Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Medium is the Message: (5) Other Print Curriculum Materials

In this post I want to consider the constraints and affordances of other print materials that are not textbooks. When I say “other” I mean other types of curriculums in print form. To make this clearer, I’m going to change formats for this post. Instead of listing constraints and affordances separately, I’m going to give a brief overview of several print curriculums I’ve used and discuss their constraints and affordances in context.

Investigations in Number, Data, and Space

The Investigations curriculum was originally developed by TERC  and is now a Scott Foresman product.

I know this curriculum has a lot of controversy surrounding it. Whether you love it or hate it, we can still discuss the constraints and affordances with regards to the ways the materials are designed. So let’s get to it.

What makes this curriculum different from a traditional textbook is that almost all of the print pieces are for the teacher only. There is a textbook that comes with the curriculum, but it is more of a reference book. It does not contain any problem sets.

Instead of a student textbook, the core component of this curriculum is a series of teacher guides. Each guide represents a unit of content and contains all of the lesson plans for that unit. And when I say lesson plan, that’s exactly what I mean. While traditional print textbook “lessons” provide a few worked out problems followed by problem sets, a lesson in this curriculum, called a session, is 60-minutes of discussion, exploratory activity, and/or games that are completely planned out for the teacher.

A typical session goes on for several pages describing how to run the session. The description includes pictures of what you might write on the board, specific questions you should ask your students at various points, and sample answers from students. In the margins you will often find teaching notes designed to help the teacher be more successful while conducting the lesson or to point out an important math concept the teacher might not have considered. This is unlike a print textbook “lesson” where the burden is on the teacher to decide how best to present the concepts.

There is a constraint and affordance here. On one hand, you are given very detailed instructions for every single lesson. There is very little guess work about what you should be doing minute to minute. In addition, there is clearly a pedagogical flow from lesson to lesson. Where print textbooks tend to teach a concept per lesson, the Investigations curriculum is more concerned with short sequences of sessions within each unit. These sequences are appropriately named investigations. The collection of sessions within each investigation work together to build one or two important ideas.

Often the pedagogical flow has specific connections to other units in the curriculum. What this means, on the constraint side of things, is that you do not have a ton of flexibility. If you skip a lesson or make drastic modifications to lessons, it may very well cause you problems down the road. I’ve often heard teachers say they thought an activity was pointless until they got to a unit later in the year and realized how it was setting the stage for something really important.

Another constraint related to this type of curriculum material is that the teacher does not have much say about how to teach particular concepts. If you like teaching with two-color counters, and the investigation only uses spinners, then you’re out of luck. This actually has been the crux of a lot of the controversy surrounding the Investigations curriculum. The writers of the first edition of this curriculum avoided standard algorithms like the plague and there was no textbook at all. This didn’t jive with parents and teachers who felt these are important skills to teach. Regardless of your view on this point, the fact of the matter is that the curriculum was designed in such a way that it took a stand and if you use the curriculum, you are forced into its particular pedagogy.

I do appreciate that in the second edition a textbook was added. Now when students are learning about arrays and other multiplication strategies, they have a reference that they can use themselves and even share with their parents so their parents will understand what the student is learning in class. I think a lot of discomfort from parents was from lack of information. Students came home with homework sheets in the first edition, but the parents had no idea what the students had been learning about in school so it made it difficult for parents to help their children. Frustrated parents are generally not happy, supportive parents.

Units of Study for Teaching Writing

Source: Lucy Calkins

This is another curriculum that is basically a series of teacher guides.

Each guide is a unit of study related to writing. In one unit students might learn about writing personal narratives and in another unit they tackle nonfiction writing. Similar to the Investigations curriculum, each lesson is multiple pages with specific instructions for the teacher about what to do with the students.

The author, Lucy Calkins, is very clear that it is not a prescribed script. What she is actually providing teachers is her script and you are encouraged to adapt the script to your personality and class. The lesson plans are essentially modeling writing lessons for a teacher so he/she can learn how to teach writing instruction in the way Lucy Calkins does.

You might say the series is just as much professional development as it is curriculum. Lucy has written numerous notes in the margin of the lesson plans to give you insights into why she said what she said or why she did what she did at particular points in the lesson. The purpose of these in-line notes is to help teach the teacher more about Lucy’s methods of teaching writing.

In terms of an affordance, I think this is wonderful. You basically have books containing someone else’s lesson plans along with their notes to help you understand their plans even better. You have to decide if her methods are methods you want to mimic of course, but if they are, you are given a great window into the mind of another teacher.

