Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Module 5: differentiating instruction

This module has helped me think about self-directed learners and the role of differentiation in the following ways…

This is another module I have a very personal connection with. As a child, I was the gifted, self-directed learner. School was not a challenge. Most of the time, I was bored. A few teachers, once I was beyond elementary school, took the time to give me more in-depth work. In one class, my junior year of high school,  the teacher realized I was so far beyond what the rest of the class was doing, he handed the book and a list of topics he wanted me to study. I got to choose how I presented the information to him, but essentially, I was on my own. I completed all the work for the class the first month of school   and turned in the work when it was due. The remaining time I spent in the library reading.  I am not sure if the teacher accomplished what he wanted. For me, it was a waste of my time, and knowing what I do now, certainly not a good example of differentiating instruction!

Beyond my educational experiences as a student, as a mother of six children, I have observed them navigating experiences covered in this module.

My oldest child is 17 and is considered a 2E or Twice Exceptional child. He has a very high IQ and Autism Spectrum Disorder.  This presents special challenges in the classroom. While he can do the work, he lacks organizational skills and the ability to work well in groups. He may or may not remember to turn in homework. He also has difficulty in hand writing assignments.

This puts me at a bit of an advantage in coming up with ideas for differentiating instruction for kids on the spectrum. Once my child hit high school, we had a wonderful IEP team, and have spent many hours coming up with ideas to help him achieve in a classroom setting. We've done everything from verbal and visual cues to help with behavior to essentially micromanaging projects to using a SmartPhone as make-shift adaptive technology.  Group work often proves challenging for children on the spectrum because they do not understand the group dynamic. My son in particular often comes up with overly ambitious project ideas or wishes to research obscure topics that aren't quite what the teacher is looking for. Kids like him definitely need more monitoring.

Of my other children, three of them have been tested and two identified as highly gifted. Children like this present another challenge for teachers that project based learning can help overcome. Gifted children can really go as in depth as they want. The challenge comes in how to fairly evaluate the gifted child. Do you grade the child compared to the other children in the class or based on what you know the child is capable of doing? My children attend magnet schools, which means the other children in their classes are on par with them academically, and as a result, they are all graded on level with their peers.

Still, this hasn't spared them from academic difficulty. Children who are gifted may appear lagging academically because they are not interest in the material. Or, as in my oldest son's case, become behavior problems because they are not being academically challenges. For example, in  second grade he was constantly acting up in class because he had mastered the materials. His teacher was asking him to read early reader books in class and he was reading Harry Potter at home. eac

My youngest son suffered a traumatic brain injury at 18 months old. Thankfully, only the speech portion of his brain was impacted long-term. He spent many years in speech therapy. His speech difficulties made him reluctant to speak up in class and giving oral reports were a challenge for him. It opened the door for bullying and teasing. His teachers allowed him to do his reports away from the front of the class.

My mother is hearing impaired and went through school "mainstreamed." I also have a niece who is deaf. She attended public school and before she lost all of her hearing, her teachers wore a mic and she had a receiver. Later, she had an interpreter.

All of these wonderful people in my life have given me a very unique perspective on the benefits of differentiating instruction.

Differentiating instructions for ELL students is also very important. I plan to provide my ELL students with vocabulary words in English and in their native languages. It also wouldn't hurt to have  novels available in other languages, but that probably isn't financially realistic for most school systems. My Spanish isn't strong enough to talk to parents without an interpreter, but it's enough that I can express the basics.

Module 5: Student Assessment

This module has helped me think about student-centered assessment in the following ways...

When I was a high school student, it felt like teacher grading was very arbitrary and inconsistent. If there were rubrics for grading, I don't remember ever seeing them! I was very fortunate, however, that I consistently met the teachers' standards, whatever they were.

Even in my undergraduate education, it seemed there was little rhyme or reason to the grading. I remember one professor in particular that seemed to just "give" grades. It didn't matter what I did on my assignments, my grade was always 88 percent. I had no idea what I needed to do to improve and really no idea what I was doing correct, either. This professor taught a sequence of public relations classes and my final grade was that dreaded 88 percent. 

