Sunday, October 11, 2015

Setting the Stage for Successful Student Collaboration

In today’s digital world, our roles as educators have shifted. We are no longer the sole proprietor and expert in the classroom. Truth is that if Google can replace us, we are no longer doing our job. Our role in the classroom is to teach our students how to apply content knowledge to solve problems. We promote skills like critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. However, those are not skills that come naturally to our students. 

We live in a time where boundaries of learning are being pushed. With the myriad of digital tools at their fingertips, our students have the ability to connect and collaborate with peers both locally and globally. Students have access to experts in any field. Because of the lives they lead, they crave feedback. Yet, their efforts at collaboration often lead anywhere from shutdowns to meltdowns.

We hear our colleagues extolling the virtues of connecting students for collaborative learning and it may cause us to wonder what is going wrong in our classroom. The truth is that everyone, no matter how well intentioned, enters with certain expectations and perceptions. Many of our students expect to walk into a group situation where everyone is working on the same goal doing the exact same thing as their fellow group members. That is simply cooperation or compliance. Often cooperation does not push students into authentic tasks that require higher level thinking and reasoning. True collaboration comes when each member in a collaborative group brings his/her strengths, ideas, experiences, and knowledge to share with the group. Everyone contributes towards the common goal using their unique talents for the good of the entire group.

As teachers, I’m confident that a great majority of us have probably experienced the same frustration as our students when trying to collaborate with our colleagues. I thought I would take an opportunity to share with you some of the practices that my students have learned through our years collaborating with peers both locally and globally.  By preparing them of these mindsets in advance, their likelihood of success is greatly improved.

Communicate expectations up front. The first step that my students do when forming a new collaboration partnership is to outline a list of the norms and expectations that they have for their upcoming project. They discuss timeline, deadlines, behaviors, work ethic, and accountability to the group. Through these conversations, they have the opportunity to share their goals and their concerns about their impending work together. This dialogue lets every member know before they begin the first step exactly where they are headed. It not only helps them create a relationship with one another where they feel safe to be transparent in their thinking, but also connect with one another as individuals on a deeper level. Although this may seem time consuming in an already jammed packed learning day, the group will make up the time in the long run as their project will not suffer from constant derailing due to miscommunications.

Remain flexible.  Things happen. People get sick. Schedules get rearranged. Parents set appointments.  As adults, we understand this is part of life, but sometimes students get frustrated when a deadline isn’t met by a teammate, one member seems to fail in following through with their part of a project, or they miss a time for real time communication. By guiding our students into becoming adept at adjusting plans, they are learning valuable life skills. Often when a student comes to me aggravated because something has disrupted their project, we can lean on the strong foundation that they set in the beginning. Once they open that dialogue, the learners discover a solution together that stronger than their initial plan. They learn to listen to one another, have patience, and pull their resources to reach towards their common goal.

Keep an open-mind. As adults we understand that not everyone is like us. However, many of our students in spite of being globally connected, often live under the false premise that everyone is like them. I’ve discovered over the last several years that this is often the most challenging part of collaboration for students. Students may feel that they are the expert, the smartest, the most organized, the most creative, or the most talented individual in the group. Those beliefs are why I believe that collaboration is an integral part of the learning process. Students need to have experience with students who in many ways may not be like them. No single person is who they are with the talents they have without the guidance and input of others. We become the best version of ourselves by working and learning with others.

By preparing our students in advance for the shifts they will need to make in order to successfully collaborate with the peers, both in the classroom and through digital means, we give them the tools to open a world of learning possibilities. Through collaboration, students find commonalities with a diverse community of learners and apply content knowledge and higher order thinking skills for an authentic audience while becoming the strongest version of themselves. Collaboration, although challenging at times, is well worth the investment for us, our students, and the future.

photo credit: Empty Stage via photopin (license)

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Superheroes Don't Exist, But You Do

"Not every one is like you."

