But I’m Not Even That Interesting…

Privacy is perhaps THE hot-button issue of today’s online world. The spectrum of opinions spreads as wide as the ocean, from conspiracy-minded militants against any sort of sharing to the hard-core data liberationists such as Mark Zuckerberg who believe that all your information should be public by default. I myself have become more secretive over the years, even though I might advocate for an actively managed digital footprint.So what is all the hoopla over privacy?

The issue, I think, is NOT that the online medium itself demands a new mode of privacy or publicity. It is, rather, than society has thus far failed to adequately adapt existing models thereof to said medium.

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Digital Footprints: Inevitable but Manageable

I suppose things were more anonymous when I was in high school. Then again, gaining global notoriety was harder. After all, if I wanted to send a naked photo of myself to someone, I’d have to actually go to a photo shop and have one developed from 35mm film. THAT would be embarassing. If I wanted to chat with strangers, I’d have to, well, actually go out to a public place and start talking to a stranger – FACE TO FACE – and I’d be able to see if that person was actually another teenager or a 40-year-old man in a basement. If I wanted to promote myself as an individual – well, that, too was harder. I’d scheme to get myself featured in a yearbook photo shot. (Who remembers the days of poring through the yearbook index to see how many times you were mentioned, and then comparing them to other people?) If I wanted to get a job, I would print up resumes and mail them – using REAL PAPER – to potential employers. But today, we have sexting, chatting, social networking, and personal websites – any number of ways to leave our digital footprint.

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Course 1 Final Project: UbD for WWI/Interwar Years/WWII Unit

Overview with Rubrics

This unit is one that I’m currently teaching to my 10th graders. It’s very broad, occupying the span of an entire quarter, so there are four assignments with accompanying rubrics, only three of which are technology-related. I’ve included an overview for each:

  • Propaganda Project
    • This project has the kids making a propaganda video by combining original video with clips downloaded from YouTube (and, I realize, ignoring all intellectual property rights of the respective creators – although I suspect this would fall under fair use). In doing so kids are supposed to synthesize their knowledge of both totalitarianism and propaganda into an original work.
  • Treaty of Versailles Rewrite + Rubric (Not a technology assignment)
    • Students evaluate the faults in the original treaty and then rewrite it, justifying their changes and also critiquing their changes from the historical perspectives of Britain, France, and the US.
  • Online Discussion Rubric
    • I ask students to do a fair amount of scored in-class discussion, but to address students who aren’t comfortable speaking for themselves in a group setting, I allow them to participate in an online discussion using our Moodle Forum. Students are expected to defend their own opinions and interpretations by identifying significant historical facts.The questions for this discussion are:
      • 1.Why did fascism become popular in the 1930s?
      • 2.What were the causes of WW2?
      • 3.Were the causes of WWI similar to the causes of WWII?
      • 4.Could WWII have been avoided? Should Britain and France have acted differently?
      • 5.Which countries today are isolationist?
      • 6.Is the United Nations today a more effective organization than the League of Nations?
      • 7.Agree or disagree:
        • a.Allowing Iran to get nuclear weapons is appeasement.
        • b.Countries should “preemptively” intervene and attack other countries before they are attacked themselves.
        • c.Isolationism can be a good idea to prevent yourself from getting into wars.
  • Prezi Rubric + Description
    • This assignment can be completed individually or in groups. Students identify key events in WWII and then create a timeline in Prezi. Additionally, students will need to analyze the cause-effect relationships of these events and evaluate their significance; the former will be accomplished especially by using Prezi’s Path tool.

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Be. Less. Helpful.

I was going to address the findings of the Horizon Report, but then I watched Dan Myers’ Ted Talk and thought that his take on the state of education had a more fundamental importance and relevance to my practice.

Myers worries that today’s education (and specifically textbooks) have a “Two and a Half Men” approach to problem-solving: they create the expectation that problems should be neatly packaged and the solution readily apparent if given steps are following. In other words, there is too much scaffolding: we are “paving a smooth straight path… and congratulating our students for how well they can step over the small cracks on the way…We don’t involve [students] in the formulation of the problem.” Myers’ solution:

  1. Use multimedia.
  2. Encourage student intuition.
  3. Ask the shortest question you can.
  4. Let students build the problem.
  5. Be less helpful. 

