Reflecting on Connecting: Part 2

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After listening to Alec Couros speak so passionately about using technology to help our students find meaning through real-world connecton, the question of how was high on my mind.  I have recently been looking for ways to make my students view their learning activities as truely important. Too often, I find that certain students do the bare minimum (just enough to get a completion) rather than investing the time and energy to express their best learning. A Day 2 talk given by George Couros (yes, brother of Alec) addressed that very point.

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George is the “Division Principal of Innovative Teaching and Learning for #PSD70” in Alberta. One of the initiatives that his district has undertaken is ensuring that every student receives and maintains a blog through their academic career. The blog is the primary place that students can share the things they’ve created with the world. Sharing shouldn’t end with students, however.  George further advocates the practice of teacher-blogging. He feels that it holds numerous benefits for teachers, including:

  • continued modelling of life-long learning
  • a greater chance to create an emotional connection to what we do
  • self-reflection often brings new learning
  • blogs encourage sharing of best practices
  • you aren’t always a great judge of how talented you are or how revolutionary your teaching is (we often judge ourselves harshly)

I think I find those last two the most convincing. We tend to teach in a one-school vacuum. I have recently adopted highly-engaging teaching activities from teachers who had no idea that what they were doing was at all special.  Sharing on a larger stage lets you see the amazing things that others are doing, and encourages you to share the amazing things you are doing as well.

So how do we address the very real and legitimate concerns that teachers may have about sharing? Check back with me next post…

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Reflecting on Connecting: Part 1

I’ve spent a couple of days reflecting on my experience at the Connect 2013 Conference this week. It was an intense two days of discussion, debate, heady ideas, and well, connecting.

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While looking back on Twitter to help me capture the heart of my experience at the conference I came across one of my favourite tweets of the weekend:

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Rodd Lucier (aka @thecleversheep and a fellow Londoner), was summarizing the words of Alec Couros, a keynote speaker on day one.  Alec spoke about how technology like YouTube can be a place where engaged individuals can find meaningful learning. More inportantly though, he pointed out that collaboration is what truly makes it meaningful. He asked us to consider why kids post the things they do, and what they get in return. Watching videos of kids asking for advice about anything from games to lighting campfires, and getting it from helpful strangers really demonstrated the point that we are experiencing a movement towards social, shared learning. Alec asked us to consider two questions when designing lessons for our students (and sharing our own learning): 1) How are you making your learning visible? (blog? YouTube? Twitter? Poster Board?) and 2) How are you sharing your learning? Alec challenged the educators amongst us to transform technology into a humanizing force by creating, sharing, connecting with others, and relating to those around us and across the globe.

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…But I’ve never been to Afghanistan!

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My students and I are enjoying the wonderful short story collection “Lunch With Lenin” by Deborah Ellis. For those who have not read it, “Lunch With Lenin” is a collection of short stories in which the young protagonists find themselves cast into frightening and difficult positions based on the impact of poverty, drugs, abuse, and other social ills. It is a challenging read, and can be quite dark. As you can imagine (if you know grade 7s) my students love it. They are curious about this dark place and realize that it is all too real for many.

You can imagine my surprise then, when I found that they were having an extremely hard time relating to two of the more compelling charcters in the book. We had read the story “Pretty Flowers” which takes place in rural Afghanistan after the initial wave of the most recent war in that country. Without spoiling it for you, that story ends in a particularly heart-rending way that they certainly seemed able to relate to while we were reading it. Indeed, more than a few students were wiping away tears at the conclusion. It seemed to me that it would be fairly easy for the majority of them to write a journal entry from the perspective of one character (Zameer) detailing his anxiety and anguish over the fate of his sister (Tahmina). I couldn’t have been farther off.

My students had little trouble recognizing that the story presented to them was a troubling one and their factual knowledge was quite impressive. They had certainly been listening! But their journal entries read like purely factual accounts and had all the passion and emotion of a form letter from the cable company.

