Saturday, September 30, 2006

The leaders we choose...

Who are your "leaders?" I'm not talking about your building administrator, your superintendent, your department chairman, your team leader - I'm talking about others around you on whom you rely for information, advice, assistance...

I had two separate experiences with this during the past week. As I think back over events, I'm wondering how the "leader" you choose to pay attention to has an impact on your own growth and independent thinking.

In one instance, a person has taken the responsibility independent of his/her position in a school building to be a leader and advisor and to encourage others to be dependent on him/her but doesn't have enough information him/herself to be reliable, accurate or really even helpful to those who depend on that person - and, hasn't asked the questions that are needed to gather the accurate information that others are looking for. (sorry, that's a mouthful...) So, why do people rely on or listen to this person? Is it because we have something in our nature that wants to believe whatever we hear first for lack of any other information? Or is it that we just don't have the time or inclination to look for any other sources of information? Are we following the person with the loudest voice? How does relying on this type of "leader" impact on you and others around you? What encourages others to follow this person?

In another instance, a person has taken on the responsibility to be a leader but is armed with a wide variety of knowledge, background and experience in the very subject for which he/she is leading. Some people will choose to say that's not for them, I can't embrace those ideas whether they're based in knowledge and experience or not. What is it about this second person that encourages some to follow and others to choose another path?

As a reader of this, you may have no idea what I'm talking about and that's okay. I'm really just writing this to work through some of my thinking. I'm not comfortable writing specific details of the positions that these two people hold. I'm just trying to deal with the idea of how we know when to trust someone as a leader. Even those who appear to have accurate information may not but if they're the only or the loudest voice in the room - who would you believe?

How does one, armed with knowledge, background and experience, become a trusted leader amid the louder voices out there?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Self directed professional development

There are too many days of coming home from work feeling defeated, discouraged and tired. So when a day comes along filled with the kinds of experiences that evoke feelings totally opposite from that, you just have to celebrate them.

The day ended yesterday with a meeting of teachers after school who decided, completely on their own, to take their professional development needs into their own hands. This group of teachers is working on sorting through strategies for developing literacy skills in their students. They already know and are committed to the fact that their days are filled with attending to their instructional duties and to the needs of their students. But they all have this desire to work on the structure of their newly instituted 2 hour literacy block in such a way that they help their students develop independence and responsibility for their own learning during this time.

And so they met...goals in mind, planning how they will each take an active role in the group, deciding on dates for the rest of the school year, constructing the agenda for their next meeting - all in the name of learning from each other and working together. As they worked through their thoughts, every voice around that table was heard and every individual contributed their thoughts, their ideas and also the challenges that they're trying to work through to implement strategies that are new to them and to their students. It was just simply the best professional moment to have experienced!

These teachers are really learning what is for many of them a new concept and for others, a more deliberate way of working with and thinking through some strategies they were already using in a less structured way. In order to do this, they're gathering lots of information from professional literature (books), from their colleagues and from their students. They're working to construct their knowledge. In the 20th century, this same group of teachers could have had this same meeting and accomplished their goals just the same. But here's what will make the difference: they've made a conscious decision to use a blog as a tool for interaction. So, as they meet, someone will take notes which will get posted to their blog and they'll plan an agenda for their next meeting which will also be posted there. Can't make a meeting? Read the blog. Have a question burning in your mind that needs an answer now? Post to the blog. Looking for new ideas or insights from your colleagues? Check out the blog. Just learning about this group? Go back through the archives to see what they've been working on. Reading someone's post and want to share your response with everyone in the group? Comment to the blog. This one simple tool alone has the potential to make such a difference to these teachers professionally and to the instruction in their classrooms.

How else can they use technology to support their learning? A few thoughts:

• Flickr to post pictures of their classroom management tools, instructional posters, etc. Why just talk about it when you can post a picture and annotate it? The visuals are so much better than words alone.
•Wikis - meeting notes could go to a wiki instead of the blog so that, if one person takes notes and puts them on the wiki, others can add their "2 cents" to enrich and refine the description of thier work together.
• Podcasting - we could consider recording the meetings. Can't make the meeting? No time to read the blog? Download the file to your mp3 player and listen while you walk, drive, or make dinner. (Learning can occur through so many modalities)

This is empowering teacher learning - exciting stuff! More thoughts and ideas to come...

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Teaching for a time when we're not around

I was in a teacher's classroom last week - invited in for a very non-technology purpose: viewing the development of independent skills in young children related to literacy instruction.  When I walked in, the teacher gave me a quick synopsis of what they were going to be doing and what she'd done so far.  Then she handed me a book called "Rules in School"  which is all about how and why we develop rules in school with children and creating logical consequences when rules aren't followed.

As she began her morning meeting, I thumbed through the book (then quickly went to the phone and ordered a copy for myself).  I wrote down several things as I skimmed the book, but one quote keeps coming back to me: "We are teaching for the time when we will not be there." While this may seem a little too simplistic to some, it occurs to me that we can apply this in more ways than just creating rules. 

"We are teaching for the time when we will not be there" brings up a list of various examples in my mind:

  • parenting
  • driving a car
  • teaching teachers to use technology/software/tools
  • helping students understand the tools of the web/the tools of software
  • navigating the Internet / Internet safety

In terms of the work I do in my district, I'm particularly thinking about all of the technology applications of "teaching for a time when I'm not around."

