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.

Now what?


Photo credit

After TED and Saturday’s workshops, I asked myself the above question and then quickly remembered– Oh yeah! I’m bringing two students to the Board Office (insert angelic chorus and shaft of light beaming down from the heavens–just kidding. I’ve worked there. I know.) to share their experiences with Ning and bookclubs with some intermediate teachers.

I feel like I’ve missed a lot of class lately so I was feeling a little guilty but now as I sit at home at 3:30(!) sipping a caramel machiatto and eating some cookies and reflecting on the day–guilt be gone! I did–or rather–we did good today!

My super smart and talented friend Heather who I abandoned last year to return to the classroom asked me if I’d be willing to come and speak at the final sessions of a series of Creating Strategic Readers workshops. Now while I’m thrilled to be back in the classroom there are a number of things I really miss about being a learning coordinator:

  • having time to direct my own professional learning
  • being a part of important board initiatives
  • being in the loop
  • the salad bar in the cafeteria
  • being able to go to the washroom whenever I want (!)
  • But mostly — I miss working with all the cool people (particularly Heather–or H-Dawg as I like to call her. It’s her street name. It’s a thing. … never mind)

So when Heather asked me to come in I was really excited–also because I got to share things that I’d actually tried with students–unlike last year where I had to speak in theoretical terms which was often frustrating. Heather also asked me if I could bring some students.

I chose two girls from my 4C class last semester. They weren’t the highest achievers in my class and they weren’t the stereotypical “good students”, but they were really great kids–one very outgoing and confident, and one a little shy and quiet. We drove down to the board office and I explained to the girls that I would talk for a bit, but that the teachers would be way more interested in what they had to say.

The girls rocked! It was so awesome when a teacher asked me a question and I was able to redirect to the girls. eg/ Teacher: So did you find that the boys in the class were more engaged when using your class Ning?

Me: Girls?

Superstar student #1: Oh yeah!

Superstar student #2: Totally!

Superstar student #1: Like Andrew–he’d never read a book before!

Teacher: But what about bullying? How did you find the other students were when it came to saying inappropriate things?

Me: Girls?

Superstar Student #1: Well, like Ms. Barker was monitoring everything so we know we couldn’t say bad stuff–not that we would–

Superstar Student #2: Yeah, and actually I felt like the opposite happened. Like even if you didn’t really like someone, you were still writing positive comments. It’s like were a big team and we all want to help each other out.

Me: I paid them to say that.

So cool. The girls were great. I think the coolest part was what we talked about when on the way home. The girls talked about how teachers needed to be open-minded and try new things and they liked it when teachers tried to value the things they did outside of class. I know they were only two of my students, but it was so nice to feel like all of my hunches about what made good teaching were true at least for them. Plus they were so much more credible as experts than I ever could be.

No, the coolest part was when I overheard a teacher say to another teacher “They’re awesome!”

And sure, some of the teachers were resistant, or they felt like they couldn’t do this with their students, or that it must take way too much time, but now that I’m a classroom teacher, my response is simple: Yes it takes time. Yes there are challenges. But it’s worth it to me because I see the difference it makes in my students’ learning. If you feel like you’ve got enough challenges right now, or you don’t think it’s worth the time, don’t do it. I’m just sharing.

So liberating. Seriously. Last year when teachers would push back or come up with excuses I would get really defensive. Now I smile and nod and say, “Then this may not be the right choice for you.” And I can say that because I know what works for me and it’s totally worth it–especially when I hear Superstar Student # 2 say “Wow I think we really rocked that, don’t you?”

Yep. We rocked that.


Danika Barker; live

This Friday I was lucky enough to be asked to speak at an independently organized TED event. When Jamie Weir asked me to speak way back in … October?… I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I was flattered, but I also have a habit of saying yes to things when they seem very far away, and then deciding how to make it work later.


Well April 9th popped up pretty fast! Oh, and did I mention I also agreed to present two workshops at our board’s big technology conference the next morning? Why? WHY?

I knew that I wanted to talk about my action research project but trying to figure out how to cram all that into a 5 minute talk was quite daunting. I managed to pick out the highlights–I hope–and tell people why I thought Ning was such a great teaching and learning tool. I made cute slides. I memorized and rehearsed. I picked out my shoes. I believe my shoes were a trending topic on Twitter that night.

The night was a blur! One minute I was suggesting iPhone apps to Paul Finkelstein.


