Reflections on #edchat: Tech vs. textbook

This weeks #edchat 12noon/6pm CET discussion was titled “Should we save money in education by exchanging textbooks for the internet for authentic learning. I was asked to write the summary for the edchat discussion, and decided to wait to post my reflection until after that was done.

Initial thoughts on this were: Yes, please. But, as so often, there was more. As an impulsive person, I usually get quite passionate about something, but I know I need time to think to really express my opinion.

Technology is great, it has enriched my personal and professional life in so many ways. I enjoy using technology in the classroom, but for me this is a given. If children don’t use a computer for anything other than Paint and Word, something is not “up-to-date”. I like to use the internet, and information literacy is an important part of that. But, and this was brought up quite a bit during this #edchat discussion, not everyone is like that. Not every teacher is ready to sign up to Twitter and engage in an hour-long 140 character, fast-paced discussion. Of course not, learning styles vary. But there are other ways too!
So, the argument that some teachers would be out of their comfort zone to give up a textbook and the idea of exploring, evaluating and collaborating would be dismissed by them….. I think not. I know, some people are like that, people are people, we can be defensive about something we feel uncomfortable with. Some more so than others. But, as with our students, every learner has their own way, and we should encourage them to take risks, so matter how they react at first.

Other thoughts that were brought up were:

  • Textbooks are outdated too quickly
  • Textbooks only represent one perspective
  • Technology is not accessible to all in the same way
  • Children need to be taught how to think critically when researching online (information literacy)

And, a point that I personally found very VERY important:

  • The resource is important, not the tool (which can be technology, or textbook

For me, this can be linked to some of my comments during this discussion:

  • Just because something is online, does not mean it is better than a textbook (some publishers put textbook content on their websites, including some workbook content, get a neat programmer to add some animations or similar, and sell it as their interactive content. For me, this is a FARCE! The content, and as such, the resource stays the same, but the tool changes. Same goes for ebooks!
  • There is more to the discussion than technology or textbook. People and places are amazing resources too. And while these can be accessed in person (if possible) or virtually (neat! Streetview, Skype, SecondLife), they provide other perspectives, require different skills and are much more engaging than some books.

The last point goes back to the why and how of learning in schools. When we have definite answers to that, then we can choose engaging and authentic resources. In some of my units, people were a much more valuable and authentic resource than any book could have ever been. Seeing the marble caves of Carrara, then seeing marble processed in Pietrasanta, including a little workshop, to seeing Michelangelo’s David in Florence…. an indescribable experience. And with technology ¬†growing, this could possibly be accessible to children all over the world at one point.

Lastly, there was something that I became aware of during this discussion, that I would like to change in my practice. I have my PLN, I use Nings, Skype, Twitter, and other sources to collaborate with people around the world. But I have not encouraged my students to do so.
Luckily, yesterday I was able to step into an Elluminate presentation by Julie Lindsay (@julielindsay) and Vicki Davis (@coolcatteacher) about their Flat Classroom projects. Looking at the five steps to a flat classroom, I found myself merely at the first one, with intra-connectiveness between students in the class. Unfortunately, at primary level, the movement is a bit slower. So I look forward to seeing how their projects within the primary environment will come along this year.

As always, #edchat is an amazing experience, and I always connect with new people from around the world. It is eye- and mind-opening and I look forward to next week’s discussion as well. ¬†In the meantime, you have the chance to join the #elemchat discussion on Twitter at 11 pm CET (Berlin) and the first online, and FREE Reform Symposium, which is happening this weekend!

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How do you use photography in school?

One thing I am curious about this summer is photography. With my Samsung L74 Wide all fixed now, I resisted the temptation to buy a D-SLR camera for the time being. Other things have taken priority.

The question I am curious about though is… how do we use photography effectively in schools? I am not one to just take pictures of the results and products. I think generally I am an action/process photographer in my own classroom. I like to document the coming together of projects, collect evidence of students putting into action their acquired skills.
I use the camera all day long, and in my previous classes, the students stopped posing for the camera pretty quickly. Posing is not the point in my class.
To evaluate the photographs, I occasionally put them on the class blog, but we also used them when reflecting. I wonder if there is a systematic way to do this? A class flickr account?

In Switzerland, one school I visited had “class photographers”. The weekly job included the taking of photographs on a daily basis, along with printing them out, and adding some text to it, sort of like a newspaper.
We used to have class photographers too, but never got too much into it. It’s interesting to see what the children find interesting to take pictures of. I wish I had given it more time, but as we didn’t have a class camera, the job was difficult.

So, what do you do? I am curious to hear about the use of photography in education worldwide from preschool to higher education!

