Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Learning Experience Overload

This weekend I was fortunate enough to have my district send me to the NYSCATE conference in Rochester, New York. This city seems to be a replica of my native Buffalo, New York with a similar composition of the downtown layout and architecture, but what I loved most about my visit to Rochester, other than the precious time I was able to spend with some of my favorite and well-loved family members, was seeing the illustration of the power of the social networking tools I use in action. Not only was I able to meet some of my fellow Twitterers in real life (IRL), but I was also able to keep my friends up to date in real time of all that I was learning.

Within the first few minutes of my first hands-on session of learning, the presenter and fellow Twit David Jakes asked how many of us were using Twitter. I was one of four of the approximately twenty attendees who raised my hand. As a result of this tool, I was able to keep my followers up to date with countless posts of great ideas and free creative web tools to enhance instruction. Some of my closest friends and followers have since told me that they felt as if they were "right there with me" as a result of my constant updates and tweets.

But I digress; rather, I have not hardly begun to address all that I have learned at this amazing conference. I was fortunate to spend two full-day, hands-on sessions with David Jakes, an instructional technology coordinator in Chicago, Illinois. During the first day-long session with Mr. Jakes I learned how to embed roughly ten different free web 2.0 tools into things I already do like wikis. More importantly, in both of the sessions I attended with Mr. Jakes the first half was spent learning how to use the many tools he is proficient in and the second half was spent applying those tools to my own practice. One of the first things I learned is that there are many interactive web 2.0 tools out there that teachers can embed into their practice.

But rather than list them all, I think that the most important thing I have learned since returning from the conference is that it's not about all the cool tools; it's about how the teacher or leader uses the tools to engage and challenge others to move beyond their current practices and enter into new and exciting conversations about teaching and learning. One way to engage others in these great conversations is to use a social bookmarking site like Del.ic.ious. Since signing up for this free on-line bookmarking tool I have not only found a way to keep track of and organize my favorite websites and resources, but I have also been able to share my favs with others who choose to be in my network. Rather than having a mile-long list of websites in my favorites, I now have a place to track and organize my sites with tags or key terms that apply to the content of the pages. I started my account with roughly 150 bookmarks, but since directing people to join my network and asking for permission to be in theirs, I now have access to over 5000 websites! I can now view the bookmarks of others in my network and then decide whether I want to save those to my own account. Talk about cool tools!

Another cool feature of Del.ic.ious is that once you have an account, free with any email address, you can then use the "subscribe" feature. What's way cool about this is that you can subscribe to a specific tag. For instance, if you were on the hunt for the latest and greatest instructional websites on Google Earth, you could subscribe to the tags "Google Earth" and "instructional tools." Then, when ANYONE in the WORLD who has a Del.ic.ious account finds a website and tags it with those phrases, the sites then appear in your account. You can then skip the searching for hours routine and simply view the site in Del.ic.ious and decide whether or not you want to save to your account. Time is precious and this tool certainly helps to minimize your time spent searching the net.

But even better, since the people in my network are friends, either IRL or on-line, I can discuss with them HOW THEY USE THE TOOL to challenge students, teachers, or other learners. To me, this is the most important aspect of the tool itself. Again, it's not about the tools themselves, but about how educators use the tools in their practice to engage and challenge others.

Here's a simple example of how these tools can challenge learners of all kinds, whether in the field of education or not. A very good friend, and someone who has taught me and helped me to grow a great deal in my professional life, has this wonderful family who has taken an interest in Google Earth and Google Rome. While in another full-day with David Jakes called "Cartography on the Cutting Edge," he had us access his site specific to this topic. I simply tweeted the link on Twitter and my friend, following me on Twitter, then had instant access. Little did I know that she, her daughters, and her husband had just downloaded Google Earth and Rome a few days before. Because of my tweet, they now had access to tutorials and handouts and began learning and exploring instantly. Angela, being a lover of learning, wanted to say thanks and took a Twitpic of her daughter holding a piece of paper that simply said, "Thanks, Mr. Jakes!" and tweeted it. I saw the tweet and burst out laughing in the middle of the presentation! I wasn't trying to be rude, but I was so pleased at the immediacy of the tweets and learning taking place, that I just had to show him. I turned my laptop around, and he was amazed! He asked for permission from my friend to have a copy of the picture and even discussed the incident in his keynote at the NYSCATE banquet later that evening. He, therefore, used the tool to show those in attendance the residual effects of the learning taking place at this conference.

