Friday, September 23, 2016

Google Classroom: the disruptive technology we've been waiting for?

A disruptive technology is one that changes a paradigm completely.
Reading Steve Jobs' biography several weeks ago was a reminder of just how disruptive a technology the personal computer was in so many ways, fundamentally changing communication, the creation and distribution of media, and the sharing and availability of information.  Just think of all of the fields impacted by these changes!

Curiously, the classroom remains essentially untouched by this disruption, even classrooms with one-to-one devices supplied by the school or BYOT ("Bring your own technology").  Classrooms still tend to be teacher-centered and organized in much the same way that they have been for the past century.  Instead of turning the classroom on its head, computers have awkwardly settled into seemingly unbending classroom environments that are ill-equipped to use them to their full potential.

For all the disruption it has caused to so many other areas of life, the computer has failed to make a substantial difference to how education is done.

Perhaps the burden for disruption is now on those who design software and applications, since the hardware itself has not made the difference it should have.

Perhaps the disruptive technology has already arrived, and has simply not taken told yet.

Personally, I wonder if Google Classroom might be that disruptive technology.  I was struck by a revelation this morning as I worked away in my quiet spot near the window at Tully's.  My task on this cloudy Saturday morning was to virtually "drop in" on each of my students' unit one essays, which they began writing in GoogleDocs on Wednesday.  GoogleDocs are nothing new, of course, but it used to be an unmitigated hassle to get an entire class of students to consistently write essays in GoogleDocs, much less share them with me, and then keep them all organized.

However, using Google Classroom, I simply created a template for the students, and when I posted the assignment, had that template go out to each student as their own editable copy.  Additionally, Google Classroom organized the essays in an intuitive manner--no more searching through my Google Drive or my email to find a student's GoogleDoc: everything is right there in the assignment folder on Google Classroom.  The teacher's draft of the essay is not due until next Thursday, and ordinarily that would be the first time that I would be able to read through what my students had written; my first opportunity to see how their introductions turned out, how their topic sentences and transitions turned out, how their support and commentary shaped up.

This morning, I am reading through my students' work for the second time.  I read through their thesis statements on Wednesday evening and gave them feedback.  Each thesis took five minutes or less to read and comment on.  This morning, most students have their introductions completed, and again, reading and commenting is taking five minutes or less.  Some students even had their essay open while I wrote my feedback, and began to make changes right away!

On Monday, I will workshop topic sentences with the students, and then take another pass through the essays that evening to give more feedback on the topic sentences that they come up with.  I'll do the same with transitions on Tuesday and conclusions on Wednesday.  By the time the students submit their teacher's drafts on Thursday, there should be no surprises--I'll know who is behind; who is struggling with what aspects of their writing.  This will have two impacts on my reading of the completed teacher's drafts next weekend: 1) It will take me less time to read them since I'll have already been reading them in installments over the course of the preceding week, and 2) It will enable me to provide more substantive feedback about their content and logic, since I'll have already given feedback on the technical aspects of their writing and given them opportunities to revise.

Essentially, this technology is enabling me to treat revision as an ongoing process, as it should be, and not something that happens only in huge waves after each draft is submitted.

This, I think, is where there is real potential for disruption to the way we do education.  The ability provide real-time feedback in a clear and efficient way that allows students to adjust and revise immediately has major implications for how both teachers and students spend their time, both in and out of the classroom, as well as implications for how students may be able to collaborate with one another in the future.

Currently, this sort of real-time feedback is most convenient with GoogleDocs, but what if it could be extended to other types of projects and assignments as well?  I saw a glimmer of this potential earlier in the week.  Last Friday, my students submitted their rhetorical fallacy videos--projects they had completed in groups to teach their classmates about different rhetorical fallacies.  I posted the videos on Google Classroom so that the students could access them easily.  Three of the groups had made otherwise good videos, but had forgotten a key element of the prompt: explaining why each example they had shown was a fallacy.  I encouraged these groups to add in explanations and re-submit by this Wednesday.  I was pleased when all three groups opted to do so, and I simply replaced the old links on Google Classroom with the new ones that the students had sent me.

Of course, I had not caught these errors until the students submitted their videos on the due-date, and after catching the mistakes, the students had to go back to iMovie or other editing software to make their changes--platforms I did not have access to--but this would have been far more difficult to do two years ago without Google Classroom, and frankly, impossible to do five years ago.

