PBL for the history classroom…

Oh, what to talk about, what to talk about…

I should be sleeping.

Tonight I get to stay up late with hundreds of Key Clubbers to rendezvous with thousands of others for their Fall Rally at Magic Mountain. A yearly tradition where I get to not sleep for a couple days but otherwise I always come back with a story. (In 3 years I have had 2 rainy days, a fire and a bus where the door wouldn’t close all the way and froze us for the ride back.)

So here I am, trying to kill time until it is time to leave. Seems like a perfect time to rant.

So for the past two days (Block Scheduling) I have been watching student presentations. A couple years ago I began looking for real world projects for the social studies classroom. I wanted to translate the material into possible future situations. After an exhaustive search I finally found a base idea for some.

Prentice Hall, in their new Modern World History series, came up with a collection of WebQuests. Here is an example of two:

You are political scientists. A group of people who are establishing a new country have come to you for advice. They are interested in learning more about how political systems have risen, developed, and declined throughout history, so that they can make the right choices in governing their country. You have been asked to prepare a comparison study of political systems, including the advantages and disadvantages of each.

You are a curator at the Science and Technology Hall of Fame. The museum director has asked that you nominate an invention or technological innovation from the last fifty years to be considered for induction into the Hall of Fame. You will then design a virtual museum exhibit—An Invention That Changed Your World—to demonstrate why your invention or innovation deserves to be included in the Hall of Fame.

I love these so far because they address possible situations a historian, political scientist or any type of social scientist might find themselves in. It brings a real world feel to the material.

Now, this has just been my first presentation and I have already come up with many tweaks to make it run smoother. Even the students have seen a multitude of improvements to make, taking bits and piece of what has worked in other projects and what hasn’t.

One of the major parts to all this that I am finding to be vital is the debrief. Even the small debriefs after each presentation and another at the end of the day is adding a new level to everything. Getting them past the worry of grades and criticism are the two hardest parts but once free of that, it opens them up to take risks and to think outside of the box.

I think that final part is the most important skill I hope they develop from this. For too many of my students, they have been trained to follow the directions to the letter. They are obsessed with keeping it safe. For the political system project, most gave what could only be described as a government lesson but for a couple, they threw out the “rule book” and just talked and displayed some showmanship. They had fun with it instead of keeping it rigid out of fear it would hurt their grade.

A photo of the Shake Weight product for sale i...

Image via Wikipedia

The same was true for Science and Technology. Most students went with the expected (iPhone or cell phone, video games, etc…) but for one group; the Shake Weight. They had fun with the assignment and I find that selling the Shake Weight will be much more difficult and require more creativity.

The ultimate goal of these projects is to get them to find their creativity, to utilize more than one skill to create something and to become more comfortable with presenting information in a variety of ways to a group. Also, along the way they are getting some content too.

I like the direction and we will have to see where this all leads to in the end.

As always, if you comment the blog, please rate the blog. If you rate the blog something good, please subscribe. This is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

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Glitch in the Matrix: Digital Philosophy

Glitch in the Matrix is an ongoing saga of one teacher’s adventures to become more technologically incorporated. This episode we look at a digital philosophy.

Interactive Whiteboard University of Cumbria (...

Image by jisc_infonet via Flickr

I want to be clear in this endeavor. I am not some true believer in the overwhelming power of technology in all aspects of our lives, including teaching. I am openly skeptical of iPads in the classroom if they become nothing more than a $600 textbook and I have found little use for interactive whiteboards.

That isn’t to say they don’t have uses. I have seen some great apps on the iPad for elementary schools, especially for remediation. I have also seen some great math and science apps for high school as well. As for interactive whiteboards, again, great for elementary and secondary math and science but what about English and social studies? (I’m just going to skip all the other subjects and focus on the core to simplify the issue.)

However, I think there is a bigger issue here that is being addressed. We have become an era obsessed with technology. We care more about if we could and not about if we should. We have moved to a point as Tyler Durden said in Fight Club, “The things you own end up owning you.” We are controlled by our devices instead of us controlling them. We are plugged in, tuned on and connected in more ways than ever thought possible.

But have we stopped to ask if this is the right direction? We never turn off the connection. It began with cell phones. We could be reached anywhere at anytime without ever questioning if we should. We camp for new devices without even knowing what use it has. We have become digitized.

