A Slight Detour

So I’m taking a bit of a detour in this post.  For the last few days, I haven’t been able to think too much about next school year because this week is one of the most important weeks of the current school year for my students (and myself).  Advanced Placement exams are this week – Friday, in fact.  It’s always a stressful time.  We’ve been steadily reviewing for three weeks now, but I’m always wishing we could do more.

The funny thing about teaching AP for me is that intellectually I know teaching and learning is about more than one score on one test, even a comprehensive, well-designed one like the AP history test.  I believe that lifelong learning is about curiosity, passion, engagement.  And while I whole-heartedly believe in the Advanced Placement program, I know that my students are more than a number from 1-5, and I know that I, as a teacher, am more than the sum total of my students’ scores.  As I say, intellectually I know this.  Come May, however, my intellect goes on a holiday it seems because it suddenly appears to me like “The Test” is everything.

Don’t worry.  This isn’t going to be a post about whether AP and standardized tests accurately reflect learning or whether teachers should be held accountable for test results.  Good, research-based arguments can be made for both sides of those debates, and usually the answer lies somewhere in the middle of two extremes.  This post is really just a reminder for me that learning is a process, and while some students will show their progress on the AP exam with high scores, others will show it in other ways and perhaps not right away.  It’s also a reminder to me to make sure that I communicate to students (and parents) that, while I most assuredly want them to do their best and hope that they receive credit for their hard work in the form of a “passing” score, I hope that the course is more than the test.  I hope they learn to read and think more critically, to write more fluently and with greater authority, and to ask questions that will keep them learning into the future.  Worse than hearing that a student didn’t do as well on the test as he’d hoped is hearing that same student say that, given that low score, there was no point to taking the course in the first place.  While I hope that all my students do well on Friday, I really hope that regardless of the scores they receive the students feel the year was worth it in some way.

The Wiki Must Die!

Two years ago, I created a wiki to post homework assignments.  We were encouraged to do so by administrators, and it seemed like an easy way to make sure students and parents were well-informed when it came to due dates and the like.  Over the course of the last two years, however, I became kinda attached to my wiki, and it grew to be more than a simple place to post assignments.  The wiki served as a place to not only post schedules but a place to post unit study guides, class photos, links to podcasts and more.  There were separate pages not only for each class that I teach but also for each unit of study within each course.  I spent a great deal of time organizing the wiki and making it aesthetically pleasing.  So it’s taken me awhile to come to the conclusion that the wiki must die.

Because I had invested quite a bit of effort into my wiki, you can imagine my reluctance to kill it, and believe me, I have spent the last couple of months trying to figure out a way to hold onto it for the coming year.  Alas, it just doesn’t make good sense.  Wikis are great for one-way communication between teacher and student, and they are good for collaborative projects and work spaces.  When it comes to serving as a way to communicate back and forth with students, however, they leave much to be desired.  Part of the great appeal of going 1:1 is the possibility of going paperless, or nearly paperless anyway.  I needed a way to not only assign work but a way to collect work as well.  If I continued to use my wiki, I knew that I would have to add in another step.  I could assign work via my wiki, but students would then either have to email me their completed work or use a program like Turnitin.com to get their work to me.  The thought of all those emails flooding my inbox or the multiple-step approach required of using a wiki plus another program for collecting assignments was not appealing to me, but I still clung to the possibility that I could keep the wiki I’d worked so hard to create.

Fortunately, before I dug my heels in too deeply, before I came up with some convoluted and complex plan to keep the wiki, a memory came back to me.  When I was working on my masters degree in education, I did the usual rounds of visiting the classrooms of veteran teachers and logging observation hours.  Once, I visited the classroom of an older economics teacher who had been teaching for some twenty years.   He used a battered, yellow legal pad to lecture from each day.  At lunch one day, he told me with great pride that the legal pad contained all his notes from his very first years of teaching.  He’d been using it ever since.  That afternoon, as he lectured from the dog-eared notebook, I looked around the room and watched the students.  Many were not paying much attention and those that were looked weary beyond belief.  If the teacher noticed, he didn’t seem to be especially bothered by it.  My initial thought was that this teacher just didn’t care, but I don’t think that was true.  He genuinely seemed to like his job and his students.  So what was it?  I think it came down to that yellow legal pad.  The notes that he’d created were good notes, very extensive.  It had obviously taken some time for him to create those notes, so he was understandably reluctant to give it up and start anew.  In that moment, I thought to myself, I don’t want to be this kind of teacher.  I don’t want to be so wedded to one way of doing things, the way that works for me, that I fail to do what’s best for my students.

