The App Generation

Dr. Katie Davis’s session today at the Learning and the Brain Conference shared some of the findings and highlights from a book she wrote with Howard Gardner, The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy and ImaginationBecause I misread the schedule, I showed up a bit late to the session, so my notes focus on the last piece of how youth navigate imagination.

Dr. Davis presented research on how student pieces (visual art and creative writing) in a literary/art magazine from the early 1990s and the 2010s reflected creativity. A number of different characteristics of the pieces were coded. A few that I found interesting- In visual arts, more of the early pieces had centralized image focus and were primarily pen and ink. The later pieces were more likely to have stylized cropping and greater use of mixed media. In creative writing, the early pieces contained more fantasy and more non-linear structure; their use of language was more slang/informal. The later pieces contained more formal realism, linear structure, and more formal language. Overall, the findings suggested increased complexity in visual art and less experimentation, greater adherence to the everyday in creative writing.

Dr. Davis noted that while these changes might be reflective of changes in technology, the changes in creative writing could also be the result of an emphasis on standardized testing  might be affecting writing. She also suggested that while the visual art teens were producing appeared more sophisticated it might also be that they were mimicking what they had access to online.

She concluded the talk by describing the difference between app enabling and app dependence and noting that many educational apps encourage app dependence. Students are keenly aware of what we as adults do, and Dr. Davis encouraged educators to model app enabling. I think this is especially important for teachers as they consider how they use technology in the classroom. I’ see a push back on app dependence in an increased interest in encouraging students to explore hacking and the maker movement. 

In response to a question wondering whether apps weren’t just another tool, like a dishwasher or calculator, Dr. Davis suggested that while she was happy to cede much of life’s drugery to apps and technology, she thought it was important to make those concessions mindfully. The questioner them suggested the perhaps what she was arguing was that apps make it too easy to give up too many things.

I thought that last point was an interesting one to ponder. I had my own app awareness moment recently when I realized that I was cropping a picture in a certain way so that it would display well on Instagram. I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that choice, but it struck be how mindlessly I initially made it.

Sites and Apps Students Are Using

As a teacher, one of my goals for this year is to know my students better. I’m not a big fan of get to know you sorts of games, but I hoped that an interesting question might create some space for learning more about my students.

To that end, I asked students in my high school US History class to choose 3 or 4 web sites or apps they use frequently and to consider what sort of information a historian 50 years from now might conclude about them based on those sites or apps.

The information students shared and their reflections helped give me a better sense of them as people, in addition to students. I’m also interested in the way that sites that seemed to be very popular a year or two ago (most prominently Facebook) seem to be waning.

Students Engage Each Other

As part of their cumulative project, students in my Upper School (all 11th graders this year) US History class are responsible for researching the development of a particular area of US History and then teaching a class period on the topic.

This year I’ve been impressed by the way students who are teaching have gotten their classmates out of their seats and participating in learning activities. I think that this kind of learning, so prevalent in the lower grades, tends to fizzle out by high school. I confess it can be challenging for me to come up with these sorts of participatory activities without them feeling cheesy. I think what has worked so well in these classes is students are the ones who are leading the activities. They’re a great way to break up the lecture and discussion that have made of the other parts of the lessons the students have taught.

In addition, students have effectively used video in their lessons. They’ve chosen clips that are usually around 2-5 minutes long as a means for spurring discussion. Definitely a departure from some of my high school classes where a teacher would pop in a video that lasted the entire class period.

Here are just a couple examples of the students’ good work from last week.

One student taught on the evolution of household appliances. As an activity, she split students into two groups and challenged them to make cream cheese icing. One group hand an electric mixer, while the other had a whisk and a butter knife. I was put in the low-tech group and can testify to our frustration as we tried to make icing with what felt like woefully inadequate tools 🙂


As part of her lesson, the teacher also showed us the following video, which gave us a sense of the novelty of electric appliances in the early 20th century.

Another student taught on the history of personal transportation. He created a homemade carburetor pressure monitor (it probably has a more technical name than this). He then invited other students to demonstrate how it worked by blowing on the two tubes that would have been hooked to the sides of a carburetor in the car.

As part of his lesson we also discussed the future of cars. He showed us a video of a Tesla, a new generation of electric cars that mirrors and even surpasses the performance of many standard cars.

Writing for Publication with Students

Independent School magazine has just posted an article I wrote with two students in last year’s blended learning US history class as a Fall 2011 online feature. It’s entitled “Learning Differently- and Deeply: Reflections on a Blended Learning Class“.

Writing an article with students for publication was a challenging and rewarding process. We tried several different formats to arrive at something that felt like it honored all our voices and was clear to the reader. While a part of me feels like the piece might have been a bit more polished with only one author, I’m glad that I included students in the process. I strongly believe in the importance of student voice, and it is so often missing from professional publications. As a teacher, writing with students was another way to push myself to cede some control in the learning process.

The process of writing the article was a great way for students to begin to develop professional voices. The article shows up on the first page of a Google search for each of their names, which is a solid step toward a positive online presence. Throughout the class, all students spent time reflecting on what they’ve learned, but for the students who volunteered to help write the article, they had the opportunity to push that reflection even further.

