Author Archives: hhfreshenglish

Global Achievement Gap Part 3: Assessment

Wagner introduces several new kinds of assessments that schools should consider to better evaluate the kind of 21st century skills we want our students to have and the skills we want our teachers to have as well. Here are a sample of a few to consider. Even if teachers don’t administer this particular test, I think it could still be useful as a model for how to write our own tests. 

The CWRA test for college readiness: 

I like the real life task element of this test as well the use of multiple documents that students must synthesis.


The ETS iskills Test:

Focuses on technology skills students will need to use in a variety of daily tasks at most any job.



What other ways have you modified assessment to match the new skills/lessons you’ve incorporated into your 21st century classroom?

Global Achievement Gap Part Two:Pros and Cons of Digital Age Learning

In chapter five of his book The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner outlines characteristics of students who have grown up using the web and how it effects the ways they relate to each other, how they are motivated, and the effect on their learning styles.  For each of these there are both positive and negative impacts which need to be considered.

  1. Multitasking

Watch students at work and you’ll see them navigate three browser windows while listening to music and building a prezi. This continuous partial attention can be viewed positively by focusing on the continuous attention  or negatively by focusing on the partial aspect. If they are not fully focused on any one thing, the quality of the work suffers. There is less time spent reflecting on decisions. Studies have also shown that multitasking  contributes to a more stressful lifestyle.

2. Constantly Connected

Students have a variety of tools to help them communicate with people all over the world. But interacting online has also led to cyberbullying.

3. Instant Gratification & Speed of Light

Living in a world where data can be transferred instantly means students learn faster response times, but it they also have become less patient and more demanding and less able to interact face to face.

4. Learning through multimedia

Students receive information now through more than just text on paper. Video, websites, databases—the options are endless. But just because students are surrounded by media doesn’t necessarily mean they are media literate. They still don’t know how to think critically about what they are consuming.

5. Learning as discovery

Engaging in a web search, clicking one link which leads to another which leads to another is the new nonlinear, more active way of discovering information. Students are more willing to try something and see where it goes and discover what works and what doesn’t by trial and error. But much like the multimedia learning above, evaluation of the information being received is not always a top priority. In addition, “the desire to constantly ‘do’ and interact often comes at the expense of contemplation and reflection—essential aspects of both learning and growth”(184).

6. Learning by creating

Students are no longer limited to just consuming knowledge that someone else gives them (aka lecture style) but can create and share their own knowledge with others. But quality is often compromised as students struggle to discern between what makes for good or bad creations.

But just because each of these new digital age characteristics have problems attached to them, doesn’t mean technology should be rejected. In the end, it is ultimately our role as teachers to help students practice more of the positive sides of each of these new digital age learning strategies and avoid the negative. As Wagner puts it,

“younger generations have enormous potential either to become lost in an endless web of fantasy and entertainment or to use their skills with these new technologies to make significant contributions to our society as learners, workers and citizens. What is needed to tip the balance to the positive is an older generation that better understands what drives the younger generation and has learned how best to harness and focus its energies” (187).

Global Achievement Gap, Part One

In Tony Wagner’s book Global Achievement Gap (2008), Wagner argues that there is a gap in American education between what the best schools are teaching and what students really need to learn in order to succeed in the 21st century. In chapter one, he outlines the seven survival skills employers look for in the 21st century that schools should be teaching. They are…

1. Critical Thinking and Problem Solving

2. Collaboration

3. Agility and Adaptability

4. Initiative and Entrepreneurialism

5. Effective Oral and Written Communication

6. Accessing and Analyzing Information

7. Curiousity and Imagination

As I was reading the descriptions of each of these traits, I couldn’t help but think of lots of examples I’ve seen or heard from my colleagues which I would classify as encouraging these traits. So rather than starting the discussion with the ways in which we are failing to teach these skills, (which I’m guessing is what the rest of the book focuses on) I thought it would be interesting to open the conversation online by asking people to submit the ways they teach these traits in their classrooms.  How do you foster an environment of creativity and independence? How do you get students to ask good questions and work together? 

