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Friday, March 30, 2012

QR Code-based Amazing Race

So this week as part of a review for a test, I came up with 12 review questions, put each one individually into a Google document, then generated a QR Code using qrcode.kaywa.com that linked to each document/question. The QR codes were then posted in different places around the building. (some are still there...I need to take them down!...)

Students were placed into teams of 4 or 5, with one person designated as the contact person--he or she was the only one who would email me during the competition; I would not reply to others. (That person happened to be the one with the weakest grades on prior tests so he or she would have the reinforcement of writing answers...) Teams were made up of students with mixed ability/performance levels.

All teams began in my room with the first QR Code. They had to email me the correct answer to the question, at which point I emailed them a little bit of doggerel poetry that was a clue to their next destination and they were off. (Each team had a different first clue so the teams wouldn't bunch up).  Every subsequent correct answer generated a clue to the next location.  Incorrect answers got a response that included a hint or a suggestion if their answer was headed in the right direction. Each team that completed the 12 questions and returned to the classroom before the end of the period would receive 5 extra points on the test. But the last team to check in, as Phil says, may be eliminated and not get any points.

I've never seen students run so fast... ;)

So I would do it again, but I'd change a few things. 
1) 12 clues all over the building was too many to complete in a 45 minute period. 10 would be better, or closer placement of codes.
2) Some teachers are upset by students running in the halls...
3) I wouldn't use email, I'd us the iPad's messenger system.  It's faster, believe it or not... but it also helps with the next point...
4) It was logistically tough to keep track of what teams had gotten which clues via email, in part because they tended to create a new email for each question, rather than build a thread. So the messenger feature might or might not help with that by keeping a threaded conversation going, or I would require that they respond on the same thread if I were to use email again.
5) Some clues for the locations were hard and some were easy...they all got the front statue clue, but were flummoxed by the newspaper stand in the library clue...I'm not sure if that is good or bad, but the varying degrees of difficulty of the clues also slowed them down, so if the point is to review the content, I'd streamline that part of it.

But it was fun! I'm not sure how valuable it was as a review tool in the end, but as an activity, it was great.  The student feedback was that they enjoyed themselves a great deal, but felt it was too limited in terms of content.  We followed it up the next day with a game of baseball for further review. (Draw a baseball diamond on the board, I create questions that are worth a single, double, triple or homerun--harder questions for more bases--split the class into teams and play innings.)

Friday, March 16, 2012

iPad vs. Textbooks

Caveat Emptor: I am about to make lots of generalizations about textbooks. I know full well that there are exceptions to some things in some books.  But in my 15 years teaching history, I have yet to encounter a textbook that works well for me. You may love your textbook, and it may be perfect for you. I don't even like my textbook, and it doesn't work well for me.

I believe that history is, at its heart, a series of stories.  Stories can teach lessons, entertain, inform, generate a response, be boring, and even be lesson-less.  However, history textbooks don't tell good stories; they damp down all the controversy, take out the blood, sweat, toil and tears, use one person to represent whole groups of people, and in general, present everything as a done deal that was a good outcome for the "winners." There's the African proverb "Until lions have their own historians, stories of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter," which I like better than "victors write history," but the basic intent of both is the same:  textbooks are the history of the victors.  And they remind us, as Dave Barry mocked in his book Dave Barry Slept Here: A Sort of History of the United States, that "women and minorities continued to make valuable contributions." Afterthoughts, stereotypes and condescension abound. And insomnia gets cured by all who read them.

Textbooks are expensive to make, expensive to buy, impossible to update, heavy to carry, limited to two dimensions, present one perspective and are governed by the political whims of whatever the largest states' Departments of Education think they should contain.  They are boring, vanilla pieces of writing that contain mistakes and aren't even under the control of the ivory tower denizens who composed them originally.  Some contain thorough research and are accompanied by supplemental materials that are somewhat useful, but most are spottily researched, and come with such intellectually stimulating items as fill in the blank/matching/lower order thinking worksheets that re-create the textbook page in even simpler form. Ultimately, if you are a teacher who uses those materials, you must know that your students simply copy off a friend just before class. If they are organized, they rotate the responsibilities among them...

So I don't like textbooks.

Sadly, the iPad doesn't yet help with this area of my classes.  It allows me and my students to access the interwebs, and I do make use of the Wikipanion app to have students compare the contents of the textbook with the contents of Wikipedia and turn to a third party web source to adjudicate any discrepancies. I can have my students watch TED talks, PBS videos, and follow the news, blogs, and social media. Students can download items from iTunes U and podcasts that are free. So I can stitch together material, and I will eventually generate an ePub or my own iBook once it is populated enough, but for now it is a cumbersome process that relies on materials beyond my control.

