Taking a Look at Schoology

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I finally decided to jump in and give Schoology a try. I've been intrigued by its Facebook-like interface and its services like assignment creating, dropbox, discussions, blogging and gradebook ever since I first came across it at the TSETC conference last month.

This is what my home page looks like. I can't show the course home page due to students' full names being listed.  You can see the assignments and due dates on the right-hand side and different 'places' on the left-hand side.

I introduced it to my 6th graders this week. The first assignment we tried, after creating an account with an access code (no email required!) was a discussion question: "What is your favorite kind of poem and why?" We are in the middle of a poetry unit that their homeroom teacher and myself are teaching, so the question was relevant to the unit.

Their responses were on topic, thoughtful and one student even wrote, "This is cool."  We had experience with commenting, so it was probably familiar for them, but what made it even  more familiar was the format. It looks just like a newsfeed on Facebook, so they picked up how it worked with little direction.

Today they logged in again to access our first assignment: making a Voki that reads a poem they wrote. I easily added the assignment to our course page and included a link to Voki. The students then copy/pasted their Voki embed code into the comment area of the assignment.

I can see using Schoology to teach blogging with my students. They have never blogged before, so the ability to get them started in a "walled garden" is really exciting.

A few features that I love:
  • as an administrator you can edit student user permissions like private messaging
  • built-in gradebook that automatically populates with students who 'join' your course
  • no need for student email addresses
  • user interface
How I introduced it to my students:
  1. Guided students to the registration page.
  2. Wrote access code on the board so students could automatically enroll in my course.
  3. Had students choose an avatar for their profile.
  4. Guided students to the course home page to find the discussion question.
  5. Gave students time to answer the question and read each other's answers.
That took 45 minutes.

The second day the students navigated the site much more easily and I foresee it getting easier and easier.
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Punk Rock Musings

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I was reminiscing this weekend to the sound of Bad Religion when I realized that it was bands like them along with the Dead Kennedys and others that taught me what it was like to (literally) yell against injustice and corruption and plea for a better way.  As a teenager, punk rock provided me the impetus for not accepting the status quo, for pushing the envelope and for being fearless in the face of adversity and for going against the grain. 

In addition to the music there were self-published 'zines,' many of which contained articles written by students my age. The articles ranged from reviews of new albums to articles about corruption and political policies.  Of course, with the advent of the Internet, I'm sure many of these zines have fallen by the wayside.  I see a lot of similarity between these zines and the community of progressive educator bloggers on the scene right now.

As an adult, I still find power in many of the songs that had a huge affect on me as a teenager. Perhaps that's why I choose to label myself an edupunk.....

For your enjoyment, here are two Bad Religion songs that still seem poignant to my adult life 15 years after I first discovered them.

Against the Grain



Change of Ideas


well the sheaves have all been brought,
but the fields have washed away
and the palaces now stand
where the coffins all were laid
and the times we see ahead
we must glaze with rosy hues
for we don't wish to admit
what it is we have to lose

millennia in coming
the modern age is here
it sanctifies the future
yet renders us with fear
so many theories, so many prophecies
what we do need is a change of ideas
when we are scared
we can hide in our reveries
but what we need is a change of ideas
change of ideas, change of ideas
what we need now is a change of ideas
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Take the Power Back: Teacher-Run Schools

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I recently wrote a post on the excellent group blog, The Co-operative Catalyst, called "Who's the Boss?" in which I explored the idea of teachers being in charge of a school. More and more I'm feeling that not only is this a trend, but it is an important movement.

This past Thursday I attended TEDx Philly, a gathering of inspiring and motivating movers and shakers in Philadelphia. I was struck by the talks by Chris Lehmann and Simon Hauger who both signaled a need for big changes in education.

Lehmann, as many people know, started his own school here in Philadelphia within the School District itself but partnered with The Franklin Institute. His talk about how High School sucks and why it doesn't have to be that way, highlighted the authentic, real-world experiences The Science Leadership Academy offers its students. As a perfect example, his students were documenting the entire event on film with still photography and video.

Simon Hauger, the renowned West Philadelphia High School teacher whose students beat out the likes of MIT and Cornell in the Progressive Automotive X Prize for their hybrid vehicle, spoke as well about how school should be. In fact, he is in the process of organizing his own school, The Workshop for Democracy and Social Entrepreneurship. 

photo courtesy of Budzlife on Flickr
Educators in the classroom know that the current state of affairs in education is not working. As members of the front line, they know what works and what doesn't. They also know that the models that work do not always neatly fit into quantifiable charts and graphs that can be analyzed by computers and politicians.

