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In Defense of Learning (part 2)

As I started discussing earlier in the week, Michael Pollan’s book In Defense of Food held some amazing insights for me into the world of food and many of the debates in education. I pulled out the envelope I used to scribble down ideas while making my cross-state trek on Interstate 40. One point that Pollan makes early in his book is that a food’s total value is far greater than the sum of its parts. This idea seems to hold true for education and learning as well, as evidenced in recently efforts at reform.

In educational circles we talk about reform and best practices and methodology for instruction that will alter the current educational system for the better. Yet, despite efforts to affect change, little real movement seems to be occurring. There are several camps of thought and theory to which you can subscribe, all proposing that their ideas are the only way to meet the educational goals of our students. But how can this be? How can everyone have the right answer, yet no one does?

Pollan attests that it is nature’s combination of ingredients, enzymes and perfect timing that gives Earth’s most nutritional foods their inherent benefit. As scientists have tried to isolate individual nutrients and chemical compounds for use in increasing the nutritional value of other foods, they have found that the maximum health benefit is never reached.  In other words, the individual components of the food need one another to work harmoniously to reach the best result.

Keeping this analogy, there is no “fix” for the way things are currently operating in education. We are already trying to pit too many independent ingredients against one another and trying to pretend that they will “play nice” and create a desired results. Instead, the combinations of testing, accountability, technology, direct instruction, inquiry and other bits of educational buzz are mixing together to form almost toxic stew that is virtually counterproductive.  Instead of a secret strategy to solve the issues of education, we must look for a blue ribbon winning recipe that leads to a combination greater than the sum of the individual contributing parts. So what might that include? In my not-so-gourmet opinion, I sense a combination of technology, co-learning and passion-based discovery. The most important ingredient, and the that must be the most prevalent, will need to be the student.


Just an Idea: Make n Take

Last night a wonderful conversation emerged in the #edchat session last night on Twitter about how we might facilitate discourse about technology in the classroom with our fellow classroom teachers. It was mentioned that people were tired of being inundated with tools without context, presenters with sales-pitches and no real-life connections to what they are being shown. If we are hoping that teachers will adopt educational technology for use in their classrooms, we have to provide the instruction, direction and on-going support to help them make the experience a success. Many wonderful ideas were shared and I am hoping that others (ahem! Todd Williamson and Tech in 20) will blog about how they implement teaching and sharing about all things ed-tech within their school communities. I thought I’d give a few more details about our school’s monthly “Make n Take” sessions.

Over the past few years, our administration has been outfitting each classroom with SMART Boards. We were the first in the district to really put our money where our mouths were, so we were well ahead of the curve of what professional development was being offered by the system. From that need, and an expressed desire by teachers to learn more about how to implement technology in the classroom, came the idea for monthly “Make n Take” sessions. Each month, a “Make n Take” was hosted by a different grade level in the school in one member of that team’s classroom. The host grade level was in charge of an hour-long sharing and question session that highlighted how they used technology to enhance instruction in their grade level. The members of the grade level team decided together what they would like to use as a focus, and they were also allowed to ask for “help” coming up with a topic if needed. As a result of these monthly “Make n Take” sessions, there were many excellent outcomes:

1. School community was focused. It’s often difficult to organize vertical curricular planning. By having each grade level in charge of one month, and by having all staff attend, we were able to see one another and see first hand how our strands of curriculum were fitting together. Wonderful dialogue was generated when we were around others who weren’t in our “normal” collaborative  planning groups.

2. Authentic professional development was offered. We were learning about technology integration strategies from our peers – people we trusted, people we knew were in the trenches, and people who we knew had the same “stuff” sitting in their classrooms and were teaching the same kids. No matter the discrepancy in ages between the sharing groups, there was always information that could be gleaned and adapted.

3. It fit our local requirements. It was focused on our curriculum. It integrated 21st century skills. It was free.

4. We covered a myriad of topics without being overwhelmed. Because each team took on a “theme” for the month, you had a month to go back to your classroom and try one or two of these ideas before another one was thrown at you. This time to implement was key. Having a team full of specific tech support was also essential in the success of this model. Over the course of the year, we got excellent real-world examples of using SMART boards, SMART Response Systems, Podcasting, Blogs and Wikis, Our School Webhost, and more. As each topic was addressed from the perspective of a “real” classroom teacher, it was invaluable and inspiring.

