Building Student Community and Collaboration Online


This post originally appeared on InService, the ASCD community blog. ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) is an educational leadership organization with 160,000 members in 148 countries, including professional educators from all levels and subject areas––superintendents, supervisors, principals, teachers, professors of education, and school board members. View Original >

This one is for my online and hybrid teachers or any teacher who has used technology but has found it difficult to foster collaboration and community.

First and foremost, even though many have been trained not to, your students can collaborate. In fact, students might not know they’re already collaborating; my WoW students (World of Warcraft) consistently collaborate to solve quests and gain experience.

The online world of education can be a lonely one, and until collaborative projects and assessments become the norm (they are not now), it will remain a challenge to leverage community and collaboration online. Here are some tips:

Translate their world of collaboration and community to one you want for your classroom.
The culture of online games and technology comes with cultural resiliencies. Use them. Ask students to share moments in their online, gaming, or even real lives where they have worked together. Honor them, and make connections to the type of community and collaboration you want.
Don’t grade discussion board assignments.
Yes, I said it. Discussion boards are a formative assessment, not necessarily graded. They’re intended as a way to check in on student discussions, but primarily, discussion boards are places for students to grapple with content and concepts. Use scaffolding to have them ask questions of peers, but don’t use discussion boards as a punitive tool. Otherwise, students will not use them the way you want them to.
Allow for space and time in discussion boards and other collaborative spaces.
Some of the best discussions occur over a good chunk of time, longer than we might want. A good discussion can last anywhere from one week to a semester. Students may even want to discuss ideas you may not. Honor student voice, and give space for it. Good learning will occur there and will lead to a sense of community and student ownership. Remember that the learning is occurring synchronously and asynchronously, so time is not the ultimate driving force. Again, this relates to Tip #2 and grading. Once students show they know how to use discussion boards, then you can be more flexible with time and space.
Do many team-building activities online.
Just like in the first week in brick-and-mortar schools, you need to do a variety of team builders and icebreakers to create a safe place for students. Hybrid teachers, you need to do both because you need students to see the community and collaboration in both places. The challenge is to take these activities that occur in the physical world and translate them into the activities that work online.
Pick the right tool for the purpose.
Before you go technology-happy with all the tools available, make sure you limit your choices to ones that foster community building and collaboration. Ask yourself how you want students to collaborate and build community, and then pick your tools.

I half-joke with teachers I work with, “If I’ve made you uncomfortable, then I have done my job.” Perhaps some of these ideas are causing some cognitive dissonance, and that is great. Just remember, if we want true student communities online and innovative collaboration, then we may need to do things differently than we have before.

Matching Physical Structures to Learning and School Culture


This post originally appeared on The Whole Child blog, an ASCD initiative to call on educators, policymakers, business leaders, families, and community members to work together on a whole child approach to education. View Original >


Physical structures should match school cultures and learning modalities, not the other way around. Despite what some might say, physical structures communicate a lot about the learning environment and what to expect. Just like we set up seats for the first day of school to set a tone, the building communicates a tone as well. Throughout my visits, I’ve come across many innovative buildings that really set a tone for safe school culture and innovative learning. It’s not about technology and bells and whistles; it’s about the layout and ways that the walls talk.

My first two examples come from Dubiski Career High School in Texas. Where are the traditional lecture seats set up? Outside the classroom. These formal stations are set up throughout the school to allow for presentations, formal lectures, and other similar learning experiences to occur, but not in the official classroom. In fact, it is hard to tell where the learning environment begins and where it ends, hence creating the message that this is a continuous learning environment. This structure also communicates that learning occurs in many different places and in many different ways. Traditional lectures are not the focus but are used when appropriate, and this message comes across quite clear.

Another example: The school embraces different kinds of content presentations, as in the example of its mock trial room. The school creates a variety of spaces to indicate that learning and demonstration occur in different ways, keeping students on their toes and allowing for innovation and creativity. Overall, the physical structures of Dubiski Career High School communicate that learning is innovative, seamless, and appropriate to the objectives.

