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Wednesday, July 25, 2012

3 Main reasons projects fail and how to fix them

As I prepare to get more into project based learning I decided it was necessary to look at what doesn't work so that I could properly plan projects that do. This of course is my take from experience and watching what others do work.

Problem: The project itself. I have seen all sorts of different projects throughout the years; some good, some bad, and some really bad. Where I think many teachers go wrong is in the very beginning the project itself is just simply not a good project. I am not going to show examples, but these are questions you should be asking when you come up with your project. It is authentic? Does it allow for student choice? How does it show their knowledge of the content? Is it possible? How much help/assistance will I need to give as the teacher? Is is worthwhile? Would I be willing to do this if I was a student? Does it really accomplish what I want it to?

Solution: Inquiry based student choice projects with teacher guided assistance. Give the students ownership over their work. Let them do what they are passionate about. I have a project that I do at the start of the year in geography where students essentially create their own country. They get to make the decisions. I have found it to be the best way to teach all the stuff I need to for the first term. In the end they have an authentic student project. I teach the content for the week and then they add to their country whatever piece we are going over. They get the content and then decide what they want to do with content as it applies to their country. They make all the key decisions. I provide the information, they have to evaluate, synthesize, analyze, and apply it to their country. Note: Every year I have to revamp a part of this to make it better. I am still figuring out the best way to do this project myself

Problem: I think where most people get it wrong is they assign a project and then 8 to 10 weeks later it is due. Along the way they will bring it up and say remember your projects are due in 3 weeks, 2 weeks, 1 week and so forth. They haven't broken it up into digestible bits. It is a huge chunk and too much to digest at once. Plus if never really revisited or worked on with deadlines you are setting your students up for failure.

Solution: Set up manageable deadlines that will naturally complete the process without a mad rush at the end. If I were finishing a room in my basement I wouldn't do it all at once. I would first decide what my plans would be for the room. Then I would determine my materials, supplies, and tools. I would make sure I could do it and ask for help if needed. I would then work on the framing, then add electrical and insulation. After that I would bring in sheet rock and tape and mud it. Finally I would paint it. That's how we do it in real life, so why don't we do it for students in our classes. For example; have students decide what they are going to do for their project one week. The next week have them write an outline and determine what they need(research, materials, supplies). Then have them finish a piece of it where either you or students can give them feedback so that they can alter and fix anything they need to. By making manageable deadlines you ensure that they are not only working on it, but properly finishing one piece before going to the next. Not only will more students complete their projects they will be much better because you have given them needed structure with helpful feedback.

Problem: Grading. I have seen many arbitrary grading systems where teachers will just say I think this is worth X amount of points. Many times students aren't given enough guidance on what they need to have in their project to make it good. They will rise to the level of the expectations. If there are no clues provided as far as what they need to include then they will guess and most likely guess wrong. If we revisit the finishing a room in my basement example if I was planning on sheet rocking the room but wasn't told what type of sheet rock(thickness) type of tape and mud I would go to the store and be totally frustrated. I wouldn't know what to do, so I would either guess and I may be right or wrong, or I just wouldn't do it. If you aren't giving your students a plan then you are setting them for frustration and failure.

Solution: If you want great projects you need to provide a rubric that shows students the elements of a great project. Again, they will rise to the level of your expectations. They want to know the specifications so they know how to build their project. There are many great rubric creators out there. Make sure you have the categories you want such as Subject Knowledge, Neatness, Creativity, etc...Not only will it help your students know what is essential in their project, it will help you grade them as well. You don't have to be arbitrary, you see if they met the criteria for each element of the rubric and then grade accordingly. It will make your life and your student's much easier and better.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Journey and the Destination are equally important

Yesterday I took my kids on a hike up a local canyon. Our destination was the waterfall at the end of the hike. I hadn't been on this particular hike for about four years and had never been on their with my younger kids (9,11). It's not an easy hike and turned out to be longer than I remembered it. During the hike I could't help thinking about how the hike was like life and in this case teaching.

The hike to the waterfall took about 1 hour 45 min. The beginning was full of annoying switchbacks filled with sand as we zigged and zagged to to the top. The sun is bearing down and there is nothing to look at. But it's necessary to get to the top. It reminds me of frontloading the year with teaching students procedures. It's not all that exciting, but necessary to get them to go where you want them to.

Once we got in the canyon we were sheltered by the trees and near a fast running stream. It was peaceful and nice to get out of the bustle of day to day life. Most of the journey was uphill. I kept thinking we were close only to realize that the waterfall wasn't just around the next bend. It became increasingly more difficult as my nine year old struggled in parts. A few times he needed physical help, my eleven year old was more self sufficient but at least once or twice needed a hand. I couldn't help but think of my role as an educator to help out and give students what they need to succeed. Sometimes its not what they want. Sometimes they get in a tangle and need our help, other times they figure out on their own. As we watch and guide them we evaluate what they need to improve and how we can best support them.

