Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Replacing grading

Joe Bower has an interesting Prezi about how he replaced grading with feedback. I like it because it used the progression of Prezi well and he is clearly thinking deeply about how he structures his class and why.

Joe's blog is about his quest to make his Red Deer, Alberta classroom more engaging for his students. He is also hard at work challenging educational practice, sometime in a constructive way and, sometimes in an aggressive one. However, since Joe is thinking about why his classroom is the way it is, he often holds my interest, and I think he is worth adding to blogs you follow.

On Sunday, Joe diverted from his usual topics to post on a video that irritated him. Having recently posted on a video that irritated me, I thought I should humour him. Despite Joe's focus on removing judgement in his feedback, his blog title of Taylor Mali is a Joke seemed just a tad evaluative to me.In watching the video, I re-focused on what it is in the grading conversation that bothers me so much. It is the control.

Teachers measuring students and declaring them bad or good is really a problem if we want learning to occur. Plus, who wants to learn when someone is watching to catch you making a mistake so they can put a big red X on in and report it to everyone? Mali is all about the control. He talks about enforced silence, students feeling like failures when given an A-.

That's it right there - teaching as tyranny. It actually isn't the marks at all. I didn't mind having to give or receive them, but the part where marks were a weapon in the struggle for dominance is an issue for me.

Having said that, I would not describe myself as a flexible, open, and spontaneous teacher. I'm a structured person and my classroom reflects it. And students didn't just get to hand things in whenever or have no consequences for anything. It's just that really bad choices always have their own consequences in the end, so I know you will face the consequences. My role is to help you learn - measuring your learning is a very small part of what I do.

By the end of last year, I was using an evaluation method that was essentially portfolio based. Students used various assignments as evidence of learning to move up on a mastery rubric. I didn't grade particular work, but I did say what learning I could see in it and I asked my students to do that for each other and themselves. Although we negotiated the marks, it was rarely a struggle and never for control. You have the evidence to show you have acquired the learning or you don't, and most students see that easily.

Every year I ask my students for feedback - I use specific questions designed to assess competence, autonomy, relevance and belonging. I also ask what they would get rid of and why, and what is critical to keep. Other teachers always ask me how I keep control without the marks, and the answer always consistently up in that feedback. Kids always say my class was tough, but they almost always say it is relevant to them. My favorite parts is this: the things they learn about through the assessment are always about how they learn well, not about the hoops they need to jump though for me. That means the control (and the grade) both sit with them. We replace grading with responsibility.

What is a Learning Leader?

As we move into the third year of Collegiate Renewal, people who have been Learning Leaders and administrators are starting to offer a vision of what this form of distributed, teacher leadership looks like. Marshall Whelan cc-d me on his version. He says that as a leader he tried to do these things and was not always successful, but he figures this is what the the job needs:
Whether you are Right Brained or Left Brained or double dominant, learn to enjoy the practice of holding yourself professionally responsible in a widely divergent community of thinking that seeks to converge into the most engaging conversations about learning that you are likely to experience. This could be and must be a mix of the Philosophical and Practical - a steady diet of one and not the other makes for frustration.

Sincerely believe in the power of WE: a We staff, a We school, and WE classrooms.
Be prepared to learn from your fellow Learning Leaders, staff and students. You have something to contribute, but it may be at times no more or less important than that of anyone else. The real power is in Group Thinking.

Believe that Excellence is a process and not a state. We are never finished/fixed products, we will never "arrive", and we can only get better if/when we decide it is for everyone's progress.

Be prepared to see messy change: always ask people to explain their version of change , as they may be on to something that you in your omniscience may just have not realized.

Recognize that we are not just changing practice for the betterment of students, but also for ourselves. Collegiate Renewal is first and foremost about changing/ empowering teachers.

Know that you are not and will never be the ONLY fount of all wisdom and knowledge on the staff.

Listen often, ask questions, do not pontificate (This is a hard one for me, or so my wife and daughter tell me.)

Demonstrate a willingness to be judgmental: about practice, but not about people. (This is the starkest change for those who have never had THOSE conversations about people behind closed doors. And yet, it is reality!)

Do not seek this job if you are thinking that this is about ladder climbing to the higher echelons of power: others will reject your motives as base. Instead, roll up your sleeves and get at it! There is beauty and worth in this noble cause in and of itself.

Be critically minded: about reading and points-of-view: Always ask "Does this make sense?" "Who could use this?" "Who needs this?" "How much of a change is this from OUR collective philosophy or practice?" "Is this something I can be the first to try?" Don't be a bandwagon leader. Remember: you not only sipped the Kool Aid; you mixed it! So drink deeply!

Lead by example....Be consistent in all your practices and schedules. Inconsistency is perceived at best as lack of organization; at worst, it is seen as lack of conviction.

Be a detective when it comes to trying to understand people's reasons BEHIND the reasons they give. Everyone is an individual and comes with a learned set of experiences and ideas and situations. Yours are not theirs.

Always be willing to look forward in both vision (where are we going?) and immediate steps in the process ( where are we headed tomorrow/ next week/month? and HOW do we get there?)

Never be afraid to look back and check if you have gone off course or gotten sidetracked. While you look back, always check for stragglers to come along beside. Be positive and be willing to compromise, but exact commitments to proceed in the process. As we say: "Permission to try, and permission to fail and try again. BUT NO Permission to NOT try."

