Thursday, December 20, 2012

Excavating the Heroic Work of Teachers

My Communications 11/12 students and I are pondering the differences between a hero and a celebrity.  They identified selflessness as a heroic trait immediately, and selfishness in a celebrity.  They said that heroes are humble, since they are focused outward on their cause, rather than “showboating.”   Heroes, they said, do something rather than simply be something.

The trouble with heroes, I am beginning to realize, is that their work is too often unnoticed against the “showboating” of self-promoters.  When I polled my students, 100% had heard of the Kardashians, Justin Bieber, Paris Hilton; a handful had heard of Rick Hansen, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela.  In the deluge of new media, heroes, it seems, need media specialists to get their word out. 

It is certainly true that teachers need someone to tell their stories.  Their heroic work is increasingly buried beneath the voices of those who “become something” by writing books, speaking, or joining the growing bureaucracy of education.  These voices, of course, call for change and zealously expound upon their theories to solve all problems.  By and large, their answer is this:  teachers are “old school” and need to embrace new methods, new technologies, 21st century tools and attitudes.  Most teachers would agree that change is needed, although they might quibble about what needs to change.  However, they are too busy trying to develop their practice to talk about it.  After all, while we freely spend money for politicians, researchers and administrators to debate change, teachers still have 30 very diverse children in a small classroom and in my district, at least, with little or no technology; they are still expected to teach prescribed learning outcomes and prepare students to successfully complete provincial exams.  And they must mark, make calls home, and prepare any “new school” lessons in small bits of time during the day or, more commonly, in the evening and on weekends.   They have neither the time nor the inclination – they are usually of a humble heroic mindset – to showboat.   They are too busy doing something.

But, oh, the amazing work that is lost in the noise for change.  Consider the teacher next door to me.  In one of her blocks, Debbie Keenleyside teaches a group of our neediest grade 8 students for 80 minutes each day, students who struggle with reading, writing, and the “schoolish” things necessary in our current system – sitting in a desk, waiting to speak, completing (even starting) required tasks, working with others, civil behaviour.   Her goal is to accelerate the progress of these students so they can have success in high school.  It is a daunting – a Herculean – task.

A few days ago, Debbie came into my classroom to ask if they were bothering us with the hammering.  We all quieted to listen; you could indeed hear a steady tap, tap, tap through the walls, but only when we were silent.  I was curious, of course.  What were they doing?

It turns out they were excavating bodies.  They were studying Pompeii and Debbie immersed them in that world – showing them clips from the BBC documentary “Pompeii’s Last Day” and then recreating the eruption of Vesuvius in their classroom.  She brought in buckets of dirt to make a lava mud flow; students blew up balloon “bodies” that they buried and then popped to show decomposition.  Next, they became archeologists, pouring plaster into the mud to reveal the remains.  Debbie had mixed in bits of tile and coins (she flattened pennies to make them seem ancient).  On the day she checked in with me, students were busy with hammers, carefully excavating their bodies and finding the debris of this lost civilization. 

If you aren't a teacher, you might not think about how much additional work this entails – get dirt, hammer pennies, buy balloons, tiles, plaster – and what bravery to move these students out of desks and into groups to work with mud and hammers.   She doesn't use any of the latest buzzwords – inquiry, problem-based learning, authentic tasks – to describe her work.  She simply looks at the students before her and tries hard to make their hearts sing with learning, their eyes shine with aha moments, their minds grow as they experience, connect, build – and to hear them say, “That was amazing.  What will we learn tomorrow?”

How I wish we would focus our attention on those who work so selflessly!  How I hope we will take care not to bury our heroes beneath the demands for change while nothing changes to support teachers in classrooms.  How I worry that without this support - and indeed with diminishing support in times of accelerating challenges - even our most heroic teachers will find it too hard to continue to fight to ensure that each child learns beautifully.  Because it is, after all, the daily extraordinary effort of teachers like Debbie that will change the world.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

When will we shut up and listen?

My return to the classroom continues to be difficult.  I knew it would be, of course, but it’s easy to romanticize the past, to remember the marvelous lessons, the spectacular successes, the laughter, the joy.  What you forget is the day-to-day grind of teaching, the daily effort to support, challenge, engage thirty adolescents, to not only keep the peace between them, but to help them find ways to think and work together productively.  You forget the isolation from other adults.  You pass them in the hall.  You snatch a few minutes of conversation at the photocopier.

 'Punch' cartoon, 1894
Every once in a while I remember my former life as a district coordinator.  Mostly I remember the meetings organized to “fix” education – or more specifically, to fix teachers.  I have been, myself, guilty of such hubris. A few days ago, I was reading an article about the Victorians – about the upper class women who worked with the poor, setting aside their embroidery and drawing lessons to visit the less fortunate once a week to lecture them about virtue.  Virtue, of course, is much easier when you have a full belly, when you aren't working night and day, when you haven’t been beaten, degraded, demeaned daily.  It struck me that there are similarities to the endless “professional development” for teachers.  It is true that we ought to improve our practice, implement more varied approaches, connect with student passions, differentiate, individualize, personalize, integrate, innovate, inspire.  But it so much easier to consider when you are not teaching, when your fine ideas are not shredded by the apathy of teenagers, when your attention is not constantly syphoned off to attend to the student throwing a paper airplane, the girl close to tears in the corner, the child who interrupts incessantly with questions, when you have a nice office, long hours to meet and think, and resources to purchase what you need when you need it.  

It isn't that I think we should not make every effort to improve practice, so that each child every day has a full, rich learning experience.  But I have learned that preaching about it won’t help.  Recently I listened to Ernesto Sirolli speak about the causes for the failure of western aid in Africa, and it seemed to me to apply both to the Victorian ladies and our approach to professional development.  He talks about his own failure as an NGO, of the two trillion dollars of aid to Africa over the last many years from developed countries that was not only not helpful, but did damage.   He tells of how often NGOs sweep in to “fix” things, but fail to ask the locals if it will work or to engage them in the projects they are passionate about  – and so failure is inevitable.  If asked, I'm sure the Victorian poor would have preferred to speak about working conditions than virtue.  Teachers, every time I ask, say they need time:  time to think, to plan, to organize, to collaborate.  Instead,  millions of dollars are spent on endless projects and the next new thing.  I begin to worry: have our "good works" as zealous educators (and I have been one) caused more damage than good?

If we really want to help, Sirolli says, we need to set aside our imperialist, colonialist, missionary and patronizing or paternalistic approaches.  We must become, instead, servants to local passion.   And to do that, we must first shut up.  We should never come to a community we want to help, he says, with any ideas.  If we give someone an idea, and they don’t want to do it – how does it help, he asks.  Instead, we listen, not in public meetings, but person to person to find out what is needed.  When they tell us their idea, we help to make it happen. It isn't surprising, when you think about it, that Sirolli's "shut up and listen" approach has been wildly successful.

I wonder what would happen if education leaders shut up and listened, really listened, to teachers.   I wonder what would happen if they found out what teachers need, what they are passionate about – and then moved heaven and earth to make it happen.  I'm not entirely sure, but I'm pretty sure, that the transformation that all our missionary zeal has been unable to effect would occur at last.  After all, it is through the daily hard, hard work of teachers that our children have the best chance to learn. Who better to listen to, then, than teachers?  Surely it's time we stop giving them ideas they don't want.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Why I Love Teacher-Librarians

Four years out of the classroom.  Believe me, it’s not like riding a bike.  I stare at the sea of faces and struggle to remember names, to get the knack, again, of using my peripheral vision to know who is stirring up trouble in the corner, where a fire is being lit, when sad eyes signal more urgent need in a sea of hand-waving and chatter.

I have three classes to teach.  I can’t catch the rhythm of the blocks again and prepare too much or too little, lose papers, miss files, forget important messages.

I reach out like a drowning person and ask the teacher-librarian, Kate Girard, if she’d like to co-teach a unit on poetry with me in the library.  I hold my breath.  She agrees.  She thinks I have something wonderful planned and is looking forward to it – I was, after all, the District Coordinator for Literacy and Learning.  I know things.  I have ideas. She expects great things.

