Ditch That Textbook

Teaching with less reliance on the textbook.

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5 ways teachers can sell others on their ideas

Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “Everyone lives by selling something.”

That goes for teachers, too. We sell our students on the benefits of using that last five minutes of class to do homework rather than take a nap. We sell them on the importance of the Pythagorean Theorem and how they’ll use it in their lives.

Teachers sell motivation. They sell their product: their content. They sell responsibility.

We sell, sell, sell, and the best of us teachers get our students to buy, buy, buy.

So when Dan Pink, an author and career counselor (www.danpink.com), penned a new book called “To Sell Is Human,” I instantly started thinking of connections to the teaching world.

(Pink also gave a Ted Talk on internal motivation and its three main components – mastery, autonomy and purpose – that I blogged about last March.)

In an interview with Wisconsin Public Radio, Pink outlined some ways that people sell that I think are good connections to teaching. Here are five of them:

1. Let them tell you why they agree with you. Pink suggests that you create the context for people to agree with you – and then get out of the way. Don’t force your reasons for agreeing on them. Let them draw those conclusions themselves.

So, as teachers, in our little sales, like getting students to participate in class, or our big sales, like helping them plan for their future, set the scene and let them make their own connections. “When people have their own reasons to agree with you, they adhere to them more strongly, believe them more deeply,” Pink said.

2. Decide whether to pitch with facts or questions. We’ve all made sales pitches to students, colleagues, administrators – even our loved ones. And we’ve all probably made them using facts and using questions.

The effectiveness of that pitch is based, in part, on whether we use questions or facts, Pink said.

Make your case with questions if the facts are clearly on your side. Why? Your questions elicit the answers that you want to hear. If the answers to your questions are obvious, your questions will lead your subject on the path you want them to take. If they’re not, your subject could wander off track.

Make your case with facts when your case isn’t open-and-shut. This more restrictive method is your best chance for success if your subject has many plausible choices and you want him or her to select a particular one.

3. Remember that your digital audience is wider than ever. Social media has the potential to magnify what you do in the classroom, be it positive or negative. An exciting learning experience in class may reach other students, teachers, parents and administrators if your students take to Facebook or Twitter about it. Results: building interest in your classes and your subject area. A misunderstanding or poorly chosen words could have the opposite effect, though. Pink compared this to a farmer selling sweet corn from the back of a truck. If he rips his clients off and they tell their friends and family, his business suffers. If he takes good care of them, word-of-mouth advertising makes him money.

4. Be a servant leader. The old tried-and-true selling approach of serving people first and then selling to them is still effective, Pink said. Relationships are key, and good teachers know that well. Students who have close relationships with adults in their lives are more likely to take their advice and see them as role models. It’s like the auto repairman who listens to a clanking car on his free time and later sees his business booming with trusting clients.

5. Help people find their needs. In the information age when answers to our questions are only a Google search away, sometimes people don’t need answers, Pink said. They need people who can help them identify their needs. “Identifying new problems is as valuable as solving existing ones,” he said. Students are often quick to find solutions to their problems. But they need caring adults to help them identify their most pressing problems or evaluate their solutions.

Don’t want to consider yourself a salesperson? That’s fine, but you’re acting, thinking or talking like one when you try to persuade people to your way of thinking. Let’s challenge ourselves to ditch the textbook concept of working with students and rethink our persuasion techniques. You never know how many lives you may affect.

5 lessons from my paperless class failure

I finally had all of my notes and plans finished, but I had been compiling them in my mind for months.

My class was going paperless. Totally paperless.

I am very blessed to have 26 desktop computers in my classroom. I’ve utilized them in various capacities for the year and a half I’ve been there.

But I was ready to take it to the next level. Bell-ringer activities done in discussion boards. Individual student blogs. Digital homework activities and online assessments.

I stepped into class the first day of school and laid out my plans to my classes. We jumped right in that week with bell ringers, and then it hit.

Log-in issues. Slow computer start-up times. Blocked websites. Our starter activities that usually took 5 to 10 minutes on paper were taking almost half the class on some days.

Boom. My paperless class had blown up in my face.

And I was bummed out. I had all of these ideas. The thought of less paper and more digital was the right move, if you asked me.

Here are a couple of things I learned from my “paperless class” bust:

1. Technology for technology’s sake isn’t good enough. That old educational technology maxim was right. Technology has to help the cause. I had digital activities that actually took longer than simply using paper and pencil. Kind of the opposite of what I was looking for.