The next minute I was discussing the dubious merits of Fast Eddie’s with Dan Misener (whilst lusting after his iPad).


And then, somehow, I was up!

And the computer running my slides threw a tantrum and had to be rebooted while I tried to make small talk and considered beat-boxing to fill the dead time. Technology glitches aside, I made it through the talk, and I really appreciate all the hard work the tech team did to jump over those impossible-to-foresee hurdles. My Twitter friends were so supportive and kind and thanks to the miracle of technology, my friends and family were able to watch online. So cool!

I felt a little out of my league when I realized I was speaking at the same event as Alec Couros, Jesse Brown, Ray Zahab, Paul Finkelstein, (aw, heck, EVERYONE. Check out this roster of speakers), but what an amazing opportunity to network and be inspired.

Small confession: I was such a nervous wreck, I did a very bad job at mingling. There were so many people I wanted to meet face to face, but as soon I was done talking, I hid in the green room and scarfed a sub. There. I admit it. But I wasn’t alone. After giving a hilarious and engaging talk, Jesse Brown, co-founder of Bitstrips


joined me in the greenroom and we had a great chat about technology in schools, visual literacy, and the surprising positive side of the partial anonymity that social networking creates. He was awesome!

I also got to chat with Kathy Hibbert who I’ve followed on Twitter for a while and finally got to meet face to face. It was so nice to see that I wasn’t the only nervous one! I wish I’d been able to stick around for her talk but I had to be up early to present at Medway early the next morning.

Did I mention that I finally got to meet Jamie Weir face to face? Read her blog here.


She and the rest of her crew should be very proud.

A huge thanks to Jamie, Rodd, Ben, Kim, Sharon, Colin, and everyone else who worked to make Friday night happen. It was a night I will never forget.

Photo of the Day: TEDxOntarioEd Team

And now, here’s my TEDx talk:

So I changed my mind

My original action research plan was hampered by my failure to remember who teenagers are and that perhaps trying to get them to share information that they may deem too private and personal would defeat my original purpose.

So with that in mind I moved on to a different plan. With no further ado, here is my rough draft of my introduction:

Getting in the Car: An Analogy About the Perceived Risks of Using Web 2.0 in the Classroom

carphoto source

I know many teachers who are concerned with the idea of having an online identity. Their discomfort is such that they attempt to keep their digital footprints as small as possible. I’m aware that I need to remind myself that some teachers haven’t had enough time to spend thinking about this issue, and so they’re not aware of a lot of the fear-mongering that exists in the public and also within our profession. They also have legitimate concerns that could be addressed, in many cases through some conversation and practice.

But before teachers buy in to web 2.0 they need to see the benefits. The need to see these benefits so they’re willing to weigh the risks. So I plan to make one of my professional goals to model effective use of web 2.0 with my students and in my professional practice.

Another thing that I find helpful is using this analogy:

There are a lot of dangers that I risk when I chose to drive my car. I could get into an accident. I could hurt someone else. I could get lost and not be able to find my way home. I could drive to the mall and spend all my money on cute shoes (okay, some risks are greater than others). But I still get in the car because it’s an effective way for me to get from point A to point B. It makes it easier for me to get to work, and I can go to the mall to buy cute shoes (Many of my analogies include shoes). I know a lot of things that I can do to help reduce my risk when driving and I do those things. I’m not prepared to give up driving my car because of the risks associated with it.

For me, the car= web 2.0. Simple.


I’ve learned so much this year that it’s tempting to throw myself into every initiative that comes across my desk and to want to change everything about my teaching all at once.

It’s tempting.

It’s also INSANE!

So I’ve decided to set some priorities for next year, and I’m following the model that my friend Kevin shared with me, that he learned from a speaker in his Master’s class. This person held up one hand and said that he was so busy he decided that he would have five priorities (Get it? Five fingers? Five priorities. I guess you only get to have six priorities if you’re the bad guy who killed Inigo Montoya’s father, in which case you’re going to die anyway so…) not just for work, but for your life. If something doesn’t fit one of those priorities you have to say no. Easier said than done, but I’ll give it a try. I just need to figure out what my priorities are.

Well first of all, it seems important to me to make sure that my relationships with my family and friends should be at the top of my priority list.

Then health. That can be physical, mental, and spiritual.

Yikes! That only leaves three left for professional priorities!

All right, well we all know that I want to find ways to bring more web 2.0 into the classroom even if I don’t have a beautiful shiny wifi Apple-sponsored computer lab (But seriously, that would be amazing).

