Friday, December 31, 2010

Remembering to Be Grateful

Anyone who know me has heard me say, "This is teacher heaven".  I said it ten years ago when I first joined the college.  I have said it regularly to my colleagues and recently to the camera crew shooting footage for our new website.  (So now my "teacher heaven" phrase is recorded for posterity.)  But I remember a time when my school environment was something closer to "teacher torture palace" than heaven.  For two years (out of 21) I taught at one of the 'worst' schools in the city.  The teachers were burned out, many students dropped out and the parents were mostly absent.  Police reports and threats against my person were not unusual.  It was hell and when I look at where I am today, I can hardly believe that I lived through those times.

I am thinking of that school because I just read Rodd Lucier's post about letter of gratitude from a student he had taught many years previously.  Like many teachers, I have a special folder (now it's digital) where I keep my letters of gratitude from students.  His post reminded me that despite the tremendous difficulties I experienced in that school 'from hell', I also received many, many letters and gifts of gratitude.  When I meet my old students in shopping malls and on the streets, they never remember the punishments but the good work they did and the precious pride that comes from accomplishment.  Truthfully, there were far more positive students than destructive ones, but somehow the memories of that school have been permanently coloured by the general pain I experienced then.

If I had known then what I know now about teaching and learning, maybe things would have been different.  I tried my hardest to make classes interesting and to keep them awake.  In an early morning economics class, I served coffee to help wake up the ones who worked until late at telemarketing jobs.  I traveled with them on the bus and metro and shared in real conversations when I could.  But I was not the teacher that I am today.  Then I had a harder edge.  Time and age have softened my corners.

On this last day of 2010, I am grateful for all the letters of gratitude and words of thanks from my students over the years.  Truly, as Rodd Lucier said, this is the greatest gift a teacher can receive.  But I am especially grateful for the thanks that came from those students who deserved so much more than I was capable of giving during those years.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

It's About the Connection

I love serendipity and happy coincidences.  They happen to me often.  It seems that when I am working on a particular idea or preparing for a presentation (or class), I find exactly what I need in order to make the next step in the creative process.  The popularity of James Redfield's 1993 book, The Celestine Prophecy might be seen as proof that many people also enjoy this relationship with serendipity.

Since October, I have been thinking about connectedness.  That's a BIG word, I know.  (Actually, I've been thinking about connectedness since my teenage years.)  In education, the 'new' concepts that embrace the idea of connectedness are words like "personal learning networks" and "personal learning communities".  Learning happens best when students are connected - to one another, to meaningful experiences that will leverage their learning, to a real community of learners and especially to sources of information and knowledge.  These networks of information and learning are everywhere - just open your eyes and look and connections in a different way.

As I quickly glanced at my favorite bloggers this morning, I found this helpful site - - for quickly locating creative common images, especially tailored for bloggers.  (All images come with an embed code.)  I fooled around a bit and entered some 'random' words (my students LOVE that word even though they misuse it all the time) into the query.  I found this picture:

The Power of Social Networksphoto © 2010 Steve Jurvetson | more info (via: Wylio)

I was intrigued by the background above the speaker's head and because of the TED logo, I decided to navigate away to the site. What a serendipitous find! That turned out to be a picture of Nicholas Christakis speaking about the "Hidden Influence of Social Networks" and exactly what I needed to hear today. Christakis speaks of networks as "super organisms" that cannot be fully understood by understanding the individual. He discovered that three degrees of separation (and not 6) exist between the individual and his/her group. His studies showed that if your friends were obese, your chance of being obese rose to 57%, but if your friend's friend suffered from obesity, your chances declined but were still elevated. The influence of the social network only declined significantly when you achieve 3 degrees of separation from whatever group is being studied. This was equally true for many issues Christakis examined such as happiness. Networks matter. Networks are powerful. Teachers need to leverage networks!

Christakis taught me about the architecture of the network and the location of the individual in her network. To be at the center or off to the side might be "good" or "bad" depending on the event or purpose of the network. As a teacher, I want to be smack dab in the center and I want my students there too! "Plug me in and connect me up" I say and open up the networks of learning.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

To Blog is to Exercise Your Freedom

Several weeks ago, I 'stumbled' upon Generation Y, a blog maintained at great cost by the prize winning Cuban blogger, Yoani Sanchez.  The first post I read hooked me immediately.  Her style is simple and heartbreakingly transparent.  She writes about life in Cuban with immediacy and intimacy.  I know something of the island, the people and the real picture of necessity that most people don't ever see.

I am sharing this with the readers not only because her writing is excellent, (she won Time's best blog in 2009 and many other prizes) but also because she reminds us all that to blog is to exercise our fundamental freedom of expression.  Yoani does not have easy access to the web; only the elite few have this.  Everyone else must use the wifi in the hotels and this can cost up to one third of a monthly salary for one hour of access.  This is simply impossible for most people.  Yoani has a network of friends to whom she texts parts of her blog posts.  These friends translate her blog in 20 different languages and publish it for her.  This is simply a stupendous collaborative effort that is inspirational to me.

