Wednesday, December 21, 2011

A small part of my plan

Second semester is looking exciting for my World Religions Class. I'm experimenting with flipping my classroom, at least for the first unit. Once I see how that goes, I'll evaluate and make adjustments for units that follow.

For now, I'm working on flipping my unit on Hinduism. I've got a project in mind, but before I describe the project (in another blog post), I want to explain how students will be grouped in class. Weighing the pros and cons of how to form groups always bogs me down. For this upcoming project, though, the classes will have specific job descriptions. What better way to fill a job description than to do a job application? So I am creating a google form job application for all of my students to complete. Students will have a choice about what job they are applying for, though they may end up with a different job. Each class will have two to five team leaders, depending on the size of the class. I will first consider those students who apply to be team leaders, but I confess, I may tinker with the team leaders a bit so that those who are leaders end up in leadership roles.

Once I have chosen leaders, the leaders will review the job applications and will be able to pick their teams anonymously as I will remove names and substitute pseudonyms on the completed job applications.

Here is an overview of the whole process:
  1. Students will complete online job applications for our Hinduism project. These job applications will be done in google forms.
  2. I will download the google forms and put the data into a mail merge document that is the job application.
  3. I will print the job applications.
  4. Team leaders will be chosen in each class.
  5. Each team leader will chose their team based solely on the job application.
What do you think of this plan for grouping students for projects in a flipped classroom? Let me know any ideas you have to make this plan better.

Further blog posts will detail the flipping and our first unit project on Hinduism.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

What kind of reggae singer?

Matisyahu is the Hebrew and stage name for a Hasidic Jewish Reggae singer. Seems like an odd mix, but in our world of mashups, Matisyahu is not such a surprise. It's hard to listen to Matisyahu without getting a smile on your face. Frankly, it's hard to listen to any reggae music without a smile, but the apparent contradiction between the joy in Matisyahu's voice and his somewhat stiff appearance takes the audience off guard.

If you want to learn a bit about his background, you can checkout this video

The point of this post, though, is not to educate you about Matisyahu, but to explain how his music became a part of an assessment in my World Religions class that engaged my students in modern day media and ancient beliefs.

Students picked a song from Matisyahu to analyze in terms of how the music and lyrics embodied Jewish faith. Students used a google doc to sign up for a song. By using google docs, I assured that no two students used the same song. Students were able to sign-up at home at their convenience and did not need to see a chart in my classroom. By using google docs this way, I also rewarded those who started early; they had a larger selection of songs.

I gave students a few links on Matisyahu, but mostly left them to their own devices. As juniors and seniors, they are quite familiar with this type of work, especially as they have done similar projects for me before. I gave them the rubric and off they went. I got some amazing work from my students. It turned into a sort of literary analysis of Matisyahu's work in terms of Judaic beliefs. Students demonstrated familiarity with stories, practices and beliefs of Judaism. They also interpreted the music in terms of its mood and related that mood back to ideas found in Judaism.

This is definitely a project I will tweak and use again next semester when I teach World Religion again.

Why don't you enjoy a little Matisyahu "King without  a Crown" now?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The gift before the holidays

We are down to the last few classes of the semester and I don't have time to start a new unit. My classes are semester-long classes, so I need some quality ideas around which to plan my last few classes before the end. As students take time off to complete college applications, study for the SAT, and due to sickness, these lessons would ideally be self-contained, one block lessons.

My perfect solution has come in the form of TED talks. I have been a great fan of TED Talks since introduced to them by @kdsl at a professional development session about two years ago. Adora Svitak hooked me and I've been using TED talks with students ever since.

The first TED talk lesson we did this week was a talk by Malcolm Gladwell "The Strange Case of the Norden Bombsight." The talk tells of the creator of a device created to guide bombs accurately from planes to their target. As in all intriguing stories, there are twists and turns as the story unravels. The consequences are unexpected and unintended.

With my juniors and seniors, I began the lesson by asking students to spend some time considering questions about consequences. I asked them to define consequence, think about how consideration of consequences affected their choices, how often they think we accurately predict consequences, whether or not we predict consequences better or worse than they really are, and what unintended consequences are. I shared some stories from my life of unintended consequences. These were light stories that were not meant as moral lesson but more of a "you don't know what's going to happen when you....." type of story.

We then watched Gladwell's video. Students then had a few further questions to consider cooperatively and as a whole class in discussion. We ended with students brainstorming inventions that may have had unintended consequences.

The class was not necessarily something someone with a PhD in Philosophy would have immediately recognized as a Philosophy class, but as a Philosophy teacher - as any kind of teacher - my first priority is to get my students thinking. They were able to hear a story and share with one another ideas that they had in response to the story. They thought about a few things in a new way today. These last few periods before Christmas break are not wasted. In fact, this freedom to start something short that we don't have to finish up in a rush, it's a gift.

Here's the Gladwell video

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Not the NYTimes of blog posts, but

I started blogging and seriously following other educators on twitter last May. After a great high at ISTE11 in Philadelphia last year where I thought, "I see the brilliance of twitter and blogging!" I have slowly gone downhill. Part of the problem is that I see other educators who have amazing ideas and seem to have them all worked out. They've actually implemented tons of ideas and been at it for years. I'm a relative newbie, though I do have enthusiasm and curiosity.

