Post-its and Ponderings
A middle school teacher's thoughts on science, technology and learning

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Search Strategies - More than "Just Google It"

Every year, I ask my 6th grade students to respond to the following prompt in their Tech journals: "Describe your strategies for researching using the Internet." Without fail, at least 80% of them will respond with something like, "I type a word into Google and then click on the first website listed" or "I go straight to Wikipedia."

So, I think it time to teach Internet search strategies a little more explicitly. (Even the New York Times recently posted a lesson plan for dealing with Internet searching skills.)

These are the search strategies I start with for my students when they begin their projects:
  1. Take note of the domain names types (.gov & .edu tend to have most "reliable" info)
  2. Check the "About Us" to see if the site is reliable.
  3. Try searching or (ex: Twitter
  4. Try putting your search item in quotes. (ex: "history of Mt. Vesuvius" instead of just history of Mt. Vesuvius)
  5. Try subtracting or add words (for example type 'Tiger -Woods' to search for info on the animal.)
  6. Try clicking on the little superscript numbers in Wikipedia to find out the source that is used.
  7. Try searching popular news places - (Newsweek, Time, New York Times, Gizmodo, TechCrunch, Crunchbase (wiki)) (ex: "Yelp +Chicago Tribune")
  8. Use other media, such as videos (TED talks, YouTube interviews)or podcasts (KQED, NPR)
Still need more help? Try these links: Using Search Engines, Develping a Search Strategy, and 10 Simple Google Search Tricks (NY Times)

And, don't forget when you are searching to cite the websites you use!

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Finally Joined YouTube

OK, I did it. I joined YouTube. You'd think as a pseudo-geek, I would have jumped on this earlier, but I finally have my own channel, inspired by my kid blog.

YouTube is interesting. Yes, if you are not careful, you will find yourself surfing videos of laughing babies, dancers in banana suits, and the latest variation of Charlie the Unicorn. However, as I have said before, I have used it extensively for science and media literacy lessons in grades 1 through 8.

So I wonder why, when the first time a student asked me if he could use YouTube as a source for a class project, my gut reaction was, "no." When I thought about it for a minute, I changed my mind. YouTube is almost a philosophical extension of Wikipedia. And I decided to treat it as such. Sure, the student can use it as a source. But, like any article on Wikipedia, they must double-check their facts on another reputable source. However, how valuable was it for them to watch and interview with Barack Obama, or to hear a theremin played? Certainly more so than merely text and still images could provide.

One concern is that students may quickly fall off task, or be subjected to inappropriate language in the comments section. This just seems like a teachable moment (at least at the middle school level) regarding media literacy and responsible internet use.

Sadly enough, my old district banned both YouTube and Wikipedia in its schools. I wonder if this is a positive move or a disservice to the students. Social networking sites and wikis are not going away... shouldn't we embrace the opportunity to teach the kids to use these tools responsibly instead of taking them away?

Anyway, back to YouTube, someone should have warned me. Once I signed up, I got this message in the second box below. Wow. Harsh. :)

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

To Filter or Not to Filter?

Blogger Andy Carvin writes about his recent experience in which he invited to give a presentation to a group of "educators, historians and media professionals participating in their annual summer educational institute." (There's a link to the presentation in the post - interesting stuff!) He clicked to show a visual on YouTube and it was "flagged as inappropriate" and blocked!
The room went totally silent for a moment, then erupted in laughter. Here we were, a group of educators participating in a professional development seminar trying to discuss the role that Web 2.0 sites can play in civic education - at a presidential library, no less - and we were denied access to the information and tools we needed to have that discussion. My hosts at the library did their best to override the filters, but no one could figure out how to do it. I literally had to pantomime some of the video clips to give them a sense of what I was going to show them - and obviously, I couldn’t do any of them justice. One teacher then offered a tip to the group: if you ever get blocked, ask your students for help - they can show you a number of ways to get around the filter and access YouTube.

It's that teacher's comment that impacts me the most. S/he's right. By middle school, most kids can get around the filter. So, when no one is watching, they are accessing whatever content they want. And, all it takes is a "clear history" to outsmart the next most popular parent/teacher content-checking "trick." On the other hand, the kid who researching breast cancer or sex discrimination is blocked.

