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The Sum of the Parts

Over the past few weeks, I have been disconnected from my regular PLN (Personal Learning Network). For reasons that are difficult to explain, I had to bow out of an online chat group that holds many of my dearest colleagues, friends and greatest professional supporters. I knew my disconnect would be temporary, and I knew that I would miss this interaction. What I didn’t know was what we would all learn from it.


I think I can sum up what I learned by saying “The value of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” This seems contrary to the traditional phrase of a similar nature, but seems to fit more along the lines of real life. Have you ever noticed that you can eat way more of those mini-candy bars than you would if it were just one regular sized one? It’s the same idea. When I left my online group, even knowing that it would be temporary, I left a parting note that I hoped to continue conversations with each member of the group. The dysfunction seemed, at that time, to fall within the lurking and misinterpretation of the group as a whole. From the moment that I posted that note and left the group, I was inundated with emails, messages and other forms of contact from the same people that I interacted with daily. I was still in contact with many of the same people that enriched my personal and professional life, yet something wasn’t right. I was carrying on a series of meaningful, individual conversations, but there was no longer a group dynamic for me. I realized that the power of this group wasn’t in the individuals that composed it. It was in the collaboration that stemmed from the group interaction. The sum of each individual chat was less than the value of the whole group. To find the same value I was seeking, I wasn’t able to carry on conversations, no matter how meaningful, with individual members of my group. It has to be the whole, not just the sum of the parts.


My friend, Melissa, wrote about some of the fall out of the experience at her blog, Technology: Figuring Out How the Pieces Fit.

Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/horiavarlan/4273913228/


Reflections on a Lecture

Last night, I had the privilege to attend a special community lecture at Western Carolina University by Carol Ann Tomlinson, professor of education at the University of Virginia. I have been familiar with her work on differentiation for quite some time and highly recommend her books as informative, practical and “easy to read.”

Listening to Dr. Tomlinson speak passionately about the need for differentiation in our classrooms today, it reminded me of the many arguments I have heard for making the transition to 21st century classrooms. In this reflection, I would like to highlight on some of the points that she made and add some of my own thoughts.

1. Differentiation leads to self-confidence, a desire to continue learning, and greater understanding of content.

What struck me most about this statement was the fact that “understanding of content” was listed last. In fact, content was only a small portion of the evening’s information. The effects that providing student-centered learning offers for our students are far greater than a particular subject or test. Instead, when we find ways to meet the needs of our individual learners, we are communicating the idea that “You are important. What you need is valid.” Many children don’t get that validation in their homes and communities, so reinforcement of this nature at school is essential. By teaching students how to learn, we are offering them the ability to take those skills and apply them in many future contexts.

2. We need more pro-active differentiation, rather than re-active.

It is nearly impossible to plan for every possible scenario in the classroom. I have been teaching about writing friendly letters for 12+ years. I thought I’d pretty much seen it all. Last month, when I introduced them and asked my students if anyone had heard of a friendly letter, I got several responses. The first was “Yes. R. R is a friendly letter.” This incited a chorus of other letters that are apparently quite kind. I had to re-act in that situation, but you can bet that next year I will offer a better leading question. The ability to pro-actively differentiate can only happen in one situation – the one where you have taken a significant amount of time and interest getting to know your students carefully and deliberately. Knowing our students allows us to carefully plan for their deficits and have a plan in place to address them.

3. Our goal, in this time crunched school environment, is for students to learn as much and as efficiently as possible.

I love this quote and feel that it lends specifically to the use of technology in the classroom. When you are talking about learning content with efficiency and accuracy, computers and hand-held devices make it possible. Using technology to organize, track and monitor student progress overtime will definitely meet that need. It also goes back to the idea of pro-active differentiation. When I can plan need-based units of instruction for small groups of students or individuals, there are hundreds of free and small-fee programs available to help facilitate learning.

4. The skills that were once reserved for the top ten percent of learners are now required for all. ALL learners must be content creators.

