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Category: just a thought (page 2 of 12)

Data-driven Games?

Over the weekend I traveled to an event in Florida and got to talk to Marcelo Stavale Molina very briefly at the end of a session. He is a Brazilian educator and his students do quite  lot with Scratch (link to his Scratch page). He described a game for visually-impaired players developed by 7th graders that I can’t wait to try out. So, I’ve been thinking about the role of programming in problem-solving and creativity all day.

I was skipping from one web page to another earlier today and found this FlowingData website. One of their recent entries links to a very detailed analysis of the frequency of letters in specific positions in words. Since I like playing word games like Scrabble and WordWrap, I had an idea. What if the points awarded by a digital version of Scrabble took into account more than what letters you used? What if we could apply this dataset to a scoring scheme so the value of the letter varied based on the difficulty of placing that letter at the beginning, middle, or end of a word? Imagine assigning a multiplier that either rewarded  you for an uncommon placement, or penalized you for a very common one.

If nothing else, this would be a great example of math in real life. Any takers for this G21 project?

More Than Names and Dates

It is that time of the year when kids are walking down the hall talking about Standards of Learning tests, how they did, and how much they hate this or that.

When I was in high school, I hated history. I remember slogging through an American History class where we had to memorize the dates and names of Civil War battles. It was one of the few tests I failed and didn’t care. I just wanted to move on to a different topic. In college, I signed up for the required History of Western Civilization with nothing short of dread. I walked in the fist day and sat close to the door, ready to bolt as soon as I could. Instead, I ended the semester seriously considering changing my major to History. I have to thank Dena Goodman for making history a fun story, for letting me take a peek at amazing stuff at Hill Memorial Library, and for talking me out of majoring in history.

Of course, since I mentioned the Encyclopédie, you can guess we talked a lot about the French Revolution. That was fun: the scandals, the riots, the atrocities, the fashion, the music, the plays, the poetry… We talked about dates a bit, but those were so minor compared to the big personalities and juicy gossip. It was an incredible time in history, and back then it was not history. It was life.

What if we covered history the way CNN, MSNBC, and Fox cover current events? Clearly those three have people who willingly listen and read. What if students produced news segments about the French Revolution and the decades that led to it to create a collection that could run like an hour’s worth of CNN programming? I think we could pull it off. Of course, we’d have to take insane liberties with some dates since not everything would have happened at the same time…

Head chef at Versailles shares his favorite appetizer recipes

The rich and famous entertain: a visit to Madame de Pompadour

Rameau’s inspiration for his latest chart-topping tunes

An interview Voltaire and Rousseau: their opinions on Shakespeare, constitutional monarchies, and religion

Commercial break – Marie Antoinette’s Cake Bakery

I’m sure the kids could come up with many more ideas by following their own interests. It would be a great way to cover all the content and let each student shine by focusing on what they find most interesting. Once the collection is done, it would become an excellent digital resource for everyone to reference when it is time to review.

Any takers at GHS for next year? I’d love to be a part of this.

Thinking About Citizen Science

I’m currently working on a children’s book about ladybugs, and after collecting video of a larva eating an aphid this weekend, I was trying to find out if ladybug larvae have teeth. In my searching, I ran across something I had heard about before, but forgotten: The Lost Ladybug Project. This, combined with an article sent to me by a friend earlier in the month, made me think this and other citizen science projects could be resources for a really interesting G21 Project next year.

What if kids with iPads went outside a few minutes once or twice a week, or even volunteered time during recess, to document the biodiveristy of the playground? Teachers could create a classroom account on Project Noah and other similar websites. Using LeafSnap, students could learn to tell the difference between oak trees, or even more relevant, between poison oak and ivy. Instead of ordering a butterfly kit from a school supply catalog, students could find their own caterpillars, watch them grow, and document the process.

I have not searched my blog, but I think I’ve written almost exactly the same paragraph above at least once before. This is something I value. It is something important to me. I believe in using the technology kids enjoy to help us better understand and save the ecosystems that keep us alive. I also believe it is important that kids see things outside of books, in real life, to connect school to the outside world.

Note: The ladybug larva is not the cutest bug out there, and watching it eat is not everyone’s cup of tea. I have it here if you would like to see it.