I wonder if this is a glimpse into the future of education: ongoing projects and essays in which the teacher coaches the students through a constant stream of feedback, and perhaps even peers can coach one another, too.  This may or may not be the change that is coming, and any change is bound to take time, but I do feel, for the first time, like we may be on the brink of a technological revolution in our schools and classrooms... and that is exciting!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Standing at the Intersection

Giving my students time for silent, sustained reading has had the unintended benefit of giving me time for silent, sustained reading, too.  I do walk around the library a few times to see what students are reading and to nudge the occasional student who has dozed off, but I figured that the best use of my time would be to model a love for reading to my students.  And although my students only get one period of reading time each week, I get three :)

This week, I finished Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs.  It was a fascinating read about a fascinating, mercurial and truly innovative man, but my biggest takeaway from the book was one of the goals that Jobs carried through his career.  In his youth, Jobs was inspired by a quote he had read from Edwin Land, one of the founders of Polaroid.  Land had emphasized the importance of people who could stand at the intersection of science and the humanities, a call which resonated with the young Jobs.  Apple--and each of its products--was the result of Jobs trying to unite these two fields, and one of Jobs' desires, to his dying day, was that the products he helped to create would facilitate a closer marriage between science and the humanities.

Like Jobs, I was similarly struck when I read the quote from Edwin Land.  The culture at CAJ has shifted in recent years, with more students pursuing higher levels of math and science.  When I first started, classes like AP Chemistry and AP Calculus were populated by only a few of the most dedicated juniors and seniors, but this year, these upper-level sciences, as well as AP Biology, AP Physics and AP Statistics, are full classrooms.

More students than ever before are interested in pursuing careers in the maths and the sciences.  When I first noticed this shift starting to happen a few years ago, part of me worried--what would become of English and History?  Would I still be able to get my students to buy in even if they felt that the humanities were outside of their wheelhouse?

However, I am becoming increasingly convinced that what the world needs is engineers, doctors, chemists, physicists, statisticians, mathematicians and biologists who have a strong background in the humanities; who are able to communicate clearly and effectively in both print and in speech; who understand the interplay of history--culture, politics, and economics, and the bearing that this has had on science and technology; who have an aesthetic appreciation for the pieces of creation that they are studying.

Too often, teachers (and schools) construct a false dichotomy between different subjects, and especially science and the humanities.  What if, in reality, neither were complete without the other?

Every spring, I assign my Humanities class to read excerpts from Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.  Carson, a marine biologist, was also an avid reader and writer as a child, and this unique intersection of gifts and interests led her to research and write one of the first, and perhaps the most popular, book about ecology that has ever been published.

As I watch more and more of my students graduate and embark on undergrad studies in engineering or various other branches of science, I cannot help but wonder: have I done my part to help them see the importance of the intersection between science and the humanities?  Have I passed along my love for writing?  Have I nurtured a love for reading?

The more aware of this I become, the more I can do to cultivate this relationship, and to equip my students to stand at this oh, so important intersection.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Weekly Quotes

Two years ago, when I decided on "Becoming People of Justice" as the overarching theme for my 11th grade classes, I decided on a whim to write famous quotes about justice up in the corner of the white board, a new quote each week.  I used the website BrainyQuote and found hundreds of thought-provoking blurbs on justice and injustice.
I was, however, inconsistent in updating the quotes on a regular basis, and more than once left the same quote up for two or three weeks in a row before realizing it was time to put up a new quote.  I never once drew the students' attention to the quotes on the board; as far as I was concerned, the quotes were part of the classroom decor, and not part of the curriculum.
And like so much of my classroom decor, the quotes were little more than part of the background in my classroom.  Good insofar as they were not a distraction, but serving no functional purpose.  Last year, in an attempt to remedy this, I drew my students' attention to the quotes at the start of the year, and told them to keep an eye on the corner of the board for a new quote each week.  For my part, I stayed on top of updating the quotes, and there were indeed a few students at the end of the year who wove quotes from the board into their essays.  However, most students did not notice the quotes, and were surprised when I reminded them about the quotes as they started on their final essays in May ("You mean you've been posting a new quote each week?")

This year, I decided that I would weave the quotes into the fabric of the class as a weekly reminder of our course theme; an opportunity to regularly "check our compasses".  Each Monday, I will set aside the first 10-15 minutes of class for students to write down the quote and reflect on it in a double-entry journal.  The responses to the quote can be gut reactions; they can be paraphrases or explanations of what the quote means; they can be questions or queries; they can be agreements or disagreements; they can be applications to other settings and situations.  My hope is that this new classroom routine will expose the students to a variety of perspectives about justice from throughout time and all over the world, and encourage them to engage in the ongoing historical dialogue about what constitutes injustice and how we ought to respond.  I also hope that it will develop a classroom culture where students feel comfortable discussing and contributing--certainly on a weekly basis we will have more discussions than this, but by making this a set part of our routine, perhaps even my shy students will feel supported in joining the discussion.

So far, we're off to a good start.  Last week, for example, our quote was:
"Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe."
—Frederick Douglass

In the process of discussing the quote, the students touched on institutionalized racism, vicious and virtuous cycles, and the importance of education as a tool to fight against injustice.  These are all topics that will come up in other units during the year in greater depth, but what a great introduction!

