Ditch That Textbook

Teaching with less reliance on the textbook.

Archive for the category “Ditch the Textbook”

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.

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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.

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.

Google Voice: Including student voices in class (Part 1)

Including student voices in lessons is an instant way to gain interest.

Google Voice, a pretty powerful tool in the wide world of Google apps, opens up a whole new dimension of learning opportunities for the classroom.

Teachers can create a Google Voice account for free, which includes a local phone number, a voicemail account and the ability to send and receive text messages. When someone leaves a voice message on a Google Voice account, he or she can play the audio message, read a text transcription of it or even download the audio to a file.

Once the account is created, the sky’s the limit for using Google Voice with students. A slew of verbal communication activities can ensue, even with introverted students that rarely speak up in class. Recording audio with no one watching or listening can limit these students’ inhibitions about speaking and give them motivation to speak.

These types of speaking activities really touch on desirable real-world skills. In fact, the National Association of Colleges and Employers cited “verbal communication skills” as one of the top five personal qualities that employers want in new hires, according to its “Job Outlook 2012” survey.

So how do we use it in the classroom? Think about relevant applications in your classroom for now. Tomorrow, I’ll list 15 ways to classroom uses for Google Voice.

Is Wikipedia reliable?

(Creative Commons photo of Wembley Stadium / Nicholas Babaian)

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re standing in the middle of the biggest stadium you can imagine. (I’m thinking of Wembley Stadium in London, which seats 90,000 people.)

You’re getting ready to give a five-minute presentation on a topic with which you’re fairly comfortable.
But there’s a catch.

All of those thousands of people listening and watching have smartphones. And they have the capability to send text messages to the enormous video screen in the stadium if you make a mistake to correct you.
Makes me sweat a little just thinking about it.
But what if you were the information receiver instead of the information giver? There’s a pretty good chance – although not 100 percent – chance that an “expert” and thousands of amateur editors could get the facts straight, right?
Welcome to the world of Wikipedia, bane of many a teacher’s existence, salvation of many lazy students with research papers to do.
Countless educators have told their classes, “Wikipedia does NOT count as reliable research!” And, to some degree, they’re right.
But should we just drop it from consideration entirely?
Here’s your one-paragraph background on Wikipedia: it’s an open-source article database, meaning that users can add, delete and modify its content. Its array of topics is vast, and its contributors (called “Wikipedians”) number more than 16 million (in number of registered named accounts).
It’s the open-source part that many educators take issue with. If anyone – an expert in the field or some guy who wants to pull a prank – can modify the articles, how can they be reliable?
The short answer is that Wikipedia’s articles aren’t guaranteed to be reliable. But they come pretty close, according to some research.
The main study cited in the Wikipedia reliability argument was published in 2005 by a journal called Nature. Nature submitted articles from Wikipedia and Encyclopaedia Britannica — considered a more traditional, reliable source — for experts in those articles’ fields to review for accuracy.

The experts reviewed and returned 42 articles, and the results were interesting. Eight of the articles total from both sources had what were called “serious errors” — four from Wikipedia and four from Britannica.

The rate of average factual errors in those articles was pretty similar (at least, depending on your perspective). In those 42 articles, Wikipedia had 162 factual errors (3.86 errors per article), while Britannica had 123 factual errors (2.92 errors per article).

Wikipedia’s founder told CNET he was “very pleased” with the results, while Britannica’s president claimed that the study showed that Wikipedia was a third more inaccurate. Again, it depends on your point of view.

Other similar studies are posted on Wikipedia’s own Wikipedia reliability page (a page on Wikipedia about Wikipedia alone makes me a bit skeptical).

As an educator, these findings tell me a few things.

One, we shouldn’t rule Wikipedia out as a resource for conducting research. Again, think back to the speech in the stadium. With so many observers watching — even more now than when that study was done in 2005 — the chances of accuracy are pretty good. Sure, they’re not perfect, but even trusted information sources make mistakes.

Two, that still seems like a lot of errors to me. And if Britannica — a source I’ve trusted for years — can’t be any more accurate than that, we had better verify with multiple sources. There’s a rule in the newspaper business: always verify your facts, even if your mother said it. We need to teach our students to find truth online, not just find the first “fact” that they can.

Which begs the question, “How do we do that?”

The website for the “Dummies” how-to books offers some tips that go beyond “just dig until you’re sure.”

  • Look for a slant, especially in one-source articles.
  • Consider the source. Sometimes information is taken, but unfairly and inaccurately.
  • Look who’s talking. If you can ascertain that a source is an expert, that increases credibility.
  • Wikipedia should be a starting point for research. Footnotes give links or information to the article’s sources, allowing readers to do their homework.
  • Beware of “edit wars,” where two contributors with opposing views change each other’s content. This can be viewed sometimes in the edit history of an article.

So just because it comes from Wikipedia, that doesn’t mean it’s likely to be inaccurate. We can’t make those kinds of assumptions anymore.

But it does mean that we should verify our information before we announce it to thousands at Wembley Stadium.

 

BONUS LINK — Wikipedia’s 5 Pillars (the fundamental principles by which Wikipedia operates): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Five_pillars

 

To spark interest in class, get personal

I was a yearbook adviser for several years and was the editor of my high school yearbook staff. I believe that working on student publications allows for learning that students can’t easily get anywhere else.
Here’s a key yearbook lesson that I’m sure my students are glad that I learned.
What’s the first thing you look for when you open a new yearbook?
Answer: You.
We are important to ourselves. We’re concerned about our image. We’re concerned about how we look and sound to people (even if we don’t outwardly admit it).
Think our students are any different? I teach high school students, and if that’s not a major egocentric time of life, then my hairline isn’t disappearing like a setting sun.
If our students want to find themselves when they open a yearbook, wouldn’t they want to find themselves in our instruction?
Blaine Ray, the creator of a conversational method of teaching world languages, says that we’ll know students are listening if we’re talking about them.
“They will pay attention better and they will remember what you have taught better,” he writes in his book “Fluency Through TPR Storytelling”. “Bring in events from their lives. Have mini-stories contain important school events or national events. Talk about food the students eat. This is all part of ‘personalization.’”
As a world languages teacher, I can talk about practically anything in my classes as long as it’s using vocabulary and grammar concepts that we’ve covered or that they can figure out on their own. So, from time to time, I’ll make up stories in class with my students as the stars.
We’ll talk about things that are important to them. Today, the start of our day was delayed two hours due to fog, so one of my classes and I talked about that a bit.
I don’t like using worksheets and activities out of textbooks. (Surprise, surprise, right?) When I need something like that, I prefer to write my own content, and often, my students are the main characters. Their lives are the plotline. If I have multiple class periods of the same subject, it just takes a “find and replace” in Microsoft Word to change the names.
Personalizing activities in a class is pretty easy in world languages, but it certainly applies to other areas of study.
Social studies teachers can equate the conflict and social ramifications of historical events to students’ lives.
Science teachers can personalize processes and concepts by having students act them out or by comparing them to their own lives (“mitochondria are kind of like the Red Bull that Jack drinks to stay awake playing Skyrim”).
Literature has so many parallels to our students’ social lives that we can often personalize what we read pretty easily.
Obviously, we should be careful when we personalize. Embarrassing our students is the last thing we want to do, and discretion is the key when selecting topics to discuss.
But, when done well, personalizing is exciting and attention-grabbing. It’s a great way to ditch that textbook!

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