Always look for others who can be of like mind and can take your place in offering suggestions to any and all, especially the stragglers. Someday, you will need to be replaced.

Try as much as possible to create a like minded progressive staff that can begin the process of Mindset change through seeing as many people as possible at the front giving exemplars.

Celebrate often the small victories and little changes in practice.

Never be afraid to ask "Howzitgoin'?" the worst that can happen is they'll tell you the truth! BUT before you ask, remember that the answer to the question: "when I ask you 'How is your AFL journey going?', is that pressure or support?", the answer is YES.

Look for the weary staff as a whole; know and sense when to take your foot off the gas pedal. Remember that taking one's foot off the gas pedal doesn't mean you have hit the brakes or stopped moving forward.

Be wary of the nay sayers that they do not spread poison. Enlist their participation wherever possible (make them sip the Kool Aid too). You just might be surprised at their growth!

Enjoy reading and thinking .......a LOT!!!

Seek ways for people to spend time in collaboration: it is better if they learn HOW and WHY themselves than by being told by you.

Small groups are easier to work with. They are the best blend of all that is good about individuals and all that is Good about large group thinking without the Bad.

Remember to seek feedback....carefully. You have the right to find out what you need to know and the responsibility to let others tell you what they want you to know.

Be reasonable and realize that while you may not have a life, others want one. Don't be a Collegiate Renewal Nazi.

Recognize that you will get to work with some incredible people in the Learning Leader community: some days will be terrific and some days won't. But there will always be progress made if you learn something new every day.

Collegiate Renewal is NOT a contest between schools.

Always ask superiors to explain their rationale for why they believe or do what they do. They usually have a good reason for what they want!

Strive to explain the message of Collegiate Renewal as often as possible to those who know less about it. But do it in a manner that dignifies them, and try it in plain layman's lingo.

Hopefully, you'll do yourself out of a job as We all become independent and co-operative thinkers.

Lastly, BE POSITIVE and realize that this initiative of change will take years to effect. In fact, it will and should never be over, as this is the true culture of learning civilization we are attempting to inculcate. In retrospect: I do not like the term Kool Aid: this is really a vintner's dream. We are not trying to grow the definitive grape or the best year. We are seeking to become the best vintners who grow the best varieties of grapes for any and every climate and region, adapting on a continual basis.

Marshall retires this year and he says the white hairs in his beard are stress highlights. He also says that the work of Collegiate Renewal has been the richest work of his career. I think it is the richest because of what Marshall brings to the work. He is a linchpin as Godin describes them, and his growth mindset is in all his suggestions. Adaptation, learning by looking at what is working and what isn't, and being the change you want in world are all a part of what Marshall recommends. Marshall's ideas are similar to my own, if more eloquently expressed, and I know some people find them daunting. They ask how anyone can be all that and be a full time teacher. I think maybe we miss the point. We want you strive to be these things - it isn't a destination, it is a way of thinking.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Not just talking

As a part of the work of Collegiate Renewal, we have been working to support both Learning Leaders, Learning Coordinators and administrators in leading other teachers towards student engagement. In the last month and a half, I've had the opportunity to work with a number of groups, and I have noticed that small group conversations, chances to ask questions, and work re-focusing on the specific goal of the leadership team make a much bigger difference than big professional development sessions. Last week I participated in conversations clarifying assessment goals and re-focusing on engagement, and I have concluded that these conversations are more than just talking, they are an essential part of a distributive leadership model.

When we are hoping that teachers are reflective practitioners, we are hoping that they are life-long learners and teacher leaders. Life-long learners look at research, question what is, and vision what it might be. They lead by innovating, and that innovation is the result of observing what is happening in their classrooms and considering how to grow it. Everything we are aspiring to in Collegiate Renewal hinges on all our learners being publically engaged in their learning, and teachers are a critical part of all learners, because they need to be seen making changes that help students.

I write this blog because it is one of the ways that I engage with both ideas and other people. Sometimes I feel like I am talking to myself, but even then, I am reminded that journalling my thinking is a critical part of the reflective process. Now this is mostly whining, as I get emails virtually everyday as a result of the blog, and they continue the conversation. This weekend, Scott St. Pierre sent me a number of other blogs related to the Collegiate Renewal conversation over the weekend. Two of my particular favorites reminded me that conversation itself is a complicated process:
  • I have been discussing Sir Ken Robinson's conversations since his TED talk came out. I hooked people up to webinars, recommended seeing him live and shared his ideas through PD. However, I think it is challenging for us to really understand the implications of what he is saying in terms of how we need to change schools. I think the Innovative Educator really explains it well in the post We Have Finally Perfected Educating Students for the Past.
  • I have also been concerned about the grading conversation we are having around The 15 Fixes for Broken Grades. It gets confused with our conversation around Assessment for Learning, and we see changing grading as a substitute for changing school. The conversation we had about the problems with grading is problematic for the division and parents are concerned, but the reason we had Kohn in to speak is because the focus on grade is a problem. Joe Bower has some interesting ideas on Abolishing Grading that get closer to where we want to go in terms of focusing in feedback and growing learning.