As we neared the waterfall, without knowing we were, I asked a group that was going back if we were close. They said yea, but it's still at least 15 min. I said that I thought we'd be there by now. They replied we kept thinking the same thing. But its worth it when you get there. I smiled to myself knowing that I had just thought about turning back. We had gone almost 2 miles it was nearing 2 hours and we still had to hike back. "But it's worth it" That's what kept me going. I knew it was, yet I had forgotten, it had been a while since I had done the hike. While in the grand scheme of things the school year is short, as you go through it, there are times it seems like the end will never come and you wonder if it's worth it. You know it is and you are on the right path, but it would be so much easier to stop and do something else. Those are the most important times to keep going.

Finally we turned a bend and there it was. And yes it was worth it. The kids looked for rocks. Why they do this I don't know? I told them they could only take a few, but they were taking them back, not me. We rested had a few snacks and just enjoyed the site. It was worth the struggle and would be worth the way back. All I could think about was that I needed to make sure that my destinations were worth the journey. I do believe that the journey in and of itself is an important thing, but it should take you somewhere. I am a big dreamer and want to do worthwhile projects and assignments. I want the journey to take me somewhere special. I have reflected on my past years and made some major changes for next year. I want to have a fantastic journey take me to an amazing destination.

Funny, I think the way back was fraught with more problems then the way up. We did it much faster, just over an hour, but got off track countless times. I let the kids lead the way and a few times they picked the wrong path. I have to admit I wasn't really paying attention until we all realized we were on the wrong path. They looked at me to fix things. One time I had to cross the stream forage through the brush before finding the right path. It reminded me why I was there. It would be nice if we could just say learning is completely student centered and go off on your own. But these are impressionable kids that usually act and say before they think things through. They still need guidance and support. I kept thinking it's okay if we get off course as long as we are moving cause in the end I know we will find our way.

Pace was an interesting thing to consider as well. On the way up I pushed the pace and they followed. On the way back, they led, and although messy at times we still went at a good pace. Each kid moved at a different speed and ability level. It was a microcosm of my class. Differentiation is one of the toughest things in education, but really important as well. Every student is unique and should be treated as such. I think it's the toughest thing for math teachers, if a student doesn't get it, there is no time to slow down and get them up with the rest of the pack. I have to think there is a better way than the way we do it now.

When we finished the kids talked about how great it was and how glad they were that we went on the hike. We were all tired and grabbed and pizza and downed a lot of water at the house. It was hard and long, but worth it. I couldn't help thinking that the journey is just as important as the destination. You need to make sure your going somewhere and that the somewhere is worth going to. That is the burden of teaching; how to get each unique student to believe they can do it. All I can think of is "But it's worth it." Easy to say in July much harder in the dog days of winter in January when the honeymoon period has long since worn off. Waterfalls are hard to imagine with the icy roads and snow covered landscape, but they will come in May and June if we keep moving forward. Just remember it's worth it and then get the students to believe it as well.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Why Reflection is important

I would say that reflection is one of those things that we all see the benefits from, but we don't do enough. During the school year we are genuinely busy creating lessons, grading, and doing all the things we should be doing as educators. When the bell rings most of us are spent, emotionally and physically. I believe that's why I started writing this in the summer and not during the school year.

Veteran teachers are able to make adjustments on the fly, whatever didn't really work 1st period they change it for 2nd, and so forth. I think sometimes we mistake this for reflection. True reflection requires getting to the heart of the matter which usually isn't a quick fix. We may mistake reading a different selection or watching a different video, or altering the assignment as fixing the problem. That may or may not be the case. True reflection causes us to delve deep into why we planned the lesson the way we did. Did we include higher level thinking? Was the activity too easy or too difficult? Did the lesson really do what we thought it would? Is there a better way of doing it? Etc...You get the point. You can make a split second decision between periods and change things make them better for your next class. But getting to the heart of the matter is a different process that requires much more thought.

I believe that reflection is the key to start of anything new, especially the school year. It's important to contemplate where you have been, what did you accomplish--and likewise not accomplish, what worked and what didn't, what would you do differently, what would you like to add? These questions give you a framework to begin planning for the future. What better to know where you want to go, then by looking back at where you have been?

We need to spend more time reflecting and making it part of each day. I know that's easy to say in the summer, but now is a great time to start making it part of our everyday routine. If you can't do it now, how will you possibly do it when you have less time.

Here are a few ideas:
Time: Set aside a part of the day that works for you. Could be during your prep period, or after school, or maybe after you had time to decompress at home and instead of watching tv you spend 30 min reflecting.

