The New Community of Learners


As many (or few?) of you know, a storm passed through the Chicago area recently.  The storm produced massive winds that caused devastating damage.  Electric power and internet has been inaccessible in some pockets of the Chicago region for the past few days.  The above image jumped on my computer screen shortly after the storm passed.

I’m always amazed at the amount of community building that occurs when power is cut from a subdivision.  As I look outside, neighbors from across the street come and join other neighbors to chat.  Generally, the conversations revolve around the recent lack of electricity and then proceed to how’s the family … kids.. etc.   The community seems more connected during these times, almost out of necessity to find familiarity and the need to acquire information on the whereabouts of the electricity.  It was quite refreshing to see the neighborhood come together during this time of need.

This made me think of how people view community.  Part of my personal community was inaccessible during this time because of the lack of internet.  Since I didn’t have access to the internet (or power) at home, I left in search of a WiFi location.

 I found a local coffee shop.  Approximately 80% of the patrons had laptops and were standing and sitting on spaces on the floor attempting to communicate with clients and bosses over email.  Eventually the coffee shop’s internet buckled and shut down completely because bandwidth issues.  It seemed like I wasn’t the only one who needed the internet. People / businesses /schools have a challenging time functioning without the use of the internet / technology.

About five years ago I read a book titled, Campfires in Cyberspace.  Not necessarily on the NY Bestseller List , but it was a good read. This book gave me a few ideas on how to integrate technology in my own classroom.

This book spoke of the learning that can occur via technology.  This book was published before Twitter, Google+ and web 2.0 tools grabbed any type of traction in the education sector.  Actually the “new” learning tool for that time was Webquests.  I still enjoy utilizing Webquests in my classroom.

During the time I read this book, the words “Digital Native” started to become more prevalent in schools across the country.  If you’re still wondering what “Digital Native” is, take a look at Jodi Harrision’s blog and graphic. Just like adults have communities, I believe students have an opportunity to create and be a part of their own school community by utilizing technology.  ASCD has a brief article that outlines how to establish and suggests guidelines in creating an online student community.

 If adults seem uncomfortable without a day of internet access, how do you think students (that use technology daily) feel when they spend their entire school day without the web or using technology?  

By  utilizing technology, Educators will be able to open the box of  untapped potential to improve student learning. Now, more than ever educators / administrators need to integrate technology in the classrooms.

If you’re hesitant or want more information, follow #edtech on Twitter. Also, check out the following tech blogs if you’re still curious.

Making Math Relevant and Engaging

I noticed a theme while observing an educational math chat on Twitter.  Many of the participants spoke of how math and reading don’t necessarily have the same “emotional knee-jerk reaction” in education or at home.  One tweet I remember reading stated that there isn’t a math equivalent to reading a bedtime story, emphasis on reading.  As far as I know, there is no such thing as a math before bedtime.  Reading often takes precedence over math, especially at the elementary level.  Reading / Language Arts often requires or is mandated to take 1 1/2 – 2 times as much time as math. Don’t misinterpret what I’m writing here – reading is essential and absolutely needed.  I’m advocating for the math crowd – the people who despise hearing the words “I hate math” coming from anyone.  Math has received a stigma over time and there are even adults (you may be one of them)  who can’t stand thinking about math.  An interesting perspective comes from Michael Schultz in his recent blog post.  As you can imagine people dislike math for a variety of reasons. Unfortunately, many adults remember math as one of the least favorite subjects in school.  Their math teachers were less than stellar and used (and only used) the text book for all math instruction.  How do educators and administrators decrease the negative stigma associated with math?  I believe removing the stigma starts before and during elementary school.  Educators need to make math relevant and engaging.  How does that happen at the elementary level?

Use Manipulatives

Educators understand the often use manipulatives to increase student engagement, especially when introducing a topic.  Looking back at my own experience,  the times I enjoyed or expressed interest in math were when my teacher used manipulatives in the classroom.  Using manipulatives creates student engagement, which often leads to increased learning.  I still remember using the base-ten blocks and geometric solids to learn math back in the day. A couple specific examples:

Base ten-blocks

Balances – Mathfour video

Use Technology

Students use technology everyday.  But teachers need to appropriately (that’s key) utilize technology to increase student learning.  Most curriculum publishers have a technology component (like math games or instruction slides to show students) already part of their program.  There is a wealth of knowledge and information available online for teachers to use.  Personally, I’ve used Youtube, Power Point, Audacity, Google Docs, Movie Maker, and Flip Cam regularly.  There are many more tools available to use – I just wrote down what what was used last year.  I’ve placed a few links below if you’re looking additional content. Using Google Docs

Multimedia in Mathematics – http://davidwees.com/content/presentations

Use Practical Examples and Show Relevancy

Students are much more motivated to complete problems that are relevant and applicable to their lives.  A student wants to know why they are learning specific math concepts.  If students aren’t sure about where or how to apply what they are learning, what motivation is there to stay engaged?  Finding practical math problems is important and gives students an opportunity to apply their learning.  Even having students create and solve their own problems is a good start. Students need to understand that what they are learning in math class is relevant.    I tend to show my students the following video from IBM.  Also, during the first week of school I generally show the students a macro picture of what they will be learning throughout the year and what skills that they will need to proceed through each unit.