And, I've had it work the other way as well. While looking up an image of a medieval plant used for cosmetic purposes, our "filtered" Google Images pulled up a woman who no doubt had a botanically-inspired stage name. Oh yeah, and she was not even wearing a fig leaf to cover up.

In Carvin's case, a single video** was flagged for inappropriate content, but the story brings back my reoccuring fear that our district might soon chose to block YouTube. After all, they have already blocked a variety of social networking sites, including MySpace. There is certainly enough non-academic material on YouTube to warrant a filter, however, I've often used the site in the classroom to teach about topics including the theremin, cicadas, electric cars, and more. It helps bring in items that are too expensive and/or difficult to bring into the classroom. The multimedia is a nice (and free) addition to plain text resources. Another benefit is the ability to quickly assemble clips from opposing viewpoints to begin a discussion on media literacy. And, honestly, sometimes it's just plain fun.

Filtering cannot be the only answer. There is no substitute for pre-screening materials and supervision. I would never blindly search for clips in front of a classroom, nor would I allow my students to use the Internet without circulating and monitoring their usage. Another post discusses a recent U.S. Senate Hearing , in which the committee chair speaks against relying on technologies, like filters, to protect our kids.
Rather, our efforts must rely on a multi-layered strategy – one that teaches our children about safe and responsible online behavior; one that encourages industry action to develop tools that will aid parents in their efforts to restrict inappropriate material from their children’s access; and one that relies on swift and certain action by law enforcement officials in finding and punishing those who would use the Internet to harm children.

We cannot rely on filters alone. We need to teach kids responsible, ethical use of the Internet. As a middle school teacher, I know we cannot shelter them forever, so we might as well teach them how to navigate responsibility. And, if educators are committed to this goal, it needs to become part of the curriculum. (In my new position this fall, I am excited to have the opportunity to develop such a focus.) Additionally, everything we teach kids about responsible use, media literacy, and safety is applicable in also other areas of their lives. I think the senator has the right idea.

** CORRECTION 8/10: I misunderstood. It ends up ALL YouTube videos were blocked. That's exactly what I fear.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Are News Sites "Dumbing Down"?

A few months ago, I noticed a disturbing trend. When I clicked to read an article on CNN, an unfamiliar box appeared at the top of my article.

We live in a world of Cliff Notes & bullet points. Do we really need them in our news sources too? Textbooks are constantly becoming more clear and organized, to facilitate student's content reading skills. But what is going to happen when they encounter information that is not separated into color-coded headings? What will they do when the sentences do not all end at the bottom of the page?

In my experience, most (middle school) kids will do the bare minimum to complete their work. They are well trained to look for the bold words and fill in the blanks. I strive to give them assignments that force them to consider the gestalt before composing their answers. I think the "Story Highlights" are a step in the wrong direction.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Media Literacy - in the curriculum?

Andy Carvin (author of a recent post on relates a discussion he had with Dan Rather regarding media literacy. He concludes his post by commenting,
Countless kids today are producing media, and they rarely get any guidance from schools. We don’t invest the time needed for today’s students to learn how to think critically about digital media, either through analyzing content or creating new content to understand the techniques that go into it.

Everyone now has the power to influence everyone - and teaching students to these technologies responsibly requires a serious commitment from educators. Are we prepared to commit?

My curriculum is already full of topics I should teach. It is a constant exercise in prioritization to decide what I can cover in a relatively short time. However, I think media literacy is vital and I want to work to make it a priority in my classroom. It is no longer necessary for kids too memorize the lists scientific facts I recall being relentlessly quizzed over as a student. Students today can access any information they need in a fraction of a second on the Internet. The question is, do they know what to do with it?

Too often, I see teachers who assign "research projects," leaving the kids to their own devices on the Internet. Most teachers teach how to cite sources, but few spend time discussing image usage and web site evaluation. Alternately, many teachers limit student searches to a few reputable teacher-chosen sites. Many warn their kids against using Wikipedia. One of my co-workers even forbids students to search on Google.

However, this strict control does not prepare our students to use the Internet as a tool. As Andy Carvin states, "...every kid in America with a camera phone and access to YouTube" contributes to the massive amounts of media available to them. And they obviously are using this media when there are not teachers around to "control" them.

