Digital Snow Days

With the impending snowpocalypse of 2015 well on its way, I wanted to take a few moments to write about one of those innovations in education that doesn’t get enough attention but results in a whole lot of positives and very few negatives. I’m talking of course about digital snow days, and I had the pleasure of being recognized alongside one of the pioneers of this innovation, Dr. Barry Bachenheimer, at the 20 to Watch celebration last year. I of course had 20 questions for him, which I’m sure was annoying, but he certainly humored them and fielded each one with aplomb.

The concept is simple: with digital learning districts, the need to physically be in school is far lower, and almost unnecessary, for learning to occur. In order to alleviate the burden that snow days place on schools and their schedules, some districts, including Dr. Bachenheimer’s Pascack Valley Regional, are filing to replace snow days with virtual learning days, and not having to add additional days onto the school year after a snowy season. The obvious payoff here is that schools no longer have to negotiate the sometimes hazardous path of schedule shakeups, but there are many, perhaps more important, not so obvious benefits.

Responsibility

Being a teenager is tough, because everyone is telling you to grow up, and you don’t want to. Most teenagers have one responsibility, which is going to school, and they don’t tend to desire more. It’s thus important that we teach responsibility within the school environment, because students don’t have another way to obtain this crucial learning. Unfortunately, for most people, this amounts to “do your homework by this date,” or “study for the test on this date”. Digital snow days put a much more authentic frame, in that students need to complete their day’s work on their own time, and submit it in order to be credited with attending school for the day. This is a unique way to teach responsibility that’s not available in most other circumstances.

Technical Play Time

For districts implementing virtual days, digital learning is a part of their fabric. One aspect to digital learning that most people don’t emphasize enough is the concept of technical play time.  As with any skill, students (and teachers) must be given time to experiment, play, and learn in an unstructured environment for true mastery to develop. Students are extremely good at this in an unproductive environment, but when they’re given this time in the context of completing a certain project or assignment, they will likely come up with new ways to approach their work, explore new tools with which to complete it, and maybe even suggest new ways to conduct projects that would improve them. Digital learning days provide this time, albeit indirectly.

Publicity & Community Building

Let’s face it; schools always need to get better at this. By incorporating something like digital snow days, it’s a great way to get parents more involved with their kids’ education. In many schools, there’s at least one parent at home with a child during a snow day, which means at least one parent will at least be supervising their child’s learning activities for the day. This is not a bad thing: maybe inconvenient for some parents, however it also provides a true window into what a classroom is doing, which doesn’t normally happen.

Teacher Flex Curriculum

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Robert Oppenheimer is a badass, as are many of the nuclear scientists of the 40s, and I would love the chance to teach students why.

This post is a shameless steal from a colleague of mine, Jerusha Vogel, who in a conversation with our program administrator on Friday, suggested what I think is an outstanding idea. In light of the Next Generation Science Standards, with a focus on heavy science skills and less on science content, our department, like many others, is looking at the troublesome issue of trying to fit more skills instruction into a full cup of content. Jerusha’s suggestion was to strip the courses of whatever content we need to, and then provide an entire unit focused on whatever topic the teacher chooses to cover, so long as it addresses the required NGSS skill in that unit. I couldn’t love this idea more. It’s an excited teacher that gets students excited about content, not the other way around, and the best way to guarantee an excited teacher is to let them teach whatever content they choose provided it covers a specific skill.

The more I think about this idea, the more I wonder why it’s not done in science more. In English classes, it’s a much more common phenomenon, where individual teachers in some cases get to pick which books they cover. Even if covered works are departmentally the same, there’s certainly no universal prescription statewide for which books every student has to read. In social studies, the story is a similar one, although there are certainly far more guidelines regarding specific historical events to be covered.  Math is understandably harder to do this for, although most Math standards are based on skills, and not content, so perhaps they already do. Science has lagged way behind the 8-ball here, since state standards across the country continue to include more and more content, which were picked because they would hopefully provide students a prerequisite set of skills with which to graduate.

The fun part to think about is, “what would I do in my science class with three weeks of free content time?” I am fascinated with the history of the atomic bomb and nuclear energy. This science topic is multidisciplinary, since it has all of history, chemistry, and physics. It’s exciting due to the personalities of the scientists involved and all of the espionage that went on during the war as we were racing Germany to the weapon. I even get to sing my nuclear chemistry song during that unit!