So if you are looking for a way to bring more educational technology to your school or your district, consider looking in. Teachers are often doing more than we give them credit for and they have amazing ideas. And why not harness what great ideas are already floating around in your own building and district?!

Be a Follower

Scott McLeod recently challenged bloggers around the world to create a post for Leadership Day 2009. This request could be used to address students, teachers, administration, community members, policy makers or any other various audiences that we might reach through this medium. I would encourage you to check out the other posts that have been created for today. I am positive that you will be inspired!


On a slightly different theme, I have been thinking a lot lately about being a follower. We often hear expressions that put greater emphasis on the leader, the person who is in the public forefront of a particular public issue. Yet, there is certainly a greater percentage of the population who do not consider themselves to be leaders. Some say that they are not followers either. I would encourage you to be a follower, even if you don’t consider yourself to be a leader. Now, why would I choose to encourage following on Leadership Day 2009? There are a myriad of people in society who see themselves as leaders, and a fraction of those people are considered by others to be leaders. In order to be a follower in the education and technology fields, I believe that you have to complete a personal checklist.

1. Evaluate your role in the learning process. Before you can subscribe to one school of thought or another in the education debates facing our nation today, you have to know your role and involvement in the education spectrum. Are you hands on in the teaching and learning process? If you are an administrator, do you really know what is going on in the classrooms in your school building? As a parent, are you engaged in on-going two way communication with the teachers who work with your child daily? As a community member, are you supporting the education process in your neighborhoods? As a student, do you take advantage of the opportunities that are afforded to you and seek other chances to expand your learning? As a teacher, how often do you honestly reflect on the effectiveness of your practice in encouraging students to set and reach high learning goals for themselves?

2. Know what’s going on in the news. In order to be a follower, you must be able to make informed decisions about the education policy and trends that are facing education in the world today. You need to understand the outlines of the No Child Left Behind Act. You should be aware of how national and state financial crises are causing deep cuts to the education budgets for many states. These cuts are causing losses of teacher positions, technology funds and per student spending. Make sure that you are abreast of the debate for national standards in core content areas, which would usurp a state’s rights to set their own curricular standards and expectations at each grade level. Know the testing policies in your state and how they affect students at different grade levels. Many times as parents, and even teachers, we seem to know what policies and procedures have the greatest impact on our day-to-day lives and those of our students. It can be difficult to see the broader vision of how each level’s challenges and successes make vertical impact. Community members who do not have children in our nation’s school systems must also be keenly aware of these accountability procedures; for if a school fails to meet these state and national standards, the consequences will have short and long term effects on a community as a whole.

3. Defend your position. If you are a teacher or administrator currently working in our nation’s schools, I cannot express the importance of taking time to honestly reflect on your own teaching and learning. Don’t just do things the way you have always done them or because that was the way you were taught. Those are not reasons; they are excuses. If those are your defenses and reasons for the methods and materials that you use when talking about your teaching practice, I feel sorry for your students. Examine how and why you choose the methodologies for instructing your students. Are they research-based? Are they creating multiple paths for success for all students? Are they appropriate for the age and developmentally abilities of your students? Are they aligned to what expectations have come before and what will come in the future for your students? Most importantly, are you preparing your students for the future in which they will be living, working and hopefully thriving? If you can answer “yes” to these questions, then I would love for my own children to be in your class. If, upon reflection, you cannot answer “yes” to all of these questions, it is time to step back and work on a new strategy. This would give you an excellent opportunity to research different methods and ideals and to become a well-researched follower. Even if you aren’t planning on being on a panel or serving as a keynote speaker at an upcoming educational conference, you should still be solid in the foundation of what and why you do what you do.

Even if you don’t think you have time to be a leader, I would encourage you to consider these three items. Know what you are doing and why you are doing it. Be aware of what trends and policies are facing our field and our children now and in the future. Be able to pro-actively defend yourself and your decisions and their basis in sound educational practice. So, be a vocal leader. Be an empowered follower. Just don’t be indifferent!

Leadership Day 2009

On Sunday, July 12, 2009, bloggers from around the world will be addressing leaders in school buildings, central administration and policy makers regarding effective school technology leadership. You can find links to many of these posts by using the #leadershipday09 search tag on Twitter. Scott McLeod will also be organizing and summarizing these posts at his blog, 2009leadershipday02Dangerously Irrelevant. I know I will be carefully reading and referencing these wonderful ideas for days and weeks to come, but I wanted to add my own voice to this call as well.

