Saturday, October 27, 2012

Kids These Days: Thoughts on Change and Teaching

I have mentioned before that I consider Google+ an important part of my PLN.  It is an honestly intellectual space for me where I get to converse with great teachers from all over the nation  (and sometimes outside the nation) about education, what education is, what it could be, what I would like it to be, and how it could get there.

Inspired by discussions I've taken part in on G+, I've spent a lot of time lately thinking about students. Even in the sacred space of Google+, among some of the most forward-thinking educators I have ever met, I sometimes see the words "kids have changed."

They are some of my least favorite words.  Mostly because they represent a generational "us vs. them" mentality, and partly because I don't agree with them.

My kids, my students, are much like I and my friends were when I was in high school.  They are at an age that is both dependent and independent.  They worry about how everyone else views them but don't want anyone to know they care about that.  They think about the future but their experience is limited so they spend most of their time thinking about themselves.  And that's okay because they are just now at an amazing point in their lives, a point of self-discovery, the precipice of adulthood and self-actualization, when they learn who they are and who they want to be.  Teenhood is a self-indulgent and exploratory time of life, and it has been that way since we stopped expecting people to begin work and raise families before they turn twenty.

Kids haven't changed.

The world has.

Just last week, I wanted to tell another teacher that I really like his Twitter icon.  I tweeted him the complement in Latin.  It's cool to get communicate with someone in my language of choice, but that's not why I chose to write him in Latin.  It also happens to be our common language--he's from Spain.

The world is getting smaller and technology--specifically the internet--is the reason.  It connects people regardless of national borders or distances between households.  It's all around us: smartphones, tablets, laptops--try going somewhere without seeing at least one of these electrical devices.

And it's pretty much omniscient.

I can't remember the last time I had a question I couldn't answer via Google.  Most likely my students can't remember a first time. 

That is the difference between our worlds.  Right there.  When I didn't know something growing up, I had to either find a book or ask someone, usually an adult.  Teachers were often a source of any knowledge that I could not find easily on my own.  Today, my students pull out their phones when they don't know something.  They don't need an adult to play "fount of knowledge" because they have a real fount of knowledge few humans could compete with.  My students can find out much more about the Romans online than I can hold in my head. There is a constant flow of information online, ever-updated and upgraded, and it's amazingly accessible. 

I'm not necessary any more.  Teachers have become obsolete.

If I subscribe to a traditional theory of a teacher's place in education.  Which, fortunately, I do not.  There is no reason, in a society that is becoming increasingly technology-savvy and in a world where information is available at the touch of a button, to continue viewing teachers in such a limited way.  We should not be arbiters of information but guides, co-learners, helping our students and ourselves learn to utilize information now that it is so readily available.

There is a sort of artificiality to the way schools are run today.  My friend, Justin Schwamm, hit upon the same idea in yesterday's post on his blog:
"Both schools and textbooks function ‘as designed,’ but the design is obsolete, and so is the underlying paradigm (knowledge is scarce and must be transmitted from expert to novice)."

Knowledge is abundant.  So, when schools and administrative sources try to fit students into an obsolete and flawed paradigm, built on a system designed to filter the "good" students (students who sit still, take notes, study, and test well) from the "bad" (anyone who does not fit the previous description) and to train future  factory workers (bells, isolated work stations, absolute authority), they are going to chafe and rebel.  And many teachers, who honestly don't understand the source of the resistance, begin to blame "kids these days" and their "overabundance" of technology, instead of looking at the redundancy of a program that only offers a resource students already can get more easily, more quickly, and more concisely.  

So what do we do?

My opinion is that we need to rethink education.  Figure out what our goal is.  We claim that we want every child to succeed, then we measure success by a means that is definitely not adjusted to the needs of every child.  We claim that we want our children to want to learn, then shove them into static formations and practice a basic memorize-information-regurgitate-information formula that interests no one.  We claim we want to prepare kids for life in today's world, then feed them knowledge and refuse to train them to think for themselves and work cooperatively and creatively (easily necessary 21st century skills).

I myself want every child to succeed, and I want my kids to want to learn, and most of all I want them to become life-long learners who know how to seek out the knowledge they need and utilize it to create, to solve problems, and to organize.  I would love to see a system that cares more about teaching children to use their smartphones in a way that is constructive, instead of a system that tries (and fails) to discourage kids from using the tools that they have and that make sense to them.  I want a system that celebrates failure, as long as it's failure that leads to learning and future success.  I want a system that supports chance-taking and pushing yourself academically more than getting a good grade and taking tests well.

Unfortunately, even though I work for and with great people, and enjoy where I teach in most ways, there is just not that kind of flexibility where I work.  It's not my administrators' faults.  In order for kids to succeed and get a job, they have to go to college.  In order for them to go to college, they have to graduate.  In order for them to graduate, they have to succeed on a variety of tests.  If we don't teach to the test, our kids suffer the most in our current system, and I'm not willing to sacrifice them to make a point.