As I said, this memory came back to me recently when I was trying my best to keep my wiki despite knowing that it wasn’t the best solution for either my students or myself.  So I’ve started to dismantle my wiki, saving what I think I might use again and deleting some things completely.  I know that it might take more effort on my part in the coming year to begin a new system, but I also know that it will be more efficient and effective in the end to come up with a more streamlined two-way communication system.  Trying something new will keep me fresh and excited too, which will benefit my students more than I probably even realize.

Killing off lessons, organizational systems, and the like is a difficult thing for teachers, especially when those things have served us well in the past.  Just because it’s always worked in the past, however, does not mean there’s not a better way out there.  As difficult as it might be for us, sometimes the wiki must die.

Electronic Textbooks: The Good, the Bad, or the Ugly?

I think one of the hardest things for people of my generation and older to wrap their heads around is the online textbook. Sure, I read books on my Kindle and my iPad, but there’s something different about reading a textbook online. Unlike a novel or a book of popular nonfiction, I annotate my textbooks heavily. I highlight, I underline, I write in the margins. I come to “see” my textbook in my head, so that I can find the information I need quickly and direct my students to the right places. Since my AP students have in the past purchased their textbooks, they do this as well. By the end of the year, it’s obvious that their textbooks have been used and used a lot. A rainbow of colors highlight key words and concepts, scribbled notes wind their way around the corners of the printed text, sticky notes hang precariously from the edges of the pages. Of course, an online textbook changes this, and I can’t decide how I feel about it. And it’s not just me. My students are unsure as well.

Nevertheless, this is where we are headed as a school and as a larger society, so I needed to take the leap and find online textbooks for this coming year.* It ended up being easier than I thought because the two books that I like to use for AP U.S. history and AP European history already come in an eBook format, although one is a slightly more condensed version than the hardcopy. I’ve been playing around with the online textbooks over the last few weeks, and the cool thing is that along with the actual text, the publisher is really providing an entire course management system for the same price of the hardcopy text. Students can log on anywhere in the world with any device that allows Internet access. The text itself can be highlighted and annotated using small embedded sticky notes. In addition, students have easy access to the “extras” like reading comprehension quizzes and the like to check themselves. It’s true that the questions are rather simple, but it’s at least some built-in review for the students. I can even use the website to assign homework, quizzes, and tests if I so choose (although I probably won’t, and I’ll explain why in a future post). Obviously, not having to carry around a hefty tome is a plus as well, and since students can access the text on any device, there’s no convenient excuses left for forgetting one’s book and not being able to do an assignment. So yes, there’s some definite plusses to this whole electronic textbook thing.

As with anything, of course, there are many questions and perhaps some drawbacks as well. Will students comprehend and retain the same amount of information from an eBook as from a traditional hardcopy text? Will students tire more quickly reading text on a screen as opposed to a traditional book? Will students find it as easy to navigate the book on a computer as they do flipping actual pages that they can touch and feel? Will students start printing out the pages of the eBook, thereby wasting paper, printer ink, and money? How much time will I have to devote at the start of the year to getting students familiar with the eBook? What happens when the website is unavailable for some reason, and how often will this happen? How do I know if the website was truly down, or a student is just lying to get out of an assignment?

My students too have questions and concerns. Some of them already insist that they aren’t going to like reading their texts online, and a few have asked if they can purchase the hardcopy instead. In an attempt to ease some of their worry, I told them that, if the online textbooks don’t work for them, they can purchase a used hardcopy to supplement the online text. However, I’ve asked them to wait until we get through the first several units of next year’s study before they buy a hardcopy. My suspicion, or perhaps my hope, is that they will adapt quite quickly to the eBook format.

Time and experience will tell. As I begin teaching with eBooks in the fall, I’ll post more about our experiences, both the good and the not so good.

*I’ve decided to go with McGraw-Hill’s Connect Plus program. I’ll be using Brinkley’s The Unfinished Nation for AP U.S. and Sherman’s The West in the World for AP Euro.

