Monday Morning Roundup #3

It’s Monday morning, and you know what that means. It’s time for the Monday Morning Roundup.  Here’s some educational resources you might find useful.

1. Jog Nog – Jog Nog is a website devoted to Internet-based games for elementary, middle, and even high school students. The site has a library of over 40,000 questions written by teachers for teachers that are used within the different games.  The games cover all the core areas – English, mathematics, science, and social studies.  Many of these games are free, but some do require a paid subscription.  Right now the site has more for elementary and middle school students, but they are adding more all the time.  Creating an account is simple.  All you need is an email address.  Once you are registered, you can sort by content area, grade level, or price.

2. Meograph – Meograph just got out of its beta version, and I’m excited to explore this a bit more.  The only issue is it currently only works with Google Chrome. Other browsers should be available soon, and downloading Google Chrome only takes two minutes anyway.  Meograph bills itself as “four-dimensional” storytelling because there are – you guessed it – four layers.  The layers include maps, a timeline, voiceover narration, and embedded photographs, pictures, or videos. Students tell a story using all four layers.  For instance, one of the samples on the site is a story about the Arab Spring.  Another example is the history of women’s rights in America. This kind of storytelling could be used in English, history, science, etc.  There’s a ton of possibilities, and it’s free.

3.  TED-Ed – Most people have seen a TED video and know the tagline “Ideas Worth Spreading.”  Now, TED has launched TED-Ed, a way to use TED videos or any YouTube video in a lesson plan.  Not surprisingly, they are calling this “Lessons Worth Sharing.”  You create a free account, find a video you want to use, and then add things like short quizzes, short-answer questions, additional resources, etc.  It’s all right there in TED-Ed right next to your video.  Or you can use lessons that others have already created, editing them to match your needs.  In addition, if you have a really awesome idea that the TED people like, they will match you up with an animator, and you can create your own professional short video.  The site is relatively new so choice is limited but growing quickly.

4. Ethel Woods – Ethel Woods is a social studies teacher who has written a number of “course books” for Advanced Placement courses in the social sciences. They are not textbooks, but they are a bit more than typical review books.  She has books on AP U.S. history, AP European history, AP Comparative Government and Politics and more.  The books are very good sources of review for students and a handy reference for social studies teachers.  You can find her books on Amazon.

5. Shmoop – A lot of people by this point know about Shmoop, but I’m currently writing a review test for them, and I thought I’d give it a plug.  It’s a website devoted to explaining concepts and reviewing with students in a way that is humorous but informative.  There’s information by subject area as well as ACT, SAT, and AP test reviews.  A lot of the site is free, but individual students, teachers, or schools can purchase subscriptions to the site’s paid resources. Teachers can purchase passes that provide lesson plan ideas and more.  There’s really too much on this site for me to write about in any great detail, but even if you don’t want to use the site for yourself, letting your students in on this little gem is worth it.

Inquiry-based Instruction, Here I Come

Last week, I referred to Dan Meyer’s talk “Math Class Needs a Makeover,” and I mentioned how I was rethinking my government course as a result of some of what he said in that talk. I’ve never been particularly happy with my government curriculum, but while I’ve tweaked things here and there, I’ve never really done a complete overhaul, and by the middle of the term, I often fall back on old ways of doing things. Until now. Yep, I finally decided that, if I was going to make a major change, now was the time to do it. Going 1:1 is going to allow me a lot of flexibility this year in how I tackle my government course, and I might as well take advantage of it.

Putting it succinctly, I’m redesigning the curriculum away from an information-based curriculum with me as the disseminator of that information towards an inquiry-based curriculum with the students asking and answering the questions. If school continues to be primarily about disseminating information, it will eventually become irrelevant. Our students no longer live in a world where they have to go to school to get information; it’s all around them. And guess what? Students are well aware of this. The problem for our students is figuring out how to process that information, how to ask questions of that information, how to find out what’s relevant and valid information, and what to do with that information once they’ve got it.

Before I go any further, let me be clear about something. I’m not suggesting students no longer need direct instruction (usually in the form of a lecture) from time to time, and I’m not suggesting there isn’t information that students need to have in their brains (i.e. memorized) rather than in their computers. This will become clear, I think, as I explain how I’m redesigning things, but just in case there’s any misunderstanding, I wanted to lay this out from the get-go.

