Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 - the year in review

Last year, 2009, was the single most pivotal year of my teaching career.  This is my eighth year teaching, spread out over twenty years.  The thing that made this particular year so important is the development of my personal learning network, or simply my PLN.

The development of my PLN was part serendipity, part intention.  In March, I attended a weeklong workshop on Web 2.0 tools at the NC Center for the Advancement of Teaching (which IMHO is THE most incredible perk available to NC teachers.  Go if you get the chance!).  My purpose for attending was to learn about all these new tools so I could implement them in my classroom FOR THE BENEFIT OF THE STUDENT.  I became a far better teacher, not because I suddenly integrated all this cool technology in my classroom, but because I began using it my personal life.  I already used blogs quite regularly, including one I personally maintained.  The morning we learned about Twitter, everything changed.

I already had a Twitter id that was collecting digital dust due to its lack of use.  I knew it was useless without followers or people to follow.  However, I had no idea how to begin forming those lists.  One of the people I met in my workshop that week was David Hines, aka @olballcoach.  Don't let the fact that he is a J-I-M teacher fool you.  He's a great teacher who integrates technology into yes, his P.E. classes.  His school is lucky to have him.  David's wife, @kellyhines, was already well connected at this point.  With a couple of emails, text messages and DM's to Kelly, a few of us had networks of about fifty followers by the end of the day.

My PLN has been an incredible asset to me this year.  I've formed relationships with educators from all over the world.  I have conversations with people on all levels of administration and the classroom.  I have received tips, hints, advice, suggestions, etc. on so many things education related.  I have experienced professional sharing and encouragement like never before.  I may never teach in the same school with any of my PLN, but I feel like a part of their successes and failures when I hear about them.  I have received far more than I ever imagined and definitely more than I have given.

As I look ahead to 2010, I am excited about the possibilities.  I know my PLN will continue to be a large part of my professional development.  My success will be owed to them in someway I'm sure.

Monday, November 23, 2009

When EVERYTHING goes wrong

At 11:09 AM this morning I sent out the following tweet:
Today is the type of day that makes you say, "i will never use technology in the classroom again" but I will persevere!
It was only 20 minutes into the second class of the day for me. I had been fortunate enough to find an extended period of time when the school laptop carts were not reserved. I reserved them for seven consecutive school days. Today was day 1. I'm glad I have six more days.

The particular project the kids are working on is what we are calling the "Cool Questions Project". Throughout the year, I have kept a running list of cool questions the kids have asked, most of which I have been unable to answer, either because I myself did not know or we just needed to move on. Occassionally I will push pause on whatever we are doing and do a quick search on the internet to try and find the answer. As a sidenote, sometimes it's best to turn off the projector, otherwise the auto fill feature of Google will list questions like "Why is my poop green?".

Using that list, the kids are each selecting a question of their choice and researching the answer. Once they have completed their research, they will each do a digital presentation. They can choose whatever format they would like - powerpoint, Glog, video, Voki, etc. Since many of my students have no computer access at home at all, I reserved the laptops for an extended period of time.

Day 1 went only a little worse than I had expected. The teacher who used one of the carts before me failed to plug up any of the laptops. Few machines in that cart had a charged battery and two of power cables do not work. I spent the entire 63 minutes of my first class finally getting all my kids id's and pw's straightened out. My second class only went a little better.

Technology issues aside, I began to question the scope of the assignment. Did I assign too much to my little sixth graders? Can they really handle the open endedness and potential enormity of this project? Several issues quickly made themselves apparent. 1) They have no real idea how to do research. 2) They have not yet learned how to read a passage for information and make the necessary inferences. (This is a science class BTW). 3) Despite being given a rubric with benchmark goals and dates, most only see a BIG project, not the small manageable pieces.

So, have I erred once again by failing to properly plan? Did I forget to consider my students' actual developmental stage? Can this thing be salvaged? I believe the answer to all three questions is "Yes". However, I don't think that in regards to planning and considering my students' abilities that I was really not that far off. This project is on track to accomplish everything I hoped it would. The students will get a chance to study something THEY want to study. The students will learn some new research skills. When things go wrong, students are forced to develop problem solving skills. They are excited about doing "a technology project." It's one step closer to that self-paced differentiated classroom I so want to teach.