Solution Fluency: The Cambridge Card Trick Challenge

“This is very stressful!” “We don’t have enough information!” “This is heartbreaking!” “This sucks; I wanna know so bad!”

These were the sounds that filled the classroom the day I introduced a lesson on solution fluency. The problem they were being asked to solve was to determine how I did a card trick. Before we began though, we brainstormed on the board examples of problems they had faced in the past and overcome(learning to tie my shoes, building a catapult in my backyard, passing my driving test, etc.) and what strategies they used to overcome said problem (got help from someone, kept trying and trying, studied and practiced). Armed with the successes of the past, I split them into pairs and gave each pair a deck of cards. They were given 20-25 minutes to solve the problem. While they worked (I informed them that I would not be giving them assistance), I walked around observing and recording. I noticed some roadblocks that prevented some students from preserving through problem solving:

1) Perceived predisposed weakness. When I told students that this card trick was taught to me by a Cambridge math professor, and that there was a math equation that showed how it worked, one girl said with dismay, “Oh, Math! I’m out!” She believed that because she wasn’t a “math person”, she wouldn’t be able to succeed. (yet interestingly enough, she was the first of all my students to solve the trick!).

2) Lack of creativity.  Since the first part of the trick involves flipping cards over face up, when I saw one student flipping cards over face down, I intervened and reminded him that the trick won’t work if he flips the cards over that way. He stopped and stared at me incredulously, arguing, “But how else can I flip them? There’s no other way!” The inability to see something in a new light prevented him from moving forward. This reminded me of how linked all the fluencies are (creativity fluency, where are you? We need you now!) Strategies attempted were very limited and mostly involved guessing the card at random over and over again and puzzling over why it wasn’t working. On the flip side though, I did hear a few choruses of “Let’s try it again and see”, while students tried one different strategy after another such as “thinking about the trick backward” “look on YouTube”or “find a pattern”.

3) Other people’s success. Often when one pair/student was successful at solving the problem, it led to a general decline in other students’ willingness to keep trying. Many pairs just quit completely at that point. One student wrote on the follow up survey to this experience that the most frustrating part of the whole thing was “not getting the answer when other people were”. Rather then seeing their peers’ success as an invigorating indicator that the task was indeed achievable, students tended to view it with a “game over” mentality, as in a video game where one player wins and ends the game for everyone else.

Overall, this experience reaffirmed what I already knew: students need more practice solving problems in an environment where it is okay to fail and try again. An environment where the teacher doesn’t rush in to “help” all the time but patiently let’s them squirm till they find their way out of an uncomfortable yet productive place of uncertainty and into a solution they found, rather than one we delivered to them.

Media Fluency: Schoolhouse Rock has Lied to Us!

This week we’ve been practicing our media fluency skills by spending two days watching documentaries and answering questions on a viewing guide before, during, and after viewing. I thought the lesson was over and was ready to move on to a grammar review I’ve done in the past using Schoolhouse Rock clips. Again, there was a viewing guide that went with it. For the first three clips I wasn’t asking them to challenge the information they were receiving. It was pretty much just information gathering which we would later apply to a part of speech exercise. But then I threw the a curve ball to see if the two previous days of media fluency emphasis had made a difference. I showed them the clip “Verb: That’s What’s Happening” (1974) but prefaced it with the following information on the viewing guide:

According to The Little Brown Handbook, “Verbals are special verb forms such as smoking or …to win that can function as nouns (smoking is dangerous) or as modifiers (the urge to win)” (245). In other words, if it is in the infinitive form (to____) or ends with an -ing, it is NOT functioning as the verb of the sentence but rather a noun or an adjective. With that in mind, note any errors you find in the following cartoon meant to teach children what a verb is. What is the cartoon actually teaching?

Having warned them beforehand that the following clip was going to be delivering them incorrect information, and after going through what verbals were with them, I was surprised at how many students still failed to pick up on the errors in the video (posted below for your nostalgic viewing pleasure).