Today is the first official day of ILA15 and the statement above seems to be the underlying theme that I am hearing, experiencing, and discussing formally and informally. The stories told by Shiza Shahid from her childhood in Pakistan to cofounding the Malala Fund in order to advocate for education for every student spun me into introspection. 

Many of us work with high needs students by choice. Where I am teaching, we have both ends of the socio-economic spectrum. Our students go home to lives that are not our own reality...and we, as their teachers, need to be aware of that. Even students labeled "high needs" lead sheltered lives compared to their global peers; in spite of being involved in social media, they still often remain disconnected from global events. They live under the assumption (as do many of us) that the 11 and 12 year olds on the other side of the world have the same privileges and civil rights.

I couldn't help but wonder, as educators, isn't it our responsibility to make them not just globally aware, but provide opportunities for them to put their compassion, empathy, and talents to use? The books that we read, projects they create, and conversations we have should include a global view of our world. Not every child will respond to every book, article, or video we share, but they still need to have those experiences to gain a sense of themselves in the perspective of the world in which we live.

I often hear that students are apathetic when it comes to learning. However, when students are asked what they want to get out of their education, thei
r answer usually is "to make a difference in the world." How can we meet that need if we shy away from the cotton candy world that so many of our students live in? Students need to know what is going on in the world. They need time to read about others who may not look like them, talk like them, or have the same beliefs. If they don't have that empathy or understanding for others, how can they ever turn their dream of using an education to make the world a better place into a reality? 

I must admit that is an area where I have learned much from my students this school year. This year our entire student body embraced a global project. They learned of a school in the Ikota village of Nigeria. In spite of receiving an excellent education, and privately funded scholarships (because school is not free in Nigeria) they didn't have a permanent structure. Their learning was done in bamboo structures and metal shipping containers on the village's dump. Our middle school students ran a campaign, educated others, shared learning with their Nigerian peers, and raised funds to put towards building them a structure which would allow for twice as many students to receive an education. These middle school students saw an opportunity and jumped in to make a difference. 

Sometimes the best thing that we can do for our students is to step out of the way and let them lead. It was exciting to watch them grow and change with the choices they were making. At no time did our students refer to themselves as "saving" their peers on another continent. They looked at it as a privilege and an honor to connect with these students and put their talents to use to impact the lives of those students and their community. 

When I reflect on what I've heard today and experienced with my students, I know that this year I need to be diligent in not only exposing them to the lives of others through the stories we read,and the classes with whom we collaborate, but also staying open when a student shows an interest in making a change in the world. As Shiza said, "we can't wait for superheroes to come and change the world. They don't exist, but YOU do."

Monday, June 29, 2015

What Social Media (and Professional Learning) Should Be About

I'm currently at my 15th ISTE. Many things have changed in education and technology over the last fifteen years. In 2000, social media did not have a presence in our lives. People walked around, attended sessions, looked each other in the eye, and spoke to one another....because that was the primary way to make connections. Quite a few years ago, I was standing in line at a convention center Starbucks with my students when the teacher behind us, Linda Cooper, struck up a conversation about why my students were at ISTE. That conversation grew into what was my first collaborative effort with my students and students in another geographic location. She and I built a relationship that greatly benefited all of our students. Our dialogue, sharing, and connecting opened up my mind to new directions to grow in my teaching practice.

Several years later, Web 2.0 and social media came onto the scene.  I joined in and began tweeting and posting. Like many others, I became excited by the number of followers I had or who chose to follow me. It took two years before I realized that wasn't where the true value of social media was found; it was in making connections, building true relationships, and giving back to others in our digital/social media community...the very same thing that Linda and I had done years before. That was when my professional growth escalated exponentially.

I was able to find answers to questions that I had about how to meet the needs of one of my students. I could find different ways to turn the learning and our classroom over to my students. I could form partnerships to connect my students with their global peers. Because of the relationships that I built, my students were able to find their voices, build connections with global peers, and make a difference in the world. 

