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Are You Relevant?

Today’s students are connected. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, email, texting….. all of these social media avenues provide the opportunities for students to exchange ideas, opinions, set schedules, find information and stay informed about what is important to them. We older adults often think of these social media activities simply as teenagers talking back and forth about what they do every single minute of the day. I think we underestimate both the power of the combined media and the sophistication of our children.

Connection in today’s world means something very different than it did 15 years ago. Prior to the turn of the Connected People in Networkcentury, real connections with others occurred face-to-face. Email availability and video conferencing began to change all of that, but relationships remained defined as person-to-person. The term “Friends,” referred to a physical person with whom one interacted directly.  Although it seems like it happened overnight, connections with others began to rely more and more on technology and less on “looking the other guy in the eye.” As with all technology, this change had both good and bad results. The good part meant that people could see and talk with others around the world cheaply and instantaneously. Communication opened the world and commerce followed. The bad side of all of this meant that people could assume identities and hide behind the anonymity of long-range connections. It also seemed to isolate individuals in an ever-expanding world. There seemed to be less “human” contact as cyber connections grew and expanded. Societies are built on the interchange of human contact: the Greek Agora, the Roman Forum,  the Medieval Fair, the New England Town Meeting are all examples. People began to worry about the “isolation generation” and what that would mean for their future socially, and for our future as a society.

If you sit a “digital native” down long enough for a person-to-person conversation, you will find that our future is in pretty good hands. Students are “connected” electronically to information and to others around the world. That is part of my optimism. Young people are very interested in themselves and in their immediate friends and acquaintances. This has not changed over the last 200 years. However, these youngsters are also concerned globe-on-spoon_0about significant issues. Poverty, hunger, and injustice recur in their conversations. Social media has made this generation more aware of the magnitude and the impact of those subjects and their myriad manifestations earlier than any other. They see these issues, not only in the world, but also in their communities, among their classmates. Because they have connected at a variety of levels to these issues, the issues are not abstract, but, in their terms, “relevant.”  They connect to the problems and the people involved.

Engagement in education concerns connecting information and students in a manner that invites personal interest, motivates self-study, and extends the learning beyond the classroom. It seems obvious that if we are to teach our students, we should use approaches that engage them. Why not use what is “relevant” to them RelevanceImagealready? Regardless of discipline, effective teachers align their lessons with the issues, topics and ideas in which their students already are involved. How difficult can it be to link an economics lesson to poverty? How about a geography lesson? Why not make injustice the topic of an essay, or a research paper, or a short story? Would the future of the global economy make a good discussion topic for current affairs? One need not concentrate only on the “negative” side of such issues. Have students seek out those stories of people who are working effectively to end hunger, relieve poverty and reduce injustice. Those are positive stories and many of them involve children taking small steps with huge results. If you want to engage your students, focus your lessons on what is important to them. To reach your students, become “relevant.”

ARTIFACTS TEACH

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LET’S GET ENGAGED V: PARTNERS

“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”   – William Arthur Ward

Engaging students in learning means, first and foremost, that today’s classrooms must change. Our previous posts about engagement stress some of the pedagogical and technical changes that should occur in order to create the Number one teacherclassroom environment that fosters 21st century learning. It is now time to address the teacher in the room. As we begin this discussion, let’s make one thing perfectly clear: THE TEACHER  IS THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTOR IN ANY CLASSROOM, ANYWHERE. Technology cannot replace teachers. The latest trends cannot replace teachers. No person, place, gadget, program or pedagogy can have greater effect on a student than an effective teacher. In order to engage students effectively, the role of the teacher in today’s classrooms must evolve from purveyor of knowledge to partner in learning,

In the 21st century, teachers must be partners in learning. This does not mean that teachers are “buddies,” “pals,” or  “friends” with students. A partner is one who shares in the planning or execution of an event, couple dancingprogram or life situation. I like the image of a dance partner for teachers. Partners in a dance work in unison to the same rhythm and beat. One leads, but both are vital to the success of the outcome. It is a good image to keep in mind as we discuss the changing role of teachers.

