A journey through the LTT course at SFU and my thoughts on education.

Education Competencies….Brought to You By Microsoft


Where do you want to go today? The old Microsoft slogan. And the answer? Education, or rather that is where Microsoft is going.

While surfing around the internet I came across this blog post regarding the need for students to find their personal brand, on a blog entitled Education Insights. I thought the idea of a personal brand would entail some sort of profile, a collection of work shared with others. As I read on though the idea of a personal brand seemed to be a bit different from what I was anticipating. Some of the points in this blog were good and the model that was presented seems to be a good way of recognizing where we need to be going in allowing students to explore their personal interests whilst providing them with fundamental skills that they will need to possess as they depart the education system.

Too often we select a series of supposedly successful careers, doctors, lawyers and then work backwards with our students, looking at the skills needed to succeed in these careers and then structuring the curriculum to meet these. We do not examine the students passions and recognize that they need to be allowed to explore those whilst gaining basic fundamental skills. Skills like working with others, writing, applying creativity, problem solving, etc. But what would this look like.

Enter the education competencies or rather the education competency wheel.

Designed by Microsoft and an outside company it is a tool that Microsoft uses to assess new employees and develop professional skills. They are now trying to apply this to Education. The program focuses on six main areas that include individual excellence, organizational skills, courage, results, strategic skills, and operating skills. Each of these areas are broken down into smaller, more specific areas or skill sets, and in each set is a list of reflective questions and a rubric designed to measure progress in the acquisition of the particular skill.  Admittedly it looks like a program that would be quite useful within the classroom but Microsoft is also advocating it as a way of developing school districts as a whole.

They argue that using these competencies in the hiring process and evaluating the needs of the district and where potential hires might be able to fit in. Though I like this as a guide to where we can go in educating students I am skeptical about how this can be used as a hiring tool. The issue I have is that in using this to hire educators it is quite possible that very good educators are passed over due to the fact that they may not fit a certain profile.

So where do you want to go today?

It’s September Again…Getting Ready for the Year Ahead


As Shakespeare said in Sonnet 18, “summer’s lease hath all too short a date” and alas with under one week to go until I am back in my classroom it appears that summer is over for another year.

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But I am not disappointed by this. Well perhaps a little, but I am eager to get back into the class and try out new ideas, new methods and new technologies in order to hopefully provide a better, more enriching experience for my students. I feel that I have learnt a great deal in the last two years, from my course, from blogs, and from my learning network, and am about ready to put some of this learning into practice. I have been devising new ways of teaching, looking at Prezi, PhotoStory, Google Apps, PicLits, and a number of other online applications to assist me in providing a rich learning environment.

I have also been examining the make-up of my class, or rather how I structure my room so that it provides a conducive learning environment. While I was looking for ideas I happened upon a  link to an article/post by Alfie Kohn in Educational Leadership from September 1996 entitled What to Look For in a Classroom. As I read it I was kind of taken aback. I mean there are many good things I am doing in my class, according to this list, but some of the things listed under the possible reasons to worry header where things that I am currently practicing in my class, and was giving little thought to them simply because they were the ways in which many of my former teachers did things. I had not thought of them as reasons to worry. Food for thought.

Now I don’t know what grade level classroom Kohn wrote this for, however, I am assuming that it can be applied to almost, if not, every grade level. As I set my room up over the past few days I was conscious of what I was doing. Not just randomly putting the desks into rows, columns or groups, but actively looking for ways in which I can encourage collaboration and a sense of community in my classroom. After spending two days setting up (it is difficult when you have always been moving rooms for the past seven years – don’t even talk to me about losing things while moving) I still don’t think I am where I want to be. After all the room does look a little bare – devoid of students work and other displays that will help it to feel like a ‘real’ classroom should. But that is something I am going to work towards as the year begins.

Change is not always easy, but those who refuse to change will forever be left behind.

Assessing for Understanding…Wonderings For My Last LTT Field Study


As we approach the start of the new school year (only two weeks to go) I find myself sitting in my LTT class where we have spent the morning looking at assessment. Examining the way we assess students. The way we would like to be able to assess students, and the many frustrations we, as teachers, have surrounding this topic.

Where is this going?

