I always liked taking notes in college but hated taking them in high school. And now that I am a history teacher of high school students I give notes but every time I do I know that there are going to be 4 common problems. There is no question that for me that notes are the most efficient way of discussing a topic with the students. I don’t think that direct instruction is negative because it is teacher-centered. I believe that direction instruction, when done as one part of a lesson, is an important tool for teaching.
For my history class, I always used Microsoft PowerPoints because I could include maps and images to make the presentation more interesting. I could model to students proper note taking and outlining. Over the summer I discovered Pear Deck and here is why and how I use it for most of my presentations instead of Google Slides, Slide Share, or Microsoft PowerPoint.
Lets start with the 4 most common problems of direct instruction.
1) I have no way of knowing if students are engaged:
For slide shows that are lengthy and were simply meant to introduce students to topics, I simply share the PowerPoint with the students but that creates a problem of distractibility. If students can have access to the material, when they are not interested in the first place, why bother to focus and join the discussion as I am presenting? Also, how many students are really engaged during the direct instruction? I ask questions and engage in dialogue with the students so yes, I believe that those that I talk with are engaged. At the same time, there were plenty of students who didn’t engage with my dialogue, who hid in the back, and who tried desperately to escape being called on (I often called on those students first!). For those students, unless I ask them, I have no way of knowing if they understand the material or are just writing it down.
I ask questions and engage in dialogue with the students so yes, I believe that those that I talk with are engaged. At the same time, there were plenty of students who didn’t engage with my dialogue, who hid in the back, and who tried desperately to escape being called on (I often called on those students first!). For those students, unless I ask them, I have no way of knowing if they understand the material or are just writing it down.
2) I can’t check for student understanding until the end of the presentation:
I sometimes feel that direct instruction is like throwing out a fishing net and seeing what I get. Sometimes I have a bountiful catch of student engagement and understanding. Sometimes the net comes back empty. When I was presenting the Enlightenment, I asked students “what impact did the Enlightenment have on the American and French Revolutions?” – that question brought back empty nets. If no one in the class raises their hand, I call on someone. If 3 or 4 people do not guess right, I usually try to explain the concept again. I will then try to remember that question to bring up again and again over the next couple of classes to check for understanding. But here lies the problem. The check for understanding doesn’t come until days later, or at best, at the end of class.
If no one in the class raises their hand, I call on someone. If 3 or 4 people do not guess correctly, I usually try to explain the concept again. I will then try to remember that question to bring up again and again. I will do this over the next couple of classes to check for understanding. But here lies the problem. The check for understanding doesn’t come until days later, or at best, at the end of class.
3) The presentations can be slowed down by students who are slow note takers:
One problem for me presenting was the time it took to cover particularly lengthy slides/presentations or to wait for particularly slow students. An entire class can be delayed if one student was distracted at the start of a slide and then was delayed in starting to copy down the information. This slows down the rhythm that can develop in the class when moving through the information and can very quickly turn a 10-15 minute discussion into a 20-25 minute drag.
As students copy down the notes I too get distracted as I mentally reorganize my lesson for the time remaining. And the worst scenario is when the student with perfect penmanship becomes frustrated at holding the class up and abandons the note taking endeavor altogether. What then has my direct instruction accomplished?
4) Students often lose or can’t find the notes we spent 20 minutes talking about together:
This used to drive me crazy ALL THE TIME It would drive me nuts to see students with a notebook that looked it was vomiting worksheets. Many students never made it out of sSeptemberwith a cleanly organized binder. Once disorganized, the likelihood was low that students would take time to reorganize. More likely, they abandoned the notebook project and threw out the notes that we had spent so much time in class going over together. It was like it never happened. Then I realized that I live and breathe history. Also, I have an electronic organization compulsion and so I keep myself pretty well professionally organized. Students have 3,4,5, 8 more classes to keep organized. Worksheets, notes, corrected tests, returned writings, maps, primary sources, research instructions.
What is Pear Deck?
A mostly free service that allows us teachers to create interactive presentations.
How does it works?