Government is a difficult course for me because I’m first and foremost a history teacher and was trained as such. Therefore, I still am using my government textbook as a guide to how to chunk up my units of study. Each unit of study will begin and end with a complex, overarching question that forces students to grapple with information and solve problems.* For instance, my first unit is always on the foundations of American government.** This year, I’m starting the unit off with a quotation from Winston Churchill. “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Then, I’m asking students this question: To what extent is democracy the best form of government? The whole unit then becomes about understanding this question, finding information to answer this question, and communicating an effective argument in response to this question. And notice that the question asks about extent, meaning it’s not a black-and-white, yes-or-no question.

Like any complex question, to effectively respond, the original question must be broken down into smaller questions. The students, as opposed to me, will be responsible for doing this. My job is to steer them in the right direction should they go too far off course. Some of the subsidiary questions might include the following:

  • What is a government, a state, and a nation? How are they alike, and how are they different?
  • Where does government come from?
  • What kinds of government exist?
  • Historically, what problems does each kind of government have to solve?
  • What are the benefits to each kind of government?

This part is going to be messy and uncomfortable because students aren’t going to come up with these questions as neatly and organized as I’ve just done. They may veer off course, but they may also come up with some important questions of which I’ve not thought. But again, it’s important that the students learn how to ask meaningful questions.

Once the subsidiary questions have been asked, it’s time to give students the chance to gather information that might be useful and relevant to answering these smaller questions and the larger question with which we started. The difficulty is not to answer the questions myself but to let the students mull over the information independently, stepping in and providing guidance only when necessary. Some activities I have planned include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Lecture over foundations of government to provide grounding in vocabulary
  • Hobbes v. Locke activity
  • Primary document analysis of excerpts from de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America and The Federalist Papers (particularly #10)
  • Country comparison mini-research activity (one autocracy, one oligarchy, one democracy)

Notice that I still have a lecture in there. Some direct instruction is necessary. Students have to have knowledge of the basic vocabulary and concepts in order to understand the ideas embedded in the questions and communicate their thoughts effectively.

Once we’ve done all these activities, the student must put it all in perspective, relate it back to the original question, and communicate his or her findings. This will take the form of a letter from the student to Winston Churchill, explaining in what ways the student agrees and in what ways he or she disagrees with Churchill’s remark about democracy. The letter will be based on evidence that the student has gathered throughout the unit’s activities. Without going into too much detail here, I will lay out detailed instructions and requirements in the form of a rubric for the students so they know what is expected of them in order to receive a certain grade. The letter will serve as the major assessment for the unit. (FYI – I chose a writing assessment because this is the first unit of the year, and I want to get to know where my students are in terms of their writing abilities. Future units might be assessed using iMovies, podcasts, ePubs, brochures, etc.)

“But,” I hear you saying, “students just need to know what a democracy is as opposed to an oligarchy, for instance. They can’t look up every little thing for the rest of their lives. Some things they just need to know and have in their brains.”

To which I respond, “I am in absolute agreement with you.” But if we are being really honest with ourselves, the amount of information that students need to memorize to be productive, responsible, educated citizens is probably a lot smaller than a traditional information-based curriculum would have us believe. Just think for a moment about all the information in all the courses you took in high school that you had to memorize (and have since forgotten) that you really didn’t need to know to be an intelligent, productive member of society. Furthermore, I will still have my students take objective quizzes throughout the semester on information related to the basic concepts and vocabulary of government. Obviously, this is the stuff that students will need to put in their brains rather than on their computers, and this is the stuff that students need to “just know” in order to understand a newspaper article or participate intelligently in a conversation with a colleague in the future. However, it is true, the amount of this kind of information to be memorized is considerably less than I’ve required in the past. Finally, I would argue that students will learn just as much if not more from this kind of instruction and curriculum than they would from a traditional one. Just because I’m not asking students to memorize the information for a traditional test does not mean they won’t learn it along the way as a result of the activities we are doing in the classroom.

