Jul
13
2010

Thinking – at Wash U with the Life Sciences for a Global Community Teachers

“The Thinker” on the Washington University Campus

In the middle of one of the Washington University quads is this wonderfully whimsical re-imagining of August Rodin’sThe Thinker – a lanky looking rabbit, assuming the well-known, contemplative pose.  I just returned from a quick trip to St. Louis and, while there, the sculpture caught my fancy.  A nice flash of quirkiness on an otherwise, very traditional looking brick campus.

I traveled down there to join my friend and colleague, Liz Dorland, for a participatory media workshop for the Life Science for a Global Community (LSGC).  This is an amazing NSF-funded program, run out of Washington University byPhyllisBalcerzak, for high school life science teachers.  Teachers accepted into the program come to Wash U for a three-week, residential summer program for two summers running. Then, during the academic year, they take online courses and put what they learned in the summer into action in their own classrooms. During the 3-week summer program, they get top-notch mini courses from some of the best Wash U faculty on topics like neurobiology, photosynthesis, and genetics.  The teachers work together, as a cohort, to do experiments, go on field trips, start their own research projects and take what they learned back to their home campuses.  At the end of the two-year program, they’ve earned an MA in biology from Wash U, along with a community of like-minded colleagues that will last into the future of their teaching career.  They also stand a little taller – as a result of their expanded science knowledge, research expertise, and professional development.

Phyllis invited Liz and I to come work with the teachers on their use of new social media and web 2.0 tools – for the LSGC projects, for their students back at home, and with each other.  We had two sessions with them – Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.  On Friday afternoon we gave them an introduction to blogging (with WordPress), wikis (usingWikispaces), and podcasts (using cell phones, Flip video cameras, Garageband, and Audacity).  The workshops went well and the teachers caught on very quickly.  They came up with some pretty creative suggestions for using these tools with their students:

A multi-author blog to document a field trip

A science “newsreel” created by students – shown weekly to the school

Collaborate with students from another school – pool data

A wiki site for each course they teach, with a page for each student to hand in lab reports where the teacher could discuss the lab report on the discussion page and keep a record of the year

Students use video to record short tutorials on how to use various lab instruments (post them on a wiki site)

Student blogs used to reflect on their labs (or just reflect in general)

Create a podcast to narrate a field trip to a zoo or museum – turn it into a scavenger hunt

Students video interviews with experts (parents, other teachers, professors at local universities)

Use short podcasts as vehicles for reflection (as in, “before you leave the lab/test, just record a few minutes of your impressions/take-home lessons/what was the main point”)

Podcasts as assessments

Student-created podcast libraries of tough topics (use for future classes)

Wonderful stuff.  And, as always, when I meet with teachers, I was inspired by their persistence, endless creativity, and their overwhelming enthusiasm for their students.  Of course there were low moments too.  Like when I listened to them talk about their frustrations – school districts that blocked all the web sites they’d love to use with their students, administrators who seemed bent on foiling their every new plan, lack of resources, over-crowded classrooms (40 students in an AP course?!)…Sigh.  And one bleak moment when a teacher asked me, “but if we use all of these web sites, podcasts, and blogs, it just seems that the students will no longer need teachers and we’ll be putting ourselves out of a job.”  Oh, no.  Guess I didn’t do as good a job as I hoped I had at the beginning when I talked with them about all of these skills their students were going to need (that they don’t have now)….Like how to read in linked environments, how to validate information they find online, understanding the notion of a “digital footprint”, knowing how to work privacy settings on social networking sites, how to produce a safe and effective video, how to look for their teachers, how to behave in an online community, how to leverage a network effect.  Who is going to teach them all of those mission-critical skills if not their teachers?  That is our job – and we should be taking it very seriously.