So for several months now, I've felt like I had to be the New York Times of blogs to put anything out that has any meaning. Stop in tracks. That's over. Recently what I've read is blogger after blogger saying the important thing is to be genuine. Admit mistakes. You don't have to be perfect. And after all, this blog is most of all, a record of my path and my ideas.

Therefore, here is my fresh start. I'm at home on a sick day. Decided it was a good time to play on my ipad a bit and explore some of the zillions of apps I have downloaded but not used. Don't want anything too serious, after all, I am sick. I opened (the downloaded version on my ipad) and was instantly impressed with the enormity of options available. I'm listening to German music from the 1920s as I blog.

"Imagine what a music teacher could do with so many genres of music at her fingers?" Being not musically inclined whatsoever, I had a hard time imagining.

But an English teacher could have a field day with something like Students could analyze tone. They could look at rhyme scheme in some songs. They could do a literary analysis of a song. They could compare and contrast two very different genres. Okay, probably the English teacher would not use the German station from the 1920s for this, but - imagine then what the German teacher could do!

And in just the few minutes that it's taken me to write this blog, I've heard two songs that I know when they are in English. I have unintentionally learned a bit of German and a bit of music history.

This may not be the New York Times of blog posts, but it's enough to remember what I learned today.

Delivering Relief Packs

A boy named Noppawin and his father joined our team
distributing relief supplies.

This post may not seem to have much to do with education and learning, but Saturday was an amazing day of new experiences for me.

Thailand has been in the midst of terrible flooding for several months now. Six to eight weeks ago, Bangkok was threatened with these floods. Much of Bangkok and the surrounding areas did flood, though "inner Bangkok" including where I live stayed dry. We missed some school and had some challenges to make up those days, but we have been generally unaffected.

The school, though, wanted to find a way to help. We had a collection box set up for World Vision which was a start. There are quite a few opportunities around town to help via donations or assistance packing relief kits, but there was a desire among some of us to go to the "front lines" of the flood work. It was through twitter that I found the work @TeresaTung at another international school in Bangkok was doing. She was mentioned in a CNN report (which you can read here). I followed the breadcrumbs of information Teresa was dropping on twitter and found this website that detailed their work through the Bangkok Service Conference. Teresa was gracious enough to allow several students and teachers from our school to join in their activities.

On Friday we were to pack relief kits. Traffic was horrible and a 25 minute trip took 90 minutes, so we arrived too late to help with the packing. Saturday morning was much better, though, and we were able to arrive in time to load the trucks with the 800 relief packs, 600 meals, and nine boats that were distributed to five different neighborhoods.

I went on a school bus, then transferred to the back of a cargo-type truck (where we left the door open) and finally transferred to one of our donated boats to assist with distribution. I was touched to see the gratitude of the people who are living, and have been living for weeks, in filthy waist-high water. In one of the small villages we went to, people would lean out their second story windows and sometimes climb out on their roofs to get their relief packs filled with rice, tinned food, water, and other necessities.
She's on her roof and receiving just a small bag of supplies,
but her smile made the whole day worthwhile.

It was a long and tiring day, but I would do the trip again in a heartbeat. When I woke up the next morning, I could not help but think of the people who woke up another morning to water that had not  yet receded. Even now 48 hours later, they are probably still living surrounded by the filthy water without access to the basic necessities of life.

On the bus ride home, my husband had a chance to talk with two students from the sponsoring school. We were both very impressed by their maturity. This trip for them may have been part of the CAS component of the IB Curriculum. This has opened my mind to another aspect of the IB Curriculum. Creativity Action and Service. This weekend I saw those aspects implemented in a way that truly touches lives in a tangible way.

Educational pundits often demand evidence of such claims. Here it is in the form of a translated note from the village we went to:

Dear teachers and students of the New International School of Thailand and the Biking team from Baan-Fah Piyarom village,

We are so happy to have been touched by such a small group of people with such big hearts. We are very grateful for your courage that has made you reach out to help us. Your help has given so many people hope to stay strong in this time of crisis. The things you brought for us have been very helpful to our community.

And we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

The people of our village

And from one of the students who went on the trip:

I am so glad to have been able to take part in this trip. Nothing will ever top that moment when we, although complete strangers, exchanged smiles as though we have known each other for the longest time. Please let me know if you would like me to send the flood victims a message and I will help to translate as much as I can. I will also send them a link to the video of the pictures and clips from both Friday and Saturday once it is done.


This is what education should do. Affect people. Connect people. Improve lives.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Simple Post

After discussing materialism and dualism today, my student M. said, "Philosophy is so cool."

Thank you, M., I needed to hear that today.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Update from Bangkok Learning & Teaching Zone

This boy is jumping into the ChaoPraya river near the Sathorn
Pier. The current is very strong and the boy may be having
fun, but he is taking great risks with his wellbeing. The water
is both powerful and dirty.
Bangkok has been threatened by floods for about three weeks now. There is a long backstory to this flood, but what's important for the perspective of this blog is the effect it is having on education. The impact is wide: from teachers and students who simply can't get to school to teachers and students living in evacuation centers or having lost loved ones to drowning, electrocution or disease. A large portion of the country's rice crop is ruined. Tens of thousands of jobs are at least temporarily if not permanently lost due to flooded factories.

