What Happens When You Get Out of the Way.

Thursday, I had the good fortune of meeting a few students from Westfield High School as they presented to a room full of teachers, board members, superintendents, and other administrators.  They were accompanied by their two teachers, their principal and their superintendent.  What’s striking, if you’ve been around superintendents and administrators, is that the students dominated the room, and very few people in the room had questions for the teachers or the administrators from Westfield.  They wanted to know what the students thought.  


Their topic?  How a shift in their teachers thinking and approach to teaching radically altered the ecosystem of learning in their classroom.  


The two teachers had looked at their two separate subjects, English III (American Literature) and U.S. History II (Reconstruction-Present), and thought that they should team teach the class with a double period, calling it American Studies.  Eighty-minutes of instruction with the same group of students, all the while wrestling with the themes in literature and history as they played out across the last one-hundred-fifty-plus years.  The class, anchored by themes rather than chronology, was different for one more reason: student access to information.  




The two teachers had received a grant to outfit their class with twenty iPads for the first year of the course; couple that with their districts move to bring-your-own-device, and the course shaped up in a much different way.  To hear the students describe it, was quite amazing:


This isn’t like OK, here is the worksheet I used to give you and you can use the internet to answer the questions.  It was more like, here is the question you have to answer, gather your information and figure out how to apply the research to these bigger, higher-level research.

The students were given the freedom to collaboratively take notes, gather and share sources of information to add to the class resource list, all in the name of finding out how to best make sense of the guiding questions and overarching themes.  It was a truly impressive demonstration of students using tools that eliminated the walls of their classroom and brought the world into the room on a daily basis.  


Cross-posted at digitalswregional.blogspot.com


If you are interested in knowing more, please feel free to check out the teachers’ site here.  



Remembering That It’s Slippery

Winter Trail

A rare occasion, it is, that I run in the middle of the day, especially during the week.  So on Friday at midday, this was my scene, and it felt a little like cheating.

In recent days here in the eastern part of the country, we’ve been plagued by ice storms and sub-freezing temperatures.  Snow covered paths, while beautiful, disguise what lies below, and the moment I stepped forward onto the trail, it became an exercise in balance and timing.  Light feet, short strides, quick decisions–and no certainty that each step would pay off.

Friday morning, I was privileged to present at the Classroom 2.0 Learning Institute to a group of teachers and administrators about collaboration.  Erica Hartman and I talked about the hows and why’s of collaboration in the classroom and in curriculum development.  There were strands set up for this conference: basic, intermediate, and advanced, and Erica and I conducted a hands-on workshop in the intermediate strand to a group of about 40 people.

I struggle with preparing for hands-on workshops for many reasons.  Firstly because of the varying ability levels of the individuals in the room.  Some will not be able to log-in to accounts that they may or may not have, others will be have already heard of everything you are going to share, and still others may even just view this as a time to check in on email or do some online shopping.  As is the case in any classroom, meeting the needs of all three and keeping them engaged is the role of the facilitators.  Push too hard and we lose the neophytes, remediate too much and the more advanced users tune out, and fail to implicitly show value in what you are talking about and Amazon will receive record hits from whichever ISP you are using.


It Begins with You.

The ice was thick in most spots, and the crunch below my feet that I was expecting didn’t happen as I moved from the trail head down the lonely corridor of the rail trail.  The ice had frozen into ridges around bicycle tire grooves and ATV tracks, and finding a safe line to place my feet in became increasingly difficult any time I tried to increase my speed.  Running in the center wasn’t working; several missteps and half-slides on the ice pushed me to choose the fringes of the path, where some grass was still emerging through the snow cover.  While uneven and full of hard crags, it was a safer choice at the moment, and I could navigate my way towards what the safer section of trail ahead.

The choice Erica and I made was simple: let’s speak with passion about what we do.  Let’s mention it all.  Let’s talk about why we use collaborative technologies with our students, colleagues, and extended network.  Let’s talk about our successes with enthusiasm, and our failures with the lens of reflection.  Let these people see that we made the choice to take risks in the classroom even in this high stakes environment.  And as we scanned the audience in the beginning of the session as they were filling out their “bell-ringer activity sheets designed to get them to know each other, I could sense all levels of preparedness: some struggling with the authentication of Montclair State’s Netriculate process, others finding our wiki with ease, and others pecking away on their Blackberry’s.  We asked them one question on the sheet that we felt truly aimed at where we wanted to go: if time, resources, money, school restrictions, etc. were not a restriction, what is one project you would like to do with your students?  We had them share their answers with two people in the room who they didn’t know.  From these, which we asked a few to share with the room, it was easy to begin to see where we needed to go with the session: provide multiple access points to projects that they wanted to work on and provide them with the ability to work from the fringes within their school environments.  We weren’t getting the sense that these teachers were going to be supported fully in trying to connect their students to the world.

A mile into the run, things began to change for me.  I’ve been back to running seriously for a month now, and certain physical elements are returning from a long sabbatical.  Ice beneath my feet was still a problem, but my feet weren’t.  My drive-train, if you will, was coming from my core, and I achieved the balance that comes with moving quickly and powerfully.  Like traveling at higher velocity on a bicycle leads to the ability to hold a cleaner line, my speed and power were adding to my body’s efforts to keep me upright.  I was moving in flow.

Teachers often wonder how to begin changing their methods without completely up-heaving the work they’ve done over the course of their careers.  It’s a valid concern for several reasons.  If it’s been done for a few years, there is good reason you are keeping it: it must be producing some desired result.  One of the first things we stressed in our session was the need to question why you were in the room.  Don’t use these tools for the sake of using these tools.  Look at the outcomes you want from your students and decide if these tools can take them there.  If not, find something else from your bag of tricks.  Secondly, as Dana pointed out in her week in review, students don’t always take to change the way we think they will, even if it involved technology.  Your big change may fail miserably.  What then?  And lastly, you need to be the driving force behind these changes.  We used the famous Gandhi quote:

Be the change you wish to see in others.

Erica and I moved the group through various examples and moved around the room as much as we could to help give ideas and connect people with projects and others in the room as best we could.  What we began noticing was momentum.  People were connecting; myths of collaborative projects only happening in 1:1 schools were being exposed and debunked, and teachers in districts that limited access to social media were talking about how they could circumvent their limitations both philosophically and physically.

I love running in winter.  The silence of it always brings together the disparate thoughts in my head.

Image Credit: “The Illuminated Crowd” from Humanoide’s Photostream.