Thursday, October 3, 2013

Tales of a Resistant Teacher...

I served as the literacy coordinator at a middle school on the south side of Chicago for many years. We had one of the few truly one-to-one laptops in the city. With that said, I felt a need to use our students' natural inclination towards technology, to enhance their learning and mine as well.

I'm currently pursing a doctorate in Learning Technology at Pepperdine University. I'd like to rewind a bit and point out that I never saw myself going this direction with my educational pursuits. I have over 15 years of experience working in urban settings and my primary focus has been literacy. I took a position at a middle school a few years ago and was thrust into the world of one-to-one laptop learning.

In the beginning, I definitely was not a "digital native". In hindsight, I was quite resistant after teaching "just fine" without laptops or computers for that matter. I vividly remember refusing to use it unless it was absolutely necessary. For example, I had to use it for things like attendance and record keeping, but I pretty much left it alone outside of these purposes.  This pretty much sums up how I felt about the sudden intrusion of these dreaded objects in my classroom:

Yep, I was that teacher. I didn't want anything to do with these things, especially around my instruction and I gave plenty of dirty looks to pretty much everyone who suggested I had to use them in the beginning. I don't remember exactly when the transformation happened.  I do recall being shown the wonderful things my kids created by someone who would eventually become my colleague and mentor. After viewing the things they wrote, the projects they created and the passion they exhibited about subjects I had introduced in class, I began slowly assigning literacy projects and giving my students lots of choice in terms of how they demonstrated understanding. What I got as a result were everything from standard research papers, to documentaries and podcasts; all demonstrating what my kids had learned in ways previously unimaginable to me.

Keep in mind, I didn't know what any of these things were at that point, and wasn't even a Mac user. Honestly, I still have no idea how many of the applications on my Mac work, not like the kids do at least. But, this is exactly my point. I don't have to be the expert- I have 25 of them that are willing to take the lead on this journey! Besides, as one of my colleagues constantly points out, applications come and go, true tech integration is a much more complex process.

I still do not have the knowledge base that my kids have around using my Mac. One of my closest colleagues was the chairperson of our annual "Living Museum" project, which is basically a history fair that involves high levels of critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving. We've worked together closely over the past few years, and have seen kids produce thought-provoking, entertaining documentaries, year after year.

I didn't realize until recently that he had no idea how to make an I-Movie. I was actually shocked when he pointed this out in passing. I, like everyone else, assumed that since his kids produced such wonderful media surely he must teach them how to do it. No, as it turns out he just "got out of the way" and continues to do so. Thanks for the lesson DMJ. 

Student work samples can be found here:
Student Portfolio
Wiki Grade 8

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

What's So Hard About Teacher PD?

So, I'll start off by saying I'm currently in the midst of completing my dissertation which basically looks at the impact of online professional development on teachers' classroom practices.  I'll save all of my links to the scholars, experts and everyone else who thinks they have the cure for what is wrong with teacher development in this country.  Here's why:
  • I was a teacher for roughly 15 years, all of which was spent teaching in urban neighborhoods with some pretty tough kids in some cases.
  • The best professional development I ever had was ALWAYS long-term & pushed me to think & use strategies I was learning in my own class.
  • For me, the most meaningful experiences were those that were not evaluative; they were more conversational and encouraged me to share with others and experiment freely without feeling like my mistake were going to end up lowering my evaluation and following me for the rest of my teaching career.
  • My classroom was open to other teachers, visitors and parents but this was part of being in an open and supportive school culture.
  • When I began conducting my own professional development as department chair, I created the conditions that were important to me as a teacher; I listened, asked questions and encouraged my teachers to be brutally honest about things I was asking them to do.
  • I gave my teachers the autonomy, trust and respect I appreciated when I was in their shoes; absolutely no one wants to be treated like a child being reprimanded by people who do not know & love students as they do.
  • I read, revised, learned and taught alongside teachers I coached and mentored.  I believe they appreciated my willingness to roll up my sleeves & teach side-by-side with them, which often included making mistakes and being honest about my own frustrations in the process.
What's the big idea here?  I've seen hundred of rubrics and initiatives over the years aimed at improving teacher practice but very little evidence that many of these things actually work.  Drive-by professional development and policies developed by those with little-to-zero expertise in the field and  are why teachers are finally taking their development into their own hands by joining thousands of online communities to connect with others and build their internal own expertise as a profession.  After all, in Finland, Singapore and other locations across the world where both students & teachers are flourishing, teachers are encouraged, allotted time and compensated for taking control of their professional development.  Several blueprints already exist for what works. I wonder when the US will take notice.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Latest issue of our student e-zine

This is what happens when 6th graders are encouraged to dig deeply into topics they care about.  I'm particularly proud of this issue; it represents the power of digital storytelling, student agency and activism as it looks when combined with research & informational writing skills.  Yes, you can teach difficult concepts while maintaining a healthy level of student engagement! Click below.