Reading the blogs of others, like talking with small groups of school leaders, reminds me how conversation is organic. Ideas spread and grow among those who are looking to learning, and talking about them is more than one conversation. It is the extended dialogue, across times and beyond a physical location, that really creates the growth all learners need. It is this growth that is our best hope for changing schools - making the simple process of talking to others a firm step in the direction of the 21st century school. We need to remember that the process of talking to others about the changes you are making is a critical part of leading as an educator.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Dropout Talks to Educators: What would we say in response?

I got an interesting video off my RSS feed this morning. It's talking about university, but really about educational institutions in general. In Collegiate Renewal, we often discuss student voice, and the value of the voice of the disengaged. Today, I heard from one of them and I thought I would share it with you:

After I watched this video I asked myself a couple things about this student:
  1. What is his identity as a learner?
  2. What extended conversation is his rant a part of? (Reading the other videos and comments after his rant on YouTube gave me a partial answer)
  3. Why did he annoy me so much, even when I know he has some good points?

I found myself watching some of his other rants and wanting to declare him just a guy who always rants. Discrediting this rant as one in a series helped me to feel better about the fact that he calls all of us teachers largely irrelevant. I even think that there is no value in just teaching and assessing facts, and have made his main point in previous posts on AFL, and engagement. Even when I agree with him, he irritates me.

Part of it is I want people to talk about how to solve the problems, not just try to prove they exist . . . and yes, I know this position is ironic given my lifetime coaching debaters. I also want to celebrate the work we have been doing to change the way education works and focus on opportunity thinking. But I think that isn't all of. I need to do some more thinking about this one and I could use some help.

Do you have any answers to any of my three questions? What else should I be asking?

related note - report on high school dropouts and reasons (March 2010)

Monday, March 22, 2010

It isn't really a technical work-around

Three teachers emailed me today about various work-arounds they have been trying when technology doesn't work. As I was helping them with their technical issues, I was thinking about the practice of working around and what it does. These are all hard-working caring teachers who have just become so frustrated with technical problems and systemic barriers that they have given up. I understand why, I have days where I am with them, but I think you need keep saying when things aren't working for you and your students.

First of all, some common language. I am fine with avoiding conflict over difference of perception or different ways of doing things. Likewise, if it isn't about something important, I say let it go. When I' m talking work-arounds, I mean a situation where there is a problem and the problem is significant. You are working-around because you think you don't have the power, knowledge or skills to fix it. Here is my case for why working around technical or systemic problems in education in a mistake, regardless of the tools you have to fix the issue:

1. When you work around the problem, it is still there. Sometimes you even make it bigger.
My brother-in-law has a pet rat (pause for collective shudder of revulsion) who, like many domesticated rats, has developed cancer. The rat has a large tumour near its leg that it has learned to work around, even though its leg doesn't work the way a leg should. The rat is able to function, but only for now, because the tumour is still there, and it is growing. In education, we frequently have problems that are systemic or technical, and individuals just work around them. However, doing this actually collectively shapes our practice in a cancerous direction.
Let's say our filtering doesn't allow to access YouTube (common in many school divisions, although not ours). People start sharing how to access blocked sites, students teach teachers how to use a proxy server and teachers turn a blind eye, and technicians see the illicit access and do nothing. Because the filtering wasn't updated, it becomes institutional practice to ignore division policy, and a cancerous view of policy in general is spread.

2. Not all people can work around the problem.
Especially where technical problems are concerned, only a select few understand how to solve the problem. If the average person doesn't know the difference between their computer hard drive and their personal network drive, they don't understand how why just saving to "my documents" means they can't find the document when they log in from home or at a different computer. If we try to teach people work-arounds rather than addressing the problem, we turn less comfortable users into non-users, because it just doesn't work - that darn computer lost their files again.

3. Working around prevents reporting and solving.
If you try to work around a problem rather than telling others it is a problem, then it looks like the problem is just yours. If it is a systemic problem and no one reports it, the system has no way of knowing it needs to be addressed. Teachers I work with are always telling me there is no point in reporting something because it often doesn't get fixed. I respond that if people never report it, it is 100% guaranteed not to be fixed.
In some ways it is like civil disobedience - it needs to be publicly said that something is wrong by a lot of people to get a system to change. People who just work-around are saying that they want the system to stay the same.

4. Working around grows a culture of accepting "being broken."
We want our students to work at learning how to solve a math problem until they can do it. The worst math class to teach is one full of students who are convinced they can't do math. Their low potency means that they become nearly impossible to teach because have failed before the learning even begins. We are the same way with computers. When we say "That dumb thing never works" but then do nothing, we are committing not to come to the table to solve it, and we make it okay to not learn, grow and change. That is never okay in a learning environment like a school division, a classroom or a technical department. Accepting it just doesn't work and not finding something that does is making non-functional just fine.

I know that sometimes we really do have no power to change something, and repeatedly pointing it out just irritates others. It gets me in trouble all the time. On the other hand, irritations are itchy, and an organization inevitable scratches them, creating the opportunity for change. If something really isn't working for you and your learners, you need to report it, encourage others to report it and point out when it still isn't solved. If it is technical, call your help desk or help portals and stay on it until in changes. That's what we do with our students, specific descriptive feedback about how close we are to the destination until we actually get there. As Jay would say - it isn't about criticism, it is about getting better. Now that's a growth mindset.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Reflections on the 21st C Learning Day

It is never easy to look to closely in the mirror if your purpose is to see what is wrong. It is much easier if you are looking into to yourself to try to make things better, and it is even more successful if you have some friends along to help you out. Equipped with my growth mindset, I decided to look closely at the professional learning day Lois and I planned.

