Sunday, February 27, 2011

SMRT... I mean S-M-A-R-T

I was going to post next about the day my students all tried to kill me, but instead I think I'll jump into the interactive whiteboard discussion. I'm of both minds when reading Gary Stager's article on the Tech and Learning website.

I've been a Smartboard mentor in my school district for nearly 3 years now. I don't know if what I feel for the board is love, exactly, though for the first few months the very sight of it would make the butterflies in my stomach flap around like crazy.
That was the feeling of fear, not of love? Oh dear.

Over these last 3 years, I've amassed quite the repertoire of tricks and abilities related to the interactive whiteboard (as I will now refer to it in order to avoid brand name related conflicts) and please note: I choose the word 'tricks' deliberately. After all, a lot of what the board and its software does are simple and simply that: things flash, or spin, or change size or color. You can even add sound to most things- the roaring bear icon is an oft-used personal favourite. These are the elements of the board that I demonstrate first during a PD session, and here's the story I tell when I do it:

"When I first started teaching (grade 7 Language Arts), I would often lament to myself that if only I could make my notes flash and change color then maybe, just maybe, my students would finally stop fooling around. They would finally stare at the board as intently as they stared at Tetris Battle, or whatever fad was at the forefront that month. When I got an Interactive Board, I finally could make the notes do that, and guess what? Students still fooled around and looked in whatever direction they pleased. Gasp."

note: The gasp at the end can be either read aloud, or replaced by an actual gasp. Either way.

Now, is that a lesson that's worth the $3000.00 price tag? Of course not. And did that realization make me want to rush into my classroom and tear the board down or deface it with permanent marker? No man, that thing is worth $3000.00. Besides, it was the wrong realization. My mistake in the first place was wanting students to stare, transfixed, as my notes spun around in circles like the hypnotic vortexes of the Notebook vortex game. (Another personal fave).

If I were more clever and able to add, I would probably format this next bit with prices beside each element, and magically have the sum be worth more than the cost of the board in my room. Thanks to those old Mastercard commercials, just mentioning that idea is now more effective than its execution will ever be. 

  • The Van Gogh painting, above. I've long been a fan of impressionist art, though I'm not educated enough in that field to fully understand why. (Pictures are pretty!) With my current set up, I can project these paintings onto my walls and share their beauty and emotional effect with my students. Not really for any reason, you understand, but those pictures are so pretty.
  • I do quite a bit of close film study with my students. With the board, I can project very large still images of the films onto the board; analyze or have students analyze the images using pen tools to highlight; spotlight tools to, uh, spotlight; or the roaring bear to add roaring bear emphasis to important speaking points.
  • My handwriting is terrible. The board's software will normally recognize my words and turn them to typed text for ease of communication, or to the incorrect word for hilarious effect and enthusiastic derision of my terrible handwriting.
  • The Whirling Vortex game. So handy for a quick starting lesson on connotation, character trait review or other binary sorting activities. Also super handy for when students can point out that my sorting skills are flawed and deliberately leave certain words "between" the vortices on the board. And who am I to insist that 'sober' has a negative connotation and not a positive one?
  • The fact that I can save whatever is on the board and call it up again the next day, month or year. This may be notes, it may be instructions, it may be a picture of a walrus that my block 8 class seems to have adopted as their mascot. It may be last month's lesson on Paul's Case where I know we were talking about the -ide suffix and... see? Oh that wasn't you, that was block 5? Well, check out what they came up with, because it was great.
Now before this entry fully enters into the world of blogs that I hate, the realm of "I have all the answers and because something worked out once, it's clear that the reason was ME", I must mention that for every positive experience there was an equal amount of fumbling. Though, by equal, I mean that it took me almost two months to figure out how to get my coloured pens to work. And it took about a year to realize that I could save my files as PDFs if I wanted to. And that I still haven't really used the recorder tool in class. So yeah, I'm still learning, if that wasn't a given.

Heidegger warned us (between paying his Nazi dues, of course) about technology encroaching on us bit by bit, and while I will readily admit that I actually read Ted Aoki's interpretation of that particular essay,   I hear the warning loud(ly) and clear(ly). We have created tools so powerful and pervasive that we risk becoming the tools ourselves, both metaphorically and colloquially. I worry that that is what's happening with the 'clickers' and response systems that are also making their way into schools, but that's another post entirely.

I think that all of us know it's not exclusively teachers who are making the decisions to install these boards on every flat surface in the school. (Parking lot, ha!). I also must point out the futility and frustration of the 'this money could have been better spent' argument. It's gone, like the thrill, the love and the wind before it.

To conclude, I've long thought that the conclusion was the least important part of any piece of writing.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Scary Stuff

Well, I took the plunge, if only briefly: I unchecked the 'count this towards final grade' box in my online gradebook.

This meant that while I was still grading, still testing and still teaching, my students did not have a posted average that they could access online. Their reaction? One class seemed pretty nonplussed; one class nearly took my head off.

"There are our grades. Don't we have a right to know what they are?"
"We need to know what our averages are so we know how we're doing in class."
"How are we supposed to improve if we don't know our grade?"
"How are we supposed to apply to universities if we don't know what our average is?"

I was surprised by the reactions, and by which students seemed the most outraged: the students who were the most disengaged in class. Of course, this likely confirms my worst fear- that these students are disengaged in class because they truly see no connection between what goes on in class and what their grade is. As in, they only 'turn on' on the days there is a test. Oh, my breaking heart.

