Saturday, July 28, 2007

Learn Before You Leap

Well, so much for twice a week posting. Guess that's the summer for ya! I've been keeping busy with...well, television shows, a bit. Took a break from the city over a weekend, spent some time out on Cheung Chau Island, love that place.

Anyways, today's topic, "learn before you leap", is related to my growth as a Technology

Now I have no technology training, and I'm not sure if I have any particular qualifications to teach the subject other than being logical and as a male holding the belief that I have an innate ability to Solve Problems by Tinkering with Stuff. Last year my principal asked if I would help to teach the technology courses, and I found myself with half a teaching load of middle school technology. I threw myself into the task, loved it, and am teaching more of it this coming year.

Teaching International Baccalaureate Technology for middle school focuses on this thing called the "Design Cycle". Basically the idea is that you can use the steps of the Design Cycle to solve any problem you encounter, to complete any task, from making a website to baking a cake.

Below is the image of the Design Cycle by IB - key is how they've presented it as a cycle, the steps are things you go back and forth through, not just check off a list.

It's the sort of thing that sounds simple, right? Maybe too simple...I found it hard to really teach my students to Investigate thoroughly, and to be able to use each of the steps when they were needed.


Well, after this weekend, I think I finally "get" how to use the Design Cycle.

Why? Because I caught myself using it.

I had a problem I couldn't solve: add a photogallery to a website. So first I Investigated: I searched for other examples on the web, having to refine my search a number of times to find the best possible formats for my photogallery. And as I searched, I crossed off possibilities from my list of potential solutions (Evaluate). At the end, I had two options. I Evaluated each of them, found one of them had a key defect, and chose to pursue the other option.

Still left in my mini-Technology project is the implementation of the chosen solution; I can already tell from skimming the site that I will need to install two new programs before I can upload photos (guess that would be Planning). And once I have the programs downloaded, I need to learn how to use them (Investigate again). At the same time, I will need to Design the way I want the photogallery to look; no point in learning how to make a slideshow if I don't think that will look good in the overall Design.


Reflecting on how I'm completing this project is also leaving me with more ideas about how to teach the Design Cycle. Last year, I gave out a few big projects that had every step of the Cycle included; kids couldn't help but approach it like a checklist.

I see now that each of these steps is not really a big phase; they are more like umbrella categories that have lots of small skills inside of them. For example, refining keywords as you search the web is an important skill for Investigating. Evaluate is not a one-off end of project task; it is kind of like opening your eyes as you swim to make sure you're not veering off the mark, or checking your watch as you train for a 5K.

Musing out is still fundamentally a project-oriented class, where real-world solutions / creations are the focus of the curriculum. So perhaps I'll aim to teach these smaller skills in bite-sized openers to lessons, then let students spend the rest of the time on their project.

Also, this is definitely a case where a teacher Thinking Out Loud could be very beneficial for students. Modeling use of the Design Cycle = key.

Maybe I just typed out the outline of that Think Out Loud lesson, huh?


Thanks for reading,


PS Click here to see my other site. Not close to professionally done, but I've done my best on it. And, the photogallery is as of July 28 not up there, is it. Still gotta implement my chosen solution.

Friday, July 13, 2007

On Moving Images

I started to write up a comment to Dan's blog, and then it suddenly got really long. So I wondered if "bletiquette" (blog etiquette? I think it sounds funny...probably someone more of a dork than me has already invented a word for this...) would necessitate putting said long comment onto my own blog.

On Moving Images. You ought to read the background to this post - dan has posted a really interesting video here, and written a response to some of his comments here.

Now, I don't know about US English standards (only did my student teaching in the land of the free, left right after that), but in the UK moving images (media of any and all size / shape / form) is now a part of the national English curriculum. (However while I'm literally on the other side of the world, in Hong Kong, I work at a school that basically gets to make up whatever curriculum it wants. I think we're part of WASC: Western Accreditation? Something? Schools? Coalition? Company? beats me.)

This doesn't mean English teachers are supposed to show the film of "To Kill a Mockingbird" while reading the novel, and tell the kids how the movie is "wrong" because it isn't the same as the book. It means that films, television, commercials, even videos found on youtube, is a form of media to analyze as seriously as any other form of literature, like a novel or play or poem.

Dan makes a strong case for using the film because it helps him to "surprise" his students. And that's true. Since this film will seem cool to the students, since it is from youtube and humorous, that all helps a teacher in relation to the thin-slice (love that analogy dan) we could call "teacher understands students and their culture".

But using a film like this, using a different media, in any class, no matter the subject, isn't that just sound teaching? Information sticks in the brain when it arrives in multiple varieties, multiple forms. Giving the students some kind of anticipation guide, pausing the clip, asking them to talk to a neighbor, not showing the ending and watching it a second time - that would be a GREAT use of a period.

And...information sticks in the brain the MOST when you have to do something with it, so that makes Christian's idea of having students film their own clips a good one. In theory. But a film project is not something to be undertaken lightly, to be handled in anything less than a full-on unit. I'm thinking around four to six weeks to do it right. I had a fabulous set of students for a fifteen hour summer course, and we spent about a third of the time on how portrait photography - check out the amazing project we took part in, the 100 People Project - I'll post more later. If you take a decent skim through dan's posts, you'll become aware of how important tiny details can be when it comes to presentations / media design. Making a thirty-second short film involves an awful lot of specialized skills, all the way from storyboards to the camera work and ending with syncing up music & editing.


Dan - you wondered earlier why you got so many posts on a blog entry over a weekend? Well I am writing a lot more now because I am on holiday. During the school year, I have no energy to do this kind of thing, to read a lot of cool thoughts on teaching and write my own ideas down. But right now, just because my students are gone, doesn't mean I'm not thinking about teaching every day.