Wow. The first point is especially poignant for me. Education has changed drastically. We, as educators, must keep up with the demands facing our students as they will enter the job market, whether right out of high school or with an advanced degree. It is not enough for students to regurgitate information and just organize old information. Students must be creators of content, both original and synthesized of already processed information.

5. ALL students need a pedagogy of plenty – high ceilings, high relevance and high personalization.

Love this. It should be a requirement in every classroom of every age. Period.

Dr. Tomlinson’s presentation from last night can be found at  http://bit.ly/dhDvLo.

A Commentary on Comic Books

I haven’t seen Waiting for Superman. I didn’t watch the report on MSNBC yesterday and the Town Hall meeting. I didn’t even follow the commentary on Twitter with my colleagues. I’m not sure what Education Nation is all about at this point. I don’t need Oprah to tell me that there are things about our public (and private) education system that aren’t working for our kids. Teachers, parents and students have been saying that for years. Yet, Superman isn’t the answer.

Now, I’m not a comic book person. I can’t see that I’ve seen any of the ump-teen Superman movies in their entirety, but I was a fan of The Justice League on Saturday morning cartoons. I will not argue the fact that Superman comes to the rescue and saves Metropolis countless times on the big and small screen and on newsprint pages around the world. But there are few things that I would like to point out about the idea of Superman that will certainly NOT save education.

Superman works alone. Superman doesn’t even have a sidekick. He hides his real identity from the world and toils away each day in a pretend job just waiting to be called to fix a situation. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate his intentions to protect the world from evil, but this won’t work for kids. Over the past several decades, people, programs and propoganda have swooped in to save the day countless times. Not one of these theories has made a significant, long-term impact on the education system in the United States. No one person or idea is going to help our children.

Superman doesn’t share secrets. Superman can’t be everywhere at once, but if he would have found a way to share his powers and his secrets, imagine the greater good he could have offered. Real reform is going to come in the form of waves of citizen groups who stand up to fight for our schools together, not in anonymous isolation from one another.

The trouble always comes back. Superman doesn’t help stop the problems until they are already too big to be managed and the same issues keep arising. I mean, how many episodes does Lex Luther have to be in before Superman realizes that something he’s doing to eliminate the problem isn’t actually doing that? If Superman has to save the day more than once, he hasn’t really saved it, he has just prolonged the problem. If we put a solution for our schools into play, and the problem is only fixed for a few months, days or years, then it isn’t solved.

I am all for reform of public schools and education in the United States, but Superman isn’t the one to save us. If we are, in fact, waiting for Superman, we have a bigger problem than what we are facing now.

Teaching Job Description

Over the past twenty-four hours, my mind has been overwhelmed with things going on with my students and my classroom. I have been on an emotional roller coaster. This school year, I seem to feeling things very deeply when it comes to my role as a teacher. This morning I was thinking about the job description of a teacher and, after twelve years in the classroom, am convinced that the official descriptions are, at best, humorous.

While this job description for a classroom teacher is quoted from Nash-Rocky Mount Public Schools‘ website, it is consistent with what you would find across the state of North Carolina.

“An employee in this class provides direct instruction to students. A wide variety of tasks are performed in the teaching-learning process for students, the primary one being to help students learn the subject matter and skills that will contribute to their development as mature, able, and responsible adults.  A teacher performs his/her duties under the supervision of, and reports to, the principal.”

This morning, I’ve been thinking about things people need to know who are interested in the teaching profession. These things will not be listed on any official job description, but they are things that quickly become part of a day-to-day routine.

1. Attend more athletic and extra-curricular events that you can imagine. Have you seen a kid’s face light up when they spot you in the bleachers at their pee-wee football game? Parents and students respond to you in a whole new way when you go out and meet them in the community. Teaching is not a classroom position; it is a way of life.  Besides, you actually do have to convince children that you wear jeans and baseball caps and that you can exist outside of school.

