• I’ve moved!

    Join me at http://thoughtsarefree.org.

I’ve finally moved up in the world to my own domain. Hope you’ll visit me at http://thoughtsarefree.org now and again.

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I’m a terrible writer. By the time you read this, I’ll have spent well over two hours agonizing over word choice, fiddling with sentence structure, worrying whether what I write is right.

And yet, I write.

I made middling grades in English composition. While I never produced a failing paper, I was never the one whose writing made it to the bulletin board as an example of the power of words. The margins of my essays were filled with more critical comments than kind words of encouragement. Even today, as I write, I see the red marks that would fill the spaces between the thoughts I’m trying to get out.

But still, I write.

Fifteen years ago, I was asked to begin writing for an education company’s website. The pieces I wrote were sent in to an editor who crafted my submissions into coherent text. I felt a twinge of guilt with every piece I submitted as I knew there were others who could have done a better job.  Today, I still write occasionally for publication, though I recognize the fact that my training as a math and science teacher left me unprepared for this role.

In spite of that, I write.

Five years ago, I started a blog. I don’t write here as often as I should to be considered a “real blogger.” I’ve got more drafts than posts because I can’t always convince myself that hitting the publish button isn’t going to cause others to think less of me because of my writing. I don’t have many readers, but that’s not a big surprise since I’m not terribly witty or brilliant.  But, I’ve begun to realize that the process of putting words on paper — be it of the electronic or the pencil/pen variety — is important to me. Somewhere in the process of writing I get to meet a side of me that I didn’t know was there. I start to explore my own learning and go deeper into the connections between what I feel and what I want to understand.

When I write, I grow. While I write, I learn.

Because of that, I write.

PS. This post is also published at the National Gallery of Writing. Why don’t you submit something there too?

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In the early 1990′s, I was a 5th grade teacher in a public school, just starting my second year of teaching. A majority of my students and their families lived far below the poverty line and far too many of my students came to school unfed, with little evidence of more than the most cursory parental care.

I worked hard to develop a sense of wonder in my students. We explored electricity using aluminum foil strips as wire to figure out how to light a bulb with a battery. We cared for a menagerie of snakes, lizards, fish and mice. We learned fractions and decimals and how they helped to answer questions to problems we invented from the world around us. I cared deeply for my students as I fought to help them see themselves as learners. That sometimes meant we dealt with issues far outside the daily curriculum. Gang problems in their neighborhood. Guns accidentally left in a jacket pocket by an older sibling. Hunger. Illness. Fear. They had more than enough reasons to give up on learning. But they chose to learn anyway

And then there was T… who spent two periods a day in my class for Math and Science. While I had come to expect that most of my students would need a little extra TLC to be able to function as learners in my classroom, T.. was the student I couldn’t reach. He came to class disheveled and distracted. He rarely spoke. Often times he would spend more of his time under his desk or wandering the back of the room than engaged in activities with the rest of the class. I worked with T.. as best I could and asked our school guidance counselor to help me figure out how we could get help for T… These were the days before cell phones and since many of my families didn’t even have a land line phone, I’d send home notes hoping to get in contact with T..’s mother. I’d send home quarters (something I did for many of my students) hoping that perhaps T…’s mom would take the city bus to visit us at school. Mostly, I just tried to let T.. know he was accepted as part of our class whenever he was ready to join in.

Then came the week that T.. didn’t show up for school at all. The week that the article showed up in the newspaper about T..’s youngest sister.

article

I can’t imagine the horror T… lived every day. None of us can. For T…, school was simply a refuge. Learning wasn’t his goal. Survival was.

After the incident, T… was taken in by a relative. I still think of him often and wonder how life has treated him since. I wonder what else I should have done. I wonder how the expectations for learning even fit into his 11 year old world. I wonder how a standardized test would have assessed the needs of such a child.

And so I ask, to those who plan to “fix” the education system by developing more accountability measures and more ways to quantify what’s wrong with education….how will any of these things make sure that the kids like T.. are cared for? How will you account for the insurmountable obstacles teachers face every day that aren’t measured in percentiles or minutes on task?

