Friday, July 25, 2014

Exploring Evernote

For all that I've grown up in the 21st century I don't really consider myself a very technologically proficient person. I pretty much use my computer for Microsoft Office and the Internet which in a way is kind of sad because I know that my laptop is capable of so much more. I knew I was missing out on some stuff, but I was comfortable with what I knew so I didn't explore much with other programs. Consequently, when I learned that I had to explore a new software called Evernote, I was a little worried that I would struggle and my technological incapabilities would become very apparent. In short, messing around on computers intimidates me.

However, Evernote is actually very intuitive and easy to use. I started out with the basics - creating notes and notebooks, setting reminders, and synching my devices. This part was pretty easy. You typed notes and could change font, color, highlighting, use bold or italics, and add bullet points - pretty similar to Word. The assignment required me to explain Evernote for 25 minutes though, and I knew that the basics would take about 5 minutes to discuss. Knowing that I needed more to present to my peers was enough incentive to make me click on every button that appears on the Evernote interface. It may sound silly, but this was a great learning experience and I discovered a lot of useful tools including the shortcut section, the ability to add different tags, and the possibility of annotating notes as PDFs.

In completing this assignment I learned two very useful things. First, that I have a wonderful new resource at my fingertips to assist me in staying organized and completing my work. Just in the past week I have used Evernote to multiple times to jot down important tips or notices and to set reminders. I also use it to record audio of my group's video discussions. Discovering a practical new tool is a great reward for completing this assignment. The second thing I learned from this assignment is that technology should not be intimidating. There are incredible rewards to putting a little effort into understanding new software or programs. Understanding technology and how it can benefit me will be useful as a teacher (we've all had that one teacher who is frustratingly inept with technology). Furthermore, as a future educator, I believe it is important to continue to challenge myself to grow and learn. I appreciate that this assignment pushed me out of my comfort zone, taught me something new, and helped alter my self-identifaction as a technologically challenged individual.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Video Games and Learning

In my last class we discussed the link between video games and learning. This is a really fascinating and very relevant subject. After all, who doesn't like video games? Not only do most students play video games, but they play them with a determination and a willingness to learn that is often unseen in the classroom. Many educators are trying to tap that enthusiasm by using educational online games, so I decided to check out a few social studies games from BBC's interactive games website ( I played quite a few including Gladiator: Dressed to Kill, Mummy Maker, the Elizabethan Spying Game, and Iron Age Life. These games were alright, but in many respects I believe that they fell short.

James Gee writes in his article "Good Video Games and Good Learning" that video games are so wonderfully engaging for a variety of different reasons. However, these educational games do not evoke the same qualities as video games do. I will discuss three here. Firstly the absence of lateral thinking. For example, most of the educational games listed above involved a lot of reading followed by short quiz like questions. You had to answer the question correctly in order to move forward. While this did provide an alternative manner of providing subject information, the format was remarkably similar to the lectures and quizzes of typical classrooms. There was not a lot of room for exploration or lateral thinking, both of which James Gee suggests should exist in abundance for an engaging video game. Furthermore, the students were not involved enough in the game to adopt a new identity - something which Gee also describes as necessary for a good video game. He writes, "players become committed to the new virtual world in which they will live, learn, and act through their commitment to their new identity" (p5). There is no opportunity for the development of any such identity in the short, superficial educational games I explored. Finally, there is no space for system thinking. Most of these games are about facts, not relationships of various concepts and the type of higher order thinking that most of us want our students to engage in.

Perhaps I am being too harsh. Perhaps if played by the appropriate age group these games would be interesting and captivate the attention of students. However, I found it all too tempting to click through the long texts, especially once I know I had the right answer. History is a fascinating subject and I think with better educational video games could be created. We need games that give students not only the three qualities above, but also games that are pleasantly frustrating, provide smart tools and distributed knowledge, allow for a sense of agency, and encourage risk taking. This may be a tall order for educational video games, but the benefits of an engaging, educational video game would far outweigh the costs. I remember being completely engrossed in a video game called civilization revolution in high school that allowed you to play as a civilization of your choice. You had to fight wars, create infrastructure, develop culture, and generally learn about the various components necessary to a civilization. A game such as this, with a more specific history focus, may be much more useful for engaging students.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Challenge Accepted: The Issues with Teacher Evaluation based on Student Test Scores

Today's discussion about online assessment was intriguing and disturbing at the same time - like a bad accident that you don't really want to see, but you find yourself incapable of looking away. Knowing that these issues concerning student assessments and teacher evaluations affect my future career is scary, and the feeling that I have little control over the situation is even scarier.

