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Sunday, May 18, 2014

YouTube Video Editor the tool for end of year projects

I am a geography teacher and have been looking for a way to tie everything in that we learn about during the year into one big final project. I have always enjoyed the Zeitgeist videos that Google produces that highlight the most searched stories/events of each year. I decided to incorporate that concept into our class by having students chronicle the major current events worldwide from the start of school to the end, basically Aug-May. They had to pick events each month that they felt should be included in their final video. They needed to explain why they were choosing to highlight a particular event, what made that event more worthy to be chosen than other events. In the end they used the Video Editor to find images and video that showed their view of the past nine months of the major world, national, and local events.

There are many reasons that I think the Video Editor is worthwhile. First off the students get to create a project that they can show the world. Most projects end up being viewed by the student, parents, and teacher, maybe the class, but that is usually it. Using YouTube really does open it up to the world. Secondly students get a project that they can keep. In the past posters have been an acceptable medium, meaning as soon as project is over it goes in the garbage, plus there is only so much you can do with a poster. Next point is copyright infringement. I think the YouTube editor does a great job teaching how to be a responsible creator in digital age. Because you are limited to copyright free images, music, and videos students learn that if they are publishing worldwide they need to make sure they are following the rules. Finally and perhaps most importantly is the ability to create. I allowed my students a lot of freedom in this arena. They could add anything to their video that meant something to them which I felt was important from a creative stance as well as it meant I didn't have to watch the same video 150 times. Each one would be as unique as the students themselves. Students have really enjoyed this aspect of the video editor. They make the final call on edits, clips, and anything they put in or leave out of their video. They also love that others can see their video and they can view what the rest of the class has done. They will do a good job for you, if they know it will be published for the world to see they will make sure it's worthy of that as well.

I have included a few of the videos so you can see what students are able to produce. I consider creation the peak of critical thinking and the YouTube video editor really allows for something special.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

What did you do in class? Nothing, we just took notes

One of my biggest pet peeves about much of professional development in our profession is that instructors talk about best practices and then lecture the whole time and go through a bunch of bullet points. The classic do as I say not as I do. I have considered this in my own teaching. I have realized at times I can launch into lecturer mode and students become passive learners who just write down everything on the screen or board. They are dispassionate hearers trying to determine what to write down as I move from point to point. A while back I overheard students in the hall ask what we were doing and one said, "Nothing really, we just took notes." I thought about this again and again and realized there had to be a better way. I began to consider this a put down, it became a battle cry for me to find a better way. Over the past few years in my attempt to hit at higher levels of thinking I have changed the way I do notes in my class.

I think back to when I took notes as a student and spent time writing away and not listening to what the teacher had to say. I mean who cares what is being said when there are notes to be taken? All that mattered to me then was making sure I wrote down every important thing that the teacher had put up on the board. I became a great note taker as a student, I figured out what was important, used my own system for shorthand, highlighted important details, and then forgot everything as soon as I wrote it down. It is this last thought that is the most troubling to me. As a student I took organized and well composed notes and then did little else with them. Before exams I looked through them with varying degrees of success trying to decipher why I thought these notes were so important that I had highlighted them. I had notebooks full of notes that ultimately did little more than give me reference for what I was supposed to be learning. A bunch of facts is really all notes were to me. Some useless some more important but basically just a bunch of facts that I tried to regurgitate and then forgot as quickly as I had written them down.

I don't want my students to be fact reciters that forget as soon as they recite. I want them to be critical thinkers. I changed the way I did things and have never looked back. It has made me a better instructor and my students active and critical learners. Here is the basis of what I have done:

First off I don't have my students take notes. Groundbreaking right, I will explain what they do instead.

Second I layer my lesson out and consider where to add different levels of critical thinking. There is starting point with everything where lower levels of critical thinking are essential. We can't talk about the Arab/Israeli conflict without some basic understanding of the background. Each lesson is designed to go from lower levels like knowledge and comprehension, then go to application and analysis, and then finally synthesis and evaluation. Recently there has been a shift to add creation as the top layer. This is definitely a place a try to get to with each lesson.

Third after explaining a topic I have them do something with the information. I might have them list items, draw a diagram, rank, or predict something with the information. The important thing is they don't just take notes and not use the information. They have to make sense of what we are discussing and then do something with the information. This is where you find out if they get it. If you are just having them take notes you usually accept the blank stares as understanding and move on. By having them do something you find out real quick if they got it or not.

Fourth I don't ask questions in the traditional sense. For instance there is no who, what, when, where, why, and how. I have them describe, compare, explain, categorize, defend, rank, predict, etc...

Fifth I have them share. This is where you really find out if they get it.

