Tuesday, February 12, 2008

How to Drive a Herd of Cats Across the Open Prarie

I have been teaching technology to a variety of grades. I provide their prep period and teach their students computer classes. Most tell me that they are content with what curriculum I cover, and I think they say this to show they trust me and respect my autonomy. I really like it when teachers tell me what's going on in their class, and ask me to make some connections to their curriculum. After all, that's what computers are really for.

I don't have a Ministry of Education mandated curriculum. This is interesting, as I can then say "this is what I think students need to be successful computer users." But this also means I don't have as much direction as in my other courses. Not a problem. I can do this. But how do I keep them moving forward.

Computer Ed. is a non-graded course. I give feedback constantly, set criteria, have discussions and share-outs from students about their work. Students show their work to others, and we have had some successful collaboration. I am now teaching them the idea that they don't look to me first for help. There are 27 teachers in the room. Go to a fellow student first, because there is a longer wait to talk to me. I am pleased with the progress they are making and the critical thinking they exhibit. But how do I keep them moving forward?

It's hard to set deadlines when there is a great deal of difference when it comes to output using a computer. Some are better on the keyboard. Some are better at thinking creatively with a computer in front of them as opposed to pencil and paper. Some students don't work that fast when they are having fun exploring. Some students don't work that hard because it is not in their nature, and that is the truth. I don't want to keep accepting half finished work from students for a variety of reasons. So how do I keep them moving forward?

Self-paced work. I don't have the "stick" of report card grades behind me. Therefore I use a lot of "carrots." I try to create really interesting and creative lessons. Students often are interested in the lessons from the outset. I set loose timelines, and let them know that generally we don't spend more than 2-4 weeks on a project, (2-4 lessons of 45 minutes in length). Around the 3rd week when some are showing signs of completion, I dangle the next carrot. Showmanship and salesmanship. You need to show lessons that have some pretty interesting bells and whistles, and say that they can move on to these lessons when you are done the last one to a satisfactory degree.

We are currently completing an assignment where the intermediate students have completed surveys on topics they find interesting (i.e. what's the most popular game console? Which is the most entertaining female pop singer? Which is the most interesting sport?) Then, they are entering the data into a spreadsheet, they turn their data into a graph to show what they have found in a "mathematical picture" designed to convince other people what they have found. Finally, the kids craft a letter to a company that would be interested in knowing this info (i.e. the President of Best Buy, Nike), embeds their graph into the letter, writes some conclusions about their data, and hits them up for a job to boot! This was great to start, but some of the kids have started to lose speed as the typing is proving to be a little arduous. Today I showed them that when they finished they can use a sound editor, Audacity, to create an audio story with some royalty-free sound effects I have downloaded from the Internet. Cool sound effects like a squeaking door, a crowd cheering, car noises, and an evil laugh.

One problem. Its been a long time since I requested that Audacity be added to our lab computers. I don't have the ability to add programs to our lab, as that is the responsibility of a different department. The district tech people are really overworked, and I feel more than a bit understaffed. I also don't know how to create a common folder for students to copy their sound effects from. I don't even know if I have administrative authority to create such a folder on the server. So now what?

Keep moving forward. Leap and the net shall appear. This is a good project, and there is some way to work around the current situation, and complete the project. The kids want to do it and so do I. I'll just keep telling myself, keep moving forward.


Brian said...

Hi James - great article - I may quote some in my upcoming presentation. Note on Audacity... I have asked the team to package it and push it to all computers that don't currently have it. Look for a communication on this soon.


James Gill said...

Thank you Brian for all your hard work in the district! You and your team enable me to think about my teaching, while you guys look after the "nuts an bolts."