Monday, December 28, 2009

Two steps forward

I've always found December a frantic time for teaching. It's a short month because of the Christmas break, and there are plenty of interruptions in it because, for all practical purposes, it marks the end of the fall semester. In my school, we also give semester exams, which means that our regular schedule is thrown out the window for the week before break. Nonetheless, I made some progress this month in getting my international exchanges going.

Yes, international exchanges. I found a classroom in Spain through ePals that was in our age group and was willing to email in English. We just sent off our first emails to them before the break. I'm going to keep my exchanges at two for the moment and see where they go.

We've also now had two exchanges with our French school. I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that our correspondent French school is not in Brittany, as I first thought, but in Aquitaine. I eventually found this out by doing Mapquest searches on towns mentioned in the student emails. My French counterpart did send me a copy of the school's web address, but I haven't been able to pull it up. Perhaps this has something to do with the electrical failure in the computer lab at their school. In any case, it gives us a lot to talk about.

One lesson that I have certainly learned is the necessity for patience. There always seem to be bugs in the system to work out, and, although the tech base in my school is far from extraordinary by US standards, it seems to be better than either of these schools. I just hope that my students can be patient as well.

My second strand has been to turn more of the learning in my class over to my students. As you might recall from earlier posts, this was inspired by things I read over the summer, most notably Never Work Harder Than Your Students by Robyn Jackson. What I've done over the fall is to turn over researching facts, group paper outlines, and finally individual paper outlines to the students and posting them on our class wiki. One big step I took in December was to make the wiki public. I had worked with our school administration to get this approved, and approval came some time ago, but I waited until I thought the wiki was ready. I finally realized that I was waiting for me to be confident enough to throw the switch, which I finally did the first week of December. So far, the reaction I've gotten from making it public has been positive, if somewhat minimal.

I suspect that where I'm heading with this approach is some sort of inquiry-based learning, but I would have to make myself a lot more familiar with what inquiry-based learning is before I would claim to be going there.

I've been trying to keep up with various blogs in my Google Reader. Most of the people I follow seem to be light-years ahead of me in the tech stuff they use, which I find both inspiring and a bit discouraging at the same time. I guess that's another patience lesson; to run the marathon at one's own pace and be comfortable with one's own achievements while being aware of what else is out there.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

We have an exchange!

We just received our first emails from our sister class in Brittany, France. I'm very excited about this, and I know my students are looking forward to getting these emails, which they will reply to in the coming week. Another small step, but we've come some distance now.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Another small step

Last week, my class sent its first emails to our class in Brittany, France. We used some stock French phrases (Bonjour, Je m'appelle...) and wrote the rest of our introductions in English. Our corresponding class is a English class in a French school. I'm curious as to how or when they will respond.

Today, I took another small step towards making the class wiki public by inviting my supervisor to be a member. She was favorably impressed by it. I was hoping to get some pictures from our French correspondents and put them on the wiki before taking it public, but I'm thinking now of turning it public after the Thanksgiving break, and adding the international portion later.

My last group project on the wiki was group reports, in which each group posted its sources (from a limited list) and main points of information on the wiki before writing the paper. This seemed to work well on a number of levels; more than one member of the group could access the information, and it gave me an easy and paperless way to check their sources. For my next project, I'm asking my students to do individual reports on the same model; post their sources and main points on the wiki, and then write their paper off of those.

Also for this unit, I have come up with my usual list of questions, which I call "Find Outs," for my students to research. This time, I've assigned each student a "Find Out" question, and I've made it one list between my two classes. I guess we'll see what happens.

Everyone on our faculty was asked to suggest a topic for a workshop for our local AIMS convention next year. My topic ended up as "Evolution of my class wiki." I like the term "evolution," because it suggests a step-by-step forward movement, which is how I've been working in incorporating Web 2.0 in my teaching. I'm sure others have done more, and more quickly, but given the lack of a computer technology person at my school, and the lack of other tech-savvy role models at my school more skilled than me, step-by-step is how I feel comfortable working. Besides, I do have an outside life.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009


Well, the good news is that the Renfaire is over, so I get my weekends back. I'm looking forward to being able to sleep in for the first time in October.

The not-so-good news is that I've been ready and waiting to start email exchanges, but I don't have any lists of students in my corresponding classes, so I don't have anyone yet to email to. I've sent my lists to the classes in both France and Belarus about two weeks ago, and I dropped them a reminder last week.

Maybe the lesson here is to seize the time, and ride the initial burst of enthusiasm, even if the technical problems aren't fully ironed out.

Hopefully, I'll have better news next time.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Almost ready to begin international exchange!

Life is still pretty busy. Last week was our Middle School retreat, and I was frantically trying to get this week set up so I wouldn't have to work over the weekend (well, except at the Renfaire, as I explained earlier). This week we get to meet new candidates for the head of our school. Life happens.