Finally I have them create. It might be a persuasive essay, it could be website, a video, a presentation. It can be whatever you conceive is the best way to show your mastery of the subject.

Here are some examples of going from lower level to higher level thinking and how I would design a lesson.

(We are currently studying Korea so I will use some of the material)

On your map label North and South Korea, the 38th parallel, Pyongyang, Seoul, etc...

Explain why the Korean War is considered part of the Cold War

Support or argue against the US involvement of maintaining the DMZ

Explain the hero worship of the Kim family and the effect this has on the citizens

Evaluate the effect of not having freedoms such as religion, press, and speech and how this can keep governments in power.

Compare Korea's situation to that of the US after the Civil War how are they alike/different?

Finally the build up is to have students work together and create an action plan for five scenarios(coup d'etat, mass defection, natural disaster, foreigners held hostage, and weapons of mass destruction) that the US and ROK have planned for. (PS these are actually real scenarios that have been planned for) They will need to show how to best handle each of the situations.

In the end I don't believe my students need to take notes in the traditional sense. They have already proven they understand the material as we go through the lesson. They have a firm understanding of the material. It has been a mind shift for me, but I can tell you it has made me much better at what I do, and more importantly it has made class more engaged, and hit at all levels of critical thinking. No one ever leaves class anymore and says we just took notes. No one ever says we do we have to learn this. They are all engaged learners critically thinking about the material, how it applies to them.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Teaching organization in writing

Teaching students how to write is never easy. There are so many different things you can focus on, reading 150-200 papers is time consuming, and let's face it each student is unique and will need individualized feedback. For these reasons and others many teachers just don't do it, or at least don't do it as often as they could or should. Leave it to the English department to teach students writing. There have been times I've been guilty of this thinking. Our administration asked all teachers to focus on writing this year, so I have been trying to incorporate more opportunities and more effective ways of teaching writing in a social studies course. After our study of the Middle East and especially Israel, students had to compose an essay on the one or two state solution to the Arab/Israeli conflict. I was pleased with most of the writing and thought it was a good assessment. However, I still noticed that students struggled with organization and this guided my thinking to our latest writing assignment.

China's controversial one child policy would become our next good opportunity for an essay. I thought about the best way to teach organization. I think when it comes to teaching writing it requires as much focus from the teacher as it does the students. I decided that the best way to proceed was to begin with the topic of unintended consequences. I found some great examples worldwide showing how a government policy that intends to do one thing may have hidden or unintended consequences. I introduced the 'Cobra Effect' from India where city officials worried about deaths as a result from bites from the snakes gave a reward for everyone who brought in a dead cobra. Good idea right, turn the problem over to the citizens and involve them in eradicating the problem and pay them for their efforts. It all sounds great, but what ended up happening was people saw the opportunity to make money and began farming cobras themselves. The result was more cobras, not less. Indian officials had never considered that their citizens would act in such a way and the result was they were paying people to increase the problem. A similar occurrence took place in Vietnam except it was with rats. Yea its gross but totally captivating.

After that we delved into the policy. We started with a discussion on population and resources and then looked at the implementation of the policy itself. I must admit that as versed as I am in the policy there are nuances that make it complicated and students can usually come up with a question that is hard to answer. Such moments can become a nice time to have students delve deeper and realize the complications of such a policy. After a thorough introduction to the policy we looked at results. First the overall data which government officials will use to claim its effectiveness and necessity. Then we looked at unintended consequences.

We watched a 10 minute film which shows many such consequences and then discussed them in greater detail. The discussion was important because it allowed students to state their opinions and a chance to give voice to their thinking that they would later be using in their paper. After our discussion I gave out a list that had consequences, intended or unintended, with information about each one. Students then read through the list and ranked them in order of what they felt were the strongest for against the policy. Little did they know that they had decided on what their body paragraphs would be in their essay.

I then gave them the prompt "Do the ends justify the means?" We discussed what that meant and then how they were to organize their essay. The introduction would briefly explain the who, when, where, what, why, and how of the policy and then the results. Students could either agree or disagree and use their rankings from the previous exercise to guide them with their body paragraphs. It was almost magical when I pointed out that they had already decided what they were going to use as their body paragraphs based on what ranking they had given each consequence. When I set them loose the students began immediately and had no trouble deciding what to write about or where or how to include information.

The final product was the best writing I have seen all year. It was thoughtful, organized, and to the point. Students that normally would struggle with such a task wrote nice balanced essays and finished in a timely manner. Now I understand you can't always do this, but for this subject it worked better than I even expected and in the end I think they have a sound understanding of the topic and the complexities in creating a 'simple' solution to such a complicated issue.