Inquiry and my Final Make

Through the semester, I’ve been thinking and inquiring about racial and financial inequity in public schools, and how connected learning could be a tool to reduce the magnitude of these inequities.  While there are many things that can be done politically to change these realities, teachers have to deal with the immediate implications of these inequities on a daily basis.  Teachers cannot wait for policy to change to help students who are currently disadvantaged.  One way forward will be using low cost resources, especially those online, the reduce the impact of financial and racial inequality within classrooms and between school districts.

Standardized, high stakes tests are another reality that teachers, especially math teachers, must deal with.  This semester, I’ve spent some time working with students who are preparing for the Algebra Keystone test.  In my mind there isn’t much more antithetical to connected learning than mandated, standardized tests.  The tests evaluate students in only one way, a test with multiple choice and open ended answers.  Preparation for the test can be tedious at times, since teachers have no control over the test questions content or formatting.  As I prepared my lesson, I was struck by how few example problems and materials exist online.  In my search, I found the same 50-60 so sample problems, which were provided by the state, reproduced in a number of different places.  Through our work with connected learning, I’ve been wondering if one way to better prepare students for this test is to go totally in the opposite direction, and get away from the drilling and repetition. Instead, I want to use some connected learning concepts to help students in their preparation for a common goal.

I have a few ideas on how to make this work.  Since there are so few practice problems, and students across Pennsylvania will be working through the same problems over and over again, I thought that students might benefit from hearing a new voice on the same topics.  Using the published sample problems from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), I want to created an online resource where students can teach other students how they worked through and solved different problems.  Students would be taking on a level of ownership for their preparation for a test, and in turn, help out their peers by providing a valuable and easy to access, networked resource.  In addition, students may respond well to hearing a peer, rather than a teacher, explain their thinking and working process.  In creating a network for sample problems, it will be possible for other students to share different methods and techniques for solving a similar problem, introducing some variety into the standardized test world.

As I mentioned, I found the Keystone test to have very few sample problems available online.  As we’ve gone through the semester, we in ED677 have spent a good deal of time “making” as a method of learning and inquiry.  In that vein, I thought that students could create their own test problems, and then share them. One thing I’ve seen as I work towards becoming a math teacher is that for many students, math problems simply exist.  They may be based on real world examples, or they may come from a math textbook, but they just exist to be solved.  Rather than solving problems, I think it might be valuable for math students to create their own problems.  This could provide an opportunity to incorporate interests, both from the math curriculum, as well as from outside the classroom.  They would have to consider the best way to categorize and format their question based on existing test questions, and provide multiple choice answers that would represent “common errors”.  Both of these steps would require students to investigate the test and consider more thoroughly how such a test is made.  I think allowing students to take part in creating a test questions may better prepare them for taking the test.  I’d like to provide a forum for students to create and share their own test question.

There is a lack of online resources for students and teachers to use in order to prepare for a test that almost every student in Pennsylvania will take.  This represents a great opportunity to create these resources in a way that is valuable for a network of students across the state.  My ‘final make’ will be an attempt to build the framework of this student created learning resource.

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Inquiry and my Final Make

User Research Interviews

Since my app was based around increasing student engagement and integrating student interest into the classroom, I chose to ask the following questions to my interviewees:

  1. How and where do you see the interests students bring to their classrooms?
  2. In what ways do you see teachers connecting these interests to academics pursuits and curricular goals?
  3. How do you mostly use your phone? To connect with people? To create something new? To play?

The first person interviewed was a high school student, and we met in person.

Q1:  I don’t really see many interests in my classes.  I think that people have different learning types, and since we have such large classrooms, its hard to get really personalized interests into the class.  I think it would be more valuable if interests were used in class.

Q2:  I don’t know, I think the big problem is just that classes are so big, that its hard to individualize things, maybe if there were fewer students or more teachers.  (after I mentioned that choice is a way to incorporate interests)  I guess in English, we have choices on which book to read sometimes.

Q3:  I mostly use my phone to keep up with friends, mostly on Instagram or Snapchat.

The second person interviewed was a current high school teacher, which also took place in person.

Q1:  I notice that they like to do things that are more collaborative, and that integrates technology.  They really like any activities we do that are technology centered.  They talk about the games and apps that they recommend I download.  I also pick up on their interests just from hearing them talk with each other.

