Friday, April 29, 2011

Crop Rotation and Classroom Practice

These last couple of weeks on holiday, I've probably spent more time planning and preparing than I have for a long time, and as a result, I'm really excited about getting back into the classroom. It's not that I haven't spent time planning in past holidays - rather that in 2011 I have had more time available to think about my classroom practice and where to take it.

Since 2003, after returning from Japan, I have been (almost non-stop) studying part-time while teaching full-time, and I have say, it has taken its toll. Mostly in lost sleep, but also in lack of mental space and available time. Last year I finished a Postgrad Diploma in Education in e-learning, and was preparing this year to begin my thesis research for my masters, looking at children and adolescents' attitudes to privacy and risk when using social networking websites. 

For one reason or another, this year I decided to break from the study for a year and to be honest, it's been liberating! Now that I'm not studying I wonder how I found the time to do it. I really do enjoy studying, but when the only time in the day available for it is after the kids have gone to bed and the dishes are done, it can take more than it offers to life. Already one term into the year and the study break has breathed new life into my teaching - ironic really, as that was what I was hoping the study would achieve!

I think I was feeding the theory and starving the practice. More ambitious for qualifications than tried and true experience on the ground. No amount of journal articles read and annotated, no amount of APA referencing, will improve classroom practice - unless one is very deliberate about, and has time to reflect on classroom implications of theory and let these change your practice, and all this requires time.

I think there are some parallels in agriculture, especially around the notion of crop-rotation.  I don't know a huge amount about gardening and that kind of thing, but as I understand it, different crops draw different nutrients out of the soil, and if you keep planting the same crop in the same soil, season after season, the soil becomes depleted and the crops weaken or fail. To avoid this, farmers/gardeners will plant different kinds of crop, or leave the soil to rest altogether, to give it a chance to recover.

That is where I am at right now in my teaching. I've been growing academic crops for a long time, and it's time to give it a rest. Time to have the space to experiment with some of the great ideas that I often hear and read about from others, and see how they work for my learners. Time to reflect on practice, and feed this into future planning; time to provide meaningful feedback and create authentic learning experiences; time to redesign my classroom space and try new things.

I'm excited to be a part of the E-Learning Classroom wiki, a project in transforming classroom practice towards genuine e-learning integration, and reflecting as a community of practice, under the guidance of Jacqui Sharp. This wiki, and others that Jacqui has developed, are so rich in resources and ideas, that it will be the hub of my professional development for the foreseeable future. I strongly encourage anyone to spend some time on these wikis and refer them to other teachers you know who are looking to transform their own practice.

Will I return to study and finish my masters? I'm sure I will, but I want it to be from a firm foundation of practice, and that's what I'm thoroughly enjoying building at the moment!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

When is the best time to tweet your blog post?

I got thinking today about the fact that many people read blog posts because they pick them up in their Twitter feed, and there seems to have been a shift away from RSS readers.
So if you write a blog post, what is the best way to let people know about it? If you tweet it, there's a good chance that many of your followers are not online at that point in time. If you keep tweeting it, do you run the risk of over-doing it?

I figured there must be some sort of netiquette for this sort of thing, so I googled it. I came across this post which asks exactly that: "How many times should you tweet your blog post?" They quote @GuyKawasaki who suggests tweeting four times, eight hours apart. Among the reasons are the fact that your followers live in different timezones, and, as mentioned above, they are not always online anyway.

Then I wondered, are there any particular times of the day when tweets are most read? Surely someone has asked this question before. Sure enough, googling this question got me 164,000,000 hits! I came across @danzarrella the 'Social Media Scientist' who suggests tweeting late in the day and late in the week for the highest click-through rates.

Malcolm Cole did some research concluding that 4:01pm is the best time to tweet if you want to be noticed. The Social Media Guide, on the other hand, recommends 9am Pacific Standard Time, because it works well in three other timezones in the USA and UK. Unfortunately that corresponds to 4am here in New Zealand, and at that time I usually have better things to do than tweet.

