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Jessica Lahey wrote an interesting piece last spring about encouraging teenagers to read. She shares her experience in getting her sons to pick up reading again, a voluntary activity that can sometimes flag as reading for academics and extracurricular commitments swell through middle and high school. She has a number of great suggestions, including “seeding” her son’s room with “literary bait” gathered from the non-YA section of the bookstore. Getting kids to follow their own interests (and to make choices on their own) can play a big part in instilling a lifelong love of reading. While her article was largely related to what kids read in their free time, much of what she wrote resonated with me as a classroom teacher who also wants his students to read.

I didn’t see Jessica’s article until just this week when she Tweeted Encouraging Teens to Read Nonfiction (With Cunning, Guile, & a Bit of Luck),” along with a link and a photo of a stack of books. (The books totally caught my eye, and I’m putting the ones I haven’t read on my ever-growing list to check out.)

So here’s why it resonated with me: This year I decided to pilot a non-fiction book project with my ninth grade biology class, and I’m excited about how it went. Students chose books from a long list of titles, and they each read a different book. It was my goal to engage their interest in a wide range of topics related to biology, including medicine, DNA and genetics, sports, natural history, zoology, evolution, endangered species, food and nutrition, the brain, music, and conservation. And really, I also wanted to expose them to good non-fiction writing and to see if they’d liked it. I didn’t make it optional, but I did give them choice and a good deal of time.

Here’s what they read:

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Skloot)
  • Spillover (Quammen)
  • A Primate’s Memoir (Sapolsky)
  • Inside of a Dog (Horowitz)
  • Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers (Sapolsky)
  • The Wolverine Way (Chadwick)
  • The Violinist’s Thumb (Kean)
  • The Sports Gene (Epstein)
  • The Making of the Fittest (Carroll)
  • Devil’s Teeth (Casey)
  • Monster of God (Quammen)
  • Song of the Dodo (Quammen)
  • The Omnivore’s Dilemma (Pollan)
  • Incognito (Eagleman)
  • The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons (Kean)
  • My Stroke of Insight (Bolte-Taylor)
  • Your Brain on Music (Levitin)
  • The World Without Us (Weisman)

Some books they didn’t pick that I think would still be good choices: A Sting in the Tale (Goulson), The Botany of Desire (Pollan), Four Fish (Greenberg), Cod (Kurlansky), On the Origin of Species (Darwin), Song for the Blue Ocean (Safina), On the Wing (Tennant), The Sixth Extinction (Kolbert), What to Eat (Nestle), Musicophilia (Sacks), Silent Spring (Carson), The Log from the Sea of Cortez (Steinbeck). Let me know in the COMMENTS section if you have suggestions for other books you think might work. I’d love to have a longer list for students to choose from in September.

One of the challenges of adding this on top of any course is that our students are already plenty busy. They’re reading The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, etc. in English, plus history homework and papers, Spanish projects, math, and also my own assignments for Biology, reading both current articles and textbook chapters. So I spread this project out over the first two trimesters. I didn’t want them to have to cram to finish their books as they were prepping for final exams, for example. I kept the assignments simple, but I found that I did need to assign them something. They weren’t about to just read them on their own. Assignment 1 was a 50-pages-in tell me about the book, plus a quick explanation of the author’s goal/thesis, and a notable quote (this was in a round table format, explained to the rest of the class). Assignment 2 was a middle-of-the-book written explanation of a longer excerpt, a what-I’ve-learned-so-far about this topic check-in. And finally, Assignment 3 was a larger book review; a summary, notable excerpt, and a conclusion on whether they thought I should keep the book in the hopper for next year’s class.

My takeaways: the students generally liked this project, and were interested in what they found in the books. They weren’t terribly excited that I plopped this on top of their plates, but their topics did work their way into class discussions throughout the year (The Sports Gene, The Violinist’s Thumb, The Making of the Fittest, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks came up on multiple occasions when their readers were happy to chime in with something they had just read related to the class topic).