Photo Credit: Taken from Enixii

The low, the middle and the high achievers (pt.2): The danger of labeling and the averagela

My previous post was already inspired by yesterday’s #edchat on Twitter. It is a weekly discussion between many passionate educators from all over the world on Twitter. It’s a great way to get inspired, to get you thinking and to change ideas. It is also a way to connect with people who think or, in fact, do not think like you.

If you are interested, have a look at the #edchat Wiki and Cybrary Man’s list of Educational Chats on Twitter.

Yesterday’s discussion was about the “middle” in our schools. The topic, to be exact, was Is too much emphasis placed on low and high achieving students?
My previous reflection was based on the German state school system. I don’t teach in it, but I grew up in it. Although my secondary school was slightly different, I was still sorted, and so was my sister. We both could have been very different people in different schools. But we are happy with who we are, and it shows that not only schools determine who or what you will become one day.

I’m happy to teach at an International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme (PYP) school, where such sorting is uncommon, and where, in fact, the regrouping of students is a requirement of educational practice. In order to put my reflection into context here, let me briefly explain my background. I started teaching at a private, progressive primary and middle school in Germany. The school was a school for everyone (called Gesamtschule) and sorting was only an issue when parents wanted to move their children elsewhere (such as to a prestigious Gymnasium). Two years ago I moved school and country, and took my first post at an international PYP school. I stayed there until this summer, and am taking up a new position in a new international PYP and MYP school after the summer.

This post is about the labeling in our own classes. The unconscious labeling we might be doing at times. I will apply a reflection model to this, to organize my thoughts and feelings, and, to hopefully come to a conclusion or action plan for myself. The model used is an adaption of Greenaway’s Plan-do-review; I will use Burton’s What? So What? Now What?

WHAT?

Over the last year I taught a small class of ten students. The class was mixed grade/age, the children between 8 and 10 years old. They were all from different countries, with levels of English (the “language of instruction” at the school) ranging from beginner (no previous knowledge) to mother tongue.
Differentiation was required at all times, in all academic disciplines, as well as socially.
Looking back over the year though, I can see how I might have put more emphasis on the “low” and the “high” in my class. I wouldn’t say achievers. Let me explain! The children with beginning English were supported through our EAL teacher (standard practice) and I had to plan for them in the mainstream classroom as well. Those children who struggled in writing/grammar/other areas, would seek support and get it from me as well. I would plan according to their needs, providing resources to enable them to deal with a specific task or idea in a better way. The “high” would need more challenges. They, as well, would be resourced in my planning. And the “middle”? Well, maybe I didn’t really have much of a middle, but there are some children for whom my “normal” planning was “just right” and I wonder if I could have done more for them.

SO WHAT?

I don’t want to go into overexplaining every single detail from my class. I’m sure you get the idea. So what, I ask myself now. What is the problem?
If we plan “in top of the normal planning” for the “low” and the “high”, then where does the “middle” stay? Why do we make them average, normal, why do we not challenge them on top of everything?
Generally, I’m happy not to have “sets” in my class. I always regroup, different “abilities”, different interests….. I knew the children in that class well, so it was easy.
How do we make sure not to look at the bell curve, the scale? What makes us look this way anyway? Is there a difference in our espoused theory of action and our theory-in-use? Do we preach differently from how we act? Do we, despite knowing better, fall back into “common”, “old”, “easy-way-out” traps?
Possibly. I don’t say we always do, but sometimes I probably do. And children don’t deserve that. Not always, not sometimes, not rarely, they NEVER deserve to be your “average”, your “norm” or “middle”. All children are individuals with their own needs at all times. And I speak here generally, although I can see the implications differ for the classroom teacher of 10-15 in an international PYP school and the High School Science teacher of 7 different classes of 30 kids each. I’m aware, but lets stay ideological for a minute.

NOW WHAT?

What can I do to break away from this altogether? The next children I teach, I don’t know. I’m fortunate enough to be working with their previous teacher, but you know how it works, you need to make your own picture!
I also have several “support” systems at hand in a PYP school. Scope and Sequence documents are developmental and not age-based, for example.
Firstly though, I have to get to know the students, every single one of them. Personally, and academically. And then, I guess I have to work hard on never labeling them. On always giving them the opportunity to exceed expectations and beyond. Always challenge them, always make them feel safe enough to take a risk.

We all don’t want to be average, we don’t want to be the middle. We don’t necessarily be low or high achievers either, but we want to be us. The best WE can be.
I would love your comments on this, let’s not let the ideas die just because the #edchat is over!

The low, the middle and the high achievers: The danger of sorting!

The last #edchat got me thinking a lot about sorting, streaming, and labeling in our schools. So often you read about “the top set” or the “bottom set”. Admittedly, I have found myself thinking in these groups as well, even in my small class of 10 students last year.

I think there might be a difference between class/homeroom teachers in primary/elementary schools and subject teachers in high schools. Moreover, it surely differs according to country, curriculum and school type.

