Monday, March 28, 2011

Portfolios-- A "Digital Can of Worms?"

I love home improvement shows. The homeowners decide on a fabulous renovation to turn their house into the house of their dreams. They work with a contractor and make a plan. But once they actually begin the process of tearing down walls they discover a problem- mold, termites, whatever. The problems are such that there can be no continuing with the planned renovation until the newly-uncovered dilemma is solved.

This is the perfect analogy for my experience this year piloting digital portfolios in grades K, 5 and 8. There is no possible way that I, or anyone, could have foreseen all of the questions and conundrums that would arise. Some were easily solved; others have required more research and development. Some were straight out of left field. I've taken to referring to the whole thing as a digital can of worms.

It's been an interesting journey so far, and I have been remiss in taking the time to reflect and share. How ironic that I can't seem to find the time to reflect on this process of becoming more reflective with students.

First of all, I feel like a pioneer. Maybe I am just not looking in the right places or asking the right people, but I am not finding a lot of teachers who are actually using digital portfolios with students. I have had a google alert set up for both "digital portfolios" and "eportfolios." My hope was to find examples of student portfolios and get ideas. While these alerts fill my reader, very few of them yield anything helpful. The examples I find are, by and large, created by adults. The few portfolios from younger students often look like they were started and then quickly abandoned. And I am starting to understand why.
I have also found several examples of "digital portfolios" that seem to be just exercises in using a blog or wiki for students to post work. There is no reflection on the work itself nor does there seem to be any attempt to select the student's best work. The space is more of a repository, and I wonder a bit about the thought behind the assignment of the portfolio. Even in these cases, it is usually high school and college age students.

Several times I have participated in #edchat on twitter. I figure that is a good place to find fellow educators who are also dipping their toes into the portfolio pool. Nada. When I ask about portfolios on twitter, I generally hear crickets....occasionally I get a retweet of my question or a teacher who says they are interested in using portfolios "next year." I started a digital portfolios group on the Curriculum 21 ning, again thinking that would be a relatively fertile place to mine for those who had information to share. The group has 39 members, which is very encouraging, but little hard data, portfolio samples or even detailed conversations. Again, it seems to be a case of people who are interested in getting started in the near future.

I hear a lot of talk about portfolios. I can only assume that there are people using them with students, but I haven't hit upon the right group. I am going to draw the conclusion, for now, that I am one of relatively few at these grade levels who is actively working with portfolios, and that I have quite a bit of helpful information to share for all those interested teachers. Maybe I can save them some of the difficulties for which I was unprepared.
I am not sure how best to share I simply state my conclusions, and skip over the "can of worms" or do I detail the whole messy path that led me to this point? I know that, personally, I like to know the reasons behind decisions, but I don't know if it's superfluous.
Consider this the introduction with more information to follow. If you are interested in seeing some sample portfolios from my students, here is a link to a kindergarten portfolio. Here are links to some 8th grade portfolios (any of these students would be very excited to receive a comment on their portfolio):

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My Life as a Reader

A few years ago, my father presented me with a very special gift. He had searched painstakingly, calling a number of used bookstores, to find a copy of The Big Tidy Up, the first book I ever "read" all by myself.
I still remember the opening lines:
"Jennifer knew as well as you
that everything has its place.
But she just didn't care a whit, a bit
So her room was a real disgrace."

I memorized the entire book at age 3 and from that moment on, was an incredibly avid reader.

My favorite outing as a child was to the public library. I could have spent all day, every day, wandering amongst the shelves. I would pick out a book, open it, and get lost. I would take home huge stacks of books and immediately dive in. I loved the Bobbsey Twins and the Nancy Drew series. My parents made rules. For example, I was not allowed to read at the dinner table. I was not supposed to read while walking.

Now, many years later, I am a teacher and mother. There were several reasons I chose to become a teacher; one of them was based in my love of reading. I love to share books and reading with children. As a 4th/5th grade classroom teacher, I read aloud to my students almost every day. As a mother of a 10-year old daughter and a 7 year-old son, I read aloud to my children almost every night before bed. I have even started reading aloud to my husband. The bookstore and the library are still two of my favorite places.
I attribute most of my academic success to reading. It was through reading that I really learned to write, spell, and love stories. Through reading I have improved my vocabulary and increased my knowledge about the world. Through reading I have learned about history, psychology and myself. Through reading I traveled to places and times, inhabited the minds of characters I might never get to meet.
I once had the pleasure of hearing Kurt Vonnegut speak. One thing he said that really made an impression was "Reading is meditating with someone else's mind."
I guess I really like getting into the minds and thoughts, imaginations and ideas of others.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Bats from A to Z

Note: This blog post was written by the 2nd graders. One of my goals for working with classes this year is to have the students reflect and share after completion of a project. They posted it on their class blog, however, that blog does not allow for comments from non-registered users. They would really love to receive comments, so please share with other teachers and students and let our 2nd graders know what you think of their work.

by Mrs. B's 2nd grade

It all started with a story. We read "Fast Food on the Fly," a story about bats, in our Wordly Wise book. We were so interested that we decided to write reports about different kinds of bats. We each chose our own bat, and they were all from Australia. We used the computers to research our bats, and we made a bat cave in the hallway where we displayed our reports.