2. Your technology must be up to the task. My bell-ringer activities are good for getting students engaged at the beginning of class. But they had to wait for slow computers to load up, wasting valuable instructional time. If we were a 1:1 iPad school, the load time wouldn’t be an issue; they would be online and working instantly. If I’m to have my paperless class, I need a better solution to the slow technology factor.

3. Your tech tools must be up to the task. I decided to use the MBC Documents feature on My Big Campus to submit these bell-ringer activities. My Big Campus’s version of Google Docs is servicable, but when students shared their documents with me, there was no way for me to unshare or erase those documents, and they collected in my documents folder. I needed to find a better tool for what I wanted to do.

4. Persevere through frustration and failure. My bust initially made me want to — gasp — give up on teaching with technology all together. I knew I was jumping to conclusions, and I knew I wouldn’t follow through with it. But since then, I’ve found some solutions to my problems and am making strides toward the digital class I envision.

5. Take it a step at a time. In hindsight, it was a mistake to launch all of these paperless initiatives at the same time. I really should have phased new parts of the plan in little by little.

I think I’ve licked all of my wounds and moved on from my earlier mistakes. My classes are more tech-savvy than they were last year, and I’m still trying to integrate new digital activities each week.

But my students are still doing bell-ringer activities on paper. Don’t worry … I’ll get there one day.

A new start for Ditch That Textbook

After starting this blog last year and sticking with it for about two months, I realized something about blogging.

It’s hard. Well, regularly blogging is hard.

Recently, I have learned that my passion to share ideas and tools to help teachers rely less on their textbooks is as strong as ever. I love writing. I graduated with a journalism degree from Indiana State University and worked for several Indiana daily newspapers before transitioning to teaching. I really enjoy combining my joy of writing with my love of teaching creatively and using technology in the classroom.

So, my esteemed reader, here are my intentions for this blog going forward. I’m hoping to post twice a week: on Mondays and Thursdays. In fact, my first two posts are already written and scheduled to post as I type this message.

My focus, as it states in the subheading of this blog, is to help teachers rely less on their textbooks and to think outside of the box. Technology is a great tool for that, but it’s not the only tool. Therefore, I’ll be talking about other ways to ditch a textbook. It could be ditching the “textbook definition” as practiced by many teachers. It could be creative teaching or curriculum planning ideas. I’m a techy teacher at heart, but my intention is for this blog to be bigger than an edtech site.

I’m trying to get in the swing with Twitter (@jmattmiller), posting links to sites, new Ditch That Textbook blog posts and general musings on a regular basis. Those are also available on the Ditch That Textbook Facebook page (http://www.facebook.com/ditchthattextbook). I’d be honored if you’d follow me on Twitter and like the Facebook page.

Please feel free to cruise around the site and check out my previous posts. Leave a comment about anything that strikes your fancy and I’ll be happy to reply with one of my own.

Feel free to contact me via e-mail at jmattmiller16 @ gmail . com about the blog or teaching in general. I’d love to hear your thoughts and engage in some dialogue on how we all can “Ditch That Textbook”!

Motivating our students

Motivation is the holy grail.

In education, it’s what greases the wheel. It’s what we’re all really after.

With proper motivation, our students can change the world.

Without it, in my classroom, it leads to “we never covered that” when we’ve spent a week or more on whatever “that” was.

In many classrooms — and many businesses — we are going about it all wrong. Research has shown us what works, but we haven’t really yielded it to produce results.

One of my favorite Ted Talks (which are great, inspiring, riveting videos on talks on a variety of topics) was by career counselor Dan Pink. It’s about motivation, and I think it can shed light on ways we can better motivate our students.

Pink summarizes a few experiments where researchers compare two motivating factors — rewards (aka “carrot and stick”) and simply doing the best you can do. We see the rewards system all over the world in all theaters of performance — in sales, in sports, in the classroom and beyond. Raises. Bonuses. Extra credit.

Rewards should bring out the best in us, right? Not always. The research in Pink’s talk shows that rewards produce the best results in cognitively simple tasks, such as going from point A to B or pushing buttons in a certain sequence.

“As long as the task involved only mechanical skill, bonuses worked as they would be expected: the higher the pay, the better the performance,” Pink said. “But when the task called for even rudimentary cognitive skill, a larger reward led to poorer performance.”

A study added socioeconomic status to the mix, and the results were the same. People from poorer areas had the same results. Even the London School of Economics, after evaluating 51 similar studies, concluded that financial incentives yield a negative overall performance.

How does this affect the work of educators and the lives of students?

First, the world is evolving away from the basic “plug and chug” types of work. “That routine, rule-based left-brain work … Has become fairly easy to outsource, fairly easy to automate,” Pink said. “Software can do it faster.” Our goal should be to develop higher-order thinking, and basic if-then rewards won’t do it.

