Archive | October, 2012

27 Million Dots (or Why Design Thinking Is Worth the Extra Effort)

27 Oct

As I sat in line waiting to buy some blue paint and Goo-b-gone, the time creeping past 8:00 p.m., I thought, “Does any of this really have anything to do with English class?” This year I began my sophomore English classes with a project on modern slavery, and even though we moved on to topics like Gatsby’s impossible dream and the nuances of parallel structure, the Modern Slavery Project is still going, taking more and more of my time.

This re-occurring unit is one of which I am very proud. I have written about our work in the past, and every year I attempt to reboot this project, I start by showing past work and asking, “Now…what do YOU want to do?”

For the past two years this has meant tweaking the basic pattern from previous years: students research an aspect of modern slavery, create a video PSA, and write letters to various organizations and individuals, all the while making connections to Harriet Jacob’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. This work is always engaging, interesting, and original, but this year I pushed my students to think about ways to amplify their voices and increase their impact.

I utilized some design thinking training that is part of Beaver’s in-house professional development. I built in more time to INSPIRE (a research stage of the design process), and we took our ideas through a longer process of iteration. My students were particularly keen to take our work beyond the classroom walls, and they devised some novel ideas to do so:

27 Million Dots: Make Your Mark

One section transformed a three story hallway in the building by painting 27 million dots to represent the total number of slaves in the world today. This idea is inspired by Paper Clips, the documentary about children at a Whitwell, TN middle school collecting six million paper clips to represent the six million lives lost in the Holocaust.  The students generated many ideas about how to best create a physical representation of such a large number, but the plan that emerged as most “doable” and having the most impact was the dots.

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Low Prep #Reading Quizzes that Are Quick to Grade

20 Oct

As an English teacher I must sometimes act as a gatekeeper. I care deeply about engendering a love of reading in my students, and I work diligently toward that end…but I also create situations where I just try to determine a very basic answer to a very basic question, “Did you read it or not?”

This step seems obvious, but many teachers leave this fundamental question to chance. They believe their students will read because they were told to read, but I argue that this kind of trust is actually a disservice to the learners in our classrooms. I am a very optimistic man who believes in second chances and basic human decency, but as an English teacher I am also a crusty, pragmatic troll guarding a bridge. If you didn’t read the book, you’re not getting by me. Let me explain…

I always give a reading quiz the day before I want to discuss the book. This simple step allows me time to determine who has read, and it gives unprepared students a bit of time to catch up. With these quizzes I check for basic reading completion one of three ways:

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Design Thinking: It’s Natural to Be a Bit Confused

11 Oct

Socratic Ignorance can teach us something about our attitudes toward Design Thinking. Socrates earned his rep for being a wise man by admitting, “I don’t know.” When he wanted an answer, he would go to the experts of his day and unleash a series of questions that eventually lead to the politician, economist, philosopher, teacher, butcher, or farmer replying, “I don’t know.” Of course, in the process of all his questioning, Socrates learned much, but he never saw knowledge as static. Instead, he applied a consistent method to an ever-moving target.

I know that, for me, the concept of design thinking can feel like a moving target. Ask ten people for a definition of design thinking, and you’ll receive ten different definitions. And, what is the difference between design thinking, studio learning, Project-based Learning (PBL), Problem-based Learning (PBL), experiential learning and Challenge-based Learning? Honestly, I don’t know.

I’m being cheeky, though. I do know…kind of. There are subtle differences between these various approaches, but I am beginning to think these differences don’t matter much. In fact, I think these various approaches are different “brandings” for a very elemental concept that most educators intuit to be true and effective and elegant:

When we give students real situations they must navigate and use timely feedback and provocative questions to guide students in revising work until it is truly original, personal, and professional…real learning happens.

I have spent considerable time in recent years reading, researching, observing, and questioning just what design thinking means in the context of the classroom. In the process, I have learned much about how I can create student-centered learning experiences that put the onus of critical decision making on the students, not me. In this post I share some of the most useful resources I have found:

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Occam’s Razor, Summer Reading Essays, and Google Docs

1 Oct

I am ashamed. Why do simple solutions often elude me? I have been using Google Docs for five or six years now, and one of the main beefs I have with the system is the highlighting tool. It seems like such a small thing, but there is not a way to leave the highlighting tool “on.” I want—desperately—to sweep my cursor across the page, highlighting text as if I had a physical highlighter in hand. Word allows this. Google Docs, however, requires several clicks and menu choices to highlight something, and the process slows things down considerably, especially for an English teacher who reads hundreds of essays in a year and is always on the hunt for ways to shave seconds off the feedback process.

Just last week I realized I have been ignoring a simple solution. I can simply use the comments keyboard shortcut [Option+COMMAND+M] to save considerable time. Now, I highlight my selection, hit a few keys, and then type a quick note: “error #.” It’s so much simpler…and I am a bit sickened by the time I have wasted.

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