Teacher Passion

Questioning the Connected Echo Chamber

This week’s #YourEduStory topic is something I’ve been mulling over for quite some time: Connected Educators sometimes tend to create an echo chamber. I find this most notably on Twitter, where 140 characters and easy contact helps to create a space where everyone agrees with one another, and if they don’t, conversations can quickly escalate into heated arguments.

There are three areas in which I don’t agree with the EduTwitterverse:

  1. Compliance is not the enemy.
  2. Teachers must be given the devices first, and then their hunger must be developed.
  3. There are times when students should put their devices away.

Before you argue with any of my opinions, please take a moment to hear me out:

What is the opposite of compliance? The easy answer some people give can be critical thinking, creativity, or empowerment. But I don’t think that is necessarily true. I believe that the true opposite of compliance is anarchy, which is an environment that does not promote student learning. Now I am not talking about controlled chaos or perceived chaos that is ultimately ordered. (“Oh my gosh! All the students are doing different activities!”) By anarchy, I mean, “Wow, I don’t feel safe in this classroom. Let me get out of here!”

It is important for teachers–even dedicated 21st century educators–to maintain control over the environment. By control, I do not mean that teachers need to regulate every single action of students, but to create a safe environment for learning, risk-taking, and the ability to allow students to work on a wide variety of activities.

To be sure, many teachers simply create activities and lessons that are not centered on student learning, where the only goals are silence and obedience. This is wrong. Some teachers also make homework and classwork a large portion of the grade in order to ensure that students do it. This is also wrong. This is not pedagogy that is focused on student learning; it is an example of teachers attempting to use the grade book like a sword. I do not support these forms of compliance whatsoever.

Secondly, there is always a debate on Twitter between which is better: show teachers the possibilities of tech and make them hungry for the devices, or give them devices first and then make them hungry. I firmly believe that the devices should come first.

Why do I believe this? Because I have seen teachers time and time again tune out when they are at a professional development session, and they realize that they cannot apply what they have learned from a presentation without the technology. Instead of “igniting a fire,” it merely gives teachers a reason to be mad at administration for not providing technology for the latest initiative.

I will provide an analogy to prove this point: I cannot possibly afford to go to Disneyland. It’s roughly $100 per person per day, plus hotel, plus food, plus transportation, etc. Therefore, I do not get excited about Disneyland at all. Why would I bother? I can’t afford it. In a similar vein, teachers who don’t have tech often will not get excited about it.

What’s more, most PD sessions are graded on the idea of “Day One.” That is, a good speaker must present an idea that can be implemented the very next day. That way, teachers can take the idea and immediately begin using it in the classroom. If not, the knowledge will soon be forgotten. If we try to inspire teachers before they even get devices, they will likely forget everything by the time the devices are introduced to the classroom.

Lastly, there is an idea around educational technology circles that students should be able to access their devices at any given point during the day for any reason. If a student is distracted, that is completely the teacher’s fault for making a lesson disengaging or uninspiring.

While it is true that technology requires teachers to design better and more engaging lessons (and that we can’t nor shouldn’t simply punish our students into paying attention), I believe that there are times that students need to put devices away. I teach in a Catholic school, and we have morning prayer. It is inappropriate for students to be watching YouTube videos or playing 2048 when we are doing prayer (and we cannot simply make prayer so exciting that they will magically want to pay attention). I also feel that if I am talking to the class for a brief interval (5 minutes max), they need to put devices away to avoid the distraction.  To be clear, I do allow technology for the vast majority of my class time. I simply feel that technology (as with most things in life) comes with limits.

This brings us to the point of this exercise: how can I prevent Twitter from becoming the echo chamber? I believe that the best way I can do this is by questioning others. If they feel that students should be able to have devices on at all times, then how would they handle times when we do need whole-class attention? If someone advocates “hunger first,” then how would he or she handle teachers who complain about the lack of access. Turning Twitter into a heated argument doesn’t persuade anyone; it merely gets everyone angry with each other.

That being said, if you disagree with any of my thoughts, please feel free to tell me why. I welcome comments and blog posts that provide differing opinions.

They will help us from becoming lifelong members of any echo chamber.


The Joy of PD

Recently, two California greats Scott Bedley and Karl Lindgren-Streicher have taken up a discussion on the value of professional development and conferences. Scott’s post is here and Karl’s post is here. They are both brilliant posts that speak to the triumphs and shortcomings of educational conferences.

I think that many of us have had that experience when were first exposed to educational technology when we realized that there were tons of resources, strategies, and tools at our disposal. We were overwhelmed and overawed at what we could accomplish with what was out there, and we were left astounded. As time went by, however, we adapted to these tools and learned to successfully navigate the tools at our disposal (at which point, pedagogy–not technology–became our focus).