Because we are connected regularly through social media, building these relationships, we get to know one another. Friendships built on mutual respect develop. On my flight to ISTE, I had a young woman sit beside me who noticed my ISTE app. She asked me if I was headed to the conference. She (a second year teacher) and her two colleagues (first year teachers) were heading to their first ISTE. Her passion and enthusiasm were contagious. She asked so many questions about ISTE and teaching. As she began taking notes, I realized that this is one reason why we go to conferences (and engage in social media) make these connections. 

There are people who are all along the professional learning continuum. Some are ahead of us in their journey. Others may be just beginning. However we connect, whether face-to-face or digitally, we need to strive to share our learning with others. 

So as we continue the next two days at ISTE, I want to challenge myself and challenge you to look for someone who you can share with, connect with, and grow with. This will not only benefit our practice, but also the learning of our students. And our students' learning is what it is all ultimately about. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Are We Truly Listening?

Since March, my voice has been very quiet. Almost, crickets quiet. One morning, I woke up with an irritating pain in my back that quickly escalated into me being unable to walk, sit, or drive. Excruciating pain so intense I couldn't think. I tried everything in my arsenal (rest, heat, ice); nothing worked. I sought medical assistance. I kept saying the same thing. I need answers. What is causing this? How can we repair it? I didn't want to slap a bandaid on it, but work towards regaining my healthy, active life. Over and over again I said this as doctors, medical professionals, and my insurance company failed to listen to me. It took me 13 weeks to jump through countless (worthless) hoops until I finally was able to find a doctor who listened. Truly listened. He ran tests, formal and informal. He asked me for feedback. He communicated with me regularly...even out of office hours. He (and the fantastic physical therapist that he recommended) made themselves available to answer my questions, soothe my anxiety, and help me work toward my goal of a healthy back. Having them gave me a positive frame of mind that I could reach that goal even if it still may take several more months.

One day, as I was reclined on an extra-large ice pack, it occurred to me that many of our students may be on parallel journeys to this in their learning lives. They may feel completely overwhelmed by the expectations in our classrooms. They may have obstacles that seem insurmountable. They many feel that their voices are hitting an abyss and that no one cares enough to hear them, see them.

I couldn't help but ask, are we being the kind of teacher that truly listens? Are we talking to them? Asking questions? Listening not only to what they are saying, but what they are not saying? Are we building a foundation of trust with our students so that they know we care about them, not as just a student in our classrooms, but as individuals? Do we run formal and informal diagnostics and formative assessments to determine exactly what they need while giving them an opportunity to set their own personal goals? Do we soothe their anxiety, cheer them on, and provide guidance that they can build upon? Are we willing to go above and beyond what is "expected" as a classroom teacher to give our students what they need? Again, I ask, are we truly listening? Because if we are, it can make a world of difference in the life of that student even long after they have left. That's what they need. That's what they deserve.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

It's OUR Table

How many of us have heard (or said) some variation of the phrase, "We want a seat at the table." Often as educators, we feel excluded from the decisions being made that have a direct impact upon our ability to teach our students in the way that each learner needs. Policy and decisions are made almost daily about students learning by those who often have never been in a classroom or whose experience is a far distant memory. For educators, it's disempowering and frustrating, leaving us wondering about the direction that education is headed when often student learning is not the central focus of these policies. I think I'm like so many of you. I'm passionate about educating students; every student, regardless of the challenges they may face or the support they may need. That's why I became a teacher, not a politician. I wanted to empower students. So, I began asking for a seat at the decision making table in order to speak up for my students.

