Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Stop the Baloney! - A PD Revolution in 25 Keystrokes

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by Sean Wheeler

Here's a familiar scenario.  I'm at a school meeting.  Perhaps it's a department meeting, maybe a district leadership meeting, even a staff meeting.  You've been there.  You know how these things go.  A familiar refrain is heard.  "We need a transition plan to provide more effective professional development, and we need to carefully develop a roll-out of the plan once it's created.  Are there any volunteers to do a pilot so that we can study our revised professional development plan?  We'll meet again in a month to see how our pilot program went, and then we'll create scaffolding so that we can increase buy-in from the district, staff, or department as a whole."  I raise my hand and suggest that we begin to explore Twitter, particularly #edchat, as a resource for individualized professional development.  This is met with some lip-service as a good idea, and then the suggestion is ignored or turned down because "we don't have time" or because "some teachers need to be trained on how to use technology and we need to be sensitive to those needs."  

Baloney.  We need to stop thinking like this.  

I firmly believe that every education staff in the world could be taught how to begin getting valuable professional development and classroom resources in less than ten minutes and with  twenty-five keystrokes.  To put twenty-five keystrokes in perspective, I have to type twenty-six keystrokes just to check my district email.

Here's my roll-out plan:

1.  Type "" into your web browser. (18 keystrokes)
2.  Go to the search bar, even without signing up or logging in, and type "#edchat" (7 keystrokes)
3.  Scroll, click, peruse, learn.

If a district employee can use a keyboard, they are only 25 keystrokes away from an unlimited and valuable pool of constantly streaming resources and conversation.  To make things even more specifically tailored to the audience, substituting "#edchat" with any of the relevant hashtag searches found here, would help to more carefully match content area or interest.

No following, no tweeting, no registering.  

20 keystrokes, 10 minutes.  That's all.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

My Case for Interactive Fiction - Part 1

I’ll wholeheartedly admit it, Atticus Finch is my hero!  To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the novels I look forward to reading each year with my freshman students.  Integrity, character, and standing up for what’s right are concepts that students seem to understand through Atticus’s struggles while defending Tom Robinson in a community that is seemingly against him.  To Kill a Mockingbird is undoubtedly a wonderful novel.  But I have another admission: Sometimes I need more! 

And I’m not alone.  Over the last five years, I’ve heard excellent discussion amongst my students about character and story development from reading To Kill a Mockingbird, but the “real” conversations about these topics takes place after class is over—when students crowd around my desk to talk about video games.  It is in these conversations that my students skillfully analyze character and story through interactive fiction.  It is from these conversations that I slowly realized that my students demand more interaction with characters and story than a novel can provide. 

As the increase in technology pushes our capabilities of teaching in the classroom, it also increases the level of collaboration and interaction students have with each other and the world.  Growing up with Twitter and Facebook, today’s students need interaction in order to understand and make sense of the world around them.  The same is true in the classroom.  Reading a book “the old fashioned way” doesn’t offer the same level of interaction that our students have grown up enjoying; it just doesn't seem as relevant.

Over the course of the last twenty years, video game technology has also improved from the pixilated characters and settings of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System to lush, vibrant vistas of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.  These artfully rendered games immerse players into a world that a written novel could not begin to describe.  Look at the Playstation 3 downloadable title Flower for example.  In this game you play the role of a flower petal seeking to repopulate a world devoid of color.  Using the intuitive controls, players are able to engage in a truly unique, "Zen-like" experience. 

In the end, as a teacher seeking a relevant entry point for students to engage in literature, I can't deny the power and influence of video games.  While there are many games on the market that I would not use in my classroom, there are twice as many that I would.  The same could be said for books, of course.  Regardless, I know the majority of my students are playing video games at home with greater regularity than they read books.  And with that said, it's time to start making the case for interactive fiction!