As a prospective teacher, clear grading is very important to me precisely because I've had so many unclear expectations. 

When a student knows exactly what's expected, the student can take more control of the grade. It is a clear cause and effect situation. You put in X amount of effort, you get Y results. 

This also takes away any confusion on teacher expectations.

Making the assessment all about what the student DOES and not what the teacher WANTS is an important distinction. A good assessment will show students what they did correctly and what they need to work on.

A good rubric has very clear language. "Student uses good grammar most of the time" is very vague. What does "most of the time" really mean? A better option would be: "Student has 1-4 grammar errors." 

This information should also be given to students prior to completing the assignment. The guidelines must be clear.

I have heard many teachers say "I do not give grades, students earn them." This is what a student centered-assessment is supposed to facilitate. 

I am also very glad there are tools to help create rubrics. One teacher I spoke with recently said he hated making rubrics because they took so much time. But, this teacher isn't very tech savvy and didn't know about websites like Rubistar or iRubric or Rubrics4Teachers.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Module 4: Technology in the classroom

How can technology be used most effectively to support and assess student learning?

Using technology in the classroom goes beyond showing a power Point Presentation or a video on the Smart Board. Technology is an incredible tool for expanding the classroom, reaching different types of learners, and giving students opportunities to learn real world skills.

We are in the information age. The internet brings the world in to classrooms and homes. Live webcams allow students to watch things as they actually happen. Webcams are incredibly popular, even outside of schools. Video conferencing in the classroom allows students to connect with professionals and speakers any where in the world. Students don't just have to find an article about a person or topic, they can actually ask the question themselves. This personal connection to learning is key in keeping students engaged in the process. I've managed to make many interesting contacts (authors, advocates, media personalities, journalists)  via my time in social media and I look forward to inviting them to "speak" to my students via Skype.

Students learn in different ways. Technology offers opportunities for all different types of learners to develop their strengths. Putting students in groups to create a large project can allow them to play to their strengths and gain confidence.

One of my favorite new tech tools for the classroom is the use of QR codes. QR codes, or quick response codes, are those pixelated squares popping up everywhere. On the most practical level, teachers can create QR codes with their contact information for parents and students to scan. Students can also scan codes to be placed in to groups or scan codes to receive different versions of tests. Codes can direct students wherever the teacher wants, from scavenger hunts where students must answer questions to find the next code to allowing students to put the codes on their projects linking classmates and parents to more information or a digital slide show.

When it comes to supporting student learning, QR codes can point students exactly in the right direction when they need help. For example, students stuck on a math problem can scan a QR code and find a tutorial on how to solve that type of problem. Or it can direct students to a video or other information about a topic. It allows the students to be more self directed and take responsibility for the learning process.

Students today are much more tech savvy than their parents. They are familiar and comfortable with using technology to find answers and share what they know. It is important for teachers to recognize this shift in communication and use it to prepare students for the real world. While research papers show students one way to present information, it's not the only way. Research papers  show students' knowledge but they do not necessarily show students have learned what to do with that information. Technology can be used to apply the information in real, practical and meaningful ways. When a student learns about persuasion, it isn't enough to learn pathos, ethos and logos. Students need to be able to identify it in their lives. It is also important to see that they have the power to persuade. Technology can allow them to create their own persuasive argument in terms they understand: viral video, meme, vine, or other social media campaign.

Letting students use technology in the classroom is more in depth than just letting the students create something on the computer. It involves planning, time management and collaboration skills. It is not just spitting information back out with a pretty background. It requires much more thinking and work on the part of the student. However, if they are engaged and connected to the process, they are less likely to feel like it is work. It also allows for much more cross discipline learning, which leads to more collaboration among teachers, and for students it allows for making more connections in learning.

Some schools are slow to make changes and it can be frustrating to parents. For example, my daughter just finished Alabama history. For her project, she had to create a massive binder of information, including  field trips and journal entries. It took an incredibly long time and it was something she needed parental supervision and assistance to complete. I don't want to think how many trees were killed in the process, but the final project was nearing 100 pages. I do not believe this was an effective way to present the information she learned. She was not allowed to use technology at all on the project.

