Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom

Screen Shot 2014 03 15 at 5 40 11 PMRecently, a project I spent some time on last spring and summer came to life. Teaching in the Connected Learning Classroom is now available for free download as a PDF or a 99 cent eBook via the Amazon Kindle store.  I’m biased, but I think you should take a peek.

The goal of the project was to put a face of specific examples from real classrooms on the Connected Learning principles.  Again, I’m biased, but I think if you read the text, and follow the links to the projects from Digital Is we focused on, I think you’ll get a sense that real, live teachers and students are engaging in some very dynamic work in classrooms right now.  They’re not waiting for someone to show the way.  I was particularly pleased to see so many examples of “teacher” and “student” shown in the text.  We all take turns with both of these roles.  That’s important to remember.  Gail, Mike, Adam, and Jenny, the teachers who wrote the examples I showcase in the chapter I worked on, were all my teachers on this project and I’m grateful for their contributions to my learning and this text. You will be, too.  So take a look already.

But other teachers, as well as plenty of non-teachers who make big pronouncements about schools and schooling, would benefit, too, from a glimpse of the work we reference. So share this with them, would you?

Last week, several of the other project editors visited for a webinar at Educator Innovator. That webinar is below.  Give it a listen.

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On Coaching and Choice

We’re reading Unmistakable Impact by Jim Knight together as a large team at work.  This is the third post in my series on that reading and reflection.

This month’s chapter is on coaching, both the role of the coach and the practices and habits an instructional coach can use to make a difference in his or her work.   As someone who’s often in a coaching role, I found the broad strokes of the chapter useful, both as reminder and as a bit of a challenge for thinking through.  

What are instructional coaches, according to Knight?  Well, they’re folks who “partner with teachers to help them incorporate research-based practices into their teaching.” Also, the “partner with teachers to help them incorporate instructional practices into their teaching.” (Kindle location 1837)

The thread of choice was woven through the chapter for me, too.  Here’re some choice1 quotes: 

If a coach and teacher come together as equal partners, the teacher must have choices.  Partners don’t do the choosing for each other.  In coaching, this means, most fundamentally, that teachers have a choice about whether or not they want to work with a coach. . . . choice does not mean that teachers can choose to not participate in professional meaning.  No professional can choose to be unprofessional. (1872)

When professionals are told what to do and when and how to do it, with no room for their individual thoughts, that is a spiritual death experience.(1900)

And this, though not directly about choice, seems particularly relevant to my thinking about coaching and the choices that coaches should make:

When coaches focus on capacity building, there are tasks they do not do.  Usually coaches do not sub when teachers are away, do administrivia, or work directly with students except in the service of the larger goal of promoting teacher growth.  Certainly, there are occasions when these general guidelines are ignored.  Just as a principal may be forced to sub if there in no other alternative, so might a coach.  However, this should occur very rarely. (1978)

A little later in the chapter, Knight points to some data that suggests that the coaches he has studied often report that they spend only between 10 and 25 percent of their time as “coaches” instead of the fill in tasks he describes above.  That’s troubling to me because either instructional coaches are making pretty terrible choices about how to spend their time, or (and I think this is much more likely) they are not in the place to choose how to spend that time to begin with.  While they should be advocates for choice for the teachers they work with, their own choices are quite limited.  

That leads me to my larger reflection on this chapter, which is that I find that the role of an instructional coach and the role of a classroom teacher are really quite similar, or should be.  The job of a teacher shouldn’t be to force change on a student, nor a coach to force change on a teacher.  It’s a partnership.  The whole endeavor of learning, as I see it, should be the development of agency in the individual.  And perhaps the problem of instructional leaders choosing to put their coaches in places of fill in is one of a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of a teacher/coach.  And that fundamental misunderstanding isn’t simply a misunderstanding in the mind of the leader – it’s a deeply cultural mess that we’re in because what we think “teaching” looks like isn’t really what good teaching looks like.

