Wednesday, March 30, 2011

So What Am I Good For?

Today's anthropology class with my grade 11 students was 'interesting'.  The topic was 'collapsing societies' and before sharing the TED talk with Jared Diamond, (author of Guns, Germ & Steel), I wanted the students to wrestle with the idea first.  In order to block their default response (go to Google/YouTube and look for the answer) I asked them to jot down some ideas on paper first.  The looks on their faces was priceless.   "Paper? Miss, are you OK?  Hey Miss, I don't have paper or even a pen!"  (We've been mostly painlessly paperless this year.)  But they found the necessary implements and after a few minutes, we generated an impressive list of possible reasons for why societies collapse, including examples to support our hypothesis.  Half way through the TED video, I paused to explain the idea Diamond presented and then the conversation began to amble its way into the 'not exactly on topic but great conversation' area.  That's when I heard this.

My student, Corey, said, "Students learn most outside of school".  Say what?  Say that again?  He did.  I asked him to give me examples and explain what he meant, but of course he knew full well that I understood (and agreed with) him. They had just completed their Personal Learning Network assignment where they provide a screen recording (posted on the class wiki) of the tools they use to become independent learners.
From Dean Shareski's photostream on Flickr

So I asked him, "Then what am I good for if you learn so well outside of school and don't need me."  He replied, "Teachers are the tour guides and the students fill in."  (By 'fill in' he meant take responsibility for learning.)  But here comes the best part...Corey continued to say (by now he was really on a roll and had everyone's attention), "Teachers have to get over the fact that they don't know everything and that they can learn from their students."  By now, everyone else is getting involved and coming up with interesting metaphors for the role of teachers and students; coach, game show host, and on it went!  (I guess they think I'm entertaining.)  Corey added, "We want to feel like we are talking to one of our friends" and Leigh said, "We shouldn't be afraid of our teachers".

On days like today, I feel like the luckiest person in the world, even if I do have report cards staring me down.   My spirits were lifted by their candid comments and insightful observations.  I was not threatened by their comments because I feel comfortable in my educational coach role.  I want to engage students in deep understanding of issues.  I want to provoke discussion and show them that they are smart enough to figure things out for themselves; and when they do, I know that I've done my job - for today.

Next time I go to class, I think I'll go prepared to record that conversation.  I've been 'threatening' to turn our classroom discussions into podcasts.  I think the time has come!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Four Goals for Teachers

I just watched an interview with Alan November on, a virtual community for educational leaders and reformers.  Alan has a way of reminding us of the 'big picture' that I find reassuring.  Here's an example: there are times when I feel overwhelmed by the new web 2.0 tools and applications I find daily.  (People who know me will find that one hard to believe, but it's true!)  How can anybody possibly keep up with all the new web 2.0 goodies out there?  Hopefully teachers have support, in the guise of an Ed Tech person, some time available for professional development where they can try out new things and, the most important ingredient, the desire to improve teaching strategies so technology is seamless in their classrooms.  

Alan November reminded me that it's not about the technology.  Really.  I know that.  The technology is the tool that I need to align my 'teaching' with the big picture; their learning.  He reminded me of four goals that I gave myself a while back and I'd like to share with you.  If I can remember these goals, then the worry about keeping up with the technology is mitigated by the bigger picture of achieving these goals.  He's right on when he says that students need to:

1.  deal with massive amounts of information
2.  connect their learning and produce content for an authentic audience
3.  establish global connections and develop global empathy
4.  be self-directed in their learning

I was in that audience!
I have heard him speak before.  He was in Montreal in 2009 and I attended the BLC 2010 conference in Boston.  (It's expensive but if you can get funding, it's worth every cent!)  I remember hearing him speak of these four goals and thinking to myself, "Yea, I know that one!  Yup, that's true.  Yea, that looks like me."

I try hard to improve my teaching and I'm not afraid to wade into unknown waters.  My students, (bless them) are used to being 'guinea pigs' and understand that the classroom is where we try new things.  But every once in a while, I have to step back and remember the big picture.  Everything we do, all the content we teach, assessments we design and conversations that we have with them should support the bigger picture: their future as citizens in a world we can only imagine, darkly, through a glass.  We can't be sure that most of  the content we teach will be relevant in a few years, but we surely know that if we coach them on autonomy, mastery and authenticity, as outlined by Alan's four goals, we've got to be on the right track.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Loving TED

If you are like many teachers I know, is one of your favorite spots on the web for "brain juicing" and creative muscle flexing.  I first started using TED for my own learning but quickly brought the best ones into the classroom and by now, they are an integral part of my social science courses.  Maybe you have already found Jackie Gerstein's wiki, Teaching with TED, or this invaluable directory of every TED talk ever given!

TED talks have a certain magic to them; they're inspirational, educational and can be transformational.  When my students listen to Isabel Allende speak of passion or Adora Svitak remind students that their voices count, they are deeply moved and dare to dream of what might be possible for them.  Adora says it well: you have to first dream of something before you can realize it.

If this resonates with you, then head over to and listen to the mash up of past TED speakers on the subject dear to all our hearts; education.  If you are moved by that, then scroll down and fill out the form indicating your interest in participating in the "TED-ED Brain Trust" (click on the chevrons to get to the form).  Who knows where it can lead?  Jump in and add your voice. I just did.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Transformational Blogging

PS22 is the dynamite choir from New York that sang at the Oscar's last Sunday night.

 I stumbled upon this choir and their incredible teacher last year when I was looking for lyrics to Stevie Nicks' Landslide for a lesson on the power of metaphor put to music.  (It was my third post as a new blogger where I reflected on reasons why teachers use technology in the classroom: for the connections it makes possible.)  I will never forget the impact that hearing these voices had on my grade 10 students.  As I reflect on this now,  I understand that these young voices resonated with my students so deeply not only because of the magic of music but also because they were an example of what can be achieved when they world listens to your voice.  Read the testimonies of the artists who are touched by this choir and you will see the power the young voice has to make a difference.  I showed everyone I knew this video and soon, my colleagues and I were following the amazing journey of Mr. B and his incredible kids.

Their successes have been simply breathtaking.  This teacher's seemingly simple decision to blog about his class and publish their voices for the world to  hear is one of the best reasons I know to connect your classroom and students to social media.  Something transformational happens when students (and teachers!) write, create and share for an authentic audience.  In this instance, the young artists of PS22 are not the only benefactors; it seems that adults are profoundly moved by their voices and the hope that this new generation represents.

It is simply amazing what kids can do.  Connect them to a real audience and help them find a 'real' voice.  Thanks to Mr. B for sharing these voices with the world.