Sunday, October 21, 2012

An App Stop on Their Learning Journey

As those of you who follow me on Twitter or Facebook know, my students have been actively engaged in participating in the Global Read Aloud. My students have been so engaged in diving into The One and Only Ivan, that they actively pursue finding time in our very rigid schedule to read and discuss it. You have to remember that my students have spent their entire education on a prescriptive curriculum and have not ever had the opportunity to explore an amazing piece of literature (before they come to me). What I love is how a story can really change and move who you are as a person. It makes you re-evaluate your place in the world. It can be transforming.

What makes this experience even more valuable to my learners is that we are connecting with other students worldwide through Skype, Twitter, and blogging in order to discuss and share this book. There is also a wiki where students can publish any work in which they engage that relates to the book; my students were anxious to contribute to this community of publishers.

We are working on analyzing characters in our reading and our writing. Thanks to Lara Deloza at the International Reading Association, I was introduced to a free app called Trading Cards.  This clever little app (also will be available on Android) allows the user to dig deeply in examining all aspects of a character. When my students began a debate about which character was the most important to the story, I felt like I needed to give them an opportunity to share their thoughts and ideas with a wider audience. Since one of my students had helped me test out the trading card app, she suggested that they create character trading cards.

My learners divided into small groups to write about their character. As I travelled around the classroom listening to their conversations, their depth and understanding was amazing. They were inferring characteristics based on how other characters reacted to their character. They were making connections with other books they had read, movies or television shows they had viewed, and their own lives. The idea that they were going to be publishing and sharing their ideas with other students gave my learners an authentic reason to really analyze their writing.

After they had written their summaries and created an illustration of their character based on the description in the book, we conferred. I had them explain and justify the choices that they had made in their writing before they set off to publish their trading card. One group of students even expressed that they felt like these characters had become their friends. (Isn't it amazing the depth of understanding and connections that students will make when they get to read and enjoy really engaging literature?)

Once they began publishing, they discovered that they had to really limit the number of words that would fit into each category. At first this lent itself to some frustration because they really wanted to include all of their writing. Then one of my clever students reminded them that they could always publish their trading cards and their entire characterizations on our class blog. The rest of my learners agreed that this was an excellent solution.

I love this time of year. After months of guiding them, everything has started to click with my students. They have the confidence to state their ideas, justify them, suggest ways to improve upon them and find solutions for one another's challenges. They have learned the power of being in a student-directed classroom. Not once during their discussion did they focus on the technology...they focused on the learning. Our week was filled with a new energy that had not been there until now. They now KNOW that they are the ones designing their learning. Watching them take that step into becoming independent learners has been the best I never grow tired of witnessing.  I know that there is no stopping them now...and that app was the vehicle that got them to this place on their learning journey. I can't wait to see where they take us next.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Professional Learning: Is it Pulling Teeth or a Sundae with a Cherry on Top?

I have written several posts in the last couple of years regarding our growth as professional educators (see the links at the bottom of this post). Recently, I have been doing much reading and contemplating about the forms that professional learning can take in today's world. Several years ago the term Professional Learning Communities (PLC) started popping up in blog posts, research, articles, and conference sessions. Those of us who have been in education know that there seems to be an ebb and flow of new ideas and initiatives which, in their essence, are a really good idea, but somehow get turned into something far from the initial vision. Unfortunately, those who are not fully aware of these new ideas, take these seemingly positive movements/programs/ideas and can quickly turn them into something negative.

I think that the whole idea of a PLC is one of these ideas. I have heard several stories similar to this one. A faculty was presented with a book that they were required to read as part of a Continuing School Improvement Plan. As they did the required reading and engaged in the required activities, there was an undercurrent of negativity. Teachers may even say, "I've taught for fifteen years. I think I know what I'm doing. I'm professionally developed enough." Then the faculty goes on to have mandated PLC meetings as grade levels, content areas, teachers with ELLs, and teachers with ExEd inclusion classes. They were always reminded that these meetings were mandatory. All of the paperwork that they had to complete as evidence was mandatory. Do you see a reoccurring theme here? Required. Mandatory.

I believe that most educators really do want to do whatever they can to help meet the needs of each of their learners. That is what PLCs do. Teachers with a wide range of experience meet to discuss challenges and look for possible solutions together. There is a dialogue. Sometimes there is a healthy debate. However, there is always an overlying mission of focusing on helping students become successful. It's a positive experience. The conversations are energizing. The collaborations help teachers to find that passion that led them to teaching in the first place because it is all focused on the students.

What's the difference between the two? One is forced; the other one is inspiring. That is such a small shift, but it makes such a huge perception in how educators engage with one another.

We are fortunate to live in a time where we can find the PLC that we need, even if there is not one where we teach. To me, that is where Personal Learning Networks come into play. If we don't have access to a PLC where we teach, through the use of social media and digital tools, we have access to educators from around the world with whom we can connect. As most educators are, these connected educators are willing to discuss the challenges that we might having and provide insight on how to meet those challenges. These are the people who are in the classroom trenches every day just like you. They know what works because they are living it.

Several years ago, I found myself craving some professional growth that was not available to me locally. I began to connect with other educators through Second Life, Twitter, blogs, nings, and Facebook. They helped me address the challenges that I was facing. They celebrated my successes. They asked my opinion in helping them to meet their challenges. It became an online relationship where we all contributed. I found myself renewed each day after connecting with these educators. As I awoke each day to go to school, I couldn't wait to try out something new I had learned.

I was so excited about my PLN that I realized that I wanted to provide this type of collaborative learning to my fifth grade students. That is when there was a real shift in our classroom. My learners began forming their own PLN. First they built it within our classroom, and then online through social media as we connected with students from all over the world. My learners look to their peers for assistance now instead of to me. They problem solve together collaboratively. Each day they enter the classroom excited by the possibilities without fear of the unknown. They are fearless because they know that they have a strong network to support them on their learning path.

Isn't that the purpose of building PLC and PLN, to empower our students with the tools to become self-motivated students with an unquenchable thirst to learn? So next time, when one of those required meetings comes up, remember what your mission should be, helping your students. And if you find yourself in a quandary as to what to do in a particular situation, keep in mind that there is a world of possibilities available at your finger tips online. All you've got to do is grab a spoon and dive in.

So is professional learning like pulling teeth or is it the sundae with a cherry on top? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Some of my other posts about professional learning:

 Sundae: photo credit: stevendepolo via photopin cc