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Thursday, January 28, 2010

In Defense of Interactive Whiteboards

In many of the blogs that sprung from the aftermath of following an #edchat discussion on Interactive White Boards these nifty tools have taken quite the beating. Bill Ferriter, the latest blogging brawler, recently took on IWB. In his article in Teacher Magazine Ferriter claimed that IWBs are an "under-informed and irresponsible purchase."I could not disagree more.

Reaching All Learners

I admit this isn't coming from a ludite (pardon the cliche) perspective. I was the first in my school to score an IWB. In fact I wrote a grant and helped our school secure three Smartboards (the Kleenex of IWBs). Yet I still believe, as I do now that IWBs help reach the needs of all learners.

First of all an IWB extended learning beyond my classroom. Each day I would print all of my notes to PDF documents. Then I dolled out a coveted job of weekly webpage editor to a student. He or she would scan handouts and other materials I created and uploaded all of my documents to my classroom webpage. Parents were more than grateful to have these resources. This few steps, made possible because of my IWB, also provided me some protection. When students would complain they lost some activities, or a parent would ask how I was meeting a students 504 plan I could point to my repository of learning.

Discovery and Collaborative Learning

Ferriter also claims that IWB are not an effective tool to reach all learners beacause the reinforce a teacher centric model. I believe that is not an issue with the tool, but with the teacher. Contrary to Ferrier's claims, IWB's can be a powerful tool that promote individual discovery and collaborative learning.

I have seen hundreds of presentations on powerful uses of IWB at local, national, and international conferences. To assume they are nothing more than an expensive projectors ignores this evidence. To illustrate I will share a few examples from my classoom.
Writing Instruction
Early on I found my IWB to be an indispensable tool for collaborative writing instruction. No matter the genre we were modeling the IWB became a significant tool in the class. I would start by working with the class to model specific paragraphs. We would write a good, better, and best example. The students would call out sentences or edits and I would add them in. Then in small groups we would repeat the same process. If we were in the computer lab students would email me their parapgraph, if not they would use pen and paper. Either way I would display the results on the smartboard and my students would have to identify common elements in the , good, better, and best versions.

Creative Drama
I also used my Smartboard for creative drama. The preloaded screenshots included with the Smartboard made wonderful backdrops. This saved invaluable instruction time that was often eaten up as students spent more time on props than content. Some of my most creative students even used the images and backdrops in combination to use electronic puppet shows.

The screenshots provided with the software are invaluable. Science or Social Studies teachers have a field day with the maps. Staying with creative drama, why not have students film forecasts using maps. You could meet your standards, as students demonstrate knowledge of isobars and pressure systems, while recreating a more authentic learning experience than a simple chapter.

Online Reading Comprehension

An Interactive Whiteboard also became central to our Internet Reciprocal Teaching model for teaching online reading comprehension. As we move from Gunther Kress calls the shift from page to screen I believe how we use literacy tools is shifting. An IWB helps to model these new skills, strategies, and dispositions to learners. In our classrooms we would often project student computers on the screen using a management software. We didn't use the programs to spy on students but to higlight experts. When we witnessed a student using a good strategy or they wanted to demonstrate they could go up to the IWB click on their computer and model the strategy to the class.

Granted this was in a 1:1 setting but Interactive Whiteboards can be just as useful in the one computer classroom. Ferriter claims that the lessons he created could have been easily replicated in one of his computer centers, but not every teacher has this option. Many classrooms come equipped with just one machine. An IWB allows teachers to model online reading comprehension strategies with just one machine. You can click on links, and have access to unlimited free content.

Bill Ferriter, has a legitimate concern about the expense of IWB. Yet they are coming down in costs as more competitors develop and market cheaper products. Ferriter claims them to be under evaluated in their use. This may not be the real issue. A quick scan of Google Scholar reveals that some research based evidence is starting to emerge.

Second why are we once again evaluating the tool and not the teacher? Much of the #edchat talk revolved around the need for time and training. Maybe that is not the issue. Maybe teachers do not adapt to new media because they do not have to. It might be a time to include technology integration into teacher evaluations. I understand for many such a Byzantinium approach is too harsh. Understandable...use teacher evaluation as a reward. In my former district we budgeted for three whiteboards a year. Teachers had to submit an application for a competitive grant to be awarded the board.

Finally as the recent Kaiser study pointed out students' life is media driven.If the literacy events in their lives are not static why should their classrooms be? Maybe the question about interactive whiteboards should be not "Can we afford them?" but "Can we afford not to?".

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Current Events and Internet Inquiry

I was amazed at the students response. We were doing interviews after our twenty week Internet Reciprocal Teaching unit and we asked, "Do you prefer laptops over using books?". One of our students simply replied, "Yes, we have to spend all this time learning about old stuff. With the laptops we get to learn new stuff. We get to use what is going on now."

I never thought immediacy of information would have been a motivating factor, but then I thought back to some of our best lessons and they usually involved current events.How a discipline approaches internet inquiry changes based on both content and pedagogical needs. We found the teaching of current events to be a great tool for modeling, practicing, and using online reading comprehension skills. In our class we focused specifically on using specialized search engines and synthesis.