Now, there is a constraint here as well. This constraint applies to the Investigations curriculum also, but I saved it for now. The teacher has to do a LOT of reading in order to familiarize themselves with these materials. Each lesson plan goes on for pages. I’ll be honest, there were days that I did not have time to prepare well enough. On those days, I basically had to read the book as I was teaching the lesson to the students.

Let me tell you, this is not how the curriculum was designed to be used. You really should read the lesson in advance, reflect on it, and jot down your own plan for how the lesson will go in your room with your students. I want to believe that every teacher will take the time to do this, but I’m evidence that it doesn’t happen all the time.

One of my teammates said it was just too much reading for her. According to her, a lesson plan shouldn’t be more than two pages. If it’s longer than that, she wasn’t going to use it. She also didn’t believe that she should have to spend a lot of time prepping before each lesson. As a teacher with 8 years of experience, she felt that she should be able to skim a 1-2 page lesson plan, get a sense of what to do, and then teach the lesson.

FOSS (Full Option Science System)

Source: FOSSweb

This is a science curriculum that is known for its large trunks of materials. Each unit contains detailed lessons plans (notice a pattern?) as well as 1-2 trunks of materials that you will use with your students to do hands-on science activities.

I feel like I’m covering a lot of the same ground here, but I wanted to share this curriculum because I feel it is the opposite of a science textbook. Where a science textbook gives the impression that science is all about reading and learning information, a curriculum like FOSS gives the impression that learning science is about experimenting and doing science.

This is a really important point! This is a prime example that the medium is the message. Imagine a curriculum whose primary component is text – chapter upon chapter of science information. Imagine the type of activity and learning this lends itself to in the classroom. Now imagine a curriculum whose primary component is trunks of materials and binders with instructions for leading hands-on activities with those materials. Depending on which curriculum you use as a student, what is that telling you about what it means to learn science? What is that telling you about what it means to do science? I believe the materials we use with our students have a profound impact on how they perceive the subjects they are learning. I would go so far as to say that the primary materials used in the classroom and the activities that result from using them may have a profound impact on students’ beliefs about the nature of knowledge, in general – whether it is something that can be created, and whether its something that they can create themselves as students.

Going back to my discussion of FOSS, the last time I used the curriculum there was a text component in the form of science stories, which are collections of fiction and nonfiction articles related to each unit. These science stories are by no means a textbook, however. Generally they provide additional context to the concepts explored in the hands-on activities.

A constraint with this curriculum is that it is expensive. In order to do hands-on science, you need a lot of hands-on materials. The materials can be kind of specific, too. Certain sizes of cups and straws were chosen to work with other materials in a kit, so you can’t always run to the store to buy extras if you’re low. In my old district we only had one of each kit so we had to share materials. This added its own constraint because it made it almost impossible for all of the classes to teach the same science concepts at the same time.

Social Studies Alive!

Source: TCI

I’m not going to go into depth about this one, but like FOSS, I believe this curriculum is quite opposite from traditional social studies textbooks. There is a textbook included in the program, but like the Investigations curriculum, it is secondary to the teacher lesson plans. The curriculum uses a lot of role playing, discussions, and simulations to teach important social studies topics. There is a middle school program called History Alive! I’m not familiar with that one so I can’t speak to its use of textbooks.

In Closing

So to summarize, I get the feeling that non-textbook print products tend to focus more on providing teachers detailed lesson plans. The affordance is that this can be extremely helpful guidance and support, especially for novice teachers or teachers who are trying to change their teaching methods. On the constraint side, rigid lesson plans can rub some teachers (and parents!) the wrong way if the teacher isn’t sold on the pedagogy. In addition, using these materials successfully may require a lot of reading and planning ahead on the part of the teacher. Just because the lesson plan is written for you does not mean the lesson is going to teach itself! Teachers still need to take time to become comfortable with what is being asked of them from the lesson so it feels natural. They also need to plan ahead to adapt the lesson for their students to ensure it meets their needs.

After several posts about print products, I’m finally going to shift gears in my next post in this series. It’s time to talk digital! Join me next time.

The Medium is the Message: (4) Affordances of Print Textbooks

In the previous post in this series, I analyzed a few of the constraints of print textbooks. Today I would like to look at some of the affordances. Remember, an affordance is a design feature that enables. In this case, what about a textbook enables a teacher to teach? Enables students to learn?

