Sew Like a Man

Recently, as part of a project I am working on, the following question was posed to me:

What does your ideal school or classroom look like?

My answer?

Imagine a traditional Wood Shop class in which each student arrives and begins working on a project he or she designed and created, rarely if ever disengaging from their work.  They all have a personal stake in the outcome of the project, they build it so that it will last beyond the time they are in this class, and they build it to be seen by more eyes than just their teachers.
Now take away the wood, the saws, the dust, and the nerdy goggles.  Place the student in a classroom that we might perceive as a history class, an English class, or a math or science class, but keep the elements of creating work that has legacy, personal purpose, and is publicly viewable.
The image above (I’ve appealed for leniency from the original authors), appeared as part of a presentation I did on Saturday at the first annual West Essex Tech Symposium, and came out of a classroom I observed a few weeks back, only it wasn’t woods, but sewing.  For days after the observation, I remained blown away by the way the class ran–and not as if the teacher was unnecessary, quite the opposite actually–and how the students were just locked in to what they were doing.
  • The work they were doing had value.
  • It mattered to them now.
  • It would be seen by more than just their teachers, but also their parents, their classmates, and quite possibly someone they met at the mall.
I couldn’t help but think about the classroom environment in a traditional siloed academic content area where this is taking place.  But is that possible?  If we create this type of environment–this messy, cross-disciplinary, creative, non-bubble tested idea-space–do academic departments then dissipate?  Some seem to think so, but I’ll cling for a bit to see if the creative capacities of our current teachers can rise to this type of challenge.
Advertisements

One Month in the Cloud

It’s been a month with the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook.  In late December, I made the move away from my Macbook and decided I’d test out whether or not I could use the cloud solely as a means to get my work done.  Granted, moving to an internet-only machine was a big leap, as I could have done it gradually via a regular machine.  Or was it?

To provide some backing to this, here’s a quick pro/con list:

Pros:

  • It works, mostly. I have some issues with the wireless network at my office, but other than that, it hangs in there really well.
  • Integration of all things Google. The ability to work within Google Docs seamlessly and create my file structure so that regardless of the machine I am on I can access my exact browser is amazing. I know you can do this with other non-Chromebook type machines through the browser, but this simplifies things.
  • Form factor. It’s lean, light, and solid–one of those machines you wouldn’t worry too much about dropping by accident.
  • Independence.  I’ve never been one to rely heavily on a “networked” machine, but this takes the cake.  The only reliance I had was to use the desktop machine in my office to set up the printer via Google Cloud Print.  Once that was done, I was able to live solely on the wireless within the buildings I work in.

Cons:

  • Hangs when I am really pushing it with open tabs. I’ve never been one to watch the CPU performance of a machine, but with this, I am aware of how many open tabs I am running. Which, when you think about it, is just good practice anyway–teaches me to bite off only what I plan to chew on in the short term.
  • Extensions cause more problems than they solve. Most of the crashes or hangups I have seem to be coming from extensions that hang up or just die.
  • Graphics chip. I use a larger monitor at work, and I love to extend my desktop. The graphics in the chromebook don’t allow for that, only mirroring.

After one month the pros definitely outweigh the cons.  This machine works exactly as I need it to, when I need it to.  I’ve presented from it, written from it, uploaded photos and videos, and asked it to do everything I need from a machine at this point.  True, video editing and anything requiring Java are not options, but in one month, the only time I needed to do either was to view a webinar, and in retrospect it really wasn’t worth it (are they ever?).

The next big step with these is to see how they roll out to staff and students.  Where do they fit?  Are they legitimate teacher machines?  Or are they a better fit for students?  Would love some feedback.

Battling One-Size-Fits-All

We’ve all been there.

It’s the annual or semi-annual professional day for staff, and you are dreading it.  What will I have to sit through this year?

We know it’s the wrong thing to do, to have the entire staff go through the same “training,” yet inevitably it happens.  What we know is that sustained, job-embedded professional events work.  We know that working with colleagues whose opinions we trust and feedback we value has lasting effect on our practice as teachers and leaders.

The problem lies in the design.  Why just one day?  Why make it “destination” PD, like we’ve arrived at this time of the year and it follows that we should have one day for “training?”

We’ve just completed ours, so these thoughts are fresh in my mind, and I am trying to think about what I’ll do differently going forward.

These days are not without merit, I should say, in that various groups that don’t often get to plan together can.  For example, world language teachers from various levels can gather together to discuss their program, and we can arrange the day to include FedEx type events.