To those of you who sit outside the system, yet feel an obligation to tell teachers how to fix education…

Could you take a few minutes to fix this too?

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There are a lot of questions rolling around in my head right now. I’m suspecting that by the time I finish writing this post, there will be as many question marks as periods. I’m also pretty sure that’s not going to be a bad thing, especially if you can help me explore the space that lies between the questions I’m pondering and the answers I hope to find.

How do you learn? How do you work from a space of ignorance to one of expertise? What conditions must exist for learners to feel empowered to invent their own learning paths? And who is responsible for that ensuring that learning occurs?

While the video is meant to be an observation of our tendency to be  a sedentary society, I can relate to it because it can also be seen as a metaphor for the inertia I sometimes see in education when it comes to technology use.

I’m disheartened when I hear someone say to me “I couldn’t get anyone to answer my technology question and so I gave up.” What does that model for our students? If there’s no-one there to light the way from step A to step B, does that mean we shouldn’t explore the way on our own?

In the early 1990s, Gerald Grow proposed  the “Stages Self Directed Learning Model” to explore how instruction can be built to move learners through 4 stages of learning:

  1. Dependent Learner with Authoritative Coach. Direct instruction, drill and lecture are the primary modes of learning.
  2. Interested Learner with Guide. Lectures followed by guided discussions are a primary mode of learning.
  3. Involved Learner with Facilitator. Learning consists of activities such as group discussions among those who are considered equals.
  4. Self-directed Learner with Consultant. Independent research and self-directed study are primary modes of learning.

In the 21 years I’ve been at this, I’ve seen far too many teachers who leave the technology sitting in the back of the room, not because they’ve consciously decided it doesn’t meet their instructional needs, but because they’re waiting for someone to show them what to do next. I’m willing to serve as an authoritative coach or guide and give them support as they explore new tools. But, I don’t want them to be continually dependent on someone else to help them learn how technology works. I want to move them to a space where they can be involved and self-directed.

I worry sometimes when we try to make things easier for our end users. When we give them pre-packaged activity sites and lesson plans and call it technology integration. I’m not sure I always want to make things easy. Accessible, sure. Attainable, absolutely. But easy implies that there is no effort or cognitive load required to achieve a desired outcome. It assumes that people can never progress beyond a dependence on others to know how or what to do next.

Learning is hard. It’s filled with obstacles and road blocks. In my mind, easy should be a 4 letter word. Because by making things easy, we’re obscuring the opportunities to help people learn not only the task at hand, but the ways to continually learn in the future. By always making things easy, we’re removing the opportunities to learn how to move from the unfamiliar to the understandable.

I’m intrigued with Grow’s theory, especially as it applies to the work we’re doing to help teachers learn how to learn about using technology. What Grow proposes can be a model for moving folks beyond the training model of technology instruction – one that’s easy to deliver, but doesn’t often lead to changed instructional practices. He also ends his paper as I will this post; with more things to ponder.

I’m asking myself three questions quite often lately. How can I structure the learning opportunities I provide so that they build understanding in a way that empowers users? How can I make sure I’m not enabling helplessness while still providing support? How can I help teachers grow to see themselves as learners too?

Those are a few of the questions I’m wrestling with right now. And it’s not easy.

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As we move through the teacher research process with our Digital Learning Collaborative Cohort 2 participants, I’ll be working on my own teacher research project alongside them.  We’re using the text “The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Teacher Research” as our text to help us walk through the process. We’ll all be sharing our research progress on the SVVSD Instructional Technology Blog. Join us if you like by posting your wondering here.

One of the first things we’re working through is how to refine our passions and wonderings into a question that will lead to a research question.  In my role as a district instructional technologist, I’m passionate about helping teachers and students explore technology as a tool to both make meaning of the world and to demonstrate their understanding of the world they live in. I’m interested in exploring the intersection of teaching strategies within the context of our current educational system. As I mentioned in my previous post, I want to look at who is doing the “doing” when it comes to technology use in classrooms. Is it the teacher? Students? A combination of both? And what difference does that make in terms of educational outcomes and student engagement?