I've run across a few tools to teach responsible media usage. A Madison, WI site includes an evaluation checklist and example sites to investigate. UC Berkeley and Cornell University are just two of the colleges that have suggestions of how to evaluate websites. One interactive kid-friendly site, Jo Fool or J Cool, allows kids to visit mock-ups of web pages to determine whether they are legitimate sites or bad ideas. One of my goals for this year is to adapt these resources for use in my own classroom in order to improve the media literacy of my own students.

All this only addresses our students as consumers of media. As technology becomes more available and mainstream, I think schools will have a responsibility to guide students in the responsible production of media as well. Our kids' usage is far outpacing their expertise at this point. Schools can help close this gap.


Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Microbe Wanted Poster & Plagiarism

Every life science teacher in my building does some variation of the "Wanted Poster" during our study of microbes. (Feel free to modify my checklist.) Search Google, and you can find many teachers who are using a similar project. Not only does it allow for a little creativity, but a project like this helps dissuade the plagiarism beast.

Media literacy is as big of an issue to tackle as plagiarism, so for this assignment, instead of letting them loose on the Internet, I restrict their search to a list of trusted sites.

With all of these great resources available on diseases, a straight report would be an open invitation for plagiarism. We've all heard our students claim "but, the author wrote it exactly the way I would write it already!" In the old days, plagiarism meant painstakingly copying sentences from an encyclopedia. However, nowadays, "cut-and-paste plagiarism" is much more convenient and prevalent.

I used information from Indiana University and Lisa Hinchliffe to create a PowerPoint to use with my students at the start of this project. At each natural stopping point, I allowed my students to write and share their own paraphrasing of the selections. It was a good discussion and all of the kids said they learned something from the activity.

Does this mean I have never had instances of plagiarism again? Not quite. There will always be those students whose waited well beyond the last minute or who are looking for the "easy A". However, it did cut down tremendously on the amount of "uninformed plagiarists" - those kids who honestly didn't realize what they were doing was wrong.

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Friday, December 22, 2006

How to Build a Student for the 21st Century

A recent Time article begins with a clever snapshot of Rip Van Winkle awaking from his 100 year nap to find himself immersed in unfamiliar technology, only to seek refuge in the one institution that has not appeared to change at all - a school.

The article was prompted by the
New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce's December 14th publication of its powerful recommendations for sweeping change in American education. Although there is apparent controversy with some of the bold proposals, the consensus of these educators and business folk is that "we need to bring what we teach and how we teach into the 21st century."

Time Magazine specifically highlights these four "21st century skills."

1. Knowing more about the world - As global citizens, students have an obligation to become aware of and sensitive to other geographies, cultures, and languages.

2. Thinking outside the box - Future job opportunities will focus on creativity and innovation, not rote or repetitive tasks. Time cites NCLB as one of the reasons schools have actually steered away from this goal in recent years. The need for more interdisciplinary curriculums is also stressed.

3. Becoming smarter about new sources of information - There is no question students can access more information that ever before. Educators must now facilitate skills in managing, validating, and interpreting that information.

4. Developing good people skills - Today, a person's EQ ("Emotional Intelligence") is even more important than their IQ. Traditional schooling can be competitive and individualistic, which does not bode well for tomorrow's collaborative workforce.

Learning 2.0

These goals are important and attainable. For example,
we pioneered and do continue to focus on civil behavior, with our building specifically concentrating on the five domains of Emotional Intelligence.

1. Self-Awareness, 2. Self-Regulation, 3. Motivation. 4. Empathy, 5. Social Skills.
These qualities have been shown to directly impact students' academic learning, particularly among early adolescents

Our students know the vocabulary. They are used to referring to the domains when complementing other students or when discussing disciplinary infractions. A poster listing the five domains hangs in every classroom.

The need for updated literacy skills are as critical as social-emotional skills. NCREL's EnGauge website discusses the importance of this digital-age literacy as part of a necessary set of 21st century skills.

Systemic change takes time, but there are steps parents and educators can take. The Time article discusses, a curriculum clearinghouse based on the wiki concept. NCREL has created a variety of frameworks (such as the the one below) that an educator can use to become more mindful of the integration of 21st century skills into current lesson plans and activities.

Educating these "21st century students" remains a daunting task in my mind. It is easy to get bogged down with the daily grind of the current public school system, however, I have to vow to not give up trying to address these goals of global awareness, innovative thinking, increased digital literacy, and social-emotional competencies. These skills are vitally important for our students.