On Saturday, we put together an (optional) Second Life workshop for them.  After a hard week of all-day sessions, we wereglad to welcome 10 of the 30 teachers who came to the session. They arrived, registered, got their avatar, and went in world for the first time.  In three hours, they went from never having been in a virtual world to flying, teleporting, managing their inventory, chatting, joining groups, and making friends.  It was wonderful to see.  Here are a few shots of our cadre of newbies exploring a really interactive museum on the American Chemical Society’s island (check out the simulation of nylon formation) and running through the foreston Tempura Island.  I suspect they were frustrated to learn that they couldn’t bring their (under 18 years old) high school students into this virtual world but the way that Liz approached this was to suggest SL as a professional development tool for them.  A place to experiment, to meet other like-minded teachers from all over the world, and – possibly – a place for them to meet and collaborate with each other, once they are no longer together on the Wash U campus.  We wound up our short SL romp with a fireworks display – everyone lighting sparklers on a platform, 300 feet up in the air over Jokaydia, with the sun dimmed for maximum effect.  It was quite a morning.

New LSGC avatars setting off fireworks in Second Life
Mar
02
2010

Wisdom from the Niles High School District

Photo credit:  Tom Denham

Photo credit: Tom Denham

I just returned from moderating a teacher workshop at the Niles District’s (just out side of Chicago, Illinois) Institute Day.  Ruth Gleicher and Anne Roloff invited me to spend three hours with a group of 10 high school teachers from the two high schools in the Niles District.  The workshop was called, “Participatory Media, Learning, and Literacy” and it sprung from a session I offered at the 2009 NABT conference.  Ruth Gleicher, who is a biology teacher at Niles West HS, attended that NABT session and thought that it might be a good fit for her colleagues.  Together, she and I designed an experience with a little presentation and a lot of hands-on and discussion.

The session went well, I think.  I sure enjoyed it!  I was so impressed with this group of teachers.  They were biology, chemistry, earth science, english, and special ed teachers.  And they were all – to a person – hard working, creative, and very committed teachers.  We started off the session, going around and introducing ourselves.  I asked them to share with the others how they’re currently making use of new media tools with their students and to describe one new thing they wanted to try.  So we spent the first hour or so in a candid exchange of ideas, things that worked and didn’t, questions they had, and plans for the future.

I love these conversations. And I suspect that you do too – here are a few of the gems that the Niles teachers shared with each other….

Students aren’t as proficient as we think they are with online tools….they don’t know how to download a photo, they’ve never edited a wiki, they don’t understand intellectual property.

Amen to that.  And I would add that many of them don’t know how to set the privacy controls on Facebook, they don’t know how to create and post a video in a safe and responsible way, they are unaware of their digital footprint and how it might work to their benefit, and they forget about replicability, forwarding and the persistence of content.  Our students need help with all of these things.  They must become more aware of the power of online information and they must be more exacting judges of the credibility of what they find there.  They need teachers to help them understand, respect, sort and discern.

As teachers, we need help sorting out what’s the right tool for the job and which – if any -  of the options is worth our time.

Another good point!  There are so many intriguing online options these days – fun tools to try, capabilities to explore, and a huge range of ways to express ourselves, demonstrate our understanding, and deepen our experience.  But how to evaluate them?  How to decide if the time it will take to learn how to use them well (and then show others how to do the same) will be worth it?  With this conundrum, my advice is  – try it yourself first.  Get inside whatever the new thing is with your own projects or interests (a hobby?  a small thing – just enough to learn, or maybe on something you need to do anyway).  Make failure cheap.  Discover the affordances of the tool for yourself and then you’ll be in a good position to judge whether or not it’s worth using it in your classroom.

What I don’t evaluate or grade, my students won’t do.