Flex curricular time like this is a great idea. What do you think? I’d also love to hear what you would do with three weeks of time in your respective classes in the comments.

On Differentiation and That EdWeek Article

In case you haven’t read it yet and you are involved in the field of education, the EdWeek article that came out on January 6th is an absolute must read. As its title says, the author has concluded that differentiated instruction simply doesn’t work, despite the immense amount of time teachers, administrators, and others have put into promoting the idea of meeting the needs of every student. I figured it would be a good time to weigh in on this, and I will divulge that I have scored everywhere from below expectations to exemplary on our school’s teacher evaluation plan in this category.

The Theory

I am in full agreement with the sentiment presented in this article, that in theory differentiation is a great idea. Meeting the needs of every student is an important task of educators everywhere. I think what is commonly lost in the conversations I observe surrounding differentiation is why this is so important. It’s a common trend in educational conversations, actually, that we forget about the reasons for changing our practices so drastically in the first place. Differentiation exists because starting from the moment they leave kindergarden, students have varying levels of aptitude and, frankly, intelligence. To provide each of those students with the best possible learning experience, we would theoretically have to cater learning material to their specific personality and aptitude. The end product here is that every student receives an appropriate education.

The Practice

The actual practice of differentiation is where things start to unravel. A powerful quote from the article above is “It seems to me that the only educators who assert that differentiation is doable are those who have never tried to implement it themselves: university professors, curriculum coordinators, and school principals.” It’s almost hilarious to a teacher who has been watching these types of individuals push differentiation in our evaluation plans and meetings without blowing anyone’s mind on how to accomplish the goal. Providing varied reading levels of material on the same topic is heralded as differentiation, but in reality all it does is dilute the classroom discussion to a level most appropriate of the students in the middle of the aptitude scale in a particular classroom. We could look at a number of different examples, like the article did, but I’d rather direct you to EdWeek and read the statistics backing the conclusion. While I might argue with the validity of some of these stats, I can’t argue too much with the conclusion, because even on a good day, differentiation makes a small impact that is unworthy of the amount of work it requires.

The Reality

I have made numerous reflections on this blog regarding the merits of the computer programming classes I’ve created at our high school, but something that is crucially important involves the topic of differentiation. To me, differentiation is simply a misunderstood synonym for freedom of academic engagement. Science is a field, and to muse that we could present to a student a course covering “Chemistry” is actually insane. Learning and practicing the process of “doing science” is the truly important goal of a science class, and the content is mostly irrelevant. Yet still, I am required by the state of CT to perform a laboratory experiment on solar cookers, polymers, and acid rain. It’s not that I have a problem with any of these activities, it’s that they remove the focus on what’s important: doing science.

In our programming classes, since I was able to design them myself, you can bet that this problem in other classes was at the forefront of my mind. I’ve mentioned the simple motto of “build stuff” is prevalent throughout the fabric of the courses, but the end result is the true goal of differentiation. Due to the fact that the course is structured around building real products, I could actually care less what the subject of each of their projects are. Each quarter, we do a project where students are required to learn and incorporate a certain set of skills into a product of their choosing. For example, next quarter, students will learn to read and write information in their Facebook accounts and create a social media product using their information. The goal here is to teach the programming skill of Facebook integration, and its success is irrelevant of the type of product built. The end product? Students are free to design and develop anything they can think of, provided it meets this standard.

Now, imagine for a moment if your standard science class was organized around this concept? Each quarter, a student would have to design and carry out an experiment using a specific piece of equipment, to develop a certain type of data study, or investigate a certain researchable question. I assure you, this type of work is not beyond the level of high school students and, if my own experience is any evidence, the end product is what we’re shooting for anyway.

Weekend Blog: Cross Post from DC 1776

Happy Holidays! What a year it’s been for Slate & Tablets, and what a year 2015 will be! We have many exciting things to share as the new year kicks off, however let’s start with a blog-centered announcement. After we crashed and burned at the Challenge Cup in November, DC 1776 asked if I could write for their blog! My first post was just published today, so in lieu of a weekend blog post, I’d like to direct you over there to read about the biggest trend I’d like to see pop up in educational technology. Check it out!

http://1776dc.com/news/2015/01/06/the-next-trend-in-edtech-skills-that-matter/ 

 

 

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