The problem with choice…

is that it leads to commitment. The problem with commitment is that it takes away choice. I spent a day sharing with other teachers iPad apps we have discovered over the summer. Underlying the positive, energetic conversation was a feeling of unease tied to decision-making – for ourselves and our students. What’s the best app for…? Answer depends – personal preference, age group, purpose, features. Sometimes there is no clear answer because they seem so similar. We bring life choice experience and baggage to the table, which complicates things even further.

To use an old but useful analogy, people who chose Beta over VHS invested in the wrong technology even though the two performed the same operation. With entertainment technology there is a fear of investing in the next Beta. Life choices – including spouse, house, and job – involve a stronger although not irreversible commitment. Choosing one excludes all other options, and all three involve entangling alliances of a sort. Thus, these life choices can produce great anxiety and stress when we are making them. On the low end of the commitment scale is grocery shopping. I may spend some time trying to pick the right salad dressing, but if I do not like it, I can easily replace it. And, years of experience give me a pretty good idea of what I might like. Today’s tech tool choices fall into a range in between the extremes.

Many of us use Evernote. A few are still using OneNote, which was the tool of choice when we were thinking tablet pcs might be the future. To adopt Evernote was a pretty easy decision – lots of people I respect and tons of articles have shared its virtues. Maybe someday I will have the time to experiment with all of its features, but for now I am happy it does everything I need – except let me handwrite notes. Sometimes I like to do that. So, that sent me into the world of note-taking apps. I have yet to figure out why I would like Notability, Noteshelf or GoodNotes best. My basic toe-in-the-water experience is that these are pretty similar. At the same time, for organizational purposes, I want to choose one. The problem is that I do not feel strongly enough to commit, and I am not convinced that there is not some clear winner out there that I do not yet know about. My colleague introduced me to Zite, which I tried and really like; another colleague previously introduced me to Flipboard, which I also like a lot. I do not have time in my day for both, so which to choose? In this case I will probably go back and forth until I gravitate to one. Since this does not involve my own production, it is easier to stay on the fence for a while.

Add students to the mix, and there is another layer of complexity – the tension involved in training kids to be independent learners and providing enough structure and guidance. Mandating every student to use the same tech tool does not honor their personal preferences and styles, but providing too much choice can be dizzying, even paralyzing for kids who are uncertain. The higher the stakes, the harder the choice is. Picking a presentation tool for one assignment is closer to grocery shopping. It is a temporary, relatively low stakes choice that kids can make often with some background knowledge. Selecting a blogging platform is a little more complicated. Choosing a system to manage their notes and research requires greater commitment with more investment. What student wants to create a LiveBinder only to be told the class is shifting to Evernote, while he really wants to keep using GoogleDocs. I am fine with kids making their own choices in theory, but I can also appreciate how it could get out of hand. I do not know if I can provide the time necessary to have them really fully investigate options – and I do not know that it would be worth the time. My overall thinking is that seniors should have more choices than freshman and sophomores, so that is how I will operate, but I still have some thinking to do.

The tension increases even further when we talk as a faculty about the value of choice but recognize the problems involved in having students shift back and forth between too many tools. I bristle at the idea of schoolwide conformity because I like to jump in and try new things. I want to be able to shift when something better comes along. But I also know that I do not want my students spending too much of their energy figuring out what they are supposed to be doing and where they are supposed to be looking in my class.

At this point, I feel like I am understanding some of the challenges inherent in all of the new possibilities for teaching and learning with technology. The iPad pilot program we are launching started the wheels turning on this topic. I will spend this year (and beyond) thinking through the best way to navigate these challenges with the best interests of the students I mind. I think this is a new reality of my job.

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My Kids Schooling Me

New trends in education employ gaming principles. Project based learning is all the rage. I think both are valuable, and I am working to incorporate them into my classes. But there is a voice in the back of my head telling me not to go too far in any one direction. I worry there is a danger that in reaching kids that we did not reach before we may be shutting out another group. Autonomy and differentiation may provide the best hooks to hang the proverbial teaching hat on. At least that is what my own non-scientific study tells me.

I have twin boys who will be 8 in a few weeks. They are fraternal, and they are really different kids. When people tell me they were talking to one of my boys but do not know which one, I tell them that if they tell me what he said I can tell who it was. They are forever challenging me to navigate between their competing visions, for a meal or for an afternoon.

One child thrives on video games. He loves the challenges of beating the different levels. He learns the tricks and tries to tell my other son what to do. He speaks a language that I only half understand. Whenever I want to get him to work harder at something, I remind him about his commitment to his games. He has said he would like math more if it was a game. He likes the math apps on my iPad. While he enjoys other activities, video games are his passion. He would love to learn anything in the context of a game.

