Archive for January, 2011

So, I’ve been thinking about the essays I assign 5th graders. (To give you some idea of what to expect from 5th graders, at the beginning of the year many of them think “essay” is “SA”.) I’ve also been thinking about the podcasts we’ve been doing this year. If this were a title fight, who should win?

I say this is round 2 because in round 1 podcasting got disqualified, something about paperwork not being in on time. Anyway, so in round 2 (that would be now) podcasting is here and all official.

Boxers by Keith Haring, Berlin (1987)

So let’s meet our opponents:

In one corner, in the striped trunks, we have the traditional essay. The essay is a recognized champion. It fits in with how any serious thoughts used to have to be presented. It has lots of impressive sponsors. It’s not always very agile in the hands of 5th graders and gets obsessed with details. When everything comes together though, it can blow you away.

In the other corner, wearing polka-dot trunks, we have the podcast. The podcast is the challenger. It is hip, casual, and plays a little loose with the rules. It is part of the new digital crowd where folks present ideas in a variety of ways. It can get too free-form when it mixes with 5th graders. You have to watch out for being swayed by its cool factor, but when taken seriously, style and personality of the students come through loud and clear.

Here’s my blow-by-blow recap: I would feel I was doing my students a disservice if I did not teach them to express their ideas in written form. That means reading carefully first, thinking and putting ideas together second, planning what to include and the order to put it in third, and finally drafting and editing a final essay. That said, one of my stated goals of this type of assignment is the be able to use it for some sort of assessment–of thinking and writing. So, while the essay allows me to asses grammar, all those little errors sometimes overwhelm some solid thinking. But I have noticed as I have listened to the podcasts my students made that it is easier for me to see beyond the grammar when I am not in fact seeing the grammar, but listening to the power or lack thereof of ideas.

I have added podcasting as a final step, not substituted it for writing. There are very few people who probably should just speak off the top of their heads and be assessed on it, and I would guess none of them are 10 years old. When I listen to their essays, I get to hear the students stressing the parts they think are important (which of course more experienced writers can do just in text, but we’re not quite there yet). I get to hear each student breathe life into that flat paper statement.

So who wins this round?

I have to say it’s a split decision for me, folks. I’m keeping both of these powerhouses in my class; they’ll just have to get along.
Photo by Achim Hepp used under creative commons license.

(Not sure what it is with my chosen metaphors lately; they seem to relate to activities in which I do not participate as I neither sing nor box.)

So, I’m still thinking about iPads and my 1-1 iPad experiment. Here’s how I might summarize it in as few words as possible:

  1. Are the iPads everything I could ever want? NO
  2. Is being a 1-1 (of some sort of technology) classroom what I want? YES
  3. Would I like laptops sometimes? YES
  4. Has anyone offered to get me laptops? NO
  5. Do I want to keep those iPads? Absolutely YES

There you have it. I still head to the computer lab or the Mac-based music lab with my class sometimes; we are not totally self-sufficient. But, I can’t imagine going back to just 2 computers in the room. I know a good thing when I have one.

So, I’ve been thinking about peers, specifically teaching peers. How necessary is it to have others in my building who are thinking about or working on or passionate about the same part of teaching and learning that I am? Do I need to be part of a choir or am I ok with being a soloist?

Now, I think it is only fair to say that, I cannot in fact sing AT ALL. However, I think the analogy still works. You can switch it to sports and think about the need for a team if that works better for you. In any case, you get the idea. It’s also only fair to say that I think everyone I work with has some part of teaching and learning that he or she is really interested in and actively working and learning about. I do NOT want to suggest that lots of folks are sitting back and coasting. They aren’t.

The question here is: can we all be passionate about different things or do we need to have some choirs or teams so that people can both feel supported by peers and feel part of a beneficial learning community?

In some ways conferences and workshops offer a chance to self-select the choir we want. When I go to a workshop, conference, or unconference, that feeling of being with others interested in “my thing” is a big part of the value of the day. I don’t have to come away with 50 new ideas or 20 new lessons to feel the time was valuable. Often if I get a few good ideas and get reminded of a bunch more that I knew, but had let slip to some remote-parking-lot in my brain it gives me a renewed sense of energy and enthusiasm for what I do everyday. Throw in enough food and not being physically uncomfortable (don’t you hate when places over air condition?) and I’m more than willing to consider the day success. And, I don’t think it’s that I have very low standards for these things. I don’t. Any time I am at a conference I am missing something else-either being with my class or my personal kids. It’s not as if am not rolling in spare time.

One of the things that turns a good conference into a great one for me is the addition of feeling part of the choir, if only for that day. (Well, that and a really good dessert option.) There are some things that interest me as a teacher for which I have a choir at my school. I know to whom I can go talk to about a certain topic to share ideas, brainstorm, and collaborate with generally. There are other topics where I don’t feel as much like I have that group actually around me. Conferences and Twitter help me create a virtual choir. For me, sometimes it’s the choir I need more than a shiny new idea or strategy. I find it invigorating to be with a group of people who are all interested in the same thing I am. The energy I get is proof that 1+1 can be greater than 2. Even though I get lots of ideas from my students and I genuinely like to be around them, I like adults too. I like to talk to them, to pick their brains for ideas, to share what I am doing with them, and to feel that sense of common purpose.

So it turns out, I like to be in the choir. I don’t need to be with them all the time; it can be a virtual group. But sometimes, I need to hear and feel the power of all those voices and know that mine fits in, however off-key it might be.

So, I’ve been doing a lot of planning for the next weeks and new year and it’s seeming like this year is going to be a big change. I know, it’s after winter break and I’m a little late to be noticing this key fact. (Since I started this post ages ago, it’s really been a lot of thinking.)

Here’s the thing though, sometimes you don’t realize the little changes you are making are about to push you right on over the edge to (feel free to use that overly dramatic, announcer voice as you read the next words) Change or Transformation until they start to pile up. I make changes every year as I teach, even if there haven’t been any big book changes or curricular changes made. I do this only partly to keep myself interested. Mostly I make changes because I can’t help it. I think that a classroom is a living, breathing place that changes with who is there. So, even if I tried to do everything the same way, it would be different because the students are different each year. I am different each year too.

Over the past few years I’ve made changes that range from books coming and going, to blogs becoming a major part of the experience, and now I’m, as of a few weeks ago, a 1-1 iPad classroom. Sometimes it turns out that the changes you’ve made are great, and yet they haven’t changed the game you’re playing. And then sometimes you make either enough little changes or a radical enough single change and all of a sudden–new game.

I think this year I might be end up playing a new game.