Second, there are ways to motivate students — adults and children alike — to perform better in these right-brain, conceptual tasks. Pink calls them autonomy, mastery and purpose:

Autonomy — “the urge to direct our own lives.”

Mastery — “the desire to get better and better at something that matters.”

Purpose — “the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”

These are the core parts of what really compels us to act and to I prove. If we can tap into these concepts, we can create a new desire and passion in our students.

“Learn this because there is a test coming up.” Where does that fit in the model above?

Finding out what’s important in our students’ lives and helping them get there through what we teach. That sounds like we’re empowering them to reach autonomy and helping them master something that matters.

Pink talks about the practices of Google and an Australian software company called Atlassian. Both companies regularly give employees time to pursue their own work-related interests while on the clock. Pink said that half of Google’s new products are created because employees have great amounts of autonomy.

Autonomy makes educators cringe at times. I usually think of all the ways my students might abuse it before considering what amazing results could come out of it. But there is power in allowing students some autonomy in class work and projects.

They say that retention is greatest when material is practiced in a real-world scenario or by teaching others. Turning students loose to do that in their own creative ways could be something they remember for the rest of their lives.

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Use Facebook while studying, get lower grades (Mashable)

Technology can revolutionize how we teach. But like anything else, it has its ugly side.

The effects of texting and Facebook won’t surprise many of us, but it is interesting to see a direct correlation in a study connecting them to lower GPAs.

(Does this mean I should probably leave Facebook alone when I write tests?)

Use Facebook while studying, get lower grades

By Sarah Kessler, Mashable

Students should think twice before logging into Facebook or sending text messages during study time, suggests a study to be published in the journal Computers & Education.

The study — which controlled for demographics, high school GPA, internet skills and amount of study time — asked 1,624 students at a four-year university about their multitasking habits.

The study included questions about how often students IM, email, search and talk during study time, but only Facebook and texting ultimately correlated with a lower GPA. There was no relationship between grades and using other technologies while studying.

Scientists already know that the brain isn’t capable of successful multitasking. “Human information processing is insufficient for attending to multiple input streams and for performing simultaneous tasks,” write the study’s authors Reynol Junco and Shelia R. Cotton.

Previous studies have determined, for instance, that driving while talking on a cell phone can have more of an impact on driving performance than alcohol does. Even simply walking and talking on the phone at the same time can throw our brain off of its game.

In other words, one would think that any multitasking during study time — not just using Facebook and texting — would have a negative impact on grades.

Junco suggests the difference might have something to do with how students are using different technologies. Students may be more likely to email professors and search out of academic curiosity than to socialize through email or search, while they’re unlikely to text message their teaching assistants for homework help.

“It could be that students with lower grades just happen to do more Facebook and texting,” Junco tells Mashable. “But I think this study in the context of other research does seem to show that it is about what they’re doing while they study and not the other way around.”

On average, students in the study sent 97 text messages and spent 101 minutes on Facebook every day. Junco doesn’t think that they’ll leave either technology behind, but in his own classes at Lock Haven University he encourages students to think about how they use them.

“What I tell them is, ‘look, you’re going to sit down to study anyway,” he says. “You might as well make it the most efficient use of your time.’”

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7 classroom uses for forums and discussion boards

These days, discussion boards and forums are pretty ubiquitous.

You can find discussions on almost any kind of website — about products to buy, music to listen to, food to eat, other websites to visit. There are probably discussion boards about discussion boards somewhere.

They really do highlight what we know and love about the modern Internet. They’re instant. Anyone can join the discussion (most of the time). We create and interact with content instead of just consuming it.

That’s why they’re perfect for classroom use. They hit many of our students’ strengths. Many of our students have never known of information sources where they couldn’t interact. (Except maybe those pesky textbooks.)

And they’re very accessible. Several course management programs such as Moodle, Edmodo and My Big Campus already feature them. They’re easy to set up. They’re easy to monitor. And the student collaboration possibilities are huge.

Discussion boards are even available for the less-than-tech-savvy educators. It’s called flip chart paper. Butcher paper. Chalkboards. The “graffiti on the wall” concept. Pose a question and let students discuss.

Here are some ideas for using discussion boards in the classroom:

1. Student opinions on content. After studying a concept, let students talk about it. There’s a lot we can learn from this collaboration — what they don’t understand, what stimulates them, what we left out of our teaching, etc. It may also encourage some peer teaching, which we know can often be more effective than teacher instruction.

