Wednesday, April 9, 2014

MIT Media Lab Creativity Course: Peer Learning

I'm finally getting to dip my toes into the pool of the MIT Media Lab's Creativity MOOC. Week 4 tackled the topic of peer learning, one of the "P's" the course is focused on. The others are projects, passion, and play.

Here's a link to the video I watched, which made the following points about peer learning:

The Internet opened up a tremendous amount of information to the world, democratizing education, it's true, but also enabling us to connect with peers in heretofore unheard of ways. For example, we can undertake learning projects together. One of the instructors in the video mentioned an attempt he made with a few friends to take a psychology course online. The materials in the MOOC were unimpressive, but he ended up learning what had driven his friends -- all on different continents -- to want to study psychology. What began as an educational pursuit brought the peers closer in an emotional way.

Because the friends were without an expert, they didn't meet their learning goals, but they achieved something else. The video also went on to discuss what role an expert or facilitator might play in learning. Clearly, an expert is necessary -- as evinced by the failed attempt to learn any actual psychology -- , but if we think about the learning that did take place, then we can think about what a more fluid classroom might need and may decide that learning goals can be flexible and varied.

A facilitator, as opposed to a teacher or expert, for example, might need to show learners how to obtain information -- how we know is becoming as important as what we know -- or he/she might play the role of foster emerging collaborations. Noticing what learners are doing in the room and who they're learning with is key, then, for a facilitator, who doesn't have to be expert in a particular area in order to help people learn.

A final point the video made was that peers often drive learning outside the classroom. Friends frequently sign up for activities based on what other friends are doing -- a point that perhaps circles back to the initial one made about the friends who signed up to study psychology together. Those friends were adults, and adults may not be as driven to do what their peers are doing; often, younger learners -- those in elementary and high school -- sign up for courses or activities solely because "their friends are doing it." The influence peers have on the learning process, therefore, is worth pondering.

Of course, I'm a big believer in getting out of the students' way, so I can observe more closely what they want to learn and therefore help them get to the place they want to get to. The MIT Media Lab video deepened understanding of my role as facilitator in the self-directed learning environment and renewed my respect for peer learning, making me wonder how I can incorporate it more in the classrooms where I'm driving course material.

But the segment also made me think of JEDLAB, which lacks formal hierarchies and is all about peer learning. At the beginning of the video, when the instructor spoke of the fact that the foray into psychology simply brought him closer to his friends, I immediately thought of Ken Gordon's piece about the "I-Thou"-ness of JEDLAB.

Unlike the failed attempt to learn psychology, however, I do think we get an awful lot of learning done in JEDLAB, though it often seems to take the route of Woodstock in the old Snoopy cartoons, that is, it's non-linear. What seems particularly strong in the group, however, is the sense that we're on a journey of learning together, that we're peers bound by a shared passion for Jewish education and a desire to play with its forms and structures in a manner that today's new forums and media allow for in unprecedented ways.

So what I took out of my first foray into the creativity MOOC is that it's OK to take a meandering, circuitous path in learning. That meandering takes time and freedom, though. Standardized tests create an atmosphere that is the anti-thesis of the serendipitous and self-driven one we're advocating here, and the Jewish day school day is packed because of a dual curriculum. So my question is: How do we build time and freedom into the school day?

Monday, March 31, 2014

Narrative Frame and the Haggadah

Dracula and the Haggadah? Huh?!

Rabbi Daniel Rosen, a fellow Frisch English teacher, and I have created a joint project on the Haggadah. Rabbi Rosen gave the following assignment to his sophomore English class, which I then adapted and am now assigning to mine:

Literary Analysis

Outside reading assignment:

Narrative frame: We started the year with The Canterbury Tales and explored the idea of narrative frame, that is, the structure the author uses to tell his/her story. Chaucer, for example, creates the fiction of a group of pilgrims gathered on their way to Canterbury and frames his tales by having each pilgrim tell a story.

We’re returning to the idea of narrative frame for our second outside reading book assignment of the year. The technique is apt given the time of year: Pesach, when we can compare our literary narrative frames to the story set out for us in the Haggadah.

Part I. Choose either Dracula or Frankenstein. Get it, and read it. Then answer the following question in a well-structured and well supported essay of two pages.

Why would the author use the narrative frame that is used to tell this story?

Through close reading and page number-based citations, explain what this method adds to the story and its understanding, and discuss how the text would have lost meaning had the author chosen a simpler narrative system.

Integrating Literary Analysis with the Haggadah

Rabbi Rosen typed up the following based on our talking out how we wanted the students to connect their thinking about narrative frame to the Haggadah.

