In her book ELL Shadowing As A Catalyst for Change, Ivania Soto quotes a teacher who – after following a protocol to shadow an English Learner student for several periods – discovered that she was doing most of the talking in her classroom. The teacher goes on to note that the person who talks the most tends to learn the most; she had realized the need to shift the speaking from herself to her students.
In CLMOOC 2013, I realized that I was doing most of the technology use in my classroom – and, just as the teacher in Soto’s book observed, that meant that I was doing most of the learning. I decided that I needed to shift the balance to give my students more opportunities to explore.
To promote this change, I implemented two inquiries during the school year: blogging in the fall, and interest-driven research in the spring. My inquiries had mixed results, and I was not as successful as I had hoped. However, like a science experiment that fails, my inquiries yielded useful insight, and I am hopeful in that 2014-15 my students and I will see further progress.
For my blogging inquiry, I chose Kidblog as a platform because it was free and easy to manage. While blogging is certainly not the latest tool – in fact, it’s quite 2006 – it was a logical first step for me because I understood it well and felt confident about blogging with my students.
In the fall, I taught two 9th-grade English classes, a senior English class, and CAHSEE Prep, an “intervention” class intended to help students do better on the California High School Exit Exam. The 9thgrade class was the most rigidly paced, and, not surprisingly, I spent the least amount of time blogging with these students. My seniors were a well-prepared, mature group, and I expected them to be successful with blogging; I was surprised when blogging failed to “take hold” with that group.
My CAHSEE Prep class, on the other hand, was the most successful at blogging. they latched on to my admonition to “write about what interests you” and produced some wonderful results. A junior wrote a series about the culture and history of her native Sri Lanka; another student wrote about raising roosters; a third (a young man with a learning disability who, incidentally, taught us that the plural of “mantis” is “mantes”) wrote about fixing bicycles.
At the end of the semester, I gave my classes a questionnaire, and “more time to write” was a popular response. I realized that I needed to avoid making blogging just another assignment and create a workshop environment that blogging could be a part of.
At about the same time, I came across the idea of the Genius Hour. Based on a practice at Google of allowing employees to use company time to work on “passion projects,” the Genius Hour is an effort by educators to give students class time to pursue projects that deeply interest them. The idea is that students have 1 day per week to work on projects that they design in consultation with the teacher. This would be a perfect application of Connected Learning, I thought, and I decided to try it out with my new Period 1 and my senior class. (Period 1 was new because my CAHSEE class had been closed at the semester; I taught a “makeup” 9th-grade English class in the spring.)
I started the project by giving my students a Google Form questionnaire in which they “pitched” their projects. The students had exciting ideas one senior wanted to use Auto CAD to design a doghouse; another proposed collaborating with a classmate on a podcast review of video games; a third student wanted to create a blog about “The Walking Dead.”
However, the project quickly stalled.
Several students did produce successful Genius Hour work. The most notable was a wonderful webpage of food reviews for local eateries; other projects, like a blog about slaughterhouses, showed signs of promise despite being incomplete. However, most of my students were not successful in pursuing the project they had pitched on the questionnaire. I discovered that I had not created enough structure, nor had I been clear enough about my expectations.
In the senior class, one obstacle was time: students often used the Friday Genius Hour to complete class assignments that they had fallen behind on. This class was a section of the Expository Reading and Writing Course (ERWC), whose challenging curriculum was developed by Cal State University professors in collaboration with high school teachers. I was teaching ERWC for the first time, and the students and I struggled all semester to find a balance between the demands of the course and the students’ developmental needs. These kids were high-performing and mature, about to be adults and yet not quite adults.
The students also indicated in an end of the year questionnaire that they would have liked to have more structure for the assignment. I realized that even these seniors would benefit from scaffolding and a gradual release of responsibility with a research project like this.
The students in the 9th-grade course, meanwhile, needed more instruction on how to conduct research. Many lacked the background in research and academic writing to be able to pursue a research project without slipping into time-wasting. With these younger students, I needed to teach the research process before giving them the added responsibility of researching with greater independence.
I will continue to explore interest-based research in 2014-15, with my learning from 2013-14 as a starting point. My great learning from the past school year, if I can sum it up in a sentence, is that I need to teach kids how to use tools and how to select the best tools for a particular situation.
In my next post, I’ll write about how CLMOOC 2014 helped me see that those tools can be, but need not always be, digital.