Saturday, April 26, 2008

Cell Phones in the Classroom?

To ban or not to ban? Whether it is nobler in the end to embrace the cell phone as a learning tool or banish it to the locker where it can safely sit untill the end of the day. Every school seems to tackle these issues in different ways. Some schools ban even the presence of the cell phone, while some choose a path more geared towards managing their presence. For example, some schools allow students to use cell phones during lunch but they must remain out of site and off during the rest of the day. Like many issues, there is no cookie cutter solution to the problem.

What about viewing phones as a learning tool? Do they have a use in the classroom? There is a growing number of educators who are using phones as a learning tool. Below are a few ideas. Before we start, a great resource on the topic is the blog of Liz Kolb, a PhD student at the University of Michigan. Her blog cell phones in learning is a true treasure.

Let's look at the value of five simple tools and their classroom applications:, Gcast, Chacha, Google, and Jott. These powerful tools are all free of cost and I'd bet almost every student in your class knows how to use them already. Drop allows students to store and save digital media that they've captured with their phone. A student takes a picture or a short video clip with their phone and then sends it to their drop box. Sharing the url allows anyone from the class to access the drop. Applications? Think about a group of students on a field trip with the end project of making an album of their learning experience on the trip. Another use would be projects involving interviewing various people. Students could take a pic of their interviewee, record the audio on their phone using a tool I'll share later, and Drop it all in the same place for sharing.

Gcast: Good and bad with this one but if used well it replaces the need for a digital recorder. Gcast offers free accounts where you can register your phone and then record audio directly in digital form as a podcast that can be shared if desired. Students with unlimited minute phone plans could easily use their phone to record classroom lectures. If we allow digital recorders why not the phone? Interview applications would also apply. Some teachers might fear being recorded but come on, is there anything in that classroom that shouldn't be recorded? We certainly hope not.

Chacha: All I can say about Chacha is Wow! Chacha, founded in Indianapolis, adds the power of web searches with the intelligence of people. You can search Chacha on the web but you can also use your phone to call 1-800-2chacha and ask a question. Chacha records the question emails your audio file to a chacha agent who searches the web for you and texts you an answer. It takes a minute or two but it is all free and amazingly accurate. Imagine students using their phones to look up answers in class. If you don't do anything else today, use your cell phone right now and ask Chacha a question.

Google: Everyone knows of google as a powerful search engine but you can also register your phone with google and send text message questions to google and google will text you back again for free with the answer. Pretty cool and usually a little quicker than chacha but usually not the same quality answer.

Jott: Jott has many applications. Jott essentially records a voice call from your phone converts it to a text message and emails and sends a test message to the number of many people you designate. One growing use of Jott is communicating homework assignments. A teacher can program all her students in a Jott list and call it 3rd hour Math. She or a designated student can call Jott and record the homework each day. You can even add parent emails to the list and make sure they are notified as well. Our coaches have taken an affinity to Jott for communicating with their teams quickly. Our girls soccer coach uses Jott to communicate new practice times and unexpected changes. Pretty cool!

Below is a survey for your school's current policy regarding cell phones. Please click below to help us share our current practices. In next week's post I'll share the results.

Cell Phone Survey

Monday, April 21, 2008

Unleashing the Power of TED

All of us have seen presentations that dull our intellect and shorten our lives. We cope and endure often times by giving the occasional head nod and then staring at the floor believing that in this case your closed eyelids might be construed as concentration. I hope we've all also had the opposite experience. It can actually happen. I've stumbled across something interesting that you might have already heard of but I find completely addicting and it is called TED. It is just one more little example of how technology can alter the classroom experiences are students experience.

What is TED? The better question is what isn't TED. TED is an annual conference held in Monterey California that focuses on Technology, Entertainment, and Design. TED was founded by Richard Saul Wurman and Harry Marks in 1984 with the intention and mission of sharing "ideas worth spreading".

To be asked to be a TED presenter is a very prestigious honor. TED's philosophy is that every idea worth sharing should be able to be explained in under 18 minutes. Why am I sharing all of this with you? TED's main focus in on sharing ideas which is what we do in education. TED's website contains 18-minute presentations on thousands of different topics. You can search by subject or presenter. No more need to pay the $6,000 annual membership fee to TED to attend the conference. To be fair many of the archived videos have only sound. You can find the author and then search for them on and thanks to other nerds like me they've been copied and posted there for you to use with your students.

TED talks are available in a wide array of topics and you can find many that have direct links with what we are doing in our classrooms. The videos make great discussion starters for a variety of classes.

I've posted an example of a couple of TED talks below. One is an incredible "mathmagica" deal and the other is a presentation on whether or not education as we know it kills creativity. It's interesting to say the least and the speaker is British which makes the audio even more fun to hear.