Blog: This is a natural way to communicate your feelings. It doesn't matter if you have hundreds, thousands, or even one follower, the important thing is that you do it for you.

Collaborate: Talk to to trusted colleagues about what you are doing. They don't have teach your subject or even be teachers themselves. Sometimes just sounding off is enough for you to see what you need to do in the future. Other times you may get just what you need from someone else.

Feedback: Ask students what they learned, what they liked/disliked. They ALWAYS have an opinion. They may not care about why you do something, but they will care about what they are doing in your class.

Connect: Reading what others have to say is a very powerful tool. Whether its tweets or blogs you will find a world wide community out there. You may get a great idea or advice or even be able to give it. Get on twitter and figure out how to use it. Here are a few ideas on who to follow and here on twitter and using it as a personal learning network (PLN). I have found it to be an unbelievable resource. The possibilities are endless.

Be positive: Just cause things may not have gone the way you wanted is no reason to feel like the world will end. I have a saying that I live by, "I will never have two bad days in a row." I will fix whatever I need to, most of the time it's me, and make sure the next day is better. That only happens with a positive outlook. You are the ruler of your class, you have the ultimate decision what happens and how it happens. Remember attitudes aren't taught they're caught. If you have a good attitude it will flow to your students, the opposite is true as well.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Video Game Predicament

With the new Batman movie coming out I felt the need to blog about my thoughts on critical thinking and engaging students in class. My son just turned nine and for his birthday he received Lego Batman 2. With the weather being so unbearably hot and the game being so new, he has spent a lot of time playing this game. I have to admit I was part of the Super Mario generation so I have a soft spot for video games. That being said I would like him to be more active than he is. But before I kicked him off I sat down and watched him play.

As I watched, my eyes opened to the possibilities that were in front of me. This was not a game about going from point A to point B in a certain amount of time. It required a lot of thinking about how to get out of each level. I watched him struggle to figure out what to do next as he navigated Batman around the board. He had to break and build things with the legos on each board and then figure out how to use them to get to the next level. I was impressed with the level of sophistication that the game provided. It wasn't just lower level thinking, it required analysis of the setting, predication of what was to come, synthesis of the items to build and then do something with, and evaluation of situation.

I was mesmerized as this game hit at the higher or critical thinking levels that I want my students to have. He was definitely not a passive, but an active learner. He was applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating. Some of the levels took him a lot of time to figure out what to do. In many cases he failed again, and again, and again, yet undaunted he kept trying. All I could think about was how can I bottle this for my class, what will be my lego batman?

Here are a few quick observations:

First, contrary to popular belief, students aren't quitters. Most of our students are gamers. They fail again, and again, and again, yet keep trying to power up or pass a level. Might be the complete opposite of quitting. So why do some of them seem to quit in class? I would argue that they don't see the need to "power up" or "pass the level" in our class. We need to do a better job helping them see why they should be engaged, what the benefits are, and how to do it. This doesn't mean we need to put on a show. Let's not mistake entertainment for engagement. I would contend more guided student choice with well defined and outlined goals will help alleviate this. It is important to remember these kids will spend hours trying to pass a level on a video game that actually gives them nothing in real life. Just think if they catch the attitude of learning and gain skills and see the point of succeeding in class/school/life. They are not lazy or quitters, they just need direction and motivation to become engaged. Remember in words of David McCullough, "Attitudes aren't taught they're caught."

Second, we spoon feed our students too much. I had a professor at the U, George Henry, who I will forever be grateful to for many reasons, one such was patience in getting students to think. He would ask questions and wait. And wait. And wait some more. It could get uncomfortable and awkward. We have trained students to wait for us to answer our own questions. They don't have to think, we do it for them. I would say this is one of the deadly sins of teaching. My advice is to never let them off the hook. Wait as long as necessary for them to answer. It will be hard at first. You have to train yourself as much as your students. Once they know they have to think and supply the answers they will. I promise.

Thirdly, show them the big picture. Sure its important to teach our content, but we must also teach skills. If students understand there is a reason, and a good one, they will be much more willing to get involved. Believe me they know when you mailed in a lesson, just like you do. They can sniff busy work a mile a way. Show them the big picture first and then how each lesson is a part of that. They want to believe in you.
"Confidence sells--people believe in those who believe in themselves. No one wants to be stuck in a room with other people who feel like they don't belong there. Stop wondering if you are good enough. Know you are, and start acting like it."--Simon Black

Fourth, provide meaningful lessons and authentic assessment. Inquiry is one of the latest buzzwords in education. Inherent in inquiry is passion. It is the driving force to figure out why. Everyone has passion for something, though sometimes it seems buried deep down. We need to unleash that passion. I believe it starts with inquiry coupled with meaningful activities. Why not let them make a few choices in what they do? If you know that they will be much more engaged, understand the material better,go from passive to active learner, and then go from lower levels to higher levels of thinking, why wouldn't you do it? Have them make a movie, a photostory, a prezi, or better yet a website. You can have smaller assignments along the way to build their content knowledge and skills and then culminate with a mind blowing final project. Guaranteed your students won't ever ask again why they have to do a particular activity, because they chose to do it.

