Monday, 30 March 2015

Thinking about ITE secondary grad reading habits

A recent class raised some interesting questions for me. While I've been teaching other iterations of the same cohort online for some time, recently was the first time I spent any real face-to-face (f2f) time with the on-campus group. The online groups are reliant on reading to find their ways through the topics I'm teaching. The f2f group (taught in two separate sessions on the same day) is behaving really differently, perhaps because they are relying on being physically present.

What I'm wondering is whether or not this physical presence is inducing passivity and indolence, in the sense that turning up and being there is all these initial teacher education students think is required. Is the modus operandi to avoid thinking and reading all costs? Am I being unreasonable? I wonder.

Perhaps you can make up your mind as you read. Let me explain. I focused yesterday's lesson on provoking these people who want to be secondary school teachers to examine both their online search practices, and their critique skills in judging the 'truth' of specific websites. The goal was to help them see the gaps in their practices and to consider the implications for what they will need to teach their own learners.

One of the tasks grouped students in order to review a different website per group, and to contribute their views of it to a GoogleDoc available to each group. This was for them to practice online synchronous collaboration, and its potential for learning in schools. The task itself provided instructions. One of these said READ EVERYTHING FIRST. That is because in the half page of bullet points that followed (no more than 1-2 lines each), one included a hotlink to page of sites that specifically dealt with how to critique a website. NO-ONE checked it out and no-one read to the end of the instructions. This meant, that when they examined the sites in relation to the questions, they completely missed the point of the sites - 2 were extreme political views while the other 5 were hoax/satirical sites.

When I asked why the set of instructions weren't read, some complained that there was too much to read! This scares me. It scares me because if these people wanting to be teachers don't read, and don't read actively and critically, how will they teach students to interrogate information they come across? How will they help their learners develop a broad understanding of ideas, or to become wise?

In the discussion that followed once the hoax/extreme viewpoint sites were revealed (exposing the lack of critique the groups generally expressed), I talked about how important it is to help learners become critical thinkers about what they read online.  One student asked something like this, which is a great question, for it also links to what some subject teachers argue about subject-specific literacy: If I'm teaching a unit that is about a week long, won't I waste time teaching students these things? Why I can't I assume they will learned it in another class? It suggests a view that content is the only concern, not metacognitive processes or a focus on Key Competencies as expressed in both the New Zealand Curriculum and the OECD expectations in the development of curriculum documents across countries.

Each teacher is responsible for the learning needs of those in front of them. It doesn't take much to include search/critique practices into a task, but it also requires some proactive pedagogical design about things that really matter - the skills that are transferable across any kind of area of life.

We can put it this way: Should a wood chopper sharpen an axe before using it, or continue to chop away forever and getting nowhere? Learners need their learning axes honed on a regular basis so they can fully and courageously inherit the earth. This honing includes their ability to find, critique and judge what they come across online, especially if teachers expect them to find their own information.

So, should teachers be active readers? Active learners? Active interrogators of processes, information, and practices? How do we address this in initial teacher education?

Your thoughts and advice are very welcome.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Salad days: Some high school memories

I’m attending my high school reunion, the 60th birthday of Queen's High School, and 27 years since my completion of what was then "7th form". This has prompted me to reflect upon my time at school, particularly my five years of secondary education. I bring to this reflection a range of new and more mature understandings as an educator, and it is possible that I recall the ‘good old days’ through a rose-tint to some extent, but nevertheless I’m compelled to share some of the magic of my high school years.

I remember my school as a place where I thrived and was encouraged to succeed and to do so on my own terms with a great deal of freedom and choice. Here are a few memories, many from my final year, and a two key principles I have distilled from these:

1.     Relationships: We had some amazing teachers at high school – dedicated, talented, inspiring. Our teachers cared for us as people and conveyed respect for us, and these ways of treating each other permeated the whole school culture. I recall our 7th form common room, where we gathered in mufti (no uniform for us in our final year!). We had a room all to ourselves, with an outside deck (not often used in Dunedin); a TV and state of the art VCR (it was 1988!); couches, beanbags and a kitchenette – with jug and toaster. It was our space and a special place to hang out between classes. We also had special library privileges. When we had to leave the school for any reason, we were permitted to sign ourselves out. We were trusted and we did our best to live up to the expectations of those who entrusted us. I now work with one of the teachers who was on staff during this time, and he recently told me that each teacher in the school was required to keep a note of students who were acting out or who seemed troubled or otherwise preoccupied. Each teacher would submit the notes to the Principal at the end of each week, and she would read through each and every one in order to identify patterns and concerns. The principal would then take proactive steps to address the issues and intervene to ensure the student was cared for. 