We decided to create an ABC video to give people information about bats. Mrs. B and Ms. H showed us an example. Then we took a bat quiz. Next, we worked with a partner to brainstorm ideas using the alphabet organizer. We printed out the organizers with all of our ideas. Some letters were easier than others so we had to do more research to come up with a fact for each letter.

Once we decided the best fact for each letter and assigned the letters we used Pixie to write and illustrate our ideas. We went over them and checked to make sure they were correct and looked good. Then we recorded ourselves reading our facts. Finally, we published our video, and we are so excited to share it with you!

Some Reflections:

Reflection pyramid from Peter Pappas

Ayden: We met our goal by finishing the video and teaching everyone about bats. I learned facts about bats that a lot of grown-ups don't know.
Elad: I did this before when we did the values report because I had to look in a book. I can use this again when I do another report or project.
Eliana: It was important that we taught people new information about bats. I learned to work together without arguing.
Griff: I see a relationship with this project and the president reports because we had to research on the computer for both. In both of them we were teaching people. I feel that I learned a lot about bats. I see that there is so much I didn't know about bats.
Jona: Our class did really well. We edited and revised it. We had to take our time in order to make it really good. We used the computer and used typing skills. I learned more about bats and I liked using technology.
Natan: We worked well together.
Mrs. B: I was very pleased to see the growth from our very first project, the fire safety and prevention video, to this project. I think you are going to be very prepared for 3rd grade.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Dear Thinkquest

Dear Thinkquest,
I appreciate the opportunity to enter your international competition with my students. My 7th grade students have defined a problem and begun working on their project.
I wonder how upset they will be with me if we are unable to actually enter their project in the competition because I am unable to actually enroll our team. The problem seems to lie in the fact that our school does have a Thinkquest Projects account, (for which I am the administrator). Our "signing authority" is our former principal, who not only no longer works at the school, but no longer retains her school email address. Although I requested changing the signing authority on February 3rd, that request is still "pending." My application to coach a team is also pending the approval of the incommunicado ex-principal.

Silly me. I thought I could easily get help for this easy-enough-to-explain problem (surely other people have had a principal leave and had to request a new signing authority) by using your contact links on the website. To date I have sent 5 requests, via your website as well as directly by email. I did receive a response to two of my emails saying that I should have a response within 48 hours. That was over a week ago.

And then yesterday I received this email from "":

Dear ThinkQuest Coach,

We noticed you enrolled in the ThinkQuest International Competition 2011, but have not yet enrolled any teams.

Enrolling a team is easy! Just follow these steps:

  1. Log in to your ThinkQuest account.
  2. Click the "Competition" tab.
  3. Click the "Enroll a Team" button.
  4. You can come back and edit your team later if any information changes.

As a bonus, you will be entered in the Coach Sweepstakes when you enroll your first team. Each month, one lucky coach will receive an Apple® iPad™ 16GB.

For additional assistance with team enrollment, visit Online Help.

Kind regards,
Oracle Education Foundation

Um... thank you for your concern and offer of additional assistance? Really?

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Flat Classroom- Are We Really Ready?

Global Learning=Good
Global collaboration, global awareness, global connections.... these are some of the exciting possibilities of technology in education. Having students learn about, with and from their peers around the world has inspired some amazing projects like the Flat Classroom project and Around the World with 80 Schools. I believe in the power of education to build a more tolerant and peaceful world.
Last year, middle school students at our Jewish Day School had some amazing skype calls with students from Muslim schools. They compared prayer books and each group showed the other how they prayed. Afterwards, our students reflected in writing. Here is what one 7th grader wrote about that experience:
Interestingly, we discovered that Muslim and Jewish beliefs are very similar in certain
ways. We both have certain times to pray, traditional articles of clothing, forbidden foods, as well as so much more.

It is important to learn about other religions, to realize the similarities between all cultures around the world. We have to set aside our differences and look at the ways that we are all alike... Hopefully, one friendly interaction at a time, more and more people will begin to realize the similarities connecting people around the world.

The Project
When I heard, recently, about a project for students from around the world who speak both English and another language, I thought it was a good fit since our school has a dual-language program, English and Hebrew. The project organizer is a world language teacher in an English-speaking country who I feel I "know" in that twitter/blogger way and whose work I respect. The project uses food as a theme- sharing our foods and our languages. Liat, our fourth grade Hebrew teacher, agreed to work with me; the students were interested as well.

