Attempts at Being Better… Student Blogs & Literary Kiosks

The last two weeks have been hectic to say the least and as I sit down now to reflect a bit about them I am exhausted, yet exhilarated. My practice has clearly shifted over the last few weeks and my students instantly took notice. Comments ranged from “you’re happier since you came back from that Conference thing (ConnectEd)” to “this project was a lot more work than a book report, but I learnt a lot more investigating my book and explaining to others why I loved it”. I would like to share just a few minor things that I have done since coming back from ConnectEd, but I must say that this by no means is where I want to be (in terms of my practice) and I am aware of the amount of growth/learning that I still want/need to do in order to feel like I am a better learner and teacher.

1) Blogging I knew that it would be difficult to incorporate full-blown blogging into my classroom with little over three weeks of classes left, so I decided that my Health 7’s year-end portfolio would be a compilation of blog posts about their skills/talents/short and long-term goals.

Issue #1: I just learnt how to blog myself and have no idea which are the best ones to use.

Solution #1: Conversations within my room with students, as well as conversations through twitter with colleagues I decided that blogger or kidblog would be sufficient for what I had in mind. I also had to explain to my students what blogging was and why we as a class should use it. I found many useful blog sites (http://photomatt7.wordpress.com/2011/10/01/reasons-to-blog/ & http://mrspripp.blogspot.ca/2011/10/why-students-should-blog-my-top-10.html) that I used to help facilitate the conversations in my classroom. I also found a great teachertube video (http://www.teachertube.com/viewVideo.php?video_id=12423) that helped give them a quick 101 run-down of what a blog is.

Issue #2: Parents who were scared of having their child “exposed” on the internet, which is more than a valid concern considering the students are 12-13 years old.

Solution #2: I chose kidblog, which allowed me to create a secure blog site where only students who signed in could access/read/respond to their classmates work. The only problem with this is the leg-work. I had to make numerous phone calls to parents regarding the safety of the site, as well as describing the “academic merit” of such an activity (online portfolios). Those are not easy questions to answer, but I found by being upfront and honest with them about the risks, and discussing the benefits (students encountering new technologies and building new relationships with others based on similar interests/goals) parents were more than willing to say yes. They just wanted assurance that I would be taking care of their children.

Issue #3: Ensuring my students had an understanding of cybersafety (even if we were only using kidblog) and understanding what it meant to be a respectful, 21st century digital citizen.

Solution #3: This was an area where I know I COULD and WILL do more in the future. However, with the help of some twitter friends who shared their cyber-responsibility page with me: http://superspaghettis.wordpress.com/category/blogging/ (superspaghettis blog) and some youtube cyber safety videos (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgCNGvL0g1g&feature=related) the students realized that they needed to be careful when posting/sharing any information about themselves online and they needed to be considerate when posting comments/feedback to their peers blog posts.

In the end, my students each had the opportunity build a “mini-online portfolio” that shared their hobbies, skills/talents, training and goals with their classmates. The outcome was a bit staggering to witness (at least for me), with students comments (both virtually and verbally across the room) ranging from “hey I never knew you volunteered there, I go there Saturday’s. Do you want to come with me?” to “wow, I could totally see you as a Vet because you’re always talking about how much you love your pets.”

I found the Health 7 portfolio project lent itself nicely to building up peer relationships within my classes (as I did the kidblog with both my of my classes) and I found that blogging was a beneficial way for the students to recognize what it means to give meaningful feedback both verbally and virtually. Each class was filled with excitement and electricity as students wrote out their posts and waited expectantly for feedback from their peers. My students also finally saw me as a “co-learner” because I didn’t know all the answers, in fact many of my students became the teacher, because they were more familiar with blogging than I was. It was a great introduction to what blogging could be like in my classroom. I cannot wait to use it in more in-depth (cross-curricular connections) in the future.  

2) Literary KiosksThe idea for this project came after a tweet I made asking about creating a book report that incorporated technology. One of the most influential tweets I received back came from @Neilstephenson who said that I should focus on WHAT I WANTED THE STUDENTS TO LEARN (what did I want them to demonstrate). This comment stuck with me because it made me realize that all the technology in the world wouldn’t make the project a success if I (and my students) didn’t have a clear understanding of what I wanted them to LEARN. I realized I wanted them to demonstrate a passion for a book they had read this year, and I wanted to incorporate all six strands of the AB ELA curriculum into it. At this time, a dear twitter friend @wheninromeci said that she had done a literary project with her elementary kids and offered to share it with me. After reviewing her project and realizing how I could modify it to meet the needs of my students I set forth on the journey of encouraging my students to create a kiosk that demonstrated to others their passion and understanding of their book.

