I was asked today what I did during class.

"What did you do today?  Play around on the internet on your little netbooks?"  They were referring to my Web 2.0 activity.

Here's what I did today:
  • Watched a student's technological confidence blossom when she figured out-with only a little help from her group-how to save a picture she took with her webcam to her computer and upload it into PiZap for editing.  ("I did this all by myself!  I think I can really do this stuff!")  This is the same girl who pleaded with me the day before to do everything on paper.
  • Let my students get to know me by hanging out at each team's table for a few minutes, making up ways to remember their names, telling stories about how my younger dog once bought a paint sprayer on eBay, and answering their questions about me and all the rumors they've heard from their older siblings (all true). 
  • Start to build relationships with my students by asking questions about them.  ("If you were ONE Web 2.0 photo tool, what would it be, and why?")
  • Observed students have true discussions and engage in true learning when they would show others sitting around them what they were doing, and then hearing other students excitedly ask them, "How did you do that?!?"  (I also observed them getting to know each other this way as well.)
  • Showed an entire class how to troubleshoot when the entire network crashed at the start of the period.
  • Listened to students walk out of my room at the end of the period excited about using technology this year.  ("Wow, this class is fun!  I can't wait to use this stuff!")
Play is learning, and learning should be play.  

What did I do today?  I watched my students learn.  
My class opener on Friday  for all of my classes was this question:

What does it mean when a tool is called a "Web 2.0 Tool?"

I already knew they wouldn't know the answer.  I gave them a survey about their technology backgrounds the day before, and had already taken a peek at the results.  At the end of the survey, I asked  a series of questions to see how familiar they were with various technology tools, ranging from Microsoft Office applications to various Web 2.0 tools that I know are staples of teachers in other classrooms around the country.  Below this post I have posted some screenshots of the overall results (click on each of them to see the larger version). 

Here are a few things that jumped out at me from the data:
  • Facebook is now "where it's at" for my students in terms of online hangouts.  This makes all of those articles I read about MySpace dying a little more valid.
  • My students seem well-versed in the major Microsoft Office applications.  However, my 1:1 experience last year revealed that while students do know how to use the basics of these programs, they do not have a lot of experience with the more intermediate and advanced functions.  In other words, they know enough to "git-r-done," unfortunately.
  • While some of them have experience with Google Docs & Diigo (those students being some sophomores and the students who were in my summer IMS class), they pretty much have absolutely no real experience with Web 2.0.
This last point is one I find unacceptable.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of Web 2.0 applications for students of all shapes and sizes.  Why do my students, who are freshmen & sophomores in high school, basically have no idea Web 2.0 exists when they walk into my room?  To me, there's absolutely no excuse for this.  I have been offered many explanations, which are all very reasonable and understandable in these economic times. 

But these explanations don't excuse the fact that these students are about 10 years out of date when they walk into my room each year.  They have been filled with fleeting trivia, minutiae, and test preparation, but they have not been given any useful tools for learning.  As a matter of fact, I would dare to say that, minus their uncanny social media and phone-operating skills,  they pretty much have the same technology skills I did when I was in high school--which was from 1988-1992.  That's why all of my classes are doing an activity I call "Getting to Know Web 2.0" for the first two weeks, to give them a start at building the skills they will need when they graduate that should have been started long before now. (Thanks to @chrisludwig for the idea that was the basis for this activity.)

In Will Richardson's article, "Why Schools Should Break the Web 2.0 Barrier," he states that:

"To be truly information literate, we must teach our kids to be savvy editors, collaborators, and co-creators.  We must help them become facile with writing in hypertext, linking and connecting ideas and people.  Furthermore, they must learn to read with a different attention in these much less linear environments.  None of this can happen effectively on paper; nor can a fluency in these global networks be taught locally."

In our district, we can't do any of what Will Richardson advocates while the main focus of many computer applications classes are focused around teaching students how to use Microsoft Office.

Looking back on this post, I want to make it clear that I am not trying to accuse or blame anyone for our students not being prepared for their future.  I do understand the explanations that were given to me about my students' technological backgrounds, and I'm really not trying to be a hubristic jerk (but, as my husband says, there are some things I'm good at without even trying). 

But I am tired of everyone offering these explanations as if we shouldn't do anything to change the situation, as if the explanations should be enough, and I should now scurry back into my classroom like a good little worker bee, get out my textbooks and my worksheets, and stop causing trouble with all of my questions.

All I'm trying to do is point out that everyone involved in my students' education (including myself) needs to do better for our students.  We need to do right by our students.  And the way we can do that is by letting go of our pedagogical traditions, our entrenched fears of technology, and our out-of-date visions of what students need to be prepared after they graduate, and start thinking about what they, our students,  really need for a change.

Daniel Pink said it best: "If we want to prepare our children for the future, we need to stop preparing them for our past.” 