All of us in the LTT program are working at putting together our final field studies. These are focused inquiries designed to integrate technology into our practice. It is especially difficult to formulate this time because, unlike the previous two inquiries where we have had roughly three months to implement our study, in this case we have only six to eight weeks. This is obviously very restrictive but something that we have to work around.

I would have liked to explore podcasting within my French class as a means of increasing understanding…but with the time constraints that would just not be possible. This is something that I would like to explore later this school year though.

So with that in mind, for this study I am going to be looking at having students create video projects (using PhotoStory 3 or Windows Movie Maker) whereby they write their own poem or select a poem of their choice and read it with accompanying imagery and music that is selected to ‘fit’ their understanding of the poem.

That brings up the question of assessment. How am I to assess student learning? How am I to assess whether my students have gained a greater understanding of poetic devices and the poem that they selected?

I am thinking of incorporating student self assessment and peer assessment into the project but I would also like to have the students comment on their own stories…kind of like the way in which a director comments on his or her own work in the bonus features of a Blu-ray (yes DVD’s are dead). I think this, and the way in which my students interact and complete the project will form the basis for my assessment of their understanding.

But I am still wondering if this is accurate and valid assessment? I believe it is formative assessment and that it will be valid, constructive and will help my students to gain a greater understanding of the material. Thoughts and comments are welcome.

Critical Consumption Online…The Importance of Teaching Our Students to be Aware on the Net


With the summer slowly slipping away I am beginning to get my head, albeit very slowly, around going back to the classroom, back to the students, and back to the daily challenges and triumphs that the future year will hold. Who my students will be I do not know necessarily (though I do have some ideas). What I do know is that they will, for the most part, be technologically aware. They will know how to use the internet, search engines and word processors in order to assist them to complete their assignments. But will they be able to critically consume the information that they find online?

How can we teach students to know whether what they find is valid, truthful information, and not a hoax, spam, or urban myth?

Students need to use the internet. That point cannot be argued. Those who cannot make use of this technology are destined to be in a disadvantaged position in our society. However, too many students are willing to accept what they find at face value. They are not taught to look past what they see and discover where the information eminates from. A prime example is the way in which students generally use a search engine. They are prone to picking the first few sites and are content with what they find. This can and does have serious implications.

I recently watched a video by Howard Rheingold entitled “Bringing a Critical Lens to Reading on the Web” http://blip.tv/file/3333374 Rheingold argues it is not enough to just give students the internet. We need to teach them about the various literacies associated with using it. He makes a distinction between what he sees as literacies and skills.

As Rheingold states, it is one thing to be able to find information. Anyone can go to Google, or Wikipedia and find information online. There is no guarantee, however, that it is accurate. There is no one proofreading the information before it is published to the web, unlike books where editors are paid to proofread the book. Because of this the onus has shifted from the publisher to the consumer; that is who determines what is valid and relevant in material published online.

We need to teach our students to look deeper, search out the meaning of the information that they find. Like sea captains navigating through uncharted seas in the age of exploration our students need to be given the tools to accurately map out their course. They need to be able to use the internet and be aware of what is out there. It is our job, as teachers, to assist them in doing this.

There are a number of sites that can assist us in helping our students to be more critically aware when online.  The first is one that Rheingold recommends Who.is – a site that allows you to determine who registered the site. A useful tool. Two other sites are geared more towards the students themselves. The first is a hoax page about the Pacific Tree Octopus http://zapatopi.net/treeoctopus/ and the second is also a hoax page about explorers http://www.allaboutexplorers.com/. The explorers site is quite useful as it has links to information for teachers and can be a useful tool in helping to make students aware of the accuracy of information. Additionally a list of other hoax websites can be found here.

The other advantage to teaching students to be critically aware of the information and even interactions that they have online is that they are better aware of online threats. Many parents and community leaders are worried about the threat posed by online predators etc. when, as Rheingold states, there is a greater threat within the local community itself as opposed to the internet. If we work at teaching students to be critically aware of what they view on the internet it will help them to better deal with security threats from strangers and enable themselves to be safe.