• How do we introduce/teach new software to students in a way that will help them use it independently and/or apply that information to new pieces of software they might use (when I'm not around)?

• How do we teach teachers about technology use in such a way that it's used to help students learn and not just as an electronic worksheet (when I'm not around)?

• How do we teach students to navigate an environment that really has no rules (the web) safely and securely (when I'm not around)?

• How do we teach students to think their way out of all the information that's available to them (when I'm not around)?

We're going to really need to think about our pedagogy, about how we facilitate learning rather than direct learning in order to fully prepare our students for our rapidly changing world and for a time when we're not around.

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Blogging Curiousity

There is a clustrmap on my blog that I placed there based on some of the other blogs where I had first seen them. I thought it looked like a cool tool and was interested in whether or not anyone was hitting my blog.

Now that I've seen my clustrmap grow and change over just the last month, I'm curious. My map shows me generally where you are in the world and the data tells me how many times my blog has been visited but that's not the kind of specific information I'd like to gather.

I'd like to be able to talk to teachers about blogging and show them the results of my blogging since August 10, 2006 to give them an idea of the audience that's possible with this type of tool. So, I'm keeping this message at the top of my blog for a little while and asking any readers of this blog, even if this the first and possibly only time you'll be here, to do this:

Please leave a comment to this posting letting me know exactly where you're located (country, state, province, city), how you came to find this blog in the first place and what your job is. Thanks for helping me with this. I'll see what I get after about two weeks and then post the results here for anyone else who might find it interesting or useful to you.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Teaching Students to Think

I watched Mona Lisa Smile this afternoon thinking it would just be a diversion from some other work I should have been doing. Instead, it got me back to work thinking about instruction and thinking skills. At the beginning of the movie, Katherine Watson, meets with her art history class at Wellsley for the first time. She informs her students that they would be learning using a particular syllabus (not hers) and begins to show them slides (the technology of the time) of art thinking that she's giving her students brand new information (and possibly teaching as others expect her to teach). The students begin to name each piece of art, its place in history and something about the technique used by the artist. Immediately Katherine sees that the textbook is going to be of no use to her. The students have read it in its entirety and have the art pieces and their expected responses memorized - most likely, as they'd been taught to do in the past.

The second class begins much differently. This time, Katherine begins her class (using her own syllabus) with a slide showing a piece of art that's not in the textbook and the students are surprised to discover that they don't know what they're seeing. She asks simple questions, "Is it art?" "How do you know it's art?" "Who determines what's art and what's not?" Her students are suddenly empowered to think!

Katherine's technology was quite simple: she used images and she asked her students to think about what they were seeing, analyze it, defend their ideas about it. What might happen in 21st century classrooms if we used the technology of our time to empower students to think beyond what they can find in a textbook, beyond simple recall questions? We have the tools, we have the research based instructional strategies, we have learning standards and benchmarks. Now, all we need to do is put it all together. I'll bet Katherine Watson could have...

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

School Laptop Programs in the News

An article that appeared recently from a writer for the Wall Street Journal referred to laptop programs in schools and the experiences of one parent in regards to what her child was actually doing with the laptop.  As an instructional specialist and a technology advocate, I have few questions/concerns on my mind after reading this:

  1. The article doesn't tell us anything about the school district - was adequate training provided to the teachers or are the teachers using laptops to do the same old teaching that they did last year? (and the year before, and the year before...)
  2. This parent who was probably educated in the latter part of the 20th century was most likely taught by teachers trained during the mid-20th century so, based on her experiences and role models, what type of education/teaching style is she expecting in the early 21st century?
  3. The article refers to the "laptop program" as a catalyst to engage and train students - but I thought that research has clearly shown that the teacher has the greatest affect on student achievement.  So, if the teacher hasn't changed his/her teaching practices, no amount of hardware in the classroom and no new "program" is going to have any positive effect.
  4. What's the curriculum that's supporting these laptops "programs?"  Has that changed at all in the last 5-10 years?
  5. Larry Cuban makes a good point - what's the true cost of 1:1 laptop initiatives and have school districts really prepared themselves for that or are we back to "the promise of technology" in our classrooms?  That's what we were hearing about in 1995 and we seem to still believe that technology alone is going to change everything.
I'm sure we're going to continue to hear much about 1:1 laptop initiatives and we're going to get all the negatives until some school district somewhere does it well and shows results.  I know there are successful programs out there and I hope we'll begin to hear more about their results.  And I'll bet the results will be attributed to something other than the fact that a child had a laptop because we know there's a lot more to it than just that.

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Monday, September 04, 2006

Spending less on technology; buying more books instead

Wes Fryer (Moving at the Speed of Creativity)  recently posted a podcast of Dr. Stephen Krashen
speaking at a conference in Oklahoma. As someone who works with technology in the classroom, it's easy to key in on one of Dr. Krashen's conclusions: that we should start spending less on technology and spend that money on books instead.  Given his data regarding the number of books per pupil in some school districts and the research on the effect of school libraries on student achievement, I would tend to agree with his conclusion. Under those circumstances, more books and more librarians are crucial.

We have no conclusive evidence that the use of computers has an effect on learning. But we do have research that clearly demonstrates that the most important factor in student achievement is the teacher. And, we do have research that shows us that particular instructional strategies have a positive effect on student learning.  When teachers begin to use those 21st century strategies effectively along with  21st century tools, maybe we'll see the evidence we're looking for.

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