Affordances – Print Textbooks

  • The scope, sequence, and pacing are done for you. Before you ever got the book, someone made difficult decisions about what topics to include in the book and how many lessons to devote to each topic.
    • On the surface I know this rubs some teachers the wrong way. “How could someone else know better than me how to plan for my students?” My answer is someone with a lot more time than you to devote to planning the scope and sequence. One of my first posts talked about the differences in workload between being a teacher and being a curriculum designer.  Teachers can definitely be curriculum designers, quite effective ones in fact. But they are required to also do a lot of other things that make demands on their time. Teachers have to make many more decisions daily about how to use their time wisely and think about the trade offs that entails. A curriculum designer, on the other hand, needs to be good at curriculum design, and that’s about it. There are not many more facets to their job. As a teacher, it can give me peace of mind to know that one aspect of my job is already done. Now, as the expert of my particular class, I can and should make modifications to suit the needs of my class, but the textbook scope and sequence at least gives me a starting place.
    • This point might be even more important for novice teachers. They haven’t taught an entire year of anything yet. They might have ideas of how long to spend on various subjects, but they’ve never seen it in action. Having a plan from a textbook can help those teachers as they develop a sense of appropriate pacing. “Let’s see, I have spent 4 weeks on fractions. The textbook has 2 weeks’ worth of content. Maybe I should be moving on…”
  • Practice, practice, practice. For math textbooks in particular, print textbooks are basically just pages and pages of problem sets.
    • Again, going back to the demands on a teacher’s time, it can be quite a time saver to have so many problems already written. And you can do whatever you want with them. If you’re determined to skip the textbook and teach math concepts through exploration and discussion, go for it! But you might realize one day that your students just need some practice before taking a test or moving on to a new topic. Lucky for you, your textbooks are sitting there full of problems that your students can use to practice. While it might not be a central component of your instruction, don’t ignore its value as a resource.
  • Textbooks as a reference. Speaking of textbooks as a resource, they can be a valuable reference source for teachers and students.
    • While textbooks can be heavy, that doesn’t stop them from being portable. Students can take them home and use them as a reference as they are working on homework and don’t have access to their teacher. While the worked out examples at the front of a lesson can hinder teaching, they can enable students to figure out why they’re getting stuck in their work. Looking at an example, walking through the steps, and looking at any diagrams might help the student figure out where they are going wrong.
    • Textbooks also usually include glossaries, which I know helped me numerous times in high school when I needed to look up the meaning of various literary terms.
    • My math textbooks also included answers for the odd-numbered problems. Obviously the teacher avoided assigning us many odd-numbered problems, but assigning a few is helpful. If I solve those, check my work, and see that I’m right, then I feel more confident moving to the even-numbered problems. If I see that I’m not correct, I can keep going back to my work until I figure out what I was doing wrong. This requires some motivation on the part of the student, but the fact is that this feature does enable this interaction to happen.
  • Modeling questioning and differentiation techniques.
    • I mentioned in my last post in this series that textbooks are light on teaching. One thing they do provide, that I have to give credit for, is modeling questioning techniques. Throughout the teacher’s edition, there are questions the publisher suggests the teacher ask at many different points of the lesson. This does not mean the teacher can’t come up with questions on his/her own, but they are a resource that can help improve the discussion. Not all teachers are created equal. Some are great at fostering discussion with rich questions, and others honestly need help.
    • Textbooks also usually offer multiple resources for differentiation. It may take the form of differentiated practice activities. For a teacher strapped for time, it is awfully convenient to have three leveled worksheets for every lesson. The teacher’s edition also usually includes suggestions for small group activities that can be done with different ability groups. These activities tend to be hands-on and provide more pedagogical guidance than I’ve seen anywhere else in the textbook.
  • Textbooks are usually just one component.
    • If you’ve ever witnessed a textbook adoption going on at your school, you’ve likely seen the large display cases advertising one textbook. While the textbook might be the core of a publisher’s curriculum, they are by no means the only component. Textbook publishers tend to offer a multitude of additional workbooks and resources to accompany their books. I’ve met some teachers who ignore the textbook, but they rely heavily on specific supplemental components. These components may include additional practice workbooks, additional hands-on activities, songs on CD, games, differentiated instruction/practice, suggestions for working with English language learners, etc. All together, these resources provide teachers additional choices for how they work with their students.
  • Cost = $0
    • This isn’t entirely true. Someone is footing the bill for textbooks, but the important point is that it is not the teacher. (I’m speaking from my experiences teaching in Texas. Maybe this does not apply where you live.) It doesn’t mean you have to love them, but you can’t deny that you are getting a lot of materials for free. The system where the state pays for textbooks enables every teacher and every student to have instructional materials in their hands.

