Seeing YOUR world through someone else’s eyes

Penpals, epals, skype sessions, Hangouts…

skyping with HI5For decades students have benefited from the classroom practice of communicating with students from other cultures.  Two decades ago email allowed that communication to be almost immediate.  Chat, and then videochat gradually increased the value and the linguistic and social-emotional power of creating connections across borders.

A colleague recently forwarded me a blog post from the HI5 English School in Bétera, Spain.  In the post the writer chronicles the connections that his students have forged with students at my school.  Seeing pictures of my students and athletes projected on a screen in front of engaged and curious Spanish schoolchildren deepens my understanding of how powerful (and how necessary) this practice truly is.

When I see a student from another school projected on a screen in one of our classrooms, she is a novelty.  A fun, interesting, and potentially meaningful artifact (please forgive me for referring to a person as an artifact) of student learning.  When I see MY kid (let’s call her Lucy) projected on their screen, I see a child, one of many at my school, LIFTED UP as a representative of the school.  What makes Lucy unique and lovable in our community makes her equally well-regarded to that far-flung group of students.  And even better, she projects that image on our school as a whole.

I saw MY WORLD through the eyes of someone else today.  It made me realize how important it is to share my world with others.  And to welcome their world into mine.

Learning in our times and discovering curriculum: two reflections from Richardson’s ISTE Ignite presentation

This blog will not hereafter be a list of habits that I’m building; however, I will mention one little habit that I’ve decided to take up: do something with everything.

I attended the Lausanne Laptop Institute in Memphis in mid July.  It shaped up to be a fantastic few days of learning and expanding my PLN.  However, by the end of the first day I was a bit frustrated with the amount of “sit and get” that attendees were subjected to.  Rather than stew, I decided to practice a new habit.  I decided to take at least one thing away from each session.  Sometimes it had little to do with the session.  During one session on do’s and don’t’s of technology, I took one word that was mentioned during the presentation (“habitat”) and tweeted/brainstormed (tweetstormed?) about a potential course that revolves around a student’s habitat.  During another session the presenter quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I wrote down that quote because I thought that my homeroom boys might benefit from hearing it and thinking about it.

Now, one might think that vowing to “do something with everything” might lead to a firehose of “stuff.”  Not really, as long as you’re content that something might include grasping an idea, chewing on it for a few minutes, long enough for it to stick in your memory, dumping it, then going on with your day.  You never know when that little chemical pulse in your bright join another to form a neural network, and idea, an inspiration, a movement…

So, in the spirit of doing something with everything, I came across Will Richardson’s Ignite presentation from ISTE.  There are a whole bunch of somethings in this presentation, but I call dibs on two:

Something #1: “This is an amazing time to be a learner in this world.”

Amen.  We are at a point where technology has caught up with know-how has caught up with technology.  (Not a typo…I’ll explain).  First, there was technology that only few knew about and even fewer were able to use.  Then as knowledge and understanding increased among the laity, technology began an outward ripple to bring user experience to EVERY level of technological comfort.  I think that ripple has now extended to every user that WANTS to use these technologies.  (Hold-outs remain, but you know what they say about horses and water…)

So, TED, MIT, and millions more make compelling content public, connectivity is the default setting for most canonized technologies, and technological easy and embellishment are in a “sweet spot.” (A techno-rube can develop very slick product with a modicum of time and know-how.)

An amazing time to be a learner indeed.  So why is each and every teacher out there NOT actively engaged in making their learning public?  Blog, microblog, wiki, webpage, whatever!  Just get out there, share what you’re learning, what interests you, and make connections.  Who knows how it might affect your teaching, your learning, or your life?

Something #2: “Stop delivering curriculum.  Curriculum is everywhere.  It’s not ours to deliver.”

I just might scrawl this on my desk when I go back to school in August.  If I allowed my students to discover their own reason for speaking a second language, what might that look like?  How might that affect buy-in?  And how might buy-in affect the effectiveness their learning the so-called “important stuff?”  I suspect this will be the subject of a future post.

My 20-minute learning

Today my classes began the so-called “20 minute experiment.” (read about it from @jgough and @boadams1).  In the experiment, my class takes a break 20 minutes into the lesson to summarize or synthesize the learning that’s going on in the classroom (at some point I hope that they add “hypothesize” to that list) and posting that summary/synthesis on Twitter using the #20minwms hashtag.

In class today we’re recapping the first three chapters of a book (a reader about two Spanish teachers traveling throughout South America) by collaborating on small-group summaries.  This intro-level Spanish 2 class is taking a story written in the present and future tense and summarizing it in the past tense–a good way to start off the new semester, not to hard, but the task involves a lot of processing.

I feared that taking a break after 20 minutes might derail them.  I was delighted to see them eagerly turn toward the SmartBoard to make their Twitter entry, then redirect without prompting from me back to their assignment.