2. Hypothesizing. Take an idea from your curriculum and turn it on its head. How would life be now if the Cuban Missile Crisis hadn’t been resolved? What how would the story be different if the main character hadn’t died that tragic death? This touches on some of the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

3. Vocabulary practice. Let students create a story together using new vocabulary — one line at a time, adapting to each other’s posts. Post a picture and have students write creative sentences/thoughts about it using vocabulary. Play with language.

4. Quiz show. Have students develop their own questions for each other from material you’ve been covering. They pose them to each other and answer in the comments section.

5. Anticipating. Stop in the middle of a story or chapter and, before proceeding, have students anticipate what is coming next. History, literature and so many other things we examine in school have such strong ties to students’ lives. Let them (or help them) make those connections.

6. Solving problems. Students can tackle the problems of the world, big and small through discussion boards. Pose a question relevant to what you’re covering and have them present well developed solutions.

7. Support. Offering a discussion board for students to ask questions about homework, a reading or a topic from class discussion opens up a potentially 24-hour help desk. Students can help students, or the teacher can provide help, too.

Things to consider — The level of privacy is crucial here. Discussion boards, I believe, must be closed to anyone who isn’t involved with the class. They can be opened to a whole class or grade level,MIT never to the public. It is up to us to protect our students’ personal information and protect them from predators.

Also, keep a close eye on what students are saying in these discussion boards, either from your own computer or by watching over their shoulders. This helps to ensure the integrity of your activity (avoiding student talk about how the cheerleaders look in their new uniforms). It also protects you and your students from the repercussions of inappropriate posts.

How do you grade these discussion boards? Often, in my Spanish classes, I just require a number of posts or comments and type my own comments to point out grammatical mistakes or ideas they may have missed. A rubric could be developed to pinpoint your expectations for students. Or it could simply be a class discussion tool for no credit or extra credit.

When done well, discussion boards are meaningful, interesting activities that take little preparation time and engage students.

In fact, you might save enough time to read (and re-read) all of my posts at Ditch That Textbook!

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How can we reach the Jeremys?

Meet Jeremy, a junior in my Spanish II class. (OK, his name really isn’t Jeremy. But that doesn’t surprise you, does it?)

Jeremy lives in the rural, low-income school district where I teach. He plays football and wrestles.

He’s just about the easiest guy to get along with you’ll ever meet – a guy that will treat anybody like a real person. Even a teacher.

However, for some reason – which I just absolutely can’t fathom – he’s not nearly as interested in Spanish as I am. Shocking, huh?

Sometimes he pays attention well – eyes forward, watching and listening – when I talk.

Other times, his head is hidden behind the flat-screen monitors protruding from all of my student desks. Not sure if he’s sleeping, resting his eyes or paying attention to me. (Probably one of the first two, I usually guess.)

Other times, he has a Sudoku puzzle out on his desk. I’ll be talking in Spanish – asking students questions, talking about things I think they’re interested in or creating a story with them in Spanish. And Jeremy’s there. He’s just looking at his Sudoku puzzle.

I’ve lost several Jeremys in my teaching career.

I’ve drown them in a sea of practice questions, irrelevant printed dialogues and verb conjugation drills.

They’ve departed from foreign language land with little to no desire to ever return.

The problem with this is that these are the ones we really must reach as educators.

This exchange, from an article on the Mind/Shift KQED website, illustrates it well. It’s between Joe Redish, a physics professor at the University of Maryland, and Lewis Elton, a famous physicist and one of his mentors. Elton asks Redish how his teaching is.

“Redish told him it was going well, but that he seemed to be most effective with the students ‘who do really well and are motivated’ about physics.

“Elton looked at Redish, smiled, and said, ‘They’re the ones who don’t really need you.'”

The ones who don’t really need us are our all-star students.

The ones who need us are the Jeremys.

A professor of mine once quoted one of her educator parents to my class: “The best students and the lowest students aren’t the ones with whom you can make the most difference. It’s the ones in the middle.”

Do the Jeremys of this world get motivated by my dry textbook content? Probably not.

Are they captivated by the best of our lectures? Not usually.

They’re the ones that need us to “ditch the textbook” the most. To step into the new era of students who learn differently.

Keep your minds open and your lesson plans in pencil. Be ready to adapt. Think outside the box.

The Jeremys will thank you.

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Google Voice: Connecting to the mobile student (Part 3)

Think teens love to send text messages?

The Pew Research Center in 2010 published results of a survey showing that 75 percent of teenagers own their own phones, and 87 percent of them use text messaging.

