Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Day 5

With this phase of the project, Brainstorming Possible Solutions, I made two changes to the process: I allowed group members to sit together in class, and I actively joined each dialogue.

There was idea-popping! It seems that F2F communication, at least at the middle school level, is an important element of collaborative work. The groups were actually doing very well with digital communication - most continued to use the wiki Comment tool to sustain a running dialogue about ideas and information. Every group has built quite a nice Research page. The problem is this: in earlier grades, and through some poorly overseen project work, students have developed the habit of copying entire articles or posts and pasting them into a Word document, to be actually read and mined at a later date, if at all. Therefore, every group member has had to plow through quite a bit of text in order to make good evidence-based conclusions about the topic.

Most did not want to do this. As I listened to conversations, I realized that most researchers were so excited about their new knowledge that they could summarize accurately; most had already memorized the most persuasive numerical data.

So I challenged one member of each group to read through the Research and delete all but the key statements and facts (leaving the URL's). The "delete text" skill does, it seems, have a use in middle school academia.

Here is what else happened:
  1. 6th grade teachers refused to give their students the HW poll because they (correctly) ruled that the questions were leading to a predrawn conclusion. I told the group this and we read over the questions - my students got the point, and they will write better questions next time. Nonetheless, the poll is over whelmingly a statement about HW.
  2. The 2nd HW group is able to access this poll and use it in their discussion of the same question.
  3. The Self Abuse group focused, after research, on cutting. After reading and discussing all of the Research, they decided not to reinvent the wheel: good organizations already exist, with good campaigns, to raise peer awareness. They are going to leverage their f2f power to become an active "cell" inside one of these national non-profit groups. They have made a large poster for the lunch room.
  4. One of the Animal Abuse groups found that although all states have laws against pet abuse, few of these laws are rigorously enforced. They are creating a kid-campaign to write a tougher law in the state of Maine.
  5. The Beef & Global Warming group was stunned by their research results. They are creating a "no beef" campaign for the school cafeteria. We had a long discussion of economic cause-and-effect, which led them to understand that a small change in eating habit can create a large change in culture - and have an impact on global warming.
  6. The Animal Testing group is focusing on cosmetic products (Cover Girl). They began to write the text for an informative brochure, but realized that their language was so good that it should be a PSA instead. They plan to complete the PSA and try to get it onto MPBN (NPR Maine) - or at least onto the web.
  7. The School Budget group brainstormed their topic for over an hour. When I jumped in, they were beginning to focus on the issue of a shared nursing position and on the possibilities of budget savings as a result of green energy. So they have interviewed the nurse and one sub-group is costing out house-sized wind turbines and solar panels (they know about these from science this year). We had a lively intergroup discussion of how much 10 watts really is.
  8. The Bicycle Helmet Law group decided that they did not really object to the law, but wanted it to be more flexible, or at least revisited, and they feel strongly that bicycles need to be separated from ATV's with regard to helmet law (the statistics are mostly about ATV accidents). They too are proposing a campaign aimed at their state representatives.
  9. We may have a proposal for a non-violent demonstration.
And there are others. Not all groups have been able to make the break between personal involvement in topic and research/information-gathering. Some groups do not seem to have any sense of time. But by and large, the kids are involved in their topics - they are sorry that the projects will not actually happen.

I watched one student today as he did research and used the wiki. I was impressed by his facility with the laptop as a tool for learning. A boy who has trouble following oral or written directions was able to use multiple menus, icons, and keystrokes to complete every task I put in front of him.

Success (and therefore learning) are not based on the quality of the teaching or of the directions, but the quality of the task. And task quality measurement must include relevance, choice, and accessible information. Which is, of course, what the good books tell you about learning.

And it also applies to grammar. I have taught more grammar in the last week than I have in all of the other weeks combined. How? I used a NoteShare notebook to structure mini-lessons delivered entirely as quizzes - both online and on paper. The goal was complete the quizzes for a topic (eg: semi-colons) until a 90% grade is achieved. Students who are totally confused (generally with pronouns, which they assiduously avoid learning about for some reason) get me over their shoulder for an entire question set. Then they try one on their own. The final task is a difficult paper Punctuation post-test. Most students have earned about a 50% the first time. A wake-up call. I meet with each to talk about specific errors, then I give them the corrected paper and tell them to use it to edit the 2nd post-test correctly. And I put them in pairs.

What happens is discussion of grammar! It is cool to hear a pair argue about whether a dash or a colon is appropriate! It's encouraging to see one student teach another about parenthesis or semi-colons. I think I will use this approach for all of next year - I can put up a sign, "Grammar Begins Here," or maybe G(rammar) U(sage) M(echanics) Allowed.

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