Class blogs should be open spaces

The walled discussion board almost feels normal at this point. As a tool, I can understand the use of a discussion board as a community builder and idea incubator. I’m a fan of those concepts.

I’m still calling wangdoodles when discussion boards are utilized for awkward or inauthentic purposes, but I can see their usefulness as an archive of correspondences for an online community. On SLA’s MOODLE install, all community members have access to a discussion forum that’s been live since the first year – SLA Talk. New freshmen are part of the fold, and their thoughts intermingle with those of the first graduating class when they were freshmen. It’s readable, documented institutional memory. An observer is just as likely to find a thread discussing student language use in the hallways as they are to find a debate about the latest movie release. It is a simple artifact of community online.

This semester, I’ve two courses implementing blogs as assignments.

For one course, a few students are assigned each week to post their thoughts on the reading leading up to that week’s class. Each other student is required to reply to one post per week with the option of passing on one week during the semester.

The posts have yet to be mentioned in class discussion.

In the other course, each person is encouraged to post weekly. The posts’ content might be related to the readings or simply to the topic for the week. No replies are required, and the posts are weekly referenced by the professor in discussion.

If blogging is to be required for a course, the latter instance comes closest to ideal practice – not required, but preferred; not for nothing, but tied to class.

In both instances, our class blogs live within the walled garden. The thoughts with which my classmates and I play will never find footing in a feed reader or enjoy comments from those who have reading lists contrary those chosen for us on our syllabi.

They should be public. Comments from anyone around the globe should be invited and commented. Our thoughts should mingle in the cyberether.

This is true for two reasons.

One, the refinement of thinking benefits from a plurality of opinions, and the Internet offers a cacophony that would challenge us to sculpt our thinking in ways we could not imagine.

Two, an open class blog asks participants to clear their throats and use their public voices while connected to a class setting in which they can find support when their voices are challenged. More than once, I’ve felt pushback when posting in this space. Early on, it was difficult to take. Sure, I wanted people to read what I posted, but how could they disagree with me?

Opening our blogs would give my classmates and I the chance to write with the training wheels of a cohort of support while enriching the experience by exposing us to the democracy of thinking on the web.

Walling a class blog runs the definite risk of students taking their opinions into the world untested and unprepared for criticism. It also robs them of the practice microphone a class blog could become.

Learning Grounds Episode 001: In which Megan discusses her learning, inclusion, and professional collaboration

For the first episode of the podcast we spent a cup of coffee with Harvard Graduate School of Education student Megan. Over the course of a grandé, we discussed Megan’s drive to implement a truer inclusion program for special needs students as well as the difficulties of professional collaboration when new teachers meet existing systems.

Things I Know 281 of 365: Schools should stop casually dating their teachers OR Why schools should be more like frats

Nobody very remarkable ever come out of it, s’far as we know.

– Thornton Wilder, Our Town

The more readings I complete for my courses this semester, the more it seems that American school systems see their teachers as short-term boyfriends or girlfriends. They invest just enough to keep the relationship friendly and interesting, but not so much as to risk vulnerability should the relationship go south.

While I am tempted to criticize this line of thinking as jaded or cynical, I stop short of it. The transience feared by many districts and schools if they invest too heavily novice teachers’ professional development was exactly what took place in my own career. My school district in Sarasota, FL invested thousands of dollars in my professional development as part of a pilot 21st century learning initiative. A year after the training completed, I was recruited away to teach in Philadelphia. With me went Sarasota’s investment.

Perhaps the district should have required a commitment on the part of pilot participants that they would spend a minimum length of time in the district following program completion to limit attrition to other districts. Even this seems implausible. I had no plans of leaving Sarasota prior to admission to the project, and would gladly have signed such an agreement.

Instead of shifting admission and selection practices for professional development, schools should stop thinking of professional development as casually dating all of its teachers and look for a model that better serves its purposes.

While the idea of teams as described by Richard Hackman in his examination of what makes a great team serves as a possible alternative, it lacks a specificity many schools would require for high fidelity of implementation. I agree with Hackman’s assertion of the importance of setting the conditions in which it is likely a team will work effectively and reach desired goals, and in applying this thinking to schools, we must consider the expectations for team membership. Specifically, how do we build successful teams that account for and accept member transience rather than working to play the odds of building a team around those members seen as least likely to depart?

In this space, I offer collegiate fraternities and sororities as models for the way schools should begin to think about their team members and how to support them. Such institutions are built around an acceptance of high annual turnover, the need to constantly pass on institutional memory, and build unique cultures attractive to a multitude of applicants in a system awash in options. Additionally, fraternities and sororities maintain loose networks across the nation and honor their individual histories while shifting to maintain contemporary relevance.

These organizations meet each of Hackman’s conditions for team effectiveness, account for annual turnover and allow for adaptability. What’s more, they thrive on what Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink identify as the three kinds of knowledge most common to leaders in Sustainable Leadership – Inbound Knowledge, Insider Knowledge and Outbound Knowledge.

By engaging all of these knowledge types jointly, fraternities and sororities create the kind of stability, boundaries and adaptability Hackman describes and set the stage for reversing many of the negative trends in professional learning.

What I want to know is how this shift in paradigm could best be brought about. SLA gave me a fair bit of this feeling. Though not a teacher there anymore, I continue to feel connected to the school and the people. I continue to feel a sense of ownership and stewardship in a way I might have if I’d rushed a frat in college. If this is how SLA was designed, how can an existing school shift its culture to bring about those same feelings of belonging?

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.