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 Pinterest

Recently, I had been searching for a place where I could get great ideas from others and could save articles and posts for future reading. I had been tinkering with Diigo and EduClipper, but I didn’t have much success.

I then sought advice from Jon Samuelson, who recommended Listly as a resource, and he also recommended Pinterest.


No way. Pinterest is not for me. I’m not interested in recipes or wedding planning, so I can’t possibly get any use out of it. And even then, how can I even use it? It seems like a weird, cryptic site that eludes understanding.

And yet… I trust Jon Samuelson, so I decided to give it a shot.

I was pleasantly surprised.

I began creating boards that fit my educational interests (Educational Technology, Apps for Education, etc.). I would find articles or blog posts that fit those categories, and I began pinning them to those boards. The Pinterest Chrome extension makes this very easy to do. I also sought out some of my PLN members and began following them and their boards.

The result: when I go to my Pinterest homepage, I am bombarded with ideas that are relevant and useful to me. I don’t need to search anywhere to get great ideas and excellent resources.

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Pinterest is exactly what I was seeking: a place where I could share excellent resources with others and easily find resources that I can use.

Go ahead. Try it out. You might just be surprised.

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.

Finding God in my PLN

For a long time, I felt alone as a teacher. The profession is, by its very nature, very isolating. I have observed other teachers give five full lessons in the past ten years, and I work in a school with few other middle school teachers.

During recent years, I went through some darkness as I drifted away from my original call to be a passionate teacher. I felt like I was no longer called to be a teacher, and I thought that maybe I has chosen the wrong vocation. Out of this pain, I learned to turn to God. After reading Philip Yancey’s book on prayer, I learned how to pray authentically to God. I learned to turn to Him in complete honesty and tell him exactly what I was thinking or wondering about my life. I sometimes said, “God, did I make the wrong choice? Did I blow it? Dear God, I don’t know what to do with my life right now.” Many times, not knowing what to say, I tended to repeat (several dozen times a day), “Dear God, please help me.” Through this period of suffering, I developed a much stronger faith life than I would previously thought possible. I felt connected to God in ways that I had never experienced before. I learned that even if I were to suffer permanently through unresolved issues, God would always be with me.

Recently, however, there has been a major change in my life. I have been introduced to Twitter. I have used it as a means to find other teachers, chat with them, and follow them. It has connected me to hundreds of teachers, and I have formed a Professional Learning Network (PLN), where I talk informally to teachers all across the country. We are all committed to developing student passion and empowerment, and we all do whatever it takes for us to become better teachers.

This “network,” in many ways, has become more than just a “professional network.” I previously had a hard time making real and lasting friendships since I graduated from high school many years ago. I find that I don’t have much in common with many people, and I have drifted apart from my older friends. That has changed since I discovered Twitter. I find that I can share professional insecurities (How can I do a better job teaching vocabulary? How can I improve class discussions?) and receive support instead of judgment. I also find that I am often able to help others, by introducing them to new tools like Socrative or TodaysMeet. There are also many times when Twitter veers away from education into silliness. Sometimes discussions become strings of non sequitors or popular culture quotes (which I usually miss, to the comic benefit of everyone else). In other words, we are becoming not colleagues, but friends.

I am finding that I am not turning to God in the same way as I had before. I still pray several times a day, but not as despairingly as I had before. I believe that it is due to the fact that I am connected to something larger to myself and connected to people who believe in the same mission. As St. Paul writes, “You are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.”(1 Cor 12:27) When we help and support each other in our mission, we are acting as the body of Christ. This is not to say that all members of my PLN are Catholic, Christian, or even believers of any religion. I know that many of them are not. Nevertheless, we all know that God sometimes does amazing things through atheists, and horrible crimes are sometimes committed by the most devout. Even though some might no longer believe, I believe that God’s love still works through them. They are very, very committed to helping the young men and women in their classroom and for their own children, thereby living out Jesus’ call to care for children. (Mt 19:14)

Because I am much happier and feel the love and support from my PLN, my utterance, “Dear God, please help me” has been transformed into “Thank you, thank you, thank you, God.”

Thank you, God, for my PLN.