But what if we could do this whole system much differently?  What if we could do it so that days like this are days where we spend time celebrating the work we’ve been doing all year as professionals?  If we embrace the PLC idea and model, can we use days like this to share the findings and work that we’ve spent the past year creating and researching?

Today, I was in charge of planning the day for the district, and I attempted to do that in a small way.  I asked several of the staff to share things they were “experts” in.  Here’s the list of choices that staff had:

Each staff member that was not involved in a curriculum project could choose three sessions to attend in the morning, and they had the option for the afternoon of these two sessions:

The Holy Grail of Teaching

Regardless of where you turn, the topic of education and educational reform seems tobe there. People from all walks of life are typically not shy about sharing their feelings on this subject. Ideas range from class size, standardized testing, ability grouping, the number of computers in the classroom, homework and the home environment, just to name a few. Research has shown, however, that teacher effectiveness has, by far, the most powerful influence upon students and student learning.In this workshop, we will explore the very powerful effects that a teacher has upon his/her students. We will take a close look at some of the research compiled that clearly delineates what has the most dramatic influence upon student achievement.

or
Learn Like Our Students Do

Background:  Have you ever seen a kid taking a technology class or reading a manual for a new gadget?  Of course not.  They learn as kids these days do: on their own, “playing”, and if needed, asking a buddy for advice. When it comes to technology or learning how to use new tools, they generally don’t need an “expert” or a workshop to attend.

Most adults are a little different. We have always had a consultant (“expert”) come in or have an administrator lead a session for staff on an initiative, program, or curriculum. Adults listen, hopefully engage, and it is hoped that the skill is applied for student learning.  Does it work?  Sometimes.

As we have for the past three years, we are call it “Learn Like Our Students” day. Staff otherwise unassigned to the previously listed activities form themselves into groups of two or more of their choosing. At the conclusion of the day they will complete an outcomes review.

Educators often say that there is never enough time to learn or improve skills, ideas, or instructional strategies.  Here is an opportunity for over two hours to teach yourselves something new, improve a skill, or gain new knowledge in a collaborative way.

While I cannot take credit for either of the two session titles or content (one was my predecessor’s idea, and the other my colleagues’), I feel both begin to drive our staff towards the type of day I would envision for them going forward.

Other People’s Moments

Five years ago, I remember leaving a conference with my head squarely in my hands, staring back up at me in sheer wonder at everything I had seen to.  Eavesdropping on some conversations today at Classroom Reset, and following the twitter conversations around it, I was reminded of that moment when my thinking and my direction in education tipped.

See, we all need to have days where big ideas and impossible plans run amok and take us down corridors that had not seemed all that worth exploring before.  We also all need days of epic failure, where our supposed best ideas crash and burn and our belief in those big ideas is tested.

But today was not that day for anyone.

Everyone I met today was there for the single purpose of pushing themselves to try new things and look at their practice in a profoundly different way.  One of the afternoon sessions I attended (presented by a teacher from my district!) summed up the tone of the sessions: “Technology Integration: how to add meaning to the Language Arts classroom instead of bells and whistles.”  Today’s sessions were about pedagogy and not tools, about leveraging the capabilities of our technology to make us more human and not less.  It was about interconnectedness and how to take advantage of it.

For me, it was also a great reminder that I still have so much more to learn, not only about how we match traditional pedagogy with emerging social technologies, but also about the decisions we make regarding the uses.  Several conversations I have had lately deal with the age-old problem of “just because we can doesn’t mean we should.”  Two examples stick out in my mind:

  • during my session, I took an informal poll of the room about a service that came across my radar the other day, called Remind101.  It allows teachers to gather the cell phone numbers of parents and students and send text blasts through a web portal, allowing teachers to keep their private numbers private.  Some in the room felt that was only allowing for a further shirking of responsibilities by students.  “Why pay attention to that part of class when we know it’s being sent to our phones?”  Also, is it creating more work for the teacher to do this?
  • at the end of the session, I also asked the group about the availability of grades for students and parents online–a classic example of the “we can/should we?” dilemma.  The room was split there. Some felt that it was a great way to foster communication between parent and child, while others felt that it enabled parents to remove the child from the equation and just go straight from online gradebook to teacher contact, thereby bypassing the student, whose responsibility it is to track their grades.