I think when this is all said and done, if more wrong than right happens, it may turn out to be the best project ever.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Doing something Different(iated) for a change - Part 1

This post was spawned by a retweet of @edteck sent out by @shannoninottawa. The quote was
A thought...What % of your class time is spent having every kid do the exact same thing?
This seed was further nurtured by an article called "The School of One". The article describes the exact type of classroom I've always wanted to have. If you read the article, you'll find a broad range of responses, both for and against this approach.

Honestly, despite the potential chaos and confusion in the classroom and tons of extra work, I would love to have a classroom where all 30 kids were doing something entirely different every single day. Twenty years ago when I taught high school math, I taught two sections of what was then called Competency Math. These students had not passed the NC Competency test for math. I had 12 to 15 students in each class. Each student worked at his or her own pace until a particular skill was mastered. So why don't I do that now? What's my excuse?

Let me list my excuses first so I can shoot 'em down when I'm done.
  1. I don't have the time. I'd have to come up with all my lesson plans, activities, etc. all at once so my quicker students would have something to do as they speed through.
  2. I can't effectively teach every child that way. Somebody's going to fall through the cracks. The slower kids will probably get all the attention while the smarter kids teach themselves because they are able to anyway while the middle of the road kids get minimal instruction. Or I'll focus on the average kid because there are more of them and the advanced/slower kids will get neglected. Or . . .
  3. I don't have the necessary resources. Sure, I did it 20 years ago, but honestly, it was really a worksheet driven class. Everything is tech driven today. I only have 1 computer in my room. Lab time is hard to come by. Besides, if everyone is doing something different, I cannot necessarily take them all to the lab at one time.
There are probably some other excuses but I'm sure they are some derivative of the above three.
  1. Not everything has to be done at once. It would be nice to have everything all tidied up in a box, ready to pull as we progress through the year. I don't have to teach the entire course like this. I know what the standard course of study is for the year. Look ahead, pick a couple of units far enough in advance. Plan them around this philosophy and see how it goes. Expand the offering each year until you are satisfied.
  2. Move to a student centered/learning driven classroom. Face it. Everything we do as teachers tends to be teacher centered and teacher driven. The emphasis is on how we present things, how we lead activities, how we deliver content. It's not about me - it's about the student. If I focus on the essential standards of my course instead of the myriads of factoids found in the content, all sorts of activities and lessons can be implemented. Give students every opportunity to create their own content so they can demonstrate mastery via evaluation, analysis, and other higher order skills. This will keep ALL students moving and learning.
  3. 21st Century does not equal technology. 21st Century skills are skills like collaboration and evaluation, the same sort of skills we taught in the 20th century. True, they are pushed via technology today, but they don't have to be. You use it whenever you can get your hands on it, but come up with the old-fashioned ways all the other times. Check out this article by @kellyhines for more about that.
Okay, so I've eliminated all my excuses for myself. The next step is to actually do it. Part 2 will address that. While we all wait to see what that looks like, what other excuses am I missing? What are valid objections to such an approach? What are possible solutions?

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Homework & School Reform

This is a post that I've been wanting to write for a while. The title combines two things that are not usually discussed together. Usually we talk about homework and school reform as two separate and polarizing issues. My intent is to avoid the polarization while sharing some thoughts about how the two can be related.

Some background info first. This post was initially motivated by an op-ed piece in The Atlantic by David Shenk. This article certainly helps polarize the debate and I will admit that I fall on the side advocated by Shenk. However, it is this quote that stirred my thoughts:
The new thinking is that, instead of piling on onerous, rote assignments, homework, kids ought to be encouraged to use their after school time to explore their own curiosities, read books of their own choice, to play, and to get adequate sleep.

I shared the link to this piece, even highlighting the same quote, with my fellow teachers where I teach. One colleague responded with the following comment:
Problem is... human nature does not always have learning and discovering as our number one desire. Unless that is instilled as a small child through their home life , they in most cases become students who want to do only what they have to to pass or make it in life. If you give a child a choice between discovering something new or developing a skill they have and just "playing around" most will pick the "playing around" if that desire to learn has not been taught to them early in life. Not all children at an early age are "educated" that way to become life long learners. Sad.
A great point. However, I do believe that human nature DOES always want to succeed. The path of least resistance is usually chosen because it is the quickest path to success. That could range from acting as the class clown, refusing to do school work to appear cool, or simply pretending school does not exist so that one is not reminded of his failures.