This project helped me realize how I want my future classes to look like. The students were asked to share their book of choice with an audience (which ended up being parents, staff, and other classes from the building) and they were asked to demonstrate a proficiency in a number of areas: reading, writing, speaking, listening, viewing and representing.

The first class I was met with resistance, and understandably so. The students were unreceptive to “more work”, as they saw it. I understood the resistance, because up until this point I had only ever focused on getting them to demonstrate a proficiency of curricular outcomes through writing assignments. Now, I was asking them to do some writing, as well as create and design something that was interactive, informative and creative, which would essentially breathe “life” into their book.

To soften the blow of this project, I shared with my class a video @gcouros shared via a tweet. The video is called Validation (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cbk980jV7Ao) and before I showed it to my class I asked them to think about WHY I would show them a video like this. The video was met with a lot of eye-raising and some muffled chuckling, but at the end when I asked the WHY question I was stunned by their response. “You showed this to us because you believe in us and you think we’re ‘awesome’.” BOOM! They got the message loud and clear from a short video, which I would never have been able to convince them of before. I reaffirmed their comment by saying that if I didn’t think they could be successful at this, I would not have challenged them to do it.

At that moment the attitude within my room shifted dramatically. The students’ outlook on the project completely shifted. The students who typically “sign out” were not only engaged, but were asking for help, discussing the different aspects of the project with their peers and sharing their excitement with other students in the building. At that moment, I finally realized the importance of validation and encouragement.

Literary Kiosk in my classroom… crowded!

END PRODUCT:

The two days when the literary kiosks were presented were two of the proudest moments I have had thus far in my teaching career. The students blew my mind. Their individuality, passion and understanding for a novel came shining through in a way that NO simple book report could have ever demonstrated. The energy in my classroom was crazy and OUR NERVES and FEARS were at an all time high. I remember thinking: “Please allow the students to have the opportunity to speak to an audience other than myself”. I had spent many hours talking with parents about the project, and had sent out many emails to my staff asking for their support in this project. Both days, my heart was filled with such gratitude and appreciation for parent involvement and for staff participation. My students were also blown away that people would come to see what they had learnt.

Student Literary Kiosk on the book “Heartland”

In essence… the two attempts I have made at “trying” new inquiry and technology-infused projects in my classroom were successful. I’m aware that this might not always be the case… but I am looking forward to the challenge.

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The process of reflection

Over the last few weeks I have taken some hard looks at my past practice and pedagogy. The question that struck me when reflecting was: How had I stopped being the learner? I have always loved learning, in fact, I call myself a “sponge”- I love taking on new information, analyzing, questioning and inevitably allowing it to change/morph my own thoughts and beliefs. Yet over the last few years of teaching I had been “sucked dry”. It was as if I had placed an internal pressure upon myself to “pour out” information to my students, without ever allowing myself to be rejuvenated through the process of learning. Now, after attending ConnectedCA, immersing myself in twitter and following conversations regarding 21st century learning I realize how archaic those thoughts were. However, that was the truth. I was essentially a lone well pouring information into buckets (my students).

I wondered where those ideas came from, or why I had begun to think of teaching as “filling buckets”? I guess those questions aren’t nearly as important as finally realizing that I was going about it all wrong. I had somehow forgotten what it was like to be a learner. I forgot what it was like to feel excited when trying something new, or getting the chance to experiment, create, analyze and explore. I think I was so concerned with being what I thought was the “perfect” teacher (yes perfectionism and the risk of failure is my character flaw) that I didn’t consider what a wonderful opportunity it would be to explore with my kids and watch them challenge concepts and formulate their own thoughts and ideas.

After reflecting for the last few weeks it is evident that I was scared of failure. In fact I was so scared of getting teaching “wrong” that I lost sight of what teaching is all about: it is about learning. It is about creating “learners”. Education to me now looks vastly different. I now believe that I am responsible for becoming a better learner and modelling what that looks like for my students. I want to be able to help them create critical thinking skills, and provide them with collaborative learning experiences where they can question, challenge and experiment together.

On a personal note, one of the biggest beliefs that I now hope to pass on to my students is that “failure” isn’t a bad thing. I truly wish I would have had a teacher who had focused less on the “facts” and more on the “skills” with me. If I had gotten the “wrong answer” it would have been far less stressful knowing that I could go back and re-do it and figure out how/where I went wrong (preferably with help from others) then simply receiving an “x” or a zero.