On my local level, we have missed ten days of school for this flood. The Thai Ministry of Education mandated that we close for eight of those days. Right now it's unclear when we will open. My school is not underwater, nor are the roads around it, but there are shortages of supplies in the city, travel in certain places is difficult (you have to take a boat or hitch a ride on a truck), there have been threats to the water supply, and nobody really knows the direction the water will go or the path it will take. There's also a constant threat to all of the flood barriers put up to protect inner-Bangkok because those flood barriers, while keeping the water out of inner-Bangkok are keeping the water from leaving the areas behind the flood barriers. There's quite a bit of political play involved in the whole thing, but I'm not qualified to address it all nor is this the place.

photo from @_bjb. We have not seen this situation
personally, but it is a reality in Bangkok now.
In the midst of this, we are to go on with what all of Bangkok seems to be calling elearning. Some schools and some teachers are more prepared for it than others. I'm pleased that I had already introduced twitter and blogging to my students. It made converting my lessons to elearning easier. I also had the benefit of doing my MEd online, so I felt confident to create a clear lesson. Many of the teachers at my school who had not had much experience using technology in the classroom have switched to edmodo, which seems to be working fairly well for our secondary students.
It is rather normal to see boats in the back of trucks lately.

You can see there is a large cement wall in front of this store.
Many businesses have quickly put up cement walls to protect
their shops.

My husband lets you know what he
thinks of the smell of the water.

It is at times like these, though, that I become very aware of the noise and interference that students have to deal with, and that we as teachers often deal with. My students have been traveling to avoid floods, have been evacuated from their homes, have been without electricity or reliable internet. Granted, some have taken off to the beach and will return refreshed and relaxed without checking in on their elearning, these are the same students that are apathetic on a regular basis. The diligent remain diligent even during the crisis, though I can understand the low-(sometimes high) level of noise and stress in their heads at this time. I hope that I'm a flexible teacher who sets realistic goals for my students. We claim in our mission statement to teach the whole student. I believe that entails understanding the whole student, including their physical circumstances. It means being flexible in times of crisis.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Collaboratively experimenting

My World Religions class is breaking a lot of new ground for me. We have been studying Buddhism and it's about time for an assessment. Instead of doing the traditional tests or even the less traditional "make a project comparing and contrasting" idea (both of which still have a place in my teaching repertoire), I have decided to really climb out on a a limb this time. My class did a performance instead of a project. When I suggested the idea of a performance, some of them were quite confused. I finally got them to understand that what I meant was that they would take on the role of a Buddhist. We would have students represent several different branches of Buddhism. Then they would have to role play how that particular follower would behave in the situation.

The first thing they needed to do was to decide what the situation would be. We brainstormed scenarios on the whiteboard. One students took a picture of the board and posted it to twitter. That night's homework was to check our blog, as usual. On the blog was a picture thumbnail of the picture of the board so that the students could remember what their ideas were. I then directed them to wallwisher and asked them to tell me via online sticky note in 160 characters or less to tell me what scenario they would chose and why. Here is the wallwisher

The next day in class we sorted the post-its according to categories. Only the ideas that were mentioned remained eligible options. That means that if a student liked a particular idea and did not bother to check the work, the idea might have been lost. We were left with about four ideas. Each student who wrote on the wallwisher was allowed to make a quick pitch for their selection. The students then voted in class on the whiteboard.

The next few classes were spent gathering and organizing information collaboratively. Students broke up into different groups and gathered information about a particular division of Buddhism. The next class period, we created a collaborative google doc and the students looked at specific topics or issues from different Buddhist perspectives.

Only after the information gathering was over did the students learn what their assigned roles were. We had seven different types of Buddhists with two students representing each type. They were assigned to study the information that the class has collaboratively created in order to further prepare for their role.

The next class was our Amazing Race. Stay tuned for details and video.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sample student work

My World Religion Students handed in projects on Hinduism on Monday. One thing I started doing last year was to let my students chose the medium in which they wanted to work. I learned that students would gravitate toward powerpoint because it was easy and they knew it. This year, I outlawed powerpoint. I have given students a list of web 2.0 tools to use for their projects. I encourage them to find other tools to use if they wish. They are given a general description of their task and the characteristics that their work will display if they want a high grade.

I hope you enjoy this student work on Hinduism.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Latest projects

There hasn't been much time to blog lately. We have been doing a lot in class, have had two cases of influenza a in the family, and have spent some time out-of-town. Between all of that, blogging has taken a bit of a backseat, at least this blog.

My blog for my students is humming along rather well. ( All of my students are now on twitter and have blogs. I'm in the end stage of getting all of their blogs on our websites' blogroll and into my rss reader. Although this blog you are reading is made in blogger, my student blog is in wordpress. I'm learning  a bit about how these different blogging tools work. And I have students using tumblr asking me questions as well.

I am very pleased at how well my students have done in their use of technology. We aren't immersed, but they seem to be able to follow directions and get the work done. They also are engaged. Furthermore, using technology has solved a problem endemic to my school: students finishing work at the last minute in the hallway right before they walk into class. My students are forced to sit down in a relatively quiet space (at home I presume) and focus on their work.

