Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Wild Jungle Brains...How to Tame the Beasts

Yes, that's right..my brain is a wild jungle full off all kinds of gibberish. I'm on overload right now. I know it's the summer, but I have been going at a frenzied pace speaking, researching, tweeting,  reading, writing, learning, blogging, planning because the summer is the time I can really dig into new ideas. I have the time to read. I spend more time on Twitter and reading other people's blogs. I meet smart educators at all of the conferences where I travel to speak. All of this brings amazing epiphanies and new plans for next year.

BUT...I find myself struggling now to focus on one thing. As I sit here typing on my antiquated desktop (my laptop decided to go on permanent vacation this summer), I found I needed some quiet time for my brain to slowly begin to formulate some clear thoughts. I needed to find some takeaways from all this PD I've been shamelessly partaking in for several weeks now.

That is when this occurred to me...maybe in the rush to meet all the standards, pacing guides, and mandates and still provide our students with the hands-on, student-directed learning they crave, we bombard our students with so much stimulation that they struggle to actually form one clear and concise thought or sentence. More is not actually better.

We have no idea what is already going on in their heads. They already have a jumble of thoughts before they walk into our classroom. We need to make sure that we are making purposeful choices in what we bring into our classroom, whether it's a hands-on activity or a new tech tool. We need to ask: Is this the most powerful opportunity to support my students' learning or is it a fun activity that kind of relates to the topic at hand?

We are the content specialists and strategists in the classroom. It is our responsibility to provide our students with the BEST support that we can. We aren't doing them any favors by bombarding them with a lot of mediocre projects/stations/tools/activities that will cloud their minds from what is most important...their learning. They need the time to formulate ideas, plan projects, reflect on their progress, and set their own learning goals. By providing them the support and time that they need, we can tame those overstimulated brains and help them find their own paths to success.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Questions and Answers

As I was presenting my sessions at SDE's National Conference on Differentiated Instruction, several questions arose that I feel like deserve more attention. One thing that I always try to remember is that my perspective is different than many other teachers. Many teachers that attend my presentations and workshops are great teachers, but some haven't made the shift from teacher-driven to student-directed learning. Others want to make that shift, but they don't know how to go about making that a reality; they aren't able to "see" what it looks like in a real honest to goodness classroom.

I know, from my own experience, that it can be a scary proposition to let go of that [illusion of] control; when we are in front of the classroom, we feel like master and commander of our classroom.But the question that I challenge everyone who spends a majority of their time in front of their students disseminating information is: How do you know what each student is grasping while you are leading the instruction?

Does a traditional test measure everything that a learner can learn in a certain subject? Does a right answer necessarily indicate understanding any more than a incorrect answer indicates a lack if understanding? It is crucial for us to each consider the answers to these questions about our own practice. Without taking the time to evaluate and reflect on our own practice, we become irrelevant for our students. We must do what is best for them and their needs and not what is best [or easiest] for us.

Here are some of the queries that were posed to me this week as teachers were trying to "see" how they could make student-directed learning work for them:

1. Are these collaborative projects graded? Yes, a majority of these projects are graded. In my classroom, when we engage in a writing/publishing project, my students brainstorm their ideas of what the final outcome will be. As they begin to formulate an idea, a discussion ensues about what should be included. They decide the purpose, the audience, the tone, the type of writing that will best support the project, the content should be included. As they are discussing this, I'm asking them probing questions, having them justify their choices. They need to understand that the decisions they make should be substantive. 

Learning is the ultimate goal. In these discussions, the learners are designing a basic rubric that will guide them and ultimately assess them. They designed it, not me. What do you notice is missing? There is not one mention of the tool that the students will use for their final product. Learners need to understand that the ultimate goal is learning. Technology is just the tool to get them to their ultimate goal. 

2. If students aren't assigned a specific tool to use, how do they know what tool will support their project? Most of my students come to me with very limited experience using digital tools. Their previous school experience is mostly "drill and kill" games. So, this is how I do it. The first week of school we do not have any of our "extras" classes. That gives me additional time in the school day to do some additional activities. 

One activity in which my students engage is an online scavenger hunt. They work in partners and search all of our class' digital resources and tools that they will find useful throughout the year. In additional to our class website, wikis, and blog, they also search the projects that previous students have published. They are searching for specific information while experiencing a host of different digital options. This gives them a general idea of the types of things that are possible. Do they necessarily know the names of all the tools? No, but they begin to get an idea of what is possible when it comes to publishing. 

