Google Plus is Gangster

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It’s “crunch time.” My IB History class will be taking their final exams in early May. There is still a lot of material to plow through. Mercifully, google plus offers an amazing platform to ease our anxieties. Full disclosure: I’m new to google plus, so if you’ve long been doing the stuff I’m about to wax madly over, please be sympathetic. First of all there are “circles,” where you can create a private chat room called a “hang-out,” where you can all see each other and speak in real-time. This secured option is ideal for a teacher working with groups of students, who would rather not expose our feisty historiographical debates to the public. A further benefit of google plus is that it allows you to upload google documents while chatting, so you and your class can collaboratively create and edit a document during the chat. Next, google plus allows you to upload a Youtube video, for the chat “circle” to  view. This morning I’d planned on our circle watching a clip from Yale, a lecture by historian John Merriman on the meaning of Stalinism. We got swept up in other conversations but the potential for a “flipped classroom” seems limitless. You can also give assignments. For instance this morning our circle met for 20 minutes to review what was discussed yesterday. Waiting for my students (only one was willing to sacrifice a Friday morning to discuss Collectivization, I ruefully confess) upon arrival was a google document, with a review question waiting to be answered. The student worked on the response while I milled around in the kitchen. After 10 minutes or so I re-entered the “hang out” room, and we discussed the question and response. A formidable, engaging, real-time review..

A final rehashing of my new favorite outside-of-school collaborative application: google plus allows you to create a secure face to face chat “circle” that can watch educational videos in real time together, and collaboratively create and edit a google document based on the knowledge accrued. If you are a teacher familiar with collaborative potentials of google docs, and the abundant wisdom stored in Youtube, you must agree, google plus is Gangster Indeed!!

We, Cyborgs?

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cyborg [ˈsaɪˌbɔːg]   n

(Literary & Literary Critical Terms) (in science fiction) a living being whose powers are enhanced by computer implants 

[from cyb(erneticorg(anism)]
For those of us who grew up with the Jetson’s, Total Recall I, and the hallucinatory fantasies of Philip K. Dick, the present disappoints. We are still no match for the mish-mash of meat and metal embodied by Arnold. We still catch colds, we still must sometimes hustle to the toilet, we are still all-too human…. Or are we? Have we not become “living beings whose powers are enhanced by computer implants”?
Take a good look around. You need not cast your gaze very far before the metal (or plastic) meets the meat. Is what we call a “smart phone” really that different from having our minds externalized? Virtually every significant person and event in human history can be located by a tech. savvy twelve year old in a matter of seconds. Name the capital of Turkey? Someone who doesn’t even realize Turkey is a country can provide you with street-level views of Istanbul before you can say “Ataturk.” But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. I guess the crux of this discussion involves the nature and extent of the “digital divide” in both its present and near-future varieties. Ruefully, my Samsung Note cannot yet imagine for me a world where half of the population “runs on” cognition enhancing devices, and the rest rely on another form of knowledge, perhaps more primitive, perhaps superior, but infinitely different. What does this mean? Is making sure all kids everywhere have access to technology a moral imperative?

Theory of Knowledge Project

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For those of you unfamiliar with TOK (Theory of Knowledge), the poster above might appear a bit weird. Someone labeled “knower” is peering through psychedelic doors named “reason,” “intuition,” “emotion,” and “language.” Beyond the doors float a surreal galaxy of paintbrushes, mathematical symbols, earths, atoms, crosses and books. I suppose it is a bit weird. But for those who teach this course it makes for an engaging lesson. The design of the poster was 100% student conceived. Make sure you have access to the art room or ample supplies, and have some fun with philosophy!

Tweeting the Russian Revolution

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 MYP 3: Tweeting the Russian Revolution   (Formative)

I first want to thank Rebekah Madrid for the idea of using twitter to research an historical event.