Let me make it clear that, while I have joined many of these projects, I have never organized one. I try to be a helpful participant, to stay on top of things and to contribute meaningfully, but I can only imagine the work that goes into actually organizing it. The organizer of this project decided that it would be more manageable to group schools into smaller clusters to allow for more extensive contact. Our school was "clustered" with one school in Australia and a second school in an Arabic nation. I was very excited to be partnered with the Arabic school. Because I believe that, through these types of projects we can teach peace by accentuating how much we are alike and by planting the seeds of understanding, I thought that having our school partnered with this school represented a unique opportunity.

As I have stated, our school is a Jewish school with an English-Hebrew curriculum. We have strong ties to Israel- the Israeli flag flies alongside the American flag, students sing the Hatikvah (Israeli national anthem) every morning, many of our teachers are Israeli.

It is widely known that there is a history of conflict and violence between Israel and its Arabic neighbors. It is truly a horrible situation that exists between these countries, and I can not claim to be an unbiased observer. Still I felt excited that our two classes might have an opportunity to talk about lunch and languages as part of a friendly school project.
It was not to be. Almost immediately after the cluster groupings were shared, I received another email saying that there was to be a change. That change was to separate our school from the Arabic-speaking school. I was disappointed but not surprised.

And then...
As part of the project, each school was to contribute a slide that showed a picture of a "typical" lunch in your country, as well as the name of the country written in your two languages. Here is the slide we shared:

Pretty benign, right? A PBJ sandwich with some cheese puffs- a typical lunch for kids at our school. It was interesting for our students to hear the comments as other schools reacted to our slide- they liked the sandwich, they didn't like the sandwich, the lunch looked unhealthy, etc.
In the course of sharing information about our school and viewing the media shared by the other schools, we visited the wiki page of the Arabic school. First we looked at pictures and video showing typical food from their country, which is located in the same part of the world as Israel. Liat, who is Israeli, pointed out the similarities between their food and Israeli food (more alike than different?) Then we watched an adorable video of the students reacting to the slideshow. Liat and I both noticed that all of the slides were shown except for the one from our school.
I had not reacted when our clusters were changed, but now I was upset. The teacher would not even allow her students to view the slide from our school? I felt that to purposely ignore one school went against one of the main goals of the project- cultural awareness.

I emailed the project organizer to share my feelings.
Today we watched the "reaction to the lunches" video from the school in ___, where they showed every slide except for the one we uploaded, which had some writing in Hebrew. What is the point of doing a "global awareness" project if not to promote tolerance, acceptance and eventually to teach the next generation that things like hatred and anti-semitism must be overcome?...I feel that no school in the project should be allowed to simply ignore another school because of language or culture. I am really upset by this... How do you teach 9-10 year olds that people in the world hate Jews so much that the adults will not allow the children to look at a slide that has Hebrew writing on it?

The resulting email conversation really opened my eyes and made me realize how sheltered and naive I am. This is from the teacher in the Arabic-speaking school (from an email she sent to the project organizer):
I do believe that we are really one world and one heart, no matter where we come from or what our religion is...We can't make any relation with Israel no matter what the relation is. It will be dangerous for me and for my family...I feel sorry not being able to communicate with her...but this is the situation in our country.
I can not imagine putting myself and my family in danger through my participation in a project, no matter what countries were involved. From my comfortable vantage point here in the US, I have been able to shelter myself from some truths about the world. I allowed myself to believe that all you need are good intentions, that individuals connecting could eventually change the world. I still believe in education and friendships, learning about others, tolerance and global awareness. I just feel incredibly naive and incredibly grateful that I live in a place where I am able to have such naivete. I am not the only one. From the project organizer (who lives on another continent):

When I made up those clusters I had no idea that having your two schools together would be a problem. When ___first emailed me I immediately thought that I should have been more aware and perhaps not put your two schools in the same group to begin with which is why I was so quick to change the is not a situation I am very familiar with...

Here is another point-of-view, from the Rabbi who is associated with our school:
Given the political climate in ______, this teacher may be justifiably fearful (as I’m sure that there would have been German teachers in the 30s). That being said, if the [project] folk can rationalize the discrimination (after all, this is not our school issuing Israeli political propaganda, but simply existing and being itself), it does quite the opposite of promoting co-existence. Participants in______ can’t have it both ways – global understanding . . . except for those whose right to exist we won’t acknowledge.
I find all of these reactions understandable and also confusing. I understand the emotions of fear, anger, denial and regret. I understand being unfamiliar with certain parts of the world and their problems. I don't understand what to do with it all.
Never would I want to put another teacher or her family at risk. Nor do I want my students to learn firsthand, through a school project, about hatred, discrimination, anti-semitism/anti-Israel or that the world can be a confusing, conflicted and violent place. It is especially difficult when these harsh sentiments are directed at them, as Jews and supporters of Israel.

To be honest with myself, I am nervous about posting this. It feels like I'm stirring up some dust that might turn out to be poison. However, I feel hopeful that something good might still come of it.