Things I Know 356 of 365: The network worked as it’s supposed to

This was the status that caught my eye:
Screen Shot 2011-12-31 at 12.22.57 AM
An email showed up to tell me I’d been mentioned. (I want this service in real life.)

I in Central Illinois clicked through to see what Aaron in New Jersey said to start the conversation.

I jumped in to suggest some possible widgets or sidebar options for Aaron’s plan for 365 days of documented fitness training. He mentioned considering signing up for a marathon and triathalon to have specific goals and be able to compare results. Mary Beth in Philadelphia hopped back in to suggest we both try running a few miles and then heading to a yoga class. Aaron liked the idea, and then Heather from northwestern Illinois chimed in to second the running+yoga idea.

As all this was going on, Pete in New York tweeted some suggestions for embeddable apps for tracking training. I followed up with a suggestion for running the D.C. marathon in March and the Chicago marathon in October. We discussed it a bit more and I had to head out for lunch.

The whole conversation happened publically across 4 states and included hyperlinks for reference.

The cherry?

Hours later, when I opened Words with Friends on my phone, I had a chat message in one of my games. Michael in Colorado had seen the twitter conversation and said he was up for a shared workout plan.

Every once in a while, I’ll see a tweet or facebook update from someone asking for examples of social networking in the classroom. Those are fine. I’ve had many of them myself. What happened this morning, though, across the span of a few minutes, was an example of social networking in real life. In a conversation of 6 people, I’d met three of them face-to-face, but each had something positive to contribute to the conversation.

Things I Know 299 of 365: I had a great conversation with Dean

A single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than ten years mere study of books.

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I’ve been reading, watching, and listening as Dean Shareski has been documenting the Learning Project he’s been completing with his students. The idea was inspired by the 100 Hour Challenge from Ewan McIntosh complete with these rules:

  1. Learn a skill, concept or idea you know very little or nothing about but that you’re interested in learning
  2. Document the learning. Write about it, video tape, audio record, whatever.
  3. Consider all the sources you use to learn. Collect those resources.
  4. Take a early baseline snapshot of your understand at the beginning and another one at the end. Compare and analyze.

If you haven’t been watching it unfold, you should.

The idea of asking students what they were interested in learning and then giving them space to learn and reflect is pretty tremendous.

So, I set up some time to talk to Dean. I was curious to hear his thoughts on his learning as a practitioner going through this project and try to figure out how it meshed with my experiences from the semester. While I don’t deserve many of the kind things he said in the opening to it, Dean’s posted a podcast of our conversation here.

I love talking to Dean. He thinks. He asks questions. He gives space to think.

The problem is, we generally don’t get a chance to really talk unless we meet up at EduCon or ISTE. As I processed the conversation after we’d hung up last night, it occurred to me that I don’t do enough of this. As often as I read something and say, “I wish I could talk to her about what she wrote,” I don’t actually do that. I’m talking more than comments or posting replies here.

I’m about as connected as I can stand, and those last few inches of picking up the Skype and saying, “Let’s synchronize the conversation and see what happens” still seem too far to travel.

As strong as the weak ties can be, as networked as the world gets and as global as our passports turn out, we’ll always have to work to have the next conversation.

Things I Know 289 of 365: In teaching, the simple is complex

And so from that, I’ve always been fascinated with the idea that complexity can come out of such simplicity.

– Will Wright

In working toward completion of a final learning task in which I design a learning organization, I’m re-visiting the reading from this unit of study.

In one 2002 Teaching and Teacher Education article from Judith Warren Little, I found this description of a comment made in a meeting of teachers. One teacher, Leigh, has asked her colleagues if the will all be implementing silent sustained reading uniformly across their classrooms. It stuck me that Little’s description of the conversation captures some of the richest conversations a teaching colleagues can have:

Leigh’s questions thus becomes the occasion for revealing differences in the teachers’ instructional preferences, and for negotiating what it will mean for the teachers to work together in “piloting” a new course. These are not mere matters of technique or procedure; fundamental issues of principle and purpose figure prominently in that negotiation. Further, these are no matters that could have been fully negotiated in advance. They arise in and through the work itself. As Leigh’s question is posed and modified, engaged or deflected, individuals find occasion to state their own preferences and intentions, locating themselves in a variety of ways in relation to the collective project of the group (piloting the course, developing this week’s curriculum), past and present relationships in the classroom (student choice), and the group’s way of being (decisions).

