Friday, November 25, 2011

Save the Pacific Tree Octopus!

We have all heard the dire predictions about the Internet making students dumber. I bristle at these accusations; the medium through which students access information has very little to do with their intelligence.  And this is the wrong focus anyway, as it’s not about being smart or dumb; it’s about becoming a strong critical thinker. And what’s needed to do that is teachers and classrooms that get students to think more deeply about what they read, whether it be a book, a newspaper article, a website, a viral video, or even an encyclopedia. Students have always needed help being critical readers and critical consumers.

This is why I love lessons that get students thinking more deeply about what they see and read on the Internet. A teacher that I am lucky enough to work with developed a brilliant and simple lesson that could be used in a number of different subject areas and across different grade levels.

Here is what Mrs. D did:

1)      Have students go to a website that contains false information. There are a number of great sites that do this well. One of the most engaging (and amusing) is the Pacific Tree Octopus website. This website contains great graphics, links to YouTube videos and convincing pleas to help the “endangered” Pacific Tree Octopus.
2)      Ask students to take notes on some basic facts about the subject of the website. Mrs. D. asked students to record important information about the Tree Octopus and then discuss with a table partner.
3)      Have students compare what they learned on the first website with a site that is edited like World Book Online or Britannica Encyclopedia. Mrs. D.’s students were very confused when they went to the World Book Online and couldn’t find anything about the Pacific Tree Octopus. At first they thought they hadn’t typed the term in correctly, then they were concerned that World Book Online must not have complete information. Students were not yet suspicious about that cute little Pacific Tree Octopus.
4)      Ask students to try a second site to confirm the information from the fake website. Mrs. D.’s students were relieved when they saw that Wikipedia had an entry about the Pacific Tree Octopus. However, on closer reading, the students realized that the Wikipedia entry referred to the Pacific Tree Octopus as a hoax. This is the fun part of the lesson. Students all react in different ways. Some laugh, some are mad, some tell you that they knew all along. Teachers should be ready for all of these reactions, but should also be clear that the original site was a fake.
5)      Ask students why they believed the Pacific Tree Octopus was real. Mrs. D. was shocked by how her students answered this question. Students replies included:
“It was on the Internet”
“You could give money”
“I saw one before” (my personal favorite, we have all taught this kid, haven’t we?)
“There was a video”
“There were pictures”
“There was such detailed information”
6)      Revisit the lesson with students the next class. Mrs. D. asked students to recall what they learned from the Pacific Tree Octopus lesson the next time they came to class. Students shared insights along the following theme:
“You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet”

What I love of Mrs. D.’s lesson is that it isn’t drawn out. It doesn’t take long to do. It is repeatable. Any teacher can do it. Schools could easily repeat the same lesson with different websites year after year until the message becomes crystal clear to the students:
“You can’t believe everything you read on the Internet.”

Someone who has done excellent work on this topic is Donald J. Leu of the University of Connecticut and his New Media Research Team. Dr. Leu and his team are working to collect research about the reading comprehension skills needed to be a successful reader in the 21st century. Furthermore, they are investigating how to best support students in order that students may become thoughtful and informed users of Internet information.

If you are looking for similar websites that could used in the same way, here are some good ones. I have also created a Diigo group called Critical Literacy Resources to collect more. Please feel free to join and suggest your own. Or leave a comment below about similar lessons or lesson ideas you have.

Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division - beware of exposure to this chemical!
All About Explorers - did you know Christopher Columbus was actually born in Australia?
Martin Luther King Jr. – A True Historical Examination Much more serious site for examination of bias and deception. This website is hosted by David Duke's foundation. Suitable for middle school and high school students with careful preparation and debriefing.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Making Connections: Reading Aloud with a Purpose


Why create a Digital Talking Library?
“The single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading is reading aloud to children.” -- Richard C. Anderson, Elfrieda H. Hiebert, Judith A. Scott, Ian A.G. Wilkinson, Becoming a Nation of Readers: The Report of the Commission on Reading (Champaign-Urbana, IL: Center for the Study of Reading, 1985), p. 23.
This is striking isn’t it? Read it again. Reading aloud is the single most important activity we can engage students in to build successful readers.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikenan1/118458606/
Reading aloud is a joy in my house. We read the same books over and over, we read new books, we read classics, we read chapter books, we read pictures books, we read from the Kindle App, we listen to books on CD from the library, we go to story hours.