I work late into the night looking for something.  Anything.  I pilfer a unit from the Calgary Science School.    The link to the lessons was no longer working, but the blog post gives me the gist.  Kate sounds a tiny bit wary after reading my cobbled-together plan, but is willing to go along.  I bring the students.  I've barely learned their names.  Thirty grade nine students.  We’re going to write a poem.  I struggle to appear confident.

Our first day was not bad.  The students, I think, were a little subdued, uprooted from their familiar setting, put in the library with an extra teacher and a peer tutor (who happens to be one of my English 11 students).  The second day was less fortunate.  Kate asked questions gently – did I think the students would be clear on the task?  Did we need other examples to help them?  But we’d run out of time, talking only in snatches between classes.  We plunged into a disaster that Kate tells in her deliciously funny blog post.  She writes that teaching with me is like “Dancing with the Stars,” that she is excited to see me in action.  And what action!  Her prediction that the students would be unclear about the task came true and though she was thankfully diverted by technology glitches, I watched the lesson fall apart, my mind empty of solutions.

She graciously allowed me to return to the library the next day.  I was learning.  She quietly took a greater role (thank goodness) in planning.  Things looked up.  We waded through just one more disaster – predicted by Kate, of course – when I blithely insisted that they could find poems on their topic.  The rapidity of the degeneration was breath-taking.  My grade 11 student tried to help, her eyes soft on me, gentle, supportive, kind.  Kate and I, more synchronized, regrouped quickly, and changed the task.

After school that day, cautious after this second disaster, Kate and I did more careful co-planning.  We continued our planning in emails that evening and early the next morning.  Kate noted (at just after 6 am) that she would be in a little late, since she was waiting for more light to pick apples (really!): we had agreed that for our focussed writing chunks, we would pass around snacks.   I'm not sure everyone knows how very common this uncommon dedication is.  But I wish they did.

I'm on my own again with the grade 9s, but I feel more confident, more ready to take charge, more sure of where I'm going.  This last week has been a blessing.  I've had the opportunity to sit next to most of the students in the class and simply listen, talk, help in real ways without even having to worry about the rest of the class, just devoting my energy and attention to each one.  I've had a week to get to know my students that would have been impossible otherwise.  I am on-my-knees grateful that we have teacher-librarians in our schools who have time to support, collaborate, connect, co-plan.  Kate writes about “dancing with the stars.”  She’s right.  But she’s confused about who the star is.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

A Reflection on Failure

Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again – this time, more intelligently.  Henry Ford

It’s difficult, to say the least, to acknowledge failure.  Even though failure has come into fashion, lately, as the cornerstone of creativity, lauded even, as the “new success,” it isn't a less bitter pill to swallow.  Nonetheless, I am very, very glad that in returning to the classroom, I am forced to see the stark evidence of my failure.  Too often, I think, we are able to manufacture success.  I left the classroom four years ago to “make a difference” for teachers; I returned to the classroom to find that nothing has changed.

The focus of my district work was on advocating for and trying to organize systems for working together. I am convinced – still – that it is absolutely necessary if we are to have any hope at all of meeting the diverse needs of our students.  In isolation, not only are we dangerously overburdened and under-resourced (how can we possibly gather sufficient resources alone each semester or year for a constantly changing set of needs?), but we cannot, on our own, affect the life trajectory of a child except in serendipitous ways, by being one of a constellation of positive experiences. Unfortunately, especially for those students who need us most, the constellation of negative experiences buries even our most heroic isolated actions.  Yet the classroom is still isolated.  Despite my district efforts.  Despite the efforts of the school that I've returned to. Despite the daily passionate thoughtful hard work of individual educators.

I learned of my new assignment on a Friday: 90 students in four different English courses on Monday. Here is what my return to the classroom looks like this.

Designing and finding resources:  Each day, every course, needs to be planned, for the most part, in isolation. There is not even a “one-click” space to find locally relevant curriculum-matched plans or mentors.
Learning about students: Each student needs to be figured out “manually”:  there is no on-line access to files and information, no system of meetings for support of the students with identified difficulties.  In the file room, there is a daunting sheaf of paper to sift through, most of it written in vague language with generic recommendations – allow for extra time with tests.  Each student is a mystery that I need to unfold in four short months.
Figuring out how to work again without technology:  I have a blackboard and chalk, limited Internet access for the ancient computer in the corner of the room (with its mammoth monitor), and I must complete the attendance twice daily by hand.  I'm still trying to find ways to support the students with dysgraphia and dyslexia using only paper and pencils and books, without peer tutors or EAs.
Teaching: The students continue to have unique needs.  I continue to face them alone in small room.  Even more, perhaps, than four years ago, they are skeptical that the education we can provide (with our chalkboards and novels) can make a difference to their future.  Their phones buzz and beep; they are constantly distracted, not just by the 29 other students in the small space, but by the world in their pockets.

I can read the student files, of course, find people to ask questions about what has worked for them in the past, organize meetings, connect with the department head, counsellors  principals, become an advocate (again) for technology in the school and in my classroom. I can find resources on-line and  try to connect with other teachers to co-plan at the end of the day.  But each step demands my additional effort – or the additional effort of other (overburdened under-resourced) individuals in the system. There is no system in place to lift the burden.  There is no continued relentless focus on removing the difficulties so that I can teach beautifully.  There are many hard-working, committed individuals doing their very best.

Week four. The question that I keep asking is this: How can I teach?

And this.  If I had to do the last four years again - more intelligently - how would I support teachers so that at last – at last – we can meet the needs of our children?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

My Easy Hard Decision.

It’s odd how difficult it can be to make the easiest decisions – what to cook for a special dinner, which movie to watch, what to wear to a daughter’s wedding.  But the hard ones, the ones that change your life, are often easy.

I recently made the easy hard decision to step down from my district position and return to the classroom.  In many ways, it was more difficult to leave the classroom in the first place where I felt daily that my work was making a difference for students.  However, given the opportunity, I believed, more than four years ago now, that I could support more students by supporting the work of many teachers.  At first, I thought that I was helpful when I shared “good practice.”  In retrospect, I was as green as the young teacher who came to me in tears with her binder of meticulously prepared lessons:  despite her hard work, she said, the students wouldn’t listen. Of course they wouldn’t - her lessons had nothing to do with the students in front of her.

I eventually came to realize (thank goodness) that my job wasn’t to “fix” teachers or to show them the “right” way (armed with my well-organized binder and slick presentations of research-based practice), but to support them with the resources, in-service, tools they told me they needed and to advocate on committees, in meetings, to the board for what they told me was important.  A short list of key things teachers have repeatedly said were necessary:
  • To feel heard, appreciated, valued, cared about, supported, encouraged, inspired, included.
  • Collaborative networks to exchange ideas and develop learning/leading partnerships.
  • Time in the work day to work and learn together, to incorporate new strategies and ideas, to reflect and plan, to share and ponder.  
  • Well-organized information so they can easily find resources, support, ideas, connections to colleagues whenever they need them wherever they are.
So much energy and resources are spent everywhere in education to change it.  But it seems to me that change is easy.  People change all the time.  And teachers in classrooms certainly deal with change every day. Working with thirty to 120 students each day is not like sorting grommets or writing reports – every day is another change.  It’s exhausting work.  Ask them to do one more thing - tell them to use a different test, another set of strategies, go to five more workshops, write different things on their boards - and watch the doors close.  Give teachers (educated, thoughtful, caring individuals) some time to think together, the simple support they need so they can focus on students, value their input and their strengths – and watch schools transform.