Guess next I'll write about...the 100 People Project. Jolly good show, that.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Why the difference between 11 and 16 is bigger than 5

Over lunch a friend asked me, “Knowing what you know after teaching your first year of middle school, what would you have done differently? If you could somehow send a message back to yourself in July 2006, what would you say to help yourself prepare for the year differently?”

My immediate thought was that I should have told myself, “You’re in for a wild ride, bucko, so just get ready to deal.” (The school I joined last year is attempting to do a LOT...I have plenty of interesting educational tidbits to share on this blog.)

But then I thought it over, and I think it would have helped me to I think the one piece of advice that would have helped me the most this year was, “Pretend you are entering your first year of teaching.”

Because I went into the year thinking that I knew what I was doing. Sure, I’d never taught middle school before. But I’ve got two years of high school under my belt. And about ten years of doing volunteer work with middle schoolers? Of course I was ready for the year!

What’s the difference between teaching a 16 year old American History and teaching an 11 year old Roman History? I thought it basically boiled down to covering less content, assigning shorter essays, making tests less difficult. Maybe have a few more “fun” classroom activities, a couple of projects like “turn an everyday household item such as a shoe into a model of the Colosseum”, that sort of thing. And phase out from my vocabulary the five dollar words and the twenty dollar sentences, and all obscure references to Abraham Lincoln.

The word “hubris” should have been scrawled in the margins of my planner last August…heck, it should probably just float around behind me, like one of those bad-luck rain clouds.


“Pretend I am entering my first year of teaching.” See, those ideas up there are alright, they’re on the right track. But that doesn’t mean that I knew what I was doing, that I could walk into a middle school classroom and teach with confidence and expertise. I don’t know if there’s really any other way to truly learn how to teach than to just get out there and do it.

So this past year, I just did it. I planned a lot at first, leaving work at 8pm, coming in on weekends. And I would typically find that after one or two lessons I needed to completely redo my plans for the rest of the week, because I had not realized the students didn’t know how to sit next to the opposite sex without someone committing an act of physical violence, or that the article I had photocopied had five words per line that they didn’t know, or that half of the students didn’t know any way to take notes other than “copy down everything teacher puts on the board in any random fashion”. Every lesson, every week, I found something new that I hadn’t realized they didn’t know. I found all kinds of skills they didn’t have, in all kinds of areas…skills I took for granted when teaching 16 year olds, skills I had “known” middle schoolers wouldn’t have; but I didn’t truly realize how their absence would affect my teaching.

I like to think I know a little bit more about teaching middle schoolers now. (I’m saying this cautiously, aware of the floating neon sign, flashing “hubris”, above my head.)

Middle schoolers cannot do some things. They don’t: have long thoughtful discussions with some degree of abstraction / nuance, sit still for long, consistently act mature. If they are shy, you would sooner find your lost contact lens in a swimming pool than get them to speak up. Just turn off the fans, ask your question again, throw an eraser at the boy in the back who is now practicing kung fu on his neighbor, and hope that the poor child has the courage to repeat their sentence.

But once a guy like me who loves to ramble has dealt with the fact that he won't be able to make any comparisons between Spartacus and Malcolm X (or even Professor X), there's a lot of great things about working with middle schoolers.

The age group seems to display some wonderful traits. They can: come to class every day with a positive attitude; be extremely supportive of their peers (although five seconds later they are capable of turning around and being downright nasty); display an amazing curiosity and willingness to try out new activities. And, they don’t seem to worry too much about their marks. The letters “SAT” only describe what they did after they entered my classroom. This was such a breath of fresh air after working at my previous school.

True anecdote: yesterday I bumped into a student I used to teach at the grocery store. While his mother was checking out, he came over to talk to me. He's going to be a junior next year. One of the things he asked me: "C'mon, Mr P, tell me - what did you get on your SATs?" What was the score I got on some bloody test I took one cold winter Saturday seven and half years ago. Pretty soon kids won't know that the thing was out of 1600 once, so I can tell them some bs about how you can't compare the tests anymore.


Well. I’d better stop this post before it becomes a novel…probably already too late.

I’ll see if I can get one post per week up here…would be nice if I could write up two of them, seeing as I am not doing much else right now aside from swimming regularly and watching at least four episodes of House / Prisonbreak / Lost / Six Feet Under per day. (but not of each series - that would be a lot of television, even for a summer holiday.)


Thursday, July 05, 2007

holding pattern

It’s been about a week since I finished my last day of teaching, and I love love love having free time. I’ve been able to go down the list of “things to do when I can relax”, the list that I usually add add add to during the school year and never start chipping away at until my holidays.

Thoughts on education.

Maybe I could start at the beginning. Why am doing this? Why am I a teacher?

(I typed out some of answers, and they were boring and/or cliche.) about just some snapshots of the year, the highs and the lows?

(The lows sounded too melodramatic, and I never got around to the highs.)


Guess this is the post that wasn’t. I would like to be able to write something cogent and organized and thoughtful (with subtle wit) about my education career thus far. But it just isn’t happening.

According to “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” – I am behaving like the stereotypical Martian Male. I have some problems: I am really not sure what to make of my career as a teacher thus far, and I have no freakin idea where it is going; I also don't really know what on earth I am doing in Hong Kong. So, as a true Martian, I am going to my cave to solve minor problems (or to watch other people’s problems) until I stumble onto some kind of solution.

So, I’ll read about the problems in the Middle East, try (and fail) to complete some of the brain teasers in the paper, and watch another movie. Think I'll watch a Canto Triad flick, I love those.


Looking forward to writing some about teaching! Watch this space, it’ll happen. I mean it.