Tuesday, January 31, 2012

iBooks2 if only

iBooks2 textbook concept for iPad -- http://edudemic.com/2012/01/ibooks2/

Reading this piece, it seems really strange and backwards that our district has a purchasing ban on ipads (most other tablets, too?), one that has not yet been explained or even defended. I'd like to learn more about writing course content for ipad apps -- I suppose loading pdfs is an easy way to migrate learning objects and handouts, but I'd like to "invert" some of my classroom and have it available on the ipad -- interactive rich media that students pick up when they start a course, or for general consumption. I had a chance to consult with Pearson on their ipad version of SS10 Horizons and SS11 Counterpoints, so I have a small idea what this might look like, and I'm quite sure that if teachers are to be encouraged to experiment with this concept, it will require time, support, and some investment in equipment for teachers and students.

I followed along with the #bcedplan twitter chat
on Jan 19th, 2012  -- George Abbott and anyone with an opinion discussing what curriculum looks like in a personalized learning setting. Many ministry/admin/teacher folks were excited by the role technology plays and what the new iBooks2 could offer, and were surprised to know that our district has blocked purchase of ipads, somehow an extension of the single-platform affair. We've opened up cell phone use in the classroom, opened partly functional wifi networks, and unblocked some of the dreaded apps like facebook (at some locations?), and encouraged BYOD "bring your own device" mindset, yet a teacher can't even ask about getting an ipad for self or students to do project work, create content, etc. In other words, we're allowing students to practice their addictions non-stop, codifying the disconnect that has grown up around us in the last few years, and yet hamstringed the teacher initiatives that try to make sense of the technology and use it for positive outcomes. I know many teachers have been at this for a while; sadly it will probably take a progressive administrator to question the ludicrous ipad ban and figure out how to by a pod or two for staff or students. It doesn't need to be 1:1, but we can't expect widespread uptake of new ideas when teachers have to finance it themselves. I think it was one of our “techie” teachers that figured out in 2010 how it would pay for itself in saved textbook costs.

I've beat this drum before but it seemed relevant given Abbott's twitter chat and the announcement from Apple. A retired colleague sent me an email about the ibooks2
"Wow, Apple into the textbook market. Guess the economic argument against dual platforms in the District just evaporated. Even a free app for those who want to write interactive textbooks. What does the District do in face of this tsunami? When you have the likes of E O Wilson writing textbooks, one of which is free, you better work on bandwidth. Have a good day."
To date, no one has actually confirmed why it is that pc-ready ipads have been blocked in our district; I'm not convinced it is tied to the single-platform issue, but perhaps it is one of cost? Something along the lines: if we block the tablets, we force the idea that teachers and students will supply their own technology? I suppose the full conversation will have to wait until after job action... the board office needs to finish what it started when ipad/ipod projects (& other "21st Century" pilots) were rejected last year without explanation. The bandwidth conversation needs to happen, too... I'm curious to know how we plan to deal with capacity.

Anyways, my present interest in the issue raised by my retired colleague does not involve any purchasing -- let's take a serious look at the creation of content for etexts.

Does anyone know what it takes to get our district or province registered with iTunes U so we can start building? So far, it seems only Alberta is registered -- http://support.apple.com/kb/HT5113 - I could register my own personal school district or province but that might not get very far!

Back in the day people used to call SD57 a "lighthouse" district but that moniker has not fit for a number of years, perhaps since TLITE, tech coaches, KTC & coordinated leadership, DTT & collaborative decision-making, and teacher-driven standards all went bye-bye. If we keep burying our head in the sand on tech conversations, tech devices, etc. we will stay in the dark, waiting for other districts and entities to generate content that fits our needs. There is awesome stuff out there, that's why iTunes U, Khan academy, TED, youtube, etc. are filling needs, but there are also powerful local voices (individuals and groups) that deserve a sophisticated means of delivering their ideas, and an enduring need for something authoritative like a text. I'd like to see the opportunity met before the ship sails past SD57.

