One of the great things about teaching in Greenwood, Wisconsin, has to be our outdoor classroom. I grew up surrounded by forests as a kid—named trees, watched birds, and fished in rivers. When Greenwood Elementary was built, an administrator with some forethought fenced off a small pond, planted some fruit trees and allowed the area to go wild. Protected by the fences from deer, a nearly perfect example of Wisconsin wilderness exists right behind our playground.
Went fishing with my students the other day in our little pond. Now that springtime has sprung, our little patch of wilderness is home to a brood of ducklings, a great blue and small green heron, a clutch of rabbits, a red fox, a few kingfishers, and more noisy warblers and testy red-winged blackbirds than can be counted. We made fishing rods out of sticks, used bent pins as hooks and hot dogs as bait. Before long we pulled in dozens of bullhead cats and one very upset turtle. I know that I am a technology teacher, but there are days when I am glad to be unplugged.
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Perhaps I have mentioned my rather macabre group of female students. Their interests include diseases, anatomy, and watching Bones. They once begged me to find them cow hearts to dissect and pour over books about the nervous system. My hope is that that they all become doctors, make six figures, pay their taxes, and donate a Dodge Challenger to the school fleet.
Encouraging these interests in the right direction gets easier with the internet. I just found a fantastic website called 3D Toad that allows your students access to hundreds of specimens. Drag the images to rotate them and zoom. View 3D images of skeletons, organs and models! But it doesn’t stop there! See images of how to make guitar chords, ballet poses, and even yoga positions! Best of all, several of the images are actually in 3D! Round up your green and red glasses and check it out!
During the short week leading up to Easter I decided to assign a lesson that tied into the recent Weekly Reader topic of the Titanic. I assigned each of my students to create a creative report on a disaster in history. With a rather ghoulish gusto, my students were reading up on the Great Peshtigo Fire (still the deadliest fire in history and only a few hours from us!), the 1918 Spanish influenza outbreak, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and the Dust Bowl.
And in typical fashion, my initial hopes were dashed when nearly each one decided to represent all that they had learned as a PowerPoint presentation. ARRG!
I like PowerPoint, but I think it is the diorama of our era, telling very little and only used because it is so easy to churn out. The biggest complaint I get from the higher grades is that, if given the choice, students always pick the easy way out and go for the PowerPoint. So I decided that enough was enough. No more PowerPoint. I pointed my students in the direction of this great site that had over 150 ideas for book reports. Before long. students were making board games (chutes and ladders in the triangle fire) news reports (on the San Francisco earthquake) and stop motion movies (on the dust bowl). A rap video was also made to describe Spanish influenza complete with a beat provided by Avairy Roc. Which led to this exchange:
“Mr. Briggs, what rhymes with pneumonia?”
“Hmm…Ammonia. Can you work ammonia in?”
“Sure! If you don’t want pneumonia, wash surfaces with ammonia!”
Technology can make life easier, but just because it allows production to happen at a faster rate does not mean it can increase understanding or encourage creativity. Sometimes it’s working within the rules that forces you to make the best of a bad situation and increase creativity.
A few weeks ago I introduced my students to the world of video editing through Windows Movie Maker. Not the best, I know, but it’s free of price and strings and (provided that you convert all the video) pretty easy to use.
This week we made several entertaining videos. These met with mixed results. I would not call this lesson a failure exactly. But I definitely should have given my students more parameters in making it. A few started with very clear ideas, such as making a video of Hatchet by Gary Paulson. Another group parodied Twilight. A few had good ideas that fell short very quickly, such as the monster movie that resulted in more prop-building than actual filming, and a group that wanted to make The Jeremy Lin Story only to get frustrated with details when they couldn’t make convincing jerseys.
On a side note, it makes me a little proud that in a town that is 99.9% Norwegian, my students still felt that the only hurdle to making a film about their favorite ball player was the lack of jerseys.
Then there were the short and sweet films—the ones with a clear idea and low production value. For example, one group made a movie consisting of K-3rd grade students telling knock-knock jokes. They had enough time left over to make a ‘documentary’ on Japanese candy. Another group made a great short lesson on how to play a simple 3-chord ditty on the ukulele.
Would I do something different next time? Probably the usual teacher-solutions of controlling the size and members of groups, and making the movie a contract/project: In order to get their grade, they would have to make the product that they promised to make, much like a real producer demands results. Their final assessment using these skills is to make a documentary that ties in with their environmental science essays. It’s a project where every student has to make a movie—no freeloading.
