Monday, September 24, 2012


As a high school Social Studies teacher, I will be asking my students to research. Students must be able to tell fact from fiction; and truth from propaganda. Students must be able to search primary documents and scholarly journals to find how fact and opinion can merge to provide powerful insight. My hope would be that students, by this time, have already been taught that plagiarism is wrong and must be avoided.

Of course, I will have to reinforce that. In any classroom, in any group setting in the world, there will be those present who think they can cheat and get away with it. I must first of all provide the model of proper research. I must be aware of all copyright and fair use policies and give my students a fair and legal teaching experience.

When I hand the ball to them, I must explain how important it is to do their own work; and then explain the consequences for plagiarism. I must make sure each student knows what plagiarism is and what it means. I must use all learning techniques, from written words to video, audio and online tools, to make sure no student  is left out of the learning process. This is always true, but vital at this point.

As they work through their research and writing, it is important that I allow them to work with group members, so teams can 'police' each other. I must work with the teams step-by-step to show them how interesting, fun and beneficial proper research can be. I believe if you make them aware of what the consequences are, show them the way to do it right, and connect what they are doing with the real world, this will go a long way to ensuring that a bare minimum of students try to plagiarize someone else's work.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Digital Storytelling Process

Like many, I am struggling with certain parts of the digital storytelling process. The writing is second nature to me, so no problems there. After my peer editor sent the revised rough draft back to me, I had my final text version of the story finished by the end of the day.

However the graphical elements of the story are not flowing so freely. I spent hours today, literally, searching for just the right program to present my story the way I want to present it. Really what I wanted was a 3D 'avatar' to represent me, and narrate the story. My story-related images would flash on a screen in the background. I wanted my avatar to be the teacher and present my story to the reader. I might have gone forward with that idea, but that program costs money (Moviestorm), even for the educational plan. I have not been able to find a similar program that is free. I have found many free tools, but none of them really provides exactly what I'm looking for; which is a place to combine music, voice, photographs and videos into a user-friendly interface that gives me a nice three to five minute movie. Close, but no cigar. I guess I'll just use Windows Movie Maker and lay down a standard soundtrack over moving images. It's that "Ken Burns" look that I was trying to avoid. If anyone knows of the program that's right for me, I'd be grateful.

I am about to work on the storyboard. I know what this is, but I've never completed one before, so I'm a bit hesitant. Hopefully it will all come together soon.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Teacher and School Websites

Oh my gosh, school and teacher websites, are you kidding me?

It's my opinion that school-related websites are some of the worst designed and maintained sites on the entire Internet. Oh sure, you can find good ones, but I'm talking about the websites I've seen at the schools I've been at and the teachers my children have studied under. It's a joke. 

The class sites look like they were designed by, well, some high school teacher with no clue what a website is supposed to look like and feel like. They are hardly ever maintained. You click on the website, either a class or school site, and you can read the calendar items for eight months ago and see pictures of last year's graduation ceremony, if you're lucky. Oh, they tell you they'll keep their site up to date, but it must be the doormat on the priority ladder. Class sites are almost as bad. Teachers with good intentions start a website but don't have the time and/or ability to keep it up to date. It's too bad, because school websites can and should be the communication link to the community and the parents. Class websites should and can be the link between the teacher, the students, the parents and the public at large. In this day of modern communication and short attention spans, proper website management is critical. But I almost never see it happen correctly.

For me? That's what I would spend my summer vacation doing: creating the best class website I possibly could. My website would be the go-to place for students and parents on a daily basis. Students would post examples of their work, find out what they missed yesterday and what the assignment was today. They could ask the teacher questions and read previous frequently-asked questions (FAQs) to get tips on completing the work and solving problems. Students could easily link to class wikis and blogs, where they can share information and collaborate on projects. The website would have links to research sites and web tools. For the parents and community, it would be simple but comprehensive. Parents could view their children's work, see what assignments they should be working on, and how the class is progressing overall. They will have multiple options for communicating with the teacher and the school, including counselors and administrators. They can absolutely ask me, the teacher, any question at any time. All communication would be confidential.

As for school websites, they often look good, but that's about where it stops. Far too often, the information is old and irrelevant. Should we really have to tune into the local news channel to find out if school is canceled? What about that guy I heard was trying to pick up girls after school the other day? What's being served for lunch tomorrow? What was that announcement my son missed at the beginning of school today? via Facebook

Often the sites are too busy, with too many links going too many directions. What information the parents and community needs to find should be front and center, with no clutter. It's great that the band performed during halftime at the big game, but it's not worth a massive slideshow mucking up the front page of the site.