Yoani does not write about her problems but about friends, family and even strangers who all share in the increasingly difficult situation of Cuban necessity.  Her writing and their plight touches me.  Yoani tells her readers that to help, we should link to her blog and that way, the Cuban government will see that Cuban bloggers are being read by the rest of the world.  If you are so inclined, stop by her blog, read a few posts and then share it with your friends on Facebook, tweet it out to your network and certainly, if you blog, link to her collective effort.

Thank you Yoani for reminding us of our fundamental freedom of expression.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Changing Times

Today I overheard a conversation between a student and a teacher that brought a smile to my lips.  It went something like this:

Student:  But why are you printing that?
Teacher:  Because I want you to have a copy.  It's important for you to have this.
Student: Give me a digital copy.  That'll be good.
Teacher: But I want you to have it with you.
Student: You don't need to print it.
Teacher: I want to give a  hard copy.
Student: And I want a digital copy. 

Why is it that the students are evolving faster than the teachers?  Why is it that the teachers can't (or won't) learn from their students?  Does this explain the resistance of technology in the classroom and the snail pace at which we, (and here I speak mostly of the teachers) leave the industrial model of teaching behind and move into the 21st century?  Teachers simply have to do better at changing their practices and pedagogy.  If we listen to the students' voices, insights and needs, how much more might we learn?

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Cuban Blogging

Today was one of those days; tension was high (report cards loom near), trouble with the firewall and internet exacerbated that tension and frustration hung over teachers like a dark cloud. I ran smack into negative attitudes about integrating technology into classroom and fumed about the contradiction inherent in this resistance. (Those who resist the pull towards the digital are the first to complain when the net goes down.)

So, after a frustrating day, (and late night correcting), I finally take some time for myself and read one of my newest blog acquisition; Yoani Sanchez, a young Cuban blogger who, with the help of friends in Spain and elsewhere, manages to post regularly about her frustrations. Yoani Sanchez is worth reading and a few minutes of your time. Her writing is good and her insights are stunning. After a week of reading educational blogger types, she is a refreshing change. She writes about Cuba, about life in Havana, about not having basics, about deprivation, family, love, yearnings and everything else that makes us interesting. Today she wrote barely one paragraph about an off-handed comment of a stranger who said, (I paraphrase here), "I only want my little piece." Her blog reminds us of the glaring disparity between the "us" and "them". In a day when my biggest problem is antiquated attitudes, it`s good to be reminded that real people, intelligent and loving people, not far away, survive on precious little. They ask for what we have in abundance.

Thanks Yoani Sanchez. Keep writing and reminding us that you matter.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Schooling in a Web 2.0 World

Ben Sheldon - Flickr
Recently, I asked my high school sociology students this question:  "What should school look like in a Web 2.0 world?"  Leading up to that question, the students had watched several TED videos; Jimmy Wales' story of Wikipedia, Negroponte's OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) and Kevin Kelly and the Next Web.  The following is a very small sampling of some of their ideas, dreams and criticisms about school in a Web 2.0 world.

Mira says:  If Nicholas Negroponte, the creator of 'One Laptop per Child' can provide laptops for children in 3rd world countries, high schools should find the means to provide their students with them.
 (Our school recently initiated a 1:1 laptop program for the grade 7 students.  The other grades have access to a mobile laptop cart and two computer labs.  I took her comment to mean "other schools, not us".)

Jamie says: Additionally, teachers must make this adaptation to Web 2.0, as Generation Y and Generation X who represent 40 % of the global population are digital natives, meaning they have grown up with the Net and understand it extremely well.  If teachers adapted to Web 2.0 they would be able to teach more effectively as they will be communicating with students through an environment students are accustomed to using.

And Jordana says: In conclusion, in a Web 2.0 world, education should be an adventure. History class should be a virtual tour of New France, French class should be a video chat with a student from Paris and English class should have a new guest speaker everyday. Web 2.0 should allow us to escape the four walls of our classrooms and learn in a way that is fun and exciting. We have all the tools. We have all the resources. Now it’s up to us to utilize them and take education to the next level.  