But that’s my kids, what about the students I teach? What about my kids’ peers and friends?

Who is reading to them?

Considering this gap between those who know well the pleasure of listening to a story come to life as it is read aloud and those who have no such association, I decided that the middle school and high school students I work with would create a Digital Talking Library for an elementary school.  We would work to build a wide selection of audio books that these elementary students could learn to treasure much the way my own kids adore their books on CD.  To make the experience as rich as possible, we would not just record ourselves reading books, we would create a digital think aloud. We could model reading strategies as we read the books aloud.

We would make a Digital Talking Library so that the older students could model fluency, vocabulary and self-monitoring strategies.  In addition, by creating Think Alouds instead of Read Alouds our project would more closely align with fair use principles and copyright policies. We were creating this digital library as an instructional strategy. We weren’t doing it to replace commercial products.
I also knew that the secondary students needed help internalizing reading strategies. The fact was, most of these students also needed to work on their fluency, vocabulary, and self-monitoring strategies.  My readers were students who were, for the most part, reading well below grade level.

And as it turned out most of the "big kids" hadn't been read to much either.

When I brought in the stack of high-quality children’s literature for them to read aloud there was barely a glimmer of recognition. That’s right, I had a 7th grader look at a stack of fabulous picture books by Kevin Henkes, Cynthia Rylant, Bernard Waber, Vera Willaims, and Helen Oxenbury and tell me that he didn’t recognize any of them. His eyes were cast downward and he mumbled that he never read much as a kid. It hurt my heart to realize just how little he knew about the enjoyment of reading. It was then that I realized this project was going to be as valuable for my “big kids” as it would be for the kids that got to listen to the finished products.

How we went about creating a Digital Talking Library

To select books, I coordinated with an elementary literacy coach and an elementary classroom teacher. We brainstormed a list of children’s books that would make for excellent read alouds and excellent think alouds. We looked for books that most teachers would have copies of in their classroom libraries so that students would have a text to look at while listening to the books. Once I had 15-20 titles that seemed promising, I gathered hard copies up and brought them to my “big kids.”

http://www.flickr.com/photos/kakachu/2569536716/
The Language Arts teacher and I shared the project idea with the middle school and high school students. We discussed how good readers make connections while they are reading and described text-to-self, text-to-world, and text-to-text connections. We gave several examples and then gave the kids a stack of Post-Its and let the kids at the pile of books.

I was definitely surprised at how difficult it was for students to make connections to the children’s books. This wasn’t because the texts were children’s books, it was because these high schoolers and middle schoolers definitely needed help being metacognitive readers. It took a great deal of prompting and prodding to get them to identify connections they could make to the text. It took more work to get the students to be able to elaborate on their connections in such a way that it would be meaningful for the elementary students who would be listening. For instance, when reading Dr. De Soto by William Steig one student expressed that he couldn't think of any connections. His teacher and I asked if he'd ever been to a doctor or a dentist. He was then able to say "This reminds me of when I went to the dentist." So then we asked him about how it feels to go to the dentist and what he'd been thinking about. Then he was able to elaborate, "This remindes me of how scared I was when I had to go to the dentist and I thought it was going to hurt." As we continued in this process, students were able to realize that they could be making connections as they read and that doing so is part of being a metacognitive reader.


http://www.flickr.com/photos/beth19/4843479723/
 What didn’t surprise me and was another important piece of this project, was that the middle schoolers and high schoolers had lots of pronunciation and definition questions about the vocabulary contained in the picture books. A few of our English Language Learners worked hard to get the phrasing and the words right. I remember the pronunciation of “relative” was especially tricky in Cynthia Rylant’s The Relatives Came. One sweet 7th grader worked hard on getting the emphasis on the correct syllable. This project might be one of the first times anyone ever gave him feedback and a chance to hear his pronunciation versus the Standard English pronunciation.

We used Audacity (free audio editing and recorder) to record the students. It was great seeing how swiftly the students became accustomed to the ins and outs of Audacity. They quickly learned how to record, pause, playback and start a new track.  Something I look forward to as we revisit this project is having students do more of the editing themselves. I would love to assign one or two students to be editors and teach them how to merge tracks as well as add the introductory and concluding musical track we created using freeplaymusic.

