Saturday, December 28, 2013

A Technology Anecdote

A student sets up a computer for a slideware presentation, fiddles a bit, then looks at me in confusion--the display projected on the screen is different from what he sees on his screen. I sigh and head to the front, trying to quell the rising frustration that the students don’t know how to handle the technology (thinly veiling defensiveness about my own lack of competence) and worry about what this delay is doing to my carefully planned presentation schedule. 

Stop! Rewind! That is NOT what happened this time! This time, with the heady feeling of impersonating a tech-savvy person, I stepped to the front of the room and modeled for the entire class what to do. 

It was a road getting to this point. For years, I’ve just hoped there was someone more knowledgeable than me in the room when it happened. Usually there was. But he clicked through the process so fast I could never really follow what he was doing. Recently, though, I was at least picking up on the phrase “mirror images.” A month or so ago, I was clearing out of a room where another teacher was setting up and having this problem. I poked around on her computer a little bit, then said, “You’ll have to find a tech person and tell him you need to do that mirroring thing.” 

In preparation for this round of student presentations, my kids were practicing in front of small groups, scattered around the school in classrooms that were empty that period. As I circulated from room to room, I came across one student who was having this same problem--what the projector was showing was not what was on his computer display. I said, “That’s why we do these practice presentations! Now let’s figure this out...I know it has something to do with mirroring images. Where would that be...?” He said, “Oh! I think it’s in systems preferences.” From there we decided it must be “display.” We got stuck there for a while, but finally found the tab with the mirroring option. Eureka! A team effort. 

And now I’ve got it. The next time a student had the problem, I knew what to do. Except one time when I got to the display window, there were only 2 tabs, not 3. Aargh. I hate when I figure out the technology just in time for it to evolve beyond me. I’ll have to grab an IT guy when I get back to school after break and ask about that. 

But this little incident reminded that I have learned a number of things about technology in 2013:
  1. Modeling learning and use of technology for the students. I’ve taken to calling attention to my use of technology (“Let’s look that word up right here in my desktop dictionary”), talking through my decisions and steps (“I’m just going to hit the ‘AV mute’ button right here rather than turning the projector off, so it won’t take 2 minutes to turn back on”), showing students on the projector (no longer viewing these presentation glitches as interruptions but as learning and teaching opportunities).
  2. Learning takes practice. How many times had I seen someone do that? Heard it explained? But finally I had to figure it out myself. Another tech thing I’m relearning this vacation is uploading videos to YouTube--something I first did last June (see my blog on that), but had to really go back almost to square one to figure out again. 
  3. I can learn to master digital technologies!
  4. Just do it. I have gained a little more confidence that in poking around, I can figure things out, and that most of the students really don’t know so much more than me--at least about academic and professional use of technology.

So to all you other digital immigrants out there--embrace the challenge! Growth does come. After all, it’s what we ask of our students every day. Learn, model, teach. All the time.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Playing Around in English

The focus and excitement was palpable with every student in the classroom fully engaged with a vocabulary game. Some were asking me or peers what words meant. (“Mrs. Essenburg, what does “covette” mean?” Puzzled, I went over to look. “Oh! Covet! Like the commandment, ‘You shall not covet.” “Oh! Covet!”) Some were practicing etymology. (“What does ‘lackluster’ mean?...Oh, ‘dull,’ like ‘lacking luster’!”). I felt a little giddy. 

On Thursday one of the students scheduled to give a presentation was absent, leaving us with a stretch of time at the end of the period to fill constructively. Sometimes in such a situation I’ll have students share with a partner or in small groups a book they’ve read this year. This time, since the last presentation had ended with the suggestion to do a little bit of good in the world by giving extra change to the little donation boxes left by NGOs at convenience store counters, I was reminded of the Web site I told students to get out their computers and I’d show them another way they could do a little bit of good in the world and help themselves improve their vocabulary at the same time. 

Students played a multiple choice vocabulary-building game where for each correct answer, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), which administers the game, provides 10 grains of rice which are paid for by site advertisers. Yes, this is legitimate--if BBC can be trusted. (I also gave my students a mini-lesson on fact-checking.) This article from September 8, 2010 says a computer programmer created the game for his sons and then donated in to the WFP.

It reminded me of a conversation I’d had with some students the previous Wednesday night on the train on the way home from debate. A 10th grader promised me he was going to go home and study his vocabulary words for the quiz the next day. An 11th grader lit up at the memory: “Oh! Quizlet! I loved that! I was determined to have the highest score on the Space Race game, so I kept playing it until I did. And it just happened that I also learned the words!” (I make 2 Quizlet lists for each vocabulary list of 20 words--one with definitions, and one with the context sentence of origin in the literature we’re reading.)

I’ve commented in past posts on an article forwarded to me by a fellow department chair--“Five Research-Driven Education Trends at Work in Classrooms.” This week I was given cause to reflect on one of those trends I havent yet addressed: game-based learning

Of course there are many parts of the process of education that just take hard work (in fact, “Power of Perseverance” is another of the 5 research-driven trends that I have commented on), but who wouldn’t choose a little fun and games every so often--especially when it gets kids this engaged?

What else in the secondary English classroom have you found game-based learning can be used for?

Friday, December 6, 2013

That's Debatable...

Never, ever, as a high school student, would I have volunteered to stand up in front of strangers from another school and half-improvise an eight-minute rebuttal and argument. Never, ever, ever. It would have been the stuff of nightmares. But last Wednesday I coached 13 high school students who did just that, and I have to say, I am so proud of each and every one of them. 

The experience was a first for all of us--though not for all our opponents! After two weeks of preparation--time in which we not only had to learn the rules of Queensland style debate and the skills of constructing a case and offering and answering rebuttals and points of information, but also research the topic: Poetry is beautiful, but science is what matters. It was a pretty steep learning curve, and as students headed down the hallways of an unfamiliar school to find their rooms, the adrenaline was pumping. 

As I rotated through the rooms where my students were engaged, I saw them speaking confidently, presenting the arguments they’d crafted, and doing some quick critical thinking. (“Of course Robert Frost would say poetry is important--he was a poet!”). And afterwards, they were all still standing--and even better--discussing where their opponents had equivocated and avoided addressing issues, dissecting their own performances, and noting what others had done that was worth emulating. 

The topic of “ethical appeal,” which the 11th graders learned in their English class, came up: convincing your audience that you are an authority, as well as likeable and worthy of respect--someone they want to listen to. There’s the opponent who is knowledgeable and articulate, but just comes across as, well, not someone you’d search out for an opinion. As a judge remarked on one student’s sheet, “Be confident, not aggressive.”

I reminded them of what I’d taught them about public speaking in 10th grade--the importance of being much more clear and overt about organization in speaking than in writing because if a listener misses something, she can’t go back and check it.

And then there’s my favorite aspect of debate--that students have to prepare both a negative and an affirmative case. What if we all tried to figure out what made our opponents tick to the point that we could argue their case if we had to? It’s a kind of intellectual empathy--in all to short supply in most daily life debates I hear, whether online, on TV, or in person. 

So here’s looking at you, kids--the next generation of all of our democracies. See you Monday and Tuesday for preparation, and then Wednesday when we’ll hammer out “It is irresponsible of Japan to host the Olympics with Fukushima so precarious.”