Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Teaching Students to Summarize via Twitter

One of the problems that I have encountered when asking students to work independently is that I need to
create some system of accountability.  In my Project-Based Learning (PBL) units, I often provide my students with many sources and options to learn, and I ask each working group to create a Google site as a hub for their running notes.  This allows me to constantly check in on their work and to therefore monitor how they are progressing, issues that they may be having, and so on.

However, I have often been bothered by the fact that many students, and we are talking about honors students here, are often not good at summarizing material.  Very often, I open a Google site to find verse-by-verse translation/explanation of material where a couple of well-thought-out sentences would have sufficed.  It reached a point where some students were so focused on the verse that they were reading that they lost sight of the greater context, often asking me questions whose answers were contained in the previous paragraph.

Today I finally decided to do something about this.  Rather than have my students walk into class, form into their regular work groups, and fan out across the building working on their assignments, I had everyone come into class together and sit down with an ipad (we use an ipad cart in my class) and a text.  Each student was assigned one section (one parashat ha-shavua) and told that they were to read five verses and then boil all of that down to one tweet.  Not one sentence - one, little, 140-character tweet.  They were to do the same for the next five verses, and the five after that, and the five after that (and five more tweets for further practice tonight).

Aware of the fact that my students tend not to use Twitter, and that there are likely parents that do not want their children to do so, I created a Twitter account for our class (@7AChumash) and had everyone log in and post through that account.  Blessedly, a Twitter account can be signed in on multiple devices at once and thus the entire class could engage in this activity at the same time.  You can see some of their results by clicking on the link above.

All in all, the students enjoyed this activity and benefited greatly from it.  For some, the challenge was how to shrink their tweets down by a few characters, and I explained that text language, abbreviations, and misspellings were par for the course.  For almost all of them, the process of determining which information was essential and which was less-important detail was a valuable exercise in the fine art of summarizing.  Hopefully, this will carry over into their daily research and their notes will become more focused while simultaneously becoming shorter.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Jedcamp Model - A Disruptive Innovation?

One of the interesting aftershocks of this past Sunday's JedcampNJNY has been how much people have been talking the event, specifically people who did NOT attend.  I  have heard that many teachers who were unable to attend have been speaking with those who did make it, and they wish that they could have cleared their schedules.  Those who attended left the conference so energized from their experience that they have shared accounts of their day with colleagues and hopefully future local Jedcamps will benefit from an expand pool of participants.

Beyond that, there has been much talk in other communities about planning future Jedcamps.  One outgrowth of keeping an active Twitter feed (#jedcampnjny) running throughout the conference was that educators from California to Israel were able to follow what was happening in Paramus, NJ, and we were able to follow their plans to create Jedcamps in their local areas.  I had a late night (for me) web conference the other night with several fantastic educators from up and down the west coast, sharing my experiences as a conference organizer and helping them to crystallize in their minds what it would take to have a Jedcamp out there.  A similar chat is being planned over the next few days with educators in the Baltimore area.  Clearly, the idea of an unconference - the ease of planning, the minimal expenses, the absence of paid "experts", and the freedom for any stakeholder of education to play a leading role or at least a significant role in an important discussion - is a powerful idea and one that people want to replicate.

Perhaps most eye-opening to me has been the reaction from people and organizations who are often the ones planning more traditional conferences.  Ken Gordon, the social media point man for PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) posted on his Facebook feed this morning a link to a recent article about JedcampNJNY, accompanied by the question "Could the unconference be the future of the conference?"  I have received emails in the past few days from other individuals from several organizations who want to know more about our experiences in planning and pulling off Jedcamp, perhaps with an eye towards replicating the model to supplement or to begin to replace the traditional, more expensive, more labor-intensive approach to professional conferences.

This has caused me to reflect a bit about two aspects of Jedcamp that differ from traditional conferences.  The first is the local versus national aspect.  In this regard, I think that there is still a place for larger conferences.  Whether it is ISTE or ASCD or NAJDS, there is no question that national or international conferences provide the opportunity for people from vastly separated regions to come together for several days to meet, brainstorm, and engage one another in a manner that even the best webconferencing tools cannot match.  I have written before about how I effectively see my online networks as a basis for forming real, face-to-face networks with people, and live conferences provide the opportunities to do just that.  While many people in my networks are local and will turn up at a local event, I am blessed to have formed strong connections with people across the country and I rely on the national conferences to provide me with the chance to see and speak with them in more than 140 characters at a time.