I now know that I was wrong in my prior beliefs and there is no such thing as being a “perfect” teacher. There is, however, a VERY STRONG WILL within me to become a better learner in the hope that I will become a better teacher. If that means I try an inquiry project with my kids and it doesn’t go as well as I had planned well at least I WAS LEARNING BESIDE THEM. If it means that I set up kidblogs with my classes and they only post mini on-line Health portfolios well IT IS A START IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION. If it means that I download Google chrome and figure out what it’s all about well IT IS ME CHALLENGING MYSELF TO EXPLORE AND LEARN.

I recognize that this reflection process is ongoing and I will have to “unlearn” to learn. I will experience failure and need to remind myself that: “if you’re not failing every now and again, it’s a sign you’re not doing anything very innovative.” – Woody Allen

ConnectedCA

PREAMBLE…As I sat down to draft this blog post I was faced with the inevitable question: How am going to summarize all the wonderful things I learnt at ConnectedCA without sounding completely scatter-brained? Two days later and I still do not have an answer for this. In fact I came up with more questions: What session was the most meaningful to me? What were my big take aways from the conference? What part of the conference did I like the most: the twitter reflections, the sessions, the wonderful speakers on Friday night or the informal face to face conversations at coffee/lunch?

QUESTIONS…

If I had to sum up my experience at ConnectedCA I would say this: Questioning had EVERYTHING to do with my excitement, my engagement, and my learning. I walked in to the conference not knowing anyone, not knowing what to expect, not knowing what was expected of me. Throughout the three (amazing, jam-packed, cognitively challenging) days my questions grew as new learning experiences presented themselves to me:

  • How did CSS administration and teachers create such an engaging learning environment?
  • How can I create an inquiry based classroom for high school students?
  • What is practitioner research?
  • What am I doing here? (Yes- it crossed my mind many-a-times as I sat amongst administrators, superintendents and edtech “gods”… I patiently waited to be found out as the rookie edtech who didn’t have a blog!)
  • Can I somehow collaborate with other colleagues within my school to increase inquire-based learning for my students?
  • Am I ready/capable to be the lone nut in my school to help facilitate change?

RELATIONSHIPS…

Relationships were SO important at this conference, whether it was building a PLN on twitter, having face to face conversations with people at lunch, discussing practice/pedagogy between sessions, or participating in small/whole group chats during sessions. I have never met so many people with such a wealth/depth of knowledge and such a passion for DOING THE RIGHT THING for kids, themselves and education. @gcorous repeatedly mentioned the importance of networking and building connections at the conference and for the first time at pd I was openly asked, encouraged, and challenged to participate collaboratively in my learning.

CULTURE…

“Culture matters”. Plain and simple. While at this conference I was pushed out of what I now realize was my comfortable learning zone. In fact, I was SO far out that by Sunday I knew there wasn’t ANY CHANCE that I would ever return to “comfortable“. I wasn’t prepared for a culture (especially at PD) that was SO collaborative and seamless that feedback and reflection flowed together as naturally as a river over rocks.

I believe the kick-off day on Friday, when I had the distinct pleasure of being toured around by an energetic Gr. 6 student, definitely set the stage for establishing this collaborative, inquiry-based, learning environment that the conference was all about. Calgary Science School was unlike anything I had ever witnessed before. The rooms were open, the kids and teachers were engaged, the students learning was proudly displayed on bulletin boards everywhere, and there was an unmistakable energy within the school walls.

Saturday and Sunday built on this energy with numerous sessions that I can only describe as pedagogy-shifting. I would like to briefly share some key take-aways I had from the sessions:

1) Practitioner Research (@tomfullerton)

  • The object of research is self-discovery.
  • Students must become teachers and teachers must become students.
  • In what ways does my PD incorporate elements of self-study?
  • Do we construct successful teachers with meaningful pd?
  • If my students need help I need to model the strategies of how to be a successful learner.
  • Kids are not cans that information can be poured into.

AND MY FAVORITE: As an educator I want/need to be vulnerable, flexible, and open to new experiences.

2) Inquiry based learning (@wrightsroom)

  • A change in pedagogy (to inquiry) can be THE most rewarding experience.
  • The process of “unlearning” must occur (first with me and then with my students).
  • Use the curriculum content to teach inquiry skills.
  • Reverse Blooms taxonomy (experience first- learn “rules” later).
  • TRUST- the touchstone for using technology in the classroom.
  • Tools: googledocs, delicious, symbaloo (to name a few).

AND MY FAVORITE: “Rekindle the curiosity”… within myself, my students and my classroom.

