#edread – A Crowdsourced Twitter Discussion About Getting Kids To Read.

vocab-despondent

It is easy to feel despondent as a teacher.  It can seem that an insurmountable list of problems face us as educators in the 21st century.  As an English teacher I feel that I am attempting to address the short comings of a society in which reading is under-valued, to engage students who fail to see the value of reading, having grown up in a world of XBOXs and iPods and to deal with a growing number of students who do see reading as valuable but due to the fact that they find it too difficult have completely disengaged from it.

However, I believe that we should not feel despondent.  In fact, I believe that we have a duty to feel hopeful looking upon these issues as challenges and opportunities to be addressed rather than just problems to be bemoaned.  My students’ vocabulary does not measure up to what my own was like at their age. Okay, this does not make me happy but if that’s the case then I need to do something about it. I need to get them reading! How am I going to do it? I don’t know exactly (because each case is different) but I do have some guiding principles:

  • I can not expect my students to want to read so I need to inspire them and help them to see the value in it.
  • I need to teach them to overcome their fears about reading and to overcome the barriers that are there stopping them from becoming good readers.
  • I must not cut off routes to understanding simply because it does not fit in with my own value system – if they don’t want to use my Oxford dictionary to look up a word but want to use Google instead then that is fine by me.
  • I need to offer them the opportunity to read the kinds of texts that they will come into contact with in real life.  Every lesson does not have to be about Shakespeare, Austen or Dickens!
  • I have a responsibility to read myself and model good reading.  The best reader in the room is me so I should not be a lazy teacher and ask them to read all of the time – sometimes they need to hear the words come off of the page as they were meant to.

These are my core beliefs as an English teacher who is passionate about reading and one who tries very hard every day to help his students enjoy and value reading.

Getting kids reading is firmly on my departments’ agenda at the moment. Having been involved in the undoubted success that was #movemeon (via @dajbelshaw)  I would like to engage my Twitter PLN in a discussion about how to help young people value reading.  I have identifed three types of pupil:

  • Those who never read and see no value in it.
  • Those who want to read but believe they can’t.
  • Those who read the same thing over and over again rather than challenging themselves.

This then calls for three questions:

  • How do you help the student who never reads and does not see the value in it?
  • How do you help the student who wants to read but won’t because they believe that they can’t?
  • How do you help the student who is happy to coast along reading their way through Tracey Beaker or Alex Rider but is unwilling to challenge themselves and read something more involved?

I am going to use the hash tag #edread and have created an archive here at Twapper Keeper to record all of the tweets. I hope that you will help me out and get behind this project.

[Update] I have created a dedicated page here to keep a record of the project – featuring links to any related posts and an archive of all tweets tagged with #edread. I may also turn this into a book – most likely an online pdf but I have not fully thought this bit through yet.

Crowdsourcing seems to be the model of choice at the moment and I am not about to argue with that.  I think it is the most effective way for us to collaborate and share ideas. What’s more I thoroughly enjoy it.

Should you have any questions please contact me @jamesmichie.

Image courtesy ofsolbronumberone” on Flickr.  Found using “Compfight“- a Flickr Search Tool via @iusher.

Assessment For Learning With Twitter

There is a lot of discussion within the #edtech community about the value of using Twitter within the classroom, which is, in turn, followed by a second conversation about whether educators should be using Twitter in school at all.

I personally believe that Twitter has the potential to be invaluable within education as long as the right safeguarding precautions are taken.

The most obvious use for Twitter I feel is to utilise it as a tool for giving feedback as part of assessment for learning.  Therefore, I decided to start there and trial this with one of my Year 10 classes.  Why Year 10?  Mainly due to the fact that I believe they are mature enough to handle the use of Twitter sensibly and that if successful it could become part of our working process; having time to develop its use through to the end of Year 10 and beyond.

My students set up their accounts with me in the classroom.  I gave them a clear set of instructions about how to set their account up – most importantly that their account name be created in such a way that they can not be personally identified by it and that their account is locked so that they can control who is following them.  To make the “following” aspect even more straightforward I followed (with a specific Twitter account I set up for use in school) all of them and created a group “list” that they could then follow.  It meant that they were not searching through lots of other people to find each other and possibly coming into contact with people and tweets that they shouldn’t.

I wanted to be sure that they looked on this as an educational tool – although that was not too hard as some of them were quick to tell me that: “Twitter is for old people like you sir and Facebook is for us, teenagers!” – thanks a lot I thought to myself.