Context: My MYP 3 Humanities class recently completed an I.D.U. (Interdisciplinary Unit) with English. In English they read George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm.’ In Humanities, simultaneously, we researched the historical roots of this fable: The fall of the Tsar, and the rise of Lenin and Stalin. Our first lesson we discussed Russia’s vast geography, and how it contributed to the need for a strong, centralized rule. Our next lesson we divided into two groups, and each group composed a song. One song was written from the perspective of the peasants, the other reflected the interests of the nobility and the Tsar. For homework, the kids were assigned background reading and questions on ‘Bloody Sunday 1905,’ and the problems facing Tsar Nicholas.

Lesson 3: We began with a student-led tutorial on how to set up a twitter account. Each student was then assigned an important figure or group from the Russian Revolution (Lenin, Trotsky, Kerensky, Rasputin, Tsar Nick, etc..). This is the name used for the Twitter account. ( I had them put their initials before the name, so I can identify the student. For example, LLTrotsky). We then located each other on Twitter, and formed a group of “followers.” For homework, I assigned important dates, such as Feb 23, 1917. The students responded with a tweet of their own, which reflected the interests / excitement / fears  of their assumed persona.

Reflection: Mixed Results. On the bright side, almost all the kids were excited about the project, about assuming the identity of an historical figure rather than writing about them from a distance. Naturally some students were more vocal than others. For example, some students tweeted incessantly, while others did only one. Overall, tweeting is a good way to get kids talking about a topic. Expect some silliness, as the Twitter platform seems to require a bit of fun:

( “Watch out Kerensky! The Bolsheviks are coming!! ps. I’m single and fabulous!! Love, Lenin” )

Also, be sure to set up a system so that the Twitter names are sufficiently disguised. Twitter is not keen on historical impersonations. Several students were detected by the Twitter KGB, and had to re-name themselves using more heavily coded language.

A New Culture of Learning

Review: ‘A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating Imagination for a World of Constant Change.’ 2011.

By: Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown.

An economist of dubious repute changed how people viewed History by drawing attention to an overlooked disjunction. He argued that political revolutions happen when the institutions that make a society function– government, laws, military, education, and the church– can no longer keep up with the

changes happening in technology. For example, in the early 1800’s, the institution of serfdom in Russia tied peasants to the land of their lords, which prevented the serfs from moving to the cities to help Russia industrialize. Thus an old, rusty institution was putting the brakes on industrial advancement. A similar thesis runs through ‘A New Culture of Learning,’ by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown:

” As we have argued earlier, traditional approaches to learning are no longer capable of coping with a constantly changing world. They have yet to find a balance between the structure that educational institutions provide and the freedom afforded by the new media’s almost unlimited resources, without losing a sense of purpose and direction. ”  The challenge, then, ” is to find a way to marry structure and freedom to create something altogether new.”

Thomas and Brown advocate the “collective” as a possible solution. Defined as a “collection of people, skills, and talent that produces a result greater than the sum of its parts… defined by an active engagement with the process of learning.” There are parallels here with the “collaborative” approach to learning, but Thomas and Brown are pushing for something more radical. Collaborative exercises are often aimed at a “learning objective” defined by the teacher. For Thomas and Brown, this “objective” functions as a straight-jacket on creativity: “Any effort to define or direct collectives would destroy the very thing that is unique and innovative about them.” In contrast to the traditional approach to teaching, as “providing” or “transmitting” knowledge in a linear direction from professor to pupil, we now live in a world where information flows in multiple directions, creating goals and meaning and communities as it flows. Knowledge today spreads like crabgrass, without roots, anarchic, united by interests, facilitated by technology, and collaboratively constructed.

