Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Getting Beyond the Surface with Online Discussions

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A science teacher colleague of mine recently asked about how to get his students started using Twitter discussions.  He was curious about the ins and outs of using hashtags.  I'm thrilled he's considering ways to use this platform to extend the discussions in his science classroom; engaging students in online discussions is a powerful platform for fueling thinking, dialogue, questioning, debate, research, and synthesis.  My caution to this teacher was that deciding the hashtag is only the tip of the iceberg!

While students might know more than we do about the ins and outs of Twitter, it doesn't necessarily mean they are armed with the skills to engage in a riveting academic discussion.  We must teach students how to engage in these platforms, and doing so will teach them a host of great skills in addition to the content.

  • Begin with the question.  Before you ever encourage students to share their ideas online, it might be worthwhile to spend time generating questions.  Whether your topic is a novel, a mathematical concept, or a historical event, a question grid such as this one can help students consider questions that are powerful for online discussions.  Questions in the top left of this grid are questions that can easily be googled.  They are important questions because understanding the basic foundation often helps us dive into deeper questions, but they may not fuel an online dialogue.  As you move to the lower right corner of this grid, questions become more and more complex.  Students might work collaboratively to develop as many questions on a topic using the grid.  Then discuss which questions might best move the online discussion forward.  
  • Consider roles.  Be specific about the various ways to engage in online discussion by using roles to make the skills explicit.  Assign each student a role for the first few online discussions and rotate roles so that students experience practicing the various skills. 
    • Questioner: Proposes open-ended questions to fuel the discussion
    • Provocateur: Acts as the devil's advocate trying to get students to see opposing viewpoints
    • Explorer: Explores and shares relevant links to expand the information under consideration
    • Connector: Seeks outside experts to engage in the conversation by posing questions or comments directly to the expert
    • First Responder: Responds to the questions and comments of others with new questions, ideas, or information
    • Summarizer: Recaps the major points and questions of the entire online discussion back to the class 
  • Model and deconstruct.  It's critical to participate in the conversation with students and model the kinds of posts you'd like to see.  It can also be helpful to isolate specific posts and discuss them as a class.  How did the post contribute to the online discussion?  What worked?  What could be improved for next time? 
  • Synthesize and summarize.  One of the biggest challenges of online conversations is getting participants to read past their own comments.  Often, students will make their required post and never go back to read anything else.  They are missing so much rich dialogue!  Make it a part of the process to synthesize the information with other content you've been exploring in class, and summarize the highlights of the online discussion.  Students might even respond to a thinking stem such as: 
    • I used to think ____ but now I think _____
    • Because of _____'s comment/question, I'm now wondering ________
    • Prior to this discussion, I hadn't thought about ______
  • Join forces.  Once you have a few online discussions under your belt, join forces with another class to make the conversation more dynamic. These could be your own classes that are in a different hour, or join with a class across the hall or the world.  Understanding multiple perspectives and considering new questions/ideas will add another dimension to the discussion and guide students to think beyond the surface.  

Friday, July 25, 2014

Find Relationships in the Wreckage

Venice, 2013
True confessions: My husband is a home wrecker. This is a picture of us in Venice last summer, and we're very happy.  This summer has been a bit different.  He's become completely obsessed.  I hear him tossing and turning at night, and I know he's not up thinking about me.  He's constantly running "errands" and trying to learn all these new tricks.  I'm getting a bit worried.

It's not what you'd think though.  When I say he's a home wrecker, I mean it literally.  Earlier this summer, I told him I'd like to do a photo collage on the back wall of our living room.  He decided we should just redo the entire living room.   And I don't mean just buy some new furniture.  Greg suddenly had visions for an arched doorway, a granite fireplace, wall lighting, crown molding, and more.  The scary part...he wanted to do the work himself.  Did I tell you my husband doesn't have much experience with home renovation?  So here are a few photos of the current status of my living room.

I'm cautiously optimistic that Greg will be able to complete these projects soon and that they are going to turn out well.  Our living room desperately needed an overhaul.  But even if they don't turn out well, I'm really proud of him.  I'm not sure I would have the courage to just start carving up walls and ripping off fireplace tile.  He's teaching himself how to do all this by just digging in, watching a load of YouTube videos, consulting with some local experts, and problem solving along the way.  I wish learning in our classrooms could look more like our home renovation project. The exciting part is that it CAN!

I'd like to share some ideas for using digital tools to break the ice with students.  Using digital tools to build relationships in the first few weeks of school is a great way to help students get comfortable using digital tools in the academic environment.   You'll likely learn things about students in these venues that you wouldn't in more traditional icebreaker activities.  While it's natural to feel some trepidation about using technology in the classroom, don't let the fears stop you from exploring the potential.  I guarantee you'll build relationships from the wreckage!  As you decide on how to begin the year with students, consider your PURPOSE for the icebreaker activities.