Yes, motivation and engagement and interest are my job (at least, that's what Twitter tells me most nights) and honestly, I don't think I'm doing too badly on that front. (And the war metaphor rears its ugly head once again). What is with all these parenthetical statements? Ugh, hopefully regular blogging help refine my writing style.

Anyway, my little rebellion didn't last too long; I was quickly told to stop messing around with my gradebook by the assistant principal, and I don't really mind. For a few days it felt like I was having a professional identity crisis, and while I recognize that discomfort and resistance create change and stuff, it was still an uncomfortable moment. Anyway, the moment has passed. I think my point was made to the students- it turns out that a lot of them heard me when I told them my fears point blank: that they were addicted to their grades.

Next post: The Intervention...

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Experiment Time

Well, it took some fast talking but I think that I may have convinced my department to try something new this year.

Typically, all the grade 11s at our school study Hamlet. The unit probably lasts around 2 months (we're a non-semestered school) and as always, likely culminates with an essay, a unit exam and a final project of some kind.

So this year, another teacher and I thought- why do this alone? Why not put our classes together? Sure they don't meet at the same time, but with this new-fangled internet thingy it couldn't be that hard. Our idea grew and grew, and we're now at the point where we have every grade 11 student in the school involved, with the exception of one class. That's nearly 300 students.

The project? We're going to film Hamlet from Act 1, scene 1 to the very last line. It's going to be a full length movie, but not limited to live action, so I've been trying to think of creative options for the students, even while knowing that it's they who should be doing the thinking. Old habits, right?

Of course there will be the usual pitfalls, students who can't meet deadlines, problems with video programs, losing steam as we go because of all the other trillion things going on at the school between now and April 7 (opening night, of course). Still, I'm looking forward to see how this plays out because I think it's an exciting prospect for our school and really, for my experience as an English teacher in this digital time.

Although, this isn't a concept that should be limited to English, is it? Really, students are already sharing school related things online. I am not only referring to free essays and answer keys. Just the other day, I showed my students the stop motion Oedipus as vegetables video ( - it's funny, if not exactly true to text) and the next day some students came in telling me that they had shared it on Facebook. I will tell myself that this is because of its textual connections to Hamlet, and not because of the tomato on potato sex scene. But there's probably a lot of instruction that does go on on Facebook, beyond the "omg thats due 2morrow?" type thing.

It pained me to type that without the possessive apostrophe, it really did.

Anyway, kids are signing up on our district Sharepoint site as I type this, and tomorrow the other 3 teachers and I are going to divvy up the play for their consumption. Exciting.

And you know what is the most exciting part? Shhhhh... I may not be supposed to say this... I think I may have convinced my colleagues that we don't need mark it.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Teaching Hamlet

Man, I love teaching Hamlet. Hamlet! I still remember sitting in my grade 11 English class ( ____ly, the very same classroom I now teach in), reading the line "But look, the morn in russet mantle clad" and actually getting goosebumps. Russet? Seriously.

At this point, it is now clear how a geek like me would grow up to become an English teacher. And this English teacher is about to embark on a Hamlet unit once again.

Here are a few assumptions I make about the students before I begin:

- Students struggle with the language
- Students struggle with envisioning the action of the play
- Students struggle with the context of the time the play was written

Sense a theme?

I should probably acknowledge that the very notion of struggle seems to me to be a very physical image, as if the shakespeare textbooks fly towards the faces of my young charges and threaten to suffocate them with pages and pages of endless blank verse. But, that's probably how a lot of my kids feel. And, in past classes when students read the lines aloud, that's also how it sounds.

Again, throughout this entire unit (which is supposed to last about 7 weeks- this seems like a very tight timeline to me) I'm going to try to avoid the words 'get through' or 'cover' or 'go over' because I think it reinforces the idea of Hamlet as an obstacle, instead of a play.

Here is where I'll compile a list of aspects of my Hamlet unit, but there are some things I will not do. I won't create an order for presenting information. I won't be including worksheets with my units, because I don't use them anymore, and I think the notion of 'busywork' is kind of not what I'm going for here.

Things I haven't had success with

  • Getting students to memorize a soliloquy - some teachers get kids really pumped about it, and I admire that. It's just not for me.
  • Worksheets.

Things I have had success with

  • Asking seemingly silly questions on a student discussion forum such as 
"If Hamlet were a cupcake, what flavour would he be?" (Not all the answers are gold, but it's a good excuse to bring cupcakes to class)
"Who would you cast as Hamlet? Include a picture!" (God bless the Kenneth Branagh version, but 1996 was a while ago.)

  • Taking the time to explain to students that when words have mysterious apostrophes in the middle (ne'er, i', e'er) it's because there are letters missing for rhythmic reasons and they are not encountering some new mysterious word. I find it especially difficult to hear a student read aloud " I am too much "I" the sun". Gah! That makes no sense!
  • Using different versions of filmed interpretations in class. This is a tricky one, because it's so easy to just let the movie run and run and tell yourself that students are 'getting it' because it's on screen. Still, when I teach Macbeth I've always made a point of showing as many different versions of the banquet scene as I can find so the students can discuss staging and director's interpretation. 

    Things I haven't tried yet but will get back to you about

    • This year I am going to include parts of the David Tennant film, but it will be difficult to practice equanimity due to my Dr. Who fangirl-dom. Still, from the limited previews I've seen this looks like an extremely attractive film that highlights how the play actually works as a play. (I was always more impressed with K. Branagh's sets than his soliloquies.) 

    Work in Progress!