Finally, no one cares what I think

The Gist:

  • Presentations of classwork usually end up with me being talked at and 30 disinterested teenagers trying to hang on.
  • Giving the students “evaluations” to fill out generally smells of busywork.
  • By putting approval power in the hands of my students, I’ve seen a complete turnaround in how work is being presented in class.

The Whole Story:

When we talk about authentic learning in the classroom, we usually mean almost-authentic learning in the classroom. When we talk about giving our students authentic audiences for their work, we usually mean finding places for their work to live should the right audience happen by. I’ve done this before and likely will do this again. Sometimes, it’s all I can manage.

With the CtW project this year, I’m trying something new. Though I’m calling this Phase II, it’s really Phase III or IV. First, students individually researched problems/issues in which they were interested. Then, I broke them into affinity groups based on similarities of their respective issues. Then, I told them to compare what they understood as the causes of their problems and find one element common to all of their issues where they could apply singular pressure as a cooperative unit to affect change across issues.

We’re in it now.

Friday, the groups started pitching their ideas to their classmates. That sentence makes it sound like traditional group presentations – the kind I worked for about 30 seconds to stay focused on as a student.

I hated those moments.

Instead, each group’s progression to their next phase depends on garnering unanimous approval from their classmates. When I ask if they’ve gotten to a point at which we as a community are ready to set them loose as representatives of our class and our school, every hand must go up.

Thus far, two groups have presented. Neither has made it through the gauntlet. The work they’ve presented thus far has been some of the highest quality, most inclusive of any group presentations I’ve seen. They know what they’re talking about, they care about what they’re proposing and they know their audience matters. Still, I’ve agreed with both votes. It’s not quite where it could be. I agree with what they’re saying.

While they’re presenting, no one talks to me. Even better, the audience is talking back.

During Q&A after the presentations, I have to wait to be called upon. That never happens.

The groups know my vote doesn’t matter. In fact, I don’t get a vote.

The audience knows they have a say in what they’re seeing and they’re reading the presentations as texts to be questioned and challenged.

When a group presents a 2-minute PSA about the dangers and effects of inhumane acts, the class doesn’t give them a bye because their video was good but their plan for implementation of their ideas was shoddy. They know the bells and whistles and they don’t care.

After each vote, the class heads to a Google Form where they rate the groups’ effectiveness at meeting expectations for the presentations across SLA’s benchmark rubric categories.

At the end, the students must answer the question, “What suggestions do you have for improving the pitch? What questions are still lingering in your mind?”

Most of the time we talk about authentic learning and giving our kids an audience, we’re ignoring the authenticity and audience within our own classrooms. We’re so interested in giving them new places to be listened to, we don’t ask them to listen to each other – we don’t give them reasons to. That’s important.

After typing up my comments, I send them via e-mail to each group along with the link to the sheet of a Google Spreadsheet with all of their peers’ feedback.

They’ll be using the feedback to improve their presentations and gear up for round two.

Admittedly, I’m watching the unanimity idea closely. I’m fairly certain the class will recognize when a presentation has proven it’s muster, but I’m paying attention just in case.

To my mind, this process stands somewhere between the peer editing I’ve seen in Writers’ Workshops and peer review in the submission of scholarly work.

Most importantly, I’m far from the most important person in the room when the kids are talking and holding one another accountable.

Time I was Wrong #3,596,897

The Gist:

  • The CtW Project is something different this year.
  • My students are grappling with the issues and their possible solutions in more authentic ways.
  • I’m teaching ways of reading that won’t be tested.

The Whole Story:

The project description around Phase 2 originally stood as:

Phase 2: Research work being done to solve problem. Create campaign to get donations for that work.

Draft an action plan around a realistic solution to the problem you’ve selected.

Meet with an identified change agent and present your pitch and action plan.

We’ve moved away from that.

Last year’s iteration of the project wrapped itself around an Ignite-style presentation uploaded to slideshare and then posted to the students’ drupal blogs. There they have languished for almost a year. I’ve called them up for conference presentations, but they haven’t been affecting much change other than that of classroom practice, perhaps. It’s striking me as ironic that I used one group’s product from last year as an example during my “Doing Real Stuff in the Classroom” session at CoLearning. If it had been “Doing Almost Real Stuff in the Classroom,” well, then that would have been something.

From the original description of Phase 2, we’ve scrapped the donation campaign, the action plan and the pitch to a change agent. Everything.

As I wrote earlier, I’ve move kids who have been researching similarly themed projects into Solution Groups. Armed only with a fact sheet built off of their 6 weeks of research and a Solution Organizer that helped them to put their thoughts in order, the groups met to share their work and discuss their individual goals for changing the issue each had been researching.

Once the groups had decided whether or not my initial groupings would work / made sense, they set to work making connections across their problems to identify a singular action that could catalyze change in each issue.

It was fascinating to watch.

After two classes, I sat with each group and had them pitch their proposals. What they came up with was better than any donation campaign my brain had envisioned.

One class has a group organizing around the issue of abuse in its many forms. They’re planning to create a resource for SLA students dealing with abuse, contacting counselors to help them and organizing a fundraising walk to help a local non-profit working with people living in abuse.

Again, more than a video dying on drupal.

