17 March 2013

Using Simulations for Deep Learning

This school year, I took over moderating our Model United Nations program at school. I knew the basics of how Model UN or MUN worked, but I really tried to let the students lead and teach me more about the process. We have had a successful year as our students participated in two conferences and came away with multiple awards. The students learned a lot from the experience that they had at the Model UN conferences, including deep understanding, analysis, critical thinking, negotiating and interpersonal skills.

As I learned more, I came up with the idea of trying to bring MUN into the classroom. I thought about it for a while and I finally came up with the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 as an interesting historical situation to try to introduce my students to the basics of parliamentary procedure and the consequences of resulting decisions.

We had been discussing the early 20th century and the First World War in my World History and AP European History classes and I gave my students about a week to research their roles. Students worked alone or in pairs (depending on the class size) to represent a nation at the peace conference. Along with the allied nations who dominated the conference, some countries who were not actually there were also played by students in this part of the conference. This included the defeated nations (Germany, Austria, the Ottoman Empire) and various colonies (Kenya and Vietnam). Students used various web resources to research their role and prepare and opening statement for the first day of the conference.

During the first day, students were very much learning the process, especially when it came to parliamentary procedure. Soon they got the hang of the methods and started to propose various resolutions and openly debate. Several students took their roles very seriously, dressing and acting the parts to the best of their abilities. The true measure of the learning in happening in the experience was based on whether or not students acted, spoken, and voted as the nations whom they were representing would have at the actual conference in 1919. I did not want this to restrict the students creativity or possibility of supporting various measures through negotiations and deals, but we also did not want to stray too far from the actual history.

Over the course of the three days of our model conference most of the debate that occured and the resolutions that were both accepted and rejected matched pretty well what would have occured at the Paris Peace Conference had it been set up this way. Even though many nations were there who were not their in the real conference, it was secretly established from the beginning that these nation's votes would not count. It was only toward the end of the conference when simple majorities of all of the nations were passing measures, but there was not a majority of the victors voting for it and, therefore, the resolutions were not passing did it become apparent that the "game was fixed." This made these students unhappy and even upset, but that was exactly the point. In it's own way it was suppose to reflect the feelings of these nations as a result of what happened at the conference and thus led to the further conflicts in the years following.

After getting feedback from the students, I am confident that it was a memorable learning experience for them. I think they learned far more in doing the preparation for the event and the event itself than reading about it, getting a lecture, or watching a video. The value of learning research skills, role-play, social interaction and learning the basics of parliamentary procedure and negotiation cannot be overstated. The students had a lot of fun as well. And we all know we learn more when we have fun.


15 January 2013

Moving Beyond the Classroom... Real World Connections

One of my continuing goals has been to get students involved in activities beyond the classroom that both improve their understanding of the content we are covering and giving them the real-world experiences of collaborating, working professionally, taking criticism and presenting what they have done. The best opportunities for this have revolved around student activities and with student club activities.
For in-class activities, my students regularly complete "History Labs" in which they conduct research, develop an interpretation, and create a product to share with the class (as a teaching tool) and with the world (via the web.) Students recently created eBooks and documentary videos that we published online. Students used the class iPads to create eBooks on the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment and videos on the revolutions of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Students shared these with friends and family and the rest of the world. My students are currently finishing their work on their National History Day projects. History Day also asks students to do original research based on a yearly theme and to be critiqued and judged on their work for continual improvement as they move from classroom to school to county to state to national competitions. Over the past several years, many of my students have made it as far as the state level competition. While doing serious historical research on a topic of their choice, students get the exposure to presenting their findings, defending them, and interacting with professionals in the field. It allows them to do the work of real historians.
Other opportunities for real-world interactions come with student activities and clubs. I have had the honor of moderating the Model United Nations Club and National History Bowl and Bee Team at my school. Through these extra-curricular activities, students learn so much about how to work collaboratively, think creatively, and interact with new ideas and people. The Model UN Club has to learn about the issues facing the people of the world, prepare a position (which may not be one they hold), present and debate with a diverse group of people as if they where really at the United Nations. This also gets them to look at real-world problems that the UN deals with on a regular basis. Our History Bowl and Bee Team also gets students thinking about historical topics in different ways and allows students to work as a team in a high pressure competition situation that keeps kids sharp.
Taking opportunities to give students a chance to learn in authentic ways cannot be overestimated. I see vast improvements in my student's engagement and desire to learn more. How do you get your students real-world experiences and authentically engaged inside and outside the classroom?