Contrast this to another of my children at another school for the same project. It was done as a Power Point presentation. Students still went on as many field trips and kept a journal, but it was done in class using technology, letting the students learn practical 21st century skills.

This example illustrates how technology can be used within the same standards, within the same district and students still meet the same goals, yet with vastly different projects a the end. You can imagine which student had the happier experience with the project.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Module 2: Content Framing Questions

This module has helped me think about using standards, CFQs, or formative assessment in the following ways…

This week's module, for me, was all about the process of bringing standards and CFQs together.

I spent quite a bit of time pondering this module because I didn't really understand how CFQs work in an English classroom. I watched the videos and lesson modules several times before I was finally able to grasp the very basics of what to do. This was extremely frustrating for me since I usually understand ideas the first time around.

The standards for English are very different than the standards for other core subjects. Other subjects have specific concepts students must master. For example, one of Alabama's Biology Standards is:

2.) Describe cell processes necessary for achieving homeostasis, including active and passive transport, osmosis, diffusion, exocytosis, and endocytosis.

•  Identifying functions of carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, and nucleic acids in cellular activities
•  Comparing the reaction of plant and animal cells in isotonic, hypotonic, and hypertonic solutions
•  Explaining how surface area, cell size, temperature, light, and pH affect cellular activities
•  Applying the concept of fluid pressure to biological systems
Examples: blood pressure, turgor pressure, bends, strokes

Compare that to one of Alabama's English Standards for grade 10:

30.) Write routinely over extended time frames, including time for research, reflection, and revision, and shorter time frames such as a single sitting or a day or two for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences. [W.9-10.10]

The standards for English are much broader and are skills based rather than content based. This can pose a challenge for an education student learning to write CFQs. A great overall Essential Question for biology is "How does life happen?" For English, it's more about choosing an overall theme for the year and selecting materials related to that theme. Perhaps it's just semantics in choosing to call it a Essential Question versus a Theme.

The role playing between Abe and Maria last week stressed projects based on standards and moving from there. I got stuck on choosing standards and trying to develop my Essential Questions from that. Once I backed away from that approach and chose a "Big Idea Word," the process was less bumpy. I also took a look at Project Designs Unit Plan Indeso I could see some of the questions used in an English/Language Arts classroom. I bounced ideas off another student in the class and friends who teach English to make sure I was on the right track. In addition to all of this, I searched the web to find examples of CFQs in the English classroom and PBL lesson plans to see the big questions those teachers were asking. Basically, I used the 21st Century Skills we need to use in the classroom to help me understand the concepts better.

In the end, I chose a novel unit on the book "Ender's Game" because it fit in with the standards. I was afraid that I was doing this wrong, but I clicked on the icon at the end of Activity 2, Step 2 and discovered this gem: Choosing to write Curriculum-Framing Questions by beginning with big ideas or content-specific ideas is a personal preference.

All of my worrying about doing it right or wrong was for nothing! The only thing that mattered was I developed a broad essential question, several unit questions and specific content questions.

I definitely prefer working from the middle out. I am task oriented, but I need to see the big picture to know where I'm going. Recognizing this about myself will be an asset as I develop lessons. I know I need to choose material first, then build from there. As difficult as it to choose an overarching Essential Question for English based solely on the standards, once a theme is chosen, finding materials to fit the theme and developing questions from there is much easier. 

The biggest difficulty after choosing an Essential Question for a novel unit, is narrowing down the Unit Questions. Books typically have so many themes, and a good book, like "Ender's Game" tackles issues ranging from the rights of children to war and even to the rights of the individual versus the needs of society.  The specific Content Questions come easily enough through vocabulary words, settings, and characters. 

The standards tie directly in to how is the novel unit is handled in the classroom. Naturally, students will read the book, but what they do with that information is where the standards come in to play. Once those standards are aligned with 21st Century Skills, the projects begin to take shape. 

For my "Ender's Game" Novel Unit, we begin with the overall Essential Question: Can one person impact society?  Unit Questions address the themes relating to choices individuals make, the power individuals have, and individual responsibilities. The Content Questions for units in an English classroom, while specific, may also lead to discussions as to the intent of the author in choosing those particular events or that name for a character.