We should ask our students their opinion about these important issues, especially their education.  Generally, students spend more time in the classroom than they do at home with parents and siblings.  They spend crucial, formative years in our classroom.  What we do (or neglect to do because we don't know how, because we don't have time to learn new tools, because we think our teaching doesn't need to be improved, infinitum) is going to have an impact on their developing minds, skills and personalities.  Teachers need to remember that.  Our work matters.  Our pedagogy makes a difference.  Listen to their voice and take some time to reflect on your own practices in the classroom.  Are you leveraging Web 2.0 tools for their benefit?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Silent Generation Meets Generation Y

Today is a day to remember.  Today, the 'silent generation' (people born in the 1930s and 1940s) met 'generation Y'.  Here's a picture to prove it.
That's my mother who is embarking on her journey of hyper-connected, brain-juicing, soul invigorating learning.  I'm so proud of her I could simply bust.  My mother is the model of a perfect learner: she's tenacious, very bright, inquisitive and her creativity is almost boundless.  She wants to be a part of this new landscape of learning and sharing.  Her passions are many, but watercolour painting is high on the list.  Today is her first day with her brand spanking new Asus laptop.  In a short time, she learned how to open the browser, find her gmail account, bookmark web pages and look for interesting videos on YouTube.  She's going to be a force to reckon with, I'm sure.  I can't wait until she starts blogging about her painting.

Can you imagine a world where our teachers, regardless of age, are as enthusiastic about learning new web technologies as my mother is?  How powerful and transformative that would be; for them and their students!

Why not wade in and leave her a message of encouragement?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Simple Truths from a New Jersey Blogger

I just read Karl Fisch's blog and he linked his readers to Vicky Bell's blog so of course I followed the link.  If you are reading this page, please do the same.  Ms. Bell wrote an open letter to her daughter reminding her of simple truths in life; nothing ruins your life forever.  The letter is beautiful, powerful and simply true.  Please read it and share it with the young people in your life.  When my son began his ninth grade, early in September, a fellow student committed suicide when his girlfriend left him.  I think about that young man every Fall and wonder what he would be like today if he had not made that terrible decision.  Teenagers need to know that there are options, even in the face of pain that seems insurmountable.  We all taste pain, some in greater measure than others.  Parents, teachers and significant adults need to be reminded to tell the young people in their lives about the simple truth Vicky Bell speaks of: nothing ruins your life forever.  Thanks Vicky.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Obsurvey Trumps Google Forms

I'm a big fan of Google docs as my students and colleagues will testify. Google cloud computing has been my preferred way of working and saving/sharing document for over a year now and "once you go Google, you never go back" is still my favorite phrase. I stumbled upon Obsurvey; a very powerful tool for hosting on line surveys. Not only can you easily share the url to the survey you create with Obsurvey, and embed it on your webpage/wiki, but you can download a pdf file of the results, filter how you see the results and much, much more. This tool is invaluable for any student or teacher who wants to collect information easily. It has obvious applications for a sociology course where students are designing their own research project and collecting data; but it could also be useful in any course where the teacher wants students to interact with and interpret data. This would be a super tool for a math course. I found out about Obsurvey from David Wetzel who blogs at Teach Science and Math You can watch the creator, Allan Ebdrup from Copenhagen, explaining his wonderful tool for teachers in this screenr video:

So, in that same vein, I've decided to post a survey that I created this morning.  I know that students read this blog and so I'm inviting any student to respond to this survey.  (I'll create a separate one for teachers later on.)  Be be reassured that the survey is completely anonymous and know that I appreciate your honesty.  This idea was inspired by the webinar I listened to this morning at, a site that both teachers and students would be interested in visiting to see the results of their study and some of their surprising conclusions.)

(survey removed)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

ipadio: Daryl's phlog - 3rd phonecast

Ideas Having Sex

Recently, I have been thinking about creativity, more specifically, about how my creative impulses are intimately connected to my happiness. Age and some small measure of wisdom have taught me that I am happiest when I am able to exercise my creativity. Most of my time is spent in the classroom (or thinking about the classroom) and so I wonder about how to maximize the creative impulse in both teaching and learning. One of my questions is why we (teachers) do not see more creativity in our classroom. Are we partly to blame? Do teachers discourage the creative impulse in an attempt to apply standards and uniform testing? What about the students; have they become passive learners who would rather follow the template than design it themselves?

Maybe our students are more creative than we think, than we see or than we give them the opportunity to demonstrate. My suspicion is that they are very creative but that they lack the confidence in their ability to showcase this side of their thinking. After all, creative people are often different and during the teens years, being too different carries a hefty price.  ( brought that message home to the student body this week in a riveting presentation about school bullying and violence.)   To be sure, it takes courage to be creative when that means showing how you are different.

Ken Robinson is widely recognized as an ‘expert’ on creativity and a critic of school systems that discourage it. In his recent book, The Element, he warns teachers and parents against encouraging uniformity because our children’s creative impulse often makes it impossible for them to ‘fit in’. The student who cannot sit still might be a future musician, athlete or dancer instead of another Ritalin would-be user.

Creativity is what teachers should be all about. Creativity is curiosity’s DNA. ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) lists creativity as one of the primary 21st century skills; but that is not the only reason why teachers need to place this skill front and center. Look around us at the tremendous accomplishments of those we admire and see how the creative impulse (and the confidence to share this) makes the world a better place. Raymond Laflamme, the director of the Institute for Quantum Computing said, “creativity for a theoretical physicist is incredibly important [because]doing science is not a straight line. It’s more important to have a lot of ideas, many of them wrong, than to have no ideas at all.” Mr. Laflamme’s creativity lead him to question Stephen Hawkings’ interpretation of how time works when the universe collapses in on itself and for this insight, Hawkings himself, the world’s most famous physicist, has expressed gratitude to his former student, Quebec city native, Raymond Laflamme.

