The Visibility of Learning

The ETMOOC orientation was really cool. Not because there was some grand proposition or revolutionary breakthrough. It was cool because it was honest and spontaneous. A bunch of people who signed up because of some mix of curiosity and interest in edtech. Most seemed to be MOOC first timers (myself included) and jumped into Blackboard Collaborate, writing all over Alec Couros’ slides.

At some point, two questions were proposed during the session. The first was, “how are you making your learning visible?”  And the second was, “how are you contributing to the learning of others?” I had to think long and hard on this. It may seem like an easy question, but it’s actually pretty loaded. Hence this post is a week after the orientation session. I hope it makes sense!

Making learning visible is sharing. Not just sharing what you learned, but how you learned it, what barriers you encountered, and the successes you had. Learning is a process, and when you can share your learning process with others, it in turn might help them with their learning processes. We stand on the shoulders of giants. We can get to new heights because someone had done legwork previous to us. But how do I make my learning visible? Twitter, Instagram, blogging, and good ol’ fashioned conversation.

I firmly believe I am contributing to the learning of others. I don’t just mean my students either. I think that I help inspire other teachers to some degree. I want to do this because I’m inspired by others. When there’s a teacher at my school who’s doing something interesting, I’ll pick their brain and ask questions about it. In turn, when I come across something that I think they’ll like and use, I’ll share it with them. The great thing is that they’re much more receptive of my input because I’ve initiated the relationship of sharing by asking for their input first. Sometimes teachers feel like their teaching style/method/integrity is being attacked when someone makes a recommendation or suggestion to them. And sometimes we’re too eager to tell someone how we think we can help them. To combat this, ask about them and their teaching first! Take that pressure off. Show them that you’re a learner and want help. I guarantee in the future they’ll be more receptive towards your input.

I’ll close this post with two final thoughts. First, I believe learning is infectious. It must come by as an intrinsically motivated thing causing others to want to learn as well. So make your learning visible! Show yourself as a learner, and not always a teacher. Foster a culture and relationship of learning, not telling, because individually we don’t have all the answers. Secondly, making learning visible is about forging relationships. When we have a relationship then we must communicate. When there’s a relationship there’s a sort of tangible two-way communication line via text, speech, or video/audio. If this is done in a PLN, your audience, and influence, might reach more than you know and forge new relationships. When these communications are made visible, the more people are able to jump in and learn with you.

PS  I’m very interested in trying a Google+ hangout. Never done one before, so if you’re interested comment, tweet, or email me. Hopefully we can learn something from each other.

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Reading Aloud is Awesome

Who doesn’t like being read to? Really. It’s a grand tradition that we humans hold dearly. Initially we did it orally, passing down stories to another generation of eager listeners, then we started recording stories. We are read to as toddlers and children, but it seems that at some point in our lives, it’s not acceptable anymore. It’s like we think it’s childish to be read to. Well, I think that is wrong.

When in university doing my Arts degree, I took an English course about the legends of King Arthur. The main text we studied was Sir Thomas Malory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur”.  Well, it was written in Middle English, essentially a foreign language, and it was like learning to read again. Luckily we (the class) had an amazing professor to teach us how to read it.

First, the prof modelled for us the proper accent and annunciation, and provided us with commentary to give us a knowledge of the vocabulary and historical background.  When the class had to read, there was a sort of competition between classmates as to who could read best, added pressure to enunciate the words properly, and special attention being paid to the syntax in order to read more fluently.  Great lessons were learned in that classroom because classmates got to learn from one another, we did not have to strictly depend on our own understanding. I know for a fact that I got better at comprehending Middle English from just two classes of reading aloud than I would have just reading it on my own. Yes, there were times I was uncomfortable reading it out loud, but hard lessons aren’t easy. This is something I remembered when I did read alouds with my classes.

With my grade eight classes I recently did a novel study of “The Hobbit” by JRR Tolkien . It is a classic fantasy book that was written in the early 30’s, and it is a challenging read because of the vocabulary, syntax, and complex punctuation. Since there was only one class set of novels, my two classes had to share the books and could not take the books home to do assigned readings. This worked fine because the book was challenging, so I decided to start reading it to them.

I was surprised by how the students were totally engaged. All following along, paying attention to how I paused at commas, changing the intonation of my voice for things that were said in brackets, stopping to talk about things that intrigued me, and changing my voice to match the character’s mood, and so on.  Then some students (the stronger readers) would volunteer to read as well. As the unit went, I gradually made it a requirement for every student to read aloud at least one paragraph per reading session. At first, there were some nerves evident, but I just encouraged and told them how well they did, constantly reassuring them that this was a very hard text and that I also made mistake reading out loud. They had to learn to feel safe with reading out loud regardless of their performance.