A classmate and I were talking today about the perceived disconnect between external perceptions of teaching and the internal complexity of the work. Little is describing four teachers faced with a simple question or whether they will all be practicing the same reading method uniformly in their classrooms, and she describes the complicated nature of the attempt to answer that question quite wonderfully. This is tough work.

Things I Know 151 of 365: Should and could are different

Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

– Anonymous (though I first heard it from my high school principal)

A difference exists between the things we can do and the things we should do.

Mostly, I think about the things we should do.

The things we can do are infinite. It just seems more beneficial to focus on those things.

Today, though, I did one of the things we can do, and it struck me that, perhaps, we should be doing it more.

Tomorrow is the end of the term for SLA seniors. For my class, this means their final projects are due tonight by midnight.

Those final projects consist of a close reading of a text of their choice through a literary lens of their choice.

We’ve been working all quarter on close reading and literary lenses, so one would hope these will be strong essays.

The first act of the semester was to have them write the kids write their rough drafts of their essays and turn them in on google docs. They thought of it as an assignment while I thought of it as the collection of baseline data.

I learned where we needed to focus and what pieces of the puzzle were missing.

The closing act of the semester was to revise and finalize that same essay – to fill in the gaps of the rough draft with what they learned in the quarter.

If English teachers are constantly telling their students to take time between drafts to let them breath, these drafts were the equivalent of a fine wine in a decanter.

The problem today in class was my inability to read every document while students were synchronously reading them in google docs. While I did a fair amount of commenting and conferencing, many of the docs missed out.

I had to take my work home with me.

At the same time, my students needed to be working.

When I checked my e-mail this afternoon, I had a message from a student asking for an edit.

She was one of the students I’d missed during class, so I felt even worse.

I logged in to the google doc ready to edit.

I suppose I could have typed my comments and suggestions to this student. I could have.

But they were complex comments about global revision that required some pretty intense explanation.

I decided to take advantage of what I could do.

I e-mailed the student asking for her phone number.

She sent it in her reply.

I called through google voice.

We talked for just under 10 minutes.

“Here is where I think you could really sharpen your analysis,” I said as I moved my cursor to particular place in the document, “Do you see where I’m talking about?”

“I do,” she said.

We went on like that.

“Now, look at the evidence you bring in here,” I said, “Is that necessary to the thesis?”

It wasn’t, and she knew it.

By the end of our conversation, my student had a clear understanding of what was necessary for the strengthening of the argument and for the completion of the project. She got it.

I ended it knowing I was going to get a produce submitted that was much stronger than I would have otherwise.

Those ten minutes improved the learning of my class, though they had no connection to the classroom.

I realize I broke several unspoken rules of teaching.

I talked with a student outside of school.

I talked with a student on the phone – well, google phone.

I gave up free time for teaching.

I brought my work home with me.

I did more than other teachers would have done.

Somewhere along the way, I worked outside of contract or expectation. In the middle of it, I thought to myself, “This is something my English teachers never could have done – even if they wanted to.”

And that’s the key. That’s the thing that must transform our craft and practice as teachers. It’s the thing traditional teaching contracts and pedagogy haven’t caught up to. If I can teacher anytime and anywhere, I should be.

If I can be positively impacting a student’s learning outside of the school day, I should be.

If I can be thinking about the school day in completely different terms, I should be.

Tonight I used about four different technologies to teach a lesson more completely and impactfully than I could have in my classroom during the regular day.

After that, I ran smack into the fact that our thinking about education hasn’t caught up with the opening gambit of what’s possible.

We should work on that.

Things I Know 142 of 365: We can draw everyone into the conversation

I’m always up for a conversation. So long as it’s with someone else (and sometimes even with myself), a good conversation leads to me learning more.

And I really like learning.