*Other questions for future units include the following: Is Congress an effective branch of government? Is the modern presidency too powerful? Should the Courts seek the original meaning of the U.S. Constitution?

**Here’s a graphic layout of my current thinking about my first unit of the year. Ideas for Unit 1

This Video Is Worth Watching – Really

Math teachers (and every other kind of teacher, too), this video is for you.  Dan Meyer is a math teacher who argues in this video that “math class needs a makeover.”  But really, he provides good insights for all teachers regardless of their discipline, and his talk could have just as easily been titled “School Needs a Makeover.”  He’s focused on inquiry-based learning and engaging students with the right questions.  More importantly, he wants to make sure students learn how to ask the right questions, not just answer them.  This short video has the wheels turning in my own head about how his thoughts apply to my classes, particularly my government class.  How about you?

Monday Morning Roundup #2

It’s the Monday Morning Roundup, and here’s a list of educational resources I’ve come across over the last week.  In terms of apps, even if you only have one iPad in your classroom, you can connect your iPad up to a SmartBoard to use apps with the whole class.  This is particularly useful when introducing a unit or wrapping one up.

1.  Lesson Planning Resources – This week, the topic of digital lesson planning came up a number of times for me.  I am not going to do a detailed review of each resource because lesson planning is very personal.  Depending on grade level and subject area, different teachers prefer different formats.  Here are some links to digital lesson planning sites and apps for your own review.  Planbook, Planbook Touch by Hellmansoft, Hellmansoft, and Planbookedu.  They range in price from free to $35 a year.  While there are a number of other apps out there, most have received mixed reviews, and I’m hesitant to post them here.  They are easy to find, however, if you go to the App Store and type in “lesson plan” in the search box.

2.  Crash Course! – A series of videos on YouTube hosted by brothers John and Hank Green, these videos are usually around 10 minutes long and cover topics in both world history and biology.  John Green is a popular novelist of young adult fiction, and the videos are very appealing to middle and high school students because of their fast pace, humor, and imagery.  (Shout out to Becca and Tori for introducing me to this one. :))

3.  Dickens’ Dark London – This app is a project of the Museum of London.  It’s an interactive book based on the works of Charles Dickens, specifically based on his Sketches by Boz.  Narrated by Mark Strong, the text appears alongside graphic novel illustrations in black and white.  The part I like best is the ability to tap on an illustration and learn about the history behind Dickens’ stories and London in particular.  Primary documents are embedded within short explanations of the realities of London in the nineteenth century.  In addition, you can use a scroll button to go from an 1862 map of London all the way to a present-day map of London, giving students a visualization of how London has changed over time. Downloading the app is free and comes with the first short sketch.  After that, each of the other four sketches is available for $1.99 a piece.  I haven’t downloaded any but the first free one, but if I was an English teacher covering Dickens, I might use this app to introduce Dickens to the students and perhaps create an assessment that tied in the graphic novel aspect in some way.

4.  Nova Elements – A lot of people know about the app The Elements: A Visual Experience.  It’s an awesome app, but it costs $6.99.  If you want a free alternative check out Nova Elements.  It has an interactive periodic table and a game that allows students to “build” the elements as well as basic everyday products like plastic and caffeine.  There’s also a series of videos hosted by David Pogue called “Hunting the Elements.”

5.  Art Authority for iPad – I have not actually bought this app yet, but it is on my wish list.  It was awarded the “Best iPad Reference App of 2011.”  It includes over 1,000 works of art from the Western world, from ancient to modern times.  The art works are categorized into 8 specific time periods.  There is both a search tool and a comparison tool.  You can zoom in on the art work to get a closer view.  I think this could be incredibly useful for any teacher who incorporates art into the curriculum no matter the specific subject area.  You can easily take a screenshot of the art work and add it to a Keynote or PowerPoint presentation.  (FYI – To take a screenshot on your iPad, hold down the home button at the same time as you hold down the on/off button and release.  The screen will go white.  Check your photos and the image should be there.)  The app is $4.99.