This week prepping lessons has taken a lot of time. I have been home first with my son sick with influenza a and then with influenza a myself. I've been creating lessons using screenr for my students. I can create a lesson that is quite similar to what I do in class, except of course I am not there to interact with students. I have mitigated that somewhat by being available on twitter during certain class times. I had hoped to host a webinar with one class, but I could not get the technology working. That will come in time.

Here is the link for my class website - and here is a sample of a screenr lesson I prepared for my students.(Listening to this now, I realize how sick I was when I made it. My thoughts are a bit jumbled and my voice sounds very weak. Usually I am more articulate and much more animated in presentation.

Friday, August 19, 2011

welcome to twitterville, tweets allowed

Today we had our first day using twitter in world religion class. It was an experiment. I had six of 20 students who had devices capable of tweeting. I also had a student at my laptop taking down notes and I think we might have audio as well. Students were doing presentations. Those without electronic devices were to take some handwritten notes, but primarily pay attention.

The biggest difference that I noticed in the class was that it felt like we were all working together to capture the information. Each group had time to present a rather impromptu summary of about two pages of information on a traditional religion. We were comparing and contrasting religions of Papau New Guinea, Aborigine religions, Native Americans, etc....

The classroom felt alive. It wasn't perfect. There were glitches and it felt clunky, but there's something gratifying about being about to point to a twitter feed and say, "This is what we learned together today."

Monday, August 15, 2011

One of my favorite days

The third day of class is one of my favorite days of class every year. By this time, the students have learned a thing or two (or more), yet they still have a "this is all new" feel about them. When we were almost done with our World Religions lesson on traditional African religions today, I did a quick round of oral questions for my students. I asked question after question about our content and their ideas and all students answered. At the end of the question session, I asked, "Now, how much of that did you know one week ago?" Faces lit up as students realized that they had learned quite a bit in just three lessons. It is important to point out learning to students so that we can celebrate their achievements with them.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Experimental learning - setting up for success

I teach four blocks of introduction to philosophy. Last year between two semesters, I taught ten blocks of the same subject. In each class, we jump into activities with students sharing their ideas, doing thought experiments, and participating in activities immediately. So even though I have yet to see all my classes twice this year, I've already seen the results of the famous "cinnamon experiment" and had time to dissect the results and my approach.

What is the cinnamon experiment?
If you close your eyes, plug your nose, and put powdered cinnamon in your mouth, you will not taste the cinnamon. Your sense of smell influences our sense of taste so much that the hot taste of cinnamon is usually undetectable without the help of your nose. You simply sense a powdery substance in your mouth.

My classes become guinea pigs as I test the cinnamon experiment on them. The students come to first-hand knowledge that senses can mislead or not provide a full picture, and realize that other evidence may be needed to confirm or deny a proposition. Out of the groups that did the experiment in the 2010-2011 school year, the experiment worked with nine of ten. For the group in which the experiment did not work, most students thought it did, except the student that I had singled out to be my guinea-pig. So, realistically, the experiment worked on approximately 149 out of 150 students last year.

In setting up the experiment this year, I tried to use the same approach, but I did say that it failed with one group last year. Sure enough, the experiment failed the first time I tried it this year. Not only did it fail with the student I had sitting in front of the class, when the other students tried the experiment, it failed.

I wondered if my cinnamon had gone bad and hoped for better in my next class.

Same set-up. Same results that defeated my purpose.

Take three. I thought about ditching the experiment altogether, but I was still holding out hope that it was a fluke. No such luck. Boom, the experiment fell flat. It wasn't that the students could name the cinnamon when it was in their mouth with their noses plugged, it was that they would not acknowledge that there was any difference in taste when their nose was plugged instead of unplugged. They essentially denied that the ground cinnamon had any flavor at all.

I had one last class to try the experiment on. I again considered abandoning the exercise, but at the last minute I decided to change my approach and make the exercise perhaps more about my selling of the experiment (at least in my mind) than about cinnamon.

"I have this amazing experiment. It always works. Always. You will be amazed by it. You will say, 'Oh wow!' and be stunned. And it always works. Do you want to try?"

I felt bad lying to my students, but it was in the name of experimental learning.

I was ready to fall flat on my face yet again but was trying my hardest to sell the success of the cinnamon experiment.

Guess what? It worked! First the student sitting in front of the class could not tell us what was in his mouth. "It's powdery, but I don't know what it is." He unplugged his nose, and his face lit up with recognition. "It's cinnamon," he said confidently.

One-by-one the rest of  the students in the classroom tried it, and even knowing it was cinnamon before they put it in their mouths,they could not perceive its taste. It was a delight to see both experiments work - the cinnamon experiment and my experimental setup for success.

Hopefully I have learned my lesson early this school year, with only three days behind me, go in with full confidence, expecting things to work. Be flexible if learning doesn't go as planned, but quickly regroup and teach as if you are tasting cinnamon for the first time. Go ahead, try it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Classroom inquisition of the third kind

Words carry with them various connotation; but the dictionary definition (as found at of the word “inquisition” encompasses some of the serious flaws of education as well as what can be one of the most productive classroom practices. 

