Thursday, October 31, 2013

Lessons from WDW #9: Positive Messaging

I've been thinking a lot about student happiness lately. We know that students learn better when they feel comfortable and happy. I also contend that learning itself can create happiness, but there are undeniably factors that can influence a child's happiness that are out of our control. When a child is unhappy because of external forces, there isn't much that we as educators can do in the short term except listen to the child, help them find the resources they need to address their unhappiness, and advocate for them when others don't. Admittedly, that itself is a tall order.

But I'm more interested in the ways that we can help to support and elevate a child's happiness more generally. How do we inspire happiness in a kid who doesn't feel unhappy, but whose mood is not yet determined? How do we create an environment that promotes happy moods?

As is usual with these posts, I'm taking as my muse the work of the folks at Walt Disney World. Based on my experiences at the Disney parks, I believe I can point to some very intentional choices that the Disney folks have made to try to ensure that park guests are prone to having a happy experience even when other factors (crowds, heat, toddler meltdowns) might lead them in a different direction. I also believe that many of these choices can be understood as intentional positive messaging.

What Disney Does

The experience that started me on this thought-tangent was riding in the car with my children, listening to a Disney playlist on my iPod. The kids were all singing along (I was, too), and I was struck by how many songs had positive, life and self-affirming messages. This led me to think about the many times I've found myself happily singing along to Disney standards at Downtown Disney. The songs they pump through the speakers there (as well as the live music offerings) all have the effect of elevating mood. This isn't surprising, of course. We've known for a long time that music can affect mood. This is the reason you won't walk into a retail store or restaurant without discovering a carefully curated soundtrack for your shopping or dining pleasure. What makes the Disney version of this so pronounced is that the music is not only happy in meaning and tone, but it is also associated with happy memories the listener has with the narratives (rides and movies) that the music represents. Taken all together, a playlist of Disney songs becomes a potent mixture of memory, verbal cues, and musical reinforcement.

If you don't believe me, spend a little time with this playlist:

Another way that Disney reinforces positive emotions is through the written messaging that happens throughout the park. Not only are there signs that politely guide guest movement from place to place, but there are all sorts of written cues across the parks and in the lines that subtly share positive messages. Over and over, words like "Magical," "Enchanted," "Pleasure, " and "Wonder" appear in written messages that visitors see. The vocabulary of Disney is purposeful, and its positive slant finds its way even into attractions that might otherwise have a darker tone (I'm thinking of the "Happy Haunts" in the Haunted Mansion).

Another visual tool that Disney uses to affect mood is the color palette from which they work. Again, this isn't much of a surprise given the amount of research that exists on the psychological affects of color, and also given the artistic talent that fuels Disney design. In the parks, color itself can be a playful source of joy, from the changing colors of the lights that reflect off of Cinderella's Castle at night to the colorful interactive structures that follow the Journey Into Imagination ride. The stimulus-rich environments that the Imagineers craft not only combat boredom, but they actively engage the mind.

Perhaps the most remarkable tools that Disney has at its disposal for promoting positive messages are the many cast members who interact with the guests every day. I can honestly say that I have never had a negative interaction with any cast member, whether it be a character, a food server, a shop clerk or a street-sweeper. They are always impeccably polite, helpful, happy, engaging and quick to step in and make a difficult moment (like a toddler meltdown) better. The feat here, of course, is that they are all humans. They can't possibly be that happy all of the time. Yet, I've never seen a crack in that facade. I suspect that it is a combination of genuine enjoyment of their jobs, exhaustive training, immersion in such a positive culture, and a true desire to be a good host. Whatever it is, the cast members make a visit to Disney that much more enjoyable when in other places the staff do not. Service with a smile is alive and well in Walt Disney World.

I'm sure I could go on, but these examples alone make it clear that Disney has been very thoughtful and thorough when it comes to promoting happiness among its guests. To some, this type of skewed emotional messaging can come off as saccharine, but Disney is so complete in their approach to this that it's hard to fight the effects over time. They don't call Walt Disney World the Happiest Place on Earth for nothing.

How Can We Do This In Education?

This leads me back to my original question. How do we do the same thing for our students? Are we capable of creating an environment that reinforces positive emotions for our learners? To what extent do we use music, language, signage, color, and our personal interactions to create a space in which children are happy to be with us? Can we create a culture of playful exploration where students are less likely to be derailed by difficulty, boredom, or discomfort?