Standing up to start my section of the keynote for the Ohio School Facilities Commission’s 21st Century School Design Symposium 2.0 today, I presented the audience with a slide devoid of title or name.

It read simply:

What do you want to know?

In the next line, I invited audience members to text their questions to the phone number on the screen or send a message to my twitter account.

The original plan was to follow the questions up later in the presentation and open my Google Voice account. Call it keynote formative assessment.

Due to some login issues, I wasn’t able to access my account while I was still on stage.

That was for the better.

Once I returned to my seat, I opened Google Voice and found several questions waiting.

“How do you run professional development to prepare SLA teachers for project-based teaching?”

“What do you use to clean your dry erase tables?”

“Any how-to tips for working with an odd BOE?”

In my 30 minutes, I hadn’t the time to speak directly and in a detailed way to the concerns each of the questions raised. If I’d attempted to do so, I would have missed the mark of what I was asked to speak about.

Still, each question shows at least the basics of curiosity surrounding the ideas that had been presented.

The texters were inquiring.

Any question worth asking is worth answering.

The same thing happens in my classroom. In fact, I’d wager the same thing happens in every classroom. Class discussion begins or the teacher asks what questions the students have, and the few noble souls pipe up.

Most of the time, it’s the same people. On particularly excellent days, other voices enter the mix.

Today, Google Voice helped me collect some of the voices and questions that would have gone unheard and unasked in class conversation. It was the tool for today, but it isn’t the only tool.

From time to time, when having a full class conversation around a text, I explain that my goal is to hear from all voices in the classroom. I explain the value I place on a plurality of ideas and that I’m genuinely curious as to what each student has to say.

When I asked today’s audience to share what they wanted to know, I was also genuinely curious.

In class conversations, I’ll often require students who don’t speak up in the physical spaces to share their thoughts (either a new idea or a reaction to a peer) on the class discussion board on MOODLE.

Those message board strands bear out some deeply thoughtful conversation.

That conversation is epically helpful to me as I attempt to understand each of the students in my charge and how they view the world.

Sometimes, I’ll jump in on the discussion board conversations. Other times, I’ll send a private e-mail in response.

Today, I sent a response to each text message I received. I might never hear from any of them again. I get that.

Still, when we’re banning and working to verbally diminish the power of new conduits of conversation in education, maybe it will serve as a reminder of the tools we have to draw more students of all kinds into the fray.

Things I Know 137 of 365: Conversations are excellent professional development

Change that eminates from teachers lasts until they find a better way.

– Roland Barthes

Continuing to tie up the year during SLA’s weekly professional development meetings, it was my Professional Learning Community’s turn to present what we learned during our independent study in the first semester.

My very small learning community consisted of Mark, a math teacher, and me. That’s it. Just two of us.

I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t love learning with Mark in the first semester.

What began as a plan to find new tools and writings to bring to each meeting shifted into something more directly applicable – conversation.

Each time we met, Mark and I shared what we were doing in our classes and brainstormed ways in which technology could transform students’ learning into something more engaging, authentic and differentiated.

As Mark admitted, I’ve a bit more proficiency with tech and learning. Often, our conversations consisted of me learning about the math concepts he was teaching his students and then throwing out whatever ideas came to mind.

Because I realized math is Mark’s domain of understanding and had no qualms admitting my deficiencies in its instruction, I didn’t hold back my ideas, nor did I take offense when Mark dismissed an idea as impractical.

Had I paired up with another humanities teacher, my ideas might not have flowed so freely, and any negation might not have been so freely accepted.

When it came time to plan our presentation to the entire faculty, we experienced a moment of pseudo-panic. Had we been collecting and cataloging tools and articles throughout the semester as we planned, we would have been set. Read this, now try this, now plan a sample lesson, now share, now critique in small groups. It’s the unsweetened cereal of professional development.

When it came time for today’s presentation, we decided to share not only what we learned about the tools, but what we learned about process as well.

For us, learning had been social, collegial and immediate.

In the first five minutes, we gave an overview of our process.

Next, I asked each faculty member to think about where they would rate their comfort with technology in learning on a scale of 1-10.

“Now, use your fingers to show your number. Without talking, line up from highest to lowest.”