Part II. Consider the narrative frame presented to us in the text of Maggid. The speaker is sometimes named and sometimes not. The voice is variable and the perspective and tone shift. How would you describe the overall frame and narrative identity, and why would the text be presented in this way? Are there other methods which might have accomplished more than the section currently does? Is anything in particular gained or lost by this choice of narrative structure?

Go through the Maggid section, and think about who the speaker is in each section and how those sections and shifting narrators flow together. Be prepared to put forward a comprehensive read of the overarching narrative framework, and debate the efficacy and/or intentionality of the framework.

After Pesach, we're going to join our two classes for a discussion on their findings. We'll keep you posted on how that goes!

Additional Resources

For more interdisciplinary Haggadah ideas, check out these resources:

The RealSchool Yom Iyun (Day of Learning) Student-Made Art Exhibit

Last year for the Yom Iyun, the students in AP Art History created an exhibit about Haggadot and the Passover story by looking at illuminated Haggadot and then re-purposing a printer to tell the story of the ten plagues. A printer is how we today often create text, and since Passover is the time when we're required "to view ourselves as if we had left Egypt," connecting a printer to our ancient text seemed appropriate. Additional points about enslavement and redemption, which you can read about in the RealSchool blog post about the 2013 Yom Iyun art exhibit can be found here.

The Plagues and Magic in Egyptian Life

I got started in project-based learning through my interest in interdisciplinary studies. Here's a presentation I created many years ago explaining what the plagues undermine about life in Egypt.

Monday, February 3, 2014

JEDLAB's Impact

Seriously folks - after a rough couple of years in the collaboration area, 
your willingness to network reminds me that I am blessed to be in an amazing field full of opportunity. 

The networking here and throughout JEDLAB is truly a gift, I can't wa
it to utilize more of it as what I am doing continues to evolve.

Thanks for all of your offerings. -- JEDLAB member

JEDLAB, a space and platform that allows Jewish educators of all settings to exchange and test ideas in a friendly and encouraging environment, is, at the time I'm writing this blog post, 2550 members strong on the Facebook page where JEDLABians can most easily interact with each other. But that's not to say JEDLAB only takes place on Facebook. Meetups in the actual, physical (gasp!) world, collaborations among different members, book clubs, and webinars have also allowed educators to learn from one another and spread innovations quickly and efficiently.

Seeing people's daily requests to join JEDLAB on FB, watching the rich discussions that take place there, and connecting and collaborating with educators I would never have known without JEDLAB has made me consider what it has brought to my classroom over the last eight months since it was launched.

Before JEDLAB, I met Jewish educators at the North American Jewish Day School Conference, where we squeezed in talk about the pedagogies going on in our schools in between sessions that left us with ideas we wanted to implement but no clear strategy for doing so. Following up with colleagues became impossible once we returned to our natural settings and the responsibilities of our jobs took precedence over anything else.

Now, on a daily basis I can receive feedback about and help with whatever I want to do in my classroom. The truth is, before JEDLAB, I had a Twitter PLN, #jedchat, a group consisting of Jewish educators, two of whom were Ken Gordon and Yechiel Hoffman, JEDLAB's founders. What happened when we began to converse on Facebook was that we could engage in multiple conversations, both synchronous and asynchronous; deepen those conversations in ways the 140-character limit on Twitter wouldn't allow for; and meet colleagues with whom we could interact both on- and offline.

One of the first ways these particularly JEDLABian interactions have happened is through book clubs. It seems natural that the People of the Book should have educators interested in reading books together. In fact, you could say that JEDLAB's start was in part propelled by a book. On #jedchat, Ken Gordon suggested we all read The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices, an account of the accomplishments of the MIT Media Lab, by former director of the Lab, Frank Moss.

I was so struck by the book that when I finished it, I called Ken for the first time (we had only communicated via Twitter up until that point), and we discussed how to imbue Jewish education with the ethos of the Media Lab. You can learn more here about the similarities among JEDLAB, RealSchool, and the MIT Media Lab.

The MIT Media Lab's mission is to improve society through technology, and while the early JEDLABians were loving such ideas as anti-disciplinary thinking, big dreaming, demo or die, failing fast to fail forward and more, another crucial component of JEDLAB is its focus on creating I-Thou relationships. This was stressed early on with the first book club choice, Relational Judaism by Ron Wolfson, which focuses on how listening to and forming relationships with others is at the core of what we do in any setting. Reading Wolfson's book no doubt led to the selection of the next one for the JEDLAB book club, Martin Buber's I-Thou. Here's JEDLAB Facilitator Sara Shapiro-Plevan broadening the reading experience in the FB group:

As you're reading Buber's I and Thou for our next bookclub (and mostly for your own edification, of course), I wonder if you've seen stories like these floating around. Are these the emergence of relationships that move toward the I-thou? Are these an indication that even in the most mundane of moments we can be thinking thoughtfully about the emotions, lives and needs of those around us? ‪#‎jedlab_bookclub‬

