Resources and discussion for parents, teachers and young people navigating the evolving landscape of the digital world.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

MockiPEDIA Part 2: 500 emails and counting...

It is now the beginning of the third week of the MockiPEDIA project. To call the last few weeks exciting would be an understatement. The project has taken off and Rob and I have learned a whole lot along the way. Read on and feel free to offer suggestions!

Learning to let go

The most exciting thing about this project is also the most challenging for the instructors. Inherent in constructivist theory is the idea that the creativity, desire and initiative of students be the conductor of learning. In traditional classrooms it is the teacher that controls, leads, sets the pace and doles out knowledge and information. Constructivist theory sees the teacher as facilitator, assisting students as they pose questions, run into road blocks and, in some cases, go bushwhacking through uncharted territory. That said, Rob and I have been teaching for a while and we tried to anticipate areas where students would need some guidelines. Even with this structure the student experience is much farther along the continuum toward constructivism than a typical project.

While monitoring the contributions that students make, sometimes I've been tempted to step in and make suggestions. It is difficult to hold back when I notice an incorrect interpretation of an historical event or research going in what I perceive as the wrong direction. So far, I've usually refrained from offering feedback. One of the goals of this project is to create instances where students must decide when and how to correct each other, provide feedback and work collectively to improve the site. Learning to do this tactfully is an important part of becoming a positive digital citizen. If I step in at every instance I notice an error or problem, I'm denying students the ability to manage themselves and work through the conflicts that can arise when critiquing the work of peers. Rob and I are available for advice, support and suggestions as students bring concerns to us. So far, they have stepped up to the plate and gone beyond initial expectations. Students have handled conflict well and haven't been shy at all about editing the work of their peers, two areas I was fearful would hinder work on the project.

By taking the initiative to move beyond, and deeper, than the initial set of topics we laid out on the site, students have begun to mold the MockiPEDIA into their own creation. I'm learning right along with them as they explore new events, discover little-known historical figures and dive into topics that inspire their inner historical detective. By this time in a typical research unit, I'm trying to help kids fight the effects of topic-fatigue. Instead, I'm happy to report that their interest is still growing. They are also learning about a much broader range of topics than they would have focusing their research in just one area, another goal of the project. Hooray!

Keeping students accountable

To monitor the work completed on the MockiPEDIA site, I've subscribed to changes using Google Apps. Each time a change is made and saved on the site, an email is sent noting the change including any additions and deletions. The email also lists which user made the changes. It's the primary tool we are using to track the work each student contributes to the site. Both the students and I are keeping a list of contributions on a chart, to be compared at the end of the project. So far, the amount of time needed to keep up with all the MockiPEDIA update emails in my box (500 and counting!) has been substantial. In the end, I suspect I'll spend more time managing site updates than I would have spend on a traditional project evaluating research notes and bibliographies at the conclusion of the unit. However, the extra time spent now is allowing me to see each student's progress and when the project is complete, the evaluation (and hours of grading) will be as well.

While I monitor site updates, Rob checks the "live" site to get a picture of the overall state of the MockiPEDIA. This is important because I am typically a few hours to a few days behind the current site status in checking the changes via email. In many cases a problem has already been addressed by the time I've noticed it in an email. I've been able to curtail my need to step in and offer suggestions because students have been handling the situations rather well on their own. Lagging behind them in checking email has actually been beneficial in allowing students time to notice and fix errors.

Which is more important: content creation or editing?

One of the dilemmas Rob and I are facing relates to student accountability. As we expected, some students are drawn to research and writing and others to editing tasks. When we set up the evaluation method for the unit, we took this into account and are requiring students to contribute in a variety of ways to earn points. However, each individual student has a lot of flexibility in how he or she contributes to the site. In a couple of cases, students have taken on the role of editor to a much higher degree and have spent the majority of their time and effort editing the work of their peers. Some of the edits are designed to make the formatting consistent and others focus on word use, sentence structure, grammar and spelling. The question we continue to ask is how important is one type of contribution compared to another. My teacher-gut really wants to emphasize content creation but other types of contributions may be just as valuable. Some students certainly believe so and have put significant effort into "policing" the site.