Favorite outcome by far: my students are now working through the human body systems by working backwards from diseases, and Jill Bolte-Taylor’s “My Stroke of Insight” has made its way from the girl who read it for the book project to the girl that’s researching stroke. She says, “Oh, ___, you should read the first section of my book. It explains everything you need to know. I’ll bring it tomorrow.” And she did.

 

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It’s always good to get outside. And having the Long Island Sound 15 minutes away makes partnering with the Maritime Aquarium a great fit. Their new research vessel RV Spirit of the Sound is gorgeous. A plankton survey, benthic bio dredge, and otter trawl gave us plenty to measure and discuss. Students and teachers alike were happy to be out and getting their hands dirty!


 

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Just how important is inspiration, the educational value of play, and the time to tinker?

According to brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, Ohio, it began for them with a toy from France, a small helicopter brought home by their father, Bishop Milton Wright, a great believer in the educational value of toys. The creation of a French experimenter of the nineteenth century, Alphonse Pénaud, it was little more than a stick with twin propellers and twisted rubber bands, and probably cost 50 cents. “Look here, boys,” said the Bishop, something concealed in his hands. When he let go it flew to the ceiling. They called it the “bat.” 

Orville’s first teacher in grade school, Ida Palmer, would remember him at his desk tinkering with bits of wood. Asked what he was up to, he told her he was making a machine of a kind that he and his brother were going to fly someday.

        David McCullough, The Wright Brothers

Rather important, I think.

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Overview: In the coming year our school is changing the structure of its master schedule; we are moving to a schedule that will include different length periods spread across a seven-day rotation. Every cycle will contain one 65 minute period (20 minutes longer than what we have now). For my final project, I’m planning to rework the way I use my seventh grade class blog and my ninth grade class blog. I have also started a paper.li electronic newspaper called The Landing that I’m going to use to coordinate current event activities in all of my classes.

1. I started my seventh grade class blog last fall with the idea that it could be a place to share information with my students, beyond the daily details of homework and due dates, etc. (that they get regularly through the school website). To say that I used the blog sporadically would be generous (5 posts over the whole year, which sounds a bit pathetic, I know, especially after taking this class!). It would be totally fair to say that I didn’t use it as an interactive blog at all, except for the last post regarding final exam review, which started to approach an actual conversation/discussion. I’m happy about the potential of using it in new ways this year.

2. My goal for blogging with my ninth graders this year is to find more ways to facilitate online discussion/dialogue. My students will create their own blogs in the first few weeks of class, and my plan is for them to experiment with different web tools over the course of the year in order to share information, teach each other, and connect with other biology students (not unlike this class). (As far as tools go, Google Docs, screencasts, Flipbook, VoiceThread, and Slideshare come to mind, but I’m sure there will be others.) I did not require my students to comment on each others’ blogs last year because I was wary of trying to evaluate those comments, but I’m going to jump into that pool this year. Please let me know if you have a biology class that will also be blogging this year, and we’ll find a way to get our students to share.

3. Inspired by several teachers that have started to rework the discussion/coverage of current events in their classes (Marsha Ratzel, Will McDonough, and others), I set out to incorporate a number of Twitter and RSS blog feeds into a classroom daily paper, using paper.li. (See @brunsell’s article on the topic from Edutopia here.) The online newspaper that I’ve created is called The Landing (which refers the common space outside of our science labs, and I think it also suggests a nice place for meeting/sharing ideas). I began by starting a Twitter list so that I can manage the feeds/stories that students will be most interested in and will pertain to what we’re covering throughout the year. It’s a work in progress, as it’s only a few days old. I’ll continue to update this list as I find new sources, which will then get pulled into the daily feed. I have a general idea of how I’d like to use the feed, but since it’s brand new to me, I’m going to see how it goes and I’ll probably blog about it in the fall (which suddenly doesn’t feel so far away). *I should note that I’ve intentionally included sources/topics that apply to biology (9) and environmental science (7) so that I could use the same electronic paper for both of my classes. Some of the biology content won’t be relevent to my seventh graders, and vice-versa, and that’s okay with me.