Engagement, Hope, and Caring

How engaged are you with students in your classroom? Do you talk with your students, or do you talk at your students? Do you think your students believe you care about them? How important is any of this?

Goochland High School participated in the Gallup Student Poll last fall. Those of us in charge of logistics rolled our eyes, of course. How many surveys will we have to manage this school year? Despite my eye-rolling, I am glad we participated. It seems there is a lot going on with the data collected at the time. I do not have time to analyze the data myself, but there are smart people doing that, and other smart people writing about the important bits for us. KQED’s Mind/Shift blog has republished a blog post by Anya Kamenetz originally posted at the Hechinger Report.

 Gallup found that students who agreed with the following two statements: 1. “My school is committed to building the strengths of each student” and 2. “I have at least one teacher who makes me excited about the future” were 30 times more likely to be engaged.

Our mission statement expressly states that we are to unlock the potential of every student. Our strategic plan has an entire section dedicated to engagement. And at every faculty meeting at GHS, Mr. Newman encourages us to care for our students, to get to know them and understand them a bit better. He certainly leads by example. Every morning as I walk in the door, Mr. Newman is surrounded by students waiting to talk to him. He knows their names and even a few details of what might be going on with their families.

When you take the time to know your students, it shows you care. If you care about them now, it is more likely you will care about them in the future. If you don’t care about them now, when you see them as often as you do, it is quite certain you don’t care what will happen to them after they leave your classroom. When someone cares, there is hope.

The Gallup survey also attempts to measure hope to find out how it affects student outcomes.

Gallup researchers have found in peer-reviewed studies that their “hope” measure was a better predictor of grades in college than SATs, ACTs or high school GPA. In a third study, students’ levels of hope accounted for almost half of the variation in math achievement and at least one-third of their variation in reading and science scores.

Yeah, that’s nice. How do hope and engagement affect my SOL scores? I don’t know. Maybe you shouldn’t care, either. As Ms. Kamenetz wrote in a post all about metrics in education.

Tracking outcomes is more complex than reporting test scores. It’s also more relevant.

The Mechanics of Understanding

How do we learn? Pick your favorite answer. We learn by doing. We learn by repetition. We learn by teaching others. We learn by…

We learn when we are challenged and supported, when we have something to aim for and the goal is attainable. We might compare this to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of entering a state of flow.

There is more to it. Being aware that learning is happening and understanding how the learning happens leads to better outcomes. The research on the effects of metacognition is cited liberally in the National Academies Press report on 21st Century Skills.

Yes, it is a huge, dense book. It is full of very useful stuff, but teachers’ time is a precious commodity. And, of course, it is often more effective to cite a notable example involving someone we (or maybe just me?) love.

Joel Achenbach has written a beautiful piece on Carl Sagan for Smithsonian. You can read about his documents at the Library of Congress, the Cosmos reboot, and too many other interesting topics to list here. There are many quotes throughout, all worded in that beautifully-recognizable Sagan style. There is one particular quote that jumped out at me and made me think of teaching and what we are trying to achieve.

I think I’m able to explain things because understanding wasn’t entirely easy for me. Some things that the most brilliant students were able to see instantly I had to work to understand. I can remember what I had to do to figure it out. The very brilliant ones figure it out so fast they never see the mechanics of understanding.


When I think of Carl Sagan, “brilliant” is the first adjective that I assign to him. He did not see himself as brilliant, but he saw this as an advantage. He was aware of what, how, and when he learned, and we are all aware of his achievements and his influence on scientific culture.

As part of our push for Deeper Learning, we must help our students develop metacognitive skills.  A good way to start is to let students talk through their learning. Having students explain how they work through a process is very helpful. In explaining, students have to justify everything rather than guess when they are stuck. And when they are stuck, they have to figure out why, then look for an answer or ask for help. This learning out loud also gives teachers an insight into what has been learned, what has been misunderstood, and what is missing altogether.

If you have access to iPads (and if you are in our school division your answer is probably yes), think about using Explain Everything to let students talk through their learning. The app combines visuals, animation, and audio. Students get the opportunity to listen to themselves and share with others, too. If you have not seen Explain Everything, take a look. If you are interested in using it with your students, let me know. I’m here to help.