Will we still be as excited in another week? Stay tuned for next installment - MockiPEDIA Part 3: The Plagiarism Police

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

To Kill a MockiPEDIA: An Experiment in Constructivism - Part 1

For the last five years, Rob Scotlan, the eight grade English teacher, and I have been co-teaching a research unit focusing on topics in African American history that contribute to the experiences of the characters in the book To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Each year, the goal of the project is to go beyond researching a single topic. We achieved this goal, sometimes more successfully than others, by finding ways for the students to share their research with their classmates. When they finish reading the book they use their research and that of their classmates to write an analytical essay incorporating historical context in their analysis. Oral reports, individual and group work, PowerPoint presentations and Moodle tools have been used as research project "products" to try to meet the goal of sharing information and understanding found during the research process. This year, we tried something new, but may have stumbled upon the perfect solution in the process.

One school-week ago we launched To Kill a MockiPEDIA. Using the Google Apps for Education platform adopted this year, and building on skills already learned during a previous research and web site project in 8th grade history, we created a site and invited the entire 8th grade to edit it collaboratively. To give some guidance and to build a framework that would meet the goal of the project, we created a "skeleton" of the site by dividing topics in African American history by eras and adding sub-pages with topics we've used in past years. Students were provided a rubric with a list of different ways to contribute to the site with associated point values and expectations. We want each student to make a variety of contributions to a number of different topics. We expect them to use expert sources, as they would for any research project, and we value quality over quantity. Students will work on the site in class one day each week for the next seven weeks while also reading and discussing the book the rest of the week. Rob and I explained all of this to the students and then set them free...the results so far have been inspiring.

This project, more than any I've worked on before, follows a constructivist model. Rob and I are truly facilitating rather than instructing. Students are making decisions about what topics to research, adding new topics when they deem it necessary, identifying possible incidents of plagiarism, and negotiating speed bumps inherent in any collaborative project. Rob and I are enjoying our roles as advisers and facilitators. Although keeping students accountable and tracking their contributions has necessitated a bit of extra time and effort, the positives have far outweighed any negatives. Students are engaging in a real-world experience that has already created teachable moments in digital citizenship. Today, two students were working on the same topic and discovered information differed depending on the source they used. We discussed how to work through the problem and they decided whether to trust one source over the other or address the discrepancy within the article they were writing. Another student had to decide what to do when a paragraph written about one of the topics sounded very much like something he'd read in an article on a subscription database. Was it plagiarism or an accident and how should it be handled? We've coached all the students to view editing of their work by classmates not as a judgment or criticism, but simply a different perspective that will make the collective product better in the long run.

I plan to post an update each week on the progress of this project and the very similar seventh grade Shakespeare unit, Et Tu, PEDIA? (yes, they are studying Julius Caesar). Wish us luck and join us in our grand experiment. It's been a wild ride so far!

Next week: What we've learned so far and tracking student contributions...

The Impact of Media on our Children

Dimitri Christakis
Seattle Children's Hospital
Media Matters: What Parents Need to Know
Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH
George Adkins Professor of Pediatrics, UW
Director, Center for Child Health, Behavior & Development @ Seattle Children's Research Institute
Attending Pediatrician @ Seattle Children's Hospital

Spring Break was a welcome interruption to the work flow around here, but it's time to get back to business! March 23rd I attended Dr. Christakis' lecture referenced above at South Puget Sound Community College in Olympia. Though I can't write by hand faster than I can type, I wrote as many notes as I could on some borrowed paper balanced on my knee. This was a fascinating lecture, on a topic near and dear to my heart. Though much of the content was focused on early childhood and predominantly the influence of television, "media" comes in many forms, and I think that much of what was presented will only be exaggerated when we add all forms (besides television) to the mix. So here are my notes, the things I thought worthy of writing down to share. It's going to be presented here as a bullet list of highlights and quotes, and as I read through my own notes, I realize that they are not nearly complete and there are many holes. Some of these can be filled by the links I've added to journals, studies, articles, and the doctor's bio and book. If you have further questions about a particular topic, please leave a comment!