Then, my thinking shifted. A lightbulb turned on. I was at a professional learning event in panel discussion on Teacher Leadership. Laren Hammonds (@_clayr_) made the statement that as teacher leaders,  we need to have our own table and invite policy makers to join us. As I reflected up this idea, I realized that somewhere in the past, as teachers, we have been giving up our seats to policy makers. As a profession, we bought into the false idea that we are "just teachers" and that elected officials, and those appointed by them, had more importance than us. We gave up our seats (because we'd rather be in our classrooms), decisions were made without us, we grumbled among ourselves and moved on back to teaching our students. The process just continued to escalate, which drove many teachers away from classroom or education altogether. After all, what could we do? They were elected or appointed and we are "only teachers."

As teachers, there are several things that we need to do in order to claim our table and directly impact the policy that can dictate how we reach our students. We need to realize that we are the one in the trenches with students every day. Our voices, and our students' voices, are the ones that are the most relevant. The elected officials and their appointees are there because we put them there. Let's take the time to educate them about what student learning looks like in 2015. We can send them emails and letters [even in 2015 handwritten makes the most impact] with stories of student learning. Invite them to our classrooms and large learning events. Connect with them through social media by posting photos of the phenomenal learning taking place in our classrooms every day.  If they are not willing to listen to us, then we need to elect officials who will support student learning. The mentality that we are "just a teacher" or "only a teacher" must die within all of us.

We also must realize that while a one-time email, letter, or conversation may lay a foundation, we  need to develop a relationship with policy makers. The repeat contact and follow-up solidifies you as an expert in the education field. Inviting them to join in education conversations held in OUR classrooms and schools at OUR table reshapes their thinking and puts student learning at the forefront of their thinking. In the fours years that I have been advocating for student learning, I have never had a policy maker, committee, or council ever ask me to leave. They may not have joined OUR table, but that doesn't mean that we stop extending the invitation. After all, this is OUR dinner party. We want for them to join the conversation because all of OUR futures are at stake. Leaners are our future's most precious commodity. And without these conversations, we are doing a great disservice to ourselves and future generations.

So let's send out invitations, pull out a chair, and have a seat. It's time we start facilitating these conversation and decisions based on what's best for our learners. The students of today and tomorrow are depending up on us.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Alabama NBCT Week: Alabama Statistics

This week has officially been declared Alabama NBCT Week by Governor Bentley. This week has been filled activities and events that recognize the teachers in Alabama who have earned their board certification. I found the following statistic very interesting.

  • ·       There are 47,723 public school teachers in AL including 2,313 NBCTs – 4.8% of AL teachers are NBCTs.
  • ·       In Alabama, 744,621 public school students are served by 47,723 teachers including 2,313 NBCTs.
  • ·       Alabama ranks 15th in the nation with its # of NBCTs. The states with the most NBCTs are NC (20,611) FL (13,637) SC (8,820) WA (8,196) and CA (6,249). MS has 3,740 NBCTs.
  • Alabama has 133 school districts –
    • o   School districts with highest # of NBCTs: Jefferson County - 236; Hoover City - 185; Birmingham City – 152
    • o   12 Alabama school districts have 0 NBCTs – I have the school district names if we want to include that info
    • o   86 Alabama school districts have 5 or less NBCTs
    • o   102 Alabama school districts have 10 or less NBCTs
  • ·       Research shows that students taught by NBCTs gain an extra 1 – 2 months of learning each school year. That adds up to an incredible amount of learning time for our students!
  • ·       The positive impact of having an NBCT is even greater for minority and low-income students.
  • ·       There are 110,428 NBCTs in the US.
  • ·       Alabama NBCTs receive an annual $5000 stipend for 10 yrs and can recertify; if you are an NBCT for 20 yrs, you can earn an extra $100,000 during your career.
  • ·       Over 4,100 educators nationwide achieved NB cert in 2014; in Alabama 62 educators earned their NB cert in 2014. MS had over 200 new NBCTs in 2014 and over 500 of their educators have achieved in the last 5 yrs.
  • ·       The Alabama NBCT Network currently has 280 members. We would like to double that number by the end of 2015.
  • Compiled by Valerie Johnson (@JohnsonValAL)
Personally, I can say that earning my certification in 2007 proved to be the most challenging and rewarding professional development that I have ever done. It helped me to sharpen my practice and become highly reflective on the choices that I make and how they positively impact student learning. NBPTS has now revamped the process, lowering the cost and extending the time frame that one has to complete the process. If you are considering board certification and you have any questions, please feel free to ask. I will be completely transparent and honest with you.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Fairy Wings, Time Portals, and Falling Down the Rabbit Hole