19 August 2012

Engaging Content for the History Flip

My VoiceThread on the French Revolution

For the past several years I have been experimenting with different aspects of the flip model in my social studies classes. I think the key element of the model is to get students activated in the classroom (and throughout instruction) and to move away (as much as possible) from content delivery (something that new resources and technology can do just as well, or better.) I would much rather have my students learn an combination of content and skills through discussions, document analysis, historical investigations, projects and the like. This is really nothing new, John Dewey explored constructivist methods of education more than a century ago. Since that time, social constructivist theories and connectivist theories have expanded Dewey's ideas for the 21st century environment. As a result, the flip model brings together 21st century instruction techniques such as screencasting, social networking, and bring-your-own-technology and combines with with techniques such as project, problem, inquiry and passion-based learning.

Crash Course World History -  The French Revolution

As a result of the flip instruction model, a lot can be done in the history and social studies classroom. I began this process myself by moving to a more inquiry and project-based model in my world history classes and supplementing the content material by moving my traditional lectures to Voicethread for students to view on their own time. This worked pretty well, but I still had issues with students relying on lecture-based content delivery and my issues with overburdening students with homework.

History Teachers - "Revolution in France."

So, I continue to experiment and rethink how I will implement my instruction to best help all of my students. I know that my focus will further be on how authentic history learning can be employed both inside and outside of the classroom. I am particularly interested in reducing the amount of content consumed at home while at the same time making it more interesting. For my world history courses, this means utilizing one of my new favorite resources - Crash Course World History. The (what will soon be a series of 40) videos created by the team here do a great job covering the basics of most of what I want my students to know. I would also supplement this with the musical talents of the History Teachers - History for Music Lovers, a great set of topic specific videos based on recent pop hits.  It all comes back to the idea of teachers being great curators.  As a result, I am thinking of reducing my VoiceThread screencasts to general overview of topics at the beginning of a unit, to topics not covered by the resources mentioned above, and for review purposes at the end of the unit. By bringing the other videos into VoiceThread or embedding them in Edmodo, I can still give my students a way to interact and ask questions of me. Plus, I know the creators of the videos listed above monitor their YouTube channels and answer student questions, adding another great interactive resource.

I think there are a lot of possibilites for increasing student engagement both with online content and what is done in the classroom. For more insights on this, read Tom Driscoll's post here.

01 August 2012

Connecting Globally with Students and Teachers

With Connected Educator Month beginning today, I thought this would be a good time to do some reflection on my global educational experiences this summer. When I graduated high school some 16 years ago, I never expected that some day I would represent my school as a teacher-ambassador in China and take students to five different countries in Europe as I was able to do this summer. When I joined the faculty of Mt. St. Joseph High School seven years ago, I was very excited to be teaching social studies at my alma mater and I knew I wanted global education to become central to my teaching. In the years since I have made many efforts to expand global education at St. Joe through innovative classroom instruction, organizing student trips to Europe and Japan, and becoming involved in the National Consortium for Teaching about Asia (NCTA) program which sent me to China this summer.

My first overseas adventure this summer involved myself and 48 other (30 of which were students) from my school visiting the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France and Germany in a tour that took us to the "Battlefields of Europe" as well as many of its most beautiful towns and cities. It was an amazing two weeks of historical ad cultural exploration that our students will never forget. I began leading student tours in 2008 and I feel it is a critical part of expanding student's exposure to the world around them. Not all teachers and students can do this, but the more who do we will all benefit for this. Also, the connections and contacts made on such tours allow me to bring people from around their world into my regular classroom through writings, discussions and video chats.

I was fortunate enough to be selected with a group of 20 other teachers from across the United States to participate in the NCTA residential study program at Zhejiang University in Hangzhou, China for two weeks in July. During the program we studies Chinese history, language, culture, economic development, and current issues. We also were lucky enough to visit schools, businesses, farms and factories where we could see the Chinese system at work. Through these experiences, which included observing young Chinese students learning English and viewing in awe as over 100 high-rise buildings being constructed at once, I realized that, despite many problems to overcome, China is preparing for the 21st century and we need to be doing the same.

I will be sharing my experience this summer with my students when I return to MSJ in the fall. I hope that we can expand this with more extensive and meaningful experiences such as Chinese language instruction and student exchanges with schools in China. I have already made plans for a student tour to China in the summer of 2014. The future of the world will be greatly influenced by the rise of China and I hope that we can be ready for it. By becoming connected global educators and students I think we can prepare for the new world evolving around us.

