Thursday, June 27, 2013

Concerned Teacher...thoughts from ISTE13

Everything is Bigger in Texas.
ISTE is "my conference." If I don't go to any other conference during the year, I always block out time to be there. This year was my twelfth year...eleven of those I have presented. Yes, ISTE is bigger than life; I guess what they say about everything being bigger in Texas is true at ISTE too. However, as I begin to process and contemplate on my experiences over the last few days, I have to say that I am concerned.  I am concerned that as educators, we have lost sight of what really matters. This conference is not a technology conference; it's an EDUCATIONAL technology conference. It concerns me that many of my fellow educators have lost sight of that distinction.

With so many options at ISTE, it is difficult to select the right events, sessions, and activities. The word I heard most often was "overwhelming." Today, our students are diverse individuals with unique needs. There is not a one-size-fits-all solution. As educators, we must have a plethora of options. Using my previous ISTE experience, I looked for sessions that would deepen my understanding as a teacher. I want to continue to grow and learn new ways to provide my students with the best possible learning opportunities.  I want to sharpen my teaching practice. After all, this is an educational conference...we're all educators.

As I attended session after session, I became a bit disheartened. In almost every session, the entire focus was on tools and apps. Very few student examples of work were shown. The work that was used as examples, although fun to watch, held very little merit. After a day and a half of this, I sent out this tweet:

I am a concerned teacher. Where is the high level of engagement? Where are the learning activities that are promoting higher level thinking and problem-solving? How are students connecting their learning to their lives? Where is the creation of something new to share with an authentic audience? And collaboration...maybe I have a different definition than many others. I believe collaboration is when students each contribute something unique to a project. 

I began to wonder if I had unrealistic expectations. If so, I realized that I would not have very many to attend my session, "Are you integrating or innovating with technology?," because in my session there is a heavy focus on best practices and the role that technology has within our classrooms and schools. Yes, I share tools and apps; yes, I share student examples. But these tools and examples are used to support how we as teachers need to change our thinking and our practice in order to empower students. The conversation we had during this hour I found exhilarating. Many of the people who attended (it ended up being a closed session with people being turned away) expressed similar concerns to mine. They also had been looking for substance that they could take back to their schools and districts.

Of course, there is a place for the "60-tools-in-60-minutes" type of sessions as we do need to know what is out there, but it doesn't need to stop there. As Vicki Davis tweeted, we must "transcend hype and share practical ways that give us hope to reach all kids." We need to remember to keep our focus and become discriminating in our teaching practice. Dressing up a pig doesn't change the fact that it's a pig. Likewise, all the bells, whistles, and animations does not take the place of true learning and teaching. After all, it is not about the's about the learning...and our students are counting on us.

P.S. I'm positive there were other sessions out there offering fantastic models, practices, and ideas. I'm sorry I didn't find you this year. Please realize that I'm writing from my own experiences. Thank you ~J

Monday, June 24, 2013

I'm not a gamer...or am I?

I'm at ISTE. To give you some perspective, I am here with 20,000 other educators, representing all 50 states and 70 different countries. This is my twelfth year to attend. I've seen many changes in the area of educational technology over these years. Recently, there has been a lot of discussion about gamification in education. But, I'll be honest, I'm not a gamer. So, I have remained on the sidelines of this conversation...until yesterday.

I had the good fortune of hearing Jane McGonigal speak. She said two things that spoke to me. Those of you who know me know that I write a lot about empowering students through student-directed learning. Much of my students' learning is done through their writing and publishing with the support of technology to provide them with authentic, collaborative learning opportunities. So where does gaming fit within an already jammed packed day? Is it worth taking a second look?

McGonigal shared the statistic that 99% of boys spend thirteen hours a week and 94% of girls spend eight hours a week gaming. Now that is a startling statistic that, as an educator, made me contemplate..what could I do to harness some of that highly motivated, super-engagement to support my students on their learning continuum? She said that the element that pulls students (gamers) into games is a strong narrative with richly developed, multilayered characters who collaborate to overcome obstacles and solve problems. They make choices and have ensuing consequences. Without that richly developed storyline, gamers wouldn't continue to pursue success within their games, in spite of failing 80% of the time. And whether or not you agree with gaming as a valid mode for education or not, as an educator, these statistic demand some consideration.

