Teacher as Lawyer

Every year in 7th grade, this part of the year is the pits as far as academics go.  The social nature of a thirteen year old’s brain has almost entirely taken over and we spend the final stretch of the year trying to regain balance.  I had to have a discussion with my students about this today and thought I’d pass some of these thoughts along to you as well.

Our school has adopted a no zero policy.  There is much debate about such policies and implementation is entirely the key to their success.  If students get the feeling they are “getting something for nothing” and recieve a grade without ever turning in an assignment, the wrong impression is given. By giving a zero for work not completed, we effectively tell students the work is not important for them to do. They get a free out from having to do the thinking we’re asking them to do.  If an assignment is worth giving, it is worth every student completing.  By saying we will not allow them to take a zero for an activity, we take away that free out and require them to learn the material.

What does all this have to do with teachers being lawyers?  That was my analogy to my students today and I think, in some way, the message kind of sank in.  I described myself as their lawyer arguing the case for their promotion to the next grade level.  Like any good lawyer, I need to go to trial with as much evidence as I can possibly gather that points toward the desired outcome.  For my students, that outcome is promotion to the next grade level.  The evidence I collect is based on labs, projects, tests, quizzes, and occasionally classwork and homework.  My evidence needs to be final evidence of mastery, not preliminary evidence.

Not completing an assignment gives me no evidence of mastery or misunderstanding. This is the best way of explaining not giving a zero for a missing assignment.  I do not have evidence that the student understands the topic, nor do I have evidence that they don’t understand the topic. I simply have no evidence.  Our school has an online progress monitoring system where students with incomplete assignments get a grade of INCOMPLETE on their progress report.  This makes perfect sense to me, because there is incomplete evidence for their mastery of the topics we are covering in class.

Taking this idea a step further into standards based grading, I would love to set up a non-standard report card. The report card would be a throw-back to what is still used in many primary grade classrooms. The science report card would show all of the standards for the year. As students worked toward mastery of the standards, certain tasks would be accepted as evidence of mastery.  In this way, students would build their case for promotion throughout the course of the year.

The question then becomes, how does one reconcile this grading idea with the traditional grading system with which parents are so familiar? The report card would simple be a documentation of progress toward mastery of each standard.  Student A might master 8 standards in a 9 week period while Student B masters only 5.  Does that mean Student A is a better science student than Student B?  If they both master all the standards by the end of the year, how does one distinguish between students?  High schools will have a fit when trying to place students into Honors, AP, and regular classes.  What if students work all year and still don’t achieve mastery of all the standards? What would be the final requirement for promotion to the next grade level?

What are your thoughts on this analogy and this interpretation of standards based grading? Would love to hear from you.

Wikis, Siftables, Mindstorms, and other Random Musings

Last week, my classes spent three days in the lab working on our class wiki. On Friday, I spent some time debriefing with my students about what they learned during their three days in the lab. Though their answers were typically middle school depth answers, I enjoyed hearing some of the following things they learned:

  • How to hyperlink (and a couple even mentioned WHY to hyperlink)
  • Wiki page creation
  • Commenting on the wiki (had two who learned how NOT to comment on the wiki)
  • How upsetting it can be when someone vandalizes a collaborative project…our team name is the Sunfish and I went in and changed the wiki homepage to SUNFISH STINK!!! and let someone happen upon it during the course of class, worked like a charm to make the point
  • Several mentioned their work output with a computer in front of them, some positively, others negatively
  • Several mentioned learning about synesthesia from the podcast I recorded and the article from CNN I posted
  • Many learned that it’s dangerous to text and drive (wonder what the long term impact of that article will be???)

Overall, I think our three days in the labs were well spent. Truthfully, it made me want either my own class set of computers or a 1:1 environment all that much more. The kids did well for the most part about getting to the various labs we were working in on time and completing a reasonable amount of work. I think the process can be much more streamlined, but they were really getting the hang of it by the third day.

While in the lab, my students also participated in Will Richardson’s request on behalf of fellow Edutopia writer Sara Bernard. For those interested, here are my student’s responses.

After our discussion of things learned from working on the wiki, somehow I felt it appropriate to continue the talking about technology and its changing role in their lives. My students provided from good suggestions for using technology in education, however none of them stepped far outside things that are already occuring in our classroom. Those that are beyond what we’ve done are on my horizons. We discussed cloud computing, and how if they explained computer use five years into the future to their parents, it would likely make their heads explode. The “future of computers” idea led me to show them the TED talk on Siftables that was posted earlier in the week.

Siftables blew their collective minds. Some of them were hung up on how they worked. Others on how much they would cost. Still others rightfully questioned what their overall application would be. I think much of that skepticism came from our earlier discussion of the Smart Table which, while carrying a hefty price tag, currently has very little that it can do which can’t be done otherwise with much cheaper equipment.

