Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Thank You to Teachers to Start the Year

My daughter came home from kindergarten exhausted the other day. She was worn out in a way that she hadn't been worn out from her pre-kindergarten experiences. We've also had a couple of episodes where she has not wanted to go to school in the morning this week. She felt the same way at the end of last summer, so I know at least part of this is just making the adjustment from summer to school. That said, the episodes prompted me to ask her how things were going, and whether she was enjoying her first year of school. Her response amused me, but also tugged at my heart. She threw up her hands in frustration, rolled back her eyes dramatically and said, "It's just all about learning." 

Now, I understand that the move from pre-school to kindergarten (or any school transition) can be challenging and can prompt this kind of reaction from anyone who finds themselves outside of their comfort zones. I've watched my other daughter struggle with the move from 7th to 8th grade this year, for example. I also know that attitudes can quickly change as familiarity sets in. And I certainly trust my youngest's kindergarten teacher to make learning exciting and engaging.

My only concern comes from my daughter's equating learning with frustration. One of the greatest challenges that I think we face as educators is helping students to find the short term joy in learning when they are feeling uncomfortable. Another challenge is helping them to reach the feeling of long-term pride in learning (that can only come through continuous effort, reflection and growth) before they lose the willingness to keep pushing themselves toward a reward they don't know is there, particularly if the direction of that learning falls outside of their interests.

I often claim that learning is fun, and that if students aren't displaying signs of fun, they aren't likely to be learning very well. This comes from a great deal of personal reflection, classroom experience, and observation. But I also recognize that we all have low moments in which the learning curve we are facing causes us to associate our stress with learning generally instead of with the specific learning experience we are struggling through. In these cases, I believe that our self-reported frustration with learning comes from our natural aversion to risk and our distrust of the unfamiliar. I've seen examples of this in learners of all ages, including the adult learners I work with now.

In those moments, the effective teacher is the guide who reminds the learner of their previous knowledge, assures the learner that the risk they face isn't too great, and convinces the learner of their ability to succeed. Most importantly, the effective teacher designs learning that feels safe, that inspires wonder and curiosity, and that taps into student interest. The function of a teacher is to design learning experiences for each student that are challenging but not daunting, new but not scary, and fun but not without purpose.

It's a tall order, and none of us do it perfectly. We fail and try again. We correct our course and then correct again the next day, trying to triangulate on the particular alchemy that will lead to the joy of learning that happens much more easily in informal settings. There are days when all of this seems easy, when we see what kids need and we provide it. On those days, we feel like super heroes. There are other days when all of this seems so complicated and impossible that we want to quit, to throw up our arms and roll back our eyes in frustration.

When that happens, what keeps us coming back? A mentor who can show us that we have what we need to turn failure into success. A friend to remind us of the joy we felt the last time we overcame a challenge. A colleague to help us find a more engaging way to look at the problem. Maybe just someone to remind us why the work matters and to affirm the successes we've had.

That's what teachers do. I know that is what my daughter's teacher is doing for each child in that kindergarten class. She is finding a way to make learning seem easy, despite how hard it really is. I'm grateful for all of the teachers who have done the same for my kids at every level of their educations. I also realize that there are days when my students' teachers haven't been my child's super hero. On those occasions, I'm grateful that their teachers came back to try again.

To me, that is what we mean when we describe a teacher a lead learner. They are taking risks despite the uncertainties they face. They are constantly seeking to improve their skills and the experiences they design. They are reflecting on their successes and their failures and using those reflections to guide their practice. They are constantly looking for (and creating) reasons to celebrate the process of learning. In short, they are modeling for students the joyous work of authentic learning.

We won't all be super heroes today, but we can all strive to be. Thank you for making that effort to help any learner get past their fears and enjoy school. As a parent, I see the evidence of your influence when my daughter who didn't want to go back to school in the morning returns home excited to tell me about her day in the afternoon. Seriously, thank you.

photo credit: Jeffpro57 via photopin cc

Monday, August 26, 2013

Teacher Creativity Skill: Brainstorm and Plan Digitally

Part of being creative as a teacher is coming up with creative learning experiences for students. Over the years, I've learned that my best lessons and units came about as a result of a lot of collaborative pre-planning. No lesson plan I wrote by myself was ever as good as the plans I wrote in a collaborative setting with my colleagues, and in many cases, my students.

