Sunday, July 31, 2011

My Own Educational Reform

I’ve just concluded a week in Washington D. C. This week I had the opportunity to participate in Hill Day where I got to speak with 8 of Alabama’s nine legislators (or their staff). At the National Boards Professional Teaching Standards, I co-presented two poster sessions promoting the Alabama NBCT Network and the Second Life Network. I also had the opportunity to meet several Stenhouse authors and have my first official book signing. And I presented a session called “Empowering Students with Web 2.0” in person and virtually.

I knew that I was going to be busier than any other conference that I attended. I knew was I was going to get to connect with people that I’ve been connecting with for several years virtually. I knew that I was going to hear dynamic speakers like Daniel Pink, Diane Ravitch, Sarah Wessling, Arne Duncan, and Pedro Noguera. And let’s not forget about the amazing Save Our Schools March.

With all of these events, speakers, and activities, my mind has been struggling to find a single thought and lesson that I can take away from all of this outstanding professional development….I am on overload. However, as the conference was winding down last night a thought came to me. I need to do a better job of having my voice heard. That may seem strange considering all of the speaking, blogging, social media and PD in which I engage on a regular basis. But, as I was sitting in the final activity, I realized that I need to be better at practicing what I preach.

In my classroom, I am always encouraging my students to share their voice through their writing, their work, their projects, their collaborations. I listen to their voices grow stronger through the school year. I let them voice their opinions and guide their choices in the classroom. Shouldn’t I be putting my money where my mouth is, so to speak?

I think as educators, many of us have been threatened with our jobs if students’ standardized test scores don’t rise or if we don’t teach scripted programs to fidelity. Fear has been used to try to make educators compliant and time and again it has been proven ineffective. It’s ineffective because good educators are not doing the job for pay or incentives. We do it because we are passionate about giving our students the best education that we can… in spite of the challenges, lack of support and difficulties.

So although I do speak up on occasion, I plan on making a much more concerted effort to stand up for what is right for our students. I am going to show them through my example what it means to have your voice heard because they are the ones who are ultimately being affected. My legislators (and administrators) are going to know me by name and they are going to see the work my students do. There are many more educators than there are elected officials. It is up to us to be the voice of change. Things will not change by just talking about it amongst ourselves. We must speak up. Our students can’t wait. Who’s with me?

Friday, July 29, 2011

SMOKE Detectors to the Rescue

Scripted reading programs, grade level meetings, data meetings, CIP boxes, mandatory standardized test practice, required no-choice professional development...OH MY! As teachers, we know that this list could go on and on of the things we have to do that has very little to do with our day to day teaching. Unfortunately these things also have little to do with improving our learners. Now some of these things do have a place...collecting data (as long as it reliable and relevant) is what helps us find individual weaknesses in our students and chart their growth.

However, as teachers it is very tempting to give our students something to do at their seats so that we can complete the mountain of tasks and paperwork that comes with our teaching responsibilities. We must NOT give in to this temptation.It is our responsibility to fight against SMOKE...


We need to become SMOKE Detectors. We all have those things that tend to creep into our classroom time. We have last minute deadlines we have to meet. We have yet another form that we have to fill out. We have practices enforced that squeeze creativity out of the classroom. These things are different for all of us. What we have in common is that we can protect the integrity of the learning time for our students. We can see that something has the potential to eat up their time to work together, your time to meet in small groups, or time when all of us need collaborative learning.

As the teacher it is our responsibility to detect it, stand in that gap, fight back the SMOKE, and give our students the best possible education possible within the confines of a (sometimes) restrictive system. So who will join me in becoming SMOKE Detectors? Our kids are depending on us!

(Anyone else feel like donning a superhero cape? Superheroes created on HeroMachine)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Real 3D...No Glasses Required

This summer has been a hectic one for me....exciting, but hectic. I have been busy travelling to conferences and participating in activities to promote my new book, "Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?" As I'm preparing to travel to D.C. for the National Boards for Professional Teaching Standards Conference, I am looking forward to many things: getting to speak with our congressmen about the importance of National Board Certification and education in Alabama, networking sessions to make new connections, learning new things to add to my educational knowledge, my presentation on Empowering Students, and a book signing. However, what I am most looking forward to would be getting to meet the people that I've been working with for over three years now.

