PBL: My WOW Moment of the Day!

Today was a particularly hectic, maddening day for me.  Senior grades were due at 9 am this morning, I taught three back to back classes with a meeting during second break, and my seniors had their Paper 1 and Paper 2 IB Biology exams at 1:00.  It was one of those days.  I am so anxious and distracted while my students are taking exams.  I just want to take it for them.  I would do really well on them and it would sure make the two years leading up to exams so much easier on me as a teacher. AHHHHH!!!

The seniors started wandering in at the beginning of my lunch period (causing me to miss our teacher appreciation lunch) in a last minute desperate attempt to close the loop on two years of learning after what I am sure was a sleepless night despite the fact that I ordered them all to bed at midnight.  "Lunch" ended at 12:10, and my grade 10 students filed in to continue their work on their independent projects that they have been working on for the past couple of weeks.  I had to make a choice, and I chose my seniors who were heading off to their high stakes exams in about half an hour.  So I told my 10th graders to continue their work in their groups and then proceeded to shut the sliding glass doors so that I could focus and calm my frantic seniors while walking them through as many troublesome topics and testing tips as we could manage in that short amount of time.  In fact, I was so focused on them, that I didn't notice the work that was going on outside of my classroom. 
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As a teacher, this was one of those moments that you never forget.  While hugging my seniors goodbye hoping that some of my knowledge and confidence would rub off onto them, I looked out to find my entire 10th grade class reviewing the cell membrane as one cohesive group.  Three of the students took the initiative to grab some whiteboard markers and lead the rest of them through a review of the topics that they are required to know for their independent projects.  Amazed and shell-shocked, I went outside and joined them, but not as their teacher. At this moment, I was an admirer, impressed by the fact that each and every one of them had made good decisions about their learning independent of my supervision.  They could have just as easily been playing games, chatting on Facebook, setting fire to each other and countless other things that I would rather not think about.  It was so fulfilling to join a discussion with a group of students that were prepared and determined to explore these concepts at a deeper level.  At the end of the day, if all they walk away from this project with are the skills of collaboration and taking personal responsibility for their learning, I would consider this a huge success.  Fortunately, most of them will also understand the mechanisms of cell membrane regulation and be able to apply them to specific functions of the human body such as lactose intolerance, Parkinson's disease, how endorphins work, starvation, why asthmatics need inhalers, weight loss and many other interesting topics.  I truly look forward to learning from their presentations at the end of the project.

After school today, one of the students posted the pics from class to our Facebook group via Dropbox! 

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 Looks pretty productive to me! 

Looks pretty productive to me! 

At 3:30, the first wave of my SL students returned to my class to report back on their exams.  The first words out of there mouths were, "You are like magic! The two topics that you predicted and reviewed with us at lunch were essays on the test! Thank God we went over gene transfer!  We nailed it!"  

I would call this a WIN-WIN! I have to say that I am most proud of my 10th graders.  I am so thankful that I work with students who are committed to their learning and motivated enough to engage without having to have someone looking over their shoulders monitoring their every move.  I am also thankful that they didn't start any fires.  I think a little celebration is in order. 

Dropping the F-bomb in Class Part 2: How?

The real F-bomb associated with using Facebook in class is Fear. 

  • Fear that you have to be friends with your students
  • Fear that they will see the stuff that you post on your personal page
  • Fear that you will see the things that they post on their personal page

 image credit: bit.ly/17k2bC8

image credit: bit.ly/17k2bC8

Essentially teachers FEAR that their privacy and the privacy of their students will be invaded, and they will suffer the  consequences that come with that especially if you are teaching in the US.  The reality, however is that these are not rational fears if you understand and know how to set up your Facebook groups properly.  

Today, all of our students are using social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as their main form of communication.  This can be incredibly dangerous because no one is teaching their adolescent brains how to carry out this discourse responsibly.  Parents, for the most part are not participating on these platforms, and for those that do, they are blissfully unaware of their children's activities and level of vulnerability.  Teachers frequently want to draw the line in the sand and avoid this level of intimacy with students, claiming it is not their responsibility. I am not one of these teachers.  If all of the adults in our students' lives avoid engaging with students on this level, who is looking out for them? I care too much about my students to leave something this important to the uninformed (parents and peers) to guide my students on responsible use of a technology tool that has the potential to have such a huge impact on their future.  I am an educator and my job is to educate and protect my students from their own ignorance until they are mature enough to handle that responsibility on their own and truly understand the consequences of their actions.

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Facebook groups are actually more private than most of the platforms offered at your school for student collaboration.  The first thing you should do with your students is show them how to set their privacy settings so that the members of the group (read your teacher) will only be able to see what they want them to see if they are not friends with them on Facebook.  Have your students open up their FB pages and click on the padlock in the upper right hand corner of their page.  They then need to click on "who can see my stuff?".  This will unfold the menu below. 