Creativity and Collaboration

As with any creative process, we began with brainstorming ways that we could achieve our goals. This allowed us to see the many possible ways that the learning could be approached and assessed. Because I was looking at this through many lenses, I was often pushed outside of my own repertoire of go-to learning strategies. This meant that I was learning new ways to approach learning that would ultimately benefit future students. It also meant that I had an opportunity to influence the way others approached the topic.

After brainstorming, we often settled on an approach that would suit our collective needs. At this point, we would begin constructing the lesson plans and resources that would support the learning as well as imagining the assessments that would check for understanding and growth. This is where each of the collaborator's toolboxes could be put to use. Some of us are better at big picture thinking; others are better at the details. I loved constructing Anticipation Guides, so that task might fall to me. Other folks might be great at creating screencasts that could serve as flipped learning resources. The value of collaborating with others in planning often meant that I could have a more complete learning experience for my students, and it meant that I would have more resources in place to help me differentiate for my students.

As we worked together to plan, we often had to find ways to share the vision. A few years ago, that meant a lot of face to face meetings and a lot of revisions of documents going back and forth via email. It wasn't a perfect solution given how limited a teacher's time can be, but it was necessary in order to ensure some consistency across the team in terms of the vitality of the plan, and to ensure that all team members were comfortable putting the plan into action.

Digitally Enhanced

Today, we have all kinds of tools to enhance team brainstorming and team planning. Not only that, but we have amazing resources to help us connect and plan beyond our school walls. There are amazing communities of educators who are sharing their resources online, which allows even the most isolated of teachers to find inspiration and collaborators. Teachers can build their personal learning networks to include passionate colleagues from all over the world thanks to social media and communication tools like Skype and Google+ hangouts.

Learning to collaborate and plan online is a skill set that not only adds efficiency to a teacher's work, it ramps up that teacher's professional learning, gives that teacher an outlet for sharing his or her own expertise and talents, challenges that teacher with a wider array of perspectives from which to approach the work, and provides that teacher with a nearly endless bucket of resources to help enhance learning.

Here are a few resources to get you started:

Brainstorming Tools: Brainstorm online with Easily create colorful mindmaps to print or share with others. Almost no learning curve.

Creaza Mindomo- Mindomo is an online mind mapping tool for visual learning, improving creativity and problem solving. Visual Collaboration for Creative People. Thousands of creative people from all over the world are using to grow ideas.

Padlet- We give you a blank wall. You put anything you want on it, anywhere. Simple, yet powerful.

StormBoard- Add ideas, photos and videos to a shared ‘storm’. Organize, vote and comment in real time.

Planning Tools:

Evernote- The Evernote family of products help you remember and act upon ideas, projects and experiences across all the computers, phones and tablets you use.

Google Docs- Create and share your work online and access your documents from anywhere. Manage documents, spreadsheets, presentations, surveys, and more- all with real-time collaboration.

mentormob- Join a worldwide community that’s organizing the best of the web into Learning Playlists.

Planboard- Planboard helps teachers streamline lesson plans, find resources, and collaborate with others.

PlanbookEdu- is an online lesson planner that makes it easy for teachers of all grade levels to create, share and print their lesson plans.

Resource Curation Tools:

Diigo- Diigo is a powerful research tool and a knowledge-sharing community.

eduClipper- eduClipper is your educational digital clipboard. Clip Everything. Share Anything.

LiveBinders- With our online binders you can combine all of your cloud documents, website links and upload your desktop documents – to then easily access, share, and update your binders from anywhere.

Sqworl- Sqworl is a web application that provides a clean and simple way to visually bookmark multiple URLs.

Symbaloo- Visual curation tool. Create webmixes of online content.

Lesson Plan Repositories:

BetterLesson- Browse thousands of documents, presentations, full lessons — even complete units and courses. Share your curriculum and connect with fellow educators around the world.

Educade- Empower your classroom with the best games, apps, and maker kits, including engaging lesson plans aligned to core standards.

Learnzillion- Find thousands of high-quality Common Core resources created by a national community of top teachers.

My Big Campus- My Big Campus is a web-based social learning network developed for K-12 school districts. Check out the Library and Bundles!

NuSkool- Find compelling lesson plans that use popular culture to enhance learning.

Thinkfinity- Offers free K-12 standards-based lesson plans across many disciplines including art, economics, humanities, mathematics, science and geography.

Other Planning Resources:

Curriculum 21 Clearinghouse- The Curriculum 21 Clearinghouse showcases selected resources for all subject areas, grade levels, Common Core State Standards(CCSS), global education, professional development, and many more categories.