Overall, I’m looking to provide some continuity throughout each 7 day cycle, tap into students’ creativity, and to take advantage of the extra time that we’ll have periodically (rather than doing the same thing we’ve been doing for an additional 20 minutes — as much as I like to talk, nobody wants to hear me talk for another 20…). By incorporating new web tools; giving students options in how they present material; and having them interact, collaborate, and share information online (using new tech in new ways); I think we will be able to teach more effectively and reach more students. I think what we’re really doing when we teach this way is just diversifying how we communicate with students, and how they communicate back to us (and to their peers). I’m confident that good things will happen.

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Image: Sea Urchin Embryology Tutorial, Hardin Lab, Dept of Zoology, University of Wisconsin

One online simulation that I think is quite well done (and that I use already in my classes) is the Virtual Urchin, which is a project out of Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station. I did a lab with them at an NABT conference a few years ago. I found the lab fascinating and their resources extremely helpful.

Quick highlights:

  • Online procedure and support for live Sea Urchin fertilization labs – great for high school Biology classes: external fertilization, easily visible under light microscopes, rapid early cleavage stages
  • Virtual simulations and interactive tutorials for students to practice scientific measurement, microscope use; review basics of sea urchin anatomy, predator prey relationships, fertilization, and early stages of embryonic development
  • Useful teacher resources and additional links

For my seventh graders, their microscope tutorial is a terrific addition as a pre-lab before viewing live protists in class. In the online tutorial, students can manipulate focus knobs, adjust the diaphragm, change slides, change objectives. It gives them a quick review of microscope parts, terminology, and procedure, and I’ve found that it allows students to spend more time looking at actual protists once we’re doing that lab. You could have students work through the tutorial at home the night before, or you could devote a class period to it (depending on your schedule and/or computer or microscope availability).

If you teach biology or use microscopes, it’s worth checking out.

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I started to jump into the world of really using technology in the classroom after attending a Building Learning Communities conference in 2008 (through November Learning). They do a terrific job, and I highly recommend checking it out. Sessions at that conference were eye opening for me in several ways. They collectively planted the seeds that have resulted in my developing a Personal Learning Network (PLN), the beginning of using student blogs in my biology class as digital online portfolios, and I’m sure they were partly responsible for nudging me towards starting this blog back in ’09.

Jeff Utecht’s article “Evaluating Technology Use in the Classroom” and a particular session from BLC08 by Jim Wenzloff struck the same chord with me. The idea of using technology to create new and different learning opportunities for students is the key. Utecht mentions three different questions we can ask to see if what we’re doing is new or different:

Does the technology allow students to learn from people they never would have been able to without it?

Does the technology allow students to interact with information in a way that is meaningful and could not have happened otherwise?

Does the technology allow students to create and share their knowledge with an audience they never would have had access to without technology? [my emphasis]

Three ways it can be different: connecting with new people (now possible geographically in some staggering ways), changing how students interact with (and use) information during the process, and broadening the audience for their work beyond the traditional poster tacked on the hallway bulletin board. In other words: the library has expanded, their potential pool of study partners has expanded, and now everyone in the world can see the hallway bulletin board.

I want to note that just because these are positive new developments, I don’t think that using technology to do “old things in new ways” is bad. Using a Smartboard in class to present content is a good example. I do still have my students take notes from time to time, ask them to actually write things down on paper while I explain something at the board. This is making me feel terribly old-fashioned in describing it this way. I might as well be using chalk and slate, I know. But using the Smartboard (instead of slate) makes my class notes much clearer for students, and I can archive them on the school server, which is a terrific benefit (to me and to my students). In a subject-specific way for me, it’s also great for molecular drawings in biology – carbohydrates, polypeptide chains, and nucleic acids come to mind as being easier to draw with a “shape tool” rather than freehand.) But I’d be naive to think that this is anything but a shiny new way to present notes.

