day, and many of them are empty handed - without a backpack too. These same kids certainly have their phones out and punching away on the screen.

I've decided to ditch my text books and create a GoogleDoc for each of my classes instead. I plan on using this document to put in an outline of concepts, with a list of skills under each concept, connect the skills to the competency being covered, and eventually align it all to the common core. I'm ditching the text book and making an online living text book instead. In this outline, under each concept, will be links to online resources to help students along. I can include videos, websites, forums, etc. I plan on being the model of a digital citizen for my students by showing them how they can think outside the text book.

I often think of that viral video of the baby going from the iPad to the magazine. These are our future students, and I think they get frustrated with a static text book.

So why a GoogleDoc? Because everyone in our district has access to that technology without issues. We have lots of blocks on services I might have used instead for this type of hyperconnectiveness to online resources, such as Pinterest, but we don't have access to that in our district buildings.

So why not an eBook style instead? We're not there yet. Not enough to choose from yet. I am underwhelmed by what I've seen for my subject area.

I can make the GoogleDoc as interactive as I need it to be and I can invite my students to add to the outline as they find resources too. I could even make that a homework assignment as a part of the research competency. We can be a community of learners, collaborating online to build the resources that will help us toward our goal of learning the course content and meeting the expected competencies.

I hear that tiny voice saying, "but it isn't fair to those students who do not have access to technology outside of school." The technology inequality is quickly closing. Watch those kids walking in the halls with their cell phones, they can go to a GoogleDoc. Also, to do this you may need to survey your students on the first day of class. If a student states "no Internet at home", then find out if they have a DVD player. Videos can be put on a disk and sent home. GoogleDoc can be printed and put in a binder. So can websites. It is cheaper to maintain a binder for a couple of students in each class than it is to buy 30 text books for that class. And the information will be exactly what you want them to access, and as current as the last time it was updated online.

At this point you may have made up your mind to not give up your text book. But give it one more thought. When the idea of a text book was conceived, it was an ideal way to store important information in one place. The Internet did not exist yet, so it served us well for many many many years. But now, we have all kinds of information available to us, deposited on the World Wide Web, ready for us to tap in and share. We are not limited by what comes between the covers and a learning goal outline can be updated as needed at little to no cost. We will be fostering a community of learners who are more engaged because they created the "text book" together with their teacher.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

What is 21st Century Learning?

The phrase is buzzing around: 21st Century Learning!

So I've been thinking about this and wondering what do people think it really is?

Instinctively I think we go to the idea of technology. What do we need to BUY to prepare our students for life in the 21st century? What do they need?

After all, every teacher I know was born in the 20th century. Even all the students I currently teach were born in the 20th century. But that changes next year with the incoming freshman class. Many of them were born in the year 2000, the 21st century.

So what do they need to survive in this constantly connected world they were born and raised in?

As a Computer Science teacher you would think my first response would be a computer, tablet, or similar device ... but I don't think that is the answer. I know, it's shocking, but there is something more important that they need.

I don't think we need to teach them the mechanics of technology. They have it in their pockets and know how to use it better than most adults. They are like the Borg, wired to each other in ways we would have never imagined 20 years ago, and resistance is futile. The devices aren't going away, even if we put signs on our wall forbidding them. Thou shalt not ..... oh never mind. It is one of those battles that teachers keep fighting, sometimes of their own accord, sometimes at the directive of administration.

It is exhausting, especially for those who want to let the kids embrace the very technological fabric of our 21st society. Having the devices locked away feels like locking the classroom door and making them try to learn from the hallway by peering through the shatterproof glass of the locked door. The technology we have to offer is so much older than what they carry around that it must feel like trying to connect to the Internet with a typewriter.

So if it isn't about the hardware, then what is it about? I believe we have to look past the hardware and into the human machine instead. I think we need to teach them how to be digital citizens. I'm not talking about the surface stuff, like cyberbullying & plagiarism. Those are important, but what I am talking about is ethical use of technology and information.

We need to train students to think critically about information: where they get it and how they use it. Digital citizens should be aware of copyright laws, fair use laws, public domain options, and creative commons. We should be teaching them how to collaborate across the room, across the building, and across the world. Instead of directing them on how to do something, we should be making them ask why they should do something. They are consumers of information, and very hungry consumers at that. That is why they Google everything!
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We also need to teach them how to be flexible. Technology doesn't always work the way it is supposed to (really, you're surprised?) so they need to become troubleshooters. They need to be able to learn how to use forums to find answers. They need to participate in discussions about problem sets with people online, because the collective world mind can reach the solution faster than the collective few in the classroom.

We need to start connecting our classrooms with other classrooms throughout the world. We now have the ability to bring in a diversity that didn't even exist 10 years ago. Students in many rural areas may have never had a chance to meet someone from another culture, but now they can through conferencing software. A creative teacher with an eye on the 21st century will seek out that opportunity. It opens up the possibility of collaboration aligned with the skills they will need beyond school, preparing them for the world of higher education and/or work.

We need to break down the classroom walls and thread the use of everyday technology into our everyday curriculum, and be willing to change, learn, and grow as the available technology dictates. We need to be connected to our local and world communities at every possible level, so we can learn from each other. We, as the adults, need to model digital citizenship and tap in to our own virtual professional circles by becoming active participants in Professional Learning Networks (PLN's) in areas that are important to us with others who hold our passion. If we, the teachers have passion as digital citizens, so too will our students.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Involve Me and I Learn

Today I tried a new formative assessment with my AP Computer Science students. We are working in bases and I was having a difficult time telling who was really getting it and who wasn't getting it. I realized I needed a new formative to check for understanding.

That is when the above Chinese proverb came to mind. I told them, but they were forgetting, I taught them and they were remembering but not able to apply it, so I needed to involve them. So what formative assessment would work in this case? Simple, involve them and let them write the assessment.

It started with a piece of lined paper for each student. I had them fold it down the middle the long way, or as one student said "hotdog style". They put their name on each half. On the right they had to come up with 9 problems: 3 problems that convert from Base10 to Base2 (or visa versa), Base16 to Base2 (or visa versa), and 3 more that convert Base16 to Base2 (or visa versa). They could put the questions in any order they wanted. On the right half, they had to create the answer sheet.

That's right, I had them creating pop quizzes.

That meant they had to work through the 9 problems they created to come up with the answer sheet. I told them they could ask for as much help from me as they wanted to write these quizzes. My stragglers quickly popped up. Most did OK, some wanted me to check their first few questions then completed the rest on their own. One student needed one on one help through the whole process, and I had to reteach her most of the concepts. She had an "Ah Ha" moment and completed writing her quiz and answer sheet.

Then came the exchange.

I used a ruler to tear the page in half. I kept the answer sheet and the other half went to a different student, who put their name under the creator's name. They took each other's quizzes, and went to the student who originated the quiz if they had a clarifying question. I collected the quizzes as they finished them.

I collected them but I didn't correct them.

When we return to school next week, I will hand out the quiz and answer sheet to yet another student. That student will add their name under the quiz taker's name and will use the answer sheet to correct the quiz. If there is an answer on the quiz that does not match the answer sheet, then the student doing the correcting needs to determine which one is right, the quiz or the answer sheet and mark them accordingly. I will then take the quizzes back and enter their formative grade before giving them back their completed quizzes. If I see any patterns that need to be addressed, we'll take time to do that in class.

If all goes well, we can start Base8 on the next class day!

This formative is a keeper. I was able to reteach on the spot and it gave confidence to the students who understood the work.