19 June 2013

The Relevance of Reading Skills

Examination period has barely ended and I wonder, what makes one student do better than another? Among the varied reasons and contexts, one characteristic that often surfaces,  is the receptiveness to reading -  the willingness to read and understand written texts. 

Often when students ask me how I learnt foreign languages, I confess that I only really learnt the language once I began reading in the language. And yes, initially, not always a painless experience, having to pull out the dictionary and trying to figure out the exact meaning of a word. However, I did love reading in my own L1 and as I learnt how not to fear the foreign words on the printed page, I transfered my reading skills into the target language. 

How has this changed for students today? The seemingly endless options both teachers and learners have today when focusing on a particular skill to develop. 

I've already  mentioned Parlor  as an interesting summer exploration reading tool, and today I'd like to point out Newsela

Newsela builds itself around non-fiction themes which may be tailored for different levels of readers, ranging from challenging to easy. Topics are adapted from current events around the world, from political and social uprises, to law, money  and articles related to youth around the world. 

After a teacher signs up, they can select the level for each class, (and give students the class code which is generated so they can sign up) keep track of their reading and their understanding of the text, with the aid of 4 main questions: 

1 - What does the text say? Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. 

2 - Central idea? Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyse their development, summarize the key supporting details and ideas. 

3 - People, Events & Ideas? Analyse how and why individuals, events or ideas develop and interact over the course of the text.

4 - Word Meaning & Choice? Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings and analyse how specific word choices shape meaning and tone. 

As always, teachers do need to check how appropriate an article may be for a certain class, both in terms of interest and alignment to curriculum, as well as how culturally appropriate a text may be. 

Another rich reading source is Discovery News. 

With a wealth of texts and videos, Discovery News  makes learning about the world around us a lot more interesting and current. 

Resources also include games such as Word Bubble 
a simple way to keep students who complete tasks before the others, still focused on learning/practising a challenging vocabulary task. 

No matter how much emphasis is given to Digital Skills, one cannot forget the basics: learning requires reading and understanding. Or in other words, reading skills are essential today as they were yesterday. 

Without knowing how to read, how to reflect and critically assess texts, students will not be able to perform successfully in other fields of study, inclusively, by using the different digital literacies which are demanded today.  When searching for information, for instance, students need to know how to process the information they are searching for; googling is simple, reading between the lines  to locate the exact information one needs, is more demanding. 

As Annie Murphy Paul points out in regard to thinking in a digital world,

"First, acquire a base of fact knowledge in any domain in which you want to perform well. This base supplies the essential foundation for building skills, and it can’t be outsourced to a search engine.
Second: Take advantage of computers’ invariant memory, but also the brain’selaborative memory. Computers are great when you want to store information that shouldn’t change—say, the date and time of that appointment next week. A computer (unlike your brain, or mine) won’t misremember the time of the appointment as 3 PM instead of 2 PM. But brains are the superior choice when you want information to change, in interesting and useful ways: to connect up with other facts and ideas, to acquire successive layers of meaning, to steep for a while in your accumulated knowledge and experience and so produce a richer mental brew."
This can only be achieved by successful reading skills. 

How do you encourage reading?


Annie Murphy Paul, 2013, Rules for Thinking in a Digital World

18 June 2013

Apps are Not the Only Fruit

Make no mistake - I love my iPads. And I love exploring new apps, considering their range of classroom practices  and personal possibilities. However, they are not the only tools which I find of interest to use in classrooms. There continues to be a wealth of online tools and platforms to explore for learning. 

Zeen, for example, is a fun and quick way to share information in byte sizes. From images to text to videos, it's simple to upload content and share with others. With Zeen, you can easily upload images from Google or connect with Instagram, Facebook, Flickr or Picasa, creating a curation magazine. 

Some may argue that there is little learning in creating and sharing visual content - to which my reply is: in an age of selfies and memes, images have indeed become a social currency.  Integrating them into the learning process is just another aspect of digital literacies. 