So, what are my Guiding Principles for Technology Use in the Classroom? Let’s give it a shot:

1. Trying out new programs, websites, software, presentation tools, etc. as a way for me to share information with my students (or to have my students to share information with others) in class is a good idea. I’m willing to try new things, and I’m going to ask my students to try new things/formats/software. I’m okay with a little uncertainty (in terms of my mastery of a particular tool before starting a project with it), and I understand that not all these experiments will turn out the way I plan. I have hope that some of them will.

2. Using technology to improve “old fashioned” methods is fine, but it’s important to recognize that it’s just one part of the overall technology picture. If it helps clarify content, or facilitate delivery, documentation, presentation of that content, that’s great.

3. I don’t know everything, but I’m willing to learn. I’d love to teach my students to take the same approach.

4. I understand that my students all have different learning styles, and that some students will gravitate towards certain programs/media/methods based on how their brains work and what makes sense to them. This is a good thing, and I would like to work towards giving them flexibility in how they complete projects, etc (when possible). A phrase from BLC08 still sticks in my head (and I’m sorry that I don’t remember the name of the presenter, though it might have been Alan November), “How would you like your learning?”

5. Lastly, I mentioned this in my Setting the Stage post in more depth, but it’s important to me that the technology is not the focus, but a means to improve instruction and understanding among my students.

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“Therefore, the technology cannot be discussed in isolation—it must be com bined with a description of the teaching strategy. A description of the manner in which a pedagogical strategy is combined with technology to teach specific content is crucial” (Bull, Bell).

At this point it’s become a little cliche to say that we don’t want technology to drive curriculum; we want technology to support curriculum, but it’s absolutely true. This is part of what Bull and Bell are saying above. The next step obviously is to say that the point is not to use computers to do the same old things (show pictures on a screen, type a report), but to find ways of using computers to allow kids to do things that they couldn’t do before (the internet helps with this, of course), with the goal of learning something useful (whether that’s science, math, French, or History). The tech is not the end product (we don’t really even need to teach them to use PowerPoint anymore so much as help them use PowerPoint effectively to show what they know, for example). But even that is fairly limited use of technology in the classroom, and doesn’t even qualify as Web 2.0, since it’s fairly static.

Our kids all use computers. In our school, incoming seventh graders next year will all have laptops as a part of their school “kit.” This presents some challenges in the area of classroom attention, focus, and work habits (keeping kids on target, working on the task at hand instead of browsing, etc), but it also presents some opportunities that did not exist before. The access to information is unprecedented. Students still need guidance on what to do with that information, and more and more, they need help sorting through and prioritizing the information that they find. They’re not so good at Googling yet.

There’s a ton of untapped potential in the area of collaboration and communication with the help of technology (as authors Bull and Bell point out). Having partners in a classroom use Google Docs to share research for a project allows them to do things they are not able to do with pen and paper and hard-copy notes (unless they were faxing each other copies of their notes each night, reading, and comparing. Does anyone fax anything anymore, outside of doctors’ offices?). The SHARING of their research (in real time) lets them divide and conquer topics more effectively, note the progress of a partner, and share their work with a teacher all at the same time (by inviting that teacher as a Collaborator as a new way of “turning in” work, another real time way to see work that also happens to be paperless!). They can also share information on the cloud, and work together while each in their own home. The time stamp and revision history features of Google Docs are also useful from a teaching and assessment perspective.

Friedman refers to the availability of information and the “flatness” of the world now, thanks to changes in technology infrastructure, speed of communication, and the subsequent leveling of the playing field. This matters in the classroom as well. How important are “recall of facts” skills relative to the ability to connect those facts with meaningful relationships? Where does learning happen? Are we still disseminators of information? (The sage on the stage model?) I think not, and since we’re in the thick of things, right in the midst of all this change with a number of new tools at our fingertips, it’s an exciting time to be in education.

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