Friday, April 27, 2012

True North, Academically Speaking

This week I tried to get students using the Edmodo site to complete their reading quizzes for The Grapes of Wrath. I set up a second web page that I linked to my main web page that could be used as an alternate for Edmodo if for any reason there were problems with the site. I have never used Edmodo in the classroom, so I did not know what to expect or what problems might arise once students actually tried to post to the site. The new web page is called "BookStuff." I created discussion threads on the site just like those in Edmodo with the exception that I cannot limit access to the threads to only the group members working on each thread. I also linked to the site all the "BookTalk" podcasts that I have for some of the books that we do. This puts all the resource materials for each of the books we do in one place. I felt that even if we did not have any problems with Edmodo the new site would still be a very valuable resource. As it turned out we did have problems with Edmodo in that not all students were successful posting to the site; they got the "spinning wheel" indicating the iPad Edmodo app was trying to send the post to the site, but that for one reason or another the post was not accepted to the site. I do not know if this is because there are so many trying to use the wi-fi connection at the same time that nothing moves quickly or if there is some other problem. There did not appear to be any problems posting to the new web site, however. I have only heard good things about Edmodo, so I am assuming there is something I need to do with the settings for the site, or perhaps it is wi-fi overload. In any case, the first week of the new "quizzes" seems to have gone well. We are, after a fashion, finding our academic "true north."

In many ways it feels like we are still surveying the wilderness. I have, for example, put all my book talks onto the web page, but some will open on the iPad and some will not (though they all open on a conventional laptop or desktop computer). The podcasts all use the QuickTime plug-in, not flash video, so the plug-in should work on the iPad. Size does not seem to be the issue as some of the podcasts that run on the iPad are larger files than some of those that do not run. We have also had trouble with the wiki sites behaving erratically, which has caused some students to lose their work. If nothing else we have learned to be cautions, to do our work on a notepad like Evernote or Paperplane Notes and then copy and paste the work into the wiki, Edmodo, or whatever other platform we are working on. We do not have a word processing app on the iPad, like Office or Pages, so we have to make do with notebooks that allow us to do some writing without some of the more sophisticated features found on a formal word processor (though it should be added that the notebooks let us do quite a lot). CloudOn gives us access to the full Office suite of apps, but that does not always work as it should, at least not for me. But it is free, so the price is good.

The video is of Billy Collins performing some of his poems as animated cartoons. This is another way that literature can be made available to students in a way that makes it a bit more accessible and, perhaps, entertaining. Collins' poems are themselves rich in humor and wit and are more accessible than some poetry to students, but the animations add another diminsion to the poems. There is more to literature than just its entertainment value, but the literature that survives the centuries usually survives because it continues to speak to us and to our humanity as it continues to entertain us. Like any acquired taste, classical music, the opera, French cooking, some guided exposure to the work is often necessary before the work begins to speak to us, to touch and to move us. It is more often than not worth the investment of time and adds richness and depth to our lives.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Finding Our Way Home, Academically Speaking

Trying to add an additional layer to the course by using Edmodo. In the online courses I teach I assess reading through essays, discussions, blogs, and other exercises that ask students to engage the material. I do not use tests or quizzes, I gather the information I need for assessment through other venues. I think this puts a greater focus on the books we are reading and gives the students more freedom to demonstrate their understanding through those aspects of the story that most moved and impressed them. We are currently reading The Grapes of Wrath. We will use Edmodo discussions to talk about the novel. I put the Edmodo app on all of the iPads and added a link to the Edmodo site to my web page so that my students can access the site more easily from their computers at home. There are two parts to the assignments completed through Edmodo. The first is the "Ask a Historian" thread. Each group asks one of the other groups a question each week related to some aspect of the historical and cultural setting of the story. The group that is asked the question act as the "historians" and research the question and report back with an answer. Each group is matched to another group so that every group asks a question and every group answers a question.