So what is the upshot of all this? 
  • It's ok to tweet about your blog post more than once, to give people a chance to see it. Maybe four times over two days?
  • Afternoons and evenings might be best, especially nearer the end of the week - but you can't please every timezone.
  • Obsessing over this kind of thing means one's life is a little out of balance!
Tweet freely for others and blog freely for yourself - can't go wrong.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Google Instant - Help or Hindrance?

One of the features of Google search that I have mixed opinions about is Google Instant. This means that when you are typing a search query, predictions and results will appear as you are typing.

As a user I find it very useful and efficient, and it can offer the phrasing or search terms I was looking for and save a lot of time. But as a teacher, I wonder whether or not the pros outweigh the cons. The pros, of course, are that students are given the same efficiencies I am while searching. They can begin a query, and then if their question is listed below in the predictions, they can click on it, avoiding the need sometimes for having to spell tricky words.

It is the unpredictability of the content of the predictions that worries me. Even with strict filtering on, Google Instant can give pretty dodgy predictions, especially if a student's search query begins with the same spelling as something less savoury. Try "How to make ..." and you will see what I mean, depending on what the next words starts with.

Fortunately, from Settings at the top right of a Google page, it is a short step to switch Google Instant off.

I have put this setting on all of my students' computers for now, erring on the side of caution. In the Advanced Search menu there is also the option of selecting the reading level of results. This would be great if it were a setting that could be applied to all search results, not just individual searches.

The other option, of course, is not to use Google at all, but one of the many search engines that are designed especially for children. A favourite of mine is Kidrex, which I have linked to our class wiki, but there are others such as KidsClick (which seems to be under construction at the moment) and CyberSleuth. A great option for teaching children effective search strategies, using AND, NOT, OR and other boolean techniques is Boolify, which uses these phrases to jigsaw the search terms and narrow down the results.

What is your search engine of choice for children? Do you think I am right to switch off Google Instant for my 8-9 year olds? How do you teach your students to search safely? Please leave your comments below!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Putting a daily timetable on my class wiki using Google Calendar

I've recently been giving my class wiki a bit of a re-vamp (always a work in progress!) and one of the latest additions is a Google Calendar. I already had one of these, showing important dates for the class, trips, deadlines etc. on a page of its own. 

The difference is that the new one is on the Navigation bar of the wiki, and shows the 'Agenda' format, listing just that day's events and when they are happening. This makes the daily timetable accessible, no matter which page of the wiki they are using.

This is how I did it:

The great thing about a Google Calendar is that you can have one off events, or have them repeat weekly or daily, which means that once it is set up, it just needs a little tweaking here and there.

Try adding one to your wiki sidebar, it's a good way to keep everyone informed. And now I don't have my students saying, "What are we doing after lunch, Mr Mac?!"

Saturday, April 9, 2011

From 'Class' Room to 'Living' Room

I have stumbled across a wonderful e-Learning wiki in the past few days called the e-Learning Classroom, and as a result I am now really having a close look at my use of classroom space, and what this says about my pedagogy. 

My first thoughts were that my desk was too large and my chair too comfortable! And of course one of the things about having a large desk is that it soon gets covered in 'stuff', the detritus of procrastination. I think it also sends a message to the class that MY desk is HQ, the hub, the sun around which the planets rotate. Which of course, is not how it ought to be. How much time should a teacher spend sitting at their desk, during class time? I think, on reflection, that there are not many times at all when this is necessary. Perhaps when a child is reading to us? But then we could easily sit next to them where they are, or sit on the sofa. Hmmm...

So after school yesterday I got rid of it! My desk that is. I've replaced it with a smaller desk, the same as the students have, just so I have somewhere to keep my laptop off the floor, and to stash a few stationery items. As a result, I have instantly created space which I can now consider how to use. I still have the office style swivel chair, but am thinking that it might be more effective to get rid of that - at least during class time, so that I can be mobile in the classroom, actively moving around, supervising, assisting and, well, teaching. Maybe this is 'm-teaching', where the 'm' refers to the teacher, not the device. 

