Monday, April 20, 2015

Science, Technology and Stewardship

When I started teaching Humanities back in 2010, the unit I always looked forward to the most was the one I called "Science and Technocracy".  I loved it because I got to show Atomic Cafe, and had the chance to lead discussions on issues around technology, a topic so relatable and accessible to the students.  The problem was, there was no rhyme or reason to the unit.  It was sort of, "Let's talk about technology because it's fun and interesting to talk about technology!"  When the unit ended, I always felt a bit of a let-down, as though something important had been missing.

Last year, I intentionally brought stewardship into the discussion for the first time, and this year, I made that the central, underlying theme of the unit: no longer would it simply be technology for technology's sake; it would be about technology with an eye toward stewardship.

I retitled the unit "Media & Power in the Modern Age" and set about planning out just how I would organize the unit in a way that would encourage deep thinking about stewardship.  

Here's what I settled on--
I introduced the unit by having the students read a selection of passages from Scripture, and do some basic thinking about the concept of stewardship before launching into the following modules:

I. Module One: Superpowers in a Nuclear Age
This module provides the historical background for all other discussions--we examined World War II with an in-depth look at the use of propaganda on all sides, as well as the decision to drop the atomic bombs, and then examined the Cold War in broad brush-strokes.

II. Module Two: The Creative Potential of Technology
This module examines all of the exciting new developments that are happening in science and technology today.  We examined assistive communication technology for people with ALS, electronic glasses for the legally blind, Maglev train technology, seawater desalinization and much, much more.  I invited the students into this by holding what I called "TecXpo 2015", a showcase of up and coming technologies, briefly researched and then advertised by the students.  Students gave enthusiastic sales pitches for such technologies as tags that can be attached to possessions (clothes, wallets, keys, etc) and tracked down electronically using a smart phone; invisibility cloaking technology; advancements in virtual reality; air-conditioned suits.

It was exciting to look together at how far technology has come over the past century, and to speculate on what might be possible within our lifetimes.

III. Module Three: The Destructive Power of Technology
We started by watching "The Atomic Cafe", which provides a dark satirical look at the misinformation and fear surrounding the development of nuclear weapons in the 1950s.  We returned to our discussion on the power of propaganda, and discussed how the documentary filmmakers exposed the government's manipulation of facts, and how they downplayed the destructive power of nuclear weapons.  We followed this up with a study and discussion of the first two chapters of "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson, examining once again the disparity between propaganda and reality, and the devastating environmental impact of DDT and other insecticides.  We will also examine issues related to cyber-bullying and technology addiction.

Before reading from Silent Spring, we filled the whiteboard
with background information about who Rachel Carson was.
IV. Module Four: Choosing Stewardship
We will wrap up this unit by returning to the concept of stewardship.  Students will submit visual projects that they have been working on for a while, in which they must make and test a hypothesis about the role of technology either at CAJ or in their family life.  Students will also debate one of several key issues related to science and technology today, including online education, social networking privacy, genetic engineering and sustainability.  We will conclude with an in-class essay that revisits the students' initial thoughts on stewardship, but deepens them based on everything we will have studied since that first reflection at the start of the unit. 

Now, this unit has some real structure and weight to it--that nagging empty feeling I had in previous years is absent this year, replaced by excitement and joy at the discussions that the students are having.  Our look at issues in science and technology is no longer haphazard and random--it is now focused and purposeful.  I'm eager to read the students' reflections when we finish the unit next week!

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Search for a Workable Late-Work Policy, PART ONE

I'm calling this PART ONE because I know I'll write a PART TWO as the school-year wraps up, to reflect on the high school-wide After School Assistance Program, of which I was a co-founder.  I guess that's the "macro" look at the late-work policy.  Today I'll offer a "micro" look at what I've done in my own classroom:

Until this year, our school policy for late assignments was fairly typical.  At least, it was strikingly similar to what my own school's late policy had been when I was a student, and to the policies in place at the schools where I student taught:
The score on a late assignment would be reduced by 10% for each day late past the due-date.  After five days, the score would stop decreasing, however beyond that point the students would only receive 50% credit if the work they submitted was of 'B' quality or higher.
I didn't think to doubt this policy in my first few years of teaching because it was so familiar.  Like the fish who doesn't know that the water around him is wet, I just assumed this was the way things were, for better or for worse.

It wasn't until my Master's course on assessment last fall that I began to see flaws in the policy.  In that course, one of my main takeaways was that assessments should reflect students' mastery of skills and understandings; that the data should reflect the student's proficiency.  I came to realize that timeliness, while important, was actually a separate skill from, say, writing.  If I took points off of a students' writing score because they had submitted their essay late, the score would fail to accurately reflect the student's true achievement or needs as writers.

Moreover, the policy simply wasn't working: at the end of the semester, it was not unusual to look down the online list of a class' grades and see the telltale red 'missing' notification next to a number of students' names.  Some students were ending the semester deep in a pit of missing or late assignments, barely scraping by or even failing.

