Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century: The Sequel

Lots of sequels come out in the summer time (I think… Just go with it), and the OTF Teaching and Learning in the 21st Century conference was no exception. I was lucky to attend the conference last February as a panelist discussing my take on the use of social media in the classroom. Then I was doubly lucky to be able to hang out with Will Richardson (who’s played a huge role in influencing my philosophy about technology in the classroom) during the Minds on Media sessions the following day.

For the #OTF21C sequel (check that hashtag on twitter to see an archive of the tweets from the past three days), I got to repeat my panelist role but also became a Minds on Media facilitator (which meant less time picking Will’s brain but more time hanging with cool teachers eager to learn about blogging).

The panel discussion was essentially very similar to the one back in February. I noticed the same tension between those people (students, teachers, consultants) who are working with social media and those people (union representatives) tasked with protecting teachers from the potential dark side of social media. And I noticed Will biting his tongue at times (Excellent restraint, Will!). I just hope that down the road there will be teachers and students and administrators who shake their heads with amusement as they look back on the “old days” when we were all filled with angst about technology. There was one question toward the end of the panel from a teacher who was very concerned that students might be spending too much time in front of screens to the detriment of their physical and socio-emotional well-being. I’ve started to get a little tired and frustrated by questions like this, but I have to exercise a little more patience. I think I replied with something like, “Maybe, but people said the same thing about books, when books became more readily accessible. Same argument; different medium.” It is the same argument, but I have to remember that this is still a new and threatening area for some people so they may not see it as being the same.

After the panel Brian and I braved the record-breaking temperatures outside the hotel to visit Melanie McBride and Jason Nolan at the EDGE lab which is part of Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone. Wow is this place ever mind blowing! Read more about it here. After a tour, we headed upstairs where all the different teams worked. It’s an eclectic group. There were teams working on everything from mobile health apps (VitalHub) to game development (HugeMonster Inc.). And then there were research teams including EDGE lab where my friend Melanie works. The EDGE lab itself was a pretty eclectic group made up of people who brought unique and often opposing perspectives. Noah and Jason demonstrated some soft circuit prototypes they had developed to help adorable little girl communicate in and interact with her peers in spite of her limited speech and motor skills. We had some great conversations (I can’t even begin to attempt to sum them up here) about school and learning (and how the two are quite often mutually exclusive!). It’s incredibly liberating to talk to people who are interested in education but are not constrained by the traditional education system. There are so many ideas we don’t even discuss in education because we know we “can’t do that” in our current system. We walked back to the hotel like zombies, although in fairness I think was 38 degrees in downtown Toronto with a breeze that felt like a gust from a convection oven.

Then there was some much-needed socializing, and that’s all I’ll say about that.

Friday was devoted to Minds on Media. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Minds on Media process (brilliantly organized by Peter Skillen and Brenda Sherry), unlike traditional PD where one might sign up for a session, sit in a chair and listen to the presenter’s agenda, teachers are free to move from station to station and the agenda is that of the participants. I had a bunch of links and resources prepared but essentially my first question when people arrived was, “So, what do you want to talk about?” It was exhausting, but very rewarding and I loved it when a teacher ran over to me, beaming, saying “I just wrote my first blog post! And I embedded a video!”

I love these conferences because they provide me with a chance to learn as much as (or usually more) than I present, but I also love them because they are, as Melanie would say, affinity spaces. These are spaces where I get to learn how I want with the people who I want to learn with. Thanks to all my friends, old and new, for the great experience.

Doug Peterson, a friend and prolific blogger has posted a number of reflections on his own blog which you can read here.

Reflections on ECOO 2010

The most important thing I learned was that if at all possible, attend a conference with a friend. I know I had a ton of Twitter friends at ECOO, but it was awfully nice to be able to go with my friend Wendy, both for moral support and to have someone to bounce new ideas off of.

The second most important thing I learned is to make sure your Twitter picture accurately reflects your current hairstyle, otherwise people find it very disorienting.

The third most important thing I learned is that wireless WILL cut out at a pivotal moment during your presentation, so use an ethernet cord if at all possible.

I loved the presentation by @royanlee who has become the “it” boy of technology and student engagement (Although I personally feel it’s cheating to bring your students–just kidding, Royan. Well played.). He also has absolutely, hands-down, the best delivery when it comes to dealing with difficult questions. So calm and low key. Remember me when you become the next Will Richardson, okay?

A big shout out to “Pegah the Perfect” who talked to us about her blog.

I also loved @neilstephenson’s cigar box project presentation. Talk about making history relevant! Also, he made reference to St.Thomas and Jumbo the elephant which gets him bonus points since I teach in St. Thomas.

The Pecha Kucha was something I dreaded but turned out to be one of the most positive moments of the whole weekend. I can’t wait to try this presentation style with my students. Thanks to @msjweir who asked me to present. It was great to meet @Grade1 and @peterskillen face to face, and also great to see @thecleversheep, @KimMcGill again.

It’s great to be at a conference like this because these people GET me. I’m not weird or out-there with them. People don’t look at me strangely when I talk about using Wikipedia for research and I don’t have to use my “do you ban paper because students are passing notes” analogy about cellphones. On the other hand, I have to remember that when I get back to my school, some people will wrinkle their noses when I talk about cell phones and cringe when I say Wikipedia is a good place to begin research projects. Baby steps.

