Sunday, March 27, 2011


     In my Twitter stream @erswank (Ryan Swank) suggested that using online discussion outside of class so that we could act out a Shakespeare play in class might be an example of a “flipped” classroom.  I had been thinking of flipped classes as using recorded lectures for homework so students can practice in class;  since I hardly ever lecture, I wasn’t thinking along those lines.  But Ryan is right. 

     Using online resources allows me to move around what we do, so that what is best done F2F happens F2F.  I get my students F2F for only 42 minutes a day, so I need to consider the best use of that time. 

     I don’t just decide to use technology; I decide what I want my students to learn.  Then I look at the best means for them to learn.  I often use technology because students find it engaging, but that’s not the determining factor.  By itself, technology is just a toy.  I want to use it as a tool, a lever, to support and expand learning.

    Here’s an example.  I want my students to write as often as they can, because practice improves their writing, but a steady diet of essays grows stale.  I also want my students thinking about what we’re working on, and want them to converse about it outside of class.  Providing online discussions gives them a way to write, converse, think – and it doesn’t have to occur during class time.  Further, they enjoy the discussions and some students put in extra time there – even though it won’t add to their grade.

     My students are writing at least twice as much as they were before I started using the Moodle, but they don’t complain about this, or even seem to notice that they’re writing.  It’s an extension of their Facebook and texting world.  For those students who aren’t technology-immersed, it provides a way to explore that world safely.  And for the shy and the deliberate thinkers, online discussion provides a way to be equal partners in the conversation. 

     All this leaves me class time so students can explore Shakespeare as audience and actors. How’s that for meeting some learning objectives?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Online discussion experience improves critical thinking

    Recently I compared student discussions from a year ago – when I had just started using Moodle discussions with my students – and from today.  The prompt is identical (pictured here), but the results are astonishingly different. 

    Last year, my 8th grade students weren’t quite sure what to do yet.  They gave their opinions, but their entries were short.  Nobody was taking any risks.

    This year, after having most of the school year to work with the Moodle, the students provided lengthy entries, included evidence to back up their opinions, and fearlessly challenged the teacher’s assertion.

    Last year, with about the same number of students, 2,530 words were written in this discussion.  This year, it was 4,044. 

    We have been studying Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Having the discussions online leaves us time for students to act out the play F2F in class.

     I used the same prompt both years, though this year's included a picture of the four lovers arguing. Last year most of the posts were short, like SH’s: I think it is because he thinks that people who have a lot in common will fall in love.

    This year, most of posts were long.  And the very first post, from CW, immediately challenged my analysis:
Well, I actually don't really thing Demetrius and Lysander are very similar. Demetrius is very "well, your father said you and I are getting married and I like you so we're getting married, end of subject."
Lysander is very different in that way. He loves Hermia and is willing to break the law and run away to be with her.

Hermia is very detirmined to be with Lysander, even if it means having to leave her home and knowing that if she comes back, Thesus will make her be a nun.
And no one likes Helena. Until they are charmed. So no one REALLY likes Helena.

    After routinely using Moodle discussions for all kinds of work, the students are comfortable with online discussion, and are thinking critically.  Woot!!  Even students who struggle with Language Arts didn’t hesitate to set me straight: I don't think the lovers are similar begins another post. And everybody was part of the discussion. 

     Better still, the discussions are homework, done outside of school during student’s personal time.  And I can see that students go back to read what others wrote, even if they don’t post again.  Talk about extending meaningful grappling with the content beyond class time.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Where to place Homework Help Forum

    When I first started using Moodle, I put the “homework help” discussion forum with the module that’s always “up,” which is mostly vocabulary.  This worked well for the first month or so, and students quickly started helping each other with their questions.

    But I discovered my kids were putting their homework questions in other forums.  Once we started a new unit, they often would put their questions on whichever forum they were answering questions in – and they’d get other student responses quite rapidly – but their questions really didn’t belong there.

     I wondered should I make a big deal of “this is where your questions are supposed to be”  but Moodle is just so free-form and middle schoolers really don’t get into scrolling down to get to the forum.