Those two questions made me realized that we have some great conversations ahead of us.  And they also made me realize that questions like those should never, ever, get in the way of student learning.  While emotionally charged on both sides, neither has any real impact on how and what students learn.  Those type questions are the ones I am ready to tackle.

Space

Over the break, I took the liberty to actually move into my new office.  We cleaned out drawers that had not been cleaned in the months I had been there, we moved the ubiquitous curriculum binders to a place where they can gather dust less conspicuously, and we removed some aging pieces of furniture.

It’s that last piece that made the most difference to the space.  Over the last few years, mainly since I’ve known my wife, I’ve come to understand much more about what it means to have a “space,” and to cultivate it to fit your needs.  Having jumped into this position somewhat midstream while schools were beginning and routines were already established, I struggled with the space I was working in.  It defined the job, and thus, by default, had begun to define me.  Because I had not changed that space and made it workable for me, I truly felt a bit hamstrung from establishing myself here.

By removing some of the bigger pieces of furniture in the room and putting up a twelve-foot whiteboard, we in effect opened up the usable space tremendously.  What does that mean for me and those I work with?  More room to collaborate, more space to think and do, and fewer constraints on the ideas we have and actions we take.  It may sound a bit pie-in-the-sky, but after spending my first full day in the new space, I’m convinced that my thinking and activity will change for the better.

 

Ship

I’m such a post stealer.

But this is a horse I’ve fallen from, and I am going to do whatever I can do get back on.  If that includes riding the ideas of those much more intelligent than myself, then so be it.  I’m not ashamed of that.

For the past two years, I’ve been riding this wave of ideas that I’ve tried to carry out, but, due to circumstances only partly under my control, I have not been able to carry them to fruition and completion. See, I’ve been in three school districts in the last three years.  That type of mobility is not often seen in education (or should I say, seen in good light in education), but it has been a wonderful experience to meet so many talented educators and professionals in each of these places.

What bothers me most about the moves is that I still don’t know how well the ideas we all hatched worked in a supported environment.  What I mean by that is when you work with a group of people to create something new within curriculum, staff development or educational technology,but don’t stick around for its implementation, it’s hard to measure how much of a difference the new model made to student learning.  The support systems you would have put in place may or may not be what the person who follows you is up for–and that is their prerogative.  Each new leader has to come and work with what’s in place, but they also have to make it their own as well.

So what does this mean in regards to the title of this post?  Easy.  I want to ship this year, much like Doug did in 2011,

but I want to make sure that I fully support the ideas that get shipped when they hit the ground next September.

For some reason, I have always been the type of person that needs to work under deadlines to fend off stagnation or atrophy.  Case in point: I’ve been a runner for most of my life, but I am at my best (disciplined, dedicated, injuy-free) when there is a scheduled, paid-for race on the calendar in the months ahead.  That was the case with the Finger Lakes Fifty, the Vermont 50, and with countless other races.  If there is no way out of it, I buckle down.  So the other day, I registered for the Bald Eagle Mountain Megatransect on September 29th, 2012.  I put it on the calendar, paid for my admission, and I am going to ship.

Now, professionally, what will be my September 29th-type event?  Being so new to the district I am working in, I am still figuring that out, but I have a few hunches.  As they roll out this spring, I’ll be updating them here to insure that they meet with the same dedication and discipline that the Megatransect will have.

A New Year, A New List of Trends

As has been said elsewhere, it’s list season, and being that I am working through some serious writing muscle atrophy, I’ll use this opportunity to join the fray.


Each year, we dig up what we’ve thought a lot about over the course of the past year, what we noticed, and what we feel will make the most impact on our lives, and our schools in the new year.  In looking through so many of the posts that have been written on this subject, I can find none better, in both honesty and clarity, than Larry Cuban’s, which you can read here.  Larry’s honesty about what is coming down the pike is refreshing amid all the talk about the demise of American public schools.

There are myriad pitfalls we run into when we jump too soon into the latest and greatest when it comes to educational technology.   Someone  finds the hottest item out there, the idea catches fire and before we know it, we now have it in our schools.  Oftentimes, sadly, very little thought is given to how well that gadget will impact student learning, or if our staff/IT Department/infrastructure is ready to leverage the gadget to really impact the outcomes we are looking for.  