Q2:  Teachers try to utilize these interests by integrating technology a lot.  There are more activities that touch on diverse learning styles, as opposed to lecturing.  This approach acknowledges that there is more than one way to teach the same information.  So your interest can be beyond just the content, but in how a subject is taught can influence your motivation to ‘buy-in’.

Q3:  To connect mostly, I use social media like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat help me keep in touch with people I know.

The final person interviewed was also a current high school teacher, and this interview was completed over the phone.

Q1:  I think student interest is not seen very much in classrooms.  Curriculum is driven so much by state standards and testing that there isn’t as much wiggle room as there should be. I think the most common way student interest is seen is when students volunteer information to the class, but that can be very hit or miss.

Q2:  I do think teachers try to connect in any way they can.  Especially in subjects like history, there are more opportunities to connect to areas of interest.  As a math teacher, I don’t see nearly as many opportunities, since curriculum can be rigid.  The ‘real life’ examples in math class can come across a little forced, so I really pick my spots. Whenever I create a test or quiz, I try to incorporate names and places the students know, so I guess that can count.

Q3:  I use my phone for calls and email.  I play scrabble with my brother-in-law from time to time, but not too much more than that.

Based on these answers, it seems that the most useful app would be one that is social media based, since most people are using similar apps already.  I think the familiarity is key in creating new products when there are so many different options available.  I think that my app might fill a need for the student I interviewed, as well as one of the teachers I spoke to, since they both mentioned different ways time and energy are finite resources in classrooms.  Using the app would be unobtrusive to the current curriculum, but could provide a spark of inspiration for teachers and students.  I really like how the second interviewee mentioned the power of ‘buy-in’ from students, as this was a motivating force for my app.

 

User Research Interviews

My App: WWWut?

My app is inspired by the eternal question of high school math students: When Will We Use This (WWWut)? This question can be frustrating to hear, since students often ask it as a signal of disapproval of certain content.  This question is hard proof that students are not engaging with their work.  Rather than try to answer this same question over and over again, I thought it would be worthwhile to create an opportunity for students to answer the question for themselves.  My (hypothetical) app would be a photography based social networking site that students would use to capture moments in their lives that intersect with their learning.  It would be informal and low pressure, like Instagram with more organization and structure. Teachers would create groups limited to their own students, and students could join any classes that are available to them.  Within the app, teachers could list the different content areas that had been discussed in class, and students could then post and tag photos to certain classes and topics.  For example, if I was studying American History, and on the weekend I went for a walk through Valley Forge park, I could take a photo of a cabin or a memorial, and tag it in my History class under the “American Revolution” section in WWWut.  While on the same walk, I could tag a picture of a deer for my biology class, where we had been studying animal classifications and later post a photo that reminded me of our work on angles of elevation in my geometry class.  The goal of the app would be to encourage students to make connections between the work they do in class and their life outside of school.  Ideally, students will begin to see the connections to their lives and communities before they ask that infamous question again.  I am a big believer that one of the best ways to learn a subject is to teach it yourself.  As a teacher, I find myself thinking of connections to my subject areas all the time, and with this app, hopefully students can take on that same role in their own lives.

The app would have multiple goals and end results.  Students would be able to track their own learning through pictures over a year (or multiple years), and would have an impressive collection of photographs to help them reflect on what they’d learned.  Classes could make a photo collage or timeline that would be related to a specific subject, but would be completely unique from another class’ work.  I especially like this idea, since it will give students some authorship and ownership over the work their class has done. Students could print out their photo collage and post it in the classroom and compare their work to other classes.  This would serve as tangible proof of the contributions different students made to a classroom experience.  They could also share their work with students at different schools in different parts of the country or even the world.  As a teacher, I think the tool would be a great way to honor student interests in a more specific and tangible way. Photographs are a form of communication that some students may be more comfortable and confident with, as opposed to speaking and sharing in class, so the app presents an opportunity for differentiated assessment.  The photos themselves could be used as a warm-up for discussing a topic or serve as the foundation for a mathematical or scientific exploration.  Within a classroom, the app could be used as an extra credit assignment or as a friendly competition among students.   More than anything, the goal of the app would be for students to think about their classwork in the context of their home and communities and then share those thoughts and experiences with other learners.

My App: WWWut?

Peer Supported Youth Learning

I don’t know about everyone else, but I had a pretty hard time finding examples and stories of students by the students online.  I think there is probably a lesson in this difficulty about how we view education.  When I was searching for peer learning examples, the results were dominated by college education programs.  I wonder if this is just a random example, or if there is a chance that students have too little of a voice online about how they are educated.  Just a thought.

