Thursday, May 31, 2012

Learning A Language

Last week, I received a beta account for Duolingo. Duolingo is a service that helps you learn another language by translating snippets of the web written in the target language, listening, and speaking. Although I don't have a significant amount of time to spend learning a new language, it is fun to translate web snippets when I'm unwinding on the couch each weekend.

The service poses learning as a puzzle that you have to uncover. Lots of support and feedback is provided. For example, you can mouse over every word to see a definition, you can rate other translations, and you receive coins for every correct (or mostly correct) translation you complete. It's a highly addictive framework for a task that could be rote and boring.

What implications does this have for student learning, especially in the online environment? Here are my initial musings...

  1. There should be no dire consequences for failure in the activity space. Students in online environments need to be offered multiple opportunities for success. If they are not successful in their attempts, they need extensive feedback and opportunities to try again. This makes learning fun, not frustrating.
  2. There needs to be an opportunity to interact with others. In Duolingo, seeing the other users' translations serves as a way of connecting you to others inside the work as well as validating or refuting the viability of your translation.
  3. Learning should be presented in small chunks. Content is delivered in 10 minute spiraling chunks. This makes each "level" seem manageable, and it also provides lots of opportunities for review and reflection.
  4. Students need visual ways to chart their progress. Students need to see, very clearly, where they are and where they're going. This gives students a sense of direction and motivation.

Any thoughts to add? Suggestions welcome!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

An Authentic Performance Task: Running An Edcamp

Part of my volunteer responsibilities as a member of the Edcamp Foundation require me to process the incoming mini-grant applications. While I always love to chat virtually with folks trying to run their first Edcamp, I had a "even better than usual" experience recently.

Much to my surprise, when the Skype video connected, I saw two eager HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS staring back at me! They decided to run an Edcamp as a service project for their school. They were inviting educators from the local area, and they were using social media and flyers as promotional tools.

The girls seemed very excited, and I'm rooting for them. After our conversation, I was left wondering, "Why don't we give students opportunities to do REAL THINGS THAT MATTER more often?

That's one of my goals for next year: Giving students opportunities to do real work. What's your goal?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Conversation and Blended Learning

Blended Learning: What is it? What works? What does success look like? These were just a few of the questions that I explored with Andrew Stillman and Shadi at Edcamp Philly last weekend.

Although we all agreed that blended learning should allow students to work at their own pace, we struggled to find a balance between letting students "run away" with the content and preserving opportunities for shared dialogue on similar topics. Andrew commented (wisely) that blended learning is about "thoughtfully designing ways to offset trade-offs within the model." How true.

So, here are my ideas about offsetting those tradeoffs:

  1. Build a strong curriculum structure around student competencies, not isolated skills. This will ensure that students need to engage in collaborative opportunities to transfer knowledge with each other. Even if students are at different "points," they could still transfer their learning to authentic settings together. This would help blended classrooms move away from the "independent operators" style.
  2. Create provocative questions that run throughout the entire body of interdisciplinary study. Use these provocative questions to allow students to engage in socratic dialogue with their classmates, regardless of the specific topics of mastery that they may be pursuing at the time. This will not only foster a learning community, but it will also bring necessary coherence to the learning in which students engage.
  3. Have students build weekly schedules that include small group and whole group sessions. Offer students multiple learning formats to explore each week. Students should NOT be sitting behind a computer screen for an entire week. Instead, they should be "scheduling" sessions that they need to move them closer to a place where they can independently transfer their learning to novel contexts. Think of it as a "college model." Perhaps students go to a discussion seminar, follow it up with some independent reading, and then attend a study group to debrief the ideas. Allow students to thoughtfully choose what they need, knowing that some students will need explicit guidance to make this happen.
These thoughts are certainly in draft mode, and I welcome your comments, ideas, and push-back!

CC Photo Credit: Cooking Session with Light- Blend by Mr. Beaver

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Edcamp Philly Smackdown Tools and Thank You

Last Saturday (May 19, 2012) was the third annual Edcamp Philly. As always, it was a great day to connect, learn, and share with a talented cast of educators. Seeing the schedule fill up quickly during the first hour of the conference was a strong reminder that each of us can learn deeply from our local colleagues. If you missed it, please check out our SMACKDOWN resources HERE. See you next year!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Giving Up....On My iPad

Ok, I’ve officially given up on my iPad.

With my new gig, I’m always on the road. Since most of my travel is “car-free,” I need to keep my supplies to a minimum. In the beginning, I naturally assumed that my 3G iPad would be my natural travel partner.