My Kids CAN Do That

This year we gave students control over their own passwords for Google Apps. I was a bit worried when we decided this, and we have tools to help teachers manage potential classroom disruptions. I am happy to say this has, for the most part, been a great success. Wherever it has not been a success, I believe we need change some attitudes.

Passwords and user names are not going away just yet. Maybe one day they will. For now, keeping track of these things is a life skill.

Maybe the problem is not in what we want the kids to do, but in how we are framing the conversation. I was reading a blog post by Jennie Magiera in which she addresses a shortcoming in a service she recommends. Her solution is a workaround that requires students to make a selection and remember the name of the group to which they belong. Rather than saying, “kids need to know” where to click, she says students are empowered to make their selection.

Is a word choice really that important? I think so. Kids need to understand the power they will have over their own lives when they know how to do certain things without relying on someone else to give them access.

Learning Through Photography

With all the talk about 1:1 computing coming to Goochland, there has been a lot of talk about inquiry-based approaches to teaching and creativity. We have moved away from discussing what apps to use and towards how to use every feature of every device for the benefit of the students. One of the features I believe is a bit underused is the camera.

Some of you know I have been interested in photography since I was in elementary school, and I devote much of my free time to macro photography with my iPhone. If I had had this as a kid… Ah… The pleasure of having a camera within reach all the time, of taking pictures and seeing them immediately still makes me smile. Our students have this now. Every student in our 1:1 pilot has outstanding photographic tools right there, every day, all day. The iPad is a camera, a darkroom, a photo-editing light table, a portable gallery. We have so many opportunities for teaching students to use photography as art, for communication, and most of all, for exploration.

Of course, having a great tool does not mean we will have 100% beautiful pictures from all kids. We must guide students, and we must learn with them.

Nicole Dalesio has been incorporating photography into her teaching practice for a long time, and she has very helpful advice for all of us in this article published in THE Journal last year.

Dalesio wants her students to learn how to take effective photographs, so she teaches them the “SCARE” principles in a little checklist:
  • Simplify: Get rid of excess objects — the water bottle on the picnic table, the junky papers — that clutter up the background; make the canvas as “blank” as possible.
  • Close/closer: “A lot of times people take pictures too far away,” explains Dalesio. Get close and closer to your subject. That doesn’t mean using the zoom option; it means “Zoom with your feet.”
  • Angle: Be creative as you’re taking your picture. Try to find an unusual angle from which to shoot. That could mean standing on a picnic table or tree stump and looking down or lying on the grass and shooting up.
  • Rule of thirds: The best compositions are often the ones where the main subject is either in the right third or left third of the image. So shift the image that way.
  • Even lighting. “You want even lighting,” says Dalesio. If there’s some kind of shadow across the face, move the camera or the subject around to eliminate that. “Usually the best time to take pictures is early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the lighting isn’t as harsh,” she notes. “Foggy days are great for taking pictures — or overcast or even rainy days.”

Here is my own advice:

  • Start small. Take pictures inside your classroom. Have kids share their pictures and discuss them in small groups.
  • Look at pictures students see regularly in posters, books, and magazines and discuss what makes them good. Also discuss how they could be better, or more to the kids’ taste.
  • Discuss how different types of photography are intended for different purposes: artistic versus scientific research, documentation versus marketing, etc.
  • Build a collection of student-created images to use in class projects.
  • Give your students an audience. Use your blog, use Edmodo, organize a photo exposition for Back to School Night, share student photographs with the team assembling the school and county newsletters.
  • Most of all, have fun. Let kids follow their own interests and curiosity and feel good about the images they capture.

Of course, as always, I’d love to help. Just email or drop in for a visit.

“Grading” Digital Citizenship

Seeing technology as a distraction rather than a learning tool is ridiculously common. I see teachers struggle with this predicament and I feel an obligation to change their minds. When ball point pens were invented, some schools banned them because… well… I don’t know why. This is something my mother told me about years ago. Ball point pens were new technology and maybe kids would draw mustaches on pictures in textbooks with them. Who knows?

Of course. My job depends on teachers using technology. I have to defend my job. I also have to defend the future of the digital citizens these teachers are shaping.