This, friends, is the power that's held in the USE of the tools, not just the tools themselves. So, there's the challenge; find some cool tools, but don't just use them because they're cool. Rather, think of ways in which you can use the tools to help others see the power, relevance, and value of learning.

And in the spirit of the holiday season, try these cool tools posted by Angela to create some meaningful gifts for your family. Thanks, Angela, for always taking the time to share how you use cool tools in your life!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

How TRANSPARENT are you?

Hello, friends. I know that I have started my first few blogs with mentioning my Twitter network of educators, and at the risk of sounding redundant (a writer's sure-fire no-no) I must do the same again. As a result of this social networking tool, I have been privy to Transparency in its finest form in the past few weeks. My Twitterverse consists of staff developers, administrators, teachers, and teacher coaches who are brave and willing enough to be as transparent as possible in order to elicit meaningful feedback from other educators and content experts to improve their instruction and leadership in the best interest of both teachers and the profession and their students as well. As difficult and scary as it may be to put yourself out there, I believe that the single best way to improve your instruction is through eliciting feedback from your peers. This is, of course, the guiding tenet of a Professional Learning Community, which I desperately want to facilitate in my new role as a director of curriculum and instruction. Gratefully, I am fortunate enough to have colleagues to show me the way; educators whom I can thankfully also call friends, that are willing to grow professionally and are not only brave enough to publicly share what they do in their daily practice but who also beg for and welcome feedback from others frequently rather than wait for that "official" APPR to reflect on their practice.

How transparent are you? The colleagues and friends I reference are out there, and I mean really out there, on the world wide web, doing things like posting tweets on Twitter and links on wikispaces describing their experiences and eliciting immediate responses to their practice. With a simple tool like those aforementioned they post a link and receive nearly instantaneous responses from other experienced practitioners "in the trenches" who long, just as much as they do, to improve practice and gain ideas for how to apply theory to real-world practice in ways that present the best benefits to kids.

There is much discussion in the realm of education about this notion of transparency. Some key questions surrounding this notion include: How can we KNOW that any approach or strategy we employ truly works? How can the whole sector benefit from particular instances of good practice? What are the elements or components of good and effective practice? What outcomes do good and effective practice produce? Within what contexts do these good and effective practices exist? and How do we remain objective in providing meaningful feedback to those who elicit our reactions, thoughts, and ideas about our practice without being overly critical?

I don't have the answers to these questions. However, networking with the right people who have like desires to find these answers and be reflective practitioners has provided me with opportunities to begin to find the answers. If we truly are life-long learners who are dedicated to and passionate about improving what we do for kids, may we all be brave and willing enough to be transparent and share what we do with others in the best interest of our students and teachers.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Reflection AS Fomative Assessment

In my realm of the Twitterverse, reflective practice has been a big topic of conversation in the last few days. I think we all take time to reflect on our day, our actions, our experiences in our own ways, but I wonder how many of us do this formally in writing? I know that before I began to reflect formally when I was teaching, I really only had reflected in the car to and from work or in the tub as I tried to relax and unwind. In fact, I believe that I reflected mostly when things didn’t go as I had planned or as well as I wanted them to. Very few of us, I believe, reflect on what went well and how good it felt for both us and for our students. This is sad to me because more of us should take the time to celebrate the good things and figure out ways to build on those things in our classroom practices. In the words of Collins, this is how we can move from “good to great.”

The other conversation that has been on-going in my corner of cyberspace is formative assessment. It is a hot topic in education lately and seems to be talked about a lot these days. However, a good friend did something very brave and unique in regards to formative assessment this weekend. Angela Stockman described in her blog a lesson she had designed and facilitated where she discussed the ways in which she formally assessed student understanding. The brave and unique thing about this was that she posted it and requested feedback from fellow educators that she emailed personally and in the general blogosphere. She specifically requested warm and cool feedback and her intention was twofold: to improve her classroom practice and to show other teachers whom she coaches and collaborates with that she is a partner in their classrooms, not a critic or an expert.

