Friday, December 31, 2010

Most memorable moment 2010

When I realized that I wasn’t coaxing students to work hard on their research paper by bribing them with donuts at the end, I knew something was up.  They were working hard without that carrot.  Hmmm.   They’ve always had a lot of latitude in picking their topic, so that wasn’t it. 

What was different this time?

First, I let students choose their tools.  For a long time, I’ve used this project as a chance for students to work on their web searching skills, and to practice using to help create their bibliography. 

This year, instead of making students use notecards for note-taking, I let them use the tool of their choice.  Many chose to use Word for notes, but a few used Zoho Notebook.  (We had to use a tool that either already existed on their computers, or a web-based tool that didn’t have to be installed on a school computer.)  I still made students print down copies of articles they found and highlight, because some kids won’t read anything until 8 PM on the night before the draft is due if you don’t give them regular milestones along the way.  How they took notes after that was up to them.

But letting students choose their tool made a difference.  Their outlines and reports were still well-organized (the reason I originally required notecards), but when I let them choose what worked best for them, students were a lot more invested in the work.

Second, I added reflection.  Each student had their own thread as part of a Moodle discussion forum; every week, students wrote about their experiences that week – the frustrations, the breakthroughs, the cool things they discovered about the person they were researching.  I responded with suggestions, encouragement, attaboys, and resources.

Giving students a chance to think about what they were learning added a depth to the project that it hasn’t had for them before.  It also gave them the chance to identify problems (such as finding the same information over and over due to a simplistic search strategy, or difficulty with a sibling hogging the home computer), and get help.

This may seem small, but kids don’t always respond when you ask the class face-to-face if they have questions or need help; some just won’t say that in front of the class.  The reflection-teacher response cycle also added a powerful teacher-student connection.  Each student got specific, personal, individual attention – and what kid doesn’t want that?  (I’ve written about this before:

Two different ways to support learners, both effective. 

We still had our traditional end-of-project donuts, because it’s worth celebrating a major accomplishment.  But for the first time, the papers reflected a stunning amount of effort. The strong students weren’t just going through the motions to get the work done; their work glittered.  Even the students who hate to write all worked mightily; when they turned in well-organized, interesting, virtually error-free papers, on time,  it was a major milestone. 

Looking back, I realized that this wasn’t a project that we suffer through any more.  Instead, we were all energized, enriched.  My students’ skill-base was expanded and strengthened.  We wrote research papers, and – I never thought I’d say this - we had fun. 

Sidebar- Why don’t I give students different options in presenting their work, not just formal written papers?  Because I teach in a Catholic school, and Catholic school students learn to write. :)   

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Teaching K12 online vs. teaching adults

    As I continue to teach hybrid middle school classes (a blend of online and face to face), I continue to see differences between teaching K12 online and teaching adults.  I’ve just finished reading The Online Teaching Survival Guide by Judith Boettcher and Rita-Marie Conrad; a terrific book, and enormously helpful, but all through it I kept thinking, “yes, but…”

    Adult classes are typically short, often just 8 weeks long.  K12 classes last for around 36 weeks.  This makes teaching K12 online or hybrid very different.

    For example, the planning cycle is different.  I confess that don’t yet have a year’s worth of online activities all ready to go in September for my middle-schoolers.  With an 8 week class for adults, you really have to have everything planned and ready to go ahead of time.  Yes, I have objectives and curriculum, and yes, I have many activities, units, and lessons from the past that support the objectives and curriculum, and from which I will heavily borrow.  But every year I change things, based on what worked – and didn’t work – last time.  Sometimes based on the personalities and capabilities of this year’s kids.  And as I become more adept with Moodle during the year, I try whole new things.  This is a work in progress.

    Another thing: the rhythm is different.  There is an intensive gearing up that takes place with adults because of the time constraints.  You quickly break the ice, break down barriers, help students find common ground, build community, into a crescendo of interaction that strengthens both learning and community.  At the same time, learners are interacting more and more deeply with the content as they fold their learning into their own lives and make it their own. And then it’s over. 

    With K12, yes, you build community, but it’s an ongoing effort that lasts 9 months.  Some kids already know each other, but there are always new kids who need to find a way in.  Kids stop participating and you have to address that.  Kids aren’t so nice to each other and you have to address that.  Kids get sick, have parents deployed to war zones.  Kids have good days and spectacularly awful ones. It’s pretty much all the time, and it’s for the long haul.

    The rhythm in K12 gets wrapped around units and also around activities that weave through the whole year.  A unit starts with interest and hopefully excitement.  Students may dive in or just dip their toes, but there is momentum that builds, peaks, and wraps up; sounds a lot like an adult course.  Then we start again on another unit, and another, all year.   And as with music, the regular notes of repeated activities sound all year.

    I love the intensity of an adult class, but it’s short-lived.  One thing I love about K12 is that I get to work with my students all year.  That time gives us the chance to explore, stumble, figure out, practice, and then practice some more. 