These are important ideas for the middle and upper grades. While they may understand the influence they have on those immediately around them, they may not feel they have an overall impact or importance to society. Students can further explore how small acts can create a ripple effect in communities and still have an important impact on their communities. This is where the real world meets the literary world and the students are able to find a personal connection to the content.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Module 1 Reflection

This module has made me think about my role as an instructional designer in the following ways....

First, considering myself as an instructional designer rather than a teacher is an important paradigm shift. A teacher is one who instructs and passes on knowledge. An instructional designer, however, suggestions someone who has a responsibility for creating learning opportunities. The educator is no longer one who just regurgitates information to the students who then spit it back out on tests. 

This affords the students and the teachers, the opportunity to each take a more active role in the experience. Much has been said about being active listeners and active learners, but the trend now appears to being more active teachers. Teaching is not a passive experience. The old saying, "Give a man a fish and feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime" applies to this new way to look at instructional design versus traditional teaching. Traditional teaching lessons gives students information. Designing instruction based around student directed and student led experiences, puts the proverbial fishing pole in to their hands, allowing them to really learn.

As a child, I had the opportunity to attend  Montessori schools. The ideas behind this method of education are much more in line with the Project Based Learning trends happening in public schools. Students will make gains when they feel connected to a topic and are more likely to strive towards mastery of the skills.

“Superficial coverage of all topics in a subject area must be replaced with in-depth coverage of fewer topics that allows key concepts in that discipline to be understood.…There must be a sufficient number of cases of in-depth study to allow students to grasp the defining concepts in specific domains within a discipline” (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000, p. 20).

These changes also make me see my role as an instructional designer more inline with  why I find homeschooling so appealing. One of the criticisms of public schools I often hear from my homeschooling friends is that students are expected to sit at desks for unreasonable amounts of time, listen to a teacher drone on, and are not typically allowed to get involved in the process. Homeschoolers frequently allow their children to participate in projects to meet educational goals, rather than use of textbooks. In-depth exploration of topics and long term project learning is encouraged.

An instructional designer thinks outside the box and inside the box in trying to meet the needs of students. Traditional teaching methods have a place. They are used to build the foundations.

For example, as a substitute teacher, I had the opportunity to spend six weeks in an elementary school Spanish class, teaching grades K-5. The lesson plans I were given were very vague, clearly intended for the person who created them and not a long term substitute. When it came time to teach "El Cuerpo" or "The Body", I began with worksheets for students to keep for reference. Next, I taught several songs and games. Throughout the process, I also reinforced previous skills such as numbers and colors. The final step was for the students to pull all of these skills together in small groups to create their own monster or "Mi Monstruo."

There were specific guidelines of what the students needed to include: 
  • number of body parts
  • name
  • origin
  • likes 
  • age
Finally, the students were asked to present their creations to the class, speaking in Spanish. They were also asked questions in Spanish. All of this was done with meeting not only the instructional goal of learning the body parts, but being able to converse and answer basic questions such as "How many" and "What color."

The feedback was extremely positive from the students and the parents.

This was my first experience in creating anything for a classroom. I had a small understanding that "[u]nit planning is not linear; it always involves circling back to previous steps to ensure alignment among components of your unit."

This first module didn't leave me completely with positive feelings on my role in designing instruction. It also left me with many questions and concerns. For example, how does this all work together with Common Core? District imposed Pacing Guides? Teaching AP classes where certain topics have to be taught to a test? 

My role as an "instructional designer" appears to be at odds with the traditional classroom setting and possibly the new educational standards. The challenge isn't so much about implementing these fantastic lessons and creative projects in the classroom, but how do you integrate it with the new standards and still meet pacing guides.

I am also left with myriad questions. How can you maintain order with students whose coping method is to act out when they don't understand the changes that are happening? How can you manage groups when the majority of your students are at risk or you do not have a range of abilities in the classroom? I can design fantastic lessons, but without students who are engaged in the process how will the lesson succeed? How can children who can't manage themselves in a traditional classroom be expected to manage themselves when working with others? How do you teach children to work with others once they've reached the high school level?