A Year of Learning

Tonight, we kicked off the first team leader meeting of the year for the new cohort of the Digital Learning Collaborative.

The DLC, if you didn’t know, is a two-year professional development program we’re in our third year of developing.  Year one is a year for personal and professional learning.  Year two, which we’ll kickoff later this month for a different cohort, is a year of teacher inquiry into what happens for students when we use technology in the classroom.

Last night, we attempted, with our teacher team leaders, to set the culture for what it means to learn as teachers in community.  We reviewed some of our habits – making sure we have a plan for all of our monthly team meetings, how we use Google Docs to share those plans and to share notes we take when and as we meet, and making sure that we’re separating time for learning1 from time for collaboration and sharing.   And, yes, that’s messy.  Messy is okay.

But we spent the bulk of our time last night reading and thinking and talking to each other about a couple of pieces, written by Will Richardson, that explore connected and passion-based learning not just for students, but for teachers, too.

That led to some good conversation.  I heard Kelly, a first grade teacher, when she asked about how we help connect students to passions that they might not realize they have, and how we can encourage students to explore areas of themselves and the world when they might not have any knowledge about, well, much of anything.  I heard Rebekah, a high school math teacher, when she said that somewhere, students have learned that it’s cool to not like math.

I hope that folks heard me when I invoked Mr. Rogers, and his definition of teaching, the idea that what teachers do is that they love something, and they love it in front of their students.  Passion, indeed.

I heard Mollie when she said that it was important for teachers and students to follow their passions, and that, in a time of scripts and pacing, we’d do well to make sure that we’re injecting student interests and differences into our work.

I heard others, too.  It was a fine culture setting conversation.

We also talked about the power of reflective writing, and took some time to write together, as we will do during all of our meetings.  While I cannot share their writing with you just now, know that we’ll be hearing more from these teacher leaders and their teams as they begin to dig into their learning this year.

It was a fine start.

  1. Sometimes, this is training.  Other times, it’s time for reading and conversation.  There are other things this learning might look like, too.  Learning is complicated. []
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The Podcast: Two Fall Projects

In today’s podcast, I talk about a couple of projects that are keeping me pretty busy this fall – finishing my thesis and building a course for P2PU’s new School of Ed with some friends from the NWP.  Oddly, they go together.  Which is a good thing.  Keep your fingers crossed.  And, as always, would love to hear your thoughts in response to mine.  This time, I could definitely use the help.

Direct Link to Audio

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On Being Afraid

On Friday, Converge did a quite nice write up of some of our district’s work with technology. I found it to be a splendid piece. Specifically, a large portion of the article featured some of the work we’ve been doing with the Digital Learning Collaborative. If you need a one sentence summary of that work, well, Paige does a fine job:

It was awesome and scary for some to be in charge of their learning.

I think that pretty much sums up what I’m seeing with regards to the way that we’re asking teachers in the DLC to take control of their own learning. It is scary for many of our teachers to take control. And it is awesome, delightful even, when it happens.

More often than I’d like in the DLC, the teachers that we’re working with, and we work with the leaders of the teams, folks identified as teacher leaders in their schools, so chew on that a bit, are afraid, or unwilling, or unable, to take control of their own learning. These teachers, quite fine and thoughtful people, are often waiting for Michelle or I to tell them what’s worth learning and/or doing. That’s troublesome1.

This is mostly a rhetorical question, but I’d encourage you to consider it anyway – what’s happened to teachers and teaching that it’s so difficult for teachers to feel they have agency enough to follow their own lines of inquiry and learning?

And why in the world is that okay?

  1. And the word “troublesome” is quite the understatement, I think. []
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So I’m Going To Be Teaching This Class. And Could Use Your Help.

I like new frontiers.  That’s why I’m excited to be participating in Karen’s attempt to create a School of Ed at P2P University this fall.  It should be a neat opportunity to fiddle with what it means to do PD.

I couldn’t be more excited to be facilitating a course we’re calling “Common Core & Writing: Deeper Learning for All.”  I pitched the course as “a course on writing to learn for non-English teachers” and that’s almost exactly what I’ll be teaching1.  Better yet – some of my friends from the National Writing Project will be helping me to develop the course.

The six week course, which will begin mid-October, is going to begin with a deep look at the Common Core State Standards, and particularly the section of the standards that addresses the role of writing across the curriculum.2 Then,’ we’ll tackle writing in the classroom from two distinct lenses:

1.  Writing to Learn – the habits and bits of writing that you do to make sense of whatever it is that you’re learning and exploring.