While I recognize that the Disney folks have an amazing set of resources at their disposal to put into that work that schools typically do not, I do think that as educators, we can take a critical look at how we shape our environment and our interactions with kids to enhance their mood and prepare them for learning. I'd encourage any educator to go through the following exercise and see what it reveals about the emotional messages we are sending to kids:

Ask yourself:

  • What do my students hear in my classroom/school, and what impact might that have on their mood?
  • What messages are visible in my classroom/school, and what is the tone of the language in those messages? What are the key words that students see throughout the day in my classroom/school?
  • What do my students see in my classroom/school? What colors are there? What shapes? Is there variety? Is the environment whimsical or stark? What are the implied messages of what my students see in my classroom/school?
  • When I or my colleagues talk to students, what does that sound like? What is the tone? Am I/are we contributing to an environment that feels comfortable/safe/happy? What types of voices are my students hearing everyday?
  • When I look at my students, do I see evidence of happiness? Do my students look stressed? Depressed? Engaged? Excited? What messages are my students sending me about my classroom/school?
  • To what extent is my students' happiness a priority to myself, my colleagues, my school? If it is, what is my evidence for that? If it isn't what is my solution to that?
  • If my students drew a picture of my classroom/school, what would it look like? And what would that tell me?
  • What can I do to make sure that the learning space I am responsible for represents my hopes for kids.
In the end, I feel certain that we all want students who are happy and ready to learn, but I also realize how difficult it is to ensure that for a majority of students daily in an environment that prioritizes other things. We're human, and the work can be frustrating. But I also feel certain that when we are purposeful in how we create the messages we want to send, we are more successful than when we don't pay attention to these details.

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Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Teacher Creativity Skill: Go Somewhere You've Never Been

In the same way that meeting new people is a good catalyst for creativity, experiencing new places can change your perspective, can inspire wonder, and can lead to new ideas. Think back to the times in your childhood when you had the opportunity to visit a new place. It could have been local, like a museum or zoo, or it could have been somewhere else, perhaps a new city or even country. There is no doubt that there is value in giving kids the gift of new experiences.

Unfortunately, in our current environment of high-stakes testing, shrinking budgets, and standardized curricula, the field trip is a rare occurrence, despite its obvious benefits. Even worse, when these types of experiences are forced into the extra-curricular arena, it is often the students who are least likely to be able to have these types of learning journeys at home who are also least likely to be able to take advantage of them at school.

Because of that, if we want to encourage creativity in all of our learners, we need to find ways to give them new experiences in the classroom. Thankfully, technology makes this much easier than it was in the past. I've already shared ways that you can bring new voices into the classroom in an earlier post. In addition to that, technology gives us all sorts of windows through which we can experience the world, even when a field trip is financially or logistically out of reach.

Connecting to the World

One option is the virtual field trip. All sorts of organizations and locations from national parks to museums to historical landmarks have online virtual tours that emulate the experiences that are available to their visitors for free. While no one could argue that visiting virtually is the same as visiting in person, many virtual tours are engaging, and even interactive. What's more, the variety of virtual tours means that any teacher can find relevant tours to share with their learners. Also, Google+ offers offers amazing field trips through its Connected Classrooms program.

Google Earth is another great way to explore the world from inside the classroom. Google Earth has tons of great places to explore, you can even create your own narrated tours. In addition, there are some great experiences from Google Lit Trips, W.W. Norton US History Tours, and the Google Earth Blog.

Another option for virtually going to places you've never been is to use a live online webcam feed. There are hundreds of live webcams around the world that can be accessed for free on the Internet. Many zoos, aquariums, cities, and parks have live feeds that are fun to watch. You can even watch the goings on at the International Space Station. You can also find some fun featured shows on USTREAM.

I'd also recommend using Skype to access folks from all over the world. Taking the time to connect with people from different places can add a face and a voice to those places. There are a lot of ways to find people to Skype with in the classroom, but I would recommend beginning with Skype in the Classroom. There you can find other educators who are interested in connecting to expand their own classrooms.

I'm sure that there are other ways that you can visit new places from inside the classroom. I would love to hear from you about resources you have found that allow your students to see new sites and experience the world.