2.     Relevance: I took a range of classes during my secondary schooling, and tried my hand at pretty much anything. In doing so, I discovered that I wasn’t a Scientist or a Mathematician, I didn’t have any particular aptitude for languages other than English, and I had very little physical coordination or sporting prowess. However, I learned to research, to critique literature, to debate well and to type. I am very often thankful for my mastery of the Pitmans and Trade Certification Board typing exams. Who knew that nearly 30 years later I’d be spending hours on a computer keyboard every day, teaching online, writing for publication, and communicating with colleagues. Touch typing with speed and accuracy is one of the most valuable skills I possess.

I recall that some of our lessons in English involved us sitting around a boardroom table with classmates and teacher, discussing a text and sharing our opinions. I felt very well prepared for university tutorials the following year, where academic discussion was already familiar and ready for extension. I remember watching Franco Zefferelli productions of Shakespeare, and I recall our English teacher dressing in period costume to convene class as Jane Austen, inviting us to interview her while she remained in character for the whole lesson.

NZ studies lessons took place in the library, in the conversation pit, where we would sit on the steps and talk with our teacher. The school was visionary in anticipation of modern learning environments, and flexible use of space. Another creative aspect of this particular class was the opportunity to research and write a narrative from the point of view of an early settler in New Zealand. I wrote a diary, recreating the daily life of a pioneering woman, and ‘authenticated it’ by soaking the paper in tea, singeing the page edges with a stick of incense, and binding it with ribbon in a felt covered volume. Alongside the encouragement to be creative, we were also inspired to involve ourselves actively in community events and in social activism more broadly.

I remember taking time away from the classroom to go down the peninsula to assist with catering at Otakou Marae during the Waitangi Tribunal hearings for Kai Tahu.

As I was dabbling in Economics at the time, I was a Managing Director of a student-led company, which involved us setting up a business in small groups, and working to make a profit under the tuition of local business people. The Young Enterprise Scheme was very much in action back in those days, and it was a superb way to learn a little about the intricacies of commerce, accounting and management.

It is lucky for me that my days at high school were so full of opportunity, with strong and supportive relationships, freedom to learn, and creative possibilities. Sometimes I listen to and read about young people who do not experience school as I did.  Times have changed, but I wonder if there is sometimes less trust, less privilege, less opportunity and less relevance.

When I hear of schools who prioritise military-like dress codes, who ban cellphones, and emphasise curriculum coverage, I wonder.

Admittedly, when I hear of educators who champion relationships and relevance as something new and modern (21st century learning?), I also wonder…

Was my school visionary and exceptional?

Were your experiences of schooling positive and inspiring?

Do students today have relevant educational opportunities, and caring and respectful relationships at school?

 P.S. For an explanation of title, 'Salad days' is the name of the musical we performed when I was about 16 and is a youthful idiom, stemming from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra:

Cleopatra -  My salad days,
When I was green in judgment: cold in blood,
To say as I said then!

P.P.S. At the time of posting, I've been to the reunion and am home. The most special moment was hearing our principal of the day - Dame Patricia Harrison address the reunion assembly. As in the article linked, Dame Harrison talked about school as a liberating force, helping students to overcome poverty, deprivation and abuse. She and I compared ideas about respect for students and faith in the judgement of youth. 
As part of her address, Dame Harrison talked about trust and told us about empowering students to employ their own teachers, in partnership with adult decision-makers. When the school needed a music teacher, Mrs Harrison called together several of the keen and talented musicians among the student population and set them the task of shortlisting applicants by working through the CVs. The girls knew who they wanted and after interview, they nagged Mrs Harrison about whether their preferred applicant had accepted the position. It was a pleasure to watch that music teacher receive a 'living treasure award' on behalf of the school and students at our reunion, after more than 20 years of teaching at Queen's High School.

It was a pleasure to tell my typing teacher what a big difference she makes to my day, everyday!

Monday, 16 March 2015

A bit of musing

This post may be a bit indulgent, but like Dianne's blog a few of weeks ago, I've begun teaching, both face to face and online.

One of the really useful things about education this century, is that even though I'm currently working from home on limited hours (post leg surgery), it doesn't stop me connecting with my learners or my colleagues. I've been able to establish good connections with my fully online class through a series of discussions where we have pondered what it means to learn online and connect together through Moodle.

Our first three discussions centred on identifying what might be a bit scary or anxiety-inducing, hopes and then what all that might mean for connecting together. These discussions had multiple purposes. Not only did it they break the ice, but also identified how people were feeling and showing how similar people's apprehensions and expectations were. Some of these students who are doing a graduate one-year secondary teacher education programme at a distance - admitted quite a bit of trepidation at working online. So, not only are they embarking on a new career through this programme, but they are also doing it remotely, some while also working. Added to that, some admitted quite a lot of anxiety using online tools to do this programme. Some do it tough!