And now, I give you the ECOO 2010 Pecha Kuchas, with many thanks to @colinjagoe for rockstar editing.


water lilyPhoto credit

Today was the last day of classes, and frankly, it was pretty anticlimactic. I had a couple unpleasant encounters with students that made me forcefully remind myself that I am not a bad teacher, but I didn’t exactly bring my A game today, and neither did a couple of them. That’s okay. We’re all human.

So now it’s time to reflect back on the year that was.

I was so terrified in September that I’d made a horrible mistake choosing not to reapply for my learning coordinator position. I missed my friends at the board office; I missed my friends at my old school, and I felt like an outsider at my new school. I’ve never been very good at making friends and I pretty much buried myself in my work for the first few months. Now I work out with a group of teachers after school, and I’ve gotten to know the lovely ladies with whom I share a cramped and woefully unairconditioned office. And I’m delighted to find out that the other half of my brain, Heather, will be working in the same town as me next year. Look out St. Thomas!

If I were to chart my highs and lows over the year, you’d see a big spike of anticipation and enthusiasm at the end of August that started to fall quite shockingly in September. Then it began inching its way back up in December, only to plunge down again in February. Now, I’m riding pretty high. The ideas I was so enthusiastic about last summer have now been validated and I’ve learned that although it was the immediate gratification of being in the classroom I missed last year, the best things that happened to me took a long time to come to fruition.

I don’t want to run the risk of duplicating the ideas I wrote about in my end of semester blog post, so instead I’ll keep it short and sweet and say ditto. And then some.

I made some mistakes this year, and I still have a lot to learn, but I am excited to continue the journey.

Thank you to everyone in my PLN for your support this year. And thanks especially to my friends and family, particularly my dad who sent me a text last week saying “I always say my biggest contribution to education is you.” That’s awesome.

Reflections on this semester’s love affair with technology

Othello wordle

I could use the extended metaphor of a torrid romance with a sexy bad boy to describe my experience with technology this semester, but that might a bit overblown and, some might argue, a product of my students’ obsession with Team Edward vs. Team Jacob. Zombies are also trendy right now, but I don’t think brain is equipped to fashion that metaphor right now.

So, let’s get to it.

As I finish up this semester I’ve had some hits and misses. If you’ve read some of my other posts this year (and I know, they have been few and far between. New school, new challenges, new excuses), you’ll know that I approached my classes with year with a kind of outlook that can only be described as naively optimistic. I saw rainbows and puppy dogs everywhere I looked. I assumed my students would be putty in my hands because they were digital natives and I GOT them. So, in summary:

Stumbling blocks:

  • I didn’t consider that other members of the staff might resent the fact that two English classes were scheduled in a computer lab every day when access to computer labs is already at a premium. Not my fault, but it didn’t really matter.
  • Although my students are digital natives, they were not all tech-savvy
  • Although most of my students use social networking sites and web 2.0 apps on a regular basis, a number of them balked at using these tools for educational purposes
  • Many students were opposed to sharing their work (even though many of them are okay with showing inappropriate pictures on facebook!)
  • Some of my students have adopted anti-technology positions in, what I can only assume is, a desire to please authority figures who condemn technology as frivolous or non-academic.
  • Paper: I still need paper for some things, and for some reason I feel like I’m being judged as a bad teacher if my students don’t have any paper handouts. I’m working on it.
  • Oh, and apparently I adopt every new tool that interests me.

Now, for the good news:

  • Some of my students changed their minds. I had a student tell me that initially, he was “creeped-out” by edmodo, because he didn’t really understand what it was. He is a thoughtful cautious student who has taken to heart all the warnings about the dangers of posting too much information about yourself online. As the student learned that social networking sites can be leveraged for positive purposes, he came to love edmodo because he found that he could access assignments and send me messages using a tool he was already using (um, that’s the internet if you’re wondering. Or the “the infornet” as my mother-in-law calls it).  Edmodo has been a huge success. It’s eliminated a great deal of paper–not to mention excuses.
  • Ning: I used Ning for a number of different purposes. At first I didn’t really know how I’d use it (I’m finishing my action research project on this and I’ll post it soon so I won’t go into great detail here), but eventually the most significant use became blogging. Some of my students were skeptical about the Ning at first, but their work stands for itself. They shared and read ideas they would have never otherwise encountered. They also reached much deeper levels of synthesis and analysis because their posts were not “published pieces” in a traditional sense.
  • My website and class blog. I did a pretty good job of updating my class blogs on a daily basis. Now when I scroll back through my posts, I have a wonderful series of snapshots of my semester. It’s fantastic. I never managed to update my “daybook” or planner the way I’ve kept my blog up to date.

In the immortal words of Joss Whedon, “Where do we go from here?” (Oh, Buffy, how I miss you)

  • I’m going to use Ning even more, and try to do even more with student blogging now that I have evidence that supports its effectiveness.
  • Edmodo: I need to do more training at the beginning of the semester so that students use edmodo properly. (How to submit an assignment vs. how to send a link)
  • Use less paper. I can do it!
  • Bring in Diigo. Love Diigo, but didn’t really get a chance to try it.

I think that’s plenty for now. I’ll keep you posted.

I promise.

No really!