Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Our Evolving Communication

Every so often I listen to concerns regarding technology's role in advancing student language & communication. Most often the question posed is whether or not technology is hindering our students' ability to communicate effectively. The concern stems from the language of texting, and that if we as educators infuse greater technology in our classrooms, do we foster 'improper' texting conventions of communication?

Typically when this concern is raised I immediately reflect back to my days as a student in my grade 11 English class. I see myself sitting there at my desk, staring at a book full of words and terms I cannot for the life of me understand. I am told over and over again, how this book contains language of great importance, and I would be wise to learn it. I understand that the author influenced almost every narrative that came after him, but I could never understand what the heck this 'Bill' guy was talking about.

I have never (well maybe rarely) used any of the phrases William Shakespeare so eloquently penned in his great works. As I have said, I understand his works are masterpieces; and believe me, I wish I appreciated them then like I do now. However, I also understand that when I speak to family, write an email to coworkers, or text my friends, I don't utter the phrase "Where art thou?"

Communication has evolved, and continues to evolve. I wonder if someone back in 1650 said "These kids these days! those gents don't knoweth how to writeth properly!" Did they fret about the state of spelling & grammar? Did they wonder if giving every student a chalk & slate would lead to every kid not knowing how to speak properly? Or that they wouldn't know how to write a proper essay?

True, texting has a great influence on the evolution of communication; but I don't believe it's because of the technology. Communication has changed because we have adapted as living, breathing, walking & talking beings in how we use it. No device forces you to write 'U' instead of 'You'. We make that choice. Even if we are talking about autocorrect, we still make the choice to set the autocorrect function to do this, or allow it.

If we are concerned about our students' written communication than it's our responsibility to teach them the proper conventions for each medium. If it comes to writing an essay, then yes we need to teach them how to properly construct one. However, how many essays have you wrote lately? How many students are going to go on to write one in their future?

Students however, are far more likely to blog, text, email, and produce a podcast. Therefore, maybe if we get students to construct these forms of communication, they will take greater care with their conventions? Not because of the technology component, but because these are ways which resonate with them, and ways of communication in which they see in their future.

I hope my students go on to write amazing works of art, essays of great importance, and novels that capture the masses. But I also hope just one goes on to blog a little, maybe like me, and finds their outlet for communication.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Learning in the 21st Century

Over the last several weeks I have found myself in many conversations about what 21st century teaching & learning means. It seems like a topic that would be perfect for our second #peel21st blog hop. So here we are again! Read on to learn more about what I think 21st century learning is to me, and don't forget to check out the other blog posts linked at the bottom of the post."

I often try to articulate what it really means to learn in the 21st century. It is difficult. I battle with attempting to define this almost everyday. I often look toward the skills necessary to be successful in the 21st century; and therefore what our students need to acquire. However, defining 21st century skills doesn't necessarily translate to the idea of 'what learning in the 21st century is?' or better yet, looks like.

Therefore, I often gravitate toward the idea of what should happen in a classroom every day, and believe there should be a few observable traits. These I think should be the 4 C's of 21st century education - collaboration, communication, critical thinking, and creativity. It's not like they weren't around when I was in school, but they definitely weren't a focus in the same way. This is the distinct difference I see between the learning I engaged in, and the one I want for my students. Learning, as John Seely Brown said best, is a social process. Therefore as teachers, we really need to ensure we provide an environment that allows for socializing to happen.

I think the biggest thing however, is that learning today needs to be 'real'. Learning has to allow students of all ages connect with the world around them. I came across this video not too long ago that I believe really articulates my thoughts on what learning today is really about.

So when it's all said and done, learning today requires authenticity, connections, and most of all, the ability of others to support you in following your passion. Or put another way learning in the 21st century...

What do you think?

Oh and don’t forget to check out the other blog posts in our Blog Hop!