I can't begin to count the number of times that I have had a conversation about starting 'our own school.' What's amazing is that most of these conversations as well as the concrete, real-world examples, have a different kind of leadership.

Leadership in schools started and run by teachers are democratic in nature. They have flat leadership and the entire staff works as a team. Some of these kinds of schools do have administrators, but these leaders are just that: leaders.  They are not The Boss and they do not manage their staff like a CEO of a business.  Hauger's school describes its leadership and organizational structure as one of democratic cooperation:
The school employs a shared leadership model in which roles, responsibilities, and accountability are clearly defined, but decisions are made collaboratively.  (http://www.workshopschool.org/drupaled/?q=node/26)
Teachers are ready to step up and take the reins of reform. We are ready to take responsibility for educating our students and we WANT to be held accountable.

What we don't want: to be held accountable according to an outsider's standards. We can and will hold each other accountable as part of a team. If the quarterback isn't throwing winning passes, then the whole team fails. We know that NCLB is not going away any time soon. Politicians will still want their line graphs and percentages. Let's show them that students can be successful in other ways that are still quantifiable and that test prep, bi-weekly benchmark testing and other methods that 'teach to the test' are not as effective as learning experiences that teach the whole child and force real-world problem solving.

This kind of learning is messy. Which is why we need a strong, supportive team for feedback, inspiration and accountability.

So let's stop looking for band-aid reforms and quick fixes. Let's start to rethink the leadership and organization of school itself. Let's start our own schools that are within districts, not experimental charter schools. Let's change the system from the inside and truly affect change. Let's take charge of our own buildings and do what's right for kids and their families.

If you have an example of a teacher-run school, please post a link or name in the comment area.



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I'm a Yuppie and I'm OK With It

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photo courtesy of Tim Morgan on Flickr
I had a recent epiphany that I am, technically speaking, a Yuppie (young, urban professional). I've always used the term to describe office/corporate types in suits who drive nice cars. But when I think about it, I am a young, urban professional. I might not wear a suit to work and I might not work in an office, but I have a business card, I live in the city and I am a professional.

This realization is an important one. I think more teachers need to consider themselves as working professionals. For some reason we tend to separate ourselves from professionals who work in offices or work in the business sector, yet most of us are just as or more educated than our corporate peers and we are skilled at what we do.

I once pulled a business card out to give to someone I had met and they were amazed that a teacher had a business card. We need to change the perception that we are any different than those who work in the business world. We network, we attend conferences, we have performance reviews and we had to work hard to get where we are.

I'm a yuppie and I've come to terms with it. Can you?
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Effective Feedback

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This past month my 6th graders have been working on videos in iMovie using photos and video I took of them completing a Science lesson. They handed them in last week after grading themselves using the rubric for the assignment. I then watched each one and graded it, stapling my rubric under theirs.

As I was grading them I realized that there were a lot of places for improvement. Rather than me taking the time to meet with each group individually I set aside a few classes as film reviewer sessions. We watched everyone's movie and gave positive feedback and constructive criticism. I modeled the first few comments and then let them try it.

What ensued was the most effective feedback session I've witnessed in a while, adults included.

They said things like, "I think your music was good, but your text went too fast." They even were able to take the feedback without trying to justify or respond.

The proof of the power of these feedback session was when I let them return to their projects to work on them based on the feedback they'd gotten.  I was blown away by how some students completely reorganized their images or deleted all of their text and changed it. Some re-recorded their opening videos or added smoother transitions.

This is a new group of students for me and it is their first attempt at an iMovie project. I was really proud of them. 

It took 2 1/2 class periods, but the self-assessment skills they learned were worth the time. I foresee these skills carrying into other projects as they review their final products.

Here is an example of one of the projects:

video 
Many of the students emulated things they liked about each other's videos, which is apparent in the above video, whose last clip had some inspiration from a classmate's improv video clip that was a hit.

Do you have any examples of using effective feedback with your students?
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A Lunar Lesson: Approaching the Two-Step Model

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My grade partner happens to be our 6th grade teacher, since there's only one of her in the building and she's right across the hall. She and I have been collaborating a lot this year, and her students see me 3 times a week.   She and I also share a love of Science, which has been very exciting.

