Snow Day… Can’t Stop Digital Learning Day

Today is Digital Learning Day sponsored by the Vermont Agency of Education; it’s also a snow day. Perhaps snowing on the parade of the masterminds working to promote technology in the 21st century classroom, but I say ‘Nay!’

The beautiful thing about technology is it connects teachers and students even when not in the same place. Even as I write this is at 6:50am (physically impossible to sleep in really),  I have already created a tutorial using an iPad app called ShowMe, the tutorial will to aid my students in completing a Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium homework assignment due tomorrow, since I won’t see them for questions today. Check it out: http://www.showme.com/sh/?h=JVCs1Ca.

But, since I won’t be able to document and share how technology would have been used as a learning tool in my classroom today; I figured I would share some of my favorite examples from earlier in the year:

1. Stop Motion Studio: A free iPad, iPhone app (as well as other smartphone and tablet versions I believe) that allows you to easily create stop motion productions by taking a series of images in the app, adjust the length of time for each image, as well as the ability to add voice over to narrate the images. Here’s an example from an AP Biology class teaching about G-Protein coupled receptors.

 

2. Puppet Pals: Free or paid versions, more tool options with paid version. This app lets students create a character (their puppet) that they can superimpose their face onto. Then as they manipulate and move around their puppet they can record the movements they are doing with the puppet while simultaneously narrating with a script.

 

3. iMovie: iMovie can be purchased both in desktop/laptop versions as well as on an iPad. Effects are slightly more limited on the iPad; however, video, images and audio can easily be imported from the camera roll and put into a well crafted video. This allows students to create a well crafted video product in a very short amount of time. Students in this example created a video of still shots of their earthquake project to share before doing a physical demonstration with their model. After their presentation, which they recorded, it was quick and easy for them to insert the recorded video of their model in action to support their video.

 

4. Garage Band: A fairly straight forward user interface allows for mixing tracks prerecorded with other devices or, recording directly from the tablet or computer being used. This allows for songs, vocal and instrumental to be recorded separately and then put together into on song. Using iPhones students recorded both vocals and acoustic guitar tracks on the voice memo option. These audio files were then emailed to a computer that edited to two tracks and aligned them to make the final songs. This song was then imported to iMovie serving as the music for the video the class made in parallel to the song, creating this final music video product:

 

The most important idea to remember when incorporating digital learning into the classroom is patience. Technology is an amazing tool, but their is certainly always going to be hiccups along the way. Be patient, be flexible and use our students as resources. They are great technology problem solves and should be part of the team as we work to blend technology and our classrooms. It is about their learning after all.

Even on a snow day, digital learning still can happen!

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Let them struggle, so they can learn.

Let me begin by saying 100% believe that all students are different. Each and every student has a variety of strengths and weaknesses as unique as their genetic sequence.

As educators our job is to provide instruction in a variety of ways to play to our students strengths, while also improving upon their weaknesses. This is done in countless ways starting with differentiated instruction, accommodations determined necessary by IEP and 504 teams, or something as simple as spending a few extra minutes at the end of class double checking a student wrote down his/ her homework. Recognizing these differences and solving the puzzle of how to connect with, and help each student learn are crucial aspects of the educational process.

The most important part of learning is learning how to learn. Developing critical thinking, judgement, and problem solving skills only comes through practice. These types of skills do not come easy, and they certainly do not spontaneously develop. They are learned by struggling, getting frustrated, confused until you have your “ah ha!” moment.

A fear I have at times as I see students working with assistants or tutors as part of their accommodations is that they no longer are given the opportunity to surpass a roadblock and celebrate an ah ha. Instead they’ve been conditioned to give up when they get stuck and get the answer given to them “help”.

This is not our students’ fault, Pavlov would proud of what we’ve accomplished. When a paragraph of text isn’t understood, instead of rereading it a few times, practicing reading comprehension, students can easily find someone to tell them what they need to write, as long as they look frustrated or confused enough.(who’s been conditioned anyway?) Oftentimes, when a problem gets tough the towel is thrown and the battle to solve it is over; instead someone around can “help” me solve it.

The best successes are those that come from a hard fight. In the end students are more proud of an accomplishment they worked for than of anything that is simply handed to them, even if it was hard,

We need to rethink how we support students. Re-train the staff that provide the support. Student should be allowed to struggle, get frustrated with hard work. Our role should be to facilitate or prompt how to get over a hurdle. It should not be to carry them over the hurdle, or put them on a track without hurdle all together, for fear they won’t clear it.

