Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sharing is caring

I was fortunate enough to land my dream job last year; I moved up and on from middle school science and found myself elbow deep in biology curricula and anatomy. I was like a hog in mud (and still am, actually). I feel so lucky to be teaching the content that I am so incredibly passionate about. I am also working with some phenomenal teachers. Individuals who love what they do and are about taking risks and trying new things and being open to new ideas.

When I knew I wasn't going to be teaching middle school science this year, I packed up my belongings and made the move over into my new digs the last day of school, when it was just a teacher work day. Then, over the summer, I organized my files and lesson plans and activities that I had saved on my external hard drive. It was kind of nostalgic, opening old activities and lessons I had done in the first 5 years of my teaching career. It was like witnessing evolution first hand. There were definitely some activities that I cringed when I opened them (because I thought to myself, "Those poor children!") and there were others that I had kept and stowed away, to maybe use again some day when I was ready.

Since I adhere to becoming the facilitator and not the disseminator of information in the classroom, I would venture to guess that almost 90% of the things saved on my hard drive are my own creations. They are not completely organic as they were seeded from activities I had seen/found online, but they were adapted, edited, toiled over, hour after multiple hour, until they asked the kids just the right questions and they assessed their understanding in just the right format. Don't get me wrong, they were living documents because I would always find some way to refine the activity.

So you could only imagine my conundrum when asked by a former colleague if they could have a huge project that I created. The structure or skeletal frame of this project came from the reality show, Survivor, but the premise was to get students to work on teams to review content for their upcoming state test. I remembered the original idea from a teacher article in NSTA and then I saw a version online (http://sciencespot.net). I created my own directions, my own activities, my own assessments, my own "rules" and my own time frame to get it all done. The end result was AMAZING. My kids were focused and excited because I incorporated competition and I chose their groups using Kagan strategies so that one group was not overly superior to any other. I had literally no discipline problems because the kids were interested in what we were doing (not to mention, my kids did fairly well on those sections of the state standardized test).

Now, it's not that I am a stingy toddler who doesn't know how to share or play nice, I completely understand why it's so difficult for teachers to simply hand over a project that took quite a bit of time and dedication to create. Some people might suggest that the person who asks for the activity actually is lazy or just doesn't want to put in the effort themselves.

And those nay-sayers MIGHT be right. That teacher asking for your lessons is just looking for an easy way out. They aren't creative. They do not have the desire to create such a thing.

Yet, I choose to take a different stance. My job is about children. Plain and simple. And if this activity benefits kids, then I feel obligated to share.

And here's the reality: the teacher who takes my "stuff" may not even use the activity to its fullest capacity and may butcher the crap out of it (which could be a reason for some to not even bother sharing).

But what if they don't butcher it?

What if they are concerned about their student's success and this teacher is reaching out to someone that they feel might help them? Haven't you ever had to ask someone for help? Sometimes asking for help is hard for people to do.

I try to take this perspective: every teacher truly cares about their profession and their student's success. And if there is a young and inexperienced teacher out there who is looking for some solid activities to use with their students, then it is my obligation to help be a supportive colleague. It's my job to help that teacher so they they continue to improve in their craft. It's my job to ensure that they never become comfortable in teaching the same lessons year after year.

I don't care what it looks like. I don't care that it might appear that I am weak and am willing to be taken advantage of. I am fully aware that I have nothing to gain, besides pride, if I do not share.

And in the end, it's the kids that have everything to lose if I don't.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Is Online Learning Where it's at?

Last year I applied to be a part of a select group of teachers in my district to compose and administer online courses. I was accepted into a group of highly motivated educators to collaborate and implement online courses for the upcoming school year. Needless to say, it hasn't exactly gone as planned.

To begin with, the leadership changed hands over the summer. The opening session of our "training" for this program was spent convincing us that this venture was worthwhile. In many of our minds, it was wasted time because all of us were already convinced that online learning was something that needed to be explored for our district, or we wouldn't have applied in the first place. We also had a panel of teachers from an area district who had already unveiled their online courses. It was insightful to an extent, although they were targeting a different group of students (pre-drop out prevention) than we were.

We have hit many road blocks along the way - from being provided time to collaborate to the district leadership not being very clear with "what" the online courses will look like. For example, the science teachers as a whole, would like to have a hybrid model where students come to school for 1-2 hrs once or twice a week for lab activities. In order for a student to take an AP Biology class, they are required to have completed 17 specific labs in order to earn AP credit.

We also have struggled with how to make these courses as rigorous as the typical classroom experience.

I have so many unanswered crippling questions about creating online classes that I find myself questioning if even creating an online course is in the best interest of my students. I often have the discussion with my colleagues that if I am hesitant to include an activity with my online students then should I even include the activity for my classroom students? How does one build a community and relationships with students in an online environment? Are the students of today motivated enough to learn without the structure of a classroom environment? Am I ready for the transition from being a facilitator in the classroom to being someone who simply monitors student progress?

I keep coming back to a central question - is this what's best for students?

I originally assumed that I would create an anatomy/physiology class online, since those students are juniors and seniors and they are more experienced, motivated and disciplined than my sophomore biology kids. I was not prepared for my anatomy students' reactions when I told them what I was attempting to do.

The majority opinion of those students was absolutely not. They told me that there was no way they would take this class online because they needed to "hear my voice explain the concepts and provide the real world examples."

This was not what I anticipated. So, I polled my bio students. Some of them were interested in taking my class online, but when I pressed further to find out why, many of them responded with because then they could do it on their own time. When I asked about time management being a concern, they said that their parents would make them get their assignments (which I found funny, because their parents don't make them get their homework done now, so how would online learning be any different?).

A student yesterday told me of a former student in their class; this young man had been failing all year and when he left last week, he enrolled in an online program and made up 3 quarters of work in a matter of 5 days.  Now, does that mean the work that was happening in the brick and mortar classroom wasn't worthwhile?  Or does it mean that the online version was easier?  Or does it mean that the student excelled with the format of the online course?

On top of this, everyone around me seems to be raving about the Kahn Academy.  I do not disagree that Salman Kahn is not an educated or brilliant man, but what I will disagree with is the fact that what he has done is revolutionary.  How is posting video clips online any different than lecture or direct instruction?  Ok, so kids can watch and rewatch and rewatch his clips over and over, which is something they can't do in the regular classroom.  But they can't ask him questions either.

At this point, I feel as though I love being with students, face to face, too much to leave and transition into an environment where I don't get to see their reactions when they learn something shocking.  I know I might not belong in an online classroom, but in general, I am still undecided as to what I think about online learning.