When this saturation point hits people, the conferences become less exciting, less thrilling, and easier to comprehend. Technologically competent teachers feel comfortable with a wide array of apps, websites, and extensions and don’t feel a thrill with many of the sessions at a conference or feel a need to see everything. In a sense, the conferences can become dull.

This then begs a question: are these conferences any less valuable? Can we as more technologically competent educators (not that I am in any way in Karl’s or Scott’s level of proficiency) gain anything from large conferences like CUE or ISTE? If none of the sessions genuinely excite us, is there any point in attending?

I believe the answer is a definitive yes.

I believe that all teachers have to work really hard to get through the days and weeks of the school year. We might innovate and try new things, but we can only try so many things at one time. We might know of other new tools or strategies, but we have to put those on the back-burner as we can only do so many things at one time. Conferences are a time and place where we can take time to reflect on those ideas that have been simmering. I had heard about Adobe Voice many times before going to Scott’s session at CUE, but it gave me a chance to dive in and try it firsthand. Aurasma has been on my iPad for months, but a session at SVCUE by Anne Schaefer-Salinas and Rebecca Girard gave me the time to play with the app and really try it out. Mark Hammons‘ session on iMovie at CUE showed me things about the app that I hadn’t previously known. This time has given me the time and space to try new things and to discuss new ideas. These ideas can come from actual sessions, but they don’t need to. After the first day of CUE, I had a conversation in a bar with Moss Pike about how to run a Minecraft server for a fraction of the cost of purchasing Minecraft for the school. These brief discussions (called by some “HallwayCUEs) are often more valuable than any official presentations at conferences. I also believe that these informal talks can best happen in face-to-face conversations. Yes, we can discuss ideas over Twitter or Voxer, but sometimes we need the real interaction to fully grasp these new and innovative ideas.

And this–more than any official fifty-minute talk in a room–is why I enjoy conferences and believe in their potential.

The Slide

This week’s #YourEduStory topic is about “The Slide.” When students return from Spring Break, they sometimes suffer from the week off and require some work to get back on track. The momentum of learning can be interrupted by this week off.

Or so they say.

I personally have never really witnessed this. Sure, the kids come back a little sluggish on Monday morning (as does yours truly), but by Wednesday, it’s like we never had break at all.

I do see a slide, however, and it is greater than a one-week interruption. And THAT is the 8th-grade-itis slide. You see, I teach in a small (280 students for grades K-8) Catholic school, and many of my students have been together for nine years. Those kind of restraints would be challenging in the best of schools, and it is compounded by the fact that many of them will soon be attending some of the best and most exciting private high  schools in the nation. Their sights are set not on this world, but the one hereafter. Starting in January, the reality of saying goodbye sets in for all of them. This leads to a greater sense of “checking out,” as they care less and less about what happens here.

This puts me in the position of great challenge. I must do everything possible to grab hold of and keep their attention. I must constantly innovate, as what worked for the Class of 2014 probably won’t work for the Class of 2015. I must–at times–leverage the power of technology to allow for student creativity, while at other times, I must share personal anecdotes to maintain strong teacher-student relationships. I must reach out to some students while I hold the line with others.

Perhaps most importantly, I must carefully navigate these challenges in a healthy manner. I cannot give in to making excuses, but I also cannot blame myself for everything in the classroom. This challenge gives me the greatest stress but also the greatest sense of purpose and accomplishment. 

Ultimately, this challenge is what continues to push me to become a better teacher. 

I wouldn’t give it up for anything.

Content Rocks!

We have all heard the two sides of the coin: students need to learn content vs. skills.

Countless connected educators make the point that skills are more important than content knowledge. No one in a business cares whether or not you can recite Shakespeare or that you know the names of the wives of Henry VIII. Moreover, memorizing a bunch of names, dates, and facts will not serve you well as you are negotiating a business deal. However, the skills required by the Common Core State Standards, such as formulating an argument or presenting information through a digital platform, will be part of just about any job in the 21st century. Therefore, this seems like a slam dunk.

I do have some concerns with this argument.

First of all, this argument pits skills against a straw man. It presents skills against the mere memorization of content. Nobody but a fool would argue that memorizing the 44 presidents (actually 43 because Grover Cleveland was a repeat) is an important life skill. (Although it has entertained me during some dull professional development sessions.) Memorization is even less important in literature: who needs to memorize every character of Shakespeare’s plays or Austen’s novels?

But content does not need to be about memorization. In fact, content should not be about memorization. History and literature should require students to apply critical and higher-order thinking skills. These should take precedence over any kind of memorization (which is actually just a fancy word for short-term memory).

