Sunday, February 27, 2011

Being tech support

    I wear all the hats in my program, including technical support.  The number one problem is forgotten passwords. Kids are at home trying to remember their password so they can do their homework; often they’ve also forgotten their login ID, even though I’ve made it identical to their login ID for school computers.  I then get student or parent emails asking for the password; as long as I can tell who is really emailing me, I reset the password and remind them of the userid by return email.  Kids also ask me at school.
[Men working on telephone lines, probably near a TVA dam hydroelectric plant] (LOC)photo © 1939 The Library of Congress | more info (via: Wylio)

     I did have one parent who tried to phone me at home at 8:15 PM (a number I never share, by the way) to demand her child’s password for work that was due the next day; I use my answering machine to screen calls and did NOT answer.  Students always have alternative ways of both finding the work (on the school-supplied webpage, Edline, and on the Moodle) and submitting it, so forgetting the password is not an emergency (and can’t be used as an excuse for not doing work). 

    One student has asked me repeatedly to reset his password, because he supposedly “couldn’t get on” but when I had him login right in front of me there was no problem.  I informed his parents and he’s no longer using that excuse. 

    Occasionally I get asked for clarifications, mostly via email.  When is something due again?  Where is the file (right after the directions…)  Kids also ask questions via discussion forums, but they tend to answer each other there.  A good thing, too, since I don’t check email after dinner, so kids who wait until the last minute are just out of luck.  (I’ve learned that nastygrams always come late in the day, and I prefer not to spend my evenings composing and re-composing responses.) 

    Since I’ve put the written directions at the very top of the Moodle,  I receive many fewer questions. 

    One of the interesting things about tech support is that it has gotten students, who tell me they “never” use email, to use email.  Of course, some email me a question and then forget to check their email for my answer…

Monday, February 21, 2011

Dealing with students who are behind – and late work

    It’s the bane of our existence.  Some schools require teachers to accept late work right up until the end of the marking period, while others just say, you earned a zero.  While my school’s formal policy is late = zero, I’m a bit more lenient.  I work with mostly middle schoolers, who often find organization a personal challenge.  I also have students who get sick.

    One would think that online work would be perfect for these students – since they can make it up from home.  But some just don’t do it, while some are too ill.  Meanwhile, the rest of the class has moved on.  What’s showing on the class Moodle then changes, and that’s the problem.

     From a purely practical standpoint, I have found it really helps my students if I place what we’re working on front and center with clear instructions about what we’re doing right now.  This is extra work for me, but the payoff has been worth it in students 1) doing what I want 2) without asking constant “what are we doing” questions. I already organize work by units, and put those most current closest to the “top” of the Moodle.  Middle schoolers don’t have the patience to weed through the typical Moodle scroll-of-death list of dozens of activities, forums, and resources. 

    The problem comes when I de-clutter, by making earlier activities disappear. (I want to use the activities next year, so I don’t delete them.)  Now that those activities are effectively gone from a student’s point of view, what does the returning student then do?  I can either “forgive” the assignments, because they don’t show any more, or I have to find a way to give the student that work. 

    In the K12 world, kids get seriously ill and then come back to school to continue the school year.  It’s not like 8- or 16 week college level courses, where students who missed too much of class often just have to repeat the course another semester.  In K12, we really want to avoid making a child needlessly repeat an entire year of work.  Even if students only miss two weeks of work, they will then need to do current work, plus catch up on all class work and homework that was missed, in multiple subjects.  Catching up can take awhile.

    While I still require the reading and writing assignments be made up, I’ve been forgiving old discussions.  Let’s face it – there is no discussion if you’re the only one “talking.”  So perhaps the solution there is to ask the student to read the discussion postings, then write a response to them.  Aha!  Thank you, blog, for helping me find my way to that solution.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Two-way journals – students writing to each other about what they read

    For years, one of the most popular reading activities in my class has been Two-Way Journals.  Two students read the same book, and write back and forth to each other.  It has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.  Here’s how it works:

  •  Students get to choose what they want to read, so those who adore science fiction can indulge, and those who want to read Twilight can do that, too.  Research shows that students read more when they get to choose what they read – and my experience totally supports this.  I have a lot of books students can use, but some choose to go out and get their own from bookstores and libraries.
  • Students have to pick an age-appropriate book that neither partner has ever read. “Oh, but I really like Lord of the Rings/Harry Potter/Hatchet…” doesn’t matter.  It needs to be a new book. 
  • Students have to write to their partners about twice a week about what they think about their reading.  They ask each other questions, comment about what characters are doing, predict what they think will happen, compare the book to other books they’ve read, notice literary features.  I read the first entry to make sure they didn’t get sucked into “book report mode,”  since occasionally I need to remind students that their partner doesn’t need to know the plot because the partner is reading the story, too.  Plot summaries take little effort; a real conversation about the book is both more work and more interesting.
     Since they write 4 or 5 times each, students have lots of opportunities to write to interest their audience (their partner), which they clearly enjoy doing.  There are jokes, word-play, good-natured arguments, comparisons of who made the best prediction, even discussion of the next book they plan to read.  They are writing for a real audience, an audience that responds with questions and comments if the writer is not clear.

    In the past, students have mostly used spiral notebooks or fancy diaries they handed back and forth, or emails.  This year, I added a discussion forum in Moodle with a separate thread for each book/pair.  We discovered that this was much easier than using notebooks and diaries because there was no notebook to forget to bring to school (or lose).  Also, logistics were easy for the occasional three-person group; nobody had to wait until the notebook got passed to the next person. The format seemed less frustrating for those pairs where one member didn’t post as consistently, perhaps because I could post, too, giving the single-poster an audience and a conversation to be part of.  Even though I think the Moodle discussion is the best alternative, I will continue to allow variety in format because students gravitate to different formats; girls seem to love those fancy diaries, for example.

   A few things I’ve learned: 
  • Give students some class time to search through your books to find what they’d like to read.  Especially the first time you do this project, kids need to negotiate with teach other, and also find a book neither has read.  After you’ve done this once, you can notify kids the project is coming up again, and some will be choosing partners and books before you even start. 
  • Require students to show you they’ve got the book by a due date, since some students will try to excuse not reading because they still didn’t get that book. 
  • If you think parents might have questions about the book, because of violence, profanity, or mature content, for example, require written approval from both sets of parents.  I’ve had more than one parent thank me for doing this. 
  • If you have a really antisocial student – and we all have those – ask them to write to their dog/cat/goldfish.  I had a student who created fantastic imaginary postings from his dog, as well as his own required postings.  He had a chance to be successful and took it to a new level. 
  • Don’t let “I can’t find a partner” allow a child to opt out.  I give these students the choice of working with the inevitable other student who doesn’t have a partner, joining an existing 2-person group, or working alone and writing to their pet. 
  • Don’t buy “we can’t find a book.”  If they don’t have the book to show you by the due date for having a book, hand them books from your classroom library.  They often will either take that book, or discover there’s another one that they really want to read.  But it has to be in hand right then (to avoid the “I don’t have the book yet” excuses.)  This will save you having to listen to all those excuses down the line.
  • Spot check to make sure students aren’t writing plot summaries, but are really engaging both with the literature and with their partners.  You don’t want or need to check on every single entry – spot check at the start and read it all at the end.
  • Give guidance about staying on target: “You should each have 2 entries done by Friday.”  I give kids a minute to exchange physical diaries/spiral notebooks, but don’t give other class time during the project.
  • Don’t let students use the “my partner didn’t post anything” excuse for not writing themselves; make clear that each person is graded solely on their own work and that if students let you know partners aren’t performing, then you can do something about it.  Non-participants get named quickly in the middle school grapevine, and find it hard to find partners next time, a perfect natural consequence, and one that’s more meaningful to a 12 year old than the grade. 

    Here are the rubric and student directions.  This has been one of my best brainstorms.  How often do you have students ASK to do a reading project? 

Monday, February 14, 2011

Moodle vs Blogs

    A few years ago, I wanted to give my students a way to experience discussion online.  I wanted to give my shyer students and deliberate thinkers a way to participate equally.  I wanted to give my students time to think, so they could edit their response instead of just blurting it out in class. 

    I tried out using a blog, posting the question and then having students comment.  It worked, but the logistics just about killed me.  First, I needed to keep my students’ identities private.  Second, since teens don’t listen well to instructions, I knew that I needed to do the setup myself.

