Saturday, December 31, 2011

Saying Yes and No to Technology

For me the question – should we have technology in schools? – is an unconditional yes.  We have, at our fingertips, the capacity to personalize, differentiate, support in “just-in-time” ways; to collect, organize and share the information we need exactly when we need it; to spark and sustain curiosity by bringing into the classroom the capacity to follow any question to the greatest depths known to man.

People ask continually – But what about slow, deep, contemplative thought?  What about exercise and just “going outside” to play?  What about community and teamwork?

First, I can think of at least ten ways I could use technology in service of all those goals in a classroom, even the “going outside” part.  Here’s one:  research the effect of nature on the brain – we all need to know why we should do what someone else tells us is “good for us” – and then use a tracking program like to do an experiment to see if the classroom community experiences a difference in learning by spending more time outside.

But more important, we can say no.  Right now we’ll use a pen, a book, our physical senses, conversation only, a silent space.  Just because we have technology doesn’t mean that it must be constantly on or used endlessly.

It is similar, I think, to the grave fears over the last decades about television.  Is TV good or bad?  Does TV harm us? TV is a mode of entertainment.  The only thing new is that it is instant and in our homes.  Parents can limit TV for children; we can limit it for ourselves.  And we ought to.  The overuse of media by children is the decision of adults who struggle to say no to their own desire for peace, quiet, ease (or, because we do not yet have effective, affordable child care, they cannot supervise their children. As a society, we have decided that other things are more important.)

If only it weren’t so hard! Previously, we did not have to set internal limits to our entertainment.  They were limited by access – the carnival passing through the village, for example.  Now, entertainment is in our pocket.  We have to learn how to say no.  And this “no” extends, among other newly abundant and easy things: buying what we can’t afford in a credit-easy world, abusing our bodies through excess food and sloth in a world of fast food and remote controls, and destroying our planet when pre-packaged and throw away are everywhere, instant, and so very very easy.

Our children will live in - have always lived in - an instant world – one where they can make a decision to publically shame and humiliate someone they don’t understand; where they can access pornography and violence with a click; where they are continually inundated with requests to purchase the next best thing.  It is also a world where they can instantly connect with the knowledge of the world and our global neighbours, where they can have a say on important issues and become active citizens.

We do not serve them by putting them in technology-free schools.  We serve them by teaching them (I’m not really sure how, but probably through modelling, through strategies, through positive experiences, through actively engaging them in conversations about decision-making and providing a framework of values against which to make those decisions) to find ways to say NO to excesses that harm us and hurt our neighbours and to say YES to the power, at their fingertips, to do good.

I hope they are better at it than we are.  Our future depends upon it.

Yes - From erix!'s photostream
No - From Mr Jaded's photostream

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Living Slow

I’ve been living Slow for a few days: slow cooking – cookies, pastries, all the trimmings for Christmas dinner – polishing, cleaning, wrapping presents, festive decorating – and then two perfect days of food and conversation, board games and laughter.

On Christmas Eve, after the dishes were done and the extra guests had left, my daughter and her husband sat with me for a bedtime recap of the day.  I don’t know, Katie said, if I can continue this tradition.  It is all so…much!   Katie is a doctor, her husband the CEO of a social media company; their lives are intense, fast-paced.  Katie is on call for the rest of the holidays; Ben has various meetings scheduled, emerging issues, new challenges.   They live in a beautiful condo downtown Vancouver, but all of us smile at the image of our Christmas clan – and trimmings – shoehorned into the space.

At first I thought, perhaps it doesn’t matter.  Perhaps these traditions are simply the continuation of “women’s work,” a kind of subjugation to kitchen that is no longer appropriate in this new world.  But by morning I had rethought.  Although it no doubt will have to continue differently – and it has to become the work of everyone – I’m pretty sure that this “women’s work” – slow, loving, knitting together of family and friends – is essential to continue.  I say work, because I’m pretty sure that what’s important is that it can’t be instant – a phone call to a caterer, let’s say.  I think what matters – and it matters now more than ever as the pace of living increases – is that it is Slow.  

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Things I did this week that I didn’t even know about five years ago

  • Put together a Christmas Connections Listserv “cool links” email by adding content saved to my Delicious social bookmarking site .
  • Posted information about a new book in our DRC collection on our Facebook page.
  • Developed a Twitter workshop, including an online poll for choosing our discussion question.  
  • Helped a school team set up iPads. 
  • Helped a teacher set up a web camera to use as a document camera in her classroom.
  • Approved a post to a collaborative Posterous blog that I administer.
  • Posted a picture of a classroom strategy on a Pinterest bulletin board
  • Added an information flyer to our wiki.
  • Uploaded a video to youtube and then shared how to embed it on a classroom wiki.
  • Took videos of a student showcase of learning that I will edit (soon).
And then wrote about it here.

The question is - is it helpful for kids and teachers?  Or am I just creating more binders to gather digital dust and files that disappear into digital cabinets and “toys” that distract us for a while and then are shelved, too, never to be seen again?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

More Gorgeousness

When you walk into Leslie’s classroom, you know that the classroom is set up for gorgeous learning! She shared some of the small things that make a big difference, that allow the teacher to focus on the children because everything is organized, and enable the children to be independent in a caring space alive with learning sparks.

In grade one, of course, lots and lots of reading is paramount.  Leslie’s home reading program  has children able to quickly and independently choose “just right books” and take them home in their book bag each week.

They can also take home a “theme bag” of books every two weeks on topics that excite them.

And they also have their reading workshop books (the groups and bins organized and ready for the parent volunteers).

The bell rang before I’d even finished dashing around the classroom trying to soak up everything!  The students clearly knew the routine, taking off boots and coats, putting books in place, checking the agenda (I love the visual dayplan!) and sitting at their desks with their Bee Books open.

