Sunday, October 16, 2011

Intent vs. Impact

Teaching seventh graders about communications means teaching about the intent of a message versus the impact of a message.  On my way to today's post, I was thinking about who was reading my postings, was I reaching beyond my school, was all of this online content a reflective sounding board to help clarify my thinking?  I happened to check my clustrmap icon and was surprised to see dots on countries outside the United States!  Clicking through, I discovered that in the last year (actually three months, but who's really counting?) my classroom moodle page had been visited by folks from India, Australia, and Cambodia, among others.  Talk about a pick-me-up!  Just knowing I was part of a global community of content posters motivated me to head straight to the blog and post.  To all those who visited the Cultures web page, thank you.

Recently, one of my students was tested by an outside evaluator to determine what his learning strengths and weaknesses were.  One of the recommendations was he might benefit from a laptop.  After sharing this information with his teachers, the head of our learning center stopped by to ask me what type of hardware would be most beneficial.  He had significant reservations about recommending a laptop for a seventh grade boy who seemed easily distracted by everything, and who, our learning center head theorized, "would be even more distracted by a network connection.  An AlphaSmart would be perfect."
While I'm sure my friends at Alphasmart (now Neo) would be thrilled at a sale, I thought I would ask the question to a wider audience.  What would you recommend for our 7th grader?

I am leaning towards a MacBook Air, 11", 64GB SSD.  I think the young student needs a physical keyboard.  That rules out any iOS device.  Yes, I know bluetooth keyboards can connect to iPads, but then there are two pieces of equipment of which to keep track.  The MBA is light, quick, and connects to any network easily.  Teaching the student how to use DropBox will help keep him organized.  If all school files are in his DropBox folder, it won't matter where the laptop is.  The files will always be accessible.  DropBox requires a network connection.  A techniques some of our teachers use for kids who require a bit more time we refer to as "front-loading."  Having a networked computer will enable teachers to e-mail the child material to be covered later in class.  Giving him paper copies will only add to his already dysfunctional binder.  There are plenty of pro arguments to the laptop, but there is a huge negative, too.
The kid is already way too distracted.  If he has full access to the internet, he will be even more distracted, right?  Not necessarily.  Our job as teachers is to help this young man make wise choices.  Helping him learn when to access information on the internet is part of that cycle.  Wise parenting at home, including working on his laptop in a public place, not taking the laptop into the bedroom, bringing the laptop to class every day, accessing assignments electronically, etc, all will help him stay organized and keep him on the road to success.  In short, the MacBook Air will have greater impact.

Any thoughts, gentle readers?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Helping Kids Fail

At back-to-school night this week, a respected teacher asked if any parents had read the NY Times article, "What if the Secret to Success is Failure?" For those who need a quick refresher, the gist of the article is about building character. Character or grit, as it is referred to in the article comes about through failure, through trying, becoming discouraged, exhausted, even exasperated, but also continuing to persevere. “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure,” [the Times explained.] “And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.” Returning home that night, I asked my sophomore daughter about learning by failure. She replied, "Dad, I can't fail. Teachers don't permit failure. They grade everything. If I fail a test, I have to work so hard to raise my grade that it is actually easier not to fail."

Long ago, I stopped "grading" homework. I teach kids that homework is practice. When I tell them this early in the year, a few students always ask me to tell all the teachers homework is practice. My students need coaching, too. They need to know how to improve in certain areas. I adopt a philosophy I have observed excellent physical education and art teachers practice. I give kids feedback on their homework quality, critiques their efforts, focus on individual differences. For example, one student may need to work on word choice, another student might practice writing with more figurative language. PE teachers never tell students they have to re-do an effort, they focus on one skill they think will benefit the student the most. Great art teachers don't critique student work so harshly the students loses all motivation. Instead, they suggest a more color here, a little more rubbing stick there.

The question, it seems to me isn't how we, as teachers help students learn to succeed, it is how we help them learn to fail. For it is through failure that the most learning occurs. In our high-stakes testing and emphasis on grades, how are we allowing kids to learn through failure?

Before kissing my daughter good night, we had a great discussion that I hope armed her for a discussion with her teachers about how she could fail, learn, and receive a high grade in their classes. In this season of parent conferences ask teachers how they provide for failure in their courses.