Here is what says for the word inquisition:
1. An official investigation, especially on of a political or religious nature, characterized by lack or regard for individual rights, prejudice on the part of the examiners and recklessly cruel punishments.
2. Any harsh, difficult, or prolonged questioning.
3. The act of inquiring; inquiry; research

American public school education is characterized by inquisition as defined in numbers one and two above. Students do not reach their full potential because classroom teachers are not allowed to treat their students as individuals, demonstrating a “lack or regard for individual rights.”  In his recent address to the Save Our Schools March & National Call to Action in Washington, D.C., when the actor Matt Damon spoke of his mother’s teaching career and his experience as a student in public schools he said, “My teachers were free to approach me and every other kid in that classroom like an individual puzzle. They took so much care in figuring out who we were and how to best make the lessons resonate with each of us. They were empowered to unlock our potential. They were allowed to be teachers.”

The standardized tests themselves that American public school students must take in order for schools to demonstrate Annual Yearly Progress could be considered harsh, difficult or prolonged questioning. Certainly the seat-time spent on preparation for these high-stakes tests could be considered prolonged.

Classroom inquisition of the third kind
However, the word inquisition has a positive connotation as well. Inquisition can mean “the act of inquiry; inquiry; research.” So while I may hope to avoid a classroom inquisition of the first and second type, I structure my student activities to promote classroom inquisition of the third type.  To foster a love for inquiry in students and the ability to do the research or thinking necessary to answer the questions that inquiry poses is a great gift that teachers can share with students. 

One of the most beautiful things students ask is, “Why?” What I love about the classroom inquisition is that the best answer I can give to that question is to answer back, “Why do you think?” and to encourage the act of inquiring, inquiry and research. Now that's classroom inquisition.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The momentary temptation of the walled garden

This summer I have been super-excited about using twitter in my classroom with my 11th and 12th grade philosophy students. I have in mind asking them to use twitter to comment on class discussion, to backchannel during class, to have a twitter chat or two outside of class time (which could be useful if political turmoil forces school to close), and to have my students follow one or two philosophers of their choice. I want my students’ use of twitter to mirror real world development of a PLN as much as possible. 

Until last night.

I have had a few spam tweets, but last night was quite discouraging as I received my first highly offensive twitter spam. I should have known better than to open the message from someone I don’t know, but having participated in so many chats lately….. I thought perhaps someone was sending me something relevant.

So last night I put out a call to #edchat to get inside suggestions for twitter for education clients. Some of these I have seen, but some I have not. There is a part of me that takes assurance in the thought that my students might use twiducate or chatzy, I’m discouraged by the functionality I might lose. I don’t think Peter Singer (a philosopher who is actually alive) posts on twiducate. Chatzy has the function of a chat room, but the brilliance of twitter is to develop a network beyond our current walls and current connections. Twitter allows this easily.

Furthermore, I was planning on making my class room a byod room. That means that students could use twitter clients of their choice on their own devices in the classroom. With twiducate or chatzy, the students are limited.

And finally, I have already started looking into ways to cull statistics about my students’ twitter use. Exporting tweets to excel does not look that difficult. It would be easy to get a glimpse of a student’s use of twitter through a spreadsheet and perhaps have the student reflect upon their learning with this data in-hand.

And so, my students and I will move forward with twitter in the fall. I plan to give parents information on internet safety and giving the parents a choice of alternate assignment for their child if they are truly worried. I’ll also track what I get in twitter to see how prevalent this spam problem really is; hopefully it was just a fluke.

The walled garden will be down in my classroom. Some weed seeds may blow in, but we’ll pull them up as quickly as possible, while encouraging the cross-pollination needed for ideas to grow. And if nothing else, I’ll be happy we are in a philosophy class where we can discuss the ethics or spamming.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Proof of learning, no test required

It's summertime and teachers around the world are wondering if they gave enough summer reading and how much brain drain will happen during the summer months. Two very different sentiments I have seen about summer learning are 1) that students don't learn during the summer and that eventually parents will demand a type of mandatory summer learning experience different from the standard "summer reading list" and 2) a very different view that a different type of learning takes place in the summer.

Much as I wish I had all the answers and could prove that, yes, all of my students are actively engage in significant learning - beyond how many ounces of sunscreen an average body needs - it is enough for me to have some concrete evidence that at least one of my (former) students is spending some time at worthwhile learning, of her own choice, extending the discussion we had in class last April to her summer in Miami, Florida.

Photo c/o Mika & her awesome blog
And so I present the blog of Mika A., an extraordinary student to be sure, but if we aren't even capturing the extraordinary students, we have no chance of capturing their less naturally curious peers.

Next fall when I teach my World Religion course again, I will be sure to make a visit to Mika's blog post a part of our learning.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Ten tips for encouraging parental involvement

