Tag Archives: 21st century skills

Student Blogs & Reading Responses

This year I have added a new task as part of the freshmen English classes I teach. Every couple of weeks, i have been giving them a non-fiction article to read and then asking them to write a response. In a way, I guess it was kind of inspired by something I read in one of Kelly Gallagher’s books. It started very modestly in the first semester. Over the course of the semester, I have gradually increased the demands and provided more guidance.

It was kind of an experiment really. Initially, I  just wanted to see what they would do when asked to read something and write about it with very little requirements or instruction. Initially, they wrote very little but got credit for writing at all. Then I started to up the ante and ask them to incorporate their personal reactions to the reading. Mostly, these are newspaper or magazine articles that I have read or found interesting for one reason or another. They span across multiple subjects, but often are focused on what I think of as being issues facing all of us in modern everyday life. The  are not the big global problems but smaller things, like internet and gadget use, issues related to brain research or learning, and generally just some of the day-to-day aspects of living in this time, things that they might not otherwise think about or reflect on without prompting. Overall, I think it has been successful.

Part of the goal was to get them writing about non-fiction, non-literature in my class, which is important and increasingly so with new standards coming. Being an English class, the discipline of English tends to use capital “L” Literature almost exclusively in the curriculum and reduce the reading of non-fiction to maybe anything involving a research paper, project, whatever. It has always seemed terribly out of balance to me. I also wanted to give the students the opportunity to write about something more informally, without all of the formal requirements of academic writing. Plus, I wanted them to react to the readings on a personal level, making direct connections to the material, in a way that asked them to begin reflecting on their own lives and what they see everyday.

The first obstacle was how little they are asked to do anything like this. Consequently, many of them really had no way to begin. “What do you mean write about what I think?” was an open cry. “How many sentences does it have to be? Is this going to be graded?” all the usual responses were expressed. So they needed more guidance than I had originally thought.So, slowly, iteratively, I have been providing more instructions and using some of their work as models of engaging, interesting work.

Another new wrinkle at the school where I work is all incoming freshmen now go through a kind of computer boot camp, known as the Freshmen Technology Seminar, which is some rudimentary instruction on using the school’s computers, network, Internet, and the like. Of course, this was an area where most of the students think they already know everything, but many of them have expressed its helpfulness when not under the gaze of the larger group. This seminar was, ideally, positioned in a way to give every student a Google account and shore up a lot of the smaller file management details, so we teachers need not explain all of that in class. The Google account was the best outcome, as far as I was concerned. A few years ago I had my students register a Google account and submit work electronically, so this was a boon for me. They all get an an account with all of the associated tools and an official school domain. Of course part of the account tools includes Blogspot. By the end of term, this became the space to publish the reader responses.

While not terribly radical in approach, I am certainly not the first teacher to get their students blogging. Yet, simply having the students routinely reflect on a reading and write about it in a public way is slowly having an interesting effect. The students are becoming much more conscious of what they write and how it looks when presented. We discuss the changes that need to be made when moving from paper to electronic mediums, from me as the audience to a more public one. All good conversations. For nearly all of them it is a genuinely new experience. Better still, I am the only teacher taking advantage of this at the moment, which should stay the kind of “journal fatigue” that can set in when every teacher opts to use the same writing to learn strategy. I continue to monitor the developments and showed them how I can track each section’s posts with a simple Pageflakes dashboard, which mildly fascinated them. “No more excuses about printers,” one student admitted.

I plan to examine the impact of all this much more closely, but it is still ongoing and developing. Some final reflection, with significant student input, will be forthcoming. Plus, it is the kind of long term experience that I have been wanting to seed for when we do actually enter into some actual research driven work. Now, however, it is not a once and done kind of experience.

More Thoughts on Global Collaborative Projects

My first genuine global collaborative project was the inaugural NetGenEd Project, a version of the Flat Classroom Project. I have previously reflected on that a couple of times, but it proves to be a milestone teaching experience. There was something really thrilling about being part of something much bigger than a single classroom or even a single school for that matter.

It was a fast and furious experience that took a lot of time for the students to make any sense of it. To be honest, it took some time for me to make sense of it too. One thing I discovered, I am considerably more comfortable with a certain degree of chaos then my students are. Consequently, as I reflect on some of the essentials of designing a global project, I find myself returning to Vicki Davis’ Five Phases for Flattening Your Classroom. Being a participant in a project someone else has developed and cultivated through several iterations is one thing designing my own is another.

