Friday, May 18, 2012

Closing Remarks to My Chinquapin Students

This week I wrote my final "closing remarks" as Academic Dean at the Academic and Athletic Awards Ceremony for Chinquapin Preparatory School.  Here is a copy of what I shared with the students, faculty, administration, and parents in the audience.

If you have never had a chance to see the theatrical troupe The Reduced Shakespeare Company, I suggest you check them out on YouTube.  I’m going to borrow their strategy, which involves squeezing the Complete Works of William Shakespeare into 20 minutes and Hamlet into about four. [Okay, so I exaggerated a bit here.] I won’t be nearly as amusing as they are, but I hope to be at least as brief, as I share with you, the last time I may speak this way to most of you., a sort of reduced poem of my many exhortations to Chinquapin’s students over the past seven years, encouraging them, you, towards academic excellence.

Here goes.

Read the newspaper. Every day.
Do you have a planner?
You know, it’s okay to fail. It’s the only way you learn.
What made you think that was a good idea?
Read what you enjoy, but read. Every day.
Get enough sleep.
What’s the worst thing that can happen?
Dream big.
So, where’s your planner?
Let’s try that request again, only this time a little more politely.
Make your writing like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
Don’t make your writing like jello with icky fruit cocktail.
Write like you mean it.
Write like it matters.
Does anybody here use a planner?
Get enough sleep, eat protein for breakfast.
Do you know what pulling an all-nighter does to your body?
It’s like you’re taking that test drunk.
Come to the game ready to play.
Everybody back to work, now.
You can do this.
I know you can do this.
Why don’t you believe you can do this?
If I can do this, you can do this.
Find your passion and go for it.
Get enough sleep, eat breakfast, do what you can to create a culture of kindness.
Don’t settle for less than excellence.
Don’t settle for being mediocre.
Don’t settle for anything less than your best effort.
Don’t settle.
Do you know who your real competition is?
Really? Do you know who your real competition is?
Why not start living your life today?
Why not start pursuing your passions today?
Why not start working towards your dreams today?
Why not?
What are you waiting for?
Would you like a planner?

Monday, January 16, 2012

2 by 4: Why We Need Administrators to Embrace Connected, Transparent Learning

In this first of our new series of “2 by 4s” we share our views on a question or concern that is uppermost in our minds.  We are not unaware that our metaphor has the connotation of hitting someone over the head.  While we do not want to whack at our readers with our hard-hitting statements, we do hope that the directness of our dialogue can express the urgency of our concerns.  At the same time, the two-by-four provides the basic underpinnings for building new structures.  We hope that our dialogue here can do the same.

At the moment, we are thinking about the vital role administrators play in directing the changes that must be addressed in education. More and more, we have witnessed the critical need for Administrators to dive in and immerse themselves in the ways learning is now being experienced by our students.  Yet, these leaders because of their busy schedules and the multitudinous pressures of directing a school, administrators often are the last to join the conversation about the future of learning, the last to receive the professional development hoisted upon their faculties with varying degrees of success, and the last to step into their charges’ shoes (faculty and students alike) and to feel the earth shifting under their feet. So we ask ourselves, “Why is it absolutely critical for administrators to experience the shifts in learning and education?”

(See Shabbi Luthra’s “2011-2020 -- Trends and Forces of Change” for current thinking on cultural shifts.)

1. On Immersion in New Ways of Learning

Susan: So many of us in education are here because we were first successful as students in the 20th-century version of school.  Experiencing the shift, say, of taking a good online course can alter one’s entire perspective of what school is and can be?  

I was always the alpha student in class, yet when I took my first online course I felt my relationships with the teacher and fellow students knocked sideways -- as if the “classroom” had been turned upside-down and shaken like a snow globe.   No longer could I wave my hand and perform for the teacher’s praise.  I had to think more, share more, interact with my peers more.  With the right kind of guidance and structured learning provided by the teacher, I felt as if we were powerful forces building something together. My orientation toward learning has been different ever since: As a connected learner, I am more reflective, more knowledgeable, and more excited about learning in collaboration with others.

At good schools around the world teachers at all levels are at least exposed to professional development in 21st-century learning skills and environments. Yet I have met too few administrators who know this experience first-hand and who can thus can translate it into a deeper understanding of the changes happening in and around their schools.  We are neglecting their learning at a time when they so urgently need to communicate the power of learning in new ways to their various constituencies.