Ah, but what about the new Apple textbook initiative and iBooks? Well, students would have to pay for anything out of iBooks. I currently can't buy books for them and then repossess them to pass along to other students in a subsequent year. (No rental licenses like there are for renting movies in iTunes...yet...) So even once Apple puts together its textbooks, I still will have to designate funds for the purchase of those items, and in terms of the mathematics of it all, iBook-based textbooks will end up being more expensive than the textbooks we currently use. (My current textbook cost is $90, and is on its 6th year of use...If I have to pay $15.99 per student per iBook per year, I won't really be saving anything over time, it just won't be a giant bill all at once.)

All I use a textbook for is to provide the students with a common platform of knowledge. I never use it in class; they read it at home, at night, on their own so they can come into the classroom with a body of information that will allow us to delve into the facets of the story that help: to explain our current world; to illustrate a problem that needed to be solved back then that resonates with a problem we have today; to provide an important comparison to another story from another place; or to help describe how something has changed as time has gone by. The iPad makes the in-class activities happen in new and effective ways, and it can help with the at-home portion of my process; it just doesn't do that smoothly and efficiently.  Yet.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

"crowdsourcing" grading

I'm appropriating the name of this aspect of assessment from Cathy N. Davidson's chapter in her book Now You See It (Thanks Cathy!) Hastac.org, the blog of the work that is being done at Duke University is also a must read for those of us who are interested in how technology is showing up in classrooms at multiple levels of the education system.

This is mostly about involving students in the assessment process, which I've been doing for several years, but only through asking classes to collaborate to create the rubrics I use to assess their work or through asking students to reflect on the process and product of their work in the classroom.  I have generally, however, shied away from having high school students provide grades for each other. This is usually due to my perception of them as not being willing to put much thought into their feedback (the phrase of death: "That was really good, I liked it!" comes up waaayy too much), grading on the basis of friendship or the lack thereof, or not being sure that all of them actually understood the criteria. So I've had them assess themselves after the fact, and used check-ins during projects to see how things are going.
But in light of reading Now You See It with the rest of the Instructional Leadership team at Burlington High School, I decided to try to crowdsource the grading of two projects in my senior elective, US-China Relations. Here's how it started this week:

I described the two projects to the class--one is a student presentation of a particular aspect of the relationship between the two nations the other is a summation of each of the four sections of the course, the first of them is the creation of a glogster poster in which they present the history of the relationship from 1972-present. (Details are posted on the class' blog uschinarelationsbhs.wordpress.com). Next year I think I'll ask them to design the projects, or at least give them the option to try that out...

I then asked them how they wanted the grading of these projects to go.  I said I could grade them all, but it seemed to me that after 13 years of schooling, and given they were all adults, I wanted them to have the option to grade themselves. (Full disclosure: students with a grade of B+ or higher in senior electives in the second semester at BHS do not have to take the exam. So they have some motivation to do well. I also have the reputation of being "a hard grader"...) The prevailing sentiment in the class after some discussion was that they wanted a say in the grading. I asked them what their ideas were for how to do this, and they came up with several different permutations.  I didn't have to do much to direct the conversation after that: 26 different voices participated without my prompting!  As they talked, I recorded the ideas on the board for all to see, and they began to coalesce around a few options.

All agreed that they wanted a different system for each project, so we then broke up the projects and went one at a time.  In the end, this was the students' choice (they voted through the electorally rigorous method of putting their heads down and raising their hands, counted by me):

Presentations will be graded by the students for the "style" of the presentation: how engaging it is, how effective it is, how well put together it is.  Those grades will be collected and averaged, dropping the highest and lowest. I will be assessing the content of the presentation for accuracy. Students were perceptive enough to recognize that they were not going to be experts in the material enough to be able to say whether or not the presenters had accurate and thorough information.  My grade will then be averaged against the students' average to determine the final mark.

The Summary projects will be graded by the students and me as one of the crowd.  I will present the glogster projects to the class as anonymous submissions (to avoid assessment on the basis of friendship or enmity). The highest and lowest marks will be discarded, and the results averaged to attain a grade.

We then compiled the categories of a successful presentation in a google document, and the students are composing the language that will go into the rubric that we will use.

This is not a full out crowdsourcing of grades, which I was honestly ready to embrace, but the students themselves expressed deep ambivalence at completely handing over the power of the grade to each other.  "Honestly, I don't trust kids in this class to grade fairly" said one student, to the general agreement of her peers.

So while I'm glad to be going forward with this, I think it is disturbing that the seniors in my classroom, after 13 years of schooling, don't have confidence in themselves to be impartial, focused, and analytical about the work that is going on all around them, nor do they trust each other to have those rather vital traits as they are about to depart the school...