Two left!

Assessment and Evaluation: No big surprise there. I want to continue to refine my understanding of good assessment and evaluation practices and how to bring together the ideal and the reality in order to support students. I like this one because it encompasses a lot of other things that I’m passionate about.

One left! Well people keep asking me what my ultimate goal is in this profession. Do I want to go into admin? Do I want to go back to the board office? Do I want to go to grad school? For now, I’ve decided that my ultimate goal is to be a really really good teacher. To some people that may not sound like a terribly ambitious goal, but it is to me. I think it’s easy to become complacent in this profession. I think that you have to keep pushing yourself to get better and to continue to see yourself as a learner. I never want to have the attitude that “I’ve been doing this for 20 years; there’s nothing new anyone can tell me about teaching.”  So my fifth priority is to view myself as a professional learner. That may sound a bit too vague but I know what it means.

So that’s it for now. I may come back and revise these later. Do you have any priorities or goals for next year?

Generation Share

“Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.” – George Orwell

When people talk about Generation Y or the Net Generation, they’re almost talking about me, although I think technically, I’m part of Generation X.  I’m a little too young to really fall into Generation X, and a little too old to relate to Generation Y, so I think I have an interesting–though far from unique perspective. I feel a bit more like an observer.

I was just thinking about all the applications out there that are designed to share information and collaborate: Limewire, Google docs, Scribd, YoutubeFlicker, Wikipedia, Facebook, etc. and I know that a lot of people –and I don’t want to make this an age thing, but let’s admit, it is a generational thing– are a little turned off by this. It’s invasive. But the idea of sharing information seems to be something that the younger generation take for granted. Why would I keep something I made or thought about to myself when I can share it with other people and get instant feedback? There are definitely dangers inherent in this, I won’t argue that, but this isn’t a post about internet safety.

Thinking back to conversations I’ve had with other teachers, some have them have candidly expressed an unwillingness to share their lesson plans and ideas. “I worked so hard on it,” one teacher said to me. “I don’t want someone else taking it and screwing it up, or taking credit for work they didn’t do.”

I understand that sentiment completely , maybe because I’m not part of Generation Y. But I suspect that this sentiment isn’t as common with younger people because they have grown up in an age where information is accessible all the time, and where you don’t have to be picked up by a publisher in order to be published.

Are our students better at sharing than we are? If so, what will the implications be?

Preparing our students for Yesterday Today!

My brain is full. That’s a good thing though. I think.

At the conference today, the two keynote speakers really stressed the fact that we are preparing our students for a future that we can’t even imagine using technology, strategies, and pedagogy that really hasn’t evolved much since the 19th century.

Public education as we know it today grew to develop a population of literate workers for the industrial revolution. But what did that actually mean? 

It meant that workers needed to be able to read print (maybe), do simple arithmetic, and follow instructions. So we told students to sit in rows, be quiet, do the same thing as everyone else, and not ask too many questions.

Well, jobs that require workers who can do that are rapidly declining.

And yet, the majority of classrooms still bear a striking resemblance to those 19th century classrooms. 

And I can’t TELL you how tired I am of the response, “Well that’s what they’re going to get in university so we might as well prepare them for it.”

First of all, if we acknowledge that something qualifies as “bad teaching” then doing more “bad teaching” to prepare them for “bad teaching” seems ludicrous to me!

Secondly, we as teachers have this mindset that we need to prepare the majority of our students for university (because we did, and probably most of our friends did), when the fact is that very few of them are GOING to university–and not because they’re not smart enough, but because many of them realize that having a degree behind their name isn’t a guarantee of anything anymore.

 Sir Ken Robinson on how schools kill creativity

I strongly believe that the world they encounter within school at least needs to acknowledge the richness of the world that exists for these students outside of school. They’re doing all kinds of learning without us. Think of the potential for learning that could happen if we saw ourselves as facilitators. We don’t need to teach the kids how to use the technology, but we need to give them opportunities to use it to demonstrate to us what they know.

Now, I have to figure out how to do that in my classroom. 


David Warlick’s Presentation

When I get cranky about technophobia, this is what I’m talking about. David Warlick’s presentation explains why we need to change the way we teach in order to prepare our students for the 21st century. He asks, how much time do we have before our students will expect our classrooms to mirror the real world in terms of being digitally connected?

If you want to learn more about this, go to David Warlick’s blog. He has links to all of his presentations. Super cool.

Our Students • Our Worlds