Only 24 out of 64 students identified the errors in the clip (using infinitives and gerunds as verbs). And of those 24 students, only one student recognized that what was actually being taught was verbals, not verbs. If a three minute clip from the 70s featuring an animated superhero misleading children about verbs can still outweigh a warning from the teacher and a printout stating the correct information, how much more work must we do to get students to analyze what they are viewing and not take everything at face value? And what happens when there’s more at stake then a grammar mistake?

Information Fluency: Detecting Bias

During the seven weeks of working on our research projects, information fluency and its emphasis on accessing and acquiring good sources, analyzing those sources and applying the knowledge has been an  ongoing skill practiced over and over again in a variety of ways. But one I wanted to focus on one aspect of information fluency–understanding bias– and how I saw it at work in my freshmen.

I gave my students passages to read that included a bias and asked them to identify what the bias was. Interestingly, when the topic of the reading was something the students did not have strong feelings about, they were able to more easily spot the bias and see it for what it really was. But when given a hot button topic such as abortion or raising the driving age, students’ own strong opinions and bias got in the way of accurately identifying the bias of the author.

I know I’m not stumbling upon anything new and rare here. We all know that our own bias keeps us from seeing things clearly. But this experience led me to question how I can balance the skill of developing an opinion (something I do have to work on with freshmen in their writing) with the ability to encounter others’ opinions and see them for what they really are, bias and all? It is a struggle students face every year when doing research: how to keep hold of their own voice when reading a multitude of other voices, some of which are intentionally misleading?

Will the Real Digital Natives Please Stand Up?

We assume that most students are “digital natives” and will naturally understand concepts and  issues surrounding technology, but in my experience with freshmen, this isn’t always the case.  After spending the past week doing a unit on Global Digital Citizenship with students in which they created PSAs using iMovie and Photo Booth, I was reminded of this. Not only do students struggle with knowing the important issues surrounding technology (very few could go much deeper than cyberbullying or obesity from playing too many games), but they did not have the skills to gather the appropriate materials online or use the two programs being introduced and weren’t willing to problem solve to figure it out. So what do we really mean when we say our students our “digital natives” and how should this influence our teaching?

Sitting in a recent tech training session, I was reminded once again of the prevalent attitude of students as “digital natives” and the effect this misconception could have on the classroom and educators. The trainer, after walking a group of teachers through the technology, made a remark in passing akin to “oh, but your students will be able to do this already.” This assumption is akin to saying that students will be able to compose a symphony or write a Petrarchan sonnet simply because they’ve been exposed to music and language in their environment. If teachers take on this assumption, the results are frustration when they find that students don’t in fact know what the teacher needs/expects them to know, dismay if they think the gap between the natives and the immigrants will be too wide to be bridged, or lack of properly prepared students  because they were expected to somehow have already absorbed the knowledge from their environment by virtue of being born post 1990. A child may be able to pick up a language from hearing it spoken around them without formal grammar lessons, but technology is not a language. There is also a big difference between being able to post pictures to Pinterest or download a song from iTunes (skills they are fluent in) and being able to evaluate research online or skillfully manipulate the myriad, ever changing tools our digital world throws at us.

A  recent Economist article “The Net Generation Unplugged” argues “Only a small fraction of students may count as true digital natives, in other words. The rest are no better or worse at using technology than the rest of the population.” Other scholars writing in the British Journal of Education Technology in 2008 point out that due to variations in economics or abilities, there may be as wide a range of differences within those classified as being “digital natives” as there is between digital natives and digital immigrants.

All of this is not to say that we shouldn’t examine how technology can reach students and improve our educational methods. But let’s go into 1:1 education knowing what we’re really up against so we can best serve the students.

Sources: “The Net Generation, Unplugged.” Economist (London, England) Vol. 394, No. 8672. 06 Mar 2010: 10. SIRS Issues Researcher. Web. 08 Mar 2012.



Hamlet’s Blackberry–Part two

William Powers in his book Hamlet’s Blackberry continues moving forward through time to give examples of how people have been challenged by technology and how their challenges can provide thoughtful questions for us today as we consider how technology will impact our lives.  Last time I mentioned Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, and Hamlet. Now we move forward with Ben Franklin,  Henry Thoreau, and Marshall McLuhan.