As mentioned in a previous post, I planned on making an overview video of my syllabus during my fun and fabulous week at Tech Camp, mainly so I can highlight the key information about my class and then move on to the work of learning.  Below is the final result of that effort; feel free to take a peek and leave any constructive feedback in the comments.  I am still going to do a few more minor edits before showing this to my classes on the first day of school.  

When I show this on that first day, I am hoping it will spark a good discussion from the visual seeds I have planted.  I know this will be a much better use of time than standing in front of the room yapping about my syllabus for 45 minutes (which simply bounces right off their heads when you get to the periods at the end of the day anyway, because, by that time, they're pretty much ruled-and-regulationed- out).  

I used Animoto to make this (and signed up for a one-year Animoto Plus account that is free to educators), and I have to say I am impressed with how easy it is to make a quality-looking video.  It's really as simple as uploading your pictures, picking the animation scheme, and some music at its most basic level.  The one thing that I don't like is how little control you have over how long each picture is displayed; I would have liked a feature that let me customize how long some pictures were shown. (There is a speed setting right before you finalize your video, but it's the equivalent of the windshield wiper speeds in the old 1982 Buick Regal I used to own: slow, a little too fast, and so-fast-the-wipers-are-rubbing-against-the-glass-and-making-that-annoying-sound).  Other than that, the other features of the Plus account allow for great customization: the ability to choose from several animation schemes, adding text, uploading pictures from other sites as well as your local drive, as well as inserting videos and effects that Animoto has on hand.  

Enjoy my electronic syllabus, and please feel free to leave questions or comments.
Creative Commons License
2011-2012 Syllabus Version 4.81 by mrsebiology is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at animoto.com.
This week I am extremely excited to be in Meg Ormiston's Tech Camp, held conveniently at Marengo High School.  In just the first two days, she has given us an overview of many useful tools we can use in our classroom, such as Diigo, Dropbox, Evernote, SchoolTown, and various screencasting and video editing tools.  

I have to admit I am not well-versed in video editing tools, so I was happy to get some experience using some audio recording & editing programs (mainly Audacity) as well as video editing programs such as OpenShot, which this multimedia newbie found very easy to use.  However, my ultimate favorite so far is the even easier to use Photo Story 3.  Simply upload pictures, tweak the motion, transitions, effects, add titles and music, and SHAZAM you have given birth to an adorable little video in a minimum amount of time.  But don't think that just because it's fast that it doesn't have some decent features; my perfectionist tendencies were still very satisfied using Photo Story 3, with enough options to keep my left hemisphere adjusting and finalizing for hours on end. However, if you're looking for a powerful video editor that has more features than I have shoes, then Photo Story 3 isn't what you're looking for.

If you'd like to see the results of my adjusting, finalizing, and tweaking, check out the video I made below using Photo Story 3. (Just be forewarned that this is one of my first attempts at video creation and editing; view at your own risk!)  It is a "getting started" piece; a video that is designed to be shown at the start of an ecology unit to get students thinking about the bigger picture before learning all the details.  Each image is tied to a group of essential concepts and details in our unit objectives.  This way, students will have what I call "visual prior knowledge" on which to hang and connect the ecology details and concepts they'll learn.  I plan on having a discussion after showing the video about what the images are and what they mean (to put them in context; the image of the 1991 Kuwait oil fires is before their time), and then address the quotation and question in groups and as a class.  I am hoping this discussion will show me a few things:

1) What prior knowledge, conceptions, and misconceptions they have about these ecological issues,
2) If anyone will be brave enough to suggest the idea that they have nothing to apologize for, and start a discussion with other students who feel differently, and
3) What I need to do throughout the unit to help them answer that last question in the video as part of their summative assessment.

As far as using videos in the classroom, I am currently envisioning the following uses for this school year:
  • Have students create a video at the end of a unit to form coherent and comprehensive answers to essential questions, but without using words (in order to show synthesis of ideas).
  • Students could create videos as the visual answer to a RAFT assignment rather than using words (Prezi can be used for this as well).
  • As part of my students' ePortfolios, videos could be created as either a reassessment opportunity, or as additional evidence of understanding.
  • Students could create these as a way to present their lab data and conclusions to each other after performing their self-designed experiments.
  • Create a video of my syllabus to present the key points in about 5 minutes.  I can't tell you how many years I have wasted valuable instructional time reading my syllabus to students on the first day of school--not anymore.  I am going to prepare a multimedia presentation of my syllabus for the first day, so I can have students view it, discuss any questions they may have, and move on to doing some learning.  I am going to post this video later in the week in another blog post.
I'm sure I'll think of more as the year moves forward; do you have any other ideas?  Please feel free to share!
I just finished three days of problem-based learning (PBL) training, given by two wonderful teachers certified to teach the PBL methods that IMSA uses.  It was one of the best trainings I have ever attended.  Why?  Because it was run in the way our classes should be run, with modeling, explaining, assessing, doing, discussion, and reflection all included as integral parts, woven together seamlessly.  I can tell you that, based on my previous experience with PBL, what I learned is very different from my initial conception of this process.  However, all the great take-aways from this training will definitely be used this coming school year.

