Monday, December 12th, 2011

Thoughts on Plagiarism

As you can imagine, teenagers often look for the best way to maximize results, while minimizing time and effort.  This is no surprise because it’s what we all do.  However, when it comes to academic integrity, the “easy way” can often get students in trouble.

This is not to say that students plagiarize maliciously, only that copy/paste is often too easy not to do.

In an attempt to cut back on plagiarism, many high schools have started using turnitin.com as a way of comparing student work to assignments submitted by other students and to sites across the web.  The truth is, turnitin.com is effective in reducing plagiarism, mostly because it makes students scared.  In my opinion, making students fearful every time they submit an assignment leaves a bitter taste in their mouths, which I think is harmful for inquiry-based learning in the long run.

Just to be clear, what I am talking about in this post is the type of plagiarism that most high school teachers deal with, namely copy/paste.  I am not talking about more serious issues of academic integrity like paying other people to do your work for you.

I think that the problem of plagiarism in high school stems from two bigger issues:

  1. We are not taking the time to teach students how to conduct research properly.
  2. Assignments that teachers give are often too simple to be called “research.”

In general, we need to be doing a better job to educate teenagers as to WHY referencing is so important.  Most importantly, it needs to be taught, not from a place of fear for getting caught, but from a place of character education.  It is important to be academically honest because it is the right thing to do!  In my experience, appealing to students’ sense of right and wrong is actually quite effective because everyone has been on the receiving end of “wrong” before, and knows what it feels like.

I also think that students fail to site their work, simply because it’s a lot of extra work to do it.  I remember being in university and being told that my APA formatting had to be perfect or I would lose marks.  But who can really remember if you’re supposed to put a comma after the date or a period, or whether or not the title should be underlined or italicized?  Even for someone like me, who wants to be academically honest, referencing properly is annoying.  The inconvenience of creating citations is one of the reasons why I like the web tools so much (easybib, bibme, Citation Maker, etc.)  Although these tools are not perfect, they make the process of creating references so much faster and and easier for students.

The second reason that students plagiarize is because they have been asked to do meaningless work.  The teachers who are teaching now did not grow up in the same type of world our current students are living it.  We grew up in a time of information scarcity; our students have an abundance of it (and maybe an overabundance!)  Finding the name of the Prime Minister and a list of his duties is now so ridiculously easy that the task becomes a joke.  Even looking for more complex information, such as the pros and cons of nuclear energy, may have been difficult at one time, but can easily be found these days with a simple Google search.  No wonder students copy/paste from the internet!

Teachers need to be redesigning their assignments to make them plagiarism proof.  One of the key ways of achieving this is to ensure that the method of output is not the same as the method of input.  That is to say, requiring that students transform their learning into a new format or medium.  For example, if students are researching the pros and cons of nuclear energy, don’t ask them to write a report (text in, text out); instead, ask them to put together a public service announcement, or write a song about it (text in, audio/video out).  Even more important though, is asking students questions that are not easily googlable.  If the answer can be found in one of the top sites in a Google search, then the question does not require any higher order thinking skills and should not be considered research to begin with!

Photo Credit: Nisha A

Thursday, October 27th, 2011

Getting Kids Excited About Books

The post that follows is a guest blog from Elaine Hirsch.  Elaine is kind of a jack-of-all-interests, from education and history to medicine and videogames.  This makes it difficult for her to choose just one life path, so she is currently working as a writer for various education-related sites and writing about all these things instead.

I was happy to see the topic that Elaine chose because I think that it is a nice compliment to the last post I wrote about how I struggle reading books in an era of blogs, twitter, and TED talks. Elaine offers some insight into the value of having kids become avid readers, and offers some suggestions of how to encourage them to read. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.


In an era of unprecedented access to digital texts, it’s becoming less and less common for young people to actively engage in reading books. This is unfortunate for a variety of reasons. Books require a level of attention and long-term commitment absent among the growing variety of digital media sources such as Facebook, online schools (including even PhD programs) and the Blogosphere. While this is perhaps the greatest benefit of the book as an literary medium, it is also one of the factors contributing to young people’s aversion to them.