After 5 days of school cancellations, I expected serious attention deficit problems in even the most disciplined students–today of all days, their first day back.  But I seriously underestimated my students.  Or did I simply misunderstand how they handle certain tasks?

From the beginning of the class, they were in charge.  My instructions were spartan.  I lingered about helping them recall a word or phrase, but they led the activity.  After I explained the Twitter experiment, I gave them control of the Twitter feed.  After they agreed on the tweet, they hit Submit and went back to their task.

My 20 minute learning for today: when the student has ownership of the activity, the impulse to abandon it is not nearly as strong as when they’re simply “carrying my luggage.”

The school as PLC

Aside from the scuttlebutt about school cancellations for Monday’s incoming weather, Friday January 7 at Westminster started off as an ordinary day.  When @jgough sent around her email, which I have copied below, she probably didn’t expect much more than a fun experiment among a few already forward-thinking teachers/tech-nerds.  What actually happened, however, is something that I think cannot be overstated.  Our school became, in and of itself, a professional learning community.

For four months I have been part of a Professional Learning Team of Spanish teachers.  Since I facilitate this PLT, I’m also in a PLC of other PLC facilitators.  In addition to these two communities, there are a half dozen more PLC on campus spanning disciplines and divisions. To what end, though?

I suspect that the leaders of my school as well as the grassroots proponents of PLCs would agree that the overarching purpose for forming compartmentalized PLCs is that as teachers learn to make collaboration a part of their daily practice, the walls that separate PLCs will begin to dissolve.  And in doing so, the walls of the egg crate school culture, as @boadams1 likes to say, will become more permeable.

First, here’s @jgough‘s email describing the “20 minutes” experiment.

Hi… I’m hoping you’ll be willing to experiment with me experiment with something that we are learning in the Faculty Cohort. This year we are using How the Brain Learns by David A. Sousa as the foundation reading for our work. We been working on a practitioner’s corner about primacy-recency. (An exerpt from the chapter is linked .)

Will you consider taking a quick break at approximately 20 minutes after class begins to take 2 minutes to tweet what is being learned in your class?

“This research indicates that there is a higher probability of effective learning taking place if we can keep the learning episodes short and, of course, meaningful. Thus, teaching two 20-minute lessons provides 20 percent more prime-time (approximately 36 minutes) than one 40-minute lesson (approximately 30 minutes). Note, however, that a time period shorter than 20 minutes usually does not give the learner’s brain sufficient time to determine the pattern and organization of the new learning, and is thus of little benefit.”

How the Brain Learns, David A. Sousa

If you are willing to participate, could we try this next week. Could we try the following?

1. Pause at approximately 18-20 minutes and ask our students to do a quick write about what they are learning or doing in class. (a form of self-assessment; do I know what I’m supposed to be learning?)

2. Let them quickly share what they wrote. (a form of formative assessment, are they learning what I intend?)

3. At from your computer (displayed for Ss to see) tweet a summary of what is being learned or done using the hashtag #20minwms. (this models using social media for learning)

4. Follow the tweets from this hashtag to be more informed about each other and what we are learning/doing in class to possibly find curricular connections and common ground.

If you lead learning for students older than 18, will you tweet too?

We have found that asking the kids to help us pause for this break works really well. Will you forward this to other WMS colleagues that tweet? What do you think? thanks…. @jgough

use #20minwms as the hashtag.

You can also read about Friday’s practice in three different blogs!B121cf29d70ec8a3d54a33343010cc2

Read Learning by Doing and It’s about Learning to get a point by point description of the value added of the day.  They are impressive. Also, read Bo and Jill’s comments attached to those posts from 1/7 – 1/9.

I’d like to add to this list something that happened in the Spanish PLT.  Throughout the first semester the Spanish PLT we collaborated on a presentational speaking rubric.  Throughout our discussion the question of grading loomed over us–an issue not easily or lightly addressed.

Now into the second semester, we are ready to begin piloting the rubric in our classes.  But first, we must answer the question How will our four point rubric translate to a 100 point grading scale?

To assist us, the coordinator for PLCs and veteran math teacher Jill Gough introduced us to power functions and logistic functions.  My grasp on them is tenuous at best, but by the end of only 20 or so minutes, we had arrived at a logistic function that, we feel, accurately links language behavior and performance to an fair, if not palatable grade.

During this meeting a math teacher taught language teachers how to use a graph to predict grade-point values given a certain rubric-based outcome.  This conversation was not a mandate from someone higher up (in fact, the principal was in the room, just as giddy as we were that this kind of collaboration was going on).  It was simply the intersection of a need and a competency.  We were in great need of understanding how to use math to make an apple equal an orange.  Since Jill recognized herself as a part of our community, it was only natural to provide clarity on just that topic.