So, what the heck did I learn? Here are the steps we practiced over the three days of training:

1) Meeting the problem:  Students have to meet, or interpret, a messy, ill-structured problem-similar to the ones we encounter in the real world.   In the training, we all had to develop a problem to use in our classes.  After racking my brain, I decided to instead to use the brain of my husband, who is the guy in charge of anything that's on the ground, on wheels, or plugged into a socket of any kind at our school.  If anyone can come up with a real-world, messy problem, it would be him, since he pretty much encounters them on a daily basis.  

My husband suggested a project on which he would soon be working--redesigning our back access road, a road that wasn't really built for the traffic that it currently sees.  So, after using his wonderful brain to come up with an idea, I and my fellow physical science teacher decided to use that idea to teach metric measurement to our freshmen.   We wrote up the problem as a script that my husband would read in a vodcast (because it would be more authentic if he asked the students).   Here's what we came up with:

The school is looking to redesign and resurface the back access road to the school.  Since you will be the ones driving on the new road once you get your permits and start zooming around, the Director of Building and Grounds(that would be me) would like student input as to how to redesign and resurface the road.  I will need proposals of input that I will present to the school board, and the Board is requiring that each proposal have a metric scale drawing of the new road design.  

Also, the road is currently very costly to maintain and repair.  There have been issues with the road in the past, such as people parking along the side of the road, people driving on the grass on the islands and along the edges of the road, improper drainage, the base of the road being improperly laid down when the road was built, and trucks and heavy equipment being driven on the road when the road was not designed for such vehicles.  These issues need to be addressed in your proposal.  

We are looking for any input that you may have so I can incorporate it into my proposal from the board.  You will present your proposal to one or more administrators on <insert day here>.  Your budget for the proposal is $65,000.  We need your input, since you will be future users of the road, and we would hate to see it closed down due to its current issues.

2) Know/Need to Know List: After meeting their problem, students use the information in the problem to develop a T-chart of what they know and what they need to know based solely on what's given to them in the problem.  We were lucky enough to be able to give our problem a trial run using the other teachers in the room as our students, and they came up with a possible know/need to know list (pictured below).  In our trial-run, we had to do some coaching when compiling the list--in other words, we had to ask some guiding questions to prod our captive audience into coming up with some of the "need to knows" about the metric system.  Coaching students, rather than telling students, is key in this model of PBL.  The teacher's role is to guide them in their learning and to their learning, not do the learning for them.  

3) Problem Statement: From the Know/Need to Know list, students generate a problem statement.  In our group of teachers, we were writing our problem statements using this format:

"How can we (need a strong verb here with the task) in such a way that (insert conditions here)."

For example, the possible problem statement for our problem would read like this:

How can we give an administrator input on how the back access road leading from Prospect Street to the high school should be redesigned and resurfaced in such a way that it is:
  1. safe
  2. durable
  3. cost effective
  4. easy to maintain

4) Mapping the Problem: We also mapped out all the possible directions our problem could take students (also pictured below).  This needs to be done before introducing the problem to students.  We were glad we did this, because we realized that we would need to coach students away from some areas and towards others if we wanted to be able to complete this PBL unit within our given time frame.  We also realized that some areas that could be explored with this problem (environmental impact) might best be dealt with in another class (i.e., Biology or our Environmental & Biological Issues class).   You can have students map out the problem as well, so they can get some direction.
After this, students in groups will choose a "need to know" to research, and then come back and present their findings to the larger group.  Then, students will generate possible solutions, determine which one is their "best fit" solution, and then work on their solution--which will culminate in a presentation to the class.  But the process doesn't end there; after all groups have presented their solutions, they all get "debriefed," and asked to reflect on their learning using metacognitive strategies.  Overall, this PBL strategy resembles the same process used by the company IDEO, as depicted in this video.

One central idea that was emphasized to us during the workshop was this:  While the students are to encounter learning in a messy form, your planning for the PBL unit must be tightly structured ahead of time.  This means doing all of the steps above ahead of time, and may require calling in experts from the community, or lining up experts to Skype or e-mail ahead of time.  While this is pretty labor-intensive, I am thinking about alternating units like this with inquiry-based units, especially in my Biology classes.

While you may be doing a lot of the work of planning, in this process the students are sure to do the work of learning.  And it's not just your average, run-of-the-mill learning; it's realistic and engaged learning, using real problems.  

Any thoughts, ideas, or suggestions (especially if you're a pro at using PBL)?  Feel free to leave them in the comments below.
Our beautiful map.
Our practice know/need to know list.