At the end of the session on Tuesday, Lois and I looked at the feedback we got from teachers attending. At that point, I was feeling frustrated about how parts of the day had gone. By the time teachers go back to the Gathercole at 2:15, they were clearly tired. They had been listening to each other present since 10:30, and most of the presentations were primarily lectures with visual aides. I realized I needed to do a better job of helping teachers feel comfortable leading others in doing or using more models and examples of student work - it wasn't clear that would be welcome. I was also worried about overlap in some session topics. As I looked out, I saw fatigue reflected back. Lois and I wrapped things up and asked them for their feedback, and I expected them to say it was too much. Mostly, they commented on what worked, what they need to keep learning and what structural changes they'd suggest next time we do this.

I asked for no "good job" style feedback, and our participants mostly gave practical suggestions, and explanations of the impact on them. I got a number of next day or later in the evening feedback around structure of the day. Almost all of it was discussion of how valuable it was to hear what peers were doing, but I also got some good ideas for structure:

"One more idea I wanted to add (as I kept thinking on the drive home) - next time, perhaps people could be surveyed ahead of the session to see what topics they would like to see addressed or presented. This could then help to then help to build the day."

Even teachers would did not attend are thinking about ways which we can keep sharing about technology and learning. One our teacher librarians send me a link to TEDx, a series of TED talk style presentations. As I thought about the day, I realized that I was seeing what I see in a classroom, lots of good learning with some things I'd do differently next time.

After the day was over, a group of six of us got together to add a second mirror - you know, like you do when you want to see your hair in the back (Speaking as middle-aged woman, seeing your backside is not always a great experience.). However, our collective reflection really gave me some good insights this time. Here is what I learned over the two days:

  1. You can't under-estimate the value of just-in-time technical support. We had Jay there for help, but still had many mini-computers that did not work, issues with the Smartboard and some software issues. One thing that I would say is that teachers with greater fluency were much more able to work around the problems (read some interesting comments re the on-going nature of technical problems in the comments about this post)
  2. It is easy to have anxiety about putting your ideas out there. In our group, some of us found it really hard to know our ideas were being 'published' to the world. I think this may be related to another observation I had. Many of the teachers used technology to comment on student work, but a much smaller group encourage student to provide specific, descriptive feedback to others. We teachers struggle with creating and publishing to the world - it's that need for perfection rather than growth. I need to think some more on this one.
  3. I always move things along too quickly, and I did this time even with Lois to slow me down. I need to remember to give others time to reflect. My internship report (last thing a pre-service teacher does to be certified) had one suggestion for improvement - wait time. I need to work more on this.
  4. Teacher's speaking to each other about what they are trying, not what they have perfected, is a really good way to promote reflective practitioners.
  5. We talked to much about the technology and not enough about why we are using it. That happens ever time. Lois and I discussed it and how to avoid it, but it still happened. Dave noticed it within the first 1/2 hour. Hmmmm. . .
I really appreciate all the teachers who stood up to share what they had been trying. We could never have put together a group like this a year ago, and it speaks to how the people in that room continue to be dedicated to a life time of learning. That's one image I am delighted to see reflected back at me and I think it is a critical trait in a great teacher.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sandra's glog

This is just a part of Sandra's glog to show her learning. You can see the full glog at the link. Glogs are online posters created using web 2.0 tools like Glogster.

Acrobat Audio Comments with Rolf Polan (excerpts)

Lois Keller's Thoughts on Inquiry Learning Session

Teaching, Technology and Las Vegas

I am excited about technology – about what it can do – about its inherent creative possibilities. It has a caché not dissimilar to that of Las Vegas. It is glitzy and glamorous, promises infinite rewards that, most of the time, refuse to pan out. This sounds negative, but it’s not meant to be. If Las Vegas were bad, people would stop going back. Right?

That said, melding technology with good teaching, at times feels a little bit like winning at craps. (Of course, if you don’t win, you can always drink.)

Just recently, I decided to experiment with Etherpad and Wix.com. This experiment was facilitated by a kind teacher who was willing to have me in his classroom messing up lesson plans that potentially would have run more smoothly without my interference. The benefit for this teacher was that, as teacher-librarian, I had time to find and create resources (and web sites) that, hopefully, would make the students’ experience of the novel richer. Our goal was to provide students with some background to the Russian Revolution (before reading Animal Farm) through the various links provided in the web site. The students, then, would have the opportunity to collect their learnings on a group Etherpad. Their writings on the Etherpad would serve as preliminary notes/background for the novel.

I congratulated myself on my brilliance and off we went to the library to learn.

After an inspiring explanation of how Etherpad works, the students responded with blank, unimpressed looks akin to what you might find on someone who has just been hit in the head with a large pumpkin.

The conversations went something like this . . .

“So basically you want me to use this Etherpad thing to communicate with the person who is sitting right beside me?”

“Well, yes, but they could be anywhere. Think of the possibilities . . .”

“But they’re right beside me. I could just talk to them.”

“Well, yes, but you can also pose questions that your teachers can answer at some point . . .”

“But you’re standing right there . . .”

It was a bit like “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” It didn’t matter how much I tried to convince the students that this technology had potential. They knew that I was standing in the library naked.