A student who difficulty with reading comprehension will never develop those skills if she never has to grapple with informational text. If she is simply told what to write based on the ability of someone else to read and understand the text for her she will not grow.

This is a monumental system wide change, but equally in magnitude is its importance. The first step starts at home. My goal for next year is to help more directly model, for those assistants I work with, how to facilitate problem solving without solving the problem.

Simply Inspired: LuminAID

I believe strongly in the ideas behind conservation biology, and the efforts of so many dedicated individuals and groups to protect the amazing biodiversity of the natural world we live in.

This internal passion is one of the most important messages I try to instill in my students. They can make a difference in the world around them. We do this by increasing their awareness of some of the ecological threats we are facing today, and examining what we can do to improve the state of the natural world. Something so important, because honestly we are taking it for granted.

Last Wednesday while reading articles from TreeHugger.com, a site that compiles informational content related to the environment, conservation, and technology, I stumbled upon a product that ignited excitement and inspired me. Its pure simplicity paired with innovation that has huge possibilities to make the world a better place for so many.

© LuminAID

The product is called LuminAID. Put as simply as it is elegant: it is an inflatable solar light. A water proof pouch that contains a solar panel, rechargeable battery and LED light. The video below describes the LuminAID.

The LuminAID inspires me, catches my imagination, and gives me hope for the future of our planet. Yet, I can’t  quite put my finger on exactly what aspect of the LuminAID I find so magnificent.

Could it be its simple, yet practical and innovative design. A small, foldable design that can be used in so many ways. This simple, inexpensive product can provide light to disaster victims, to people in developing nations without reliable electricity, or even to me as I sit at home on a Vermont winter night, when the power is out.

Or could it be the the “Give Light, Get Light” business motto they have taken. For each LuminAID light someone buys, they will then give a LuminAID to the community projects they are working on around the world. An approach that motivates giving.

Or is it the implications for the planet.  This simple product could reduce the use of many make-shift lamps and lanters in those same developing or disaster struck areas. Helping to cut down on toxins harmful to both people’s respiratory systems, but also the environment.

The LuminAID isn’t going to change national energy production, and all the detrimental ecological problems aligned with it. However, it is innovation moving in the right direction. Change starts at the personal level. If we are going to change how a nation produces energy, first we have the change how the individual thinks about energy. Making people aware of the successful use of renewable energy, like solar, and increasing its prevalence in our U.S. culture, and other cultures around the world, is the first step in shifting the energy paradigm.

LuminAID has done this for me. It inspired me to share its informational video with all my classes, about 80 students, and some even said ‘cool’ out loud. Perhaps they will share it with their friends or family. It has inspired me to write this post. It has inspired me to “give light, get light.”

I hope you are inspired to get more information or give light yourself. Their goal is sell 10,000 dollars world of LuminAID, but I think we can do better than that. Our planet deserves it.

What’s Wrong with NECAP Testing

For those of you unfamiliar with NECAP testing, it is the New England Common Assessment Program. A standardized test that aims to assess student proficiency in reading, writing, math and science in Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Maine. It is scored on a scale of 1-4 based on proficiency at meeting grade level expectations. 4 being proficient with distinction, 3 being proficient, 2 is partially proficient and finally a 1 is substantially below proficient.

Being a science teacher I have only worked with, and experienced the NECAP Science test. So, the following is based on my experiences proctoring and analyzing data collected from the NECAP Science exam.

There are 4 main problems I have with the NECAP test:

1. The Breadth is too Wide

The exam is taken by 8th graders and again as 11th graders. This means that in 11th grade students are taking a science test based on 3 years of content. In my school the average student would have taken Physical and Earth science , Biology, and Chemistry in 9th, 10th and 11th grades, respectfully.

That’s a whole lot of science to expect students to remember, especially given that the questions do not focus on the big, over-arching ideas from those branches of science. Instead, they focus on  specific scientific factoids that you remember or your don’t. Basing student proficiency in science on 60 or so questions from 3 years of content is ludicrous, and unfair to our students.

From my own experience flipping through the exam last year there were several chemistry questions about reactions and chemical bonding that I’m not sure I would have answered correctly, even with extensive post-high school scientific study.

The test covers too much content and the focus is too specific. It’s like trying to understand the whole universe with one telescope.

2. Little Depth of Knowledge

As I previously mentioned the majority of the test focuses on the ability to recall a specific fact about a topic, with a huge library of possible scientific topics to choose from. This means that students who are good at recall and can pull out those facts, filed away long ago, will do great; however, students that are not as successful at remembering just where the equation for photosynthesis got stored in their brain 1.5 years ago will not be quite so successful.