Plans for more Digital Talking Libraries

I’m looking forward to building on our small Digital Talking Library again this year. The Language Arts teacher and I are working on finding some tighter content connections this time around. Since myths and folktales are a consistent part of the Language Arts curriculum, we want to target some fantastic children’s literature that highlights myths and folktales (The Gods and Goddesses of Olympus by Aliki and The Three Pigs by David Wiesner). Or, we might look at children’s literature that discusses content from other subject areas (The Story of Ruby Bridges by Robert Coles and The Story of Abraham Lincoln by Patricia A. Pingry)

Having witnessed how much guidance students needed with making connections to the children’s books, we know we want to continue to use the read alouds as a chance to develop more reading strategies. We hope to create 10-15 digital think alouds for each of the following reading strategies: visualization, inference, questioning.

Finally, I am hoping to reach out to a wider group of elementary school teachers to find out the impact the project is having on the elementary school students. I was thrilled that the First Grade Teacher I partnered with had her students write thank you notes to the “big kids.” These notes were precious in their sincerity and frankness. It was a great authentic writing assignment for her students and powerful validation for my “big kids.”

Summing it all up:

  • All kids need more opportunities to hear stories read aloud and to read stories aloud
  • Adolescents who are reading below grade level have a great deal to gain from creating think alouds of children’s literature
  • Adolescents will self-monitor more often and more accurately when creating a read loud that will be used by real children
Great Resources about Reading Aloud:

Friday, November 11, 2011

We Have Authentic Voices

but we are still looking for authentic audiences...

Authentic Voices was launched slightly less than one year ago. It was inspired by a comment made by Cornelius Minor during a presentation for Teachers College Reading & Writing Project. When a teacher asked about how to keep kids motivated to write in a culture where writing isn’t “cool,” Cornelius replied, “You make it cool.” He talked about kids recording themselves reading their stories and posting it to YouTube. He described how kids were inspired by other kids who were willing to put their writing “out there” and how it motivated them to publish their writing too. Additionally, I had been reading Troy Hick's The Digital Writing Workshop and listening to Paul Allison and Chris Sloan's podcasts Teachers Teaching Teachers.  Discussing all of these influences with a few dedicated, talented teachers, we realized we could create a space to celebrate and publish student work. A space where students could feel their writing mattered and was important.

Wikispaces was still a relatively new content-creation tool for me but it seemed like it would fit my purposes: a site where we could upload student work of all formats (text, voice, and video) with a moderated space for comments about the students’ writing. There are probably hundreds of other ways we could have set up Authentic Voices but in the interest of avoiding analysis-paralysis, I went with a tool I found accessible and manageable. Thus, Authentic Voices was launched.

My Name was the first student piece added to Authentic Voices. Working with this student taught me so much about the potential online writing spaces have for developing student voice. After showing Deandre how to enter the text to his poem and how to record himself using Audacity, Deandre asked me, “Is it alright if I change my poem?” Well, as any Language Arts teacher will tell you, getting students to revise their work is often the most challenging part of teaching writing. I was thrilled that, given to opportunity to publish his work, Deandre was noticing that parts of his poem could be improved. But I played it cool to Deandre, “Yea, if you want to, you can change it.” Deandre edited his piece five, yes that’s right, five separate times. Much of Deandre’s revisions had to do with the interplay of reading his piece out loud and listening back to his recording. As he heard himself reading his poem, he could understand how words could be changed and moved around to improve his meaning. His writer’s voice got stronger. After about nine different attempts at recording, Deandre finally pronounced his work done. Listen to the results yourself. This young man embraced writing and his voice.

Since that time I have had the opportunity to work with a number of other young men and women as they took a piece of writing and breathed their voices into it. Not every student took as much time as Deandre to edit and revise. Some students improvised as they recorded their piece and never went back and changed the written words. Some students made one recording and declared it perfect. But one thing remains consistent. Students are empowered by having their writing taken seriously. Students would grab me in the hall and say “I wrote something else, can I put it on Authentic Voices?” I would write out the website on the back of my business cards (at least they are good for something) and students would grin shyly, put it in their pocket and tell me their grandmother might want to see it.