Dubiski Career High School hallway (Photo credit: Andrew K. Miller)

Dubiski Career High School mock trial room (Photo credit: Andrew K. Miller)

Manor New Technology High School, also in Texas, has physical structures that communicate both in terms of learning but also in terms of school culture. I’m going to focus on school culture examples. Classrooms within the building have large windows that open into the hallway. It communicates transparency of the learning, both for the faculty and for the students. Classrooms are not isolated. On the contrary, classrooms are open and welcoming. In addition, students and teachers share the space.

Student work is prevalent throughout the school, covering parts of windows and walls. Student ownership is the clear message that is being communicated. Yes, faculty share the space, but share is the key word and only a fraction of what students own. In addition, students claim ownership of the school walls in innovative and creative ways, as evident by the photo of the school wall. In this case, student work led to designing a mural that would remain on a school wall. What an excellent example of a high-stakes audience, which we know raises the level of student work. Here students are given the opportunity in the classroom environment to own the school, communicating that this place is first and foremost about the student.

Manor New Technology High School hallway (Photo credit: Manor New Technology High School)

Manor New Technology High School mural (Photo credit: Manor New Technology High School)

It would be great if we had the money to create innovative new structures to mirror rigorous learning and safe school culture. I know that many use this as an excuse not to try. Instead, I would encourage you to find ways, no matter how small, to create structures at your school that communicate a message that school put students first, that school is a safe place, and that innovative learning occurs. Look at everything from the schedule, to the way you set up your furniture in the classroom, to the space on the walls you give to students. You can start now to push for better physical structures at your school.

Assessing the Common Core Standards: Real Life Mathematics


This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


Another buzzword that permeates the conversation around education is relevancy, and rightfully so. We want our students not only to make connections to real world problems but also to do these activities.

However, it is not simply in the task that we want students to mimic this real world connection. Students are already conditioned to do this. They are used to sitting and completing tasks. Even when the task might have great connection to the real world, it can still just be that: a task to complete. We need to keep this in mind when we ask students to perform real world math, just as the Math Common Core dictates. This common core standard below gives a great example and sets a good tone for what can be target for math instruction.

In a previous blog discussing Math PBL Project Design, I wrote about reframing the word “problem,” and pointed to this standard. For many of us, there is a very traditional meaning that is activated: a word problem in the text book, or simply a calculation to be made. In fact, the Common Core gives it as an example.

We can do better. We can assess learning in a much more relevant and engaging way. For instance, how do we assess this common core standard related to area and volume?

This standard is much less specific about what this might “look like” in the classroom, which leaves it ripe for innovation. There are a variety of products and contexts that could assess this standard. The major assessment, or culminating product in PBL terms, could take on the form of a podcast, presentation, marketing plan, or even a short story.

Perhaps high school students are creating a pool that can meet the needs of ALL people who want to use, from those who have special needs, to children, but at the same time needs to meet certain criteria is terms of standard amounts of water and size.

Perhaps middle school students are in charge of design a new and improved pyramid to be presented to the pharaoh, complete with a variety of antechambers.

Perhaps elementary students are in charge of creating an organic garden to sell certain products at the local farmer’s market.

(A word of caution, don’t give students the exact criteria, instead make them research and make decisions on what the criteria should be.) Again the genre is not as important as the rubric that demands specific criteria. As long as the rubric is clear and transparent where students must demonstrate math skills, include examples, etc, then we know that students are in fact learning the content standard, or common core standard. If you as the teacher need a specific graph, then make sure to include in the rubric. If you need written explanation around the mathematical calculations, then demand it. If you need diagrams and measurements, then make sure the rubric demands it. Grading is not a surprise anymore. It is clear and transparent.

When looking at the potential for work with this Math Common core, make sure you have high expectations for the level of work your students can do. The old definition of the word “problem” is not rigorous. Redefining the word “problem” within the frame of Problem or Project-Based Learning is rigorous, and still demands real world connections in an authentic way. If we want our students to really wrestle with math concepts, then we must create space for this work to happen, and create assessments that mirror this complex work.