6. Internet History Sourcebook – This website has been around for a very long time, but it has been such a help to me in my own work that I wanted to post a link just in case there’s someone out there who hasn’t heard of it yet.  A project of Fordham University, the IHS is “a collection of public domain and copy-permitted historical texts presented cleanly (without advertising or excessive layout) for educational use.”  There are historical texts from ancient, medieval, and modern history.  There’s also “subsidiary” sourcebooks on African history, Asian history, Islamic history, women’s history, and the history of science among others.

7. Londinium – This is another app put out by the Museum of London and the History Channel, and I think it’s probably best used with middle school students or younger.  The app begins with a map of London, and just like the Dark London app, students can scroll through time and see the growth of London from the time of the Roman occupation to today.  Embedded within the map are red and purple pins.  The purple pins are excavation pins.  Students click on the pins, rub their fingers across the iPad, and a real Roman artifact from London appears.  A short blurb describes the artifact and places it within context.  The red pins designate sound clips, illustrations, and short video clips about London during the Roman era.  The app is free.

8. National Geographic World Atlas HD – If you have a subscription to Stratalogica or something similar, then you don’t need this app.  But if not, this app is worth checking out.  High-definition maps, good zooming abilities, and an easy distance calculator make this app a lot of fun.  By holding your finger on any country in the world, you pull up an information window with tons of information about that country such as demographic data, exports and imports, GDP, and type of government.  In addition, you can download maps to use even when you are not connected to the Internet.  This app is $1.99.

The Dilemma

In a previous post, I touched on classroom management in a 1:1 classroom.  As I gear up for the coming school year, I keep coming back to this topic in my head and in conversations with some of my colleagues.  I am struggling a bit to determine what exactly I believe my role as a teacher is in terms of management in a 1:1 classroom.  I know as I experience 1:1 a lot of this will become more crystallized in my brain, but I imagine others might be struggling with this as well, so I thought I’d put together a brief post about some of my past and current thoughts.*  I would love for others to join in this conversation, providing other insights that I’ve missed.  Please feel free to write in the comments section below.

What I Used to Think (and Sometimes Still Do):

  • Students can be off task whether it’s a paper and pencil OR a computer on their desk.  Unless the teacher checked the students’ paper notes on a daily basis, the teacher would never know if the students were attending or not. So really, there’s no fundamental difference between a traditional classroom and a 1:1 classroom.
  • Upper school students need to take responsibility for their own learning. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.  The teacher provides the opportunity to learn, but it’s ultimately up to the student to take advantage of the opportunity.
  • Treating students with trust and respect (and not hovering over them constantly and nailing them for every misstep) will result in more responsible behavior on their part.
  • If a student is not attending, it will be reflected in his or her grades.  The student will either accept lower grades or change his or her behavior.

What I’m Starting to Think (But Still Struggling With):

  • Paper and pencil is NOT the same thing as a computer.  In a traditional classroom, it is true that a student might not be taking notes but instead doodling or writing something else or perhaps doing nothing at all.  But in a traditional classroom, the only distractions available to students were those in their own heads.  In a 1:1 classroom, with a computer sitting in front of them, the distractions are both external and endless – games, websites, email, chatting, taking photos, etc.
  • Having access to a computer all day long is new to ALL students regardless of their grade level.  Therefore, saying upper school students need to learn to manage themselves without giving them some boundaries and guidance to start with doesn’t completely make sense.  Loosening those boundaries over time and providing less guidance over time does make sense, and I would argue is imperative to prepare students for college.
  • “It is unwise to presume independence before it has been verified.”  Treating students with trust and respect is important and can result in more responsible behavior, but the reality is some students will comply with the rules only when those rules are enforced rather than because they have some personal commitment to the rules.
  • Sometimes unintended messages are the loudest.  If I don’t monitor my students, and I allow them to remain inattentive on a daily basis by surfing the web and playing games, am I not sending the message that what I have to teach is unimportant?  Am I not sending the message that I don’t care whether they learn or not?  And if that’s the case, why am I there, and why should they be forced to be there in turn?  It’s not an intentional message. Most teachers, including myself in the past, believe they are teaching students to be independent learners and responsible for their own behavior.  But I’m wondering if that’s the message that students are actually receiving or if it’s something quite different.
  • No teacher can monitor all students all the time in a 1:1 environment or a traditional classroom, nor do I think they should.  Teaching students to be independent, lifelong learners is the most important task of a teacher. Doing that means placing the burden for learning on the students.  So how does this mesh with the points above?  This is the dilemma.