Steven Johson wonders about what kind of space promotes innovation and creativity, or as he describes it, ‘ideas having sex’. He talks about network patterns in our physical space that reflect the network patterns of the brain. Ideas are not single entities that arise from nothingness but rather ‘a network of ideas’ that is supported by nurturing hunches and promoting connectivity. The ‘EUREKA’ moment that brings the new idea is not how creativity and innovation work, according to Johnson. Instead, we ‘stitch’ together our partial ideas with insights and ideas of other people that we ‘meet’ in our connected networks.

 In the 1850’s this would have been a coffee house and today, it is the cyber space of the World Wide Web where our students can have a voice in the world’s global conversation.

Creativity wears a million different faces and as teachers, we see many of them. We must encourage this impulse to be creative and sometimes that means helping our students find the courage to express what they already intuitively have and know about themselves and the world. It also means providing the support and helping them build the networks within which their own “great ideas can have sex”. The world’s problems need creative minds and we (teachers) need to do our part to fan those flames in our students.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Simple Principles

This past summer at an exciting conference of educational leaders from all over the world, I met an amazing person who taught me a thing or two about being a good teacher. Her name is Adora Svitak and she’s twelve years old. That’s right, she’s twelve. During the day she attends classes and in the evening, she gives classes - in front of her computer, using Skype and other connective technologies. Her students are both children and adults, people who need tutoring and people who simply want to share in her passion for writing. Adora Svitak was one of the keynote speakers at the BLC2010 (Building Learning Communities) conference this summer, in with the likes of anthropology YouTube-ethnography professor Michael Wesch! She was engaging, inspiring and right on the money. She spoke about the power of young leaders and reminded all of us that size and age are not pre-requisite conditions for leadership.

This past weekend Adora Svitak’s message came home to me in a new way. A chance walk through the park with my Schnauzer brought a pleasant surprise - one of my students volunteering at a David Suzuki Foundation gathering. “Hey Miss, what are you doing here?” (Students are always so surprised to see that their teachers are real people with dogs, friends and a life outside of school.) However, the surprise was mine! There she was, Mira, at a gathering of eco-warriors and Montreal city council members planning future strategies for a greener city and celebrating past achievements. No one accompanied Mira to this auspicious occasion- no peers, no posse, no special friends, not even a faculty advisor (because she was representing the school’s “Green Warrior” group). She was by herself, the only teenager in a large group of adults, representing her cause, her principles, her passion – respect for the planet, sustainable living and making an ecological difference. No one told her to spend her sunny Saturday with a group of adults she barely knew. No one had to. Mira is that kind of person; the one who is motivated by principles and who, by her actions, stands as a reminder for the rest of us, that change can be as simple as becoming conscious of your actions. Simple things can make a difference. Listen to her message.

Mira’s message, like Adora’s is simple; when you care about something, you make your actions count and 'walk the talk'. Adults need to remember this uncomplicated passion of youthful dedication to principles. Yes, of course, actions and commitments must be tempered by and with all sorts of other concerns. Things are never that easy. We cannot always do what we want….or can we? Mira’s presence in that park on Saturday was a timely reminder that sometimes dedication to principles is just that uncomplicated. What are your cherished principles? What guides your life? How are you living each precious day according to your principles?
Sometimes, it is good for the young to lead the way and remind us that where the heart is, there the feet will follow. As for me, I will continue to count my lucky stars that I have the privilege of mentoring these youthful leaders. And you, how will you encourage these young citizens?

Friday, September 10, 2010

Video Editing from Your Browser

I've had it with Adobe Elements!  It crashes and freezes my computer.  I'm not a Mac user so I can't use Final Cut Express and Movie Maker, well...the pared down version for Windows 7 is even worse than the old one.  I don't want to spend more money on a video editing program so I decided to take Richard Byrne's tip and try out Jay Cut.  You don't need to download anything and JayCut work directly from your browser.  It's more interesting than the first time I looked at it last year because now you can include web cam footage.  So here is what I spent (too much) time doing today.  It's OK for the student's projects but I wouldn't really recommend it to the teachers who want something professional looking.   However, for the novice, it works well.  The program itself is intuitive and only needs a few alerts:

1- The embed code for the blog needs altering because the tag is wrong.  (Just add /embed inside these brackets < > and it should work.)
2 - In order for the transitions to work, you need to insert the clips on alternate lines.  The first clip goes on 'video A', then the next on the other line, 'video B' and then you can slide the transition in between the two.
3-  You can ease in the audio from a song and control the audio on your video clip but you can't control the volume of the imported song.