Zeen can be used for group projects which are then easily shared; for example, learners can create a magazine which reflects what they have learnt throughout a semester and what they enjoyed the most. 

memofon  is another online tool for mind-mapping and great to use in the classroom. In today's world of multi-tasking and challenges to focus closely, mind-maps are one way to have students focus more closely on a task, especially reading. 

There is a wealth of options to publish content online. PRESSBOOKS is yet one more, with a wider scope of publishing options in 4 simple steps.  

Learning is not a one-size fits all process. Nor are digital tools. 

Introducing digital tools into classrooms does not need to be a complex experience, but one which will indeed enhance the learning process by captivating the  learners' attention. Digital tools provide options which may be tailored to students' needs and interests, giving them a space to interpret information, thus making it meaningful to them.  

Which digital tools will you be considering over summer?

11 June 2013

Moving Towards Ownership

In my world, dates begin to ripen while students spend their last evenings revising for final exams. As many other colleagues who are ending their academic year, I too look forward to long summer days where the quiet of routine may open other worlds of knowing for me. 

Knowing. Learning. Neither ends at the school gate nor at the end of an academic year. Many educators who I know, will be using their summer breaks to study and do professional development, attend conferences, reflect on the past school year and prepare for the end of August. 

The most successful educators I know, are those who take ownership of their learning. If on the one hand, a digital learning environment paves the way for students to take ownership of their personal learning process, educators too need to take that step and make professional development part of their own lives. This is not to say that teachers should not take time out over summer; not at all! Change of scenery, change of pace and activities all help to boost creativity and re-charge the much needed energies for daily life.  
Learning autonomy have been on my mind constantly, with the need for learner responsibility and initiative - here, "learner" including teachers as well.

It is by taking responsibility for learning that teachers begin taking ownership. It is with the richness of that experience that they then can more transparently guide students towards their own ownership of learning, towards building their own learning ecology.  

It is easily understandable that students who were born with the digital at their finger tips will not become excited with the mere introduction of digital tech in the classroom. Checking Facebook or Instagram updates will always be far more appealing. However, modelling how one can create a positive digital learning ecology is increasingly more relevant as more and more institutions take up digital tech in classrooms. 

The image above has missing pieces. Just as learning does, for learning is not linear. Nor is it disconnected from others. In this sense, learning needs connection and dialogue with others. Learning contexts may differ, local culture will definitely differ, yet educators share more in common than they may initially think. Youth today is far more connected - why won't educators take step forward as well? 

And increasingly, I wonder - it is not only individuals who are connected, but resources as well (example: reading blogs and curated topics). 

With these thoughts in mind, I'd like to mention Parlor as a site to explore over summer. 

So what is Parlor?

"Parlor is a browser add-on that sits in your browser and measures reading activity on a limited set of sites defined in a Class Reading List. Parlor also allows you to flag (i.e. highlight), tag and share excerpts from anywhere on the web to a Class Feed where you can also see a dashboard of your personal reading activity as compared to the class as a whole. The Feed is also where you can view Topic, Sentiment and Theme Clouds that show the topics students are reading about (e.g. State of the Union, Transit in New Delhi, Baseball Trades) what they think of them (e.g. skeptical, confused, in awe) and the course concepts they're relating to, which you define."

Asking students to reflect on readings at both an emotional and cognitive level, is one way of providing learners with that much needed learning ownership. 

By applying for a pilot run, you can see whether Parlor would be suitable for your teaching context. 

Ownership in learning does not happen all of a sudden nor because it was an order from above. Ownership comes from within - no matter where one finds him/herself. 

How will you be moving towards learning ownership?

8 June 2013

Learning Boundaries, Learning Risks

Six months into the year 2013 and I should be rejoicing with positive progression in my teaching. 

The month of June, and I should be declaring all my successes as an educator. 

As I stumble across the writings of others, I rejoice in their achievements and successes in their classrooms. These blog entries remind me that successful classrooms are indeed possible. I have experienced them as well. 