So, for now, I continue in my position of "fount of knowledge."  I hope someday to have a new title, "co-learner," reflecting a role that is cooperative instead of authoritative.  I hope someday all kids will feel valued and supported instead of filtered out of a system that was not built for them.  I hope then, at that point, no one will still be saying "kids these days" except to celebrate student achievements.

But right now, we can talk.  Most of my ideas were spawned or inspired by some really great conversations on Google+, where we encourage each other to seriously discuss education, from all angles.  Talking about these sorts of things helps us understand our own thoughts and our own opinions more clearly, or sometimes exposes us to possibilities we never really knew were there.  Join the discussion.  The more we talk, the better chance we have of being heard and making a better place.  Or at least helping someone think, whether they agree with us or not.

Change is coming.  We can fight it or we can accept it, change ourselves, and become better than we were.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Singing a Song for Memory's Sake

I think I need to start by apologizing.  I have let almost two months slip by without posting anything.  I am sorry.  Miriam and I started this blog because we hoped to share ideas and generate conversation about classroom practices.  That really cannot happen if I don't bother to post anything.

I have excuses; some of my excuses will likely actually become blog posts.

Generally, though, it's the beginning of the school year, when I spend most of my time trying to get my head on straight and my feet firmly planted.  I only started reading blogs regularly again about a week ago.

And now, a week later, a blog post.

One of my and my students' favorite activities so far this year has been a simple one that I have actually done before in class--without integrated technology.

I believe in using art to help students elicit better and truer connections between concepts, help them learn or memorize the many, many forms that Latin tends to ask out of them, and help them create their own relationship with the material we cover.  Sometimes I have them draw.  Last year I made them write a haiku (an activity I hope to develop more fully this year--I enjoyed the exercise and Latin, with its lack of emphasis on word order, is particularly well-suited to haiku).  And there is always music.

We sing in my class almost from day one.  A song for the present tense.  One for the noun forms.  I have songs on a CD I purchased, songs handed down to me by other Latin teachers, and even some that I have created myself.

All of that helps, and when students fill out surveys at the end of the year listing what worked and didn't work in my class, the songs are always listed as the most helpful aspect of class.  They are also often listed by some of those same students as the things that they disliked the most--but I can take the bad as long as I get the good.

About a month ago (sorry again!), my students were being asked to learn the forms of hic and ille, which are very irregular words.  I actually don't have a song in my pocket for those forms, so I couldn't offer them a quick recording they could put on repeat at home until they learned all the endings.  Instead, I chose to ask students to form small groups (this is Latin II, so they have all had my class before, we have a good rapport, and I don't need to either give them a seating chart or choose groups for them) and create songs that incorporated all of the different forms.  The rule was that the songs couldn't be too long and they had to be catchy.

Roaming around the room as students worked, I found some students singing various children's songs together while others were furiously thumbing through their music lists on their smart phones, playing bits of songs they thought might work as the rest of their groups listened and commented.  Each group had to repeatedly sing each form to test the forms with each new song.  Each group had to sing the forms several times to practice and get the song right.

Then came the recording.  This part of the activity needs some tweaking before I do it again, and it really just came to me as a whim when a student asked me "Will we be singing these for the whole class?"  She somehow managed to look both hopeful and worried, and I found my normal answer ("No"--because I don't like putting students on the spot when I don't have to--besides, even without incorporating a class performance, I was getting what I wanted out the activity: practice and repetition) somehow lacking.  Instead, before I knew it, the words "We'll be recording them" had slipped out and she left pleased.  I stood in place, wondering how I was going to pull it off.

Enter VoiceThread.  You have probably heard of it.  It's an online service that allows you to choose an image, set it up as a "voicethread" and then open it up for "comments," which can be recorded audio, typed, or drawn.  There are many ways to use this service, most of them much more creative than my simple public repository for student songs, and I promise a future blog post that highlights this free web tool.

The next day, when they were due to have their songs completed and ready to record, I showed my students how to make a voicethread and how to record their songs as a comment on an image of their choosing.  I logged them in to my own account, offered them a microphone, and let each group take a turn.  Most groups took a couple of tries to record their songs successfully (just think--more repetitions!).  I had the rest of the class working on a different activity while a group at a time recorded.

That evening, I quickly posted links to each voicethread on a blog I created solely for this kind of purpose, created a QR code (via Kaywa) that linked to the blog post, and posted the code outside my door.

The one thing I would do differently if I had it to do over (and I will--next year) is to have one voicethread for each class, or perhaps choose a different repository system altogether.  Not that VoiceThread isn't pretty, but it has its limits.  On a free account, for example, I can only create five of my own voicethreads (a problem when you have 10-12 groups recording).

My students really enjoyed this, took songwriting much more seriously when they realized they would be recording their songs, and got to repeat the forms of two difficult Latin words over and over, without it feeling rote.

What are some ways you incorporate songs--especially songwriting--into your own classes?