    But for all the differences, there is one big similarity.  It’s all about connections.  When the teacher/facilitator/guide creates meaningful connections with learners, that’s when the learning really goes into high gear. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Moodle resources - UPDATED - and Again

          First, a heartfelt thanks to the Moodle community, all the people who generously share what they’ve learned so that we can all improve learning and teaching.  Here are some of the resources the Moodle community has created:

Sample courses: 
          These are copies of courses that you can look at to see how they’re put together.

Moodle Tool Guide for Teachers:

Tutorials (mostly videos):


Books I’ve found helpful:
  • These and others available through as well as
  • Moodle 1.9 for teaching 7 – 14 year olds by Mary Cooch (step by step so great for the beginner, teacher oriented)
  • Moodle Teaching Techniques: Creative Ways to Use Moodle for Constructing Online Learning Solutions by William Rice (very thorough and helpful).
  • Using Moodle by Jason Cole and Helen Foster (more slanted towards administrators, but still useful for teachers).
Documentation, community, the mother lode:

  • A place to play with Moodle without messing up your own course.
  • I sometimes create a dummy course to make mistakes in.

          If you’ve found other useful resources, blogs, please add these in comments, below.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Designing a new class

Excerpt from new class
    Last semester I taught high school technology for the first time.  This is a basic semester course taught in the computer lab – internet searching, safety, and reputation; Word, Excel, PowerPoint.  Since I’ve been teaching technology in middle school for years focusing on the same skills, the content wasn’t a stretch.  But high school students are very different from middle school students.  So I spent the semester finding out what works best with this different age group.  

    Now, I want to use Moodle with these students.  Moodle gives me more control over their learning environment, and it’s a natural choice for a technology class.  I also want my students to have the experience of using online discussion, something they are very likely to experience in college classes.  And since high school students are a little more aloof, I want to use reflection and discussion to draw out their learning.  

    Now that I’ve had experience with Moodle, and with creating online content, this is so much easier.  I am not constantly cruising through my Moodle books trying to figure out how to accomplish something; now I’m just doing it.  Nice to be farther along the learning curve! 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Humble pie

    I wanted to have my students show their understanding of copyright and fair use issues, things we’ve been talking about all year, but which we had recently been focusing on.  I used four different cases, situations described in a paragraph; students were to use one case and explain if there was a violation of copyright, and if the person in the case could change something so this became a case of fair use. 

    I tried to set it up as I had experienced this kind of assignment in adult classes, with the discussion referencing the cases on a link.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.  The students were confused by the two links – which were they supposed to click on, where were the cases again.  Moodle has these nice icons that distinguish between documents and discussions – only students weren’t looking at those.  Fortunately this is a hybrid class where I introduce new activities in the computer lab, so I could demonstrate what students needed to do and deal with the confusion.  Really glad I didn’t make this a homework assignment.  My students did fine once they understood what I wanted.  But it is so humbling to think that you’ve been so clear, and then to find out that you were not.

    While students feel free to click all over when they are surfing, this doesn’t necessarily happen in class.   I suspect part of the reason for this is the antiquity of the computers in the lab – they are old and thus slow; students don’t really want to experiment and then have to sit and wait, which already happens all too often. 

    So, the lesson is, put everything together in one place as much as possible.  I need to always be mindful of how my students will approach their work.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Letting go

So I discovered it all over again: when I give my students more choice in the way they learn, they do better. Duh, Mrs. Lo, as they would say.

With vocabulary, in the past, I made students create flashcards. It had a grade attached so that they’d actually do it. And of course, students were frantically making flashcards at the last minute, just to get those points, rather than using flashcards to study with. Last year, I put all the words onto online flashcards – a few actually use them. But this year I tried two new things.

First, I put the words into context – yes, the textbook doesn’t do that. I wrote a story using the 20 words in the unit, made it a little silly. Here’s an example. I introduce the story in f2f class, so students can hear the words pronounced and tie in what they may already know about some of the words. Since this is turning into a “to be continued” story, we are all enjoying the story part, and I think it helps students understand the words better. (Thanks to Lisa Chamberlin and Kay Lehmann, my professors in Creating Collaborative Communities in E-learning, who suggested this).

Second, I created a discussion forum for students to post what they know about the words, which I wrote about in While some students don’t remember to do it, most do the work every time, and some still post more than they are required to do.

The upshot: students who used to do poorly on the vocabulary tests because they didn’t study are consistently starting to do better. Making them do flashcards didn’t work, but giving them lots of different tools does (online flashcards, publisher podcasts, rich and funny resource in the discussion forum, words in context, even the not-that-interesting textbook exercises). Some kids make flashcards on their own because they’ve found that works for them.

But now since they choose how they learn it, they often choose to learn it.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Getting students to read directions

                What are we doing?  What do I do now?  What directions?  I’m done.  Whatta ya mean I’m sposed to create a spreadsheet?  

                Verbal directions with middle schoolers really don’t work that well – especially multi-step directions.  They don’t listen past the first sentence, if they listen at all.  So of course I have written directions.  But that presupposes they READ the directions.  

