Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My Kids Think Skype is the Cat's Meow

Today was one of those days where something amazing happens. My students had the opportunity to Skype with anatomy students. Skype is not something new for my learners. We use it regularly when working with our peers from across the country on The Coast to Coast Chronicles.  My students have served as learners and teachers with much older students as well (you can read about that here) and they have always loved the experience. They always thoroughly enjoy their time working with peers via Skype, but today's results seemed a bit different.

Today, my students got to Skype with Amber Lewis' junior and senior anatomy students at Spain Park High School. Her students have been studying the different body systems and had dissected cats. My learners were really excited about the opportunity to see and learn with these cats. Since we had dissected squids earlier in the year, they had been begging to do another dissection; so, this was their opportunity to get to experience it with some real experts.

Amber's students were very well prepared for interacting with my 5th graders. Each group discussed a different body system. Not only did they have their diagrams and cats, they had questions and had prepared activities to engage my students...even from a distance. For example, when they were talking about the circulatory system and showing the different parts of the heart, they had my students feel their pulse while they showed how the valves opened and closed. They asked questions that connected what they were showing to my students polling them for who knew someone who had diabetes before showing and teaching about the pancreas.

The looks on my students' faces were priceless, especially when the mama cat was shown with her 3 kittens. I wish I could have gotten better pictures of their expressions and how they were testing their new found knowledge...picture 10 year old holding up their fists and placing it where their kidneys are or rubbing their necks to feel their trachea all with the shock and amazement that only kids can have.

My students were totally engrossed in the activity.  A couple of hours after our Skype call, as my learners were still connecting and discussing what they had just experienced, they came to a heated debate about the kittens and how they would the mother or not. One student looked at me and insisted that I email Mrs. Lewis' class to get an answer. Google was not good had to come form THEIR experts.

Since, I didn't know exactly what to expect from the Skype call, I told me students that they were each responsible for reflecting on their experiences and explaining what they learned and why it was important to them. My students do this all of the time; we are always writing and reflecting on their learning and growth regularly. However, my students (even the ones that I have to pull quality writing out of) wrote pages about how important it was to learn about the different organs and body systems and understand how they all worked together.  One student wrote, "Today, I feel like I just graduated from a college class. I learned so much more than I ever thought was possible about the human body...from people I never met before. I hope that someday, I can teach them something too. Today was the best day ever!"

Their conversations went on for days. I think everyone in the school....maybe the community...heard about this Skype lesson. It was an amazing thing to witness. And like my kids, I can't wait until the next time we Skype in an expert. Anybody interested?

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Wake up! This Isn't Your Mama's Classroom.

At EdCamp Birmingham, I joined a couple of discussions about the general public's view of education today. We have all been aware of the negative views of education today, but one has to wonder, "What are we doing to change that perception?" When I listened to the conversations, I started wondering what I had been doing to change the public's view of what goes on in my classroom.

When you think about what the general public sees on television, in advertisements, and in movies, there is no wonder why there is such a negative perception of what education really is today. Often, you see desks in rows with a teacher's desk in front of the students and a blackboard at the front of the room. Usually, the teacher is portrayed as one who gives out seatwork, homework, and lectures about content while the students are expected to be sponges that enthusiastically absorb all of  this content.

Is this really what a classroom of today is like? Although there are still classes like this in today's schools,  there are also many teachers who are actively learning and growing professionally to meet the distinct needs of today's learners.They are becoming a facilitator of learning, guiding their students as they design their own learning path, meeting the needs of each individual student, and fostering a student-centered, collaborative environment inside and outside the classroom walls using the resources and tools that appeal to today's learner.

With all of things that teachers have to do outside of their direct teaching responsibilities, I know many of us feel like we struggle just to keep our heads above water. So how can we begin to impact society's unfair expectations?

So I went back to my original question, "What was I doing to change that perception?"  My students direct their own learning path; they collaborate with over 300 students from across the country; and they use tech tools to support their deep, meaningful learning. We are NOT the classroom that you see in today's media, but very few people outside of our collaborative partners and the students' parents are aware of what really takes place everyday in our classroom. For me, the answer was very simple, I turned it over to the students.

They are always taking photos and tweeting about what we are doing in class. They are always creating and publishing some fabulous piece of work. They are already doing all of the work, all we have to do now is send it off to the people in our community. The students and their parents have already provided us with email addresses and names of community leaders, business owners, a local newpaper reporter, and the chamber of commerce. Now once the students complete a project, we send it off to our newfound email contacts with a brief summary of the project, what it was about and how/why it was created. All of those photos my students already take, they can just turn it into a movie or slideshow (using Animoto, PhotoStory3, Image Loop, or TripWow) and send it off as well.

Our students already have the power to make decisions about their own learning. Shouldn't they be the ones to spread the exciting things that are going on in our classrooms? Think how much more it will mean to a businessman or city councilman if this is coming from a 10 year old. They will see the learner's passion and excitement about learning from the students perspective and further widening the authentic audience for students. Our students are doing amazing things and it doesn't look anything like what everyone sees on television.  Isn't it time that society woke up and realized that learning has changed a lot since they were in school? Now is the time for a wake up call! What are YOU doing to change society's perception of education?

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Get out of the Classroom! Experiential Learning

AT EdCamp Birmingham, I had the good fortune to meet many passionate educators who are making a different in their classrooms and schools everyday. One of these educators is Bob Dillon (Twitter: @ideaguy42). He is a principal at an experiential middle school in St. Louis, Missouri. The students there spend 30% of the time outside of the classroom. I love that students are given the experiences that only firsthand learning provides.