Specialized Search Engines
Google News can be a great tool. Too often when teaching with the internet students get bogged down in the search process. If your lesson is not teaching locating skills you could simply add additional scaffolds through Webquests or you could teach students specific locating skills. One of these skills is the use of specialized search engines. We introduced students to Google News as a means to find information probably written by a somewhat reliable source.

In our lesson we poached from Dick Wolf, and ripped an activity right from the headlines. A few years ago, over the the Winter break, two people were attacked by a tiger at the San Fransisco Zoo. TIGER ATTACKS! A perfect lesson for middle school. We demonstrated to student show to use Google News and then had them read articles about the attack. They had to formulate an argument and decide if the tigers were to blame, the zoos, or the victims.

We all know how current events are usually taught: 5 W's, an H, a summary, and then your own opinion. In the age of the internet how we interact, summarize, and respond to media is different. We do not simply summarize an article and add a thought. Now in blogs, and discussion forums readers use block quotes, find viral videos, and post hyperlinks to summarize an article.

This idea of taking multiple streams of information and making them your own is a difficult skill to teach. Students need multiple strategies to mesh video, websites, and blog discussions. Once again we turned to current events to model these skills and strategies. When we were teaching IRT it was in the midst of the Democratic primary for President. During a televised debate Hillary Clinton accused Barak Obama of plagiarizing a speech by Deval Patrick, an Obama advisor, To teach synthesis across multiple modes we took a screen capture of Youtube (blocked in our school) of the debate, and Patrick's original speech. Then we had students find multiple websites on the issue. Next using graphic organizers, we had students use elements of each source in their response.

Teaching Perspectives
Deborah Tannen, in The Argument Culture railed against the everything is war metaphor. This perspective has gone viral with the Internet. I have been following the posts in response to the Brown-Coakley election on the Boston Globe. They are down right nasty and often cut and pasted from other sources. Viscous at every level..on every side. Part of digital citizenship is formulating a well-written and respectful argument in small bits of language. Central to this ability is understanding diverse perspectives. Current events and internet inquiry provide teacher an opportunity to create opportunities for students to express these types of values.

First using a specialized search engine such as Google News allows students to see a news event from international perspectives. It would be great for students to study the Israeli-Palestinian conflict not just from history books but from the pages of newspapers from all over the region.

Second current events can provide wonderful models for persuasive writings. With news aggregators you can find multiple perspectives on any given topic. How does the editorial board of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal differ on an issue?

Finally current events and internet inquiry provide students a chance to respond with succinct grace online. We can not simply block any website with interactive features from schools. If we want students studying the 5 w's they better be able to summarize their thoughts and add additional thinking to the WWW.

Monday, January 11, 2010

NetGeneration or iGeneration and the death of email

Is Email Dead
In a recent article, quickly making its rounds across the internet, Brad Stone discusses the emergence of mini-generational gaps when it comes to technology.

I agree in many ways. AOL Instant Messenger launched when I was in college. My peers quickly adapted to the new tool. I, however, was a latecomer to Facebook. It just wasn't around, and once I graduated it was was still a tool for college kids. Nowadays younger and younger kids get involved in social networking.

Stone, summarizing recent reports from the Pew and the Kaiser Family Foundation, highlights the fall of email among the younger iGeneration. I think the major difference between email use of people in their 20's and those younger boils down to one major factor: employment.

It is too early to tweet email's eulogy to the world. Yes, younger students may prefer social networking tools, but email skills will still remain crucial for a 21st century workplace.

In fact, I believe that a dichotomy of formality is emerging between email and other social networking tools. When I was in junior high we were taught two forms of letter writing: the formal and informal letter. One used commas in the greeting and the other a colon. One was personal, and the other succinct. This is becoming true for email and social networks. Email has evolved as a place for formal communication and social networks have become the playground where email once swung.

The workplace will not eliminate email. It provides a secure and storable record of communication, allows for documents to be quickly distributed, and is easily supported by inhouse tech support.

I do worry, however, that as kids turn to social networks rather than email they will not be prepared for the workplace. Therefore educators must teach email skills and include these composition lessons in any writing curriculum

Email Skills

We have all been there, trying to decipher an email from a colleague and wishing for our little Orphan Annie decoding ring.
In fact, like me, many of us are guilty of mixing up discourses and ambigous messages in our email responses. We need to teach students how to email. More importantly, students must be provided authentic opportunities to use email.

Email skills:
-Sending, receiving, and adding attachments-Not much more to be said about that.
-Formatting subject lines-What is major purpose or the email?
-Providing one or two sentence(s) summaries in beginning of email-State your organizational strategy upfront.
-Recognizing discourses for appropriate audiences.
-RBU-Reading Bottom Up. A challenging reading comprehension task that involves students looking for an idea across a conversation.
-Formatting-The easiest to read emails use formatting tools. Long messgaes may provide headings or bullets. Responses to questions may use different fonts or colors.


We live in an era where new literacy tools emerge everyday. Unlike the past, however, these tools coexist, they do not simply supplant each other like the book replacing the scroll. This provides a unique challenge educators. We must prepare a knowledgeable populous that has the flexibility to apply thinking to novel situations. One situation I am sure this iGeneration will face in the future is use of email in the workplace. Before we line up for the funeral procession lets make sure our students can attach the death announcement in an email.