Teachers as effective partners in learning must possess certain characteristics. First and foremost, they must be experts in their disciplines. Teachers must stay abreast of the newest information and research. Maintaining expertise allows teachers to monitor students’ progress and provide positive feedback. Further, a highly knowledgeable teacher can guide students along their own paths to understanding, whether that is at a surface level or at more interpretive or innovative depth . Secondly, teacher-partners establish pedagogy that prepares students how effective teacherto learn beyond the classroom. Open-ended questioning, emphasis on problem-solving, practice in collaboration and communication, and required decision-making are essential elements of a teacher-partner’s lessons. Lastly, teacher-partners maintain a positive classroom disciplinary climate in which respect for all participants, an expectation of challenging and rigorous activities, and the maintenance of a safe place to explore characterize every class session. Research has shown that students, regardless of grade level, are 1.5 times more likely to be more interested, motivated and responsive to instruction when a positive disciplinary environment is present. When these three characteristics are combined, the teacher casts aside the “sage on the stage” role, moves beyond the “guide on the side” stage, to become the teacher-partner,  an active and integral part of student-centered learning.

“All of this sounds very altruistic and impossible in my classroom today,” you say. It is not. There are programs that allow you to begin the shift to teacher-partner immediately. One of those is Artifacts Teach (www.artifactsteach.com) This easy-t0-use web tool contains no lesson plans. Instead, the site provides the tools to custom design each lesson. Artifacts naturally lend themselves to collaborative analysis, skilled communication, and evidence-based decision-making. Artifacts Teach can start you down the road to becoming an effective teacher-partner in less time than it takes to write your next standardized lesson plan, and to distribute the text-based worksheets.

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KIT CARSON’S PIPE

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I ran into a typical problem the other day. It occurred in a conversation with a curator. I had asked about his collection and had explained that I was interested in finding artifacts to post on the Artifacts Teach website (www.artifactsteach.com) so that K-12 teachers could better engage their students and improve both their retention and performance on standardized tests. His response Kit_Carson_photograph_restoredwas as follows, “I have just the object you need. It is Kit Carson’s pipe. They’ll love it.” I swallowed, took a deep breath and replied, “That is just the kind of artifact that we cannot use. It is not a ‘teachable object.’ The fact that Kit Carson possessed it makes it a novelty, not an object for the focus of a lesson.” The curator was upset. He did not understand the difference between an object that might be in a museum exhibition and a “teachable object” that can be used in a classroom to open the past to students in engaging and challenging ways.

So, what is a “teachable object”? There are several criteria, but the first, and most important, is that the object must contain the potential to raise important historical ideas (self-sufficiency, changing values, enduring traditions for example). Kit Carson’s pipe does not have that potential. At best, it shows us that Kit Carson was a smoker and that he preferred pipes. This is not earth-shattering stuff, nor does it contain much historical significance. Smoking was common in the 19th century. Pipes were preferred as neither cigarettes nor cigars were readily available. Kit Carson’s pipe doesn’t open any doors to the past for us. If not his pipe, then what object(s) that Kit Carson owned might meet our basic criterion?

Kit Carson was a fur trapper. One of his beaver traps would serve to open the door to the exploration of the beaver trade in the 183os and ’40s. In addition, like 40% of all fur trappers, he married Native American (Arapaho and Cheyenne) women, and one Hispanic woman. To Carson’s credit, he was only married to one woman at a time. Any gift given to Carson by any of his wives Beaver Trapopens the door to the multicultural nature of the American Southwest, a place where French, Spanish, Native Americans and Anglo Europeans mixed and mingled. Kit Carson’s military uniform allows students to explore the role of the US military in the settling of the West as well as the nature of “Indian Removal.” Unbeknownst to most teachers, nearly every Native American society experienced removal from their homeland to a remote and unfamiliar region. Carson led the Navajos to the Bosque Redondo as part of his role as Indian Agent, scout, and military leader.

The second criterion for a “teachable object” is that it should excite students’ interest in the topic at hand. It should draw them into the larger story. Certainly Carson’s uniform has that characteristic. “Kit Carson’s Coat,” currently part of the Colorado Historical carson-coatSociety’s collection at the Baca House in Trinidad, Colorado, also has the potential to grab students’ interest. It looks as if it were made by Native Americans, but it is machine stitched. It is decorated with Native American symbols, but was produced in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Finally, no one knows if Carson ever wore it. The traditional story is that he owned the coat and gave it to a friend, but there is no proof of ownership on either end of that transaction. So, what larger story does the “Kit Carson Coat” offer? The most valuable lesson today, I think, is that the American Southwest was a messy place where people of many cultures mixed and openly borrowed from each other. Kit Carson’s military uniform, Kit Carson’s “coat,” Kit Carson’s medicine pouch, Kit Carson’s beaver traps open the door to larger questions, and greater stories than the man himself. They are  teachable objects. Kit Carson’s Pipe is not.