As I moved from group to group, I realized no one had talked to these guys about leveraging and social media. We talked about the fact that the room probably had around 5,000 Facebook connections they could push. Then I showed them Southwest’s twitter page and we discussed why 1 million+ people would even think about following an airline.

We watched this video I’d seen the night before thanks to Ewan:

And that led to a discussion of non-verbal communication and how a video with only 6 significant words could lead to change.

Anthony commented, “That video changed my life.”

We’ll see.

From there, we visited Chris Craft’s kids’ and I walked my students through the idea that a class of sixth graders had built a site with the potential to create real sticky change.

Finally, we ended w/ a google search for “Joe’s Non-Netbook” and then “Joe’s Non-Notebook” as some re-posters have called it. I told the kids how I shot and posted the video on a whim almost a year ago.

The real fun was looking at the stickiness of the video. My original posting has 2451 views. This posting has 9673. This one has 730. There might be more, but I didn’t care.

We stopped looking at re-postings and started checking out where people had written about the video.

They started to get the idea that this video recorded as a gag had made an impact.

“You’re the first generation to be advertised to since birth,” I told them, “You’re going to need to be the savviest thinkers about this stuff so far.”

Having made it through my filter with their first pitches, the groups will begin drafting sales pitches Monday that will have to meet with unanimous class approval to move forward. It’s our own little ad hoc shareholders meeting.

So, yeah. That’s happening.

Meanwhile, the PSSA looms on the horizon and I can’t help thinking I’m going to have to move their brains into a mold where they see questions as having one answer and answers as being un-refineable. You know, like in the real world.

The ideas they’re working with now are big ones. The solutions they’re striving toward are impassioned and thoughtful. Come April, they’ll have four weeks of testing that doesn’t fit any of those descriptors.

Oh well.

More Tenacious than the Gentleman from Indiana

The Gist:

  • Something happened in class today that surprised me.
  • Students chose to work together.
  • They had an out I probably would have availed myself of, but they didn’t take it.

The Whole Story:

By all accounts, they shouldn’t have done it.

Just the same, 8 students sat in a group in my first period class today and worked on a seemingly insolvable problem.

For the last six weeks or so of class, my students have been researching problems or issues in the world that they thought deserved attention. Nothing was off the board. In fact, the whole thing started by putting every problem they could think of on the board in my classroom with no filter for ideas that might otherwise have gotten at least a jeer or two.

For six weeks they’ve been working largely independently to understand these problems. They’ve been asking questions, mining information and putting it here and here on their class blogs.

The whole thing’s led to some difficult conversations about what happens when you begin to lose interest in something you care about, what to do when you feel like you’ve been scratching at the surface so long  you’re out of fingernails and other such problems.

It’s been an interesting stretch of learning how to write in a new medium and research in mediums old and new.

Last week, we moved to Phase II. Each student was required to prepare a fact sheet on his or her individual problem. I almost told them what a fact sheet was and how it could be formatted, then I remembered the Interwebs exists and let them figure it out on their own.

Following the fact sheets, they were given a solution organizer asking them to track causes, effects, solutions, main players, etc.

Their research fed the fact sheets which fed the solution organizers.

Today, things got a little more interesting, they got their solution groups.

After polling everyone on their topics, I went through and assigned groups based on perceived commonalities. In today’s class, this meant:

  • Inhumane Acts
  • Health
  • Violence
  • Climate
  • Social Issues

After they’d seen their groups, I told the students I realized my impression may not be the correct one and I was open to rearrangements. In particular, I sat waiting for the Social Issues group. With eight members, it’s the largest group in the class and contains the topics:

  • animal abuse
  • abortion
  • stem cells
  • natural disaster response
  • poverty
  • overpopulation
  • education

As the name implies, the Solution Groups are charged with looking at the commonalities of their problems and identifying where strategic additional pressure would lead to a shared improvement in the identified area of need. Solve many problems with one action, rather than asking people to do many things to solve many problems.

Ten minutes in, Social Issues was still talking things out. I went over to check in, “You know, if you think this group needs to divide into smaller groups with more commonalities, I’m cool with that.”

“No,” said they, “We’re working on it.”

And they were. It was weird.

Look back up at that list, I certainly have. I cannot conceive an application of pressure that would catalyze solutions to all of those issues.

Still, I’ve a group of students who will be coming back tomorrow to give it another go.

Tonight, they’re looking at this article and each member is drafting three possible group goals that match the criteria.

It’s as though no one told them they couldn’t do it.

You won’t hear it from me.

DAY: Commenting on Student Writing

Article HL

Patrick Higgins tweeted this article from the National Writing Project on commenting on student writing.

This section stuck to my ribs:

When I was younger and more naïve, that would be the juncture where I would say, “Comments?” and look at a circle of staring faces. No hands would shoot skyward; instead, everyone would carry the look of a prisoner about to be shot.

As my students embark on the 09-10 Change the World project and begin researching and blogging about the causes of the issues they’ve chosen, I needed something that would help avoid the online manifestation of comment impotence.

Mostly, I appreciate the article for its ease of access. Surely, there’s someone out there who’s written or tempted to write a tome on the online writers’ workshop. Slusher’s piece gives me the three pages I would need from such a book and lets me work out the rest. Nice teaching.

We’re reading excerpts of the article tomorrow.