10 June 2012

A Year-End Reflection: Rationale for Technology in the Education

I was recently asked by an administrator to write a piece on technology use in my classroom to be shared with others.  As one can see from this blog, if I was to write something comprehensive, it would be many pages long.  But he asked me to keep it to a page or two.  Below is what I composed; the best way I could briefly explain and give some detail on the rationale and some examples of the use of technology in my classroom.

Some see technology as a nice addition to education and as something that is not critical to students’ learning. My experience as a teacher over the past dozen years has taught me the opposite. In a time where connective and informative technologies are disrupting every major area of study and industry, an effective use of technology in all disciplines is critical. In fact, one might think that the discipline I teach, social studies, would be one of those least impacted by technology. And if one is wedded to the old idea of the history classroom with big, dusty textbooks, chalkboards, desks facing forward in a row, and a teacher lecturing for the better part of an hour, you might be right. But the social studies classroom of the 21st century doesn’t (and shouldn’t) look like this. There has been a quiet revolution going on in education, and in social studies in particular, attempting to make classrooms more inquiry-driven, critical thinking infused, and generally operating in ways that have students learn and do work in the ways that professionals really do them. If you were to go into the office of a historian or social scientist (geographer, economist, political scientist, archaeologist, etc.) or to a meeting of such professionals, you wouldn’t see much reading from textbooks, writing on chalkboards, or lecturing to each other. What you would see would see would be researchers using documents and data from internet databases, out doing various types of study and research in the field, working collaboratively with other researchers in the same discipline or other disciplines with various connections, and presenting their findings in print or digital form to their colleagues for peer review. This is the humanities and social sciences in the 21st century (and most other professional disciplines would look similar as well). If we want our students to be prepared for such environments (that they will encounter in their careers, but also increasingly in college) we must create such environments in our classrooms. The infusion of modern technologies gives us the best opportunities to do this and in the following paragraphs I will give you several examples of how this works.

Textbooks are notoriously bad. They are poorly written, contain boring material, give limited perspectives, and are outdated the minute they are printed. As a result, I don’t use textbooks in my classes. Despite this, my students read in my history classes daily. They read materials that are far better, more engaging and “real-world” than anything they can get in the textbook. They are reading primary documents, letters, journals, newspaper articles, and other accounts from various periods in history. In doing this, they are engaging in the real work that historians do in conducting research and developing an interpretation of historical events based on documentary evidence from the time, people and places we are studying. In this, they are engaging in a far more interactive and thinking activity then they would get from reading a sanitized textbook. The students access almost all of these documents via the web on websites like the National Archives and Library of Congress sites and through library databases. The volumes of documents available are thousands of times greater than could be put in any book.

Having access to the documents are not enough. Students have to be able to curate the appropriate resources for the topics they are investigating. Years ago, researchers would have piles of documents and monographs in their work-space. Today, this can all be organized and taken with you digitally using software such as Evernote, Diigo and Easybib. These services allow my students to create files online that can be indexed and shared for effective research and collaboration. For document storage and collaboration, students use cloud-based services such as Google Drive and Dropbox to store, date, and collaboratively compose drafts of their final research product. All of this can be checked and monitored by the teacher without the use of paper or turning materials in. All updates by the various collaborators can be followed and checked by the teacher. Various educational social platforms like Edmodo allow students and teachers to discuss class topics and research anytime and anywhere; expanding the opportunities for learning beyond the traditional classroom. In addition, it always helps to learn from the experts. It is difficult to get a professor or someone who experienced a historical event into the classroom, but with video-chat services such as Skype, those experts can be brought into the classroom. This past year I did this on two occasions, one with a woman who lived in East Germany and experienced the fall of the Berlin Wall and one with a school alumnus and former classmate of mine who now lives close to the Fukushima Nuclear Plant in Japan and spoke about his experiences there.