3. How do you find the time to teach the different tech tools that your students are going to use to publish their work? Since the lack of time is usually our biggest challenge, my students have found several ways to squeeze in more learning time. Many of my students arrive via bus an hour before school begins. When I arrive at school, I invite my students to come to our classroom to work. During this time, I can pull a small group and show them the basics of how a tool works. This is usually a 10 minute or less lesson to several students who a now the class experts. 

Many of my students are so excited to begin publishing their work, they don't want to wait until the next morning so they begin exploring a tool on their own. They explore, troubleshoot and depend on their peers if they get stuck. They enjoy becoming independent and working together to problem solve. They depend upon one another. In reality,very little class time is actually spent on the tech tool side of the projects. The focus is always on the learning. 

Thanks to all of you for your participation, comments, questions, and challenges this week. I appreciate all if the hardworking that you put into becoming the best teacher that you can be for your students. If you have any more questions, you know how to reach me. I'm only a blog, tweet, Facebook post, or email away.

Monday, July 2, 2012

ISTE: Changing Lives Forever

I've just returned home from my eleventh ISTE. My experience at ISTE is probably much different than most of the other 20,000+ people who attend because, for the last ten years, I have attended with my ten and eleven year old students. They have been invited to present a Student Showcase. I get the rare opportunity to see the wonderful, hectic, sometimes chaotic learning machine that is ISTE through the eyes of my students. I get to see what their perceptions are of other educators' opinion on what should be going on in today's classroom. Surprisingly enough, they are extremely tuned into what is worthwhile and what is pure "fluff." Each year, my students choose to spend less and less time in the exhibit hall and hotel pool and more and more time in formal sessions and speaking to people informally between sessions, on the conference bus, and impromptu networking sessions. They speak passionately about their learning and the technology that supports it.If you are willing to listen and converse with them (you'd probably be shocked by how many attendees don't and are downright rude to them) you will see that they have very powerful voices...each distinct one from the other.

As I'm reflecting on this year's experience, I have one even that keeping circling back to the front of my mind. I want to share that story with you here.

If you attended my students' presentation, you know that it is 100% their work. They prepare what they are going to say to attendees, they've designed the take-home souvenir (instead of a hand-out), and they've designed the display. Of course, everything that they are sharing is also 100% created and published by them as well. We usually get a very good crowd that visits us and the kids don't get to come up for air for over two hours.

This year, I had one student with me that we'll call Trent. Trent is a quiet guy with a great sense of humor. Through our student-directed classroom, he has become an extremely strong leader often setting aside his work momentarily to help a peer in need. He encourages others when they feel like success is out of their grasp. He is an amazing individual who doesn't pull any punches when you want the truth.

Each of my students simultaneously run their own little presentation with groups of educators throughout our allotted time. We really need one computer per student, but we weren't able to travel with that many computers this year. Trent asked if he could use our iPad,"I know it won't show many of the awesome projects that we did, but I know I can explain it well enough that they will get a good idea of what I'm talking about.That way everyone else can keep using the laptops." Pretty selfless for an eleven year old, huh?

As my students present I stand back, field any questions they feel they can't answer fully and provide any support that they need. They've told me that if I stand too close it makes them nervous...so I keep a small distance. I could overhear Trent speaking with a small group and doing a beautiful job. They had so many questions that he was able to field effortlessly. That small group dwindled down to one teacher. She continued to pepper him with questions and take notes furiously. Trent took his time to explain all the tools, helped her write down steps, and even helped her spell out the tool's name if she asked.

She thanked him after about thirty minutes and went on her way smiling. Trent looked up at me with a huge grin, "Mrs. Ramsay, I just changed that woman's life forever. She'll never teach the same again. And isn't that what all of this is all about anyway?" Before I could answer, he turned and started his next presentation with another group who had just walked up.

WOW! Trent understands the importance of going to a conference; he knows it's not just about getting, but about giving back; it's about sharing a piece of yourself. It really is about changing lives forever.

As educators it is so important that we take the time to let our students have these experiences. They need to share what they are learning with others of all ages and geographic locations. They need to know that what they are doing can positively impact more than just themselves. They need the opportunity to share their perspective in the field of education and beyond. As I've said many times, they are the reason we are constantly learning and growing. Let's not underestimate our learners, but give them the opportunities to change people's lives forever.