Thursday, December 27, 2012

No, Really. 7,000 People Can Be Wrong

Just last week, I was driving down the road and I snapped this sign in front of a video rental store:

7,000 people can't be wrong? Really?

The last time I checked, video rental stores were going out of business with lightning speed. Seriously, can you even remember your last visit to Blockbuster? Even The Onion has ridiculed the quick demise of video rental stores with this hilarious, satiric video:

Although compelling data exists that their business model is broken, Family Video continues to cling to their withering chain of stores with fervor.

Have you ever felt like this in your school?

---Have you ever clung to old practices in the hope that they would continue to work?

---Have you ever participated in a debate where "that's the way we've always done it" served as
    one of the arguments?

---Have you ever felt validated in the continuation of an idea or strategy because "all of your
    colleagues were doing it?"

Sometimes delusion or denial is a way of coping with change. However, it doesn't work. So, as we prepare to embark on a new year, take a close look at your assumptions about students and learning. Trust me, 7,000 people CAN be wrong. Really.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Good, Better, Best: Webinar Design

314/366 earliest shot :-/ attending online conference #springycamp 4.30am start :)
I love talking and interacting with people, both in face-to-face and digital spaces. (That is a colloquial way of saying that I talk A LOT!)

However, despite my love of chatter, I find it somewhat tricky to host an effective webinar. Without intentional, strategic moves, interactivity can be lost, and the experience can be didactic.

Last week I worked with Toby Gruber to facilitate a webinar on digital professional learning. We wanted to engage the participants in spite of the general limitations of the webinar platform.

Here are the strategies we used to mitigate the design tensions that inherently exist with webinar format:
  1. We used backchannels both inside the webinar and on Twitter. While participants were encouraged to use the backchannels throughout the entire webinar, we identified specific "stop and chat" points where participants could dialogue with others and reflect on their learning. This helped to build in processing time, and it chunked the delivery of new ideas.
  2. We used polls to guide the conversation and be responsive. Instead of simply following a pre-determined set of slides, we asked the audience questions and delivered content based on their interests. I actually had to create many more slides than usual to make this possible, but the additional preparation was well worth it!
  3. We referenced the chat often as we talked. Instead of simply allowing the chat to fly by, we referenced participants' comments and included them in the conversation. Although this can require some tricky multi-tasking, it gets much easier with practice!

While these strategies worked well, here are additional strategies that I want use in the future:
  1. Direct participants to write/draw/annotate on the slides they see. For example, place a dot along the continuum between these two points. Or, add your favorite word to describe student engagement. By having participants also engage with the slides themselves, they are more likely to see themselves as part of a community during the webinar itself.
  2. Use a "treasure hunt" strategy. Actually send participants to the interwebs and ask them to find something to share about a particular topic or idea. This will keep them active and provide additional processing time.
What strategies do you use when hosting webinars? I'm interested in learning from you!

CC Photo Credit: Earliest Shot by KatieTT

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Students Must See Themselves As Writers

When I was growing up, I loved to write. At the age of 7, the feeling of writing on the first page of a new journal couldn't be beat. I would come home from school and write and write and write.

However, I never saw my writing as something that would help me learn or succeed in school. Writing in school was often painful, tainted with red ink, and mostly boring. School assignments rarely captured my attention; I simply rushed through them with minimal effort.

As an adult, I find it almost hilarious that writing caused me so much trepidation in school. However, the constructs of school didn't allow me to use my talents in ways that made sense.

I believe this problem continues to exist in schools largely today. Just last week I visited a vibrant ELA classroom and did a mini-lesson on the fact that EVERYONE is a writer. To begin the lesson, I asked the students to contrast what "real" writers do with school writing. See their responses below:
Generally, writing in school isn't as authentic as it needs to be. The students noted that they don't write very often, their work isn't published, and they can't pick their topics. We can easily change this! Blogging gives our students an authentic audience, topic choice, and the ability to be extremely prolific.  As soon as students start to see themselves as writers (in school nonetheless!), their orientation towards writing will change. Instead of seeing writing as an assignment, students will begin to see writing as a journey or process. External rewards or completion will fade as questions move to the forefront. (What could I have done differently? What might confuse my reader?)

Here are a few tips that you can use in your classroom to help students view themselves as writers:
  • Provide students with time to write every day. During this writing time, allow students to choose their own topics, try out new strategies or ideas, and share their work as desired.
  • Spend less time focusing on perfect mechanics and more time focusing on stories, ideas, and feelings. Sure, we all want our students to write with impeccable grammatical accuracy. However, if we only emphasize mechanics, then writing becomes hard and laborious for students. (A great strategy is to only edit for 1 or 2 things at a time. This helps students acquire new skills without being overwhelmed.)
  • Give students lots of opportunities to explore model texts. Reading makes us better writers. Use stories and texts in your class to help students see what good writers do. Reference the authors as if they are mentors. For example, "Oh, I like how you used repetition like Leo Lionni does with that sentence you wrote!"

Given today's ubiquitous access to texting, email, and the web, writing has never been more important. Let's teach our students to honor themselves as writers with a valuable craft!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Authentic Learning: Comments for Claudia

Last week, I had the tremendous pleasure of visiting Greens Farms Academy. As I've been there many times before, I expected the thoughtful dialogue with colleagues and staff.

However, something happened that I DIDN'T EXPECT. I got to have lunch with Claudia.

Claudia is an insightful, thoughtful, creative 8th grader who is currently doing her middle school capstone project on the efficacy of school reform. Since most of my projects involve some form of curricular or school reform, she asked to interview me over lunch. I expected her to ask me about "testing" and the "unfairness of school." You know, typical middle school stuff.