In a room full of favourite things, the BEE book, I think, is my favourite:  Bring Everything Everyday.  Students take the BEE book home nightly and return it each morning.  In it is their sharing book, a zippered bag for forms and money,  planner sheets, newsletters and a word work pouch.   While the students listened to the announcements, Leslie checked their planners and then, announcements done, students put the BEE books in a bin and sat at the carpet.  Another favourite thing:  using male Velcro, she wrote each child’s name so they know where they should sit at the carpet.

After a few minutes of welcome and questions with thumbs up/thumbs down answering about their Halloween evening (they were amazingly quiet and respectful despite a no doubt sugary and late evening), they organized into reading groups.  One of the groups was an independent group and they quickly (and very happily) recited all the things they could do for their workshop – reading on their own, reading together - what they could read (so many options!) -  where they could read – at the carpet and on the soft couch! Two girls immediately began reading a classroom poem from a chart stand – complete with actions.  

Another meeting to attend and a reluctant goodbye.  Of course, no one noticed me leave.  Everyone was so thoroughly engaged and the quiet hum of reading and thinking and learning played back to me like music all day.  Another gorgeous teaching and learning environment in our neighbourhood.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Gorgeous Teaching in our Neighbourhood

I slipped into the classroom uninvited, a little uncertain that it was all right.  Tricia paused in the mid-lesson to welcome me generously, wholeheartedly, and to introduce me to her students and then continued, completely and deeply attentive once again to the small children clustered around her on the carpet.  They, too, forgot about me as soon as her soft voice began to tell them about the exciting work they were about to begin.  The instructions (so clear, so inviting, so interactive) for creating a picture of themselves buried in leaves like the book they’d just read were followed by students moving (in an orderly fashion – they knew the routine) to the demonstration table to watch the painting.  Once again the instructions were clear and modeled step by step.  My favourite part was when she made a mistake, covering one of her sentence strips with paint.  “Don’t worry,” one the children said, “everyone makes mistakes.”  The small heads nodded heartily, encouragingly.  It was so obvious that the classroom lived this message.

When she finished the demonstration, she said, “I know I don’t have to tell you about gorgeous printing.”  Heads shook vigorously in unison, their bodies starting to vibrate with excitement to get started on their own.  “And I don’t have to tell you about gorgeous cutting.”  More vigorous head-shaking.
She released them then to go do their own no doubt gorgeous work. I left reluctantly to attend a meeting, but all I could think was how very very mad it is to go anywhere or read anything about teacher and learning when we have, right in our own neighbourhood, so many gorgeous examples at our fingertips!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Un-discouraged again – Thanks @Joe_Bower and many others!

It is sometimes difficult not to feel discouraged.  The world is changing so quickly, the bureaucracy moves so slowly, the gaps between what we need and what we have is growing, the time to learn what we need to know and to make sure we know what we need is shrinking, and even though I’m game to be a pioneer, there are days when trying to implement and initiate technological reform without adequate infrastructure or systems support can be wearisome.

Luckily I work with the best colleagues in the world.  It’s hard not to be buoyed up by the educators who are keen to learn, to think together, to share, to take risks, to generously and whole-heartedly give their time, their energy and their commitment to learning and learners.    Every day I meet with teachers who make my heart sing.  Of course, many of them don’t even know my name.   This morning, I followed a tweet from @Kyttie (a new BC teacher) who tweeted a link to an old blog post by @Joe_Bower (Alberta educator) where he had shared a video – the Eight Irresistible Principles of Fun.  I realized that my discouragement this week was because I’d forgotten the fifth principle:  Stop taking it all so damn seriously.  Instead, I need to continue to do what I believe matters, to scare myself every day, and to just start something – instead of worrying that nothing is getting started.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Learning is a "we" business.

On our Provincial Specialists Day, we usually host a small local event for teachers who can’t get away to the big provincial conferences.  This year, we had a great idea!  With help from our CUEBC colleagues (thanks @msilverton!), we live-streamed their keynote presentation from David Warlick on embracing emerging technologies.

Everything was set up, people had settled into the gym, the video was live with a notice that the start time was delayed, so we had just enough time to acknowledge organizers and introduce the keynote from our end.  The timing was perfect.  As soon as David Warlick stepped onto the stage, we turned up the volume and – horrors – the sound was a garbled mess!  Happily, Bill Boyd (a truly 21st century teacher-librarian) was there and disappeared into the sound room.  Minutes later, all was well again.

At the end of the day, as we gathered up bits and pieces of conference paraphernalia (chart paper, scissors, tape, coffee urns), stacked chairs and turned out lights, Bill joined us to see if we needed a hand.  Bill, I said, it’s so lucky we were able to fix the sound this morning!  And by we, I corrected myself, I mean you.   No, it is we, he replied.  We cannot put on events like this unless it is we.  This is a “we business.”  We have to each contribute what we can.  (This was generous, of course, since all I contributed to the morning’s near disaster was hand-wringing.)

But I’ve been thinking about “we” a lot.  It isn’t just for events, but for the daily business of classrooms that “we” is necessary.   The abundance of information, the diversity of learners, the changed goals of education (from sorting to inclusion) has made the stand-and-deliver “I”model obsolete.  But it’s hard to shift. In classrooms, we are trying by including students (peer learning) and experimenting in co-teaching models.  In professional development, we are trying to move away from our traditional workshops (the expert at the front who tells us how to do stuff) toward collaborative conversations and “do-shops”.

It’s easier said than done.  I organized two sessions for PSA day.  I opened up a computer lab and I also put out iPads and iPods in another room.  My plan was to set up some resource pages on the Working Together wiki and then float between the rooms to support, problem-solve, answer questions, connect people to resources.   But the night before I had a nightmare:  I left the computer lab to check on the Apple room and everyone there was staring blanking at the iPads and then accusingly at me, saying – what do we do?  We don’t know what to do.  After getting them started, I scurried back to the computer lab to find everyone was watching movies.  You weren’t here, they said.  We didn’t know what to do.