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Tweet that Changed a Life

It isn't often you get to work alongside someone who greatly inspires you; who you regularly look to for motivation and direction to become a better educator. Many of these people I follow on Twitter, see at conferences, and read their blogs; but rarely do I ever truly get to "work" with them (I intentionally use parenthesis there, as work in this case is hardly work!). Today however, was one of those rare, and very lucky days.

I saw George Couros speak for the first time a couple of years ago at #TLDWpeel and walked away wanting to change the world. He has an affect on people that few have; and is one of those leaders that can make people laugh, cry, truly engage with one another, nod their heads in complete agreement with everything he says, and get them up on their feet dancing to whatever the fad song is of the day. It's truly remarkable.

I could go on this whole post and talk about how amazing it is to work with someone like that; and in a way, I set out with somewhat of an intention to do so. However, today I bore witness to something else that was maybe even more amazing. Sorry George ;)

We set out on the day without a roadmap, or any real plan of how the day was going to go. It was really about responding to the needs of the 20 educators in the room, and what they felt they really wanted to accomplish. The one main idea that we had however, was to connect these educators with others that exist outside the walls of their school - open the doors to a wealth of expertise, ideas, innovation, and sharing.

The real amazing moment came when we were signing all of them up on Twitter and showing them the ins & outs of the social media platform. One teacher in particular George signed up himself, just to show the rest the process of tweeting, retweeting, mentioning others, and following people who are worthwhile to follow. He then proceeded to demonstrate the true power of Twitter, and how one tweet can develop so many new connections. From his own account he tweeted out the following:

The rest of us watched. In an instant there were 5 new followers; 30 seconds later, 12 new followers; a minute, and 15 were now following her. After just a couple of minutes, Lisa had already developed connections with many educators from around the world. In that moment, she realized what she had just done. She turned to George and softly, but profoundly stated "This just changed my life."

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Social Media - Guidelines or Rules?

Over the summer the Peel District School Board released Social Media Guidelines for staff. To most this may seem inconsequential; however, to many who are in the teaching profession, this is a monumental step. The debate nonetheless, is whether this step is forward or backward? To lots of staff, these guidelines present a new set of 'rules' that may hinder their ability to connect & communicate. To others, it allows them to do so in a way that they can feel safe & supported. In spite of this debate, and no matter which side of the fence one may fall on, I truly believe these guidelines are in existence to help those willing navigators of social media.

I feel I also need to be clear when it comes to writing this post. I write this not as a strong advocate of these guidelines (although I am), but as a teacher who wants to clarify these guidelines, and present them as just that, guidelines. If you choose to stay away from social media because of the fear of reprimand or safety, so be it. It's unfortunate, but I do understand. As someone who is on Twitter, Google, Youtube, and this blog for instance, I have seen myself grow as an educator in ways never before imaginable; and wants others to experience similar growth. So read on, or don't, I can only suggest it might be worthwhile.

So let's first quickly understand the necessity of social media guidelines. Consider this:
Social media has become an important part of both students and teachers' lives. More teachers are embracing it than ever before, because they see how it has become such a part of their students' daily habits. They realize that if they can harness such an interest, and use it to connect, collaborate, create, and communicate with their class, they may create a much more enriching learning experience.

Second, teachers, administrators and other staff are looking more and more to support their professional practice on their own time, in their own way. They are looking to social media to make such connections and develop professional learning networks.

Third, many teachers' federations and unions have long held the belief that social media is a negative environment that can jeopardize their members' careers. However, they too are quickly realizing the importance social media plays in their members' professional development, and are looking to support their members' practice; which is why the Elementary Teacher's Federation of Ontario, Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, and the Ontario Principals' Council all reviewed and provided input on Peel's guidelines.

So what do you need to know about the guidelines?

Really it all boils down to one very simple idea: Be professional. However, this may be a little too simple for some, so here are my 5 takeaways that might help you better understand the guidelines.