When a teacher is “teaching,”2 what is happening?  Does “teaching” mean the teacher is speaking?  I bet for most of us, that’s the first thought that pops into our heads.  But it shouldn’t be.  What about when a teacher is “listening?” Or “pausing?”  Or waiting patiently while monitoring a classroom writing assignment3?  I think much of what we consider “best practice” in teaching and what we think of when we think of a teacher “teaching” just don’t line up in our heads and hearts as they should.  

And so sometimes we make serious errors in judgment about what a teacher is or isn’t doing.  

I think about all of my friends and colleagues who are wicked nervous about new evaluations in Colorado and other places, and I understand some of their dilemma.  Whenever a principal came into my room to observe, I wanted to be doing something awesome so that they “saw me teaching.”   The problem is, no one learns much in a room when I’m doing all the talking.  The real learning happens when I turn students loose on a concept or problem or task.  But me monitoring a roomful of excited and engaged students isn’t what I wanted my principal to see – because it wasn’t “awesome teaching.”  Except that it was. 

Other teachers I know reschedule their thoughtfully planned lessons and timelines around evaluations so that the principal sees them “in action.”  That’s a problem, because the thoughtful planning and scheduling was done intentionally, for good reason.  And the change is for a crummy, “observing a thing changes it” sort of reason.  

This is a ramble, and only a little bit about coaching now, but that said, let me return to my role as an instructional coach for a second.  Sometimes, the best way I can be helpful to a teacher is to say nothing.  To do nothing.  To sit very quietly and let the words that just were spoken roll back over the speaker. Choosing to respond is a choice.  It’s often what “good teaching” looks like.  But choosing not to respond is also a choice, and should be honored more often.  

Because that’s better teaching, and better coaching, too. 

 

 

  1. Ahem. []
  2. Or a coach “coaching.” I’ll be using these terms interchangeably for the rest of this post. []
  3. Better still would be writing alongside the writing students. []
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In Good Hands

One of the honors and privileges of my current position is that I get to work with some really smart people.  I mean wise folks.  The folks I want my children to learn with and from.

And I get the opportunity, from time to time, to see these smart folks in action. This year, on the first day of school, MIchelle and Kyle and I took a lap around the district and happened to wander by Kevin’s classroom a few minutes into his year.

And, boy, was he in the zone.  Already.  Inside a few minutes.

He was  introducing reading notebooks to his students when we happened by.  We were approaching the classroom, no appointment, just saying hi, when we heard him say this:

We are going to have thoughts as we read, and it’ll be good for us to write those down so we don’t forget them.

And so we turned around and kept right on walking. Kevin’s students didn’t need us to interfere with some very serious exploration of what it means to be a reader, writer and thinker.  Nope.  Anything we might’ve done in that situation would’ve been an interruption. They were in quite capable hands.

Of course, the more I think about that one sentence, the more I think it sums up so much of what I think school should be – people exploring thoughtfulness. Thoughtfully.

And I am grateful for folks like Kevin, who works with 4th graders, because I know that they are well served because he is there exploring their thinking with them.

If your school year’s just getting going, I sure hope that you are reading something interesting, and asking your students to, and that you’re all pausing from time to time to write something that you’re thinking about down.

And if you’re not – why aren’t you?

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Safe Places & What Is Yet To Come

I had the opportunity earlier this week to sit in on a conversation with teacher librarians and other media staff during a kickoff event to start the school year. We were sharing some lunch and talking about our hopes for the year – specifically, we were discussing how we will be working to build libraries that are places of community.

That’s a fine thing to be discussing.

One media staffer said that it was important to her that her library be a safe place, a place where students could expect to be sheltered from, well, the stuff that can be unsafe about a school.

And that was a good hope. Lots of head nodding. Lots of talk of sitting in circles and making things and libraries as spaces where crafts were made, and stories were read and books were explored and questions were asked. And often answered.