Let’s face it; we all get a little nervous about being formally observed in our classrooms no matter how great we are or how long we’ve been teaching, but to put a lesson out there for a gazillion eyes to see and critique is more than a bit daunting. However, the practice of eliciting responses from multiple educators on a lesson or classroom practice is the heart of a true professional learning community, whether on-line or otherwise. In doing this, my friend got a number of great ideas for improving her lesson and received a great deal of kudos for the good things she did already. This is great, but what’s better is that the feedback was nearly instantaneous; she did not have to wait a few days to schedule a post-observation conference nor was she subjected to the same canned questions that evaluators tend to ask each person they observe. She got immediate, open, and honest feedback from people who want to see her succeed. How awesome is that?

But the real question is how do we formally assess ourselves and the work we do? What kinds of formal reflective practices do we engage in to ensure that what we are doing and continue to do are good practices and are serving kids in the best possible ways? I am especially interested in how some administrators are doing this. It's a bit easier for a teacher to know that what they are doing is working because they can assess whether kids are being successful. But how do administrators know that they are not only supporting their teachers and helping them succeed but, in turn, helping kids as well? What kinds of reflective and formative assessments are administrators engaging in? What models are administrators using to formally assess their productivity and effectiveness? This blog is certainly one piece of the puzzle for me, but I need more. If you have ideas or practices that you engage in, please share.

Feeling Poetic

Sounds of a City

I close my eyes and what do I hear?

The barking of a dog;
a storm begin to clear.

The fear-filled chirping
of a small lonesome bird,
and when someone speaks
I hang on every word.

I hear chaos in the streets—
the honking of horns;
the loud angry words of
a mother’s bitter scorn.

I hear the innocence masked within
the laughter of children;
I hear hunger in a small child’s cry.

I hear love in a father’s voice,
uncertainty in child’s choice,

But most of all…
I hear time passing by.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Lead or Get Out of the Way

On a lazy and chilly Sunday morning in November, I have finally decided to join the pack of educators who are blogging in cyberspace. Although I read quite a few educator blogs, I have never written one myself. Today, I have decided to lead or get out of the way. Being a former secondary English teacher, I am a writer at heart and a lover of reading. Blogging seems the next natural step for me and I have been considering it for quite some time, but have been a bit nervous about putting myself out there. I am very opinionated and passionate about this all important profession and I have surrounded myself with like-minded people both in person and in cyberspace. I take the time to network with people who are also dedicated to and passionate about children, teaching, and learning. Thanks to Twitter, my network keeps growing. If you don't know about the power of Twitter, let me tell you that it is a fantastic resource that allows you to follow other educators and receive almost constant links to other important and very cool resources, but you have to follow the right people in order to have it be such a powerful resource for you. I am thankful for all of my Twitter friends.

Over the course of the weekend, I have read blogs on formative assessments, blogs encouraging others to blog, blogs on Sarah Palin and her wardrobe controversy, blogs on Barack Obama being a leader who is using web 2.0 tools, and blogs on collecting classroom assessment data and what to do with it once it's collected. I believe in the power of blogging both for personal growth and for classroom use. However, I am sad that too many teachers are afraid to use such classroom resources. It's hard to take that risk and try something new, but there's something about the uncertainty of technology that really scares the pants off of some teachers. There are so many web 2.0 tools out there that are not being used fully by those in education and, being in my current position of Director of Curriculum and Instruction, I completely understand that it is in my power to provide training for teachers so that these tools can be used to engage kids today. Considering that kids are native digital learners and adults are not, and thanks to a Twitter post by a friend, I have been thinking a lot about using kids to facilitate some of that professional development training. After all, who do we turn to in our classrooms when technology fails us? Kids.

Think about what this would mean in the scheme of developing a true professional learning community in your school...teachers, students, and school leaders teaching and learning together could develop into something really powerful for all of us. Imagine empowering students to teach their teachers what they are capable of in a web 2.0 world. Imagine students truly taking ownership of their own learning and imagine how they could create their own ideas for differentiating by process, choice, and product. Engaging and motivating students would no longer be such an obstacle, especially in secondary schools. Keeping up with the fast-paced world of changing technology is and would continue to be an obstacle though. However, I like that this latter obstacle also has potential to create life-long learners out of all us.

This is the challenge I am facing. I must find ways to inspire teachers to let go of their "old school" ways and walk with their students into the 21st Century. It's not easy to let go of how you've "always done it;" I know that. But I believe that if we allow students to show us what they are truly capable of in this day and age, teachers may begin to see the potential that's out there awaiting them. This I know: every time I have allowed students to take an idea and run with it on their own, in their own way, they have surprised me every time with what they are capable of.