I’ll be in a classroom with my fingers crossed.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Connecting through Stillness

Van Gogh - Starry Night - Google Art Project
While we ponder what it means to be a connected educator (and by this we generally mean an educator who uses new and emerging technologies like blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other web 2.0 tools to teach and learn) and whether it’s even ethical (a strong word, but used by some) for teachers to be unplugged, others are arguing that we can’t think, never mind teach and learn, with the noise of our digital distractions.   Unhappily, I've discovered that I can’t even blame the Internet for my lack of focus:  I clocked my distractions when I wrote my last blog post.  Real life and online are about even.  Given a difficult task, I can find distractions anywhere.  But if I continue to reflect on my task, the distractions (I tell myself) are often a thinking prompt.

For example, in writing this I allowed myself (as usual) to be distracted by a Facebook post from Ted about the Google Art Project.  The immensity, the glory, the power of all that was once available only to a select few – great art from around the world – now in the hands of each of us is unthinkably awe-inspiring.  It struck me as madness to have students merely cut and paste coloured tissue to make a tree or weave construction paper placemats when this resource is available with a click. I felt the scale tip heavily toward digital connectedness as a prerequisite for educators.

But the best part of the talk came at the very end when Google Art developer Amit Sood said, “All the amazing stuff does not come from Google or the museums; it’s from the artists.”  And that, I realized, is exactly what I haven’t been able to articulate yet, even to myself, what's missing, I think, in our conversations about 21st century education: what art represents, these human ideas that are enduring and connect us all at the deepest level, are what we must focus on to become connected educators.  It’s marvelous that we now have the tools to facilitate this connection, tools unimaginable even a few years ago, but the tools are not essential to connect meaningfully and, in fact, can distract us, not by delaying us in our tasks or sending us down different paths as we are thinking, but from our purpose as educators. I'm thinking that before we plug in, we need to refocus on what is enduring rather than what is changing.  We get caught up, too often, in chasing what’s new, what’s intriguing, the next trend (and in education, we seem to have created an industry around our latest buzzwords and “best” practices and the attendant profusion of tools and gadgets).  Yet as Seth Godin said in a recent blog post (another one of those Facebook updates that I was distracted by – fortuitously, I like to think):
Your audacious life goals are fabulous. We're proud of you for having them. But it's possible that those goals are designed to distract you from the thing that's really frightening you--the shift in daily habits that would mean a re-invention of how you see yourself.
Our failure to transform education, it’s possible, has been in large part due to chasing the next best thing (even when it’s good), rather than doing the hard work of changing our habits and re-inventing education by re-inventing ourselves.  

And perhaps to re-invent ourselves in the midst of the relentless pace of our modern world, we need stillness for a little while - in our digital and analogue spaces - to remember again the enduring connections.  Look at a work of art.  Listen to extraordinary music.  Read an exquisite poem.  And then keep still.  At the count of twelve…

Keeping Quiet

Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language,
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.

It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.

Fisherman in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.

Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victory with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.

What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about,
I want no truck with death.

If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.

Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead in winter
and later proves to be alive.

Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.

Pablo Neruda, Extravagaria, translated by Alastair Reid

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Is it okay for educators not to be connected?

Do you know that jumping-out-of-your-skin feeling – kind of like having 14 cups of strong coffee - that you get when you are learning something and you are awash in ideas but don’t know what to do with them yet?  That’s how I’m feeling right now.  I signed up for the Leading Edge Boot Camp through Powerful Learning Practice and have just spent an hour and a half in a small group conversation with Scott Shaw, Will Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach.  (This is a seriously cool world we live in.  Will was on the road and didn’t have Wi-Fi in his motel, so was sitting outside his car at Starbucks in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin!  Definitely life on Mars.) Our topic was personal learning networks and one of the questions that Sheryl has dropped into our discussions frequently is this:  Is it okay for educators NOT to be connected? 

To try to put my thoughts in some sort of order, I went for a walk. (I agree with Dickens who said, “If I could not walk far and fast, I think I should just explode and perish.”) As I passed by one of the houses in my neighbourhood, I heard someone practicing piano and remembered how much I had yearned to play as a small child.  However, I lived in the back of beyond; I don’t know if there was even a piano in our remote community.  I did find a book, though – I wonder now, where I found it, since there was also no public library and our school was only tiny, one room for the 9 students.  In the book was a picture of piano key board and I used to “play” it for hours.  It made me think, though:  if instead of tweeting and blogging and facebooking right now, I were practicing piano, I’m sure I would not be a better or worse teacher – merely different.  Instead of learning widely, I’d be learning deeply and could bring that perspective to my community.  And that’s okay.

On the other hand, I’m beginning to believe that it’s not okay for today’s educational leaders to be unconnected (in the unplugged sense).  Part of the reason is related to the little girl I was.  Today, even in remote communities, children who yearn to learn anything, can.  But someone needs to know about the possibilities, and certainly it strikes me that school leaders, at the very least, ought to be immersed in those possibilities if they are going to make key decisions and support magnificent learning in their communities.  I am beginning to believe that an educational leader who is not connected is like an English teacher who has never read Shakespeare and hates poetry – he or she can technically do the job, but not with depth or integrity or authenticity. But everybody doesn’t need to know everything – certainly I don’t hold it against my math teacher friend that he has never read Shakespeare, unless you count the Cole’s Notes versions (although I think it’s sad; he thinks my inability to solve complex mathematical puzzles sad, too – and so do I); our communities are richer for our diverse strengths and passions.  I have a colleague who is an artist.  She has an art studio and brings the most glorious art-infused slant to teaching and learning.  I lean on her shamelessly for artistic inspiration.  I’m grateful that she dives deeply in a different direction than I do, but I pay attention, when I’m “out there” to bring things to her (I just sent her this link to a Love Lettering project that I found through my Twitter network and am excited to think about what she might do with it!).   She and I have been talking about district-wide art experiences to connect and re-vision in our community, and I’m thinking about technology platforms that would bring the idea to reality.  I’m also pondering how to effectively connect teachers in our community to some of the work she has done and am following a trail of ideas about matching people like her who are passionate about art to more of our students, and the possibilities in the idea Mimi Ito calls eHarmony for students, “an optimal matching algorithm, for 1-1 virtual mentors.”  

So back to Sheryl’s question – is it okay for educators not to be connected?  No.  But they don’t have to be connected in the same way to the same things (Twitter is definitely an optional connection!).  However, our schools, our district, our education systems (via our educational leaders) need to be lit up with connections, face-to-face connections certainly, but also virtual ones; they need to have plug ins and channels out everywhere that allow us to use the diverse strength of the extraordinary educators everywhere, all the time, in ways we have never imagined so we can serve all our children with the abundance that is a click away.  (And now I think I’ll take a break from thinking to play on the virtual piano I found!) 

Monday, August 13, 2012

Who’s listening?

Recently I watched Sherry Turkle’s Ted Talk.  An early adopter of technology, she is now concerned about the effects of technology:  “We’re  setting ourselves up for trouble,” she says, “trouble certainly in how we relate to each other, but also trouble in how we relate to ourselves and our capacity for self-reflection.”  She says that Stephen Colbert asked her, "Don't all those little tweets, don't all those little sips of online communication, add up to one big gulp of real conversation?" Her answer was no: “Connecting in sips may work for gathering discreet bits of information, they may work for saying, ‘I'm thinking about you,’…but they don't really work for learning about each other, for really coming to know and understand each other. And we use conversations with each other to learn how to have conversations with ourselves.”

My brother died 8 years ago today – before Twitter, before Facebook, before smartphones (he would have loved smartphones).  He and I and my sister grew up in a very different world from the one he left, much different, even, than most people our age.  We lived in remote communities on the coast of British Columbia.  Our first school was a one-room schoolhouse with nine kids from grade one to high school.  My youngest son, trying to wrap his mind around a computer-less, mall-less, video-store-less, TV-less world (there was no cable and limited reception in these remote places) cried, “But what did you DO?”