I will start by saying that I am very fortunate to have an administration who embraces innovation in instructional technology. As proof of her vision as a leader, she also sees technological and instructional leadership to be tightly woven together. This is an essential key to creating a school culture that will embrace the greater collaborative opportunities that are afforded with the tools available today, not just the tools themselves.  In order for students to maximize their own learning and the potential of a community to move forward in global education, schools must realize the potential for teaching and learning as a cohesive unit. A friend of mine would always follow up one of my statements like that with the question, “But what does that look like, Kelly?” In attempt to pay homage to her as a school principal, here are five steps to get you started.

  1. Create an instructional model, not a technological model. These two elements must be one in the same. Technological tools with no pedagological focus are useless.  Just because a final product is generated through a laser printer or video camera doesn’t mean that transformative teaching is taking place. As you integrate new teaching and learning opportunities into your school, you must provide teachers with on-going support and encouragement. By keeping the focus on instructional practice, teachers will see this shift as supplanting previous strategies, rather than creating additional work.
  2. Take a walk. Find a local school who is effectively using technology in classrooms at each grade level and in most content areas. Call them. Set up an appointment for a walk through. Take a group of your teacher representatives from each grade level and a camera/video recorder. Build connections at this school. I have no doubts that they will offer needed advice and support as you are transitioning. Pick their brains. Glean ideas. See effective uses of technology at work.
  3. Model leadership through learning. It is my strong belief that teachers will not effectively integrate technology for the learning of their students until they use it for their own learning. It is very difficult to create meaningful learning experiences for students when we, as teachers, haven’t had them ourselves. Schedule a training for a particular tool, such as a wiki, Google Docs or Twitter, and integrate that one tool into daily use within the school. Hold all your calls during that training. Administrative participation and enthusiasm about the learning tool will set the tone for the staff. Set up an environment where staff can explore the tool and its uses for learning, sharing and collaboration on a professional level. As the staff as a whole starts to feel more comfortable with the tools being introduced one at a time, the application and enthusiasm will spill over to student experiences.
  4. Bring Back Show-n-Tell. Once teachers and students are embracing the instructional applications for these web-based and digital collaborative tools, organize a monthly show-n-tell time. Ask each grade level or content area to be in charge of a 30-60 minute sharing session one month in the calendar year. They should share what technology resources they are using, how they are using them and the successes they have encountered. By empowering teachers to be experts in what they are doing, they will also gain ideas from peers for application in their own classrooms. By creating a culture of sharing and collaboration, teachers will be more likely to solicit the input and advice of peers.
  5. Rise to the Challenge. Challenge your teachers to alter one of their instructional units in each of the grading periods to integrate more technology. Once you have started introducing tools to the staff, encourage them to find ways to use the tools in their classrooms with their students. Equally recognize and support those teachers who are using these mediums outside the classroom to enhance their personal and professional learning. At the same time, take the plunge yourself. Take your school calendar off the giant whiteboard in the teachers’ lounge and put it on a Google Calendar where all staff members can see it and edit it. Put all of your staff materials on a wiki where they can be easily accessed and used for the staff (like field trip forms, handbooks, etc.). Take on one project at a time and begin your journey to connectivity!

Ok, I lied. I have one more step, but I think it is critical enough that it merits it’s own additional number.

  1. Reach Out. As you begin the process of transforming the learning and teaching in your school, reach out into your community. Keep parents informed as to what you are doing and, more importantly, why. Provide education for them as to how their children’s learning is evolving and what this means for them at home. Make sure parents are aware of the digital footprint the children are creating and their responsibilities at home to ensure the safety of their kids. Let them be active participants in their children’s learning and you will have no choice but to create excited, empowered, global learners.

Good luck on your journey. Be informed. Be enthusiastic. Be student and learning centered. Hopefully you will even blog about it!

Web 2.0 Debate

This week at NECC 2009 I definitely had my eyes opened to the web 2.0 debate. For me, it’s never really been a debate. When I started learning more about the technologies that are available to teachers and students through web-based applications, I jumped right on the bus. As a sat in a panel web 2.0discussion moderated by Steve Hargadon, founder of Classroom 2.0, it was interesting to see that not everyone is feeling that way. Somehow I had envisioned that the others attending the National Educational Computing Conference were like minded and up to speed on the same ed tech trends. I was truly taken aback by the numerous people who I overheard questioning what exactly web 2.0 is anyways. I’m certainly not saying there’s anything wrong with it (now I sound like Seinfeld), but I was surprised that there are still those who are totally unaware of the tools and resources that are available to enhance learning and teaching today.