However, I’ve just about given up on it. Being as my work requires me to type extensive reports and use a slew of files, the iPad just made everything take longer. (It was sort of like trying to mix cookie dough without a mixer—doable, but a pain!)

Plus, the iPad couldn’t watch flash videos (or anything else flash for that matter) so it didn’t facilitate modeling the many Web 2.0 tools that I love to use. Finally, it often sputtered when displaying the lengthy slide decks that I use during presentations. All in all, it wasn’t meeting my needs.

While I agree with the many supporters who point to the development of content creation apps (such as Animoto, Educreations, etc.), I’m still not sure if those apps are easier or better than using web versions a regular laptop.

Given my experience, I’m wondering how schools with 1:1 iPad deployments are finding the transition. Are you finding that students could accomplish much more with a simple netbook? Does the ability to create an edited, focused, environment on the iPad lead to greater engagement from students? Essentially, how’s it going?

Just wondering what folks are finding out there!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What Is Competency?

Over the weekend, I was revising/creating/synthesizing a syllabus for a course about using brain-based strategies in online learning environments. One section of the syllabus called for “measurable competencies.”

Well, what exactly is a “measurable competency?”

To start, I looked at other syllabi from other instructors. Many instructors had simply listed assignments or tools as the “measurable competencies.” However, this didn’t satisfy me. A competency should be something more.

After much reflection, some discussion with my husband (during which he mostly watched hockey playoffs and nodded), and consultation of several online dictionaries, I came to the conclusion that a measurable competency should be a bundle of knowledge and skills that can be deployed flexibly.

(Side note/Full disclaimer: This understanding aligns clearly with my work in the iZone.)

So, a series of competencies on a syllabus should NOT be tools or assignments. Instead, they should be concise generalizations about what experts can do in the field of study.

Given that my course is about building brain-friendly online learning environments, I arrived at the following 3 competencies:
  1. Cultivate collaboration beyond the discussion board
  2. Give student feedback using multimedia
  3. Aid metacognition

These are the three goals that I want students to transfer to their unique contexts through completion of the tasks provided within the course. I’ve provided guidance to students as to what types of projects could show evidence of these competencies, but I’ve also allowed for lots of student creativity and invention. Students can show mastery any way they choose (whether I’ve suggested it or not).  A single rubric is used to evaluate all tasks within the course, facilitating familiarity and allowing students to track their progress over time.

While I’m a little bit worried that this type of freedom will intimidate my future students, this is exactly the type of pedagogy that I recommend to teachers and students.

What do you think? Do you have any suggestions for me?

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Educational Leaders: Supervisors, Evaluators, or Both?

This weekend I was reading The Widget Effect, a scathing report about the state of teacher evaluation in this country. After reading the report, I began to reflect upon my own experiences as teacher, supervisor, and evaluator. Educational leaders often walk (and cross!) the fine line between supervision and evaluation. Supervision is based on timely feedback, relationship-building, and support. Teachers must believe that you are credible, trustworthy, and engaged before they try instructional changes that you suggest. So... how do you balance that with the role of evaluator which provides judgement about performance? Well, it's not easy, but here are a few suggestions based on my experiences.

  1. Make sure it's clear that you are a learner too. I once noticed an interesting email tagline from one of my colleagues. It said: "Principal of School X, A Learner in the Community." Educational leaders of all types must position themselves as learners and equals within the instructional learning community. This helps staff see you as a collaborator and partner in change.
  2. Know what's going on in your classrooms. Educational leaders are very busy. Time must be planned and managed thoughtfully to ensure sufficient time "in classrooms." Make the time to be present in teachers' classrooms. Document and provide feedback consistently, ensuring it is aligned to your building goals. Celebrate instructional "wins" publicly in staff newsletters and emails. Teachers shouldn't be "shaking in their boots" if they see you in the back of the room. Just make it a part of the school's culture.
  3. Ensure that the goals are transparent and attainable. Your school's mission and vision should be collaborative, active documents that guide instructional decisions. These documents should be discussed at faculty meetings, in email communications, and in face-to-face conversations. If teachers know where the school is headed, it is easier to reframe instructional decisions. No one should be "surprised" by the feedback that they receive.
  4. Overcommunicate. Choose what's important. Then share it with your staff again, and again, and again. Staff should be able to see consistent messages in your conversations, meetings, documents, and emails. And remember, email is the least impactful form of communication. 
  5. Spend more time in your role as "supervisor" than "evaluator." As a teacher, my least favorite principals were those who only discussed practice with you during your final evaluation. Knowing this, I tried to meet with my staff bi-monthly when I became an educational leader. At first, my folks were surprised by the constant meetings. Once we got into a routine, they starting bringing ideas, sharing successes, and asking for help. That's exactly the type of relationship that will push learning forward!
  6. Never sacrifice classroom instruction for a relationship. Yes, relationships are important. However, your obligation to the children comes first. If a teacher is struggling and refuses to improve, honest feedback and evaluations must follow. Not only does this ensure that you retain credibility with the rest of the staff, but it also honors your commitment to student learning.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Building the Schedule at an Unconference: CHILLAX Already!

