Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Teacher Creativity Skill: Meet a Challenge


One of the ways that we grow creatively is by challenging ourselves to do something new or to push ourselves farther than we have been. I've often said that learning is a continuous act of managed risk-taking. By that I mean that we learn by using what we already know to help us complete new tasks that seemed difficult to us before. If you haven't seen the video below before, it illustrates what I mean better than anything I could write:

When we take risks and meet challenges, we add to the internal resources we can bring to bear in new situations. The more challenges we face, and the more experiences we have, the more resources we can call upon when life demands our creativity.The digital world is filled with opportunities for us to challenge ourselves, to learn and develop new skills, and to test ourselves against the unknown. I recently shared a post about developing our problem-solving skills in the Digital Age. In that post I share the many ways that we can use technology to enhance our ability to solve a problem at hand.

But we should also be aware that we can prepare for future problems and develop our skills without the immediate need to answer a burning question. Using the Internet as a training ground to grow and test ourselves is an opportunity we should not pass on. In fact, not only should we be viewing the web in this way, we should be encouraging our students to do the same.

There has never been a better time to learn.

One way that we can use our connected devices to achieve this is to remember that any topic or skill that we want to explore is already well-documented online, not only in terms of text, but in terms of video resources, dedicated websites, and passionate learning communities. Given that, we can all set ourselves the challenge of learning something new. With the right search skills, anyone can learn to play blues harmonica, learn to re-tile a bathroom, learn to speak conversational Greek, learn the basics of String Theory, or learn to paint happy little trees. Not only that, but they can be doing any of this within a matter of minutes.

And, thanks to resources like iTunes University, TED Talks, Coursera, Udemy, and MIT Open Courseware, we can all be learning from experts in a given field.

More than that, connected educators and learners can take advantage of their connections through social media to find already vetted and curated resources that will best help them develop the skills or learn the content that they want to master without having to search for the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Additionally, many online communities and resources exist just to give learners the challenge that they need in order to develop their creative side in hands-on ways. The Internet is filled with challenges that run anywhere from a week to a year. Annually, the team I work with puts out two challenges. The first is a Web 2.0 challenge designed to help educators explore digital tools for the classroom. The second is our Digital Heroism Challenge designed to invite students to explore and discuss topics related to living ethically in the Digital Age. The Indiana Department of Education eLearning team runs a digital learning challenge during February.

There are also great challenges that focus on writing skills, video production, and photography. There are fitness challenges, cooking challenges, technology challenges, and art challenges. While some challenges are actually contests that include prizes, most challenges are really just a way to help participants find inspiration and stay focused.

A Few Favorite Challenges

Here are a few great daily challenges that you might try:

The Me You Health Daily Challenge- The Daily Challenge is a social well-being experience that gives you the opportunity to positively impact your life every day by doing simple daily challenges and sharing the experience with your personal connections -- all while you earn points, collect stamps and achieve new levels.

The Daily Create- The Daily Create provides a space for regular practice of spontaneous creativity through challenges published every day. Each assignment should take no more than 15-20 minutes. There are no registrations, no prizes, just a community of people producing art daily.

Find the Awesome in Your Family- From Parent Wellbeing, this is a series of challenges designed to help you get past the challenges of parenting in a hectic world.

A Daily Brain Teaser- A great blog that offers up a brain teaser each day. If you are looking to challenge your brain, this is a great place to start the day.

Teacher Reboot Camp 30 Goals Challenge- One of my favorite challenges. Now in its fifth year, this challenge focuses on great teaching and learning. Such a gift from @ShellTerrell

Our Challenge

All of this brings me to our ultimate challenge. We need to develop the skills that it takes to be persistent independent learners. The purpose of finding the resources that will help us challenge ourselves is that we will develop good habits of mind and strong skill-sets that we can call upon when we need them. This allows us to not have to learn skills and content as we are supposed to be applying them. Instead, we can approach creative problems confidently.

More importantly, developing these skills in ourselves enables us to create learning opportunities for our students that will help prepare them for similar challenges later. Not only should we be identifying and embracing challenges for ourselves, we should be creating these types of challenges for kids. Imagine a daily creativity, leadership, or collaboration challenge for students that would engage their minds and challenge their talents. Imagine daily learning challenges that call upon student passions and talents, while pushing them into unknown territory.

Really, isn't that what we want learning to look like everyday, anyway?

Saturday, February 15, 2014

A Few (LATE) Valentine's Day Resources

Dear Valentine,

I'm sorry this is late, but I found a few things that I really liked as potential Valentine's Day resources for your classroom. Will you use them this year? Maybe not, but save them for next year and you will charm the heck out of your kids:)

With Love,

Make your own Conversation Hearts

VDay Photoshop Tutorials

Minute to Win It VDay Party Ideas

Teach Empathy for VDay

How to Say I Love You in many Languages

How to Write the Sound Kiss

14 Weird and Wacky Vintage Valentines

TED Talk Playlist "I'm in the Mood for Love"

photo credit: JD Hancock via photopin cc

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Using Google to Enhance Teams

My school district embraced Google Apps for Education a few years ago, and since then we have been working to help our administrators, teachers, and students move to these tools to enhance teaching and learning. For the uninitiated here is a quick video:

As someone who is responsible for helping educators understand the tools at their disposal, I made the shift almost from the very beginning to working within the Google universe, and honestly, I wouldn't go back.