Throughout the discussion it hit me: The link between the “sorting” and the German school system. I recently blogged about it here. This morning, the paper dedicated a whole page to the school system in Northrhine-Westphalia. Recently, a referendum failed in Hamburg. A very important referendum: The extension of primary schools from four to six grades. Currently in Germany, students attend the same primary school for only four years, apart from students in Berlin and Brandenburg, they attend primary school for six years. In Europe, and (as the paper claimed) worldwide, Germany and Austria are the only countries to run primary schools for only four years. In fact, German students will then go on to one of three or four secondary school types, either depending on their grades (some states) or their parents’ choice (other states).

After fourth grade, students in Northrhine-Westphalia are an average of ten years old. And they are then being sorted: The Hauptschule for the “low achievers”, Realschule for the average and Gymnasium for the “high achievers. (Check my previous blog post for more information about these schools). Of course, politicians and educational reform supporters in Germany know that this is problematic. But the traditional system seems to sustain for the time being.

How do we justify sorting children into “success categories” at this age? How can we know that Paul will not at one point find his passion for Mathematics and go on to study astrophysics at Harvard, just because he had trouble in Maths when he was 9 and 10 years old?

Reflective Writing

Very early on during my degree in Learning, Technology and Research, a degree that is delivered online and based on action inquiry/research, as well as the students’ individual professions, we learned about writing in different genres to encourage new perspectives and deeper reflection. As a result, I have used poetry, story boards, cartoons, and stories to reflect on my practice. I have written letters to myself from different perspectives, and while all of this is still a fragment of my imagination, it is also stunning how quickly we can take this different perspective.

The sad thing is that I haven’t used genre writing outside of my degree. But I will try to do it. I have also thought about using genre writing for the classroom. Can you imagine the implications this has on developing an understanding of perspective? How social relationships could be developed this way?

But let me start with an example from my classroom. In the last school year, one of the students in my class would come in tired every morning. She would not participate much in the morning meeting, she would not follow discussions very well and found it hard to work effectively as well. This would persist until way later in the morning, often after break time. But then she would be able to work well.

Of course, I see all this now, but when it started, I was inclined to think that she was not participating in morning meetings for other reasons. If you offer Maths in the mornings, you might think that she is working on a lower level than she is able to. Hey, we know how it is, some of us just don’t like to TALK in the morning. We might be slower than in the afternoon…. it depends! Students are no different.

I noticed this when I introduced rotations to the morning. Instead of morning meetings and other “talk-based” activities, the students were able to rotate between different stations, Unit of Inquiry-related work, Mathematics, Reading… This would go on for 1 1/2 to 3 hours in the morning. And I observed an interesting pattern with this girl. She would come in and observe for a few minutes, then make a choice and BOOM, she was awake and effective. Then, when tiredness grabbed her again, she rested.

You might think that this is it. But somehow I was not able to put 1+1 together that easily during the school year, and when we paused rotations for a while, I fell back into old patterns too, wondering why this students was not participating, etc.

This is where reflective writing can help. In this case, the student (lets call her Anne), is writing in her diary.

Dear Diary,

Yesterday evening I had great fun with my sister, and when it was time to go to bed, I was unable to sleep. I can’t sleep well at night, and usually stay awake until 11 o’clock or later. I don’t know why. And in the mornings I’m tired. I don’t like to be tired, because I love school. I can’t eat well when I’m tired either, so my breakfast is usually a cookie.

It’s okay to be tired when we have rotations. We don’t have to talk all the time, and I can focus on my work at my own pace. I love it. I wake up much quicker and it’s fun. And we still talk and discuss after lunch. But today we didn’t have rotations. We started with the morning meeting. I was so tired. I don’t want to seem rude, but listening to everyone this early in the morning is hard. And sitting around does not help. Also, I don’t like to talk much in the mornings, but luckily I was able to opt out of sharing today.

I could see that Miss Jessica was not happy about my behaviour. I had to keep moving around to keep myself awake. Also, during rotations we can sometimes just talk to each other and say something important to our friends, but in a morning circle you can’t do that. And I had something important to say to Alice.

I hope tomorrow we have rotations again.

Good night, Anne

As you can see, the perspective differs from mine. But it is a great way to be empathetic, to slip into someone else’s shoes and to question your own beliefs and behaviour.
I wonder how many students are like this.

Stars and Clouds recommends

Nina’s Arena is always a blog well worth reading, especially if you are interested in early childhood education, literacy development and the PYP.

This recommendation goes out particularly for her most recent post: The International Baccalaureate Primary Years Programme – Unpacking the attitudes with 5 and 6 Year Olds

In her post Nina explains how she “unpacks” the learner profile and PYP attitudes in an authentic manner with her preps in Australia.

Well worth a read and a blog every educator should subscribe to!