Friday, November 30, 2007

Seizing New Opportunities

The Literacy Workshop began this morning as all the other meetings had. An explanation about the intent, an invitation to share and discuss. They began by talking about struggles with literacy instruction – a time to vent, a time to express frustrations and, everyone who needed to say something had their chance. Then came the prompt to think about what successes were being experienced in instruction – now we’re getting somewhere. First, one idea is shared which inspires a connection or comment from someone else, then a new idea is brought up and more connections and comments are there as well. And so on, and so on. Good, inspiring, thoughtful conversations.

The wrap-up: comments all around about the morning’s collaboration, thoughts about the need to get together as a group more often to continue the conversation, someone jokes about having a “group hug.”

Sounds like all the elements of a learning network doesn’t it? Those of us who engage in blogging, sharing Google docs, creating groups in Google, Yahoo or Ning or gathering instant input from Twitter, experience this type of camaraderie, this conversation and professional development on a daily basis. This face to face encounter among these teachers is only the beginning of what it could be. They want more meetings like this but what they haven’t yet realized is that, they need only 5-10 minutes a day using the right technology tools to help them continue these important conversations, to develop their notions of best practices in literacy instruction, share their ideas, gather input from others who are dealing with the same challenges.

They’ve made some positive steps forward today. So, on Monday…comes a new chance, a new opportunity to help them understand new ways of continuing the conversation.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Personal Learning Networks as Systems

There certainly are a wide array of tools out there that help us to communicate and collaborate with others. And there are certainly lots of educators out there looking to communicate and collaborate with each other via those tools. How many new tools have you discovered over the last year, month, week? How many of those tools have you integrated into your personal practice? How many blogs do you read? How many of the ideas from those blogs have you integrated into your own thinking?

The tools and the people that we connect with because of those tools become a part of our personal learning network. They all interact together in some way - and I suppose that makes them a system. So, to continue this line of thinking tonight, I'm referencing back to Classroom Instruction That Works. I'm looking at the thinking skills in Chapter 9 about generating and testing hypotheses - specifically the section about systems analysis. So, in doing a systems analysis, we need to understand the purpose of the system, the parts of the system and the function of each part. We also need to figure out how each part affects others.

Starting with this then: the purpose of the personal learning network (our system) is to support our own personal professional development and our continued learning. The system consists of a number of parts: people first of all and the thought and ideas that they generate as a result of all of their experiences, tools such as blogs, wikis, podcasts, multimedia, and communication tools. How does each part affect the others? As we share our thoughts and ideas via the tools, we continually examine points of view and either reject them or integrate them into our continued thinking or personal and professional practice. As we work with new tools we also either reject them or integrate them into our practices. For example, some of us look at Twitter and immediately integrate it while others reject it as not being of value to their own learning network.

Now, we take a part of that system and think (hypothesize) about how a change to that part might affect the rest of the system. Right now, this system consists of some trusted "authorities" that have been evaluated based on my personal learning needs. If any of my trusted sources are missing, I might hypothesize that the depth of my learning could be greatly affected both negatively and positively I suppose - I would either miss that point of view or be ready to move on to new ideas. This system also consists of tools. Many edubloggers have already been analyzing the changes to their learning networks with the addition of Twitter while others have been examining the affects of using other tools such as So we hypothesize how each tool that we encounter might affect the rest of our already existing system.

Considering a personal learning network as a system puts a different light on it for me. But it also makes me consider how this concept is presented to others who don't yet have this "system" in their own professional practice. We can present our audiences with lots of information about how great it is to have a learning network and how powerful the tools are that help us to develop and maintain that network. However, our biggest challenge is to provide professional development opportunities that immerse our audiences in the information that they need then help them to think their way out - make comparisons among the many different types of tools, construct arguments about the value of one tool over another tool. Without the thinking, it's just information. Period. With the use of thinking skills, we can avoid the effects of "drive by training" and have a more positive affect on the learning of our educator audiences.

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Friday, November 09, 2007

A Little Fun with Dylan

Just having a little fun trying to figure out if I can really synthesize some information into only a few words or a few characters. I wonder what kind of challenge this might create for students?

Monday, November 05, 2007

Activities, Activities....too many Activities

Many of us went through our training as teachers in a time before there were standards, in a time when curriculum documents sat on shelves in our classrooms if they were there and available at all. It was during that time that we learned to create well designed activities. You know what I mean...that "fun" apple unit that you did in the Fall where you pulled together all sorts of activities - the apple poems, the apple songs, the apple art projects. All of that kept our students very busy doing lots of "stuff" but, what about the learning?

Sitting in a meeting this afternoon I was reminded that we haven't quite broken out of this model even while lots of other things have been changing around us - the development of curriculum documents, training teachers to construct well designed lessons, the plans that brought technology into our classrooms to name a few. There were stories being shared today of students using computers to access a website provided by our reading series that contains a set guessed it...activities. There were recountings of literature circle activities that culminated guessed it...another activity. And I began to wonder, with all that we know about the brain and learning, why we can't break out of that mindset.

It's hard work to teach students to think. You have to lay lots of groundwork before students can independently use thinking skills. It takes modeling, practice and time. Unfortunately, this is what we so often overlook or skim over thinking that all we have to do it "show" our students what to do or give them some sort of activity to do and they'll automatically be able to do it.

To use technology to support learning takes lots of modeling, practice and time but instead we're letting ourselves rely on activities provided by websites that involve no real learning whatsoever. Several teachers have been talking about how they set up stations during their literacy time and they tell me about the great activities that our reading series provides for students online. Finally, while other discussions went forward, I logged onto a computer and got into the website to really take a close look at what's going on there. Having heard the claim that "our students need to practice these skills to get better" from so many teachers I was hoping that what I would see would prove to be worthwhile. But no...just a lot of activities. It goes something like this...Read/listen to the directions, go to the first example, choose the answer and move on to the next example and - oh, yeah - no feedback about wrong answers and you get to see how many points you earned at the end. If you're not truly invested in actually reading the material and thinking about the choices all you have to do is click on each possible answer until you got moved on to the next example. I'd wager that the brightest students invest a little time in looking for the right answer the first time - but then again, the brightest students probably don't need this type of rote activity. And, as for those who struggle with reading - is this kind of thing really going to help them be better readers?

A few weeks back, Jeff Utecht wrote about whether or not we really need standards for technology. I've thought about that quite a bit lately and my answer unequivocally is YES! We most certainly do need standards. If for nothing else than to keep these types of "activities" off the list of things our students can do during the instructional day. But even more than just having a list of standards, we need to have an understanding of how standards work and how they break down into specific benchmarks so that we can move into the realm of using technology less for activities and more for true learning experiences. Wikis, podcasts, blogs, VoiceThreads, SlideShares and the like are really cool - but, if it's not about the learning, if it's just an activity we teach our kids how to do, then it's just a waste of time.

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