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.