Yeah, I hear that a lot.  The point these teachers were making was, if we don’t give credit for blogging, contributing to the class wiki, or creating an animoto, our students won’t do it.  I feel their pain.  I can’t help but think that much of this behavior stems from conditioning.  We’ve trained our students (in our assessment-crazed, high-stakes testing world) to think in these terms.  Intrinsic motivation seems to have left the building. But I don’t think that’s due to any character flaw in our students – I think that “we” have set it up this way (I was talking to a friend yesterday, who relayed the story that her kindergartner came home with homework on which “points” would be given by the teacher).  But even if we agree on that, what’s to be done about it?  By the time teenagers get to high school (or college) they are steeped in that tradition.  What’s an individual teacher to do, in order to break the cycle?   I would love to hear your thoughts on that – comments?  ideas?

Oct
28
2009

The Essential Biology Teacher

A week or so ago I started reading the new Dawkins book, The Greatest Show On Earth. Greatest Show It was on the recommendation of my Aussie friend, Stewart Monckton, (see his Amazon review at http://www.amazon.co.uk/review/R1II4L8RD2QWWM/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm.)  Although there is much to think about and to comment upon in Dawkins’ latest discussion of evolution and evolutionary thought, it is the idea of essentialism or Platonic Philosophy that has stuck in my mind right now.

What is Essential Thinking and how does it relate to evolution and maybe more of why it is floating around my head and just what is an Essential Biology Teacher?

Let me explain in Dawkin’s own words:

Biology,according to (Ernst) Mayer, is plagued by its own version of essentialism.  Biological essentialism treats tapirs and rabbits, pangolins and dromedaries, as though they were triangles, rhombuses, parabolas or dodecahedrons.  The rabbits that we see are wan shadows of the perfect ‘idea’ of rabbit, the ideal, essential, Platonic rabbit, hanging somewhere out in conceptual space along with all the perfect forms of geometry.  Flesh-and-blood rabbits may vary, but their variations are always to be seen as flawed deviations from the ideal essence of rabbit.

How desperately unevolutionary that picture is!  The Platonist regards any change in rabbits as a messy departure from the essential rabbit, and there will always be resistance to change–as if all real rabbits were tethered by an invisible elastic cord to the Essential Rabbit In the Sky.  The evolutionary view of life is radically opposite. Descendants can depart indefinitely from ancestral form, and each departure becomes a potential ancestor to future variants.  Indeed, Alfred Russel Wallace, independent co-discoverer with Darwin of evolution by natural selection, actually called his paper ‘On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type.’

If there is a ‘standard rabbit’, the accolade denotes no more than the center of a bell-shaped distribution of real, scurrying, leaping variable bunnies. And, the distribution shifts with time. As generations go by, there may gradually come a point, not clearly defined, when the norm of what we all rabbits will have departed so far as to deserve a different name. There is no permanent rabbitness, no essence of rabbit hanging in the sky, just populations of furry, long-eared, coprophagous, whisker-twitching individuals, showing a statistical distribution of variation in size, shape, colour and proclivities. What used to be the longer-eared end of the old distribution may find itself the centre of a new distribution later in geologic time.

Dawkins continues with his discussion of rabbitness and essential thinking and paints a picture of how essential thinking can put a stop to our understanding about how organisms are related to each other and how evolution itself occurs.  Great discussion!!   But as I was reading this I started to think about teachers.  Science teachers.  Specifically about biology teachers.  Is there an essence of biology teacher?  The perfect picture of biology teacher?  In fact lets have some fun with this.  I am going to take Dawkin’s words and do a little substitution.  I’ll be right back, I’m headed for my word processing application to play with this idea of word substitution.  Sit tight, I’ll be right back.

Here we are:

Biology,according to (Ernst) Mayer, is plagued by its own version of essentialism.  Biological essentialism treats tapirs and biology teachers, pangolins and dromedaries, as though they were triangles, rhombuses, parabolas or dodecahedrons.  The biology teachers that we see are wan shadows of the perfect ‘idea’ of biology teacher, the ideal, essential, Platonic biology teacher, hanging somewhere out in conceptual space along with all the perfect forms of geometry.  Flesh-and-blood biology teachers may vary, but their variations are always to be seen as flawed deviations from the ideal essence of biology teacher.

