Animal Farm 2.0 – Reading won’t hurt

 We are almost the end of the first week of the two week Animal Farm 2.0 project. Our goals have been clear. We want the students to get back into reading books, talking about books and thinking the language of books. We also want them to use what they are reading to help them learn about basic creative writing techniques, start to repack ‘language’ in a formal context and then to produce a series of books containing short stories.

It’s fast and furious. I am not the ‘classroom’ teacher – in fact there are 8 of them. I think that the design of this project has created for the teachers a real feeling of ‘unity’. Casual conversations with the teachers suggests that they feel enthusiastic, becuase of the way the students have taken to reading and asking questions. It has not been perhaps the ‘battle’ to get 15 year old boys to get engaged with reading that it might have been in the past, but that is just a feeling I get from talking to them.

The students have shared a simple GoogleDoc with their teachers online, and have been actively responding to questions. These questions are individual to each student, so the teachers have mapped the ‘key learning’ and been able to explore the student’s ideas as well as meet the objectives of the unit. The classroom lessons are given to explore the text in groups, take part in writing exercises to support it. The deconstruction and reflection of that classroom activity – is done in GoogleDocs, and it may well be that the students are talking to a different teacher.

In effect they are talking to an advisor and mentor. When they return to class – its clear that the students are bring a number of persectives to the class.

They can say to the teacher ‘That is what I thought, but then Snowball said ….”. It gives the student some ‘expert’ feeling, that they are bringing information and new ideas to the teacher – creating a greater democracy in learning.

Around the campus, students can be seen reading. They have also formed discussion groups with teachers at lunch time – because they want to know more and get more from the text. In the 3 years I’ve been at the school, I have never seen this in 9th Grade. The actual manditory tasks this week are actually quite low, yet the effort and enthusiasm is remarkable. We have a new teacher in the mix, Brad. Lucy has taken on the project in her usual creative and enthusiastic manner and Brad has falled right into line. Her understanding of how technology can be used strategically to create a sense of drama and mystery in learning is fantastic.

The students know that there is something about to happen in the project, and not sure what, but it has something to do with the meaning that they need to get from Animal Farm. (I’d say more, but they might read this). What is important is that when I ask the students about ‘how’s the project going’ … they talk about the meaning of the book, and how it might apply to all manner of things, no least the way the school operates. They are not retelling the story. At the end of almost a year, these kids are now looking well beyond the immediate ‘task’.

In this project, I think we’ve got a strong ‘content’ and ‘learning’ balance. One of the critisisms of PBL is how kids stack up against kids learning the same content in more traditional ways. I guess that really depends on how you define the summative assessment – but I do think that there is a danger to skip content milestones in favour of other goals – which are valid – but make it hard to draw direct comparisons.

This project, so far, has created unity in the teachers – each has a part to play, and has been able to teach in their own style. The enthusiasm that the teacher brings to class is picked up by students. At times I think teachers can be lost in the fog of technology, or the process of project based learning – and students know it. When putting this task together – a major goal Lucy and I had – was for the teachers. To create a project that let them do what they do best, to learn a new tool (GoogleDocs) and create unity and engagement as a teaching team – that has the ability to focus on individual students. I am learning just how critical that is – and unity is as much of a key word as collaborative to me right now.

The next phase of creative writing starts tommorrow – so I really want to try and capture that – with the end ‘book’ writing the week after.

Graphic-A-Day#8 – Printers

Give a teacher a printer and make a friend for life. Todays poster is for all those teachers who love a printed worksheet. Some just love to print out ‘content’. Last year I did a study with year 12 students in the lead up to the HSC. Most said they were getting well over 100 sheets of paper a week. Most also said that they didn’t read it. The sheets they read were the ones that had ‘work’ on them, and even so, the majority said that it was easier to use the internet to get the answer than it was the paper.

Some teachers love the printer so much that they will come into school during the holidays just to get print outs ready.

To these people, that is what computers are for: Preparing CONTENT or TESTING for content retention.

If you want a rebellion, pull the toner drum out for a day. Teachers will chase the IT department with pitch-forks and torches. If they cannot use the printer – then a computer is like a car without wheels.

The reality is that it takes less effort to save a document and share it via the internet, than it does to print it and get a class set photocopied. Trying to explain the benefits to them – and the students is not something that goes down well. The notion of being parted from their printer it too unthinkable.

It is maybe ironic however, that the paper-pushers also claim Google and Wikipedia use as one of the ‘yeah but’ arguements against using computers in the classroom. The most common other one being lack of time (well printing and photocopying is very time consuming). These teachers do that themselves with technology. When going beyond the class text book, they can be seen preparing ‘content’ sheets. Its almost a cottage industry in some schools. The above poster really tries to sum that activity up – as a satire on process driven learning.

Create the document, and share it with not just your class, but other teachers is more efficient and consistent. Posting that online where kids can get it, is more effective. It saves time and paper. How many paper pushing teachers hear from students ‘I didn’t get the worksheet or I don’t have it here’. This 20C activity is easily improved.

Put that content or worksheet in an online space where students can discuss it, creates conversational learning. Developing a GoogleDoc with collegues, and then sharing that with students is even better. Working on a GoogleDoc with students is engaging and promotes one to one learning.

“Yeah but” … I don’t have that much access to computer classrooms, so I need to print!

Well, yes and no. It’s all about rethinking how you use the time you have. As a teacher, it is possible to take the time you will be in and ICT classroom, and create an activity which promotes improved classroom practice and professional development. In short, it’s not so much about access as it is about building your own capacity to begin changing how you use technology with students.

If you are designing lessons, that are essentially question driven – based on students seeking similar information that you yourself ‘found’, then that is BORING. It is also low level activity, and is not building capacity in the students.

If your printed worksheet contains instructions such as ‘go to http://www.somewebsite.com and answer the following questions … then that is fairly basic and boring. If you say go to Google and do it, then the kids will be struggle – as you are not teaching the most critical skill – how to select and justify quality information.

A better way would be to ‘tag’ several sources in delicious – and ask why one is more applicable or more authoritative than the other. They will still learn the ‘content’ but the need for learning is to compare and justify it, not just use or identify it. Delicious is the ‘worksheet’. All you had to do was create one ‘tag’ for the students, which is less work that stripping out content and re-packing it for paper delivery.

If you can’t give up paper – then this activity can be done with paper. Students can use the tags and the content in the ICT lesson, make paper notes and then do some offline activity. That is a better use of the time you have – and you are teaching critical literacy.

So thats the rant for today – make the most of the time you have in ICT, and don’t simply make it an electronic search of the classic text book chaper task. Kids can find millions of pages about anything you ask them to look for … there is TOO much information now. A decade ago there was less. It was easier to find it and much more obvious if Site A is better than Site B. That is no longer the case. Think before you print! Finding ‘the’ answer is not as important as choosing the ‘most relevant’ in a context.