The second aspect is the lack of experts.  True, some traditional conferences are stacked with genuine experts, by which I mean the people who have written the books and done the research and tested and refined the various methods for teaching or supervising or leading.  The ASCD conference is fairly good at this, as their program consistently reads like their book catalogue.  However, many other conferences offer a combination of famous keynote speakers combined with a lot of "local talent".  By local talent I am referring to wonderful educators who have been asked to present a session about something that they are doing in their classroom or their school.  Obviously, these individuals (and I have been one of them) are happy to present for free (exposure!), but they are also clearly the undercard to the few big names who attend the conference.

The Edcamp/Jedcamp model flips this approach.  While I have heard many wonderful keynote speakers, I note two things about them: (1) While their words are inspiring, their speeches do not offer that many concrete suggestions (see this post from Richard Byrne on this point) and (2) they have generally written their main ideas in a book or have shared them in a TED talk or have somehow made their inspiration available in a way that I do not have to spend an hour of a professional development day listening to them.  Not that I do not enjoy being entertained, but how much does that entertainment cost?

Instead, the Jedcamp model elevates the "local talent", but it makes everyone the local talent.  No longer is there a collection of teachers and administrators who have been selected to make a presentation, thus resulting in them having to spend untold hours perfecting their slideshows and delivery.  Instead, every camp attendee can appoint him or herself to get the conversation started, with the understanding that everyone who attends a session can have something to contribute to the discussion, and that that might produce a much richer experience than a slick (or not-so-slick) powerpoint presentation.

Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen has written extensively about what he calls "disruptive innovations", those innovations to a field that shake the very model of how business is done, ultimately changing the field and leaving behind those who still try to work the old approach (think about the decline of the video rental store in the face of Netflix).  While a Jedcamp still maintains many of the trappings of the traditional conference model, it possesses enough inherent innovations to possibly provide a new and more effective and  - dare I suggest? - more enjoyable way to provide professional development.

Monday, April 22, 2013

At Long Last - JedcampNJNY!

(My initial thoughts after JedcampNJNY)

The daily grind in the world of education is not an easy one.  Too much time spent on technical details, not always enough time spent giving each student the attention that he deserves.  Too much effort spent with parents upset that their child got a B+ and not an A-, and not enough effort spent collaborating with those parents on how to bring out the best in that child.  Too many professional development hours spent listening to "gurus" who dazzle on stage but do not stick around to follow up, too few professional development hours spent having heartfelt and meaningful discussions among practitioners about the struggles that they face every day and ideas for growing as professionals.

JedcampNJNY, held today at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, NJ,  provided an escape from that daily grind, and provided not only an amazing experience for those who were involved, but also an amazing snapshot of the fantastic educators that are currently working within the field of Jewish education.

I already described the basics of Jedcamp in this post back in February when we first announced that this "unconference" would take place.  But that basic outline could not possibly capture the energy that kept JedcampNJNY humming for six hours today.  That's right - over 70 educators gave up a significant part of a beautiful Sunday in April to attend a conference about, um, wait - what was this conference about?

Anything.  That's right, anything at all.  When the day began at 9am, the session board was blank.  By about 9:15, almost all of the twenty session slots had been claimed by people ready to lead discussions or make presentations, and some of the early feedback has been that we should have opened up ANOTHER room so that more people could present.  What dedication!  Here is a conference where people are upset that they could not present (and no one was getting paid to present!)!

Of course, people were upset for good reason.  Who would not want to present to a room of similarly devoted and motivated educators, all of whom were ready to contribute their thoughts, ideas, and experiences, and all of whom were ready and willing to challenge their own thinking to help themselves grow as educators?  We had teachers in their first five years of teaching sitting with thirty year veterans, teachers with administrators, formal educators with people from NCSY and the camp world - and all that mattered was that you brought your open mind and your willingness to contribute.

Going into the conference, one of our many concerns was that this would turn into an edtech conference - a concern since we knew that there were many attendees who were not looking for that type of confab.  Not to worry.  While there was an ample supply of tech-related sessions, other sessions ran the gamut from psychology to teacher/administration relationships to using motion in the classroom to the benefits of  humor (a session led by New York's funniest Rabbi).  Throughout the day, people were emerging from sessions wishing that the sessions could have continued, and people were generally surprised and disappointed that the 45 minutes allotted to each session had run out so quickly.  How often does that happen in a professional conference?