To see more teachable objects, go to Artifacts Teach at http://www.artifactsteach.com.

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THE THREE “I’s” IN ARTIFACTS: PART THREE

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“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn”   – Benjamin Franklin

Since the Sixth Century BCE, people have been learning about their world through the physical examination of objects. Museums of artifacts began as the private collections of wealthy individuals and families. Rare artifacts or curious natural objects were often displayed in “wonder rooms” or “cabinets of curiosities.”  Access to these items was restricted to collectors’ friends and family, but wonder roomhands-on inspection and analysis of the artifacts was encouraged. In the United States, portrait artist Charles Wilson Peale opened his collection of curiosities to the public and established the first museum in Philadelphia just after the American Revolution. Personal involvement with his collection was the norm until later in the 19th century when the increased traffic in museums required that items be protected behind glass.

At the same time that Peale was popularizing the modern idea of a museum, Louis Agassiz, a renowned Swiss scientist, arrived in the United States.  A prominent  naturalist  when he arrived (he was and accomplished ichthyologist and also the first to describe and explain the theory of repeating Ice Ages), Dr. Agassiz established the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard and chose his graduate students through a rigorous system of analysis. He presented each prospective student with a preserved fish, instructed the student to “look at the fish,” and then he left the room, sometimes not to return until the next day. When he did return, he asked the student, “What have you learned?” Regardless of the answer he received, Agassiz always responded with, “Look at your fish again!” This process continued until Agassiz felt that the student had conducted an exhaustive analysis and understood that graduate school at Harvard would be hands-on, through analysis of objects and artifacts. Louis Agassiz established that artifacts are “Instructionally Sound”:  the third “I” in artifacts.

Employing artifacts in the classroom introduces depth, rigor and critical thinking. Asking the simple question, “How is this item important to us right here, right now?”, demands that students draw on their personal experience, their background knowledge and their critical thinking skills. The application of prior knowledge in the acquisition of new knowledge is a valid definition of  adding depth to classroom lessons. Using old knowledge in new ways allows students to explore alternatives, nuances and complexities. At the same time, using artifacts adds rigor to your lessons. If we define rigor as the continuous engagement in increasingly i_heart_rigorchallenging tasks with decreasing instructional support, then introducing artifacts introduces rigor automatically. Asking the question, ,”How is this important to us right here, right now?” and requiring students to determine the answer themselves…. just like Louis Agassiz required of his students.. provides the kind of rigor that promotes problem-solving and decision-making skills in your students. Finally, artifact study  demands critical thinking. Analysis, synthesis, decision-making, problem-solving, and communication of results are the critical thinking skills that we are all challenged to teach. As we have demonstrated in Parts I and II of this series, artifacts naturally provide that opportunity.

Teaching with artifacts is an instructionally sound pedagogy. It introduces depth, rigor and critical thinking into your classroom practice.  Artifacts are interdisciplinary in their approach, intellectually engaging in their application, and instructionally sound in their presentation. Regardless of where you teach, what you teach, or at what level you teach……

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ARTIFACTS TEACH

ARTIFACTS TEACH – COMPREHENSION AND CRITIQUE

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Characteristic Number Four of a “college and work-prepared” graduate is that he/she comprehends as well as critiques information. More specifically, the standards state that our graduates need to be “open-minded, but discerning, recorders and listeners who question assumptions and assess the veracity of claims and the soundness of the reasoning involved.” Let’s put this into other terms. Number 4First and foremost, our graduates need to understand information presented to them, regardless of position or perspective. Once that understanding has occurred, they need to possess the ability to challenge the basic ideas that underlie the premise, and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the argument presented. How in the world can an artifact – an object that is not a written document – contribute to this characteristic? Again, we need to return to the process that occurs after an instructor places the artifact in front of the class and asks, “What is this and why is it important?”