Change can happen in broad, sweeping top-down reforms, or in small, bottom-up bursts.  Friday’s S-PLT meeting was just such an occasion.  Change is here.  These types of intersections will continue to happen–sometimes by accident and at times by design.  But now that this small constituency recognizes the interconnectedness of our work, it cannot be unrecognized.

My school is well on its way to becoming a PLC.

“The world they live in”

As I read Don Tapscotts’s piece on Huffington Post (“New York Times Cover Story on “Growing Up Digital” Misses the Mark,” November 23, 2010), a loud gong sounded behind my ears, in particular after this passage:

Kids who have grown up digital expect to be able to respond, to have a conversation. They want a choice in their education, in terms of what they learn, when they learn it, where, and how. They want their education to be relevant to the real world, the one they live in.

The world they live in.  Tapscott and Richel can debate neuroscience all they want–I can’t contribute to that conversation.  However, in all the talk of the past several years about how kids  learn, what makes “them” different from “us,” Tapscott’s few words strike an unfathomably loud chord.

The kids that I teach and coach, 11 to 14 year-olds, live in today’s world.  The immediate, infinitely interconnected, interactive and always accessible world has awoken with them every day of their lives.

When I was a kid, the “world” in which I lived was confined to my neighborhood in Mountainside, NJ, Echo Lake Park which covers a few hundred acres, and the general path that could be traveled on bicycle between my home and Deerfield Middle School.

When I was at home, my world accessible through technology consisted of situational comedy, Masterpiece Theater (which I tried my best to ignore), and the nightly news.  I can recall perhaps a handful of times in the 70’s and 80’s as a teen sitting down to ask my parents about a story being reported through the filter of Ted Koppel or Jim Lehrer.

Almost every advertisement I saw on television made me salivate with envy, whether it was Stretch Armstrong or a Huffy bicycle with mag wheels.  30-minute programs contained a handful of such adds.  I oohed at the weekly JCPenney circular toy section, and I practically went ballistic when the Best Products catalogue, hundreds of pages thick, arrived at our house a few months before Christmas.

In short, if I wanted to encounter the world, I had to go looking for it.

How, then, am I to interpret a typical 14 year-old’s daily journey through their world?  Local and global events stream through the home page of their email account (when they bother to check email), even the briefest of internet use is laden with innumerable pieces of data, and the 24-hour news cycle insists that all news is breaking news, lest viewers tune out.

I read recently that we are confronted by 250 pieces of advertising in a typical day (seemed small to me).  At the end of that typical day, I probably wouldn’t be able to recall more than three of them.

In just the last few years, students have been exposed to the latent socioeconomic and racial divides amplified by Katrina, natural disasters that caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, multiple wars being endlessly debated on TV and on the web, and a baseline level of sexuality in pop culture once thought unimaginable.

Add to this the fact that we are learning that the human brain needs to develop into it’s mid-20’s before becoming truly capable of processing some to the things that our kids are being asked to process, either because we’ve worked it into the curriculum or because they can’t avoid not seeing it on their TV/computer/mobile device/web-enabled nav screen in their car/TV-enabled touchscreen in their refrigerator door, etc.

And then they come to school.  A teacher hands them a textbook and, in well-manicured language, tells them that course content will not necessarily extend beyond its outer covers.  A world that they have been habituated to interacting in is traded for a 7 year-old book heavier than their iPad…so heavy in fact, that it acts like an anchor, keeping them from within reach of learning in the world they live in.

If I wanted to interact with “the world,” I had to go in search of it. The kids I teach have “the world” broadcast to them every time they pick up an electronic device (thanks for scaring the crap out of me, Nicholas Carr).  I have a few questions:

Can I make an elementary/intermediate Spanish class as relevant as the world they interact with every day?  Is that my responsibility of an educator in the 21st century?  If so, will you help me?

Am I doing a disservice to students by trying to make my classroom mimic the real world?  The real world, after all, can be a pretty depressing place.  Is there value in making the classroom an idyllic place, sterilized from the “realness” of human events?

I’ll close with two hypothetical assignments to illustrate these questions.  Which would you rather engage in?:

This one?

Your connection to Lima has been delayed, leaving you with a few hours to kill in the Mexico, D.F. airport.  Engage your partner in conversation.  Talk about where you’re from, where you’re going, how often you travel, and what you like and dislike about travel.  Remember to use expressions of formality with strangers!

or this one…

An ambitious Political & Criminal Science student, you’ve earned a grant to explore the fútbol stadium in Santiago, Chile where in the 70’s Augusto Pinochet’s regimen detained, tortured, and murdered thousands of citizens who stood in opposition to his policies of privatization, deregulation, and market manipulation. Today is your first day and you want to make a good impression.  Introduce yourself to your new colleagues, describe yourself personally and professionally, and ask them about their interests.  Remember to use expressions of formality with strangers!