To guide students in being proactive about their digital footprint:

  • Create a digital cover letter using  While you're at it, be sure to create one for yourself. Thanks to the suggestion of George Couros I created one for myself.  Check it out here.  
  • Design a digital resume using a tool like Prezi.  This is an especially great activity for older students, but don't dismiss it if you teach younger students.  There are some pretty amazing entrepreneurs that are no more than 10 years old!
  • Challenge students to create or redesign their Twitter profile to showcase more about their passions and pursuits for impacting the world.  This is an especially great idea if you plan to use Twitter in your classroom. 
To get students comfortable sharing online:
  • Consider having students use the YouTube webcam to create a quick broadcast about themselves.  It will get them comfortable talking in video format, which can be a great formative assessment tool throughout the school year.
  • Use a backchannel platform such as Today's Meet, Padlet, or Twitter to answer simple prompts about themselves.  I love Catlin Tucker's ideas for using Padlet as icebreaker.  The prompt is simple: where in the world would you want to travel and why?  Add a sticky note and explain.
  • Use Pinterest to create a board that illustrates "10 Things about ____" with captions that explain the photos.  Students could create the board about themselves, or this could be used as a strategy for exploring content. Check out this quick YouTube tutorial:                                                            
  • Students could create a selfie story showing "A Day in the Life of ___" and capture it via Instagram, PowerPoint, iMovie, etc. 
To support students in acclimating to a new building culture: 
  • Create a scavenger hunt of people and places throughout your school and allow students to use Instagram and a class hashtag to facilitate the journey. 
  • Encourage students to meet each other using FaceTime, Skype, or Google Hangouts to facilitate a game of digital hide and seek.  Spanish teacher Abby Saverino used this game to build relationships and help her students in building their Spanish speaking skills. 
To get students engaging in tools you plan to use throughout the year: 
  • Allow students to create an infographic about themselves.  Creating infographics is a fantastic act of synthesis, research, reading, writing, and multimedia presentation, and they can be used for so many academic purposes throughout the school year. and Piktochart are two of my favorite sites for students. 
  • Create a map of important locations in your life and annotate each location using Google Tour Builder.  This mapping tool can be used to tell all kinds of digital stories throughout the year about academic content. 
  • Create a digital scrapbook using RealTime Board or a timeline of your life using Capzles. Again, great tools to come back to over and over again throughout the year. 
As you consider all the possibilities, remember that offering students CHOICE in how they represent themselves online goes along way.  Additionally, capitalize on the power of doing icebreakers in a digital format by sharing them on your classroom website in an "About our Class" section, including them in parent newsletters, and building community throughout your school by sharing them on classroom hashtags.  What if 5th graders commented on the 3rd graders personal digital scrapbooks, or seniors welcomed freshmen to the building by commenting on their infographics?  When we use digital tools we have the power to share our work beyond our own classroom walls.  Tap into that potential! And if you're feeling a little fear, remember that's a good thing.  My mantra for this year is that if I'm not feeling scared, I'm not trying hard enough!   

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Let's Get It Started!

Who would want to leave this face?!
2 days ago I was not very enthused about another school year.  Don't get me wrong; I love my job, but I have an 8-week-old baby and leaving Henry right now isn't high on my list.  I can happily say my mind is getting in gear!  I've had the awesome opportunity to hear George Couros and Catlin Tucker speak the last two days at our Liberty LEADS conference, and I'm feeling so inspired to tackle a new school year.  Blogging and engaging with educators online is one of my personal goals for growth this year, so here goes it!  I'm counting on you all to hold me to it.

As a new school year approaches, I'm pondering all of the to-do items for the beginning of the year. How will we get to know our students?  How do we establish class expectations?  How do we make sure the chaos in the classroom is focused on enthusiastic learning, not troubleshooting and keeping everyone focused?  How do we reinvent our methods of tackling these beginning routines to capitalize on the power of digital tools?  I'd like to launch a series focused on ideas for starting the year and share some ideas for using digital tools to engage with students from day 1.  But first WHY?

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It's amazing to me how pervasive technology is within our lives.  I never had the power to text message in high school and laptops were definitely not yet the norm even when I was in college.  Now I can't imagine going anywhere without a smartphone or working without my laptop.  I can message my brother in Boston, hear step-by-step driving directions, or snap a picture or video at any moment. Technology certainly comes with its pros and cons, but if one thing is certain, I'd bet it's not going away.  I'm inspired to think about how and why we can teach students the powerful opportunities they have because of the technology that is part of our lives.  So why begin the year utilizing technology?

Here are just a few reasons:

As I said before, technology isn't going away. The reality is that we can put our head in the sand and ignore the amazing tools that we have before us, or we can model for students what you can do with digital tools.  I've found that students are often wicked good at using digital tools for social or entertainment purposes, but they struggle to understand how to use digital tools for academic purposes. They probably won't make this leap if we don't teach students the methods and allow them the opportunity to make mistakes.

Let's be part of the solution by guiding students in building a positive digital footprint.  George Couros was incredibly honest about the reality that future employers will google our students before they are hired.  The question is what will they find?  We can critique our students' actions online, or we can help them to build a positive digital presence that represents who they are and where they want to go.  Building a powerful and positive digital presence may just lead them to opportunities they've never even considered.

There's an incredible opportunity to learn about our students using digital tools and build stronger relationships.  I'll never forget my colleague Stu telling me that he expected relationships with students to be less powerful when his classroom went 1:1, but the exact opposite happened.  When students send you a video response with questions, the ability to see facial expressions and hear how they articulate ideas is amazing.  Watching students record videos while holding their dog or sitting in their living room will help you connect with students in ways you can't with paper and pencil.

The idea of a school community will take on a whole new meaning.  When we create using digital tools, we have the opportunity to share like never before.  Consider creating a class hashtag where you and your students can share links to class projects.  Additionally, invite parents, colleagues, and other classrooms to collaborate via the hashtag.  Students are no longer creating just for the teacher when we use digital tools and create spaces for sharing.

I'm sure there are many other reasons to consider; these are just a few rumbling around my brain. Check back in the coming days for practical ideas you can use in your classroom as the school year begins, and please share your ideas with me!