Well, I was shocked when her first question referenced Sir Ken Robinson and the need for creativity in schools. This girl has clearly done her homework. In her opinion, all students need the opportunity to learn in classrooms where students are doing meaningful work

She thinks that students should have time for extended discussions about difficult topics. (See this blog post about the Harkness.) She thinks that schools should be places where students apply what their learning to real situations. She wants to be creative. She wants to make things. And mostly, she doesn't want schools to become sterile places where students merely parrot back facts and procedures.

She sees school reform as something that happens inside classrooms WITH teachers, not external reorganizations or legislative mandates.

So... this is a call for help. What resource has inspired you to make you classroom a place that fosters authentic work and divergent thinking? Can you share a quote, a book, or a link that will help Claudia grow her learning and refine her writing? Leave ideas in the comments or tweet me at @KristenSwanson.

Thank you!!!!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Professional Learning in the Digital Age: Webinar TOMORROW

If you're a regular reader of this blog, you probably know that I published my first book a few weeks ago. It's called Professional Learning in the Digital Age: An Educator's Guide to User Generated Learning. Richard Byrne recently reviewed the book on his awesome blog HERE.

Tomorrow (Wednesday, December 12, 2012) I will be hosting a FREE webinar sharing some of the ideas, tips, and strategies from the text.

Please join me! You can REGISTER HERE.

Also, the session will be perfect for newbies, so be sure to share the link with your less "geeky" (but still awesome) colleagues!

Hope to see you there!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Box and the Keyhole

Keymaster (HDR)
Box 3 _ Wooden Box

A few weeks ago, Brad Leithauser wrote a perceptive post in the New Yorker about two different lenses that can be used to view a piece of literature, a keyhole and a box:

Had I been still more articulate, I might have said that there’s a special readerly pleasure in approaching a book as you would a box. In its self-containment lies its ferocious magic; you can see everything it holds, and yet its meagre, often hackneyed contents have a way of engineering fresh, refined, resourceful patterns. And Emily might have replied that she comes to a book as to a keyhole: you observe some of the characters’ movements, you hear a little of their dialogue, but then they step outside your limited purview. They have a reality that outreaches the borders of the page.

Keyholes and boxes... As someone who spends a lot of time in classrooms with teachers, this metaphor immediately captured my attention. While each classroom is inherently unique, commonalities abound.  Teachers who see their classrooms as boxes attempt to control, measure, and confine the learning that happens within the walls of the school.  Teachers who see their classrooms as keyholes use inquiry to help students see the learning that surrounds them everywhere. 

I quickly came up with this list:

Classrooms as Boxes:

  • Have lots of "right answers"
  • Focus on content
  • Aim for skill mastery
  • Think that learning should be quantified in little bits

Classrooms as Keyholes:

  • Have lots of questions (that usually don't have a clear answer)
  • Focus on competencies (bundles of knowledge and skills)
  • Aim for authentic performance in the real world
  • Think that learning is dynamic 

At different points in my career, I've created both box and keyhole classroom environments for various reasons. (Perhaps there is actually a continuum between these two categories?) However, I currently work very hard to design my learning spaces in ways that emphasize the classroom as a keyhole. I want my students to see my classroom as the beginning, not the end. What do you think?

CC Photo Credits:
Keymaster by seanmcgrath
Box 3 Wooden Box by Brenda Starr

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Navigating Change: Using Comfort and Care


Sometimes, things change. A lot. Over the last 6 months, I've experienced more changes than I care to count. During a trip home to visit close and extended family, many of my relatives commented on my recent journeys and tribulations. Almost everyone gave me "sad puppy dog eyes" as they gushed:
  • "How you holding up, huh? You must be exhausted."
  • "Do you like how things are going? I want to hear about it."
  • "If you ever need anyone to talk to, just give a call."
  • "Just think of all the good that will happen in the long run."
While I'm usually fiercely independent and always in control, it sure felt nice to know that I had a network of people who validated my need for comfort and care. On my drive home from the family party, I considered how renewed and revived I felt.

This led me to question and consider the ways that we navigate change within our schools and organizations. How many times do we make substantial changes without offering follow up care and support to those affected? Even if the change must happen for the good of kids, we must care for the adults required to carry out the change. Otherwise, it's unlikely that anything positive will stick. 

In many ways, change is like a tightrope. We must balance strategic, progressive moves that benefit kids with the capacity of the adults in the organization to respond healthfully to the changes. This tension will always exist, and good leaders mitigate this tension to their advantage.

As I move forward over the next few months, here are some moves I intend to use to balance the need for change with the need for care:
  1. Provide extended discussion and input before changes occur. The more opportunities people have to internalize and contribute to new initiatives, the more likely they will be to feel ownership over the solution. This can help the change to feel less invasive. Proactive, planned roll outs can increase the capacity of the staff to handle the change.
  2. Ask people how they are feeling. As the change happens, ask people how they are doing. Leaders must recognize that change often follows a grief process, and they must be prepared to listen to negative feelings without reverting course in a way that jeopardizes children. Giving people a safe space and a listening ear can go a long way.
  3. Model the change process. If leaders ask people to take risks and enter a zone of discomfort, they must model the same thing. Over the next few months, I hope to make my learning successes and failures even more transparent. Change affects all of us, and sharing my process can help to validate the process of others in my organization.
Personally? I wouldn't trade the last six months for the world. All that change has helped me grow in many new ways. Anything worth doing isn't easy!


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