*Keep in mind that I teach upper school students, specifically Advanced Placement students and seniors.  If I was teaching a different group of students, my thinking might be different.

The World Is as Close as a Postcard

A while back I was surfing the Internet and came across Postcrossing.com.  Basically, this website is a portal for exchanging postcards around the world.  You register with an email address, get a physical address from another registered member (who already sent out a postcard to someone else entirely), and an identification number.  You send a postcard with the I.D. number on it to the address you get.  When this person gets your postcard, he or she logs in to the website, inserts the I.D. number on the postcard, and you become the next person in line to get a postcard in return.  All it costs is the amount of the postcard and postage. (I purchased postcards at my city’s visitor center for $0.50 a piece, and international postage for a postcard is around $0.90.)  It’s not like pen pals because the person you send a postcard to is not the person from whom you get a postcard in return, but it’s a cool way of connecting to the rest of the world and collecting postcards in the process.

I liked the idea just for the fun of it, but of course, the teacher in me was thinking, “How can this be more educational?”  I wasn’t looking necessarily for a huge project, although as you will read it evolved to have a concluding assessment that is more substantial than I’d originally thought.  At first I was just looking for a way to get my students thinking and talking about how government impacts other areas of a given society.  Since my course is predominantly about American government, I knew we wouldn’t necessarily be able to go into great depth with all the countries, but rather I considered this as a jumping off point for further discussions.

In the end, I decided to create a bulletin board called “Postal X-ing” with a world map in the center. (See photo below.)  This year, each of my senior government students is going to register with the website and send out 1 postcard with a simple message of goodwill.  They will indicate the school’s address as the place to which they want the postcards to return.  When we get a postcard in return, I’m going to have the students do some research on the country and compare it to the United States.  Here’s some points of comparison I’m thinking about having them research:

  • Government – democracy, authoritarian, parliamentary, presidential, etc.
  • Population – total population, median age, etc.
  • Economy – capitalist, communist, GDP, biggest industries, etc.
  • Education – what percentage of the population is literate, completes high school, college, etc.
  • Health – life expectancy, biggest health challenges
  • Religion – role it plays in government and society, dominant religion, minority religions, etc.
  • Other Issues – do they have a free press?, if they have voting, who can vote?, what kind of ethnic diversity does the country have?, etc.

I know that we may not be able to find statistics on each of these things for each country, but it’s a start. The students will use websites and apps like the CIA World Factbook and World in Figures among others.  To get everyone involved, pairs of students will be responsible for finding different information to share with the rest of the class, and to teach students to verify the facts they find, I will require them to visit at least two different reliable websites to get their information.  Sometimes this may be done in class, while other times it may be homework.  Once we research a country, we’ll take some string and a pushpin and connect the place on the world map to the postcard on the sides of the bulletin board.  The information gathered will go below the postcard.

Here’s where it gets a bit more substantial for my upper school students.  Towards the end of the semester, I will require the students to pick one country from anywhere in the world – either one from which we’ve received a postcard or another one altogether.  They will have the option of either writing a paper (I’m thinking 4 to 6 pages) or creating an iMovie (equivalent length to be determined). In either case, they will be responsible for presenting a detailed analysis of that country’s government and how the structure of the government influences and interacts with at least 3 other areas such as the economy, education, healthcare, etc.  For instance, if the country has experienced a lot of immigration in recent decades from other parts of the world, how is the government responding?  Or as another example, if the country is a part of the euro zone, what changes have occurred in the government since the financial meltdown began?  Since this will be done at the end of the semester, after we’ve studied American government thoroughly, they will be using their understanding of government in the United States to analyze another country and make inferences and comparisons.  **UPDATE:  I decided to have the students create ePubs instead of writing a paper or doing an iMovie.  The assignment will remain the same, but the format will be different.