3 things we should get out of the presentation:
  1. Media is a real and powerful influence
  2. Media should be a tool, not a crutch
  3. Don't feel bad or guilty about using it, but use it wisely
Other facts and statistics to consider:
  • in 1950, there were 85 children's programs on television per week, 40% of which had NO ADVERTISEMENTS (can you imagine?)
  • by 1956, 75% of households had a television
  • today, 30-50% of preschoolers have TVs in their bedrooms
  • 1959 - 25 prime time kid shows per week
  • 1960 - rise of Saturday morning cartoons
  • 1970 - 75% of all programming is now on the weekends
  • Childhood has been "technologized" - in 1970 kids started watching TV around the age of 4, today it is at 4 months of age
  • "Media can have a profound impact, both good and bad."
  • the brain TRIPLES in size from birth to 2 years (how does exposure to media at early ages affect this development? Dr. Christakis is known for his studies on Baby Einstein videos and their detrimental affect on language acquisition)
  • ADHD currently affects 10% of US children
  • though ADHD certainly has a genetic component, Dr. Christakis' team conducted research based on the following hypothesis: preconditioning the mind to expect high levels of stimulation at early ages will lead to inattention in later life. Evidence supports this hypothesis.
  • boys are more affected by violence on TV than girls are
  • 100% of G-rated animated films contain violence
  • "All television is educational television...the question is, what is it teaching?"
  • TEENS: higher functioning is the last area of the brain to develop
  • planning, impulse control, and judgment are not developed yet
  • teens rely on the emotional rather than rational part of their brains
  • sexual scenes on TV have doubled since 1998
  • TV provides teens "scripts" for language and behavior. 50% of 10-13 year olds think that alcohol commercials depict real life
  • Develop a strategic plan: what do you want to get from media? What do you NOT want to get?
So this is what I wrote down amidst charts and graphs, video clips of Mr. Rogers and SpongeBob Squarepants, clever cartoons, and clever rats and mice exposed to media in the lab. My notes clearly attest that I'm spectacularly bad at multitasking (in this case, listening and writing at the same time), particularly when the content is moving quickly. So what to make of it all? Well, the quote in red above gets to the heart of the matter. Be aware of what your children are watching or where they are spending their time online. Watch television with them, so you have the opportunity to process what they are seeing, what messages they receive, how advertising is targeted at them, how television depicts violence, sex, relationships and conflict resolution.

Though Dr. Christakis didn't mention it, I would like to point you to Common Sense Media, a site that allows you to look up reviews and ratings for popular television shows, books, movies, music, apps, websites and video games.

Common Sense Media is dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families by providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice they need to thrive in a world of media and technology.

We exist because our nation's children spend more time with media and digital activities than they do with their families or in school, which profoundly impacts their social, emotional, and physical development . As a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization, we provide trustworthy information and tools, as well as an independent forum, so that families can have a choice and a voice about the media they consume.
What I like about Common Sense Media is that it doesn't just provide the ratings and reviews; it also provides "talking points" around which families can discuss these things at the dinner table. For example, here's one review for a popular Disney Channel show, recommended for kids age 9 and up:

This review of The Suite Life on Deck was written by Emily Ashby
Parents need to know that, like its popular parent series The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, this show is filled with content that's bound to entertain tweens but might leave parents rolling their eyes. The largely unsupervised teen characters engage in lots of mischief, discipline is virtually nonexistent, and no problem arises that can't be solved by the time the credits roll. One of the twins is pretty flirty and makes mildly suggestive comments, while another main character constantly gloats over her family's wealth and uses money and expensive gifts to control her peers -- her manipulations are played for laughs, of course, but they're still grating. Tween fans may need to be reminded that little of what they're seeing is relatable to most people's reality.
As a parent who notices the unsupervised teens and nonexistent discipline, I definitely fall into the eye-rolling category. Attached to the review, however, is this:
Talk to your kids about the media in their life. We have more tools and tips that can help
  • Families can talk about how real life differs from Zack and Cody's world. How is their lifestyle like a fantasy? Do they ever seem affected by anything serious -- like money, illness, or family struggles?
  • Kids: Do you ever worry about those things? Is there any part of Zack and Cody's life that you can relate to?
  • Tweens: Do you think you'd enjoy living in another country? If so, where would you go?
Television provides so many opportunities for conversation, sharing and learning. If our kids are watching it on their own, we are missing those opportunities.

More to come on this topic!