I think to get started, I want to spend some time looking at the cultural cues that might influence how we believe technology should be used in education.  In the past several years, I’ve been noticing a change in what I see as I open the typical EdTech Magazine. When I look at the advertisements that promote the “latest and greatest” products, I’m noticing a couple of things:

  • There are far more advertisements that illustrate what teachers are doing with technology than what students are doing with technology.
  • When students are shown using technology, it is more often an activity at the lowest levels of Bloom’s through an automated learning/intervention system or by using a student response system such as a “clicker”

How do these types of advertisements influence how we see technology as an instructional tool? Or are they just an indication of our current state of education?

For the next couple of months, I’m going to spend time examining the advertisements and articles in several EdTech periodicals and see if the data I collect is useful. Many of the regular periodicals are available in a digital format – eSchoolNews, Tech&Learning, ISTE’s Learning and Leading – I think I’ll start with those to see what I find.

I want to take note of the educational process being supported (assessment, teacher led instruction, individualized intervention, student media creation, research, etc) and examine what level of student interaction and engagement is supported by the tool. What are the advertisements and articles saying about what we value (or perhaps more accurately what we’re being told to value)  in education today?

I don’t know if this wondering is going to be terribly useful in terms of getting me to the point where I think I want my research project to take me, but I’m curious enough to want to spend time exploring my thoughts and sharing them here over the next couple of months.

What thoughts and feedback can you give me as I start my exploring my wondering?

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Note: If you’re reading this tonight, May 12, you’ll notice there aren’t any links to the posts or people I reference. It’s late and WordPress on the iPad’s still a bit limited. I’ll add them in tomorrow. Promise.

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Recently in this space, I’ve written about a project going on in our district called the Digital Learning Collaborative (DLC). It’s our attempt to give teachers the time and support they need to effectively insert technology into their classroom in meaningful ways. In year one, we’ve worked with folks to help them develop personal professional proficiency with a variety of digital tools including laptops, document cameras, web tools and more. In addition, we spent a great deal of time helping teachers become reflective and collaborative practitioners, with the knowledge that we’d be asking them to apply those skills to an action research project in year two.

And here we are at the end of year one. I can truly say that it’s been a wonderful experience this year, and I’m looking forward to watching and listening as our cohort of DLC participants go through the process of exploring questions around their wonderings.

But, it seems a bit unfair to set them off on this process without working through a bit of it ourselves. Bud’s shared his thoughts about where he’ll be doing some thinking on his blog. What follows is my attempt to do the same.

I’ve always been interested in the balance between teacher and student work in the classroom and the types of experiences technology enables. I’m a constructivist at heart and often wonder how much of the time teachers spend creating and using technology supports for their lessons is worth it. That sounds bit harsher than I probably intend, but what I’m suspecting is that the hours I see spent by teachers on creating interactive activities, PowerPoints, and the like are less effective in impacting student achievement than the hours spent allowing students to get their hands on the tools to construct and display their own meanings.

I want to spend some time paying attention to the ways that both teachers and students interact with technology in the classroom. Who’s in the driver’s seat when tech is part of a lesson? To what end is the tech being used? What types of activities is the tech supporting? And what’s the outcome in terms of student learning?

A secondary interest (I’m allowed to wonder about many things, right?) is in how teachers make instructional decisions related to the tech they choose (or don’t choose) to make part of a lesson.  I dabbled a bit with friend and creative thinker Tom Woodward a bit last year on the concept through a project called Iron Teacher. I want to get back to thinking with teachers about the processes that are behind creating engaging lessons.

The good news is that we’ll have a group of teachers making use of technology in lots of different ways next year. Plus, they’ll be sharing publicly what they’re up to. I hope to do a bit of aggregating and collecting of their reflections as well as that of their students. I’m interested in what they have to say. Mostly, I’m interested in using their experiences to help understand what and how classroom tech makes a difference in student engagement and learning. Is showing a video enough? Is making a video with students too much? What helps teachers decide which and when each is the right fit?

My own teacher research project is going to be a lot less quantifiable than I’m used to. I spent many years as a math teacher and for me the data is in the numbers. I’m quite comfortable in using data to tell a story. The concept of story as data will be a new experience for me, but it’ll be a good one. I hope you’ll check in from time to time to let me know what you think about my thinking.