Of course this is always what teachers fear.  If I am not in front, in control, going through the steps, organizing and orchestrating the learning, nothing will happen.  But when we let go, we discover that the opposite is true.  When I get out of the way, allow people to pursue what’s important to them, provide time and resources – learning happens in a way that has NEVER occurred when I walk people through the steps.  I cannot count how many workshops I have put on about blogs and wikis: reviewing steps, providing handouts, working VERY hard.   And almost no one actually set up a blog or a wiki.

Here’s what really happened on PSA day when I got out of the way.  The Apple room was stuffed with people just playing and talking and thinking about possibilities for education.  When I came in a few people looked up – there were one or two questions and they ignored me.  They were too busy learning.

Meanwhile, back in the computer lab (down a long hallway and up two flights of stairs), people learned massively – without me.  Here is a short list of what some of the participants did:  Heather set up a wiki with the help of Sue and then Heather shared great links with Sue who added them to her wiki and together they learned about some new features. Glen and Peter set up their own blog with the help of Maryah who updated her wiki, set up a delicious account and began collecting digital story telling links.  Rebecca, too, set up a delicious account, scrolled through mine, found a great link to a site that she is going to use in her class and shared ideas with Loa who focussed on storytelling ideas, set up delicious and “got a baby step” into blogging.  Meanwhile, at the back of the room, the English department at Barsby created a school-wide blog for independent reading.

And me:  I answered a few questions, solved a couple of problems, engaged in some exciting conversations about technology in education - and got a lot of exercise!  But finally (!), after years of facilitating unsatisfactory technology workshops, I had a successful day – by not teaching.   Which, I guess, makes sense:  learning is a “we” business.  It goes better when “I” gets out of the way.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Less Work??

I was shocked to read that BC Public School Employers’ Association are meeting this morning to consider reducing teachers' pay since under job action they are doing less work.  Less work?  The teachers I meet daily are doing MORE work to ensure that the most important things – the things that make the most difference for kids – are getting done.  Here is a short list.

On Monday, I co-led a meeting of the professional development representatives from each school.  It was during the school day – funded by the BCTF in a twice yearly training session.  This is a group of teachers who volunteer to organize the three school-based days – polling staffs to see what they most need to learn to serve this year’s students, getting speakers to match the needs, setting up workshops and organizing resources.  Monday’s meeting was a chance to mentor new reps, to gather ideas from each other and to figure out ways to collaborate to share costs to maximize each opportunity.  Then they were off to organize the first PD day on October 11th.  When? After school, on weekends, during lunch, before the bell rings in the morning.

Teacher-Librarians at 5:00 on a Thursday afternoon
On Tuesday, I met with a group of Teacher-Librarians who had signed on to reflect on the role of libraries in a digital world.  We learned about twitter, blogs and social bookmarking and they left with a long list of homework to complete over the next month to practice learning these new tools so we can begin to use them effectively to gather and share resources for teachers to more effectively meet the needs of students.

On Wednesday, we had an Open House at the DRC to showcase the resources available to teachers, followed by a workshop from 4:00 to 6:00 to show our latest acquisition:  iPods and iPads.  We shared how these tools could be used to engage all learners and powerfully support our struggling readers and writers.  After the workshop (full!), they filtered out slowly (I pushed out the last one just before 7:00) filled with ideas and plans and organizing how they could continue to learn together.

On Thursday, I had a dilemma.  I could meet with Teacher-Librarians again – they hold five after school meetings to share resources, ideas, plans – or the Kindergarten teachers (monthly meetings and a large learning group that meets in-between) – or the Math teachers (monthly meetings). In the end, I went to meet with the teacher-librarians since they had some specific questions they wanted me to address related to our digital libraries initiative.  One item on the agenda was starting an additional learning group: a dozen people signed up immediately.

And this weekend?  I’ve answered dozens of emails from teachers who have been working on an application for Project Success – our year-long inquiry into how we can improve learning for vulnerable learners.  In fact, I’d better get back to the real work of the day.  I have a half-dozen emails to answer about the project (the application is due today) sent to me after 7:00 on a Sunday evening.  Oh, I see there is also a twitter follow from one of the teacher-librarians who did her homework this weekend.  Ah, another from a PD rep looking for a word sort on assessment-for-learning words to use on PD day - planning on the weekend, of course.

This is a tiny sliver of the kind of work that continues from my small circle - never mind the coaching and clubs and just daily beautiful hard hard work to ensure that each child learns.   If teachers are doing less work, my mind boggles:  how were they doing more?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

What I learned in 35 minutes at Pleasant Valley School

After reading an Edutopia article about How Classroom Environments Can Ignite Learning and Cultivate Caring, I thought about the many teachers who are doing a fabulous job of this here in our own backyard.  The best thing is that we don’t have to travel across the country or bring in experts at great expense! So I dropped in at one of our local elementary schools on my way to work.

In 35 minutes at Pleasant Valley School I learned:

Teachers are passionate and committed to their students.  I knew this already, of course, but when you are out of the classroom, you tend to forget as you are awash in “how to fix the education system” conversations.  Of course, in the meantime, extraordinary teachers are just getting on with the deep work of ensuring that each child is learning.

Even kindergarten students can organize their learning.  In Teri’s kindergarten class students sign in (if they can’t yet write their names, they trace it).  They already know what to do next, going to the centres board and putting a clothespin next to the centre they want to play in.  And they already know about the “four no more” rule and choose a different centre if it’s full.  This year Teri added a new feature to her classroom – curtains to hide the bins of toys and books.  They are less distracted, she says.  What an easy solution for creating a calm “ready to learn” environment.

