Sunday, April 29, 2012

The simplest questions present the greatest mysteries

..and it's the mystery that lasts, not the answer.

I need to provide students with prompt feedback, record someplace semi-permanently the numerical results of assessments,  and keep track in a useable format which students need to re-take which parts of which assessments.  Is there a way of doing all of this that DOESN'T mean I spend 6 hours a day managing student data?  I'm not spending that much time on it now, I'm just doing a really bad job of providing prompt, meaningful feedback.  That makes the other tasks easy.  On the subject of time management, where do I find the time to reflect on my instructional technique, let alone adjust my learning activities, once I have all the data I need to make meaningful decisions?

How can a student practice listening and speaking in another language?  For the reading, vocabulary, and grammar sections of a test, I have all sorts of differentiated practice activites that a student can do on her own time.  On the listening and speaking sections, not so much.  Not good practice; those are the two sections I care most about.

On a related note, since those are the sections I care most about, how can I weight my tests to reflect my educational priorities without destroying my students' GPA, given that the parts I want my students to do best at are traditionally the parts they do worst at, at least at first?

Turning our attention to the English class, how do I instruct satire?  More to the point, how do I know when my students understand satire?  I can imagine giving a test with a question like, "Give an example of satire," but I'd be afraid they would mess with me in their answer.   And if they don't mess with me, doesn't that prove that they don't understand satire?

Despite what my opening statement says, I would really appreciate some insight into these solutions.

And now, for something completely different, I steal somebody else's tech discovery: Time Maps!  It connects the geography of the WHOLE WORLD, plus a timeline of 5000 years, with brief but quite thorough outlines of what's going on in each area at pre-determined points in history.  As someone with a decent memory but more interest in big-picture than detail work, I could never connect what was going on different parts of the world at the same time.  Now, I don't have to.  Someone smart has done it for me and put it on a web site.  It makes it much easier to connect related but disparate events through time and space.  I can easily see having my students do a "tour of the history of the Spanish-speaking countries" as a "when you're done" activity during a computer lab trip.   (h/t iLearn Technology)

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Welcome to the world of 3D!

To end my spring break blogging flurry, 2 links from Free Tech for Teachers, both dealing with digital models.

The first post talks about 3DTin, an in-browser tool for creating 3D images of things.  Now you know I love me some Google SketchUp,  but an in-browser tool would be a LOT better for school work than a dedicated program.  It looks really fun, and fairly user-friendly (for 3D drafting software).

The second post talks about Autodesk Homestyler, which lets you design a house, drop in rooms and furniture and maybe even textures, and then pop it up into 3D.  I wish I'd known about this 2 months ago, when I was prepping the house design unit.  Now that I know about it, I'll be looking for excuses to use it.

My first iBook...

...isn't for Spanish at all, but English.

I'm starting Hamlet with my seniors.  (Sometimes I wonder if I'm insane, or if I just don't know what I'm doing.  They have like 8 weeks left, for pete's sake; why am I starting the hardest part of my class now?!  Because, that's why.)  So, as sort of a lark, I put iBooks Author through some of its paces.  I found an audiobook version at Librivox, and downloaded the text from Project Gutenberg.  (If all I wanted was the text, it turns out it's SUPER easy to copy and paste text into a new digital textbook.  Not a huge surprise, but still.)  The goal is to have the audio book just read the page that you're looking at, so that you can follow along as the actors perform.  We all know Hamlet isn't meant to be read, it's meant to be seen.  This can take us a little closer to that goal. 

The British National Theatre has some pretty excellent educational resources on their web site, and among them are great resources for a recent production of Hamlet.  On iTunes U, they have a short clip of Rory Kinnear, the actor who played Hamlet, performing the first soliloquy ("Oh, that this too too solid flesh would melt....).  So I took that and embedded it in a video player, right there in the textbook, next to the written text.  You can watch the performance on your iPad, while you read the relevant bit.  If I had but world enough and time, I would do that to the whole bloody play.  But one thing at a time.