Although they do have some big  trips  to Dauphin Island Sea Lab and the Smoky Mountains, much of their time outside of the classroom is spent close to their school. The students ride the light rail system to visit other areas of the city. Several of these experiential learning activities are walking distance from the school. They get involved in community projects like cleaning up Forest Park, one of the largest urban parks in the world. The students are gaining a sense of community and ownership with their neighborhood walks where they help local organizations distribute important information.

It set my mind to thinking. I used to take my own students to Dauphin Island Sea Lab and to an outdoor environmental camp until my administrators told me that they felt like it interfered with the standardized test prep. Yet the learning that students can grasp from just those few days of experiences is almost indescribable. How can I still give those life experiences and sense of community to my students in a system that has cut all field trips because they have lost millions of dollars of funding and can't afford to run the buses for field trips in order to save as many jobs as possible? - Custom comment codes for MySpace, Hi5, Friendster and more The answer is simple...we WALK. Within walking distance, we have a shopping center. Think of all the things my students can learn firsthand from local business owners, retail shops and restaurants... managing money, percentages, marketing, measurement, chemistry, nutrition, elapsed time, communication. These are just the few that come to mind. I'm sure my students will design a much better list of what they want to do and learn on these trips.

Also, a bit farther from there is city hall and the police department. How much more would it mean for them to see how the laws play out in their own community? Talk about authentic learning!

As a result, my students would gain a real understanding of what it takes to be successful outside of the classroom. They would connect to the relevance of the content that they are mastering in school. Also, they would have a sense of community, names and faces of the people who work and improve the area where they live. And it would filter down through the collaboration that they have with the students from across the country giving the students outside of my classroom a real understanding of where my students live and spur some amazing conversation and connections between all of them.

I'm excited and ready to get started. Now, where are my walking shoes?

Monday, May 2, 2011

The Aftermath for Fultondale Students

Today, I did something that I never envisioned myself doing. I joined with 6 other teachers and with class rolls in hand, we went into the neighborhoods decimated by Wednesday's tornadoes looking for our students. We weren't sure what we would find, but we loaded up a couple of trucks with supplies from the National Guard, FEMA, and the Red Cross and entered these areas.

Immediately, there is a sense of shock and disbelief that what you are seeing is real, even if you have been seeing it on the news 24 hours a day. Tears came to our eyes and we tried to imagine the sheer terror that our students had to have been through when these earth shattering winds whipped through their little neighborhoods destroying everything that had in their lives. (thankfully no casualties have been reported in Fultondale)

As we slowly creeped through these neighborhoods, we handed out supplies and listened to their stories; many of which seemed like something out of a blockbuster movie. That's what they seemed to need more than anything: a listening ear, a compassionate heart, a smile, a hug. Landlines, cell phones, water, power were all non-existent in many of these places so they had no one to share their stories with.

I wish I could report that we found our students. Neighbors couldn't always tell us where they had relocated so that we could contact them to make sure they were okay; that they had what they needed to make it through the next few days.

Tomorrow, school will resume. How many students will return will be anyone's guess. What will our first day back be like? I have no idea. But I can tell you, none of us who weren't directly affected by the damage have anything to complain about. We are all blessed.

I would ask that all of you please keep all of our Fultondale students and their families in your thoughts and prayers. This is going to be a long road to recovery.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

From EdCamp to the Classroom

This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend my first Tweet-Up, EdCamp and Smackdown. With this being my first, my mind is on overload (I'm sure more blog posts will follow). If someone were to ask me what stands out in my mind most from this weekend, it would have to be the conversations and connections that I made through edcamp. Because although there were sessions that people volunteered to present, they were much different than the traditional "sit and get" type of professional development that many of us have been involved in (forced into) for much of our careers. What made it different was that although there was a presenter, that person wasn't there to impart just their knowledge; they were there to facilitate a conversation on topic. Yes, they were experienced professionals that had background knowledge of and a passion for their proposed topic. However, they encouraged (and at times, sometimes pulled) a conversation out of everyone else in the room. Once people started talking and asking questions, not just of the presenter but one another, that was when the real learning began to happen. People began to connect and find other educators that they wanted to continue the conversation with after the time in that session was completed.

Isn't that what we as teachers should being doing in our classrooms everyday? When a class begins, we are the content experts. We know the curriculum. We know not just what needs to be mastered by the students but the time frame in which it must be completed. We should be guiding them into these conversations not just with us, but with each other. Some of the most profound moments for me at EdCamp were when two or more of the participants started a dialogue where they asked for ideas and solutions to challenges that they were facing in the classroom.

I'm excited about the connections that I've made this weekend, not just because I feel like I've found like-minded educators to share, talk, and problem solve with, but I feel like I've built some real relationships that are going to challenge me to further question what I'm doing in the classroom. They are going to push me to continue to grow, which will directly impact the learning that my students will engage in for the future.

This brought to mind something that one of my fifth graders said one time in a Moodle post with her peers from across the country. They asked her how we (as a class) came up with such clever ideas for our recent edition of The Coast to Coast Chronicles, she said, "Well, twenty-five brains are better than one. We just start the ball rolling and we all jump in and add to it until we come up with something fantastic."

I think she nailed this thought expertly. When we return to school, I'm determined that I will continue to foster these conversations and connections that my students have inside and outside of the classroom with their peers. After all, all of these connections and conversations really are all about them.