Authentic Voices has an Authentic Audience. According to our wiki statistics, we get thirty to forty hits every month from countries around the world. Students are amazed to think that someone in another country has read and listened to something they wrote and that is keeping them motivated to write for the time being.  But I am hungry for more. I know that the power of publishing your work to a public forum will fade without authentic feedback. We want to know what people think when they listen to our work. We want to know what connections they have with what we have written. We want to know what our work makes them wonder about.

This is why I will keep reaching out to global learning communities through groups like the Global Classroom Project, Global Education Collaborative, and through tweeting my heart out. I know that there is a classroom down the street or Down Under that will join us soon. I look forward to the day when I blog about the interactions between our students and students from another place and culture that make connections as writers, authentically.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Can You Grant Me a Divorce?

Teaching the Reformation to 10th graders isn’t the easiest thing. Teaching the Reformation to 10th graders at 8 o’clock in the morning is even more challenging. Teaching the Reformation to 10th graders at 8 o’clock in the morning the day after Halloween maxes out the teacher challenge index. Luckily, this teacher had an iPad with her.

This week I got to hang out with a great Social Studies teacher and her 10th graders as they took on the task of creating a talk show script about the Reformation. The task was to demonstrate what they knew about the Reformation by creating a dialogue between Henry VIII and the Pope. The teacher could have just required that the students submit a written script. She could have also required that the students perform their scripts in front of the class. What she decided to do instead was try out an iPad app called Puppet Pals.

Puppet Pals allows you to create a video by dragging in characters, selecting a background and recording your voice while manipulating the characters and setting. The result is a captivating original movie. The free version of Puppet Pals comes with a few characters and backgrounds but for $2.99 you can purchase the director’s pass which gives you 8-10 different sets of characters and backgrounds, including, to our delight, a talk show set! The Director’s Pass also gives you the option of creating puppets and backgrounds from photos you’ve taken or photos you’ve saved from the Internet.

I wanted the students to be able to play with the app right away so I went ahead and searched for fair use friendly images of Henry VIII, a Pope, and some other Reformation-relevant figures (thank you Advanced Search in Google Images). The teacher introduced the assignment and we pulled out the iPads. I briefly created a silly little practice movie so they could get the idea of how the app worked. I then showed a more serious example similar to their assignment that I had made about Buddhism and Confucianism (also reviewing a concept from earlier in the year – yea!). The kids were smiling and laughing, something I love to see when a new assignment is explained.

The students took a full class period to write their scripts. The teacher worked closely with them to be sure they were accurate in their writing and to encourage them to create a script that felt like a talk show. Then, they were ready to record.

Some observations while they recorded:
  • Stakes are higher for students when they care about the product.
  • These students rehearsed a few times before ever touching the iPad – unprompted.
  • Once they were recording “live,” students often took several “takes” of the video before they were satisfied with the results. It was normal for students to record 2-3 times before agreeing the movie was good enough.
  • Vocabulary terms are actually absorbed when the students use them for themselves.
  • More than once a student asked how to pronounce a word they had included in their own script. “Heir” and “annul” were words they had seen in their reading and they knew enough about to include in their script, but it was when they had to pronounce it and read it with meaning that the students started to really own these vocabulary words.
Students worked collaboratively and had fun.
  • I never overlook the importance of students enjoying what they are doing. Smiles and laughter just make for a more pleasant learning environment.
  • I can’t wait to see if this topic is something that these students can remember better later in the year due to their high interest in the assignment.
  • It was lovely to see students encouraging each other and asking for help as they acted out each other’s script.
  • As I was leaving, I watched a young guy rewrite his script in neater handwriting so that his partner would be able to read it. I’m wondering how often he rewrites his tests papers so his teacher can read it better?

Tips the students would share:
  • Practice before recording.
  • Practice moving your characters around so that it looks like they are really talking.
  • Use the pause button to catch your breath between lines without losing flow in the movie
  • Press stop before trying to save – otherwise the app crashes!
  • Save, save, save.
  • Create a story that contains something you can relate to (this tip is actually from my 8-year-old who adores this app!).

Click here to view one student's work: Can You Grant Me a Divorce?