What I'd love to do next is try to open up the classroom by doing away with as many of the students' desks and chairs as possible - perhaps replacing them with low coffee tables. It seems to me that a lot of children enjoy working on the floor anyway, and it would create a level of flexibility that I don't have at the moment. I have put out an email to my parent community, as well as other stuff members, to see what  surplus furniture might be lying around. Come to think of it, this could be a class project - they could, in groups, raise a small amount of money, which could be used to source a cheap table on TradeMe, something on $1 reserve. It probably would not take too long at all, or cost too much. And imagine how much more space I would have without 27 desks and chairs!

The use of coffee tables, sofas, armchairs, perhaps the odd round dining room table for those who prefer chairs - what does this remind me of? It seems almost like a recreation of the dining/living area of a home.  I think this is good. The living room is a space that most students will associate with relaxation, family, informality - which incidentally are ideal conditions for learning. If learning is about living, and living is about learning, then why not try to transform our 'class' room (what does that tell us, anyway???) into a 'living' room.

So, a work in progress. Watch this space!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Conscience-based Teaching

I have been reflecting on the Apple Bus Tour I went on a couple of weeks ago. I have to say that beyond the innovative use of digital technology that we saw being implemented creatively in so many schools, what has impressed me and stayed with me the most has been the level of commitment shown to the learners in the schools we visited.

I remember in my first year of teaching in Christchurch having a conversation with a colleague about planning and the amount of time we put in to it. He said that he didn’t mind the time consuming nature of teaching because “teaching really is a job that is worth doing well.” It’s something we need reminding of from time to time, when we are feeling it is just a job, or feeling resentful of the long hours, or feeling the beginnings of a cynicism that will be tempted to uncritically download unit plans from the internet and take other shortcuts. But teaching really is a job that is worth doing well. The time we put in bears fruit, in ways that we do not always see, but sometimes are often privileged to see in amazing ways.

The uses of technology we saw in the schools we visited were far from being shortcuts. It was clear that hours and hours, often years, of deep thought, experimentation, trial and error, reflection and genuine concern for learning were behind the innovations. Not shortcuts, but a vision of the powerful potential of technology to leverage the learning possible and improve the lives and futures of students.

One of the most powerful demonstrations of this that we saw on the Apple Bus Tour was the incredible things happening at Point England School in Auckland. Anyone who has visited the school or followed Dorothy Burt on the Manaiakalani blog will know exactly what I’m talking about.  There seems to be such a high level of integration, on so many different levels: Integration of the school culture into the atmosphere of each class; integration of pedagogy and technology; integration of hard data into living learning goals; integration of multimodal forms of expression, embracing non-print literacy without letting go of the fundamental importance of being able to read and write. The Literacy Cycle they have developed is certainly something I want to explore further in my own teaching.

I wonder how many other people experience what I have come to call the ‘teacher’s conscience’. In other words, I know when I’m taking shortcuts, winging it a bit, trying something new for novelty’s sake - and it doesn’t feel quite right. I know when there is more icing than cake. 

On the other hand, I also know how good it can feel when all the pieces are in place (in as much as they can be in teaching), when the pedagogy is there, the learning goals and processes are well thought through, attention is giving to individual learning needs, and I can see the progress being made. My ‘teacher’s conscience’ says “Yes!” Perhaps there's a new pedagogy there: Conscience-based Teaching...

But I can’t get there without an investment of my time. Seeing what I have seen on the tour has reminded me that it is worth the investment we make in our learners. Yes, there are new things to try, tools to use, but actually the Apple Bus Tour has sent me back to basics - pedagogy. planning for learning, assessing effectively. Yes time consuming, but it is a job worth doing well.