We shouldn’t control how people put information onto the net, though in some cases I can see why you may want to limit access to various sites depending on the age of the students at your particular insititution. We need instead to invest some time, effort and money into ensuring that our students are critically aware, that they can decipher what they find, be critical consumers, and determine what is useful and what is merely….crap.

Reflecting on My Learning and the LTT Course


It is getting close to the end of the school holidays; only three weeks to go as of tomorrow. I have had a very good summer vacation this year. Traveling throughout China and Japan was an amazing, and eye-opening experience, both personally and professionally. More about that in another post perhaps.

You would think that with three weeks left in the summer vacation I would be out enjoying myself, living it up, and soaking up the marrow of life. That is what I would like to do. However, tomorrow I have to give up two weeks of my summer to sit, for roughly six hours a day, in a school library on my computer, taking summer classes as part of Simon Fraser University’s LTT program. It is something that I, and many of my colleagues did last year as well. We know what to expect and we are not looking forward to it. Primarily because it robs us of the last few weeks of a summer vacation already ebbing away.

But getting ready to go back to this course, in the role of a student, got me thinking about a number of things. How I learn and how I teach in my own classroom in particular. The goal of the LTT program (or Learning and Teaching with Technology) is to be able to integrate technology into our teaching practice, which we have already done throughout the course of two field studies. It is also about understanding how students and teachers will operate in a networked environment, and throughout the course I have found myself subscribing to, and signing up for innumerable websites and programs as a result of being in this course. I have, however, continued to use only a handful of these due to personal time constraints, as well as the practicality, and overall usefulness to my teaching practice of the various sites and applications.

I have also found that the greatest learning I have accomplished while taking this course has not been as a result of the course…as one might expect the case to be when you are paying a large percentage of your income to a post-secondary institution. Most of my learning has come through following other people`s blogs, and tweets, and talking with them about their ideas etc. It has led me to question if it is worth, after this part of the course is complete, to pursue a master`s degree in this field, considering that I have no aspirations of becoming an administrator. To me it seems that I would learn more by not paying for the costly piece of paper.

Bill Gates has noted as well that internet learning will, in the next five years, become more important than university learning (http://www.techradar.com/news/internet/bill-gates-internet-more-important-than-university-in-five-years–708608).  His reasoning is that internet based learning will be more affordable for more students but I think that it is more than that. I think that internet based learning offers people a more meaningful experience, self-guided learning about a topic that is of interest to the learner is more valuable than someone telling you about what you should learn and in what time-frame you should learn it.

The LTT program itself is undergoing a major overhaul as myself and my colleagues are in the midst of completing it, and this therein is one of the main problems that I find with the program. Though the objectives seem to have been stated above, I, and many others, do not really know why we are there in some cases. Objectives as to why we are completing assignments are not always made clear. The “why are we doing this” question that many students often ask often comes to mind. In addition we are also asked to sign up for various websites of which there appears to be very little significant value. For example in the last term we were asked to join Ning (which since became a paid service for some of its aspects) and create a Netvibes page among other things.

In itself these do not seem like unreasonable requests, however, since signing up for Ning I have had very little time to go on and join in any discussions, and despite being asked by our instructor I have yet to create a Netvibes page because it appears to me to be little more than another version of IGoogle, though perhaps one with some Sharepoint features mixed in. I like IGoogle and am perfectly happy sticking with that. If anything I would appreciate more assistance with using our districts Sharepoint software.

The previous version of this course seems to have been more practical and self-directed in nature. Other colleagues of mine who have taken this course were allowed a greater freedom to explore the various technologies, whether it be webquests, sharepoint etc. I can only wish that this version of the course was more like that. Too many directed readings and directed self-reflection have got me annoyed as I find that I am wasting my time and energy. I could be learning about things that are of interest to me and that can be directly implemented into my classroom. The other issue with directed readings is that not all of them are relevant, and even readings that I find are not necessarily useful. Too many scholars are not directly connected to the classroom. Their writing might be relevant and even interesting but not always is it applicable to a classroom setting. Some of the academic writers are too removed from actual classrooms.

But again it leaves me looking back at the way I teach. I would like to be able to give students an option about what they choose to study, albeit difficult in the confines of a curriculum. I would like to ensure that they are learning about things that are of interest to them and that allow them to be creative and original – I do not want to mandate to them what they need to do. I would like my students to know why they are learning what they are learning, and connect it to relevant content in their lives. This is the way I would like to learn, and I am learning that this is the way in which I would like to teach.