I left them for the long weekend on the idea that what they think of as a computer will very likely not be the same thing we’re using 5 to 10 years from now. Though many of them didn’t believe me, or perhaps weren’t surprised by the statement, I think the overall point was made.

Today, I attended a PD session on engineering, math and science. While the focus of the session was largely on the local community college’s cooperative program with several state universities, I did come away with a few interesting ideas.

  • First, we made lip balm. This was a surprisingly simple activity with great implications for collaborative class work. The recipe was given comparatively (1 part shea butter, 1.5 parts cocoa butter, etc) so students would have to do basic calculations to determine how much of each material would be needed for their group.  There were about 15 different flavors available which could have lead to a survey activity about favorite flavors, or testing to find flavor combinations that work together. I thought a wonderful language arts connection would be to design a label and advertising poster/campaign for the lip balm. Additional math could be brought in by doing cost analysis of the materials in order to determine the price to sell each tube for in order to make a profit. Definitely wishing I was teaching 8th grade for this activity.
  • We made Solo cup speakers for a stereo. Again, surprisingly easy, and a great discussion piece for students.
  • Most interestingly, I noticed on a price list that was handed out for the engineering camp run by the presenter contained a listing for Lego Mindstorms. My first exposure to Mindstorms came from this post by Clarence Fisher. It turns out the presenter (who is local) has a set sitting in his office that he can’t find anyone willing to use. Looks like I’m going to be offering up another idea for my chess club students to test out after that activity wraps up.
  • For those who don’t know, Mindstorms are a programmable robotics kit created by Lego. The programming is done in a visual editor and is designed to be used by students as young as 8 years old. I’m totally intrigued by the idea, and slightly concerned that I’m getting in touch with my inner Gary Stager.  Though I still don’t think programming/robotics needs to be a part of the standard curriculum for all students, I’m beginning to see some possibilities. Who knows, maybe after playing around with the set for a while I’ll have even more ideas. Is anyone out there using Mindstorms already? Care to share how you work it into your curriculum, or after school program?

Thanks for indulging me with the opportunity to ramble on a bit this evening.

Why Do We Link??

A student asked me this question earlier today during our work on our class wiki. Actually, it was a variation of this question: “Why do we HAVE TO link?”.  Students were doing a short summary/analysis post about two articles they read from Kidshealth.org and I was showing them how to link back to the original article.  The student wasn’t quite getting it and I didn’t give the best answer I could have, but the question stuck with me all day…so, why do we link?

  • We link to provide context. What has shaped our thinking on a topic? Where did our opinions come from or what were they refuting?
  • We link to show we have prior knowledge.  Just like a researcher whose writing builds off many previous efforts, our links provide a reference for the statements we make.
  • Linking makes reading and writing active instead of passive. This is the major downfall of books. If I don’t understand a book, I can’t click on the words to find meaning in them. However, on the web, if I click on someone’s links I can find meaning in their statements.  As a writer, I can no longer just write and write (like I’ve been doing so far), to actively engage my readers I in the process of reading and learning.
  • We link to make connections.  The implications of linking are that there is some type of connection to be made between what you are saying and what someone else is saying. More and more I am recognizing the power of these connections.
  • We link to provide opportunities for those who are determined to learn to do so.  Bill Genereux discussed The True Digital Divide in a post this morning. In his opinion the divide is not an economic one creating technological haves and have nots.  No, to him the divide comes between those who actively seek out new knowledge and those who are content to settle with what they already know. Some are okay with failure as part of the process of becoming master learners. Others are scared that failure means and ending to their success.  We link to provide those constant learners a chance to learn from us.

Those are some of the reasons I link…so why do you link??

A Well Connected Day

Whew! Sitting down for a few minutes before heading to the in-laws for dinner and prior to the Carolina-Duke basketball war tonight. This has been one of those days where the connections have just flown all over the world…Thought I’d share a bit.

It started by reading Jeff Utecht’s The Beginning of the End cont. over at The Thinking stick. If you have not read this post, do yourself a favor and go there now. This is where we need to be taking learning for our students, and afterward you will see my feeble attempts to get there.

Arriving at school, I checked my mail box and found that the Acer Aspire One from their Seed Program had arrived. For those that haven’t heard, Acer is letting schools try out one of their netbooks for 30 days, with the option of purchasing it at a reduced price or sending it back at the end of the trial period. I’m planning on putting this little fella through it’s paces over the next 30 days to see how one holds up in full time classroom use.