1. Personal is Professional

No matter when you post to social media, you do so as a professional. There is no such thing as 'personal' anymore, even if you think you are in a 'secure' environment (just ask Jennifer Lawrence or whoever was operating American Red Cross' Twitter account on that fateful day). As educators, we are role models. Always. It may seem overwhelming at times, but this doesn't mean you have to act the choir boy/girl. It really just means be your professional self. Posting things about education is good. This is pretty straightforward. However, it becomes a little murky when you post things about your personal interests. Personally, I choose to still post things about the books I'm reading, podcasts I'm listening to, events I attend, activities I partake in, and some things I do with my family. I don't post everything, not because it's inappropriate, just because I don't care for the entire world to know everything about me.

2. Create a Class/Teacher Account

If you are looking to use social media as a part of your blended learning environment, then I highly suggest creating an account that differs from your professional one. If this is the only account you use (ie. you don't have a professional account) than that is great too. Why I suggest this is because it declutters the information you are posting. If your students/parents/community have to sort through your posts, filtering out your vacation tweets, from your 'what happened in class today' tweets, then it gets a bit frustrating for them. Simplify things. It might mean you have to manage your activity a bit more, but I really think your students will appreciate it.

3. Communicating with Students

So having your classroom/teacher account now means you have to communicate with students. The question becomes in what ways? One of the first things I and the guidelines agree upon is NOT following students. Do you really want to see/hear that? If students want to follow you, then let them. Encourage your students' parents to as well. If they don't want to, they can always pick up on class information if you use a hashtag (eg. #rhsscgw). They can now search for that hashtag and see all the posts that include it; which for the most part will be your posts. As well, they can always see your tweets if they simply access your page on Twitter. Here's mine for instance if you don't want to follow me?

4. Open the Window to Your Classroom

This pertains to sharing what goes on in your classroom. My advice: do so! I take this simple stance: 

When my son is of age to go to school, do I want to know what goes on in his classroom by seeing it myself? Or do I want to have to ask him every day after school, and hope that he wants to share with me?

My opinion is that it would be amazing that I could engage in a conversation whereby I ask him to tell me about an activity I saw his class doing; rather than asking him to tell me what he did that day.

I do understand there are some privacy concerns, and definitely make sure consent forms are signed (or not signed depending on age level); but there are easy ways to still share without totally sharing. For example, when I show pictures of what my students were working on, I show the work itself, and not necessarily the students. If I did want to show the students, and even if they had a consent form signed, I still ask them, just to be sure. Most of the time however, I wouldn't show their faces, and would avoid using full names. Plus, you don't have to show any visuals if you don't feel comfortable doing so. Lot's can still be said in 140 characters or less!

5. Social Media is NOT a 24/7 Job

Many educators fears are that if they engage in social media, their students can 'get' them at all hours of the day. If by 'get' you mean they can tweet you, then yes, they can do that at all hours. However, this doesn't mean you have to respond. One of the first steps I take with my students when I inform them about my social media presence, and the connection they have with me, are my 'digital hours'. I still encourage them to tweet me if they have questions after class or school, but I also tell them there is no guarantee I respond. I especially make this clear when it comes to requests that are urgent and time-sensitive. Most students understand this, some may take a while, but they will come to respect this, and just appreciate the fact they can still connect outside of the four walls of the classroom.

The guidelines are here to help. They can seem overwhelming and scary, but like any piece of technology, consider the purpose of social media. Why are you using it? Remembering this simple question should help you navigate, connect, and learn from many amazing individuals.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

#Peel21st Blog Hop - IFTTT

This summer we were chatting about our favourite digital tools on Twitter and sharing some tools we would like to explore this upcoming year. It seemed like the perfect topic for our first #peel21st blog hop. So here we are! Read on to learn more about IFTTT and don't forget to check out the other blog posts linked at the bottom of the post.

One of the amazing things about 21st century technology and the tools that accompany it, are the vast amount of resources available. The growing sentiment made by many is ‘There’s an app for that!’.  All these apps can make life a little more manageable, while at the same time a little more confusing. The endless apps that are released, then downloaded to your device, can make managing them all extremely overwhelming. Here’s where I believe the app IFTTT can really help!

