I know I have not blogged in a while. We have been exceedingly busy deploying iPads to all our 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th grade students. Tomorrow we get to visit our one cohort of 3rd graders at Goochland Elementary. It is exciting to be entering our third year of 1:1 learning.

I’ve also been very busy outside of school. I’ve formally become a student again, and the past ten days have been mind-stretching and time-consuming. Tonight I was going through my required readings and I came across a paragraph that made me stop reading and come over to this blog and write a post about it.

If you try to read a video game manual before you have ever played a game, you can, at best, associate definitions and paraphrases with the words in the text. The manual is boring and close to useless, when it is not simply inexplicable. If, however, you play the game for hours—you do not have to play at all well—then when you pick up the manual again everything will be clear.
This comes from James Paul Gee’s Digital Media and Learning: A Prospective Retrospective (link), and while the quote refers to a video game manual, it could very well be about a textbook in any of our classrooms. As Gee himself explains in the next few paragraphs, learning from reading the textbook without proper contextual references leads to passing the test but not much else. There is no Deeper Learning in learning for the test. Last year and over the summer, we, as a school division, spent a lot of time thinking about and designing learning experiences that are student-centered. An important part of our plans was the inclusion of a kick-off event, a vivid, memorable introductory event that would give context and purpose to whatever was to follow. I’ve often heard of teachers asking students to read a textbook chapter for homework in advance of any hands-on activity or in-class discussion. What do students really get out of this assignment? What if I asked any adult to read this intense text on the importance of Chalcid wasps in biocontrol efforts as homework for next Monday? Take a look. I read it because I have many Chalcid wasps in my macro photography collection. I know you have no interest. Still, give it a glance and try to imagine how students might feel when confronted with textbook full of stuff they have never heard about. Now think about what I could have done ahead of time to make this text a bit more more understandable and relevant despite the content being so foreign to you.
  • Show a video of a chalcid wasp laying eggs.
  • Show pictures of the typical hosts for chalcid wasps and ask students to tell me about them. Let you look up information to use in the discussion.
  • Talk about the problems of introducing toxic chemicals into a garden and let you think of alternatives. Guide you through searches for alternatives.
In the end, the text would simply fill in the gaps and become a study guide. We all want our students to love our content area as much as we do. We want them to look at a new textbook and hug it to their chest with glee at the thought of reading about the Constitution, single cell organisms, or the expansion of Islam. It would be great if they did, but they probably don’t. It is up to us to bring the content to life, to make it relevant and relatable. Your best chance to do this is with a well thought out kick-off event for any topic.