Sunday, September 29, 2013

Six Lessons about Textbook Digital Alternatives- from Students Perspective

I've been working without a textbook this semester and discovered that my students do not read/ consume the media I included. My students are preservice teachers and I teach them teaching methods for reading and writing- a key area.

I decided to take Tricia's idea (more about that in a future post) and open the topic for discussion with my students. We set up a circle around the room and established rules for discussion: open, respectful to all, no grade repercussions, everyone has to contribute. I actually found it hard to phrase my concern about media consumption and what I wanted out of the discussion so I used a sort of a think aloud
sharing my goals and hopes for the no books approach but also reminding them that this innovation and it simply might not be optimal practice.

My students reaction was interesting. They made a few points:
1. They really prefer the digital resources. They all said that the variety of resources and the practical application examples are extremely helpful. I include high quality websites (e.g., reading rockets) and articles from practitioner journals (e.g. The Reading Teacher).

2. They like classroom example videos the most. This was one of the main reasons I wanted digital resources the peeks at models different than their cooperating teachers can open up new ideas and break the first axiom of pre service teachers that states: When there is a dissonance between method classes and student field experiences the impact of method instructors is positively correlated with pre-service teacher achievement. Classroom videos help bring more evidence to the alternatives I am trying to bring to their attention.

3. They would like more chances to discuss and organize the information in class. The set of materials do not connect like a well organized textbook. Frankly they are not used to making these connections especially when different sources use somewhat different vocabulary. I believe that it is an important skill to learn as a professional but it requires some practice.

4. Sometimes they just "forget", or prioritize differently but that is true of traditional materials as well. We always knew they weren't always reading but with digital resources I have evidence. I do not want to turn the evidence into grading though- mostly because it can be easily "gamed" by opening files without actually engaging students.

5. Some often print out shorter pieces so they can comment. Students have obviously not used digital commenting options for consuming different media. This is something that they need to learn (and we must teach) since they will most likely have to teach this skill to their own students!

6. Some find long written pieces (in PDF) hard to follow digitally. (goes back to point 5).

Together we came to some ways we can improve learning using these resources.
       I go over the assigned media in the class session before it is due. I briefly explain emphases and what I expect them to gain and provide some key vocabulary. This has been hard to remember but since then I have done it in 2 out of 3 meetings.
       We established a discussion board for questions about the reading to be posted before beginning of class. Students can either post their own questions or vote to support others questions. I have used this method extensively in my summer classes that I flipped to create "just in time" teaching.  I spend 10-15 minutes at the front end of class responding to questions that emerged from media consumption (for example- "the video showed how to do think alouds with fifth graders, how can you do it in first grade?"). The questions that I do not have time to respond to in class will be answered online through direct responses to posts (potentially too labor intensive) or a short video summarizing ideas.
      I will also try to avoid very long pieces (text or video) and establish a way for my students to evaluate the content and their satisfaction with it (still working on that one). The last piece is helping students find ways to comment on digital resources electronically maybe through a student user group...

Still work to be done.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Textbooks Alternatives and Despair

In my search fo better ways to teach I have challenged myself to teach this semester without textbooks. In my four classes I use no textbooks (although I do use two content books). Instead I use a series of freely available resources from professional organizations, libraries, YouTube etc. The idea was to tailor learning to students of the 21st century adapting to their media consumption behaviors. At the same time since all of my students aim to become elementary teachers this serve as a demonstration of a possible future in which education can choose a digital option that is not tied to one of the large curriculum companies.

As such I also imagined my role in the classroom changing from the authority on content to being the person who connects all the pieces to a meaningful schema.

A month in I have some neat mixed media in folders on LMS, I am happy enough with the resources. This is where despair kicks in. I spent a lot of time planning resources and approaches- putting items I think are really exceptional BUT when I try to get discussion going in my class I am met with blank stares. A quick check of student activity online shows that they are not consistently accessing the materials. Heck even materials students create for themselves and others as part of the learning are not really accessed...

This is where despair creeps in. The empty stares and quiz results tell me they are not consuming the media, that they do not know core ideas beyond what was discussed in class.

When I try and analyze why I have a few ideas. The first is that this is a new practice and students have been conditioned to consider online resources as somehow "lesser" or supplementary. Without a textbook class becomes the main event and without students being well versed it serves more like a lecture since they have no clue what I am talking about.
The second is that this is actually like textbooks that students often skip reading. While less dramatic this option is exactly one of the things I am trying to fight against.
The last options is that the materials lack a coherent structure and thus students are lost as they try to engage and they give up.

As I try these new ideas I am modeling to my students how one grapples with innovation and less than stellar outcomes so despair is not really a constructive option. Instead I will start an open discussion in class addressing my students as learners and teachers and hear what they think and suggest. I usually have an open conversation at the end of class when we know each other well, and I get some pretty honest feedback I use to redirect my class. This time it may worth trying to do so earlier, although I am facing the danger of collective negativity, that is the ability of one or two negative (but strong) personalities to influence events.

So, this thursday I will set chairs in a circle and be honest with my students hoping that they can learn from my mistakes... Deep breath.