After booting up the Aspire One to let it install the necessary drivers, I went and checked my Twitter account.  Yesterday I posted a link to an article from CNN.com called “Seeing Color in Sounds has Genetic Link“.  I have been fascinated by synesthesia since having a math professor in college who was a synesthete and explained his difficulties in school related to the condition.  One of my fellow science teachers on Twitter out in Utah, @gardenglen sent me a tweet informing me he has a co-worker who is synesthetic.  Through some back and forth discussion we are now planning to set up a Skype session where my students will be able to ask her some questions about the condition and how it has affected her life.

In class today, my students were working on article summaries for the wiki we’re creating. The article they read yesterday was called “Texting on the Move“. Three of my students during the day commented about hearing a news story related to this concept earlier this morning.  Throughout the day students were relating the articles they were reading to events in their own life.  They were also learning a ton of technology stuff:

  • We discussed the benefit of hyperlinking to the original article and I got most of my kids to the point where they were comfortable doing it.
  • Several students learned the keyboard shortcuts for cut, copy and paste.
  • We discussed constructive commenting…while some started to get it, others are still really working on this one…
  • About half way through each class I sabotaged the main page of the wiki and put on an Academy Award Nominated performance of being angry and disappointed that someone would have looked at my list of usernames and logged in to an unused account and messed with the main page of our wiki.  When no one fessed up I raised my hand in recognition that it was actually I who had done the deed. I then showed how quickly we could revert back to an old version, and pointed out how useless it would be to sabotage a page.

Finally, after completing the wiki work, students went on a “Glog Walk” checking out some of the glogs made with Glogster.com/edu by Chad Brannon’s 7th graders in Alabama. The goal over the next several days is to have my students create their own glogs. At this point I’m waiting on their passwords to arrive from the EDU version of Glogster.

Overall, I’ve felt like the past couple of days have been very “connected” for me.  My PLN is becoming a bigger part of who I am as an educator.  This despite the fact that my number of Tweets over the past few days has actually decreased.  It’s an amazing thing this networking.  If only all teachers realized the potential for making connections beyond the classroom, county, state, region, time zone, or country…I’ve certainly been won over, and will continue to work to win over other teachers.

The 39 Clues: Books 2.0 or Marketing Genius? Or Both?

The Book Fair is in town and I was finally intrigued enough to ask a question about The 39 Clues. The question: What’s the deal with these books? The answer…well, who knows yet. Here’s the basic idea:

Two young kids find out they are heirs to a mysterious and immensely powerful family known as the Cahills. It turns out that nearly everyone who was a great thinker, artist, musician, etc in the past was actually a member of the Cahill family. Their grandmother dies and each grandchild is offered a lump sum of money ($1 million) to walk away forever or a chance to hunt for the secret to the Cahill’s power. Treasure hunting ensues with all that comes along that path.

In older day’s this would have made for a great book. There’s some mystery, there’s treasure, there are unwitting children who get wrapped up in a story bigger than themselves. In the post-Harry Potter world, this would have been 7 great books. We would be waiting months, if not years, for the conclusion of the Cahill’s story. Millions of real dollars would have been poured into retaining the audience as they grew older. The question remains however if we are living in the post-Harry Potter world, or the pre-39 Clues world. You see, there’s far more to The 39 Clues than a treasure-hunt story.

First of all, there are 10 books, not one. The first book: The Maze of Bones was released in September of 2008. The tenth book is scheduled for release in September 2010. That must be a typo, they can’t POSSIBLY release 10 books, of any merit, in 2 years. On the contrary, the second book was released in December and the third is scheduled for March 2009. There are multiple authors signed on for the project. The first book and main story arc were authored by Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. Each of the next four books will feature a different author, presumably in a one shot deal bringing the total number of authors to 10. Each story will stand alone as well as being part of the bigger story-arc of The 39 Clues. Scholastic has stated that each book will offer a short review of previous events for those who pick up the series in the middle of things.

So now we have a 2 year window to keep reader’s attention; a much more manageable task. This part of the model is not new, many series have been written by multiple authors. What makes the series different is what makes me question it most. By reading the books and searching for the 39 clues, the readers (at least those aged 6 to 14) become eligible for prizes. The grand prize, to be awarded after the release of the final book, is $10,000. When I was 12 years old, if you had offered me that kind of money to read a book I would have read it forwards, backwards, upside-down, in Chinese, and any other way possible. That’s not to say money was a motivating factor for my reading, I was an avid reader anyway, but with the possibility of winning money attached I would have been hooked.

How do you distinguish yourself as a potential $10,000 winner? First you have to read the books. This is a good thing. At approximately 200 pages each we’re looking at roughly 2,000 pages worth of text by the end of the series. As a teacher, I’m never going to complain about books that get kids reading. Reading the 10 books gets you 10 of the 39 clues…which begs the question: where can I find the other 29? Therein lies the real intrigue of this series.