And I thought that was good. They spoke of love without using the word. What could be wrong with that?

And, at the same time, I started to get angry.

See, many of these library folk that I visited with the other day were facing new challenges as library folk. Some were in the library alone, whereas before they were a part of a team. Others were entering into roles as clerks in the absence of a full teacher librarian1. As we seek ways to save money in our school district, we have had to make hard choices about whether to staff classrooms or libraries. These are not easy choices.

But when such kind and thoughtful people advocate for such important spaces as school libraries, well, I feel like maybe they shouldn’t have to fight so hard.

A project I’ve been loosely following is asking folks right now to think of libraries as enchanted spaces, and of libraries as verbs. And I will think this year of this round table of library folk, dreaming of spaces where children find love and security and story and words and literacy. Spaces and places where the skeletons of dreams receive flesh and animation from books and pictures and websites and exploring and wondering and discovery. And I am enchanted.

And I am enraged.

This week, our state courts are hearing the case of a large coalition of school districts arguing that the state of Colorado is not meeting its constitutional mandate to provide a proper education for the children of the state. And our Governor, while supportive of the intent of the lawsuit, is concerned that it might succeed, because of what that might do to the state budget.

What might not investing in enchanting spaces and people do to the state? That we have to have this argument in court suggests we’ve all lost.

On the same day that I got to have lunch with our library types, our school board president addressed the library group and talked about some of the research that he conducts in his day job. He studies institutions and public policy and, well, people. It’s fascinating work.

He mentioned during his talk that while it makes sense to consider the points and arguments that would lead to rational loyalty towards institutions one would value, folks don’t fight for rational loyalty. They fight for, and will work to save, protect and defend, the places and institutions with which they have emotional attachments. And I want our schools to be places of emotional attachment in the best possible way. Places of pride and hope and joy and love and respect and kindness and the best of what we might could be.

We are, after all, beings of emotion and then ration, rather than the other way ’round. No matter how hard we might wish otherwise.2

And I wonder how to go after the emotional jugulars rather than the heels of rationality. As one who pretends rationality, I wonder about the best way to do this. And I remember the teacher who called across the parking lot to me the other day to tell me that she might have lost her way, that she might not know what’s worth talking about or spending time on lately.

And I know what she means sometimes.

And I write tonight because I don’t know if I’ve lost my way or not, either. But I seek enchantment. And safety. And hope. And think they’re within reach.

And I remember a kid with glasses too big on a face too small in pants too tight with friends too far between who needed a quiet place to read where no names were called and the books and the stories could keep coming. And I remember the library folk who made sure that I could focus on the dreams in the books rather than the whispered pokes from the jerks.

And I am enchanted anew.

And so I’ll keep reaching, and seeking. And I am eager to begin a new school year, to reach again with smart folks to try to be the best that we can be.

You come, too.

  1. It’s cheaper, you know, to staff a library with a clerk rather than a licensed teacher. But what, I wonder, does that savings really cost? []
  2. It’s true. Rationalize your love for the child that left a soggy mess in one of your shoes the other morning. The little girl who made you dance on the sidewalk with her. In front of all the neighbors. Simply because she could. You can’t rationalize that. You love her anyway. []
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Yeah. It’s Like That.

Sheridan Blau on the National Writing Project, writing on page 98 of James Gray’s Teachers at the Center:

Having experienced what it means to learn in a community of learners, teachers are inclined to count such learning as more authoritative and authentic than any other and to think of such learning as the proper aim of instruction. They therefore become determined to turn their own classrooms into learning communities that will function like a writing project, where respect for the intelligence of every learner is the starting place for all activity, and where all learners are expected and required to take responsibility for their own learning as well as for assisting others to learn — a community where learning entails the production of knowledge as well as its reception, and where knowledge is always seen as provisional and subject to challenge and refinement.

As my friends and colleagues gather in Washington D.C. for the National Writing Project’s Spring Meeting, I hope they’ll take a few moments to reread Blau’s words here.

