Monday, April 30, 2007

Relevancy in Lesson Plans

This post was a draft I just found today from back in April. I'm relying heavily on my lesson plans here, so I'll give this a whirl.

When I write up a lesson plan, I include some sections to keep me honest. "Theory into Practice" is one example. Same with "assessment." Master teachers may have something in mind for each of these when they jot down a lesson plan, but I like to get something down concrete to remind myself.

After teaching today and reading this post by dy/dan, I think I may want to add a section on relevancy. In language arts today, my students are completing a comprehension sheet on some non-fiction they read. But I'm pretty sure few of them have a reason for learning how stars are formed. They should know, it ties into current events (life on another planet - I think fifth graders would find that relevant).

Friday, April 27, 2007

Semantic Mapping Website Visuwords

I've posted before about vocabulary instruction, semantic mapping methods, and (For those without the time to go back and read three previous posts, here's the summary: if you do decide to do vocabulary instruction, students should choose their own words for the lists and they should use semantic mapping methods to learn the new words - otherwise they're more likely to memorize the words for the test and forget them the next day. is "like Flickr, but without the photos." It's an online tool I've been trying to use, somewhat successfully, for semantic mapping.)

I'd try to say something about this site in relation to all that, but I think it speaks for itself pretty well. I'm also in a planning period right now, but maybe I'll think of something/have more time later today.

Seriously, it will blow your mind.

UPDATE: Okay, so now I do have a few brief points to make about In her book Words in the Mind, Jean Atchinson argues that words are organized in our mind in groups by relationships. Aitchinson finds that there are four ways in which words may be associated: co-ordination (words on the same level of detail, such as hot, warm, cool. This group includes antonymns.); collocation (words likely to be found together, like salt water or butterfly net); superordination (an overall term that includes the stimulus word, such as bird for sparrow); and synonymy (words that have a similar meaning, like hungry and starved).

I was using Wordie with my students to create a semantic model of the mind. We would comment on words we wanted to use, linking them to coordinating words, synonyms, antonyms, and superordinating words.

Visuwords makes these connections and displays them graphically. I think this site would be a great way to introduce the concept to students. It might be cool too if students make their links on Wordie during the week (you can learn new words by connecting them to words you already know) and then at the end of the week looking it up on Visuwords to examine some possible definitions maybe they hadn't considered.

If nothing else, it is wicked cool.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

A Confession

I came to a realization this morning. (I know, such a dramatic opening, huh . . . I'll make a point about this later.)

Dana recommended Classroom 2.0 in this post, and I thought I'd check it out. I've been on a bit of a social networking binge lately - I've used Facebook for a while and just started using MySpace, and my brother created his competition site (which I plugged for him briefly here).

When I first logged on, there was a big discussion going on regarding a post Miguel made on his blog regarding Classroom 2.0. At the risk of offending someone by attempting to sum up the debate, what I read into it was whether blogging or social networking sites were better.
I agree with you in part; it is definitely a good thing to have a support system of teachers who have a similar perspective on education, and who are interested in trying new things.

But I think it's also important to hear new ideas as well. This is something that can happen in a discussion, but reading blogs offers more of a shmorgish-board of ideas that can spark something new. I read about Classroom 2.0 on Dana's blog. I started thinking some more about by book clubs on Cindy's blog. And I rethought my entire approach to education on Karl's blog.

That being said, I can agree with some of the concerns about blogging posted here. I've been blogging since fall of 2006, and while that's one year less than Miguel, it gets distressing post after post without any readers or comments. Some would probably point out that I'd have more readers if I posted more often - but I'm not going to write to a brick wall either. I know I have some readers, but not enough to generate the kind of feedback that will help me really think about my teaching.

Anyway, I think Carolyn makes a good point above. If it's helpful, we'll use it. If it's not, we'll find something else.
It was around the second to last paragraph that I consciously realized what I've been doing unconsciously for the last two years: I started blogging because my professor Cindy brought in Bud as a guest speaker to talk about integrating technology with learning. It seemed like I better get on the boat or get left behind, if that makes sense. Blogging was a way for me to learn more about the leaps and bounds technology was taking, and join a community of educators who were thinking about their teaching openly. It was my own form of continuing education, something to help keep me honest.