Online Community

The 39 Clues website helps move you toward the other 29 clues. You see, when you purchase the first book, there are 6 playing cards included. You are directed to the website where you must create an account. Once created, you are placed in one of the four families (think Houses, Harry fans). Each family has their own archives which provide additional information on events that occur in the book.

The website is also the home of an online card game that helps readers earn access to more clues.  Each of the books comes with 6 cards (an eventual total of 60 from the books).  These cards include a code that can be typed in on the website to load the cards into your online deck which is used to play a game against others searching for the Clues.  The first series of cards contains 55 additional cards for the first 3 books.  I found somewhere that there will be an eventual total of 355 cards spanning all 10 books.  The cards are available in packs of 16 (2 foil packs of 8) for about $7 each.  Once a code has been entered for a card it is no longer usable.  This prevents kids from sharing the cards with their friends.  The cards are rated according to availability, some are common, some uncommon, some rare, and some ultrarare.  It appears that entering codes from duplicate cards will increase the power of that card in your deck.

So, we have a book series written by a number of popular YA novelists.  Which is to be completed in 2 years time.  That involves students winning prizes for their reading and ability to play against others in an online game.  And I can’t quite tell what I think about it…


  • Certainly this gets kids reading. My 7th graders have been reading entirely in a Post-Harry Potter world.  They are used to series books, but often seem to lose interest as a series takes too long to develop. The 2 year time frame is great for this.
  • Multiple authors. This provides an opportunity to discuss different stylistic elements of different authors working with the same characters. I’m sure there can be a ton of room for fan-fiction about unsuccessful Clue hunts.
  • Built in community and networking. Students no longer have to hope someone next door is reading the same book. Nor do they have to sit back and hide the “dorky” book their reading if others aren’t into it. Their is a built in online community for them to connect and collaborate with over these stories.
  • Subversively educational.  That was a description I read in one article which was meant to imply students would learn something despite thinking they were just caught up in a mystery/adventure book. Think Da Vinci Code for pre-teens.
  • Big draw for gamers and card collectors.  I grew up watching some of these communities develop.  From the books that were spawned off the Dungeons and Dragons games, to video games with book tie-ins, to Magic: The Gathering and the eventual failed book attempts there, gaming and reading have seemed to go hand in hand on some level.  Here there is a real attempt to put the two together initially rather than attempting to force them together as an afterthought.


  • Prohibitive cost. The books have a MSRP of $12.99 which means we’re looking at $130+ just to purchase the books.  The booster packs of cards for the game are priced at $7 per pack of 16.  That means for the 295 cards unavailable in the books a minimum of 19 packs need to be purchased.  That’s an additional $133 at a bare minimum to buy enough cards to possibly get a complete set.  This is all assuming you get a different rare/ultra-rare card in each pack which is unlikely at best.  I would conservatively put the cost at $300 to complete the set.  Though it is spread over time, this rivals the cost of many video game systems, assuming a computer with Internet access is already in the home or available at a local library.
  • Extrinsic motivation to read.  I struggle with this already with AR, now we’re telling kids that for a book to be really good, there has to be a chance to win money from it? At what point do the books become second or even third fiddle to the online game/card collecting? I’m scared to envision a world where a kid picks up two books and decides which one to buy based on the fact he could win money from reading one but not the other…
  • Are the books any good? I have no clue, I’ve only read the first 3 pages of the first book. Reviews online seem to be generally favorable, but my question is this: Will there be motivation to read the books after the contest ends? With Harry Potter, many will continue to read those books to relive the phenomenon.  I’m not sure the same will be true for trying to collect the 39 Clues.  This may be a one shot deal for Scholastic.  Alternatively, are we going to begin seeing hundreds of knockoff series that attempt to do what has been done here?  At what point does that severely take away the pure enjoyment of reading?
  • Still dealing with book series.  What ever happened to starting a book, writing it, and then ending it?  I asked a small group of my students what the last book was they read which was a stand-alone book. Of the four that could name one, most were written at least 15 years ago, before they were born. This model perpetuates the sequel-hungry book and movie industries that punish authors for having new and inventive ideas.  If something is not a guaranteed moneymaker the likelihood of publication significantly decreases, despite the decreased cost of publishing.

Despite these negatives, I’m extremely intrigued by the idea of the books. The story seems like it could have enough power to stand on its own outside of the game and promotional hoopla.  The movie tie-ins are already starting as Steven Spielberg has purchased the rights to the first book despite it being only a few months old.

Anyone out there have students who have been reading the books? What are their impressions? Are we moving into new territory in books? Or is this just a one-shot gimmick which will go away after next year?

Further reading:

Time Magazine: 39 Clues: The Next Harry Potter?

The 39 Clues Main Site