So, if anyone has any insight how to get registered, please let me/us know. Probably requires a ministry contact?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

time for a new exam

It's exam week at my school, and things look different this year.  Because our province's teachers are in a contract dispute with the government, we have withheld some supervision duties, provincial exam marking, and meeting with administration among other low-key job actions.  This year is also the first without the gamut of Grade 12 provincial exams that were mandatory from the 1980s until about 5 years ago, and then optional up to this year.  That left only 5 "checkpoint" provincial exams for students to write: English, Science, Math 10, Socials 11, and English 12.  The result?  Our traditional exam week -- where students only attend for exams and teachers have a chance to mark and get caught up in planning, prep, and pro-d promises -- was bound to change.  Our school board office came up with a plan for the week that principals were compelled to implement; eventually the word trickled down to teachers about what was to happen.  It feels like the heady days before email and smartphones, when the pace of communication was approximately the pace of someone walking down the hallway towards your classroom.  Day 1 & 2 were extended blocks of regular classes (that ended the previous week), teachers could administer own course exams if they wish, otherwise they were supposed to supervise students who had already finished the course.  The leftover bits, plus Day 3 & 4, was to be "I" time, with the I standing for incomplete, I think, or maybe in-progress?  Interesting? Independent? Innovative?  Indolent?  Inert?  Something starting with "I" anyways.  The idea is that students could get caught up on whatever they missed in the course (which ended a week earlier), at the teacher's discretion.  This is a strange assessment practice, and one that does not assist students in becoming responsible young adults who own their learning.

That's the context.  Despite my misgivings about the quality of this plan and my skepticism about motives (I can't turn those taps off, sorry), I quite enjoy the challenge of finding order in the chaos and I've got big plans for this week.  The part I want to write about here, and the part that will suck most of my school-time this week, is a new exam.  For the last few years I've been using the same Social Studies 10 exam (with some edits) that Ian Leitch and I made in 2005.  150 multiple choice questions, 2 short essay questions, and a diagram to complete.  This, in turn, was based on old exams and exam banks that go back to the distant past.  Many of the questions came with the 2001 edition of the "Horizons" textbook, some were legacy items from the days of Norm Booth, Keith Gordon, Garvin Moles and other Social Studies legends.  There is still a place for a MC test in my course designs, but these are increasingly becoming formative checks for understanding (part of what I call Verifications).  I'm becoming less enamoured with the way students slog through MC, especially when there are more than 40 questions, or when all the student sees are pages of text.

One of my Socials teacher friends Rob had a vision for a new kind of exam, something different from the "evil bubblesheet" as he put it.  The two of us had worked a small bit for Pearson Education a couple of years ago, developing study guides for a SS11 textbook.  We were excited to use "benchmarks of historical thinking" and activities that focused on critical inquiry with students to develop understanding and insight into broad focus questions that were important to the curriculum.  Unpacking knowledge, organizing content by theme, interpreting evidence, responding to quotes or prompts, comparing and synthesizing the big ideas and events from the course, and making connections between the curriculum and the identity of the student and his/her personal communities.  Why not make an exam like that?  Being the super teachers that we are, steeped in all things Social Studies, we put this together in a couple of days, one of which was "sprung for" by our respective principals.  Now we get to see how the students do.

The new exam focuses on fewer direct learning outcomes and requires a higher level of engagement with the core problem-solving skills that appear in the IRP (curriculum guide).  We are very interested to see what the students know, what they come out of the course able to do (not so much how much stuff they can remember).  This puts some balance to the process vs product dilemma embedded in assessment.  We wanted to move from summative to performative... can students make connections with the ideas & events that shaped Canada in the 1800s?  Can they recognize and interpret iconic images and establish the significance of separate events in the overall story of Canada?  Can they map it?  Can they move freely between detailed content, accurate contexts, overall themes, source analysis, cause & consequence?  Can they rank ideas as to their impact?  Can they take position on a historical controversy and defend it?  There is nothing "new" on the exam, it falls back on the compelling narratives we've used all year to anchor our teaching and devise student activities.  The exam ended up as a 3-page double sided 11"x17" entity (one page is the cover/instructions), looking a lot like the unit study guides we built for Pearson.  The prompts launch students into formal and informal writing that moves quickly from unpacking the facts though interpreting evidence to critical inquiry.  It will be hard work, but nothing the students are unfamiliar with.  And, it is a final exam so it gives us a chance to assess pass or fail for students who have lingered around the "no meeting expectations" zone.  Rob's students wrote it yesterday, mine write today.  Kind of funny; I've been at this for 15 years now and I can't remember ever being this excited by an exam!

Update: 1:30 pm ...very cool to see how the first and now second group is handling this assessment.  It's like they're working on a jigsaw puzzle, some starting at the end, some jumping back and forth between sections as one thing puts another into their mind.  Some are trying to cram everything they know into an appropriate cubby (which requires it's own problem-solving... "what am I being asked here?").  Others are methodically working on the sections that fit with their way of thinking and ignoring the rest for now.  A couple of freak-outs and one attempted scam but with 38 students writing that's not too bad.  It seemed different from other exams where the students simply ran down the path, grabbing as many MC questions as they could along the way.  The comments I had from my first class suggests that the exam was trying to get them to tell their version of the story of Canada.  Justin, the kid with the 200-yr-old spoon, said "this is great, I get to show what I actually learned."  That's just great with me, too -- and pretty much the reason I became a Socials teacher.  What they leave on the table is more than just a snapshot, it is a performance piece that shows what skills, knowledge, and insight they've refined over the last 5 months in my class. I'm probably making too much of this, but it was a nice change.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

what is professional development?

