Gaining Some Perspective

13 04 2010

Well I just got back from a nice run (luckily the rain predicted for today has held off!) and now that I’ve worked off a little tension I’m ready to sit down and write a bit.

I am a member of the group Using Wikis and Blogs in the English Classroom on the E.C. Ning and I was reading through the discussion following a question about (shocker) how teachers can use wikis and blogs in their classroom. The question was posted by someone who is new to blogs and wikis, thinks they are interesting tools, but is unsure how to use them in a classroom…its almost as if I wrote the question myself! The discussion had garnered five full pages of responses, including a few by some familiar faces (including Jason and Brittany), and some of the ideas presented were really well-developed and useful. I loved the wiki pages that some teachers created for their classes, which included syllabi, contact information, and helpful resources for students.

Some teachers used blogs to encourage writing. Matt Christensen, who has created blogs for his students using blogspot said, “Some of my students are mice in the classroom, but lions on my class sites. They type things they would never say.” This comment gave me pause. The idea of encouraging students to hide behind a computer screen is troubling to me. However, Matt included links to his students’ blogs, and after reading through a little bit, I saw that he had his students making some very thoughtful connections. I then thought, well why can’t they make these connections in other sorts of writing assignments? I soon answered my own question – of course they can! But writing in a blog is the next best thing to sharing in an outloud discussion, because their ideas can be viewed by anyone, not just their teacher. The blogs promote conversation for those who won’t speak in class. I only hope that eventually Matt will help these students work towards being able to share with the class face-to-face, because in person communication is such an important skill to develop.

Having read this discussion I feel much more comfortable with the idea of wikis and blogs in the classroom. I am starting to understanding why they might be a good idea. However, I was still left with a few questions, which I added to the conversation and hope to get some responses to. They are…

1) I have been working with wikis a fair bit this semester, and on a few occasions we have had to deal with glitches and loss of information. How do yo handle this problem?

2) Do your students do most of their online work for homework? I have wondered in my own classes, and the concern will carry over into my career, that using these communication technologies might have a detrimental effect on actual face-to-face conversations, which I think are so important.

Do any of you have any thoughts on these questions?

A Moment For Reflection

7 04 2010

Today was a beautiful, warm, sunny day in the eighties. This means two things: 1) I spent most of the day outside and now am suffering some unfortunate tan lines and 2) the summer, and thus the end of spring semester, is fast approaching (woo-hoo!!). That being said, its time to take a moment to reflect on the semester. In this blog post I am going to evaluate my experience and performance in the world of the PLN.

First things first – some general thoughts about the PLN project

I entered this project confused and a bit unenthusiastic. I’ve never had much of a knack for computers and technology, and I had no desire to spend my time figuring out blogs and nings and ping-backs and RSS feeds and a bunch of other things that I had never heard of before. However, three months in, I am finding some of this stuff to actually be pretty interesting. I am especially greatful to have been introduced to the English Companion Ning! This is a resource that I envision myself using throughout my career. I have also found that I actually enjoy blogging. I have found it therapeutic to just get my thoughts down in words a couple of times per week, and although I have never been much of a journaler, it may be time to start. I have really enjoyed the opportunity this project has created to further connect with my classmates and others in the education community. That beings said, I think that the inter-class communication could have just as easily occurred in person, inside or outside the classroom, and would have been more stimulating and valuable in a face-to-face setting.

The RSS Reader (I use Google Reader) is interesting to me. I have found it to be very useful for keeping up with the blogs I subscribe to, but at the same time I wonder if it might be a bit limiting. What else might I have come across if I didn’t have a pre-prepared compilation of already chosen sites? I guess, at least as far as I am concerned, the verdict is still out on this tool.

Two parts of the PLN that I have really been unable to connect with are LinkedIn and Twitter. The bottom line is that I really just don’t know what to do with either of these component, particularly Twitter. I made an account, but have failed to make any tweets other than the initial “yay, my first tweet” tweet. Everytime I log in, I completely blank. There is no  message that I feel the need to publish to the world in 120 characters or less, and I don’t find myself caring too much about what other people can fit into that constraint. But anyway, its time to move on…