And the excitement and energy continued beyond the walls of Yavneh.  While we have not yet worked out a way to bring people in via skype to a Jedcamp, while we were meeting, Twitter was abuzz with planning for upcoming Jedcamps in Maryland and Los Angeles in the coming months.  People at Jedcamp were asking how they can be involved in the next one, and we may very well have to separate the NJ and the NY next time to accommodate the anticipated larger crowds once word of the success of today really begins to spread.  Blogposts of today's action have already gone up (here, here, here, and here) and more are sure to follow.

Hopefully, the excitement generated by today's unconference will have two major effects:

  1. The attendees will bring some of what they learned back to their classrooms and their colleagues.
  2. Future Jedcamps, both locally and across the globe, will take form, allowing other educators to engage in these productive conversations while widening their circles of who they consider to be their colleagues.
For those of you who were there today, a heartfelt thank you for making it amazing.  For those of you who have yet to attend a Jedcamp - what are you waiting for?  Organize one in your community today.  You'll be glad that you did.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Am I a PBL Cheat?

My students (yes, the same ones who did this project) began a new PBL unit today, but with a twist.  The unit focuses on Devarim Perek 15 (Deuteronomy Chapter 15) and related sections, which basically outline the Torah's economic system - gifts to Priests, Levites, and the poor; the seven-year cycle whereby the land rests (shemitta) and loans are forgiven; the 50 year cycle (yovel) whereby slaves go free and land is returned to its original owner; and the laws of Jewish and non-Jewish slavery.  The overall goals of the unit are for my students to connect these laws together and envision how a Jew living under those laws would balance their checkbook, as it were.

However, in lieu of them creating a final project, I am creating the project.  Obviously feeling that I have way too much free time on my hands, I am working to create more or less The Game of Life based on all of these laws.  When the unit is complete, the students will have to play the game and their success will be based on how well they learned the material.

I will admit up front that there is still a lot of work to do.  I am not completely sure how the game will work, and I am not completely sure how I will give them a grade.  But all of those are secondary considerations as far as this post is concerned.  My question right now is whether or not I am cheating on the principles of Project Based learning?  Generally, the point of PBL is for students to use their final project as a driving force to guide their learning.  As they come closer and closer to creating the project, their visions of the project interact with their learning process to make their path of inquiry fuller and more genuine.

However, I have now removed that final goal from their sights.  They no longer can envision the final product, since the product will not be something they create but rather how well they are prepared to face the world - or at least the imagined world that I create.  In a sense, they themselves become their final project.  Sounds cool - but is it PBL?  Thoughts and comments welcome.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

PBL and grading

For all of the hoopla over Project Based Learning (not the least of which is done on this blog), there are a number of technical and logistical questions that are raised by this approach to instruction.  One such issue is that of grading.

In a "traditional" classroom set-up, teachers assess students on a regular basis by some combination of homework, quizzes, tests, and perhaps projects.  Students receive feedback in the form of grades, which generally are presented on a numerical (1-10 or 1-100) or alphabetical (A, B, C, D, F) scale.  Every few months, those grades are averaged together to produce a cumulative grade to be placed onto a report card.  Of course, it is those report card grades which ultimately attain great importance as they are looked to to determine placement, awards, high school and college admissions, and who knows how many other important or seemingly important ways of sorting students.

Of course, the notion that a single letter or number can encapsulate months worth of student work and effort is a sad joke.  Yet, we have come to accept it quite broadly in our society, based presumably on the notion that all of the elements that went into that grade were valid and reflective of the many efforts that students put into their work and that the grade is indicating roughly where on a scale from putrid to awesome those efforts fell.

Whether or not you accept standard grades as a good idea, PBL makes a mockery out of them.  In my early forays into PBL, I admit that I was concerned about having "gradable assignments" for my students and thus I devised a number of questions sheets or other "mid-project" assessments to both keep tabs on their work and to make sure that I would be able to give them a valid grade when the project was all over.  Truth be told, many of the assignments were nothing more than old-school homework assignments, which really have no place in a PBL unit.  Furthermore, if one aspect of a PBL unit is that students have choice as to which sources and material they are going to use, then it does not make sense to insist that everyone hand in the same assignments, since they will not all be doing the same work.

And so I have moved to having each student group maintain a website where they store their notes and any other materials that are a part of their learning.  I am thus able to check in on their progress and make effective and meaningful comments - the true "assessment" - without looking to squeeze a meaningless number out of a banal assignment.  This approach proved to be very effective in my last unit and for the time being I am planning on keeping it as a feature of my PBL units.