What happened!?! They got the story. They understood what was going on and what was at stake. They understood the basic premise of a journal entry (though I did note that only one child had admitted to keeping one outside of class – note to self: go with blogging from now on).  What they didn’t understand clearly was that I wanted not only to see what a brother might write in that situation – I wanted them to show how a brother might FEEL.

Not wanting to waste such a great story (or such a chance for learning) I gave them some feedback and we sat down today and discussed what our next steps would be. Even while discussing it with a bit of humour (my go-to teaching tool in these sort of situations) students started to see where WE (both they in their writing and I in my instructions) had gone wrong. I asked them to go back to their writing, read my suggestions, and write again – this time from the perspective of a devastated brother rather than an academic observer. As an aid in the process I stole a great activity borrowed a best practice from a talented colleague, Mr. C. Litonjua. We created a separate Twitter account for each of the main characters we had examined so far. I asked to students to tweet in the role of these characters from now until the completion of the book. My hope is that the brief nature of tweeting will allow students to practice thinking in perspective, and then help them carry that skill into their longer writing pieces.
Here are some of the early entries:

I think they’re starting to get the idea more clearly. And so am I. This is just another reminder that I need to start examining all my classroom learning activities to see what could be changed and improved – even the old standbys. Especially the old standbys.
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How much do I love padlet?…

The answer is a whole heck of a lot. I was recently introduced to Padlet and I haven’t stopped using it since! Here’s why:

  • Collaboration – depending on the setting you choose, content can be posted on your Padlet wall and multiple students can comment on it. In the same way, students can collaborate on media and writing pieces by literally co-writing sections or providing descriptive feedback for their peers.
  • Availability – because Padlet is an online program, students can access their content from school, home, or anywhere else. Students can collaborate simultaneously or at different times.
  • Security – Padlet has various security settings that make it simple to work safely online with your students. Walls can be closed to all but the contributors or open to the world.
  • Media – entries on a Padlet wall can be linked to photos, videos, websites, or just about any file on your computer.  This allows students to express themselves using just about any type of media they can get their hands on.

As you can see, this site has great possibilities for elementary students. I’ve included a wall showing some of the basic connections my students made to the novel “Holes” as we read through the book. Since then we’ve used it in a wide variety of ways, from studying tools to peer-teaching media. Can’t wait to hear how you are using it…

 

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I Learn Best…

As a member of the #nextteacher team, I was asked to submit some footage of students explaining the situations in which they ‘learn best’. I was thrilled with the result. They spoke with such eloquence and were so specific about their needs. It was a great reminder that the correct motivation can bring out the best in our students. I used the footage to create this short video to share with them. I think the most interesting aspect is that they see their learning needs as vastly different from each other. This is why the term ‘differentiated instruction’ (which has been lowered to the unfortunate status of buzz-word in many places) is a concept I try to keep in mind as I plan new activities. My students really do need various ways of looking at a new concept. But don’t take it from me…

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Why Blog?

Blogging has been around for quite a while now. Journalist Justin Hall had a blog up and running as early as 1994.  Nearly 20 years later, I am starting my first blog. While I’ve never shied away from social media, the closest I’ve come to recording my thoughts online is my sporadic tweeting (or more accurately, ‘retweeting’ given the tiny amount of content I’ve actually generated myself). Why have I avoided this now-ubiquitous form of expression? Because I’ve never felt I had much to say. The minutia of other people’s daily lives never held much interest to me and I never assumed mine would for them. So I never blogged.

Why Now?

I recently had the pleasure of attending a workshop put on by MISA Toronto. (#misatoronto) The keynote speaker was George Couros, a school principal and prolific blogger. He spoke passionately about how important it was for educators to come together in online spaces to learn from each other. How we need to model the best use of social media for our colleagues and students. How it’s not enough to be a consumer of online content – we need educators to produce that content as well.

So….

So here I am. I’m here to share my reflections and learning. I hope to hear from educators about their new projects, their best practices, their questions, and their discoveries.  So come share. Let’s be part of the conversation.

P.S. Thanks to Karen for helping me set this up…you’re so smrt.

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