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They should make sure that they have the who can see my future posts designated as friends only.  At this point they might need to go back through previous posts/ pics and change the privacy settings on those individually.  This is something every student should do anyway as I suspect the majority of them have not been smart about their FB usage.  There is a new feature that allows you to see how others view your page.  I would recommend that all of your students do this so that they know what a college recruiter, employer, teacher, parent, or friend can see when they look at their page.    

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Since your students are most likely friends with all of the people in your class, the FB group will not change their current vulnerability.  By ensuring that they simply select only friends can view future posts, you are protecting yourself from having to see something that might pop up on your homepage.  Here is a good comprehensive article that you can share with your students about privacy settings.

If you are still uncomfortable about students seeing what you post on your page, then create a separate account just for school.  This however defeats the purpose of having all of your traffic going to one place, as you will have to log into a separate account to retrieve your messages.   

Now for setting up the group.  There are several ways that you can do this.  If you don't want to friend your students, then you need to designate one person (a friend, child, colleague etc.) who is already your Facebook friend to set up the group.  You can delete them immediately after creating your group.   

 Step 1: Create Group

Step 1: Create Group

Step 1: In the left hand column of your home page  select create group. 
This will bring you to the setup page.  Here you need to name your group, choose one friend to create the group, and then choose your privacy setting.  If you choose secret, no one will be able to find or join your group, so I recommend that you start with closed.  Now click create!

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They will then give you the opportunity to choose an icon for your group and you are done.  Once on your group page you need to set it up.  The first thing you should do is click on the wheel and select "edit group settings", which will take you to the settings page (see pic to the left).

 Edit group settings

Edit group settings

Until everyone joins the group, you want to keep your settings as closed or open.  Once all members have joined, you need to go back and switch it to secret.  Most of the steps are self-explanatory, but you will need to create a URL for your group.  It might take some time transfer from the temporary numerical URL you were assigned.  This is the URL that you will use to share with your students, so you should do this in advance of class by at least an hour to be on the safe side. 

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Now it is time to share with your students.  The best way to do this is to have them check their privacy settings at the beginning of class and then share the URL.  You can write it on the board, e-mail it etc.  Have them request membership to the group and then you, as the administrator, will have to click on the check mark next to their request to accept them.  Once all of your students have joined, you can change your privacy settings to secret and get started.  You can also delete members or change roles etc. by clicking on the number of members (2 members in example pic).  This will take you to your members page.  You then click on the wheel below the member's icon and you have the choice to either make admin or delete from group. 

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Now you should be ready to go!  Check out my previous post for some great ways to use Facebook groups in your classroom.  By the way, I created a test group so that I could collect screenshots for this post.  See if you can find it!  It is called Biororztest and here is the link! I have the group set to secret, so happy searching!  

Dropping the F-bomb in Class Part 1: Why?

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A couple of years ago, I saw a student post the solution to a math problem that he had worked out on Facebook.  Several of his classmates were tagged on the post.  When I asked a student in my class about it, she told me that they were all struggling to solve this problem, so he shared his solution with the class. 

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When I saw the student's post, a few questions popped into my mind:  

  1. How many of the students in that class actually understood this problem, or more importantly the problem solving strategy after seeing this post on Facebook?   
  2. If this teacher does grade homework, how many of these students will own up to their confusion and how many of them will pretend to understand for the sake of the grade?    
  3. How long will it take this teacher to discover that his students have not mastered this concept/skill? 

What were the first thoughts that went through your mind?  If your initial response to the post was that social media should not be allowed in schools because it encourages and/or facilitates cheating, you might be teaching in the wrong century.  We typically use technology to facilitate practices that are already in place. It is incredibly naive to think that students weren't coming together and sharing these solutions on paper long before Facebook arrived on the scene.  I know that I did.  This is the main reason that I stopped grading homework. Homework grades are as unreliable as effort grades when attempting to measure a student's mastery of standards in your classroom.  If the homework you assign is not meaningful and you don't have 100% student buy-in, some of your students will do whatever it takes to get the grade.  It is next to impossible to trace the source of the homework effort and certainly not worth the time that it will take to do so.  Facebook is simply another medium, and one with endless possibilities and benefits for learning.   Let's face it, social media is our new reality.  It is time for us to embrace it or be left behind.  At least this is how I see it so... Rather than trying to change something that was out of my control, I decided to embrace Facebook and leverage the benefits of these exchanges for some "just in time" teaching opportunities.  The next day I created Facebook groups for all of my classes as a space for them to have these discussions about homework.  The only difference was that I would be able to formatively assess my students understanding "just in time" to teach my class the next day.  