The technical issue I had to resolve was that my original epals account would let me create sub-accounts, but they could not send to the Internet as a whole. I took the question of how to get that access to the epals folks, and they set me up with a type of account called SchoolMail, which made me an administrator, which then gave me the power to change the access of my accounts. Sounds complicated, but, after a lot of back and forth, I believe I've finally arrived at where I want to be. I do want to say that the epals folks have been very helpful and prompt in answering my emails.

I have two classes abroad that I contacted this summer, and I've been keeping up with each of them. One is in France, and the other is in Belarus. I'm hoping to exchange our initial emails with the class in France next week. I hope my students don't get confused between the two classes!

Oh, yeah, and somewhere in all this I have classes to teach. In fact, I was asked to develop a 'new' class this year. Up to this point, our middle school has taught US History over the course of two years. We've decided to change this, and, as I am the only 6th grade Humanities (combination history and English) teacher, I was given the job. Actually, so far, it's been a lot of fun, because I've combined the re-writing of the course with some ideas from my summer reading of Robyn Jackson's Never Work Harder than your Students. The end result is that I did a lot of planning for the new course over the summer, and that is really saving me now. The actual number of students I teach is small, which is one of the blessings of teaching in an independent school.

However, one of the curses of independent schools is the present economic environment, which has made it tougher for independent schools to hold their own. Btw, there was an interesting article on this in the Washington Post a few days ago. The article, "Losing the Jacket and Tie for Jeans and a T-shirt," noted that transfers from private to public schools in the county I live in doubled last year. That's probably a better topic for another post, but I must confess that it keeps me looking over my shoulder...

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Yeah, been a bit busy, but moving ahead

Okay, so I haven't posted in a while. Sorry to disappoint my legions of fans :-)

Call it an excuse, but I will note that I work all weekends in September and most of October at the Maryland Rennaissance Faire . My wife and I sing and play harp. We're listed as Esty's Harp and Voice under Entertainment - Musicians and Dancers. We enjoy doing the Renfaire, and it does pay a tuition payment or two for our daughters' colleges, but the result is that I work seven days a week from just about the beginning of school until the end of the first marking period, so some things just don't get done as quickly as they might.

On to school news! I've been going through the process of getting parental permission to set up monitored email accounts on epals, which is something they require for students under the age of 13. It took me about a week to send those permissions out and get them back, and I created the accounts today. So far, so good, but there is a technical detail or two still to work out. Right now, I'm hopeful that I can exchange my first emails next week. I also gave an overview of the project to my students and asked them to find Brittany (the area in France where our correspondents are) and Belarus on the wall map. I've sent a list of my students to our correspondents, and hope to get similar lists from them soon. Right now, I think the take-home lesson is that these projects just take a while to set up, and one needs to be patient. After all, we've got all year, and it's a marathon, not a sprint.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Permission to proceed

I got the word today that I now have the school's blessing to go ahead with a publically-viewable wiki and with establishing email accounts on epals. Both of these things have not been done at my school before. I'm excited: this means I can go ahead with my projects, which include an email exchange with classes in Belarus and France, classes which I contacted via epals, and a publically-viewable wiki that will help feature this project. Neither of these things are new in an overall sense...plenty of schools have done this and much more, but it will be interesting for me to see how I can get this all to work. I'm looking forward to this. More details to come!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Not exactly tech, but new for me

I had an "aha' moment in my classes today. Over the summer, I've read "Never Work Harder than Your Students" by Robyn R. Jackson. (yes, I know. It's a book. Very old-fashioned). I got the idea of, rather than telling my students what was important about the first two English colonies in America, I could ask a series of questions, and have my students look up the answers using the index of the textbook (and exposing them to a research skill in the process). Better, I divided the class into "Team Massachusetts" and "Team Virginia" and had them work in groups, to split up the questions among themselves and help each other with the answers. I had planned to introduce this a bit later, but I had to be away from my class today, so I sped up the introduction, so they could work while the sub was there. Not only were my students completely absorbed in the task, but they wanted to continue it after I came back halfway during class. And, when I did have to explain the difference between 'Separatists' (Pilgrims) and Puritans, it was in response to a student question, and I got everyone paying attention. I did the same with my afternoon class, and did some one-on-one coaching, and my students stayed on task for over an hour on a Friday afternoon before a three day weekend. Wow. Without a doubt, my most successful group project to date. Now the tech part comes in when I introduce wikis next week, and get them to post their information there.

Monday, August 24, 2009

New tech and patience

Today I downloaded Skype on my home computer, and it gave me a snapshot of what I find both interesting and frustrating about new technology. The good news is that the program downloaded easily and I was able to make a video call. The bad news is that my voice keeps dropping out. I tried the obvious solution of lowering the volume of my microphone, but with no improvement. I've decided to try a different microphone...after a bit of doing something else to get used to the idea.