I registered with Postcrossing, sent my first postcard off a few weeks ago, and received a postcard from Vietnam today!  I’m going to use this postcard to introduce this activity to the students the first week of school and get their postcards out the first or second week of school as well.  I’ve got several other postcards sent, so that I can fill in the first few weeks while we are waiting for theirs to return.  As we progress with this activity, I’ll post some updates on how the project is going, changes or tweaks I make to the assignments, student interest, etc.

FYI – I used a green plastic tablecloth for the background of my bulletin board.  I got this idea from Pinterest, and I will never go back to paper!  It was incredibly easy to put up and the colors won’t fade, so you could use it for a while.

Monday Morning Roundup #1

It’s the Monday Morning Roundup, folks!  It’s something new I’ve started here at Wiser Today and Still Learning. Each Monday, I will post a list of websites, apps, programs, and other resources that I come across the previous week.  In part, this is a way for me to keep track of all these resources for my own work, but it’s also a way of keeping posts like this organized and easy to find for anyone else who might like to take advantage of them.  Please check back each Monday for a new roundup of the latest teacher resources, and in between Monday mornings, I will blog as normal.  Enjoy!

(As I looked over this list, I realized it definitely has a social studies bent to it, which makes sense given I’m a history teacher.  But this won’t always be the case.  So even if you don’t find something of use this week, try back next week.)

1. 270 to Win – Given that this is a presidential election year, it’s no surprise that this app is now available.  The app is built around Electoral College maps going from the present all the way back to the first elections in United States history.  It allows you to visualize how and when states swung from Democratic to Republican, and vice versa.  In addition, it includes detailed voting histories for each of the 50 states.  It also allows you to create your own maps of how you think the 2012 election will turn out.   Then, on election night you can check how accurate your map was to the real deal.  You can make as many maps as you wish, too.  This app is very useful to use in government or American history courses.  Cost – $0.99.

2. World Figures by The Economist – This app was created as a supplement to the The Economist’s “World Figures” books.  It includes facts and figures about more than 190 countries across the world.  It ranks the countries by dozens of topics such as education , life expectancy, migration, etc.  What’s even better is the comparison tool, which allows you to pick any countries you wish and compare them on any of these given topics.  This would be very useful in any number of courses.  Cost – FREE.

3. Smithsonian Channel – Don’t get the Smithsonian Channel at your home?  No problem.  This app has tons of full episode versions of many of the Smithsonian’s programs.  I’m having a lot of fun exploring all sorts of shows from the arts to history to science and medicine.  Cost – FREE.

4. TurboScan – Some schools have a limited number of scanners on their campuses, but if you have an iPhone or iPad, this won’t be a problem for you.  This app is awesome.  Take three pictures with your phone of whatever hardcopy document you wish to scan.  Then, the app works its magic and turns it into a high-quality PDF.  Creating PDFs with multiple pages is just as easy.  The new PDFs can be emailed as a PDF or JPEG.  Cost – $1.99.

5. 2012 Presidential Election at ProCon.org – The ProCon.org website has a special section for the 2012 Presidential Election.  There’s too much here for a brief description to do it justice, but the site covers each candidate’s views on all the issues.  In addition, there are videos of each candidate and historical information about the history of the presidency.  Students can take a free quiz that matches them up with the candidate whose views are most similar to their own.  Also, there’s a really great summary chart that allows students to see in graphic form the views of the different candidates.

6. Civic Quotes – This is both an app and a website.  Quotes about the role and purpose of government are juxtaposed with a visual primary document like a photograph.  Then, there is a civics quiz question from the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress).  Once they answer a question, students can compare themselves to other 8th graders who took the test across the country as each answer provides the percentage of 8th graders who answered correctly.  Cost – FREE.

7. Stitcher – This app is more for me than for my students, but it’s great if you like to listen to the radio for news and information.  It’s kind of like Pandora for talk radio.  You can listen to your favorite news and talk radio shows on demand rather than by the schedule set by the radio station.  You can listen to NPR, CNN, Fox, the BBC, and many more.  Cost – FREE.

8. Computer vs. Paper – This is the name of my friend Karen’s blog.  She is one of our Technology Integration Specialists as well as a classroom teacher.  She writes a lot about technology in education and provides great resources.  I’ve linked to her blog over to the right under “Blogs I Follow”.