I've been so concerned with the whole audience piece that I don't think I've been honest with myself (or my few readers). I've been so concerned with sounding like a good teacher and sounding smart (like that dorky, overly dramatic introduction). I've hesitated to blog about things because I'm not sure what others will think of them. I've gone back and read previous posts to try to decide if I'm being judged by them - if I feel that I am, I edit or delete them. I'm more concerned with appearances than with using the tool as I intended too. I don't speak genuinely all the time, only if I think people will approve of what I have to say.

I think I've been trying too hard and worrying too much about site visitors and getting comments. We all want approval, and bloggers thirst for comments. And we want to show our mentors that we've learned from them. We want their approval especially.

I want to know my writing is finding an audience - but I should write without being so conscious of the audience. Audience and purpose are important pieces in the writing process, but they shouldn't control every aspect of one's writing.

My point is that one finds the community one wants and needs to be apart of by being genuine. You can't choose the community first and try to fit into what you see as their mold. Maybe that's a benefit of Classroom 2.0 - the discussion decentralizes the conversation, whereas on a blog, my own writing is all you see when you first arrive at the site.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Changing How Students Learn

Karl's post about the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program has got me thinking a bit. Karl's post includes video of a speaker for OLPC presenting at Google. You should definitely read the post and watch at least the first 10 minutes of the video.

If you decide not to do either, here's the basic gist I got out of it, and what's been troubling me. The goal of OLPC is "change how kids learn." There's nothing there about laptops. The speaker points out that from age 0 to 5, the majority of learning we do as children is discovery driven. No one tells us what a dog is - typically, we see a dog and ask "what dat?" And then someone tells us. All the learning is informal and "student" driven.

Then, all of a sudden, at age 5 or 6, we're sent off to school and everything changes. Learning is (most often) authoritatively driven; the government determines standards, teachers write units and lesson plans, and students (at least, the "good" ones) listen to the teacher and learn what they're supposed to.

To be fair, standards are needed to make sure there's some level of accountability in education. As much as I would like the government to trust me to teach what students need to learn, it's nice to know all students are learning the same basic skills. And then those skills are tested annually here in Colorado with the CSAP - also a necessary piece of education. There need to be some forms of accountability, though many of us may feel there are better options out there than our current one.

Thus in kindergarten and first grade, we learn the alphabet and how to read; in second and third grade, we learn multiplication tables and fractions; in fourth and fifth we learn some basic US History and more advanced reading. All these things are definitely important.

But then, they get to junior high or high school, and we ask them to write an essay with their own original thoughts, or put together a project that showcases their learning - we ask them to start driving their own education again, and most of them look at us like we're crazy. I know my eighth graders during student teaching had the hardest time when I told them they could write three pieces and that they could be about anything they want. Mass chaos. I was part of the problem - I've posted about it before here, here, and here. But really, to draft, revise, edit, and publish three pieces of writing about absolutely anything you want, all English teachers want our students to be able to do that.

The goal of OLPC is to change that. Students are given laptops that connect with other laptops in their community and eventually, through those other laptops, to the school server and the internet. The idea is to create a grassroots movement of children who are learning by discovery once again.

I was thinking about this concept as I taught a first grade class last week. A few of the students were unmotivated and uninterested (for the most part) in their lessons on counting money and making popsicle stick bridges for their Billy Goat Gruff finger puppets. Instead, every chance they got, whether during a lesson or during free reading time, the students would hop up to grab a copy of the Children's Illustrated Dictionary.

Imagine. Students who want to read the dictionary. That's student-motivated learning by discovery. I felt bad redirecting them to the tasks at hand.

Some of the first grade students did need a lot of help with their math. One student conceptualized counting in a way I've never seen before (which isn't saying much, since I've taught first grade for three days now). From what I could figure out, he had to draw whatever it was he was counting before he could count it. And he expressed the numbers in the ones place in a different way. If he was writing 53, he would write it like this: "5o." But if I write 53 on the board, he understands it as the same number.

This student is discovering math in his own way. Yet with an authoritarian method of teaching, this particular student's way of seeing numbers is not supported. If the teacher takes on the role of a "master craftsman," one who is knowledgeable and practiced in the subject, they can act as a resource for the inquisitive student. The student takes on the role of "apprentice," slowing developing their skills in their own way, taking on harder and harder projects.