Once the questions are posed, students begin to gather evidence based on their observations of the object in front of them. In an open classroom – one that encourages participation and welcomes all ideas based on evidence – students observe the item, discuss with each other the evidence obtained, and determine a possible answer, either individually or in a group. The class then chooses the “best answer”, from those presented based on the strength of the argument derived from direct evidence. I observed a third grade instructor who placed a hoop and stick game in front of his students and asked our favorite two questions. His students immediately began to Question Markplace the objects within their frame of reference. “Does the hoop come from a barrel?” ” Is the stick used to stir?” “Is it a pointer?” “Did the hoop hold something together?” All of these were good questions and examples of the first stage of observation. Students  examined the items as individual pieces and attempted to resolve their problem with separate answers. Once their own ideas formed, they moved to the second step, and consulted each other for possible answers. Challenges to the assumptions of others came through the defense of their own ideas, or in the support of another’s suggestions that were similar to or the same as their own. The final step, the resolution of the questions, came in the form of the class determining the best answer from all those presented.

What happened in this class? In the first steps of solving the problem before them, students  almost naturally became “…discerning puzzlerecorders and listeners who question assumptions based on the soundness of the reasoning” of the arguments.” They gathered evidence, created a hypothesis based on that evidence and presented it to the group at large. The group, through individual voting, chose the “best” answer based on the strength of the evidence at hand.  I have personally observed students from first grade through AP high school classes go through this process. It is an amazing thing to watch, especially since it is repeated in essentially the same fashion, regardless of grade level.  What if we all used artifacts consistently in our classrooms? Might students have an easier time achieving this fourth requirement?

Do not be fooled here. Students go through the process, but they do not always come up with what we might think are correct or logical answers. Without some context within which to work, students can logically arrive at the dreaded, “the aliens did it,” as the answer. aliensThe process allows for the combination of what is known with what can be uncovered through observation and further consultation of sources. You, the teacher, can guide them by providing the context or by suggesting where that context can be found. Background knowledge from previous lessons, or reading in advance offer a place to begin. The artifact provides practice in the methods that teach how to question, evaluate, synthesize and come to a logical conclusion based on the evidence at hand.

Artifacts Teach – Comprehension and Critique

ARTIFACTS TEACH: INDEPENDENCE

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The ends of Common Core Standards (CCR) are to produce students that are “college and workplace ready.” The CCR list seven (7) characteristics that define a college and workplace ready student. The first of those characteristics is that, “They demonstrate independence.” When my daughter was two years old, she demonstrated independence about every third minute of every waking day.independentHowever, I am sure that this is not what the CCR had in mind when they wrote that statement. On closer inspection, the CCR define “an independent graduate” as one who, “can comprehend and evaluate complex texts across disciplines, construct effective arguments, independently discern key points, and ask relevant questions” In addition independent graduates are “self-directed learners who seek out and use resources to assist them…” (CCR, Intro. p. 7). Let’s look more closely at these elements.

The first description of student independence is the ability to comprehend and evaluate complex texts across a range of disciplines. We will get to “traditional texts” in just a minute. Let’s play with the idea of “text” a little bit. We do not often think of an object as text, yet, every object has a story. Objects do not appear out of thin air. Why, for instance, do Russian Olive trees – plants not indigenous to the Great Plains – grow prolifically across Nebraska, Kansas and Eastern Colorado? Who brought them to the Plains? Why? What about their make-up allows them to push out native willows and cottonwoods? The answers to these questions comprise the story of the Russian Olive tree in the United States. Every object has a story. Every artifact, a man-made, or man-altered object, has a story that tells us how it arrived at its present location, why it is of interest, who used it, how, and on and on. Objects are text. The text is complex. Here is an example.

I observed a class in which the instructor placed a flowering branch of a Russian Olive tree on a table in front of students and asked them, “What is this? Why is it important?” Almost immediately, the students became self-directed learners. They “read” their text to Russian Olive_2_USDA.jpgdetermine what it was: a branch… a tree branch… Some students turned their phones, IPads, or computers to look up images of tree branches to see if they could find a match. Others consulted a variety of sources, written texts, teachers, and each other in their attempts to “unpack” the text in front of them. In this open classroom, once some students arrived at “Russian Olive tree branch,” they helped others, either by telling them directly or showing them the process to find the answers. Once the identification was made, then the story began to  unfold.