It’s not something I’ve used exhaustively yet, but begin to see some really useful potential. Imagine the student who is looking to manage their work from their courses, or the emails they receive, or a list of due dates from their teacher. What do they do with all this information? IFTTT looks to show them how to leverage the power of one app, to support the other.

What is it exactly?

IFTTT is really a digital tool recipe maker. It allows users to leverage the apps or web tools they use on their devices, by illustrating the various ways you can use them with other tools. It allows users to create their own recipes, or by browsing the hundreds of recipes already created by others.

IFTT Recipe
These recipes illustrate the idea that ‘If you use this app/web tool, then you should use this other app/web tool’ with it. IFTTT breaks down the recipe into manageable parts, and gives users the ability to select suggestions on how to best leverage each through their recipe creation process.  Users have posted an endless supply of suggestions and it’s quite amazing to see the creativity - how about using the weather app in conjunction with the phone call channel app to give you a wakeup call every day! With the weather report!

Why I like it?

The only way I can really explain why I like IFTTT, is to highlight some of the recipes. These recipes can be used for students, as well as for teachers, which in my mind makes it a very useful app. It makes the management of devices easier,  and it makes your device and its tools much more efficient and productive. So here are my top 5 reasons...

As you can see, I'm only beginning to explore its potential, but begin to see how it can make my life a little easier, and hopefully students' as well. If you have a really useful recipe, please share it; the creativity of its users is really what makes IFTTT so amazing!

Don’t forget to check out the other blog posts in our Blog Hop!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

21st Century Education: A Periodic Table of Elements

It's been an ongoing 'work-in-progress', but one which has been enjoyable. Identifying what is needed in education today is no easy task; nor a task which is ever completed. Constantly revising the list, identifying new elements, and arranging them in a way that makes sense, has been a fun continuous challenge. I also believe like education, this list will be revisited, & revised many, many times. New elements will appear regularly, as we begin to realize what is needed in education.

However, what has been completed up until now is below  - 34 elements, 3 groupings, and many months of consideration (you can also see the complete table here). It is a collection of my own thoughts, and of many others. In all there are 34 'elements' grouped accordingly - Habits of Mind (green), Skills (blue), & Environment (orange); each accompanied with a small definition that helps explain them.

It should also be noted, that I started out attempting to arrange the elements in terms of importance - the lower the periodic (atomic) number, the more important the element; however, after the first 7 I began to realize this would be far too difficult, and debatable. I also think that some elements will be more important than others - it all depends on the individual, whether this be a teacher, student, administrator, etc.

Explaining the rationale behind each of the elements is something that will also take some time, and unfortunately won't happen today. There are some elements however, that deserve a bit of recognition, as I believe these are crucial to 21st Century Education (my opinion only). We'll call these my 'Top 5':

