New Website!

I haven’t had much time to blog lately due to upcoming AP exams and general end-of-the-year craziness.  I do want to take a moment to introduce a new website I’ve created.  Check out Curriculum and Instructional Resources.  It’s new as of today, so while there are some things on the site already, it will grow over time.  I’ll still be blogging about education issues here, but the site will house lots of teacher resources in an organized and easy-to-search fashion.

Note: If you are a Trinity teacher, there is a link to the website on the Trinity homepage under Quick Links called “Teacher Resources.”

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“Good Day Sunshine”

The Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine” has been playing quietly in the back of my brain ever since third and fifth periods today. My AP history students began reviewing today for the AP exam. We do a variety of things to prepare for the exam, but today we took the first half of the multiple-choice portion of an old AP exam.

Before we begin reviewing, I don’t always feel very confident…mostly in myself. Have I spent enough time teaching the students how to write well? Have I spent enough time teaching them how to think through questions when they do not know the answer or when there is no clear answer? Have they understood the major concepts? Do they remember anything I’ve taught all year? But usually, after we begin reviewing, those major fears start to abate somewhat. Today was no exception. The students did very well for a first day of review, and it made for a very good day.

But here is the thing. It was not a good day because I suddenly thought that the students would all score well. The truth is that I don’t know how the students will do come AP exam time. It’s a single test on a single day. Some students will have an off day, some will experience a bit of “brain freeze” when faced with the essay portion of the exam, and others will surpass all expectations. Besides, as I’ve written previously, my students mean so much more to me than a single score. So while I am proud of them and happy for them when they do well on the AP exam, it alone is not the goal.

No, what made it a good day was knowing in that moment that hard work does pay off for both teachers and students, that students do remember much more of what we teach them and how we teach them than we often give them (and ourselves) credit for. What made it even better was watching the students realize how much they’ve learned, how far they have come from the beginning of the year. As stressful as this time of year can be for AP teachers, I also wish that all teachers were able to experience this kind of major review of the entire year’s worth of teaching and learning rather than a single semester as is more often the case. Amidst the second-guessing and stress, it can be very affirming and exciting in its own way.

Monday Morning Roundup #19

postbox-15502_640Good Monday morning!  Here’s a few resources you might find useful.

1. BoomWriter – BoomWriter is an online collaborative writing tool.  The teacher assigns a prompt or introductory chapter of an original narrative.  Each student then writes the second chapter and submits his or her work by the deadline.  Students then read one another’s entries, and vote for which one they think is best.  They cannot vote for their own entry nor can they see the names of the authors of the other entries.  The winner’s entry becomes chapter 2 of the story.  Then, the process starts anew until you have a completed book.  Great for language arts and social studies.  FREE.

2. Vatican Museum Virtual Tours – The Vatican Museum hosts several virtual tours including tours of the Sistine Chapel and Raphael’s Rooms.  Students can zoom in on paintings and artifacts.  FREE.

3. Infogr.am – Infogr.am is an easy-to-use online tool to create infographics. FREE.

4. TweetDeck by Twitter – If you are using Twitter for professional purposes, following #edchat or #edtech conversations, Twitter may not be the best way to organize such conversations.  Try the application TweetDeck, which allows you to set up columns based on hashtags to more easily follow all Tweets related to a specific topic.  FREE.

The Water Cooler Test

Disclaimer: The following “Water Cooler Test” is not mine, and I wish I could remember where I read it, but I can’t. So if you came up with this idea, and you happen to stumble across this blog post, feel free to lay claim to it. Also, lest the reader misunderstand what I am about to write, and think I am suggesting a watered down approach to education, please see this post as well as this one.

I don’t know about you, but as a history teacher, I sometimes feel like the sheer amount of content there is to cover in a single academic year is crazy. It can feel like a mad dash from start to finish. When you attach an outside test to the course like an AP examination, it can be even worse. You feel like you are sacrificing “depth” for “breadth.” You would love to spend more time on this or that unit, the students would love to spend more time on this or that unit, but you have to “cover” the curriculum. (It’s almost AP test time, so I’m particularly feeling this way now.)

There’s plenty being written on the “breadth” vs. “depth” debate. Google “inquiry-based learning” or “problem-based learning” and you’ll find more than you need to read on this issue, so I won’t go into all the details here. But what I think is worth considering is the “Water Cooler Test.”