It would be hard to overestimate the value of involved parents in education. There are any number of ways in which a classroom teacher can work toward including a diverse parent population in the classroom. Here are ten tips for including parents or guardians in your classroom:
  1. Begin the year right by knowing your parents and students. Check any information the school might have and check with your students’ previous teachers to see if they have any special insight about communicating with parents.
  2.  Survey parents to find out their linguistic and cultural background, expectations for you and for their children, and ability and desire to participate in the classroom. Ideally this would be done in the parents’ native language, in written form.
  3. Hold an open house for parents early in the school year. If the school already does this, take full advantage of it by emailing or phoning parents to invite them personally to stop by and visit your classroom.
  4. Keep channels of communication open for parents. You might consider starting a classroom twitter account, facebook page or blog and inviting parents to follow along with what is happening in class. These sites might even be linked to a translation website that might be helpful for parents.
  5.  For families that are very new America, create a sort of “orientation” to your school. This might be an online document or a special open house in which the expectations of teachers, parents and students for participation in the classroom are made clear. Invite questions.
  6. If a significant number of your students’ families are associated with a community organization, such as a library, community center or social service organization, consider partnering with the organization to encourage parental involvement in education. Perhaps hold a monthly meeting or homework help session.
  7.  Develop rich relationships with parents whenever possible and keep them cultivated. In future years, you might be able to enlist former parents for help in communicating or acculturating new parents to your classroom. Perhaps during an open house, bring in a parent from the previous year and have that parent share “success stories from the classroom” modeling successful involvement.
  8. If your school or district does not do this already, adopt the use of an online grade book so that parents can keep up-to-date with assignments and grades.
  9.    Encourage the participation of room mothers/fathers/grandmothers/grandfathers particularly for units of study for which their background is relevant. If you have a grandfather who fought in the Vietnam War and the topic of study is Southeast Asia, invite the parent to come speak to the class. Or assign students to interview their own parents about a classroom topic and present their findings to the class.
  10. Finally, keep parents’ phone numbers handy. Don’t restrict communication only to negative or disciplinary remarks. Call parents when students do things that are remarkable. Share students’ achievements with one another, their families and their broader community when possible. Celebrate success and establish an expectation for excellence.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Twitter on fire - what I relearned at ISTE

Sometimes it takes a long time to “get” twitter. ISTE11 solidified my belief that social media is here to stay and that twitter, or some form of it, as a powerful means of sharing information is here to stay. This is an idea that I first came to personally understand during the 2010 turbulence in Bangkok, Thailand.

Bangkok on fire, in a bad way
Let’s go back to March 12, 2010, when the UDD (commonly called Red Shirts for well, the color of their shirts) began a prolonged demonstration in Bangkok, Thailand, calling for the Thai PM to resign and hold an election. This was months before the December 2010 “Jasmine Revolution” (emboldened in part by Facebook) that started in Tunisia and spread around the Middle East that came to be known as “Arab Spring.”

Thailand’s military controls many of the media outlets, so it was difficult to find unbiased information. I wanted to know who was doing what, why, what they were saying, etc… Twitter came to my mind. Quickly I discovered a rather robust and daring group of journalists documenting what was happening in the city. There were even reporters who translated speeches from the red encampment into English and tweeted them line-by-line.

Go forward to Wednesday, May 19, 2010. The situation had been precarious for two months. I had become known among our school’s Facebook community as the news source, for I linked what I found on twitter to my status updates on Facebook. Few teachers were on twitter and the pictures and reporting coming out of the protests did not make news that would register on the ex-pat radar, (news sources largely controlled by the military) living in our bubble, unless we lived in the “red zone.” Otherwise, our shopping was inconvenienced and some roads were closed. But for tens of thousands of people camping in the city and the tens of thousands of others indirectly involved (business people whose shops were closed, schools that were forced closed, the travel industry, etc…) this was a major event.

The Thai Ministry of Education told all schools in Bangkok to close from Monday, May 17 through Friday, May 21. Monday and Tuesday were largely uneventful – if you can call a mass protest and fires fueled by tires uneventful – compared to what was to come. I woke early in the morning on Wednesday, May 19, to check the news. The pictures were not good. By about 4:30 or 5:00 am, tanks were beginning to roll through the streets of Bangkok. This was most definitely an escalation. Again, without twitter news sources or proximity to what was happening, the ex-pat community in Bangkok was largely unaware of what was going on. The day was filled with gunfire, arson, injuries, death and sorrow for Thais fighting Thais.

It was largely because of twitter and the brave journalists and those at the protests covering the event that I was able to have any understanding of what was happening in the beautiful city of Bangkok. This was the first time I understood the value of twitter.

ISTE is on fire, but in a good way
On Sunday, June 26, I travelled to my first ISTE conference. I had been following blogs, nings, and tweets to prepare for the conference, but none of the information prepared me for the enormous scope of the conference, both online and off. You would have had to have been blind not to notice the number of “electronic devices” lighting up the room. Some of the topics that were covered well in twitter included:
  • Powerful quotes from our speakers
  • Notifications of changes in the conference agenda
  • Links to relevant online learning tools, email addresses and urls
  • Back channel questions for speakers and amongst audience members
  • Notifications that Dr. John Medina’s book was on sale for only $2.99 on kindle
  • Opportunities for social gatherings
  • Organizational information for the flash mob
  • And other “unconventional” tweets that made attendees giggle

Fortunately, there was no need for tweets such as I saw during the red shirt protests. We were not warned to avoid roads because of burning tires or bamboo barricades. But I will say that the PACC was “on fire” with learning both face-to-face and via twitter.

Now I get twitter.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Authentic explanation

Many think of Buddhism as a very generic term, but there are many different kinds of Buddhism. Teaching World Religions in Thailand, the most Buddhist nation on earth, it was important that my students understand that there are different branches of Buddhism. Students had an assignment to compare and contrast two forms of Buddhism. The following video is part of that assignment. I love how authentic this is - the students going to the source for their information.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Summer break?