But my learning was not complete. There was more to learn (and clearly it was I who learned the most on this particular occasion). This is what I learned . . .

• Students need to be told to use their real names when doing school activities using technology. As unbelievable as it may seem, it is not that easy to identify “Brown-Ice,” “Tasmanian Devil,” “SexyMiss16.”

• Students also need to be told that using the chat function on Etherpad to tell other students to “F-Off” is probably not appropriate for school.

• New technologies are a little bit like Las Vegas showgirls – it’s easy to be distracted by the glitter and forget that it’s, like, really hard to be a Las Vegas showgirl.

• While students may be “Digital Natives,” in some ways they are just as illiterate, primitive and barbaric as we “Digital Immigrants” (not to mention the lesser known “Digital WTF Are You Talking About?”)

The experience, overall, was a bit like getting married by an Elvis Impersonator after drinking a fifth of gin – not great, but not that bad either. And definitely worth trying again, once you get the first marriage annulled.

The experience with the students, Etherpad, Animal Farm and wix.com, not to mention a generous and patient collaborating teacher, simply underlined that learning is messy (leaves bits of feathers and sequins everywhere), and often things do not go as planned. That said, we’re not done. Next time the lesson will be better. I think it’s what keeps people coming back to Vegas – sometimes you win.

Learner Lois Keller

Literacy for the 21th Century... what does it mean in our collegiates? What does it mean to students? What does it mean to teachers?

My roles in working with Collegiate Renewal as a learning leader, resource teacher, support literacy coach with READ teachers and a mother of adolescents has lead me to numerous questions around how we are meeting the needs and inspiring the potential of our students. The changes in popular culture, and technology present an urgency and opportunity to creatively and collaboratively respond if we are going to support all our learners. I am a digital immigrant... one who breaks into hives when I am responsible for using technology, and yet I see incredible possibility for all of us to meet the learning needs and collaborative and communication possibilities.

A year ago to the day, appropriately on St. Patrick's Day, we gathered as a group of READ teachers committed to the literacy of adolescents and we began a journey investigating how Web 2.0 tools would best assist our students in capturing their ideas and support their literacy needs. We worked toward developing school based teams: READ teacher, teacher librarians, EAL teachers, and resource support teachers. It was our beginning point with technology, and now a year later, many of those individuals who were just beginning to imagine the possibility returned to lead the conversation and share their experiences.

Overview - 21st Century Learning Day

Yesterday, a little over 40 educators in Saskatoon Public Schools got together to share what they had been learning about technology. Today, a group of us are getting together to reflect on the day and future steps. Our inquiry will revolve around what teachers need in order to be supported in using technology to grow student learning and literacy.

Who will you hear from?

Throughout the course of the day, we will each be publishing materials on-line that will include our reflections about our learning in during our PD yesterday, and our thoughts about the supports need to make our technology use in secondary classrooms meaningful. I will keep modifying this post so it is an index of all our posting.

Pre-day thoughts

During the day


Literacy: It's not just about reading anymore

I was fortunate to attend an in-service on Literacy in the 21st Century. What made this professional development session different was the audience. The focus was on use of technology, which often means the audience will be individuals with an interest or expertise in technology. Yesterday, half of the audience comprised of language specialists, many of whom also presented.

With four concurrent sessions over three time periods, there were plenty of options for the participants to chose from. It was great to see the use of technology integrated into various areas of instruction.

One of my personal areas of interest are the use of Virtual Classrooms, a piece of our school system's portal. A VC can be used in a variety ways, from web-enhancing a classroom by posting notes, assignments and a calendar of events or to providing online forums for students to post work, provide feedback, work collaboratively, and support each other. It was great to see such a variety of areas leveraging this piece of technology.

Today, I hope to gather a few clips from the various sessions to provide a feel for way technology is being used in Saskatoon schools.

Literacy in the 21st Century: Technology as a Foreign Language

Literacy in the 21st Century is presenting challenges for me as a learner and as a high school English as an additional (EAL) teacher. I readily admit I'm technophobic. (I still rely on my daughter's written list of instructions from 1997 explaining how to program my VCR . . . yes I still use a VCR.) As a participant at the Literacy in the 21st Century workshop on March 16, my reflections are from the voice of the technologically challenged learner.

That's me on the left, Arlene Fedorchuk, trying to participate at one of the sessions. Note my trusty pen and paper technology because I can't log in to my computer.

As a technologically challenged learner, I often find learning about new technology overwhelming and energy draining for several reasons. First of all, the language of technology is a foreign language that I am slow in acquiring. Secondly, I struggle with the basics such as logging on or opening sites and I don't know why. Some days I swear leprechauns inhabit my computer and wreck havoc at will. Thirdly, I need to have time to process each step of the application, but because I struggle with technical issues, I'm always a step behind the presenter. I am a bit competitive (I like to think in a healthy way) and I lose focus as I struggle to learn and worry about falling behind. Fourthly, I see the potential in incorporating new technologies in my classroom - I actually get really excited about this - but because when I leave a session, life gets in the way and I don't revisit what I've learned, I'm often left with a sense of failure as a learner and as a teacher who missed an opportunity to offer EAL students alternative pathways to acquiring the English language.