     This is doable with a class of 22 third-graders.  When you get into secondary education, where you may have 150 to 200 students, you ask yourself regularly if you are nuts.  To set up just two classes of students took me a good chunk of a summer week.  (Create the account, get the verification email, but first set up dummy emails in your gmail accounts, click on the right link….)  “Free” tools are great, but the time cost is one of the dirty little secrets of using technology.

    The blog only allows for one discussion thread, and I have always enjoyed the way multiple conversations (threads) appear during my own online classes, providing for lots of diverse-but-focused conversations.  I also want my students to use wikis and blogs.  And each new tool requires setting up more accounts – for which students will promptly lose the passwords. ;)

    I decided I needed one platform (location) with one setup and one logon.  Is there a steeper learning curve for me with Moodle?  Oh, yes.  But 1) I have a safe location, so kids can use their own names, 2) I only have to set up student information once (except for when they forget their passwords, of course J), 3) students only have to remember one logon, and 4) there are lots of versatile tools I can use within Moodle including wikis and blogs.

    One downside is that it’s hard to show student work to parents easily.  But POS (parent over shoulder) is working for us for now.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Mock Trial - Trying new tools

     The good news:  having used Moodle all year has meant students continue to use it easily during our too-many snow-days.  The bad news:  getting kids to start using a new tool when they don’t have the chance to explore and experiment with it at school first (because of all those snow days) means the tool doesn’t get used much. 
US Supreme Courtphoto © 2004 dbking | more info (via: Wylio)

    Students are quite used to online discussions now, and used to online reflection, so these have continued without a hitch.  The problem:  I had wanted students to try collaborating online, using discussions which were limited just to team members; the plaintiff’s team for one trial had their own discussion forum (I would have given them a separate wiki, too, but the wiki in Moodle 1.9 is too anemic).

     Unfortunately snow days have prevented the time we needed in the computer lab to make students comfortable with this.  Prior problems with Moodle groups made us all a little gun-shy.  Students don’t want to expose their strategies to their opponents, and need to be assured this won’t happen.  This assurance comes easily from having everybody in the same room, trying it out at the same time; in 42 minutes we can all see how it works and build trust in the technology.  On snow days, having students working at home, at different times, it’s much harder to build that understanding and trust.  And since Moodle has 4 different basic varieties of discussions, before you even get into groups vs. no groups, it’s reasonable for students to be a little wary the first time they experience a new discussion wrinkle.  My more confident students are trying it out, but confidence is not always readily available in middle school. 

     During the most recent snow day, we tried  an informal chat using Moodle. We could all see the possibilities, but also the limitations – it often takes awhile between when you complete what you’ve typed and when it shows up, so people are frequently having several conversations at once.  But if we get too many more snow days cutting into the days we have left to complete the trials, we can try out a synchronous chat for at least part of a trial in each class. 

    It would be nice to say, “this is the Facebook generation; they are comfortable with technology,”  but there are huge holes in their skill set.  And while all of my students have internet access at home, not everybody brings the same attitudes.  For every 10 who will try anything and soldier through until they understand, there are 5 who give up easily.  I need for all of my students to be successful.

    Update:  as it happened, we got a respite from snow days (at least this week), so the trials finished in class.  But now students want to try out the chat.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Mock Trial - Blended and Fun

    We are engaged in our annual mock trial project.  We do a lot of in-class work in small groups preparing and having the trials.  We do a lot of reading/research/reflection online that complements what’s happening F2F.  While we’ve repeatedly lost class time to snow days, students have used the class Moodle to stay on target as much as they can.
Gavel & Strykerphoto © 2008 KeithBurtis | more info (via: Wylio)

     If you’re interested in how we do mock trial, I’ve attached the study guide and basic case materials for this year.  I divide each class into two trials.  Each half class takes on plaintiff and defense teams for one trial and then acts as the judge and jury for the other trial. 

    Snow days have cost us almost half the days we use for working in small groups to prepare for the trials.  Despite interruption after interruption, students are still remarkably prepared.  First, because students have had to be focused on the time they actually had; there has been no time for fooling around (yay, silver lining!)  Second, I had asked  students to explicitly discuss online how they would cope with a non-participant group member; this brought out some good strategies, encouraged proactive thinking, and even got some of the usual nonparticipants to think about what they needed to be doing.  Third, my students are motivated; they love this project-based learning unit. 