Laptops, iPads, or Some Other Device?

The other day I gave a brief overview of the school at which I currently teach, and now, since the ultimate purpose of this blog is to chronicle my experience in a 1:1 environment, I thought I’d write a little about the technology our school has adopted.  First and foremost, we are an Apple school.  When I began teaching here four years ago, we were a kind of mix.  There were some MacBook carts for classroom use, and a couple of computer labs with Mac desktops, but most teachers had Dells in their classrooms.  Now, however, all teachers and students use Macs, and most of the other staff members are in the process of converting.  If you’d asked me four years ago which I preferred, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you much.  Funny thing is I never thought I liked computers much, or maybe I thought they never much liked me.  But once I started using a MacBook, everything changed.  Macs, for me at least, are so completely intuitive.  I like technology that gets out of its own way, and Macs seem to do that for the average user.  Suffice it to say, I’m a convert, and Apple is my friend.

Of course, deciding to go with Apple is really the first and simplest decision.  The more difficult decision for a school is whether students will be furnished with laptops or tablets or some combination of both.  For my school, the decision came down to three possibilities – MacBooks, MacAirs, or iPads.  It’s my understanding that the older, white MacBooks are slowly going away as they are replaced with MacBook Pros.  MacAirs have fewer moveable parts and rely solely on “the cloud”, making them the safer choice for students who tend to be a bit rough on computers.  iPads have great uses in the classroom, wonderful apps and a great touch screen, but unless you get one of the small keyboards to go along with them, they are difficult to type on for any length of time.  There’s really no right answer to the debate, I think.  In fact, the device that is eventually adopted is really not the most important thing at all.  They all have their pros and cons.  To me, the debate about devices is akin to the debate about textbooks.  Sure, I may personally prefer one textbook over another because of the way it is written or because of the “extras” that come with it, but when it’s all said and done, a textbook is a textbook.  Ultimately, what matters most is how the teacher and students use the textbook to support instruction and learning.  It’s the same with computer devices.  There are differences to be sure, but they aren’t as important as it seems at first glance.  The important thing is to engage with the device once it’s been adopted and learn how to use it efficiently and effectively in the classroom.

In the end, my school decided to go with MacAirs, although teachers will continue to use their MacBook Pros.  (Actually, the 7th and 9th grade students were given MacBooks last year, so they’ll be the only two classes of 6th through 12th graders with MacBooks as opposed to Airs.  Again, it doesn’t much matter unless you’re the 7th or 9th grader who prefers an Air to a MacBook.  But that’s all just superficial since they do the same things.)  I understand that some of the younger grades (K4-5) will have access to iPads or perhaps iPods, which is I think great for little fingers.  And of course, we still have MacBook carts and Mac computer labs throughout the school.  Perhaps in the future, we’ll add some iPads throughout the upper grades for the use of certain apps and the touch screen aspect.  That remains to be seen.

So a brief recap of the technology I’ll have access to next year in my own classroom: I have a MacBook Pro and my own personal iPad.  All my students (10th, 11th, and 12th graders) will have MacAirs.  I also have a SmartBoard in my classroom with a remote clicker which makes it easy to teach from anywhere in the room, which is good for classroom management.  So that’s the technology side of this whole thing.  Now, how to use it all and use it well.

A School and Its Culture

Before I get too far into this reflection thing, I thought it might be a good idea to give a brief overview of my school.*  Every school operates within its own culture, and quite honestly, school culture is easily one of the biggest predictors in terms of educational success – the sum of the school community is much larger than its individual parts.  For instance, if you have a school community that values the ongoing professional development of their individual teachers, then teachers (like students) will rise to the highest standards and continue to try new things in the classroom, adapt to changes, integrate the best practices, etc.  But if you don’t have a school culture that promotes this kind of lifelong learning, while individual teachers may pursue such learning on their own, certainly fewer will do so than if the larger school community endorses this kind of thing through the use of positive peer pressure.  Luckily, I think my school does a pretty good job of offering teachers the freedom and opportunity to grow and perfect their craft, and I’ll talk more about this in future post.