As we progressed through the book, I literally got to hear the students improve in their oral reading skills. They were figuring out tough words, using the punctuation to help their fluency, learning about pacing and posture, and best of all, they became confident. One student, who at first stuttered as he read because he were so nervous, eventually was able to read smoothly and effectively. Credit to him for the mental toughness. He wasn’t forced, he wanted to do it.

I love reading aloud. I think a fair number of teachers still do it with their classes. If you don’t or haven’t, I highly suggest you do. I had read alouds with previous classes I taught, but this time was different. I think because I threw the students into the fire; I made them read out loud in class. Yup, some students were uncomfortable and didn’t do too well, but they got better and more confident. One might say they learned something. I think that’s what education is about…

Two Weeks Later: Expanding Thoughts from #Embracing2012

Ya…this post might seem a little late, but that’s okay. It’s okay because I find that after professional development we (teachers) get all pumped up for the message, only to forget what we thought, felt, and got us excited in the first place; or we just didn’t implement anything in the first place. So for this post I’m going to revisit and expand upon some of the tweets I made while taking in the Embracing the Edge* conference.

I’m not writing an essay here, I just want to expand on some of these thoughts. These thoughts are basically about how we view the Internet and its purposes. For the sake of brevity and converstation, I’m going to simply give you some bulleted thoughts.

Got something to say to that? Good, comment!

The Tweets

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  • The world is constantly changing. Instead of focusing on learning “stuff” we need to develop skills to help decode that “stuff”.
  • Skill based courses can capitalize on this best because they are not constrained by mandated provincial “knowledge” outcomes.
  • Real, applicable lessons are all over happening all the time. Don’t be afraid to stop your class when a teachable moment occurs. If the students are engaged in the topic then you’re probably going to accomplish a lot more for their long-term education than you may think.
  • We no longer need be held hostage by textbook companies and encyclopedias. We don’t need a particular company to tell us what’s happening. There are huge amounts of wikis, blogs, magazines, and other reputable publishers and news agencies that give us the information we want to know. Want to learn a new skill? I’d check YouTube first!
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  • We no longer have to sit back an take in media and be told what to think. We (the observer) are now a vital part of media landscape. We are welcomed to respond and interact with the producers of media and share our thoughts and opinions. In many cases, WE are the producers of information and media.
  • This is democracy! Because of the Internet, everyday people can interact and be heard among the vast array of voices online. People debating, arguing, producing, consuming, learning, and teaching. It’s the new age Agora.
  • The “older” generation has no problem with watching movies and TV, but “darn those video games!”. Well sorry to burst your bubble, but gaming is a much more immersive and responsive world that teaches a lot of critical thinking skills. Games tell stories, except you (the gamer) gets to participate in them.**
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  • Looking at a screen, clicking buttons, and participating in technology is not always fun or engaging. Believe me, there are countless video games, websites, and programs where you can do this but they ARE NOT fun or engaging.
  • If we teachers think that just because we use “tech” in our class that we are teaching 21st Century skills, we are wrong! The students know how to do lots of this stuff already. It’s the closeness that we experience with one another in the exchange of information and stories that’s fascinating. Some examples are: being able to track and talk to celebrities via Twitter or Instagram; giving your opinion to your favourite companies or friends on Facebook; watching videos on YouTube to learn something or take in a great story; keeping up to date with what’s popular on the Internet and talking with people on Reddit. The examples are endless.

What now? How do we use this? What is “this”? Will we let our level of familiarity of online tools dictate if we want to learn it and use it? Are we willing to change how we teach in order to capitalize on the Information Revolution? What are the pitfalls?

Footnotes

* Based on the number of tweets I saw congratulating Andy McKiel (@amckiel), I believe it was him who was the driving force behind this conference. Bravo sir! You carried out this conference in a manner that truly practiced what we (tech educators) preach. The livestreaming of the keynote speakers was cutting edge, the number of tweeps interacting online was noteworthy, and the overall organization and presentation were executed flawlessly.

** There are lots of trash video games, just like there are trash movies, books, and TV. Don’t take my endorsement of gaming as a green-light for all gaming. It’s about moderation. I don’t think any individual should be spending 30+ hours a week watching movies, TV, or playing video games. This includes myself for the times that I have done this!

Beginning Project-based Learning in the Classroom

What I Learned: PBL is about student choice, not the teacher’s.

I can hear it already: *lonely clap* “Yeah, that’s the point man!”

Now for me to elaborate on this groundbreaking material.

First off, I’ve done considerable “planning” for this unit. As in: I’ve invested much time into the thought and production of ideas and questions, gathered resources, researched methods, searched for ICT and online tools, written a lot of notes, then reflected, deleted and edited those notes, and repeated this whole process multiple times. In the end (or rather beginning) it lead me to create a handful of questions and a project idea. Yeah, lots of time, not much tangible planning. That’s it.