To This Effect

Jon Becker recently wrote about his frustration with educators who promote the value of online chats, conferences, edcamps, etc. without providing evidence of improved experiences for students. In essence, he seems to be asking for the proof that these experiences are worth educators’ time. I posted the following comment on the post…

I appreciate the challenge, but I think that some of us are already sharing the kinds of stories you’re looking for, although we could probably do it more often. Independent School magazine is publishing an article I wrote with students about our blended learning history class. Here’s a post in which I write about a professional conference at which they presented. Neither of those would have been possible/likely without the connections I’ve made on Twitter (you, included :)) and conferences such as EduCon. I also have student evaluations for all the units in the courses I teach. I generally try to pull from those when I present. I’ve talked about the results of reading aloud to my students, which I only started doing because of conversations on the English Companion Ning. Part of this article came out of the way an Ignite preso that I gave pushed my thinking on reflection. Maybe not perfect examples, but are those the kinds of things you’re getting at?

I guess where things sometimes break down for me is narrating effect on students after the fact. Most of that is a result of the sheer workload of being a full-time classroom teacher with three preps, but you’re right to push us to do that reflection and offer that evidence. I’ll just say that on a very gut level, it’s hard to read your post and not think about the extra freedoms the academy affords in terms of structuring your time.

What’s more frustrating to me is people who present and don’t present evidence because they don’t have it to present because they’re not in the classroom. I don’t want to discount their voices entirely because of their previous experiences and the time that they have to think and read by virtue of their non-classroom jobs. However, I’d love to see them partnering with classroom teachers in their presentations and publications, and I’d like to see more teachers given the opportunity to address conference participants.

I think Jon’s asking a fair question, and that, combined with my gut reaction of annoyance, may be a signal that I don’t do what he’s suggesting often enough. Some of that may be a time issue, as I suggested in my comment, but it can also be hard to enunciate correlation, even in the narrative way that Jon suggests. On some level, the evidence for the effect of conferences and online connections on my teaching is my continued presence in the classroom. The connections and relationships that I’ve formed have been a continued source of support and encouragement to me. To that end, I’ll offer two emails that students wrote me at the end of this year:

Thank you for being an awesome Language Arts teacher this year. I really appreciated having you as a teacher. I learned how to do many things, like 25 word stories, writing in different perspectives, and learning how to make stories short- or long. I’ll remember the funny quotes from every trimester, the things that made you stand out- in a good way- from the other teachers. You are the best LA teacher I could ever hope for. Unlike my other LA teachers in previous years, you cherished all of everyone’s writing: not just treating them as something lengthy to skim and grade. You treated the pieces of writing as something special. It’s because of you that for once in my life, I felt like I was good at writing and I could actually become what I want to be: a writer. I’ll also remember the Schoolhouse Rock videos. Some of them are quite scary and make me go insane, but somehow you put up with it. [The student was kind of creeped out by School House rock videos, which are, in fairness, a little creepy :)] Thank you for a wonderful 6th grade LA year.

Thanks Ms. Stewart!!! I was so freaking excited, I’ve never gotten an award before! =D [The student got a learning award from the school for work that she did in conjunction with the class.] Thank you again for being such an awesome teacher and just an awesome person. I enjoyed being in your class this year and actually learning about history. I know as a teacher, you might not believe how true this statement is, but I honestly want you to know that you should feel good that you at least changed one person’s perspective of history (except I know you changed everyone’s). And thank you for helping me learn. 

I feel a bit awkward sharing those emails, but those students taught me as much as I did them. And their emails describing me are evidence of the effect that the conferences I’ve been to and the conversations I’ve had this year have had in encouraging me to reflect about the teaching I’ve done, I’m doing, and I will continue to do.

Role Reversal

On Monday, I’m doing one of the Ignite-style (20 slides in 5 minutes) presentations for the NCAIS 21st Century Teacher Academy. I thought about doing the presentation on Socratic Seminars I’ve used before, but I decided to put together a new presentation based on some of the things I talked about at the New Literacies Institute earlier this week.

I had fun playing with the inking feature in Powerpoint using my Lenovo tablet. (That’s not a paid advertisement, but if they sent me one of their new tablets, I wouldn’t send it back ;)) I use the inking feature often when students are taking notes or when I’m explaining something in class, but I hadn’t ever really used it for a presentation.

Inviting Students to Work Alongside Us

When I was an undergraduate, one of my professors invited a law student and I to be co-authors of some entries he was writing for the Dictionary of American History. I’m sure he easily could have cranked out the entries himself, probably requiring less time than meeting with us to draft them did. However, I suspect that he invited us into the writing process because he knew it would offer us a first foray into having our work published and a window into the world of the life of an academic. On Friday, several of the students in my blended learning class will be attending NCAIS Innovate conference with me to present on the class. It takes a bit more effort to include students in one’s professional activities- permission forms to complete, schedules to coordinate, etc.- but I think such experiences can be powerful for both students and teachers. Students have the opportunity to get a glimpse at the work that teachers do outside the classroom and also to share the work they do in the classroom with a larger audience. Teachers have the opportunity to hear student voices, which might differ in emphasis or content from the perspective of a teacher sharing about the work of the classroom.

I’ve also taken a cue from my professor and asked a student to co-author an article I’m currently working on about the class. I quote students in articles and my blog posts frequently, but this is the first time I’ve asked a student to co-author. While I don’t necessarily expect that she’ll become a teacher or writer, I hope the opportunity will be a beneficial one. I’m also excited about having her input on the article.