Shane A. Sullivan 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Networks are Power - Part 2: The Teachers

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by Sean Wheeler

Part 2: The Teachers

It's not an easy time to be a teacher, but it is an exciting one.  It's not that often that an entire profession has the ability to redefine it's purpose and explore entire new vistas in the field.  Unfortunately, most of us work under an oppressive weight of local, state, and federal mandates that seem to continually ignore the voice of teachers in the decision making process of what matters in our classroom, what we should be measuring in regards to student learning, and how we should go about preparing our students for a world that seems to be shifting at an amazingly fast pace.  As a teacher in Ohio, and like the teachers in Wisconsin, New Jersey and many other states, I especially feel like teachers are becoming the victims of an education agenda that would rather scapegoat teachers than work towards making significant changes toward the advancement of all students.  We feel like we don't have a voice.  We wait for the next hammer to drop.  We shuffle to meetings about initiatives that feel very far removed from what we know to be the most effective elements of the work of our classrooms.  And most importantly, we leave our schools everyday feeling like no help is on the way.  This isn't how it should be, and my suggestion is that we begin to use our ability to network to take the power back and shift the conversation about education in a whole new direction.

It starts with professional development.  It is truly a sad state of affairs that most of us associate the phrase "professional development" with irrelevance, top-down management, and having to muster up a sense of "buy-in" to things that we really don't see much value in.  If I have to go to another Common Core PowerPoint presentation about rigor, I might actually claw my eyes out.  However, if teachers began to reconsider what professional development might look like if we could design it ourselves, things might start to turn a corner.  

Teachers need to start participating in networked sharing of resources, strategies, and ideas.  While there are increasingly more teachers jumping into Nings, Twitter, and various other arenas of idea sharing, too many teachers have yet to test these waters.  If we could get more teachers involved, we could start to shift the conversation about education by our sheer numbers alone.  If our labor organizations returned to the original concept of organizing large bodies of employees that can't be ignored by creating vast networks of empowered voices all moving in the same direction, they might actually be able to redeem their less-than-positive public image.  It seems that the membership of our unions takes a rather dim view of social media, often resorting to a level of fear mongering that runs along the "be careful, you might get fired for saying something stupid" variety.  But if they could get past their fear, they just might find that the old folk song is true, "There is Power in a Union".  

I am of the belief that when teachers stop learning, they cease to be good teachers.  A personal learning network (#pln) is a great entry point into teacher learning.  If we could all begin to see the value of a pln, we could start to design a system in our districts and states that recognizes the value of that learning and would count towards our required professional development.  We claim to want our students to be independent and intrinsic learners, but many of us are missing out on modeling that behavior in the digital space.  Any teacher that says they can't learn online needs to be taught how, and any teachers that refuse needs to consider how relevant they are to their students' future.

It's about adopting a pro-active and empowered stance towards growing as professionals in times that simply demand that we do so.  We can wait around for someone in administration to order us to enter the digitally networked environment, or we can start to do so on our own, with a full realization that by combining our voices and helping each other we can begin to change the balance of power in a conversation that we all know has made us more weak and fractured than we should be.  We have the opportunity to use our networks to abolish the whole notion that our classrooms are "islands".  I love teaching, and so do most of our teachers, but if we continue to be reactive and resistant to change we will be bowled over by people with more power, and less knowledge about what works for kids.  And for those of us who are already building this community of educators online, we need to work even harder to patiently help others to see the value.  

Start now.  register for Twitter, type #pln into the search bar, and join in.  Search for anyone that your district talks a lot about (ex. Robert Marzano) and follow them.  Hit the "retweet" button on anything you like, reply to any post with a question or comment, and eventually start to lend your insights in a tweet.  You don't need to wait around for someone to offer a class or hold a pd session.  Change your stance, be a bit more proactive, and become the kind of learner we want all of our kids to be.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Networks are Power - Part 1: The Kids

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by Sean Wheeler

All across the country our education systems are being forced to consider the significance of social-media as it relates to how, when, and if our students engage in a more networked learning community.  Questions of access to equipment, the use of firewall software, and the safety or danger of the digital environments now available are being considered in school board meetings, professional development programs, Acceptable Use Policy debates, and here in the digital environment itself.  Labor Unions are wrestling with issues as far ranging as teacher online conduct, definitions of class time and size, as well as when the work day begins and ends within an online structure that doesn't recognize the difference between 9 a.m. on Thursday and 3 p.m. on Sunday afternoon.  Parents rightly worry about bullying, their child's digital footprint, and the whole notion of what happens when young people gather together online largely out of the view of any adult guidance.  The emergence of networked social-media and digital learning is a disruptive force in the way we in education have always gone about our business.  Unfortunately, during all of this discussion and concern, a significant component of the rise of social-networks is being largely ignored.  The networks, themselves, are power.  And it is the power of these networks that will most likely settle most of the debate in the years to come.  Over the next few days I'm going to be posting about leveraging the power of social networks to help kids, teachers, and administrators.