Worse yet, we have gone to a point where those who create have stopped talking to those who evaluate.  Comedian Patton Oswald made a great skit out of this where he jokes about science creating things we don’t want and shouldn’t have. As he ends it, “We’re science: we’re all about coulda, not shoulda.”

This brings me to a great talk that brought up many of these questions for myself.

Anand Giridharadas, an author and journalist, spoke to the Innovation Forum a year ago. In his talk he brings up a few great points we should all think about before we jump head first into the latest technological trend.

First, Anand makes a point in asking “when should we focus on product instead of distribution?” Much of this has been found in the blogosphere. News has moved to media, dominated by ratings, not truth, justice and facts. Replacing it has been blogs, where facts and truth are shades of grey. We also have pushed more towards the idea of what sells and not what matters.

Next, he asks “to what extent that we can live the quantified life, do we want to live the quantified life?” As a teacher, I have felt this first hand. Can the development of the young mind be evaluated in a simple test? Can the success of a child in their post high school lives be quantified on a spreadsheet? It is bad enough that we Facebook and Twitter the specific details of our lives that we must then obsess over the numbers of every aspect of society?

Finally, he addresses the good and the bad to this digital future. From the opening of the third world and the access to other cultures to how vicious we can be when anonymous online. He addresses that there is nothing intrinsically special to paper verse electronic when it comes to news but has this movement hurt our ability to read long form or to sit down and focus.

As I move forward, I keep these ideas in my head and close to my heart. I need to find the balance in both my life and my students lives. As he ends the talk he mentions that we need more people who don’t know technology to embrace it and those who have mastered it to not all be in favor of it.

To watch the full talk (16min), click here.

Until next time, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings on this or any post. As always, this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

News I find: Putting skills before scores

News I find is a series where in my travels I come across articles that I find interesting and relevant to the current education debate and I want to share them with you all. This episode we look at the goal of education verse the quantifying of a student or teacher.

Putting skills before scores

While this article comes from Ireland, I still find it is relevant. Ireland and the United States score very closely on the PISA evaluations and they are also going through the same debates we are currently going through. While I know there are many factors in the education debate, this might shed some light on if we are going in the right direction.

A highlight from the quick article was a quote from Sir Ken Robinson where the author says:

Robinson argued that education systems were geared not towards producing rounded individuals but college professors, a relentless conveyor belt “educating people out of their creative capacities” starting in preschool and ending at the top of a university department.

Read more: http://www.techcentral.ie/article.aspx?id=17731#ixzz1dQEunuHH

My view is that we have become too obsessed with this idea that every key stroke and every table visit a teacher does needs to be logged and tracked. We are wasting countless man hours on data collection, evaluation and dissemination that it has made us lost to the real goal of education; preparing the children for whatever path they choose to take.

As I have said repeatedly, my job isn’t to make them into mini historians upon completion of my class. If they want to do that, they should go to college and major in history. My role is really to give them the critical thinking skills they will need for life and to help them develop other skills that we have dubbed the Big 11.

  1. by utilizing text reading strategies.
  2. by applying writing strategies.
  3. by responding to historical text/literature.
  4. by utilizing and/or creating maps, graphs, and diagrams.
  5. by conducting research.
  6. by utilizing and/or interpreting primary and secondary sources.
  7. by seeking information from varied sources to develop informed opinions.
  8. by collaborating with peers.
  9. by presenting information orally, in writing, and/or through technology presentations.
  10. by utilizing technology resources.
  11. by providing contemporary examples.

So what is the content? It is just a tool for the above goals. I want them to become better citizens and more well rounded individuals and it is my belief that by studying world history and utilizing the above methods, they will become more successful in life.

Until next time, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings on this or any post. As always, this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

Glitch in the Matrix: The journey begins.

Glitch in the Matrix is an ongoing saga of one teachers adventures to become more technologically incorporated. This episode we look at the back story that brought us here.

Image representing Google Apps as depicted in ...

Image via CrunchBase

For years I have wanted to become more of a technology teacher. For the most part I am considered the younger teacher by both my peers and students. I’m the teacher who loves Facebook, sees the potential for twitter and supports the idea of smartphones in the classroom. I also have seen how more and more jobs require a degree of technological understanding.