We had a record player.  Marc and I knew every single word on every single record.  We knew all the words to Hank Snow, Johnny Cash, Johnny Horton.  We knew the whole Bambi sound track by heart.  We played contract rummy by the hour.  And we loved it when the catalogues came in the mail, especially the Christmas catalogues, and we would play my page, your page.  You might not know that game.  You sit side by side with the catalogue on your laps and your page is the one nearest you.  You take turns randomly turning the pages and wherever it lands, you can pick whatever you want from your side.  And sometimes you get something marvelous, while the other guy gets lady’s underwear.  We rode our bikes.  We built forts in the bushes. We pushed each other on swings so high that we sometimes flipped over.

Today, when I am taking time to think about my brother, I remember that despite the fact that he grew up to be one of the busiest men you’ll ever meet, an entrepreneur, a self-made man, the ultimate self-directed learner, he was never too busy.  It was his gift, I know, but I’m guessing it was a gift nurtured by the way we grew up in a slower time, in a time when people were your world. 

It reminds me that the dizzying speed of change is only the outside things.  What remains the same are the people, and our constant desire, not for the next best thing or to win whatever game we are playing or even to change the world, but for someone to listen to us.  In a world where so many people are connecting and sharing, where we can have friends and followers and our smartphones constantly beep and buzz and chirp with new messages, the loss of one person who really knows and understands you can break your heart.  

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

A Practical Guide to “Life on Mars”

I’ve continued my “Life on Mars” – living in this extraordinary digital world - by engaging in Connected Educator month, participating with educators from around the world and connecting with inspiring thinkers in real time.  (In 1973, “real time” would have seemed an odd phrase to use.)  I listened to the legendary Deborah Meier, entered an hour of conversation with Chris Lehmann, another hour with Douglas Rushkoff and sat in on three panels with thinkers such as Chris Dede, Lisa Nielson, Ira Socol and Mimi Ito.  While I’ve been thinking hard about the content of the conversation (and feeling extremely lucky to have had the opportunity), one part of me has also been thinking about the experience of virtual participation and what it will take for educators to take advantage of the digital revolution.

Familiarity with Tools:  In one of the sessions, the moderator was unfamiliar with the tool used - Blackboard Collaborate.  This meant that a good deal of time was spent dealing with an off/on microphone issue.  Given that people chose to participate and navigated their way into this session, there were very few participant issues, but I’ve been in other sessions stalled by people saying that they can’t hear or can’t figure out the microphone or interrupting the conversation for links that are posted in the chat.  To ensure that these digital opportunities are widely used, the tools need to be invisible.  To ensure this, we need to create regular ongoing meaningful in-district supported opportunities for all educators to become comfortable with the digital tools. We can’t expect teachers, whose focus is on students, to find opportunities to learn the tools.

Infrastructure: At a conference earlier this year, one of the speakers identified the three pillars of learning empowered by technology (a key driver in BC’s Education Plan): a robust network (so we can access the technology), technical support (so the technology works) and professional learning (so we know how to use the technology).  In one of the forums I participated in last week, a panelists kept cutting in and out due to insufficient bandwidth.  If we attempted to participate from most of the schools in our district, we would have had the same issues.  This is deeply frustrating and a key stumbling block identified by our teachers for not even getting started.  Sometimes we forget to take this into account when we wonder why teachers still use their overhead projectors (at least it is reliable and they don’t have to share it with 10 other teachers) and the VCR (almost none of our schools can access streamed video and even use of DVDs is limited by the library's sparse collection).

I continually hear that teachers are resistant or afraid to try something new or are not “learners.”  I think, rather, that teachers are practical.  They have only so much energy to spare: a teacher has 30 to 120 students, all with unique needs and strengths and dreams and disappointments; they need to connect with families, counsellors, education assistants, student support teachers, teacher-librarians, colleagues, coaches and possibly a wrap-around team of child and youth care workers, psychologists, pediatricians. They need to deal with school and district goals, ministry mandates, parental expectations, school initiatives, juggle access to limited resources.  Someone says – why don’t you use digital storytelling?  Eyes roll.  Resistant?  No.  Practical.  In our elementary schools, they have a 30 minute block to access the computer lab – but it takes at least 15 of those precious minutes to boot up the machines.  By the time the students have logged in (and inevitably some will have forgotten their password) to go to Voice Thread, let’s say (it will take a while; the bandwidth is low), there will be the next hurdle – emails are needed to log in.  In our district, students don’t have school email, so the teacher has to problem-solve that.  Needless to say, by the time they get started on the digital story (I won’t even begin to talk about the difficulty of browsing for images with low band-width or taking and uploading pictures with limited resources or the unlikelihood that there will be microphones available), it’s time to log out again. Of course, someone will have forgotten to save his work, or the computer will crash just before she hits the save button.  Tears.  Frustration.

It isn’t that our teachers are resistant to using technology; they simply can do more at the present time – given our networks, technical support and the skill level necessary for complex problem-solving – with paper and pencil. I don’t say this to argue we shouldn’t continue to find ways to empower our practice through technology; I just think we need to reframe the question.  We don’t need to find ways to “motivate” resistant teachers; we need to find technology that fits their needs, can meaningfully support their work, and is “invisible”.  Again, a teacher’s focus is on the child.  If a tool becomes the focus because it uses a good deal of time, energy and resources, then it’s hardly surprising that it is set aside.  It is up to the school, the district, and teacher support teams to find ways to ensure that the tools are “just right” for teaching and learning.  When that happens, teachers will line up to get their hands on them.

Flipping PD:  Given the extraordinary access to content, we are all wondering about the purpose of “bricks and mortar” learning.  Lately, the conversation has centred on “flipping” classrooms so that the lecture (on video) is sent for homework and the classroom/workshop time is reserved for discussion, tutoring, figuring out, building on, connecting.  I am not convinced that this is a transformative approach – as Ira Socol says, “A "flipped classroom" is the same classroom, just re-arranged” – but it is a starting place for rethinking practice.  And it’s not easy.  First, and all teachers know this, of course – a percentage of students/workshop attendees won’t do their homework.  How do you have meaningful conversations about content, when some or even most of your participants don’t know the content?

The second difficulty with getting beyond lectures or “sit and get” as almost every presenter now states as a goal in their preamble – and this has certainly been a recurring refrain in the Connected Educator sessions – is that the results are mixed.  Not only will many of the participants not have done their homework, but too often the content people have come to hear is sidetracked by the agenda of a single participant or will lose focus in the cacophony of voices and divergent threads.  To learn, most of us need some structure, a narrative arc that moves us beyond a kind of "cocktail hour" conversation filled with interesting tidbits to a focused, deep, thought-provoking, engaged dialogue.  Moreover, despite invitation to participate, many find it daunting to speak or write publically as they are learning – especially in these global spaces where they have no relationship with the group – not because they are not “risk-takers,” but because they prefer to synthesize information before giving an opinion about it.   Generally, only those who are confident step forward to participate and that isn’t necessarily a good thing.  As Charles Darwin said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”  In The Invisible Gorilla, Chabris and Simons write that when they tested this observation, they discovered over and over again that people who were most incompetent consistently (confidently) rated themselves as most competent. This doesn't surprise me.  Almost without exception, the most exceptional teachers I know are extraordinarily humble and more aware of what they don't know than convinced that others would want to hear about what they do know.  Too often in these “flipped” sessions, instead of learning from someone who has reflected deeply on a topic we are interested in, we hear the strongly held opinions of the "confident."

We have work to do to meaningfully flip our PD (and classrooms).  Part of it will mean some combination of pre-reading/viewing, well-structured conversations, space for reflection and follow-up partnering.  But the best way, I think, to get it right is to ask a different question again.  Let’s stop asking – how can we get teachers to “buy in” or “motivate them” to learn in digital spaces about 21st century pedagogy.  Instead, let’s figure out how we can build meaningful spaces for learning that meet teacher needs – and this will demand that we listen deeply and respectfully to teacher concerns.

The more I engage in this digital world, the more convinced I am that we need to find ways to connect educators.  But it isn’t just because teachers need technology; it’s because the digital world – this life on Mars – needs all teachers, that broad and deep range of skills, attitudes, talents, and perspectives, if it is going to fulfill its promise for a different tomorrow.