In our Social Studies class the goal is to make a book on Blurb.com about Ancient Greece and Rome.

I’m already excited and I think the kids are excited as well… well as excited as kids can be for school. The day went well and I feel like I learned more about PBL in one day than I did with all the planning I did previously. But I would not have learned that much from this one day unless I had done all that planning and research.

When I started today’s class I was at the front doing my regular thing. Trying to “present” and “tell” the information about what we’re doing and what the goal was. I looked around and saw all the yawns, bored faces, and other indicators of students who were not into it.  I had a mini-epiphany, “This doesn’t look or sound like PBL”. I gave my head a shake and thought, “What am I doing? This is the same old me talking.” The voice inside my head rebuked me, “Yeah… student voice, student centered, you’re the guide.”

I quickly sought to rectify my mistake.  I just started asking students how we might be able to accomplish this goal of making a book. How do we get to our desired result? How could we incorporate ICT and social media into the learning experience? How should we structure the groups/teams? How do we incorporate both Greece and Rome into the process? What do you students need from me to get going?  This is just a loose paraphrasing. I didn’t ask all these questions overtly, rather, I structured and prompted in a way that they came to an understanding of their own. This went much better than me just directing what to do.

I got to give the kids credit here too. They haven’t done this before. Yet, they were firing off ideas, criticisms, counterpoints, and telling me what they needed for next steps. It was only a start, but it got my blood flowing knowing that “yes, WE can do this.”

So yeah, going back to what I learned.

1. Overplan, then go with the flow.  2.Questions are much better than directions.

Bloodlands: A Lecture by Tim Snyder

ImageThe other day I had the had the fortune of seeing an excellent lecture by Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University, in support of his book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. I’ll admit I just happened to see someone tweet a link about the lecture and I decided to go on a whim (I do love history though). Social justice and human rights are very close to my heart and I figured that hearing this lecture by such a reputed scholar would give me some good insights into a historical event that has been much publicized. And it did.

I knew I was in for a good night when I got held up by a train for 10 minutes, causing me to be a bit late and score this awesome spot on the floor at the back of the lecture hall 🙂

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Here is what I gathered as notes:

  • Deliberate murder of 14 million non-combatants.
  • 2 regimes: Nazi Germany (Hitler) and Soviet Russia (Stalin)
  • “Bloodlands” refers to a geographic are. A strip in Eastern Europe where most of the killing happened. The area where Nazis and Soviets were both present.
  • We separate histories by nationality and ideology, when really this is one story.
  • “We” Questions are good for moral inquiry.
  • It’s a fallacy to refer forwards in history when making arguments about what happened. Ex. Right now I can’t argue my behaviour as impacting what I don’t know will happen in 10 years.
  • Ideological battles don’t “cancel” each other out. The clash of Nazi Germany and the Soviets didn’t cancel each other out; they accumulated.
  • Book has a focus on territory instead of the two opposing sides.
  • Ideology always has a link to economy. Germany conquered for imperial purposes. Soviet exploited it’s current territory to catch up and modernize. Each Nations’ world was closed off by British Navy. They had to attack Eurasia to achieve their goals.
  • Ukraine was a common land to conquer.
  • Poland was a problem for both nations, hence it was invaded jointly in ’39.
  • Poland was like a “homeland” for Jews numerically.
  • The Great Terror in Russia was predominantly against peasants and national minorities.
  • If one survived the Gulags, then they were usually killed upon returning. Soviets didn’t want anybody to speak out against their regime.
  • 1939 was the destruction of states. State -> statelessness is always worse for national minorities.
  • Nazis scaled down their starvation and scaled up the “Final Solution”. Germany couldn’t starve out eastern Europe because they weren’t self-sufficient in food production.
  • 14 million is a number. But each of those 1’s is a unique, loved, and special individual. We must listen to the stories.

Professor Snyder was an excellent lecturer. He delicately worked his was through his material while giving clear, insightful commentary along the way. He presented his material with an excellent balance of appeal to the logos, ethos, and pathos. I could tell that many in the audience were very well-acquainted with the subject and held on to every word he said with nods of affirmation and inaudible gasps of affirmed knowledge. At the same time, he wasn’t overly esoteric with his language. This way the typical history student (like myself) was equally engaged with his well articulated arguments and seamless story telling.

Snyder argued how he doesn’t like to segment histories into neat little packages with clear boundaries. Although it’s a useful tool for memory and organization, it doesn’t do the story justice. I was particularly intrigued on his ideas about the role of territory and geography. So often in history, the story stops where the national border does and then a new story starts with another nations version. Snyder debunks that idea. Along the same lines, he argues that just because events may be separated by time, they can still be closely connected. Here he referred to the Ukrainians telling their story about the forced starvation in 1933 and later again in 1941.