Today, she brought her students over to the lab to use our Promethean board for a lesson on the Phases of the Moon. They have been studying Astronomy, but many of the students lack basic knowledge about the solar system. We decided to present the information in an interactive way using a flip chart and multimedia. (She had been using a pencil and a tin can to show them how the moon orbits the Earth.)  What ensued was a lesson that mirrored the two-step Constructivist model I've been reading about.

Before the lesson began, we made sure that we knew what the learning objectives were. For this lesson they were very simple:
  • Be able to name the phases of the moon and explain how and why they change. 
  • Know that the moon is a sphere and does not change shape.
  • To know that the moon waxes and wanes and be able to explain why.


Step 1: The Exploratory Phase
Students brainstormed what they knew already about the Moon. They then read through some facts, watched a video and a flash animation and then pulled the phases of the moon in order on the Promethean board to reinforce what they had learned about the names of the phases as well as vocabulary like 'waxing,' 'waning,' 'gibbous' and 'crescent.'

During this phase, we paused a few times to check for understanding, and then at the end we had each student write down and then tell us one thing they had learned.  We didn't grade them on the lesson, but we made sure to address any misconceptions, providing interventions as needed (when they didn't understand the concept of the Sun as a bunch of mini 'explosions' we showed them a National Geographic video) and checking for understanding.

The purpose of the Exploratory Phase is to use activities, dialogue and interventions to support and assess student learning, understanding and interest.

Step 2: The Discovery Phase

After lunch, the students were given a paper with all of the phases of the moon on it. They had to cut out the each phase and paste it in order on a sentence strip, labeling each phase and stating whether it was waxing or waning.  This is the performance part of the learning process. It is also the part of the process that is graded. The Discovery Phase is where the students 'show what they know' by creating a product or completing a task of some kind. This product shows the teacher whether or not they have mastered the objectives laid out at the beginning of the lesson.

I was very proud of my colleague, who had never used the Promethean Board before, but handled it with ease. I also think that our students will go home today with a much better understanding of the moon's phases as well as a deeper understanding of why and how they occur. I wouldn't be surprised if they look up more often at night to see what phase the moon is in!

This is what learning looks like.

One of the students asked, "Is this going to be one of those one-day things again?"  We have had a few hands-on, interactive and fun-filled lessons with technology and Science that have lasted only one day due to the nature of the curriculum and pacing schedule.  I said, "I hope not." In the back of mind I thought: he gets it. Even my student knows what real learning is.  And he's craving it.
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More Adventures in Checking for Understanding

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I'm almost halfway through a wonderful book, Applying Standards-Based Constructivism: A Two-Step Guide for Motivating Elementary Students. It has given me a lot of practical advice and it has given me a better understanding of some of my instructional practices and methods and at the same time justifies practices I've been doing for years.

I will write more about the Two-Step model later, but today I wanted to briefly reflect on a new method for checking for understanding that I found in the book. In the section on Assessment, the book stresses that teacher observation really is a valid form assessment because (gasp) teachers are professionals and are the most qualified to determine whether and how their students are learning.

The authors describe how you can easily gauge student understanding by having each student take 10 seconds to say one thing they learned at the end of class.

photo courtesy of farleyj on Flickr
Today I tried it with my 1st graders after their first time using MS Paint and was amazed as they stated, "I learned how to use the paint brush," "I learned how to use the magnifying glass to make my page bigger," "I learned how to change the color," and other things. What an 'ah ha' moment. In 2 minutes I had a snapshot of the actual learning that had happened during the 45 minute period. I tried it again with my 5th graders who had started typing stories. They shared, "I learned how to change my font," "I learned how to put my heading in the middle," and other statements that really helped me understand whether they had met the learning objectives of the class period. (They had.)

Part of the success I had today was due to the fact that I had clearly outlined the learning objectives at the start of the period and limited them to a few observable behaviors (put one space between each word, center a heading, use return key, use capitals and periods).  I was easily able to know whether the students had learned what I wanted them to in a matter of minutes.

I am still amazed by Geoffrey Canada's bold statement that he was a 'Master' teacher in his 5th year of teaching. I feel like this year, my 6th year of teaching, I am finally 'getting it' when it comes to assessment. It's a messy process, but I'm loving it.  I can't wait to see what I'm working on 6 years from now.
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