How desperately unevolutionary that picture is!  The Platonist regards any change in biology teachers as a messy departure from the essential biology teacher, and there will always be resistance to change–as if all real biology teachers were tethered by an invisible elastic cord to the Essential Biology teacher In the Sky.  The evolutionary view of life is radically opposite. Descendants can depart indefinitely from ancestral form, and each departure becomes a potential ancestor to future variants.  Indeed, Alfred Russel Wallace, independent co-discoverer with Darwin of evolution by natural selection, actually called his paper ‘On the tendency of varieties to depart indefinitely from the original type.’

If there is a ‘standard biology teacher‘, the accolade denotes no more than the center of a bell-shaped distribution of real, scurrying, leaping variable bio teacher. And, the distribution shifts with time. As generations go by, there may gradually come a point, not clearly defined, when the norm of what we call biology teachers will have departed so far as to deserve a different name. There is no permanent biology teacherness, no essence of biology teacher hanging in the sky, just populations of furry, long-eared, coprophagous (this may be going a bit too far, but I continue,) whisker-twitching individuals, showing a statistical distribution of variation in size, shape, colour and proclivities. What used to be the longer-eared end of the old distribution may find itself the centre of a new distribution later in geologic time.

Fun, but lets think about this for a short time.  The Essential Biology Teacher ! Is this what the Standards Movement is trying to create?  The perfect biology teacher!  The biology teacher template!  Even the word standard starts to take on a shaky meaning.  Is there a Standard biology course?  Is there even Standard biology knowledge?  Maybe I push too far?  We certainly want our students to have a basic understanding of the biological world.  Should we keep the bell-shaped curve in mind?  I certainly teach biology in a slightly different manner than Wally Hintz did/does (see an earlier post about my mentor Walter Hintz.)  If it was radically different maybe I could not be called a biology teacher, but slight variations are necessary.  Just as Dawkins says “There is no permanent rabbitness, no essence of rabbit….”  We have to keep an open mind to variants of biology teacher. That is what this blog is all about.  ”Here’s how I do it….”  ”Maybe I need a few new tricks in my classroom….”  ”Did you ever think about trying this web tool?”

Sometimes I get fearful that the “tests” are creating Essential Biology Teachers. What do you think?  I would love to have some of your thoughts about Standards, Testing, and National Curricula.  I dont care what you say, my ears are NOT  longer than Wally Hintz’s!!! AND Becky is NOT growing a beard!!!

Walter Hintz - Wickliffe High Biology Teacher in the 1960's

Walter Hintz - Wickliffe High Biology Teacher in the 1960's

Rich Benz--Wickliffe High Biology Teacher 1973-2006

Rich Benz–Wickliffe High Biology Teacher 1973-2006 (Student of Walter Hintz)

Becky Haller--The "New Biology Teacher at Wickliffe High and former student of Rich BenzBecky Haller–The “New Biology Teacher at Wickliffe High and former student of Rich Benz
Jul
17
2009

To the Moon

Apollo 11 liftoff from launch tower camera

Apollo 11 liftoff from launch tower camera

Where were you on July 20, 1969?  I put that question to my friends and family last week and I got a wonderful collection of answers. A common element in all their stories was a small, scratchy (typically borrowed) black & white TV set, with a large group of people, crowded around to watch the flickering images of the first walk on the moon. Breathlessly.

I was 11 years old and a camper in the Feather River Canyon in California, attending a two-week summer camp. Apollo 11 landed at 4:18 pm EDT, so that would have been 1:18, California time, just after lunch.  I remember crowding into a room behind the camp’s dining hall with a hoard of other people, straining to see the small black and white TV screen.  The only broadcast they could receive in that remote location happened to be in Italian (go figure) and so, between the scratchy image and the fact that no one present understood Italian, we had to piece together and narrate what we were seeing.  I can remember the distinct feeling that this was history in the making.  This was something special. And this was something that I would always remember.  