I like the subtitles.  Actually, for a freebie, it's great.  My younger students will like this. In a snap, you could use it to record a message to your class and the substitute teacher on days when you're sick in bed. (Thanks to Richard Byrne for that idea. I used it this week by recording a quick message with Camtasia and embedding it on the class wiki) . Try it out and leave your comment on either the program itself or my silly Schnauzer!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Blogging and Sunflowers

Why Do Teachers Blog?

A friend recently asked me why I blogged.  “Don’t you have enough work already?  Why add to your stress and workload?”  I did not need his prompting to begin my own self-inquiry; it had already begun.  It seems (among the many bloggers I read) that some sort of ‘existential blogger/crisis/identity’ happens at the blog’s one-year anniversary.  We all ask ourselves these questions; " Why bother?  What if no one is reading?  What can I say that is not already being said, (perhaps with greater eloquence and authority) by more experienced bloggers with a multitude of followers?"  I will not indulge in unnecessary blogger ‘navel-gazing’ here; it is unproductive and not the point of this post.  But in the event that a future blogger is reading this, I offer my reflections here.

I blog because I need to contribute to my voice to the very important conversation educators are having about the ‘tsunami-like’ changes happening in our society and classrooms.  In only three years, my own teaching and learning has changed dramatically because of web 2.0. I want to be a part of this greater movement because it is exciting and it has changed me in ways I could never have imagined.

I blog because I believe that my experiences and reflections might be valuable to others.  My voice does not only speak for me; it also brings my students’ concerns and experiences to the conversation.   It is important to share and help others who are on this learning curve. 

I blog because every post is a ‘value-added’ activity that I contribute to the collective learning curve, of which we are all a part.  Connected to this is a sense of responsibility and pride in being part of the most exciting changes I have seen in 21 years of teaching.  
Every new post is an opportunity to crystallize my own thinking and offer it to readers, who might be asking the same questions.  The act of reflecting, composing and posting is an intimate connection between the blogger and his/her audience.  The writing is solitary; but communal as well.  As you put words to the page, you frame your thoughts and experiences with a meaning that might not have been obvious to you before. 

My mother recently decided to purchase a laptop.  When I asked her what she wanted to do with this new tool, she gave me an impish grin and said, “I want to start blogging”.  At 77 years young, she feels the need to contribute her wisdom and experience to a global conversation.   She can be an example to anyone who has every thought of blogging. 
Why bother blogging?  Would we ask a sunflower, “Why bother blooming when there are so many beautiful flowers already?”   No.  We would welcome its contribution and admire its beauty because every flower has its place.  I blog for myself; I blog for my students; I blog for other teachers who are walking the same road.  Even if no one reads it; blog anyway.  Vincent Van Gough never sold a painting in his lifetime and that did not diminish the value of his work.  You have a voice; contribute your part to the global conversation and be enriched because of it. 

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Students Speak Out: Weapons of Mass Instruction

I've been thinking about incorporating student voices on my blog. So last week I invited some recent alumni to be a 'guest blogger' on this blog. I asked them this question: "How did the digital tools you used in grade 11 enhance your learning experience?" What follows is the first student voice that I bring to my blog and hopefully, not the last.

The guest blogger is Loa. She was a student in my Sociology and Psychology classes in 2009/2010. As you will see, she is a gifted writer and easily communicates her ideas and feelings. Loa shares an experience that I think is common among many students. Our beloved 'digital natives' are comfortable with some technologies and not others. This might surprise some teachers who mistakenly believe that all teens are techno-savvy. They might text faster than most adults but they still need their teachers to introduce them to the powerful collaborative learning (digital) tools, such as the ubiquitous Google docs and Diigo. Here is what Loa had to say:

From Darren Kuropatwa's Flickr stream
“Technologically incompetent.” That was a label I proudly wore for years. Up until my graduating year of high school, surfing the web was just about as daunting a thought as surfing with sharks, and Google was an ocean of information I felt I might drown in. If unfamiliar with the World Wide Web, the idea of entering a tech classroom is both terrifying and overwhelming.
Last year, I was introduced into a learning environment where the chalkboard remained untouched and textbooks weren’t even purchased. Our arsenal of learning weaponry consisted almost singularly of a laptop- and our ammo a wiki, a personal learning network, online bookmarking, and a plethora of other programs and concepts I was unfamiliar with. My fear was that amidst all this unfamiliarity, I would be the only one unable to tread through my tech troubles. Little did I know that within a couple of months, my classroom of less than two-dozen students would form a coalition, an online community, but most of all, a support system.    
First semester, in order to make the transition from textbook classroom to going digital easier, we worked mainly with wikis and blogs. This was the perfect platform to help learn and implement, for the first time, the idea of collaboration. Not only were we able to share our assignments and view those of others, giving us a much broader range of knowledge than one would normally get from simply handing a project in to a teacher, but we could constructively criticize and push each other to reach our full potential. Each classmate became an important resource vital in each other’s success.
Second semester, we branched out and created personal learning networks that were specific to our individual research needs. It soon became obvious that google (most student’s go-to search engine) only provided a fraction of the basin of information that is offered online. There were tools and applications available that were beneficial to virtually any type of learner. And by sharing our PLN's with one another, every student was fully equipped with dozens of promising resources.
In effect, using digital tools greatly enhanced my learning experience this past year. Not only was it a fun, interesting way to learn, but I would walk out of every class feeling fulfilled at having learned things that were relevant and up to date. Being tech-savvy has given me the confidence to become an independent learner, knowing that the tools that will guide me to success are but a click away.
“Technologically incompetent” is label I’ve long since discarded. Now, I’m “digitally remastered” and proud of it!