Easy access to internet-based text media has created both an explosion of access to information and a convenient way for people to distract themselves from information they are not necessarily interested in. This fact, coupled with the unfortunate truth that the American school system has consistently undervalued literacy in its educational focus, has led many young people to completely abandon recreational book reading in favor using text for online social interaction with peers. It’s not hopeless, however, to get young people to read books, and the benefits for doing so are immense.

According to Kim Medaris of Purdue University, children who read books recreationally display superior writing skills. Greater writing ability leads children to higher achievement academically, and professionally later in life. The question we must ask is: what is the most effective way to interest children in books?

Introducing books to children in their earlier years can be extraordinarily important and not terribly difficult. Before children achieve basic literacy, it’s a huge benefit to read to them whenever possible. Children are masters at learning by imitation, and if you read aloud to them on a regular basis it will encourage them to follow your example. It is also greatly advantageous to acquaint children with libraries at an early age. With a library card, books are one of the few sources of absolutely free entertainment, and this can help encourage children to continue reading later in life.

Some libraries have had success organizing children’s book clubs, and these can provide a fun environment where children not only develop literacy but also socialize with peers. another important factor in developing a child’s interest in reading is simply having books around the house. Books can inspire curiosity in young children, and even before they can read there are great benefits to exposing children to the look and feel of books. After literacy has been developed, however, the strategies for keeping children hooked and reading change from merely encouraging learning how to read to encouraging children to find reading exciting and stimulating.

Getting children hooked on popular book series has proven very successful in the past. Young readers develop relationships with characters as the series progress that lead them to be more interested and keep them reading further. As children’s reading skills improve this will lead them to explore other, more challenging books to seek ongoing literary satisfaction. Like any skill, literacy becomes stronger with practice and continuing to read opens access to successively more rich and valuable texts. Knowing this, it is certainly not impossible to elevate a child’s comprehension from Harry Potter to Hamlet over the course of a few years.

Ultimately, however, the decision of whether to become an active book reader lies with the children themselves. It is the responsibility of parents and communities to develop environments where reading books is encouraged and rewarded. If good reading habits are instilled in children early on, particularly in a sociable and fun way, it will be nearly impossible to stop them from becoming engaged readers for the rest of their lives.

Image Credit:  ooh_food

Friday, September 16th, 2011

Books are a Pain

Recently I realized something about myself.  I don’t like to read books – at least not as much as I used to, and definitely not in the ways that I used to.

When I was growing up, I really enjoyed reading books.  As a young boy I usually read for at least an hour before bed each night.  Nowadays, I find it hard to get through many non-fiction books and I find myself wishing that the book would “get to the point.”

So, what changed?  The Internet.

I often feel privileged to have been born when I was.  I feel like I had a good foundation in the pre-internet era, but I was still young enough to be heavily influenced when the internet really started to bloom.  In my house, we didn’t get the internet until I was in grade 10 (1996) and by then I was really starting to feel left out.  I can recall a time in grade 9 when a classmate of mine was bragging about how fast it was to surf the web with a 28.8 kbps modem; “that he could never go back to 14.4!”

Back then, there was no question that books were better for reading.  You could carry them around, you could write on them, you could easily share them, and you could admire them on your shelf.  By contrast, reading on a computer screen was the opposite in every way.  But a lot has changed since then.  Now I find that my hand cramps up holding a book between my fingers; I find that the reading light by my bed casts an annoying shadow on the pages of a book; I find that the text in a book is smaller than I would like it to be.  Books are more annoying to me than using a computing device.

The reality is that I probably read more now than I ever have in my life – I’m just not reading books.  Instead, I’m reading tweets, blogs, and websites that are filled with an abundance of ideas to stimulate my brain.  And, I know I’m not alone.