A Brief Reflection on the Year


Tomorrow is July 1st. The start of NBA and NHL free agency (wonder where Lebron is going? In a perfect world it would be the Celtics but that will never happen. I am assuming he will re-sign with the Cavs or go to New York) and also of my summer vacation. More about the vacation in a minute though.

As I sit here contemplating the year I cannot help but think that, though I was very reluctant about taking on a grade 6/7 class this year, it has been both a rewarding and an enriching experience. An experience that has been enhanced not only by the knowledge and experiences that my students have imparted to me, but also by what I have learned in the blogosphere from all of the people that I follow and in turn learn from. I would like to take a few moments to acknowledge those people whose blogs I read on a regular basis. I urge anyone who reads this blog to have a look at some of the views of these innovative and progressive educators.

The Innovative Educator – http://theinnovativeeducator.blogspot.com/

For The Love of Learning – http://www.joebower.org/

David Truss: Pair-a-dimes For Your Thoughts – http://pairadimes.davidtruss.com/

Teaching as a Dynamic Activity – http://educatech.wordpress.com/

In Pursuit of Purpose – http://jwhiff.edublogs.org/

Mr. Jackson’s Blogosphere – http://bryanjack.edublogs.org/

That is just a sample of some of the educational blogs that I do follow on a regular basis and it is over the course of this year that I have come to see the value of this tool and how it can further my own practice inside and outside of the classroom.

I have, as mentioned, learned a great deal from my students. I always do. A renewed appreciation for patience and an understanding of where they are coming from as they progress through the educational system are the two most important things that I will take from this year. There are things that I could have done better this year. I think that all teachers realize this throughout the year though. Education is all about reflective practice. The educator who does not reflect does not improve and does not do themselves or their students any justice. I still think that I need to improve on classroom management and have found some of the ideas from this blog http://www.smartclassroommanagement.com/ to be very useful. It is something that I have continually tried to improve throughout my career as it was not something I had to deal with in my teaching practicum. Teaching IB 11 History for a practicum doesn’t necessarily lend itself to improving classroom management (thought the practicum itself was a thoroughly enjoyable experience). I also need to focus and improve on assisting my lower achieving students and those with organizational issues. Rome wasn’t built in a day and these areas are things that I need to continue to work on. Next year will undoubtedly provide new challenges and experiences and I am already looking forward to it…not with too much vigor though. I still need my vacation.

As I head into the summer break though, I am excited. Excited for the new opportunity that I have in returning to teach grade 8 for next year. Excited about new ideas and practices that I would like to put into place next year. Excited to work with some of the same students that I had this year. Most of all though I am excited about my summer trip this year. I am returning to China and am, after three weeks in Shanghai, traveling on to Japan for two and a half weeks. I wrote a post last year about some of my experiences teaching in Asia http://paitken.edublogs.org/2009/08/01/experiences-from-china-and-korea/ and will do the same when I return from this year’s trip.

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Designing Middle Education – From the Ground Up


If you were given the opportunity to design a school, what kind of school would you want to build? What rules would there be in regards to homework, discipline, and the use of technology? What courses would you offer in your school?

These are just some of the questions that I put to my own students in the last week before the end of the school year. With the days slowly ticking away, and with report cards completed, I needed an activity that would occupy my students, and yet challenge them to be thoughtful, creative and even reflective of their own educational experience. There were some criteria that I did provide them with though. This weren’t given a carte blanche – the students were told that they needed to attend school a certain number of days per year and hours per week. The safety of students in the designed schools was paramount, and the activities and rules that they decided to put in place had to adhere to this. My students were also told that there needed to be a curriculum based around the government mandated courses (Math, Science, Socials, English etc.). Other than that they were free to decide everything else.

Some of their efforts have been very enlightening. They have interesting thoughts on the construction of the school building, the courses on offer and the shape of the day.