Thomas and Brown use the blogosphere to illustrate the link between the collective and education. In blogging, “authorship is transformed in a way that recognizes the participation of others as fundamental to the process. A blogger is not writing to an audience, he is facilitating the construction of an interpretive community.” In other words, the blog form is not composed with a single audience in mind, on a specific date in time, like a traditional newspaper editorial. The blog is more like the French salons of the 18th century, where educated people would meet to discuss philosophy, science, poetry, politics, and other ‘enlightened’ interests of the day. Today, the blog itself is the salon, a space where people can discuss ideas that matter to them. The purpose is not so much to inform, but rather to share, and inspire further discussions. This is what I think Thomas and Brown are suggesting by “interpretive community.”

The collective requires not only a new way of “playing,” to use a jazz metaphor Thomas and Brown are keen to employ, but also a new way of “listening.” In education, this means teachers must fundamentally re-think what defines an “objective,” and how to assess collaborative work. It means a shift towards connecting the personal (blogs, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, etc..) with the collective. Thus students are not so much learning from each other, as learning with each other, sharing experiences, knowledge, and co-constructing identities. Students become part of a community that is meaningful to them, and are therefore excited to invest time and creativity in its evolution. Facebook and Gaming are two communities that kids enjoy being a part of. I think Thomas and Brown are suggesting that teachers would be wise to cultivate the  lessons of the social media, recognize the opportunities for both personal and social education, and define what is meant by “classroom” according to a similar logic. The artificial walls between “personal” and “public” need to be re-thought (after all, if a student has no personal connection to what they are doing, what sort of “public” contribution can be expected?)

Thomas and Brown also offer a compelling new epistemology for educators. In place of knowledge being understood as a “what,” a fixed concept to be recorded in an encyclopedia, knowledge is reframed as a “where’: “In a world where context is always shifting and being rearranged, the stability of the “what” dimension of knowledge also comes into question…In the new information economy, expertise is less about having a stockpile of information or facts at one’s disposal and increasingly about knowing how to find and evaluate information on a given topic. Again, this is a where question, both in terms of where the information is found and in terms of where it is being deployed to communicate something.”

So, the pressing question for me, is how can I apply these ideas in my classroom? Unfortunately, Thomas and Brown give short shrift to the pragmatic side of education. The closest they come to an actual lesson that satisfies the requirements of their theory, is a chapter devoted to the pedagogical potential of ‘World of Warcraft.’ Gaming, they argue, promotes the fusion of ‘bounded environment’ and ‘experimentation’ that defines the New Culture of Learning. I am currently implementing gaming into my own curriculum, as I agree with Thomas and Brown that it provides a space where a new type of learning takes place, one based on inquiry, cooperation, and improvisation, all in a spirit of play. However, we still live in a world of assessments, where the ability to compose an analytic essay can make or break a student’s future. The “bounded environment” is more complex than Thomas and Brown suggest, enclosed by an old and resilient tapestry of national and international standards, and Universities that still assess candidates through a two hundred year-old monocle.

A New Culture of Learning is an important work. It offers both a warning and a solution. It warns us as educators to adapt to the dizzying changes going on around us, and tells us how to convert these changes into opportunities, for both students and teachers. The alternative, one shudders to imagine, will be the obsolescence of an educational institution tethered to a previous century. The serfs of Russia had their day in 1917, and if we as teachers continue to relate to our students as lord to serf, restraining their imagination within four walls, we too might find ourselves the victim of another revolution, less violent, but equally decisive.

Classroom Technologies

Tomorrow, at a professional development workshop at my school, I’ll be asked to share my experiences using technology in the classroom. In an effort to both recall and organize, I’ve compiled a list of applications. Those under the heading “Essential” should be added to your tool-kit immediately, though I expect I’m preaching to the choir (or worse still, I’m the choir preaching to the preacher)…

Essential:

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  • Organizes notes, references, photos, videos, and anything else that can be digitized.
  • Amazingly easy to use, and simple to share information
  • Students love the “cute elephant”
  • I use it often for MYP criterion B: Investigating
  • Students create separate ‘Notebooks’ for each project I assign
  • Upon submission of the project, they share the Evernote “Notebook,” which shows me the entire process of investigation.
  • Also highly recommended for adults!
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  • Essential Apps: Drive, Sites, Docs, Presentation.
  • Google Docs allows for real-time writing and editing collaboration between students and /or teachers.
  • Google Presentation allows for real-time presentation creation between students and / or teachers.
  • Sites is much more comprehensive with mind-boggling potential for both students and teachers (More on this later).
  • Drive is the place where your google docs and presentations can be stored and easily shared.
  • I feel I have only scratched the surface of what Google offers students, educators, administrators, districts, planets, galaxies, …

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  • Incredible collaboration tool. See this: http://elsaibhistory.wikispaces.com/
  • All of the topics along the right menu bar were created by students working together, and editing each others work. This History Wiki functions as a student created interactive text. The students ASK to create new pages… Need I pitch this further?

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  • In terms of blogging as an educational tool, I’ve drank the kool-aid, I’m blitzed, and I want more!!
  • In my opinion, one of the most underused, under-appreciated tools out there.
  • If you have doubts, create one of your own, record your reflections, and see if you don’t evolve as a writer and graphic designer. See if you learn to locate relevant information more rapidly. See if you are able to convey this information to an audience in a more creative way than before you started the blog. Then, ask yourself:  “what does it mean to be literate in the 21st century?” Then, ask yourself: “has blogging improved my literacy?”

Not Exactly Essential, but Fun…

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  • I’m a big fan of any technology that allows useful information to come to you, instead of you searching for it… 
  • My students still associate Twitter with comments like: “Doritos for lunch, mmmm”
  • They are surprised when I show them my own Twitter feed, the famous authors, politicians, journalists, artists, academics, think tanks, climate watch groups, design and technology gurus, all-star teachers, etc.. that share their latest ideas with me via Tweets. RSS feeds are even more spectacular in this regard, … I’ll come back to RSS in a later post.

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  • I’m new to this one. But as I am looking to “flatten my own classroom” ( get rid of the walls that separate my students from the world that awaits them after graduation) it seems face to face real-time global collaborations via Skype in the Classroom would be ideal?

Hope this was useful for some of you… If you have any “Essential” technologies, do the right thing and unveil those gems right here and now!!  … told you I drank the kool-aid  😀

Student Led Assessments

My MYP 3 Humanities class recently finished a unit on the russian revolution. For the summative assessment, I proposed what I thought would be a fun and creative project. We would create an interactive textbook using i-author. The response was, well… unenthusiastic. The biggest complaint was that it would involve a level of technical expertise beyond the students’ current level. Fair enough. So, I asked, what do you all suggest? Here is their response:

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I had never heard of ‘Top Trump’ cards before. I’m told they are popular in Europe. Anyways, one of my students suggested they could create Top Trump cards for the most significant people and events of the russian revolution. They would include a photo,  a mini biography, and categories representing certain traits, with corresponding numbers for measure. For instance, in the category ‘Violence’ Josef Stalin would get highest marks. For the category, ‘Role in the Russian Revolution,’ Rasputin might receive average marks. You get the idea. As I hope you can see from the photo above, the final product was brilliant. The students grumbled a bit on the amount of time required to create the cards (all the formatting was done by them), though the level of engagement during the process, and the pride revealed at the final unveiling, was well worth the suffering.

On another level, this event marks a paradigm shift in my own approach to teaching. It has forced me to re-think what is meant by “student-led.” Previously I would give students several options, giving them the freedom to choose an option that best allows them to display their talents. Now, before assigning the options (which, let’s face it, is not “student-led”) I will consult the class on how they think the significant concepts discussed throughout the unit can be illustrated.

Ps. For those of you who would consider the Top Trump option. I assessed for criteria B and D, investigating and communicating. The format of the cards doesn’t exactly promote critical thinking– what does it mean to say Trotsky gets a 78 for “Unity.” That said, the students learned a lot in the process, and more importantly they continue to learn while playing the game with the cards they created.