This is what’s worth fighting for, y’all.

This matters. It’s important.

Be well, be firm, and be kind.

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Well Isn’t It?

I’m listening to Donalyn Miller right now speaking about reading and writing and teaching at the NWP Annual Meeting in Orlando.

She just mentioned a conversation that I wanted to get down before I forgot it.

Donalyn was asked about her students’ reading. “Your students,” the inquirer asked, “read fifty books a year without any rewards or incentives?”

Donalyn replied, “Isn’t reading its own reward?”

Yes. It is. The reading of the book, the mastering of the text, the enjoyment of the story.

That’s the reward. That’s the prize. That’s the incentive. That’s what gets folks to put down one book, and pick up the next one.

We don’t need stickers, or points, or prizes. Just good books, thoughtful people who know their students to read and recommend to them, and students willing to explore the world through writing.

So let’s spend less time with systems that add to the mess, and distract from the books. Okay?

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It’s Blurry. But It’s Still a Vision

Lately, I’ve found myself, quite by accident, thinking a great deal about what an “online school” might look like, were I to have the opportunity to be involved in the creation of one.  I’m watching this process unfold in my school district, and it’s started some wheels a’turning.

And this is thinking that, while I’ve done peripherally off and on over the last several years1, has been persistently in my head these last few weeks.  So it seems reasonable to try to write some of it down before it slips away, or as an opportunity to bettter understand what’s going on in my head.  So I imagine this will be a few posts over the next few days, as I flesh out various ideas.  If you don’t want to head down this road with me, here are some links to other distractions that you might enjoy.

First draft thinking.  But thinking I like and find useful.

To begin with, any online school that’s worth building won’t be a district-branded school in a box.  You know what I mean when I talk school in a box, right?  One purchases the curriculum and coursework and so on2 and replaces the curriculum company’s logo with their district logo. This is relatively easy to do, and results in the ability of a school board to say “Hey.  Look.  We have an online school.” But doesn’t really result in a change to, well, pretty much anything, or any advantage to the home school district other than a slight financial one.3
So that’s not good enough.  And it feels, well, funky.  At least to me.  So that’s not doable, in my mind.  Not in totality.  But there are other ways.

In our school district, in the face of a change in state standards4, the curriculum team has been working with select teachers to map our standards into a curriculum framework.  The next step is to begin to map out what new common district assessments might look like and then to give examples of what exemplary work looks like and to build all of those standards, assessments and exemplars into a curriculum map that makes it pretty transparent about what’s up with teaching and learning in the district.5

That’s good.  But let’s try to tie in a few other district projects.  For one thing, there’s a real sense of excitement about the possibility of digital and/or open source textbooks here in the district.  Both the board and the curriculum team and others are beginning to realize that there’s a big opportunity to save some money and to create better materials at the same time through the curation of digital texts.6

I imagine that we could double our curriculum expertise here in St. Vrain, have folks work regularly on curating resources by hanging the good stuff from elsewhere on our curriculum map and writing the rest, and save money in the process.  The distribution model for what folks produce is a bit muddled7, but it’s doable.

Let’s suppose, though, that the aims of creating digital textbooks that are mapped to curriculum and building an online school weren’t disparate.  In fact, I think they’re complimentary.

Suppose, instead of going after a school in a box, you took the opportunity to think of an online school as a lab school, a place of possibility and “what if-edness” that you might use for R&D into new methods, practices, and opportunities for partnership.  Suppose the goal of such a school included being the development and testing ground for the digital resources that you wanted to build?  And furthermore, suppose that you hired teachers to both teach and curate curriculum, so rather than teach full time, or curate full time, they did both things together.

This would give you a space in which to create resources and to, with the aid of students, who would be partners in the work, fieldtest and improve them?

Hmm.

Doesn’t that have a nice sound to it?  I think such a school would need to be a high school to begin with, but that might be an irrational bias8.