But in the meantime, I sit back and enjoy a chuckle on behalf of my students:
I got a chance to play with a really nice set of games created by the Science Museum in England. They have developed a set of really fun games called Futurecade. Some of these games are based some of the real problems of the future. For example, removing land mines using robot drones you have to program (dealing with the real issue of mine removal) or creating strains of e-coli that can clean up oil spills. Others involve teaching genetics by having students care for, nurture, and breed ‘Things’ in the game Thingdom.
Many educational games are little more than regular arcade-style games with some math facts thrown in. These games were created to promote issues in math and science, but also to develop thinking and problem-solving. These could easily be adapted to lessons on global warming, energy, genetics, food distribution, and natural resources. What really makes them great is the optimism that science can solve these seemingly overwhelming problems, and that they allow your students to stand in the shoes of the problem solvers of tomorrow. Good thing too, since they will have to fill that role in the future.
There is one subject that my students know can get them out of any lesson. One subject that, if I get started, then any lesson of fractions, variables, or irregular verbs grinds to a halt: Cars.
I am not in a tax bracket that allows me to own much car, although what I do own I flaunt. I have been known to put on a suit, visit dealerships, and test drive cars I have no hope of buying. My students and I disagree on a lot of what classifies as a cool car, but one thing we can agree on is that the Camaro on the cover of this week’s issue of WR News was ‘sick.’ That, added to the coverage of the Washington auto show that came out last week, had my students fired up!
I have conducted lessons on cars before, and my students have responded well. The article makes that point that American manufacturing is leading us out of the recession we are in, but that much of manufacturing has changed. I show my students the inside of the new factories and the computers that go into the newer cars that are coming out of Michigan and suddenly even my most stubborn student realizes that he needs to do better on his math. One place to go to find that math is The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A great site to go to for hard facts, it makes a great starter for opinion papers on topics such as cell phone bans and fuel economy standards.
Have any other gearhead lesson ideas? Share them in the comments!
Flipped classrooms are a recent trend in many schools and are getting a lot of attention with a advent of new technologies and the large-scale use of video on the internet through such wonderful sites as Khan Academy and Learn Zillion to name a few.
The idea of a flipped classroom is students watch a video demonstration or presentation of the content at home or during their free time, and do their coursework at school where they can get help. This new method hopes to use the online media revolution to streamline the educational process and have students take ownership in their education.
Another great explanation can be found in this short video:
Personally, I like this idea. I find that I get the most out of my teaching working one on one with struggling students, rather than speaking to the whole class, most of whom (if I did my job right) should know most of the content right away (if they followed along in their textbook). I would gladly give up my time in front of the board to look over the shoulders of my students while they do their homework.
But there are some speed bumps on the way to a flipped classroom that I can see down the road.
- Dependence on technology: Many teachers would love to be in a situation where every student had a dependable computer or tablet, and a high-speed internet connection. However, most of the world is not there yet. School budgets are tight lately and most don’t want to buy a laptop for each student when they have trouble keeping the heat on. Asking students to foot the bill? Any school with lots of free and reduced lunch students and a back room full of second-hand winter clothes would have a hard time asking families to shell out hundreds of dollars for a device and a high-speed internet bill. For this to work there needs to be a rock-solid 1 to 1 laptop or BYOD program in place.
- A tech-savvy staff: There needs to be a breed of teacher who is comfortable publishing, grading and interacting on the web, and has the ability to keep up with trends down the road. A teacher that occasionally sends an email and has a shelf full of VHS tapes and a film-strip projector is not going to feel comfortable exporting lessons on the web.
- Lots of oversight: Students are distractible. There needs to be a level of structure and discipline in place to ensure that students are learning their content in their free time. This would seem to be solved by the homework-at-school part of a flipped classroom; a teacher would know if students missed their lesson when he or she sees them at work, as long as they’re checking them while they work. I could see students forgetting to watch their lesson just as easily as forgetting their homework.
- Professional considerations: What is the role of the teacher if the teacher is not instructing? They are no longer lecturing, sure, but then their role changes into that of a super-tutor. Many teachers define their jobs by instruction. But I would argue that giving up instruction frees up time for labs, demonstrations, experiments, and the kinds of hands-on lessons that define me as a teacher.
This last week I dipped a toe into the flipped classroom. I decided to record a set of lessons using a great little screen capture tool called camstudio, my smartboard and a USB headset. I then had most of my class follow along with the recording as I worked with students that had not yet mastered the topics from the day before. This ensured that every student had mastered their needed skills before proceeding to the next lesson. The work was stressful, fast-paced and exciting. While I was not in full control, I was much more available to my students than I had been before, and got a chance to intervene with students where I had not been able to before. A week later, my students’ grades are up and everyone is challenged and getting the help they need.
Anyone in flipped classroom or seen one at work? Ever used Khan Academy as a stand-in for a lesson? Please share your experiences!