Larry points out two in his post:
  • Digital Texts
  • Online Courses
both of which are incredibly interesting to me, and both can easily be wrapped up into one package.  Last year, I worked with a social science teacher to produce an online textbook for United States History I, and what we found was that it became inherently easier to have the students writing where they were reading, and not having the students reading their material online, and writing their responses/reactions to the reading on paper to hand in.  Housing the reading and responses in the same place led to the type of dialogue around primary and secondary sources that we wanted to see.  We ended up using Moodle, but this could have been done using so many different, free platforms.
Also, what we found was similar to what Audrey Watters wrote about over at Edutopia a while back.  By moving away from the traditional textbook for the work we were doing, we had the opportunity to pull in multiple points of view on subjects without abandoning the commitment to the content.  We also had the ability to draw from other talented teachers who had taken the leap to create their own textbooks (we relied pretty heavily on Hippocampus, but also looked at Flexbooks, and some of the content in places like Shmoop and OER).
We have talented staff members in each of our districts who are more than capable of producing digital texts and courses for our students and for students in other schools.  Let’s hope this year is one in which we all begin to leverage that ability.

Re-Post

This afternoon, my phone made the familiar ping telling me that somewhere among the various networks out there, someone was mentioning me.  To my surprise, Kevin Jarrett had unearthed something I had written back in 2008 after attending his session (which he co-presented with Sylvia Martinez).

I’ll be the first to admit how easy it is to get lost in the minutiae of the work we do, to lose sight of the overall reason we are here and the bigger goals we have for the students and staff we work with.  Thank you, Kevin, for reminding that I do have these thoughts, I do have these goals, and that we can work to make learning, and the schools that go with it, an unbelievable experience.  Reposted, in its entirety:

Change is a loaded word. It strikes fear into the hearts of even the most secure of professionals. In looking at the idea of change, I see it as coming from one of two directions: either top-down, where those in charge of your program, your superintendent, building administrator, or your supervisor bring it about, or bottom-up, also termed “organic, or “grass-roots,” where change comes from the classrooms and spreads throughout a school building or district based on the practices of teachers and the work of students.

What I am seeing
When I started the process if looking at pedagogy rather than looking at tools as ways to help engage students, the world of technology became small. Granted, I really began this process in earnest about 5 months ago, so the sample size here is small, but nonetheless, what I see is what Chris Lehmann so aptly termed in his session at EduCon: “It’s not the product, it’s the process.” Learning experience matters infinitely more than the result. Focusing on that process rather than the final paper or diorama or wiki is a difficult thing to do when the tools that take us there are so unbelievably slick.

Our situation in regards to change
Our process of change that is occurring has been and continues to be top-down, where we as administrators and tech coordinators are introducing teachers to tools and pedagogies that are transformative and engaging, but we are relying on their trust and their willingness to open themselves to developing expertise. How well will this continue to work? It remains to be seen whether it is a model for systemic change with our staff. We are working within 5 buildings, each with varying levels of both adoption and readiness. When that is the case, your strategy involves as much trust-building as it does introduction to new ideas. We have worked hard on that, but there are elements that are lacking in our design:

  • overarching curricular goals written directly into our curriculum plans at the start. Technology and the pedagogy to use it transformatively is often left out of that process.
  • teacher’s as vocal advocates for change a building-level plan for helping teachers teach with these adapted methodologies (notice I said adapted methodologies because we are not re-inventing the wheel here; the methods we advocate are still the same we have touted for years: differentiating, cooperative learning, co-teaching, questioning skills, etc. Only now we are truly elevating their effectiveness through the use of social, collaborative and expressive technologies.)
  • An environment that allows teachers to be free from the fear of failure and it’s supposed administrative repercussions. If we expect our students to learn, unlearn, and re-learn, then we must give our teachers the freedom to create, experiment and play with content and its delivery to students.

I sat in Kevin Jarrett and Sylvia Martinez’s session about creating lasting change within a school district using the Future Search Process, and I remember thinking about all the ideas that were flying about the room in terms of gathering the necessary parties needed for creating change. The one that keeps sticking with me is the reference they made to something called “The Burning Platform,” whereby an individual is placed in a situation (a burning oil platform) where they must choose either certain death (staying on the platform) or the likelihood of death (jumping into the water). The analogy to education is that there is a situation whereby the outcome of staying still is obvious: student apathy and loss of engagement, but the outcome of changing and moving is less obvious but possibly a salvation.

I am looking at a situation where I don’t know if teachers understand that the platform is burning. They don’t know whether to jump, stay still, or get marshmallows. I want to create a community that is not afraid of change, that feels like they have a stake in the change process, and is willing to help create that change even if makes their role in the classroom change to one that is better capable of creating methods to solve rather than providing answers.