Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Future of Reading?

When I think about reading, I think about a book.  I don't think about a Kindle, an iPad, or my computer.  But that is what reading is turning into for the students we will be teaching.  Is their concept of reading going to be completely digital?  Is this necessarily a good thing?

The Common Core State Standards seem to think it is.  The Smarter Balanced assessment, which aims to test standards designed by the common core, is presented to students in a digital form.  All reading passages, math problems, and audio segments are presented on the computer.  While most media and information we get these days is online, I can't help but think about how a different format makes you think differently.  We recently read an article about the extra cognitive resources needed to process electronic material.  With all test questions on the computer, how many cognitive resources are left for students to focus on the test?

One solution would be to prepare students for this format throughout the year by presenting information in a mainly digital format.  As a future science teacher, I suggested having students learn to read material on a computer.  But how can I really teach this if I haven't mastered this skill myself?  While I enjoy reading some material on the computer, scientific articles are still the one thing I would rather print out and mark up with a traditional pen and highlighter.  After four years of college, I still cannot get the same value from reading an article on the computer as I can from reading it on paper.

So why would I ask my students to read scientific material in digital form?  Is it for the test?  Is it really the future of all reading?  Ultimately, I want my students to be prepared for tests that they will need to take throughout their K-12 career.  But beyond that, I want my students to be prepared citizens for life outside of the classroom.  Which method is better for personal preparation:  digital or paper-based?  

Monday, July 29, 2013

Cool Cat Teaches Reading Tips

Looking at the edu bloggers this week made me think about how I can continue my blog once I start teaching.  I found most of the blogs helpful in the sense that I get to read the experience of people who have already "been there".  As I begin my student teaching career I think I will find these sites helpful in forging my path as a beginning teacher.

One site I want to point out is Cool Cat Teacher Blog (  I enjoyed reading this blog because there was a post titled "Reading Tips to Program Your Mind for Success".  This post talked about ways to sharpen your mind through reading and various ways to organize what you have read and what you plan to read.  I found this post refreshing because we have been talking a lot about ways we can develop our students as successful readers.  Similarly, this post focused on developing ourselves, as teachers, as better readers.  It is important to remember that we are in a profession of lifelong learning.  Sharpening our minds through reading will help us grow as better teachers, just as it will help our students grow.

This post also touched on the technology aspect of using a Kindle to read.  I have never been a fan of digital reading because I prefer the feeling of an actual book in my hand, but this post made me think about benefits to using a digital reader.  Cool Cat Teacher references the fact that she has read over 250 books on her Kindle.  First of all, the thought of reading that many books is mind boggling.  But second of all, this made me think about how much more practical it is to read this volume of books on an e-reader.  Being able to download a book from your house is a pretty crazy idea that I'm sure no one would have imagined even 20 years ago.  It's amazing how far we have come with technology in such a short period of time and I am happy to see it being used for academic purposes.

I anticipate this list of edu bloggers will be a helpful resource to all of us beginning teachers in the future!

Friday, July 26, 2013

School as a Game: What Does That Look Like?

When I was in in middle school, my best friend and I would play Mario Party almost every day during the summer.  We each picked characters and collected stars as we progressed through each level.  Towards the end of the summer we had this crazy idea to start off the school year by treating it like a game.  We decided to classify grades as different levels of stars and have a contest to see who could collect the most stars.  A's were worth 3 stars, B's were worth 2 stars, and C's were worth 1 star. It was not that we were bad students to begin with, we just wanted a way to make it more "fun".  Initially we were so excited to treat school like this.  Then the school year actually started and I don't think we ever came back to the idea.  Looking back, it was probably because the school environment did not lend itself to this kind of assessment.  None of our teachers were treating the class as a game, so how could we?

Rory touched on the idea of turning his English classroom into a game.  When I think about what this would look like, I think about differentiation.  Within a game you have different levels that you must master before you move on to the next.  If one student is having a hard time beating that "level" it will take more scaffolding by the teacher or more time spent on that level by the student.  I think the idea of treating it like a game is that instruction fits everyone's skill level.  This sounds much easier than it is in practice, and I am not sure who to balance this idea with the idea of standards.  Eventually, your goal is to have everyone on the same level.  This same level is usually high and is not decided upon by the teacher.

This also makes me think back to learning my multiplication tables in 3rd grade.  We all had paper ice cream cones that hung on the wall.  Each "level" of multiplication we completed earned us a scoop of ice cream on top of the cone.  Students who did not complete level 3 could not move on until they had mastered this skill.  This makes me wonder about what my teacher did for students who still only had 4 ice cream scoops while the rest of us had 10 or 12.  Either way, I remember feeling a sense of accomplishment when I completed a level and got to put another scoop of ice cream on the board.  It was a game of skill and I still remember my times tables to this day.