One of the great things about being a teacher is the chance to be deliberately engaged in life-long learning. This happens during the work day, on my own time, on non-instructional days, and in summer.  It happens when I am alone -- reading, writing, viewing, musing, planning, creating.  It happens with colleagues at formal get-togethers like workshops and conferences, it happens less formally in deliberate conversations at school and on the internet, and it happens very informally in the unexpected conversations in the hall, on twitter, and via email.  When looked at as a whole, personal and professional learning are part of an “ecology,” a connected cycle of theory-making, reflective practice, and action-research. This “pro-d” takes many turns around a few key topics for me:
  • conducting research and reflecting on how, what, and why students learn, and understanding the educational landscape in which this takes place 
  • learning more about my subject area as I plan for lessons, read and write on topics like democracy, citizenship, environment, sustainability, and history, and focus on what students do/can’t do/could do/should do 
  • participating with other educators in collaborative discussions and projects on topics like heritage research, identity & inquiry, analyzing trends in current events, authentic balanced practice, critical thinking, meaningful assessment, and educational technology 
  • independent study, course design, textbook review/writing, advocacy for public education, and follow-up on all the powerful questions raised by colleagues and students. 
My classroom is about student learning and student achievement, as is the planning, instruction, assessment, and humanity I put into my time as a teacher. Reflecting on my professional development is a step back (or a pause, at least), centered on what I am up to, but it is ultimately about the same thing... the social, intellectual, cultural growth of the students I meet. Regardless of the theme or focus, pro-d is ultimately about what I am learning, and what others are learning around me.

There is a special role in my reflection for interrogating the structures that accompany public education, for celebrating the emergence (in any form or context) of cultural attributes that signal a new attitude towards community development, environmental sustainability, total cost economies, and perhaps some other “cultural” values that reckon with my own. The BC public education system is rife with dysfunctional structures, shallow thinking, and misunderstood paradigms, but it is also filled with creative ideas, caring educators, curious students, and committed parents who are making moves towards new cultures of being that are good for people and the planet. When we see formal learning as a relationship between real people in community, more like a guild and less like a factory, the bizarre eduspeak and various social agendas attending our system can be broken down and allowed to find their appropriate place. A central irony in my practice is that I seek some form of disruption, not unlike the calls for education reform from our own government, and yet the approach reformers take is almost always at odds with both my way of thinking and what I believe to be sound politics, discourse, and progress. I suppose I am fated to dwell midst the irony, and do so as a polemic loner.

I have also come to realize that in order to remain caring, hopeful, and optimistic as an educator, I have to own my trajectory and work towards my dreams with or without the support or understanding of structures and people around me. At the same time I am compelled to work at improving the structures around me, listening to others, and being open to interdependence. This hit home for me while listening to Stephen Lewis’ eulogy for Jack Layton (Aug 27/11). The basic idea that caring public service starts with a desire for fairness and mutual aid is a deep conviction and compelling goal.

Sunday, January 08, 2012


I finally got around to reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.  I'm glad I read it, but was not particularly compelled by the reading experience. I found the repetition of stories a bit distracting -- each case study was given mostly intact, then pieced out 7 or 8 more times throughout the book. Rather than creating layers of meaning, it seemed to create noise. Nonetheless, Gladwell seems good at anticipating many of the questions that an average reader might have as the stories unfold, and gets around to addressing most of them with some clarity and style. This is no easy task for a writer -- most books I put down are the result of a writer having little insight into the kind of interior landscapes they are building with their own words.

I was not necessarily convinced by some of his proximate conclusions (e.g. the ease or consistency of mind-reading, the idea that nuances and emotion can be stripped from observation) but I do come away from the read with some respect for Gladwell's approach to problem-solving:
1. differentiate between straightforward decisions (that benefit from wide knowledge and slow, deliberate consideration) and complicated decisions (that benefit from wisdom and experience expressed in the unconscious)
2. examine the context for decision-making, address the way instinctive judgements are made in these contexts, and narrow the field of evidence (adding or eliminating the parts that interfere with a clean decision) to closely match the decisions that need to be made