Maybe this doesn't work for a logic based subject like math. But this is how I intend for writing workshop to work with my students. The question is, how much of a base do we have to teach using the authoritative model. Is discovery, while a more desirable (at least, I think) way to learn, too time consuming? Do students need to reach a critical mass of prior knowledge before they can reach this creative, trial stage that I want them to achieve? Because even if I give a discovery oriented assignment, like, "look at the different kinds of persuasive essays in this WebQuest and get an idea for what kind of format you need to follow in your essays," I'm still the one assigning it.

In high school I read a book titled The Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Life and Education. The idea was that you could quit school and learn what you needed through discovery based learning, pass your GED and move on to college. Unfortunately, I was not able to convince my parents to let me "get a real life and education" (or quit school, for that matter). But maybe the school teacher who wrote that book is onto something.

Today I'm teaching Pre-AP Literature at a high school. For part of the class period, they're taking the time to research and write their persuasive essays. Some of the students chose to spend that time in other ways. On same days, I might be tempted to argue that they were "wasting their time" or "straying off-task." For some this was probably the case, like the young woman looking at Spiderman 3 ticket prices, or the woman watching dog show performances on Google Video. But others were actually learning something. One young man was looking at various architecture around the world on Google Earth. Another was investigating the city of Fort Collins debate on Round-a-bouts (not the topic of his paper, by the way). Another young woman was looking at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science website (our local version of a Natural History Museum - for some reason they decided to dumb down the title), while another was researching various mental health disorders.

So I guess my thoughts haven't really reached any sort of tangible conclusion. I suppose the downside to total learning by discovery is that students go looking for something when they are interested in or see the relevancy to - the topics they don't see as relevant will be overlooked.

It's an interesting concept OLPC is promoting. I think it's great that they're increasing the use of technology in the third world. Technology is a powerful tool for development. When 75% of the third world is populated by farmers, think how helpful it would be to know the price one could get for corn before transporting it to a major city for market. You might weight for a better price and go another day.

However, OLPC seems to be doing little to promote safe learning of technology. Teachers apparently also receive a laptop, but (like the children) receive no training on how to use it, or the uses of technology in education. Who will teach these students safe use of the internet? How will the teachers learn to integrate technology in their lessons? If they're going for discovery based learning, are the teachers going to make them put their laptops away during class? I was totaly psyched about OLPC when it first started out, but now, I have my concerns. The idea is great, but they've got to follow through.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Blogging about the Peace Corps

For those interested in my personal, non-education related experiences in the Peace Corps, Jennie and I are blogging about them at

Meet Soup . . . mmm, mmm, good.

My younger brother has just launched a website/project he's been working on while at college, and I think it's one that has some educational uses:
meetsoup is a site for making contests --- meets, if you will. You can make a meet that gives your friends a month to write poetry about fish, for instance, and let anyone and everyone judge your work. Or perhaps you want to enter a meet that tells you to, in six months, make a drawing only one inch square, that will be judged by an art critic. Or you could read short stories written in just five minutes, with no judging at all. You make the rules, you set the deadlines, you judge the results. It's a big old bowl full of all sorts of meets: it's meetsoup.
Here are my thoughts: writing workshop with classroom, grade level, school-wide, or district-wide, poetry, short story, and essay contests. This initial encouragement to enter in a school contest on will lead students to other contests outside of the school with a potentially wider audience. Since their clever teacher did a unit on safety with technology and internet use, students could participate in those contests in a safe manner.

My other thought I've already started: educators can share lesson plans, with or without the judging session. I've already started a meet for educators to contribute their best sentence fragment mini-lesson. While sharing lesson plans, we might all get some ideas on how to enhance our teaching of a similar, or completely different lesson.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

I'm Going to Africa!

Jennie and I finally received our Peace Corps invitation today. We're leaving for South Africa in July. Jennie will be doing work with HIV/AIDS and I'm going to serve as a "Primary Teacher Trainer Resource Volunteer." This is scary, seeing as my experience teaching includes my student teaching last spring and the substitute teaching I'm doing now, the majority of which is secondary.

I'm expecting to learn more there than teach, and I think if I approach it all as an exchange of information instead of "teacher training," we can learn a lot from each other (more me learning from the experienced South African teachers). But I admit I would feel more comfortable with my own classroom teaching EFL or English language arts as a plain teacher. Though, you have to admit, my current five-word title sounds pretty sweet . . .