    During snow days I put in a general snow day forum, and that’s where all the homework questions surfaced.  That forum was in just the right place, easy to find.  I guess I’m a slow learner; I’ve been trying to keep everything organized, but the organization needs to make sense to students, not just to me.  And scrolling down just doesn’t make sense to them (and there may be a laziness factor in there, too). 

    It seems to be OK to scroll down when working with vocabulary, because all the vocabulary units are in one place.  But not when just asking a question.  Then again, vocabulary assignments are regular, while asking questions is sporadic.

    So now I’m starting to add a general discussion/homework help forum in each new unit.  This takes the place of both homework help and the off-topic/coffee klatch forums I’ve experienced in many online courses for adults.  Kids just start their irreverent conversations wherever (in f2f class, too, of course).  I don’t participate in these discussions that much, because these are side conversations that can get quite silly.  As long as students are civil, that can be their spot.

    Since I know my students also converse via Facebook and online gaming and texting, I don’t feel as strong a need to provide a “special place” for them.  Wherever they are online is “their” place.  But I am tickled they feel comfortable in the class Moodle.

    Once again, kids handle their work and their play differently than adults, so the way I organize the course has to be different, too.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Classroom management

    I was really struck the other day by how different classroom management is online and face-to-face.  Some of the issues that are constant F2F simply don’t happen online. 

    For one thing, while online at home, students do the work (or not, as they sometimes choose), and then move on to Facebook, games, or whatever else they need/want to do.  F2F – and here I include the computer lab – is a whole ‘nother thing. 

    Whenever the kids are really in front of me, I have to consider the different paces they work at – speedy (but not necessarily well done), focused, highly distractible, and all the places in between.  Some kids finish early and I need to have something constructive for them to do so they don’t distract the rest of the class.  On the other hand, some kids won’t make it through the work by the end of class.  This means that I quickly have students working (or not working) on different things simultaneously. 

    This became so clear to me in my high school tech/computer skills class, where students are simultaneously F2F and on the class moodle.  Unlike in my blended middle school classes, where most of the online work is done outside of school, this class is all in front of me in real time.  Using the moodle to organize and present the work has been a God-send, but I need to plan for a wide variety of both focus and skill. 

    When students are mostly online, keeping them on task is a different equation.  I don’t really care what other things they are doing (and yes, I know they have multiple browser windows open) as long as they are engaged in work for my class.  When finished, they move on and that doesn’t matter to me.  F2F, though, I’ve got to keep the three-ring circus running, which takes extra planning. 

    The extra planning is especially needed because I’ve discovered how useful it is to have a written agenda:  this is what we are doing today, and when you finish, here are your alternatives.  I do find myself tweaking the agenda, and I need to modify it several times a week as we move to new work.  But the agenda is clear.  I get fewer of those annoying “what are we doing again?” questions (you know, the ones that mean the student can’t be bothered to pay attention until the rest of the class has started working). 

    Also, I’ve noticed that students are more on task.  In addition, this makes them less dependent on me, so I can focus on who needs help, not on directing traffic. 

    Kids actually read the agenda online, whereas they ignore the same agenda written on the white board.  Go figure.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Final poll - time for #midleved chats

We need a good time for as many as possible, also a time when people who are willing to moderate are available.  Please vote again!  Thanks!   Oops - Eastern Time given.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

What are we doing again?

    A key problem when working with kids online/blended is communicating what you want them to do.  In K12, the traditional online tools don’t work as I would like.    

    Most Course Management Systems like Moodle have some sort of course news feature.  With Moodle, the news is the first module at the top of the stack of modules.  But it doesn’t show the actual news, unfortunately, just the link to the forum that holds the news. It takes 2 clicks to get to content.

    D2L, another CMS, puts the actual news right there for students to see as soon as they open the course.  The downside of this is that students must then navigate someplace else for discussions, course content, uploading assignments, and so on.  With Moodle, all of that can be in one central spot (great for focusing distractible kids).