Finally, its okay to get a bit messy with this. As I watched my son fail again, and again, I realized he didn't have to get it right the first time. That goes not only for the students, but you too. We may stumble along the way, but that's okay, students may fall, that's okay too. They will get back up and so will you. Since this is about Batman it seems fitting to add this in from Batman Begins. "Why do we fall down Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up." Not sure if that isn't the most valuable lesson we can teach anyhow. But not only for them, we too need that reminder as well.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

New beginnings after ISTE 2012

First things first. I titled the blog after one of my favorite phrases that I use in class. It is the basis of my teaching and who I am. I have great passion for this profession and have always wanted to do my best at everything. I am hoping this blog will serve as place for me to put my thoughts and ideas. A place to discuss what I am doing in class, how it is working (or not working), and how it can be better. I have always liked the idea of reflection and see this blog as a great starting point. I also want to collaborate and discuss with the world the great ideas that are out there. We live in the age of world wide sharing and connectivity. This is lesson #1 learned from ISTE and where I will start my thoughts.

As a first timer I was in awe at the grand scale of ISTE, I had never been a part of something this big and this powerful. There were people from 63 different countries represented at the conference. But what was most impressive to me was the collegiality of everyone and I do mean everyone that I spoke with. At every session I was in I met other talented and like minded people from all over map who all were happy to meet and greet. It was like being in a big family reunion where everyone was totally interested in meeting everyone there. It was beyond refreshing. However, it wasn't just about politely meeting and happily greeting everyone. It was about sharing ideas, collaborating, listening, and reflecting on a scale I had never seen. It was as if I had been living in a tiny cave in Utah and didn't know that there were others, so very many others who thought like I did and wanted to share and learn as much as possible. It became my biggest takeaway and made we want to be more connected. As a quick aside I started using twitter to follow the conference and others and realized how great a tool twitter can be in getting the word out. I have read other's reflections from tweets that influenced this undertaking. One thing I love about educators is that they have passion and compassion, a willingness to help others and share ideas. This has never been more evident in my life than at ISTE. The world wide web has created world wide community.

The next takeaway is that information means nothing. We live in the information age. Information is more readily available now than at any other time in history. Not only is it readily accessible and available, but more people than every before now have that access. Adam Bellow stated that since last year's ISTE there have been 49,000,000 new websites put up. When I want to know something I will go look it up. I can get the answer within minutes, sometimes seconds. I can continue perusing sites until I am satisfied that I have the answers I want. I may be directed to an article, a video, or a message board. I can read other's opinions or reviews on any subject. Technology has allowed us access to unprecedented volumes of information, some better than others, but information nonetheless. The issue isn't getting the information, it's what to do when you get it. How do you use it? It is what you do with the information that matters. Getting students to think critically and evaluate the information is what is important.

Takeaway #3 The coach doesn't have to be better than the players. I am fairly tech savvy and able to figure most things out. That being said I have never used a wiki in my class and plan to implement on this year. Before the conference I was very hesitant and felt that I had to be the expert and know it backwards and forwards before I could introduce to the class. I wanted to be the coach and the star player. After ISTE I realized I not only needed to just be the coach, but it is okay if the players are better at it than me. My job, like any good coach, is to get them to play to their potential. As teachers we don't have to know a given program better than the students. What we need to do is know how to get them to organize ideas, determine importance, evaluate and synthesize information, and critically think about what they find. Today's teachers need to move from behind the desk and worksheets to moving around the class and pushing kids to their potential, challenging them to question and evaluate. And plus if you can't figure something out go back to takeaway #1 and go to the world wide community. Someone there will help you.

There are other smaller takeaways but the last one is that if you are teaching today's student as you did yesterday's you are robbing them of tomorrow. Because this is the information age we need to get away from teaching in lecture style and move to inquiry and project based learning. The following graphic shows what I mean.

We need to take students from the passive learning (most boring and meaningless) to the active which is more meaningful and exciting. I am going to move to more project based learning this year. How? I'm not really sure. My next post will be more about what I have found, my ideas, and how I plan to do it.

ISTE was great. I enjoyed it a lot. I felt connected to world wide community of like minded and bright educators. I felt empowered to implement better and positive changes in my class. My ideas to change the world seem more realistic, as is always the case, just gotta figure out how.

Feel free to comment and join the discussion. My email and twitter handle are to the side. If you follow me, I'll follow you ;)