Sara had then posted this article:

"Ma'am, Your Burger Has Been Paid For" by Kate Murphy

But one of the things I like most about JEDLAB is that it's not just about reading a book and paying lip service to a mantra or idea. The people engaged in the network are living what they're reading and thinking about. As I worked on this blog post, the following thread unfolded on JEDLAB, in response to a post by educator Russel Neiss, in which he offered free consulting to anyone interested in anything Jewish ed tech-related:

19 hours ago · Unlike · 4

This type of willingness to help out one's fellow educators -- regardless of the type of setting or Judaism they practice -- is one of the things I love most about JEDLAB, and it happens all the time there.

In my own classroom, JEDLAB has had a tremendous impact already. I've written before about my Twitter final. It was because of my connections both on- and offline with Ken, Yechiel, Adrian Durlester, and Charles Cohen that they joined my final, and it was at Ken's suggestion that I had my students try to contact the authors of the outside reading books each had read during the last semester of school. One student, Talia ('15), contacted Laura Schroff, author of An Invisible Thread, who returned Talia's email and ended up speaking at Frisch and then coming to our school again to partake in our Acts of Kindness Day on December 26.

JEDLAB has become a place where I can find all sorts of suggestions and advice for my classroom, in a feedback loop that's pretty much instantaneous. This year, I turned my senior English elective into a Simulated City course, a decision that made me somewhat trepidatious. But I was able to voice my doubts on JEDLAB, where I posted a blog post about my experiment, and I received encouragement and advice. Here's a comment Badge Learning expert Sarah Blattner posted on my blog:


. . . Katie Salen from the Institute of Play speaks about the value of play in learning and how we need to open up these spaces of possibilities for our students. Your classroom shows that idea in action and engages learners and gives them that "need to know". Awesome!

Here are some more resources on games and learning:

James Paul Gee: 
Author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy

Institute of Play GameKit

Katie Salen on the Power of Game-Based Learning

In fact, seeing the risks others are taking in their teaching environments gives me the confidence to continue taking my own.

I'm excited about what JEDLAB is offering the world of Jewish education and am grateful for the ideas, critiques, and insights it gives me on a daily basis. In the nine short months it has been around, it has quickly filled a need for a new type of professional development that educators are clearly hungry for, and I can't wait to see what its next steps will be.

JEDLAB Founders Yechiel Hoffman and Ken Gordon (in the back row, left to right,
with a group of us at the RAVSAK Conference in LA, January 2014
Yechiel and Ken facilitate the JEDLAB Meetup at the
RAVSAK Conference, where those who are in the Facebook group
and those who aren't had a chance to hear about what the network is all about!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Humor in Euripides _Medea_?

Can discussing Medea be funny?! This student makes it so:

"For lack of a better example, Jason treats Medea like an iPhone: everyone loves their iPhone when they have it, but when the new one comes along, you dump the old one as soon as possible."

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Gaming the Classroom: Upending the Meanings of Work and Play

Today I had the pleasure of having Lauren Burstein visit my classroom. The visit was a pleasure for many reasons, one of the most significant being that Lauren is a former student of mine from Frisch. Lauren, who teaches English at Torah Academy of Bergen County (TABC), and I have been in contact since last year and this past summer's RealSchool Summer Sandbox, and it was on the way back from Jedcamp in Brooklyn last Sunday that we decided she should visit my classroom to see if she was interested in gaming her English class.

I had decided to game mine very recently. About two years ago, I saw John Hunter discuss his World Peace Game in a TEDTalk, and the idea to create something similar has been percolating ever since:

John Hunter is truly remarkable

I've also been intrigued over the past year by social media posts about educational gaming and inspired as well by educators such as Sarah Blattner who are proponents of it. This year seemed like the time to make my first move, so to speak, into the world of games in the classroom. 

The class I chose to game is a senior English elective at Frisch called Hot Topics. The class focuses on two main controversial issues, medical ethics and racism, and has traditionally employed different media to connect students with the issues: film, art, and various types of fictional and non-fictional works. The course's loose structure made it perfect to game.

I don't have a lot of experience playing computer games and so borrowed the set-up of the game structure more from John Hunter than from Minecraft or Angry Birds. I also decided to start small to see if the gaming methodology worked for me, and so the first thing I did was game the summer reading assignment.

The students had read about the amazing inventions and ethos of the MIT Media Lab in The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices by Frank Moss, former director of the Lab, as well as Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, which poignantly portrays the horrors of cloning. The two books lent themselves to being gamed, focused as they were on either the possibilities or the limits of technology. 