Curriki- Open Educational Resources – Free Learning Resources for the World.

Edshelf- Find the right educational tools for your needs.

eduTecher- eduTecher is the complete reference and resource for educational technology web tools.

Edutopia- Empowering and connecting teachers, administrators, and parents with innovative solutions and resources to better education.

Watch Know Learn- Tens of thousands of excellent, educational videos in a huge, intuitive directory.

Resources to Build Your Personal Learning Network:

My PLN LiveBinder

My Google+ LiveBinder

My Twitter LiveBinder

My Skype LiveBinder

Your Task

As educators, we need to develop this skill set, but more importantly, we need to help our students develop the same skills. The ability to brainstorm and plan collaboratively is essential to learning and working in the Digital Age. The work we assign should invite and support collaborative work to solve problems and see projects through from start to finish. Fortunately, the digital tools that we have available to us make this type of work easier and more rewarding. I hope you will try out some of the suggestions above with your colleagues and students, and feel free to share the results with me in the comments below.

photo credit: seniwati via photopin cc
photo credit: Krissy.Venosdale via photopin cc
photo credit: jonny goldstein via photopin cc
photo credit: mrsdkrebs via photopin cc
photo credit: cbucky via photopin cc

Thursday, August 22, 2013

My Why

Recently our Superintendent, Dr. David Smith, challenged my colleagues and I to put thought to the reason that we are doing what we are doing. He shared with us Simon Sinek's powerful TED Talk that explains how important it is to "start with why." Dr. Smith explained that if we want to create engagement with our learners, our colleagues and our community, we need to be able to not only express what we do and how we do it, but also why we do it.

Here is the TED video:


You can also learn more at Simon's Sinek's Start With Why website.

I've actually wrestled with this subject before in an earlier post where I came to this conclusion:

In [critical] conversations with [the teachers who had an impact on me], I learned to care about who I would become in terms of humanity, rather than what I would become in terms of career. I learned to care about what my life would mean anecdotally instead of what it would mean numerically. I learned to care about cultivating my own definition of success, rather than measuring up to someone else's.

My purpose as an educator is to have those kinds of learning conversations with others, to give them the strength to own who they are, the courage to seek joy, the empathy to care for and serve others, and the wherewithal to make their dreams come true. I know I cannot hope to be that person for everyone, and I know that I will only be one of those people for anyone in particular. But I can strive to be that person for each person I meet.

I like where I landed there, but in the interest of meeting Dr. Smith's challenge, I wanted to take another crack at this, not from a teacher's perspective, but from the perspective of my role as an Innovation, Curriculum and Technology Specialist. Why do I do this particular work?

My Why
The student is still at the center of my why. My daughter just started kindergarten, and like all parents, I want her to feel a sense of wonder and excitement about school every moment that she is there. I want that for every child. I believe that learning can always and should always be engaging, and yes, fun. In fact, I believe that real learning is fun, that we cannot help but be happy when we are learning. The reverse of this is also true. When we are not effectively learning, we are not likely to be having fun. If the purpose of school is to enable and nurture learning, then I believe that a measure of our success is the extent to which our students are happy in their learning.

To that end, I believe that we have a responsibility to build learning experiences that are vital, compelling, and joyous. I believe that the work we do cannot be effective if we reduce it to a standardized process that expects standardized results, if we run every child through the same curricular gauntlet, and if we measure every child against a generic set of expectations because such a system of learning robs the learner of autonomy, mastery and authentic purpose (to borrow from Daniel Pink). Obviously, in my opinion, we face some systemic challenges to my vision for learning. Therefore, I believe we need to change the system.

In the meantime, I also believe in the power of educators to make a difference to the learners in their care. I believe that each of us has the opportunity to influence each child we work with in meaningful ways. I also believe as learners ourselves, we have the opportunity to get better and better at building the types of learning experiences that our kids need. I believe that collectively, we have the power to transform our profession through continuous personal and professional development, and the folks who provide that to us come from many places because just as there is no one right way to be a student, there is no one right way to be an educator. Every professional conversation we have can make our work stronger.

Moreover, I believe that we learn different things through our interactions with different folks. I am an amalgam of all of the colleagues I've learned with. I've learned curriculum from some colleagues, pedagogy from others, technology from still others. People in my department and building help me improve as do folks I meet at conferences and through Twitter.