Thanks to Loa for sharing her experience on this blog.  Her insights might be an important motivation for teachers who are fearful to take the leap into the digital learning space.  Teachers don't have to know everything and be masters of every learning tool.  If we can model excellence in learning (and that might mean humility and learning with/from the students) then we've been of service.  I encourage teachers to make the move from the learning place to the learning space by incorporating digital tools that can revolutionize your teaching and their learning.  I also welcome comments from anyone reading this blog.  You know that 80/20 split?  Only 20% of readers (and that's a lot!) will leave a comment, while 80% read, consume, think about the post (hopefully) and move on to the next blog.  That's fine too but teaching and learning is all about the relationships.  Reach out, touch someone and leave a comment if you're so inclined.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Google Secrets

What did we do before Google? Yes I know there are other search engines and I do use meta search engines but Google is so much more than that. I'm always amazed that people don't know about the variety of free tools that Google offers - beyond the ubiquitous 'Google docs' and G-mail.

Let's begin with the search engine. Even as powerful as it is, it only penetrates about 30% of the 'deep web'; the massively complex connection of pages, files and data. To be more effective in penetrating this surface layer, we can learn a few easy tricks here.

Howie DiBlasi was one of ISTE's (International Society for Technology in Education) keynote speakers and I recently listened to his session of effective web searches using Google.

In the spirit of the participatory web 2.0 culture, he offers many of his presentations and notes for educators to use.  Check out his web site here and consider following him on Twitter.  He is a wealth of information and  experiences.

Richard Bryn who blogs at Free Technology for Teachers is my favorite blogger for hot tech tips.  He has several great guides on using Google tools and you can find them here. 

I'm including my own presentation on some key tips for effective searching as well.  You may use this presentation but please credit the author - me!

I recommend teachers and students use Google Scholar and Books when they are researching a topic. Google Alerts will act as your own personal assistant and return information to you while you are busy doing something else. Google forms can easily be embedded into your web site, blog or wiki. Some teachers even use these for quizzes. Here is an example of what I am doing at the beginning of this school year.

After my students fill out the form, the information is sent to my Google docs inbox.  Their responses are private and even include a time stamp.  When the next student comes to the wiki page, they don't see the responses of the previous student.

There are so many ways to use Google and its products.  Take some time to learn a few basics and your students will thank you for it.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What Teachers Make

If you have spent any time on YouTube and if you are a teacher (good assumption for my readership), you might have come across Taylor Mali.  He is a 'spoken word artist' and a teacher.  Before this blog moves into the 'here are some good ideas for your classroom' mode, I want to linger a tad more in the 'inspiration' mode.  So, bookmark this page and come back to Mali's inspiration in October, or even the gray days of November.

Here he is on YouTube...

 and here is a great visual presentation of his 'poem' from

I love Taylor Mali.  I love dedicated teachers.  Life is good.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Wikis Rock

On Friday I spent the day AWAY from my computer and hanging out with my sister who is also a teacher. It is no surprise that much of our conversation centered around teaching; our students, administrators, colleagues and new ideas for this year. She is in a difficult place this year, one that I remember very well. Her colleagues are uninspired, her administrators not helpful and her resources are scarce to absent. It's almost criminal. She is a teacher with passion, conviction and an intense desire to improve so she can increase the students' learning.  Unfortunately many of her roads are blocked.  I know this is the reality of many teachers today.

So I told her about the free web2.0 tools that are the backbone of my teaching. The first stop is the wiki. (I prefer PBWorks but any wiki engine is good.) The basic wiki from PBWorks is rich with possibilities for hosting your classroom resources and encouraging student collaboration. Just sign up for an account and listen to their online tutorials. This coming September 1st, you can participate in a free webinar and learn the basics. I recommend it.

After two years of convincing the powers that be in my neck of the woods, my school is finally adopting wikis. We are implementing the 'Campus Edition' from PBWorks which means that everyone (up to 1,000 users) can have a premium wiki- teachers and students!   (One premium wiki costs $100 and allows complete control of pages and folders. Each page/folder has security permissions and the storage capacity is up to 40GB.)  The Campus Edition allows for unlimited wikis for up to 1,000 users so really, that means that the storage capacity is unlimited.  I'm thrilled about this move and can't wait to see what the staff and students will do with this tremendous tool.

