Article on Sciam Guest Blog: Research in the Digital Age

Our article in Scientific American addresses the problem of students dealing with the massive amounts of information found on the Internet. As history teachers, we’ve had to incorporate even more source analysis into our curriculum.
Research in the Digital Age: It’s More Than Finding Information.


Rote Learning or Authentic Assessment?

Each year, the sixth grade students at our school lead a Shabbat morning service. They read from the Torah, lead the prayers and blessings, and share their ideas about the concepts behind the service. All this is the result of a great deal of preparation in class; students learn trope so that they can read from the Torah, reflect and write about the meaning of prayers and their connections to them, and learn the words and melodies to familiar and unfamiliar prayers.

We have struggled with this in the past–devoting so much time in class for what on some level looks like rote learning (when, at our cores, we are very invested in the constructivist/critical thinking learning models)–but there is no doubt that the result is always beautiful and transcendent.

We were trained in the Understanding by Design method–a model of teaching and learning that posits assessments must be authentic i.e. like a real-world situation in order for them to have meaning, retention, and transference for the students.

That being said, isn’t this Shabbat service the most authentic of assessments?  Despite the fact that it looks like memorization, students are learning the skills to participate in any Jewish Shabbat service that they attend.  This skill they will use in the next year –which will bring them many many Bnai Mitzvah services and celebrations– but even more so, this is a skill they can use the rest of their lives.

It raises the constant tension in Jewish education about keva (routine) vs. kavannah (spirituality). Sometimes there is a benefit in just learning the motions– because once you learn the motions, then you can start thinking on a higher level and bring yourself to a deeper spiritual place. It is hard to reach a place of meaning during a worship service if you are stumbling through the words, or feel unsure of yourself. Now that our students have honed their skills at participating in a Shabbat service, they are in a place where they will be better setup to find that spiritual place as they mature.

Week of Conferences: Part 1

So this past week, Shara and I have been to a few conferences. When I say Shara and I, I really mean that Shara went to the biggie conference (NAJDS) and I went to a smaller scale one (Common Sense Media’s “Gender & Digital Life” conference).

So, this will be a two-part post.

The Common Sense Media Conference
We’ve been fans of the San Francisco based Common Sense Media for awhile now.  We use their Test Before You Trust worksheet with the students when we talk about bias and researching information on the Internet (more on this later) and have found it to be very useful in the classroom.

That’s why I was excited to attend this workshop.

While the backbone of it was a kind of explanation and validation of mainstream sociological and psychological theories (gender as a social construct, etc.,), it did raise a few questions for me: Are gender stereotypes online exacerbated by the Internet or are they a reflection of the students’ reality?
What are some ways that we can make students aware of gender disparity and shift their behavior? Are some of the ways that our students self-objectify on social media harmful for their developing psyche? How can we engage parents in a meaningful conversation about how students can use social media in a responsible way?

And most importantly: How do I apply my new knowledge to my classroom/school?
Common Sense Media has a curriculum for this, but I wonder if it is possible to integrate some of their ideas into what we are doing already.

My Big Question:
The big idea that I kept thinking about when I left the conference was not necessarily about gender and social media, but social media itself.

When I went to the conference I had just come from teaching a class where the students make pretend Facebook pages (using Edmodo) for four founders of the United States: Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison, and Adams. Students then collaborated in teams trying to figure out what to post from the perspective of Thomas Jefferson/Alexander Hamilton/James Madison/John Adams about important issues at that time (the Great Compromise, the Three-Fifths Compromise, the National Bank, the Federalist Papers, etc.).
And then they commented on each other’s posts:

My question: we kind of encourage the students to argue with each other–respectfully–on these topics (as the characters, of course) in order to help them to clarify their person’s perspective. This activity could end up mirroring the negative aspects of social media. In the picture, Thomas Jefferson is calling Hamilton “pig filth.” While this may reflect the tone of the discourse of the time, it is certainly not representative of how we want students to talk to each other in real life or on social media. After, we stopped for a moment and talked about the line between argument and attack.

Is it ethical to do this activity? Even though the students are more engaged than they usually are when discussing content?

I was thinking that maybe we could use a student analysis of this process to bring up some of the issues that social media brings up in terms of relationships and how the students speak to each other. This could be a jumping-off point for discussing digital citizenship. 

Does anyone have thoughts or suggestions?

Tweeting in Public

In our most recent article on the Scientific American guest blog, we discuss educators using Twitter for professional development purposes and how important it is to be involved in this conversation. 
However, is understandable that many schools may be a little wary of their teachers blogging and posting on Twitter. After all, even more than something like Facebook, these things are completely public. In theory, parents, students, and the whole world can see what is being written. 
That being said, when you are an educator, it is implicit that you are going to need to follow some rules when interacting in a public forum–whether it be personally on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Pinterest, etc., or professionally on any of those sites.
1. Never ever say anything negative about a particular student, parent, teacher, administrator, etc. (duh, but you know, sometimes these things need to be said. 🙂
2. Don’t use names, work, or photos of students or parents without permission
3. Make sure that your tone is professional–always remember that anyone may be reading this
4. Never say anything you wouldn’t want your boss or a parent to read
5. Despite personal feelings, try to keep your tone neutral on political or other hot-button issues
6. Personal stays personal (Obviously on Facebook you can be personal if you’ve set your privacy settings so only friends have access, but even then, always keep in mind rule 4.)
7. Remember you are a role model– The transcript of this Slate podcast discusses a teacher tweeting “inappropriately,” but also raises the question about what teachers’ roles are in social media…interesting read/listen.
Really if you just remember rule #4 you’re probably fine. 🙂
Don’t let the public nature of social media keep you from sharing what works in your school or classroom with other educators! The world of teaching and learning is only getting more open and transparent–it’s important to stay current.

Teaching, writing, and trying to figure out what's what in this evolution of learning