The writing teacher in me couldn't help but see this for it was...what is driving these amazing games that are consuming so much of our students' time? It's the story...the writing that went into it when it was being created. I couldn't help but wonder why more writing instruction has not posed student problems to promote this kind of writing. McGonigal showed brain scans of a gamer's brain while engaged in a game. A good portion of the brain was actively engaged.  The only other activity that I have seen that lights up the brain more is...wait for it...writing. Writing is what is going to empower our students. Without it, these games won't exist. We will miss out on having rooms full of super-empowered hopeful individuals.

I think that in our enthusiasm for a new tool or strategy sometimes we lose sight of what our students want. All we have to do is ask them. They want to be engaged. They want to be creative. They want to solve real world problems. And, they want to write a book some day.  As teachers it is our obligation to give students want they need and what they want our of their education. If getting involved in a game is what is going to help meet the needs of our learners, we need to provide them with those experiences. Those experiences open up a world of possibilities in developing effective, powerful writers and communicators. If students want to write and publish a book, then we need to provide them with those opportunities to write, publish, speak, create and change the world.

Am I gamer? Right now, no. However, that doesn't mean I won't become one. Because I love writing, I thoroughly enjoy an intriguing narrative, I thrive on collaborating with others, and I pursue activities that allow me to be creative, gaming has an appeal to me as it seems to meet all of those needs. And, if I don't try it, how will I meet the needs of large percentage of students who are gamers? As educators, if we lose sight of how students learn and engage, we miss the boat. So, this week, this summer, I encourage all of you to consider how we can grow professionally to best meet the needs of our learners because, after all, it is all about them.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Living Out Loud

I recently had the opportunity to hear Kevin Honeycutt deliver the Opening Keynote for AETC2013. If you have never heard him speak, I highly recommend that you look him up on YouTube. He tells heartwarming, poignant stories which leave you laughing until your sides hurt or tearing up because they hit so close to home. While he spoke, I sent out this tweet:

This idea of sharing our stories has really stuck with me over the last several days. Stories...we all have them. How many times have we reminisced about how we should write all of these stories down? Teachers have stories of student successes, challenges, heartbreak, and triumph. With our lives in the classroon, we are walking anthologies of the lives we have have touched or been touched by. But, how many of us are sharing these stories? Are we taking the time to show the impact that our teaching brings to the lives of our students every day? Or, are we allowing someone else to author our lives...someone who is not living our life; someone who is so far detached they could not cipher all of the clues upon which we pick up from our students every single day; someone who is creating a work of fiction instead of a collection of memoirs.

The idea of "living out loud" came to mind when a couple of news stories were released this week and (per usual) "experts" weighed in on the ills of today's schools. How many teachers were asked their perspective? How many of our stories were being shared? None! I've heard many teachers bemoan that they don't have something important to offer to an already inundated information age. I strongly disagree. If we don't start sharing our students' stories, who will? Those "experts?" If that is the case, who will become the victims of these fictional tales? Our students.

So as we take some time this summer to reflect and begin making plans for the upcoming school year, devote some time to document and share some of these stories. We live in a time where there is a host of media where we can amplify these unforgettable stories. Tweet about them. Photograph them. Write a blog about them. Video them. Curate them into one easily "shareable" location. These collections become a living testimony of what our students are accomplishing, many against great odds. Reach out and connect with other educators and spend some time swapping stories.  We are teachers and it's time for us to share our stories and live out loud.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Mythbusters: Technology in the Classroom

I recently had the good fortune to hear Rick Riordan speak (he's the author of the Percy Jackson many, many more amazing books for middle level readers). Of course, when you mention Rick, one can't help but think about myths as those are the foundation of all of his books. His keynote was about the "Myths of Reading." This got me to thinking about the myths that many educators believe regarding technology in classroom. This is 2013 and I think that sometimes we get caught up in the minutia of our teaching and non-teaching responsibilities and forget that the world around us is changing. If we want to remain relevant for our students, then we too must adapt.

Here are the five most common myths regarding technology in the classroom that I hear from teachers. Let's bust these myths.