Of course, I am very keen on developing a MOOC for NWP and continuing to work on that idea, it is rooted in teacher professional development. It is not a student project.

I do have a few ideas for student projects. Principally, I have been working with some colleagues that also teach grade 9 English in developing a project. It is has a bit of an odd history, as the a now retired Technology Integration Specialist was encouraging me to leverage my Flat Classroom Project experience in looking Thomas Friedman’s follow-up Hot Flat and Crowded. I think she figured that I would rope the others into something that would span the ninth grade, that was interdisciplinary but had literacy as a central hub. There were a lot of disconnected threads in the original discussions, but the others were game to try something. Yet, I am not sure that they are ready to invite the world in just yet.

Like I mentioned, throwing  students into the global collaborative environment that already exists is a bit easier, like working with a safety net. However, it is completely conceivable that we could plan this project to operate clearly in Phase Two – Interconnection, within our school and the entirety of grade nine. Even if ever other teacher is not quite ready for that, I could certainly map out a team matrix and have my three sections commingled with teammates outside of their own section. This seems like a really valuable step to prove to the others that it can be done and is not necessarily the most difficult thing to plan. Of course they might be willing, I have only broached the topic at this point. We are still kind of in preliminary planning stages.

What is emerging, however, is a project that will be rooted in themes Friedman addresses in Hot, Flat, and Crowded, with that text functioning in a more supplementary role. Thanks to fellow classmate Honor Moorman, who tipped me off on the title, we will use What Matters more as a primary text, since there is great thematic crossover but in a much more appropriately accessible text for fifteen year-olds. It will leverage the core Flat Classroom Project pedagogical outcomes, a collaborative research and writing product and an individual multimedia artifact. We still have a fair amount of planning to do and I am definitely in a kind of sales mode about it, but it looks like it will happen. Once it takes root then with some iterative steps we can open it up to the possibility of some outside collaborators and continue developing the project.

Designing Projects with Global Collaboration in Mind

I previously wrote a fairly long post that began exploring the difference between cooperation and collaboration and how little actual collaboration is typically taught. Yet when considering global collaboration as an imperative, the mix gets considerably more complex. Friedman co-opts the term glocalization to specifically highlight a culture’s ability to absorb the best of what foreign cultures have to offer and blending it with their own. Yet the blending of the global and local into a word proves to have a pretty deep history, even more complex than global collaborative imperative.

It seems to me that the world continues to evolve with greater and greater interdependencies. Friedman examines the concept most clearly in economic terms, and certainly every recent economic crisis of the new millennium, this recent one most acutely,  has proven this to be true. In fact, these interdependencies only seem to grow more complex and complicated. However, there is no question that they exceed economics and impact nearly every aspect of modern life now, most notably culture. The vastness of the world’s interdependent web is only metaphorically understood via the Internet, which is an imperfect model but perhaps the best we have.

If the concept of glocalization expands and takes on the mantra of “think globally, act locally,” then education may need to adopt it as a central point of view paradigm on the world. As the complexity and complicatedness of interdependencies has grown, so too have the magnitude of the problems. It will simply take broad, open minded, collaborative efforts to solve some of these problems. In order to prepare future problem solvers capable of addressing these problems, they will need to have broader and deeper experiences, considering how local actions have global consequences, and the only way to understand that is through active engagement with other cultures, not only those that my impacted but also those that might be able to preemptively avoid potential problems before they happen. If education does not take up this challenge, who will?

Like it or not educators have inherited a new obligation to design learning experiences that emulate this new reality, replete with complex problems that have broad and extensive impact. What’s more, these kinds of problems are not easily normed, scored, nor do they tidily correspond with rubrics. They are always changing, evolving, yet  remaining fundamentally relevant. They are not tests, at least in the traditional sense. There are no right answers. There will likely be many failures before good answers begin to take shape and make an impact. Thus, new educational experiences had better be more than rigorous and relevant, they had better build resilience.

Perhaps it is the need for resilience that the collaboration  must be increasingly global. To be a student in the North America or Europe  is to be one of the most fortunate individuals in human history. For most, basic necessities are a given and efforts can be focused on education and learning. Never before have there been so many literate individuals. Never before have so many resources been available. Never before have there been so many opportunities to help others. Students from the Industrialized West have a lot to learn from students around the world that are not afforded such luxuries and yet still persevere and succeed. In the developing world, innovation is the imperative. Glocalized collaboration might simply be the best bridge between the extremes.