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Monday, April 22, 2013

Technology Possibilities in the Outdoor Classroom

Once upon a time, in a galaxy far away, I was assigned to teach environmental education.  This was before “www” or ianything.    We forged an environmental trail outside, where students identified trees and other biological phenomena (wasps nests, fox holes, ground cover, lichens, bracket fungi, woodpecker damage, etc) .  We numbered these areas with wooden signs and created a booklet so that children from the younger grades could take a hike and learn all about the world outside their door.  We used wood burning tools, paint, hammers, nails, saws, guidebooks and a local forester.  We created a booklet and ran it off on the ditto machine (mmmm that smell) to share with students in our district.

Fast forward today.  Some people say that technology keeps our children inside.  That students are not looking at the real thing anymore, that they live in a virtual world.   My mind, however, boggles at the possibilities that technology has put in the hands of our students.   

Take that same environmental trail and imagine this:
Students leading other students from faraway lands (like TX or CA or even off country) right through our woods giving them a tour via skype!
The guidebook is now an ibook with pictures (from different seasons!) and links for more information that hikers can take on the trail with them.
Students can create podcasts for each one of the numbered stations in the woods.
Students can track growth and change (seasonal and otherwise) of one particular spot, in detail.
Well, I am sure that you get the idea and I hope that you have ideas to add.
We will be discussing using the outdoors this Tuesday night, 8:30 in the #NJED twitter chat…please join us or stay tuned and I will add ideas that were shared right here!   (and Happy Earth Day!)

Friday, April 12, 2013

Gun Control: Issues and Perspectives Lesson

If there is one issue that stirs passion in these days, it is gun control.  It seems like a simple problem to solve, but looking at different perspectives reveals that it is a complex issue full of emotion and passion.  Looking critically at the many perspectives, facts and cultural differences in gun control issues is a great way to get our students to look at the issues and determine what the best course of action is as history unfolds.  Opinions differ widely.  Some legislators are pushing for stricter gun control laws and bans on the sales of certain types of firearms and ammunition.  Others are pushing to loosen gun laws to that American citizens can step in and help deter crime themselves.  What do your students think should be done?
Just the Facts
I found a great site which gives statistics and facts, Gun Control- Just Facts regarding gun control with an unbiased point of view.   Students can use this site and the scenario below to develop their own opinions.  This is the newest free SCAN lesson from TregoED that guides students through the SCAN process:   See the issues, Clarify (and support) the issues, Ask what’s important, Now, what should be done?   You can register and log in to have your students discuss this lesson online using the SCAN tool at TregoEd and see the different points of view provided.  You can also use the scenario below as an argumentative writing prompt, lesson on statistics, civics discussion topic or current event.
Gun Control Scenario
Since the Newtown Connecticut school shootings of 20 kindergartners and 6 teachers, the call for stricter gun control laws has increased.  This is a very complicated and emotional issue with very strong opinions on both sides of the argument.  Many Americans who have been affected by violent crimes have taken up the fight for a ban on assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines.  They would like to see stricter background checks on all sales of guns.  Law enforcement officers agree and would like to see guns taken off the street to help decrease crime and make their jobs less dangerous.  The National Rifle Association (NRA) is a long standing and powerful organization that supports American’s rights to own guns for both sport and protection.   Many people think that criminals will get their hands on guns no matter what and stricter laws will only inconvenience law abiding citizens who want to protect themselves and their families.   You have been asked to join in the debate.  Choose and read your point of view (or that assigned by your teacher) and enter the issues that concern you.  You can use to find statistics and data to support your point of view.
Try it out and Share your Feedback
The lesson in the SCAN tool provides information on four different perspectives so students can discuss this from different points of view.  I would love any feedback that you or your students have on the issues or the activity.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Test Prep: Are we asking the right questions?

If you look though my blog posts around critical thinking, you will note that I have maintained that getting kids to think strategically is all about asking the right questions.  Even better, teaching them the right questions to help them develop their own arguments and justifications and learn to make inferences, apply and adapt. 
Run a mile to train for a 50 m race
I just watched an interesting video from Grant Wiggins on “Real Test Preparation:  Better Teaching not Worse” which validated my practices. The bottom line in improving student performance is to ask better questions.  Better questions are harder questions.  Comparing preparing for a rigorous test to preparing for a specific event in a track meet, Wiggins points out that practices are often more rigorous than the actual race you will run.  He suggests preparation for high stakes testing should be the same. Schools that traditionally do better on state testing, “simply don’t worry about them” because their students are regularly taking tests that are harder than the state tests.  He suggests removing the multiple choices, hints and reminders from our tests.  We need to prepare students so that they can make inferences and think strategically rather than prepare them for a specific test format.
Looking at the data
Looking at specific test items that have been scored and shared, it becomes obvious that our students, despite knowing the content, lack the ability to apply and adapt.  A clear example of this comes from a test item on the Pythagorean theory which a majority of students, despite having the content, were unable to answer correctly.  The problem did not mention the word triangle or right angle; it showed a ladder leaning on a house.  Students had to make inferences, apply and adapt in order to answer the question. The majority could not.
There were also many examples of students not being able to make inferences in their reading.  They were unable to get the main idea of a reading passage or make inferences about the mood or character.  One example found that a majority of students mistakenly eliminated the choice “c. Essay” as the type of writing on an essay about color blindness because it was not 5 paragraphs!  Yikes. 
So how do we improve our teaching?
 Can we improve our teaching by improving our assessments?  Does increasing the rigor of student work help them improve by giving students the opportunity to face rigor more often?  I just saw this tweet from Esther Wojcicki @EsterWojcicki “Life is a series of projects, not a series of multiple choice tests.  We should train students for life.”  Providing projects that require students to apply, adapt, argue and justify is a great start.  Wiggins recommends that we give students new reading passages frequently and have them practice strategic thinking.  What was the author’s purpose?  Point of view?  Ask questions that require an argument and justification. 
I know a number of teachers that use the SCAN tool at TregoED to help get students comfortable in reading and understanding complex situations.  The tool provides great reading passages on all sorts of relevant and authentic situations.  A great way to get students to practice strategic thinking, with the SCAN critical thinking strategy built right in.  Newspapers and magazines are also a great source of reading passages.  Do you have a great resource for complex reading passages that you can share?