Across the hall in the other kindergarten room, Wendy shows off the carpet - it is multicoloured circles.  When students come in, they settle themselves on the circle with their name card. When I came in, Wendy and her EA were looking at the name tags and discussing  where each child would sit for this morning's lesson.  In a few simple routines on the carpet, student learn number, shape, letters, how to notice what’s happening and how to get along with whoever is sitting beside them.  What’s more, students who have difficulty participating in groups feel safe and able to join in when the space boundaries are clear.

Collaboration happens in a many ways.  We read about PLCs and argue about how best to implement them system-wide.  In the meantime, teachers just work together.  Wendy and Teri co-teach yoga and on “Fabulous Friday” half of each class swaps to begin to get to know more of the children who will be part of their learning community for years to come.  What a simple idea to ensure that students feel safe, connected and part of the broader school community.

Students can organize the classroom routines. Upstairs in Jan’s grade 7 classroom, students were getting their homework done before class started.  There is no guess work about homework;  students can see what’s expected in a glance and help each other.  Tell her, one of the students piped up, about the "while you were away" folder.  If we are absent, she told me, we know just where to look for what we missed.  On another wall, the job board lets everyone know who’s in charge of what and students set up for gym, fine arts, recycling and other jobs that make the class run smoothly so deep learning is the focus.

Student caring and courtesy is alive and well.  If you read the news too often or attend too many meetings, you’ll often hear that “kids nowadays” are rude and self-centred.  Jan was telling me about the food drives, buddy work and other acts of generosity the grade 7s are committed to and organize on their own with only a little coaching.   As she talked, with her “teacher eye” (teachers always scan), she noted a boy gently rocking and standing at a short, but respectful distance from us.  You look like you have a question, she said.  Thank you for your patience and polite signalling.  Relieved to have her attention before the bell, he launched into a very-important-to-him series of questions.  I left them to slip across the hall to see Lesley.

Self-regulated Learning is happening.  Our new superintendent wrote in his latest blog post about “Self Regulated Learning & the New Human Development Theory.”  There are always, of course, new theories and new initiatives and new programs.  And, of course, there are people (like me) who run workshops and share resources and send out articles.  Meanwhile, in classrooms, teachers get on with the work and find ways to ensure that the children in their care are learning.  I got to Lesley’s grade one room just in time to watch the children filter in.  It was only the third week of school and they clearly knew exactly what to do.   They quickly organized their coats and supplies and settled into their seats.  One boy got up quietly and went to the back of the room and returned with a little container of play dough and began to shape it.  Several other children, I noticed, also got out the play dough.  They talked quietly while their teacher greeted and had soft conversations with the arriving students.  All conversations stopped as the announcements came on.  A fire drill was announced and after the announcements, Lesley asked them questions about what they remembered and did a quick role play (students enthusiastically called out the things the teachers and students would have to say and do) to help them review the process.  The whole time her voice was soft and calm and instructions were clear and gentle.   How long do we have left? a boy asked.  Lesley gestured to what she called her new favourite tool – the timer at the front.  He nodded, satisfied, and bent to his play dough again.  These timers (like the play dough) are often used to support students with behaviour difficulties, but of course, are effective for everyone, giving all students a clear sense of “how long” or “how short”.   I reluctantly left the classroom to attend a meeting, but really, I felt calm, alert and ready to learn!  And I’m sure the grade ones were, too.

It’s amazing how much you can learn by just spending 35 minutes in a school.  What struck me most was that in each case, when asked about their “best thing” for starting the year, what the teachers shared with me were the simple routines and tools that set up each student to be ready to learn (removing distractions, clear routines and organized space, strategies to help them be calm, alert and to feel safe) and best of all - to be in charge of that learning themselves.  Lucky students.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Unplugging to Plug in Powerfully

I’ve been waking up too early:  my “back at school again” lists of things to do keep playing in my head.  Usually I succumb and get up to start on my list, beginning by answering emails (sent to me by teachers very late at night, no doubt after they've done their marking and lesson planning for the day – why do I keep hearing that teachers only work from 8:30 to 3:00?).  On this particular morning as I answered emails, I kept my twitter feed open and followed a couple of good links, read several articles, tweeted two, revised my to-do list for the day (adding the items that woke me too early), noted two birthdays from my Facebook “friends” and sent messages, and researched which screencasting tool would work best in an elementary classroom before I was distracted by the sunrise sky filling my window.   

I had been reading lately about the positive effects of getting “off the grid,” that reflective downtime is necessary to learn, remember and come up with good ideas, that moral and emotional reasoning, in particular, demand adequate time and reflection, that we are “hooked on busyness” (and my morning routine and sleepless nights suggests I am), that our obsessive clicking, the endless stream of information, the constant connection with anyone and everything, our relentless pursuit of “friends” and “followers” is reducing our capacity to think deeply, relate meaningfully, or to know ourselves.  Indeed, as one researcher contends (in an article that tries to find the benefits of our attention deficits), our digital distractions are “a cognitive plague that has the potential to wipe out an entire generation of focused and productive thought.”   The final argument that made me back away from my screen (in an article that is part of the firehose of information that streams across my desktop daily):  people learned significantly better after a walk in nature.  (An interesting recent study showed that students with ADHD have less severe symptoms if they have regular access to open green space.)  So despite my list, I resolved to walk my way into deep thought and good ideas with the sunrise.  (Did you follow the links?  There are hours of distractions embedded into this short post!)

As I walked (the morning air was soft, warm), my mind began to flip through its own archive of clicks:  I remembered the Slate writer who set up fake birthdays, three in a row, to show the shallowness of Facebook birthday greetings.  He says we are using social media, first as a self-promotion (look how many friends I have and how many of them wished me a happy birthday – or how many articles I’ve read and created as links in my blog or tweeted for my “followers”), but also to fool ourselves that we’ve made connections.  Real connection, he argues, takes more effort than a 30 second post.  It’s more, even, than a retweet or “twitter love” or a comment on a blog post (although it is nice to have comments on my blog posts).  Breathing in the fresh sea-scented air, I began to regret my cheery FB wishes earlier (and my childish glee in comments and “followers”). 

