The Perspective Gap

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photo credit: Grand Canyon (4 of 19) via photopin (license)

I have never seen the Grand Canyon with my own eyes. Other people who have tell me it is a “must see”. It apparently is not enough that I view it in pictures and video.

Certainly, I could look up many details about the Grand Canyon. If I were asked to draw a map of this grand landform, I would probably pull up Google Earth as an aide. If it were the climate and habitat I was asked to describe, surely my questions could be answered with the help of The Weather Channel and National Geographic. For a history of this famous site, I might check out Wikipedia.

But having all of these facts at my disposal does not mean that I have a complete understanding of the Grand Canyon. I couldn’t tell you what it smelled like there, what a person might hear as they enjoyed the view, or what it might feel like to be standing so close to something so immense.

This is why it is so critical that classrooms need to become more connected. And not in the simple digital sense that I previously described. No, I am talking about tapping into the different social media tools that can better bring these experiences to life. In today’s digital age, this is possible.

Skype is one tool that comes to mind. For example, a classroom in my school used this tool to host a video conference with a classroom in another region of the United States. The information that they could glean from one another, about the weather, the wildlife, or simply their way of life, is something that cannot be captured through a digital map or image. People on one end of the camera can share their experiences in a way that only people on the other end can appreciate.

When we talk about gaps in education, it is often about things beyond the school’s control, such as the achievement gap or the socioeconomic gap. These are important issues. Yet, we continue to devote an inordinate amount of time to these issues, which takes up precious thinking time that could be used to consider how we can provide wonderful learning experiences for the students that show up in our classrooms today.

So who can you connect with that will broaden students’ perspectives without having to leave the room? How will these experiences deepen your students’ understandings about the world as well as deepen their love for learning?

If you can answer the previous two questions, I have one more for you: What’s stopping you?

What does it mean to be “connected”?

What does it mean to be “connected”, as a professional and a learner? I think it is a working definition for many educators, myself included.

Lisa Dabbs from Edutopia attempts to define this concept:

Connected learners develop networks and co-construct knowledge from wherever they live. They collaborate online, use social media to interact with colleagues around the globe, engage in conversations in safe online spaces, and bring what they learn online back to their classrooms, schools, and districts.

That works for me. Just as student learning can become more personalized with technology in the school mix, so to should professional learning. Our level of connectedness is best measured in the depth of our relationships and conversations with others in our social networks.

Volume is great. Having many others who follow you and vice versa on multiple platforms certainly creates a more diverse network of learners at your fingertips. At some point though, we have to develop communities of practice if we expect to engage in deep and meaningful learning experiences.

Harold Jarche, whose blog and professional work were introduced to me by Lyn Hilt, has developed a nice framework for understanding how this progression works (Image source: jarche.com).

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Going from right to left, you can see how personal learning networks (PLNs) are only the beginning. My start, like many others, was on Twitter. This channel of knowledge and expertise was essential to helping me become more connected. As a principal, I followed the #cpchat (Connected Principals) hashtag and just started following other administrators. This led to some of them following me back, which led to interactions and sharing of ideas in an open space. Others jumped in when they wanted.

While Twitter was and still is a cornerstone of my professional learning, it is equally important that we develop communities of practice (CoP). Otherwise, our self-directed learning isn’t really self-directed at all; it follows the current of the streams of information that Twitter, Facebook, and other social media feeds provide.

CoPs are generally smaller groups in numbers, typically with a more specific focus.  My favorite tool right now for developing communities of practice is Google+ Communities. You can create private or public groups, develop as many different pages within the group as you like, and control who has access to the conversations. I currently use these groups to continue the conversation about my book. In my school, we also use Google+ Communities to collaborate as staff teams. I am also facilitating a graduate course/book study for district staff with this tool, in between times where we physically meet.

Voxer is a nice tool for this kind of work as well. While it is a little more challenging to share resources like you can in Google+, the advantage Voxer brings is immediacy in the conversations. It works like a walkie talkie, adding audio, text, and images within a chat room. Voxer also requires some moderation, like Google+ Communities. For instance, conversations can go on and on in Voxer. If you are not able to keep up with what everyone has to share, you can feel left behind in the conversation without any more time to catch up.

And then there is Facebook. Of all the tools listed so far for professional learning, this one confounds me the most. I use it for personal reasons only right now. It just hasn’t crept into my personal learning network like it has for other educators. Maybe it is the whole “friending” aspect of it, creating an exclusive mindset for this third space for learning. However, no one can deny the incredible audience that Facebook provides for users.