High speed internet and web 2.0 have promoted an ideas explosion.  If you’re hungry for ideas (and I am), the web often pulls you in far better than a book.  The web provides ideas instant gratification.  It’s no wonder I want books to “get to the point.”

At first blush, ideas instant gratification may sound like a bad thing – like drive-through fast food – but I don’t think it is.  These ideas have transformed my teaching and, in many ways, my life.  For example, these TED talks alone have had a huge impact on my classroom:

Sir Ken Robinson, Dan MeyerDaniel PinkCharles LeadbeaterSir Ken again, Clay Shirky, Sugata Mitra, Chris Anderson, Tom Wujec, Diana Laufenberg, and many, many others.

In the 3 hours it would take me to watch all of the videos listed above, I might be able to finish one short book.

Now, I recognize many people might say that ideas instant gratification can have a down side.  They might suggest that I’m losing my attention span, or that I am missing the opportunity to explore the depth and nuance of a topic.  But I don’t think so.  I think the internet has just raised my level of expectation for a books because we are surrounded by an abundance of compelling ideas.  If an author wants me to use 5-10 hours of my life reading their book, the ideas need to be intriguing, the text needs to be well written, and the argument needs to be very thoughtfully crafted – otherwise I have to move on.

Final thought:  My students have never known a world without the internet.  What do they think when they see a book?

Image credit:  pasukaru76

Monday, September 5th, 2011

Default Settings

Computer programmers make choices on your behalf.  Usually the “default settings” are configured in a way that most people would want them, or at least are set so that the computer program is the simplest to operate.  Advanced computer users are quick to start making changes to the default settings:  they want programs installed in specific places, they want different programs to open certain files, and they want programs to behave in a precise way.  Altogether, they take control of their computer and tweak it to improve how it operates.

As I prepare for the first day of a new school year, I have been thinking about the “default settings” for a classroom.  When students enter my classroom each day throughout the first week, I feel like I’m installing a new program on my computer.  As I install the program I make choices on how the program will run – I can modify the default settings.  This process of modifying the default settings of a classroom is what makes teachers into “advanced users.”

Students already have default settings pre-programmed from day one.  In my case, these settings are the result of over 10 years of formal schooling, and from the social pressures of being a teenager.  Here’s one example:  Grade 9 students don’t like to share ideas publicly.  Why?  Because in their 10 years of learning, they have had relatively little opportunity to do so.  In addition, they have learned that it is best to protect yourself at all costs from looking awkward, vulnerable, or different.  As an “advanced user,” I know that if I hope to have discussions, debates, and active participation in my class, I will need to change this default setting.

These are some of the new default settings that I want my classroom to have:

  • contribution is always valued
  • struggling is okay – readiness, resilience, and resourcefulness pave the road to success
  • collaboration is key – working with new/different people is useful and interesting
  • character counts (“it’s nice to be nice”)

In my first week of school, the emphasis is not on curriculum but on building community.  Expose your students to the type of learning environments you want to use throughout the year.  Provide time for students to learn each others’ names; Get students to talk and share their experiences; Make them form groups – many different groups; Get students to move around.  Each activity that students participate in slowly changes the default settings.  Here is an example of activity I use to create a classroom expectations video with my students.

After a week of moving around, sharing, praising, and collaborating, I have changed the default settings of my classroom.  Students then come to class with a different mentality – A mentality I can really work with!

Image Credit:  Lollyman

Monday, August 8th, 2011

High Scores

When I log into my school board email system I am presented with a news feed that is received by all the teachers in the district.  Usually there are short stories about the accomplishments of different students/teachers in the board.  A few weeks ago I saw a “news release” that told about two students in our board who graduated high school this year with an average of 100% (based on their best 6 grade 12 courses).

100%?!?!

What kind of assessments are these students exposed to such that they are able to score 100% on EVERYTHING?!