Our Task

Ultimately, our task is to help students grow creatively by expanding their horizons. We can do this in lots of ways because of technology. Doing so, will not only inspire curiosity and raise questions to think about, it will also prepare our students for a world that is increasingly connected. To develop the skills that they need to function in a global society, we must first develop those skills in ourselves, and we can begin by seeking ways to bring the world into our classrooms everyday.

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Monday, October 28, 2013

The EVSC ICATS 30 Day Challenge is Back!

For the past 3 years, the EVSC ICATS have hosted a 30 Day Digital Tools Challenge. The goal is to create conversations among teachers around how great digital tools can be used effectively in the classroom. Each day, the ICATS introduce a tool, share some resources for getting started with that tool, and invite participants to share how they see that tool fitting into their classrooms. While we hope the posts themselves will be excellent resources for busy teachers, we know that the most compelling part of the challenge is the list of ideas that the participants generate in the comments.

This year, the challenge runs from October 28 to December 11 (we don't post on holidays and weekends). Participants from inside the EVSC and outside the EVSC can earn Professional Growth Points and will be entered in a drawing for other great prizes by completing the challenge.

To learn more about the challenge and how to participate, you can read this post on the ICATS site.

The links to the posts are below:

Day 1 #30DC13: Gravatar Your Avatar!

Day 2 #30DC13: Tell Your Story With Tellagami

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Teacher Creativity Skill: Meet Someone Amazing!

This being Connected Educator Month, I've been reminded over and over about the power of connections. Sometimes meeting someone new changes your whole perspective on the world, and collaborating with someone new can change how you understand the work that you do. It's all about expanding your horizons and finding new filters through which to view the world.

As powerful as this is for us as adults, I know that it is even more powerful for our students. Exposing students to new perspectives and new voices can inspire learning by piquing curiosity and motivating exploration and reflection. I've watched this happen to students who have Skyped with the authors of books they've read and with classes who have connected with other learners in other parts of the world. The excitement of bridging the gap between the classroom and the world is easily attained, and the rewards are immediately visible.

Moreover, the technologies that enable this kind of communication are free and easy to learn. Any Internet-enabled device can make video conferencing a reality, and the power of social media tools like Facebook, Twitter and Google+ make connecting a classroom to the world possible for anyone with an account. Companies like ePals, websites like Skype in the Classroom and Google+ communities like G+eduhangout make finding a connection easy.

All of this adds up to the fact that conversations that begin with "You know what would be cool..." can now end with "Let's make that happen." More often than not, if you can create a reason to connect with someone virtually, you can also find the people willing to meet you halfway. In the past two years, I have seen countless examples of classrooms connecting with amazing people from around the world, from astronauts to Shakespearean actors, from grandparents in Germany to classrooms in Brazil. I've even watched as a choir director in another city gave a choir here in Evansville feedback over Skype ahead of a competition.

I think the reason more people aren't doing these types of things in the classroom more often is simply that reaching out hasn't become a comfortable part of everyone's workflow yet. But if the many examples of global projects is any indication, that is changing.

Here are a couple of resources that can get you started with three very popular tools:

Skype LiveBinder
Google+ LiveBinder
Twitter LiveBinder

Getting Started

For teachers who don't yet know what this looks like, here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  1. Look at what you are teaching, and ask yourself who would it be cool to connect with in this lesson/unit/project? Are you studying the Holocaust? Perhaps there is a survivor who can speak to your class. Are you writing poetry? Maybe a published poet could Skype in and lead a workshop. Are you learning about the continents? Wouldn't it be cool to connect with a class from each continent to compare cultures?
  2. Think about who you know or are connected to and consider what they have to offer to your classroom. There may be a grandparent of one of your students who can read a favorite childhood book. You might have a friend from college who now works as a marine biologist. Or maybe your cousin lives in Boston and could Skype live from an historic site.
  3. Ask yourself what are my goals for my students and try to find a project or a partner to meet those goals. Students can have amazing opportunities to make an impact on their world, and in the process they can connect to new people. For example, students might take on a micro loan project to fund a start-up in another country or they might collaborate with students across the world to address an issue of international concern.
  4. Use technology and social media to find someone to connect with. If you don't know someone who can speak to your class on a topic, there are lots of ways to find someone. There are communities built around making connections for the classroom, for example. If none of those yield results, you can tweet and post on Facebook that you are looking for someone to connect with on your topic. You'd be surprised how often that can yield results. If you can imagine the person who would be the perfect fit (a specific author, celebrity, politician, etc.) Some focused Internet research can usually produce contact information.
  5. Don't be afraid to ask. People generally like to talk about their work or what they are passionate about. Also, many people feel that connecting with students is a good use of their time and are willing to make that happen. Not everyone is like that, but you won't know unless you ask. The worst thing that will happen is that they will ignore you or say no. The best thing that will happen is that you will create an amazing experience for your kids.
  6. Become comfortable with the tools that enable connection, interaction, and collaboration. At this point, refusing to make these connections because you aren't familiar with the technology is a pretty lame excuse. None of this technology requires special expertise, nor is it unaffordable (there are plenty of free tools with which to make connections). Spending the time to learn the tools will enable you to take advantage of opportunities to connect in the future, even at a moment's notice.
  7. When you meet a fellow educator who is speaking your language, come up with a project that you can do together. If you meet someone via social media, at a conference, or even while traveling, and that person teaches what you teach or shares your ideas about learning, take the opportunity to develop that relationship by creating ways for your classes to connect. Making a plan to connect with another educator will ensure that the connection is purposeful and has mutual benefits. Studying topics like environment, culture, or events that affected both locations can be enhanced through this type of connection. Imagine a book club that includes the impressions of readers from two very different places, or a science project that collects data from multiple locations.
  8. When you have a plan to connect, be clear about your purpose and how you imagine the interaction will go. Planning ahead can help to overcome any initial awkwardness of connecting people or groups. As with planning for the physical classroom, planning for a virtual lesson is important so that people don't feel that the connection is a waste of time. If you are having an expert meet with students, have the students prepare questions ahead of time and share those questions with the expert so that he or she knows what to expect. If students are connecting with students, give them an agenda or list of goals to accomplish. 
  9. Test your technology ahead of time, have a plan B in case it doesn't work, and be flexible enough to bring the connection to life later if needed. Technology is always going to be a bit unpredictable. Taking the time to test a connection ahead of class can often help to avoid problems. Even so, if suddenly there is a technology glitch, be prepared to troubleshoot but also to move to another activity. You can always take another run at it on a different day.
  10. Follow-up with your connection and your students. Assess what worked well and what didn't and apply that to your next connection. Like any classroom strategy, connecting virtually takes some practice to make it as powerful as possible. Getting feedback from kids about what they got from the lesson will help guide how you structure future connections. Also, the person/people you are connecting to can offer suggestions for the future.
  11. Share your successes to inspire others. When you are doing activities like this, it is valuable to share your takeaways with others. Be prepared to take a few photos, record the interaction, and invite colleagues in when you are doing these types of things. Once they see the power of this type of learning, they will want to try it themselves.

Our Task

At the end of the day, making the effort to bring new voices, ideas and perspectives to the classroom can impact teacher and student creativity. A new experience can act as a catalyst to our own thoughts, inspiring us to move in new directions, ask new questions and approach problems with new strategies. By developing this skill in ourselves, we expand our classroom toolbox. By developing this skill in our students, we connect them to a world of ideas they might otherwise never realize existed. 

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Monday, October 7, 2013

I am a Connected Educator

I am a connected educator.

I connect in person, through email, over the phone, through Skype, via social media, with collaborative web tools and through the social portions of the websites and blogs I read.

This isn’t extra work. It’s part of the work I do.

As an educator, I care about teaching and learning. I want to know what excellent teaching and learning look like and how to replicate it. I want to know everything there is to know about what makes learning experiences successful and how to design experiences that will be successful in the future. I want to know why one strategy works with a child today, but doesn’t work with a different child today or the same child tomorrow. I want to discern what matters in education, to promote the good and eliminate the bad. I want everyone to learn with purpose, success, satisfaction and pride. I want to fix what’s broken, grow what works, and change the future for the better. I want to learn how best to recover when I fail. I want to make a difference to every child in every classroom at every stage of the educational system. I also want to change the system. I want to examine and redefine our objectives. I want to look closely at all of the places where the needs of a child come into conflict with the needs of our system and advocate for that child. I want to be at the table where this conversation is happening.