Let's begin with teacher evaluation based on student's test scores. I know that it is my job to teach, to help my students grow academically. I do believe that teachers should be held responsible for this task and that ineffective teachers should be given opportunities to improve through professional development and feedback before being dismissed. However, I cannot believe that up to 40% of my evaluation as a teacher will be based on student's test scores. Test scores don't measure teacher effectiveness. They don't even really measure student's learning. Standardized test scores prove little except that students are capable of utilizing rote memorization skills to jot down the answers to a bunch of multiple choice questions. Truly effective assessments or tests should be designed to test not just factual knowledge, but also conceptual and procedural knowledge (but more on that another time). Furthermore, a number of factors aside from Teacher effectiveness affect student's test scores including their motivation to do well, their confidence level, their health, and their familiarity with technology (if it's a test on a computer). Any number of situations at home or with family may impact how well a student does on a test and it is unfair to base 40% of teachers' evaluations on these tests.

Basing so much of a teacher's evaluation on test scores will lead to unfortunate and potentially unethical actions. For example, as one of my fellow colleagues mentioned, this new evaluation system may cause teachers to avoid working with students in low-performing, high-need areas (as if they needed another reason). With the knowledge that they could lose their jobs due to poor evaluation scores because their students aren't demonstrating enough growth, teachers may decide that working with AP or honors students is better. What's worse, these AP and Honors students may do well without a particularly effective teacher, causing a teacher who is not particularly effective to receive a great evaluation. Furthermore, teachers who feel that their students are not performing up to par may succumb to the temptation of cheating in order to insure a good evaluation score for themselves. In fact this very phenomenon has been in the news over the past few years as teacher evaluation based on test scores (unfortunately) becomes more and more popular. Here's one example:

And let's not get started on the tests themselves. In addition to not really measuring learning, these tests are often confusing. Today in class I spent some time answering some sample questions for a 7th grade ELA test. The format was awful. There were too many instructions at the beginning and I sincerely doubt that many students will read through all of them. Then there were a lot of buttons and a confusing screen with two panels. In short, the test was poorly designed. It would be even more confusing to students who are unfamiliar with computers or who are restricted in some way. Though this may seem far-fetched in todays day and age, there may still be students who do not know how to type or are otherwise uncomfortable working with technology.

As disheartening as much of this information is, I am eager to learn more and to begin working to change the system from the inside as a social studies and/or spanish teacher. Challenge Accepted!

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Clear, Concise, and Confident: Educational Reformer John Dewey

John Dewey's My Pedagogic Creed presents a simple, straightforward picture of his ideal education system. Beginning with a section on What Education Is Dewey writes, "He [the student] becomes an inheritor of the funded capital of civilization." John Dewey believed in students and their potential, their worth as the main arbiters of the next generation. This quote highlights the importance of education for all students. I really love this quote in part because it stresses the importance of education. If we don't pass our knowledge on to children, how will civilization continue? How will we progress? By giving them an education we don't just give them a future career or a well-paying job, we give them a chance to interact with and explore and, in some sense, own the world around them. As Dewey wrote, "education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living." Education should be about fostering curiosity, initiative, and dedication. It should be about critical thinking and new perspectives. Education should open up the world for students. Unfortunately, students all too often do not see knowledge as worthy in and of itself. They want to pass the class, graduate, and get a good job. Some don't even want that much. They are bombarded everyday with the message that kids who do well in school are "geeks" or "nerds". It is time to make Dewey's message a priority and to share it with students. They are the "inheritor[s]... of civilization". 
As evidenced by the section on What School Is, Dewey's pedagogic creed is based largely on the influence and importance of society in one's education. But with society delivering such a negative message concerning education can we hope that Dewey's dream of "the school as a form of community life" will ever come true? Throughout my short time as a University of Michigan intern, I have seen that his dream is attainable. Building community in schools is difficult, but not impossible. Through activities like the Circle of Power and Respect and teaching strategies that include Social-Emotional Learning it is possible to develop a curriculum that teaches not only content, but also community. Development of community is key because it helps students to form support networks and apply knowledge to relevant, real-life situations. 

I also found Dewey's section titled The Nature of Method to be particularly interesting. Throughout this section he addresses the ways in which children are taught and how these methods can be improved. He advocates for the demise of the "passive, receptive, or absorbing attitude" that is common in many classrooms. He proposes, and I agree, that learning is active. It requires thought (yay for metacognition!) and effort. Furthermore, it requires that teachers take notice of the interests of their students. I have learned in my short time working with students that they are all experts in something whether it be skateboarding, dancing, hunting, the cello, or football. They may know a lot about cars or animals or cooking. There is a wealth of untapped resources in these interests. In getting to know their students teachers not only build community, but also open the door to projects or papers that can incorporate the expertise of the student, enticing them to actively partake in their education. 

Dewey uses powerful "I believe" statements to put forth his views on education, stating simply and in no uncertain terms that he is confident in his ideas and their efficacy. These ideas have been incredibly influential and continue to be today for education reformers and for students like myself as we grow as future teachers and leaders in our communities.