    But my kids never ever read the course news.  Ever.  They would look at me and ask, “What are we doing?”  Fortunately this happened in the computer lab so I could learn right away that putting news in the course news was pointless.

    I’ve made course news invisible so it isn’t cluttering up what student see, and I’ve added a label with Directions: and a short, numbered list which is the first thing students see.  This agenda, like the sample shown, tells students what they need to get started. 

    Now, I put what I want my students to see front and center.  Zero ambiguity.  This is extra work for me (and there are definitely days when I think wistfully about D2L’s news function), but my students focus, so it’s worth it.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

It's about the learning, not the technology

I am very active on Twitter, and was recently part of a conversation about digital storytelling. I was talking about using PowerPoint, a tool that is immediately available to my students, as an incredibly versatile tool. We’ve used it for creating animated story books and for creating glogster-like posters. It has endless possibilities – which my students teach me about just about daily.Tool Trader Iphoto © 2009 Meena Kadri | more info (via: Wylio)

But teachers demanded to know, but haven’t you used this tool, haven’t you used that tool. Yes, I play around with lots of different tools, and I often let my students do that, too. But the point isn’t to try out each and every new cool tool. The point is learning.

I see dozens of new tools come through my Twitter and RSS streams every day. I check a lot of them out. I also look at what value they add to my students’ learning, and at how they do that. Voicethread, for example, often starts with an image, allowing students to comment on it. Starting with an image is powerful. That has encouraged me to include images more in my teaching, both F2F and online. I’ve started adding images to all my Moodle discussion prompts because I think they help my students make connections that words by themselves won’t do.

But does that mean I’m going to add VoiceThread to my arsenal? Maybe not. If I can get the job done – using images to help my students think and providing a way for them to converse about it – using an existing mechanism (Moodle discussion), then why add the overhead of still more student IDs and passwords? My goal is not “using VoiceThread,” it’s improving student understanding.

With each potential tool, I have to ask myself, “what are the logistics?” How much time do I have to set aside for this new whiz-bang tool? Because I don’t have 25 students. I’m a secondary teacher, and we often have 150 or even 200 students. And each new tool has a learning curve – whoever thinks all kids know how to use technology without assistance has never spent time in a school computer lab. It’s not obvious to all of them.

When I first really got into using online discussion, I tried out a blog, where I posted a question, and students discussed it via comments. We all enjoyed it and the benefits of the discussion were immediately clear. But the logistics just about killed me. That’s why I decided to use Moodle, because it reduces the logistics – never eliminates them, but makes them manageable.

That way, I can focus on what I want my students to learn – the whole point of the enterprise.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Teaching new technology

     In my high school tech/computer skills class, I deliberately set aside time for exploration of Web 2.0 tools.  This gives me a chance to see how easy the tools really are for students to work with, and gives students the opportunity to expand their skills as users of new tools. 
Frustrationphoto © 2010 Sharon Pak | more info (via: Wylio)

     They will spend their lives learning new technology tools, so I want my students to learn strategies that work - like persistence, asking others for help (this isn’t obvious to everybody), using the Help function, finding tutorials, using other tools you already know how to use to create a workaround. 

     Workaround example:  we found a nice tool at which allows students to create basic logos (great for a create your own business project), but there’s no easy way to save the logos (no screen capture software on our computers).  Fortunately there is a workaround: if you take a screen shot (CTRL + Print Screen), paste it into Paint, crop just the logo, then cut it and paste it into a new Paint screen, then you can save it and use it. 

      Unlike adults, kids don’t seem to mind workarounds, which have a game-playing flavor to them. 

     Of course, the stumbling around provides many chances to overcome frustration (sometimes a vestigial skill), and to learn by making mistakes. 

     I ask students to tell me candidly what they think of the tools.  They are brutally honest – if a tool is hard to figure out, they’ll let me know.  So I won’t use that one again.

      In the meantime, they may have found a new tool they can use, and they have had some good problem-solving and lateral-thinking practice.