Ironically, however, I was a presenter at yesterday's workshop too. Yes, me - Ms. Technophobe. I presented a session on my EAL students' use of Photostory to share their learning journey in my EAL classroom. I have to say I surprised myself by accepting the invitation to present, especially because I identify myself as illiterate in the area of technological literacy. I realize several factors were part of a process that led me to the place where I had enough confidence to share my learning with my colleagues, which were:

  • stepping out of my comfort zone and taking a risk
  • making the time (uninterrupted time) to spend using and experimenting with Photostory
  • inviting our teacher-librarian to be on hand in my classroom to troubleshoot the technology as together we introduced it to my students and as the students shared their final presentations
  • taking on the role as learner and learning with and from the students
  • trying Photostory again and again with other classes and working out some of the kinks

As a participant at the Literacy in the 21st Century workshop, I came away with an array of feelings and lots to think about. I was amazed at the variety of new technologies shared, and I felt inspired to try some with my students. But I was also overwhelmed by the sheer number of technologies and could feel myself disengaging because of the overload.

Hmmmm . . .

I wonder how students feel about incorporating new technologies into their learning. I've heard the talk that young people are often more technologically savvy than adults. It's true that some EAL students are highly technologically literate and possess the latest technology. But, others arrive with low first language literacy, and have no experience in a school setting, let alone with computers. The common factor among this student group is that each student is an English language learner who needs to acquire both conversational and academic English in order to be successful in high school. As their EAL teacher, the technologies' ability to enhance students' English language acquistion will be what I keep in mind as I decide which new technology to incorporate into our learning environment.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

No Longer "Preaching to the Choir"

My job changed just after Christmas from a full member of the Collegiate Renewal team, to one called Instructional Technology Analyst. While I enjoy both jobs, I somewhat miss the closer connection to instruction and working closely with teachers on strategies directly related to their instruction.

Now I do work with teachers, but I feel it is more at the adoption level. Many of the teachers I am speaking with now are teachers who are not necessarily pro-technology, and in fact, some see it as something that is taking away from learning. While people are generally very kind to me, I know that there are many who do not share my views of technology in education. While with Collegiate Renewal, I mostly felt like I was, “preaching to the choir.”

With my new position, I struggle to find ways to make people comfortable enough to try new things and be adventurous, and to see how technology is not just another thing to do, but another thing to help us do what we want to do. We need to define clear outcomes, then use the technology to help us reach those outcomes. So that rather than trying to keep the students from using technology (“it is so distracting”) we need to find ways of embracing the technology that is so engaging to the kids. As one of my colleagues commented today, “a pencil is a technology, but we don’t think about using it, we just use it to do the job we want to do.”

And while it is different work, I find it rewarding and challenging to have these conversations, just as I did when teaching students who weren’t necessarily, “buying what I was selling.” But when I can make them challenge their own thinking, then I have done my job.

Integrating Courses

I went to watch Bill K to see that he did with his innovative grant for technology. Bill decided to teach a class called Robotics, which is taught as a computer science credit, although students are learning engineering, design and programming. Bill has taught computer science 20 for a number of years, and covers the essential content which adding vex materials. You can view Bill's prezi to get the basic idea of his presentation.

Bill's robots are like a combination of vex (think meccano) and a programmable brain. The brains have a programming module and a couple of processors, and can be programed in a variety of languages. As Bill talked about all the things that he could do with the robots and the students' problem-based learning, you could see why many students would be engaged in the process.

Bill's students get to take their robots beyond the classroom to Skills Canada. He said, "the student engagement level is much higher [than computer science]. They program it, then they see it in action."

In the 30 level, student will learn how to design and fabricate robots, adding electronics, welding, cutting, and other fabrication skills. Bill is excited about the fact that this class will integrate a series of skills for technically inclined students. As I watched the video of the students driving the robots they built in skills competitions for cheering crowds, I could see how an authentic audience really added to the student engagement.

Bill described how easy it is to retain students, who love the class. He describes himself as a co-learner or facilitator. He described a day when he was working with another teacher about what engagement looks like. Bill quickly opened his class, and his students were all in and working while he talked to the teacher. He realized anyone could look into the room and see engagement - busy students talking loudly, problem-solving and working with technology.

For the second half of the his session, Bill talked about how he has been conducting his assessment using wikis. Bill started by explaining the advantages to the site being open the public, and how he handled problems with inappropriate additions. He likes wikis because it is clear what each user contributes and students are accountable for their learning. You can view their wiki or their specific group work. Bill likes the fact that you can the history allows you to see what each person contributes. Because he uses negotiated assessment where students explain what they have learned and use evidence from the wiki to prove their contribution. He uses the comments for students to provide feedback for other students. Bill noted that students learn the most by commenting on each other's wikis.

A media-rich environment for language learners

Sandra Mancusi and Joanne Molaro started off by explaining how they use Drop.io. Their whole session can be found there, and the login is student. They also created a prezi, which can be found in their list of links or viewed directly.

Sandra and Joanne applied for a tech grant last year from the division to create a language lab. They got a grant and picked up computers, speakers, a smart tablet and a data projector. They also attended ISTE in the summer of 2009 to prepare themselves to use the tools. I am excited about going to ISTE this summer, and their experiences make it sound like I will like it.

