Sunday, May 20, 2012

Two sites, two opportunities

  Recently, in a 12th grade English classroom, I asked students to navigate between two different types of sites while researching to prepare for debates. I wanted them to begin their research on the New York Times Room for Debate page, so I showed them how the site worked and asked them specifically to read the introduction of a high-interest topic. Next, they had to read each of the expert articles associated with the topic. A week or so later, I sent them to a different site, This time, I asked students to find examples of strong and weak online debates. Instead of explaining how the site worked, I asked them to explain it to me.
I liked the assignment because it moved us away from the familiar discourse about these types of sites, where we identify one as informal, and therefore bad, and one as a formal site from a reputable publisher, therefore good. Certainly, we needed college-bound seniors to know that they cannot cite in their research papers. Also, they had to know that the authors selected by the New York Times had a certain amount of credibility deriving from this publication, if not for their credentials under their bylines.
     Rather than stopping here with our consideration of the sites, though, I hoped they would see that Debate.or is a social network where people engage in competitive debates of varying seriousness and political correctness. The New York Times, of course, is the New York Times. This online, 21st Century version of the venerable newspaper is increasingly participatory and has many elements of a social network, too. In the 12th grade classroom, we wanted students to see that the sites differ in the level to which they invite participation. If I read the New York Times and do not comment, vote or debate, I'm a reader. If I read and I don't debate, comment or vote, I'm a noob, or a lurker.
    Something these seniors and I obseved in our work is that some participants on formulate better arguments than the experts invited to write for the Times. Students would read some expert articles and come away with no more information about their topic. Ironically, some of the arguments on proved to be models of strong inline citation and link students to credible research about their topics. Readers have to filter more strategically in, lest they spend their time reading an informal debate that consists entirely of “Your momma” jokes. So, filtering strategies were key, as indicated in the reflection written by Jacob, a student who successfully navigated the site. He wrote:

While I was siphoning through the challenges, I have acquired a basic working knowledge of how the site works and what can be done with the site. During my search the most well supported debate was a debate arguing whether or not the Muslim religion endorsed terrorism. The least supported debate was a joke debate that lacked any real knowledge of the subject to be funny.

    His critical thinking helped me decide that the exploration of a social network had benefits and I was glad that our research and preparation for class debates took students to a virtual space not normally travelled in an English class.  

Thursday, May 10, 2012

3 Challenges for a game design school

I’ll be blogging in response to a webinar series offered by at the invitation of the National Writing Project’s Digital Is.

Maybe the most inspiring thing about listening to Antero Garcia, a young teacher who has pushed on the boundaries of pedagogy in a very difficult teaching environment, is that words like “problem” and “challenge” seem to have only the best connotations when he says them.  In this week’s webinar, Garcia detailed some projects he has lead in his high school English class in south central Los Angeles. He shared his thinking about technology in schools and participatory learning. He also described a detailed game his students played which they later opened up to the larger community. After he did all of this, he asked a question:

He asked the connected learning community, "How do we do this with teachers who aren't necessarily oriented toward (game design) practices?" Garcia explained that he’s helping plan a new public high school in South Central Los Angeles, the Critical Design and Gaming School. His concern is that the school will be staffed with veteran teachers who might not have any interest in the type of pedagogy the new school hopes to employ.

As fascinated as I was by the air quality problem he posed to his English class, this problem- starting a school- strikes me as infinitely more interesting and exciting- not to mention difficult- than solving air quality problems in LA.  

Here are three ways I would frame the challenges he faces: 

1 H
ow can you incorporate game design into professional learning, instructional planning and community development so teachers begin to connect game design with tangible learning? For teachers who have never attended schools built on game principles, applying game theory to teaching will be very hard, especially if they have not learned a great deal in their lives from playing games. Since opening a new school will be a huge learning experience for every staff member involved (just ask someone who has opened a school), this is an opportunity to put your pedagogy to the test with adults.

What are some ways you can temper your commitment to the project- and to change- with a gentle voice and and a welcoming ear that honors the experiences of veteran teachers? In his book Instructional Coaching: A partnership approach to improving instruction, Jim Knight compares the delicate task of asking teachers to change with going over to your sister’s house and asking her to change her parenting. Your new school will symbolize in many ways the idea that teaching practices ought to change. This will sound like a criticism to many. How can you keep those folks involved?