Mars from rover Curiosity (NASA)

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Life on Mars

Recently, thanks to Netflix and a few days of illness, I found the TV series “Life on Mars” – the UK version.  In the story, if you don’t know it, a police officer is in a car accident that puts him in a coma and he “awakens” in 1973.

I keep thinking about 1973 now.  It isn’t very long ago, yet our world today is massively different in so very many ways.  We know this, of course, and speak of the speed of change endlessly, it seems, but the backdrop of 1973 played against the expectations of a 21st century time-traveller makes it concrete.

Certainly my morning yesterday couldn’t have happened in 1973; undoubtedly it could scarcely be imagined even by the most imaginative.  Martians would have been easier to envision.  I woke a little late (I’m on holidays, after all) and quickly made coffee, turned on my computer and entered a live online session with two educators I admire: Will Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach.  I talked with them, shared ideas, and listened to theirs along with a small group of educators.  We will spend the next five weeks exchanging ideas, building plans, chatting, sharing and meeting both synchronously and asynchronously.  One of us is in Cyprus, I’m in BC and the others are in the US.   We were all in our homes, able to take on other tasks as we participated (this is more and more possible now even when we meet face to face, of course).  One person posted in our chat window that UK had just won a gold medal.  I responded to a text from my daughter, read a friend’s Facebook invitation to coffee, and downloaded a book mentioned that I hadn’t read.  And if I missed anything while I was multi-tasking?  No worries.  The session will be archived.  

We were asked, at the beginning of this very 21st century learning session, to share the obstacles we face in leading a shift to 21st century learning in schools.  The most difficult hurtle identified: test results.  The question many are asking (even in Canada) is this: How can we still get good results in our traditional tests/curricula and still implement 21st century shifts?  When I think again of my glorious morning, about this extraordinary personal learning experience, it seems like the wrong question entirely.  But it isn’t a surprising one.  Our greatest challenge is always to reconcile our traditional understanding with new ideas vaguely understood and a future that is a mystery.  We should expect that we’ll drag our feet, become confused, frustrated, even angry as we ping-pong between what seem to be irreconcilable ideas.  We should expect, too, that we will always be “outdated” in education.  In 1954, philosopher Hannah Arendt wrote “The Crisis in Education” (we are also always in crisis in education, as a quick glance through history will affirm):
Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint, for this is the basic human situation, in which the world is created by mortal hands to serve mortals for a limited time as home.  Because the world is made by mortals it wears out; and because it continuously changes its inhabitants it runs the risk of becoming as mortal as they.  To preserve the world against the mortality of its creators and inhabitants it must be constantly set right anew.  The problem is simply to educate in such a way that the setting-right remains actually possible, even though it can, of course, never be assured.  Our hope always hangs on the new which every generation brings; but precisely because we can base our hope only on this, we destroy everything if we so try to control the new that we, the old can dictate how it will look. 
How do we preserve the world for the new without dictating how it will look?  I’m not sure.  But I do know our tests are designed exactly to dictate the future.  I keep thinking about 1973.  What lessons could have been taught then that would have allowed us to set the world right in 2012?  Today, we have extraordinary learning tools and the wisdom of the globe at our fingertips.  Surely we can find a way.  If, through some strange accident, I were set down in 2043, will the children, educated today, have found a way to do what we have not yet done - live together in peace and in harmony with nature?  We hope so – and it is this hope that inspires our continued efforts, even when the task of ensuring beautiful learning for each child seems as distant as life on Mars.

Painting by Leslie Carr, based on a drawing by R.A. Smith in The Exploration of Space (1951) by Arthur C. Clarke. Via Paleofuture 

Monday, June 18, 2012

What We've Always Known: Teaching is all about Connections

Guest Blogger: Heather Pedersen

See Heather's first post about "Susan":  Making Miracles Happen

As the school year draws to a close, I am anxious to update you on one of our grade 2 students .  Susan is a selective mute who has not spoken directly to an adult at school since she entered kindergarten.  Up to February of 2012, she was using a few discreet gestures and would whisper to a friend who could then relay that message on to the teacher.  But, with the introduction of the Ipad, so much has changed.

When I last wrote, Susan had used the Ipad to create puppet plays with a friend and had communicated one short message to me.   It’s hard to know where to begin because there have been so many wonderful developments in the past 3 months.

Susan now uses an Ipod  or an Ipad, on a daily basis. Each morning, her EA records a personal message for her, often telling her of the day’s events or other bits of information to help make the day go smoothly.   During guided reading Susan takes the Ipod and finds a quiet corner in the room to record a passage that she has been assigned.  She then plays it to the group  when it is her turn.  She has even played a recording to her entire class of 21 students!

Susan comes down to my room at least once a week and we work on all kinds of different little projects via the Ipad.  She regularly records a message for our principal and our secretary.  She loves to tell them riddles and her smile tells us she also loves to stump them.  One of her favourite apps is called Story Kit.  This app allows the user to create books of varying lengths.  Each page has room for an illustration, text and also taped  commentary.  Susan has created close to a dozen stories, and each one is more complex and more elaborate than the previous one.  The intonation and animated expression she uses when talking is amazing.

Many of these have been done at home but Susan happily shares these with adults in the building.  She shares with those people she knows, but on occasion with visitors to the school who happen to stop by my room.  She has recently started creating short books with optical illusions that she has drawn.  She records instructions telling how long you have to guess what the picture might be.    At the end of the given time, she indicates that the time is up and what the answer is.  Her drawings are brilliant and she giggles out loud as I try to unsuccessfully determine what it is she has created.

Susan: “Okay this is also a guessing one…….so…….I’ll give you 15 seconds.   Ready?  Here we go……….
Time’s up so stop guessing!  The answer is it’s an H and and an i and that spells Hi!”  (For those of you, like me, unable to read that, concentrate on the greenish figures in the center.  There’s a capital H and then a bubble i beneath that.) 

The Ipad has opened the door to really getting to know Susan.  I have been able to ask her questions, sometimes about something we are working on, but most often just typical conversations about weekend plans, upcoming events, etc. and she has always recorded an answer for me. Today’s answer was close to a minute long and full of details.  On occasion, I have stayed in the room but at a distance as she answers, but generally I give her privacy and leave the room.    

There are many significant and visible spinoffs for Susan. She used to move through the school with a buddy.  Now, you can often see Susan walking through the school on her own, with more confidence and purpose.  She makes and maintains eye contact with more adults more readily.  Susan will more easily shake her head to indicate no, rather than drop her eyes down and wait it out.  She will draw attention to herself by knocking on my door as she arrives at my classroom.  All of these are helping Susan to become a more well-rounded student.  However, as I reflect on the past 4 months, I realize that there have been significant and positive spinoffs for me as well.  Working with Susan has challenged me to think outside the box, to be creative and to really examine my philosophy of education – and all of these are helping me become a more well-rounded teacher.

Teaching is all about connections.  I have always known that, and working with Susan has only reinforced that.  It’s about a child being comfortable in your presence and knowing that he or she is accepted and valued.  It’s also about being adaptive and flexible and finding new and creative ways to meet the needs of each child. They say a child may not remember the content of what you teach them, but they will always remember how you have made them feel.  I know that these are wise words and ones that a teacher must always remember.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Kids Nowadays: Engaged, Thoughtful, Curious!

Henry David Thoreau wrote – way back in the mid 19th century – that “our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”

It sounds dreadfully prescient as we ponder the children before us today, raised on “pretty toys” and a constant stream of instant accessible always-changing entertainment. They can’t keep still, we say, or behave as they ought to, or complete their worksheets and hand in their essays, or pay attention to serious things like history lessons and math and Shakespeare.  So it’s little wonder that we worry about the wisdom of bringing “pretty toys” into schools.  In our case, in our current project, we have carts of 15 devices (iPads, iPods or laptops) and place them in classrooms for six weeks.  We had little doubt that students would be engaged (and they are!), but would they engage more in serious things?