They did.

From their, we broke the line in half. The highest end of each half was paired with the highest end of the other half and they were broken into couples.

Then, down to business.

Laptops in tow, the lower numbers in each pair explained what they’re doing in their classrooms through the end of the year. The higher numbers listened, asked questions and then started brainstorming ideas on how tech could be better leveraged to help with learning.

Mark and I milled about the room.

At each table I stopped, a conversation similar to the conversations Mark and I had throughout the first semester was taking place.

After a few minutes, we paused, asked people to share what was going well and then gave a few more minute either to continue on their topics of discussion or to let those who had been brainstorming share what was going on in their classrooms.

For the finish, I asked the group what they noticed about the past 25 minutes that stood out to them:

  • People were working cross-disciplinarily. With one or two exceptions, each couple was made up of teachers from different disciplines.
  • People were talking one-on-one about their practice.
  • People were talking about things that could immediately affect classroom practice rather than living in the hypothetical.

We also talked about what could be done to continue this kind of conversation and collaboration. The thing that stuck the most was the idea of moving outside people’s normal routine to seek out the feedback of our peers.

That’s the key of it. In a structured, focused way, we asked people to move outside the routine of talking to those in their disciplines or the routine of curriculum design and have a one-on-one conversation about improving how they teach.

That should be the routine.

Things I Know 86 of 365: Sometimes I need to put on the teacher hat

Friday, one of my G11 classes was having a class discussion. I gave them 7 minutes to find an interesting news story, pull out the main details, state their opinion in one sentence and draft a question to spark conversation.

If a particular topic lost steam, whoever brought that topic up called on someone else to inject a new topic into the conversation.

One student introduced the proposed fair schedule changes to SEPTA, Philadelphia’s mass transit provider.

As soon as the name left the student’s mouth, the class was awash in groans.

Philadelphians love to hate SEPTA. Cheesesteaks, Rocky Steps, booing our own sports teams, and abhorring SEPTA – in these things we find our brotherly love.

Once the topic and the proposed fair schedule were introduced, the expected flurry of slanderous complaints started up.

Each student took his turn to talk and called on the next.

“I know SEPTA’s not perfect,” someone said, “But, when you think about it, SEPTA can get you pretty much anywhere in the city of Philadelphia without much of a problem.”

A lone voice against the tumult. One brave villager against throngs of pitchforks and torches.

“Sure, sometimes they’re late, but most of the time they’re on time.”

“What bus do you take,” someone asked?

The lone voice answered.

“Those are white people buses,” the questioner scoffed his reply.

The conversation took a turn.

In the moments the class was snickering at this half joke, I had to decide how I was going to be a teacher once the laughter subsided.

“Hold on a sec,” I said, “I need to be your English teacher right now.”

“I need to unpack that statement because you said a lot more than what you said.”

It was one of those great moments where I got to use real language as the object of study. I talked about the mixture of humor and seriousness in that moment and suggested the humor might obscure the deeper point of the statement.

Then I pulled attention to the embedded implication that only black people in Philadelphia lived in poverty or that white people’s experiences in poverty were less valid. Briefly, I touched on the possibility that the statement also could have been construed as a weapon meant to make others positioned anywhere on the class spectrum feel guilt over their socioeconomic status.

Another student said she agreed the comment was inappropriate, but insisted their was a difference between bus service across neighborhoods.

We talked about the truth of that statement and started to play with the complexity of the whole idea.

I stopped to clarify that I wasn’t angry about what had been said, but that I would have been remiss in my duties if I didn’t take the time to pull it apart and start to consider the multitude of meanings.

I know there were probably a million ways I could have handled the whole conversation better, but that’s how I handled it Friday. Next time, whatever the next time is, I’ll do it a little bit better. And, it was loads better than some similar conversations from my first years in the classroom.

Then, as always, I tried for the same things:

  • talking, not yelling
  • eliciting conversation not compliance
  • respecting whatever opinions are on the table
  • challenging the untested opinions
  • speaking with authority, not as an authoritarian

Though it’s un-Philadelphian of me, I’m thankful for SEPTA for inciting the conversation.