So here is a brief overview of my school.  My school is located in Montgomery, Alabama.  We are one of several larger private, Christian schools in the area.  Our school includes grades K4-12, and in all, we educate approximately 950 or so students a year on a single campus.  The school prides itself on providing a well-rounded, Christ-centered education, focused on academics, athletics, and the arts.  Most of the students come from solid middle to upper-middle class backgrounds.  Tuition is around $10,000 or so, and while many parents make great sacrifices to send their children to our school, we have a relatively small population of students on tuition assistance.  One-hundred percent of our students go on to some form of higher education, with most attending 4-year colleges immediately after graduation.  The majority choose to attend one of the big state schools – Auburn or Alabama- but a few will range further afield.  Class sizes, in the upper school, range from as small as 10 or 12 students to as much as 20 or 21.  Students can take college prep or advanced coursework, we offer a good range of electives across the disciplines, and students are heavily involved in extracurricular activities.

I tell you this because I realize that the problems that I face teaching in my school are not the problems a teacher faces in some other type of school.  I may have 3 separate preps, but I have small classes, which means I can provide more one-on-one guidance, more in-depth writing assignments.  If I worked in a large public school with 6 periods a day of at least 20 students, I may only have a single prep, but I would never be able to do as much essay writing as a I currently do.  The sheer volume of assignments would be much different and much more overwhelming.  Having recognized that the problems I face are different from the problems another teacher faces, I think we can all learn from one another.  Assignments can be adapted to accommodate different class sizes or differences in individual ability.  So hopefully the ideas that come out of this blog will be helpful for teachers in a variety of schools and across the disciplines.  Tweaking will be necessary, of course.  Then again, adaptation is just one of those necessary components of good teaching.

*For a more in-depth look at my school, I’ve linked the school’s website here.

Time to Reflect

When I first began teaching, I had this idea that I would keep a journal of my experiences, recording all those first-year experiences that all teachers go through one way or another.  But of course, when you are a first-year teacher (or a second- or third-year teacher for that matter), you’re so busy keeping your head above water, managing all the day to day matters and then some, that it’s a rare teacher that can commit to sitting down on a regular basis and reflecting on teaching in any great depth.  When teachers do manage to find the time to reflect on what they are doing, it’s too often reflection on a very superficial level.  We simply look at a completed lesson and decide it worked well enough and keep it in our files for next year.  Or we decide it bombed for some reason, and we chuck it altogether.  Unfortunately, this kind of reflection doesn’t tell us much.  It doesn’t tell us WHY something worked or not, and how we can apply that information to other lessons in the future.  To work well, the reflective teacher needs to be an intentional teacher, and all too often, there’s simply not enough time to do this well.  A teacher in their first few years of teaching is even less likely to be able to do this than a veteran.

So here it is, several years on, and I’m just now wrapping up my fourth year of teaching and getting ready for the (relative) rest of summer vacation.  It finally seems like I have the time to write about what it’s like to be a teacher.  I’m comfortable with my teaching load as well as all the extra duties that have come my way, and I finally feel like I have enough experience of my own to have something useful to say to others about this profession, this craft of teaching.

There’s another reason I decided now was the time to write about teaching.  The school I teach at is rolling out a 1:1 laptop program next year.  Actually, the school began rolling it out this year.  All 7th and 9th grade students received laptops this year, but since I don’t teach either of those grades, it didn’t particularly affect me.  This coming year will be a very different story, however.  All three of my classes – AP European history, AP U.S. history, and government – will now be 1:1 classrooms.  While I’m incredibly excited about all the opportunities that are coming our way, integrating technology like this poses its own sets of challenges.  Journaling about how I manage this new environment is one way of meeting those challenges.  I figure the more reflective and intentional I am in integrating the technology the more effective I will be for my students.

I know I’m not the first to chronicle the experience of being a teacher or even the first to chronicle the experience of teaching in a 1:1 environment.  Many others have done this, and many more will do so in the future.  Yet there’s a uniqueness to everyone’s experience, and I do hope to contribute something worthwhile to the ongoing dialogue about the role of technology in education.  Whether I can pose new questions or perhaps provide some tentative answers to the problems already known, I think the more teachers we have that share their experiences, the richer our understanding becomes.

So there it is.  The deceptively simple goal of this whole journaling experiment: to be effective in the classroom for my students by intentionally reflecting on teaching, particularly in a 1:1 environment.