However, I still have to give a grade and so what am I to do?  The most obvious answer is to create rubrics for either the final project alone or the project plus the process.  While rubrics can take some serious effort to create, once created they do not need to be re-created and, more importantly, they provide real feedback as to how well the student accomplished the task at hand.

That being said, I come to the question that emerges from all of this: If a class is being taught primarily via PBL, and students are assessed via rubrics and other more informative approaches to feedback, are standard report cards still the way to go?  Does a teacher who grades via rubric come up with some way to convert the rubric scores into a single letter or number for the purpose of report cards, thus sacrificing all of the rich detail that the rubric contained?  Obviously, it is much more difficult for a high school or college to consider such detailed reports about each student in lieu of a few simple grades, and obviously the concept of the "highest average" does not mean as much when we are not really dealing with averages.  Nevertheless, if what is most important is developing our students as learners and providing them with meaningful feedback that helps to guide them in their future learning, then isn't that more important than honors society?


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Student-Centered Learning and the Well-Rounded Student

My good friends and colleagues Tzvi Pittinsky (@TechRav) and Tikvah Wiener (@TikvahWiener and @RealSchool1) had a blogversation the other day about project-based learning and student-centered learning in general.  Tzvi's post, while generally in favor of such approaches, highlighted as well the role of the teacher in preparing such learning experiences for students and favored the need for teachers to continue to shine guiding lights for their students.

Tikvah, who directs the Real School club in the Frisch School (where Tzvi teaches as well), wrote about some of the various projects that her students are undertaking, ranging from art projects to surveys to cooking meals for the class.  While acknowledging the role that teachers are playing, Tikvah stressed the freedom given to the students to design their own projects, both in form as well as in content.  Towards the end of her post, Tikvah cites several articles and sources that imagine a world, or at least a school, where the students would be able to decide on pretty much their entire course of study.

My first reaction to that imagined world is that it already exists - it is called college.  Other than some basic core requirements, students are able to pretty much choose every class that they take in college, or at least can choose the area that they want to study, within which they may have some required courses.  The innovative idea expressed in Tikvah's post is that one would attempt to do this writ large in a high school setting for most of the curriculum (and not just electives or clubs).  While this could be seen as simply moving up the goalposts, I believe that there is a qualitative, and not just a quantitative, issue at play here.

Let's begin at the poles.  I think that most people would agree that, however one thinks it should be done, students at the youngest ages need to learn how to read and how to do basic mathematics.  At the other end of one's educational spectrum, i.e. college and beyond, most people would probably agree that an individual should be allowed to choose what he or she is going to study, both for their own intellectual inquiry as well as for future professional purposes.  The question, therefore, is what needs to be studied in between.  For argument's sake, let's propose that we are arguing about 4th through 12th grades - what should a student learn in that time?  Is there a reason for students to go through two rounds of hard sciences?  Is civics necessary?  How much "classic" literature should students be forced to read?

I have no doubt that devotees of each subject can come up with wonderful reasons for why their discipline is necessary to be studied at least through the end of high school before freeing students to choose their own paths.  To my mind, there are two broad rationales which seem to be under fire in the "let's make everything optional" mindset.  First is the notion that students need exposure to a wide range of material in order to really get a sense of what they might gravitate towards and/or be good at.  If a student were to have a good math experience in 5th grade and only want to do math from that point on, he might develop as a math genius, but perhaps his abilities in that area are actually limited and meanwhile a natural constitutional scholar would never have the chance to emerge.  More important to my mind is the idea of creating a well-rounded student.  Unpopular as it may be in our multicultural age, I believe that certain strands of the curriculum that have been with us for generations (and, yes, I know it is far more complex than that) have stood the test of time because they have what to teach us about the world around us, be it about the historical origins and philosophical foundations of our society, the subtleties of the human character as portrayed through literature, or a deeper understanding of the physical realia of the universe.  I am open to the notion that there is plenty of new material that can be added to the old "Western Canon", but the criteria would be similar - a well-rounded curriculum should exist to create not only well-rounded students but well-rounded citizens and humans.

And so back to Tzvi's position - are our students ready in high school to start learning only those things that they want to learn, or is the purpose of the Middle and High School years to expose them to a wide range of ideas and works so that they can start making intelligent and informed choices about the directions that they want to proceed in during the course of their future learning?  Given that High School is a time of intellectual ferment and maturing, I believe that it behooves us to provide our students with this core learning at a time when they can think critically about it before we hand over to them full discretion to choose their courses.

Of course, this question gets raised to another level when we are discussing Judaic Studies, but perhaps that should be left for a separate post.