So there you have it, some of the constraints and affordances of print textbooks. If you have any more you’d like to share, feel free to do so in the comments. I’d love to hear what other people come up with. In the next post in this series, I will take a look at print materials that are not textbooks.

EdCamp Dallas 2012: Twitter in the Classroom

The final presentation I went to at edcampDallas focused on the use of Twitter in schools. There were two presenters – Amber Teamann and Matt Gomez.Both of them were actually two of the edcamp organizers. My hats off to them for putting together a great event!

I was hesitant about going to a presentation about Twitter in the classroom, but since I’m still a Twitter noob myself, I thought I might learn something. I did!

First, Amber presented about Twitter from the side of an administrator. Twitter is a great way for schools to keep parents notified of a variety of announcement in a timely manner. For example, the principal can tweet reminders about early release days, picture days, and special events. They can also keep parents informed during emergencies such as tornadoes. The best part is that programs like HootSuite allow the user to schedule tweets. So if you know the schedule for all of your early release days, you can set up the tweets in August so that they’ll go out a day or two before each early release day. Now you don’t have to worry about forgetting to send them out as you inevitably get swamped during the year.

What I liked was how the school can get around parents who are too cool for Twitter (or is it that they’re not cool enough?) Either way, what Amber does is ask the parents if they prefer receiving text messages instead. Most of these anti-Twitter parents are happy to receive text messages. So what Amber has them do is a fast follow. The parents text “Follow @[handle]” to the number 40404. This signs them up to receive tweets as text messages. The parents may or may not realize they’re essentially following a Twitter feed, but either way they’re happy because if someone asks if they use Twitter, they can still honestly reply, “No!”

Matt represented Twitter from the side of a teacher. Since he teaches Kindergarten, I was surprised to hear that he uses Twitter with his class, but he has found some clever and effective ways to use it. For example, at the end of the school day the class sits down to summarize their learning for the day. They think about what’s important enough to share in a tweet. I love this because the students are reflecting on their day, but they also have an audience that they’re thinking about. They want to share interesting things that others might want to hear about. I also like that the students are forced to practice short summaries since tweets can’t be very long. They’re learning to “get the gist”. I love it.

In addition to summarizing, Matt’s class also follows other Kindergarten classes. To ensure internet safety, Matt only connects with a select few classes; otherwise his stream is closed to the outside world. In the morning the class will read through their Twitter feed and decide what they want to respond to. He said it’s funny how opinionated they are. Sometimes they just say, “No, we don’t want to write anything back. Move to the next one.” Again, it gets back to having an audience. They are learning how they want to communicate with other people. It’s empowering that they have a choice in the matter.

So was driving 7.5 hours round trip worth it for a little over 3 hours of PD? You bet! In addition to learning valuable lessons from real teachers, I also had a chance to meet and get to know some great folks. I ended up having lunch with Cynthia Alaniz from my first session as well as Martha Lackey and her fun crew from Midlothian ISD. It was energizing to hang out with passionate educators and talk shop. If I don’t see them again sooner, I can’t wait to learn from and with them again at edcampDallas 2013!

EdCamp Dallas 2012: Lessons from a Flipped Classroom

The second presentation I attended at edcampDallas was about the flipped classroom model. Since I have only read about the idea online, I wanted to hear about it from someone who is actually doing it. This session turned out to be pleasantly surprising and informative.

The session was put on by Todd Nesloney and Stacey Huffine, though Todd did most of the talking since he was sharing about his personal experience flipping his 5th grade math class. I was surprised to hear about an elementary teacher flipping his classroom, but since he is only in charge of one subject for 78 students, it made a little more sense.

First of all, just like in the previous session, the speaker was a teacher presenting about their own experiences. I think this is part of what makes edcamps so appealing and successful. These are folks who are doing something themselves and then sharing what works and what doesn’t. It feels very honest. I like that.

Todd admitted right away that while he has students watch videos at home for homework, he doesn’t make one every night; they’re just too much work and sometimes a concept is built over several days so it isn’t needed.

He also shared his thoughts about the process of making the videos. Instead of sitting on his couch, laptop in front of him, Todd actually records his videos while standing in front of and drawing on the interactive whiteboard in his classroom. He says that helps put him in the zone of teaching, rather than the zone of vegging which is normally what we want to do on a couch, and he feels the videos are better as a result.

After watching a few of his videos, some of the students complained that they couldn’t see his face during the videos. To please his audience he figured out a way to embed a window showing him while he’s creating the videos. The result? Half the kids like it and half hate it. Some love the personal connection, but other students find it way too distracting because it means there’s too much to pay attention to. They’re trying to watch him work out a problem and trying to look at his face at the same time, and it just doesn’t work. Since the class is so evenly divided, he’s not sure what to do next.