Once the research and curation have been completed, students need to present and/or publish their work as professionals do. While the paper and the oral presentation are still very important, new forms of media are becoming important in various professions for publishing and presenting research and I use this as much as possible in my classes. Throughout the school year, I have my students create webpages with Weebly, make podcasts using Soundcloud, blogs using Blogger, videos using iMovie, online posters using Glogster, and multimedia presentations using Voicethread (just to name a few). This gives them various opportunities to write, compose, publish and present in different mediums. Then using the included tools in such platforms, or through the sharing and comment features in Edmodo, students are able to comment and critique one another’s work and receive feedback from me. The students then collect the products they create in an electronic portfolio that they update throughout the year, and can use to reflect up their growth over that time, and present their work to a wider audience.  Critical to getting my students work to a wider audience has been the National History Day program.  It promotes original student research that is presented at various levels for critique, reflection, improvement and competition.  I encourage all teachers in all disciplines to participate in similar programs to give you students those "real-world" experiences.

To develop students into learners who are creative, collaborative, communicative critical thinkers, technology needs to be part of the picture. Today’s brand of educational technology with devices like the iPad, in its increasingly mobile and connected features, allows for personalized, project, and problem-based learning environments that have not previously been possible. Technology in education is not an addition to education; it is integral to education in the 21st century.

30 May 2012

Google Drive, CloudOn, and Edmodo - A Winning Combination for the iPad in Education

For some time now, I have been an advocate for the use of Google Apps as well as the iPad.  Unfortunately, they don't always work together well.  Google Apps has some great features for content creation and collaboration and the iPad is an amazing device for learning, but the issue of being able to create content (in this case, documents, presentations and spreadsheets), collaborate on the creation of the content, and submit it to a teacher has continued to be an issue since the iPad was introduced.

Fortunately, this is no longer an issue thanks to some new features recently added to Edmodo and the CloudOn App.  For those new to these services, Edmodo is an educational social-networking service that allows teacher and students to work collaboratively online, including submitting assignments.  CloudOn is a cloud-based version of Microsoft Office which allows you to create and edit documents, presentations and spreadsheets on the iPad.  Recently, Edmodo added Google Drive/Docs integration into its service.  So, as long as you are logged in to you Google Account on your computer or tablet, you can access your files from Edmodo and submit them to others (either to a teacher as a grade, or if you are a teacher, as an assignment itself).  Just in the past few weeks, CloudOn has also added Google Drive integration (in addition to Dropbox and Box cloud services) to its service, so now iPad users have an effective way to create and edit documents, presentations, and spreadsheets on the iPad.

Using these three services in combination gives one the ability to create a document, edit it, and submit it to a teacher or group of students without ever using a full-fledged computer.  All you need it a Google account and Edmodo account (both free) and the Edmodo and CloudOn Apps (also both free).  This has the great feature of having all of your files being stored in the cloud.  The pending Google Drive App for iPad should also give additional functionality.

So, try it out and let me know what you think.

23 May 2012

The Power of a Personal Story

As a social studies teacher, I have always tried to bring personal stories and perspectives to my students from people around the world and across historical periods.  Usually, those have taken the form of documentary evidence in letters, journals, diaries, and records of various historically significant people.  With the development of video in the 20th century, those written accounts can be supplemented by people speaking about the history that they have experienced on film.  In the 21st century we now have the added capacity to speak to people around the world in real-time through the various video chat services that are available, most notably Skype.

I have taken this opportunity twice recently to have my students speak to people who have experienced historical or current events.  The first instance had a friend of mine, Melanie Arnold, whom I met on a trip to Prague two years ago, speak about her experiences growing up in East Germany during the 1980s, her family leaving the country, the experiences surrounding the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and life in Germany and Europe since then.  She spoke for 40 minutes with my AP European History students and it was an conversation that gave them a new perspective on how life in Europe has changed over the past 30 years.

This week my students in my World History course were studying the impact of nuclear technologies on the world in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  One of the topics we looked at were the benefits and dangers of nuclear power.  To give them a good perspective on the potential dangers, I had my students speak with a friend of mine, Christopher Godish, who I went to high school with who now teacher in Japan.  He lives about 50 miles from the Fukushima Daichi Nuclear Powerplant and in the zone affected by the earthquake of March 2011.  He spoke about his experiences the day of and after the earthquake and the continuing concerns around the nuclear plant.  This gave the students a solid first-hand account of recent events that are still having a significant impact on our world.

Tools like Skype open the world to our students and all teachers should be thinking about ways to incorporate this into their classrooms.  There are many examples beyond Social Studies how this could be used (English classes can speak with a author, Science classes can speak with scientists, etc.) and I am looking forward to repeating these experiences next year and hopefully expand them to include other speakers such as historians, economists, archaeologists and others.

This post is also posted at Teachercast

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