It's remarkable to me that we have all of these productivity, collaboration, and communication tools at our disposal for free. Beyond the cost, here is a short list of the reasons why I choose to use Google Apps over other alternatives every day:

  1. No Saving, No Flash Drives, No Emailing Documents- Because Google Apps exist in the cloud and automatically save as I go, I no longer have the problem of where I put my file, how to move the file between devices, or which version of my document is the most up-to-date.
  2. Collaboration!- While I can certainly work on a document, presentation, spreadsheet, or website on my own, I can also easily work in real time with other folks from all over the world by taking advantage of the many sharing options I have for everything I create in or upload into my Drive. And while learning to work well in a collaborative digital environment requires some practice, it becomes as natural as sitting across a table from someone.
  3. Simplicity- Google Apps are not burdened with unnecessary and complicated features. Their functionality hits the sweet spot between useful and clean. As a professional developer, I like that I get all of the tools I need without having to wade through tools I will never use.
  4. Integration- Of course, the beauty of jumping whole-hog into a single environment is how seamlessly each part of that environment integrates with the others. With my single GMail account, I integrate my mail, my documents, my online storage, my calendar, my blog, and many of my social networking tools. Also, many of my favorite web tools and mobile apps integrate with my Google account, saving me the trouble of remembering hundreds of logins and passwords.
  5. Storage- I LOVE that I have 30 GB of storage with my GAFE account. That is more than enough to handle my many projects. What I love even more is that the files I create in Google Drive or convert to Google Docs format don't count toward my total. That leaves me free to save the space I have for important files that I need to keep in their original format (though I find that I do less and less of that now).
  6. Communication- Simply put, I am more connected and better able to communicate because of the amazing tools that Google puts at my disposal. Google+ alone has fundamentally changed the way that I communicate with colleagues across my district, across the state, and around the world. Google+ hangouts are an amazing time-saver, and Google+ communities are quickly becoming my favorite means of collaborating with large groups. That's without even mentioning the many communication features built into Google Docs, GMail, and Google Sites.
  7. It's everywhere- As much as anything, I like that Google tools are cross-platform and browser-neutral. Being able to access my GMail, Google calendar, Google Drive, and Google+ on any device anywhere means that I am no longer limited in my ability to work where and when I want to, even on devices that aren't my own.

Since the team I work with has been an early-adopter of the world of Google Apps within our district, we have already become very accustomed to collaborating and working in the Google environment. We use Google Apps for nearly every facet of our work from learning, to conceptualization, to creation, to promotion and sharing. Here are some basic examples of how we use Google Apps to enhance the productivity, collaboration, and creativity of our team:

  1. We use Google Forms to gather data and inform decisions. For example, we collect feedback from educators about our work using Forms. We also invite folks to apply for programs that we offer and to propose sessions for professional development experiences that we host. Additionally, we use Forms to learn what specific needs teachers within a given building have, so that we can best respond to those needs.
  2. We also use Google+ to learn from and interact with other educators. Adding education technology leaders from all over the world to our circles means that we have the opportunity to stay caught up with the work they are doing and discover opportunities to collaborate with people from around the world.
  3. We use Google Drive and docs to brainstorm and organize our ideas for our projects. For example, when we are working on a grant proposal, designing a workshop, or even organizing an event as large as a conference, we do that brainwork together inside of Google Docs and Spreadsheets. Every member of the team has editing rights, and that means that we have the ability to work synchronously or asynchronously, together or apart, and we all have access to the most recent version of the work.
  4. We also use Google docs to prepare for and record our meetings. Before a meeting, a member of the team shares a blank agenda template. Our norm is that anyone can add any item to the agenda up to the time that the meeting starts. We also add a parking lot for topics that come up during the meeting, so that we can return to them if we have time at the end. During the meeting, we all take notes inside the Doc as we work our way through the agenda. The result is a set of minutes of that meeting that are pre-agreed upon before the next meeting and that are filled with extra resources.
  5. Google calendars is a very versatile tool that enables our team to share calendars that contain events that relate to the work we are doing. The ability to share different calendars with different groups, but view them all in an individual user's calendar is highly valuable. Additionally, events that appear in our calendars get pushed out as notifications through our GMail, as do messages from Google+.
  6. We use Google+ Hangouts to enable face to face collaboration at those times when we can't meet physically together. For example, when we onboard new members of the team who are embedded in buildings, we hold a regular Google+ Hangout each day for the first week or so, so that anyone with questions or concerns can get immediate help instead of waiting for our weekly meeting. During those Hangouts, we can share screens, refer to shared Docs, and even record the meeting using Google Hangouts On Air.
  7. Google+ Communities are also a great tool for designing ongoing collaborative spaces in which team members can share ideas, promote opportunities, and get feedback. Communities become virtual meeting spaces that can point to and organize shared resources. Our team belongs to several Google+ communities that connect us to the folks who share in our work beyond our district.
  8. Google's integration with YouTube, Google Sites and Blogger also give us hosting solutions for resources that we create and ideas that we share. In the past, we have hosted online challenges through Blogger, and have curated and shared videos that we have created through our YouTube Channel. We also post resources we create to Google+ to share with folks in our district and beyond.
These are just a few of the many ways that our team uses Google Apps daily as we work collaboratively. Learning to use Google Apps is easy, and resources to get started abound. If you are interested in using Google Apps to enhance your team's work, I recommend the resources below as a start:

EdTech Team: Google Drive Apps
Monica Martinez's Google+ Site
EdTech Team: Google Calendar

photo credit: topgold via photopin cc

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Why not us?

Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world. - Harriet Tubman

I worry sometimes that we're too focused on what is achievable. We spend an awful lot of time focused on what kids can and can't do, and not enough time focused on what kids dream to do. We spend an awful lot of time setting goals for kids, and not enough time listening to kids' goals. And we spend an awful lot of time setting educational standards, and not enough time trying to change the world.

I'll be honest. Education is starting to bore me. We talk way too much about the minutia of a child's progress  toward predetermined goals. And we almost never talk meaningfully about children. We don't talk about who they are as people. What they dream. What matters to them. What inspires and excites their passions. 

Worse, we don't talk to them, we talk about them. And when we do talk with them, it's not about who they can become. It's about the progress they are making. We're not encouraging our students to dream. We're asking them to self-assess.

To be clear, both dreaming and self-monitoring are skills that I want to encourage, but I am concerned that we have created a culture in which the former is quaint and the latter is all-consuming. I'm also not saying that all educators fail in this regard, but I am saying that as a profession, the shoe fits.

Some look at things that are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not? - George Bernard Shaw

During the coverage of the Super Bowl this year, much was made about the advice that Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson's father gave to him as a child. His father regularly asked the question, "Why not you?" This is great advice. There is no reason in the world that someone who is passionate and committed to a goal shouldn't believe that their dreams are possible. Not guaranteed, but certainly possible, even if the odds are against them.

Do we suggest this to our students? It seems to me that we should. Everyday our students should be hearing from us, "Why not you?" We should be in the business of helping kids define for themselves the dreams they want to achieve and the ways in which they want to change the world. And we should be in the business of helping them get there by supporting their progress and building up their confidence. How many opportunities are lost when we focus on our own goals at the expense of our learners' goals?

If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.- Henry David Thoreau

Admittedly, this can be a bit scary. Not every child comes prepared to share their dreams. Not every child's dream fits our conceptions of what is prudent, realistic, or even possible. For many children, confidence is a struggle in itself. At what point are we setting children up for disappointment and failure? At what point are the risks we might encourage children to take greater than the rewards if they succeed? At what point is being student-centered irresponsible? Such questions can cause us be skeptical of a "follow your dreams" mantra.

But here is the question we need to ask: What have we lost when we fail to help a child go confidently in the direction of their dreams?

I recently read a great post by my friend Holly Harl in which she explored this dynamic from a parent and educator's perspective. She rightly pointed out that each child is different, and has her own way of being in the world. By extension, then, each child needs something different from us. But she also points out that our impulse to protect may cause us to steal confidence and a willingness to take risks away from our learners. 

I fear that our focus on education as a process of meeting benchmarks within a standardized curriculum does just that. It minimizes risk-taking, destroys confidence, and limits aspirations, not just for students but among educators as well. Simply put, there is not enough room for dreaming in education today.

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. - William Butler Yeats

I want my kids to go to school and hear everyday that they can change the world. Not only can they change the world on their own terms and in their own way, but to do anything less than strive for that is to fall short of their potential. I want my kids to go to school in an environment where they are purposefully taught to have aspirations and to work toward them. I don't want my kids to ever doubt that if they work hard enough toward their goals they can achieve their dreams. 

I also want to work in a profession that can get beyond the conversations about what limits and challenges we face, that can quit measuring its own success based on narrow benchmarks defined by a few, and that can believe in its own power to define its goals, achieve its dreams, and change the world. I want to work in a profession that takes itself seriously and works with determination and grit while still being able to imagine with confidence and take risks with courage.

As it stands, I feel we've all been beaten down by a system that limits future aspirations by focusing on current data. I feel we are out of balance and suffering as a result. We've quit looking toward the stars because we are mired in the muck. As a result, the profession that ought to be most associated with inspiration and aspiration has become married to adequate yearly progress and minimum competency.

It's kind of fun to do the impossible. - Walt Disney

If we want to change this state of affairs, we have to make a decision. We have to re-focus on our dreams to change the world. We have to believe in our power to achieve them, and we have to go confidently in their direction, even when the path is difficult. We need to reclaim the joy of our work and the promise of our purpose.

And most importantly, we need to help our learners do the same. Why not them? Why not us?