Friday, October 7, 2011

Flip and Blend Your Classroom

I've written about the benefits of the blended learning and flipped classroom here before (and cross posted over at VFLR), but I think this article does a great job of describing its origins and benefits. Flip teaching is, in my mind, an important piece of figuring out the Blended Learning puzzle and is quickly becoming part of mainstream educational practice. While flip teaching, and blended learning for that matter, could be dismissed as a fad, I would argue that technology has made this shift in teaching possible. If "fad" equals "new" then it's true. Flipping our classrooms wouldn't be possible without computers, screencasting software, Moodle, and a reliable network. At some point in time the tools we use to teach with were new and yet now books, paper, chalkboards/whiteboards, projectors, computers, etc. are all part of the everyday practice for many of us. Is flipping now possible because technology finally caught up to what we needed all along?

But despite it being new on the educational scene, it comes from a place of genuine commitment to teaching and learning. I think it will help us reclaim that part of teaching that gets lost in increased class size and shrinking chunks of time to meet with students outside of class. What would change if we could tap each of our students on the shoulder every day to ask how their learning is going? What would that look like?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Teachers Learning Together

I am sitting at a corner table, sipping my coffee, trying to catch up on email while I wait for the Apple store to open at the mall.

First one and then another arrives, laptop in hand, heading to the back banquette of the Panera.  This is obviously where they regularly hang out.  They greet one another eagerly, then immediately get to work.  There is lots of laughter as they share ideas, tips, opinions.  One of them reaches eagerly across several others to point at a screen.  Another says, "Hey, look what I found."

I can't help myself, so I ask them, "You are teachers, aren't you?"

"How'd you know?" the one on the end asks.

"Who else would be gathering together to provide support for one another as they learn Web 2.0 tools?" I  could say.   But I am more impressed by their spirit of collaboration, their willingness to take risks and help each other out with such collegiality, their eagerness to learn.  It is exciting to eavesdrop on their learning process.

"Which school?" I ask.  "I'm a teacher too."

"Spring Branch," one informs me.

I ask to take their picture for my blog, and they blush and say sure, but they aren't experts at this or anything.  They're still learning.

"Keep at it" I tell them as I pack up.  I know the Apple store is probably packed by now, and I have to go. "Good luck with everything."

Months later, I stumble on their picture in my files.  They are two weeks into the beginning of the school year now.  Maybe they've been implementing something of what they learned by sharing with one another over the summer.  Maybe they email one another for help; maybe they still meet on Saturdays at the Panera.  I hope so.

I hope they are doing what it takes to keep their community of sharing and learning going.  I hope they are adding to this nascent personal learning network by meeting other teachers online and sharing their learning process in blogs.  (See Renee Hawkins's earlier blog on "The Connected Teacher.")

I also hope they can reflect on their collective learning experience and understand how they can bring that experience into their classrooms.  Do their students come into their classrooms eagerly sharing what they are learning? Are their students gathering in a comfortable space, teaching each other,  exploring new tools and resources? Are their students learning how to network and learn and share and network and learn and share...?

I hope so.  "Good luck. Keep at it," I whisper across the Internet with this blog.  I'm sorry I was so much in a hurry that I didn't get your names.  I am sorry we didn't share and connect so that our learning could continue.  "I'll look for you at Panera," I'm thinking.

PS.  I tried to find a good definition of a PLN because I wasn't satisfied with the one on Wikipedia, which I link to above.  Any suggestions?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Blended Learning Helps Us Mind the Gaps

Over the last several years I’ve been exploring online and blended learning options for my school. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when I received a call from the Head of our Middle School asking if I’d like to be a learning coach for five Eighth Grade girls who had asked to accelerate their math curriculum by taking an online geometry class.

“What year is it?” I asked, attempting to do a little quick mental math to determine when I had last thought about geometry, 1972 or 1973? He thought I was joking, but I was dead serious. It was approaching four decades since I had picked up a protractor.

I knew right away what I’d do to review the material: I turned to Khan Academy, found my way to the geometry section, and dug in. I’m making progress and learning how Khan Academy works. More importantly, I’m enjoying it.