As the project progresses, and I watch teachers and students use the technology to learn, create, build, share, I have become convinced that our concerns about our students’ lack of engagement and inability to pay attention – and their therefore diminishing skills – are less a problem inherent in “kids nowadays” and more related to their difficulty in connecting to school as it is currently designed.  When Thoreau was writing in the mid-19th century, the world was almost unimaginably different.  No cars. No planes. No phones.  No TV.  Certainly no iPads.  No rights and freedoms for great swaths of our population.  It boggles the mind to think about how different the daily life today is from 150 years ago.  The design of our schools, however – teacher in front of a classroom with kids in desks – really hasn’t changed much.

But students today – whether we bemoan it or not – are used to images, motion, vibrancy, choice.   It’s woven throughout their lives. It is the fabric of their future.  As I observe students in this project, engaged in learning through these devices, enabled to choose their path, connected to serious things through their own interests, working in teams, acting as mentors, sharing their learning through a variety of media, I am struck less by their lack of skills and attention and more by their sophistication and concentration, by their inventiveness and creativity, by their thoughtfulness and by their curiosity!

I worry now much less about whether these “pretty toys” will distract the students from serious things and more about how they can return to the black and white two-dimensional world of their classroom when we take away the technology.

Friday, April 20, 2012

What is it about iPads?

When we first got iPads in our school district, I wasn’t entirely convinced that they were worth the investment.  We began with a small pilot.  After all, why not just get laptops? But I’m converted.   The hard part has been figuring out what makes them so spectacular.  After all, I am inclined to lean in to James McConville’s arguments about “why the iPad is bad for education.”  It seems simply flashy (without even the ability to use flash) and frankly commercial, rather than a more utilitarian school tool.

But still.  This is what I see.

iPads are really, really, really easy to use!
Everyone can just “get” iPads in a very short time.  (They are not easy to manage, but using them for learning is a cake walk.)  In our lesson today, students used the Explain Everything app – a screencasting tool that allowed pairs of grade 6 and 7 students to create a video explaining how to do a math word problem.  The task itself was complex, demanding first a sophisticated understanding of the math concepts, an idea of how to break the problem down to a grade four level (“We can’t use ratio,” one student argued, “because they won’t get it”), the ability to figure out the best sequence for explanation and the most effective method for illustrating the problem – and they had to negotiate all that thinking with a partner.  In addition, they had to figure out a complex application – taking photos, uploading, cropping and rotating, using a drawing tool, voice recording, adding and deleting slides, saving and converting to video.  In under an hour.

That kids learn quickly and with ease isn’t surprising.  We constantly speak about “digital natives” and their fearlessness.   (I admit to being taken aback, nonetheless, by the amazing things even our smallest learners can do with these tools.)  But here’s what surprising: the teachers who set up the lesson learned how to use the app the evening before.   And they were willing to teach with it the next day – not only teach with it, but demonstrate the lesson in front of a group of colleagues.  I have been teaching teachers about technology for years; I have never seen such rapid movement from teacher learning to classroom implementation.  

(An important caveat.  The iPad is not magical in any way.  The usual ingredients for successful new learning are needed:  someone on staff with some time to coordinate the project and help problem-solve along the way; and time set aside for staff to learn together, and better yet, teach together to build confidence and grow the skill to use the tool to transform learning.  As someone said yesterday, it can become just a very pretty – and expensive – toy that will sit on the shelf once the novelty wears off.)

iPads invite a learning stance.

“Teachers become a role model of learning,” Lori said as she watched the lessons today.  Teacher-leaders Tammy, Tricia and Val invited students to learn with them.  Deanna, whose school has just started the six-week project with iPads, said, “I was absolutely terrified when I got the iPads in my class for the first time.  But I told the kids that we were all learners together;  we experimented, the kids were a big help to me and to each other, and we all had fun.”  I still don’t entirely understand this willingness, but I think it’s related to what Deanna said – at the end of the hour, they were having fun.  The ease of use makes success almost inevitable.

Students find a comfortable space to create.
iPads foster community.
Perhaps it’s because learning together is modelled that I am constantly impressed, when observing iPad classrooms, by how much students help each other and share what they’ve learned with each other.   However, I’m beginning to think it’s also because iPads open a space for learning conversations.  Instead of isolating the learner behind a screen, iPads invite conversation:  heads lean together, students can talk without the tool standing as a barrier.  We deliberately send 15 iPads to the school. Teachers are disappointed at first; now they say they don’t want 30.  They notice that the students learn together in unexpected ways, that the conversation, the peer support, the ongoing modelling of shared learning creates a learning community.

iPads open the door to self-directed learning.
That doesn’t mean that student always partner.  Teachers begin to see the possibility of independent, self-directed learning.  15 students can be left to work independently (but still supporting each other; the space created by an iPad invites this), while the others work in guided ways, perhaps, with the teacher or with a different tool: reading a book, sketching, painting, dancing, listening to music – and the many, many other nontechnology things that fill our day and support student learning.  The teacher, instead of standing in front directing the learning, can truly become a guide on the side, a coach, a cheer-leader.

iPads inspire uniqueness.
Of course, what we all see quickly when we use any technology (but magnified in the iPad because of the ease of use) is the possibility for personalization, for just right learning, for our unique learners to move at a pace that makes sense, to show their learning in a variety of ways, and nonetheless to participate meaningfully in our collective experiences.  We are seeing the capacity for students to go deeper, to spread their learning wings, to engage in what matters to them, to create something beautiful, to have success and to realize, through that success, that learning is what they do best.

But why iPads?
And what about other tablets?  So far, the educational applications, the depth of global professional support, the continued extraordinary user experience make it the go-to tablet.  Interestingly, the key resistors to iPad are often people with the most technology experience, the long-time advocates for infusing technology into education.   For them, the PC meets their needs perfectly.   They have spent years bewailing the reluctance of colleagues to embrace technology.  What’s exciting is that now we have a tool that has ignited interest in technology across a broad range of educators.  Why do we answer that excitement with the one that so many of us for so many years:  “It’s just a fad.”

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Secret to Math Genius

Not everyone loves math.   It’s very likely that you, dear reader, don’t love math.  I continually hear stories from educators about difficulties in math, avoidance of math, and even avoidance of math teachers.  But in my experience, some of the most forward-thinking, passionate, connected teachers, people you really should hang out with if you want to ponder the important questions in education – are math teachers.

Recently, I met with the Math Department Heads in our district.  The energy, the excitement, the rapid exchange of ideas, and the commitment to student learning above all, lit up the room - and made it very hard to move through the agenda.   The trouble, one teacher said as I tried to refocus the group on our agenda, is that we don’t talk anymore in our classrooms.  Why?  Because they have all made commitments to reduce lectures and increase students’ talking, practicing, figuring out, reflecting, manipulating, developing, creating  – and have created some version of the “flipped classroom” with lectures posted on website, moodles and blogs.   Below are some of the shifts they are making in their continued quest to ensure success in math for all students:
  • Moving from passive to active learning.
  • Moving toward personalized learning (using technology and peer learning to make this possible).
  • Moving from “quizzes” to “show what you know” (this may seem like a small shift but the difference between answer my questions to share your knowledge is vast).
  • Moving from silent rows (and hoarding answers) to encouraging and organizing students to “talk math” and to help each other.  
  • Moving away from teacher telling to student learning.  
  • Moving away from kids “running the gauntlet” of teacher expectations as one teacher put it - to ensuring that every student can get 100% (retests are the norm).

Their stance is met with some resistance from students who can’t quite believe them when they say - yes, you can do it again, yes, you can talk to each other, the answer, as one teacher puts it, is just “the dessert,” if you want to 100% you can get it - it’s up to you.  But their incredulity shouldn’t surprise us.  Don’t most of us believe that 100% in math is reserved for “those” kids?  The geniuses?  One teacher told a story of a student who was failing miserably.  Finally, after observing the (surprising) success of peers, the student asked, do you really mean we can redo anything (in other words, that failure isn’t the point?).  Yes, the teacher said.  Again.  (But it’s hard to really believe these ideas that are at odds with the way things have always been done.)  The student redid the test and got 95%.  Now you know my secret, the student said sheepishly to the teacher.  