3)Collaborative teaching experience (@deidrebailey, @amydawnpark)

  • Collaboration is NOT handing out someone elses resources. It’s about building ideas, resources and learning experiences together.
  • Administration who know their staff can witness the benefits to student learning when a”joining of minds” occurs between teachers.
  • Collaboration needs TRUST and TIME (shared planning time or shared reflection time).
  • Collaboration can be a deeply meaningful learning experience because teachers can lean on one another, question/challenge one another, and reflect/digest together.

AND MY FAVORITE: LOVED CSS’s exemplary learning and teaching beliefs (which were posted within each classroom).

THE NEXT CONNECTION…

I would like to end this ConnectedCA blog post by saying that it WAS THE BEST PD experience I have EVER HAD. The last week has drastically changed the way I think about learning, education, and my role within it all. I have never felt more rejuvenated, tired (learning is tiring, but SO worth it), or willing to sit down and reflect upon my practice and pedagogy.

There have been SO MANY tweets, blog posts, comments and conversations in the last week, but I wanted to leave off with two comments that resonated deeply with me.

@deidrebailey tweet: “there is genuinely not enough time in a day for me to re-think all the things I would like to rethink.”

@tomfullerton comment on my first blog post: “you’re exploring twitter, wordpress and skype and their implications on teaching and learning, but I think the real impact results from the connections you’ve made and will make using these technologies.”

Scatter-brained… possibly.

The prologue to #be better…

My blog is titled “The Challenge to be Better” and it seems appropriate considering the professional changes that I have recently been undertaking. The last week of my career has been absolutely mind-blowing. However, before I discuss these pedagogy-shifting changes, I would like to give a little “prologue”, if for no other reason than to be honest with myself about my past teaching practice and pedagogy.

This year I was bored. Bored and comfortable. I had been at WHS for two years and finally received the “holy grail” of teaching at the end of last year: a continuous contract. However, as I started this year it became apparent that, although I was now “secure” in my job, I was no longer happy. I found myself being pulled in many directions (mentorship, AFL, Positive Behavior programming, and RTI). I am not opposed to any of the above initiatives, practices and policies. In fact I have seen the benefits in all of them. The problem for me lied in the belief that I had to “do” all of them and demonstrate a “mastery” of them at the same time.

By December of this year I was jaded, disengaged and actually heard myself say aloud: “I hate my job”. (Yes- I am fully aware of how that sounds- and even more aware of how it feels to wake up and hate going to work). This was incredibly upsetting for me, because despite the pitfalls, policies, and bureaucracy that sometimes comes with teaching, I had always been able to say with conviction: “I love my job”.

To say that I was a good educator during this time would be a lie. I closed my classroom door, closed my mind, and hoped the “hate” would pass. I was upset with myself for “giving in” to the system that I had repeatedly been told burns out teachers within the first five years. I felt lost, tired and believed I had nothing left to offer to “my kids”.

By February I had decided that no amount of “closing myself off” was going to make me love my job again, and it certainly was not going to make me a better educator for my kids. Teachers convention came along at this very pivotal time. I had resolved myself to the fact that I was going to try something new and go to sessions that might not be “English Language Arts” centered. I wanted to use more technology in my classroom, however, I was absolutely unaware of what was out there, what my district would allow me to use, and what I could actually learn and implement.

The session I chose to go to was led by Alec Couros and to be completely honest, I still have no idea what it was titled. I remember reading the “very brief” session description, which mentioned 21st century learning and technology tools for the classroom. BOOM. Done. I entered the session as an educator totally bored and left an educator full of questions, challenges, and a willingness to LEARN AGAIN. I went back to hotel room, downloaded the twitter app and set up a twitter name for myself. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing… LESSON #1: twitter- not facebook. I was lost with the # and @ symbols everywhere, but what I realized very early on was that if I clicked on a link @courosa posted I was connected to a blog, a video, or even a news article that had to do with education.

For the next two months I would describe myself as “a quiet twitterer”. I had no followers, which was ok, because for the first time in a long time, I was learning. I was reading about other educators struggles and successes, I was watching TED/TEDEd videos like they were going out of style and realizing that other educators were using technology in ways I had never even dreamed of.

Sometime in April I read a twitter post about a conference called ConnectEd, the first “networking” conference of its kind in Canada. I retweeted it, because I wanted to remember to check it out. Prior to this I hadn’t been interested in participating in anymore pd, as I was burnt out in terms of policies, programs, and new initiatives. That night, however, I went back to that tweet, clicked on the link and read about the conference. 21st century learning and networking… My interest was piqued and I paid closer attention to any tweets regarding this “ConnectEd” conference. Little did I know that ConnectEd would not only keep my attention, but cause me to pause, reflect, and change my thought process in an attempt to be better.