Let me state for the record, I like Khan Academy. Specifically, I like the principle behind it: students can move at their own pace and practice until they understand the concept. In other words, students can own their learning. They need to know how to learn and how to manage their learning. In possessing this valuable skill, our students will hold the keys to the kingdom.

At the opening keynote for International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in Philadelphia, John Medina, author of Brain Rules, described how our brains are wired completely differently from one another. He equates our brains to our system of highways and roads. While we all have the same interstate highways in common, it’s the system of local roads and alleyways that are vastly different. In other words, no two brains are alike and as a result, no two brains learn alike.

Our current system is founded on a series of expectations that certain learning goals should be achieved by a certain age. Yet there is no reason to suspect that the brain pays attention to those expectations. Students of the same age show a great deal of intellectual variability (Medina 67).

This has huge ramifications for our classrooms, which are prone to move students along based on a schedule determined by the calendar rather than concept mastery. We all know students who advance to the next unit, the next concept, the next skill set, without having mastered the material. Both Medina and Khan would argue that these students have “gaps” in their knowledge. These gaps accumulate until the content overwhelms the student. The teacher, not knowing where the gaps are and feeling pressure to continue to move the rest of the class forward, is equally frustrated. Medina argues that “Lockstep models based simply on age are guaranteed to create a counterproductive mismatch to brain biology” (Medina 67).

At this year’s National Association for Independent Schools (NAIS) Conference, Sal Khan demonstrated how the Khan Academy Dashboard could be used in a classroom with students demonstrating a range of math abilities. Using data from the Los Altos School District in California, part of a KA pilot program, Khan pointed out how one student struggled with a concept. We saw how his peers mastered concepts and moved ahead. We also saw when it finally “clicked” and he took off like a rocket, quickly catching up and then surpassing many of his classmates. Every single person in the audience that day understood the ramifications of that example. Do we relegate our students to an underachieving status because they don’t progress at the same pace as their higher achieving peers? How many academic stars do we lose because they don’t progress at the rate considered necessary by unit and test calendars?

I’m a proponent of a blended or hybrid learning model for instruction. This approach “blends” online resources like Khan Academy with face-to-face interaction between the students and the teacher. A strong relationship between a teacher and her students is absolutely critical to student success as it allows teachers to differentiate, or focus, on the specific learning needs of individual students. This too has a foundation in Medina’s brain research, which shows that when we combine learning software with classroom interaction and hands-on application, we see the best outcomes (Medina 68). It is also supported by the study I cited in my last blog comparing online, blended, and face-to-face instruction. Use the technology to guarantee concepts are mastered; use the classroom time to expand learning with challenging, real world problem solving.

In the end, Khan Academy only works if teachers and students use it. Students at my school are using Khan Academy for their summer math review. Our Math Department Chair had her doubts early on, but has since come round, noticing that students “have spent hours on it over the summer,” and “the more time doing math, the better!” The few students I’ve heard from like Khan Academy as part of their summer review. As one student remarked to her mother, "it’s better than the big, scary math packet" students are typically asked to complete over the summer months. Moreover, Khan Academy gives teachers a “starting point” for preparing a personalized curriculum for students from the very first day of school. Now, that’s “knowing your students.”

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Blogging "Naked," Or How Does Being Transparent and Digital Change Our Relationships with Just About Everyone?

One of the greatest challenges -- and temptations -- to blogging and other social media is being transparent, exposing our naked thoughts to the world. Yet this is also part of blogging's power. How does being transparent, honest, "naked" metaphorically speaking, affect our relationships with colleagues, bosses, students, others? Can we really be as honest as we want to be? Do we want to be? If we "learn out loud" with our tweets and posts, how does exposing our foibles and mistakes, passions and persnicketiness, change us and our connections to others?

On Saturday, at the great ad hoc think tank for educators, Edubloggercon 2011, I wrestled with these questions with a few bloggers and tweeters, novice and experienced, from the education world. This blog is my thinking based on those conversations.

So, what is being transparent? Being open and honest. Sharing freely about our mistakes and reflecting deeply. Asking the hard questions about ourselves and what we do. Letting others see how learning gets messy. Showing accountability, perhaps, by documenting a process. Giving voice to thoughts that might make others uncomfortable.