Schools featured in the Time article include Seattle's John Stanford International School, Michigan's Henry Ford Academy,
New York's Baccalaureate School for Global Education, and Michigan's Farmington High.

A great post at highlights the irony of the Dec. 25th Time issue directly following this Dec. 18th article.
I find it fascinating how the article suggests that eventually projects like Curriki might “take the Web 2.0 revolution to school,” as if there aren’t countless educators working their butts off to demonstrate to their peers how blogs, podcasts, wikis and other tools can be used to improve student learning. It’s as if the amazing, transformative universe documented in the Person of the Year issue hasn’t even come knocking at education’s door yet. Or perhaps the industrial-era schoolhouse walls of are simply too thick for us to hear it knocking. Maybe it’s because too many educators and students who embrace Web 2.0 are finding themselves in conflict with a system that worries what might happen if students are given too many opportunities to express themselves online, whether at school or at home.

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Should Wikipedia be used in school?

A funny thing happens when you mention Wikipedia in schools. Some teachers stare at you blankly while trying to place the origin of that strange word you just used. Other teachers start shifting from foot to foot, until they explode in a tirade professing that any responsible teacher would keep their students far away from that unreliable source. Still others nonchalantly shift away from the conversation, not wanting to admit that they didn't realize Wikipedia wasn't just an ordinary encyclopedia after all.

Of course, this is an exaggeration. But not by much. I conducted an informal survey at my own school. Of the paltry 24 responses I received from my little query: 4 (17%) teachers sheepishly asked what Wikipedia was (introduction), 13 (54%) said Wikipedia should not be acceptable as a credible source, 3 (13%) said they would allow students to cite Wikipedia, and another 4 (17%) said they would allow it as a source, but not as a sole source.

Perhaps one of the most colorful responses I received comes, not surprisingly, from an art teacher.
This sounds like the perfect resource! I could make it say anything I wanted, anytime I wanted! (Sort of like the painter vs. the photographer. The painter can change the season with a brush stoke and a color change, depending on his mood. The photographer has to be a slave for reality and wait for real time to change the season.)

Interestingly, one might reasonably argue that technology is even changing the way photographers can capture and manipulate reality. But I digress...

The Wikipedia debate is not new. In a
July 2005 blog, Andy Carver acknowledges educators' "hostility" towards the resource, although he describes how "Wikipedia's flaws actually make it an ideal learning tool for students." In fact, Wikipedia surely embraces Carver's ideas, as these same ideas are quoted in Wikipedia's Schools' FAQ. Wikipedia never claimed to be valid. The disclaimer on the bottom of every page makes this quite clear. Sure, anyone can edit a wiki, and write that the moon truly is made of cheese. Although, in a heavily disputed study, Nature "suggests that such high-profile examples are the exception rather than the rule" as it found natural science entries in Wikipedia to rival those in Encyclopedia Britannica.

Whatever your stance, we all must agree that the wiki is not going away. So, as with many emerging technologies, we must find ways to use it as an educational opportunity.

chael Eakes weighs in on the debate,
There is no guarantee of quality for any given Wikipedia article. But more importantly, Wikipedia remains incredibly useful as an initial resource that provides a contextual framework for more exhaustive research.

Perhaps those four teachers had the right idea. Wikipedia is a valuable source, but should not be relied upon as an only source.

Andy Carvin takes it a step further in March 2006,

Students and teachers should debate Wikipedi
a and even contribute to it; remember, it's a work-in-progress, not a finished body of work. But all too often, the debate over Wikipedia's merits is left among the educators only, with students left out of the conversation and operating on a simple directive: don't use it. By ignoring Wikipedia rather than teaching critical, responsible uses of it, schools are practically inviting students to edit Wikipedia at their own peril. We should be preparing students for constructive participation in the Read/Write Web; otherwise it might as well be the Read/Vandalize Web.

Andy Carvin did his own survey of educators and found little consensus among educators when it came to Wikipedia.

Opinions abound on Wikipedia's usefulness in schools. I personally agree that Wikipedia is a useful springboard to further research, and an opportunity to really teach media literacy and fact validation techniques. In the world that awaits our student's tomorrows, I cannot think of two more valuable lessons for our kids.

More blogposts tackling Wikipedia : Infinite Thinking Machine

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