Which brings me to my past 6 months, for which I will neither highlight successes nor achievements. Teaching does not imply learning. Learning, does not  necessarily need teaching. Ideally, I would wish they were inherently linked, but reality is different. A lot of learning takes place outside the classroom, without teaching. And there are always stories of  success and failures over a period of six months.  Neither will leave an infinitive mark on the world. Nevertheless  I can not help but reflect on the  inherent tensions in educational practices and how they may influence stories of success and failure. 

Over the past six months I have taught F2F in two very different contexts - my regular HigherEd context and as an EdTech voluntary trainer in a developing country. Despite the many differences in each context, two facts grimly remain on my mind:

1 - digital devices, whether desktops, laptops or iPads will not guarantee learning nor ensure motivation;

2 - there needs to be learner responsibility in the learning process. 

Increasingly teachers come under fire for using or not using digital tech. Despite already being the year 2013, discourse on "21st Century Learning" still is debated and promoted. Time to move on. Time to understand that bringing digital devices into classrooms is not the magic cure to all the incoherences  and tensions in education. Time to understand that yes, digital tools need to be introduced in context and have as much underlying pedagogical purposes in the classroom,  as the bits of paper which were used before. 

Except now we have a difference: whereas in the past, those strips and bits of paper were strewn all over the floor and the teacher would painfully have to collect them, spend endless time organising them back into envelopes and filing them, today, digital tools allow learners to display their work to all, without the teacher-centredness of distributing and collecting bits of paper. In such a context, the thinking and development of ideas and projects goes deeper - not merely a quick consumption of a game which will lie forgotten on the classroom floor. 

The degree of learning is deeper as the degree of risk is higher.

This applies to both teachers and students.  Learning cannot be regarded as sitting back and waiting for the edutertainment to begin. Yes, there is uncertainty in learning, for learning is a messy process, a chaotic experience. However, for learning to take place, whether with teaching or without, one needs to take those steps in uncertainty. Responsibility is critical, otherwise, one remains in the edutertainment zone, mindless and inconsequential. 

This is not to say that engaging and fun activities should not be introduced the teacher - by no means. Creative use of images, stories, mini presentations, mini research projects and so many other activities all have a place in classrooms (many mentioned in this blog). Yet learning takes practice, risk taking is inherent in learning and learner responsibility needs to be part of the process. 

In the popplet above, I include a visual on Social and Emotional Learning, which can be understood as:

  • Self-awareness: The ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions and thoughts and their influence on behavior. This includes accurately assessing one’s strengths and limitations and possessing a well-grounded sense of confidence and optimism.
  • Self-management: The ability to regulate one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations. This includes managing stress, controlling impulses, motivating oneself, and setting and working toward achieving personal and academic goals.
  • Social awareness: The ability to take the perspective of and empathize with others from diverse backgrounds and cultures, to understand social and ethical norms for behavior, and to recognize family, school, and community resources and supports.
  • Relationship skills: The ability to establish and maintain healthy and rewarding relationships with diverse individuals and groups. This includes communicating clearly, listening actively, cooperating, resisting inappropriate social pressure, negotiating conflict constructively, and seeking and offering help when needed.
  • Responsible decision-making: The ability to make constructive and respectful choices about personal behavior and social interactions based on consideration of ethical standards, safety concerns, social norms, the realistic evaluation of consequences of various actions, and the well-being of self and others.
There will always be different learning styles among a group of learners. Educators themselves may demonstrate and model in different ways, hoping to meet the varied learning styles. None of this will matter much without learner training in SEL. 

As my semester finally draws closer to its end, I reflect on  my own risks, my own uncertainties  and learning process as an educator. 

One thing remains certain in my mind: the need to constantly connect reflection and practice,  connecting practice to reflection. 

And the need to connect learners - whether they be teachers or students - to how they best can learn for themselves.  Whether by whetting their curiosity or opening up different corridors of learning experiences, accepting that risk and uncertainty is part of learning should be calmly accepted. 

How do you view uncertainty in learning?