How could you use TED in class? How could you use TED as part of homework assignments? Could we run our own TED-like conference with students competing to share their ideas? Imagine connecting our various high schools through our own TED like seminar live on USTREA. Lots of creative potential from TED. Give it a look and share your thoughts.

ARthur Benjamin: Lightning calculations and other "Mathemagic"

Ken Robinson "Do Schoools Today Kill Creativity?"

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Intervention Strategies That Work

This post begins the conversation on intervention strategies for underperforming students. What are some ideas for increasing attendance and performance in those at risk students that we all have in our buildings? Below are some ideas we've stumbled upon and would like to share. We know there are many other ideas out there as well. If you would like to share please comment below.

Dealing with Struggling Students
A large percentage of our time is spent dealing with issues surrounding those students who don't seem to fit with the program. We are all familiar with and can probably name a dozen or so students whose inability to attend school on a regular basis, turn in adequate amounts of work, and just get along put them at risk for failure. We come up with different strategies to help these students but many schools still operate with a system whose safety nets are only used once failure has been established: notification to parents of only D's and F's or taking away athletic privileges once a student has failed. Often times teachers compound the problem and take no accountability for student failure by viewing their job as the great dispenser of content specific knowledge. Below are some of the many strategies that effective schools are implementing to help address underperforming students. As administrators we can ignore the problem and continue to operate schools focused on teaching instead of student learning or we can advocate and create programs to help all students learn. In the end it always comes back to us and the direction we choose to pursue.

Early Intervention - An ounce of Prevention
Many schools try to address the problem by being proactive with their incoming Freshmen class. Once enrollment is determined for the coming school year, schools choose to survey teachers and parents of the incoming class to identify those students who struggle with chronic absenteeism, a lack of study/test taking skills, and display a strong tendency to not turn in work. These students are invited to summer sessions on the various aspects of high school life. Students are treated in a respectful way and provided with strategies to make their transition to high school effective. In certain circumstances attendance and homework contracts are often agreed upon before a student ever enters high school. School counselors or support teams armed with the knowledge of which students need monitoring begin tracking from day one attendance rates as well as missing assignment rates. These early interventions go a long way in preventing students from falling into a path for academic failure.

Homework, homework, homework
When many of us field calls from concerned parents, at the core of much of the academic failure is the inability or lack of effort students show with homework assignments. The problem is compounded by teachers who dictate individual policies that award no credit for late or missing work. Take a look at your own failure lists and see how many of those students currently failing a class are failing because of missing or late work. Don't be surprised if that number is over 95%. So what can we do? What strategies can we use to increase the rate of homework?

Every school hopefully engages in dialogue over the meaning of homework. Teachers utilizing best practice are not assigning mountains of busy work in which they have no intention of grading. If homework assignments are engaging and authentic, the rate of compliance goes drastically up. Presuming this is already the case (I know this is a big presumption) what can we do? We know our teachers hound and our counselors sit these young people down and explain what will happen if this continues. Does this work? Does the rate of homework compliance go up after these meetings or is it more of the same? Odds are these students have heard the same speech over and over to no avail.

One interesting strategy involves setting concrete goals for homework compliance rate and to couple that goal with a parent contract. As Catholics, we believe parents are the primary educator of their child. One effective strategy we've seen is for an academic counselor to sit down with a family and students and enter into the following type of agreement. Mom and dad agree to suspend driving and phone privileges until student x's homework compliance rate climbs from 50% to 95%. Once the rate is maintained for a few weeks privileges are restored. Yes, this is not a pleasant experience for student x, but if we are serious about helping this student achieve it can be very powerful.

Attendance, attendance, attendance
Ever deal with that handful of students whose parents seem to chronically call their child in absent. The family claims to value education and appreciate school but for some reason little Susie can only make it three out of five days. Every situation is unique and some students do legitimately struggle with serious emotional or physical health conditions that limit their ability to attend daily. On the other hand we all can probably name those students right now that do not fit this bill. An effective strategy can be to keep open the possibility of attendance contracts if student attendance falls below a predetermined rate. Monitor attendance monthly with an attendance committee. Once again, if a student demonstrates a problem, the school can partner with the family to come up with a creative incentive-based contract to help with compliance. Leaving the door open to student specific interventions can be a powerful tool. The star baseball player that can't seem to make it to school in the Fall is highly motivated when ineligibility for baseball is a reality. The senior with a lenient parent who wants to enjoy the nice weather will not look kindly upon missing prom.

The other game is the reward game. Students with a great attendance rate receive certain benefits like being waived from finals or being granted open lunch privileges or other such increased freedoms. Every school is unique and every school has its own set of issues with their chronically absent students. The one sure thing is that doing nothing will not bring different results.

