Saturday, March 6, 2010

"What’s a Fishbowl?"

That was a question that I have answered a lot lately from my students and from other students as they pass by my class and see laptops, students talking, and two different circles formed by desks. At Arapahoe one of the many awesome things I learned was a Fishbowl style discussion, only in a 21st Century way. Many people are familiar with the traditional style Fishbowl discussion with the inner circle talking and everyone in the outer circle facing the inner circle (IE where the Fishbowl name comes from) and writing down notes and comments about what is being said. At Arapahoe it was very familiar to engage in this discussion, but with a slight change - laptops. The students in the outer circle were not only typing their notes on the computer, but they were having a conversation in real time with each other in the outer circle. It was a technique that I learned how to facilitate during student teaching and it was something I knew I wanted to bring into my own classroom at the right time.

That right time happened last month when the 10th graders began studying The Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. I finally had the class in a place where the expectations, respect, and trust level I desired allowed me to introduce the concept of a Fishbowl. At first the students were a bit confused with having an inner circle and an outer circle and what each one was going to be doing, but once I set it up and we had a mock Fishbowl over a different reading in class it made sense. I explained the point values for grading purposes and the different roles - presenting, discussing, and being a member of the outer circle. I also made sure to clarify what my role specifically as a teacher was and that I am not leading or driving the train, but I will put it back on the track if it strays too far away.

At first students were a bit skeptical of how it was going to work. The first one we did over PT Indian was not the greatest. The inner circle really focused on having their own discussion and the outer circle their own too. Not really a bad thing, but that was only half of the idea. I really wanted to see students jumping from one circle to the other, either by physically moving or by seeing the comments of the outer circle on the SMART Board. Students in the outer circle also had a hard time keeping up with the variety of different conversations going on. I was surprised about this. I thought this generation, even more so than me, was supposed to be good at multitasking. So I had to demonstrate to a few students how to pay attention whether you are in the inner or the outer circle.

After a few more conversations with students about what an appropriate comment is and how they are to act in a Fishbowl, as I was creating the culture here, the students have actually been very successful with the discussion method lately. I enjoy that this style allows the students a voice, a structured time where they are given the class to direct and lead in whatever way they desire (this also happens at other times, but it is really awesome to see it during a Fishbowl). I also enjoy the fact that there are basically three (and often times more) conversations going on at once - the inner circle, the dialogue going on between the inner commenting on the outer circle, and the outer circle having their own various conversations. I really appreciate how this method of discussion is much more effective than a Socratic style one when where only one person is talking. Here there are so many different conversations going on at once and they all complement each other that is impressive to see.

From a technology point I set-up a class blog using Blogger and then use a neat piece of real time discussion software called Cover It Live to moderate the outer circle discussion. This software has built-in controls to allow you as the moderator to control what is published in the discussion by approving, sending private messages (For example, reminding students to spell their words correctly), and blocking users from commenting at all. Plus, this software has instantaneous posting, meaning as soon as the students send in their thoughts and I approve them they appear in the blog - something the students enjoy. This piece of software is currently blocked by our district filter, but I am working with them to unblock it so that it is easier to use in the future. Something in the imbed code for the blog triggers a block, even though the homepage is open.

In the end it is a lot of work to set-up the computers for my students, go around the filter, and spend the time setting up the blog and setting up the discussion, but in the end I believe this 21st Century Style of discussion is more relevant, engaging, and productive than some other form. But don’t take my word, check out the students’ last Fishbowl here.

Now my students do not ask “What’s a Fishbowl,” but instead they ask, “When is the next Fishbowl?”

Chemistry and Dance - What a Combination!

When I think back to my high school chemistry days (I know, not that long ago) I remember long lectures, lots of notes, formulas, and a whole variety of experiments in a lab that seemed twenty years behind.