IBM Math Commerical

I also ask the students the following questions:

  • Can I think of a story problem where I could apply this concept?
  • How will learning this help me in the future?

Play Games

Play games?  Are you kidding?  I think at times, educators and administrators downplay the importance of playing mathematical games.  Games give students an opportunity to use learned skills, such as, but not limited to:  numeracy, collaborative teamwork, and critical thinking skills. There are online math games and boardgames that are relevant to what is being taught in the classrooms.  For example, games like Battleship can help teach algebra quadrants and axis. An example: Board Games

Disclaimer (unfortunate but necessary) :  The thoughts and opinions expressed in these pages are my own, and not necessarily the opinions of my employers.

Grades for Homework?

Grades

A little background … I’ve always been an elementary teacher that grades just about everything.  I’ve thought that every assignment should contribute to an overall grade.  When I say grade, I mean a point value, such as 8/9 points.  Mainly, I did this because it worked with my grading system.  Parents and students alike understood my grading policy.  My policy allowed little subjectivity, which in my case provided less of an opportunity for arguments over grades.  Quick disclaimer:  I never allowed graded homework to count for more than 25% of the entire grade.  I thought that if I didn’t grade the homework, what incentive is there for the kids to complete the homework?  I gave the kids the “talk” about how homework is practice and will help in the long term, but always attached some type of grade to the homework.  My view on grading has changed over time.  A few years ago I decided to tweaked my system.

For one of my math classes, I decided to not give an official grade for homework assignments.  Instead, I decided to give a check or minus at the top of the page.  A check meaning that the student understands the concept (generally getting 80% correct) – here’s where the subjectivity lies.  A minus would mean that the student received less than 80% correct.  I still graded formative and summative assessments, but decided not to officially grade the homework (and have it count for their grade) for this particular class.

I was waiting for community members to start contact me about how they were confused and didn’t understand my grading … etc.  So what happened, did my inbox fill up like a helium balloon?  Actually…

No, it didn’t.  I didn’t get one email or phone call asking me to clarify the grading of the homework.  In fact, students became much more aware of how they were doing in class based on the check / minus system.  Students who received a minus actually took the initiative to redo the problems without asking.  Also, I was finding myself grading less homework, which allowed me time to focus on creating engaging lessons that promote student learning.  I also expected a drop in achievement and focus – neither happened.  I’m so glad that I took a leap and decided to grade using this new method.

Next year, I’m going to expand the system to the other grade levels that I teach.

This post was inspired from :

http://mctownsley.blogspot.com

http://russgoerend.com/

photo credit: Bunches and Bits {Karina} via photopin cc

Measuring Student Growth

Mastery or Growth (or both!)

In my experience as an educator,  I have found that teachers look at student data subjectively – through the eyes of the beholder.   Now, this isn’t necessarily the absolute truth, but teaching is a subjective profession (as there always seems to be conflicting opinions on what determines effective education.  Just turn on the news to find conflicting opinions or follow Diane Ravitch on Twitter for just a taste of  the educational unrest that occurs daily.

Mastery connected to student growth

Some teachers look at mastery of a concept or objective as a student receiving 90% or more correct on an assessment or unit.  It varies,  some would say 85% +, but it all depends on the teacher and what the district considers mastery.  But … what if instead of looking at mastery as a quantitative %ile measure, let’s look at individual student academic growth as a valuable measure.  You may say that that’s fine in theory, but how is growth measured and isn’t that subjective??  Well, grading in general is subjective – depending on the teacher’s grading methods.  How do educators and administrators measure individual student growth?

Just like measuring your height with a ruler, educators and administrators should have an accurate tool to measure student learning. Administrators and teachers need to be able to leverage student achievement data to improve learning.  Larry Cuban’s post addresses this issue in this insightful post.  To learn is to grow, at least in the sense of bridging and gaining an understanding of new concepts.  When students master a concept, I would assume that they are growing, at least in an academic  sense.  I’ve been on somewhat of a quest to understand how to effectively measure  student growth in order to become  a better educator.  Using NWEA’s MAP assessment gives a minimum picture of growth, but that is one measure.  Even NWEA has made a general statement that teacher employment decisions  should not be tied with student growth results from the MAP.

Another test that some educators might bring to light are  state standardized tests.  I don’t feel like these tests actually measure growth.   You can look at how a student performed in fourth grade and then fifth grade, but that’s not necessarily comparing growth.  These types of tests are more of report that answers the following question – Did the student meet the bare minimum standard for the state?  Even Education Secretary Arnie Duncan, has voiced his concerns, saying “The current bubble tests do little to assess critical thinking or anything beyond the most basic skills. His stance is refreshing, but once again, this is not a  solution-oriented stance; more so just accepting that there’s a problem.  Also, by the time the state tests come back, it’s a new school year and new agenda items are on the plates of administrators.

When students grow, what types of tools are available to measure how much they grow and how are those growth results compared to the national, state, or even school average?I believe the new Common Core may help answer this questions as objectives become more aligned, but not fully.  Also, a PLC or PLN may assist in helping solve this question.  Just a thought for today …

Disclaimer (unfortunate but necessary) :  The thoughts and opinions expressed in these pages are my own, and not necessarily the opinions of my employers.

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