My Stats

The existence of the stat page is something I only learned about last Wednesday. Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • WordPress says my blog has been viewed 254 times. However, we realized in class that many of us read each others blogs on our RSS Readers, and this reading does not show up on the Stats page. So, this number does not really reflect how often my words have been seen by others.
  • My readership increased in February and March. I would credit the low number of views in April to the fact that it is only April 6th.
  • The weekly views stats are all over the place. I can’t think of any good explanation for this.
  • My homepage is the most-viewed page by a landslide (this is a no-brainer). My post entitled An Ethical Dilemma comes in a not-so-close second. The busiest day my blog has  experienced was March 22, which is the day I posted One Post, Two Trains of Thought.
  • Over the past few months I have made twelve posts, which is approximately one per week. Which leads me into my self-evaluation…

Consistency: Good

I have been regularly bloggin at least once a week, as well as reading and commenting on the blogs of my classmates. While I recognize that once-a-week posts may not be going above and beyond the call of duty, I think that this is fairly in line with many of my classmates. However, in order to get this ranking up to a Great! and increase my blog activity, I will aim to write at least two posts per week as I wrap up this semester.

Quality: Good

I am very happy with the content of my blog posts. As I said earlier, this blog has served as a journal for me over the past few months, and I have put a lot of thought into the things that I have written. I truly believe the things I have said, and whenver I have posted, I have taken the time to compose thoughtful messages.

However, I think I could improve the quality of my blogs by relating more of the things I am learning about through PLN networking. I have referenced classmates’ blogs a few times, as well as Angele Maier in my last post, but I think I could definitely use to incorporate more of the wider education conversation into my posts. That is my quality goal for the next few weeks.

Conversations: Fair

I did not immediately catch on to the conversational aspect of the PLN when we started this project. I only began commenting on others’ blogs and using ping-backs a few weeks ago. While I have become quite active within our class, my conversations have not reached beyond into the wider education community. I have set a goal for myself to expand my conversations over the next few weeks. If I am able to do this, it will likely have a nice impact on my blog stats as well!

Overall Grade (so far): B+  to A-

I am amazed by how well some of my classmates have developed their PLNs. Although I would not consider my PLN to be among the top networks in the class, I also don’t want to sell myself short on a project that had very few guidelines and parameters from the beginning. I have spent a lot of time familiarizing myself with new concepts and developing my PLN, and I think that while there is definitely room for improvement, I have done fairly well with this task. In the next few weeks I will work towards accomplishing the goals set above, and hopefully move my PLN into the A(+) range!

Song and Dance

30 03 2010

I have been subscribed to Angela Maiers Education Services blog since I got my RSS Reader for the PLN. However, I must admit that I have not been her most avid follower. Today a post of hers came up that caught my eye, a video entitled “Gotta Keep Reading – Ocoee Middle School”.

While the video is indeed pretty cheesy, it got me thinking. When I was in high school I took three years of Latin. While I would never call myself a Latin scholar, my teacher was one of the most intelligent people I have ever met, and the wisdom he imparted to his students on a daily basis was worth far more us than a firm grasp on Latin would have been. One of the things that Mr. Scheer stressed at every possible opportunity was the importance of reading. Frequent reading, close and critical reading, and a reading that expands your horizons and reaches into unfamiliar territory. He believed that a student could learn far more from a good reading habit than they could learn from sitting through school. This is a message that has always stuck with me, particulary when I am reading something new and different, which I’m not sure I will like. Because, like it or not, I will probably learn something.

I think its great that the teachers in this video are trying a unique method to get their students excited about reading. If we would have done this at my middle school, everyone would have stood around trying to look cool and uninterested, so I am impressed by the enthusiasm displayed by the students in this video. Clearly, somewhere along the line, someone has done something right to make these students see the joys of reading, which seem to be less and less apparent to today’s youth. Over Christmas break when I substituted in a high school English class full of sophomores and juniors, I was dismayed to hear them discuss their distaste for English class, for writing, and for reading. This experience made me set a goal for myself, as a teacher, to inspire as many of my non-reader students as possible to become readers, hopefully lifelong readers. And I guess if it means resorting to song and dance, like the school faculty in this video (however unlikely that may be), I’m willing to go there.

One post, two trains of thought.