As I was having these realizations, our high school division was discussing the role of homework in general.  Eventually, that discussion came around to the late penalty.  It was soon apparent that while there were a variety of opinions on what a better solution would be, everyone was of one mind in recognizing the brokenness of the late penalty as it was.

I won't go into the policy we came up with in this post, suffice it to say that it was a total departure from what we'd done in the past and I had the (sometimes stressful, sometimes frustrating) privilege of implementing (and fine-tuning) that policy with a fellow social studies teacher.

The question remained, however, what my personal policy would be on late work.

So, I decided to create a "timeliness" score in my gradebook.  It's not a big part of the grade--only 5% of the total--but unlike other scores, timeliness starts at an A.  I give the students each 200 points at the start of the semester.  For each late assignment, I subtract 5% from the total and then make a note of the assignment and the date that will be visible to the students and their parents under the timeliness score.
For one school-week after a due-date, the students will only receive a 5% deduction for submitting late work.  I consider this a "grace period"--the late assignment goes into the grade-book notes to make the parents aware, but the penalty is relatively small and not enough to hurt if it only happens a couple times.  However, after one week has passed, each additional day the assignment does not come in costs another 10 points from the timeliness score.  So, if a student turns in an essay a week and a half late, they would lose 35 points from their timeliness score (the initial 5, plus 30% for three days past the one week mark).
At this stage, the lost points start to sting.  I honestly cannot say that this policy has reduced the number of late assignments, but now the final scores are a more accurate reflection of what my student achieved: the fact is, I do have several excellent writers in my class who are habitually late. Under the previous system, the grades would have inaccurately shown that these students were poor writers; the new system shows the situation as it really is.
That's wonderful and I feel good about that.  But something is still missing... after all, if I'm assessing it, I had better be teaching it!  The next step will be to think through and consciously include instruction and practice in developing better time-use habits.  Perhaps I can offer points if students make and submit a work-schedule for themselves... something along those lines might be valuable, anyway, and might even impart a value for timeliness to even the most chronically late of students!

As promised, I'll talk more later about the policy we adopted as a high school division and how that has worked out.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

A Year of Games and Simulations

This has been the year of classroom simulations.  I've used simulations before, but they were either too drawn out, or half-baked.  This year, I put a lot of energy into using simulations to promote student understanding of both context and concepts.  We did four simulations together in Humanities class this year:

October: Constitutional Convention Simulation
January: Compromise of 1850 Simulation
March: Treaty of Versailles Simulation
April: Atomic Bomb Decision Simulation

In three of these cases, the main purpose of the simulation was to prepare students to do a DBQ on the historical event they had simulated.  The class average increased by nearly 10 points between the first DBQ (on the constitutional convention) and the second.  Essentially, the simulations are a study session wherein the kids familiarize themselves with the events and concepts in play by temporarily immersing themselves in the thick of whatever issue and time period happens to be the focus.

Today, we started our final simulation on the decision to drop the atomic bomb. In previous years, I had dedicated more than a week to this simulation, and it had been a multi-stage formal debate.  Last year, I realized that it was too much, for no clear purpose; moreover, the kids who were not on one side of the debate or the other played too passive a role for that stretch of time.  This year, I truncated it to a two-day in-class activity, more in line with previous class simulations.  Rather than debating formally in front of class, the teams of six would have one period to put their arguments together using a selection of primary sources I compiled for them before being set loose to convince their classmates.  The "indeterminates"--the ten students not on a team--were responsible for coming up with a list of pressing questions they needed the teams to answer, as well as any other information they felt they would need to know in order to make an informed decision.  Tomorrow, we will vote using ballots--whichever side gets more votes wins the simulation (including all who voted for the winning side).

To raise the stakes, I informed the class that all who won would receive 5 extra points on their DBQ, and that if I found them using their computers for off-task purposes, they would forfeit their shot at the 5 extra points.

And just like that the students were off to various corners of the school to research, scheme and plot their strategy to convince their undecided classmates.  Meanwhile, I lectured those ten indeterminate students on presentism, challenging them to step out of their personal views on the bomb.  We had a good 15 minute discussion about all of the important aspects of this decision and together generated a list of key questions and considerations on the board.

When the teams returned after roughly one hour of research and planning, they wasted no time in passionately presenting their case in informal conversations with the indeterminates.  I heard students citing Einstein, Szilard, the Geneva Conventions, casualty statistics from the Battle of Okinawa and the Tokyo fire-bombings, and much more as they sought to win over their classmates.  I'd given each team a warning about not bribing, threatening or trading on social dynamics beyond the simulation and they made good.  It was 50 minutes of intense and heated historically-rooted conversations.

The indeterminates all cited coming away from the conversations feeling less sure of their decision, which I told them was the natural effect of abandoning presentism and allowing their assumptions to be challenged.  Tomorrow, they will vote and we will see whether history will repeat itself or whether the indeterminates will chart a different course.

In either case, I am confident that everyone is ready to tackle our Atomic Bomb DBQ and that even without the 5 point prize to the winners, the scores will be even higher than last time.

Bonus: It was fun to hear the students still heatedly discussing this even after class had ended :)