At 10:56 EDT, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, and the world watched.  Buzz Aldrin, emerged soon after. Over 2 ½ hours, the two astronauts collected 47 pounds (!) of lunar surface material and re-entered the lunar module.

We Choose the Moon site.

We Choose the Moon site.

Just as the folks at the John F. Kennedy library hoped, their re-creation web site, We Choose The Moon, is tuning Americans into their memories of the historic mission. This is a wonderful site, well worth the visit.  It’s a real-time mission reenactment, tracking the actual mission events (with historic images and footage), just as they happened 40 years ago. You can follow newsroom feeds, monitor the flight path, get updates from mission control (via twitter or from the Mission tracker widget on your web page or social media site).  It’s a very good example of the kind of teaching that can be done with new technology.  My only gripe about it is that they missed the opportunity to make it a 2.0 site by failing to invite people to share their memories and embellish the site with their perspective.  Too bad.

Aldrin's boot.

Aldrin's boot.

After you’ve taken a look at that site, take a look at some of the other, amazing online teaching resources in NASA’s vaults and others – it’s just incredible, what’s available online. NASA has just released newly restored Apollo 11 footage – excerpts really – from the take off, to the landing, and the lift-off back to earth.  You can find it in this New York Times article, along with a hilarious “hoax” video (scroll down to find that one) – and, yes, apparently some people still think that the whole thing was a hoax.  And, in case you wanted to compare, here’s the actual landing footage (pre-restoration).

 

Here’s a QT movie of the mission, put together by NASA.  And the official NASA site on the history of the mission. NASA has also posted the private taped conversations between Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins, recorded aboard the command module, Columbia, and the lunar module, Eagle, along with an audio database of other recordings. You can find all kinds of downloadable images, videos and pdfs (from NASA) and here is the Apollo 11 image gallery (some great stuff to be found!). To get a better sense of the lunar landscape, here’s a QTVR image scape of the moon taken by Apollo 17 and first published on anniversary #35 of Apollo 11.  Use your mouse have a look around and around and around. The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s Apollo 11 site has lots of information on the mission, the crew, the spacecraft, the landing site and some amazing images. Discovery Channel has an impressive archive of videos of the various NASA missions – lots of fun to explore there.  Just for fun, you can pick up a Lunar Module service manual or a space suit replica (for $9,500) on eBay. 

Unfortunately, as we learned from NPR this week, NASA isn’t the best steward of history. Check out this 7.16.09 story explaining how the original tapes of the Apollo 11 moonwalk probably destroyed during a period when NASA was re-using old magnetic tapes to reuse them for satellite data.   The newly restored video that I mentioned earlier was actually pieced together from a variety of sources, the best of the various broadcast clips.

Earthrise.

Earthrise.

The Apollo 11 mission fulfilled President John F. Kennedy’s inspirational goal of reaching the moon by the end of the 1960’s.  But it did so much more for all of us.  It gave us the first images of the Earth, taken from the moon. Images that undeniably changed our perspective on our fragile planet and the need for stewardship. The mission showed us men, closely encased in technology, operating dials, levers and computers to sustain their lives in an inhospitable environment. The mission gave us courage to strive for things that might seem unattainable.  It made us explorers again.

Jul
04
2009

21st Century Skills

updatedrainbow_smI’ve been thinking a lot about “21st Century Skills” lately.  Mostly because the publisher of our high school biology program has asked us to add a section to the front-end of the textbook on the topic.  Seems a bit ironic to put such content into a print medium, but that’s ok.  People will at least read about it and, maybe, they will want to dig further.

Since that’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot lately but wasn’t sure I completely understood, I asked our editor what exactly is meant by “21st Century Skills”? She sent me to a web site called Partnership for 21st Century Skills, citing it as the definitive resource on precisely what these 21st century skills are all about.   The Partnership for 21st Century Skills is an advocacy group with the intention of rallying federal resources (Department of Education), businesses (publishers, network providers, hardware/software manufacturers), administrators, and educators around the idea of bringing 21st century skills to schools.  Here’s a quote from their mission statement:

There is a profound gap between the knowledge and skills most students learn in school and the knowledge and skills they need in typical 21st century communities and workplaces.