Tony Sinanis, an elementary principal in New York, shared a novel idea for managing these social media feeds. He uses Instagram as his social media hub for his school. When Tony takes a picture on Instagram, he can then select Facebook and Twitter to also post his image at the same time. This appears to save him a lot of time and reach the widest audience possible.

So going back to my original question: What does it mean to be connected? In my humble opinion, it is what you make of it. Do you want to follow Tony’s example, and create an Instagram account for your school and tap into other social media tools that your school families use? Fine. Embed the feed on your school’s webpage and post away.

Do you want to take advantage of all the professional learning possibilities available through Twitter, blogs, Google+, and Voxer? Also fine! Check out the flyer I made for the Wisconsin State Reading Association’s Digital Learning Lounge for some tips and tricks:

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Whatever tool(s) you choose, I suggest keeping your connections manageable, meaningful, and a benefit to both who follow you and who you follow. And have fun!

The Courage to Lead

81rS7W0DJ1LA group of 21 educators in my district just started a book study for The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life by Parker J. Palmer (Jossey-Bass, 2007). This book club consists of teachers, administrators, and professional support staff.

We are facilitating this book study in a Google+ Community. My hope is that this online forum will provide a safe space for everyone to reflect on our chosen profession and renew our purpose.

My role is to pose questions in the community and recognize others’ responses with “+1’s” and comments that acknowledge their thinking. I am also charged with setting dates in which we should have read a certain number of pages. If you have read The Courage to Teach, then you know this is not a text you can speed read through in a couple of days.

As I reread the introduction to start posting questions, I was struck by this powerful statement on page 4:

In our rush to reform education, we have forgotten a simple truth: reform will never be achieved by renewing appropriations, restructuring schools, rewriting curricula, and revising texts if we continue to demean and dishearten the human resource called the teacher on whom so much depends.

I am going to share this quote with our group. I thought it would be appropriate to share here as well.

For more on Parker Palmer’s thinking, check out his most recent post for On Being as we embark on a new year:

Five Questions for Crossing the Threshold

Five-Tool Literacy Apps for the iPad

If you are a baseball fan, you know what a five-tool player is. They can run, throw, play defense, hit, and hit for power. All-Stars such as Mike Trout, Ryan Braun, and Alex Rodriguez would be considered five-tool players.

So what are five-tool apps for the classroom iPad? They address the following five areas of literacy:

~ Reading ~ Writing ~ Conventions ~ Speaking ~ Listening ~

Here are five of my favorite five-tool literacy apps for the iPad in the elementary classroom, in order of complexity.


Toontastic by Launchpad Toys

This is an excellent primary-level app for learning about narrative elements. Students can set up scenes and act out the story. They control the character’s movements with their fingers and add dialogue by recording their voice. Their final products can be uploaded online so anyone can view their learning.


Drawing and Storytelling HD by Duck Duck Moose

In this three app bundle, you get Draw and Tell, Superhero Comic Book Maker, and Princess Fairy Tale Maker. Students can create scenes with a wide variety of characters, settings, and even onomatopoeias. These are words that suggest the sounds they make, such as “Whizz!” and “Ka-pow!”, which are commonplace in many comics. Even better, when you click on them, they make the sound. Learners can record their voice with each scene.


Educreations

This simple-to-use whiteboard and screencast app is perfect for introducing students to the concept of the flipped classroom. Their motto is “Teach anything to anyone from anywhere.” Using the drawing, audio recording and image capturing tools, learner can summarize a math lesson or create a book trailer. While the website boasts its use at the secondary level, I have seen it integrated in classrooms as young as 1st grade.


Book Creator by Red Jumper Studios

Students become authors with this app. After inserting images, text, drawings, and audio recordings, they can print their final products out as PDFs. Also, students can save their eBooks in the iBooks app. They stand alongside any other professionally published text. Classrooms can create digital libraries on their iPads for literacy centers. As well, teachers can upload students’ work to YouTube so anyone can see and listen to what they created. Check out my son’s eBook on how he deals with asthma.


Explain Everything by MorrisCooke

The best way to describe this app is a more complex version of Educreations. You can embed video, images, files from Dropbox or Google Drive, and put everything together into one coherent presentation. A student can also use a laser pointer to call attention to a specific slide during their instruction. The final product is then exported to a variety of locations, from the aforementioned servers as well as Evernote and iBooks. Definitely for the older crowd. Here is a screencast I created with Explain Everything for my book Digital Student Portfolios:

When Your PLN Fails You (and what you can do about it)

I would love to say that my personal learning network – those that follow, friend, and connect with me in order to share ideas and support one another in our respective inquiries – are always there with help when I need it. The idea that a PLN is like the Bat Signal, where all I have to do is light the projection lamp and all my problems will be solved, is a noble one. It would be great if what is imagined with this concept were reality.