Websites, for both classes, schools and districts, are often the first thing people see. First impressions mean a lot. I'm sure there are districts and teachers that are website masters, and their sites blow away anything I could come up with. I have seen good ones, and those are the ones I use to model what I want to do. But in my world, over here in the Land of Lincoln, it's coming along very slowly, indeed.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Addendum: Amazing But True

This has nothing to do with our assignment this week, but I couldn't help but shout for joy as my local school district has changed their cell phone policy.

Now phones are allowed in all common areas, such as the cafeteria and hallways. And it is completely up to the discretion of the teacher as to how phones can be used inside the classrooms. This is a complete '180' compared to last year, when the use of all cell phones in the classroom was banned. I have never considered my home district, in which I sub frequently, to be particularly "forward thinking," but that has certainly changed now.

Of course, there are still limitations. A teacher cannot force a student to use his/her cell phone to send a text or get on the Internet. But that option is there now. It's an amazing change. Kudos to the school district and the curriculum coordinator.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Literacy In the Secondary Social Studies Classroom: This Is Going to Be a Long Post

Blog posts are supposed to be pithy.

But the more I think about the ways I can and should integrate literacy into my secondary Social Studies classroom, the more overwhelming it becomes. I believe it is fundamentally imperative that we help students better understand the world in which they live. One way to do that is through Social Studies. I must make it interesting, relevant, and fun. Literacy is a vital portion of this equation. Students must be able to read texts, comprehend what they are reading, and apply it to the real world. Students must be able to take knowledge and communicate what they have learned to others in a concise and meaningful way, either in written or verbal form. Students need to learn how to research effectively; meaning they need to understand how to identify reliable sources, and how to verify facts. They need to understand the value of primary sources. And in no other way does Social Studies incorporate more into other common core teaching areas than in literacy learning. These skills are useful in every facet of life.
So how do I do it; and how do I know if students are grasping the content? Here is a list of strategies and tools that I believe work well for me and my students in learning literacy. I wouldn't necessarily use each one in every unit, but at least two or three in each unit, for sure: journal writing, maps, graphic organizers, current events presentations, class web site, web-based research projects. If you have time, you can view these two videos on YouTube, which although they focus on younger students, I like the general strategies of each teacher. The first video focuses on an overall strategy of research and presentations, and the other focuses nicely on using maps. There are just a couple of examples: There are numerous videos and other resources on the Web that discuss the integration of literacy teaching into the curriculum.

I really like to use journals throughout the year. I have only done this by having students use their notebooks; I would like to try it online, such as a blog like this one. (But there's nothing wrong with writing in a notebook either.) I like it because it helps me introduce a topic, get a sense of what the students prior knowledge is, what interests them or what they would like to learn. When the unit is finished, I can look back and see the progress that was made. I love graphic exercises, either organizers to help with reading and planning projects; or maps to help with geographic placement, politics, industry or resources.

Although many students can be scared or nervous, I usually plan for a series of short current events oral presentations. Students need to become comfortable with speaking to their peers about subjects that interest them. It also reinforces mutual respect and listening skills. I know some do not like to stand up in front of the class. I might allow them to sit and give their presentation, then I might require them to stand at their desk. Eventually all should come to the front of the class to speak. This instills confidence and self-worth.

I also like to plan for a project near the end of the unit that tries to encompass everything learned in the unit to that point. Tests are a fact of life; and I want my students to do well. But I find the students can show how much they've learned by completing some kind of project, hopefully using modern technology. This helps them see a payoff for their work; and gives me an evaluation tool. I have used digital posters like Glogster, or presentation tools such as Sliderocket or Animoto.

I am also very fond of Webquests. Here is a quest I made for another class on Christopher Columbus. It is very detailed and would take a long time to read, but it offers the students some individual tasks and collaborative tasks. The standards are included in the quest, as well as evaluation tools. Students will receive a grade from me, but also can grade themselves. I'm not saying my quest was great or anything, but the tool itself, created with Zunal, is awesome. You can also look at other educators' Webquests, get great ideas and even ask them for the right to use their quests in your class.

I don't want to carry on too long. Hopefully I've answered the requirements of the assignment. Like I said, I consider literacy in Social Studies to be among the most important things I can teach. I see technology as offering more exciting and fun ways to do this.