Sunday, 17 March 2013

Designing a Complete Curriculum

The crowd hushed while the orchestra pit came to life this past Thursday at Radio City Music Hall.  In no time at all, actors and dancers hit the stage to perform their vignettes.  It seemed like another typical day in the life of this iconic theatre, but this time the song and dance wasn't the most recent interpretation of an old musical.  Instead it was the launch of Samsung's new answer to the iPhone, the Galaxy 4S.

It's odd that a company would go to such lengths to announce a product to the world, but why shouldn't it?  After all, it has designed something amazing worth celebrating.  Tired of swiping your smartphone with your finger?  Well now you can use your eye.

You're probably wondering how this is relevant to teaching RLA.  Here's the thing. We're so busy teaching and assessing academic, discipline-based standards, we're forgetting one key component that enables the people at Samsung or any other innovative company to work their magic.  Design.  

There are lots of reasons why we should add design standards to our curriculum and teach to them more directly in our classes.  Here are just a few:

    "Design" and "Create" are at Level Four on the DOK
  • There's a lot more to design than meets the eye.  Steve Jobs, one of the most famous designers of all time, said, "Design is a not just what it looks like and feels like.  Design is how it works." His definition isn't just limited to the IKEA desk or iPhone.  It applies to meaning and understanding as well.  When we teach design and offer our students to use it when expressing their ideas, their learning is much deeper as a result.
  • To design is to create.  When we create, we think across disciplines and take all of the learning into consideration before we put paint to canvas.
  • By engaging in design, we practice and enhance other essential skills.  According to Frank Nuovo, former Vice President and Chief of Design at Nokia, design is about solving problems and creating solutions.  Not only that, good designers don't work in isolation.  Relying on sound interpersonal skills, designers collaborate with others which leads them to even better ideas.  
Quiz:  Match the Font
  • Design is more crucial now than ever before.  As Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, puts it, there has been a "democratization of design." What was once reserved only for the financial elite or the highly skilled, design tools are now readily used by a larger population.  Just take a look at laptops, digital SLRs, smartphones, and the growing list of software and applications that run them.  Still not convinced?  Try out the quiz that Pink put out to his readers.  He claims that twenty-five years ago only the experts would've been right.  Now, most of us are (scroll down for the answers). As a result, the marketplace is increasingly more competitive, and design elements have become a game changer.
  • Design elements enable us to communicate in ways that go well beyond words alone.  Sure, as RLA teachers, we focus on words as our medium, but in today's world, we understand the power of images.  But there are additional elements in design tools that enhance communication such as color, fonts, music, and layout.   

Simply put, if we choose not to include design in our teaching, we're missing the boat.  And when we miss the boat, our students are stranded as well.  With that in mind, here are some possibilities for our classrooms:

  • Teach a design mini-lesson:  Take a design element and see how it might fit as a teaching point for a mini-lesson.  For example, as a reading response students can use color and shapes instead of words to capture the mood of a chapter.  They may also sketch objects from the text to represent symbols. 
  • Evaluate real world design samples:  Have students become design critics when viewing a youtube clip, a trailer, a visual ad, Blog themes,  etc.  Students can explain what works and what doesn't work in terms of design elements.
  • Use design-based tools with fixed templates:  Many tools offer preset templates that include effective design elements such as iMovie trailers, Prezis, Blogs, Pic Collage, Glogster, Keynote, even Microsoft Word and Powerpoint.  When students select templates have them explain their choices based on how the design elements enhance the meaning they are trying to convey.
  • Teach toward design-based extension projects:  When students complete a Literature Circle book, extend their learning with projects that require purposefully-chosen design elements.  It could be a bumper sticker, a commemorative stamp, a monument, a theme quilt patch, you name (click here for a list of great ones).  Again have students explain their choices in terms of design as well as literary analysis.

Before you get started though, I have to warn you.  Many of our students have lost their innate willingness to design.  Gordon MacKenzie, a former creative director at Hallmark Cards, tells of his countless school visits where he asks students, "How many artists are there in the room?"  The responses are nearly always the same.  The kindergartners all raise their hands while by sixth grade, not a single student raises his hand.  

Here's why.  To design means to risk, and along with risk comes failure.  Many students are more concerned with "getting it right" than "trying it out."  It's not entirely their fault.  That's the way we've taught them. 

So why don't we model it by taking a risk and trying out some of these design ideas in our classrooms?  Who knows, we may be surprised with what we and our students create.  Whatever it'll be, it'll certainly be cause for celebration.  In the meantime, I'll check for availability at Radio City Music Hall.

Answers to the quiz:  1. b, 2. c, 3. a

Sunday, 10 March 2013

Checking the Pulse--A Vital Practice

You know those doctor shows that take place in a hospital's emergency room with doors bursting open and paramedics shouting out vital signs? I'm always amazed at how quickly they give the information and how seamlessly doctors take it all in before even reaching the operating table.  Nothing is overlooked, the patient's weight, ethnic background, blood pressure, or even how he was found.  With all of that information in hand, the doctor then makes the best decision she can to help that patient.