I guess the point is that the possibilities are pretty awesome.  It's an exciting time to be a teacher.

Also, for fun, I dropped in an interactive picture of Denmark, and a 3D model of Konsborg Castle, which is where the action nominally takes place. 

Friday, April 6, 2012

Google continues to take over the world

...and I for one welcome our new lizard overlords.

Bill Ferriter talks about using Google Docs to pre-package digital materials, so students can use them in their digital projects.  The main advantage, of course, is that they can spend more time working on the project, and less time looking for the perfect picture.  (Always tremendously frustrating.)  He also goes on to extol the virtues of collaboration, ease of use, and finding materials licenced for re-use (instead of downloading a picture, video, or sound bite that somebody else owns).  In all, an excellent idea.  Now if only I could convince my school to create Google accounts for my students....

Richard Byrne at Free Technology for Teachers points out that the Google Art Project, which had a huge scope to begin with, is now enormous.  With Google Art Project, you can see works of art from museums all over the world.  I've already used it a little bit in my Spanish classes, to show works by Picasso and Dali and Varo.  Mr. Byrne points out something execllent: If you sign in using a Google account, you can create your own galleries and collections.  Not only does this mean I can create galleries, so I don't have to go searching for the same 10 paintings all the time, but also that I can have my students create their own galleries based on themes.  For my Spanish students: "Find me 10 pictures by Velazquez.  Find me 10 art works created in the Romantic style.  Find me 10 works about (or at least arguably about) the Spanish Civil War.  Find me 10 works of people doing household tasks, and describe in detail what they're doing."  For my English students: "Find me 10 works that have the same tone as the book we're reading.  Find me 10 works on the topic of unrequited love / family / loneliness.  Find me a work that you find stunning/beautiful/ghastly/confusing and write a page describing what it looks like, what you think/feel about it, what the artist was trying to conveigh; use descriptive adjectives/averbial phrases that express time/complex sentences."  Now, if only I could convince my school to create Google accounts for my students....

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Ta-Nehisi Coates does my thinking for me

Another winning quote:  "Professionalism isn't a courtesy, it's a self-interest."

From here.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

TPRS resource

TPRS is an instructional strategy that involves teaching a second language by having students build a story around some core vocabulary or grammar concepts.  The idea is that the learners learn the language as it's used, not as vocabulary in isolation, and certainly not by memorizing verb charts.  I've dabbled in it with limited success; I use it as one of my tools, usually supplementary to other instructional techniques.  Come to think of it, it's probably more of a practice tool than an instructional technique.

It's something I would like to know more about, though.  It plays off of what I understand to be best practice in language learning: use the language for communication; use it in an engaging, interesting way; work in a variety of instructional and practice techniques; alter between communicative methods and communicative modes; make the students the focus of the classroom, and not the teacher or the textbook or the standards.  I'm kind of trying to scrape together the $300 or so that the formal training session would cost.

In the meantime, Jeanette Borish writes about her experiences with the methodology here.  She has some interesting insights, and overall, she appears to appreciate TPRS.  She has 30 years in the business, too, so she should know her stuff.

Monday, April 2, 2012

More early spring-break thoughts

The Legends of the Sun Pig, a blog I don't know (via Making Light, a blog I do know) ruminates on being the second-best swordsman in Caribastos.  Strive to be the best, it says, but take some time to appreciate what you have accomplished.  Wise words.

It reminded me irrevocably of this, though:

Be careful not to shoot yourself in the belly looking for a fight you can win.

Sometimes the metaphors just write themselves.

Technology in education

What can we reasonably expect technology to do in education?  In the last 30 years, computers have promised a great deal and delivered a great deal, but what was promised and what was delivered were not always the same thing.  As we move out of the era during which desktop computers are the ONLY way to do computing, the new thing is tablet computers, led by the gold standard, the iPad.  What will this new technology be able to do for us?