Some of those essential elements still remain, but they have also changed quite a bit too. Our Chemistry teacher, Mr. V., still lectures to his students. However, now those lectures are a bit more interactive, including YouTube videos and funny jokes, not to mention that students are typing their notes on laptops provided for them by the school. These notes are also electronic and can be shared by one another, easily searched, and are a very effective for reference in the future. The formulas and experiments continue in much the same way as before, with slight modifications to using the computers at times instead of pencil and paper in the lab. Lab reports and manipulation of the data have become far easier to accomplish and in a shorter amount of time too. The bottom line though: students are still learning Chemistry.

However, the other day I noticed one unique thing happening. One of our dance teachers was up in the Chemistry room with Mr. V. That is right - Chemistry and Dance working together. At that immediate moment I let it go and rushed off to teach my own class, but later I asked Mr. V about this unique interdisciplinary effort.

He explained to me that the students were learning all about bonds between chemical elements - something I remember learning about using pencil, paper, and maybe a ball and stick model. However, Mr. V said they had done all those exercises, he also thought it would be helpful if they physically acted out the creation of molecules in the dance studio. It sounded like a great idea to me and I asked him how it went. He said that most of the students really got into it and now they really understood the elements necessary in the creation of a chemical. They got it because not only had they done the book work, the ball and stick work, but they physically worked together to create a collective knowledge. What a great idea!

Interactive bonds, Chemistry class, and Mr. V have inspired me. How am I working in a more interdisciplinary way to create more knowledge of the content area in my classroom? Am I engaging all the learning styles? I really believe in my classroom all too often I do a poor job of incorporating the physical aspect into my students’ learning. What Mr. V did with dance was a great reminder to continue working in new and creative ways so that my students can continue to succeed.

Riding in the Saddle

Have you ever seen a novice horseback rider? Every time the horse moves they seem to jump in an out of the saddle. That is how it felt for the first few months of teaching at the FAIR School Downtown. I was bogged down with media, technology, and somewhere in there figuring out how to teach my three classes. I was constantly running from class to meeting to printer issue to computer issue to whatever the next phone call. I was going all over the building the entire day and after a while I realized that I needed to focus in on what is really important - the students. It was not that before I was neglecting them, or focusing on them, or really trying hard to create relevant, worthwhile, and useful lessons - because I was - it was just that all too often it felt like I was doing all these other things all the time and that teaching kind of got shoved to the back burner. I was uncomfortable in my variety of roles because I was too busy trying to do too many things. So days were really good, my students listened, they had a good Fishbowl or a good discussion over the material we were learning. But there were other days when students did not listen, where I felt bad, was tired, and beat up from the stress of the job. It constantly felt like I was jumping in and out of the saddle. I was trying to ride this horse of being an effective teacher/media/technology person, but I somehow I was not good enough to keep it all together.

Since then a few months have passed, an entire semester and half of another quarter, and here I am finally riding in the saddle. My lessons seem to have a good pace and the students are responding in positive ways. In addition, I have figured out how to push each student in just the right way. The classroom management is becoming easier. Students understand the expectations and are following them for the most part. I continue to become more comfortable also in my other roles as the media and technology coordinator. I have gotten used to the questions and issues that keep popping up and the variety of different tasks that I get to complete each day. It is exciting and I really enjoy going to work because there seems to be a constant challenge. Everyday is always an adventure.

I do not know if it has been time that has made me feel more comfortable. Or maybe it has been really getting my students to the place where I can actually teach. Or maybe it is the fact that I am making time for my prep periods and really focusing on segmenting out each day. I now respect the instructional part of my day and the technology/media part of my day equally and they both get fair and separate time. Or maybe it is the fact that I have really focused on not checking my work e-mail accounts after I get home or on the weekend. I also take part of every weekend off to recharge my own personal batteries so that I can really be the best teacher come Monday morning. I have really learned that personal time, combined with exercise throughout the week, has really been key to feeling comfortable where I am.

By no means am I saying that I am some sort of expert at this teaching/technology/media stuff yet, because that is clearly not true. However, as I look back at where I was at the beginning of the year and compare that to right now I notice a significant and positive change. I feel like right now I am finally riding in the saddle.