Imagine if the secret math genius in each student was allowed out?  In our district, led by such extraordinary teachers, it won’t take long for math phobia to be as quaint as a fear of falling off the edge of a flat earth.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Making Miracles Happen: Teachers, Kids and iPads

Guest blogger:  Heather Pedersen

I am an elementary Student Support teacher with 33 years of experience.  I have always used a variety of approaches and resources with my students, and most recently an iPad.  I could tell you how valuable this tool is with my struggling students.  I could tell you how much my students, through a variety of apps, love to practice decoding long and difficult words that I really didn’t think they were ready to read.  I could write several paragraphs, if not pages, about how much I love using the iPad and what a positive effect it is having with these vulnerable students but what I really want to talk about is one particular student at our school.

Susan (not her real name) is a grade 2 student who is a selective mute.  She has been with us since kindergarten.  There have been significant developments over the past 2 ½ years in that she will whisper to a select number of classmates and allow them to relay the message to the teacher.  She also uses limited gestures such as thumbs up/down and a wave but she has yet to speak directly to an adult.  With the arrival of an iPad 2 to school, the team felt it was an opportune time to make a big move. 

About 4 weeks ago, Susan and 3 of her friends were asked to plan a puppet play with the idea that I would video it using the iPad.  The girls were all very excited but our little selective mute told her mom that she wouldn’t have a speaking role because I would be there.  It was then decided that her mom would video the puppet show in hopes that she would participate more fully and speak.  Our plan worked and to our great pleasure, Susan agreed that her teacher and I could watch the taped show.  This was the first time Susan openly allowed an adult in the school to hear her voice.  A few days later I introduced the same group of girls to the app Puppet Pals.  They were all very excited, including Susan, who quietly giggled as we listened to the way the app distorted their voices.  I left the girls to it, and before long there were about 4 different puppet shows taped that Susan fully participated in.  They were all very excited for me to watch them.  This was a huge step!   Determined to capitalize on momentum, we have continued to explore ways to provide opportunities for Susan to speak through a variety of iPad apps.  We have been amazed at the successes! Susan has allowed classmates to video her reading a Reader’s Theatre and to share this with various adults in the building.  For the first time we are seeing Susan’s true personality, as she is quite the actress!  We have also been able to assess Susan by using the app ShowMe to have her tape herself reading a passage and answering comprehension question. 

I think the biggest and most significant step yet was taken using the app ITalk.  One Friday afternoon, as Susan and her best friend were leaving my classroom, I wished them both a happy weekend and thanked them for working with me.  I asked if they would like to wish the same to me, and they agreed.  Both girls spoke into the ipad, and then played it back for me.  I was thrilled to hear Susan use her words and her voice to communicate weekend wishes to me!  Since then, she has used the same app to ask the secretary for chalk and to say good-bye to our principal. 

Each step we have taken in the past 4 weeks, leads us to more and more ideas, and there are apps to support all of them.  Her parents plan to take the Ipad home in the near future to video Susan’s show and tell.  Our hope is that she will share this with her class.  I am hoping that in time we will be able to ask Susan questions about her weekend or a lesson being taught and that she will answer into an iPad or perhaps an iPod.  The possibilities are endless!

Susan’s parents and the staff at our school are over the moon!  And I believe Susan is too.  Thanks to the Ipad, for the first time she is able to verbally show us what she knows.  She is able to participate in social interactions appropriately.  I can see by the smile on her face how proud Susan is and I can only image how liberated she must feel. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tell Good Stories!

Even at the best of times – and this is far from the best of times for teaching and learning in British Columbia – we find it easier to notice the few bad apples than the orchard of beauty.  Our brains are wired to pay attention to bad stuff, to look for information about what will harm us.   This natural tendency is severely abused in this age of abundant (abundant to the point of pain) information.  Not only does the sheer volume of information from far-flung places fill us with enough doom and dread to last a lifetime, but it is magnified through media.  If you want someone to pay attention to your information in the midst of this abundance, the best way is through sharing horror, bad news, and nasty rumours.  No wonder that, given the daily onslaught of negative stories, we think we’re going to hell in a hand-basket.

But of course, the opposite is true.  Peter Diamandis, in his Ted Talk, Abundance is our Future, reminds us of some of the good stories over the past 100 years:

  • Average human lifespan: 2x increase
  • Average per-capita income: 3x increase
  • Child mortality: 10x decrease
  • Cost of food: 10x decrease
  • Cost of transportation: 100x decrease
  • Cost of communication: 1000x decrease

We could tell good stories in education, of course.  Instead we wring our hands and moan about how education is “broken.”  We forgot, as we focus on the bad apples and dark spots, how much education has improved in a short time.  Consider even two small (huge) examples.

When I was in school, children were sent to the office for the strap.  When I tell students today they are appalled. Someone HIT children, they say.  HIT them?  That it is unimaginable to them gives you an idea of the scope of improvement. Shaming children was routine when I was in school; it hasn’t disappeared and we have work to do, but it is no longer sanctioned.  We should not scorn this as a small difference.

When I was in school, a boy’s mother fought to have her son included in school.  It was a hard fight, but she won.  We couldn’t believe it when the boy – he had cerebral palsy – joined our classes.  Our ignorance was massive.  We had no understanding of his condition, had no experience of anyone with physical or mental differences.  You may be assured that we did what children do: we taunted and excluded the little boy.  When I tell students today this story, they are appalled: how could you, they ask.  Didn’t you know anything? Were you ignorant?  Yes.  We were.  Bullying continues.  The media shares these stories endlessly so we know that.  But it is no longer sanctioned. We should not scorn this as a small difference.

But teachers, I know, are dreamers (I am a dreamer):  we are not satisfied with such small (huge) changes.  We want our classrooms and schools alive with rich joyous continuous dance-in-the-streets meaningful learning; we want each child, rich or poor, brown or white, tall or tiny, strong or weak, ordinary (if there is such a thing) or extraordinary to belong, to learn beautifully, to be safe - and loved.

But ironically, our great dreams (I have great dreams) risk destroying that possibility.  We are like the child who, after years of hearing that they've done it wrong - again - declares, “I am stupid.  I can’t learn.”  The gap between our dreams and the reality discourages.  We lose faith in our institutions, our colleagues, our selves.  Schools are broken, we hear.  And we nod.  Schools kill creativity.  Yes, yes, we say.  Schools need to change.  Yes.  We bring people in from around the world (at great expense) to help us change.  We are not good enough.  We give up.  We bow our heads.  We close our doors.  And we blame whoever is handy for the failure we feel.

How can our community have faith in us when they hear negative story after negative story?  How can we believe in our capacity – through our continued collective action – to make our dreams come true for children when our only stories are of what is wrong, when the constant cry is – not good enough?

Let us tell good stories.  Negative stories sap our strength – literally.  But good stories make us stronger, more able to meet inevitable challenges.  And we have good stories!  They spill out of every school, every classroom; the halls ring with them.   We shouldn’t save our stories to tell at times of crisis.   Let's tell the good stories that have brought us, in a very short time, from a system that educated a privileged few to one that is striving toward universal education.  And let us shout our stories from the rooftops - or on blogs and Facebook and Twitter and in newspapers and forums; let us throw open the doors of our classrooms and schools to show us to the world.   Let us invite others to learn about us, to learn with us, to learn for us so our already extraordinary progress toward our great dream is accelerated.