And now that we’ve opened the door to cross-purposes, I’d like to explore a few other ones.  There are plenty more.  What might an office of professional development as a partner in an online school look like?  How might an online school be a school-within-a-school that lives across a school district?  What are the essential physical spaces in an online school?  How do you build community in such spaces?

But those’re posts for other evenings.  For now – might something like this make sense?  What places do you see that look like this – online schools with experimental purposes?  Lab schools?  Online?9

I’ve not yet mentioned that, as I wrote and wondered a little while back, it would be essential that there were democratic structures built into the school.  And, although I’m not sure I’ve said so, it would be essential in any online school, that there be advisors in place and an advisory period of some kind that made sense for all students.  Students are less likely to get lost when there’re always folks looking out for you.

More soon.  Let me know what you think in the comments.

  1. “You know,” I say to friends, smart ones, “We should really build a school.”  And then we explore the idea. []
  2. and in some cases, the staff and even the administration []
  3. I say slight because you’re looking to split the revenue returned to the district between a curriculum company and the operating costs of such a program. []
  4. Twice.  Colorado adopted new ones recently, and then adopted Common Core over the summer.  It’s been a bit standards crazy lately, and the state is still figuring out what it’s done, as are many others. []
  5. I really like the idea that the curriculum map, up to and including activities and common assessments, is available to anyone who wants to take a look.  Particularly for a public school district.  Here’s one that a district to the south is doing interesting things with. []
  6. Folks like Bill are doing some good thinking in this area, so take a link break and head over to his post.  Go ahead.  I’ll be here when you’re done. []
  7. Do we go all digital?  Print on demand?  Allow for folks to bring their own devices?  Some combination of the above? []
  8. I was a high school teacher before I went to work as an educational geek full time []
  9. I suspect that many of you have answers to some of the questions I’ve outlined, as well as a couple that I’m reserving for future posts.  I can’t say this more clearly – I’m very interested in hearing from you.  Would love to hear how you’ve answered some or all of these questions in your own online spaces and places.  Or maybe you have better questions.  I’ll take those, too.  Please. []
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An Open Letter to My Favorite Educational Publisher

Dear Teachers College Press:

I’m an awful big fan of your work.  I mean a really, really big fan.  Of the five or six books on my desk at work right now, three of them are yours.  I made arrangements to order another of your titles just before I headed home for the weekend.1  Paper.  Texts.  Books.

Here’s the thing – I don’t really do most of my reading on paper anymore.  Nor will I be in the foreseeable future.  See, I’ve gotten rather used to the idea of having my books with me all the time.  All of them, be they in my nook or my iPad or available to me in a moment’s notice via one of a number2 of cloud services that I employ.

The problem is – you don’t publish books in etext formats.  Like, at all.  And that’s beginning to get in the way of me wanting to learn from and with your authors.   Who are wicked smart people.  I mean, seriously, they’re writing the books that today’s teachers, and tomorrow’s, need to be reading.  And you’re publishing them in the finest 20th Century style.

But you’re not publishing in formats that they’re likely to pick up.  So I’m beginning to find myself in a pickle when it comes to making purchasing decisions.

And, frankly, it’s getting harder and harder for me to carry your titles in my digital world.  My bag is so big.  Your books are pretty thick.  My devices take up lots of space.

I so want to take your texts with me into the digital world that is my library’s future.  But I can’t until you start offering them to me in a format that I can use.

So please.  Please.  Would you consider offering your titles as ebooks?  Soon?

Time is short.  There’s good stuff in your catalog.  Could you work on getting it into the digital reading ecosystem?

Soon?