One of the best questions that was asked during that panel was something to the effect of the following: Is Web 2.0 just a fad? A passing trend? Many responses were shared by the panel, but I have been thinking heavily on this topic ever since.

The term “Web 2.0” by nature sounds as if it is just a fad. When we add a number to something, it sounds as if it is going to be replaced by another version new and improved. There is already talk about Web 3.0. In education, we are constantly faced with a pendulum swing of methods and philosophies. How can we expect educators to want to learn more about a trend that, by name, seems to be something that will pass? Why would they want to? There are plenty of web 2.0 companies that haven’t survived. As one panel member pointed out, free doesn’t tend to be a good business model. If we are constrained to seeing Web 2.0 as a compilation of web based tools, then I am afraid that it will be a passing fad – or at least it will be viewed that way by a great percentage of educators.

megaphoneInstead, we must stop looking at web 2.0 as a collection of tools and more as a different mind set. What can these web-based tools offer to teachers and students? First, I believe it offers a voice. Great change in history has come from when brave individuals discovered their voices and found ways to share them with the world – from Martin Luther and the 95 Theses he nailed on the Catholic church in Wittenberg to Anne Frank and the memories she recorded while hiding in the attic of a home in Amsterdam to the students of Erin Gruwell‘s high school English classes who came to be known as the Freedom Writers. These people effected change and drew attention to important issues because of their ability to find a way to share their stories. Collaborative and sharing tools that are free and web-based have made it possible for our students to have a voice – to share their stories and learn the stories of others.

Teachers also have the ability to benefit greatly from web-based technologies such as Twitter, nings, Facebook and other social networking sites. For me, these web 2.0 applications have re-opened the world of learning for me as a professional. Through connections that teachers can freely develop, we have the opportunity to make self-driven learning decisions without regard to cost, geography or time constraints. While I may not be able to glean relevant and applicable learning from all the required workshops that I must attend, I know that I can investigate current trends in education for the benefit of myself and my students. Frankly, I believe that the successful implementation of these new opportunities for classrooms must begin with the teacher’s learning. It is my belief that it isn’t until the classroom teacher experiences the powerful results of these online networks that they can truly foster this learning in their students.

So, is Web 2.0 a trend? I think the term itself will, in fact, fall to the wayside. Actually, I hope it will. I can’t imagine that the opportunities that come from what these web-based applications have to offer will go away. I know that my learning and teaching have truly been transformed. Why will students give up the chance to be connected global learners? Will teachers? I hope not. So if you aren’t diving into the tools being offered through this transformative trend in education, start now. Don’t do it because it is “popular.” Investigate these trends and opportunities because you can benefit from them greatly – both personal and professional. Try it. Don’t start with your students. Start with you!

Seussian Megaphone : by paradigmshifter

Learning and Sharing from NECC 09

I have tried very hard to share the things I learned at NECC 09 through Twitter and my Diigo bookmarks, but there are a few areas that I would love to accentuate:

Using the iPod and iPod Touch in the Classroom:

old and new by Donna and Andrew

K-12 Cell Phone Projects: These are some teachers (and personal mentors) who are using cell phones to enhance learning in their classrooms

iEAR: Reviews apps for iPod and iTouch for

classroom use – for educators by educators

Learning in Hand: Tips, tools and ideas for using the iPod and iPod Touch in the classroom

Do So Much with an iPod TouchTips, tools and ideas for using the iPod and iPod Touch in the classroom

iEducation: Tips, tools and ideas for using the iPod and iPod Touch in the classroom

EdTechapalooza: Great ideas, apps and resources from Judi Epcke

General Tips and Tools for the K-5 Classroom:

Digital Story Telling: Lots of resources here for the art of digital story telling.

Voki: I love that students can build their own “talking heads” to share their writing. Teachers can also use on personal websites to give student/parent directions and instructions.

Bubbl.us: Great web based mind mapping tool

Toon Doo: I can’t wait to use this tool in the upcoming school year for vocabulary development, story re-telling and PSA-style projects in other curricular areas

Tammy’s Technology Tips for Teachers: Wow. That’s all I can say.

Jam Studio: What a wonderful way to teach students about mood and style with straight forward analogies to writing and reading. The music will engage and inspire.