This is where school reforms comes in. I'm not going to address the political aspects of standardized testing, accountability, merit pay, or any of the other hot issues. There are lot of people out here who can address such things much better than I. I want to talk about reform in terms of a practical solution for the student my colleague has brought to our attention. What if we were able to encourage such a yearn for learning? What if we could get real creative and partner with community groups, afterschool programs, etc. to help facilitate providing access to the resources necessary to satisfy such a yearning (internet, library, etc.)? What if we became part of that after school solution and learned with our students about those interests and discovered they really did learn our content more readily because of its sudden relevance and applicability? If there are not afterschool programs already in place that could help, what community groups can we contact to begin one?

There is always talk about differentiation in instruction. We have students in our classrooms with a wide range of modifications including modified grading and modified assignments. How could we begin applying such a philosophy in the life of the student whose parents are divorced but only one parent really makes sure that homework gets done? Do we get the custody schedule and assign the major projects only on the weekends that parent has the child? What about the student who cannot stay awake in class because he shares a bed with two younger siblings and every night there might be two other siblings in the house? Can we modify his load so that it can be completed everyday in the afterschool program he attends?

You see, I don't think reform lies in the political or administrative machinery. I believe reform lies in reaching those students. Our job is not to teach. Our job is to ensure that students learn. What will it take to accomplish our job? What will we have to reform within ourselves to make it happen?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Share, Share, Share

Motivated by Kelly Hines (whom you should follow) and her post on her goals for the new year, I've been thinking about my own. I already had goals, but it's always good to write them down. It's going to be a different type of year for me. Even though this will be my eighth year teaching, I feel like it's my rookie year. Twenty years ago I began teaching high school math. After fifteen years away from the classroom, I came back to my first love last fall. That in itself was an adjustment. This summer my principal asked me to get certified in science and teach 6th grade! And more changes will come next year for me.

I've been blessed to land a position in a school with a progressive minded principal who is willing to let his teachers take risks. I never have to worry about trying to convince him why we should try to implement something new or different that will benefit the students. It's great having lots of technology options. When I left teaching the first time, cutting edge technology was the graphing calculator. But it's not about the technology - just read here and here. It's about how you use the technology. Both are part of my goals and here they are.

1) Learn from Others

2) Provide Plenty of Opportunities for my students, colleagues, and myself to Explore, Inquire, and Create

3) Implement Technology with Good Pedagogy

4) Share, Share, Share

Honestly, when I look at my goals, I really only see two - Share and Implement. I'm excited about the sharing part but it's hard. I came up with what I believe are some cool activities to do this year. It would be so easy to keep them to myself and then say after the fact, "Look at the cool lesson I developed." But, if I'm doing it for the good of my students, shouldn't all students in the school benefit? Shouldn't I want to help my colleagues instead of sitting back and pointing out how they never do stuff like this? So, I shared these ideas with the whole faculty. Now they can all modify my activities to fit their situations. All students will be better off.

I've learned a lot about sharing this year. The other math teacher on my hallway last year was a huge help. She shared her experience, wisdom, and resources with me. My kids were so lucky I had her as a teammate. I began my PLN on Twitter and literally hundreds of people have shared their experience, wisdom, and resources with me. My students will continue to benefit. I look forward to continuing to share back and forth with my PLN.

Sharing is the only way to make positive change. Some people really want to change but have no idea where to start. Remember what it was like to be a first year teacher and you had all those questions? There might be a twenty year veteran who feels the same way about implementing technology in an effective way. Soon your generosity will have others coming to you, asking for help. In the end, students benefit all the way around. And that's what it's all about.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Just Doing My Job

Last week my family experienced the vacation from hell. We spent several days camping in the mountains near Cherokee, NC. The final two days were spent in Asheville in a hotel and touring the Biltmore Estate. I spent much of the evening in the hotel assisting my wife with her newly sprained foot. At one point I needed to go out and look for some crutches, an ankle brace, etc. to help out with the issue. I asked the desk clerk for directions to several pharmacies. Because we were nearing the end of an exhausting couple of days, I know my face communicated all my feelings. The young man assisting me was quite helpful and very customer service oriented. He sensed my need and went out of his way to print maps and directions, offering any other help he could provide. I was duly impressed and touched by his actions. When I thanked him, he responded by saying, "Just doing my job."