Of course we get caught up.  When there are more than 750 million active users on Facebook spending cumulatively over 700 billion minutes per month at the site), when millions of twitter users send 1 billion tweets per week, when there have been 500 new blog posts since you started reading this one - we begin to accept the norms these new media create.   Now our grandmothers, banks, department stores, NGOs, writers, reporters and schools all blog, tweet, and post to Facebook.  It must all be good, right? 

And therefore, it goes without saying that the tools to access these social media so you can access your friends any time of day, check your RSS feeds, “like” pictures on Facebook, and post interesting tidbits to Twitter are essential.  And, of course, if they are essential, and their uses are good, we need them in schools; children, too, should use Facebook, twitter, blogs, instant messaging, polling, video and more to connect to information instantly, to find what they need immediately, to follow their passions, to personalize their quests. 

At the top of the hill behind my home overlooking the glittering ocean and the red sky, I began to question my morning routine, the screen-facing hours, to wonder if technology matters more to education than quiet moments and fresh air.  My mind clicked to the recent NYT article that revealed years of technology implementation has not improved test scores forces us to at least ask questions. The first question, I hope, is – what are these tests testing and is it relevant?  But it isn’t enough to simply dismiss the findings as another black eye on testing.  We can’t keep saying that because Facebook is used by millions, it is good; because technology is pervasive, we must therefore buy technology for schools.  Industrialization must have taught us a lesson or two. 

We want to be sure to ask – what do we, as educators, want to do with technology.   Right now our conversations seemed to be mired in more and better.  More computers.  Bigger computers.  Smaller computers.  More friends.  More followers.  More programs.  New programs.  Apps, apps, apps. More links.  More sites.  But just as more money doesn’t bring more happiness, more technology won’t bring better education.  Quoted in the NYT article, education researcher Brian Goodwin says of the pinnacle of “more” – a device in every students hands: “Rather than being a cure-all or silver bullet, one-to-one laptop programs may simply amplify what’s already occurring — for better or worse.”  If technology isn’t amplifying students’ ability to do the things we traditionally test for (reading, writing, math, general knowledge), what is it amplifying?  And is it good? 

I love technology.  I love the possibility, the creativity, the choice, the now-ness.  I love being able to read or learn whatever I want whenever I want; I love being connected, that I can see my family, my friends, colleagues when they are far away, that I can participate in a conference as I did recently – live! – half-way across the world in London. The possibilities for education are dizzying.  And yet, you can have an extraordinary education without technology and a shallow one with it.  While it is no doubt true that technology can only amplify what already exists, the amplifying power of our current technologies is so vast, its reach so pervasive, the change it brings, as Neil Postman warned, not just additive, but ecological, that we must be much much clearer about what is important in education. The danger of amplifying indifference, ignorance, banality, shallowness, inequities, injustice is greater now than ever before. 

Technology is a given.  What is still up for grabs is how we’ll use it.  I think it will take a lot unplugged thinking so we can plug in for powerful learning.  

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Seven Years is a Long Short Time

Seven years.  Time, as Einstein explains, is relative: "When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute -- then it's longer than any hour. That's relativity!"  There are days when the seven years since my brother died seems thick with time, forever ago.  On other days, like Wordsworth, when I'm "surprised by joy," the time is lost and I will think - I can't wait to tell Marc.  Feeling the weight of the years again is the hard part. 

Seven years.  It's surprising to think of all the things he'd never heard of that are an everyday part of my life now:  YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, iPhone.  Befunky.comAnd that's the short list.  And the events he missed.  A (very) short list:  Hurricane Katrina, the Boxing Day Tsunami, the election of President Obama, the Global recession, the earthquakes in China and Japan, the fall of Tiger Woods, the Vancouver Olympics, the Canucks big run (and the subsequent riots), his youngest son's graduation from high school, his oldest son's graduation from university, my daughter's wedding. 

What's important quickly reveals itself against our greatest losses.  I've been thinking about what's important to teach in school again.  I feel inarticulate always.  I keep wanting to say, let's teach each child as though he is the one who will save the world.  Because he will.  She will.  Who else is there?  Let's teach each child as if he were the brother we lost, the daughter we yearn for, the children we hold in our arms.  Doesn't it seem that what's important is easier to see?  But still, it's so very hard to move from an idea to action in schools.

Marc often sent me quotes.  Just before he died he sent this one:  The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress and grow brave by reflection. 'Tis the business of little minds to shrink; but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principles unto death.  (Thomas Paine)

When I think about how much the world has changed in seven years, I begin to feel braver:  surely we can change schools enough for Zachary - and for the extraordinary children like my brother was, like so many of our brothers are, who are lost in schools today.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

What do students really need to learn?

Michael Wesch asks a question I, too, am always pondering:  What do students really need to learn?  He says he's not interested in figuring out what information or skill sets are needed; "skills and information alone do not help us lead happier, healthier, richer, more ethical and more meaningful lives."  He thinks we need "a vision for who we are and our students need to be - not just what we should know."  In other words, he's seeking a metaphysical answer.  TS Eliot, writing in 1932, would say he's on the right track:  "Education which fails to clarify our central convictions is mere training or indulgence.  For it is our central convictions that are in disorder, and, as long as the present anti-metaphysical temper persists, the disorder will grow worse.  Education, far from ranking as man’s greatest resource, will then be an agent of destruction."