The “Water Cooler Test” is simple and can apply to any discipline. Imagine you are standing around the water cooler at work one day chatting with a respected, educated colleague from a different discipline than yours. You say to the colleague, “Can you believe my students didn’t know about X?” And say your colleague a) looks at you like you are crazy, b) looks at you like a deer caught in the headlights ashamed of his apparent ignorance, c) says that he doesn’t know anything about X either and has done okay in his life thus far, or d) all of the above. If any of the above reactions occur, you may want to really examine why you are teaching X. Is it really a necessary component for your students to lead productive lives, is it something that they will need in future courses in order to do well, or is it something that enriches their lives as human beings? If so, then by all means please, please keep it in the curriculum. But if not, is it simply because you inherited it from a curriculum that you didn’t write, or is it because it’s in the textbook, a textbook written by a company that seeks to make a profit? If so, what if you took it out of the curriculum? Could you spend more time on something that’s more useful, meaningful, and enriching?

I’ll give a few examples. My colleagues who teach World History I and II have made a conscious decision in the last several years to spend less time on some units of study on periods of history and areas of the world that do not fundamentally contribute to their students’ understanding of the world around them. They did this so that they could spend more time on the historical eras and geographical locations that more fundamentally shape the lives that their students live in now and will live in in the future. Another example comes from an English teacher that is currently trying to figure out whether to teach 6 novels in a year with less depth or move to 5 novels a year and be able to dig deeper with each one. I like going with 5 and digging deep.

It is the digging deep that matters because it is in the depths that students learn how to think critically about the material. We all love our content areas and want to share all that we know about our subject with our students, but the reality is that much of the detailed content will need to be refreshed from time to time. Once you teach a student to think analytically, however, they will take that skill with them into whatever subject they study in the future, whether it is yours, mine, or something entirely their own.

Radio for Educators

tower-35674_640Last week I posted about using Twitter to connect with other educators and creating your own professional development and professional learning networks.  This weekend I learned about some great podcasts based on the #edchat and #edtech Twitter conversations. They are relatively new, making it easy to catch up on all the past episodes.  (Sometimes I get overwhelmed when I find a series of podcasts that already has hundreds of entries!)  You can go directly to the website or access them through iTunes.  So check them out and let me know what you think.

 

Education Reform and the Perils of False Dichotomies

Tonight I was perusing my #edchat Twitter feed, and someone posted the following: “It is not what students know, it’s how they apply what they know.” I think I understand what this person was getting at with this comment. I think he was trying to say that students need to have knowledge (i.e. facts), but they also need to learn how to use that information in applicable ways and transfer that information to other areas. If all they have is the knowledge, but they don’t know how to use it, it’s rather pointless knowledge. This is all well and good, and I would completely agree. In fact, I’ve written on this topic previously.

The problem, I think, is that some people are becoming so enamored with application that they really do take the first part of the tweet at its literal meaning. They really do think that it doesn’t matter what students know as long as they know something that they can then apply or use in some way. Under this schema, all knowledge becomes relative; no knowledge is more meaningful or worthy of learning than other knowledge. Indeed, when I questioned the person who tweeted the above comment and asked if some knowledge was more valuable than other knowledge, he replied, “Good question…not sure.”

Since he didn’t know, let me be blunt and give my answer: it is wrong to place all knowledge on a level playing field. Doing so arises from a belief in a false dichotomy between knowledge and application. Being able to apply knowledge is important, but the content and quality of the knowledge one applies is equally important. Sometimes I worry that focusing too much on application to the exclusion of any real focus on the quality of the knowledge being applied obscures this. For instance, let’s take my field of study: history. Would anyone argue that knowing about the War of Jenkins’ Ear is of equal value to knowing about World War II so long as one can apply what they know? People can know a lot of useless information, and they can even know how to apply lots of useless information. But is that what we want? Kids with great application skills but nothing in their brains worthy of being applied? Kids who haven’t been told that some knowledge is more useful than other knowledge, and therefore, kids who can’t tell the difference themselves?

I am all for education reform and change, which you know if you’ve read any of my previous blog posts. I do get frustrated with education reformers who pose either/or propositions that are based on false dichotomies. By all means, focus on application, but don’t forget that some knowledge is more worthy of being learned and applied than other knowledge.

This isn’t the only place I see this kind of false dichotomy in education circles. They really are everywhere once you start to look. How about direct instruction or student-centered instruction? Or what about classical learning or 21st-century learning? I’ve got a suggestion. Let’s find a way to do both.