Taking risks.

Why do this? Because being transparent means being a straight shooter, having honest and open conversations with others, not hiding stuff. It also means being honest with yourself -- and learning by being unafraid to examine your experience for what it can teach you. These are characteristics I believe in aspiring to as much as I believe in breathing. Being transparent implies the integrity of the examined life, the confidence to learn openly, fearlessly.

Because transparency fundamentally changes your relationships with others by assuming that all the game-playing, posturing, and secrets are dissolved, and because doing this digitally makes you accountable to a whole host of people -- your entire online readership potentially, including your mother, your spouse, your boss, your former English teacher, your neighbors, and the students at the elementary school down the street -- the people who should be modeling this new way of conversing and learning, educators, are downright terrified.

They fear being exposed as poor writers and shabby thinkers. (If they have taken their own educations seriously, how can this be?) They fear that they don't really have something to contribute to the conversation. (At a time when it is absolutely critical that their voices be heard.) They fear having their ideas squashed, ridiculed, rejected. (When they need to muster the courage necessary to make a difference.). They fear pushback, being held accountable for their ideas. (When they need to be models of both for their students.) They fear losing their livelihoods (While they risk becoming obsolete.)

Yet, to be fair, how can teachers risk being transparent if they fear justly or not that they will lose their jobs? How can teachers model "learning out loud" for their students and colleagues if they are afraid to speak? When will the frankness, the fascinating mutability of the thought process, the vulnerability of sharing the creakiness of learning inherent in blogging and other social media conversations be understood and embraced and valued by those with whom we work and struggle and grow? When can we start having honest, real conversations about what matters?

Thank you to Scott McLeod, Larry Kahn, Lisa Thumann, Leigh Zeitz, Bethany Smith, and others for the great discussion at EBC11. If I have left your name out, please comment so I can thank you properly here.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

The Necessity and Promise of Online Learning

The New York Times recently published an article that painted a dismal picture of online learning. “More Pupils Are Learning Online, Fueling Debate on Quality” got me thinking just how huge a disruption online learning has become. The article, unfortunately, does little to further the discussion.

I’m not writing in defense of the critics or the states that support virtual schooling. Frankly, I found both their arguments as presented in the Times article to be unhelpful. Both sides ignore the fundamental challenges that schools, both public and private, are facing.

From solving teacher shortages to expanding curriculum options to providing options for credit recovery to alleviating scheduling conflicts, I believe (as I’ve seen in my own school) that a well-designed and well-taught online course can meet the needs of our students. But poor quality online curriculum, inadequately prepared teachers, and students without the requisite skills for success will ultimately fail to improve education.

Online learning is an international phenomenon
I’ll start by saying that the United States is not alone in facing these challenges. Countries around the world are investing the necessary capital, resources, and training into the development and evaluation of their online learning environments. One major factor is that, currently, there are more students in the world than teachers to teach them or schools to teach them in.

At the 2009 Virtual School Symposium (VSS) Susan Patrick, President of iNACOL, the International Association for K-12 Online Learning, shared a snapshot of what other countries are doing with distance learning:

  • British Columbia, Canada is providing online learning opportunities to rural students.

  • IB Diploma Programme Online has created an online version of their international program.

  • Turkey now has 15 million K-12 students learning online.

  • South Korea has started a national virtual school.

  • The Middle East has begun contracting online content worldwide so their students can have access to the best online courses.

  • India launched a program to scale up high quality K-12 online education in 10 years.

  • Australia is taking advantage of their 1:1 laptop initiative and looking to scale-up distance education.

  • China already has its entire curriculum online and is now in the process of training master teachers to teach online with a 10-year goal to have 100 million K-12 students learning online.

  • Singapore has 100% of all secondary schools offering a blended (virtual plus face-to-face) and online learning curriculum – and all teachers are trained to teach in this manner.
Singapore schedules a yearly e-learning week where they close buildings and school is taught online. I believe e-learning week now extends to higher education as well. In addition, Singapore has a clear continuity-of-learning plan in the event of outbreaks of disease or other situations that would keep students from their “brick and mortar” schools.