Others found that their organisation was in need of a big shake-up, so we spent some time sharing ideas about how to make online calendars work across devices, and how to spend time setting them up and knowing in advance what they needed to prepare. Some others commented that they were working across a range of Moodle sites, and each looked different. Some hadn't noticed that we use the block highlight tool to clearly identify which area of the page we were concentrating on, while hadn't noticed that each discussion showed the due date, and clicking on it showed them what the discussion was about. So why do I mention this? I think it suggests that they were having what I tell my husband was a man look - ie that unless it was in neon lights and pointing 'look at me!' then it wasn't there. It points to superficial reading, rather than close reading. They weren't giving themselves permission to dig deep and think deliberately until prompted about what to notice.

So, I'm musing here - speculating if you will - how much time is spent teaching people to read deeply - to drink in some text to ponder. Do we (I include myself here) spend enough time focusing our learners on actively reading to extract meaning? I think the first three discussions we had helped me provide advice about these things, but does that mean we (all teachers, regardless of context) should spend more time on the basic familiarity of text types at the start of everything we teach, particularly in the first few weeks of teaching? Might this reduce future problems for these learners? I wonder...

I'd be keen to know how others familiarise their learners to get used to the routines and practices of specific classes.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Working Smarter: Workload management strategies for online teaching

I am a Teaching Advocacy rep for my faculty and convene a series of sessions annually in order to help lecturers enhance their teaching and learning. For 2015, the first session is going to be about smart strategies for managing teaching workload and staff will be invited to contribute ideas and approaches to ensuring that our teaching is manageable without unduly sacrificing quality. As all of my teaching is online, my own contribution to the session will relate to workload management for online teaching. I have learned about this via working with colleagues like Stephen Bright (WCEL) who has researched and written on the subject - see Bright's top ten online workload management strategies. I also draw upon 13 years of experience as an online teacher.

I started to brainstorm my strategies using an alphabetical approach - that is, I wrote down one strategy for every letter of the alphabet. It became apparent that some letters were more stimulating than others and that the strategies themselves could be grouped according to theme. At this point, I am proposing a SPACE model of workload management strategies for online teaching. It seems to be working for me, in that I am managing just fine, and have space for the important things in life, while continuing to strive for quality teaching and learning. I also really enjoy what I do, so that is a good sign. 

Here are my thoughts on creating the SPACE to work smarter when teaching online:
  • I share models of student work
  • Share past students’ lessons to learn from their mistakes also
  • Share feedback by providing general pointers for the class – rather than individualised, detailed, repetitive comments
  • Share responsibility – with students, by organising peer feedback/review; student-led discussion; ask students to find and review resources; ask students to nominate their best discussion or selected artifacts for assessment
  • -       with colleagues, by asking for help – planning with the team, guest lecturers or guests in online discussion, videoing on campus lectures (or conversations) for use online and in subsequent years
  • -       including the library staff, elearning designers and tech staff, and members of the profession (teacher guests). In particular, refer students to the library's distance site, helpdesk and relevant websites in order to share responsibility for queries about tech issues and APA referencing.
  • Share my own research and learning with students – so that research informs my teaching, and vice versa; so that students help me with conference presentations, and my presentation reflects student voice; so that when I tweet from the conference I am sharing relevant learning with our class hashtag
  • Share reading with students – tell them about my learning, reading, thinking, via online discussion, and social media.

  • I am mindful that P is not for perfection or procrastination
  • Block out time for teaching online – Q&A every day; discussion twice a week
  • Block out time for research and family life – Hide when necessary (e.g., to start, progress or finish a task). Unplug.
  • Research teaching and share research with students, in order to combine scholarship and to model evidence-based pedagogy.

  • I aim to build reusable resources
  • Devise resources and guidelines with students, and pay forward as a legacy for subsequent cohorts
  • Select models of student work and obtain permission to share with subsequent cohorts
  • Keep a record of student suggestions, ideas for next time, and corrections to make in future. I store these within the Moodle paper where I will refer to them when creating the next iteration
  • Good ideas to share
  • FAQ – to pre-empt common misunderstandings and provide technical instructions (e.g., how to post a hyperlink that opens in a new window)
  • When marking, note common points of misunderstanding and collate these to provide group/class feedback. Use again in the following year prior to the assignment, in order to pre-empt misunderstandings and common errors.

  • I talk with students about what they expect from me; I try to listen carefully with an open mind, and I correct them if I think their expectations of me are unreasonable
  • Clarify office hours and availability – how and when to contact me
  • Keep communication in Moodle as far as possible
  • Explain clearly – if written instructions obscure the message, use video and audio (vodcasting, podcasting, screencasting)
  • Clarify the weekly to do list for students – via a top message and newsforum
  • Take a creative and collaborative approach – using a/synchronous tools, social media, OER, …
  • Invite student feedback along the way
  • Give clear and specific feedback when marking, explaining reasons for grade, so as to pre-empt queries.

Enhance electronic efficiency  
  • Learn new skills to work smarter – e.g., touch typing – 100WPM
  • If a particular tool or approach is not efficient, I don’t use it.

So what works for you? How do you manage teaching workload online or offline? What are the biggest challenges?
Please respond if you would like clarification of any of the points above.