So with that I have been pushing my classroom more and more towards this endeavor. In my first year I made a class website through our district but it had great limits. It was held back in what creative control we were allowed and it had few tangible uses. In my next year I pushed the limits of that website, attempting to go a little more paperless, only to find failure but a learning experience.

Once I transferred to my new school, I came into a situation where I wouldn’t have a classroom to call my own so I needed to rely on a virtual classroom more and more. I went to Weebly to create that classroom and I found some success, especially for being a free site. I was able to upload files, create class discussions through a blog option and post resources and classroom announcements.

Unfortunately I was also hit with some security issues. I didn’t like that my student’s names were just published for the world. It was a great start and another great learning experience but it still lacked something. I had many questions and even more ideas than I was able to do. I was also limited in how much I wanted to spend for this, which was a whole $0. Back to the drawing board.

Over the summer I revisited some of the resources I used back in college to start a chapter of the Roosevelt Institute at UNLV. I am currently advising some students on creating the nation’s first high school version and while planning it out, came back across Google Docs and all the new apps they have been creating. Feeling this might be the answer I have been looking for, I dug deeper.

About a month ago I went to a conference on 21st Century Skills where I was able to talk to many teachers who had already gone through the same trials and tribulations and were able to answer my concerns, help with some hurdles and clear up some of the confusion I was having. I’ve also begun to work with a fellow teacher who is currently completing a master’s degree in Educational Technology.

This whirlwind of resources has caused me to drop my Weebly adventures and I am currently pushing through bringing in many Google apps into my classroom such as Sites, Docs, and Groups. As I venture into the unknown I will continue to keep you all updated on my progress, failures and successes. I will also be evaluating the different elements to see what works in all schools or just certain schools. My goal is to come up with a basic list that would work in all schools.

Until next time, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings on this or any post. As always, this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

We don’t need no stinkin’ grades. Part II

And now for the dramatic conclusion.

So you don’t grade you say?

Well, I do but not in the typical fashion. Lets begin with AP courses and summer homework. I’m still not sold on the overall value of these but I agree to it primarily because I know many of my peers teaching AP World History across the nation (especially those with high passing rates) have two years and/or see their students every day. Being on a block schedule, I have about 60 days to get my students ready for a competitive test where the competition has had double or more of the time to prepare.

So what I assign for the summer is material that will help bring them up to speed on content, like an online condensed world history textbook. I also assign a writing sample, just to see where they are at, and I assign a geography assignment so they can become familiar with this world. However, I grade none of this. The first assignment is for their own good and it’s value or completion will be evident throughout the year when they either struggle with the amount of knowledge they are learning or if some of the text is familiar from the reading. I do not grade the essay because how can I grade them on an assignment I never taught them how to complete. Either they did it or they didn’t. 100% or nothing. Simple. The last assignment I give a timed quiz on but I never tell them that it will never enter the grade book as an assignment. I just want them to become familiar with the stress of a timed, high pressure test. Again, what do I grade by handing out failing grades from the beginning?

As for first quarter. Still no “grading”. Either they did the assignment or they didn’t. For instance, my students take notes and make note cards (both AP and Honors). As for their notes, I never read the actual work. Why would I? The notes have to be useful to the student, not myself so as long as they can read and understand it, I’m happy. I only grade them on if they have questions (I teach them Cornell), do they use the right formats and editing, are they attempting abbreviations, did they put summaries and are the notes selective and paraphrased. Otherwise, I could care less about them. When they do begin to turn them in, I never mark them down for being done incorrectly, I just tell them what they need to focus and improve on.

However, as we move through the material, my bar begins to raise and the level of acceptability goes up. If something falls below it, I just make it unacceptable and have them fix it. Soon, the work load alone is motivation for them to get better. My goal though, is to get them to take risks, try things and attempt everything without the fear that going outside of the box is somehow going to hurt them in their grade. I try to remove the pressure of the grade from the goals of my classroom. I don’t want them to just follow a recipe. They need to think for themselves.