2. Have your heart broken… on a regular basis. Teaching is not for the faint-hearted. I cried my eyes out last night over a few of my students. The things we hear and know cannot be faced with a stern outlook all the time. You have to feel it, take it in, live it with your student, feel helpless and then figure out how to conquer it. I often cannot relate to the pain many of my students have faced (and face on a regular basis). It is hard not to want to carry their burdens for them. We cannot. We can only try to find small ways to lighten them and make school a safe haven.

3. Live it. Breathe it. I don’t know very many effective and influential teachers whose minds are on work from 7:30 am – 3:30 pm. If I could get it all done and shut it in the room behind me when I leave my classroom at 5:00 pm, I would. But I don’t. I wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat wondering what I am going to do about that kid who just cannot figure out how to subtract. I worry about whether or not to call a child’s parent about classroom behaviors because I’m not sure what is going to happen to her when she gets home. I antagonize over why a student, who I know is having difficulties at home, is absent from school.

4. Listen. Teacher job descriptions are often filled with things they need to teach and do. One of the most critical things that I do is listen. I listen to kids who just have to tell me about what happened on Spongebob last night. I hear extended stories about the five-point deer they shot this weekend. I cannot tell you how many made-up knock-knock jokes I have heard. Yet, intermingled in these webs of words, I often find critical clues as to the needs of my students. I listen to parents. They do not want to be “talked at.” They know their kids and what their kids need or struggle with. Parents cannot be told what they are doing wrong. Many times, they need as much guidance as their children. One of my first principals told me “All parents are doing the best that they know how and loving their kids the best that they can.” Keeping that in mind helps me focus on listening and not on blame.

5. Motivate. The difference between legendary coaches and those whose names we will never know is not an understanding of the X’s and O’s of sports. Instead, it is a special ability to motivate individuals to achieve greatness through their own effort and self-discipline. Likewise, the teachers that we often remember so vividly didn’t do anything ground-breaking in terms of instructional strategies. Rather, they present the curriculum in a way that students feel inspired and compelled to absorb and succeed on their own.

After adding these five things to a typical teaching job description, I am chuckling at the fact that none of them actually relate to content-delivery. Hmmmm.

What would you add to the job description of a teacher?

When I Grow Up

by *¦·ωιςкэđ·¦* on Flickr

Have you ever asked your students or your own children the age old question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I must have heard and asked it a thousand times in my lifetime, yet I find that I haven’t really asked it recently of any students. In fact, the only person I’ve asked that of lately is myself. When I analyze this a little further, I have broken it into two essential reasons and elements.

First, I don’t really ask my students about what they want to be in the future anymore.  How can I? Who can begin to predict what the future will hold for them as far as the job market? The possibilities are truly unimaginable. So, I often wonder how I can approach the task of helping to prepare my students for their futures. I have to develop them as versatile and creative thinkers and problem solvers. I also have to offer them chances to explore a large variety of topics and interests. When offering my students the chance to learn about their passions, I can afford them the ability to make these interests into a living. So, why ask kids what they want to be when they grow up? The opportunities of my adulthood, like world connections and interest based learning, belong to our youngest generations. I want to help students be who they want to be today.

When considering the question of “what do you want to be when you grow up?”, I find that I am asking myself that frequently. Now, in case you are wondering, I have been teaching grades three through six for over twelve years. I have pursued additional certifications for teaching and my National Board Certification. I am constantly learning and pursuing knowledge, yet I have not sought a Masters’ Degree. Why not? Well, at thirty-three, I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. People are always telling me what they think I am good at, what I should do. Go into administration. Work full time in professional development. Work with curriculum and supervision. As I sit here typing this, I am coming to the realization that I can’t recall anyone recommending that I just stay in the classroom. I think that may be a whole new blog post though. So, how do I decide what to be when I grow up? Do I even have to decide? There’s no doubt that, in five or ten more years, there will be positions in education that I can’t even imagine. What I do now, for now, is that I love teaching adults and children. I love learning. I love  making myself a better person and educator. And, I find myself more and more resentful of the fact that I need a particular degree for an accredited university to deem me “prepared” to take another step in my career. Again, the idea of assigning value to formal versus informal learning is yet another blog post. Do I need to “grow up” to take another step? Do I want to? That’s a question that will not be answered today, for sure!