Let’s each of us tell a good story a day.  Imagine the power.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Connect to Learn: It’s More than One Day

On Monday, 800 or so educators got together to learn.  We started the day with five extraordinary BC educational leaders who shared their insights for 20 minutes each (“ed talks”).  Kieran Egan, SFU professor and author began at the beginning – quite literally – with early man and our toolkits for making sense of the world.  Chris Kennedy, SD45 superintendent, shared his thinking about our latest tools from the digital world.  Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser, faculty members at VIU and co-leaders of the Network of Inquiry and Innovation asked us key questions for engagement and made us promise to ask them (my favourite:  ask your students if they can name two adults in your school who believe they will be a success in life – if they can’t, you have a simple strategy to quickly and effectively improve their learning).  Nanaimo’s own Gary Anaka, shared some key strategies for using the learner’s best tool:  the brain.  Participants then chose one of the four keynotes for an in-depth presentation on the topic.  After lunch, there was a selection of extraordinary sessions, most developed by our own teachers to share their passionate inquiry and thinking on teaching and learning on our focus themes (co-created at our Imagine day as ideas that matter to us) of technology, building community, teaching to diversity, strategies that work, inquiry, engagement and assessment for learning.  (See our Twitter archive of the conference.)

Notes on the morning keynotes by @drea_laj
The day went off without a hitch (well, no big hitches at any rate), because of the amazing, mostly invisible, behind-the-scenes efforts of the PD team.  Jan Thorsen, the PD committee and the NDTA office staff worked many long hours planning, organizing, setting up and trying to ensure that members’ needs for engaging and meaningful professional development were met.  At the venue, Ted, Joel, Linda and a team of student helpers worked tirelessly to ensure that the day went smoothly.  And it did!

And while I loved every minute of the presentations I attended (I wished I could have attended all of them!) and was very appreciative of the effective organization, the best part was simply seeing the space filled with passionate, curious, thoughtful, learningful colleagues and all the conversations I had between things.  Lately I’ve been thinking that the content of our PD is less important than the process.  These events rarely tell us something new.  The best events, surely, connect with, challenge, deepen, extend, add to the work we are already doing.  What’s best about them isn’t what we learn while we’re there, but the conversations sparked that continue after the conference and the connections inspired that stick to create new learning partnership.  After all, the learning that matters most happens when we dig in to apply the ideas, even when we’re busy, and try to add, refine, adjust, expand, extend our practice to serve our students.  That’s when the continuing conversations grounded in our common experience and the partnerships forged matter most – so we can keep at the hard work of deep learning long after our day together.

I am so grateful to the presenters who inspired our further learning, to the organizers who made the day happen and to the educators who continue to act daily to make a difference for our children.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Pondering the PD Flip

Last week I attended a conference sponsored by SFU’s Centre for the Study of Educational Leadership and Policy (CSELP).  The topic:  Targeting technology for maximum student benefit.  Three educational leaders – Chris Kennedy, Brian Kuhn and Kris Magnusson - shared their ideas about how “learning empowered by technology” (a key driver of the BC Education Plan) can best be achieved.  What technology should be given priority?  How should limited funding be used?

They agreed that they wouldn’t even talk about what was obvious:  the essential infrastructure of a robust network (so we can access the technology), technical support (so the technology works) and professional learning (so we know how to use the technology).

Many districts (certainly my own) are struggling to get this “obvious” piece in place.  Part of the problem is related to what Kris Magnusson noted:  “Our most pressing need is not a technology shift, but a culture shift.”  We can’t see outside of how things have always been done.  Consider this conference.  We all sat crammed into a room craning our necks to see to the front of the room where the three speakers delivered their message and we diligently wrote notes – or felt very “21st century-ish” and tweeted our thoughts for all the world rather than just whispering them to our neighbours.  (You can peruse these 140 character ruminations – all 850 of them. As a teacher, you would wonder, of course, were the students paying attention as they tweeted so prolifically?)

During the final panel discussion at the end of a long day of sitting and listening, we sat and listened to the three speakers have a conversation with each other, sparked by questions from moderator Bruce Beairsto.  Chris Kennedy dropped a hard question into the discussion – how could we have done this day differently?  Would it have been better if we had “flipped” the conference so that the presentations were pre-recorded and attendees could view them prior to attending, so we could use the face-to-face time to build on the ideas?

There was a pause in the panel discussion and a small buzz of conversation from the rather languid audience who had begun to catch up on emails.  No, said, Kris Magnusson.  People would have been too busy, too interrupted, if left on their own, to focus on the presentations.  (Of course, this is a doubly important reason why flipped classrooms won’t work, but we continue to tout them as revolutionary.  Read Ira Socol’s argument for rejecting the flip.)  What’s more, someone said, perhaps Brian, the conversations wouldn’t work without some relationship and a context for working together.  And then the panel changed directions.

I wish they’d continued on this point.  The point, I think, is this:  unless we can figure out how to learn differently, how can we frame different learning in classrooms?  How can we use technology to transform education, if, as educational leaders, we can only imagine using it to do what we’ve always done? Part of our reluctance to reimagine professional development might be related to another point that Chris Kennedy made:  many teachers become teachers (and professors become professors and especially speakers become speakers) because they like to be “on the stage,” and in control of the message. He suggested that if people knew ahead of time that they would merely be a “guide on the side,” they might not have become teachers at all.   Here, of course, is the culture shift.  What I learned from making this shift in my own teaching practice is that being a guide is often a little, well, boring.   I became a fetcher, a finder, a sometimes facilitator, an observer, a noticer, a connector.  My role became increasingly passive as the student’s role became increasingly active. As a professional development leader, I’m learning the same lesson – and it’s just as hard.
(And I’m just as slow at learning it.)

And so I thought further about how we could have done the day better.  Consider this:  we don’t travel at great expense (including the time expense) to meet in one place.  Instead the event could be a live webcast.  The twitter backchannel would allow us to have input and connect with other districts and, better, we could set up a moderated twitter chat at the end of each speech - a question generated from the talk could be posed for everyone to collect, gather and tweet our thoughts and add further questions.  Then at our separate venues we could engage in meaningful focused contextualized conversations about what we heard to consider how we might use the information to grow our own plans.  As it was, although we had a team of people attending, it was almost impossible to hear each other in the din of conversations between speakers, and our table included people from other districts and from SFU, so the conversation was necessarily general.  It isn’t that it’s a bad thing to have this general discourse; it’s that we have to learn so much so quickly that the thrust of the day needed to be how we can use these ideas for our own forward movement. We needed, in a word, to personalize the experience.  We have the technology to find creative ways to make this possible.  All we have to do now is to understand that it is the right next step for learning together.

But that next step is only possible if we consider the other barrier to flipped PD mentioned by the panel:  relationships are necessary for meaningful conversations.  This is not just a barrier in multi-district events, but in our own district and even our schools. As Roland Barth says, “although conversations have the capacity to promote reflection, to create and exchange craft knowledge, and to help improve the organization, schools deal more in meetings - in talking at and being talked at.”  This method is, of course, very efficient and sensible if you already have the solution, If you are just delivering information, if there is no ambiguity or questions or broader possibilities, if you are not seeking something new, but just want to roll out the old way of doing things.  Conversations demand a culture shift and are intregral to that shift.  To reimagine education, to use technology to do what we’ve never done before, we need to figure out how to have messy, uncomfortable conversations that acknowledge that no one of us has the answer, that value our diversity, and honour each contribution to build new understandings, rather than simply vying for our favourite “right way” that everyone has to “buy into.”  And another hard part (I’m learning a lot about this) is learning how to self-organize, to design our own learning, to create experiences that matter to us and support our next learning steps.  When you try to set up classrooms for students to be active participants, they’ll often say – can’t you just tell us what to do and give us a worksheet?  As adults, we, too, wish to wait for someone to organize the learning, give us the handouts and binders – although we’ll complain later, of course, that it didn’t meet our needs.

We live in exciting times.  But if we are going to target technology for maximum student benefit, our first job will be to learn how to learn together in new ways.  After a day listening to educational leaders (and I’m not complaining about the day, only pondering; it was thought-provoking and invited hard questions and open discussions rather than “the way” to “do” technology in schools), one thing, though, is crystal clear:  there is a lot to learn.

Chris Kennedy’s slides and notes
Brian Kuhn’s slides

image from Marc Wathieu’s photostream