In my personal opinion, content is the perfect place to apply skills. Yes, students can apply skills to current events or popular culture, and good teachers should make comparisons and analogies between content and what is now relevant. In reality, however, what is popular or “current” today is forgotten tomorrow. The long-standing content that we have built up over hundreds or thousands of years maintains a certain relevance because it has stood the test of time. Can anyone recite–from memory–the Pulitzer Prize winners for literature from the past 25 years? Most people can’t. But most educated people can recognize that authors like Geoffrey Chaucer and Charles Dickens wrote some lasting literature that will be long remembered after we pass from this earth. As students learn valuable skills that are applied to these works will continue to be relevant after bands like One Direction and Five Sounds of Summer fall from favor.

Perhaps the most important lesson is that content knowledge and critical thinking skills need not be enemies. In a perfect world, they would be one and the same.

My Time at #cue15

The story of my #cue15 began last December. I eagerly awaited to hear if my proposals were accepted, but sadly, they were not.

I then pondered if I would go. It would be great to catch up with many members of my PLN, but registration, hotel, and food could easily cost between $500 and $1000. With a heavy heart, I decided to forego the trip.

Events took as sudden turn for the better six days before the conference when Thomas Shields from Curriculet contacted me and indicated that the company would be willing to pay for me to go in exchange for time working in the booth. Needless to say, I was on board with the idea.

It was my first time working as a vendor instead of a presenter or a participant. Although I did get some time to attend sessions, I spent the majority of my time with Curriculet, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I did not have the intense pressure to deliver a great presentation and wasn’t working on anything at the last minute. I also didn’t have to worry about which sessions to attend and instead spent time bouncing in and out of presentations. Sessions from Scott Bedley and Mark Hammons did teach me some great tricks and tips.

I also had the opportunity to see an educational technology tool from the developer’s perspective. Publishers set some limits on what companies like Curriculet can do with their product, and the company has adapted quite well to those restrictions. The company also has the challenge of offering a low-cost and high-quality product while turning a profit, a no easy task indeed.

Ultimately, the best part of CUE is the best part of any conference: seeing people you know and making connections. I met countless people for the first time and reconnected with others.

Would I do it again?

In a heartbeat.

Student Voice

This week’s #YourEduStory topic is student voice.

It is a fitting topic, because this has been my first year intentionally giving my students a voice in what we do. Although I do not do it every day, I make a point of periodically checking in with students to see how they feel about their learning and what activities help them learn the best. These have been surprising; sometimes activities that I tink have been duds have been very beneficial for them. I have also found that students often want to make room for whole-class instruction and discussion in addition to individual and group work. They also tell me that outline and Cornell notes help them master material. This feedback has played a crucial role in the direction our class takes for the rest of a given unit or for the course of a year.

I do hope to further empower students for the rest of this year and next year. I can do more by inviting them to help me design lesson plans, units, and rubrics. I also wish to empower them more in their writing and involve them with the assignment creation process. Empowering students is not quite so simple as handing over the reins; it is a guided process that can take weeks or months.

Nevertheless, it is something that I–and all teachers–must strive to do.

Relevancy is the Key

This week’s #YourEduStory challenge is to describe how we excite passion and curiosity in our students.

From my thirteen years of educational experience, I have found one way that works better than the others.

And that is relevancy.

I have found that if I present topics with enthusiasm or excitement, I get students somewhat interested. If I give them choice, they get somewhat excited. However, if I connect historical topics to current events, especially any that relate to technology businesses, they are completely engaged. I believe that part of this is the fact that they live in the Silicon Valley, and part of it is that technology is their life. They love hearing analogies that compare Steve Jobs to Samuel Slater and the first textile mills. They love to compare declining powers to Microsoft. I have also found that comparing older politics to contemporary politics engages them as well–they love to learn that Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were involved in scandals long before Benghazi or emailgate. There is nothing so exciting like learning that historical figures were not saints.

We must give students autonomy and purposeful goals in their learning. These are worthy strategies and are essential for engagement. But without relevancy, why learn?

Adaptability is the Key

The #YourEduStory challenge for Week 9 is to design the ideal learning space.

I know what many contemporary educators want: tables for student collaboration. Others want a mix of large tables with a few desks for individual work.

I, however, approach this scenario with one key consideration: I have students work in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes, students work in groups. At others, with partners. I also have students work individually.

What is my solution to this? A crazy, new, cutting-edge idea.


Desks? Why desks?

I like desks because it allows me to configure and reconfigure at will. I can move them to the outer edges when we do Socratic Circles. I can put them with partners when I want groups of two working on Venn Diagrams. I can also put them in groups of four when it is time for Literature Circles. If some groups choose to sit in a pair of partners for a time, they may.