And while you’re at it, check in on our teachers now and then too. We’ll be setting up a collective space on our district blog server (most likely in the Instructional Technology blog)  for all of us to share. I know they’ll appreciate the feedback as much as I will.

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I’m thinking a lot lately about leadership, partly because of the work I’m doing to help pull together the TIE+ISTE Leadership Bootcamp, but also because we’re working to develop leadership capacity on many levels in our district.

And what I’m thinking about is the fact that good leadership is as much about communicating as it is about commanding. Maybe even more.

Seth Godin wrote a post a while back where he defines leaders as connectors. A good leader isn’t someone who can just get the message out. It’s someone who can also get others to connect and communicate around that message and treat it as a shared belief.   With all the tools at our disposal now, seems that should be easy. But somehow, it’s seems tougher because of the number of tools and spaces where people can connect.

Lately, I’m realizing that the platform and method is less important than the fact that your message is out there. Pick a tool or two and use them. Use them often for both big and small ideas.  And then pay attention to the thoughts and ideas that come back to you.

In our district,  I’m seeing two tools being used by more and more of our departments – Blogs and Twitter.  Rather than static web spaces where information changes at a snail’s pace, I feel like I’ve got an opportunity to be a part of the happenings of the district as they’re happening. It gives me and the larger community a way to join in the conversations being started. It also makes my job as instructional technologist for the district easier because I’ve got a lens that helps me focus on what’s going on. And so the people I’m paying lots of attention to as leaders in our district are the ones who’ve taken on the role of communicator and who’ve found a way to use the tools to create a community around their message.

I’m curious about what others are doing to communicate their message and build communities around them.  How do you see the leaders in your district communicating? How are they building community around their vision?

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If you’re not busy tonight (March 10) at around 7:00 PM Mountain, we’d love to have you join us for a free online session hosted in Elluminate. Bud Hunt will be presenting a session entitled “Amplified, Customized, & Maximized” where he will introduce the Leadership Bootcamp, talk about how to get involved, and also discuss how learning networks have, do and will continue to play a major role in communication practices.

You can link directly to Bud’s presentation here.

The session is in support of an event that will be occurring prior to the ISTE Conference this summer in Denver. On June 26, TIE (our local Colorado technology group) and ISTE (the International Society for Technology in Education) will be hosting a one day event for Leaders from all levels (school and district administrators, IT professionals, classroom teachers, librarians, district coordinators, and others). The day is designed to help participants engage in a day of learning and thinking that will lead to developing a working plan for improving communication and collaboration practices in their schools or districts. You can register for the day long event through the ISTE website ($155).  However, all of the online events are free and open to all.

You can learn more about the Leadership Bootcamp by visiting this site. There’s also a community of participants who are beginning to converse and share ideas through the Leadership Bootcamp Ning.

Hope to see you there.

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This is a post which lives at the St. Vrain Instructional Technology Blog.  Share your thoughts here or head over to the original post and let us know what you’re thinking.

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Back in October, we kicked off the Digital Learning Collaborative program here in SVVSD. The program was formed from a desire to revamp our existing practices in technology PD. It’s not enough to give one-shot professional development to people and hope they use the digital tools in their classroom effectively. In order to ensure that technology is used effectively, we need to do more.

We framed the program around three thoughts that were at the center of our beliefs on professional learning:

We know three things:

  • Learning takes time. Time to play and explore and analyze and reflect.
  • Learning is a social process. We learn best together and with each other’s help.
  • Learning about technology should be embedded within sound instructional practices. But often it’s not.

And so we began with a vision of a two year professional development process which gives teachers time to explore and learn technology as they build their own personal professional proficiency and then guides them through an action research process where the technology skills they’ve gained will be used in support of student learning.

From our application:

The Digital Learning Collaborative (DLC) is applying what we know to what we do. As part of a two-year commitment to professional growth, teachers work in collaborative teams to develop personal and professional proficiency with technology and innovative instructional practices, ultimately resulting in increased student achievement. Participating teachers will receive a laptop, projector, document camera, and sound amplification system in year one along with time, training and support in using the equipment. Teachers will have opportunities to enhance their practice in a supportive environment of constructive risk-taking.