22 03 2010

I was just reading Jessie Bindrim’s blog post, teacher unions: to be or not to be, which I found to be very interesting and informative. Teacher unions are something that I have thought about, and had conversations about, quite a few times, and I tend to agree with Jessie that they may not be the best thing for education. However, the issue is really a double-edged sword. I have a friend who is in his first year of teaching in a middle school, and over the summer we, along with two other more experience teachers, had a discussion about unions when he had to make the decision as to whether or not he would join the union at his new school. His reasons for not wanting to join were moral reasons regarding unions having agendas that did not always prioritize what was best for students. However, the legal protection offered by the teacher union ended up being too good to pass up. One of the two experienced teachers, who teachers fifth grade, told us how he was so grateful to be a union member because of an issue of one of his students accessing an inappropriate website during his class. He preempted any backlash by making a call to his union rep, and the union ended up handling the situation before it became a big problem. The other teacher was a middle school teacher, and one year during his career a student wrongly accused him of inappropriate behavior, which led to potentially harmful rumors travelling around the school. His union provided him with legal protection and ended up saving his career and reputation. After hearing these testimonies, Bill ended up choosing to join the union despite his personal disagreements with the institution, because ultimately he needed to protect himself. Personally I think it is unfortunate that teachers should be forced to make these kinds of decisions.

Moving on, I had a completely different idea about the topic of this blog before I checked in with my Google Reader. So, I’ll discuss that now. A few nights ago I was talking about jobs to an engineering friend of mine, and he said “if things don’t work out I might use teaching as my fallback.” He then proceeded to tell me about his high school physics teacher, who had been an aerospace engineer, but made a mistake which resulted in some sort of multi-million dollar accident and got himself blacklisted in the industry. So, he became a teacher. I don’t think this friend of mine realized how those comments would sound to me, as I am dedicating four years of my life and a great amount of (my parent’s) money to learn how to do his back-up plan. But seriously, ouch.  I have an unfortunate tendency to overanalyze just about everything, and these comments certainly got me wondering why I am here at Penn State in the College of Education, working hard so I can enter the career that a person who failed in their area of expertise fell back into? For a while, I was a little disheartened.

Then I realized that it doesn’t matter. I, and all of my classmates, am here because I want to be a teacher. I think that I will be a good teacher, and I work hard here so that hopefully it will pay off in my career and I will be a great teacher. New teachers coming out of the College of Education will likely be more excited and more enthusiastic about teaching than those who are entering teaching because their first plan didn’t work out, so we will already have a leg up. We will have been preparing for our careers for four years, and will be armed with information from courses and field experiences that far exceed the general teacher certification requirements. As long as we are happy in our jobs, and being the best teachers we can be, who cares if someone else is getting the same job without the same training? We will hopefully be satisfied with where we have come to and where we are going, without comparing our own paths there to the paths our colleagues may have taken.

Post Spring Break

17 03 2010

I just got back from a week of crew training in warm and sunny Lake Lure, North Carolina (well, warm and sunny with the exception of two days which were quite rainy), and I’m ready to get back to this PLN.

Today I was working on my groups reading wiki, particularly on a question one of my group members posted about handling discipline issues in the classroom. This is a problem that makes me nervous about teaching, especially at the high school level, and also a problem that I have had some negative experiences with already. When I am home from Penn State I work as a substitute teacher in my home school system, and I have been faced with some major behavioral issues that I was not always prepared to handle well. I remember one of my first times subbing, administrators and other teachers were in and out of my middle school health classroom all day long trying to help me maintain order. Part of the problem was that students love to take advantage of all substitute teachers, and part of the problem was that not only was I a sub, but I was a very young and inexperienced sub. However, I also believe a large part of the problem was the lesson plans the teachers left for me.

Some of my best days substitute teaching were days when the teachers left me full lesson plans with lots of activities, and entrusted me with the job of teaching and working with the students, rather than just being there babysitter. Unfortunately the majority of the time teachers leave a few worksheets, a problem set in a textbook, or some other form of boring busy work to occupy students while they are away. Not only does this make for a long day as a substitute, but it opens the door for behavior problems because students are not engaged in their activities. I thought about these experiences today because one of the top pieces of advice I found for handling classroom discipline was to overplan and minimize downtime during class periods by being very prepared for class, because busy students are less likely to be disruptive students (thank you, I can also relate this to my own experiences in school – my teachers who were engaging and kept class moving encountered very little trouble from my classmates, but the teachers whose classes were “boring” were often put through hell by the class trouble-makers.

I think this is an important lesson for all of us future educators to keep in mind – even though it may seem easy to skim on lesson plans and wing it during class a little bit, this practice may end up making life a little more difficult. I also plan to remember these thoughts when I am a teacher and need a sick day – I’ll show my sub a little mercy and give them something real to do.