I can see how it may be possible for a student to demonstrate all of the knowledge requirements in a course, but as teachers we are responsible for far more than knowledge-based assessments.  I can only assume that if a student can finish with 100% in all her courses, then there has definitely been an over-emphasis on traditional tests and projects.  This is disappointing to me.

As teachers in the 21st century we need to create engaging learning environments where students are challenged to be critical and creative thinkers.  We need to develop assignments that encourage students to be resourceful and self-directed.  We need to provide opportunity for students to have meaningful collaboration and teamwork.  And we need to be aware that we are preparing our students for a world where the problems that need to be solved don’t fit on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper, nor will they be solved with “test taking skills.”

Over the past few years, I have been trying to make the following changes to my classroom:

  1. Students learn from each other as much as possible.  Nurturing a classroom community is very important.
  2. Developing assignments that absolutely cannot be completed by copy/paste, memorization or “cramming.”
  3. Creating some projects that are broad in scope to allow students to “make it their own” in meaningful ways.

Personally, I think that the tradition of publishing the names of the students who have achieved the highest overall average in the board is an obsolete practice.  It comes from an era in which marks were emphasized above all else and the marks were based on old-school assessment practices like traditional tests, quizzes and homework checks.

In today’s fast-paced, hyper-connected world, achieving high marks in high school will only be one predictor of future success – and not the best one by far!  Instead, look for students who are intrinsically motivated, who are creative thinkers, who are self-directed learners, and who are able to build and maintain personal learning networks.  These are now (and have always been) better indicators of future success than a student’s graduating average.

Image Credit:  clspeace

Saturday, July 9th, 2011

Google Cloud Connect

I am always coming across new web tools that help me in my life or in my classroom. With so many web tools popping up all the time, it is difficult to find time to evaluate all of them. In most cases, I will experiment with a new tool and drop it right away. However, every once in a while a tool comes out that makes a significant impact on how I “do things” because it allows me to do something entirely new, or make something I already do faster and easier.  This year I have fallen in love with Google Cloud Connect.

Here’s the situation – I am constantly updating my teaching resources: I create new assignments, I update rubrics, I tweak my templates, I redesign my presentations, I change my writing style. Even when I assign my students an assignment that I developed last year, I always take the time to modify it. Does it need a picture? Is the question confusing? What did students get stuck on? Is the document well laid out?

The reason that “tweaking” is a problem, is that it becomes very difficult to keep my class website updated with the latest versions of each document. Many times, I have made significant changes to an assignment but forgotten to update the web version. This can lead to a major problem when I have some students who lose their assignment sheet and decide to work from the web version of the document, not realizing that the assignment has changed.  Google Cloud Connect is the perfect solution to this problem.

Here’s how it works:  Google Cloud Connect is an add-on for Microsoft Office.  Once installed, it uploads every document you open (automatically or manually) into your Google Docs web archive and keeps the changes you make in sync with the web version.  More importantly, as soon as the document is uploaded, Cloud Connect creates a unique URL for accessing the document online.  By default, all documents are available only to you when you log into Google Docs, however you can also change the sharing permissions on the document right from inside Microsoft Office.

This service has been a huge time saver for me.  From now on, when I update my class website, I create links to the web version of each document stored in my Google Docs account rather than uploading the file to my server space.  Now, every single time I make a change to one of my assignments, the change is immediately synchronized with the web version, so my website is always up to date with the latest version of a document.  No more uploading – It’s automatic!

This service has also come in handy many time for sharing files with other people.  Often other teachers ask to have a copy of something I have created.  In the past, I would have to attach the file to an email, which can be very slow for large presentations with lots of images.  Now, I can simply share the link to the file in an email message.

Cloud Connect has also allowed me to do more marking of student work digitally.  For example, I can open a rubric file, fill it out, save it with a unique name, and email the link to a student without having to mess around with attachments.

Finally, Cloud Connect simply backs up every document I start working on so I never have to worry about losing my work.