Too Little Too Late
So what do you do if it's April and a junior named Billy is academically failing four classes? More of the same probably isn't going to work. Maybe the student will pull it out in the end. Maybe a sappy teacher or two will reach into their heart and pull out the old miracle mercy pass. But then again maybe not. Some schools have had good results with the "slash and capture" strategy. This involves dropping the class the student is least likely to pass to provide a supervised study period where the student can focus daily on making up missing work. If a student is carrying a 50% in junior spanish and can't make it why prolong the agony? Withdraw pass and put them in an environment where they can be successful.

A similar strategy is "homework amnesty days". I'm not too big on this one personally because it has to be a surprise to be effective and should be practiced on a student by student basis. It works by a students various teachers agreeing to give credit for all late work if it is turned in on a set date. Mom, dad, and student are made aware of the deal and the ball is in their court. Works for many a student.

Using Data to Assess Effectiveness
The best way to know if what you are doing is working is to use data. After the intervention is in place does the rate of absenteeism go down? Does homework compliance increase? Do grades rise? You can only tell if you measure the baseline date first. If the intervention isn't working it's time to try something more drastic.

The Big Shift
Most of these interventions are a shift in thinking from teaching focused models to a focus on student learning. Teachers need to accept the premise that they are there to facilitate student learning not create automatic systems that are easy for them. How many teachers who refuse to accept late work or provide some type of penalty do so because it is easier for them? How many of these same teachers would appreciate the administrator who refuses to sign an employment agreement with them for the next school year because they turn it in two minutes too late. It would be a fun game to play. Most of us want to be treated in a reasonable way. Our students deserve the same.

The movie below is a classic that explains the dilemma we all face. I'm not sure who I side with but I love the dialogue. I think you'll recognize it.

Pictures from Flickr and Flickr.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Catholic Conscience in the Conceptual Age

This post is a follow up to last week's post about the coming conceptual age. It aims to spark the conversation about our Catholic obligations in the coming age.

As globalization knocks down borders consumers are left with more and more options. Prices are lower and variety abounds. A weekend jaunt to an area megastore such as Walmart is the only field trip one needs to see what variety globalization has brought. As Catholic educators what roll do we play in preparing our next generation to contribute to our American culture? What moral and ethical questions does globalization raise that Catholic education should address?

When purchasing a cup of coffee we have a variety of choices. We can go with a homemade brew of our favorite brand. We can roll through a Dunkin Donuts for a cup of their smooth Arabica bean blend. Or we can visit the neighborhood Starbucks for some scalding hot rich Robusta flavor. For those of us who have been lucky enough to travel abroad we realize that most of the world wakes up to horrible instant coffee in the form of Nescafe.

How many of us put much though into what we buy and how we make purchases. Does our Catholic conscience weigh on our choice? Do we purchase the product from a company that is "socially responsible" who guarantees a fair trade price or do we hunt for the bargain basement price?

Many of these questions are tied to Catholic teachings on social justice. These teachings arise out of many papal encyclicals and have come to be summarized in the following seven themes: 1. Sanctity of human life and the dignity of the person 2. Call to family, community, and participation 3. Rights and responsibilities 4. Preferential option for the poor and vulnerable 5. Dignity of work and the rights of workers 6. Solidarity and 7. Stewardship and care for God's creation. Taken as a whole the propose a beautiful view of the human person and human society. Embracing them is where the rubber meets the road in terms of putting our faith into action in the modern world.

As faith leaders in our buildings we have an obligation to ensure that these teachings are taught and put into practice. We have an obligation to model them for our students. We live in complicated times and putting these seven principles into action is often a formidable task.

Like many high schools we address these issues within out theology curriculums. But are we addressing these issues across the curriculum> Do our economics teachers understand Catholic teachings on free markets and fair trade? Do our history teachers and those who teach current events frame the discussion in terms of the principles above? As administrators do we live these principles in the choices we make? Where do our school uniforms come from? Do we use candy bar sales as a fund raiser without knowing the origin of the chocolate? What products do we sell our students? How are our school endowments invested? Are there screens in place? Or should we bother? Does worrying about all of this just make us neurotic?

I don't have all the answers but If we can start the dialogue on these issues I think we could all share good ideas with one another. One idea our school will begin implementing next fall is a fair trade coffee bar for our students in the morning. Working with our friends at Catholic Relief Services through their "fair trade" distributorships we will be providing coffee to our staff and students at reasonable prices. By purchasing the beans directly from CRS assisted cooperatives we will be helping to guarantee fair trade prices while raising consciousness about social justice issues.

Pictures courtesy of Flickr