    This is problems from the real world; I use real cases that are working their way to the Supreme Court, using high interest topics like gender-segregated middle schools.  They get to play roles that grownups play (never, ever underestimate their interest in this). They have to struggle to read materials written for adults, but they persevere because they are interested.  They get to read laws that actually impact their lives (Title IX, for example) and relate their lives directly to the Constitution.  They also do a lot of writing that makes sense – questions for witnesses, opening statements to explain their case to the jury, online discussions about how to handle problems, reflections about what they hope to learn and what they do learn.  It’s also inherently dramatic – what kid doesn’t want to shout out, “I object!” 

    Snow days are now impinging on our ability to even have the trials, which is the topic of the next post.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Everything is available all the time

    Even before I used Moodle with my classes, my school provided Edline, which gave each teacher a webpage for every class. Edline provides both email to parents and a plain vanilla webpage with no options to change the layout, but it’s a great place to store stuff.  (Before that I had a Teacherweb webpage, also plain vanilla.)  Every rubric, every graphic organizer, every reference handout, every study guide gets posted there.  Now, suddenly, if kids lose their study guide, it’s right there available 24/7.  If parents want to see the rubric, it’s right there.
24/7photo © 2010 Memphis CVB | more info (via: Wylio)

    When a student whines that they can’t find their assignment description, I can refer them to the Edline page.  When they lose it, I tell them to print out another copy.  I stopped making lots of extra copies of handouts for all the disorganized kids.  They have a place they can all get to at any time.  Even if their home printer isn’t working, they can still read the materials online.

    No more wiggle room!  I forgot the handout/whatever at school no longer works as an excuse.  Since I provide the basic vocabulary information online, “I forgot my textbook” also doesn’t wash. 

    I also post PowerPoints so if a student has missed class, or wants to review a PowerPoint, it’s available. 

    Links to internet resources are clickable so nobody has to key in the address and frustratingly get it wrong (or use that as an excuse…) 

    It helps keep me organized, too, because everything is posted online where I can get to it.

    The Moodle provides much more flexibility in organization than Edline, which I love, but regardless I put everything online.  Everything.  I also put everything both on the Edline class webpages and on the Moodle. Edline is accessible to parents as well as students, and has a standard format for all their child’s classes.  Since kids sometimes forget their login passwords to the Moodle, having the material available on Edline means they still can do the work – no excuses.  It’s a little extra work for me, but the dividends are enormous. 

    From parent and student comments, I can tell that posting materials online is helpful.  I teach middle school students, the most distracted and disorganized students you can imagine.  Having everything there any time, all the time is a real blessing.  Of course, for kids (and parents) looking for excuses, this has been more of a curse, but you can’t please everybody, now can you? 

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Dealing with nastiness

    Recently, a student posted a snotty comment which put down most other students (I won’t share the specifics here for privacy’s sake).  Another student almost immediately responded, calling the first student on the insult.  The first student backed down.
Nasty nastyphoto © 2006 Toms Bauģis | more info (via: Wylio)

    As I read the conversation, I was thinking, “What should I do about this?”  I composed responses to the offending student.  I tried again and again.  Inevitably my responses were sarcastic and would not improve the online climate.

    This is one of those times when I’m really glad to have a hybrid class.  With middle school students, talking F2F is so helpful – you get the message to the student immediately, with no waiting for the student to read the posting (and email isn’t an option since middle school students virtually never check their email).  And F2F you can see each others’ expressions and body language. It’s just as important for them to see my expressions as for me to see theirs.

     First, I removed the offending post, which removed that whole small conversation. The first student I saw after that was the student who complained about the initial post; I thanked this student for the appropriate response, and said I had removed the conversation; this student was relieved the offensive comment was gone, and relieved to know that I thought this student’s response to it was appropriate.  I then found the offending student.  I told the student that the post had been removed, and why – and then reminded the student with a grin that it’s not good to put others down while misspelling one of the important words in the put down. Instead of being a tense moment, we both cracked up.  The student got my message though. 

     And we’re back on an even keel until the next time.