So who are we and what do our students need be?  Wesch looks back to 1991, before the Internet, to figure out, he says, who we were. His references to Charles Taylor sent me to reread Malaise of Modernity.  (I had to move away from my computer, shut down my twitter stream, RSS feed, email and text notifications.  Reading philosophy is a little like deciding to cook a meal from scratch - fast food and packaged shortcuts are just so easy and still fill you up.  But what a different "filling up" it is!)  Taylor reminds us, as Wesch says, that what we consider the "effects of the web" are not new at all, and in fact are, as Taylor says, the effects, rather, of modernity.  (TS Eliot, too, was concerned about the effects of modern life.)  Taylor identifies three "malaises":  the first, loss of meaning.  The individualism that defines modern life is a result of the dismantling of the old orders, which, while restricting freedom, nonetheless gave meaning to life.  (In education, our continued desire to "personalize" learning is driven by this value.)  The second malaise, the eclipse of ends, occurred as a result of the vacuum left behind after the old orders were swept away.  Instrumental reason became the yardstick to measure happiness: everything is calculated in terms of maximum efficiency and profit.  (We feel this deeply in education; we determine our success on graphs and data points. We decide what we teach by economic measure - how important those skills and that information are in the job market.)  Finally, a consequence of individualism and instrumental reason is the third malaise:  loss of freedom.  Political liberty is at risk, for the “institutions and structures of industrial-technological society severely restrict our choices”.  In a society in which people prefer to stay home and be private, “few will want to participate actively in self-government."  This “atomism of the self-absorbed individual” creates a sort of “soft” despotism: government runs things in a paternalistic way, which, without vigorous political culture, leaves people with little control.  The result is a kind of powerlessness of the citizen against the vast bureaucracy of state.  (In education, we feel this as well: we shrug our shoulders and "do our own thing" in classrooms, rather than "participate" in bureaucratic hoop-jumping.)

Where to from here?  The Internet has provided a vehicle for changing the last - the loss of freedom.  We now have the capacity to participate in ways we never had before.  We can connect with our community - become writers, newsmakers, change agents.  As Clay Shirky writes, in Cognitive Surplus, even 14 year old girls in Korea can change government policy (their protests led to a ban on imports of American beef). 

But just participating, surely isn't enough.  Just being passionate about something isn't sufficient.  The young men in Vancouver and in London are passionate, too, and participated in droves to loot and riot in the streets.  And it isn't enough to dismiss the rioters as mere thugs.  It isn't enough to argue that an economic fix (jobs) would solve the violence.  Or better parenting.  Or less TV, Internet, pornography, video-games - name your poison.   I'm afraid is connected to who we are.  I'm wondering if it is the effect of the first two "malaises": a lack of meaning in their lives, something to live for and love beyond their own self and a lack of a way to measure their worth and actions beyond a pay cheque.  Because then, of course, one is nothing without a job.    

So what do students need to be to participate meaningfully in their community to enrich their own lives and that of others? 

Friday, August 5, 2011

How We Think Depends on What We Think With

What does it matter what you teach, said one superintendent to me recently, as long as you teach how to think?  The danger, I would have argued if I hadn't been dumbstruck, is that it leaves students without ideas to think with.  Or rather, it leaves them with those ideas they are awash in every day.  For all children, that is a barrage of images from media that sell a message that cannot build a conceptual framework for a meaningful life; for those children who need education most, there is often, in addition, a daily onslaught of destructive ideas that negate self-worth, persistence, effort and resilience.  As E.F. Schumacher says, "The way in which we experience and interpret the world obviously depends very much indeed on the kind of ideas that fill our minds.  If they are mainly small, weak, superficial, and incoherent, life will appear insipid, uninteresting, petty and chaotic."  What education ought to do, he says, is provide the mind with a toolbox of powerful ideas. 

We continually ponder, in recent years, how to best teach the best process tools - creativity, critical thinking, inference, synthesis - but when we leave the "what" up to children to choose what's "relevant" to them as they "follow their passion"  (I argue students should not follow their passion), we deprive them of vital ideas with which to make sense. After all, we cannot think critically without a set of coherent ideas against which to make judgements.  We can't make inferences without a broad and rich array of ideas out of which to reason and draw conclusions.  We can't innovate and create either.  As Steven Johnson says, in his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, "Good ideas are not conjured out of thin air; they are build out of a collection of existing parts." Good "parts," surely, like fine ingredients in a meal, make better good ideas. 

The superintendent went on to say that facts and ideas, the "what" of learning, belong to the old world.  What do they matter, he said, to the future?  Had I not simply sputtered incoherently, I would have said that a profoundly changing world does not necessarily mean that everything old will become obsolete; it does demands that we clarify what's most important, what good ideas we want our children to take into the future.  After all, while facts and fads change, there are deep human ideas (truths I want to say) that are worth knowing, and new things are only learned upon a foundation of what we already know.  Children who come to school with a vast stock of ideas from rich experiences at home will flourish in an environment that focuses on helping them use those ideas creatively, critically, comprehensively.  For children who come to school for an education, to gather up the ideas that will allow them to make a life, what will they come away with?  

Friday, July 15, 2011

Why Students Should Not Follow Their Passion

There is a lot of talk, lately, about allowing students to "follow their passion" and "personalizing" learning for them.  Students are disengaged, it's said, because they aren't allowed to pursue what matters to them, to follow a dream, to learn what's "relevant" to them and their future.   Why should students read Shakespeare, they ask.  It's boring, "old school," irrelevant.  What if, instead, as BC Superintendent of Achievement Rod Allen argues, "things started getting packaged in terms of kids’ needs, passions?”  What if instead of "traditional learning" which involves "the ability to accept facts as provided, to learn how to compute without always understanding the subject matter or its applicability – taking notes quickly and accurately; retrieving/transcribing information previously acquired," where "mental and emotional concerns are parked for large periods of the day; students sit still for much of their time in school," we moved to schools that enable "student-initiated, self-directed, interdisciplinary learning with the teacher as facilitator."