2. Writing for the Disciplines – the writing that’s specific to content areas other than language arts.  How do historians write for each other?  Scientists?  Mathematicians?  And why does that matter? How can we help our students to write in these ways?

As a final project, participants in the course will use this protocol from the NWP to help them develop some writing assignments for their own classrooms that should result in some thoughtful writing for and with students.   We should all get some good ideas.

As I’m developing the collection of resources, I know that NWP’s Digital Is will be an important text for the group.  And I’m also reminded of Peter Elbow and Donald Murray and their essential contributions to writing as process and writing as something that teachers just, you know, do.

But I could use your help.

Here’s a Google Doc where I’m beginning to draft a collection of readings and resources for the folks3 who I hope will take this course.

I’d sure be grateful if you’d offer your favorites and help keep me honest by pointing participants to actual examples of the two areas I outlined above.

And of course, this entire experience is, for me, first draft thinking.  I’d be open to your ideas, suggestions, and feedback as I’m working to construct an experience that’s ultimately useful to teachers and results in increased use of writing in their practice.

Thanks in advance.  And perhaps I’ll see you in class?  Sign up opens soon.

  1. Er.  Facilitating.  Teaching.  Guiding.  Whatever.  The participants and I will experience it together.  And we’ll all take turns. []
  2. Yes, technically, this is a rather large section.  Pretty much the entire language arts section.  But we’ll hone in on the specifics of writing for the disciplines other than language arts. []
  3. Remember – a targeted audience of non-language arts teachers. []
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Thinking. Making. Learning.

This morning I had the opportunity to visit our school district’s Camp Innovation, a summer program for Kindergarten through second grade focused on engineering and exploration and inquiry.  In partnership with IBM, our district developed this two-week summer experience.  Here’s the formal description of the work:

Teams of students will work directly with IBM employees at the IBM facility, along with SVVSD educators and high school volunteers on important and relevant issues to building a Smarter Planet: transportation systems, water, cities/buildings, food, and energy. Each group will be facilitated by a SVVSD teacher, an IBM employee, and multiple SVVSD high school students who participate in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) or IB (International Baccalaureate Diploma) programs. At the end of the two week camp, project exhibitions will be shared with community audiences to culminate the experience.

My informal discription?  Students digging in, asking questions, and wondering about the world.  Then doing something about it.  It was fun to watch, even for a few minutes.  Students and facilitators and volunteers were moving around, making things, discussing options, and clearly engaged in very important work.

Below is a video describing the inquiry cycle that the Camp Innovation team, a group masterfully facilitated by Paige Gordon, worked to build into every aspect of the students’ experience.  As I was wandering and shooting pictures and exploring student creations and how they camp has transformed a wing of office space at IBM into a design and fab lab, I saw the cycle in action, on the walls, and in the work of the students.  I’m looking forward to seeing the students’ final projects, which will be shared in a community event at the end of the week.  Thankfully, the entire experience has been well-documented by our district communications team, specifically Matt Wiggins1, and you can get a feel for the camp and the events as those videos emerge ((You can catch them as they hit the Web if you’d like.)

One more thing – as I was exploring the students at work, other district administrators who were visiting were remarking that it was essential that we get ideas like “So what?” and “How are you going to personally get involved?” into our “regular, during the school year” classrooms.

And that’s a fine thing to remark on.  I look forward to their, and our, continued efforts to mix design and tinkering and inquiry into the daily culture of our classrooms.

Here are more of the photos I took during my short visit.  Take particular notice of the “Prototyping Lab,” a large space full of supplies.  I’ll have more to say on the lab in a future post.

  1. The original version of this post had Matt’s last name incorrect.  My apologies. []
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“Interactions with Technology Should Be Playful.” (Yep.)

So I’m giving a short “setting the mood” talk today to a school that is up to some interesting work.  They’ll be spending the next couple of days working through some play and exploration around many of the tools available to them to help them in the work of teaching and learning.

And I’m supposed to say something clever and upbeat to get them started.  Which is a bit of a challenge.

Or, it was going to be, until I stumbled across a draft of a position paper by the National Association for the Education of Young Children on the role that technology can and should play in the learning and development of young children. I was prepared to be frustrated by their work, and I was so tickled to be wrong.