Can you imagine what it would be like to graduate from sec 5 with a digital portfolio that showcases your learning curve from sec 1? That's a powerful learning tool and a tremendous record of many years of work. In my own case, I'm beginning the third year with most of my wikis and have come to see them as living books. Each year seems to have its own colour.

So, chin up, step up and move up into the world of free web 2.0 tools and wiki your way to another great year!  And keep your eyes on the wikis from PBWorks because they are always improving their product.  Here's the latest - uploading files is even easier.

Drag and Drop File Uploads from PBworks on Vime

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Remember the Big Picture

It is almost here; you know, the day when you walk back into the familiar building, greet your friends, admire their tans and ask them what they did over the summer. Afterwards, you munch on a few donuts, sit through a few meetings, make sure the photocopier is functional and then reclaim your workspace to ‘plan the year’. For many this means; dust off the pile of worksheets, count the tattered text books and print out your course syllabus. By the day’s end, it feels like summer never happened and you have slipped back into the workspace mode.

But wait; there is another way to begin the year! Instead of (ok, if you must, in addition to) worksheets and textbooks, open up the laptop and find your resources on line. Google books is a good place to start. Upload your course syllabus to a blog, webpage or better yet, a wiki. Learn some new tools and energize your teaching.

Fall in love with teaching again. Remember what your initial vision was whenever you first began teaching. Did you want to change the world, one class at a time? Did you want to help the ‘broken’ ones who did not believe they could learn but you knew they could? Whatever your first dream was that propelled you into the profession, reconnect with that and spend some time nourishing those feelings. Find your comfortable space; the back yard, your oversized chair or where ever you allow your mind to be at rest. Take a trip back and visit that teacher of the first and second years. Honor her calling and congratulate his brave vision. Remember what it felt like in those early years when your students said those magic words that thrill us to the core - “Thank you for helping me”.

Now, open your eyes and come back to 2010. Welcome to the rest of your teaching career; the best part of your teaching life is just around the corner. There has never been a more exciting time to be a learner/teacher than right now. Whatever you can imagine, you can do. Do you want your class to collaborate on a science project with a class in Hong Kong? Check out this site and get on board with Vicky Davis and Julie Lindsay who are connecting students to classrooms around the world and breaking down racial, cultural and economic barriers as their students experience the common humanity of others just like themselves. Do you want to motivate your students with amazing speakers but the logistics of it all are overwhelming? Check out Wetoku or Skype and bring the world to your students. Are you thinking about a new way to teach math? Look at what Eric Marcos is doing with his students, or I should say, what his students are doing as they teach one another math using videos tutorials that they create. If this is not enough and you need more energizing, sit back and marvel at this wonderful teacher who loves writing so much that after her ‘day job’ she teaches from her basement using a Smart Board and Skype. Did I tell you that she’s only twelve, that she published her first book at seven and that her ‘day job’ is being a student in a classroom? Meet Adora Svitak here on on her website and enjoy this short video of Adora at TED.

I met her this summer in Boston at the BLC2010 conference where she spoke about the power of youth leadership. She is amazing.

We teach in amazing times and we can accomplish incredible things. It is a privilege to participate in the growth process of these amazing students. Remember that big picture and as you prepare to return to school. Do not give into the ‘yea but’ voice in your head. Yes, there will be obstacles and yes, learning new ways might be a bit scary but do it anyway. We are already one decade into the 21st century folks. The future of teaching and learning is here. Welcome to 2010!

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Innovation and Creativity

Yesterday I posted about how wikis and prezi presentation were some of my favorite tools.  Everybody has their list of tools and we all know that tech doesn't make the teacher.  Teaching and learning is essentially about relationships and networks.  There is no hard and fast rule, no one size fits all and no easy solutions to difficult challenges when it comes to teaching strategies.  However, when it comes to qualities and characteristics of good teaching I think that innovation and creativity are at the core of the effective teacher.

 This summer I read Sir Ken Robinson's book The Element.  If you haven't seen him on TED, do yourself a favour and take the 18 minutes to listen to him.  He reminds teachers that the creative child is often different and does not conveniently fit into conventional systems.  His book is an homage to the creativity of many famous people who all had horrendous experiences in the classroom but thrived later on in life when they discovered and developed their creative nature.

Bill Gates spoke at a conference hosted by Techonomy recently and had some interesting things to say about innovation in education.  In this short clip, he speaks about online education and how innovations in educational technology will reduce the cost of college education.  At the end of the clip he bemoans how the school system does not encourage teachers to be innovative and creative.