Ben Franklin was a very self reflexive guy, recording a list of virtues he wanted to adopt in his life and painstakingly detailing how he would go about becoming a better person. Using this example, McLuhan adopts Franklin’s practice and discusses how with every new technological device, there are three issues that need to be considered:

1. Functional (What are its best uses? What can this device do for us?)

2. Behavioral (What behaviors do I need to change or acquire in response to this?

3. Inner Human Dimension (How is this device affecting me and my experience? Is it altering how I think and feel? What are the effects on my day, my pace, my work, my home life?)

Although not tied directly to a particular new technology as the other earlier examples from the book were, these questions are important for us to consider as we move forward with our students. Simply using technology because its there, isn’t the point. We need to be just as thoughtful in how we adopt technology into the classroom as we would any other tool we might use. But these questions also are ones we should be asking ourselves as our lives become more awash in technology so that we are able to serve as positive role models for our students who are more and more at risk of being “addicted” to technology or misusing it.

In the 1800s railroads and telegraphs were the new technology that Thoreau and his contemporaries had to negotiate with. A quote of the time describing the telegraph could just as well describe the texting, twittering nation of today (minus the wires): “A slender wire has become the highway of thought. Messages follow each other in quick succession.” While Thoreau had Walden to escape to, Powers argues that in today’s digital society, there’s no where to go to truly escape as long as we still have a screen, be it a smartphone, iPad, laptop or tv. Two costs Powers says we are paying because of this is extreme busyness and loss of depth.

Marshall McLuhan, a philosopher who coined the terms “the global village” and “the medium is the message” would argue that if you feel overwhelmed by technology, you can take control by living more consciously (much like Franklin).  In 1962 McLuhan wrote The Gutenberg Galaxy in which he argues that the tools and technologies we use are actually extensions of our bodies. Before this book, people considered the message itself as the thing that mattered, not the medium in which it was delivered. But McLuhan demonstrates that when a truly big technological development comes along (such as the printing press), “the change is so dramatic that it produces a new kind of human being.” The question that Powers wants us to explore, a question that both Franklin and Thoreau would have echoed, is

“What kind of human being am I becoming in light of the new technologies I’m encountering?”

Click here for a Prezi version of the info in Powers’ Hamlet’s Blackberry.

Hamlet’s Blackberry (Part One)

In Hamlet’s Blackberry, William Powers argues that we need a new digital philosophy that finds balance between connecting outward and inward. His goal in this book is to explore “a practically useful way of thinking about technology, so it serves the full range of human needs, inside and out”(100). Powers finds the answers of how to face the challenges tech presents by looking to the past. He explores examples of past technologies and people’s reactions to them to shed light on how concerns we should be considering as we learn to negotiate an ever changing digital world.

In the days of Plato & Socrates, the new technology was the written language which started replacing oral communication. Socrates feared that writing would cause people to use their memories less and would eliminate the back and forth communication that speaking offered.

He misjudged writing because he judged it through the lens of the old tools (speaking), an error we still make today.

Writing actually provided a lot of benefits, allowing us to bridge the distances between people (oral communication could only happen in close proximity—at least in Plato’s day); and writing allows us to reflect and ruminate later at our own pace and repeat ideas until we understand them.

But as is often the case, the improvements made by a technology can also cause other problems. By the time Seneca arrives on the scene, writing had grown to the point of the great library of Alexandria and the new challenge was how to handle the increased libraries and mailing. People were awash with info, but not necessarily knowledge.

In an age saturated with info, we have to pare down and decide what is most important or necessary. The paradox of information is that the more there is available, the harder it is to be truly knowledgeable.

In 15th centuryEurope, Gutenberg’s printing press caused another radical technological shift, changing reading methods from a public, shared activity to a private one, and increasing the type and quantity of information available to the masses. By Shakespeare’s day, the printing press had made the proliferation of reading materials overwhelming. Powers points out: “Over and over in history, new technologies arrive that play to our natural maximalist tendencies. At the same time, quietly but persistently, there’s a need to find balance.” (154-55). This balance was found by using another “new” tool, a reusable “tablet” that allowed a person to jot down notes and then erase them later. This offered a way for people to pare down.  Much like in Seneca’s day, people felt the need to find a way to slow down and sift through what was really important.