It’s a delightful read, painting a picture of what I believe learning can and should look like.  That it’s a technology document is almost of secondary importance.  I’d encourage you to give it a read.  But I can give you the gist of the document in these three statements taken from the text1:

We can learn lots from the situations of discovery and exploration that are the best of our early learning spaces.  Preschool.  Kindergarten.  A good library, theater, or museum.  The joy of discovery and wonder and budding curiosity.  The technologies that we use with children for learning should help us to amplify the best of us and to help us become better and wiser people.  It matters less what technologies we employ than it does that we are working thoughtfully and purposefully to create spaces for good learning.

And I hope I can convey that to the folks I’m speaking with today.

 

UPDATE:  Here are the slides from the talk.

  1. The text is from the position paper.  The pictures were taken by me of my children in two recent trips to the Denver Art Museum. I’m preparing to do some work with them and I’m excited by the learning spaces I’ve seen there on our recent visits. []
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#ISTE11: NWP’s Inaugural Hack Jam

Yesterday afternoon, I had the opportunity to attend the first ever National Writing Project Hack Jam, an exploration of the opportunities to fiddle with text and writing and code on the Internet.  It was a useful event for me, as we were able to think and play with ideas about what “hacking” means right now, and how it’s about reading and writing and thinking.

Masterfully facilitated by Chad Sansing and Meenoo Rami, the event took us to some interesting places and conversation.  Here’s my recap.

We started the day in table groups with a box of Monopoly and a simple task – hack the game.  Chad and Meenoo explained that our task was to fiddle with the rules until we found a game that was better than the one we were handed – and so Sandy and Gail and I tinkered our way through a version of Monopoly that was all about freebies.  Other groups fiddled to make the game about tossing pieces and giving to charity.  It was good1.

But the point of the hacking was to give us an opportunity to explore that games and systems have rules – rules that were made by people.  And we can mess with those rules if we understand the underlying principles involved.  That’s powerful learning – and applies not just to board games, but to school, and to work, and to civic engagement and to computer systems or the Internet.

Hacking matters.  Douglas Rushkoff would say that we need to Program or Be Programmed, but I’d fiddle with that statement and say instead that we need to hack or be hacked.  Someone made the rules and systems of the Internet, power structures, as John Spencer called them during out conversation yesterday.  And, as others have said before, we’ve got to help our students fiddle with them, understand them, and, hopefully, change them.

We moved from that work into a visual exploration of our definition of hacker – folks focused on several things, but I was reminded of MacGyver, and thought of duct tape and wrenches and making things out of what we’ve available.  Purposeful play.

This led to some interesting conversation that I think was my key takeaway from the day2.  Paul Allison, who is always thoughtful, wrote this during the workshop:

My first thought is that hacking sounds like an important idea, but really? Do we need another word that takes teachers out of the mainstream “common core” standards conversation? Does hacking get my students more college-ready? Like gaming, isn’t hacking just another thing that pushes the risk-takers into the margins, and makes risk-adverse teachers run? How do we find a way to be more inclusive in our language and processes? Is it just a language thing? What else might we call hacking?

Later on, Paul continues3:

So part of why we hack has to do with understanding our sources more deeply, and this is absolutely an academic concern. But don’t we need words like “analytical reading” and carefully sourced research? Right so what else might we call hacking? It’s about creativity, but it’s also about making new things by really understanding the old, and this is a traditional, academic exercise.

I’m looking for language that will encourage the risk-adverse teacher to join with us in these enterprises.

And that’s what I leave thinking about.  Hacking matters.  Academic reading and writing matter.  And they’re not unrelated things.  Groups like the National Writing Project know an awful lots about good reading and writing practice, and are exploring thoughtfully things like gaming and hacking – but can they do so in a way that doesn’t scare off the “risk-adverse teacher,” as Paul asks?

I think we need the National Writing Project and folks like them to help navigate these spaces, and to explore them thoughtfully with teachers – and to help folks recognize that reading and writing and thinking and gaming and hacking are related – but in a way that doesn’t lead to further fragmentation and paradox.  I think we need teachers to play, like we played in the Hack Jam, with the rules and ideas that affect them.

Yes, let’s teach kids to hack.  Both the Internet and Shakespeare.  Minecraft and Fitzgerald.  Wordle and essay.  Picture and paragraph.  Logarithm and link. Tweets and Tennyson.  Second Life and the State Legislature.  It’s a big world.