As with my decision to set aside a class period each week for silent, sustained reading, it can feel like a sacrifice to carve out time each week that is not directly connected to our immediate unit or lesson.  However, I believe that the investment will be worthwhile.  I'm looking forward to seeing how this pays off in future discussions and essays!

Friday, September 2, 2016

My Experiment

Confession: I was not a reader when I was in school.

I always loved writing--that was my reason for enjoying my English classes, not to mention my reason for maintaining relatively high grades in my English classes.

Because I had parents who were readers, and who both had extensive vocabularies of their own, I was able to develop a vocabulary that probably made me seem like I was a reader.

But I wasn't a reader.

Sometimes I would begrudgingly read the literature assigned in class, and sometimes I would find myself profoundly moved by what I had read, as I was with To Kill a Mockingbird in my sophomore year.  And, although Mockingbird remains one of my favorite novels to this day, it was not enough to make a reader out of me.  It was not enough to keep me from watching Pride & Prejudice (the BBC version) instead of reading it, or frantically flipping through Crime & Punishment the weekend before it was due, both of which were transgressions I committed in my Senior AP English class.

I didn't become a reader until the summer after I graduated from high school.  I had avoided Harry Potter for six years, and although it had been recommended to me by at least three eager school librarians on as many occasions, I firmly refused to try it on the grounds that it was "a book for nerds" (which must have been confusing, coming from a scrawny kid with large glasses not unlike Harry's).  However, on one family car ride in which my then-11-year-old sister was listening to the audiobook of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, I found myself unable to either tune out the story, or mock it sarcastically.  Jim Dale was narrating the scene in which the Weaselys visit the Dursleys to pick up Harry during the summer holiday.  Harry's loutish cousin Dudley had just eaten a bewitched toffee which had caused his tongue to swell to a grotesque size, and I found myself laughing out loud at Rowling's vivid and clever descriptions of the chaos that followed.  My resolve shattered, I picked up Sorcerer's Stone that evening and did not resurface until I had finished Order of the Phoenix (the fifth, and at that time, the newest, book in the series) six days later.

After that, my world was never the same.  I devoured Ender's Game, then the rest of the Ender series, then the Shadow series.  I consumed the Shaara Civil War trilogy.  I laughed as I read The Princess Bride, and wept as I read The Kite Runner.  I tried Crime and Punishment again, and found myself captivated.  Emboldened, I ventured into the Brothers Karamazov and loved that, too.  I revisited Narnia and Middle Earth, Toad Hall and Mole End.  I rode along with James Herriot to farms all over the Yorkshire Dales. I tore through weighty biographies of John Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Harry S. Truman.  This past summer, I picked up a book that had been on my shelf for two years: Book Love, by Penny Kittle.

Kittle, an English teacher, emphasizes the importance of modeling and nurturing a habit for reading and a love for reading to students, particularly adolescents.  This, Kittle maintains, is crucial to empowering the students to successfully read classic texts, and to develop critical reading skills in general.  Before I had even made it halfway through the book, my mind had begun to overflow with ideas for the coming school-year.

I went through my calendar and set aside one class period each week solely for silent, sustained reading.  I made sure to clearly mark those days on the calendar so that I would not forget, and then planned the rest of my units with those dates set apart.

Then, I contacted our school librarian, and in collaboration, worked out the following plan:
On the silent, sustained reading day, the students will meet in the library and not in my classroom.  They will leave class-work behind and only bring computers or phones if they need music in order to focus, or require easy access to an electronic dictionary, with the understanding that they will be held accountable for the use of their devices, should they become a distraction.

Each week, a member of the library staff, or even other teachers, or coaches, will come in at the start of the period and share briefly about something they had read and enjoyed recently.  Of course, I will also regularly share recommendations with the students, as well.

Students may read fiction or non-fiction, sci-fi or fantasy, action or romance; they may even choose a magazine from the library's publications corner--they simply need to find something to read that will hold their attention for an entire class period, so that they can get a feel for reading for pleasure, and at the same time, build up the stamina to engage with the readings (whether speeches, essays, articles or novels) that they will encounter in English and Humanities class.  My hope is that they will develop a love for reading that will extend beyond this school-year and these days that I have set aside.

We had our first reading days this week--Wednesday for my first period English class and today for my Humanities classes.  The students seemed willing, even eager, to give the experiment a try, and for three periods this week, I enjoyed the most blissful kind of silence, as high school juniors all settled down to read something they had chosen for themselves.  After making sure that everyone had something to read, I picked up Steve Jobs' biography from the shelf and found myself absorbed, each class period ending entirely too soon.  I wound up checking out the biography, and look forward to having something to read for fun, myself.

This is my great experiment for the year, and while this is only the beginning, I'm excited and encouraged by what I saw on our first day of silent, sustained reading.  I will definitely provide updates as the year goes on about how this is working out!