Part 1:  The Kids

What if each of my students could leave my classroom at the end of the year with a Twitter following that included thought-leaders in the students' chosen field of endeavor?  What if the 15 year old aspiring doctor in my classroom here in Cleveland could be networked with the amazing doctors and thinkers right down the road at the Cleveland Clinic?  What if my aspiring chef could trade recipe suggestions with Michael Symon via a direct message?  Why isn't the young man who spends hours writing songs in his basement connected with the CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?  It is beginning to become clear to me that all of these connections are a click away and do not require a field-trip form, any kind of academic pedigree, or even an expensive computer.  Part of the mission of our schools should be to help students begin to build a network of responsible and interested professionals that could assist these young people on their path towards meaningful work and lives.  What is the true cost of the connections that our firewalls prohibit?  How will we look years from now when we recognize that we failed to make very easy connections between those who want to learn and those that could teach them?

I had a young poet, Chania, read me something between classes today that brought home how little we sometimes do to help bring her talent and aspiration into contact with those who could help develop and support her as a poet.  Chania is working at her craft in the cracks of our education system, and though I can help her learn a bit more about delivery and word choice, I honestly don't know the many poets that are out there and willing to listen and nurture a young and eager voice emerging on the poetry scene.  So today I've decided that my first goal is to help Chania build a social-network of poets that will connect her with live readings, poetry blogs, and the publishing scene.   And after I help Chania, I'm going to start to explore ways in which all of my students can begin to build powerful networks that   engage my students in the conversations relevant to their career interests.  It's becoming increasingly clear that this is a way that I can work as a teacher to help my kids achieve the dreams that have gone unheard for too long in my classroom.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Don't you want that information?

by Sean Wheeler

There are really three main ways that information gets transmitted in a traditional classroom.

#1 - Raising Hands
The most often used method is through a teacher-led discourse in which students raise their hands to be called on.  The teacher uses various methods to choose who gets to speak, but rarely does everyone get called on, and there's always a social urge to not go back and call on the same student more than once.  

The problem with this is that there are kids who don't raise their hands, or choose not to participate in some manner.  That, or time simply doesn't allow for all of our students to contribute to the conversation.  A good deal of untapped thinking walks out our doors when that 40 minute bell rings.  

#2 - Group Work
When students work in groups, really good things can happen.  Students have an opportunity for peer-to-peer learning.  The teaching and learning naturally become more problem or discussion based.  And students gain a sense of how to work with one another collaboratively.  The teacher moves about the room, participating and prompting where needed, catching bits and pieces of entire conversations.

But what if one group is firing all cylinders while another group struggles because of the social dynamics or preparedness, or a host of other possibilities?  Why should some students, by sheer luck of the draw, get stuck in groups that they can't get out of?  To look at it another way, why should my child not learn as much today as someone in a different group?  What did my child do to get cheated like that?  The other issue is that the teacher can't be everywhere, so again, information goes unnoticed all over the place.  Maybe someone contributed something in one of the groups that was brilliant, but the teacher missed the chance to work with that idea because they were busy coaxing a classmate to get off the cell phone.  

#3 - Write It Down, Turn It In.

Sometimes teachers do need to hear from every student to assess individual learning.  This is traditionally done in the format of homework, exit tickets, quizzes, tests, etc.  The whole group receives some prompt or task and they write their response on paper and turn it in.  The teacher grades it or provides feedback.  Students get their papers back, put them in the backpack, lost forever to time.  

Only one person winds up benefitting from what everyone knows in the classroom, and that person is the one in the room who probably needs to learn from that information the least.  The teacher gets to know what everyone else knows but the students get no benefit from the responses of their peers.  Perhaps having that information would help kids who were still formulating their ideas or learning the concepts being taught.

CC licensed by Hyperakt
None of the above is anybody's fault really.  We've been doing the best with what we have, and I believe strongly that our teachers have been doing great work.  This isn't about who is to blame, it's about whether or not we want all of the information we're losing by doing what we've done for so long.  The three systems we have are the three systems that have had to exist because it's been impossible to do otherwise.  