In history class, the kind of reasoning we want to do revolves around constructing a logical arguments supported by appropriate historical evidence. For example:

  • “Why did Chinese dynasties last for so long?” (from World History I)
  • “Compared to other civilizations, could Muslim civilization be considered the greatest?” (from World History I)
  • “The Chinese and Russian Revolutions were neither short nor sweet: they were both long and messy ordeals.” How accurately does this statement describe these two revolutions? (from World History II)

When we construct questions like this, we try to make them evaluative. This is why I’m a big fan of the phrase, “To what extent…” I’ve found that these questions are quite difficult for my 9th and 10th grade students, who seem to arrive in my class at one of four stages of readiness:

  1. Able to make sweeping generalizations that are largely accurate (“They had an organized government and religious tolerance.”) but unsubstantiated with any specific evidence.
  2. Able to make relevant lists of specific evidence that are fairly organized in a five-paragraph format, but without explanation that ties that evidence to the question.
  3. Able to synthesize specific evidence and explanation/analysis into a format that directly answers the question. (This step describes my expectation for my students, and my B+ and A students can do this)
  4. Able to do step #3, but with extensive discussion of that evidence that shows a sense of chronology and historical context. (for 9th and 10th graders, this would exceed my expectation – my unquestioned A students – perhaps 3 in 40 – can do this)

Given stage #4, I find it relevant to quote from Niall Ferguson’s latest work:

“For roughly thirty years, young people at Western schools and universities have been given the idea of a liberal education, without the substance of historical knowledge. They have been taught isolated ‘modules’, not narratives, much less chronologies. They have been trained in the formulaic analysis of document excerpts, not in the key skill of reading widely and fast. They have been encouraged to feel empathy with imagined Roman centurions or Holocaust victims, not to write essays about why and how their predicaments arose. In The History Boys, the playwright Alan Bennett posed a ‘trilemma’: should history be taught as a mode of contrarian argumentation, a communion with past Truth and Beauty, or just ‘one fucking thing after another’?”

I scaffold such essay questions in class in a number of ways, as evidenced by this nonexhaustive list:

  1. Providing essay outline worksheets, asking students to brainstorm evidence, then make claims, then a thesis.
  2. Using scored discussions in class that differentiate between arguments that are unsupported opinions, ones that are logical but unsupported, and ones that use specific historical evidence.
  3. Brainstorming evidence in groups, and then individually writing short answer responses that are then evaluated by the class with the aid of my Elmo document camera
  4. Using think-pair-share questions that break up my lectures and ask students to consider historical significance (“If you were a German, would you have felt optimistic in 1919? In 1928?”)

Myers has made me wonder whether I do too much handholding, though. For example, I recall several times where my colleagues and I have made short answers questions MORE specific to clue students in on what evidence to include. In preparation for the Muslim civilization question above, I gave students 6 possible comparisons they could make with other civilizations and asked them to choose two of them with which to write two practice body paragraphs – in other words, I was teasing out the steps to the problem rather than having them do it. In the future, then, I might have students generate a list of possible comparisons (individually, in groups, or as a class, depending on the nature of the particular students). I suppose I’m grappling with the “meaning of life” question in my teaching:


Seeing as how I’m not going to answer this in 800 words, I’ll conclude by throwing out a question to those grade 9/10 teachers reading this: Do your students fall into one of the four categories above? Are my expectations for what they can do appropriate, or lower/higher than what you see? To what extent is their ability to move between steps a function of their mental development rather than my teaching?

Random thought as to how wikis can be applied: it would be AWESOME to have a bank of short answer questions and essay questions – divided by topic and, in the case of the short answer questions, by points. Such questions are the essence of history class (yeah, yeah, all classes, UbD, essential questions, blah blah blah) but we teachers spend an inordinate amount of time duplicating others’ work. If there were a wiki out there that teachers could contribute to, I think it would be rapidly growing and evolving resource that would NOT necessarily lead to a homogenization of the course, since the flexible and editable nature of the wiki would be able to accomodate diverse perspectives.

…like herding cats

I was thrust into the role of tour guide this past weekend when chaperoning a group of 30 swimmers and parents to Athens for the 7th ACS Swim Gala at ACS Athens. It’s the kind of trip that is more challenging because we generally get around on public transportation and stay in hotels. Such an unstructured itinerary makes it more demanding on the trip leaders – similar, perhaps, to the challenges that Week Without Walls organizers face. I’m therefore sharing a few of the lessons I learned in the hope that others can learn from my experiences.

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