New technology clearly takes a lot of old-fashioned patience and willingness to tinker :-)

In the meantime, I've submitted my request to take portions of my class wiki public to my school's administration. The initial response was quite positive, but this would be a new step for our school, so the decision needs to be run through some other folks. I'm hopeful.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Step 2A - the NECC Conference

The 2009 NECC Conference, a big gathering of those interested in education technology issues, convened in Washington this past June. I heard about it relatively late in the year, so I went for a day on my own nickel. To be honest, I spent most of my time there in a state of overwhelmed be-gogglement. I did take in an excellent session by Steve Dembo on his Top 10 Free Web 2.0 sites for teachers. I also enjoyed the Global Connections in the Primary Classroom presentation. I'm thinking of this wiki as a possible model for what I would like to do this coming year. I also wandered among the student presentation and the venders hall. I know that I didn't get as much out of it as I could, but one has to start somewhere, and I feel that it was very useful to me.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Step 2 - What I did last year

To pick up the story from Part 1, after I heard Meg Steele's presentation at AIMS and during the time I was taking the 23Things course, I created a classroom wiki through Wikispaces. I have to say that the Wikispaces support staff was very helpful to me while getting this wiki set up. Being a naturally cautious person, I kept access to the wiki limited to members, that is myself and my students. I also built on the experience of one of my colleagues, Laurel Seid, who set up a similar wiki for her course.

My first project involved posting short papers on a historical personality on the wiki, which worked well both for my correcting the papers electronically but also so the students could get to know how the wiki worked.

After that, I expanded the wiki by using it for a project called "U Teach Em", where students summarize an event covered by a chapter or two in our history textbook, write it up, and present it to the rest of the class. I had my students outline the important parts of each chapter and post them on the wiki. After the students gave their presentations, they chose questions, which I used for a quiz. The outlines worked as a backup study guide for the quiz.

At the end of the year, working off an idea I got from a blog (sorry, I don't remember which one), I asked the students to write book reviews and post them on a separate section of the wiki. Since it was the end of the year, I didn't get a lot of reviews, but I'm hopeful that I can carry over that section of the wiki over several years.

My aim for this year is to take the wiki public, that is, allow anyone to see it, but restrict editing it to members only. This seems to be the normal setup for classroom wikis. Having the wiki visible will not only help parents see what is going on in our class, but it will also be useful in my efforts to reach out to classrooms around the world. We'll see what happens.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Reaching out

One of the resolutions I made for this coming school year was to reach out and establish contacts with classrooms outside the US. A few weeks back, I went onto ePals and registered, and this week I found profiles of classes in Belarus and France who were looking for partners. I emailed them, and today I got emails back! I'm excited! I'd like to set up something like an email exchange with each class, and it appears that ePals can do that. More later.

From Vicki Davis's blog, Cool Cat Teacher, I found the Flat Classroom Project, which is another project dedicated to forming international links between classes. I didn't find the site particularly easy to understand, but part of it is a forum of classes looking for partners. I sent an email to a school in Qatar, and got a response, and I'm hopeful that I can nurse that along as well.

Btw, I find Vicki's blog very useful, if a bit overwhelming. If you get a chance, check out her "Most Valuable Posts" (scroll down the right side of her page until you get to it).

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

How I Got Here, Step 1

Last fall, I went to a talk at our local AIMS conference by Meg Steele about Web 2.0 technologies. She told us about an on-line course for teachers called 23 Things and run by Shelly Paul. I worked through the course last spring and learned a lot. Now, I'm trying to apply some of it.

Also last fall, I set up a class wiki through Wikispaces and tried some things with my students on it. See my later blog, "Step 2" for more details. My project this fall is to expand it and get permission from my school to allow people to view it on-line.

One of the things I've learned is to start gradually and start small. I find the amount of information available a bit overwhelming.


Know that chill that goes through your body as you dip your toe in a chilly pool? I’m so there at this point, as I dip my toe in the world of Web 2.0 and blog about it. Right now the pool is chilly because I don’t know a lot about it; I’m hopeful that, as I learn more, I’ll get used to the water.

Today my thought is less on web 2.o than on teaching in general. I read Sarah Fine’s article yesterday in the Washington Post about why she was leaving teaching. Sarah left the Washington DC school system after five years of teaching. One comment she made was, “When people ask me about teaching, however, what they really seem to mean is that it’s unfathomable that anyone with real talent would want to stay in the classroom for long.”

So why have I stayed for over 14 years? Simply put, I teach because I enjoy being with kids, learning new things, and doing something worthwhile. I think I do have some talent or gift for teaching, and I work consciously to get better at it. I’m not a hero; I don’t teach lots of students in an inner-city school beset with budget problems and intractable bureaucracy. But I did choose teaching over the ‘more prestigeous’ field of government worker, even though it took me 12 years in education to make as much as I made when I left government.

Part of my commitment to ‘lifelong learning’ is learning about web 2.0 tools. I’ve had help, and maybe I’ll write about that help tomorrow. Learning new things is not easy for me, but I’m doing this because I’ve become convinced by people a lot smarter than I am that web 2.o represents the future of education.