As online enrollments increase here in the states, more public and private schools are examining the advantages of making courses available to their students. My independent school began to offer online learning two years ago to create flexibility in our schedule, to enhance our course offerings, and to provide remediation or acceleration when called for. When one of our students signs up for an online class, they must have an e-learning mentor, a teacher who is there to provide face-to-face support, if needed, and to evaluate the course and the student’s experience. How involved the mentor is depends on the student and the course.

Online or offline, the same skills lead to student success

What most of us in education understand is that the skills necessary to be a successful online student are the same skills that will serve our students well into adulthood. Successful students are self-directed, self-motivated, and self-assessing. They are equipped with these skills because a great teacher taught them how and gave them ample opportunities to practice. It is a myth that any student can just sit at a computer and learn, even with the best online curriculum. Given how fast online learning in growing in higher ed, I think of the opportunities for online learning in high school as “college prep.”

As for the effectiveness of online learning, the US Department of Education conducted a literature review of 51 online learning studies in 2009. The study compared both fully online programs and programs blended with traditional face-to-face instruction. The meta-analysis found that “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction” (US DOE, 2009, p. ix). The study goes further, adding, “Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.” (Although I’m not addressing blended learning specifically here, I agree that anecdotal evidence of successful outcomes points decidedly in the direction of a blended approach.)

This literature review is one-of-a-kind. It was prepared for USDOE by SRI International’s Center for Technology in Learning (CTL), which also consults with education technology companies. However credible it may be, it is the one study, the only study, that everyone cites to prove the validity of online learning. But, as the report’s authors themselves note:

“An unexpected finding was the small number of rigorous published studies contrasting online and face-to-face learning conditions for K–12 students. In light of this small corpus, caution is required in generalizing to the K–12 population because the results are derived for the most part from studies in other settings (e.g., medical training, higher education).” Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning (ix)

Clearly, more research is urgently needed as the shift toward online learning in K-12 schools accelerates.

What we really need is a serious, national discussion on how we can best educate our children – one that acknowledges that everything has changed: from students and the variety of ways they learn to the multitude of tools they use to interact with the world.

The rows of desks, teacher lectures, and passive learning won’t lift us into the future. I don’t know about you, but I’m bringing everything I’ve got to the 21st century classroom. That includes online learning when and where appropriate.

This blog is cross posted at Voices From the Learning Revolution and the Washington Post, The Answer Sheet.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Are You Google-Ready?

A few days ago I had a passing conversation with one of our seniors about a teaching candidate who had visited our school. 

“She went to Wellesley, “ the student said, obviously impressed. She had recently been accepted at Mt. Holyoke, so she knew this was a big deal.

“How do you know that?” I asked.

“I googled her and found her Linked-in page,” she said.

I was briefly stunned by this encounter.  In the immediate moment, I felt pride.  Not only did my student care enough about the candidates we interviewed and might ultimately hire for our school that she put forth the effort to check their digital references, so to speak., but she also knew how to do this – googling someone you want to learn more about had become second nature to her.  I knew my students were aware of the impact of being googled, of having a positive digital footprint,  from their work on their own culminating senor projects, but now they were seamlessly transferring this knowledge to their own concerns.

            The implications here are enormous. 

            Not too many years ago, I remember searching for information online (I’m not sure we called it googling then) about candidates for the position of headmaster/headmistress at the school where I then taught.  I shared the information I found from a simple search with my colleagues via email and was promptly told by a supervisor to stop disseminating such information via the school email network.  The message was that it was okay for individuals to google candidates privately on their own, but spreading the word was not acceptable or encouraged. 

            A shift has occurred since then.  Now we expect to google others to find out their digital pedigrees.  We might be remiss if we do not do so.  We hope to find a strong digital presence that can give us more information about who we might work with, learn from, interact with personally. We are aware, as well, that we might be googled by future employers, or the schools we might attend might check out our Facebook pages.

            If we don’t find anything, what does that tell us?  If others don’t discover our online personae, is that necessarily a good thing? Have the rules changed enough that we can openly share our credentials and work in a transparent way, and not have to worry about hiding one thing or another from the people we might ultimately collaborate with?