Except it isn’t.

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photo credit: nhussein via photopin cc

Case in point: I sent out this tweet recently to my 5500+ followers:

Want to guess how many retweets, favorites, and responses I received? If you guessed “zero”, you would be correct.

Was it my fault? Maybe the question was too specific, or not specific enough. I used hashtags in hopes to narrow down the inquiry to those most likely and qualified to answer it. Certainly, I could have considered using different hashtags, such as #nerdybookclub or #educoach. Alas, the 140 character limit of Twitter forces you to be picky.

Maybe it was my PLN’s fault, or the whole idea of a personal learning network in general. We are sold on the idea that our PLN is 24/7 professional development, where learning is just a fingertip away. But how often is the message conveyed about the importance of being an active participant in other educators’ PLNs? Not often enough, apparently.

Speaking for myself, I could always do a better job. Many questions enter my feed, and I pass on the majority of them. Too busy, don’t have the answers, someone else will respond…I have evoked all of those reasons. So if most of us have that same mentality, what are some strategies we can use to better take advantage of our PLNs? Here are three suggestions.

Include specific people in your posts

This isn’t a guarantee that you will get a response to your inquiry, but you certainly increase your odds. By including certain individuals in your tweet or post, you put it on them to respond. The disadvantage is that everyone else who sees your post might be even less likely to respond because they think that the person(s) referenced will respond on their behalf.

Engage in Twitter chats

I would agree with others that participating in a chat on Twitter does not lead to profound discoveries. That is not the intention of these events, in my opinion. The purpose of a Twitter chat is to talk with others, engage in a topic of interest and knowledge, and discover potential new members for your PLN. Which leads into…

Develop communities of practice

These learning groups are somewhat different than PLNs, in that it is usually smaller and more focused on a specific topic. For example, I am involved with the All Things PLC (#atplc) group on Voxer and Google+. We have regular conversations about professional learning communities and related educational topics. If I have a question, I know that the people in these communities of practice will be more apt to respond with questions and advice. Likewise, I feel more obligated to respond to their own inquires. I am not just one of their followers; I am an essential member of this specific learning community.

What is your experience with reaching out to your PLN? Are you finding them to be helpful, indifferent, or somewhere in between? Please share in the comments.

Do Just One Thing

Permit yourself the luxury of doing just one thing.

-Lao Tzu

It’s Connected Educator Month. Every day, different learning opportunities are offered for teachers and leaders to expand their skills and personal learning networks.

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One activity I am participating in is a Book Club for Kathy Cassidy’s resource Connected From the Start (PLPress, 2013). In the introductions, participants were asked to share an unusual thing about themselves. I noted that our home has been without a working microwave for over a year. Here was Kathy’s response:

Congratulations on going microwave free. I appreciate people who can do without things that seem essential in our lives. I wonder if this will lead you to re-evaluating other things as well… I guess time will tell.

It’s funny she asked this. I recently agreed to teach catechism for my church. My classroom is as technology-free as you can imagine. There are no projectors, tablets, or laptops available. We don’t even have a whiteboard, and when I say whiteboard, I mean the kind that uses dry erase markers. Instead, I have a chalkboard, with real chalk.

Your first reaction might be that our classroom environment is lacking. How can we reach our learning potential when we are deprived of all the potential connections we might make?

And you know what? It is freeing. These perceived constraints have helped me focus on good pedagogy. There is no worrying about whether technology should be a part of my lesson plan. We still have connections, but it is between each other and within ourselves. In the context of religious education, technology might actually be a deterrent to our progression toward the learning outcomes.

In a previous post, I suggested that a teacher could never reach the pinnacle of their capacities as an educator if they weren’t more connected. I still believe this. However, these connections we make beyond the classroom walls should never replace the connections we make within them. There is this prevailing misconception floating out there that we should be connected 24/7 to ensure we don’t miss anything important. But if we are always connected, how do we find time to reflect on these great ideas we discover and apply them within our context?

As we embark on this annual learning journey with Connected Educator Month, I am doing my best to remember that the effectiveness of technology is explicitly reliant on the presence of good pedagogy. This means allowing ourselves the luxury to do just one thing at a time. Mindfulness and connectedness are not mutually exclusive.