Renee: Until administrators experience the power of this shift in education, to experience first hand how it engages students, I’m afraid they will continue to permit shallow attempts to “integrate” technology into curriculum. I’d love to see an administrator participate in a class where the students are 100% engaged in solving a problem, answering a question, or designing a solution. Not just dropping by to see where all the noise is coming from, but by actually sitting down and learning with the kids, by asking them why what they’re doing matters so much.  Unfortunately, I think finding time for that amount of commitment is almost unheard of in an administrator's day.  

2. On Appreciation for the Learning Curve

Renee: Not only do administrators need to feel the power of of learning differently, but they also need to appreciate the time it takes to develop proficiency with tools used for connecting, creating and collaborating, and sharing and reflecting. Too often we assume that learning to use the technology is the easy part, but for many teachers, that too simply is not intuitive. It also takes time to move past the myths associated with particular tools. Twitter and Facebook, for example, two tools that I am absolutely committed to for my own PD, are powerful tools for connecting, sharing, and learning from others, but both have a reputation as being frivolous time-wasters. I want an administrator to follow me on Twitter; better still, I want to follow her, and I want her to ask questions and share answers...out loud.

Susan: It takes time to be a learner, to build competency and to achieve mastery.  Yes, we need to honor that by building in the time in the time we need to experience learning in every corner of our schools.  We also need to nurture a culture of sharing and of transparency.  School leaders need to model for us that taking time to learn in new ways is important.  They can do this by making time for it themselves and by designing the school environment to encourage the sharing, collaboration, and learning that perpetuates itself continually.  This kind of learning also is what we need in order to renew our psyches, as much as we need a spirited walk on the school grounds, in the often energy-depleting environments of schools.  We pay lip service to being life-long learners, but when do school leaders really take the actions needed to promote this kind of deeper and broader learning in their schools?

After reading Dan Pink’s Drive, we set aside a “FedEx Day” for our teachers during the usual beginning-of-school meetings to allow them to re-discover their own creativity and share their experiences in a learning community.  And despite the unwanted encroachment of other school meetings (the Safety Committee, etc.) into our the time set aside for pursuing creative learning on our own, this was one of the most enriching PD experiences I’ve had at a school.  Other teachers, who usually grumbled mightily about these gatherings, spoke glowingly of the experience as well.  Yet, we never returned to this model again.  How sad....

3. On Modeling for Others

Susan: I am sure that all administrators are aware that as the preeminent leaders of their schools, they models for their teachers and students everything from professional behavior and ethical decision-making to good table manners.  Why do they not see themselves as models for learning as well? Why do they not embrace learning transparently, connecting with other educators, sharing discoveries and concerns, and engaging in respectful dialogue? Surely, we need to watch them stretch and grow in this way.

Renee: Can you say, “double standard?” Administrators have to model their own learning for faculty, parents, boards, students.  They’ll have a lot more credibility when asking faculty to make the same investment.  Parents will see that it’s part of the school’s culture.  Students especially will see that the adults around them are learning too, which is a powerful statement.  

4. On Strategizing for the Future

Susan: More than anything else, we need our school leaders to embrace learning in these transformational ways so that they can then lead us where we need to go, so that they can envision more concretely how our schools can thrive in the future.  If school leaders do not become 21st-century learners who can strategize and plan for the future, how can the rest of us ever get there?

Your silence is speaking volumes! Your distractions by other issues that demand your constant attention is sending a message.  We need your leadership, and we need it now!

Renee:  I say to administrators, don’t let fear of not being an expert, of not fully understanding where it’s all heading, of not having all the answers, stop you from moving forward.  Be the chief questioner, let your faculty know that asking questions and looking for the answers is accepted, even valued.  Let teachers know that this exploration is important by building time into already tight schedules.  So often we tackle these big issues with “plunk” PD (an apt term coined in a recent blog by Alex Inman) or a shared article, but we don’t build in the necessary time to think, reflect, and practice. First, acknowledge that this shift in education is important; second, prove it to faculty by scheduling it into the the school routine; third, ask questions that will coax your teachers into new ways of thinking; fourth, acknowledge and reward those teachers who rise to the challenge and test new strategies in their classrooms; fifth, repeat.

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.”