Now I know he meant nothing negative. I'm pretty sure his meaning was, "I'm supposed to do everything I can to help you because you are the customer." I honestly believe he was genuine in his intentions. However, it made me feel less special. It initially made me think he only did it because he had to, despite the other indications that said something else. I immediately thought of myself and all my colleagues who will be returning to work over the next couple of weeks as school resumes. How many times are we guilty of "Just doing my job"?

That phrase can be taken both ways, just as with the hotel clerk. We can be student focused, learning focused, reflective and adaptable because as teachers that's the best way to do our job. Our efforts can be motivated by a sincere concern for the well being of our students. OR we can participate in the principal's latest vision or the superintendent's latest mandate because "it's our job" and we have to. Both ways are correct but one is better.

"Just doing my job" means also seeing my students as people. Yesterday I ran into one of my kids from last year. (I almost never call them "students" - it seems to impersonal for me.) She ran up to me and gave me a big hug. I'm glad that when I did my job for her last year, it meant more than the imparting of mathematical knowledge. I hope that as I do my job this year that a whole 'nother group of kids feel the same way. I firmly believe that the nature of my relationship with my kids has as much influence with their eventual progress as my teaching will. OR we can say, "My job is to be your teacher, not make you like me." Both ways are correct but one is better.

Teachers in my county officially report back to work tomorrow. Let's all go out and do our job.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

No Textbooks?! Does it really matter?

It's been a while since I've posted anything here. I really need to go to bed, but a particular topic with my PLN (Personal Learning Network) on Twitter has kept me up tonight, so I figure I'll post while my own thoughts are fresh. The two posts that have helped stir my thoughts are by @kellyhines on her blog here and by @mbteach on her blog here.

All my teaching life, which goes back twenty plus years in one form or another, though I only have "eight" years of professional experience stretched out over that time, I have searched for a better way. I've always been project, inquiry based, hands-on oriented though I've not always had support for doing it that way. My major goal for my career is to teach the paperless math class that looks nothing like the way I experienced Algebra as a student OR a teacher. I say all of this because for me, just like it's not about the technology, I don't think it's about the textbook either. Textbooks are merely technology that happens to be 500 years old.

Whether you use a chalk board or an interactive white board; a textbook, a netbook, or a Kindle; paper and pencil with a slide rule and log table or graphing calculator, it's about the teaching. To paraphrase a former presidential candidate, "It's the teaching stupid." Are we trying to help students memorize content for testing purposes, or are we teaching them the love of learning, how to problem solve, and how to do it all collaboratively? Are we tapping into their passions and allowing THEM to create content of their own so that learning becomes something they own?

Even though the naysayers don't read my blog, I'll address them anyway. I know, it's always worked before. But let me ask the question, has it really? Or have students just been tolerant of it because they don't see any other options. I quote one of my former students
"I certainly remember with gratitude and recognition all the teachers that were
able to motivate me in some way rather than making the whole process seem like a
burden to get over with as quickly as possible. "

I hope I fall into the fondly remembered group for her.

This post has somewhat turned into a soap box, which was only part of my intent. For the yea-sayers out there, let's keep the conversation with our differing colleagues turned to what's best for the student - good teaching. Let's keep the conversation turned to the benefits of whatever tool or methodologies we use, not the tools themselves. Let's model honest reflection so they can see us change our own practices and prejudices when necessary. Let's focus on what really matters.

BTW, if you did not follow either of the links above, you really need to go back and do so. One will give some good ideas to implement, the other will give you food for thought about content ownership and control.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Must reads

Here are two articles that anyone who wants to make a difference in students lives should read.

The first one is about making sure methodology doesn't get overshadowed by technology.

The second addresses the faulty assumptions we make when talking about school reform.

As you reflect on these articles, how will they inform or change what you do in the classroom?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Digital Projector Fun

Looking for ways to integrate technology into your classroom without  having to create some complex lesson plan on a technological piece of equipment you are not comfortable with?  Here's a list of things you can do with digital projector.  There's something for every content area teacher.