Can you solicit dissent to better inform your overall design? Since you endeavor to rethink pedagogy and reform education, you need everyone’s best thinking, not just the small group of technophiles, or the passionate gamers who may teach in your school. How can you keep critical thinking at the forefront of your work with staff?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Three wishes for Mozilla Open Badges

I’ll be blogging in response to a webinar series offered by at the invitation of the National Writing Project’s Digital Is.

After watching latest web session on in which Erin Knight of Mozilla discussed the company’s vision for their Open Badge infrastructure, I discovered that Knight’s guarded optimism about the project was contagious. Here are three reasons I can get excited about open badges:

Badges might help us rethink motivation and learning

    Knight commented in the web session that the binary view of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation is too restrictive for learning. By recognizing interest-driven learning through badges, we can study motivation in spaces where learners have a great deal more time, autonomy and support than schools can provide. This new conversation about badges could spark a new conversation about learning and motivation.

Badges might help us recognize the learning students do outside of the classroom and employ meaningful measurements

    Students learn a great deal in spaces outside of the classroom and often do not see those as important learning experiences. A badge system might help students see themselves as learners by calling attention to learning that occurs in after school clubs, hobbies or recreational programs.
    Additionally, by inviting adult experts to use alternative measures to assess learning in a variety of places and spaces, we invite communities to think with educators about meaningful assessment that matters. At a time when people have ready access to the grades for their local schools determined by standardized tests, badges provide a welcome opportunity to rethink assessment criteria and learning. Might badges open the door for communities to think about qualifying the learning kids do rather than quantifying it?

Badge may popularize PLNs

Badge programs may help to popularize personal learning networks (PLNs), an emerging concept in online professional development for educators. More and more teachers have embraced online networks as powerful collaborative learning opportunities. By working online, teachers connect with colleagues and experts around the world to pursue learning that is relevant to them. A badge program like Mozilla’s may be a tipping point that allows educators who believe in self-directed, collaborative learning to open students’ eyes to a new approach to interest driven learning.   

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Leave the essay grading to the machines...

Grading essays is easy. Over the years, I have laid out anchor papers for each grade category in my four point scale, 4-1, for our local standardized test in order to illustrate for my middle school students the characteristics of papers in each category. They generally pick it up pretty quickly. My 7th graders can tell me which papers have strong word choice, a variety of sentence types and  descriptive language. Forgive me if I don't panic at the news that computers can do this well.

Let the machines have the grading. Grading essays is easy. Preservice and novice teachers can identify errors and assess the readability of a student paper with very little support. Grading isn't the hard part and it is better left to AI. As a teacher, I don't want to take up my pick axe and try to race a steam shovel. I'm much rather focus on helping students do the things that only humans can do. 

In Results Now, a book about the rich potential for improving outcomes in schools, Mike Schmoker argues that students should write more in schools and teachers should grade less in order to improve literacy development. Basically, the argument sounds like this: teachers can focus too much time on providing feedback to students who do not have sufficient time to practice the skills and tasks the teacher is assessing. Students can become overwhelmed at best, and discouraged at worst, in their writing practice. Professional writers will tell you that writing requires regular daily practice and routine setbacks. Traditional grading and feedback can interfere with the development of young writers. 

In her book Grammar to Enrich and Enhance Writing, Constance Weaver argues in favor of a generative rhetoric in writing instruction rather than a corrective rhetoric. Simply put, she suggests that we ought to teach students how generate strong writing, instead of teaching them what not to do, a commonplace approach to working with developing writers. We need humans to establish a generative rhetoric in schools. 

 The hard parts are the things we need humans to do. We need humans to create a community of writers who share their work and respond constructively to each other's work. We need humans to teach and support processes for generating ideas, planning and drafting. Humans can help humans think through the purpose and audience for written work and help students revise with those essential pieces in mind. Humans can expose students to different genres and written structures. Humans need other humans to learn how to generate strong writing. Let the machines highlight errors.