I start with the videos of course, but as Todd and Stacey said several times in the presentation, the video portion of the flipped classroom model is only 10% of the model. Of course as soon as you mention flipping, people immediately think of the videos and tend to focus on that. The other 90%, according to Todd, is pure awesome. He said this year he has not once taught from the front of the room. Instead his students have been involved in project after project, applying math skills instead of doing worksheets and practice.

  • The students have planned a party where they had to do all the budgeting. He said this helped many students grasp making change much more deeply than they ever did solving practice problems on worksheet.
  • They have also made their own videos to teach a concept to someone else. What I like about his method is that after the students made their first videos, the class watched all of them. They discussed what worked and what didn’t. Most of the students realized their first attempts were terrible! Instead of stopping there, the students have gotten the chance to make videos again, and this time they’re learning from previous mistakes. I love opportunities like this for students to do something more than once, reflect, and slowly improve over time.
  • Currently the students are creating board games. They have to write their own multiplication and division problems for the players to solve to win the game. After the games are made, the students will trade and play each others’ games.

I’m having a hard time believing that watching a 5-10 minute video at home is teaching all of the students so well that they don’t need instruction in the class. (I just wrote about this the other day.) However, it does appear to be giving Todd the confidence to entrust his students to do math projects and activities that he shied away from in the past in favor of direct instruction.

In the end, I think the only complaint I have is that there is a “punishment” for students who don’t watch the videos at home. If you don’t watch the video for homework, then during class you have to watch the video and then spend the rest of class time solving worksheet practice problems. The idea is to make the students realize the fun they’re missing out on by not being responsible at home. It sounds like it’s working for him, but this isn’t the approach I would take.

Beyond that, the flipped classroom model seems to be starting on the right foot for Todd and his students. He is obviously genuinely enthusiastic about what he’s doing, and he is also taking the time to reflect on what’s working and what isn’t. I look forward to seeing him again in the future to hear his thoughts as he has more flipping experience under his belt.

EdCamp Dallas 2012: Blogging in the Classroom

This past weekend I attended edcampDallas. I had never heard of an edcamp until I joined the mathtwitterblogosphere back in August, and I count myself lucky that I stumbled upon the Dallas camp happening on September 29. I almost missed it!

So for those of you unfamiliar with the concept, I encourage you to visit the edcampDallas site linked above. There’s a great section titled “What is EdCamp?” that includes information and videos. Until you have time to do that, I’ll summarize it as follows: a conference put on by teachers for teachers. That hardly does it justice, so when you’re done reading this post, go check out the link!

I attended three sessions on Saturday, and learned a lot from each of them. I’m going to break my notes and thoughts on each one into its own blog post. The first session I attended was called “Blogging in the Elementary Classroom” by Cynthia Alaniz. The session was generally about blogging in the classroom, but Cynthia did a great job of focusing on her personal experiences to get ideas flowing from the rest of the group.

Basically what Cynthia does is collaboratively create a class blog with her 4th graders. She uses the blog as a tool to teach students about writing for a digital audience. While Cynthia writes most of the posts early in the year, she skillfully transfers responsibility more and more to the students as the year progresses. At first they might make suggestions about post topics, but eventually the students generate topics on their own and write the posts themselves.

Cynthia also teaches her students how to be responsible digital citizens as they learn how to comment on the blog. The students learn about proper and improper blog comments and the effects comments have on readers.

In addition to teaching writing skills, Cynthia uses various parts of her blog to teach other skills as well. For example, she uses the site visit counter to practice place value, estimating, and subtraction. The students also learn about geography as they learn about the different countries that have visited their blog. Cynthia keeps a large map out in the hallway, and anytime a visitor stops by their blog from a new country, the class marks it on the map.

What I really like about Cynthia’s blog is that she’s giving her students an authentic audience. When students read a book, for example, they know they have a place to share their thoughts about it with real people! The even get to interact with these people through the site’s comments. Cynthia isn’t artificially inventing a motivator for her students. The blog weaves itself seamlessly into the students’ work while giving them an age-appropriate experience with becoming digital citizens. The students love taking part in it and seeing how they can impact the lives of others beyond the walls of their school.

If you have a chance, I highly recommend checking out the blog:

The class will appreciate it, too, because their goal is to have 25,000 visitors by December, so you’ll be helping out the class while seeing firsthand the power of blogging in the classroom.