Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Finding the Right Tool

Every year, our school runs two three-day trips. Our seventh grade students have a three-day trip in the fall to a YMCA camp in upstate New York and our 8th grade students take their senior trip in May to Niagara Falls and points north. For the past few years, I have taken upon myself to blog both trips, with the thinking that this will give parents the opportunity to hear about what we are doing and - more importantly - to see pictures of their children having a great time.

With our 8th grade trip coming up, we are making a change. Instead of blogging, we are going to report from our trip via Twitter. There are many reasons for the switch, and I feel that they are instructive for teachers and administrators who are beginning to use Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and Twitter.

1) Blogging takes time and was best done at the end of the night on a laptop. Twitter is tailor-made to be done via smartphone.

2) Regular blogging was best for providing end-of-the-day updates. Twitter will allow us to post updates from wherever we are, and can even serve in place of the phone hotline that we have used in the past to update parents about the trip and when we are arriving home (although I think that we will keep the phone system in place for at least this year - transitions have to be gradual).

3) Our blog was not part of a larger school blog, and therefore did not have a natural following. Our school's Twitter account already has a significant number of followers.

3a) Once parents decide to follow our Twitter feed in order to follow the trip, they are likely to continue following us.

4) We can still post pictures via Twitpic, so parents can still see their kids getting drenched at the Falls.

Web 2.0 tools are fun, they are flashy, and they can be cool and make you be seen as cool. But if you use the wrong tool, its utility can wear off quickly and you may waste a lot of time before you realize that you are broadcasting to no one. My advice is to try out as many of these new tools as possible, but heavily monitor how their are being received. Ask me in two weeks how the Twitter experiment worked out.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Some Nachas

It has become almost cliche in education to say things such as "children are all good at heart" or "teenagers are looking for structure and guidance" or other such statements that make the basic point that most students are looking towards their adult mentors for some direction in life, even if they sometimes exhibit this reverence by ignoring our guidance, destroying the structure that we create for them, and exhibit something other than that innate goodness. Of course, a cynic would reply that these statements are all somewhat self-serving: Exxon-Mobil believes that gas is the best type of fuel, Steve Jobs does not understand why anyone would use evil Microsoft products, and teachers believe that they are absolutely essential in the lives of students.

Well, to warm your hearts, three recent cases with my students that showed that at least some of them truly want to do what is right.

1) We have been creating a ביאור תפילה class in Middle School, which now meets twice a week in 6th and 7th grade (with more to come!). Students learn the meaning of the words, some basic laws of davening, and some of the ideas behind what they say. The class also affords them an opportunity to ask questions about davening that may be on their minds. The other day, a mother came over to me and asked, and I quote, "What have you done with my daughter?" Apparently, her daughter's davening has noticeably improved over recent months, and when she pressed her daughter as to what had happened to bring about this welcome change, the girl, after much prodding, replied "ביאור תפילה"

2) I had a meeting scheduled during a teaching period. I entered my class, taught them for a few minutes, left them with an assignment to proceed on their own, and left the class. This is a small and motivated class that I can trust to not commit random acts of vandalism, but as they are 8th graders and it is now mid-May, I was not sure whether or not I should realistically expect the work to be done. As it turns out, the meeting was delayed, so I headed back to class with about 5 minutes left in the period. As I approached the room, I heard that the class was indeed learning in exactly the way I would have wanted them to. I remained outside the door, unseen by my students, and finally entered just before the bell to applaud and commend them.

3) Most amazing of all to me. A number of students crossed a line with me the other day and I asked them to remain inside during recess the next day (basically a מדה כנגד מדה consequence - they cost me class time, so I asked them to give me back some of their own time). As it turns out, the meeting that was delayed from item #2 was rescheduled to be during recess and I was thus not around to meet these students who I had asked to remain inside. Incredibly, most of them simply took it upon themselves to remain indoors. They understood what they had done, the consequence made sense to them, and thus they felt obliged to clear their own slates. Amazing.

Do such moments happen often in schools? Yes. The trick is to be able to put aside the countless demands on our time and attention, to get past what sometimes harries us, and to realize that, yes indeed, our students do want to do right, do want to impress us, and do want us to provide them with guidance and structure.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Wonder of Voicethread

I have become a serious fan of a fantastic Web 2.0 application - Voicethread. This site allows you to post an image and then record yourself speaking about it, while at the same time utilizing a "doodle tool" to draw on the image. After you are done, you can share what you have done with others and they can also record comments and make drawings. Each person can then see what everyone else is done, and the drawings start fresh for each person, so that when I watch someone else's recording, I watch in real time what they are saying and drawing.

This application has solved a major problem that I was having, and I suspect plagues many others as well. When teaching texts, the most effective way to ensure that students learn how to read texts is to have them actually read it. However, there is simply not enough time in the day, week, or even school year for a teacher with a class of 20 or even 10 students to have every student read enough times to be effective. Once upon a time this was solved with tape recorders. Students handed in tapes to the teacher, who would listen to them (after lugging them all home) and offer comments or a grade. Then came sound files - solved the shlepping problem, but created the new issue of very large files that did not attach well.

Enter Voicethread. This not only solves the old issues, but it provides a bonus as well. On a weekly basis I now post a piece of Gemara and invite my students to read it to me online. In addition, I ask them to use the doodle tool to punctuate as they are reading. In order to see what they have done, I simply log in to Voicethread and everyone's readings are there waiting for me, along with their punctuation. This has no impact on my email inbox and I can do this from any computer anywhere that has internet. Best of all, I can do this as often as I want (although I would remind teachers that it does take time to listen to everyone, and thus I sometimes give shorter readings - enough to figure out if a student is capable of reading or not). Instead of each student reading for me 3 or 4 times a year, I can now hear everyone 15 to 20 times. And - yes, there's more - this takes no time out of class as it is all done on their own time.

I have shared this with other teachers on my faculty and they are rapidly adopting it - not only for Gemara but for Chumash and Navi as well. Our 6th grade teachers have discovered that it is a good way to figure out which kids come into Middle School with weak reading skills. Other teachers have started toying with uses for it beyond simple reading reviews. The possibilities are endless.

Oh, and best of all, it is dirt cheap. Educational accounts are available to schools at the cost of $1 per student per year. If your school won't buy it for you, splurge on it yourself - it will be worth every penny.