It has been a while since I've posted. I can blame jet lag, learning, and a bit of summer relaxing, but it is not for lack of reflection.

What have I been doing since school let out? I've been doing a lot of learning. I'm taking an online course for my state certification. My MEd was done totally online, so the formal online university class is not new to me, but this particular university's method of online learning totally fails to take advantage of the medium and the opportunities. I'm sure, though, that it's easy (and boring) for the instructor to grade.

My MEd was through University of Maryland University College and had an emphasis on information technology. I was not enthralled with that program at the time, but now when I compare it to the class I am currently enrolled in, UMUC did a fantastic job. I won't name the class I'm in now, but it's static. The whole thing might be better characterized as a correspondence course that has been thrown online than an online course. We are required to post in a forum and to make a remark on "at least one other student's post" per week, but there is no substantial discussion going on. One of the problems is that the timing of the class is very leisurely. We have two deadlines for the 12 week period - one at mid-term and a second for the final exam. This makes the interaction going on in the forums minimal.

I have also been doing a lot of learning on my own. I'm still fairly new to twitter and when I returned to the US two weeks ago, my new iPad was waiting for me. This little device is more impressive than I had hoped for it to be. Some time is spent each day exploring new apps or learning how to use those I have more effectively.

As far as twitter, I'm still learning how to interact with people on this amazing network. There is so much information available from so many angles. It's important not to follow only those people you agree with, but those who have different takes, to challenge you. Stepping in mid-stream takes some getting used to. I'm quite introverted, so the tweeting with strangers still feels awkward to me. This is a feeling I should keep in mind as I think about using twitter in my classroom. How will my ESL students feel? Or my introverts?

Finally, next Sunday I leave for ISTE11 in Philadelphia. Keeping up with all of the advice for ISTE newbies is itself a bit daunting.

As I review these summer learning opportunities, only two weeks into summer, I wonder what the next great thing will be? Where will technology be in 10 years? Twenty years? Fifty or a hundred? I see my own parents sometimes struggle to master new technology (even parking meters) and hear their opinions about social networks. I wonder how hard and how long my generation will have to work to keep up? Can we ever keep pace with the change? If we - or even a group of us - perhaps an underprivileged group- can't keep up even moderately with the pace of change, what does that mean for society as a whole?

Monday, May 30, 2011

Nerds versus zombies in the classroom

Stories can be powerful things. Right now I'm reading Donald Miller's A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. Miller's story recounts what he learned during the process of turning one of his books into a screenplay. Miller learned that his life was like a story. And if life is the story and the story has meaning, then life has meaning.

This is one reason why last year I often asked my students to create their own stories to illustrate ideas. Several students usually turned in movies. My movie-makers were not the students who typically got noticed. They were not the athletes or the academics. They were kids that seemed otherwise ordinary but who had an amazing ability to see meaning in stories and camera angles.

In the following film, my students addressed the issue of good verses evil and why there is evil in the world. Their answer is abstract and they did have to explain the video to bring it into the concrete, but focus on the idea that one man, Dr. Barislov, introduced the zombie virus into the world and you will see a somewhat Judeo-Christian idea of why there is evil in the world in their story.

And who doesn't like a good nerd versus zombie movie now and again.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Shining as digital natives

This video is from my Intro to Philosophy class last fall. The assignment was to create a story containing a unique moral dilemma. Students then had to present three different philosophical perspectives on the moral dilemma. The story portion and the analysis portion were not required to be in the same format, so this group chose to present their story via video and their analysis in writing. What I loved about this group's work is how well they captured the feeling of a dilemma. They shined as digital natives capturing the emotional power of their story with music, lighting, action and acting.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Let them make cakes

Students analyzing cakes.
Inspired at the beginning of this year by Kevin Simpson's talk about differentiated instruction and my return to teaching World Religions, I wanted my students to communicate ideas in creative ways that would demonstrate their synthesis and analysis of information in the way best suited to their own skills rather than simply showing me that they know how to use google. To facilitate this, I encouraged students to work with stories or images they created and to analyze these products in terms of our content. As the year progressed, I became more relaxed about the type of projects students turned in so long as they demonstrated their own mastery of the topics. In a moment of pure genius (or insanity - you choose), I told one class that they could even bake a cake for their project.

It was a bit of a surprise one morning to have students deliver two cakes to my classroom. These were not ordinary cakes. These were Buddhism cakes!

In the picture on the left, the cake in the front represents Pureland Buddhism. Pureland focuses on calling on the name of the Amida Buddha for entrance to the "Pureland." Those who enter the Pureland can then travel between realms (symbolized by the ladder on the cake) to assist those left on earth.

Students demonstrate self-control not immediately
devouring their classmates' project.
In the picture on the right, the cake represents Theravada Buddhism. Buddha is represented by the orange figure meditating in the middle of the cake (though upside down in the image). Four brown candles standing up in the cake represent the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism and the eight brown sticks (known here as Pocky - essentially a type of coated pretzel) represent the Noble Eighfold Path of Buddhism.

Class started by having the students come to the front of the room and examine the cakes. The class was able to tell our cake bakers what type of symbolism (more than mentioned above) they saw in the cakes. We then had our bakers tell us a bit more about the cakes (because we didn't really know what they would truly be like until we sliced into them where there was more content to analyze) and as a final reward for a job well done, we all shared in a great feast and consumed the student projects.