            Are you ready, then, to be googled by your students?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Making the Shift: How we learned we could learn from each other

My school recently celebrated its Centennial. The 2010 school year was a commemoration of 100 years of growth and dedication to developing the minds and spirit of young women. Among other events that took place was the customary filling of the Time Capsule, of which yours truly was placed in charge. I sent out notices requesting contributions with a reminder that the Time Capsule would not be opened until 2035! I requested “artifacts” that represented our school, our city, our country, or our world as we experienced it in 2010.

Among the many artifacts I received for the Time Capsule were several iPods, signed uniform kilts and jumpers, and favorite books and year-end magazines. The one item that gave me pause, however, was the stapled packet of fill-in-the-blank worksheets.

Of all the items I placed in Ziplock bags, I couldn’t stop thinking about the worksheets and wondered what the reaction would be when they were pulled from the time capsule 25 years from now. Would our alumnae remark, “Gosh! This looks exactly like what my daughter is using!” or, “Remember when we used these?

It’s true that we need to implement big changes and these changes are unsettling. To complicate matters, teaching is such a solitary profession. We go into our rooms and come out for coffee and lunch. We chat in the faculty room, mainly about students or our lives, but seldom about our practice. I struggled to understand it and to find ways overcome our isolation.

And like most big problems in need of a solution, it came to me by complete accident.

I work at a Moodle school. Moodle is our Learning Management System and we needed it to do four things: we wanted to use it to document our curriculum in a transparent way for all members of our community to access; we wanted to use Moodle to create blended learning options as a way to alleviate some scheduling conflicts; we wanted a platform for continuity of learning should we need it; and finally, we wanted to give our students 24/7 access to resources and content.

The only way to accomplish these things was for every teacher, from the 3-Day Three’s to Twelfth Grade, to attend a workshop. And not just any workshop. No. This would be the mother of all workshops: three days packed with 15 hours of learning opportunities!

We offered the workshop in June and again in August to ensure as many faculty as possible could participate. It was a blend of “keynotes” on blended learning, assessments, and curriculum documentation, workshops on Moodle for beginners and advanced users, and hands-on learning with Twitter, backchanneling, podcasting, VoiceThread, creating and embedding videos, screencasting, Diigo social bookmarking, wiki’s, blogging, and creating quizzes with HotPotato. Moodle, we said, was our “portal to learning.” We would use Moodle to direct our students to resources and activities outside of our classroom.

Any do you know who taught these workshops? We did. We taught ourselves. Our First Grade teacher and Eleventh Grade English teacher led a session on blogging and writing, a math and history teacher led the advanced Moodle workshop. Teachers from our Lower, Middle and Upper schools worked to created discipline-specific Essential Questions and discussed opportunities for new forms of assessment.

What I learned during those three days is this: I am surrounded by experts. Need help with backchanneling? Go see the Latin teacher. Want to embed video? Call the Middle School History teacher. If you want to design the prettiest, most content rich blog your students have ever seen, make an appointment to see the First Grade teacher. We learned that we all have something to share and we welcomed opportunities to learn from one another. This was the happy accident. We like learning, and we like learning from one another.

Once we started learning how to use the tools, we began to discuss why we should use them. When the chair of the History Department started blogging with her students, she wanted them to not only write well, but also to connect with experts, and she shared this outcome with members of her department. When our Fifth Grade teacher chose to use VoiceThread, she did so because she believed it would be more engaging and the feedback more meaningful than the traditional “stand and deliver” method. She was right. She told students to respond to 3 classmates in the VoiceThread project, but every student responded to every one of her classmates. Once she explained why she thought it worked better than the “old way,” other teachers were willing to try it themselves.

I am a believer in the power of professional sharing. I’ve experienced it first-hand. It is both empowering and satisfying to teach a skill, share a best practice, and learn something from someone with whom you thought you had nothing in common. And I always circle back to this question: If it works so well for us, and makes us feel so good, imagine what it would mean for our students. Shouldn’t our students have opportunities to teach and learn from one another; to develop and share their expertise?