Let's set aside an argument for why Shakespeare (and other traditional content) might be important for all children.  Let's set aside another argument against linking traditional content to "traditional learning."  (But briefly, Shakespeare does not need to be taught through a series of lectures and "Round Robin" reading.)  Instead, let's just consider whether this idea of "personalized learning" would engage students.  I asked several groups of tenth graders.  I explained that the plan is to have more choice, to design their own personalized path in high school, to work with mentors, to self-select seminars.
Are they on crack, they asked.  I admit that I was a little taken aback by their incredulity.  They explained:  we wouldn't do anything.  We'd just goof off. 

They have a point.  And it isn't merely because they've been spoon-fed information throughout school, that they haven't been taught the skills of self-awareness or self-directed learning.  It's that they haven't had enough life experience to even know what their passions are.   It might be skateboarding or "going to the mall and hanging out with friends" now (two answers I commonly get from teens when I ask what really matters to them), but they haven't yet read widely, travelled broadly, or had a range of experiences.  This is most true for the students who need a sound education system most: the one's whose life experiences to date show them a circumscribed world and limited options. 

Trust me.  I know.  I was in a high school led by a principal who wanted to revolutionize school.  I could do what I wanted.  I could attend classes or not.  I could hand in work or not.  I spent five years hanging out with friends downtown.  I had no goal to go to university.  Of course, I sometimes imagined in a childish way - like becoming a fireman or playing in the NHL - that I'd become a lawyer, a writer, a traveller.  But I had no idea what was necessary.  If I thought about my future at all, I thought I'd get married and have children.  In the remote logging community I grew up in, I didn't know any women who'd done anything else.   

But even setting aside my deep concern that "personalized, passion-based" education would become a tool to further limit the options of those whose options are most limited - it's possible that with forethought and a deep network of mentorship, this will not be the case - a grave danger still remains.  The message of personalization and passion is that the purpose of an education is to please oneself (or to be pleased).  In his address to Harvard graduates, Chris Anderson has different advice: 

Don't pursue your passion directly. At least not yet. Instead... pursue the things that will empower you. Pursue knowledge. Be relentlessly curious. Listen, learn....Pursue discipline. It's an old-fashioned word, but it's never been more important. Today's world is full of an impossible number of distractions. The world-changers are those who find a way of ignoring most of them....And above all: Pursue generosity. Not just because it will add meaning to your life -- though it will do that -- but because your future is going to be built on great ideas and in the future you are entering, great ideas HAVE to be given away. They do. The world is more interconnected than ever....Knowledge, discipline, generosity. If you pursue those with all the determination you possess, one day before too long, without your even knowing it, the chance to realize your most spectacular dreams will come gently tap you on the shoulder and whisper... "Let's go!".  And you'll be ready.  And that is how you're going to help shape a better future for all of us.

An education is what will allow our children to pursue the passion that will make a difference.  We need to think deeply about ensuring we put in their way the things that will empower them to pursue it. 

Thursday, June 2, 2011

In our rush...

"In our rush to reform education, we have forgotten this simple truth:  reform will never be achieved by renewing appropriations, restructuring schools, rewriting curriculum, and revising texts if we continue to demean and dishearten the human resource called the teach on whom so much depends...if we fail to cherish - and challenge - the human heart that is the source of good teaching."  Parker Palmer, Courage to Teach

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

A Birthday Wish

On my birthday, I had the perfect end to the work day - I attended the final celebration of a group of teachers who had been inquiring together all year into the inclusion of all learners at secondary.  There is nothing better to lift your spirits and remind you of possibility than listening to teachers share their research and reflect on how to improve their practice.  The presentations began with an inquiry into the transition process for autistic children from elementary into high school.  The teacher revealed her motivation - her son Zachary is autistic.  Her inquiry revealed that many teachers at her high school (good, caring, thoughtful, experienced educators) didn't feel they knew enough about autism to teach an autistic child effectively and didn't have a clear idea about where to find out more or how to be involved in powerful planning for the student.  She asked this question of us:  What if we were able to tell each autistic child, "Come to our school.  We know our stuff and we will make you feel welcome here." 

It strikes me that if we could make this true for autistic children, if they were truly welcome and deeply understood, we would be a long ways toward making it true for all kids.  What's important for autistic children - that we value their strengths, that we understand their unique challenges, that we seek diverse ways to meet needs and leverage strengths, that we have a plan to provide the ongoing support they require throughout their school years to thrive - is important for all children.   All we have to do now is to open our minds and hearts wide enough to find ways to include the most diverse of our diverse learners.  But it won't be by doing more of what we've always done.  It won't even be by doing some things better.  If we are going to include all learners in a rich meaningful education that allows them, to use Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser's phrase, to cross the stage with purpose, dignity and options, we'll need a revolution. 

Zachary goes to high school in seven years.  When I spoke to his mom later, she said she wasn't optimistic.  She holds out little hope that schools can change enough.  I, however, had just listened to a half-dozen passionate, committed and generous educators and still felt the glow of possibility. 

And so when I blew out my candles, this was my birthday wish - let's make school ready for Zachary.  We've got seven years.  Can anything else be more important?

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Holy Grail is Us

We keep looking for the Holy Grail "out there," but we have everything we need for the profession in the profession. As Alma Harris iterated at the recent NPBS Seminar, "There is nothing more powerful than teachers working together on what matters." The question becomes, if we know this (and surely we do), what's stopping us? Three things spring to mind.
  • We get distracted.
  • To learn together demands that each of us steps out of our circle of confidence into a place of dissonance and uncertainty (Lorna Williams gives us a beautiful word for this concept: cwelelep).
  • We yearn for quick fixes.
 As the distractions increase and the snake oil salesmen with the Holy Grail neatly packaged proliferate, it is more important than ever that we slow down to take time to talk together, to think hard together, to prod and support each other as we step into learning (push, but not be pushy as Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser say), and to have faith in each other to do what's most important for our children. No one of us has the answer, because the answer is our working and learning together. It's slow work, but as GK Chesterton said, "One of the great disadvantages of hurry is that it takes such a long time." We'll get there faster slower.
Image from Wikimedia Commons

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sharing Anchors Community

It takes a village to raise a child, certainly, and to educate one. No one teacher, not even one school, and lately, I've been thinking, not even one village or one country can educate a child. At least, not as well as all of us. Together, we have beautiful lessons, excellent resources, a vast toolbox of strategies, and the broad range of skills and strengths necessary to customize an extraordinary learning experience for each child. We just have to share. And sharing, Clay Shirky writes, anchors community, the community we need to support each child. Dean Shareski, in the freely shared keynote address below, argues that sharing is a teacher's job. He asks, why hoard good teaching and learning? In fact, he says, given the online platforms now available, sharing is no longer an option: it's a moral imperative, an ethical responsibility.