Half of texting teenagers send 50 or more texts a day, according to the survey. One third send 100 or more texts a day. The simple math tells us that’s 3,000 texts on an average month.

Can we harness that power for education?

Yes, but we have to be careful.

Communication is key, and it’s the first step. After weighing the possible consequences, be ready to have an honest conversation with administration. With the OK from leadership, parents need information on the situation and may need an alternative to educational texts if they’re uncomfortable. The ramifications of educational texting is a full topic of discussion for another day, but principals, students, parents and maybe even school boards need to be involved.

With that hurdle cleared, here are several ways Google Voice’s texting capabilities can help in the class:

1. Reminders: Remind students about assignments, projects, quizzes and tests. Parents may want to get these reminders, too.

2. Promos: Marketing professionals create hype for products by divulging details beforehand. Why not use that as a tool to get students interested and excited?

3. Review: Sending texts with questions or review information can give extra repetition with the material. In many cases, repetitions can equal increased achievement.

4. Primer: Get an in-class discussion started early. Give students a topic and something to think about before the arrive.

5. Extra learning opportunities: Offer the occasional extra credit question. Direct students to an interesting website relevant to class content. Some students won’t bite, but others are truly interested in going the extra mile.

Google Voice: Including student voices in class (Part 2)

Plenty of options exist for incorporating Google Voice, a free service from Google for voice and text messages, into many types of classrooms.

Yesterday, we reviewed what Google Voice can do. Today, we’ll cover some classroom applications for the voice message feature. By having students call a number provided by Google to leave voice messages, they can accomplish a lot of useful activities in a new environment.

1.  Traditional lesson questions: Haven’t ditched that textbook completely yet? Put a new twist on a common practice. Have students answer textbook lesson questions by voice instead of by pencil. Grading may take a bit longer, but the change of pace may inspire.

2. Audio essays: Give students a chance to make their case verbally. Audio essays – whether the 30-second or multiple-minute variety – let students inform and persuade verbally, a skill they will likely need in the workforce.

3. Interviews: There are so many directions this can be taken. Students can interview their friends for their opinions about topics from class. They can delve into their own genealogy with family. They could even interview community experts on a research topic.

4. Debates: This takes interviews to the next level. Students get a topic from class and find one or more classmates. They grab a cell phone (or land line phone) and dig in for a discussion.

5. Poetry reading: Make poetry assignments come to life. Students can write their own poetry and recite it, or they can give their own interpretation of a poem the class is studying.

6. Speak for a character: Let students interpret what a character in history, in a story or in anything involved with your class would say. How would Juliet describe her sticky family situation? What would Adam Smith say about the state of our economy? How would a Haitian describe her daily life and struggles?

7. Directions: Give geography mapping activities a new look by having students give directions from one place to another. Include important cities or landmarks they should know. Creativity reigns!

8. Tour guide: This is similar to the directions activity. Students study an important place and take tourists on a verbal tour, identifying people, places and things and injecting information along the way.

9. Predicting the future: Based on what’s happened in the past and what students have learned in class, what do they think the future will be like?

10. Songs, raps, chants or cheers: These can be fun to write and even more fun to perform. Make sure they tie back to class content, of course.

11. How did you solve it?: When students hear their peers explain how they’ve reached a solution on a problem in math, science or any other class, they might be more receptive to hearing it. However, student explanations can have mistakes (sometimes serious mistakes), so checking answers before recording might be a good idea.

12. Talk show: Students take the role of talk show host, taking call-in questions, discussing issues with their co-hosts or talking to guests.

13. Game show: Hosts ask the questions and contestants answer them for fabulous prizes. Celebrity guests could make things interesting!

14. A call home to Mom: Students could leave a message for their parents or siblings, explaining an interesting place they’ve visited, an interesting event they’ve witnessed or talking about something that’s on their mind. Tie it into a theme from class and you get conversational, easy-to-understand explanations of your class content.

15. Surprise question: Leave a question that students must answer on the outgoing message. The catch: Students don’t know the question until they call! This can be a kind of pop quiz and an opportunity to think on their feet.

Some notes about using Google Voice voice messages: Student cell phone minutes or long distance charges can be an issue, so warn them ahead of time. A letter of explanation (cleared by school administration) to be signed by parents can get them on board with avoiding potential problems. If parents are opposed to using Google Voice or don’t want to call to your specific number (if it’s long distance), calling a school voicemail could be an alternative. Also, students make mistakes. I’ll often let them re-record their messages by hanging up on their mistake message and calling right back. I just grade the last one they submit.

Next, we’ll delve into the text messaging options for Google Voice.

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