More tools for Twitter-ers

Here's a list of Top 100 Tools for Teachers on Twitter.  You find some of these helpful especially if Twitter is blocked at your school (check out EmailTwitter)

If you don't use Twitter and/or just want to know what the heck it is, check out this handbook for teachers.

No homework before middle school?

Adding to the homework controversy, here's an article that says brain research indicates that homework is not beneficial before middle school.  What do you think?

Monday, April 13, 2009

Top Ten Necessities for Education Reform

Here is a great article, written by a middle school teacher who is also a NEUROLOGIST!  In it she gives her top ten necessities for education reform.  What I hope that policy makers and teachers who find change hard to implement recognize is the research basis for what she is saying, especially the basis of how the brain itself functions.  Shouldn't that guide our methods?

Sunday, March 29, 2009

I came across this post about teachers and Twitter - Nine Great Reasons Why Teachers Need Twitter.  It's worth the read if you aren't using it yet.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

21st Century Done Wrong

My previous post brought up the debate of core knowledge versus 21st Century skills. In this post I want to address why I think 21st Century skills emphasis sometimes goes wrong. Much of what takes place in the name of technology integration or 21C skills is actually a mere digitalization of what we already do. Instead of using a white board or overhead projector, we use PowerPoint to present the same notes. Instead of going to library to do research, we check out the laptop carts and let the kids search on the internet. Because we want to be sensitive to the fact that not all students have internet access at home, we "settle" for more shallow results. In the end when students have not reached the milestones we hear 21C is supposed to guarantee, we blame the methods.

As educators, we are constantly bombarded with news reports, university studies, etc. that say we are failing America's students. We are not able to compete in a global economy because we are not keeping pace with other countries in math, science, and technology. We are introduced to all kinds of gadgets and software. After a few hours of an afternoon inservice, we take our best shot at using them in the classroom.

This post is not a criticism of the teachers who give it their best or the administrators who push for implementation. The error occurs when the focus becomes the methodology instead of the content. One of the reasons we fall short in our implementation is we are not doing something that comes naturally. We are digital immigrants and not digital natives. We try to utilize software that we never use personally. When we do not know how something really works, we are not really able to utilize it.
I believe the first step in integrating these resources is to use them personally first. Many (Most)?) of us are not part of the digital generation. We don't think like they do. We try to speak a language we know nothing about. Once you become familiar with a tool, we won't have to try to had to find a way to use it. It will become more natural. We will then be able to focus more on the content (core knowledge) and skills (21st Century) because methodology will take care of itself.
What do you think? Any stories you'd like to share?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

21st Century or Core Knowledge? Do we have to choose?

A member of my Twitter PLN posted a link to this article about the debate between pushing 21st Century skills versus teaching core knowledge. I won't restate the article here. I'll just give my opinion. Opponents of 21C skills are setting up a false dichotomy. It is not an either or proposition. As one of my colleagues said during our discussion of the article today, "You can't do much with knowledge unless you can creatively use it to solve problems and to be creative you need a knowlege foundation."

I don't think anyone who teaches 21C skills has eliminated linear equations, the Louisiana Purchase, or the basics of the human circulatory system. Instead they have taken these topics and used new methods, maybe even expanded the core knowledge of the students because of the critical thinking that may have resulted.

I've got other thoughts that are related, but to keep the post short, I'll post them later. What are your thoughts and experiences on this issue?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Here we go a Jing-ing

Here's a link to a video screen capture I made today using Jing. Lots of cool classroom apps for this. . .

What are some of the ways you can see to use this?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What's this all about?

Once again, I've created a blog. I'm hoping this will truly become a place of two way conversation. Along with this blog, I've created a wiki (link to come soon) where all of us can do more than just comment. But please comment here. Don't be afraid to express your thoughts or share your insights.

I want this to be a place where teachers can share ideas with one another. I want students to chime in and help us teachers. I want us teachers to not be afraid to learn from our students. For now the emphasis will be on integrating technology into instruction, especially web 2.0 resources. Here's a link to a wiki set up for a workshop I'm currently attending that will highlight those -

Join the Conversation

Welcome to Listen, Learn, Share. My hope is that you will do all three. You’ll find stuff for the teacher and the student in the traditional sense of the words. But if we really open ourselves to listen so we can learn what others have to share, we will all win in the process. Come back often and join the conversation.