I can’t learn or do any of this by myself. If I want to be the educator I believe I should be, I have to be connected.

My work as an educator and my work as a learner cannot be separated. My work and my learning are a single, ongoing conversation that I am having with the world.

For me, all teaching is an act of learning, and all learning is social. This has always been true.

Thankfully, I no longer live in a time or place that limits my ability to have my conversation with the world. Thanks to the Digital Age and the political freedoms I enjoy, my ability to connect to anyone anywhere at anytime is only limited by who is willing and able to connect with me.

Because I am a connected educator, I have had the opportunity to connect with authors and thought-leaders and ask them questions. Because I am a connected educator I was able to connect a Shakespearean actor with a classroom of students who had just read Hamlet to enhance their understanding of the play. Because I am a connected educator, I have been able to teach lessons to audiences made up of people from all over the world virtually.

I connect with people from other continents on a daily basis through Twitter, my blog, Skype and Google+.

If I find a resource that has value, I can share that resource with thousands of fellow educators through Twitter, Facebook, Google+, My Big Campus, and other sites with the click of a button.

Do I connect with the person down the hall? Of course. My local network of colleagues and personal contacts are my first, most relevant network. They know the realities of our shared culture, environment, history and goals. There are advantages in those connections that cannot easily be duplicated.

Today, though, I can also extend my network to include new perspectives, wider audiences, greater expertise, more experiences and richer resources. Through my extended network, when I ask a question, the answers I receive are more diverse and more plentiful. I can also ask my question directly to the people most likely to have thoughtful answers.

As a connected educator, I have chosen to learn publicly. I do this because I believe my learning will never be complete. I do this because I know that the more perspectives I can tap into, the more effective my learning can be. I do this because I can test my ideas against a wider number of world-views and get feedback from a greater number of colleagues. I do this because the people I follow through my networks are likely to share ideas that I never would have come across without them.

Becoming a connected educator isn’t difficult. If you Google “Connected Educator,” you will find an abundance of resources to get you started. You can also find resources on building your PLN (Personal Learning Network). The hardest step is simply connecting. I began with blogging and with Twitter, but there are lively communities of connected educators in all kinds of places.

As a connected educator, I work to develop my networks through the digital tools that are available to me. I use social media, communication tools and collaboration tools to make face to face work possible with people within and beyond my local sphere. My networks aren’t defined by these tools, they are enabled by them. And while each tool provides a different workflow and culture, my use of each is just a part of my larger conversation with the world.

I am a connected educator.

I have friends I have never met in person, but who have changed the way I see the world.

I suspect that I have followers who could say the same of me without my ever having known they were listening.

Sometimes the connections last for the moment it takes me to reply to a tweet, and sometimes they last for years through a series of online collaborations. But each is still just a part of the larger conversation I’ve joined.

Connected educators share what they are thinking and what they have learned in a long-term, asynchronous collaboration around our profession. They share resources they create and discover. They devise projects to enact together. They offer support when members need it and affirmation when members deserve it. They crowdsource information for those who seek it, and they help connect problems to solutions.

As a connected educator, I can affirm and promote what inspires and improves my learning with a like, a retweet, or a +1.

I can engage with people who challenge my thinking through comment sections in blogs and on websites, or through Twitter Chats. I’m careful not to limit my networks to people with whom I agree. I want to learn from other perspectives, or perhaps change the perspectives of those with whom I interact. I find the connected educator community to be passionate, but also civil and respectful.

Even if it isn’t always that way, I can control the tone and quality of the discourse in my networks with a simple unfollow or block. I am a connected educator, but I don’t have to be.

Because I am a connected educator, I feel empowered.

Through my connections:

I define my learning.
I participate in the vital conversations of my profession.
I reach a wider audience with my ideas.
I collaborate with smart and passionate people.
I reach learners I couldn’t otherwise reach.
I find more inspiration and more resources with greater ease.

I am a connected educator. I remember what it was like before I was connected.

Teaching can be an isolating experience. There were times when I felt controlled and limited by my immediate surroundings and resources. There were times when I felt like I was alone in my desire to understand and change a complex system that was so much bigger than me. There was a time when I didn’t know where to ask my questions or when I worried that my questions weren’t welcome. That was before.

Now I am a connected educator.

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