The same with essays. I have always tried to give out full credit for completed essays at the start of the year. I would also just focus on grading one aspect of the essays like thesis or structure. I would have them fix the mistakes from the one part to focus their efforts. The idea was to not overwhelm them with a multitude of errors which could cause them to become deflated and defeated. While in the beginning I wouldn’t ask for a rewrite. I was more concerned with quantity because I feel that writing is a process that needs to be completed repeatedly to get better. However, by the middle of the year I felt they had written enough to now begin improving on their abilities.

Recently I was introduced to a new way of grading essays which has begun to replace the previous system. I still give full credit during the first quarter for attempt but now I only give full credit during the second quarter if they fix the errors, otherwise I give them a 75%. By third quarter it will be to the scale. The scale though is set up on a 25 point system (easily changed to 100 points by simple multiplication). It gives 16 points just for a good faith effort (64%) and the other 9 follow the AP World History rubric for their essays. While the rigor is lowered for honors, I still use it.

What this does though is it gives a C to getting just 3 points (16+3=19=76% or a C as each point is worth 4%). The average paper I get had between 3-5 points so the average grade is 76% to 84%. A paper that does all that is required gets 7 points or a 92%. The final 2 points are reserved for those papers that go above and beyond on some or all of the basic 7, just like the AP Test. However, that is my end of the year goal so how can I grade them in November for something I expect mastery on in May? Until that time, I have decided that I will begin with full credit for trying and over the course of the year, slowly raise the bar.

So the issue then is how am I getting them to think outside the box when I am building them towards fitting into the box by May and their grade is reflective of that? Well, my answer are that there are some limits to everything but it is also that essays aren’t my only grades. An essay needs some structure for clarity and organization but there are still great opportunities for creative thinking and I take those into account if my students can defend their reasoning for the risk. Also for just attempting these they still get a D and when factored in to a grading system where I categorize and essays are only 20% of the grade, a D only moves a grade 6% overall.

Same with tests. I have begun to ban multiple choice tests. When I do give them, I just let them collaborate on them. I find the chaos that ensues to be hilarious as they form into camps over question 6’s answer being either C or D. But even my written, short answer, inquiry or any other kind of test is done to a different scale. I am not a fan of the idea that a kid gets an 92% on one test and then a 12% on the next so their grade averages out to a 52%. Is that truly reflective? Where as if the grade was a 92% and a 50% then it would average out to a 71%. If the child consistently scores low, it will show regardless but by not placing a floor on the grade at 50, it seems to only hurt those who score a C or above.

In the end, my tests and quizzes only count for 30% of their grade so even getting all 50% on tests only changes their grade by 15%, still in the B range.

In the end I have to ask myself, what is my end goal, what am I trying to accomplish. I have pushed back further and further on this idea that school is somehow a punishment and we need to reprimand students for making mistakes. I want them to take the chances and when it doesn’t work out, come and see me to find a solution. I want them to know that they always have a safety net to catch them when they take risks or have a bad day. I want them to challenge the system without feeling like that challenge will cost them the year.

Maybe I am on the wrong track but for me it just fits.

Until next time, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings on this or any post. As always, this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

House Rules

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A couple weeks back while talking with a colleague about Sir Ken Robinson and his views on creativity and education, we found ourselves discussing the creative projects we had while in school. For me, one came up that I hadn’t thought of since high school. I remember never really caring for the teacher much so it wasn’t surprising that I had blocked out the memories of that class.

Unfortunately this has caused me to miss some great lesson ideas for my own class. The project in question was simple really. The teacher came in with about 6 different board games (one was more of a card game) that most of us had never seen before. They might have been long discontinued games, lost to history, or as some of us also believed, a Frankenstein collection of many games tossed together; the board of this game, the game pieces from another, the cards from a third. We were then put into small groups and told to come up with the name of the game, the background on the concept, create the rule book and demonstrate to the class how it would be played. This was a high school English class and we were making up games as if we were 6 again.

What I didn’t realize at the time, but have come to appreciate as a teacher now, was how deeply thought out this assignment was. We had to work as a team, present to a class, be creative, think outside of the box, and write out a story and rule book, testing our language skills. There were so many elements and layers to the assignment, especially for something that I think only took up three classes, or just under three hours.