I am grateful to be surrounded by ethical educators. Donna Anderson is one such. In this last year of her teaching career, she has learned about how to use online sharing tools and her first thought is to share some of the resources she has created with us. Go to her grade 2 wiki. Enjoy.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

What a Way to End the Day

Steven Johnson, in the Ted Talk below, explores where good ideas come from. What, he asks, is the space of creativity? He shares one study where a researcher filmed the work of scientists in labs to see when the "lightbulb" moment came. And it didn't come when a scientist, working alone staring silently into a Petri dish, suddenly yelled, "Eureka." Instead, good ideas grew out of the weekly lab meetings, where scientists shared what they were working on, what didn't work and some of their hunches. Good ideas came from connecting their thinking.

I was lucky to be in the midst of such a space of creativity at a recent visit to Ecole Davis Road Elementary for their bi-monthly Professional Learning Community meeting. One meeting is held during the day while the principal takes the students in a school-wide activity (later this week, he'll supervise a 'read-in' in the gym) and one meeting is after school during their staff meeting. The business is 15 minutes and the rest of the meeting is devoted to PLC time.

Each meeting has a rotating chair and recorder. When I visited, it was Sean's turn to chair and he began the conversation by suggesting the focus: to reflect on their Family Math Night (planned during previous PLC meetings). We've had lots of positive feedback, he said, but let's think, too, about what didn't go as well as we'd hoped so we can improve next time. They quickly went around the table, noting what didn't work and simultaneously thinking of ways to improve, building on each other's ideas. After each person had their say, they had a plan for fewer stations in each room, a method to try out the games with buddy classes prior to the evening, an idea for engaging parents in participation and a right-now solution for allowing the kids who didn't attend the evening a chance to engage in the games - they would have a cross-grade activity next month with the games that worked best. This led to an idea to use the math games as a culminating activity for the upcoming math sequence (a generous gift from another school - June Bouchard and Ann Grant at Quarterway) and the decision to use the next PLC meeting for planning.

Glancing at the clock to signal the wrap up, Sean said aloud what I'd been thinking, "At our Family Math Night next year, our awesomeness will be even awesomer." The meeting finished with a reflection, as Sean put it, on "the purpose of a true PLC, student achievement." How can we connect our Math Night with achievement, he asked. Hands shot up. What's fun is worth taking time for; it's a good reminder not to get caught up in the text book. I keep asking myself, are my weekly math games making a difference, are they getting it? And I know the answer is yes. And what's important, they still think it's fun. They think math is fun.

And then came one of my favourite parts - another creative idea at two minutes before the end of the session - let's build a games toolkit matched to the IRP strands. A flurry of decisions about time, dates, funding, where to store the games - and at 4:00, they rose.

Can you imagine ending your day so joyfully?

For more on our PLC series
If it's important
Seaview Elementary
Bayview Elementary
What do we value?
McGirr Elementary
North Oyster Elementary

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What a way to start the day!

At North Cedar Intermediate, teachers start each day with thirty minutes to think, plan and learn together while student-leaders, EAs and principal or teacher lead all students in fitness. Listening to the teachers talk together, I was reminded of the power of "off-topic" conversations. The group, clearly comfortable with each other and the process, began with their purpose in mind: reviewing the learning outcomes and considering how what they are doing meets them. They reviewed a potential project with Hul'qumi'num teacher Jerry Brown to translate a text of Aboriginal stories and to work with him to develop text-to-text connections, visualization strategies, and assessment into a learning sequence to use with the stories. They quickly agreed on shared tasks, and organized times.

They then pulled out the learning outcomes and began to think further about their programs. Somehow, the conversation turned to the Pigeon stories (if you haven't read them, do so now!) and someone connected them with drama and the group bounced around the idea of having students create their own dramatized Pigeon stories for Literacy week, which somehow led to a sharing of excellent read-alouds that support practice of visualizing strategies (and had us all scrambling for our pens to write down titles), which led to pondering together why some students are inattentive, which led to thoughts about increasing participation and attachment theory.

What a way to start the day! Children come to class ready to learn after 30 minutes of vigorous exercise (the research is extensive to show that learning increases and negative behaviour decreases with daily exercise) and teachers come to class ready to teach - their minds open to thinking about participation, belonging, strategies, ready to reflect on their practice as the day unfolds and knowing that tomorrow they have a supportive team to share questions, concerns, new ideas and triumphs.

You might be wondering how your school could re-organize to make this happen - and you might also be wondering (especially if you are a teacher) - where can I get a copy of the Hulquminim lesson sequence when it's completed or the Pigeon drama lessons? Where can I get the list of great read-alouds? Once you begin working together, surely the next step is more working together. What if we had better communication and sharing channels so that we can build on our work instead of continually beginning from scratch at each site - or worse, in each classroom? We keeping working so hard, but we can't seem to keep ahead of changing students with changing needs in a changing world. But if we worked together, if we found ways - through professional learning communities in schools, across the district, and, indeed, connecting globally - surely our combined strength could ensure that each child was beautifully educated.

For more on our PLC series
If it's important
Seaview Elementary
Bayview Elementary
What do we value?
McGirr Elementary