Friday, 27 April 2012

Somewhat confused, a little worried and…terribly excited!

There are no adjectives that can clearly describe my state of mind. 2012 has been a wonderful year up to now but, at the same time, it’s been a real challenge. Learning new things is always hard but if what you are learning is how to teach in a different way, it may turn maddening at times. Why? Well, I’ve been trying many different things lately. First of all, I’ve been using more and more technology in class. Finding out what works and what doesn’t implies hours of preparation and research. I’m also learning about “Building Learning Power” and how my lessons can make students exercise new habits of the mind. I’m eager to adopt this approach, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to try things, fail, succeed and undoubtedly feel exhausted every now and then. Hopefully my students and I will learn a few things. Finally, to make matters worse (or better, if you look on the bright side of life) now I am about to become an ICT teacher trainer!

Let me explain this in detail. Last year I signed up for “Laboratorio Pedag√≥gico”, a course on ICT that the ministry of education offered to secondary school teachers. What was its main objective? To help educators create online material to use in class. A well-prepared teacher trainer came to school once a week and 6 of my colleagues and I started learning how to use different tools little by little. As a result of the 12-week course, we created a bunch of google sites. After the school year finished I created a couple more so that I didn’t forget my new skills. I knew in 2012 one of us would have to continue working with the rest of the staff, but it was unclear who that person would be. Last Tuesday, while I was working with my 9th graders, the head teacher informed me I had been chosen to deliver the course. Wow! I was surprised, excited and SCARED. Anyway, I immediately accepted the job. “What a great opportunity!”, I thought. "Even if I have to stop working with 1 or 2 of my groups ( I can take paid leave), teaching technology for the first time will be a fantastic challenge!"

When I arrived home 2 hours later I was not so sure I had done the right thing. Was I the best person for the job? Full of doubts, I decided to turn on my computer and ask a couple of friends. It was then that I found two wonderful talks. In fact, two of the people I met during the "Teaching Excellence and Achivement Program" last year had their TEDx talks uploaded to youtube (yes, two people I know have taken part in such a wonderful project!!) and the videos were exactly what I needed.

The first one talks about how to face problems. Dr.Deidre Combs, a wonderful mediator and book author, says we should celebrate struggles. Sounds hard, doesn’t it? Well, after listening to her, you start realizing conflict is necessary to push you forward.

The second one is by Paul Andersen, a science teacher I met at Bozeman High. After been nominated for “Teacher of the Year” (and not winning, unfortunately), he decided to use the elements of game design to improve learning in his AP Biology classroom. In the video he explains how.

If you happen to have 25 spare minutes, do not hesitate and watch both talks. They are inspiring and enlightening in ways I can’t even explain. ENJOY!!!

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Building Learning Power

'peace with myself'
Let’s take a look at public secondary schools in Argentina. What kind of environment do teenagers learn in? Chances are most schools you analyse will have plenty of dull rooms packed with students sitting still (they simply can’t move!). If you have a closer look, you’ll see some of them are listening to the teacher or copying down facts while others simply ignore whoever stands in front of the class. You may find places where group work is being fostered, but only if students are silent, calm and follow teacher’s instructions carefully. What will happen if you head to the teachers’ room? Well, you’ll probably listen to educators complaining because teenagers do not show respect or accept what they are told.

This sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Even though many of us have been trying hard to make things change, it seems most public schools are they way they have always been: traditional institutions focused on obedience, content and test results. Do we want 19th century values and habits to dominate our school system? What kind of mindset are we cultivating? Are your students becoming 21st century explorers or 19th century clerks? These are some of the topics Guy Claxton focused on in his conference on Building Learning Power in Rosario last Tuesday.

It would take a particularly long post to share all of the knowledge I received (in fact, I am still processing most of the information!), but I’d like to share with you a summary of the things that struck me the most:

1- Your brain is like a muscle (or a group of muscles).

Guy Claxton says it clear and says it loud: it is possible to get smarter; the ability to learn is itself very learnable. Research has shown that intelligence is not a fixed-sized pot or bucket that you were born with and has to be filled in with valuable stuff. Instead, he compares the mind to a group of muscles. What are the main groups? Curiosity, resilience, imagination, reflectiveness and reciprocity (click here for a complete list). We all know what happens if you train muscles hard: they become stronger and SO DO YOU! Powerful mental muscles will make our students more intelligent!

2- Schools should be mind gyms.

In many of Sir Ken Robinson’s world famous talks he describes the factory/assembly line approach to schooling. Partially complete “products”, that is to say children, are sent to teachers and each educator works on an individual step of the process until students become “productive citizens”. If students fail, it's either their fault for not trying hard enough or the fault of the teachers, who obviously need more training (click here to listen to him explaining this in detail). Guy Claxton’s new metaphor is a change of paradigm. For him, teachers should stop being the experts who add knowledge to students in factory lines, and become “learning power coaches” who will construct “exercise regimes” that will help students get smarter. Subjects must be compared to exercise machines and students should be able to adjust the level of difficulty of each task in the same way we change the weight in these machines. The result of this new approach: smart teenagers won’t get bored and slower ones won’t be left behind.

3- Let’s exercise new habits of the mind!