This isn’t necessarily by students, but I found this post from Edutopia to be full of examples and information about peer learning.  I especially liked this quote, which comes from a math teacher: “They’re learning more than just math,” she says. “They’re learning to be more proactive; they’re learning how to depend on their peers. When they go off to college, they already know how to work with people and draw out their strengths.”  I think the most pronounced advantage of peer learning is the soft skills developed by working with peers.  If we really want students to be ready for the workforce, communication and collaboration are much more important than much of the content they will learn.

I discussed this prompt with my girlfriend, a teacher at Spring-Ford High School, and she directed me to this online discussion board one of her colleagues uses as a tool for peer learning.  It reminds me of the Google Doc we created together this week, although it makes all authors anonymous, which also has its advantages and disadvantages.  I like the anonymity, since it democratizes ideas in a more literal way, and I also like that students who are more introverted or less confident in speaking their minds are able to think about what they want to say and do so, while still in the class environment.

 

Peer Supported Youth Learning

Peer Learning

The first, most noticeable difference between peer learning and individual learning is perspective.  I know when I am researching or writing about a topic, I can get very focused on one or two ideas that can take over my work.  This can cause my work to become repetitive and overly narrow.  As I’ve shared my work/ideas with others, I’ve found that there are advantages to the perspective of someone who hasn’t dug in quite as deeply, and is less restricted by the tunnel-vision I may have.  For example, I felt my inquiry question drifting into more abstract, intangible ideas, that were less and less connected to our course work this semester.  Through our peer learning session, Robert provided a set of tools that fit nicely into my inquiry question.  The resources he shared were helpful from a practical standpoint, but more importantly, they were a tool that allowed me reset and break out my tunnel vision.  For me, the most valuable element of peer learning was grounding my ideas and refocusing my inquiry question.

Beyond the direct personal feedback, the public nature of the conversations and comments allowed me to learn from the inquiry and comments of others, even when they had nothing to do with my own work.  Sometimes, it can be easy to feel like your work exists in a vacuum and that no one is working through the same issues as you. Seeing others post about their inquiry questions and how they are evolving was helpful for me.  I like that, even though our inquiry questions differ, we each have varied experiences that may be able to help our classmates out.  The comments I saw from my classmates made me think differently about how someone else may view my work.

I’ve mentioned this throughout the semester, but the act of publishing work goes beyond just the formatting and structure.  When we make blog posts or share our inquiry questions, we are either explicitly or implicitly thinking about our audience, which will affect the language we use, and the tools we use to communicate.  I think that peer learning is an ongoing project with our class, and even though we haven’t met, knowing that our classmates will see our work has changed the look and feel of that work.  I find it interesting that often, blogs (and other published work) comes from the perspective of an expert.  In our class, although we have interests and areas where we all might be experts, we are writing and posting about connected learning as we learn about it.  We are developing and honing our expertise, but doing so publicly.  I think this act of open learning is something that would be much more intimidating to do alone, so just the passive presence of classmates reading and posting about similar topics provides much needed support.

I think this supporting, safe learning environment is the most important takeaway I will use as a teacher.  In mathematics, it is vitally important to feel comfortable making mistakes.  So much of math can be counter-intuitive and require practice.  This demands a classroom that allows students to collaborate and learn without the fear of making mistakes.  Like our shared Google Doc, there is value not only in the finished products, but in the process of editing and adjusting.  In a math classroom, its likely that some students will make similar mistakes, and it will be important that my students are ready to share their errors and help each other understand better.