As the presentation started, getting the smart tablet and the smartboard working was an issue. However, they worked around technical issues, and showed a variety of tools they were using. I was reminded that we need just in time support available in our collegiates and at central office, so that when there are technical problems, they can be quickly solved.Sandra and Joanne are adept enough users that they can work around it, but many others are not.

The free web 2.0 tools they are using create a really rich set of expereinces for students. Sandra explained how using Glogster allows students to speak in Spanish, record their writing and personalize layouts. The ability to create, personalize and share is very well connected to 21st Century Literacies.

As Joanne was explaining her voicethread she did a great job of explaining how it helps English as an additional language learners. She created a presentation of Rememberance Day, and gave students a copy of the text. They pre-learned words, and uses the voicethread as a listenting activity. This allowed her students to listen and re-listen, to decode using the images and to prepared for the new cultural experiences. It also introduced students to Voicethread.

Voicethread is a good tool for assessment for learning, because you can leave oral or written comments on the digital story. Joanne created examples and the class discussed criteria. Then they created their digital story. As they were presenting, Sandra noted that audio visual examples help students process the content more effectively. Sandra and Joanne showed student voice threads and how to make comments on them.

Each time I see voicethread used, I think about how we want to teach students how to give specific, descriptive feedback. When Joanne's students presented their voicethreads, she had them explain what they chose and why, which helped with metacogintive skills. Since the project asked students to compare their orginal city with their lives now, there was a good chance to do critical thinking. Sandra noted that there is no real way to archive work for free. That is a problem if students are trying to develop portfolios and show their learning over time, whcih is critical to metacognition.

Sandra and Joanne showed a wide variety of tools, and it is worth your time to view the links at the top of this page. However the best thing about their session was what they spent a lot of time explainign why they did what they did and invited audience comment. If we do this kind of thing again, I think we should suggest more why and audience doing in general.

Teachers reflect on the last 20 years

As a part of our opening session, we had teachers think about the changes in a wide variety of areas compared to K-12 education. You can see the full powerpoint and the list of presentations.
The teachers worked in groups to comment on the changes they had seen in technology. At first they were instructed to make lists, then they made a sentence to capture the critical differences. We used Etherpad to write the comments.

If you haven't used Etherpad (or the identical Type with Me) before, the basic idea is that you can co-construct something at the same time. It is like Google wave but more limited. However, it has the advantage of being instant, with no login. Etherpad was in good form yesterday, but seems to be down as I am writing this.

With Etherpad/Typewith.me, you can create your own title, or let the application generate one for you. Next time, I'd make my own, as a the lowercase L and the capital I looked too similar and we wound up with two pads, here and here. Looking over the pads shows some interesting things about how this group of teachers, all of whom are trying to use technology in their classrooms, feel about the technical changes. Sometimes they are positive about the opportunities, but many times they are concerned. I think that the opening session reveals many of the challenges we face as teachers trying to embed technology in our teaching, including the pace of change and the challenges that our students present as digital learners.
I am not sure we really understand what digital learners mean - sometimes we think it means uses computers in an expert way. Our students aren't computer experts any more frequently than we are, they just prefer to take and use information differently. I wish we had more chance to discuss this.

After we looked at how banking, travel, books, movies, music etc. were all changed (think both the technology and the underlying way of interacting) in the last 20 years, we came to the slide of K-12 schools. It was the first example of silence, followed by a little whispering, clever comments and some laughs. It's hard for teachers to get to that visions of engaged digital learner to be a reality.

Audio comments avec Rolf's wry humour

I got to attend the second half of Rolf Polan's session on audio comments. Rolf is a Secondary Instructional Technology Leader and an on-line teacher. When I arrived, he was showing a video and explaining the freeware and Mac tools he uses. Here is a still of the video - you'll have to ask Rolf for the full meal deal. You can also watch excerpts on Scott's post.

Rolf talked about how he use Adobe PDF to use leave verbal comments on student work. I can see how being able make more comments in the same amount of time could really help us growing student ability.

3 of his tips that really interested me:
  • He saves a general comment that he inserts in all of the students' work for one assignment
  • Students just double click on the PDF file to hear the comments
  • Giving audio comments allows you to comment much more extensively, like having a conversation in a classroom, which makes giving specific, descriptive feedback easier. It also makes it easier for students to understand what you've written on the document because you are expanding it.
Rolf's presentation, specifically the humour in his video where well worth the time in the session. One of my favorite shots was Rolf marking massive piles of disorganized assignments, followed by a pan to a massive attached table with late assignments.

One question I asked was if used students use audio comments to provide feedback for each other. Rolf's students are at a distance, finding ways for students to interact and help each other learn is more challenging than it is in a traditional classroom. Like all the presentations I happened to go to, Rolf used the tools so he could provide feedback, but did not use it with students. As we work more on engaging students and practicing the principles of assessment for learning, this will be something we all need to work on.

Being a Google Jockey

I just sat in on Erin Robson's session on Inquiry in English classrooms. She showed us how to use Inspiration, a mind mapping tool, to help students start an inquiry. Erin uses a KWL process and has one student driving the computer while she is facilitating the discussion. I got to be the student (learn about why we use students as Google Jockeys)

There were about 15 of us in the session, and we help Erin brainstorm around "Why Zombies are still so popular?" as a part of the Unknown unit in grade ten English.