While year one will focus on building teacher skills, year two is all about giving teachers the time and resources to think about the intersection of student learning and classroom technology. Teachers will engage in an action research process where they identify areas of student need and apply technology resources as tools to increase student achievement. Each team will focus on an identified need and work with curriculum experts on actively engaging students in learning through collaborative practices, inquiry, and challenge-based projects.

Joining us this year were 21 teams from 15 schools. Our teams are varied, consisting of a team leader who works with between 3 and 5 peers. We kicked off the program with a two day training for team leaders in which we spent a majority of our time helping them develop skills in working with adult learners and learning to create and implement professional growth goals with their teams. Much of that training came from our office of Professional Development and incorporated skills from the Adaptive Schools program which has been widely implemented here in St. Vrain. Less than half of our training time was spent in actually teaching tech skills. Our reasoning in that decision was that while they have the remainder of the year to build skills in technology use, the importance of starting out as a productive, functioning team would influence all their future work.

We’re about two-thirds of the way through Year 1 with our first groups. Mostly, it’s been a successful opportunity to build both leadership capacity and technology proficiency within our staff. Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

1. Building a frame for the work helps to guide team leaders. Keeping the frame as open as possible keeps the work from becoming “worksheeted”

What we’ve required of participants can be boiled down to a few simple instructions. We’ve used our district’s Google Apps for Ed space to provide supports for these required processes:

We’ve not mandated what those goals should focus on. (And we’ve seen everything from iPods as learning tools to building virtual class spaces.) We’ve only asked that they share those goals and their progress with us and with other teams. Which leads to the next point…

2. Time and space to learn need to incorporate both the physical and the virtual connections and include connections beyond the school walls.

While monthly team meetings build the collegiality and collaboration within an individual team, there are two other levels of collaborative support to provide:

  • the support among team leaders as they share successes, challenges and resources with their fellow team leaders and
  • the space for “cross pollination” between teams.

We’ve been providing this through Moodle. In our virtual community, we’ve created a space with a forum and resources that are open to all teams and team leaders, a space that’s exclusively for team leaders , and spaces for each team. What’s powerful about this model is that all teams are open for viewing by all other teams. If one school is interested in following along in the work of another team, they can. The cross-collaboration is just starting to build, but we’re hoping it will continue to grow into an important part of the process.

3. The most important quality in a team leader isn’t tech skill, it’s team skill.

Our most successful teams aren’t those where the leader has the most tech proficiency. It’s the teams where the team leader sees their role as a co-learner. We’ve developed a process to help teams direct their learning about the hardware and tools they’ve been provided and so far it’s been a successful part of both framing their learning and sharing what they’ve learned with the entire community.

We’ve learned a lot so far, and as we move forward, there are also a couple of things I think we’ll work on improving:

  1. Developing connections beyond our district boundaries to support our teams in their learning.
  2. Building more opportunities for reflective practice and feedback.
  3. Offering opportunities for peer mentoring through class visits among teams.

It’s exciting to see how far our teams have progressed and even more exciting to see where Year 2 will take us. In just a couple of months, our second cohort of teams will begin. Our vision is that the Digital Learning Collaborative model will be an embedded part of professional learning in our district for years to come.

We’re always interested in hearing how others are going about this work as well as feedback from our existing teams and team leaders about what we can do to improve the process.

Who’s doing similar work?

What lessons can we learn from one another?

What can you share that will make this process even better?

We hope you’ll let us know.

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Most districts have a Help Desk phone line to deal with day-to-day questions that might arise when users face a problem.  In St. Vrain Valley, the Help Desk Blog is evolving into a one-stop shop for information and updates. It’s my nomination for  the Edublog Awards Best Educational Tech Support Blog, because it’s truly a model of what good communication practices look like in district-level IT work.

Dan and Becky (the SVVSD Help Desk Team) use the blog to gather information relevant to users (such as the Contacts listings at the top of the blog), provide links to common resources, and add posts related to the questions or issues they’re seeing often on any given day.

Check out their blog and pass it on to your own Help Desk folks as a model.

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