VozMe: This web-based tool is a text-to-speech converter. I envision using this for student proofreading/editing. It also has wonderful potential for increasing comprehension from texts students find on websites that may be out of their personal reading levels. putering by reway2007

Google in the Classroom:

Google Tools from Tammy Worcester

Google Education Apps

Google Custom Searches

Google Student Blogs

Photo Credits:
Old & New from Donna & Andrew
Putering from reway2007

Or Is It About the Technology?

screen technology by ruttyA few weeks ago, I published a series of my thoughts on 21st century learning and teaching in a post titled “It’s Not About the Technology.” For a tech integrator and enthusiast like me, it was almost uncomfortable to articulate these ideas independent of technology. As a quick recap, my main points were that educators must focus on the skills of problem solving, addressing the needs of individual students and learning, as opposed to teaching.

This week, Ben Grey posted a thought-provoking article to “Tech & Learning” titled “Why Technology?” As friends of mine in ed tech positions across the United States are losing funding for their departments, and even their positions, Ben Grey’s questions are all the more pressing. As the author of a post titled “It’s Not About the Technology”, what would I say if I were asked to stand in front of a board of education or other decision making body and answer the question “Why should we continue to use and pursue technology in our district?”

Honestly, I would start by taking a quick, informal poll. Where have you received and made most of your recent calls? Your cell phone or your land line? Have you ever by passed a gas station because they didn’t have pay at the pump? Where do you look for information? In an encyclopedia or on the internet?

What do our children need to know in order to be successful in our world? Already in 2009, you must be able to navigate the internet and be savvy about decision making and purchasing. North Carolina’s Department of Motor Vehicles is no longer sending out license plate renewal notifications by US Postal Service. All drivers in North Carolina will have to go online to renew their registration. Our children have to be prepared to live and prosper in this world.

But what are we really talking about here? We talking about standing in front of a decision making body that has to weigh sustainability, budgets, personnel and other political factors. They can easily argue that technology use in the classroom has not been proven to raise test scores. Technology is always changing, so how can we keep up? Opponents say that kids get enough social media at home. So, let’s talk a language that they will understand.

The state of California spends approximately $400 million dollars per year on textbooks. Yes, that’s $400, 000, 000 every year. A university professor I know figured out that his university could hire three full-time teaching faculty positions if the university would go paperless. A particular school system in Maine spent nearly $10, 000 this year on hospital/homebound services, not including labor costs. It costs $200 per person to send a teacher to interactive whiteboard training with particular software companies. Webinars can be included for free for unlimited participants to learn on their own time in their own way. For any governing body, these numbers should be staggering. The great news is that we have the resources to combat these things in a modern, all-inclusive and multi-functional way. Technology.

What do high schools need in order to establish academic credibility? They must offer a high variety of courses in all disciplines. They need to provide opportunities for individual and collective groups of students to pursue independent areas of advanced studies. What do you do when you cannot afford a Japanese teacher for ten interested students or an Advanced Placement Biology teacher for nine motivated students? You coordinate with a community college, university or partnering school to offer these courses to students virtually. How can you provide SAT test prep for students who have to work late and on weekends? You create a free Moodle course that students can access from home at times that are conducive to their busy schedules. How do you provide high quality hospital/homebound instruction for students? You enroll them in a regular education classroom and you have them Skype in to a grade-level appropriate classroom where they can interact with curriculum, teachers and peers to facilitate learning. How do you make sure that teachers are getting “just in time” professional development? You create a series of professional development activities that are collaborative in nature to address the demands of individual teachers on a schedule that meets family obligations as well. How do you create an environmentally conscious school system while saving hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment, toner, repairs & paper? You help students. to learn and share in a paperless learning environment. How do you avoid spending millions of dollars on loosely correlated textbooks that are error riddled and often out-dated before they are printed? You build courses around free, open source resources that are web-based, accessible from all edges of the globe and are easily differentiated to address the learning needs of all students without sacrificing the integrity of the curriculum’s content.

Before systems around the United States (and the world) start cutting technology positions and funds, I hope they will consider that these positions and resources may be exactly what saves us in this time of economic uncertainty. While I will holdfast to my ideas that there are fundamental concepts that must be in place before 21st century learning will be at its best (with or without the technology), maybe it IS about the technology when it comes to best serving our students today and beyond!

Photo Credits: “Screen Technology” by rutty on Flickr