The final point I want to mention is how Professor Snyder made the interesting observation about how the tale of the deaths camps has become canonical when really it was exceptional. The vast majority of Jews were killed close to their homes, but for some reason we have come to see the concentration camp as the symbol of death. A person in a concentration camp at least had a chance to survive and live to tell their tale.  Those murdered in the streets or in their homes never got that chance. My take on that is that the concentration camps are places that are still physically standing. They serve as a tangible memorial to the deliberate extermination policies. One can’t look at a street or home and say the same thing.

Overall, I was very glad to have the chance to see this lecture. It makes me want to see more speakers. I always LOVED going to my history classes in university. Maybe I’ll do that. I don’t even care about credits. Maybe I’ll just sit in on classes and absorb what there is to know.

Learning Something New

I have taught for 3 years in various capacities, not yet finding a permanent resting place. I’ve had quite a journey already, in my short 3 years of teaching. I have had to learn and adapt to new curriculum, schools, staff, and demographics. But my most recent job is leading me to places I didn’t expect to be.

When I got a term position to teach Graphic Technology at Westwood Collegiate from April to June of this year, I was excited at the prospect of working in an art program. Since I can remember, I have always enjoyed drawing, painting, building, improvising, and most of all, creating. And now I would get to teach that along with my passion for using technology.

Before the term started I visited the Graphic Tech Lab and met Zbigniew Cichosz. Right away I could see he had a exciting and well-structured program running. Under his direction and knowledge, students were motivated and creating unique pieces of digital art with the latest technology. Since taking over his class, I have done tutorials; read websites, blogs and magazines about techniques; and put in hours of work into learning Graphic Technology and Digital Photography. Although I am new to this vocation, learning something new for me is nothing new.

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My dad bought our family’s first home computer in 1995, when I was starting grade seven, and I was ecstatic. I eagerly helped setting up all the cords and hardware, wanting to know everything I could about this “futuristic” machine (it even had a CD-ROM!). After the initial setup, my dad and I set to exploring every bit of operating system.

This introduction of mine to the PC coincided with the boom of the Internet. I was part of, what I consider, the first generation of the Networking Age. The generation that got exposed, from a young age, to the Internet at its coming-out party. I got a pen-pal, read about computer games, and researched (kind of) and word processed my first essay.

All through high school and university I saw technology rapidly evolve, and I was there at the fronts to make the most of it. Whether it be gaming, information gathering, writing, social networking, banking, or creating; I was using technology as my preferred medium.

When I began the Faculty of Education, I quickly came to understand that the ability to use technology productively and creatively was an essential skill for the future. I became interested in how to use ICT in the classroom in new and interesting ways. I had a simple philosophy: technology I grew up with advanced quickly, and it seemed it would only continue to do so. Therefore, I and my students must advance with, and learn, new technologies or we would miss fantastic opportunities.

While student teaching at my first placement, I created interactive presentations, quiz games, and videos. Students would do web quests, online research, and produce some original work. It was good start, but I had a vision of something more interactive.

My vision of using ICT for interaction was realized when I met teacher Chris Harbeck. It was during my second teaching placement at Sargent Park. He wasn’t my cooperating teacher, but I still got to see his class, read his blog, and get introduced to a network of technology teachers.

What impressed me wasn’t just the technology he used, it was how he embedded technology into the classroom. Technology was the medium that students used for learning and reflection, and technology was the medium for assessment and evaluation. His use of technology in the class was exactly what I wanted to emulate.

Since that time I have been pursuing how to use ICT as a learning and assessment tool in interactive, creative, and authentic ways. I’ve had many successes with ICT in my classes whether it be a four-five split or grade eights, EAL or special needs students, all can use technology to some degree. My students over the years have created: photographs that explain human rights; blogs that track their learning about ancient Egypt; videos to relay a message about safe transport; online posters to explain culture; and different forms of poetry using online fridge magnets. The opportunities are boundless when you dig and explore ICT.

And now here I am, teaching Graphic Technology.  I have enthusiastically jumped into learning this fantastic, digital medium and I have come to develop a genuine respect, interest, and enthusiasm for digital art, graphic design, and photography. Graphic Tech is just another new horizon on the technological landscape that I want to learn, explore, and share.

Moving forward I have a new vision, and this is where a great opportunity lies. I want to infuse and develop my use of ICT in the classroom along with my budding knowledge of Graphic Tech and Digital Photography. With access to computers, mobile devices and an email address, students will be able to take their work  one step further into the digital age. They can learn, explore, upload, share, discuss, and reflect on their learning, all online. My students could use online photo sites to store and share photos; upload previously made art into a digital poster to make it interactive; create their own video tutorials; publish and contribute to blogs to document their learning, creations, and reflections; and ultimately learn to use ICT and social media as a powerful learning tool in a safe and ethical way.