My other child is writing a book about baseball legends. He started it today, and he is proceeding methodically. He is reading the backs of baseball cards. He asked me about some players he did not know. He also identified the internet as a place he would conduct research. During reading time tonight, he was at his desk writing away. He enjoys video games, but he does not have the same passion as his brother. He did visit the library in a video game to learn about the history of the Olympics. Sports are his passion, and he wants to learn as much as he can.

I do not think that every teacher and lesson should accommodate the learning preferences of both of my children; life does not always work exactly how you want. I practically break out in hives when I have to fill out forms, but that does not exempt me. At the same time, I hope that there is enough in the curriculum to fuel my children’s passions. It would be nice if their teachers know how to tap into their interests in not only what to learn but how to learn it. Some level of differentiation and student autonomy is necessary. But it is more than that. With guidance, students can find themselves in lots of different places, like the Library in a video game or the Math Ninja app.

As I embark on the new school year, I look for inspiration at home. I am so lucky to have fraternal twins. They teach me things every day, when I pay attention. Today’s lessons are to pay close attention to the micro-moments where kids can tap into their motivators no matter the lesson or project and not to fall in love too much with any one style or method of teaching and learning. While I cannot quite imagine having my own children in my class, I need to teach as if they are.

Talking to Myself

With about a week to go until meetings start and a little over two weeks before classes begin, many thoughts swirl in my head. I have not hit my annual late August stretch of insomnia, but it is just a matter of time. This post is meant to record my thoughts before I shift into overdrive. Notes to self:

I should approach students who are stuck in their work with a conversation, not an answer. It is so easy to just solve the dilemma for the child and move on. That is generally what they want. But unless I plan to be there every time, it is not helpful in the long run. A student who graduated last year told me he had learned to write in my class. I remember long, sometimes agonizing conversations about a thesis for his research paper. And I remember the look in his eyes when he came up with the thesis. I do not have any memory of times I have given an answer to a kid just to move things forward. Patience and investment work wonders.

Related to this- feedback is the most significant way I can impact learning. I know this. Feedback needs to be prompt, not perfect. If a comment that I make is not perfectly clear, I can talk to the student. I do not need to point out every single error in a draft. Most work really should be considered a draft, until the marking period ends. If I hand back papers the students have forgotten about – I have failed. The English teacher who taught me to write well handed back papers the next day, sometimes even later the same day. That is the gold standard for prompt feedback.

It is important that I check in with my students every day. I shy away from asking them whether or not they are enjoying the lessons because I am afraid that what they say might make me rethink my carefully thought out plan. I tell myself that I can judge by their engagement. That is true to some extent, but I need to check in to get their perspective. Sometimes I may feel something is important, even if they are not loving it. Then, I have the chance to explain to the students why we are doing what we are doing, even if it seems like a drag. Rethinking is part of my job that I generally embrace – I just need to let the students in on it more. Added bonus – I get to know my students better – what they enjoy and how they learn best.

In summing this up, I was going to look for three words to represent my three points. Looking back at what I have written, I realize it comes down to one word – conversation – although I need to broaden my definition of conversation to include written comments. Even with written feedback, in an ideal setting that is the beginning of a conversation. What better skill to model for kids than effective communication?

Now I need to put a reminder in my calendar to read this post at the end of September, and probably every month.

Best Summer Grant Work

It is late Friday afternoon in the summer, and I feel compelled to write a blog post. I spent the day working with colleagues on curricular plans for the upcoming school year. And it was really fun.

I am lucky to work in a school that provides small grants to teachers who want to work together in the summer on curriculum. The past two summers we have worked on course teams to plan the year ahead. The conversations ranged from big picture essential questions to smaller scale day to day planning. These gatherings were important in building a culture of collaboration, where teachers of the same course agreed on what to teach. When moving from a culture of autonomy to one where we recognize that we can make our courses better by learning from one another and pooling our resources and experiences, those work sessions were necessary. Now, collaboration is the norm in my department for the required courses and done informally for electives.

This year, we organized our grant work around the themes of PBL and History Labs. We came together having done some common reading. We started by discussing our thoughts about the readings. Then, we broke into working groups to create plans. Each teacher chose what he or she wanted to work on. Some worked on electives alone and others worked on core courses in pairs or threes.

I worried that it would not be organized or structured enough. I was concerned that we would not be efficient, not get enough done; what happened instead was amazing. We worked, shared, digressed, took breaks as needed, worked some more, digressed, and shared. At the end of the day, we all had plans that we are very excited about. Having people in the room working on related but different tasks provided healthy feedback and great fellowship. The odd thing for me was that it did not feel efficient as we were working, but when I look back at what we accomplished I am really impressed.

It did not feel like work. That’s the bottom line. That’s what I wish for my students when they begin working through the PBL unit on the Renaissance that we planned today or the History Lab on the legacies of Jefferson and Hamilton or the PBL unit on immigration. When I worry that students are not being efficient, I need to remember that productive does not always have to be efficient. I need to remember my summer grant work and measure where they are at the end of the day, not every minute.