When my students interact in our online space, I get all of the information.  And so does everybody else.  Every group that works together online, is visible and open to input from each other group. If a student is stuck in a bad group, they don't have to be.  If a student wants to join the conversations of the other groups at some other time, they still can.  No information is lost to that student.  The teacher can see the work of the whole group, each one of them, and can also assess each contribution by each student.  If a student revises their thinking, they are not bound eternally to it because they spoke it out loud in class and never got called on to voice their change of thinking or deeper reflection.  My students aren't limited to formulating complex thought right away either.  They can really take the time to formulate their thoughts before they type, and kids who need a bit more process have the time because there are no bells in our online classroom.  

And the kids that don't get called on or never participate in class get a voice.  The student too embarrassed to talk in class can directly instant message me with thoughts, the kid that needs more help or clarification can ask for that help without the stigma of "slowing the class down".  Every one of my students can work with me individually as needed all the time.  

I have to admit that dealing with all of that information can be overwhelming.  Providing feedback at that level takes time.  Getting the whole online thing up and running takes patience and persistence. But if we can capture the learning of every one of our students, don't we want that information?

#edcampcolumbus Reflection

by Sean Wheeler

As part of what will now have to be considered the "lost" Smackdown, Toby asked us all to take the time to reflect on the experience and share what we took away from our time together.  It's now two day later, and I am just now fully appreciating what edcamp Columbus did for my growth as a teacher.

I was a bartender at a brewery before I started teaching.  And in the last couple of years doing it, I would particularly dread "Staff Meeting Saturdays".  Usually we'd learn about the new spring menu, or our newest recycling efforts, maybe even work in some training on "The Sullivan Nod".  I would sit in those meetings and wonder what would happened if the meeting got called, the bosses didn't show up, and we could talk about how to really fix up the place.  That never happened and hadn't really happened in any real sense once I became a teacher, either, until this past Saturday.  

I drove down to Columbus from Cleveland because I wanted to see an edcamp in action.  I wanted to see how it worked and meet the kind of people who would put something like that together.  For some reason I had the sense from the start that meeting "this kind of people" was going to be a significant part of what I would eventually take away.  From the time I walked in to the time I left with an over-stuffed brain hours later, I was reveling in the feeling that everyone who was there actually wanted to be there.  Many had driven as far as I had.  Husbands came with wives.  Friends and co-workers travelled as a group.  The Upper Arlington HS crew were all on hand to welcome us, show us around, and talk to us about the teaching and learning they were doing at the school.  The first session I went to consisted entirely of people who had never attended an unconference before.  We instinctively kept looking at the door for someone to come in and tell us how to proceed.  Of course, that didn't happen.  We jumped in and quickly found that we were surrounded by people who understood, cared, and were genuinely interested in the kind of stuff most of us bore our friends with when we talk about work.  It was just like those daydreams on "Staff Meeting Saturday".  No bosses, no directives or initiatives, no rollouts. It was brilliant.

Design interests me a great deal, and it was great to see a session offered on Human Centered Design.  It was a powerful session and I think the conversation will have an impact on my work for awhile.  I'm in the planning stages of doing some really cool research with my students, and it helped to be refocussed on the vital concept that students need to be central while designing the work for the upcoming project.  Sometimes I get lost in how I would teach something instead of how students might want to learn it.  It was cool to walk out of that session and into a discussion on Moodle in which an Upper Arlington teacher, who happened to be in the school for something else entirely unrelated to the conference, heard us talking about Moodle and joined the conversation.  He got so excited he logged into his page and showed us all a few things he was doing that were really amazing.  We talked for a few minutes about the way that our online spaces are designed to make them intuitively accessible for the kids.  That kind of interaction really typified the day.  Things just went where they went, and everyone was very open to seeing where our conversations and viewpoints would take us. 

I'm going to take away how many times I heard someone note that we were all there on a Saturday, for no pay, and were walking away feeling a sense of community that most of us out on the fringes rarely get to feel.  We proved that a revolution from the bottom up isn't all that difficult.  We discovered how different it is to go to a conference in which you can be a participant instead of an attendee or presenter.  It was like everyone else had wondered the same thing I did on those Saturday morning meetings at the brewery, and then we really did get together and start to fix things on our own.