Beyond this, the test does little to assess higher order thinking, like hypothesizing, designing experiments and conducting them, or and making judgements and evaluating the validity of that hypothesis. Processes from levels 5 and 6 of Bloom’s Taxonomy, creating and evaluating. Instead the test focuses on remembering, describing, and solving, levels 1-3.

This is frustrating because science is about using the scientific method, inquiry, to learn and solve problems. In my classroom especially, I put a strong focus into teaching students how to think scientifically. Learning how to develop a hypothesis and then design and conduct an experiment. From there we can then analyze the results of that experiment and make judgements on the validity of our hypothesis by drawing conclusions. All higher order thinking skills, levels 5 and 6 according to Bloom, and none are adequately assessed by NECAP.

I may not have remembered the answer to a NECAP question about chemistry, even as a science teacher, but I’ll tell you, I’ve learned the skills to find out the correct answer. Which skills are more important to have? Which skills are more important to assess in our students?

3. There is No Motivation

NECAP test scores have no impact on students’ ability to obtain course credit, graduate, go to college or get a job. There is no motivation. No reward for putting your best effort in and no punishment for making doodles all over the test instead of answering the questions.

So, how can we expect to get students best efforts and accurate results when we demand that they spend three days, taking 2-4 hours of standardized tests a day, without any way of showing them that we value their time and best effort because the nature of the test has no value in their life.

When you have parents telling students “not to worry about the tests”, “don’t work too hard”, they “don’t matter to you” (all things student have told me) then why would we expect a full effort. Yes, there are those students that are intrinsically motivated to excel at all things they are exposed; however, this in not all of our students. If we want to get a the best effort from students we have to motivate them to do so, just like any other aspect of life.

4. It is Standardized.

The problem I have will all standardized tests is that students don’t have standardized brains. I know that each and every one of my students comes from a different home life, school back ground, support system, even genetic make-up (I am a Biologist after all). So, they are not going to learn in a standardized way. As a result I don’t teach each student the same, I don’t interact with all students in the same way, and I especially don’t assess students’ learning in the same manner.

So, why then, if all students learn differently, would we base the progress of student learning and school performance on one type of assessment. We should not.

We need an alternative.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that schools and teachers should be held accountable for student learning; however, NECAP is not the right tool. For the reasons outlined above I believe NECAP does not present an adequate portrayal of student learning and does not present adequate evidence of the hard work, time, and dedication I know that I put into teaching my students every day, and assume my colleagues do as well.

Though, as a Vermonter and Red Sox fan, a piece of me dies saying this: perharps we should take a page out of New York’s book and look at their Regents Exams. From what I understand, they are standardized yearly exams that specifically test the  content of the course the student was enrolled in that year. For instance taking a Biology Regents Exam are you take Biology (brilliant!). The results of which are directly connected to achieving a regents diploma at graduation. Both narrowing the breadth of the exam and attaching student ownership to the results.

This still is not perfect though. It would still be a standardized test, and would most likely rely on assessing lower order thinking, testing primarily recall ability. Though it would take out a few strong variables. But do we really need all students to pass the same test? Does that test what they have actually learned and taken away from a class?

Perhaps the science fairs that so many schools put on should be connected to assessing student learning in science. Having a nationally or regionally standardize form for assessing students ability to develop, test, and evaluate hypotheses. This would allow for the assessment of recall and basic facts in the background information, while also assessing higher order thinking. This form of assessment would also be broad and open-ended enough that students with a variety of cognitive, motor and communication abilities could perform the task in a differentiated manner. I think I’m on to something! More on this later.

Whatever the tool is, we need to find a new one. A way to assess students and to judge the success of our schools other than a standardized test that sets all but a small window of students up for failure from the start. I don’t have the solution, but I’m working on it.

We Are Vermont Strong!

This next post is not on my normal topic of education and teachering; however, it is just as important and close to my heart.

In the wake of the receding flood water caused by Irene’s rain, Vermont is left with a lot of rebuilding. It makes me proud to be a Vermonter to see our communities coming together to support one another. From lend a helping hand, a warm meal, hot showers, and even a bed to sleep in, Vermonters are doing exactly what I would expect them to do having live in this state all my life.

I cannot express my gratitude enough to all of the electric and road crews who are working long hours on hot days to get power and access back to our homes! You are appreciated so much! Thank you so much!

I put together the short video above to show some of the damage around Bridgewater Corners VT, express my gratitude, as well as provide hope. We will rebuild!

We Are Vermont Strong!