Respectfully, a reader and a fan,

Bud

  1. And in searching your catalog as I was writing this piece, I saw several more books that have influenced my career and thinking.  Or that I want to read.  Soon. []
  2. That’s a referral link for Dropbox – you get extra space if you create an account.  And so do I.  I wonder if that means I’ve just put a commercial into a blog post.  Uh oh. []
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What I’d Like To Be Reading

I’m fiddling with the idea of pushing ePUB via RSS to iTunes, which probably won’t work.  But to get there, I’m going to need to have some ePUB in an RSS feed or two, so as a bonus for you, dear reader, I’m posting a copy of my Instapaper export for this week.  I’m a bit behind on my reading, but you’re welcome to skim through this collection of articles I snagged in my wanderings and was hoping to read later.

Do you know of anyone pushing ePUB via RSS?  A good ol’ podcast of ereadable books?  Please share links in the comments.

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Forks Make Us Fatter! (No, wait. It’s something else.)

Twice today I’ve seen stories in the media, passed around by educators, that gave me pause. In both cases, the articles, headlines, and/or authors and sharers of the article passed along the notion that “Technology X enables skill Y.” I was a wee bit disappointed, not just because of the enthusiasm I saw in the sharing1, but because both of the articles got the technology that makes a difference wrong.

Let me show you:

Example 1 – “Texting poetry inspires students to learn

From the article:

Chester Middle School Principal Ernie Jackson, for instance, challenged reading and social studies teacher Mel Wesenberg to find ways to use text messaging to teach poetry.

The results were surprising: Kids who used their cell phones to boil down the main points of the stanzas got 80 percent of the questions about a poem correct on a state test.

Kids taught the same poem in the traditional way – reading, reciting and discussing – got only 40 percent of the questions right.

“That’s a big jump,” Jackson said during a recent demonstration of the experiment with a sixth-grade class.

Well, yeah. When you write about something, or summarize it, then you do learn it. Writing forces the concepts into your brain in a way that discussion doesn’t. And summarizing something is a fine way to deepen your understanding of it. I suspect the student referenced in the article who didn’t have a cell phone would’ve had as much success with passing notes about the poems to her friends as they did sending texts back and forth.
Example 2 – “Teaching literacy using a Kindle2

From the article:

She gave examples of an elementary child’s note about a character in the book she was reading: “If I were him, I’d say no way!” Such comments indicate a child is unknowingly focusing in on the author’s character development, something college students struggle with in their literature classes. Another child summarized the plot – a simple electronic form of the dreaded book report – which reinforces their understanding of the book.

I need to read Larson’s original work, which is behind an IRA paywall, but again, seems to me that the focus of the improvement wasn’t the Kindle – it was annotating and summarizing the text. Writing about what you’re reading, as well as connecting your notes to the text itself, helps readers become better readers.

The Kindle isn’t the important bit.3

Turns out, in both of these cases, the technology that helps the students to read and to understand better was a very old and familiar technology:

Writing.4

It’s exciting to bring new gadgets and gizmos into the classroom, to see what they can help us to do. But we can all too easily get caught up in the shiny object and forget that the basic toolset of teaching and learning, of reading, writing and thinking, is still the basic toolset. Reading and writing, meaningful reading and writing, are important5.

Try to write and fiddle with words regularly, be it on a Kindle, a nook, an iPad, a cell phone, or any other device you might happen to have. Teachers should be active readers, writers and thinkers, no matter their subject area. We should be reading and writing with students regularly, whatever the medium. All that practice will help you read better, and then you, too, will be less likely to fall victim to a technology du jour switcharoo scam.

Promise.6

  1. Look! Aha! It’s true! Texting makes for smarter kids! Kindles change everything! []
  2. Not, I’d admit, the most useful headline. “Teaching literacy?” You mean “reading?” []
  3. That said, Will wrote an interesting post over the weekend on why you might use a Kindle as your annotation tool, but I’m thinking that his strategy isn’t practical for 2nd graders. []
  4. But we already knew that writing supports reading, didn’t we? []
  5. Ira’s post complicates this, but in a good way. []
  6. Yes, I know that “fatter” isn’t “really” a word. But it seemed like the right word. Please, no red pens here. []
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