Microblogging won't make you seasick

From 1999 through 2003, I both taught computers and was the IT Coordinator at an international school in Bangkok. Those were early days for that particular school as far as technology and we were challenged by the range of issues small, young school in Southeast Asia would face - from non-standard hardware running pirated software to one dial-up connection shared by a computer lab of 25 computer. Those problems were eventually overcome through persistence in seeking resources and getting admin on board for changes.

But there was another probem. The dreaded problem that makes electronic learning tools both a blessing and a curse. "The WOW factor!" Back then, and unfortuantely still today, many students find the dazzling swishes, swirls and color schemes of powerpoint a more satisfying use of their time than really working on content. Now we have tools like and and can do powerpoint in a new and better way, easier to embed movies, non-linear content, more file types, etc... but learners are still learners and sometimes that prezi zooming can make you seasick.

This is why twitter, microblogging to be more formal, is so appealing. There is no worrying about "The WOW factor" with microblogging. What counts is the idea. Short, sweet, maybe even pithy if you have a great personality, but no enduring swirling, flashing or motion sickness.

Microblogging also has the power to open the conversation up among two or more people from even across the world. It's a great way to get students to sharpen their meaningful statement skills without realizing it.

So enjoy EDUCAUSE's "7 things you should know about microblogging" and think today about how you can use this powerful tool to enhance learning.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Putting offline presentations online

Many of my students did excellent movies, podcasts, and prezis or powerpoints during the year. This work is easily put online for a class website, but what about the posters, dolls, and cakes (yes, cakes) that students made as a part of their projects? I have the posters and I have pictures of the more edible projects. So this week, I am going to take the photos of the less electronic presentations and make them into a flipping book with flipsnack. Stay tuned for the results.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Changing the plans

There are some days when you are teaching a class and an event happens that affords you the privilege of changing your plans immediately in order to address a current event. It was announced today that Osama Bin Laden has been killed. We are just finishing up Islam in World Religions class and although we had addressed stereotypes, we had not specifically addressed stereotypes based on BinLaden, why they occur, and what AlQaeda is.

I started by putting a packet of information together. It contained information from Britannica on AlQaeda, an obituary from the BBC about Bin Laden and an article from the BBC about young suicide bombers. Students read these articles and we discussed them. The main questions we considered were, "Does Bin Laden represent mainstream Islam?" and "Why do many Americans consider all Muslims to be like Bin Laden." Students gave thoughtful answers that cited the text and drew upon the knowledge they had gained from our unit. Students who normally are reluctant to participate were interested, I suspect in part because of the timeliness of the news. You know those students who would never raise their hand to participate? Today their hands were raised.

After a short discussion, we watched an eight-minute clip from Ted called "Inside a School for Suicide Bombers." The speaker, Sharmeen Obaid, listed five reasons why these schools for suicide bombers are successful. Students were able to tell me those five reasons in significant detail. After the video was over, I counted the students out by sixs to make groups of threes. The students had to write down five ways to "solve the problem" of theses schools for suicide bombers. Students were engaged in lively discussion that produced authentic solutions not far from the policies of some governments. (Whether that's a good thing or not....)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Using twitter in the classroom

Our school had a session on online safety earlier this year. Many students were caught friending a stranger on facebook. The fake facebook name was "Sam ICScantfindmenow." ICS is the acronym for our school. Our two or three Sams took a lot of flack, though most of us assumed we knew which Sam it was. In reality, it was a teacher carrying out a meaningful object lesson.

Last night was our school's high school banquet. Many of our students have learned the valuable facebook privacy protection lesson, but apparently they have not learned the twitter lesson. While looking at banquet pictures, I noticed a student had her twitter ID visible. I followed it and from that one link, could track the comings and goings of at ten or so students over the last few days before I got bored and moved on.

While I became convinced that they were a close-knit group who like to stay in touch, I also realized that they may be unaware of the repercussions of broadcasting their movement to the twitterverse. One student did have her tweets protected, but many others were regularly checking-in on foursquare or tweeting their specific locations during spring break, unprotected.

This brings me to the movie below. Clearly many of my students are involved and using twitter on a regular basis. Students really are drawn to social media. How can I harness this power to engage my students outside of the classroom and teach them about digital literacy?

Stay tuned as I try to find an answer.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Toward TechX2011

Bangkok has a great community of professionals interested in educational technology. When I first came to Bangkok in 1999, I became involved with this community. I was new to the world of educational technology and looking to grab onto whatever was available. Twelve years later and I continue to work on finding new ways to integrate the ever-changing world of web tools into my teaching. I did take several years off to stay home with my young son, during which time I finished my Masters of Education with an emphasis in Information Technology.

Formal programs, are, however, often slow to respond to change. So I found in 2004-2005, disappointed as many of my colleagues were still learning about webquests and html. The world of technology changes rapidly, and as an educator attempting to effectively use technology, my methods and plans must be malleable to respond to changes quickly. This requires diligence, research, and a commitment to try new things.

April 15 marks the first day of the "unconference" for TechX2011 and the first day for this blog. With the start of this blog, I will remind myself of the need to be continue to integrate more meaningful technology use into my teaching and learning.

After all, I ask my students to do so.

On toward TechX2011. Here's to teaching and learning!

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