1. The 6 C's - Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration, Communication, Citizenship, and Character. 
These six essential elements form the basis for many of the habits of mind that follow in the table. They allow students, teachers, educators, etc. to provide an enriching learning experience, and a mindset that will allow for greater success in anything that is faced in the future. The problems that exist before our students, and ourselves, are new, and therefore require greater critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, etc. The way we express solutions, also require not just effective communication, but appealing methods to capture the attention of the masses. The world we live in is one that is so interconnected we need students to realize that we all are global citizens, and our character matters even more.
 2. Technology
It is never the answer for education, but technology can provide new ways of learning, both efficiently and effectively, and energize students to solve problems they cared little about previously. Not to say that a pen or pencil can't do the trick, because these are pieces of technology too; but there are so many options out there now for us to use to enrich the learning experience. We are able to expedite the learning of many, connect with people around the globe, and make learning authentic. We are able to allow more people, who previously didn't have access to education, acquire knowledge and skills necessary for life improvement, all simply using technology. How we use the technology is always the most important question, but technology is a great motivator, improver, and connector for many.
3. Open Space
I must admit, I'm big on the physical layout of the classroom. That teacher who is in days before school begins, to get the class jussssstttttt right. Therefore, there is definite bias in this one. However, I think it is one that requires a little more thought. We teach 21st century students, using 21st century pedagogy, using 21st century technology, in 20th century classrooms? Something doesn't quite add up does it? Therefore, I think it is really important we begin to look at our own classrooms, and change the way things are done. One of these ways is to provide 'open' learning spaces. I don't mean knocking down walls, but I do mean providing many different places for students to learn in a comfortable atmosphere. Imagine walking into a Starbucks and finding nothing but individual seating, at individual tables. It wouldn't be too inviting would it? Therefore, can we please do away with rows, and individual desks?  
4. Numeracy & Financial Literacy
As a business and economics teacher, I must admit I am terrible with finances. I never took a course in my early years of education that taught me the basics of budgeting, accounting, forecasting, investing, etc. I took math, and at times we worked in these concepts, but like every other student I just thought it was stuff we did in math class. If I had a course on personal finance would I be better off than I am now? Probably not; but it also wouldn't have hurt either. The more we teach numeracy, the more focus put on working & understanding the value of numbers, the better we will be with financial literacy. Many believe the last recession, outside of greed & faulty accounting and investment tools, had a lot to do with the public's lack of financial literacy. Therefore, in the 21st century we need to invest more time in educating students how to read numbers, like we have done with the literary word.
5. Risk Taking
This element's focus is two-fold - one from a student perspective, and one from an educators perspective. 
The first is for our students. We have driven the idea into many (if not most) students that they should do what is safe, secure, and cautious. Go after careers that guarantee them a sufficient income, and a stability that they would not have otherwise. These same students complete their assignments in the same way - taking few risks to challenge the status-quo. Will this same approach help them once they complete their education? My thought is no - the world is filled with too much uncertainty and unknown, that you have to take some risk at least.
The next is for educators. We have also taken an approach in teaching that is safe, secure, and cautious. For the most part this is because we are evaluated based on this model - evaluated based on traditional teaching practices. But what is this doing to the classroom's of our school? Maintaining the status-quo? We need to encourage risk-taking amongst educators as well, to develop new ways of teaching things - new pedagogies, approaches, methods, etc. - that will allow for failure, and so that we can learn from this to constantly improve and evolve.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Arranging the Elements

Recently I had a great chat with a colleague about the periodic table. We began discussing the organization of the table, and the order of the elements. As I previously mentioned, I have no knowledge of chemistry, and I just added the elements in an order that they were submitted. However, what I was able to learn about the real periodic table from this discussion, has definitely changed my approach to the elements.

Here was his suggestion:

"In a periodic table, these are important considerations:
  • elements in a column have similar properties (in chemistry it's due to number of electrons);
  • elements nearer to the top should be the most simple to do and should be done by all (in chemistry usually it is the most abundant element - we come from stars)"
These were great points raised. The order I realize, does kind of matter. Loi also provided a great visual that suggested arranging the elements in a way that works toward organizing the elements based on similar properties, simplicity, and action by all. The elements at the top, should be the ones that are most 'actionable'.

So this discussion got me thinking:
  1. What elements should be done by all?
  2. What elements have similar properties?
These are important questions that we must ask ourselves in 21st century education. My thought is organizing the elements according to 3 groups:
A. Habits of Mind - what students & teachers should work toward always demonstrating?
B. 21st Century Skills - what skills need to be developed in students & educators?
C. Environment - what places of learning should look like, be like, include, etc.?
The real periodic table has similar organization as was pointed out to me - "There are also blocks, that are similar - ie. metals are first 2 cloumns, the last 2 columns would be non-metals."

However, I also think there are many ways to organize the elements in terms of groups, importance, etc. Just like identifying the actual elements, there is no simple, single answer; and I think that many people, may have many different ideas. So I put this back out to the 'Twitterverse',

"How Should We Organize 21st Century Education Elements?"