People not involved in technology like twitter, blogs, Skype, or Second Life, think it's a bit strange that you have friends that you've never met. One person tweeted at the beginning of the ISTE conference whether they thought that face to face conferences would eventually become a thing of the past. That really got me to thinking. Would it? As I continued to ponder that thought, I had the opportunity to meet, for the first time, face to face, with five of the other seven teachers involved in the collaborative project where our students collaboratively publish The Coast to Coast Chronicles.

We made the time in our busy ISTE schedules to meet and chat over lunch. As we talked and brainstormed ideas for the next year, I kept thinking, "What an amazing group of women. They're smart, and funny, and compassionate." I loved just listening and watching their mannerisms and inflections. Of course, I already knew much of this from our planning times via Skype, TodaysMeet, and emails, but after meeting them those previous meetings seemed so two-dimensional. What was missing was that depth that you only get from face-to-face interactions.

Now don't get me opens up all kinds of worlds, connections, and collaborations, but sometimes I think we get so caught up on the possibilities, we lose sight of how important it is to make those personal face-to face connections. We need to keep that in mind when we are offering opportunities to our students. Technology does open up an infinite amount of opportunities for them and us, but nothing can replace actually touching a snake, receiving a pat on the back, or getting a high five when success is achieved.

So as we beginning planning for next year and we include all of our great collaborations made possible with technology, let's remember that our students also need a that three-dimensional, hands-on experiences that only we can provide for them.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Shocking Answer from a Future Student

Yesterday, we had our registration for the upcoming school year. It is the first opportunity where I get to meet some of my students for the next year. I look forward to this opportunity to get to know some of my future students and get a feel for their expectations for the upcoming year. One of the questions that I ask is, "What are you looking forward to the most about 5th grade?" I usually get a wide variety of answers, but yesterday I got an answer that shocked me. One of my future students told me  (without hesitation) that she is most looking forward to standardized testing in the Spring.

WHAT?!? Really?!? What does this say about the state of education that a student would look forward to testing as the most exciting thing in the upcoming year? I know that we are constantly bombarded (sometimes assaulted) with the constant pressure to have students perform on these tests. For some of us, we hear about it at every faculty meeting, grade level meeting, data meeting,  and via email correspondence. We have mandatory PD about the new strategies we are required to employ with our students in the name of meeting AYP. As a teacher it can really wear you down, stress you out, and kill all of your creativity.

However, as teachers, should we be passing this pressure of standardized testing off onto our students? Are we giving them a false sense of the priorities in their educational journey? Just because we are assaulted with the pressures, that doesn't mean that our learners need to be. We still need to protect the integrity of our learners' education. It is our job to stand in the gap. I know first hand that it isn't easy. I'm envious of the teachers who get to teach and promote literacy and not be hampered by a scripted reading program. I long for time to actually have a writers workshop. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

But, that doesn't mean that our students can't still thrive in our classrooms. They can be creative; they can connect; they can make choices in what and how they learn. It just takes a little bit of effort on our part to find a way to give them that freedom. I tell my students at the beginning of the year that we are not in fifth grade to prepare for a test. We are here to prepare for life. The looks of relief that I see are remarkable. It's a small shift that makes a big difference. Are we still mastering the standards? Yes. Actually, my students usually far exceed the standards. They become thinkers. They love what we do in class so much that they beg to come to school early, stay late, or even skip lunch.

Does that mean that they don't hear about testing? No, that's being unrealistic. We hear about it everywhere. In spite of this, we can make a difference so that none of our students leave us at the end of the year and only having testing to look forward to for the next year. I'm looking forward to this year and changing this student's expectation for the year. Once we get started, testing will be the furthest thing from her mind.

Monday, July 11, 2011

A Sincere Thanks

This weekend I had the good fortune to have several friends and family members host a small book release party for me to celebrate the release of my book "Can We Skip Lunch and Keep Writing?" Collaborating in Class and Online. I don't know what I was expecting, but I came away from this experience extremely humbled.Some people came from quite a distance to celebrate with me. Many gave up or changed their Saturday plans to attend. I was even able to reconnect with a dear friend with whom I shared my (our) first year of teaching. I had friends who I have shared much of my lifetime with and friends and colleagues I have only known a short time.

The kind words of praise, encouragement, and support really moved me. It dawned on me that often as educators we don't get that kind of recognition. We fight for our students and bend over backwards to look out and provide the best for them. Sometimes I think we forget that there are other educators fighting the good fight right next to us. We have no idea what challenges they may be facing in their classrooms that day. As teachers we rarely seem to get much positive reinforcement for our hard work. It can feel lonely and isolating. A kind word, a bit of encouragement, or some praise can make a huge difference in their day. We are all in this together.

