Tuesday, June 5, 2007

And now, the teachers speak...

From Good Intentions to Best Practices: My Dream English Class in Second Life

From the time Peggy Sheehy (our library media specialist at Suffern Middle School in Suffern, New York) introduced me to Second Life last May, I was hooked. I was working on my Masters Degree through Walden University's online program, so I knew the value of virtual communication, at least at the university level. The idea of applying this platform to our elementary/secondary curriculum (and adding it to the old "teacher's toolbox") was quite enticing. I could do everything I was doing in my class AND MORE. I immediately signed up for the free download of this program at home and began to make my way around the incredibly user-friendly main grid. As I explored this new world and adjusted to my new lack of physical limitation, I was inundated with flashes of inspiration regarding the classroom application of this powerful tool. By the time September rolled around, Peggy had convinced the district to purchase three islands on the Second Life main grid that were completely inaccessible from the main world. She also had a group of in-world volunteers who worked to design the orientation section, classrooms and buildings, and various games and activities around the island. This was shaping up to be quite a campus!
This method of instruction and assessment seemed the most applicable to the English teacher and "best practices" nut in me. Lessons could be standards-based, authentic, easily assessed, and geared to any learning style or level. The method of communication is one that students are already familiar with, and are likely to continue to use in business and personal life in the future. That meant a real-life/authentic application of standards-based curriculum for them. All communication is done in-world, so it would be simple to assess students' writing and communication of ideas. In the case of online discussion, students' grades would be contingent on participation. Students who might not normally participate in person might feel more comfortable speaking through an avatar. This "student accountability" aspect was the most enticing for me. The fact that I could save these communications also seemed incredibly valuable. These student histories could be used as evidence of student progress that they could apply to reflective pieces, and that I could use in progress reports. This medium would give me the physical evidence to back up grades or steer the course of a lesson to ensure student understanding. Performance assessments like presentations and plays could be more enriching for the same reasons. Literature is easily accessed and uploaded in this world, as are videos and music - we would literally have the world at our fingertips. It is an educator's Nirvana. All of these literacy-based applications made this venture seem like a no-brainer to me.
Peggy had obtained online names and passwords for most of the eight grade students; the sixth and seventh grade students did not make the established age limit. But as thrilled as I was with the educational potential of the program, I was not the first English teacher to use it. Kristy Ann McGrath's English classes obtained their passwords first, and did some work with John Steinbeck's novel, Of Mice and Men on Second Life. They even held a trial for George and Lennie, with a judge, defense and prosecution teams, witnesses, and a jury! This required a court house, of course, but that is exactly the kind of ordinarily imaginary classroom prop that is easily obtained in this world. Gail Yodowitz, our Home and Careers teacher, was next. She had students using online research to design presentations that could be displayed in-world, at the island's gallery. She also had students design resumes and conduct mock job interviews in-world, to prepare them for their upcoming real-world work experiences. Then, Teresa Ivey's classes worked online in groups on literature circle discussions and group presentations. The presentations were PowerPoint based, and her students came together in the virtual auditorium to share them. I was amazed at the depth of the academic and social results, especially when Diane Whiting brought her Health class in for a unit on body image. Students used their ability to adjust their avatar's appearance to reinforce the ideas of "popular" and "real" beauty. It turned out to be quite an interesting behavioral study.
I finally made it to Second Life with my classes when Teresa was almost done with her unit. It was great to be able to learn from Kristy Ann's experience with performance assessment and Teresa's experience with literature circle groups in this world. I was able to take my existing literature circle unit, adapt it for use by avatars, and design a "virtual-communication-friendly" rubric for discussions. My classes were as immediately comfortable working in Second Life as I was. There was absolute silence in the room during discussions, except, of course, for the sounds of furious typing. When they had a question or a problem, they could send me an instant message. They were so intensely involved in this new program that students who stayed home sick were downloading the program at home and coming to discussions anyway! It almost seemed like less work to them because they were doing what they normally do with their friends after school, plus I didn't have to ask them for a handwritten summary of what their group discussed every day. Students cut and pasted their discussions (which include time stamps and names next to each and every response) into note cards that they sent to me when their discussion ended. It was all right there for me to grade. I could easily see who was participating, who had read and done their role for the day, who had misunderstandings that needed clearing up, and who was showing incredible insight into the reading.
If they needed help getting their discussions going, I could sit my own avatar down with their group and help them out for a while. Or, I could transport my avatar from one group to another to check in on them from time to time, just like I would normally have done during real-world literature circle discussions. Students who had never spoken to each other were finding commonalities and discovering each others' talents. In their final reflections, many of them astutely remarked that if they had been in groups with their friends, they would not have gotten as much work done - a level of self-realization that astonished me. Several commented that they now knew who they could go to when they wanted peer help with certain English skills. They also noted that, when they were in groups that included their friends, they formed deeper friendships through their discussions, many of which ended up being much deeper than the normal classroom discussions. They were all quite good at keeping each other on task, and they used their daily roles (a carry-over from our normal literature circle unit) to keep the conversation rolling.
My English classes had more academic and social success using this program than I have ever seen in a literature circle unit. Their final reflections show that the students agree, and that they would LOVE to spend more time learning in Second Life. Other educators may disagree, but given my own experience as a graduate of an online university, I could see easily converting all of my existing units and conducting my entire year's worth of English classes online now.

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