I create my Pear Decks which are saved in my Google Drive. I then present like I would any other presentation. Students can log in and enter in the presentation specific code on their devices. As I am presenting, the screen I am projecting is mirrored to the students’ devices. They see what I see. Because it is on their devices, it is right there in front of their faces, not up on a projector screen. It suddenly becomes more personal. When the presentation is over, the student screen will let them know that I have stopped presenting and they can close out of their browser. No app to download, nothing to sign up for. It takes the same time to make the presentation as any other presenting software I have used and it takes just a couple of minutes to get students logged in during class.
Why I use it?
Students are not just listening to me lecture, they are a part of the discussion personally. I am not the only place they can be a part of the presentation, they have it on their own personal device. There are just inches separating them from the material instead of feet from me. I can place engaging questions at just the right time in the presentation. I can ask for their thoughts on topics, I can ask them anonymously move dot around points on a timeline, or have them engage in geography by placing a dot on where they think this or that country is on the map. (It is always hilarious to have students guess the location of countries because someone inevitably puts a dot in the ocean. (Nope people…Turkey is still not Sealand)
Instead of looking at a sea of faces turned towards notebooks, quickly trying to write every last word on the presentation, they are now engaged with the material. It is no longer direct instruction, it is “co-instruction”. Does this take longer? Of course! Depending on how many engagement questions I have in a presentation, it usually adds +5 minutes to any presentation because I usually embed 3-4 interactions.
2) Checks for understanding:
Students need to use their Google Drive accounts to log in so everyone has real names and I can see what they entered for each response. The downside to this feature is that it is a paid feature; the Dashboard. (There is a free trial) Even without the Dashboard; Pear Deck is still a useful tool to check for student understanding. If not individually, I can see the class aggregate of responses. I post these anonymously on the projector during the presentation so students can see other’s responses. It allows students to see how they fit with their classmates and allows me to instantly check for understanding.
Maybe those 3 or 4 students I usually call on don’t know the answer but what if the rest of the class did but just didn’t want to speak up? Tools like Pear Deck give every student a voice. Without getting a large understanding, I would inevitably waste time on material that everyone knew. The students live in a world of instant feedback. Waiting 3 days for a check of understanding is far too long to let them know how they are doing.
3) Slow note taking:
In my BYOT classroom, students would follow along on their devices to the Pear Deck presentation and I would let them know what to screenshot. Because it was on their phones, there was no reason to walk up to the projector to take pictures as I was talking, it was right there on their phones. There was no lag time, I could pace the presentation as fast or as slow as I wanted to ensure engagement without leaving anyone behind.
A BYOT classroom does create a bit of a challenge because those students without devices still hand wrote the notes while everyone else with devices had a screen shot. Ultimately, we made it work by people sharing screenshots or allowing groups to respond to questions instead of just individual students. With a 1-1 classroom, I have students use SnagIt extension in Chrome browser to grab the slides I want them to keep.
A reader might point out that I could share it in Google Drive. This is true, but sharing it in Google Drive automatically allows the recipients to edit the Pear Deck. Allowing edit access to 90 students would not end well. So the SnagIt solution is what I am working with now.
Because I had my students take screenshots of the slides during the presentation there is nothing to lose! This was all part of my effort to bring paperless note taking to my classroom this year. BYOT: On their own, students just kept their screenshots on their camera rolls but that still could be lost with a damaged or stolen phone. If I was to do it again, I would show the students how to upload their photos to Google Drive or Evernote for safe keeping. But I approached this year with a laissez-faire attitude about student e-note taking. It was a bad move and this expectation is new for a lot of students and need help by us teachers in showing them helpful note taking steps and helpful practices.
Nevertheless, in my experience, students were less likely to destroy or lose their phones than they were the poor history binders/notebooks. Students always had their phones for class and could always access the material when needed. It didn’t matter if it was September or December, the notes on the Enlightenment would be where they last put them. Everyone wins! Chromebooks: Students take the screenshots using SnagIt and then I showed them how to drag-drop the images in their Google Drive to their class folder and topic subfolder. It is easy and nothing is ever lost!
I hope I shared some thoughts that can help you engage your students more in your awesome lessons. If you have a way of using Pear Deck that works for you please let me know in the comments below or if you have any questions please feel free to post as well.
Until next time!