Ultimately, I think it is important to balance "fun" with required learning objectives.  Maybe one way to strike this balance would be to brainstorm with students about what activities they would find engaging.  That way, you can plan a lesson around a particular activity, but find a way to tailor it to a specific objective or goal.  I think it is hard to imagine school like a game because it is something that hasn't really been observed in a traditional classroom.  Perhaps this will change in the future as we incorporate more "game-like" features into our classrooms.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Oregon Trail: A Guide To Teaching

Oregon Trail Computer Game

Crossing the river posed many difficulties.

When I was in elementary school, my favorite part of every week was the time we got to spend in the computer lab.  Not because I liked the pink and blue iMac G3s, but because we got to play Oregon Trail.   Oregon Trail is a computer game that puts you in the role of someone traveling the trail out west in the 1800s.  You had to constantly make decisions throughout the game in order to ensure your survival and make it west.  For example, when you came to a river you were given information about the depth and the width in order to decide if you wanted to ford the river or pay for the ferry to take you across.  This meant that you had to determine if your ox could handle this type of depth and if you had enough money in your budget to afford the ferry.   The game also included hunting simulations so that you could eat, as well as stops at general stores to stock up on supplies.  If someone in your family got sick, you had to decide if you wanted to move on or buy medicine.  It put you in another world and let you identify with a personality completely different from your own.  Most of all, it forced the 4th grade version of myself to make life decisions that I would never be faced with in reality.

So why was this game encouraged in my school?  We never learned about what to do when your ox and covered wagon came to a river in social studies class.  We never learned about how to ration food in a health class.  And we were certainly never taught how to hunt.  I would guess that Oregon Trail was encouraged by my school because it contained elements that forced us to think critically.  In addition, we had to think about the consequences of our actions and how our decisions affected the outcome of the game.

This process of decision making, coupled with a low risk activity at the right difficulty level, is what attracted us to Oregon Trail.   As pointed out by James Paul Gee, this combination is hard to come by in a traditional classroom setting.  Often times, a classroom activity is not low risk because students do not want to look or feel "dumb" in front of their peers.  In addition, instructional activities are often tied to assessments, which students have a fear of failing.  Teaching at the right difficulty level for all students through differentiation is not easy.  When you are in the virtual world of a game, however, the levels and pace at which you move depends on your difficulty level.

So how can these competing ideas be reconciled in order to get students excited and engaged in learning?  James Paul Gee suggests that we model teaching after the learning principles present in good games.  It is about getting students to think about gaming in a strategic and reflective way and then applying that sort of thinking to the classroom.

I am not sure if Oregon Trail is around anymore, nor am I up to date with the kinds of games students like to play.  Perhaps as part of my training to become a teacher I should sit down and play some video games.  Thinking about what is going through my head as I play these games may give me some insight on how to structure my practice.  Ultimately, I want my students to walk away from my class with more knowledge than which they came with.  Looking to video and computer games may provide me with the inspiration I need to make this a reality.  

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Skepticism and the Internet

How often do you ask a question five times?  How often do you consult five different sources when looking for an answer on the internet?  Admittedly, I often click on the first search result in Google and leave it at that.  But how can I really trust the first source I find?  In class we played a version of "20 Questions" in which the facilitator could lie two times.  This means, in order to identify a lie, the same question needed to be asked five times. 

Growing up in an age where the internet was not a part of daily life in school, I would like to think that my teachers presented unbiased views.  Today, students get more of their information from the internet. If we are not teaching digital literacy in a way that promotes healthy criticism and skepticism how will students know how to differentiate a biased view from an unbiased one?  I think the goal would be for students to learn how to research enough sources to understand all sides of an issue in order to formulate their own opinions.  This brings me back to a previous post in which I discussed the responsibility of schools to teach digital literacy.  Etiquette is important, but so is being able to differentiate between a reliable source and an unreliable one.  It makes me wonder how many students simply get most of their information from Wikipedia and take it as fact.  If part of our job is to produce informed citizens, how can we do that without teaching digital literacy?  

A student may stumble upon this blog and take my opinions as fact.  They might think that everything I write here is a shared view with the rest of the world.  Not only is this far from true, but it is a scary thought.  What authority do I have to tell someone what "digital literacy" means and should be?  I think the goal should be for students to read even a blog post with a healthy dose of skepticism.  

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Social Media Etiquette: What's That All About?

Upon hearing a story about a student who tweeted obscene messages without knowing these tweets could be seen by, say, his teacher, it made it me think back to my first experiences with social media.  Did I understand legal and social internet etiquette when I first started using MySpace and Facebook?  I don't remember reading any manuals.  Where did I learn this and who did I learn this from?  These are important questions to address as I enter into a world with teenagers whose lives are on the internet for all to see, including me.  