Feel free to read and comment on some of the thoughts of my students:

http://sunsjanae.edublogs.org/

http://sunssean.edublogs.org/

http://sunsedward.edublogs.org/

http://sunslauren.edublogs.org/

Trial and Error: Learning To Use Technology Through Play


How do we teach our students to integrate technology into their assignments and projects? For many of us this is probably a redundant question. The students knowledge of programs and applications in many cases outweighs our own. But what about those students who have not yet had the exposure to technology or the various applications that you may be using in your class. After all, despite what the media is saying about our children not being active there are still a few who do get outside and play.

How do we as teachers learn to use technology in our classes? As mentioned for many teachers integrating technology that they are not familiar with can often prove a difficult proposition. Some are ready to accept it and others are not. Of course that is specifically the focus of the LTT program at SFU – integrating technology into our teaching practice.

The past few weeks I have been examining Photo story 3 for Windows. For those who would prefer to use a Mac program our district is almost exclusively uses PC’s and it really isn’t an option to use a Mac based program. I have been looking at how Photo story can be used in an English classroom in order to have students produce digital stories showcasing their work and understanding of various novels and aspects that we cover as part of the English curriculum. Problem is I had never used Photo story before. I had seen some work that another colleague in my grad class had produced with Photo story (http://sgtam.edublogs.org/) and was intrigued by what she was able to accomplish with her students.

I have had students use visual media (photographs and drawings) to tell stories and synthesize information, however the use of Photo story would undoubtedly open up this project and introduce new technology that would allow students to comment on each others work and generally make for a more collaborative and enriching assignment than what I currently do. It would also allow my students’ work to be exposed to a potentially wider audience depending on the vehicle that was used to display their work.

But first I had to deal with the issue of how to use Photo story. I downloaded it, and started playing around with it. I didn’t read any instruction manuals, didn’t get help from anyone and yet, through a process of trial and error I was able to figure out how to use this software.  It got me thinking more and more about how to introduce technology to students. How do they learn? How should we encourage them to learn? And how should we encourage them to use new technologies in completing their projects?

Well, obviously each student learns differently according to their needs, however, as I try to shift my teaching practice towards a more constructivist approach, and integrate technology into my classroom practice, having students discover new technology and new learning through play and collaboration is increasingly important. Looking at Piaget’s constructivism it is rooted in “stimulating interest, initiative, experimentation, discovery, play, and imagination as fundamental to the development of a child’s capacity to learn” [Piaget 1973].

Out of all of those concepts that Piaget rooted his model in, however, I think that the two most important to our integration of technology are interest and initiative. The students must be interested in what they are doing and must have the initiative to explore the technology if the constructivist model is to work within the classroom. The learner must be engaged and willing to participate in the program for there to be any effect. Therefore we as teachers must assist in creating an environment where the students do want to learn, explore, and learn to use the technology in order to produce an end product. Greg Casperson in his blog discusses whether it is the technology that attracts learners or the choice http://gcaspers.fts.educ.msu.edu/wp/2010/02/02/is-it-the-tech-or-is-it-the-choice/. I would think that the technology, without the initiative on the part of the learner, can only go so far.

So where does my learning with Photo story fit into this? I think, due to the simplicity of the program and its interface, that my students would not have difficulty engaging with the technology once they were introduced to it.

The main issue is ensuring that their interest and initiative are piqued by the project that they undertake using this technology. This again puts the onus on me as the instructor to ensure that what I ask them to do does engage and interest them to the extent that they want to play with the technology, and learn through the process of trial and error like I have done.

Is the Internet Rewiring Our Brains?


“He can’t sit still and read quietly?”

I am sure at one point or another in our teaching career we have all uttered those words about a particular student, or even group of students. I know I have. But aside from other learning disabilities and perhaps a high activity level could there be something else at work? Could the internet, in this digital age, be rewiring our brains, and the brains of our students?

In LTT class tonight we were asked to look at a number of articles examining this particular issue. Particularly the one by Nicholas Carr entitled The Web Shatters Focus, Rewires Brains. In Carr’s article he examines a study by a USC professor named Gary Small in which he recruited six volunteers, three experienced internet users and three relative novices for his tests. Small examined the brains of these subjects using an MRI and concluded that with prolonged use the brains of the novices were re-wired to be similar to the brains of the experienced net users. Was this just an anomaly? Well, after repeating the tests with eighteen test subjects and obtaining similar results that can be ruled out.