What tools will we provide our students with that will help them sift through the plethora of information and help them deal with the feeling of being overwhelmed?

Stay tuned for the next installment featuring Franklin, Thoreau, & McLuhan.

Collaboration Fluency

In their book Literacy is Not Enough: 21st Century Fluencies for the Digital Age, Crockett, defines and explains the importance of collaboration fluency:

“More and more, working, playing, and learning in today’s digital world involves working with others. It is the spirit of collaboration that will stimulate progress in our global marketplace, in our social networks, and in our ability to create products of value and substance. Collaboration fluency is the ability to successfully work and interact with virtual and real partners. The 5 Es of Collaboration fluency are: 

  • Establish the collective, and determine the best role for each team member by pinpointing each team member’s personal strengths and expertise, establishing norms, and the signing of a group contract that indicates both a collective working agreement and an acceptance of the individual responsibilities and accountability of each team member.
  • Envision the outcome, examining the issue, challenge, and goal as a group.
  • Engineer a workable plan to achieve the goal.
  • Execute by putting the plan into action and managing the process.
  • Examine the process and the end result for areas of constructive improvement.”

At the beginning of the year, to get my freshmen warmed up to writing essays (a scary task for most students, especially since it is their first essay of their first high school English class!) I had my students write a collaborative essay using google docs. Before we jumped into the writing portion though, we first brainstormed our ideas about our topic (**ENVISION**)  through a Harkness discussion in which I and another student took notes on what was said by everyone at the table. Then I sifted through the notes and the next day showed the students the notes and we talked about what ideas they seemed to focus on more than others. From our discussion and notes, we mapped out an outline,(**ENVISION**) then divided up the labor (**ENGINEER**), assigning three to four students responsible for writing each body paragraph, intro, conclusion because we found that there was too much lag time if everyone tried to type on the same part of the essay at the same time.

By sharing the document with everyone in the class, all students could see what others were writing and respond to the writing by using the chat box feature. (**EXECUTE & ENVISION**) The chat box feature was the best part of this experience. Before the lesson, we talked about what constituted appropriate comments. Students had to understand that this task was different than texting friends or posting a comment on twitter. (**ESTABLISH**) I was delightfully surprised by how well they handled this chat box. I wish I had saved some of their comments, but I can sum them up and categorize them as follows:

1. Students demonstrated awareness of an essay’s requirements before we had even talked about such things with posts such as: “We still don’t have a topic sentence yet? Can someone help write that?” or “This paragraph is only four sentences. It needs to be longer.”  (**ESTABLISH**)

2. They also demonstrated they knew their strengths and weaknesses (**ESTABLISH**).  One student would post something along the lines of: “Can someone help me proofread this? I don’t know why but it sounds wrong.” Another student would respond “I can proofread it for you.”

3. They were also really encouraging of other’s ideas and helped each other find support for points made or push each other farther with posts such as: “Great example Sue! Can I add the part about the TV too?”; “What about the end of the book? That doesn’t fit what you just said.” ( **ESTABLISH**)

What I find by reflecting back on the experiencing now with the knowledge of the five Es of collaboration in mind, is that we don’t move through these steps linearly. Collaboration requires us to continually circle back and establish or reestablish our accountability to and  acceptance of others in the groups. In the process, we find we may have to re-envision and re-engineer as well, taking into consideration new found variables and skills present in our group members and in the task itself.

What I liked about using Google docs was not only that it was a safe way for kids to ease back into writing at the beginning of the school year, but it also promoted the kind of community building skills that I value in my classroom and that Heritage Hall values as a school. It dovetailed nicely into the Harkness method I use for class discussions, because we were able to use our discussion of what is appropriate communication skills to have online to what is appropriate communication skills to demonstrate in class person to person. (**EXAMINE**)