Edcampers Build A Schedule

As #Edcamp has gained some serious momentum in the past year, many people have asked me about building the schedule. For first time organizers, it is often the most stressful part of the experience.

As the event looms, organizers wonder:
  • What will we do if no one signs up?
  • What if we don't have a schedule before the kickoff?
  • How do I prioritize sessions?

Here are a few tips and tricks to make your scheduling experience successful and stress free:

1.    Chillax! Participants will feed off your energy.  If you are upbeat and relaxed, people will be more likely to add a session to the board. Make sure that the organizers "work the room" making people feel comfortable and connected to others. Make posting a session seem like a "low risk" experience.

2.    Encourage socialization. When you are building your schedule, ensure that the composition of the schedule is only one of several things going on in the room. For example, serve coffee, have people chatting in small groups, and create a "cocktail party-like" atmosphere. This will take all of the attention off of the schedule board, encouraging those who might be a bit more inhibited to take a chance.

3.    Connect presenters. As you build the schedule, note sessions that are similar. Purposefully connect these people. Many times, they will combine their sessions, creating a fantastic combination and reducing duplication in the session selection.

4.    Do NOT build the schedule ahead of time. I know, I know. As an organizer, you would sleep so much better knowing that the schedule was completed well in advance. Do NOT do this. Trust me. Having things come together organically on the day of the event is part of the magic. It also ensures that the sessions posted really reflect the need of the room. Finally (and this is critical), it helps everyone in the room bond before the unconference sessions. By seeing that this is a fun, collaborative event, participants will be more likely to engage in the sessions that follow.

5.    Educate people about "what an unconference looks like" prior to the date of the event. This can be done via email or via your event website. We use our ticketing system to email attendees basic information about unconferences prior to our event. It helps people know what to expect, and it also serves as a conversation starter for possible sessions on the day of the event.

6.    Don't worry about session sizes and session rooms. It can be hard to predict what is well attended. Just roll with it. If a session is crowded, people with either spontaneously move to a bigger space, sit on the floor, or just "vote with their feet." People can organize. Trust them.

Running an unconference is supposed to be fun. Over 100 events have successfully build spontaneous schedules on the day of the event. So enjoy building the schedule, and CHILLAX!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Training: Not A Guarantee

This Sunday is the annual Broad Street Run in Philadelphia. It's a 10 miler, and I run it every year with a changing cast of characters (my sister, friends, colleagues, etc.). Although it's only 10 miles long (I often run much further during my weekend runs.), I usually complete a training program leading up to the race. My training program includes runs in the rain, wind, and heat. This helps me feel prepared and confident on race day.

However, the training that I complete never guarantees me a competitive time. "Life on race day" gets in the way. Is the weather just right? Did my iPod konk out? Did someone step on my foot? My responses to all of these factors will change my final time. Usually, since I've trained in a variety of conditions, I'm prepared. Adapting to change is key to success.

It's the same way with school. For years we've been telling students that they simply need to "train" for real life by completing 12 years of compulsory education and 4 years of college. Well, "life on race day" often gets in the way. Our students need more than 12 years of facts and figures to navigate what awaits them.  They need to be able to adapt to changing conditions and moving targets. The only way to prepare students for what doesn't exist is to let them solve messy problems on their own. (i.e. transfer) Then they have a much better chance of crossing that finish line. School can never be a guarantee.

So challenge your students. Give them runs in the rain, wind, and heat. See what happens. I bet they will surprise you!

CC Photo Credit: Vancouver Sun Run 2006 by kk+

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Google Certified Teacher Reboot 2012

Thank you to Susan Ettenheim and the amazing Google team for giving Google Certified Teachers in the NYC area an opportunity to "reboot" their skills and expertise. It was a rich day of sharing and learning. Check out the Storify curation below for resources and conversation from the day. Thanks Google!


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