What this memory really did for me was to get me to question many of my memories from my own education, I thought back to all those teachers I deemed “bad” teachers and forced myself to think of specifically what made them so bad. The surprising thing I discovered was that few actually exhibited any traits, outside of personality differences, that I would label as poor teaching qualities. Sure, some were controversial, but it was that controversy that drove the classes I was in to rise up, primarily because as a class we hated them so much that we wanted to shove it back in their face. In the end, the joke was on us because we would end up learning the most in those classes.

So to my current stint as a teacher and the national rhetoric over failing classrooms. Everyday I hear of this teacher or that teacher being a “bad” teacher. In my first two years, I made it a point to seek these teachers out to discover for myself if they were weak teachers. More often than not, they weren’t. They were just controversial or many times just socially awkward which gave the impression to other teachers that they were somehow flawed. This isn’t to argue that we don’t have weak teachers in schools. We do but I argue that many that we think are failing, might somehow be a quiet genius.

This came up as I began to question the running list in my head of teachers I knew that had been labeled as weak. Three shot to the top of the list so I began to do my own investigating. I would look at data, because that’s were we all turn to first, but I also asked current and former students their impressions, pressing them to see if they had learned anything, as well as taking into account the subject, grade and specific students they had, especially in relation to the data.

What I have begun to see is that while none of them, nor I for that matter, are great teachers, we are all good teachers. One of the general trends of them all is that they are all controversial, both in and out of the classroom. They will take unpopular sides of arguments to spur deep debate. When I would first ask the students if they were good teachers, one of the three was always a no and very unpopular but once I dug deeper, causing the student to evaluate what, if anything, they had learned, they all seemed to find out that they now knew both sides of the topic deeply.

While I am still not sold on the greater effectiveness of their methods or my own, I am reminded of a few platitudes, such as never judging a book by it’s cover and remembering that the rules and guides of teaching are are not written into stone. Sometimes we need to make our own house rules to fit our own personalities, classroom cultures and teaching styles. There is no one method to teaching. There is no golden playbook to mastery.

Well, until next time, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings on this or any post. As always, this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

Sir Ken Robinson – Changing Education Paradigms

Well, I stumbled upon Sir Ken Robinson once I discovered Fora.tv. Fora has to be one of the greatest websites. I like TED but I have enjoyed Fora much more. Back to the point though. In the above video, a group called RSA Animate, take a ten minute clip of his longer talk (which you can find here) and add an animation to it.

I use this video in my own classroom to spur discussions on history and how we use or don’t use history to learn about our current world. I usually begin by stopping the video immediately to discuss the artist drawing in the clip. I will take a second to see if I have any artists in the room and if I do, I ask them what class they hate the most. This usually makes them uncomfortable but after making sure they know that whatever the answer is, including my own class, I just want honesty, even letting them know that I didn’t particularly care for history when I was their age.

However, what I usually hear is that Art is their least liked class. When I ask them why, a general response is that they don’t get to draw or paint or design what they really want. This is the response I am looking for. I explain to them that in my opinion, Art class in high school has less to do with turning them into artists or refining their skills and more to do with having them learn the skill, beauty, thought and power found in art. It is more about an appreciation for art.

So this leads me back to the video where I ask them how the artist in the video became so good. They usually agree that it takes time, practice, dedication and passion. We will then have a conversation about whether higher education would be the best route this gentleman should have taken in life. We will discuss the financial costs verse the long term benefits of those costs. We will discuss who they would higher if they owned RSA Animate, the artist with a portfolio of work or the artist with a degree. There may also be some other side conversations around this whole discussion but remembering them all would be a nightmare.

Finally I will play the film. However, I will never just let it run, I must stop it occasionally (I developed this horrible habit from my first Master Teacher, Mr. Madnikoff). Even though it is drawn out for them, I want to make sure that they understand what is being discussed so I will stop it occasionally to make sure they are all still on track. By the end I will begin another class discussion and have them talk about the purpose of learning history, the value of a college education, a debate over what students should and should not go to college and what careers are connected to those students and what is the current state of public education.

I’ve enjoyed doing this in my classroom for a couple years now and I am wondering all of your thoughts on Sir Ken Robinson’s ideas. Share them below and continue the conversation. If you enjoyed this video, watch his full talk here.

Well, until next time, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Also, please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings. As always this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.