I’m less concerned about those worksheets now. They are fast becoming just what I called them: artifacts. They’ll stay hidden away for 25 years and when removed those alumnae will role their eyes and laugh. “Remember when we had to use these?”

Remember when, indeed.

This blog is cross posted at Voices from the Learning Revolution.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Gearing Up For The Big Game

It’s Superbowl Sunday and my husband is gearing up for the Big Game. It’s only 9:00 am but he has prepared the menu (enchiladas) and is online reading about the game. He pours over the Sports Illustrated website, along with ESPN’s and the NFL’s. He doesn’t subscribe to blogs or tweet about his love of football.

It makes me a little crazy to tell you the truth.

Why would he not want to go deeper, read more, join a conversation, and share his many opinions on the qualifications of the coaches, the officials, and the players with someone other than me? Seriously. It’s hard to fathom.

Case in point. I shared the following tweet with him:

Translated: To use the night to watch a sport I do not understand, with players I do not know who is. So that I can brag about it on Tuesday.

He didn’t think it was funny. I couldn’t stop wiping the tears from my eyes.

Having a good laugh is only part of the reason I shared it with him. This tiny little exchange is an example of a door that was once shut tight now thrown wide open. I am able to laugh at a joke from a young man from Oslo, Norway because I happened to find him in a Twitter post. I found him in Twitter because people from around the world are pointing their thoughts to one place: #superbowl. I am able to translate Norwegian into English thanks to Google Translate. And I am able to share it with you because of this blog. In itself, it isn’t very significant, but the potential is great. Behold: the power of the network!

I’m the first to admit that I’m new to this. Little by little, I’m becoming more confident using these new tools to connect with other teachers and like-minded individuals around the world. As a child I knew instinctively that reading was powerful, that mastering those skills would be empowering. I feel the same way about the tools I use to connect to my personal learning network.

My network feeds my professional soul. First, I follow smart people. I remind my students that I too, stand on the shoulders of giants. Whether through blogs, tweets, or TED Talks, I learn from the finest thinkers in and out of my field.

Second, I seek out master teachers in all disciplines. Thanks to my participating in the Powerful Learning Practice community, I was able to connect (literally) via Elluminate with Silvia Tolisano (@langwitches), who shared the documents she uses to help her elementary teachers to “21st centur-ize” their curriculum. Bill Ferriter, (@plugusin), a 6th Grade social studies teacher, shared examples of student learning that facilitates social change. Dolores Gende, (@dgende), an AP Physics teacher, who so engages her students in their own learning, they speak of having a “passion” for science. These are my teachers too. The examples they so willing share help guide and improve my own practice.

Third, I need help. That’s the substance of tweets I send out to the world. I’ve asked for help to learn more about Microsoft’s Kodu programming application for young students and the qualities of a 21st Century Technology Coordinator. Recently an acquaintance that works for Facebook wanted to know if teachers were using Facebook in their classroom. I went straight to Twitter. Later, I asked for feedback “to gauge the reach and effectiveness of my network.” She replied,

“I think that it was really useful, especially once I picked up on the #edchat and #edtech conversations. Got some great stuff culling through those, some of which I was able to use yesterday and some of which I'm sure I'll have occasion to use in the future.”

Fourth, my network extends the reach of my students. I can use the relationships built through Twitter, blogs, and Ning discussions to find readers and commenters for my students’ work. Because my reach is global, so is that of my students. Are you a teacher looking for collaborators for a VoiceThread project? Would you like to give your students the British perspective on the American Revolution? Have your students gain a global perspective on something in the news (#Egypt, #Tahrir) or the President’s State of the Union address (#sotu). Twitter can help make it all happen, often by employing a powerful tool first put forth by Twitter users themselves: the hashtag.

How about helping your students build a readership for their blogs? Send out a tweet using #comments4kids and ask the members of your network to help you spread the word. It may take a while and require some persistence at first, but it’s worth it in the end. Once your students have a real audience they are no longer students, they are writers. I get excited when I discover another red dot on the Cluster Map in my blog. Can you imagine how motivating it is for a Fifth Grader?