                I’m still experimenting.  Moodle, unlike D2L, doesn’t show the “news” or teacher messages when students first come into the course; they would have to click on a link.  Will they click on the link?  Since they never have,  I closed the “news” module entirely.  

                Besides not reading the directions, middle schoolers are not big on sequence.  They tend to click around rather randomly, so I need to 1) carefully organize materials and 2) “hide” anything I don’t want them to be distracted by.  Within each activity (like a discussion), there’s room for directions; the problem is getting them to do more than one activity, to do the activities a particular sequence, and to understand the deadlines. 

Right now, I’m experimenting with adding the directions for the day/week right in with the activities.  I write them on a Moodle label and place them just before the activities I want students to engage in.  

                They still ask:  What are we doing?  What do I do now?  What directions?  But at least not as often. ;)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

LOL: Texting and writing

               Does texting lingo end up in my students work?  All the time!  I have to confess that I find myself using U for You at times, so I can appreciate the difficulty my students have in avoiding texting slang.

                It’s easy to say “no texting slang.”  Easy, easy, easy.   Does that make it disappear?  Nooooo.  But I have my ways.

                When I’m introducing a new online activity, I want my students to focus on learning how to do the activity, so I’m not focusing on mechanics.  Yet.  But the second time we did the vocabulary discussion, I went in and drew a line through every use of texting and every spelling/punctuation/capitalization error – it took me more than two hours.  And then I didn’t give them any credit for entries they made that had any errors in them!  Oh, the screaming and gnashing of teeth.  In the big picture, low grades on one assignment won’t have much impact on their overall grade.  But they hate to see a low grade when they worked hard on something.  And I was mean.  I wouldn’t let them correct their work for a better grade.  I wanted the point to sink in.  And the next time, there were hardly any errors. They got the message.  

Is their work texting-free?  No.  But sometimes getting the conversation going is more important.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

If the technology doesn't work...

It was brought home to me recently the impact of technology glitches on student confidence.  In my class Moodle, I had a discussion forum that turned out to have a bug - the forum type where each student creates their own thread.  We were using the forum for journaling about doing research (I find the Moodle journal function easy to mess up), and wanted to make the journal a series of private conversations between my students and me.

Students really enjoyed reflecting about their learning - even asked if we could do this again!  But then students couldn't get into their threads.  It was only about 20% of the students, but suddenly they were locked out, frustrated, wanting to tell me what was going on with them, but unable to.  I provided lots of alternatives - email me, write it and hand it in, and for the week we discovered the problem, gave everybody credit even if they didn't get the work done.

But we lost the conversations that were going on.  And now students are worried that this will happen again.  Other parts of the Moodle that work fine are now suspect to them.  We are starting a new project - two way journals - where pairs of students read the same book and journal back and forth about it.  This year, I added using a discussion forum in the Moodle as one of the ways to do it (other alternatives are email,or  keeping a folder or a diary to pass and forth).  But one student told me she didn't want to use the Moodle, "just in case there's another problem." 

Up until now my students have been enthusiastic Moodle users.  Now they're not so sure.  It will take a lot of positive experiences to overcome this one bad one. 

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Feedback - improving student-teacher relationship

When I had my students (grade 8) reflect on the research project, each having an individual thread in a discussion forum in our class Moodle, I was really focusing on having them think more deeply about the process.  But what I discovered was that it also connected us more tightly - teacher and students. 

In the f2f classroom, I see 20 or 25 faces; I can talk to each of them during a class period, but it has to be fast, and there are always interruptions.  Online, responding to their reflections, I get to talk to each one, thinking about what each student needs right now.  And each one gets what they really want:  undivided personal attention.  That sibling-like jockeying for teacher attention drops away.  Wow.

Serendipity strikes again.

Vocabulary in a discussion forum

My students (grade 8) just weren't that interested in learning their 20 words of vocabulary. There just had to be a better way. One of the things I did was create a Moodle discussion, with a thread for each of the words. Dead easy assignment: post a definition, synonym, antonym, picture that illustrates the word, word origin, or use the word in a sentence.

I started with a requirement of 5. Post one thing about 5 words, 5 things about 1 word. Except they posted 20 or 30! So I upped the minimum to 10 things. And some students are still posting 20 or 30. I've hit on something! The pictures are especially a hit. (They are supposed to cite their sources.) We discovered that bmp images don't show in Moodle, that sometimes other pictures don't show either - or show on some computers but not others. The first two times, we do this f2f in the computer lab, so that I can head off any technical difficulties or misunderstandings. After that, it's homework.

The first few times there were a LOT of spelling, punctuation, capitalization errors. So after they had success, I warned them that they wouldn't get credit if there were errors; they didn't believe me. So I marked the errors with strike-throughs and took away credit. Oh, the wailing. But they're doing a much better job of proofreading now.

It isn't just that they're engaged with doing the work. Something interesting is happening with vocabulary tests. More A's. Usually I have the classic middle school reverse bell-curve: mostly A's and D/F's, not many C's. Now, I'm getting mostly A's and B's. And it's not an easy test. Use the word correctly in a sentence and show that you know the meaning - much harder than multiple-guess.

I think I'm onto something.