Audrey Watters, at the oft-cited but never duplicated Hack Education, wrote an interesting article about educational technology as a MacGuffin.  It's good for hooking us in to the plot, but it's only meant to hold us in place until the real plotline gets moving.  For explanation, she quotes a speaker she heard at a conference:"something that provokes learning, but isn't."  Technology is a good trick for getting students to pay attention, or a force for making teachers re-analyze the efficacy of their teaching strategies, or a way to show the school board that a staff is taking the problem of the day seriously: "See?  We were trained on a software product that helps us keep track of bullying instruments."  It's a good place to begin these conversations, but it was never meant to carry the whole party by itself.

In my own practice, I look to technology to do three things: to scale up good practices more easily, to make individualizing instruction and practice a little bit easier, and to take my students to places in the world I can't afford to send them for real.  Having said that, almost everything in that last sentence is wrong.  When I say, "In my own practice," I don't mean I actually practice this very well.  It's what I move towards.  When I write lesson plans, I look for places to do this.  It isn't very deeply ingrained in my day-to-day life yet, but I hope I'm moving in that direction.

Scaling up means to take something which works on the small scale, and to make it work reasonably well in a setting a hundred, a thousand, a million times bigger than when it was designed.  Starbuck's has succeeded because its business model was scaleable.  Hundreds of small, local coffee roasters and cafes, which clearly have a superior product, cannot say the same.  (Water Street is a happy exception, and may it long remain so.)  Scaling up is an issue I don't think that the education world has dealt with especially well yet.  Ironically, a lot of the education reform movement has its roots in scaleability of good practice (I'll write that doctoral thesis another day) and it's something that no ed reform movement really takes very seriously.  This is where technology comes in--we can put computers in a lot of places we can't put teachers.  Students can interact with computers much more frequently than with teachers.  (If I divide the number of minutes in class by the number of students I have in that class, each of my students is entitled to approximately 90 seconds of my time.)  So if I can translate a good practice on to a computer--a communicative activity where a student has to comprehend target vocabulary to complete a task, or a video chat with the ambassador from Spain--I can presumably reach a much larger number of students.

Individualizing instruction is terribly important, and in a lot of ways, feels like the opposite of scaling up.  That is sort of not true, though.  Good practice looks a lot of different ways, and individualizing instruction is all about finding the kind of good practice that works best for a given student.  An individual teacher can take care of HUGE swaths of this simply by increasing the variety of teaching methods s/he uses.  (A constant struggle for me, and I imagine for lots of other people, too.)  If a lesson plan calls for an aural-intensive lesson, providing a visual or a kinesthetic experience as well is helpful to ALL students, but especially those who learn best in that way.  Technology makes that easier to organize.  However, when I said it was "easier," it's not: it's just easier at time of instruction.  Planning it is as hard as planning anything else, and I think that's the reason I don't do it more often.  (That's probably true of educators more broadly, but I haven't read the study that shows it, so I can only speak for myself.)

The only clear victory for me in the world of ed tech is in taking my students around the world.  My Spanish II class had to find an apartment in Barcelona a week or two ago; it was awesome.  (Thanks to the MiWLA presentation of Amber Kasic-Sullivan for the idea and the unit plan.)  I've had my Spanish 1 students explore Chichén Itzá; there are some new laser-rendered drawings which are just extraordinary.  (I'll dig them up and put a link in the comments later.)  Using Google Earth and its acompanying street view, students have had to follow directions through downtown Oaxaca, Mexico; I've shown them big chunks of St. James's Trail, through northern Spain; we've visited my dad's ocean-side restaurant in Puerto Rico.  It's remarkable how little vocabulary students need to know in order to conduct 80% of these lessons in Spanish, so win-win there.

More thoughts about this later.  This is really only the summary of the piece I want to write about ed tech, so I might need to wait for a longer break to work on it.