I then gave each group their own group thread where they write about an aspect of the story and follow that aspect through the novel. One group follows the plot, one group follows the conflicts, one group follows the themes, and one group follows the characters. I also gave students a handout that identifies five layers of meaning that run through the novel: economic, social, material, individual, and spiritual. As each group completes their assigned topic they weave the five layers into their discussions. Students are not entirely free to pursue what they choose though the novel, but they have more freedom than a conventional quiz would give them. As a final project each group will complete a multimedia project that will let them play with some of the iPad tools, like the cameras, to film, record, doodle, and draw, or whatever else they choose to throw into the mix, to capture creatively their over all impressions of the novel. It is my hope that by letting students demonstrate their understanding of the book in ways that let them focus on what is meaningful tho them they will get more out of the book. I am also hoping the "Historian" component will pique their interest in the historical and cultural moment that permeates the narrative.

There is often much going on beneath the surface of things that escapes our notice. A common criticism of iPads in the classroom, especially against giving all students an iPad, is that it is not a laptop or desktop computer and cannot do what a full-fledged computer can do. This is true, it is much easier to work with large files, to multi-task, to work with video, audio, and other large, data intensive content on a desk or laptop computer than on an iPad (though much of this is becoming easier to manage, every aspect of this blog, for example, from start to finish, was completed on an iPad using the Blogsy iPad app). But in many ways the desktop computer is a 20th century technology that is being replaced by the laptop and the laptop, or it's traditional role, if a device as new as the laptop computer can be said to have a traditional role, is on its way to be replaced by Notebooks like The iPad. But the benefits of the iPad are the things it does that the traditional computer cannot. For me, reading on an iPad, whether in Kindle, iBooks, or one of the reader apps that formats web pages and news articles, is much easier on an iPad than on a computer. This makes it a real alternative to the traditional textbook (of course many publishers have yet to realize this) and it also opens the door to textbooks that are not just textbooks but digital laboratories that not only instruct students in how to conduct certain experiments but also provides the platform for conducting, digitally, the experiments themselves. The iPad can carry just about every tool students need for just about every academic discipline they will encounter throughout their academic career. Also the nature of the tools themselves are changing and more and more tools are going to become necessary that can only be carried to class on some sort of digital device.

The iPad is a mobile device that gives students access to web sites and various technology away from their digital "home," wherever that might be. Most of what is on an iPad is stored online and is accessible from any computer, and, conversely, much of what is done on a computer can be made wirelessly available to the iPad either through online storage or wireless connections to students' computer networks. The iPad has significant limitations, but most of these limitations are only limitations for those that do not have access to a laptop or desktop computer and where many students do not have computers at home, and will have to live with these limitations, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Some of the disadvantages can be offset by the availability of computers through schools' computer labs and public access to computers through libraries and the like. Students can use services like Dropbox to give a home to the data they create that can be accessed from any computer anywhere. And it should probably not be forgotten that an iPad is a small fraction of the weight of the traditional backpack and it's contents. The iPad is a 21st century device that will prepare most students for the 21st century world and it appears to be at the center of the 21st century path we are all traveling.

The video addresses some of the dangers of the digital world we inhabit and some of the dangers our students need to be on their guard against (and which their teachers might offer guidance on how to avoid). The digital spaces that many of us inhabit enable us to live more scripted lives, to control more effectively the public persona we present to the world. But much of life is serendipitous and it is not possible to live both a full and happy life and a scripted life. Marriage and meaningful friendships, for example, require us to inhabit ourselves in "real time" and as a result we need to learn to live in real time and interact with others in real time. Real life is improvisational theater and we all need to learn to perform on that stage, though as with most things, some will be better at it than other. But that does not mean all cannot learn to perform adequately on that stage.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Delivering the Goods

Though we are still exploring other means of delivery, we have decided on using the following tools for delivering the different kinds of writing we do in class:

Quotes - Posterous

Poems - Paperplane Notes

"How" - Web Page Blog

Passages - Web Page Class Discussions

All but the Paperplane Notes is a public space, so assessment has to be done by communicating directly to the student. On the positive side, though, these being public spaces many students have felt freer to develop a personal voice that should serve them well on the A. P. test in May. HWHotline is another space I have looked at that provides another public space for discussions. I have been thinking this might prove useful for talking about characters and themes in the books we are reading. Edmodo could also be useful in this regard as well. But what I would like to find is a space where work can be delivered privately. This can be done through Dropbox, but this requires students to use passwords and such and I would like a space more like FileStork where students can "drop" work off to me without a password but privately so that I can see it, assess it, and return it. Paperplane Notes works well this way, but is limited as to what students can submit, it is a fairly rudimentary "notes" application, but perhaps as we continue to play with it we will discover other things that it can do.