Reflecting on Reflection

I just realized that it has been over a month since my last blog post, and that is pretty disturbing for me. Don’t get me wrong, I am not egotistical enough to be fearful that my millions of loyal readers are thirsting for the wisdom that I impart. Instead, when I’m not blogging, I worry that I’m not spending enough time reflecting. An old adage says “If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it really make a sound?” I wonder if the parallel is true for reflection. If you reflect on your work, but no one hears about it, is it truly reflective?

As teachers, we must constantly assess and reflect. Every choice of my day is based on the information gathering that I do as a teacher. Today we were working on rounding numbers to the nearest ten. When my students couldn’t tell me that 19 is between 10 and 20, my lesson plan for the day went out the window. I couldn’t press on with my intended plan when the prior knowledge that was required was not present. I reflected, adjusted and progressed. In education today, we love acronyms. So, did I rap?

My lack of blogging does not mean that I have not reflected, but without putting these reflections into a tangible context, can I maximize their potential for growth? When I blog to reflect, I get the benefit of feedback from peers and friends, other experts who could probably share a thousand ways of teaching rounding that would benefit my students. When I publish my thought process, ideas, frustrations and triumphs that blossom through reflection, I can actually better myself as a reflective teacher. The act of putting these precise reflections into cohesive words and sentences offers a deeper chance for me to explore my ideas with precision and purpose.

In a year where constant reflection and assessment are going to be more critical than ever, I am pledging to make this process more open, honest and published.

PHOTO: Pool Reflections by Will Montague

Locals & Tourists

Natives and immigrants are terms often used to describe users of technology, yet I’ve been hashing out a different analogy in my head over the last few days that I thought I’d share.

Mila at the Beach by Boudewijn Berend

I grew up as a beach girl, and my dad had a bumper sticker on his pick-uptruck that read “Welcome to Wrightsville Beach. Now go home.” It was kind of a running joke about the differences between perceived “rights” of locals versus “privileges” of tourists in our small coastal town.

Locals approached the beach very differently than the tourists. We had our favorite spots and were protective of them. We knew the others that shared that spot and treated them as friends, though we often wouldn’t have been able to pick them our in another environment. The beach was “our” beach and never just “mine” so it was treated as a space that required constant monitoring, cleaning and maintenance. Finally, locals always have a reverent respect for the ocean. We were not fearful of the most powerful force on Earth, but we did have an idea about its magnitude, power and influence. Contrarily, tourtists seemed to pop in and out of different parts of the beach, seeing them as all the same and all for their use. Respect for the beach and the ocean did not always occur, often leaving behind a trail of negative interactions. Many tourists, especially those who had never been near the ocean, were either terrified of the ocean or had no fear of it at all. Neither of these attitudes were respectful or safe when it came to approaching the Atlantic Ocean.

But, what does this have to do with digital living and learning?

The ideas of tourists and locals pertains to the use of the web. Some people are born as locals. They play in the ocean in their diapers and learn to co-exist with it as a place of refuge and inspiration. Others start out as tourists, but they see the beauty and unique lifestyle as appealing and rewarding. After a period of prolonged visits, they take the plunge and become locals themselves. I think of this in terns of digital use. Children today are locals, but there are many earlier generations who have transitioned to being citizens of this new world and feel like they have finally found “home.” The main difference I see from my personal life experience is that I’ve never seen a bumper sticker, real or virtual, that discouraged new people from visiting or moving in. So, for you reluctant swimmers, come on in. The water’s fine.