This re-wiring of our brains effects what information we are able to retain. Those sites that contained a number of hyperlinks were less likely to have information retained by the viewers than those that did not have hyperlinks. This would obviously lead one to believe that the over-stimulation of the brain from jumping from site to site affects the memory and retention capabilities of the brain. Our brain is unable to make all of the connections that a networked source of information demands and it has a significant affect on long term memory.

Yet we are willing to accept the loss of focus in ourselves, and perhaps in our students, going back to the initial example, for an increase in the amount of information that is available. There are also other drawbacks such as a loss in imagination (not that TV didn’t already do that), reflection, and critical thinking.

Despite the negativity there are some positives that arise from this new way of learning and increased stimulation of the brain such as increased hand eye-coordination (which in my case surely came from video games), faster problem solving skills, and processing of visual cues.

So what does this mean for our classrooms?

Well I believe that we need to work on having our students read the entire web page before clicking on hyperlinks. We need to find ways of stimulating their brains while remaining on one site or source of information. Once that source is absorbed we can move on to others. Therefore it seems to come down to the need to find more dynamic texts and sites. It also probably explains a lot about the way in which the classroom textbook has had to change over the past twenty or thirty years. Gone is the almost entirely written text. It has instead been replaced by a colourful, image-rich page with only the basic amounts of information. Perhaps this is where we need to go with the delivery of information to our students, as teachers?

So before you chastise that student who is unable to sit still in your class and read, understand that his brain may have been affected by hours spent on-line in this digital age, and that his ability to sit still and read quietly is not the same as it was for students when you were in school.

Social Responsibility – What Can We Do to Promote Social Responsibility in Our Students?


Social Responsibility: the theory that a corporation, government, institution or individual has an obligation to society.

We want our students to eventually, when they leave school, be productive and beneficial members of society and so it is becoming increasingly important to introduce our students to the idea of social responsibility at an earlier age. Whether this means merely cleaning up in their classroom, assisting their classmates or others around the school or instead something on a larger scale such as helping in the local or global community with various initiatives there is a place at which we all as teachers can start teaching our students to be socially responsible.

So how can we go about doing this within our schools?

About three years ago I had the privilege of working with a group of students who took the social responsibility initiative a step further. Students in a school that is situated in what can be described as a disadvantaged neighborhood, in many respects, did something extraordinary and unexpected. These thirty students rose above their circumstances to work together to complete random acts of kindness for their peers. Over a number of months they performed a variety of activities and began to involve the local community, all while retaining their anonymity. Eventually they agreed to reveal themselves if the students at the school could donate a great deal of food that was eventually given to the local food bank. These students, in doing this activity, learnt a great deal about activism and social responsibility. Below is their story.

However, this was a large scale undertaking and it was something that admittedly would not work at every school. I know, I have tried to get something started at my current school. My class did a random act of kindness for three other classes in the school with the idea that they would pay it forward to other classes and so on. Altruism in action. It unfortunately has stopped at those three other classes. The students at my school come from a very high socio-economic background and I think that is part of the reason this initiative stopped dead in its tracks. Many of the students expect things to be given to them. That is an attitude that we have to work to change.

So how can we do that? We have to start small. Looking at the actions of others, and emulating them is one thing, but Social Responsibility can be tied into the curriculum. One way to do this is through the use of children’s literature. Books like the Quiltmaker’s Gift, How Full is Your Bucket? For Kids, Listen to the Wind,and others all teach about empathy and get students thinking about the experiences of others. These can be tied into the regular curriculum. For example I find that the Quiltmaker’s Gift is a perfect way to have students learn to write a five-paragraph essay, while at the same time teaching them about Social Responsibility. There are so many more intiatives though and if anyone has any other experiences or lessons I invite you to leave a comment below.

Lastly a lot of what we need to do to educate our students about Social Responsibility comes from ourselves. As Gandhi said, “You must be the change that you wish to see in the world.” We as teachers, and parents, need to model appropriate, socially responsible behavior. Teachers cannot do this themselves if what is taught is constantly being undone by others in the student’s life. It truly does take a village to raise a child, and most importantly, a child that is raised to be a socially responsible and active member of their community.