The group of students I decided to trial this with were my Creative Media Diploma students.  They are a small pilot group so provided a situation that was manageable to try out a new form of Assessment For Learning.  Here are some examples of tweets by the students:

twit feedback 1

I feel that the 140 character limit was actually one of the most effective aspects of the process – the students found it challenging at first but once they got over the fact that they were being allowed to communicate as they would in a text message or e-mail with friends they quickly adapted and began sending very short but constructive comments to each other.  The unit had culminated in the students creating a multi-media presentation (animated still images and audio) comparing BBC Radio 2 with either Capital FM or XFM.  The students were required to evaluate both the analytical content of the presentations and the visual/auditory features.

twit feedback 3

To facilitate the process each student was assigned a hash tag which was made up from the first three letters of their name and then the initials of the course “cmd”.  This allowed for easy searching and provided some uniformity and structure to the task. I asked them to make one positive comment and one comment that offered some constructive criticism.  This was handled fairly well and only one student on one occasion wrote something about another students work that the rest of the class and I felt was not appropriate.  Due to the public nature of the process the students were quicker than I in picking up on it, making the student who sent it send a tweet apologising and for them to delete the offending tweet.  You see it is about teaching the responsibility.  If we treat what we do online seriously they will take it seriously.

twit feedback 2

Each hash tag ended with cmd as an identifier of the task being evaluated.

After the evaluations were complete the students were asked in the following lesson to use Twitter Search to locate all of their tweets.  They printed out a copy of all the tweets that contained their given hash tag for their portfolio and read through them reflecting on the positive and negative points that they had been given.  They then set themselves two targets. One target explaining how they could improve the content of their presentation and one target as to how they could improve the visual/auditory features.  Here is an example of a students targets which they submitted to our Virtual Learning Environment (moodle), printed out and stapled to their tweets inside their portfolio.

example of target setting

This was an enjoyable and (I feel) highly effective process.  It certainly was for me as a teacher, being able to offer feedback and advice instantly but in an alternative way to the usual verbal approach.  The 140 character limit helped I believe as I had to get to the point rather than waffling on! There was a record of it all, just as if I had filled in some laborious assessment sheet. And they were able to respond to the feedback and they got to not just know what I thought but what their peers thought as well.

Furthermore, it was helpful to me to see what the other students were saying – giving me an insight into the way they saw each others work at the same time I was assessing and evaluating it.  This made me stop sometimes and re-evaluate what I was saying in terms of feedback.  As the process developed, being able to read each others tweets, we all got better at it – providing better and better feedback for the student being evaluated.

While Twitter remains available at school I will definitely use it again for this process and hopefully for others.  I have considered using Twitter to help develop my Y10 English class’ writing skills – a story or poem developed tweet by tweet!  I also saw, just today, as I was working on this post that @tombarrett used Twitter in his classroom today using his PLN to tweet what the weather was like in different parts of the country.  I’ll say no more as I know that he plans to blog about it himself! This to me was a fantastic use of Twitter in school and exemplifies the value of it being left open and free for use, not shut down (behind a firewall) like so many other great social learning tools seem to be.

If you would like to know more about this project or other ways I plan to use Twitter in my classroom please feel free to tweet me @jamesmichie.

A Very British Education.

A Study in Scarlet

Having turned 30 this past December I often find myself thinking about my brain, impressed by the fact that it keeps working; consuming more information all of the time.  This in turn gets me to thinking about my students brains and what my role is in helping to fill them, which brings me to the purpose of this post.  Once a week I am going to focus on a quote from literature to help illustrate a point or idea.

For the 1st of these posts I wish to direct you to chapter 2 from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel: A Study in Scarlet. Watson is amazed by both Holmes’ knowledge and his ignorance after discovering that he was unaware of the fact that the Earth rotates around the Sun. Holmes explains his apparent shortcomings quite wonderfully.

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

“But the Solar System!” I protested.

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

It is at this point that I turn to the title of my post.  It is clear that if Holmes were alive and kicking in the 21st Century he would be very pleased with the current system of British education – specifically the ‘narrowing’ or ‘specialising’ process (depending on how you view it) that takes place at 14, 16 and 18 years of age.  By the time a young person leaves university they will have surely emptied their “brain-attic” of any and all “useless facts”, keeping only the “useful ones” in pursuit of their chosen career.