Students consulted a variety of sources to come up with the story of the this tree branch. Some accessed traditional “texts.” History books provided some of the answers. Geography texts offered others. Horticulture, environmental and science texts provided technical Russian olive treesanswers.On-line search engines provided websites that contained both general and specific information. When the complete answer was assembled, students communicated the full story: -immigrants, specifically Germans-from-Russia, brought Russian Olive cuttings with them when they came to America to grow sugar beets for a burgeoning industry at the turn of the 20th century. The Russian Olive trees flourish on the Great Plains today because the environment is much like that of the great Russian steppes – little rainfall, cold, harsh winters, and strong winds year ’round.

Let’s look at what this little branch of a Russian Olive accomplished:

  1. It forced students to look closely at the text before them in order to discern its identity.
  2. It required close reading of additional, interdisciplinary texts to come to a conclusion about its importance.
  3. Students had to ask relevant questions in order to arrive at conclusions.
  4. They built on each other’s ideas, working together, articulating their case based on their particular research.
  5. They became self-directed learners in order to answer the question and solve the problem before them.
  6. They articulated an evidence-based argument to prove their case (tell the story)

This exercise required interdisciplinary approaches in order to solve the problem. History, geography, horticulture, environmental studies, English and Language Arts and mathematics were all necessary to tell the story of the Russian Olive branch. Students searched on their own and in groups. They shared information. Leaders emerged who helped others. Discussion of important points to include in the story occurred. This little branch had students practicing the CCR. Such is the power of artifacts. …………Artifacts teach – the common core.

“SKYLANDERS” AND THE LEARNING PROCESS

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So, my grandson was having his weekly “sleepover at Grandma’s house” the other day and he brought along the “Skylanders” video game he received as a Christmas gift. It is a fairly complex game with many different characters, skill levels, and options that allow the players to improve their characters’ abilities. As he was playing, we noticed that he had chosen one specific level. It was one that we had seen him play before. When we asked, “Why are you playing here?”, his response was, “I like this one. I have played all the levels already. Now I choose the ones that are fun and I play them.” He is 6 1/2 years old. He had never played this game before the morning of December 25, 2012. That was 60 days ago.Skylanders He has never read an instruction manual. He has conducted no search on the Internet to find hints about how to overcome obstacles. He did not ask his parents or his grandparents for help (he knew better than to ask old people about new things). Yet, he has mastered the game… learned what to do and how to do it proficiently… in just 60 days. It started me thinking about education and process. How did he learn so quickly? How did he become so proficient in such a short time?

My first realization was that he was completely engaged in playing the game. The characters, the settings, the colors, the action all focused his full attention on what he was doing. This is amazing. His First Grade teacher comments regularly on his lack of focus and attention, and, yet, while playing the game, you have to stand in front of the screen to break his focus and get him to come to dinner!

My next “aha” was that he gathered information as he worked through the process. He attempted methods to overcome challenges and used them until they no longer worked. He then asked “What might work here?” and experimented with different answers until he found the method that allowed him to defeat the challenge. Then, he moved on.  He didn’t stop playing. He didn’t stop and ask an adult to tell him what to do. He kept experimenting until he discovered the solution to his problem on his own! He learned how to succeed by asking questions (experimenting) over and over.

Lastly, I realized that he was not afraid to fail. His success was built upon repeated failures. He learned by making mistakes. The more mistakes he made, the more proficient he became. playingvideosThe more proficient he became, the greater was his success. His greatest rewards came from getting the wrong answers.

Engagement – Self-directed Inquiry – Experimentation – Failure – that was the educational process that led to proficiency in 60 days. Is that your approach? I think we are on to something here. Maybe we need to find ways to use what I am now calling the “Skylanders System” to achieve proficiency across the board, not just in video games.

When discussing this with my colleague, Matt, he expressed similar findings with his son and daughter.  In fact, when he needed to learn some complicated video editing software for his fishing adventures, he gave the program to his daughter for a week or so…she learned it, and was able to teach Matt the basics in no time flat. She also began doing her own editing with friends and was soon winning weekly contests on a website for her creative videos cut to music.  I’m sure this story is familiar to many.

How can we as teachers learn from our students? How can we “re-think” our approach to teaching so we can be truly effective for 21st century learners? Can we deliver a better Math,Science, Social Studies, or English lesson using this system? What would it look like in the classroom?  Maybe, just maybe, we’re on to something here. Stay tuned, stay connected,…..!