Teaching is no different.  Before we act, we need to consider our students' vitals in terms of reading and writing.  We need to understand where they've come from, what their strengths are and what they struggle with.  
Sure, our situation may not be as dire as in an emergency room, but it still begs the question, "What are we doing to check the pulse of our readers and writers?"

Like emergency room doctors, we need efficient techniques to find out this vital information.  Here are some possibilities that I've witnessed in our RLA classrooms.

  • On Demands:  At the beginning of a reading or writing unit, students produce a sample writing piece or demonstrate reading skills before any lessons are taught.  The teacher can then confirm and/or adjust a logical set of mini-lessons based on the results.
  • Partner Talk:  By talking with their reading or writing partner, students explain their prior knowledge for a given lesson or try out a new technique during a read-aloud.  The teacher, circulating around and listening in, gauges where students are and what they are thinking.
  • Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down:   With this less verbal technique, students answer a question with a thumb up or a thumb down (i.e. yes or no), and the teacher can adjust her plan based on the results.
  • Fist of Five:  Students answer a question by voting with their fingers (i.e. five fingers is the most and one finger is the least).  This option allows students to process the question deeper by having to rank their feelings or experience across a range.
  • End of the Lesson Share:  To wrap up a mini-lesson, the teacher can call on a student or two to share the work they have done. Hopefully it will show progress towards the lesson's teaching point.  If not, the teacher knows she'll have to readjust her plan. 
    Google Form Results
  • Exit Tickets:  At the end of a lesson or small group conference, students write down their take-aways or lingering questions about the teaching point.  The teacher can then sift through them and make groups for follow up teaching.
  • Google Forms:  Students answer a Google Form survey.  Their answers are generated in a spreadsheet that is easy to read and rearrange.

Of course by implementing these and other vital techniques, we can make better informed decisions for our next teaching moves, but there are additional benefits as well.  By using these strategies, we are engaging our students more by accessing prior learning, working as readers and writers in real time, and synthesizing and reflecting on meaningful learning.

Not only that, as teachers we can focus on what our students are taking away from our lessons instead of what we're doing in the classroom.  I don't know about you, but when I share how lessons went with my colleagues or ask them about theirs, I often just talk about the moves I made as a teacher.  Many times, I'm assuming that my students learned better as a result of them.  With these techniques though, I can ground my assumptions in actual tell-tale signs that my teaching was effective.

So the next time you're heading into your classroom, be sure you've got a tool or two ready to check your students' vitals. In the meantime, if you have another great strategy for checking the pulse on your students, leave a comment.

Images from:

Sunday, 3 March 2013

The Art of a Duct Tape Tutorial

When Isabelle proclaimed that her 10th birthday party was going to be a duct tape party, I thought, What in the world? The last time I used duct tape was to put together cardboard boxes.  And with images of 4th grade girls taping together box after box in my head, I sat there shaking my head until Isabelle told me about all of the things you can make like wallets, belts, purses, and more just by using duct tape.

With time ticking away, and the party looming,  I had to go right to the experts to learn how to make duct tape essentials for Isabelle's party.   I went to YouTube.  My teacher was Ducttapecreations808, a girl whom I've never met nor ever will.  I don't even know her real name.  But with nearly 1 million hits and over 5,000 subscribers for her 78 videos, Ducttapecreations808 clearly knows what she's doing.  

Pressing play and pause over and over, I picked up each sticky step and tricky move in making a duct tape purse.  I replayed parts that I didn't understand, and in no time at all, I finished my first creation.  So that's how it went.  Purse after purse, I relied on Ducttapecreations808's reliable guidance.  My eventual success was a direct result of the upclose video, personal instruction, and ability to work at my own pace.

Video tutorials are nothing new for learning. They've been around for years, and they're my go to genre when trying to figure something out from how to use a Google function to choosing the right kind of kitchen knife.  Video tutorials have also made an impact on our profession as the idea of the flipped classroom has transformed some classes, albeit with mixed results.

This whole experience got me thinking.  Why don't we add the video tutorial to our list of 21st century genres to teach?  One obvious possibility is to have students choose something they're good at or something they love and have them make a tutorial on it.  This would replace the old "How to" presentation and raise it to a new level as students apply effective tutorial techniques (camera angles, introductions, conclusions, etc.) to make it stand out.

This idea is okay, but I think there's something even better.  At the end of a unit, students could pick their one technique "take away" to focus on in a tutorial.  They could show a before and after of their work and explain practical steps on how to incorporate the technique into the viewer's craft.   Not only would this reinforce their learning, they would also be sharing it out in a much more meaningful way than answering a question on a reflection sheet that only their teacher or parents end up reading.  Eventually, with a running list of tutorials, we can use them with students who are still struggling with concepts and techniques.  

Maybe I'm an idealist, but who knows, teaching students how to make video tutorials could lead them to having their own YouTube channels with loads of reading and writing tutorials and hundreds of subscribers just like Ducttapecreations808.