In this version of Monopoly, students replaced Broadway with the MIT Media Lab and
advanced players with innovations from the Media Lab, portrayed in Community Chest cards.
In the Community Chest card shown above, one of the Media Lab's ethos -- failing fast to learn fast --
has players move back three spaces but receive $50!
Students came up with games based on Chutes and Ladders, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, and Uno and also invented their own games. I particularly liked one student's response to what he learned from having created his game: "I saw that there were moral consequences to people's actions." That conclusion is obviously the aim of reading a book such as Never Let Me Go, but it was much more important to me that the student realized that himself instead of being fed the line by me. Students also told me they learned a lot about the books from each other, when they planned the games and discussed quotations from the books that they'd use. They also said they had to learn how to combine the perspectives of different people in their group. Social-structed learning appeals to me greatly and is a natural outcome of kids' playing games -- or in this case, making them -- together.

To reflect on the assignment, I had students create videos about the learning experience. Here's one that includes a narrative frame, which is something important in an English class!

Once the students finished the videos, they posted on any failure they learned from over the course of the assignment. You can see their posts here: Fail Fast to Learn Fast linoit board (Thanks to my sister Smadar Goldstein of JETS, for introducing me to linoit walls).

All in all, I felt satisfied that rich learning had taken place during the game-making unit, and I saw how much fun the kids had and how deeply engaged they were by the activity. They also told me how much they enjoyed a class where they weren't sitting down the whole time and where they had autonomy and control. As a result of all these positive outcomes, I felt ready to tackle a more complicated gaming activity, the making of a Simulated City.

The summer reading game was structured as a project-based learning (PBL) unit. I designed the assignment, set up rubrics for the game, made sure students presented to an audience, and assigned reflective pieces. For the Simulated City, I'm opting to create an inquiry-based learning (IBL) classroom. Much of the learning and project outcomes will be driven by the students, with my role being to deepen learning, guide it to more sophisticated places than the students might take it on their own, and base project outcomes on what I think the students will be most interested in. 

On the first day of the city's creation, the students and I discussed what sectors of a city they'd be interested in forming and came up with the following seven areas:

Eco-friendly Fashion
Governance and Politics
Urban Design
Waste Management

Our Urban Design team

Waste Management goes green in our city!

Students didn't have to be told to dream big;
after reading The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices
this past summer and because of their own interests,
they were already thinking of blue sky technologies!

As our curriculum takes shape, it's become clear that we need:

1) Project Goals for each week; students post their daily progress in Google Docs they've created for the class
2) A class blog where we can make the process of our work visible to the larger world
3) Presentation dates when each group can report on its research and then make proposals for the city that classmates will vote on

In order to connect the Sim City with the syllabus I'd prepared, I also asked the students to choose an ethical dilemma for their group. For example, Urban Design is debating whether the city should have housing projects, while Sports is researching performance-enhancing drugs so the class can decide if they want to allow them. Eco-Friendly Fashion is investigating sweatshop use and how to create eco-friendly and affordable clothing, while Governance is going to present legislation on abortion and gun control that the class will vote on. 

The pros and cons of performance-enhancing drugs
are presented in two books Rami is holding (and now reading!),
Enhancing Evolution and The Case against Perfection
What I loved about Lauren's visit today was that it made the students' work more authentic -- as having outside visitors tends to do. It forced the students to articulate more clearly what they've been working on and where they are headed in their research. I heard Lauren ask probing questions and push the kids to think more deeply about their topics. I could have done the same, but when it's your teacher bugging you, you might roll your eyes. The students took Lauren's thoughts and questions seriously.

Knowing Lauren was going to come also forced me to think more carefully about the expectations I have for the groups and how I see the quarter developing. While an inquiry-based learning classroom unfolds in a more free-form manner than a PBL one, I'm finding it can still have a careful design and a clear timetable and basic frame. Creating those elements has been fun.

Lauren discusses with Waste Management their ideas and research

Governance and Politics share with Lauren what they've been up to
One of the most gratifying parts of Lauren's visit was her noticing that the students seem truly engaged in their work and passionate about it. I hope so. The aim of the gaming assignment isn't only to have fun -- though joyful learning is something I always think about cultivating. It's also to have fun while being deeply immersed in work that is satisfying and challenging and that speaks to a student's passions and interests. 

One student in the Sports team actually wants to be a sports agent,
so his research on how to become one is obviously relevant to him 
 Lauren is welcome back anytime, and in the meantime, my students and I will continue our classwork play.

Additonal Resources

Traditional descriptions of "gaming the classroom" discuss ways of introducing video games into learning. Check out these articles on educational gamification:

Harnessing Gaming for the Classroom

Sarah Blattner recommended this book on gaming to me:

Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World