The picture is titled "The Spirit of Education." Teaching and learning can be complex. As an English teacher I am trying to get students to read deeply in difficult texts, in texts that have literary merit and a bit more to recommend them than their informational qualities. The goal of an English Language Arts class is to help students become effective communicators. Part of being an effective communicator is being able to read a text whose meanings are subtle and nuanced. Sometimes important decisions can only be made well if this kind of language can be understood well, advertising and elections come to mind. My eleventh grade classes reviewed the results of the PSAT tests that were recently taken. The purpose of the review was to help prepare them for the SAT test they took (or may have taken) in March. To do well on the language part of that test students must be able to make sense of fairly difficult passages that must be understood in the context of a larger piece of writing.

There are two things this test often does, often at the same time to confuse students. One, they will ask simple questions using difficult language. Two, they will refer students to passages that are difficult to follow either because they use unfamiliar language or use a complicated syntax. For example, this passage from "Wuthering Heights" is not unlike passages that are found on the SAT test: "Leaving aside the degradation of an alliance with a nameless man, and the possible fact that his property, in default of heirs male, might pass into such a one’s power, he had sense to comprehend Heathcliff’s disposition–to know that, though his exterior was altered, his mind was unchangeable, and unchanged." For most students words like "degradation" and "disposition" are problematic (whether they should be is another issue). The string of simple and complex clauses make it a difficult passage for some students to follow. A student trained only to read for information is going to struggle with a passage like this when encountered on a test like the SAT, or in othEr situations they encounter in life where an understanding of sophisticated language and sophisticated syntax are necessary.

This type of language may not be encountered in an entry level job, but it will be encountered in college and in the higher level jobs many of our students aspire towards. We read literary texts in English class for a number of reasons, to expose students to something beautiful to help them grow in their appreciation of beauty, we read them to help students see issues from a number of points of view and to experience the world (in their imaginations) from perspectives different from their own, and we read them to help student develop their imaginations and to develop areas of the brain that are only stimulated and developed by rich literary texts. But we also study these texts to help students learn to wrestle effectively with difficult texts and to distill meanings from them. To paraphrase a rule from carpentry, to teach students when reading a passage to read twice and explicate once. But also to read short passages in their larger contexts.

So, what does this have to do with the iPad. For the student with ready access to this machine most of the world's classical literature is at their finger tips. Often these texts come with tools that enable students to search for recurring words and phrases and recurring ideas and concepts. It also gives them the ability to juxtapose texts from different works of literature to explore how they both grapple with similar concepts. Of course students will need guidance and help learning how to conduct these searches. And, of course, ultimately it is the student's curiosity and motivation that will determine how successful the student will be.

The video is of a young man who was driven by his curiosity to do some remarkable things. His passion for what he has learned and his passion for learning more are clear in his presentation. It is this enthusiasm that is, or ought to be, behind what we do in the classroom. Enthusiasm is contagious. Others will often get excited about what excites us, or at least be motivated to give what excites us a try based on the excitement we bring to what we do. Not all are likely to share our excitement, but at least they gave it a fair hearing. In a sense we are embassadors for what we teach. Many of the videos I find on TED Talks are of enthusiastic spokespeople for an idea or concept and might be employed in our presentations of what we teach. Of course these talks are probably more suited to the teacher than the student, but there are some that might appeal to students, especially serious students. There is a talk by the man who pioneered fractals, Benoit Mandelbrot. I think there could be real value to learning about a concept from those who first thought seriously about that concept.