In other words, my classroom space is almost a living, breathing thing because it is constantly adapting to student needs. I therefore need the ability to adapt and change (in some cases, several times per day).

Sometimes, it’s not the materials we have, but how we use it.

What is my Why and my Defining Moment?

The great Simon Sinek writes that we must know why we do what we do. It is what will inspire others to follow.

To know my Why, it is important to know about my favorite teacher, Jim Haas. When I was in high school, he taught with incredible amounts of passion. To him, every lesson from World and U.S. History was important, and he inspired countless students to learn history and to see its value.

For years, I had sought to pursue a career that would emanate from my passion and purpose, something where I, too, could be great. I considered being a professor, a businessman, and an architect. During my senior year of college, I was completely lost. I tried really hard to want to go into business to make money, but I always felt hollow on the inside. I decided to do a year of service with the Lasallian Volunteers, which is somewhat similar to the Peace Corps, but it usually involves working in a school serving students in poverty and living with Christian Brothers (who are like Catholic priests). One night, I was reading a book in a cafe on Wickenden Street in Providence, Rhode Island, and it suddenly dawned on me that I wanted to be a high school history teacher. I wanted to be a teacher like Mr. Haas who inspired young men and women to see purpose and relevance in history and to formulate their own ideas and opinions about history.

Since that evening over twelve years ago, I have grown and changed somewhat. I have learned that I cannot be Jim Haas, as I have been given an introverted personality in life. Nevertheless, I still strive on a daily basis to build critical thinking skills and to generate excitement to what we are learning. I have learned to speak briefly to students so that I can speak with genuine passion and enthusiasm. More importantly, I use technology as means for students to follow their own passions and interests and to find their own enthusiasm. To me, learning is much more than memorization or test preparation; it is about finding a passion for learning and growing.

THAT is why I do what I do.

Innovation Does not Happen in a Vacuum

The weekly topic for #YourEduStory (of the week of February 8th–I’m er… a little behind) is “What is connected learning and what’s in it for me?”

The answer –in short–is that innovation does not happen in a vacuum.

Very rarely does a “Eureka” moment simply pop out of thin air. 99.99% of innovative and creative ideas come from something previously created. Steve Job and Jony Ive put together all the pieces already out there to create the iPhone. The creators of the Swiffer watched a woman use a wet paper towel to wash her floor and saw a potential product. Dorito’s had been around for years before Taco Bell realized that a taco could be wrapped in a chip. Innovation is almost always the act of taking ideas that are already out there and finding a creative use or a new combination of them.

In my own teaching, I have seen tremendous benefit from being connected, as I have learned several ways to effectively use technology in the classroom. From Cheryl Morris, I learned how to use Todaysmeet as a backchannel when doing Socratic Circles and how to use peer coaching with Google Docs to enhance discussions. From Will Kimbley, I learned how to use ThingLink as a product-based assessment. I learned all about Classcraft from Timonious Downing at EdCamp Home last summer, and I now love it immensely. I can’t tell you how many times I am with other educators who say to me, “How do you know all this stuff?” The answer, in short, is that I am an idea-mooch from all the mighty educators in my Professional Learning Network (PLN).

That being said, the value of connected learning does not only apply to educational technology. It wasn’t until I read Doug Robertson’s great book He’s the Weird Teacher that it fully dawned on me that relationships are the most important aspect of education. I also found out about another great book through connected education: through the podcast EduAllstars, I first heard about the great Josh Stumpenhorst, who published a wonderful book entitled The New Teacher Revolution, which mentioned the exact same idea. (If two rockstar teachers mention the exact same idea, they might be onto something.)

I also get great ideas from the mighty Jon Corippo. His speeches and sessions always involve educational technology, but he always includes some important aspect of pedagogy. It is not enough to give shared Google docs to students, but to effectively scaffold and model for them what to do. I have grown tremendously as an educator because of his help.

I think it’s important to clarify exactly what “connected learning” is–and isn’t. It is any form of teachers learning and sharing ideas with one another. This can come in variety of forms: conferences, EdCamps, Twitter, Facebook, Google +, Voxer, department meetings, Pinterest, EduClipper, Listly, Diigo, and many, many more (and I will include Teachers Pay Teachers, even though many will disagree with me). It does NOT mean that a teacher MUST be on Twitter or participate in weekly Twitter edchats. Some of the best ideas I have learned have come from conferences and watching CUE videos on YouTube.

Thus, being a connected educator is more of an attitude than a specific action. It is the demeanor of educations who believe that we are all indeed better together. Thus, what’s in it for me is the same thing that is in it for all of us: improving our abilities as educators to improve the quality of education for all our students.