However, I believe that both the great Sherlock Holmes and the current system of education in Britain are wrong.  Holmes’ usually exquisite reasoning has failed him.  In the 21st century it is unlikely that any person leaving education will have an exact understanding of what their future career may be.  Jobs change frequently and new ones are invented all of the time in a world that never stops moving, never stops adapting and evolving.  It is therefore, impossible to say that any one piece of information is “useless”. What may seem like a trivial nugget of knowledge may one day be a vital component of someone’s “brain-attic” helping them to complete a task or to forge ahead with their chosen career.

While I appreciate that some of you will disagree with me, I for one, am tired of hearing the following question come from a 15 year-old’s mouth: “What do I need to know this for? I don’t see why I need to be able to read Shakespeare in order to cut someone’s hair!”  For me this exemplifies the flaws in Holmes’ thinking.  While being able to read Shakespeare may not help the 15 year-old to cut hair after they leave school at 16 it will have taught them something about British heritage; it may help them two years later should they become dissatisfied with their chosen career and decide to go to college; and it might certainly be useful to them when they have their own 15 year-old who is reading Romeo & Juliet for the first time and they are asking mum or dad to sit down and read it with them.

Holmes may not be completely wrong though. There probably is some knowledge that will be useless to us no matter what but even the most benign facts such as the name of Katie Price’s current husband will be useful to someone: a journalist at the Sun newspaper perhaps, a celebrity blogger or a university professor who teaches their students Media Studies or Social Studies.

The fact of the mater is this: No information is “useless”!  The current system of education in Britain is telling young people that some information is more important than others, that some subjects are more valuable than others and that it is okay to ignore information, ideas and thoughts if they don’t bare some direct relationship to the subjects they are taking or the career path they have decided to follow.  This for me like Holmes’ explanation if his own ignorance is very problematic.

I personally feel let down by my own education – I was not fully prepared for the rigours of the working world and like so many learned just as much working as a part-time supervisor at Superdrug as I did studying for my degree.  I learned to use Maths properly on the job – having been allowed to give it up at sixteen.  My wife, an Arts History Major from the College of Charleston, SC, USA was still taking ‘Math’ classes while obtaining her degree – the application of number being actually quite important to the day to day running of a gallery or museum.  On the job I also learned to use Excel with real purpose rather than the laughable task used by many ICT teachers today – to plan a party on an Excel spreadsheet – who does that I ask you?  Who plans their parties using Excel? I don’t – a paper and pen usually suffices!

If I had been made to continue with a broader range of courses I have no doubt that I still would have made it to University but I may have had greater choice about what I wanted to do.  I may have retained more of that useful Maths that I struggled through at GCSE but only saw the true value of when as a University student I was promoted from Shop Assistant to Supervisor – a position that meant I had to balance the tills at the end of the day, squaring away the days takings. It was worth it for the pay rise that came with it but would have been easier if I had not been allowed (encouraged in fact) to let that “useless” Maths (like long division and percentages) be elbowed out of my “brain-attic”.

I am grateful to my time working in retail – it meant that I had the expertise to pass my QTS Skills test in Numeracy during my PGCE.  In fact as an English PGCE student this and the ICT test were the exams I feared the least.  I was more worried that my spelling or grammar would let me down on the Literacy test.  This ill feeling mainly being the product of not wanting to embarrass myself more than anything else.

The word count reads 1279 so I had better come to some sort of a conclusion!  A child’s brain is like an empty “attic” and it i my job to help fill it but not simply with Shakespeare, Browning and Miller; not simply to be able to analyse a quotation or dissect a scene from EastEnders but to teach them to question the status quo; to conduct primary and secondary research effectively; to understand the links between social media, geography, politics and class amongst many other connections that can be made between subjects, ideas and thoughts.  My students’ “brain-attics” have walls but they are pliable, expandable, not set by stone and mortar.  They are open to using technology to aid their learning but also to know when to put it down.  They appreciate, because I will them to, that Art is as valuable as English and History is as valuable as Maths.  And you know what their is enough room in their “brain-attics” to take it all in!

My concern is this!  What happens to my Year 10 students in 18 months time and they become A-Level students or they leave school.  Will their “brain-attics” keep being filled up?  Will they keep expanding their minds thirsting for knowledge or will they start to haemorrhage apparently “useless” information that they believe they don’t need any more because they “don’t do English no more, didn’t see the point of Shakespeare any way!”

Sherlock Holmes –  your reasoning is simply wrong!  While you don’t see why knowing that the Earth rotates around the Sun will help you right now you are ignorant of the fact that it might be helpful to you at a later date.  This is the problem and challenge that our young students face today being the recipients of “a very British Education.”