Three things I thought would others might like:
  • Outline view - you can change your mindmap into an outline that students can write from. It helps students students go from brainstorming issues to structuring in a linear manner.
  • Photos and Google advanced searches. Erin showed how to use the new Google search tools. I think teachers need to remember about copyright - we need to address that issue more as professional development people at central office.
What I would have liked more of:
  • I'm not sure we should have had 1/2 hour sessions in general. I think it almost always made the sessions rushed, and reduced the time where we might have discussed or practiced on our computers
  • I liked it when Erin explained why she did what she did. More examples of student work or explanations of why would have helped me in her session, and in the other sessions I went to.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Look who is coming to dinner

In my last post, Like planning a flash mob, I was talking about the complexities of planning an upcoming professional learning opportunity. I will have that "opportunity" tomorrow and I am excited about it. I was very nervous we'd only have a few people, but we are over 30 now, and I have had to add spaces to present.

The day, which is about 21st Century Literacy, has attracted a pretty wide group of teachers, most of whom will be presenting about what they are doing this year. It is designed to be a conversation between professional learners about what they are trying and how it is going. Some of those coming will present for an hour, some for a half hour. I like the fact that some will talk about co-teaching experiences as well.

We are going to have a very diverse group of people who are coming to share what they have been doing to meet student needs. They are sharing their learning along 1 or 2 of the themes of the day: assessment for learning, struggling readers, learner engagement, differentiation, and digital learners. Here is a look at who will be there.
  • READ teachers - teachers who work with reluctant or even no-readers on acquiring literacy skills. These teachers are a part of our division's priority of Literacy for Life.
  • EAL teachers - teachers whose students speak English as a second or additional language. These teachers are working on language acquisition in addition to literacy skills.
  • Pod and Grant teachers - teachers who have been given different or additional technologies to meet a specific instructional need. In the case of the grant teachers, presenting about their action-research is a required part of the grant process.
  • Secondary teacher-librarians - are teachers who manage our learning resource centers/libraries, and work with teachers and students to support learning. Our TLs are typically full-time in the library. This year our TLs have been working on creating a digital presence for our libraries.
  • SITLs - some of our Secondary Instructional Technology leaders will be present. They work with teachers in individual collegiates through planning, instructional and technical support. Almost all collegiates have an SITL, some of which have release time to work with teachers.
  • Classroom teachers - a number of classroom teachers, particularly English/Language Arts teachers are coming to present what they have been trying in their classrooms.

Throughout the course of tomorrow and the next day, some teachers and our professional development team will be documenting their experiences learning. I'll be posting on this blog, others will capture video, build digital stories and use other web 2.0 tool. Expect to hear a lot from us.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Like planning a flash mob

One of the members of our board gave me the idea for a new kind of learning experience I am helping co-plan next week. It reminds me a bit of trying to plan a flash mob.

The session is about 21st century literacy, and has some elements of formal presentation. However the bulk of it is teachers talking to other teachers. Each participant comes and talks about a technology or idea they have tried in their classroom. These short sessions are a combination of professional sharing and discussion.

In the next week I will start to get confirmation of who is coming and what they will be talking about. So far, I only have 4 confirmations. Teachers seem pretty nervous about the sharing part, I think because they feel they need to be experts. I am getting worried that we'll be a mighty small group.

One of the other things we are doing is having some teachers document what they are learning as they are learning it. Again, I am a little unsure how it will turn out. Yesterday, I was in a PD session with a teacher who was talking about planning a flash mob as an arts education project with her students. You can watch the project on YouTube.

We watched their "performance" and she talked about the nervousness of doing something with only Facebook to promote it. She also found it difficult to get permission from the malls they wanted preform at. It's feeling a bit that way for me.

The day is set to go for the 16th, and day where we'll be putting together and posting what we learned is the 17th. I'll post then about our flash in the pan of a day. I'm hoping it will distill to something delicious rather than fail to ignite.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Blogs are scary

I think I might have scared others today. I was working with a group of teachers who were kind enough to want to learn about some tools to use in presentation. Then I hit them with the blogging part and they stopped making eye contact.

When I set up this blog, I invited the others on my team to help with the blog. Dave did a post on collaboration, and Judy keeps both a professional site and a professional blog with Jenn. But for all us, blogging remains more than a more little scary. Here is an eloquently worded one of my colleagues concerns:
Blogging is scary because you are putting your thoughts for all to see - cemented for as long as the Internet is out there. It feels as if you can't retract, and it is set stone.
The others concerns are just as real. Blogging could cause you to loose control of what is up "out there", or others could say something you don't want. You might upset people. Blogging is a commitment, and once you start you need to continue.

I have observed an interesting related phenomenon. Very few of the people who know me and read this blog post to it. Teachers are lurkers as a group. They often send me emails about something I blogged (I got three emails yesterday), but a public conversations is just a little too. . . you know. . .

Yup, that's the issue alright. Because even in an learning institution like a school division, too many public statements are probably not a good thing.

I have enjoyed seeing the offerings of other groups of consultants throughout the province, and think it is great to see which subjects they cover, and how they are responding to new curricula or what they value based on what they blog. But there are all those problems of public commitments when things may change, being perceived as the public voice of the division when you are an individual who is learning - it is all just so


What do you think? (Yes, I am aware of the irony of asking).

P. S. I just started reading my RSS feeds and come up with an interview with a consummate teacher blogger - tangential, but interesting.