Making the effort to grow and cultivate a personal learning network is essential to today’s teacher. It should be part of our professional toolkit and viewed as important as face-to-face, bricks and mortar, professional development opportunities, maybe even more so. As I thought about this, I sent out the following tweet:

Here are some of my favorite answers:

We model so much for our students, why not the building and use of a personal learning network? Why not demonstrate the learning power embedded in a connected world? Why not demonstrate the learning power embedded in a connected world?

This blog is cross-posted at Voices From The Learning Revolution.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

How Did I Get Here?

I used to be a perfectly ordinary English teacher, someone who highlighted her books, typed up tests on mimeos, and left her classroom now and then to get coffee in the faculty room. So, how did I get here?

One day in the late 1990s, I asked my students to submit their homework on Jane Eyre to me via email.  I was overwhelmed by the response.  First, I had twenty-some emails to process – how was I going to manage all that?  Next, I couldn’t believe how good their thinking had become overnight.

Sometime around Y2K, my friend and colleague Renee Hawkins gave me a “Website-a-Day” calendar for Christmas.  I had to admit some of the websites that were popping up were really cool.

I took an online course on teaching critical thinking at Goucher College.  Amazed, I had to figure out how to be a different kind of student.  I took another course about creating basic web pages for my courses.  Before I knew what was what, I was participating in discussion forums and designing online courses and had a certificate in “Educational Technology Leadership.”

One spring day, one of my former students, Emily Brecht, came back to visit from college.  She said she had been spending all of her time commenting on other people’s “status” on this new thing online called Friendster.  “Why would anyone want to do that?” I asked her.

Spoiled from having used online course platforms for my own learning, I looked for a way to bring the excitement of learning online to my classes.  My school had blocked my website, so I needed some way around their obsessive controls.  We couldn’t afford something like Blackboard, and there was no way I could convince them to include this free new tool called Moodle on our school server, so I began to look for another way.  I found something called Internet Classroom Assistant (ICA) and began using it for my 10th grade English class: the discussions that spilled over into class after discussing online made my earlier email revelation look like small talk. 

One summer, I had a conversation with my step-daughter, who was interested in pursuing writing professionally.  I suggested a writing workshop like the MFA program I had attended, so she could have readers who could provide feedback.  “I have lots of readers online,” she said, “what do I need to take a workshop for?”

I transferred to a new school and tried out the ICA there.  Then I had to shut down the class because my freshmen were getting carried away with political trash talk during the Bush-Kerry campaign.  My students responded by creating their own ICA class so they could talk all they wanted to without any teachers or other adults breathing down their necks.

I moved and started teaching at a school in the middle-of-nowhere Texas.  I also became an administrator, so the other teachers didn’t want to talk to me about teaching any more. I missed my friends and former colleagues terribly.  I started blogging to the void, pretending that I was modeling ways of thinking about teaching for the teachers who wouldn’t talk to me. I joined networks of teachers on Classroom 2.0 and Independent School Educators Network.  When someone I didn’t know responded to an idea I shared in a discussion forum, I got really excited. I really did have someone to talk to about teaching, and especially how my teaching was changing radically as I was influenced by all these new ways of communicating.  I couldn’t believe my luck – my colleagues were now – could this really be? – from all over the world.

I started a new blog, “The Flying Trapeze,” with my friend, Renee Hawkins.  This was a lot better than blogging to the void – at least we had each other.  I overcame my jitters and tried Twitter, though it still seemed a little silly.  I created a Facebook group for my students; I posted pictures to flickr and had one chosen for an online travel guide; I kicked around with blonde hair and a guitar in Second Life.  I got brave enough to lead a discussion at EduBloggerCon at the ISTE conference in Denver (2010), and suddenly I was being followed by smart people like WhatEdSaid on Twitter.  Renee and I started accumulating dots on our blog’s Clustrmap. I began having the richest conversations of my professional life by participating in a year-long investigation of best teaching practices with a band of amazing, inquisitive teachers through a group called Powerful Learning Practice.

I have found myself in the midst of an acronym, what people now refer to as a personal/professional learning network, a PLN, and my life as a teacher and learner has been utterly transformed.