Like many classroom teachers, I will do whatever is in my power to provide my students with the level of support and challenge that they need to meet their goals. I strive to put the fun into every day. There is plenty of research that supports that fun is a legitimate, pedagogical choice in teaching a person something new. It removes fear from trying something new, produces dopamine and endorphins in the brain causing conenctions, and opens the gateways of moving new ideas into cognition. Recently, I have been in a search for new ways to bring fun into my classroom. I say new, but what I discovered in my search was something that I did as a new teacher; somewhere along the way, it dropped out of my practice. What was that? you may ask. That was the joy of bringing "guests" into my classroom...guest as in me dressed up in a costume and interacting with my students from a different perspective.

This idea occurred to me as I faced the grand task of teaching A Christmas Carol to my sixth grade students. I have been very fortunate to collaboratively plan with my ELA colleagues this year. They had done a unit centered around A Christmas Carol in past that had been extremely successful in helping students master multiple standards. I immediately began to question my ability to not only effectively use the text to provide modeling of literacy standards but also and adeptly scaffold their learning within this complicated text. Furthermore, I was keenly aware that this would be their first experience with classic literature. I want my students to LOVE literature as much as I do and I didn't want build up negative opinions about these texts years before they would tackle them in the future.

While I was racking my brain, an idea crystallized. Wouldn't it be cool if kids could travel through time to see how different life was during the 1840s and 1850s in England and how that directly impacts the writing of that time? Since I found myself lacking a working TARDIS of my own, I decided to bring history to them. I decorated our classroom like Victorian Christmas time and came to school as "Clara Bennett" from 1852 England. I dressed like her, spoke like her, and created a deep history that wove together Victorian life in England and the United States (which included their 6th grade history content; fortunately, Dickens did a tour in the US which lent itself perfectly to my story).

When student arrived, they travelled through our "time portal" and then we began our conversation. Now I knew this would be fun for them, and I expected it to last for about 20 minutes of class. What I didn't expect was how engrossed in it my 6th graders would become. They asked endless questions. They had to learn to accurately describe and explain things during their time (microwaves, cell phones, televisions, video games, etc.) to someone with no background knowledge. This honed their communication skills better than any activity that I could have designed and they were totally hooked on Victorian England. 

The next day, when class began they told me about my ancestor (their conclusion), Clara Bennett, and in detail about the life of Charles Dickens and Victorian life in England and America. When I asked if they wanted to read some of Charles Dickens' work, the answer was a resounding yes.

I had forgotten the impact that a costume could have upon students. Since then I have dressed up as "Faire E. Wiing" a travel consultant who connects students with a personalized travel adventure in the Fairy Tale realm. I've taken on the persona of the Mad Hatter when students shared their narrative writing projects. Each time, the students treat our learning as something special, out of the ordinary. For them it's a time to sit up, take notice because something special is going on that they don't want to miss. And true to that brain research, my students gain a deeper understanding of whatever content we are discussing and adroitly apply it to future learning.

Last week, we had several guests come to our classroom and I overheard one student tell one of our visitors, "You better keep your eyes open and be ready in Ramsayland because you never know who is going to show up to take us on an adventure." With that endorsement, I know I need to continue to look for other ways to purposefully bring the fun to their learning. I realized that as educators, we need to be willing to fall down that rabbit hole and embrace whatever method we find in meeting the needs of our learners. 

photo credit: Time & Money via photopin (license)