Worth doing.  If you get the chance to attend a future NWP Hack Jam – you should go. I’ll see you there.

  1. Because it was a National Writing Project event, there were snacks.  Good ones. []
  2. And I know I’ve buried the lead, but that’s okay. []
  3. Read the whole piece.  It’s good and I can’t stop thinking about it. []
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You Write with Students. Right?

I find myself asking, more and more, in the work I do with teachers and students in my neck of the woods and around the country, a simple question:

When and where are you writing with your students?

I say this is a simple question, because, well, it is. You should have an answer to this question, and I hope that the answer is something like “Often. And Everywhere.”

But too often, the answer is more like “I really should, but we’re just so busy.” Or, worse, the answer devolves into an explanation of how the answerer isn’t a writing teacher, but teaches math, or science, or something else.

That’s just not good.

Writing is the gateway to understanding. In fact, it’s in the composition of ideas or responses or summary that we really begin to own the learning that we’re doing.

I try to anticipate the “but I’m not a writer” answer, too. I have a slide that’s found its way into many of the talks and workshops that I give. It looks like this:

I hope that folks understand that I am less interested in that they are spending time with words than they are with the tools of composition and making things. School is too often too passive – a study of only what other people have made, rather than a study of making things of one’s own.

So, when I ask teachers about when and how often they’re writing with students, I’m trying to presume that such making is occurring in our classrooms. But it’s not. Or, at least, people are keeping their making secret1.

I thought it would make sense to attack a few of the answers that I hear for why writing isn’t happening on a regular basis. Others’ statements are in bold. My responses to them are not.

I’m not a writing teacher.

One doesn’t need to instruct students on writing in order to get writing to learn to happen in one’s classroom. While it’s never a bad idea to read or otherwise engage at least some of the writing that you ask students to do, it’s not necessary that the focus of taking time to write should be on assessing the writing, or correcting student errors. There’s a time and place for that. But it’s certainly okay to ask students to use writing as a tool for understanding, for memory, or for exploration.

Don’t grade it.  But make time for writing.

I’m not a highly-qualified writing teacher.

This is a variation of the previous – but is worthy of its own response. “Highly-qualified” is baggage language brought into the classroom from educational policy. Since the federal government has cheapened the value of the phrase, I’d say we should strongly reconsider it ourselves.

Of course you’re a highly-qualified writing teacher. You’ve used writing to successfully complete your instructional goals in the past. You write email to parents and to colleagues and administrators. Somewhere, you probably picked up how to create a resume, or construct a letter of interest that got you your current teaching job. You read. Lots.2 You are highly-qualified to be a thoughtful reader and writer of your students’ work.

You’re also highly-qualified to be a cheerleader, a coach, and an enthusiastic challenger of what your students produce and share.  But you can’t be any of those things if you’re not making anything or asking them to.

I teach math3, so my emphasis isn’t on writing.

Baloney4.  Your emphasis, be you a teacher of equations, or of the scientific method, or of how to ensure the proper fuel/air mixture in a V-6 engine, is on helping your students to explore and discover the world.  Writing, as a tool for exploration, or declaration, or narrative, or whatever you do with words and ideas, is a part of your work.  Show me a mathematician who doesn’t write.  Point me towards a scientist who isn’t taking good notes or publishing and sharing her work.  Name an engineer that you know that doesn’t sketch or draft or fiddle with a pencil from time to time?

You can’t.  So your students can’t not write, either.

There’s no time for writing.  We’ve got so much stuff to cover.

You aren’t in the coverage business.  You’re in the student learning business.  And if you want them to learn the thing that you’re teaching, then they’d better be doing that thing, and thinking about that thing, and modeling their understanding of that thing in some constructive and/or reflective way.  Period.  There’s no time to not write.  Learning’s too important to leave up to osmosis.

Those’re a few of the more common excuses I hear for why teachers aren’t taking time to write with their students.  What have I missed?  Let me know in the comments.

And – make time for writing.  Soon.  It’s important.

  1. That is another problem probably worthy of it’s own post – why keep that secret? []
  2. I desperately hope that you do. If you’re a teacher who isn’t still reading, well, that’s also worthy of its own post. []
  3. Or science, or history, or underwater basket weaving. []
  4. Or, if you prefer, bologna. []
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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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