So I wanted to thank all of you out there who have helped shape me into the educator I have become today. And although you may not realize it, the positive, uplifting words, even in passing, have really helped in lightening the load that I (like all of us) carry in my mission to give each of my students the very best. Even though I may not have said it as often as I should have, I appreciate all of the hard work and dedication that each of you puts in every day for all of our students. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

When is Enough...Enough?

I recently reflected on some of my ISTE2011 experiences, but I still have something rattling around that I feel I need to further explore. One of the things that I often hear from newbies to ISTE is the overwhelming volume of opportunities to learn and connect. One of the things that I love about ISTE is that there are so many ways to learn with and from so many other passionate educators from around the world.

As we connected and shared with one another, this year I noticed that a majority of what we were sharing were the tools and how they supported learning. I was thrilled that much more of the conversation was about the learning as this is what I passionately believe in.

However, this is often not reflected in the Exhibit Hall. Amanda Dykes did a great blog post about the misguided selling seen in so many of the vendors in this year's Exhibit Hall: It's easy and cool. Now, I realize that the exhibitors are the ones that sponsor the conference, but don't they need to hear from those of us who are in the classroom? My students would walk away from a booth and say, "That was fun, but I don't see how it's going to help me learn better." Now if 11 year olds get it, shouldn't exhibitors get it?

It's easy to get caught up in the newest, hardware or software. It's new and shiny and the salespeople are good at convincing you that your classroom is incomplete without their newest tool. We all enjoy new toys. But it's our job to really look at the tool and see if it really will improve the way our students learn or if it is just  a fun new tool to amass in our classrooms.

If you look at the ISTE NETS, you will see that technology plays a supporting role. It supports collaboration, innovation, creativity, and critical thinking. Technology doesn't do it for them. The focus is on the learner and how they use technology to support their learning across content areas and grade levels. We don't always need more "stuff." So many of the tools we use in the classroom that supports real, rigorous learning are free tools that are available online.

So the next conference that you go to, really listen to what someone is saying. Are they sharing something that will really positively impact your students' learning or are they trying to sell you on a new toy? Sometimes you already have enough in your classroom. Enough can really be enough.

Friday, July 1, 2011

ISTE Insights from Troublemakers

I've just arrived home from ISTE11 which was held in Philadelphia, PA this year. My experiences are probably much different than most of the other 20,000 educators in attendance as I travel with a group of my 5th grade students. For the last nine years, I've had the opportunity to bring a group of students to present their big technology project for the year. We count it as an honor to be invited to travel and share our experiences. However, even though we do attend the conference every day and attend sessions and workshops, having students with you changes your perspective on what you are seeing and learning. We always have great discussion and debates about how we can adapt and change our learning practices based on our new insights and learning. Yes, they are 11 year-olds and their insights are priceless.

The highlight of each ISTE for me is to see my students present their project (This year they shared our collaboratively produced, student-driven journal). Yes, THEY do all of the presenting. They begin working on their presentation and public speaking skills in February. They design and create the look of their display. Knowing that many of the students that attend each year are students who have overcome great obstacles to find personal and academic success is fulfilling. Hearing all of the comments from the 400+ visitors to their presentations is gratifying for me because they see the value in what my students have to say. My students exude confidence and enthusiasm for their topic because it is THEIR project...not mine. 

My students soak up all of the praise, the questions, the encouragement that visitors to their Student Showcase offer. At the end of their presentation day, after they've had time to reflect on their day, we all share how we've grown as people due to this experience. My students shared that they realize how important their presentation was to all of the students who had teachers attend their session. They said that because of them, other students from around the world may have the opportunity to do collaborative projects, create new projects to support their learning, and design their own learning path.

They were thinking about other students. They proudly wore the "Troublemaker" ribbons on their ISTE badges and explained to anyone who asked that they were troublemakers because they want education to change and they weren't afraid to fight for it. They know the importance of learning supported technology and the power of students making decisions about how and what they learn.

So I want to thank all of you who came by and lent your ear to their presentation. That day my students grew up. Through your words of encouragement, praise, and challenge, my students are more driven than ever to change the face of education. After all, it's their education. Don't all of our students need a voice in the direction that it goes?