As a Google Docs user I have considered transitioning away from Microsoft Office entirely.  I do love Google Docs, and it has a place in my life/classroom, but I am not yet ready to abandon Word and PowerPoint altogether just yet. The reality is that I am a master at word processing and formatting, and there is a lot that I can do in Word that I cannot yet do in Google Docs.  For now, Cloud Connect acts as a perfect bridge between Microsoft Office and Google Docs.

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Interpreting the OCT Professional Advisory on Social Media

It is clear that social media will continue to have a profound impact on our society, and the lives of our students.  More and more, teachers are turning to social media to foster learning opportunities both in the class and beyond the walls of the classroom.

Recently, the Ontario College of Teachers released their Professional Advisory for the Use of Electronic Communication and Social Media.   If you have not read it already, you can find it on the web here.

In the advisory, the College address the importance of maintaining a professional relationship with students in all forms of electronic communication.  It also provides a list of guidelines that all teachers are expected to follow.  At first glace, it would seem that the OCT is prohibiting the use of social media because of the tone of the document, however this is not the case.  In fact, the OCT is a stong proponent of the appropriate use of social media in the classroom.   The OCT produced a video as a companion to the professional advisory.  It is about 6 minutes and well worth watching.

I was pleased when the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario released their own response to the OCT professional advisory.  ECOO exists to share and disseminate information and to advocate and promote the effective use of computers and associated technologies in the education process.  Their press release is also worth reading.

As a final word, I would encourage all teachers to think about the possible benefits of leveraging more social media in your classes.  There is no question in my mind that it has had a tremendous impact on my classroom.  More than anything, we need to be discussing the pros and cons of social media, and finding ways to maximize the benefits and minimize (or eliminate the risks).  After all, we need to meet our students where they are!

Monday, April 11th, 2011

Finally, We Can Access YouTube

For years now it has felt that my school board has been filtering more and more of the internet for students.  It seemed that any site that even had the word “game,” “social,” or “share” was automatically blocked by the board firewall.  As a teacher who likes to experiment with technology and Web 2.0 tools, this has been increasingly frustrating.  There have been many times where I discover a really amazing service from home and develop a lesson around it, only to find that the service has already been blocked at school.

For the longest time, YouTube has been blocked by the firewall.  As a Science teacher, YouTube is an absolutely amazing resource.  There are so many great videos that are useful for demonstrating the applications of science and making the curriculum content more engaging.  A few of my favourite “content related” videos are:

Waves and Sound – Backin’ Up (from schmoyoho, using AutoTune)

Relative Motion – Here It Goes Again (from Ok Go)

Collisions – Exercise Ball Mayhem (from Bensoin)

I have often been told that the school board cannot grant open access to YouTube because of the potentially offensive material that is posted there.  I never really understood this reasoning because students have full access to this content from home and the internet is filled with offensive content that is not filtered from school.  Besides, teachers should be properly supervising students when in a computer lab so that they are not able to view and share offensive video content.

I have also heard that the school board does not have sufficient internet infrastructure to allow all students access to streaming video sites, which I think is a fair reason (although it reveals a different issue for the longterm vision for technology access in schools.)

Last year, the school board started providing teachers with an override code to the filter.  It wasn’t a full solution, but it gave us some additional access to sites like YouTube.  However, in the last 2 weeks there has been what I would regard as a major shift – Students and teachers have been granted full access to both YouTube and Twitter!

What impresses me about this recent development is that after many years of tighter and tighter constraints on internet access, I believe that my school board is starting to realize the untapped potential of bringing Web 2.0 into the classroom.  It signals a changing mindset among “the higher ups” that instructional technology is not only an asset in 21st century learning, but a necessity for creating engaging learning environments for our students.  I hope this trend continues.

Personally, I struggle with filtering the internet in secondary schools.  I think there are some things that we can all agree have no obvious use in an academic school setting, like pornography.  But, I really don’t think that gaming sites, and social networking sites are that big of a problem.  If anything, the issue is one of adequate supervision.