Myth 1: I don't know enough about technology to use it with my students.
Many of us grew up and were educated during the time where the teacher was the disseminator of information. The teacher was considered the content expert within the classroom. Once we begin to teach, it is easy to fall into the mindset that we must know everything and be able to answer all of our students' questions.
Yes, we are the content specialists and strategists in our classrooms, but students no longer need us to just deliver content. They have access to content 24/7 in the palms of their hands. They need us to guide them in how to use and apply this knowledge to create, collaborate, and critically solve authentic problems.
How do we overcome the fear of not being the classroom expert in technology? We change our mindset. Yes, we need to have some basic understanding of how a tool is used. However, the most important aspect is not how a tool works, but how a tool supports the learning needs of our students. My students learn how to use tech tools much faster and more efficiently than I do. Nevertheless, they understand that a tool is just that, a tool to support their learning. I am honest with my students and let them know that we are all learners looking for new ways to strengthen and grow as individuals. This takes the focus off of me (the teacher) and places it on the students and their learning.
Myth 2: Technology is an "extra" in the school day.
Believe it or not, I hear this one quite frequently. Often technology is treated as a separate entity where students go to a computer lab or the classroom computer/iPad to play games as a reward. Is that really the role of technology? Absolutely not! Technology is fully embedded in their daily lives. We need to embed technology seamlessly into our lessons and into their learning activities in a meaningful way. It's a tool, just like a pencil, a book, a globe, or a microscope. We only pull those tools out when they are relevant and meaningful for the learner. Technology is no different, but is a part of their lives; it cannot be ignored. As their teachers, we need to provide them with the opportunities for harnessing these tools to safely support their learning.
Myth 3: It is time consuming to teach students tech tools.
I agree that if I did a mini-lesson on all of the tools that my students use throughout the school year, it would take an enormous amount of time. That is why I spend very little time focusing on the tech tool. When we begin a project, we focus totally on the content standards and learning goals. We do not ever mention their mode of publishing (the tool) until they at the point of publishing. Then students select the tool that they feel will strengthen their voice in this project.
Many teachers ask how they know what their options are. There are several ways that I expose my learners to the different options for publishing their projects. First, at the beginning of school, we have an online scavenger hunt where the students search through our different school websites, wikis, and blogs. Through the scavenger hunt, students will see many different projects that past students have published. They may not remember the name of all of the projects, but they do remember what the final product looked like. 
Secondly, my students are connected with their global peers through projects like the Global Read Aloud. On these projects, they collaboratively work with other students and learn from them different tools and manners of publishing their work. Because they want to find something new to share, often my learners go searching for new tools and apps on their own and bring it to me to share how it will support their learning. When I find a new tool, I'll share it with a couple of students and have them explore it and review whether or not it would fit into the projects on which they are working.
These methods take very little class-time, but they put technology where it belongs in the learning is there to support, not be the driving force in the learning.
Myth 4: My students don't have keyboarding skills.
Quite frankly this one surprises me. However, many teachers equate technology with typing. Let's face it, today's students usually have an email account, but they rarely use it. They spend a majority of their time using a smart phone, tablet, or iPod Touch. Although these have keyboards, they are not traditional keyboards. They are very adept at using their thumbs/fingers to type on these devices. Should their ability use technology to support their learning be hindered by the fact that they are not using the traditional typing methods on a desktop or laptop? My 5th grade students have never been taught formal keyboarding skills. Would it be helpful for them to learn? Probably, but when given the choice of taking valuable school time to teach them keyboarding or giving them time to collaborate and create with their peers, I will always choose the latter. I think what we really need to focus upon is how these devices are helping them grow as learners rather than whether they fingers are on the correct keys when they are typing. 
Myth 5: Technology will motivate students.
When a teacher says this, I always wonder how long they expect the motivation to last. Students are exposed to so many technology gadgets at such a young age, if this is the sole source of motivation, you run the danger of desensitization.  I call this "Christmas Morning Syndrome." All kids are thrilled on Christmas morning by all their new toys. All they want to do is spend time playing with them. But, where are those toys in July? Usually sitting on a shelf or in a closet. Toys and gadgets only give a brief moment of motivation; the more students are exposed to these tools, the quicker they lose interest.
How do we avoid this in the classroom? We must evaluate what truly motivates students for the long term. When students are given the opportunity to make decisions and take ownership of their learning, levels of enthusiasm skyrocket. Today's learners want to connect and collaborate with others applying their knowledge in meaningful and authentic ways. They want to know how what they are doing in class affects their lives today...not some vague, undisclosed time in the distant future. Our learners have high expectations for what they want out of their education. Is technology present? Yes! Technology is the medium we can use to provide all of these aspects for their education, but technology is not what will motivate students for the long haul....student-directed learning is.
I know that this is not an exhaustive list of educational technology myths, but these are the ones I hear most frequently. What myths do you hear? I'd love for you to share some ways for busting common myths for technology in the classroom.

photo credit: marksmotos via photopin cc