What do you think? Do you agree with Bill Gates? Is creativity and innovation in the classroom diminished because of a rigid system that encourages standardization and uniformity? Are you a teacher who values creativity and will look for ways to be innovative despite the obstacles? Leave a comment!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

New Tools for Back to School

By now, many teachers are already thinking, reviewing, planning and building material for the beginning of the new school year.  Here are two important tools that I will be revisiting this week as I prepare for this upcoming year: wikis (I use but there are many other wiki engines) and Prezi.

I'm sure that everyone has heard of wikis but not everyone has tried them as their digital classroom.  I've been working with wikis (love the alliteration possible with "wiki") for three years and I'm still convinced that they are the superior digital tool for the classroom.  I could go on singing their praises for a long time but instead I'll refer the reader to previous blog posts about the wonders of the wiki (there's that alliteration again!).  I'm including a prezi I made when I presented to LCEEQ in February 2010 about the digital classroom.

 Unfortunately, the prezi presentation does not stand alone and will only give you the briefest of ideas of how powerful wikis can be.  Readers can also use this public wiki I made to accompany that presentation. One of the great things about pbworks is the simplicity and accessibility of their platform. You can keep your wiki private and allow only your students to access it or you can make it public and still control who can contribute.   And all of this is FREE.  If you want more control, then you need to buy the premium version that allows you to hide and/or lock pages and folders.

My students appreciated the organization they gained because everything we did was on the wiki.  I created one page where I listed the topics covered (so they could also see what was coming in a few weeks), the assignments/homework and due dates but best of all, I linked the classroom resources to that page.  Not only did this remove any excuses like, "I was absent Miss" but I made that page public so the parents could be informed.  By the senior grades, parents don't want to be checking their child's agenda but if you add the url of this wiki page to your class syllabus that parents read and sign, then they will have access to this precious information.  It's so important to include the parents in their child's learning journey and wikis are a great way to do this.  Here's what that page looked like for the anthropology class.

Prezis are my favorite way to present anything because of the dynamic movement of text and images on screen.  Importance of ideas is created by hierarchy of text size and the zooming effect around prezi's infinite canvas. Embed prezis on blogs, wikis and webpages that you create for your classroom is very easy.  It is not very difficult to learn but I do recommend looking at the onsite tutorials to help you on your learning curve.  My students love prezi and last year began using it as a platform for presentations instead of powerpoint.  Anything to avoid 'death by powerpoint' is a good thing! Here's a tutorial that uses prezi.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Are You a Great Teacher?

Of all the books that I have read this summer, Dr. Anthony Muhammad’s, Transforming School Culture: How to Overcome Staff Division, is the one that made the greatest impact on me.  He writes about the four types of teachers that make up a school culture and the dynamics of a healthy and toxic culture.  The believers, the tweeners, the survivors and the fundamentalists all have different goals; respectively, the success of all students, securing job security and acceptance from superiors and peers, minimizing contact and conflict with students simply to survive another day and lastly, maintaining the status quo and personal power.  Which type of teacher are you?  Read my previous posts or better still, buy the book and gain a powerful understanding of the dynamics in your school. 

Atlantic Monthly’s article, What Makes a Great Teacher?, describes the believer perfectly.  Journalist Amanda Ripley spent time with Teach for America, a grassroots organization that recruits the best college graduates to teach for a minimum of two years in America’s neediest school districts.  Since its inception in 1990, Teach for America has followed their recruits and studied successful teachers.  Why does a child in one class succeed when a child in another class (in the same school) not progress and even fail?  Much of the recent research identifies effective teachers as the critical factor in student success.  For many years, educators and researchers have studied the question of the role of parents and the student’s social environment in determining their success or failure.  It seems that the jury is in on that question; the teacher and their instructional strategies make the difference.

The Atlantic Monthly article compares two teachers and their students’ success.  Both teachers are compassionate, extroverted and care about their students but one is clearly more effective than the other is.  Two students with similar math skills (poor) enter both classrooms in September however, in June, one finishes at the top of his class and the other remained in the bottom quintile.  The qualities that make one teacher effective and the other less is the focus of much research.  When I read this article, it was very clear that the effective teacher is a believer; that means that they are motivated by the belief that every child can succeed and will put strategies in place to ensure that happens.  Failure is not an option for the believer.  The believer (and effective teacher) understands the relationship between their teaching and the student’s learning and behavior.  The believer is outcome oriented and is willing to be flexible in their approach in order to ensure the greatest success for their students.  Effective teachers have ‘grit’ that enables them to persevere in the face of negativity and obstacles.  Effective teachers ‘keep their eye on the ball’ and never lose sight of their goals because they believe that students can succeed.  Effective teachers understand that their teaching makes a difference and that means if things are not working, then part of the solution is re-examining classroom instruction.   Effective teachers are the believer teacher that Dr. Anthony Muhammad describes in his book. 

As we all prepare to head back to the classroom in the next few days, we should spend some time reflecting on our core beliefs about students and our role in their success.  This article in Atlantic Monthly and Dr. Muhammad’s book is a good place to begin this reflection.