What are your thoughts?  Should we be filtering the internet in schools?

Image Credit:  VancityAllie

Friday, March 11th, 2011

A Photo Each Day

I was thinking today about how popular it is for people to be doing various “365 projects,” like taking a photo each day for a year and sharing them. I think there is tremendous benefit in capturing a photo each day for two main reasons: 1. It creates a tangible history of your life and it’s fun to look back on the little and big moments; 2. I think it might change how you go through your day because you are aware that the photo will one day be a reminder of who you were/where you were/what you were feeling.

It occurred to me that it would be great for students to participate in a “365 project” for my class (although it would only be 80-100 days for a semester-long course.) A lot happens in my class each day. Wouldn’t it be great if you had one or two students whose job it was to capture the essence of each day?   They would have to make decisions about what to take a photo of: If the students did a lab, they might take a picture of the lab apparatus; if the teacher talked the entire period, they might take a picture of the board note; if students were doing presentations, or there was an in class debate, or a video was shown, or the class went to an assembly, or there was a supply teacher, or researching in the computer lab – whatever it was, it would be captured!

The way I see it, the point of this exercise would not be as a “lesson recap,” rather it would be to inspire students to be more aware of their lives and the events that happen to them (especially events that encourage learning, personal growth and excitement).  Moreover, I would want students to feel they had the creative control over what the image would be given what class was like for them.  If they had a great class, not because of the lesson, but because a really great joke was shared between friends, then I would want to see the picture attempt to capture that.

I also think that the photo-per-day project would be a good way for teachers to reflect on their classroom teaching.  Looking back over a semester of photos that have been captured by students would be a very good way of getting a sense of what students experience in your classroom.  If almost every picture is a photo of the blackboard … I think that says a lot more than a thousand words about your teaching style!

I know that we are already a month into the new semester, but I think that I am going to try this idea out with my students.  For each of my courses, I already have a Ning social network where students blog and share videos/pictures regularly.  One of the great features of Ning is the ability to upload blogs/images/videos directly from a mobile smartphone by emailing the file to the social network.  This feature will make it really easy for my students to start a photo-per-day project and share their images with the rest of the class.

I’m looking forward to seeing what comes of this!

All images are from my cousin Kim, who did a 365 Project last year.  I think that she’s a fabulous photographer!  Check out her 365 here.

Monday, February 28th, 2011

Video Supply Lessons

A few years ago, I came across this blog from Mr. Robbo called “How I Teach When I’m Away From Class,” and I thought it was a brilliant idea.  Basically, rather than leaving long and detailed written lesson plans for the supply teacher to read to the class, he records a short video of himself explaining what the students are expected to do.

I have used the technique a few times, and it is wonderfully successful.  My students have always responded well to it.  I think that seeing my face at the beginning of class helps students to remember that, even though I am not present today, I still very much want them to have a productive learning day.

The example video below is a “lesson plan” I left for my grade 10 Applied level Science class two weeks ago.  It was really important to me that I do the video lesson plan for this group of students because they generally do not respond well to change.  It was also still very early in the new semester and I wanted to reinforce the expectations we had been discussing at the beginning of the year.  (Have you ever noticed that even good students try to take advantage of supply teachers?  It seems they lose all sense of behavioural expectations.)  I also think that it’s great when you can show the students what they are going to be working on in class while you are away so there is no misunderstanding.

If I am organized ahead of time, I like to record my lesson videos at school and put them on the school network drive so it is easy for the supply teacher to show.  I have also put the video on a USB stick or, worst case scenario, uploaded the video to my website to be shown from there.

At the time when I recorded this video I could not find my digital camera, so I had to use my cell phone instead (which is why the quality is poor and the recording is so shaky).

As a precaution, I still type up basic instructions for the supply teacher so that they know what the video instructions are going to be about ahead of time.  This is also a good backup in case there is a tech issue and the video cannot be shown.

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