To successfully face rigorous higher education coursework, career challenges and a globally competitive workforce, U.S. schools must align classroom environments with real world environments by infusing 21st century skills.

Sounds good.  And when you read their materials there’s not much there to disagree with…creativity and innovation, problem solving, critical thinking, flexibility, self-direction, social awareness.  Those all sounds good.  But I thought that this “21st century skills” thang was about technology skills, social networking, and participatory media?

Well, there are technology skills listed on the web site too –  information literacy, using technology tools to access, manage, and evaluate information – but they feel awfully general and, to my eye, they get lost in a sea of impossibly wide-ranging, “achieving-world-peace” kind of goals.  It sort of reminds me of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegone where “all the  children are above average”.   How can a school administrator or a classroom teacher be expected to apply this?  So many (many!) hoped-for skills here and not a lot of specifics. I worry about the mandatory media skills for future survival getting lost in the ocean of other goals that one might want to have for our students – a sort of unfortunate dilution effect.

So what to put in this front section of our book?  What would I want to put forward as fundamentally important media literacy skills, from my perspective?  Let’s make it real by making it personal.  My kids. When I think about the media literacy skills that I would like for my children (and I attempt to be precise and reasonable about it). Here’s what comes to the top:

How to distinguish between dependable and undependable information.  In a networked world where everyone is participating, the commentators number in the hundreds of thousands, and its all happening at lightening speed, I want my kids to be able to readily distinguish good information from less good.  

How to read (really read) in linked environments.  Reading linked text calls for a different set of skills.  There are new neural pathways to be laid down in order to keep track, make sense, remember, and connect.  I want my kids to be able to read with focus and attention but also to be able to skim, parse, suss, and then dig in when they need to.

How to search, tag, and organize.  My kids will need to know how to find information on line, yes – but beyond that, they will need to understand folksonomy and tag their information for later retrieval and sharing.  They will need to know how to use tools to organize, store, and manipulate information.  

How to find teachers and mentors.  For any problem with which you might be struggling, there is an expert out there somewhere who will be able and willing to help you.  Our networked world is a perfect way to map solution to need.  But getting the word out there about your need (framing the question), finding the right coach/mentor/teacher, and then making the most of the connection (in whatever form it takes) all require unique and nuanced skills.

How to edit in shared knowledge environments.  Whether its Google Docs, a classroom wiki, an Elluminate session or wikipedia, citizens of the world will need to be able to edit, contribute, constructively critique, and collaborate in these shared environments.

How to create a digital footprint.  I want my kids to understand how indelible the web is and that photos and videos uploaded, stories told, or blog entries posted will not only be around forever but might be shared, linked to, mashed up, amplified, and viewed by many.  But my hope here is not just to avoid the pitfalls and dangers.  I want them to be safe – yes – but I want them to go beyond that and learn how to build a lasting digital profile of which they are proud.  One where a future employer will type their name into the search engine of tomorrow and say, “nice.”

To understand the network effect.  I want my kids to fundamentally grasp what a network effect is – how to create it, leverage it, and ride it.  To understand, down in their bones, how much more valuable something is the more people know about it and use it.

I didn’t find any of these specifics on the Partnership web site.  Maybe they are there, in some form or in one of the many downloadable pdfs, but I gave up after swimming in a sea of generalities. Or maybe it’s the name given to this idea  – 21st Century Skills — it just seems so, well, HUGE.  And in its hugeness, ineffective.   I’m sure my list is not complete (and would love to hear your suggestions on what to add) but it’s a start – and its specific.  I think I know what I want to include in that textbook section. I think I know what I need to talk to my kids about this afternoon.

Written by rheyden in: Teaching Tools | Tags: ,