Technology in schools is not a passing fad. We have transitioned from typewriters and radio, through film strips, television, desktops, laptops, tablets. What’s next? Who knows, and who really cares? We have to adapt or retire, I say. If you disagree, read a bit of Marshal McLuhan’s writings obsolescence and adaptation (Wikipedia link). Technology changes society, and education is an integral part of society. Therefore, education MUST change as technology changes if it is to be relevant.

It all sounds very nice in theory, but we don’t live in theory. We must put this into practice. We must use technology in teaching.

I doubt there is a silver bullet that will eliminate every single incident of misbehavior when using technology. We work with children, and it is perfectly natural for children to get distracted, to push their limits, and to misbehave sometimes. What we can do is guide students in order to minimize misbehavior and help them grow to be good digital citizens. We must set expectations and remind students of those expectations often.

A great way to keep digital citizenship in every students’ mind is to include it as a component in grading rubrics. Grades should reflect academic growth, so any part of a grade that is not related to required learning objectives should be small enough not to be punitive. If a teacher is planning a project worth 100 points, a small portion of that (5-10 points) can be set aside for digital citizenship. Rather than telling students what NOT to do, tell them what will earn the full amount of points:

  • time on task (distraction)
  • responsible use of technology (vandalism)
  • use of appropriate sources (media literacy)
  • collaborative effort (disrespectful or bullying behavior)

Having these on a rubric lets students know that you are serious. It will also prevent a teacher from reacting too harshly and shying away from technology in the future.


Six Years Into G21

Last week, at the VSTE annual conference, I attended a session about project-based Language Arts classrooms. During the Q&A at the end of the session, I mentioned our G21 framework and a project from a teacher at GMS. The teacher next to me listened, and when I finished, she said, “Oh, you guys copied our idea!”

My first reaction was to be offended. We launched our G21 initiative in the fall of 2008. We blogged about it, met with teachers, did a lot of persuading. By the spring semester, John Hendron and I were busy presenting at conferences about our framework and what we were seeing in classrooms. By the end of the year, we had incredible projects to share. By 2010, Henrico launched its own initiative. More recently, Isle of Wight put together its i-sle21 program. I know there are other “(insert your word or letter)21” initiatives out there that have emerged as we refined our ideas over the past six years.

My second reaction was to think, “Well, this is so good nobody can fathom that a small county like Goochland actually did this!”

I am not sure which school division the teacher represented. I don’t know that it really matters. Who came first, second, or third is not as important as how much of a difference these ideas are making in the lives of students, in Goochland and other counties. I’ll file this under “Fair Use” and  hope the teacher who spoke to me is letting her students really grow and learn in her classroom.

Civil, Polite, Informed

Should we teach our students to tweet? Is tweeting more important than cursive writing? I don’t know. Depends on who asks and when the question is asked. This was my response yesterday.

As I was typing that response to my friend Larry, I was getting ready for a virtual visit by Congressman Eric Cantor. His office contacted our schoola few weeks ago, and we welcomed the chance to offer our students this opportunity to engage in face-to-face conversation with the people they read about as part of their Government curriculum. I took care of the technology and Mrs. Yearout-Patton took care of the students’ participation. We had visitors from Central Office and the event went on without a hitch.

It is part of the Goochland County Public Schools culture that we highlight special events using our well-established online presence. We posted about the event on our GHS page. Dr. Gretz blogged about it. Mrs. Yearout-Patton, Dr. Lane, Dr. Gretz, and I tweeted about it.

We had many positive responses. Then, late last night, there was a tweet from @JoeBobLee about Congressman Cantor’s visit that denigrated our learning activity and insulted our school community. I thought I would just ignore it, but it is not in my nature.

As educators, we expose students to the full breadth of the political spectrum. It is our obligation regardless of our political leanings. In fact, as educators employed by taxpayers, we MUST maintain a neutral environment in our schools. We have hosted Senator Mark Warner, Delegate Lee Ware, and Governor Bob McDonnell over the past three years. I am unaware that we have turned down an offer for an onsite or virtual visit from any politician, Democrat, Republican or anything else.

As educators, we also encourage good digital citizenship. We teach students not to plagiarize. We combat cyber-bullying with special programs and events. We engage our students in collaboration and civil, polite, informed discourse through online tools such as Edmodo, Moodle, and Twitter.

Civil, polite, informed discourse. @JoeBobLee must have been absent the day that was taught at his school.



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