Peer Learning

Search 7 Sunday: Honoring Interests

  • I really liked the idea of examining the double meaning of ‘interests’ this week, both the curiosity kind, and the more political kind.  In that vein, I found this story from the blog of Fred Klonsky.  It concerns the efforts of students who are protesting and agitating for better funding for Illinois Public Schools.  I think the image of students fighting for their own interests is very powerful.
  • Similarly, allowing students to take the lead on parent-teacher conferences are a great way to build-up student confidence and self-advocacy.  I think it is a very interesting way for students to think about their own education and understand their own agency in the process.  Its a thoughtful way to give students a chance to voice their beliefs and interests in school.
  • This idea of empowerment is echoed in this article, which focuses on teachers and their own professional development.  Two key quotes that teachers can apply to their own classrooms: “It’s easy to talk about what we want to see in classrooms and how schools should function differently but it’s an entirely different idea to be at the forefront of those decisions” and from a tweet from @MrChase: “If you want people to feel empowered, give them power. That’s it. Do that.
  • Like Holly at the PhillyGirlBlog, I found this week to be a little challenging, since I don’t have my own classroom of students just yet.  I really like her idea (#2) of creating a student list of human rights.  Its a powerful idea, and one that allows students to think about bigger ideas in the world.  I think its such a great framing device for talking about so many things in the humanities.
  • One other idea I’ve been struggling with are ways to integrate student interest into a math classroom.  I can’t say for certain, but I feel as though math classes are among the most tightly regimented in a high school, and as such, leave little opportunity to integrate student interest.  Over the last few weeks, during my pre-student teaching work, I’ve been seeing Anchor Activities used on a regular basis.  I think this may be the easiest way to sneak in some math material that student find more interesting, whether it is a long term project, or a supplementary activity.  Anchor activities, since they are ongoing and used as needed, could provide an opportunity for a wide range of differentiated content.
  • I found this primer on integrating student interest into lesson for students with dyslexia interesting and informative.  Its a very succinct and compelling case that honoring student interests is a need in the classroom for students of all types, but especially for those with different abilities.  “By taking time to get to know your student’s interests and strengths, you build rapport and convey that you believe in him. You will also have a fuller picture of the student by knowing not only areas of difficulty, but also areas where he excels.”
  • Finally, I found this Q and A with a group of teachers to be an interesting read.  I really find that hearing from teachers, as opposed to only academics, is an important part of examining new ideas in teaching.  I think a blend of theory and practice is the best way for a future teacher like me to understand what’s in store in the future.  I like this quote in particular:Ever ponder this? If a student is bad a math, one of the first things we do is put them in more math classes at the expense of classes they might both enjoy and be good at. And yet, NFL football players were not pulled off their high school football field and forced to spend more time on the tennis court. Interesting.”
Search 7 Sunday: Honoring Interests

Badges

Organic

I chose to create this badge, called the “Organic Connected Learning” badge for teachers who take an all-natural approach to lesson building.  Throughout the semester, we have discussed many different aspects of connected learning, many of which drastically change the look, feel and purpose of a classroom.  One lingering concern I have, as with many progressive educational concepts, is that we may be changing the feel of a lesson, without increasing student engagement.  I created this badge with the criteria that will challenge teachers to create their own, homegrown and organic lessons that are built with connected learning in mind.  Teachers who base an entire lesson around student interest meet the criteria.  Teachers who build a lesson around news events or stories, like we saw in our section on shared purpose learning, are also eligible.  Finally, teachers can earn the badge if they connect their classroom to an online community, which is something we’ve been doing here in ED677 all semester long.  Stylistically, I liked using the idea of ‘organic’, since it conjures ideas that many people are already familiar with.  For me, it alludes to a preference of natural over mass produced products, that may echo the conflict between more personalized, differentiated education and standardized tests and homogenized classrooms.

There are two phrases that were in my head when creating this badge, “baked in” vs. “stapled on”.  A “baked in” idea is one that, from the earliest stages of a lesson, was part of the plan, whereas a “stapled on” idea is one that is added at the last moment, and can easily be removed without significantly changing a lesson.  Thought the lens of ED677, these two phrases represent the level of commitment from a teacher to connected learning.  A teacher who “bakes in” their ideas, searches out opportunities to use tools like social media or community based projects, where a teacher who “staples on” a new ideals just making superficial changes to the same old lessons.  The badge I created rewards teachers who change their approach to lesson building, rather than just changing their tools.

I mentioned earlier semester (in a check-in) that a class like ED677 feels more useful as an online course than others I’ve taken, and I think that’s related to this idea of organic lessons.  For some online classes, it can feel like a copy of an in-person class, where the assignments are similar and the only difference is the lack of face to face discussion.  On the other hand, I think the strength of ED677 is that its “onlineness” is essential to its purpose.  We are sharing our work in a real and existing community, whether it’s on our blogs or on Twitter.  We are using tools that reach far beyond a closed discussion board, which allows us to explore so many unique pathways and interests.  Where a discussion board post and response can feel artificial, using tools like our blogs or Flipgrid feels more natural, even if few of us have met in person.  This realness is what I’m looking to replicate and reward with my organic learning badge.

Badges