I believe it is part of my purpose to contribute to other people's learning in the same way. I happen to have the years of experience and the technological background to be of use to others. I hope that by sharing the things I've learned and continue to learn, I have the opportunity to help other educators to create more engaging learning experiences that lead to happy learners who will thank us for helping to build in them the capacity to shine on their own terms.

Why do I do what I do? Because learning is continuous and matters at a personal level, and I hope to nudge our profession away from its current bias toward standardization and back to a focus on the needs of the individual.

That's my why, and I'm sticking to it. I challenge you to do define your why, and feel free to share what you discover in the comments below.

photo credit: e-magic via photopin cc

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

It's been a while since I've posted on my blog, which always carries with it a dose of guilt. The longer I am away from the virtual pad and pen, the harder it is to return. I'm certain that is why English teachers across the nation will dust off the old "What I did last Summer" essay. It's an easy topic to approach (having to do with both personal experience and recent memory), it can easily fall into several organizational strategies (chronological, most to least, comparison), and it is universal (in that we all experienced "Summer" in one form or another).

So this is me forcing myself back into the writing habit.

I spent my Summer doing what many of my colleagues do: I learned new things and prepared for the year to come. I began my Summer by putting in some extra hours, preparing for our annual EVSC eRevolution Conference, which was part of the Indiana Department of Education's Summer of eLearning. I've already written about the Summer of eLearning in an earlier post, but I would like to add that our conference went very well, as did the other Summer of eLearning conferences that I attended. The IDOE did an awesome job documenting the learning through their eLearning Pulse blog, and you can also get a sense of this initiative via this video:

The eRevolution played host to over 800 attendees from more than 100 school districts, universities and other organizations. We offered more than 200 sessions over two days around a diverse collection of topics. We also were able to bring the talents of Eric Sheninger, Yong Zhao, Adam Bellow, Leslie Fisher and Meg Ormiston to Evansville. What a gift to have had the chance to learn with so many passionate educators. We plan to host our 6th eRevolution on July 9 and 10, 2014, so if you've never been to an eRevolution, I hope you will consider attending next year.

I finally caught up with Twitter-Hero Shelly Terrell!
Not only did I help organize our conference, I had the pleasure of attending and presenting at three other Summer of eLearning conferences: the Greater Clark County Connections conference, the PCSC eQuip conference, and the Digital Shift Conference. I had such a great time traveling our state and meeting so many fellow educators. I also got the opportunity to meet and catch up with a few members of my Twitter PLN including Dean Shareski, George and Alec Couros, Timothy Gwynn, Nick Provenzano, Kyle Pace, Shelly Terrell, Jeff Bradbury, and Tom Whitby. Overall, I was reminded of the power of my personal learning network of of their influence over my learning.

I have to say that one of the biggest highlights of the Summer of eLearning was getting to see one of our own EVSC students keynote at the Greater Clark conference. If you haven't seen it already, I hope you will check this out:

Me with fellow SEA, Kyle Pace
I also had the opportunity to stay among the ranks of the Sony Education Ambassadors which grew in numbers through a second on-boarding at ISTE this Summer. Sadly, I wasn't able to catch up with my fellow SEA's at ISTE due to other plans, but I did get to catch up with them virtually. I am still very proud to be a member of this group, and the content that they are contributing to the educational technology conversation continues to affirm for me Sony's commitment to educators. I'm personally grateful to Sony for their support at our conference this year:

I encourage you to check out the Sony Education Ambassador website. you can also find links to my SEA posts on my Sony Post Page.

Of course, I also had plenty of opportunities to hang out with my friends and family throughout the Summer. Highlights for me included a trip to St. Pete Beach with my family, a week in New Orleans with my wife and our friends, a camping trip with the kids, and lots of family celebrations including birthdays and the announcement of a new niece or nephew on the way. My band had a few gigs, and I had a couple of opportunities to head to the drive-in for a double feature. Life is good.

All in all it was a full Summer. I read some great books, learned some new tricks, and had enough time to dream about and begin planning for this new academic year. I told my wife recently that I couldn't wait to get back to work. I do better with the structure of a work week. It means that I have an opportunity to put my ideas into action and to bang the rust off of skills I haven't used during the break, like the writing habits I mentioned earlier.

I hope everyone had a fulfilling and inspiring Summer, and I hope you are returning to your work with the same sense of possibility and purpose that I feel.

The Playground Advocate is back at recess. Tell your friends:)

photo credit: Mike Licht, via photopin cc