An Ethical Dilemma

2 03 2010

I have decided to use one of my favorite books for my unit project, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I started a discussion on the English Companion Ning to gather some advice from teachers who have taught this book, and received quite a few responses. However, I noticed yesterday that I am not the only person to start a discussion asking for advice about this book, and reading through the other discussion was very thought provoking for me. The discussion started as a question about the rationale for teaching OFOTCN and quickly became a heated debate about the book’s appropriateness for a high school classroom, due to foul language as well as sexual and drug-related themes. I read this book as a senior in high school, and while I don’t think it would be good for freshmen or maybe sophomores, I do not think the book was inappropriate for my seventeen-year-old self. However, this conversation did get me thinking about how ethics relate to my teaching career…

Personally, I believe that controversy is a part of life and I think that addressing controversial themes in the classroom provides an opportunity for students to practice thinking critically about these issues, as they will eventually have to face controversies int their own lives, occurring outside of literature. While there is obviously a line to be drawn at some point, I don’t believe in sugar-coating issues, and I think that mature thinking and discussion about tough issues is important for students’ intellectual growth. I don’t want to be the kind of teacher who shies away from “questionable” material simply because its easier to keep things g-rated. My thought about this was further spurred by reading Diane’s blog, where she discussed the challenges of teaching students who have experienced things in their own lives that she can’t even imagine. I think that many students, particularly high-school students, are probably already far more well-versed in the controversial aspects of the world than many teachers would like to believe. Perhaps the best way to help these students is to address these issues, such as sex, drugs, and violence, head-on rather than shying away. Literature can be a great way to tackle such topics.

That being said, I also believe that everyone is entitled to their own moral and ethical beliefs, and I would never want to force my own opinons on someone else. That, by definition, includes anyone whose beliefs are more conservative than mine. I certainly would never want to make a student uncomfortable in my class, and I know that sometimes there might even be a topic which to me seems fairly tame, but is very difficult for someone with different beliefs or experiences. I guess the question I am left with is what is more important, creating an environment in which students are encouraged to think critically and share ideas about real, tough issues that may affect them in real life, or creating an environment in which students always feel comfortable? Is there a happy medium?

The Cave?

23 02 2010

So I’ve had a couple of thoughts rolling around in my head since the last time I posted on here.

First off, last week I read a portion of Plato’s The Republic, namely the analogy of The Sun and the analogy of The Cave. What fascinating reading! Plato, writing in the voice of Socrates says, “If there is sight in the eyes, and its possessor is trying to make use of it, you surely realise that even in the presence of colour sight will be nothing, and the colours will remain unseen, unless one further thing joins them, a third sort of thing which exists for precisely this purpose.” This thing is light. I’ve been thinking that maybe this analogy can be applied to our profession. Perhaps our students are the possesors of eyes, the wealth of knowledge availble to them is colour, and it is up to us, the teachers, to be the third party, the light to give illumination. If this is so, the profession of teacher suddenly becomes a daunting responsibility, one which I do not intend to take lightly. However, it is also an awesome opportunity, and one that I am so excited to have.

Next, thank you so much to Colin for writing in his blog precisely what I was thinking after viewing Dangerous Minds in 411 on Friday. That was a fabulous movie and Lou Ann was a kickass teacher, but the reality check is call for. Any real teacher who did half of the things Lou Ann did would find herself in a school board meeting, hoping not to get fired. Taking the students on an unapproved field trip was a risky choice, taking one student of the opposite sex out to dinner at a fancy restaurant and then lending him $200 was even riskier, and having another student of the opposite sex stay the night at her house was outright dangerous for her reputation, despite the fact that her intentions in all these actions were innocent. Teachers lose their jobs for stuff like this all the time. But this movie got me thinking about other, more pedagogical things as well. For most of the movie, Lou Ann motivated her students to work by offering them fun but non-educational rewards. I remember learning in Educational Psychology that adding an extrinsic reward (like dinner or a trip to an amusement park) to an activity that could be intrinsically rewarding reduces the amount of intrinsic reward a student finds in the activity. I realize that this situation is slightly different, because Lou Ann was faced with a class of students who did not find learning to be intrinsically rewarding in the first place. But in the movie she made a quick jump from having students work for a material prize to having them work for the prize of knowledge almost seamlessly, and I don’t think this is realistic. Lou Ann would be truly amazing if she had found a way to make these students want to learn without having to offer them huge, expensive prizes.

I have more to say, but my CAS reading for tomorrow is calling my name, so it’ll have to wait for another post, another day.