Classes are not neutral; they are always exercising some habit of the mind. If concepts are presented as facts to memorize, students will be learning credulity, retention and regurgitation. It is by changing the way we deliver our classes that students will start cultivating new habits of the mind. Our schemes of work should be written taking into account the mind muscles. You can learn history AND empathy AND imagination, if you stop lecturing and let students walk in other people’s shoes. If you are teaching the 19th century Italian immigration to Argentina students could imagine they are immigrants who have just arrived in Buenos Aires and write letters to their relatives back in Rome or Sicily. Facts would also be necessary to write good letters, but they wouldn’t be the main focus and the activity would be much more fun! Other, maybe smaller changes, such as letting students decide how many people per group would be ideal for a given task, will also make a big difference in the long run.

What do you think about BLP? I’m planning to start using this approach with my students. Would you use it? Why/why not?

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Have you ever been evaluated by your students?

You grade students’ work every day. You tell them they shouldn’t worry because it’s OK to make mistakes and you reassure them that being tested helps everybody learn what to do to improve. But then, when it’s time for others to judge what YOU- the teacher- are doing, you become uneasy. I agree fear may be a common reaction if a head teacher or administrator is planning to observe your classes but why should we feel scared of students’ opinions? The truth is they are the only people who know what we do every day, how we do it and what needs to be enhanced! If you are still not sure why students’ feedback is so important, have a look at this article: “He Said What? 5 Reasons You Want Your Students to Evaluate YOU

What about me? Have I ever been evaluated by my students? Oh, yes, plenty of times!! Until last year what I used to do was very simple. The last day of the school year I would ask my students to answer 3 or 4 questions about the material we had used, the topics we had studied and my performance. I used to tell them the answers should be anonymous so that they could be 100% sincere. Normally questions were something like this:

  • What do you think of the coursebook? 
  • What topics were difficult? Which ones were easy? Why? 
  • What do you think of my performance? (Write at least something you liked and something you didn’t like) 

This year I’m trying a different approach. In February I created  my google site and among many things I included a survey in which I ask students to evaluate me (and the site). As soon as eveything was ready I told the former students I am still in contact with to visit the site so that they could give me their opinions on it. I was expecting some visits but,to my surprise, many did much more than have look at it: they examined everything, found the survey, took it and answered all of the questions in detail! I got plenty of constructive feedback in a couple of days! Now, I’m planning to encourage all of my students to fill in the form after each term and  immediately apply in the classroom the insights that I gain !

Would you like to include a teacher evaluation questionnaire as part of your routine? Have you ever done it? How has it helped you?

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Why and how I use facebook with students

'facebook like button'
A few weeks ago I asked my students to choose their 3 favourite words in English (click here to read more about this activity). Most of them came up with “family”, “friends” and “fun” but, to my surprise, others said “facebook”. How was that possible? I immediately asked them why and what they answered was, in fact, quite logical. “That’s how I stay in touch with the people I love”, most students said. Others explained, “I simply use it to play games, have fun and share the things I like”. So answering “facebook” does not sound so unreasonable after all. It is the 21st century tool they use to do what we have always done: interact with friends and entertain ourselves.

Once I understood most students were keen on using facebook (I did that last year),I started thinking of ways to take advantage of it. Is there a way we can channel this enthusiasm to achieve educational goals? Well, of course! These are the key pedagogic reasons why I use facebook with students:

  • You get to know them (and they get to know YOU) in a whole different light. Let’s face it, if you are a secondary school teacher in Argentina, you see students once or twice a week and you have many different groups. In my case I usually have more than 200 students! Can I really know each and every one of them and what they like? Can they see me as somebody they can trust if I am almost a stranger? Facebook is all about self-expression so it can become a useful tool. Once you start using it, you learn about students’ tastes and hobbies, and have the chance to show them what you like. In that way, you become a real person they can connect to, not just a content deliverer. 
  • You can create a more supportive atmosphere. Communication is essential to develop good rapport but, once again, if you hardly ever see your students, that may turn difficult. Using facebook will help you keep in touch with them. Those students who are shy or have doubts after class can send you a private message ( or even chat with you ) when they are stuck on a homework question or don’t understand a particular topic. Students will appreciate having the chance to contact you when they are in need. 

So, if you decide to start facebooking, what exactly can you do? These are some of the things I have done and how I have done them:

  • I set up a second facebook account just for students (or parents). Last year I used to “friend” my oldest students (17/18 years old and adults). It all went smoothly, but I felt a little too exposed. I know there are ways to limit what your students can see but I never learnt exactly how to do it. That’s why I created a different account this year and could finally relax. Now, I can “friend” anyone because I can choose exactly what I want them to see. However, from time to time, I make a point of posting something personal or a little silly (such as a funny picture of myself). Why? Because I don’t want them to feel this account is “cold” or “too academic”. For example, on St. Patrick’s Day I wrote some information on the celebration and I uploaded a picture of myself wearing a green wig. Students loved it (and had a good laugh!). 
  • What do I share with my students? Useful links, photos of things we’ve done in class (so that they can show them to their parents and other friends), videos, and anything that can be useful or interesting. I also remind them of homework assignments and deadlines. 
  • I create groups. Each class has its own. Groups may be open (anyone can become a member and see what’s in it), closed (you have to be invited to join the group and see what members post) or secret (only members see the group, who's in it, and what people post there). What I always choose is “closed” so that only students in a particular class can become members. What are some of the advantages of having a group? Well, if some students don’t want to “friend” me they can be added to the group by one of their classmates and still interact with me and the rest of the people there. 

What do YOU think ? Have you tried using facebook with students? How do you use it?