Two years later, Facebook has become my go-to "LMS".  I  could actually write a book about the benefits of using Facebook groups in your class coupled with strategies for teachers to leverage these benefits.  However, since this is just a blog post, I will leave you with my top three reasons for using Facebook Groups in my classes:   

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1)  Students are constantly checking Facebook at school, at home and on the go via their smart phones.  Every time someone posts in the group, all of the members receive a message alert, and who can resist that? FB groups now have a feature that tells you which members have seen the post.  As a result, I use FB to post assignments, resources, and discussions.  This allows me to adjust and modify plans on the go as well.  The example below was an assignment that I created in response to an awesome discussion my students were having about AIDS in my FB group.  I completely changed my lesson plan the following day to allow them to continue their learning on this topic.  If I hadn't witnessed the conversation that they were having, I would have moved on without leveraging this opportunity. 

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2)  Students don't normally work on their homework until it is past my "bedtime".  Before Facebook, a student would get stuck and then send me an e-mail.  If I didn't respond immediately, they would give up and show up to class with an incomplete assignment, unprepared to build on their learning.  Let's face it, e-mail is unreliable.  Students check it less and less, and the responsibility of responding is yours and yours alone.  With Facebook, students can post questions to the group, and other students can respond (immediately), thereby increasing the chance that they will sort out their issues prior to class.  Another benefit of this is that if several students respond incorrectly, I will know this before class the following day and be able alter my plan accordingly.  This helps to minimize the gaps that get created in learning due to time lapses between learning, assessments, and grading of assessments, which consequently alleviates some of the frustration and motivation issues that accompany this disconnect between teaching and learning. 

 Student requesting help for her lab write-up. 

Student requesting help for her lab write-up. 

 Notice the time difference between the post and the first response. 

Notice the time difference between the post and the first response. 

3)  Facebook syncs with Dropbox and most social media apps (Flipboard etc.).  You can also upload files from your computer like presentations from class.  Because of this, I can share articles and discoveries to extend their learning beyond the curriculum.  Students do the same.  After modeling this practice for a couple of months, my Facebook group became a place for students to share and discuss their own personal finds relevant to class discussions etc. One example of how I use this extend my class beyond the 85 minute period is described at the end of my post, 21st Century Magic 8 Ball.  Facebook has helped me to transfer the responsibility of learning to the students.

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 This is handy for revision, or when students are absent especially when away on school trips etc. 

This is handy for revision, or when students are absent especially when away on school trips etc. 

 A student posted his own review flash cards to share with the class. 

A student posted his own review flash cards to share with the class. 

 Again, student initiated post to share with classmates. 

Again, student initiated post to share with classmates. 

By now I hope that I have convinced some of you to embrace social media in your classrooms.  For those of you who are ready to take the leap, my next post in the series will be about how to set up secure, private, unsearchable groups on Facebook WITHOUT being friends with your students.  For those of you still on the fence, stay tuned for my follow up post on busting the myths about Facebook groups in the classroom.  In the meantime, if your only barriers are policies set by the administration or school district, feel free to share this post with them to begin a dialogue. Let's see if we can't change their minds! 

A Social Media Success Story: Global Collaboration Anyone?

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Thirteen years ago, I started my overseas career in Caracas, Venezuela at Escuela Campo Alegre.  It was there that I met my first true mentor teacher, Rich Lehrer.  Unfortunately, he met with an untimely "demise" in my forensics science project the following year, "Who Killed Mr. Lehrer".  I guess he took it personally because he moved to Brazil that summer, and I didn't hear from him again until last Thursday...on Facebook chat.  

Rich: Hey Rory!

Me: Hey Rich!  Long time! How's it going?

Rich:  That's for sure!  Thing are pretty good. Hey, can I tell you about a cool global project my kids are involved in?  (No small talk for this guy!)

In short, Rich has developed a PBL unit around efficient biomass cook stoves. His 8th grade science class has formed a global collaborative with schools from Rwanda, Brazil, Uganda, and now Mumbai to explore energy usage in these country as it relates to their project. It is pretty much awesomeness.  Check it out at this link.  One of the aims of their project is to involve other schools from around the world in their ongoing Global Efficient Cook Stove Education Project. They are looking to assist other schools who are interested in mounting a global, hands-on, evidence-based, design-challenge approach to this and other issues of sustainability.  Rich's contact information can be found on his wiki site.  He would love to connect with other schools so give him a shout if you are interested!  I am hoping to connect his class with a couple of my students who are working on a connected project here in Mumbai.    Gotta love social media!

Coincidentally, I came across a post this afternoon by Steve Wheeler on my Twitter feed that speaks to the importance of global collaboration for educators.  In his post, Three Things, Steve states:

"Learning needs to be globalised. As we develop personal expertise, and begin to practice it in applied contexts, we need to connect with global communities. Students who share their content online can reach a worldwide audience who can act as a peer network to provide constructive feedback. Teachers can crowd-source their ideas and share their content in professional forums and global learning collectives, or harness the power of social media to access thought leaders in their particular field of expertise. Scholars who are not connected into the global community are increasingly isolated and will in time be left behind as the world of education advances ever onward." 

Indeed, Steve.  Well said.