I think back to a 10th grade english class at Groves High School where my teacher was talking to us about things she had seen on Facebook.  She was asking us if we felt that it was ethical for a teacher to punish a student for something witnessed on social networking sites.  As a 15 year old, I remember thinking "No way!  That's an invasion of privacy!"  But is it?  Clearly, I did not think that anything I posted on Facebook would leave my circle of friends.  Even with privacy settings today, there are still ways for people (employers) to see everything you post.  When you delete something from the internet, it's never really deleted.  I wonder how many 15 year olds today know that.  I also wonder whose job it is to tell them.  

As a future teacher, I do feel it is part of my job to educate students on social "literacy".  I do not feel that this duty should fall directly on the education system, but this also needs to come from home.  This could mean educating parents, as well, on the "do's and dont's" of the internet.  As our world becomes increasingly digital, the socialization that comes out of schooling should be addressed in a digital age.  

Luckily for me, Facebook did not reach the height of its popularity until I was finishing high school.  Meaning, Universities may not have been using this medium as a screening tool for future students.  Also luckily for me, I was "smart" enough not to post pictures of me and my friends engaging in NSFW (not safe for web) activities.  Looking back, knowing not to post such pictures came from my first encounter with Facebook with my parents looking over my shoulder.  My parents were concerned with some of the pictures they saw of my friends and I remember thinking that I would not want them seeing pictures of me like that.  Perhaps it was also the idea that I knew teachers could see what was on Facebook, because that had been addressed in class.  

We are entering an age in which the students we have in our classrooms will have grown up using such websites.  How is their digital literacy different from our own?  How can we incorporate the strengths of such literacy into our instruction, and how can we use deficits as a learning opportunity for social and emotional growth?  I hope to work through some of these questions in order to benefit my students and the society in which they live.  

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Dewey and Me

Reading Dewey's "My Pedagogic Creed" was almost like looking into a mirror for all of the reasons I chose to go into education.  There are plenty of us who choose to be teachers because "we like kids."  But if we all did it because we like kids, what types of purposes would we be actually teaching toward?  I chose to become an educator because I believe in the power of education to transform lives and societies.  I believe education can be the most effective way to raise communities out of poverty and combat bigotry.  If they say ignorance is the root of all evil, schools should pose as a battleground against narrow mindedness and social injustices. 

Since Dewey's time, much has changed in our society, as well as our school systems.  We have lost sight of education as a means to develop children socially, as well as academically.  Teaching towards standardized testing and other measures of accountability negate the idea of nurturing a student's individual interests.  Although written in 1897, this quote still holds significance today: "I believe that much of present education fails because it neglects this fundamental principle of the school as a form of community life" (Dewey, 1897).  Schools should be an extension of a child's community and be one of the many partners the child has for social, academic, and emotional development. I feel that students do not always view school as this type of community and we, as educators, should make it a goal to engage students in such an environment.  

As a future science teacher, I felt challenged by Dewey's remarks about science being an objective subject with little relevance to a student's previous experiences.  One way to combat this would be to create shared experiences with students surrounding the subject matter.  For example, a quick experiment involving the whole class to demonstrate a scientific principle should be performed before explanation or instruction is given.  This way, students are challenged to think about what they just saw and then work together to describe it through science.  My hope is that my students will use the critical thinking skills gained in my class to induce change in their communities.  I believe in the power of community to bring people together and I believe in the power of education to create a just society. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Teaching "Teaching with Technology"

Today's class opened with an activity that made me think (as should all activities posed to us by our teachers).  What would an ideal classroom look like?  Well, I would want all students to be engaged but what does that actually look like?  Some people drew pictures of chairs set up in a circular fashion, while others focused on the placement of a teacher's desk or a projector.  I chose to focus on where to place myself amongst my students and how the technology in the room could increase student involvement and interaction with course material.

In terms of technology, which was to be a focus of the activity, I chose to incorporate smart boards into the tables where students sat.  The boards would make up the surface of the table and students could use markers to work out problems and write ideas.  The best part about these tables would be that students' work could then be projected from the tables to the board.  I was told that smart boards were actually first designed to be used more as tables, but when teachers voiced concern over student-use the boards where then made to be hung on a wall like a traditional white board.

This raises an important question:  how can we innovate classroom learning through technology if improvements rely on traditional teaching methods?   I believe this relates to the Cuban article in the sense that we are living in an ever-changing society, but we are still tied to traditional methods of human interaction.  It is important to note that if students are using technology at their tables to learn, the teaching profession may become increasingly obsolete.  This seems to be a recurring theme of teacher attitudes towards technology over the past century.   I am having a hard time working through this balance of technology and traditional interactions within a classroom.  I am hoping this course will help me strike a balance so that I can become an effective and forward thinking educator.

My "ideal" classroom